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Not so prim & proper

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By Regis Behe
Sunday, Sept. 2, 2007
 

Earlier this year, a kid walked into the music department at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's main branch in Oakland looking for heavy-metal music.

Twenty years ago, he might have been given a Deep Purple album and sent on his way.

Fortunately for him, Tim Williams was working that day.

"I told him if he was looking for Norwegian castle metal, you want this; if you want Egyptian-themed death metal, you want this," says Williams, a music librarian. "The kid was really impressed that a grown-up would know about this stuff."

Williams, who plays in a noise-metal group during his spare time, is emblematic of how librarians are no longer staid and proper figures who speak in sotto voce tones when patrons raise their voices. Instead, they tend to blend in with patrons. A female librarian might wear a colorful cocktail dress suited for happy hour. A male librarian might come to work in sandals, slacks and an island-themed short-sleeved shirt.

And some, like Charlene Hoffer, look like they belong anywhere but a library. Most days, Hoffer arrives at work dressed head-to-toe in black, with red or pink highlights filigreed through her blond hair. And yes, that is her red Harley-Davidson 883 Sportster parked outside.

"They usually just look me over if I'm in 'weird hair' that particular day," says Hoffer, 50, who greets patrons from behind the circulations desk. "I get compliments from most of the people. It's like I do what other people would like to do, but they don't."

There have been some noteworthy librarians who went on to become famous. Philosopher David Hume, poet Stanley Kunitz and novelists Thomas Berger and Jorge Luis Borges all served in the profession, as did the infamous lover Casanova and Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist revolutionary.

But the public expects librarians to be middle-aged women, and statistics reflect that expectation. In March 2006, the American Library Association issued an updated report citing that 57 percent of credentialed librarians who responded to a survey were born between 1940 and 1959. Women outnumbered men in the profession by a 4-1 margin.

Which explains why, outside of his workplace, few people believe Chris Gmiter when he tells them his occupation.

"I get, 'You really don' t look like a librarian,'" says Gmiter, 30. "Sometimes they think I'm kidding."

Gmiter does look more like an athlete -- he plays amateur hockey -- than a librarian. The manager of the West End and Sheraden branches of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, he has come up with a failsafe method of proving he's a librarian: He will hand a new acquaintance his library card and recite his card number.

"I have the number memorized," he says. "That's the litmus test."

At least Gmiter is recognized as a librarian when he's in the relatively small West End and Sheraden branches. When Sarah Beasley walks the halls of the spacious Oakland branch of the Carnegie, she frequently gets asked, "Do you work here?" Dark-haired, willowy and looking like she just stepped off a runway in Milan or Paris, it's easy to see why patrons are hesitant to assume she's a librarian.

Just as strange to her is what happens when she's not working.

"The flip side of that is when I'm at a bookstore or a library that's not my own, people will come up to me and ask me questions as though I work there," says Beasley, 34, the manager of the branch's film and audio collection. "I don't know if it's just feeling comfortable in that environment, but people will often start conversations with, 'Do you work here?'"

Outside of work, Beasley has a variety of interests. She has traveled to France, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Spain and South Africa, and she's an occasional skydiver. For her 30th birthday, she hired a circus troupe and invited her friends and family to take trapeze lessons.

Going to work, then, must be a respite for her penchant for excitement.

"That's where people are mistaken," Beasley says. "It's infinitely exciting. There's everything here. There's anything for any interest you could possibly have. Every day is different, and I think that's what draws a lot of people to libraries."

Charlene Hoffer has worked at the Vandergrift Free Library for five years after working for nonprofit organizations as a fundraiser. When kids come into the library and see her, they just smile.

Teenagers are a bit different. They know she's more like them than other adults, and most of them are familiar with her motorcycle. They sense she can be approached, whether it's to ask her to listen to some aggressive, guitar-oriented classic rock on their headphones via the library's computers, or sometimes even personal questions.

Because Hoffer looks atypical of most librarians, she thinks teenagers "do connect with me better. ... They come in and check in with me, ask me how I'm doing, start conversations. They know I'm interested in their lives."

Since Gmiter works in smaller library branches, most visitors know him by sight, if not by name, as occasionally happens when he's walking near the West End or Sheraden branches.

"That's a good feeling, when they recognize you," he admits. "It makes me feel good."

Still, he has to deal with some jabs, especially from his hockey teammates.

"You get a lot of jokes about sending people to the penalty box when they bring in overdue books," he says.

By far the most common comments librarians get are about the seemingly arcane cataloging system used by libraries.

"They usually make some sort of bad joke about the Dewey Decimal System, shushing or how they borrowed a book and never returned it," Williams says.

"And they still have it," Beasley says.

Beasley grew up in Tennessee, where her father was a librarian. Because he brought so many books home, she rarely visited libraries as a child. Even then, there were suppositions about what a librarian was supposed to be.

"When I was a kid, people never believed me when I told them my dad was a librarian," she says. "And, they didn't know any other librarians. Now, people are more aware of it as a profession. They're not as surprised anymore."

Still, when Beasley's friends mention they know a librarian, they're often asked, "Is she hot?"

On Williams' 10th birthday, he got in trouble for firing off aerosol-can flamethrowers in his basement. In addition to being banned from using the telephone, watching television and hanging out with his friends, his father made him go to the local library and research a paper on matches.

Little did Williams' father know he was doing his son a favor. Called an "information sponge" by his mother, he found a home for his dilettante aesthetic.

"I was looking for a profession that would reward that," he says, "rather than being intensely focused on one thing at the expense of everything else."

Gmiter, too, had a fascination with libraries from an early age. When he was 6, Gmiter, who grew up in Carrick, began visiting the South Side library with his parents. By the time he was 16, he had started working part-time at that branch, and continued to work there while he studied for his undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Pittsburgh.

"It's sort of freaky to think that some of the people who were there when I started working are still there," he says. "They'll tell me they remember me when I 6 years old and my dad used to bring me in. And now I work with them."

But while librarians might now skydive, ride motorcycles, play hockey or perform in noise-metal bands, they still have respect for those quiet, stern women who for so long made libraries a refuge of information and knowledge.

"So much credit has to be given to the librarians who came before us," Williams says. "They laid the foundation for the impressive collections we have here -- the resources, the indexes, the organization of it. Every day, I feel humbled by it."

 

 
 


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