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.
In modern times, the archetype of the "sexy librarian" has also begun to gain some traction, introduced in an effort to subvert the popular matriarchal image and make them more appealing to the average consumer. Both archetypes boil down to a similar idea, however – an authoritative, implacable guardian of the books who, through either power or sex appeal, keep the library patrons in fear and thus maintain themselves as exclusive guardians of the otherwise obscure organization system in the library.
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 analyzed:
- 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. Madam Pince embodies many negative librarian stereotypes- she's controlling, intimidating, she shushes, and she values books over patrons.
- The Librarian in Terry Pratchett's Discworld fantasy series, a once-human wizard who manages the library at the Unseen University.
- Lucien serves on the Dream palace staff as chief librarian in Neil Gaiman's The Sandman series.
- Welcome to Nightvale's Rabid Librarians will go to incredibly violent ends to ensure that the community is reading.
- Many of the central cast of characters in The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins refer to themselves as librarians, though their skillsets tend to be far more magical and violent that your average librarian stereotype.
Ashanti White, author of the 2012 book, Not Your Ordinary Librarian: Debunking the Popular Perceptions of Librarians, wrote that the shushing buttoned-down, older librarian was the most common depiction of librarians, in fiction, followed by the sexy librarian] stereotype.Ramirose Ilene Attebury, in Library Philosophy and Practice reported she found that the sexy librarian stereotype was more popular than the old maid stereotype, in YouTube videos.
The Hollywood Librarian (documentary)
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.
The Pagemaster (1994 film)
In 1994's live-action animated film The Pagemaster, frightened and pessimistic Richard Tyler (Macaulay Culkin) is sent on an errand by his parents but ends up caught in a thunderstorm. He takes shelter in a library, where he meets an eccentric librarian, Mr. Dewey (Christopher Lloyd), who encourages Richard to get a library card, despite Richard's protests that he doesn't want a book while he waits out the storm. Mr. Dewey tells Richard that a library card is a "passport to the wonderful and quite unpredictable world of books."
While Richard looks for a phone, he accidentally falls. When he awakens, the library art around him is melting and overtakes him - turning everything into animated illustrations. Richard befriends three books and has to overcome obstacles from classic literature to get back to his real life. At the end of the film, Mr. Dewey "bends the rules" and allows Richard to check out all three books (even though the library has a borrow policy of only two books). Mr. Dewey also smiles to Richard as he leaves, hinting that Mr. Dewey is actually the Pagemaster and none of the adventure was a dream. Mr. Dewey introduced Richard to the adventures possible in libraries and books as he "knows just how magical of a place a library can be."
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.
The 1999 movieThe Mummy has a main character, Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) who is a librarian. 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 shows a more positive depiction of librarians:
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."
In the Disney/Pixar's 2013 film Monsters University, Alison Nastasi of Flavorwire says the university librarian "isn’t fond of noise and doesn’t think twice about tossing rowdy students out the window into a pond below".
The television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) 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 long-lasting 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.
From 2004-2008, the John Rogers fantasty-adventure television film franchise, The Librarian, aired on TNT. The three films focus on a librarian (portrayed by Noah Wyle) who protects secret artifacts in the Metropolitan Public Library in New York.
The film franchise led to the television series The Librarians which began airing in 2014 on TNT. It follows a new team of librarians who solve mysteries, recover powerful artifacts, and fight against supernatural threats.
In the 2009 "Ron and Tammy" episode of the NBC comedy series Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope's dreams of a local park are almost squashed by Tammy, the new library director at the Pawnee Public Library and Ron Swanson's ex-wife. Tammy places a claim for the lot that Leslie intended to use for her park. Tammy then tries to sexually manipulate Ron into giving her the lot for the library. Leslie calls librarians "diabolical, ruthless bunch of bureaucrats" as well as "punk-ass book jockeys." In "Ron and Tammy: II", Leslie says Tammy is "just a manipulative, psychotic, library book-peddling, sex-crazed, she-demon." Tammy also has books on "Approved" and "Rejected" shelves, which insinuate that the library operates in a biased manner. The depictions of the library on Parks and Recreation "illuminate the nature of library anxiety."
