Librarians in popular culture

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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.[1][2] 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.[3]

Popular literature[edit]

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.[1]

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.[4]

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.[5]
  • 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.[6]

In the Sune series, Sune's mother Karin is a librarian who does not like comic books, a reference to the comic book debates of earlier decades.[7]

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.[8]


According to Ann Seidl, director of the documentary The Hollywood Librarian, librarians in film are often portrayed as meek, timid, and unassertive in nature.[9] 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."[10]

By the 1950s, movies had established the stereotype of librarians as "spinsters" and "eggheads".[1] 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"[11] 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.[11]

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:

Librarians are usually ordinary people caught up in circumstances, rather than being heroes; likewise they are rarely villainous although they may have flaws, such as racism in Goodbye, Columbus.[11]

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.[1]
  • 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.[12]

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 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.

The PBS puppet series Between the Lions promotes early reading to little children. Theo and Cleo Lion are the librarians.

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.[13]

In 2004, TNT premiered the first of three television films, entitled "The Librarian", portrayed by Noah Wyle.


Tori Amos 2003 retrospective compilation album is called Tales of a Librarian.

My Morning Jacket 2008 album Evil Urges features a song called "Librarian."

Computer and video games[edit]

There have been several characters associated with the library field in the realm of interactive entertainment,[14] 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.[15]

Toys and hobbies[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Peresie, Michelle; Linda B. Alexander (Fall 2005). "Librarian stereotypes in Young Adult literature". Young Adult Library Services 4 (1): 24–31. 
  2. ^ Pagowsky, Nicole; Miriam Rigby (2014). The Librarian Stereotype: Deconstructing Perceptions and Presentations of Information Work. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries Press. ISBN 9780838987049. 
  3. ^ Pagowsky, N. and DeFrain, E. (2014) Ice ice baby: Are librarian stereotypes freezing us out of instruction?. In the library with the leadpipe. Retrieved from
  4. ^ Reiman, Lauren (2003). "Solving the mystery: what makes the fictional librarian such a good sleuth?". Washington State University. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ Sune och Svarta Mannen, Rabén & Sjögren, 1989, 5-10 - Sunes familj
  8. ^ Bunker, L.W. (2001) Madam Irma Pince. The Harry Potter Lexicon. Retrieved from
  9. ^ Kniffel, Leonard (June–July 2005). "Hollywood Librarian vs. Real Thing". American Libraries 36 (6): 22. 
  10. ^ Quoted in Worland, Gayle (October 4, 2007). "Librarians have their day in film". Knight Ridder Tribune Business News (Washington). 
  11. ^ a b c Walker, Stephen; V. Lonnie Lawson (1993). "The librarian stereotype and the movies". MC Journal 1 (1): 17–28. Retrieved 2009-08-02. 
  12. ^ Robbins, Louise S. (2000). The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3314-7. 
  13. ^ Taffel, Jacqui (29 October 2007). "Have a lend of us". Sydney Morning Herald. 
  14. ^ Search Results for "librarian" on IGN
  15. ^ "Libraries in Video Games". Retrieved 2015-10-27. 
  16. ^ "Outcry over librarian doll". Sydney Morning Herald. 6 September 2003. 

External links[edit]