Librarians in popular culture
Stereotypes of librarians in popular culture are frequently negative: librarians are portrayed as puritanical, punitive, unattractive, and introverted if female, or timid and effeminate if male. Such inaccurate stereotypes are likely to have a negative impact on the attractiveness of librarianship as a profession to young people.
Children's literature offers a generally positive portrayal of librarians as knowledgeable, helpful, amazing and friendly, becoming more positive over the course of the 20th century. Adult literature, however, portrays the profession more negatively. Between these, portrayals of librarians in young adult fiction are neutral to negative. Here librarians are predominantly female, middle-aged, usually unattractive in some way, and mostly unmarried. Personality is mixed between positive traits such as intelligence, likeability, and kind-heartedness; and negative traits such as strictness, timidity, excess fastidiousness, and eccentricity. While some provide assistance to the main characters, several are the villains of the story. Duties generally include reference, but may only show clerical tasks; however the amount of technology used by librarian characters has increased over time.
A disproportionate number of the librarians represented in novels are in the detective fiction genre, frequently as an amateur detective and protagonist. Although the stereotype of the librarian as "passive bore" does not seem reconcilable with the intensity of a mystery, the stereotypical librarian does share many traits with the successful detective. Their mindset is focused, calm, unbiased in considering viewpoints, and focused on the world around them. By personality they are industrious perfectionists—and eccentric. The drab and innocuous look of the stereotypical librarian is perfect for avoiding suspicion, while their research skills and ability to ask the right questions allow them to procure and evaluate the information necessary to solve the case. The knowledge they have gained from wide reading successfully competes with a private investigator's personal experience. For example, Jacqueline Kirby is drawn into the mystery in Elizabeth Peters' novel The Seventh Sinner (1972) due to her awareness of her surroundings. Wearing the stereotypical bun, glasses, and practical clothes, together with an eccentrically large purse, she is self-possessed and resourceful, knowledgeable in a variety of fields and skilled at research.
Papers on librarians in popular culture have also analysed:
- Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash features a commercialized melding of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Library of Congress, along with a virtual librarian who assists the main character, and raises questions of the role of the librarian in an increasingly information-rich world.
- The eponymous character in Garth Nix's Lirael (2001) is an assistant librarian whose curiosity about the library she works in leads her into trouble and whose research skills save her. The head librarian is intimidating and the library itself is a dangerous place.
Other appearances of fictional librarians in literature include:
- Allison Carroll in Jo Walton's Among Others serves as a mentor to the main protagonist.
- Madam Irma Pince is the librarian at Hogwarts during the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling.
According to Ann Seidl, director of the documentary The Hollywood Librarian, librarians in film are often portrayed as meek, timid, and unassertive in nature. After indexing hundreds of appearances of librarians in film, she found that "the shorter the reference to a librarian in a film, the worse the stereotype."
By the 1950s, movies had established the stereotype of librarians as "spinsters" and "eggheads". Thus, female movie librarians are usually unmarried, prim, and introverted. They are usually young and may be attractive, but dress drably and are sexually repressed. The "fate-worse-than-death view of librarians" is particularly evident in movies such as It's a Wonderful Life and The Music Man.
Male movie librarians - mild, intelligent, and timid - have fewer and less important roles.
Seidl's documentary discusses such stereotypes as:
- A wretched alternate fate is revealed for Mary Hatch Bailey (played by Donna Reed) in the movie It's a Wonderful Life (1946): "She's an old maid. She never married...She's just about to close up the library!"
- The staggeringly rude and unhelpful librarian (John Rothman) in Sophie’s Choice (1982), who barks at Sophie Zawistowski (Meryl Streep) “Do you want me to draw you a map?!”
in contrast with such more well-rounded characters as:
- Librarian Bunny Watson (played by Katharine Hepburn) who teaches Richard Sumner (played by Spencer Tracy) a few things about modern research methods in the movie Desk Set (1957).
- The no-nonsense "Marian the Librarian" (Shirley Jones) in the movie The Music Man.
Other movie appearances of librarians noted in the literature include:
- Mary (played by Parker Posey) as the ultimate Party Girl (1995) who discovers, "I want to be a librarian!" in a notable exception to the prim librarian stereotype.
- Alicia Hull (Bette Davis), a small town librarian, who befriends young Freddie Slater (Kevin Coughlin) but is herself ostracised for refusing to remove a book on Communism from the public library during the height of the Red Scare in Storm Center (1956). This movie was inspired by the real-life dismissal of Ruth Brown, a librarian in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
In Only Two Can Play Peter Sellers plays the role of a poorly paid and professionally frustrated Welsh librarian and occasional drama critic, whose affections fluctuate between glamorous Liz and his long-suffering wife Jean.
On a more positive note, the 1999 movie The Mummy has a librarian as a main character; Evelyn Carnahan played by Rachel Weisz. the character is awesomely clumsy and later moves away from her profession in the sequels. But a memorable quote from her, upon introduction to the other main character spoke the following:
Evelyn: "Look, I... I may not be an explorer, or an adventurer, or a treasure-seeker, or a gunfighter, Mr. O'Connell, but I am proud of what I am."
Rick: "And what is that?"
Evelyn: "I... am a librarian."
The portrayal of librarians on the small screen has usually followed the same stereotypes as those found in motion pictures. For example, in most animated cartoon series (such as Baby Looney Tunes or Rugrats) the librarian is often shown silencing the main/pivotal characters - especially younger children - when they're in a library area. Some even ban the characters from the libraries for making rude or strange noises.
The television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer featured the character of Rupert Giles as school librarian at Sunnydale High and mentor for the main character of Buffy. At the start of the series Giles is often portrayed stereotypically, for example he wears old-fashioned clothes and spectacles, is intelligent and well-read though has a dislike for computers, and is overly concerned with following regulations. As the series progresses the character is given the opportunity to develop beyond these stereotypes as we learn that Giles was a rebellious and angry teenager who was partly responsible for the death of a friend after dabbling in dark magic. He is also depicted at being competent with weaponry and hand-to-hand combat and at playing the guitar and singing. Though Giles never has a longlasting on-screen relationship and has never been married, he does have brief romances on screen and is acknowledged as an attractive man by other characters in the show; therefore at least partially refuting the usual stereotype.
In creating the Australian miniseries The Librarians, however, co-producers and -writers Wayne Hope and Robyn Butler consulted with real librarians for research, and took their advice to avoid shooshing and cardigan-wearing librarian characters.
Computer and video games
There have been several characters associated with the library field in the realm of interactive entertainment, often portrayed as guides and/or purveyors of knowledge who help the user progress within the game.
Toys and hobbies
- In 2003, Archie McPhee brought out a librarian action figure, modeled on Seattle Public Library librarian Nancy Pearl. Wearing a suit, bun and glasses, the action figure sparked controversy, particularly for the button-triggered shushing motion. Many librarians took it in a light-hearted spirit, while others felt it perpetuated negative stereotypes.
- Available for purchase through the ModCloth website one can purchase a "Check Me Out Library Kit" by the company Knock Knock. Each kit includes cataloging materials to keep track of one's personal book collection including 20 self-adhesive pockets, 20 checkout cards, date stamp, stamp pad, and pencil.
- Peresie, Michelle; Linda B. Alexander (Fall 2005). "Librarian stereotypes in Young Adult literature". Young Adult Library Services 4 (1): 24–31.
- Reiman, Lauren (2003). "Solving the mystery: what makes the fictional librarian such a good sleuth?". Washington State University.
- Blackmore, Tim (November 2004). "Agent of Civility: the Librarian in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash". SIMILE: Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education 4 (4): 1–10. doi:10.3138/sim.4.4.001.
- Jennifer Burek, Pierce (2004). "International Association of School Librarianship: Selected Papers from the 2004 Annual Conference". Brantford. pp. 73–82.
- Sune och Svarta Mannen, Rabén & Sjögren, 1989, 5-10 - Sunes familj
- Kniffel, Leonard (Jun–July 2005). "Hollywood Librarian vs. Real Thing". American Libraries 36 (6): 22.
- Quoted in Worland, Gayle (October 4, 2007). "Librarians have their day in film". Knight Ridder Tribune Business News (Washington).
- Walker, Stephen; V. Lonnie Lawson (1993). "The librarian stereotype and the movies". MC Journal 1 (1): 17–28. Retrieved 2009-08-02.
- Robbins, Louise S. (2000). The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3314-7.
- Taffel, Jacqui (29 October 2007). "Have a lend of us". Sydney Morning Herald.
- Search Results for "librarian" on IGN
- "Outcry over librarian doll". Sydney Morning Herald. 6 September 2003.
- Reel Librarians - a blog about librarians in film, plus filmographies, librarian character types, and extra resources
- Librarians in the Movies - an annotated filmography
- The Hollywood Librarian
- Songs about Libraries and Librarians
- Librarian Wardrobe - user-submitted blog of what real librarians look like and what they wear to work
- You Don't Look Like a Librarian! - a collection of resources relating to the perception of librarians in the Internet age
- Libraries at the Movies - a blog about the representation of libraries and librarians in movies
- This is What a Librarian Looks Like - Going beyond the bun to challenge outdated librarian stereotypes