Approachability Politics

cleopatra by watherhouse
Waterhouse, John William. “Cleopatra, oil on canvas.” Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].
A coworker describes helping a patron who, after the reference transaction, tells her that she is not approachable enough, that she needs to smile more.  A classmate laments over her “resting bitch face” which keeps patrons from coming to her with their questions.  An LIS professor discusses an incident where a patron came over and told her “You look mean.”  My reference textbook reiterates the need for librarians to have open body language.

The concept of “approachability” is rampant in the discussion of librarians and library students.  What are our verbal and non-verbal cues? Are they deemed threatening or standoffish? How can we signal to patrons that they aren’t bothering us, that they are encouraged to ask us questions?

I’m all for librarians being approachable.  I’ve experienced librarians who were not at all understanding or accommodating, who were more disciplinarians than information professionals.  And I understand that people are reluctant to ask for help – and that can be compounded by library anxiety, social anxiety, or due to factors such as age, race or gender.

But when I continuously get reminders about approachability – from the LIS curriculum, from professors, from books, from articles and blogs, from supervisors – this preaching about approachability sounds more like the grizzled man on the main drag who calls out “Sweetheart, why don’t you smile?” than it does “professional advice.”

Our profession walks a delicate line here.  Yes, being open to patron inquiries is paramount, but telling professionals (who are predominantly women) to be approachable becomes dangerous.  As a woman, I’m bombarded day-in and day-out with pressures to be more approachable, more beautiful, more pleasant.  I’m told that I exist for others’ needs, not because I’m a full-fledged individual.  In a library setting, yes, I’m hired to help others, but I still don’t want to be harassed – under the supposition that I’m not “approachable” enough.

Approachability is, likely, important to librarianship.  But I want librarians and educators (and perhaps patrons) to keep in mind that repeatedly talking about being “approachable” in a predominantly female profession can be problematic.

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