Youthful Ruminations: The Plight of a Young Librarian

I’ve always been the youngest member of the library staff.  This station certainly comes with its advantages, but there are also some unavoidable downsides.  I’m grateful for having found my lifelong profession in my first job, but I’ve been the baby (and affectionately referred to as such) in all of my library positions since.  Discovering librarianship at an impressionable age allowed the fundamentals of the career to acquire the rose color that only the most striking moments of one’s young life can.  The tenets of nature vs. nurture will tell you, I absorbed the positive qualities of librarianship at a time when they would help to form my personhood.  

I can’t seem to shake this youngness for two reasons: First, I’m still actually pretty young.  This comes with the territory of stepping off onto my career path in my teens.  Second, I’m burdened or blessed with the physical characteristics of youth.  It feels as though I’m always going to get carded at liquor stores and, it’s true that I’m always going to need the library step stool to reach the top shelf.  This youth is advantageous at high school reunions, but potentially harmful at job interviews and during promotion time.  

Youthfulness sometimes incites lenience from employers, but it can also manifest as disregard.  I have found that if I make mistakes I am sometimes given a pass.  The general sentiment being, I’m still learning and will eventually figure things out.  While we are discussing “passing,” a youthful appearance can cause someone to be passed over for a lead role on committees or projects.  There is an innate bias about competent professionals being a certain age.  I get it.  It stands to reason that the more time spent in the marinade, the more seasoned the chicken.  Unfortunately, no one would know by appearances that my chicken has been marinating for fifteen years!  Largely this bias is unintended and most people can shed it easily when they are faced with a rather young-looking librarian.  Still, it is a hurdle that I have to pass regularly.  

Patrons are unlikely to assume that I’m in charge of anything.  In fact, they are more likely to decide that I am a fellow student rather than a librarian.  It’s commonplace for my reference interview to begin with a patron asking “Is the librarian here?” or scanning the room around me for another staff member.  Political correctness and not-judging-a-book by its cover aside, I repeatedly have to prove that I am capable.   When a patron who was originally skeptical about my position asks a reference question, I feel a burden to overachieve.  I tend to wonder if I will be more harshly scrutinized for an answer that is deemed lacking because of my age.  I make sure to locate an impressive number of resources to demonstrate that I can.  In the light of optimism, you could say that my youthful appearance causes me to work harder.

I’ve grown accustomed to these glitchy interactions.  I develop ways to cope or compensate just like any person of unique physicality.  Someone who is notably tall may be used to comments such as “Wow!  You must play basketball.”  As a redhead there are a half dozen boilerplate statements that I’m immune to hearing regularly.  The plot thickens when appearance doesn’t correspond with expectation.  The library profession has progressed light years from the elderly, persnickety cliché, but the stereotype still lingers.  When a public patron or student enters a library seeking a librarian, what image is brought to the forefront of their mind?

Supervising those who are the same age or older can be a challenge as well.  I suspect that everyone has an expectation that their boss will be older than them.  This arrangement comes with a feeling of correctness, everyone in their place.  It implies that it took the boss appropriately longer to reach their station.  Intellectually we know that life involves twists and turns that can often place a junior in a senior position.  Authority should be asserted by one’s position alone rather than their age or physical characteristics.  Unfortunately, implicit bias can blur the lines of authority and breed socially awkward situations.

There is a difficult balance between retaining the humor and friendliness that my patrons and colleagues appreciate, and still presenting myself as someone to take seriously.  I want to be hip, but I don’t want to be seen as a kid.  The positive demeanor that can help land a job can also be a reason for stagnation.   Many would argue that youth is desirable in the workforce because it suggests creativity and fresh perspective.  The struggle is real between appearing innovative and appearing unfit to be a manager.  

Some common suggestions for combating a youthful appearance in the work world are: always dress professionally, discover a commanding voice and posture, cut your hair short, and grow a beard.  No matter how many times I stand in front of a mirror wishing for bushy facial hair and channeling my most broad-shouldered stance (I’m a lady librarian by the way), I know that I can only be who I am.  My time would be better spent navigating databases, planning programs, and generally being a good librarian.  On the bright side (or possibly the dark side), my age is always on the uptick and my skin is not impervious to wrinkles.  At some point, I’m going to have to resemble the librarian archetype.  The only question is whether I will make it to that point with my positivity and work ethic intact or will I default to my aged exterior as the proof of my ability.  

Emma Wood is an Assistant Librarian for Public Services at UMass Dartmouth School of Law Library in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts.