Mallory Caise, who is 28, hip, wide-eyed and unfailingly polite, pushed her way through the thicket of librarians. She wore a black polka-dot dress and clutched a pile of folders to her chest. She moved slowly, knocking into people, apologizing every few feet. This was Saturday at McCormick Place, midway through the American Library Association's annual conference, which drew more than 26,000 and ends Tuesday. Caise, herself a librarian at the Fossil Ridge Public Library in Braidwood, southwest of Joliet, studied library science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But for years, she said, she was not convinced being a librarian was her thing.
"It was an old lady thing," she explained. "You know the stigma — the plaid skirt, the small sweater, granny glasses. I couldn't see myself as that. Yet even as I was in school, that image, that perception, it changed."
No doubt: To make your way through the throngs of librarians at the conference — especially if you're not a librarian (the Chicago-based association restricts attendance to librarians, library-related professionals and journalists) — is to witness a real-time debate about what a librarian, and a library, should look like in 2013.
The shushing spinster of legend — and the prim sandalwood culture around her (always her) — was present.
Entering the exhibition hall Saturday, I passed a "quilt showcase," followed by a man with white hair tugged back into a ponytail who played banjo on a faux front porch (a bit of ALA-programmed conference entertainment). At the back of the hall, a woman from Oklahoma sold shawls in muted colors, shapeless, tasteful rayon fashions.
"I cater to the librarian look," she said, "and the librarian, she knows how to dress."
Then again, on a large dry erase board ("The Ideas Exchange") in the center of the hall, someone scribbled:
Below that: "Go digital now."
This was not incongruous.
Alongside booths for World Book encyclopedia and the Polish American Librarian Association, there were booths promoting the study of Ayn Rand and small publishing houses such as McSweeney's trying to attract attention. For every Alice Walker speaking at the conference, there was a Jaron Lanier, tech activist; for every panel on "balancing resources," there was a young-adult author signing books (including Chicago's Veronica Roth, dutifully signing "Divergent," the film adaptation of which is shooting now in Chicago); for every Bureau of Labor Statistics, there was a Rock's Backpages, a London-based music journalism database.
Paul Kelly, its fedora-topped sales manager, said: "Truth is, we used to be niche, but during the 12 years we've been doing this, the study of culture has moved to the fore with librarians. So here we are."
Found across the aisle from that erase board was the latest in library checkout technology — self-checkout library kiosks, modeled on supermarket self-checkout stands. And not far from the kiosks, tech companies that peddled "e-book management" systems and "cloud platforms" for libraries; manufacturers demonstrating large library-centric photocopy devices ("capture systems"); and enormous Redbox-esque "iPad dispensers" that allow patrons to sign out a tablet.
Kitty-cornered from one of these dispensers stood Krista Miller, sales manager for a Michigan-based distributor of tangible, nonvirtual books. She watched a mob of fascinated librarians around the dispensers.
"It doesn't bother us too much," she said. "One year, ALA put us next to a robot."
As antiseptic as the library of the future may sound, a few aisles away there was Helaine Zemel, an inventor from the Cleveland area who once made national headlines with a lifelike mannequin named The Buddy, a virtual passenger for women who didn't want to appear to be driving alone. Her library-themed offering? The "No Mess" sandbox and the "No Mess" painting box, library play areas enclosed in plexiglass.
Your child wants to play with sand or paint? All they have to do is place their hands into gloves fitted over small holes in the plexiglass. Picture a scientist handling weaponized smallpox — only with watercolors.
A librarian leaned in to Zemel's booth: "I need this," she told Zemel, "but our budget — well, what budget?"
Spend enough time at the conference and you hear certain words, like "budget," "sequester" and "screwed."
Marion Grebow, a New England-based artist who creates "tile recognition" plaques for library donors, said business has been steady but noted, "without question, for a while, there were fewer libraries being built."
Brian Alexander, who designs book- and video-return boxes for libraries, showed me a new large, sleek aluminum model, a kind of library-returns double-wide.
"We realized we have to go for size now," he said, "because as library personnel are condensed and libraries cut hours, there are fewer people to get books out of these boxes, which necessitates a much larger return box than we used to see in front of most libraries."
Depressing, I said.
"One way to see it," he said.
It's also too bad, because that means fewer librarians, and the librarian of the future (and, arguably, the present) — judging by "I Love Free Speech" T-shirts, piercings and tattoos on the younger librarians attending the convention — is not a shusher, but a hipster, only more tolerable.
Ahmed Johnson, a librarian at the Library of Congress in Washington, wore the hell out of a gray suit and pink checkerboard shirt. He's 41, specializes in genealogy and, looking around at the largely middle-aged, white female librarians in attendance, said: "You don't see too many librarians who look like me. I'm 6-foot-5-inches tall, and I'm black, and I'm bald. There are still a lot of people who expect a tiny elderly woman. But it's all changing."
Tina Louise Happ, an associate librarian at the Pritzker Military Library in Chicago, wore cool white frame eyeglasses that screamed hipster librarian, a burgeoning strain of librarian. "Looking like a librarian is a self-fulfilling prophecy," she said. "But it's not like everyone's young now, of course. I was just at this panel. This woman says she doesn't want to be on Facebook. OK, you're resistant. But this is what we do now …"
I met four graduate library students from Indiana University. They said that just that morning they discussed the rise of the hipster librarians.
"I heard the librarian shawl is new librarian sweater," said Tiffany Saulter.
"We are all wearing shawls," said Lauren Shepard. She had a nose ring and a black polka-dot dress, the sixth or seventh black polka-dot dress I saw that day. To be specific, the black polka-dot dress is the new shawl.
If you're a librarian, anyway.