asperger’s librarian

Do you know Penelope Trunk? I don’t always agree with her, like when she says students should spend less time in libraries, but I like how she arrives at her conclusions.

This week she’s writing a series about Asperger’s. It’s autism lite and was first diagnosed in 1994. After working in libraries for 16 years, (whoa) and encountering a majority of quirky personalities, I bet  that 30% or more of librarians have Asperger’s syndrome/disorder.

Asperger’s is about social skills: The lack of them. Those dealing with the disorder don’t pick up on social cues that most everyone else does. They don’t make eye contact, or, they make it inappropriately. It’s one of those balance things. And, for the most part, their social skills are unbalanced.

For example, as they speak about their interests, they often don’t realize that they’ve picked a bad time to approach a colleague. Sometimes they’re caught in a loop, and only talk about one thing, say: Politics. Or Zombies. They don’t pick up on cues that the listener has disengaged. Or they crash and burn at small talk, by changing the conversation to something they’re comfortable with. They stand by and nod. They “chime in with nonsensical things.”

Perhaps the stereotypes of librarians as being bookish, shy, standoffish, and socially awkward has a basis in history and a connection with mental handicaps that librarians have never considered or acknowledged. Many people with Asperger’s are bright, and do well professionally and intellectually, but it’s in the social, or collegial, arenas where they tank. How many of us know colleagues who spend each evening playing the accordion by candlelight for their bevy of cats?

Lemme just throw this into the mix:  Asperger’s effects men more than women. Seventy-five per cent of librarians are women. Yet women “supposedly” have better social skills than men.

There’s no research to prove my theory that 30% of librarians are/were Asperger’s. Asperger’s is a recent, trendy thing when it comes to being diagnosed.  And there are a lot of retro-active diagnoses, too. If you have Asperger’s, then you’re in good company with these famous folk: Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Elvis, Leonardo da Vinci, Virginia Woolf.

Those affected make poor eye contact, are aloof, don’t use gestures or point or show, and lack interest in their peers. They find social situations and relationships with peers challenging. Their symptoms make them seem odd or ill-mannered. Sounds like a stereotypical librarian to me.

A search of LibraryLit using the words “mentally handicapped librarian/s”  returns no results. Years ago I read about Asperger’s in academia. Surely it was in the Chronicle. And that’s how I developed this theory about Asperger’s and librarians. Not just academic librarians, some public, and special, too.

Disclosing Asperger’s in application materials helps those with the disorder get hired, possibly. But there is reluctance to out oneself as Asperger’s in academia.  Pity or being considered “less than,” or have their failures blamed on their disorder is unsavory.

And yet, Asperger’s is a disability. Those so diagnosed have recourse under the law for unfair employment practices or discrimination.

Anyway, it’s an area that interests me and I wish there was more research on personalities and mental handicaps in librarianship.

Do you see evidence of Asperger’s in yourself or your colleagues? I’m halfway convinced that I’m Asperger’s now, but I know it’s simply not so. I’m curmudgeonly, but can turn on the charm like a spotlight when so inclined.

7 thoughts on “asperger’s librarian

  1. Pingback: random librarian « adj.librarian

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  3. I am currently doing some research because I work with a librarian who I believe has asperger’s. She frustrates everyone – never picks up on social cues (for example a person could get frustrated with her and march out of the room and she would keep smiling, completely unphased). She is often staring at people and when you look at her she doesn’t look away. Her reactions (laughing, smiling, sad, etc) often don’t match with what is happening around her.

    • Laura, good luck with your research. I look forward to reading it when its published. Working with people with Asperger’s is challenging. I tried mentoring a colleague who was not formally diagnosed with the syndrome and she/he did not want to hear my advice for making her/himself more collegial/promotable/tenurable.

  4. I have an MLIS and also a diagnosis of Aspergers. I find your theory interesting.

    This regards reference librarians: I think that there’s a big gap between reference librarians who work well with library users (face-to-face), even if they have quirky personalities on the side–and someone like me. But librarian Aspies *can* excel in the online environment (probably not chat reference, though). It has to do with processing delays in what is heard and information that might be coming too fast in chats. I know for me, trying to catch what someone just said is like trying to catch hummingbirds in flight *if* the information is coming too fast. I could go on and on, but I guess I’ll stop here.

    • Deborah, this is fascinating. Librarians are notorious for quirky, and perhaps that’s code for Aspie. I really like the point you brought up about excelling in the online environment. I had not considered that because so much of the interaction in my library is one-on-one.

  5. I was diagnosed after being treated for depression which was interfering with my job as a subject librarian. I liked answering the questions but the people asking them scared the hell out of me. I was labeled weird and odd by various patrons. Yet folks came to me for hard questions. Later after a difficult patron complained I was sticking to the rules too much I was transferred away from public service to the technical service department (i.e. catalog). I have for the most part thrived. I am not as detail oriented as the typical cataloger but I have none of the social problems I had when working with the public. I miss answering questions, but I feel much safer now. My staff tolerates my needs. Catalog seems a safe haven for librarians who have our condition.

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