In the Library with the Lead Pipe began in 2008 with a casual lunch conversation between two new librarians who wished to create a forum where forward-thinking, passionate professionals could share their ideas and constructive critiques about the field. The librarians they recruited for Lead Pipe’s editorial team, which includes professionals from across the United States and several areas within LIS, share a vision of creating a peer-reviewed NPR or New Yorker of library blogs—combining the intellectual rigor of an academic publication with the readability of The New Yorker or the storytelling of NPR. Together we molded a mission statement and ground rules:
“In the Library with the Lead Pipe is intended to help improve our communities, our libraries, and our professional organizations. Our goal is to explore new ideas and start conversations; to document our concerns and argue for solutions. Each article is peer-reviewed by at least one external and one internal reviewer.”
In the Library with the Lead Pipe currently consists of: Brett Bonfield, Ellie Collier, Hilary Davis, Emily Ford, Eric Frierson, Kim Leeder, and Leigh Anne Vrabel.
Librarian Wardrobe: What is the general dress code or style at your libraries? (Please let us know which type of library you work at when answering)
Eric: My coworkers are a pretty well-dressed bunch, I have to say. I work at a smallish private, Catholic university, and most people on campus—the library staff included—dress pretty well. No one looks sloppy, and I think everyone takes pride in how they present themselves. Definitely the best-dressed bunch of coworkers I’ve ever had. (No offense, previous employers…)
Ellie: At my last library (a large community college) I would say we looked stereotypically librarian (primarily the new Desk Set stereotype rather than buns and cat eyes). The code was pretty simple—as much as possible, don’t look like a student. Tattoos, piercings, and wild hair colors were all fine. In practice this tended to mean that the younger librarians all had to dress up more to avoid looking like students and the older librarians were more likely to wear jeans (though certainly not all did). If you knew you didn’t have any reference desk hours, classes or meetings that day, you could wear pretty much whatever. Those days were jeans and t-shirt days for me.
I haven’t fully sussed out my new library (another community college) yet, but it looks to be more casual overall. I may wear my very nicest clothes less often, but am unlikely to make any major changes to my wardrobe other than buying more winter clothes (since I moved from Austin to Minneapolis).
Also, at both places there are lots of cardigans, which I think just comes with the territory. Every library I’ve ever worked in has been cold, so I always keep a brown and a black cardigan at work in case I’m not wearing enough layers. They happen to be the exact same cardigan (from Target) and they have a fairly industrial feel with their epaulets. I have others that I switch out, but those are the warmest and longest ones I own, so I wear them the most often.
Leigh Anne: One of the great things about working in an urban public library is the creativity and diversity you see in staff wardrobes, which run the gamut from traditional librarian to “Wait, what?” While we do have a dress code, there is a great deal of latitude for personal expression. I’m constantly inspired to change up my own wardrobe choices based on what my co-workers—male and female—are wearing.
Emily: I work at an academic library in downtown Portland, Oregon. Portland itself has a pretty casual/outdoorsy/hipstery dress style to begin with. The median age of students at my institution is 28 years old; pretty close to my age. MPOW is pretty casual and some librarians have definite uniforms. One of my co-workers always has on beautiful Danskos, another wears Chacos with regularity. I sometimes wear jeans (dark and in good condition, of course) on the days when I’m only on the desk, working in my office, in internal meetings in the library, or if I haven’t done laundry in a long time. (It averages to once every two weeks.) Although my partner heckles me every time he sees that I have worn or am wearing jeans to work, I cite my boss’s take: “studies have shown that people are more willing to ask questions at the reference desk if you are dressed more like they are.” If I’m teaching or meeting with other faculty, I tend to wear more professional looking outfits. This summer I’ve been into the sporty yet professional knee-length dress.
Being a Portlander and of the liberal-arts-school-no-fashion-sense ilk, it has historically been a struggle for me to dress for work. I used to have work clothes and then I had other clothes. My work clothes were pants that I had to roll up because they were too long (I’m pretty short), or they were too baggy/tight in the wrong places. I wore shirts that made me feel like I’d raided my mother’s wardrobe (sorry, mom!) and they were usually things I’d acquired free (from a naked lady party) or on the cheap. I began to notice that these clothes just didn’t feel right and it was coming across in my professional and social interactions. Recently I’ve aimed to break down the barrier between work clothes and regular clothes and just have clothes. It’s been my goal to have clothes that fit and that I like, so I can concentrate on the more important tasks at hand.
Ellie (in response to the above): I totally understand this view, but don’t have it for myself. My work clothes fit, are comfortable, and arguably are much more stylish than my non-work clothes, but I enjoy having different costumes to put on for different parts of my life. As our own Leigh Anne said while discussing this interview, “Clothing is performative.” I have work clothes, gaming clothes, Renaissance Faire clothes, hippie clothes, rock concert clothes, etc. I enjoy dressing for the occasion. And personally, while I can appreciate the idea of ‘just being myself’ in all those scenarios, I prefer being able to use them to highlight different aspects of myself. (And to play dress up.)
Brett (also in response to the above): I try not to wear the clothes I wear to work and to conferences anywhere else. Generally, outside of work (a small public library in New Jersey) I’m more casual, except on the few occasions when I’m more formal. Nine months out of the year it’s pretty easy to compartmentalize, but summers are challenging. It’s hard to find “90’s and humid”-appropriate clothes.
Hilary: The wardrobe scene is kind of boring where I work (land grant academic library)—business casual is the norm. The folks behind the scenes get away with a little more relaxed outfits (clogs, Hawaiian shirts, rumpled slacks), but it’s rare to see a pair of jeans except on Fridays. Shoes tend to get a lot of attention, followed by handbags. The men tend to accessorize with ties and flashy socks.
LW: A couple of you started new jobs recently — what did you wear on your first day or what will you be wearing when you start? For everyone else, do you remember what you wore, or have any comments on this?
Ellie: My picture is from my first day of work at my new job. It was an orientation day, so I was primarily meeting fellow faculty. I’d say it’s in the mid-to-high range of level of dressiness that I typically wear. I’ll wear something similar to the two duty days we have coming up and then start mixing in some of my more “fun” items (a bright yellow skirt with lemons on it for example) once I’m into my regular routine.
Leigh Anne: Sigh. On my first day of work I was wearing the most perfect pair of black pants I’ve ever owned, a black and blue-striped blouse, and an ironic black cardigan. I was really happy about the new direction my life was taking so I wanted to look as pretty as I felt. I wore those pants until they fell apart, and I have not yet found a replacement pair. Dear Express: help a girl out, won’t you? Bring back those pants!
Brett: This makes me miss my favorite gray, lightweight (Spring-Fall) wool pants. If I could find them again, at a non-ludicrous price, I’d buy five pair. The problem, of course, is with what I consider “non-ludicrous.” After shopping pretty much exclusively at thrift stores, consignment shops, and clearance sales for my entire adulthood, I’m starting to mix in a few things I think of as retail, mostly because of the wonderfully persuasive Put This On. But rather than finding it freeing, I mostly find it unpleasantly self-indulgent (because of the whole Lenny Bruce thing about ministers who own two suits when there are people in the world of have none), worrying (because I’m afraid I’ll damage something that’s expensive to replace), and boring (because anyone can buy retail, but it takes creativity and effort to put together a wardrobe of used clothing) (though, to be fair, Put This On is a big believer in buying used).
Anyway… I taught my first class this summer, an on-campus class through Drexel University’s library school. I wore a long-sleeved button-down shirt, cotton slacks with cuffs, dress shoes and a belt. Pretty much what I wear when I present at conferences, minus the tie.
LW: Do you think a librarian’s individual style influences which area of the library s/he is drawn to? Do you think how you dress and being a teen librarian, for example, are correlated?
Eric: I don’t think so, but I do think there may be a correlation between who you serve and how you dress. I taught at-risk youth in a Dallas-area high school for a couple of years, and my main goal was to form connections with kids who didn’t fit into the typical student mold. I didn’t do that by dressing like them—I did it by being authentic about my goals in the classroom and a willingness to have fun with them during lunch hours or before school. I kept the professional dress not because I had to, but because it lent me credibility, authority, and that “I’m taking your success seriously” feel. It’s important—I was a teacher and a trustworthy adult they could turn to for help—not a friend. Professional dress set the tone for our relationships. Authentic behavior helped me find out more about who they are and let me do a better job of making school matter to them. If I were a teen librarian, not an academic, I think I’d take the same approach.
Ellie: When I was younger I had a favorite quote, “Never trust any enterprise that requires a change in wardrobe.” I think my attitude first started to change when I was working in television and had my first supervisory position. I had all these people reporting to me who were barely younger than I was, if they were at all. I knew I was up to the job, but I started to worry my baggy ratty jeans were working against me. I didn’t start dressing business casual, but I did start dressing a bit more stylishly by the local standards. In library school I went back to my standard baggy jeans and black t-shirts. I had a strong aversion to slacks and the business look in general, so when my professional jobs required (semi) professional attire, I went for skirts, something I had never worn much before. And now I love my librarian outfits. For me, this career did lead me to acquire a completely new wardrobe and I’m happy with that. I switch into jeans and t-shirts as soon as I get home, but I wouldn’t personally feel comfortable if that were my regular work attire.
Leigh Anne: I’m not sure if it’s true for everyone, but I was definitely sold on the comparatively relaxed dress code of public libraries. This could be because I was fleeing from academe, and was tired of dressing up all the time, but comfort was another factor. My professional wardrobe policy is very William Morris: garments should be both useful and beautiful. If I can’t push a shelving cart while I’m wearing it, I’m not buying it.
However, I don’t think there’s much of a correlation between how I dress and being an adult services librarian. I would dress the way I do regardless of what profession I chose, and I think it’s more important to feel comfortable in your clothes than it is to meet a certain external criteria for professional dress. When I get dressed in the morning, my goal is to walk out of the house feeling beautiful. When I meet my own standards for being well-dressed, I carry myself more confidently at work, which leads to being taken more seriously. I don’t think that would happen if I were trying to look “like a librarian.” Whatever that means.
