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On Appearances and Legitimacy

For quite a while, now, I’ve been simultaneously intrigued and disheartened by how much we have to wade through assumptions in order to be taken seriously.

That’s a very vague sentence, partially because it has to be. Here’s an example of what I mean. Another librarian was telling me about her feeling that people who approach her for help must assume she won’t be expert in database searching because that involves interacting with computers, and surely she can’t be comfortable working with computers at her age, right? She commented that it’s probably a lot easier for me to gain trust simply because someone my age is assumed to be highly computer proficient. I, on the other hand, had just been feeling like being 20 or so years older would help people trust me because, after all, how could anyone my age have the experience necessary to be an expert at anything?

In my experience and that of other librarians I’ve talked to, administrators, consultants, the occasional professor, and even other librarians can take a rather indulgent attitude toward young-uns like me. “You’re so young” becomes a complicated statement. Is this a problem? Are you surprised that I’m young because I did a good job? Are you surprised that I did a good job because I’m young? Or is it an explanation for a less-than-perfect interaction?

Because of this, on the days when I’m in important meetings, interacting with new professors, or doing anything else where I need to be taken seriously, I feel like I have to work harder to make the pace and pitch of my speech function on a professional level, and my clothes have to be just so (not too business-ish, because that’s just not me, but no too casual either). This is especially important during the beginning of Fall Term when there are lots of new staff and faculty on campus whom I need to condition into interacting with me as a professional. Basically, I engage in an elaborate process of appearing legitimate.

This plays out in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I had never considered, for example, that there would be people who might use relative amounts of busy-ness as a measure of legitimacy (this was especially true at one job I had in grad school). Once, a long time ago, a researcher “thanked” me for spending so much time on his research question while pointedly implying that having this kind of time to help him must mean that I was probably being paid too much for the amount of work I contributed to the library. At various other times, people have “complemented” me on things like this blog or an updated research guide or a report delivered on time and backed up with evidence, but they’ve left me feeling terrible rather than bolstered. I’m sure you’ve heard it: the “you’re so lucky you have time to do this kind of thing.” Complements like this can sap the energy right out of me because the implication is that I’m not busy “enough” to be a legitimate member of my department. (Note that simply complementing me on something that takes time is not a bad thing. Anything but. It’s the “you must not be as busy as everyone else if you have time to do that” kind of thing that I’m talking about here.)

Whether people actually perceive me as too young or not busy enough I don’t know. Just as I had never thought to question my friend’s computer competence, maybe people don’t actually question my experience or time management skills. But I’ve heard many librarians express the need to fight these real or imagined assumptions, so in the end it doesn’t matter so much if they’re true or not. What matters is that we’re think they’re true, and so we work against them. In fact, whether consciously or unconsciously, we work against them so continuously that when we hear comments about age or expertise or… whatever it is each of us worries about, we are left to wonder if we’re hearing complements, insults, or simple statements of fact.

I wish I could say with confidence that I’ll just decide not to think about this anymore, but I don’t think it’s that simple. And I don’t think it’s just me. I think this plagues a lot of people. It’s not like we go around second guessing everything anybody says to us. Context and tone are really important, as always. But I’ve been wondering for the past year or so if this is connected with something inherent to our profession (and other similar professions) or if it’s just part of human nature and our constant quest to be useful and respected. What I do know is that there are better things by which to measure legitimacy than relative appearance of busy-ness, age, or any other appearance. I just don’t know how to completely divorce appearance from reality.

Published inRandom Thoughts


  1. Kyle J. Kyle J.

    Hi Iris-

    All I can really say is that I feel your discomfort. I’m 22 and work as a technology assistant full time while in a GSLIS program.

    I think some professors think I’m a student worker or that my position is less than admirable. But I take my position very seriously and try to display my pride in my job outwardly by going above and beyond what would be “assistant” work.

    I believe it is sad that a young professional like yourself has to work for such legitimacy after years of training and obvious love for the profession.

    While I think it may be something inherent with the academic side of librarianship (especially tenure-track librarians from what I hear and read), know that this most likely pervades nearly every profession.

    As much as I dislike it, earning one’s wings is a step that has to be taken, and even more so with the young professional.

  2. John Overholt John Overholt

    You know how in one of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books there’s an immortal being who is traveling around the universe insulting every single person in alphabetical order? If it were me, I would knee people in the groin for being jerks, and number two on my list (after Fred Phelps) would be the researcher who implied you were overpaid. If you didn’t immediately rip up everything you’d just handed him, you’re a paragon of restraint.

  3. Jenica Jenica

    I’m with you. The one and only bonus to having to complete a tenure and reappointment package every two years is that I feel like it shows my colleagues what I do, day in and day out. In that, yes, I wrote that proposal and finalized that policy, but not because I have a ton of free time — because I’m dedicated enough to do it in addition to the 4000 other things I do, which I handily document in my reappointment package.

    Otherwise, it’s just too easy to say that it must be nice to have so much time to do those things…

    And, yeah, I’m the only one who regularly ‘dresses up’, because I’m the only one who feels like she has to prove that she’s old enough for this work. I’m feeling it less now, 4 years into this job, though. It gets better.

  4. Iris Iris

    Huh… I thought I’d left a comment here a couple days ago. But I guess I only *mentally* left a comment. :)

    Kyle, I absolutely agree that most of this will work itself out over time. And considering it’s not actually a huge problem for me (it’s just something I’ve noticed from time to time over the past 3 or 4 years), I’m content to “earn my wings.”

    John, I don’t think “paragon of restraint” describes me at all. How about dumbstruck? In fact, it took me until the next day to work out that he’d actually meant that… so maybe just “dumb” is the best term. :P

    And Jennica, I have an annual review that lets me list of things of that nature, but it’s not a public process at all. I’d forgotten about that pieces of it, though. It is always nice to look back over a year and see that you really *did* do something. But the day-to-day “busy contest” is a tough one. Where I worked before, this was one of the key forms of passive-aggressive hostility that made that little public library a living hell to work in. Where I work now, it doesn’t often manifest itself in such conscious ways. We’re all busy. But I think it’s still there in low levels every once in a while.

  5. laura laura

    I’ve always assumed that when people say, “You’re so young!” (which happens to me a lot around here, as I’m decades younger than most of the rest of the staff), what they mean is, “Oh, it’s so unfair that I’ve gotten old and you’re so lucky because you have your whole life ahead of you,” etc., etc. But of course I could be totally wrong. :-)

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