Actress Christi Waldon appeared in season two of Stranger Things as "Marissa", the librarian of the Hawkins Public Library. The episodes she appeared in were season one episode three, "Holly, Jolly", and season two episode three, "The Pollywog".
In season two episode six of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation entitled "Caged", actor Michael A. Goorjian plays Aaron Pratt, an autistic librarian who witnesses the death of a colleague. Aaron states that he has "a masters in library science and an English Degree from UNLV."
In creating the Australian miniseries The Librarians, co-producers and -writers Wayne Hope and Robyn Butler consulted with real librarians for research, and took their advice to avoid shushing and cardigan-wearing librarian characters.
In currently running SyFy show The Magicians (based on the series by Lev Grossman), the Library of the Neitherlands is an archive that contains all of the knowledge in the universe. Librarians formed the Order of the Librarians, a group that protects that knowledge. The Library is staffed by Zelda Schiff, a prim, glasses-and-cardigan wearing librarian whose biggest concern is possible defacement of library books.
- Tori Amos's 2003 retrospective compilation album is called Tales of a Librarian.
- My Morning Jacket's 2008 album Evil Urges features a song called "Librarian."
- American punk band Swingin' Utters's 2013 album Poorly Formed includes a song titled "The Librarians Are Hiding Something."
- From the Go-Betweens' 1978 album Lee Remick, "Karen" is an ode to a librarian named Karen.
- From Velocity Girl's 1993 album Copacetic, "Lisa Librarian" is about a librarian named Lisa.
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.
Monkey Island II: LeChuck's Revenge, a PC game from 1991, features a notably large library, complete with a female librarian who wheels around in her chair between shelves and shushes the protagonist.
In 2006 Microsoft introduced an early version of what was to become the bing search engine that used over 600 pre-recorded video clips of actor Janina Gavankar, portraying the character of "Ms Dewey", described as a sexy librarian character.
Stardew Valley, an indie role-playing game released in 2016, features a town Library and Museum, staffed by Gunther, the museum curator. The Library and Museum is empty at the beginning of the game and Gunther asks players to help fill it by donating artifacts and minerals and finding the library's lost books.
Toys and hobbies
In 2003, Archie McPhee brought out a librarian action figure, modeled on Seattle Public Library librarian Nancy Pearl. 28,000 action figures were sold in the first week of their availability. 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. The original version of the action figure was discontinued, but Archie McPhee now sells a super-hero version of Nancy Pearl with a "removable cape and a deep understanding of how knowledge is organized."
- Ela Darling, an innovator in introducing virtual reality to erotica, who has starred in some of her own productions, first worked as a reference librarian
- Films set in libraries category
- Peresie, Michelle; Linda B. Alexander (Fall 2005). "Librarian stereotypes in Young Adult literature". Young Adult Library Services. 4 (1): 24–31. Archived from the original on 2017-12-02. Retrieved 2007-10-16.
- Nicole Pagowsky, Miriam E. Rigby, eds. (2014). The Librarian Stereotype: Deconstructing Perceptions and Presentations of Information Work. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries. ISBN 9780838987049. Retrieved 2017-12-02.
Pagowsky, Nicole; DeFrain, Erica (2014). "Ice ice baby: Are librarian stereotypes freezing us out of instruction?". In the library with the leadpipe. Retrieved 2017-11-27.
In a sense, the long withstanding matron stereotype paired with the newer sexy stereotype could be thought of creating a virgin/whore dichotomy for women librarians, complicating perceptions even further.
- Reiman, Lauren (2003). "Solving the mystery: what makes the fictional librarian such a good sleuth?". Washington State University. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2017-12-02. Retrieved 2007-10-19.
- 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). "What's Harry Potter doing in the library? Depictions of Young Adult information seeking behaviour in contemporary fantasy fiction". International Association of School Librarianship: Selected Papers from the 2004 Annual Conference. Brantford. pp. 73–82. Retrieved 2007-10-16.
- French, Emma (April 27, 2017). "Best librarian characters in fantasy fiction". OUPblog. Oxford University Press. Retrieved April 30, 2017.
- Sune och Svarta Mannen, Rabén & Sjögren, 1989, 5-10 - Sunes familj
- Bunker, L.W. (2001) Madam Irma Pince. The Harry Potter Lexicon. Retrieved from http://www.hp-lexicon.org/wizards/pince.html
- "Our Favorite Fictional Librarians, Ranked". The New York Public Library. Retrieved 2018-05-02.
Ashanti White (2012). "Not Your Ordinary Librarian: Debunking the Popular Perceptions of Librarians". Elsevier. pp. 7–8, 26, 89, 104–105, 141–152, 177. ISBN 9781780632964. Retrieved 2017-11-19.
Although the spinster image of librarians persisted, the sexy librarian emerged as a formidable rival. She found her way into advertisements and, surprisingly, into politics with the emergence of Sarah Palin. Conservative yet fashionable in dress, she served as a voice for conventional values. That coupled with her recognizable frames made her an example of what the sexy librarian looks like.
- Ramirose Ilene Attebury (October 2010). "Perceptions of a Profession: Librarians and Stereotypes in Online Videos". Library Philosophy and Practice. Retrieved 2017-11-19.
- "The Hollywood Librarian". www.hollywoodlibrarian.com.
- Kniffel, Leonard (June–July 2005). "Hollywood Librarian vs. Real Thing". American Libraries. 36 (6): 22. Retrieved 2007-10-16.
- Worland, Gayle (October 4, 2007). "Librarians have their day in film Madison director finds more than the "bunned and tightlipped" stereotype". Wisconsin State Journal. Washington. Retrieved 2007-10-16.
- Walker, Stephen; V. Lonnie Lawson (1993). "The librarian stereotype and the movies". MC Journal. 1 (1): 17–28. Retrieved 2009-08-02.
- Trombetta, Sadie L. "11 Of The Coolest Librarians From Pop Culture, Because Not Every Librarian Is Like the One From Your High School". Retrieved 2016-11-15.
- Robbins, Louise S. (2000). The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3314-7.
- Natasi, Alison (2013-11-09). "Our Favorite Pop Culture Librarians". Flavorwire. Retrieved 2016-11-01.
- "TNT greenlights 'The Librarians' franchise as a series". Entertainment Weekly's EW.com. Retrieved 2016-11-08.
- Ausiello, Michael (2014-04-10). "TNT Orders Librarians Series Starring Rebecca Romijn, Leverage Fave; Noah Wyle to Recur". TVLine. Retrieved 2016-11-08.
- Tewell, Eamon. ""Punk-Ass Book Jockeys": Library Anxiety in the Television Programs Community and Parks and Recreation". Library Philosophy and Practice (e-journal).
- "02x07 - Caged - CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Transcripts - Forever Dreaming".
- "Caged". 8 November 2001 – via www.imdb.com.
- Taffel, Jacqui (29 October 2007). "Have a lend of us". Sydney Morning Herald.
- "Search Results for "librarian" on IGN".
- "Libraries in Video Games". librariesinvideogames.tumblr.com. Retrieved 2015-10-27.
Miriam E. Sweeney (2013). "Not just a pretty (inter)face: A critical analysis of Microsoft's 'Ms. Dewey'" (PDF). University of Illinois. Retrieved 2017-11-27.
As one of my co-workers typed in different words and phrases, the “Ms. Dewey” character (pre-recorded film footage of actress, Janina Gavankar) engages in flirtatious banter, sometimes becoming irritated or condescending if too much time passes before entering a search term: “Hellloooo... type something here!”
- Miriam E. Sweeney (2016). Jessie Daniels, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Karen Gregory, eds. "Digital Sociologies". Policy Press. p. 401. ISBN 9781447329015. Retrieved 2017-11-27.
- "The History of the Librarian Action Figure and Nancy Pearl". Archie McPhee. Retrieved 2018-05-02.
- "Outcry over librarian doll". Sydney Morning Herald. 6 September 2003.
- "The History of the Librarian Action Figure and Nancy Pearl". Archie McPhee. Retrieved 2018-05-02.
- 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