Emily: I’ve had people mistake me for a children’s librarian before at conferences—namely because of a Where the Wild Things Are tattoo on my arm. It’s certainly a compliment, but right now I’m a subject librarian in an academic library with no plans to be a children’s or YA librarian. You know what they say about assumptions, right? This being said, I don’t think I have a “style” but it seems my Lead Pipe colleagues disagree.
LW: For the academic librarians, do you dress differently when up for tenure? Does it seem you need to convey a more formal image?
Eric: No tenure for me. I’m classified as staff, not faculty. But what’s that familiar phrase… something like dress for the job you want to have? I’ll buy that. I eventually would like to be a dean or director some day, so I’m going to continue to build a wardrobe I wouldn’t be embarrassed to be in if I had an emergency meeting with the president of the university or a major donor dropping by to check out our digs.
Ellie: No tenure for me either. I’ve been faculty at both of my community colleges, but there was no specific tenure process at the first and I’m in a temporary full time position now rather than the unlimited full time necessary for the tenure process at my new job. I do wear my nicest outfits to all-employee meetings, meetings with faculty, meetings with the dean, etc. My nicest clothing basically looks like black versions of what I’m wearing in the picture. I do have some slacks outfits, but wore those more when I was commuting via scooter.
Emily: I’m not tenure track.
Hilary: While we are considered special faculty, librarians at my place of work are not subject to tenure. For contract review, meetings with faculty, students, presentations to my colleagues, etc., I’ll focus on business casual with a nice pair of heels.
LW: When meeting another librarian for the first time, whether in an interview setting or otherwise, what do you see that makes a good impression on you?
Brett: In interviews, whether I’m the one being interviewed or conducting the interview, I like it when people dress in a way that indicates they’re taking the process seriously. What that means depends on the library. Sometimes that means a suit and tie or the equivalent, other times it’s somewhat less formal. But, for me, interviews and presentations are a special, more formal category that I think stand apart from any other situation. In general, people make a good impression on me when they present themselves in a way that clearly conveys they feel good about their appearance.
Leigh Anne: I like it when library workers take themselves seriously, but not too seriously. Male librarians who pick fun ties, for example, always make my day. Nothing says “change agent” like a Marvin the Martian tie. Fashion should be fun, so I’m also easily impressed by librarians who take style risks… provided they’re willing to share where they shop.
Emily: I don’t think making good impressions as librarians is different than making good impressions as people. Anything that would make me cringe in other contexts will make me cringe in library-land. Anything that would impress me in other contexts impresses me in library-land. I am impressed by thoughtful, intelligent, and self-assured people. But it also helps to have good taste in shoes.
Ellie: I can’t remember a time when my first impression of a librarian was negatively impacted by their clothing. I may notice an outfit or piece of jewelry I like, but I can’t say that it’s ever led to anything lasting. Every candidate I’ve interviewed has come professionally dressed, either in a suit or what I would call typical hipster librarian. Both styles left good impressions, but the content of their answers and presentations have mattered much more. So I would say confidence and how you carry yourself matter exponentially more than what you’re wearing.
LW: Other thoughts or comments?
Eric: I’ve found that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to care more about what I wear. In my two previous library positions, both at universities, I would have been more frequently seen in a western shirt and tattered jeans. I used to only shave my face once a week, getting pretty mountain-man by Friday. There was a period when I don’t think I even owned a pair of nice shoes. Now, that “I just woke up” kinda look bothers me. Even though I cared a lot about the jobs I had when that was my typical work attire, that kind of style now strikes me as apathetic—and that makes me feel like people who dress like that don’t care about what they’re doing. Goes to show how you may not even realize the message you’re sending to others with your clothes.
Hilary: One of my colleagues, who is way more fashion-conscious than I, likens one’s wardrobe to collection management: building a collection of items to complement one another with periodic weeding, preservation, archiving (for good and bad reasons), and the need to budget for future acquisitions.
Emily: While I love clogs, I’ve become a recent Camper addict. These shoes are never off of my feet.
Ellie: It may not be obvious on the picture, but I have lip piercings. I think I would have been allowed to wear them at my last job, but I had them out for other reasons when I started and it felt awkward to me to introduce them after I had been there so long. I put them back in between jobs and no one seems to care that I have them. (I didn’t ask, I just showed up with them in.) I did not wear them to the interview and almost definitely would take them out for any future interviews. I enjoy them as a fashion accessory, but don’t consider them an important part of my definition of self. I am not so invested in them that I would risk making a negative impression on an interview committee and I would take them out if a job required it of me (which is not meant to disparage anyone who would do the opposite!). I’m sure they affect people’s opinion of me, both positively and negatively, but so far I’ve only received two comments at work (both positive).
Brett: I love the stereotypical librarian look. Were it not for cardigans, sweater vests, corduroy and tweed sport coats, classic frames, wingtips, and super short or messily long hair, I’m not sure I would have bothered becoming a librarian. I’m dead serious. I chose my career primarily so that I could dress like David Strathairn in The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd.