Author: Olguin, Mallory K
Date published: March 1, 2011
Librarians are more than their appearance, but their appearance is part of them. With that in mind, what advice would two successful information professionals give to their colleagues - particularly those hunting for jobs- about how to dress? And what advice would they give to those who want to "be more of themselves" on the job in terms of appearance?
In this article, two information professionals - Tony Stankus, an academic librarian who has been in the field for more than 40 years, and Mallory Olguin, a government librarian who earned her MLiS in 2009- share their thoughts on how clothing makes the librarian (and vice versa). They dress in very different styles, but both wear clothing that conforms to their job requirements. They also believe that how librarians dress matters, and that dressing without regard to the culture of the organization undercuts their attempts to be taken seriously.
Philosophy of Dressing
MALLORY: The fact that I get to decide how people will see me by the simple act of getting dressed in the morning is hugely empowering to me. I'd say that my aesthetic has toned down, particularly in recent years as I've finished grad school and started my career as a professional librarian. But my past experiences of living in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) community in San Francisco still greatly influence my style, so toning things down doesn't mean that I like to blend in with the crowd.
My tattoos have become a particularly big part of my look, which is inevitable when you have as many of them as I do. They will always be there, though they may not always be visible. Generally speaking, I prefer to let my boss and co-workers get to know the quality of my work before I find out whether or not I can have my tattoos visible in the office. I want them to see me as an "amazing regular employee" before I let them meet the "amazing tattooed employee."
Even with my tattoos under wraps, I am often instantly recognizable at large professional functions, opening up a surprising number of opportunities that I may not have had access to otherwise. When my tattoos are visible, especially my more bookish ones, they tend to be a great ice breaker and end up starting most of my conversations for me!
TONY: Ever since I grasped the concept that people could get paid for falling madly in love with learning and encouraging this behavior in younger people, I've wanted to look like a professor. My models were depictions of avuncular academics in movies and TV, because there were no colleges in my town, and few people even went to college. The look I was going for then (and now) was horned-rimmed eyeglasses, tweed jackets, paisley ties, and a pipe, which I quit smoking only a decade or so ago.
I learned the extra punch a suit could pack on special occasions from Ronna Davis, my past EBSCO representative (now North American sales manager for TDNet and a fellow SLA member), who taught by both her personal example and by giving me a copy of what became my bible for dressing when it particularly mattered - the dated, but still valuable, John T. Molloy's New Dress for Success. Today my closest adviser on business attire is my wife, Chris Soutter, who has firsthand knowledge of what many real professors actually wore at Harvard from the days when she took her degrees there. I now know that white I would never have qualified for admittance to Harvard as a student, I could confidently make a good first impression there as an information professional.
Dressing for a Job Interview
MALLORY: I often keep things really low-key for job interviews. I'm not saying that I want to fade into the background or not be remembered - that's the last thing I want to have happen at a job interview! I just want to show in that initial meeting that I can play by the business world's rules, and if I need to, I can be buttoned down and freshly pressed. It's a no-brainer that the tattoos are always covered up and my nose ring is always taken out.
For my interview at the NASA Center for Aerospace Information, I chose to pair my black trousers and matching jacket with a purple striped buttondown shirt and some shiny wingtipinspired black shoes. I picked out everything I wanted to wear a few days before, which allowed me to focus on what I was going to say on the day of the interview.
TONY: I want to convey that I am an accomplished professional and look the part. I also want my appearance to affirm that I am gauging my prospective employers just as closely as they are taking my measure.
My interview strategy translates into a two-piece business suit in gray, navy or - especially in New York City - black. In the South and Midwest, olive, taupe and brown suits are equally acceptable. In the hot summer months, tan and oyster work well anywhere, although white and seersucker suits are more suited for resort wear and retirement homes. Solid color suits, or ones with moderately contrasting color pinstripes, make the best impression, although somewhat broader white chalk stripes on charcoal or navy suits are justly regarded as a power look. The sophisticated Prince of Wales glen plaid suit (black plaid on an off-white background with the occasional red or burgundy accent stripe in a discreet repeating pattern) is dynamite year-round for daytime interviews, but garish plaids are still associated with used car salesmen and 1960s-era comedians.
I always wear a long sleeve shirt in solid white, although pastels or discreet pinstripe or tattersall pattern shirts will work for many others. One's tie is undoubtedly the most important accent piece. It is front and center, and while you may be invited during an interview to take your jacket off for the sake of informality or as a concession to overly hot rooms, it would be rather unusual if you are asked to take off your tie.
Always be conservative rather than cute with your tie. As a rule, non-shiny solids, stripes, Swiss dots and small foulards are equally appropriate. In New England, and in academia in general, paisleys and tartan plaids also do well, but otherwise these might be better relegated to occasions when you are dressing down to a sports jacket.
The overwhelming majority of men are best advised to wear a long tie, as bow ties are thought to be indicative (at least in many corporate settings) of eccentrics, although many venerable, distinguished attorneys, doctors and, yes, professors, particularly in "oldmoney institutions," do wear them. Being an inveterate, if not exactly a venerable or old-money, eccentric, I invariably wear bow ties.
Your shoes should be leather wingtips or cap toes, but upscale tasseled loafers also do very well. In any case, your shoes should be very well polished. Black and cordovan are the preferred shoe colors. Your socks may match your suit or your shoes in color, but they should never be white. When in doubt, go with black socks.
It is a cardinal error to dress casually for an interview just because you know that employees at the organization dress that way. Casual attire may convey the impression that you are not taking the interview process seriously, or that you think that "gaming" the dress code is your idea of preparing for the interview - or, worst of all, that you think you already have the job.
Appearance on the Job
MALLORY: I have been lucky in my professional life so far and have only worked in places that allow employees to decide for themselves what to wear to the office. (Exception: the dress code specifies that clothes worn to the office must be clean and in good shape - no holes, for example- and can't have offensive phrases or images printed on them.) I assume the powers that be figure that if they can trust me to do my job, they can probably trust me to be a grown-up and dress myself appropriately before I come to work.
I dress my age. I am in my twenties and want to look that way even when at work. To my mind, there should be an evolution from a youthful and experimental approach to dressing to a look that is grounded in well-fitting classic wardrobe items. Even though I want to be taken seriously as a young professional, I also want to exude a feeling of fresh, new ideas, and I think that can be done with the right type of clothing. I like wearing jeans and sweaters or button-down shirts with a vest. Sometimes, if I want to get really fancy, I'll wear a skirt or slacks and a fun blouse with a modern print and some metallic flats. I always have a bright color accent to my outfit.
TONY: I now get to wear the clothing of my childhood dreams to work every day. It marks me as a member of the faculty, ideally both knowledgeable and approachable, but without quite framing me as "a suit" (for example, as the chancellor or provost of the university, although at my particular institution, these officers are unusually approachable even though they always wear suits).
In the fall and winter months, I wear tweed sportcoats in herringbone, hounds tooth and tick weaves, as well as corduroy, favoring earth tones of gray, brown, tan, and olive. In the spring and summer, I switch to blazers in classic colors and wear some cotton, linen or Tencel blends in the warmest weather. For comfort year-round, I generally wear khakis, though if I want to kick it up a notch in dressiness, I go with flannel wool slacks or, increasingly, microfiber, which is very wrinkle resistant and drapes very well.
By the way, for interviewees who do not have the budget for a full business suit or are quite sure that such a suit would be inappropriate, the very best bets would probably be a navy blue (black in New York City) blazer or a light tan camel hair jacket, combined with contrasting slacks. These have the virtue of being excellent on-the-job outfits as well.
Representing Your Employer
MALLORY: I always want to present myself in a way that shows I care about my position and the welfare of the organization for which I work. If I'm making some sort of special presentation, there is likely a message I want to send that I don't want to distract from or overshadow by the way I look. All the tattoos will be covered up, and I will don a more traditional "business casual" look with a pair of slacks, a sweater and black flats. As always, including colorful pieces is important to me even in the most serious situations, so I usually pick simple pieces in bright colors.
TONY: When making presentations, I revert to the interview suits mentioned earlier. I believe you show respect for the authence who came to see you, and the employer who sent you, when you are dressed as seriously as you want the message you are delivering to be heard.
Attending the SLA Conference
MALLORY: My first trip to the SLA Annual Conference was last year in New Orleans, and boy, did I feel underdressed! I packed clothing in anticipation of hot and humid weather. Little did I know that the convention center would be air conditioned to a consistently glacial temperature, so I didn't need to wear shorts, a T-shirt and sandals to hoof through the exhibit hall.
I remember walking into the "First Time Attendee Meet-And-Greet" in my run-around-town outfit and suddenly realizing that everyone else was dressed in business casual wear and even fullon interview suits! I held my head high, walked in and focused on meeting new people and having interesting conversations. I ended up having a great time and getting more out of that session that I could have imagined. Perhaps my casual outfit projected a more casual demeanor and made me more approachable. I can't say for sure, but I what I do know is that everyone very graciously ignored the fact that I didn't quite fit in that day.
That being said, there really are no rules for how to dress at the SLA Annual Conference. I think it mostly depends on your own reason for attending. If you're there to meet your future employer, you may want to dress accordingly.
My favorite activity at the conference is networking and connecting with interesting people. I go to as many sessions as I can and end up learning a lot of things to bring back to my workplace, but I dress primarily to be comfortable, stylish and recognizable. I really enjoy meeting people in one session and spontaneously reconnecting with them in other places during the conference and around town. The best way for me to facilitate that is to be recognizable and stick out a little bit, which isn't hard when you're about a head taller than most other people and have a drastically different style and appearance.
TONY: The general rule I follow is that regardless of the venue city, it will be God-awful hot while I am outdoors and icy cold when I'm not. I focus my dress on times spent indoors, because during the day I'm attending the opening and closing sessions, meetings, and workshops and exploring the INFOEXPO Hall, and in the evening my wife and I are dining out with vendors or colleagues from across the country, or we're attending divisional or association-wide soirees.
While I no longer feel the absolute need to dress to impress my SLA colleagues that I felt when I was younger, I find that wearing, at a minimum, a linen-blend sportcoat, dress shirt and tie (and often a tropical-weight suit) puts me on a better footing when exchanging views with the publishers, aggregators and other information industry representatives who greatly underwrite our annual gatherings and who we, in turn, support through our subscriptions, purchases, and licensing agreements. In addition, since I am now an SLA Fellow and have long held office at the division and chapter levels, I feel that being dressed a bit better enables me to greet with respect our new and, increasingly, international member attendees, who are often the best-dressed people in the room and who may find the informal attire at our professional events a bit strange at first.
BY MALLORY K. OLGUIN, MLIS, AND TONY STANKUS, MLS, FSLA
MALLORY OLGUIN is a content management analyst at the NASA Center for Aerospace Information in Baltimore. She can be reached at email@example.com.
TONY STANKUS is life sciences librarian, science coordinator and professor at the University of Arkansas Libraries in Fayetteville, Arkansas, as well as editor-inchief of Science & Technology Libraries, a quarterly journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.