October 14, 2012

Librarian Portrayals: An introduction

Librarians are portrayed in a variety of ways in popular media. Some of these views are favorable and positive as seen in children's media; however, more often they are negative and widely untrue. This blog is an effort to discuss what these stereotypes look like in an array of formats, why they exist, and how they impact the profession. The stereotypes discussed include:

  • the "sexy" librarian
  • the frumpy librarian
  • the male librarian
  • the unfriendly librarian
  • the timid/introverted librarian
  • librarian's in children's media

Implications for the field

Stereotypes can create negative or unrealistic views of what a librarian looks like, how a librarian behaves, and what a librarian does.  Many of the stereotypes such as the “timid librarian”, the “unfriendly librarian”, and the “frumpy librarian” will easily correct themselves when people visit the library. Once a person actually talks to a librarian, the user will see that librarians are generally helpful, friendly, and “normal” people. While the stereotypes do not exactly help the image of the profession, it is not that detrimental because they can undoubtedly be rectified.
  For women working in the field, the “sexy librarian” is perhaps the most demeaning, infuriating stereotype because it degrades the woman from being a normal person doing their job to a sex object that is there only to look pretty. As such, this stereotype seems to be the one hardest to overcome for me personally, but also for the profession overall.  This is because not only is “sexy” ingrained in how librarians are supposed to behave but also how women are supposed to be. It is difficult enough overcoming the patriarchy from day to day, but it is just that much worse when it leaks over into a job. As with all the other stereotypes, the best thing for female librarians to do is continue to be themselves, which will eventually show society that their stereotypes have been inaccurate and this will hopefully change the media depictions.
While I, as a woman, have the biggest problem with the “sexy librarian” stereotype. Men struggle with the stereotype that people see them as gay, effeminate, or not a “real” man. In this case, feminism not only empowers women to overcome their “sexy” label but also encourages men to view their masculinity as separate from their profession. Although librarianship is predominately female, men should feel comfortable joining without the fear that society will view them poorly. The good news, however, is that male librarians view themselves more harshly than society, which means that it is more an issue of self-perception and not so much an issue of societal judgments.  
A great website that is helping subvert the created image of the librarian by posting pictures and stories of actually librarians is This is What a Librarian Looks LikeA quick glance at the website will show that librarians look very different from one another, take part in tons of different activities, and work in different information spaces. This is fantastic because it illustrates that librarians are just like everyone else.

Librarians in Children's Media

Stereotypes seen in children’s media are much different from that portrayed in adult movie, books, music videos, etc. They librarians are typically softer, more polite, sweet, and helpful. It seems that something about adults brings the worst out in librarians. However, children need to view librarians as nice and helpful so that they will go to the library young,  learn that it is a place to gain knowledge, and use the resources as adults. Perhaps if this were the case more often, the illustrations in adult media would be more realistic and appropriate. Although the librarians in children’s media hold their own stereotypes such as older, unmarried women, and sweet dispositions, they are better than images in more mature shows and movies. Several examples of librarians appearing in kid’s movies and TV shows: 

Arthur; various episodes created by Cookie Jar Group for PBS 1996-present
Paige Turner

Paige Turner is the librarian at Elwood City Public Library. She is depicted as a sweet, caring woman who enjoys students checking out books and who wants to help the children. While she is not mean, she is somewhat strict, wanting everyone to behave and be reasonably quiet. She is respected by the characters as seen in episodes where D.W or Arthur dream they will be in trouble for damaging books or forgetting to return books. This image of a librarian is positive and encourages students and children to seek out the library as a place to gain knowledge or find books/information. 

Because of Winn Dixie 2005, directed by Wayne Wang and adapted from book by Kate DiCamillo
Miss Franny Block

Eva Marie Saint plays Miss Franny Block, an older librarian who works at the Herman W. Block Memorial Library. She is kind to Opal, the little girl who the story is about, and tells her stories about when a big bear came into the library. Miss Block is very caring, polite, and friendly. Opal likes talking to Miss Franny and wants to be friends with her. However, it is the usual friendly image of an older, unmarried woman who helps the children. It is a much better depiction than is usually found in adult media, as witnessed by the discussions of the other librarian stereotypes in additional posts. While it might not be an accurate illustration of librarians, it is a step closer to a better, more realistic representation at least in terms of behavior. 

Between the Lions, brainchild of PBS 2000-2010

This show was created to promote children to read and is set in a library starring a family of lions who run the Barnaby B. Busterfield III Memorial Public Library. All the characters are loving, nice and very helpful to all the patrons who come in. Outside of the main lion characters there are other characters who work in the library that give information or help users. For instance, Information Hen is the Information Specialist and works in the telephone reference department, answering questions about the library or reference materials. The show is a fantastic representation of not only what a librarian is, but also what a library should be—a place to learn new things and read. Since the librarians are lions, it takes away the stereotypes of physical appearance, focuses solely on encouraging kids to use the library, and shows how librarians are helpful people. 

Matilda 1996, directed by Danny DiVito and based on book by Roald Dahl
Miss Phelps 

Miss Phelps (Jean Speegle Howard) is shown only briefly when Matilda goes to the library to find books to read when her parents will not buy her any. However, Miss Phelps is kind to Matilda and offers to help her find books that she might like and shows her where the books she wants are in the library. The librarian is the stereotypical sweet older woman who really cares about the users, but this persuades children watching that if they go to the library they will be treated fairly and given the help they desire. While not all librarians are sweet old ladies, I think it’s important for children to view librarians as kind people that will assist them. Perhaps future illustrations can include younger people of other genders and various ethnicities that are still just as polite. 

Timid/Introverted Librarian


Librarians are often accosted for being too introverted and timid, spending all their time hiding behind books, choosing to squander their time reading instead of interacting with people or patrons. While it is true that librarians generally hold a love of books, learning, and information or else they would have chosen a different profession, it is not necessarily true that they dislike working with people. Librarianship is an extremely customer service oriented profession, which demands working with people. This misconception has probably occurred because librarians, historically, have primarily worked with books. However, it does not explain why librarians have been pigeonholed into only concerning themselves with the materials and not the people. This is a stereotype, however, that will quickly correct itself upon entering a library and talking with a librarian. More than likely, the librarian will be happy to engage in conversation to assist the user and that user will realize they have prematurely judged librarians. This is obvious in that few media depictions exist which illustrate timid/introverted librarians. I have included only a couple of examples:

Brazil 1985, directed by Terry Gilliam and written by Tom Stoppard, Charles McKeown, & Gilliam

Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) plays a low-level government worker in the “Information Storage” department who is promoted to the “Information Retrieval” department. While he is not technically a librarian, he does the same general job that a librarian does. Lowry is responsible for storing and finding information. He is a smart dresser, middle-aged, single, mousey character that keeps mostly to himself. If introverted ever needed a poster child, Sam Lowry would a prime candidate. This image negatively influences the library science profession because it colors the entirety of people who work in libraries as timid, quiet people. This idea cannot possibly be true because the job requires a lot of working with and assisting people; the job goes much easier if you actually enjoy talking to people. 

Peeping Tom 1960, directed by Michael Powell and written by Leo Marks

Helen (Anna Massey) plays a librarian in the children’s department at the local library. She becomes friends with Mark Lewis, a sexually motivated serial killer photographer, because she wants help on a children’s book she is writing and only learns later her new friend is psychotic. She herself is a quiet, delicate woman who lives with her blind mother in an apartment below him. She does not like talking about her job at the library and is embarrassed because she would rather be writing children’s books. The film paints librarians not only as reserved, but also suggests that the work of a librarian is simply a job. As a future librarian, I am excited about landing a job; however, it is easy to forget that some people see their library job as just a paycheck and perhaps it is one of the most honest depictions of some librarians. 

Unfriendly Librarian

A common perception of librarians is that they are unfriendly, rude, snappy, or always shushing patrons. It is really unfortunate that librarians are seen in this light because it encourages people to ignore the library as a source of vital, reliable information simply because the librarians are not pleasant to deal with. While I am sure there are some bad apples as in any profession, overall librarians are there to assist patrons in obtaining the information they seek. This media stereotype is the most worrisome because I do not want patrons to see me as someone to ignore because of how they assume librarians behave from portrayals in a movie or TV show. I, instead, want my patrons to see me a resource to help them in their various endeavors.  The illustrations in media are quite varied from a simple “shhh” to making patrons leave to begrudgingly helping to flat out refusal of service. The following examples cover several of these characteristics. 

Adventure Time created by Pendleton Ward 2010-present

"The Real You"; Season 2: Episode 15

Finn and Jake visit the library in an effort to educate themselves to impress Princess Bubblegum who is an intelligent, attractive girl that Finn likes. They attempt to read books about pigs and figs but quickly grow bored. They begin to dance, sing, and generally make quite a bit of noise to ease their boredom. This prompts Turtle Princess, the librarian, to kick them out of the library. Although it is a cartoon, it is still a harsh reaction to patrons being too loud in the library.

"Paper Pete"; Season 3: Episode 22

Finn and Jake visit the library again, this time so that Jake can learn the history of the Rainicorns to understand his girlfriend better. Finn quickly grows bored and frustrated because Jake is ignoring him to read so he goes off to find something fun to do. Upon walking down the aisles of the library, he discovers some damaged books and becomes verbally upset about them, which prompts Turtle Princess to shush him. He gets loud several more time during the episode, which again causes Turtle Princess to shush him. While the silent library is a quickly changing idea, it is still sometimes necessary for a librarian to moderate the noise level in the space so that other patrons are not bothered. Although it is a necessary part of the job, oftentimes, people still negatively relate the stereotype to librarians. 

Citizen Kane 1941, directed by Orson Welles; written by Herman Mankiewicz and Welles

Miss Anderson, played by Georgia Backus, is a very stern representation of a librarian working at the Thatcher Memorial Library. She cuts off and ignores the reporter’s comments when he comes to view the manuscript. Additionally, she gives him strict instructions about what he can and cannot do with the manuscript and is generally very harsh with him. However, as Colin Higgins notes in his quite interesting and informative blog post, at least she allows him to view the manuscript. Higgins also offers that instead of being a hard caricature, she is instead being a good librarian, taking precautions to protect her materials. No matter how the scene is viewed, Miss Anderson is a harsh character that colors how people see librarians and is not the nice, sweet librarian we all desperately hope to help us. 

Philadelphia 1993, directed by Johnathan Demme; written by Ron Nyswaner 

Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is a homosexual male with AIDS and as his condition worsens he seeks answers about the disease from the library. The librarian does help Beckett and finds a book on AIDS discrimination for him; however, it is obvious the librarian does not want to deal with him because he is sick. His body language is uncomfortable as he keeps shifting around and encouraging Beckett to use a private study room so he and the patrons do not have to be near him. Beckett responds to his question, with “No, thank you. Would it make you more comfortable?”. The librarian answers after a few seconds with, “Whatever, Sir”. Although the librarian is polite about his discrimination, it is still an ethically inappropriate way to behave. A librarian should simply make information available to the community users without (openly) judging them. However, the reality of this clip is that some librarians do judge patrons outright. The best thing to do is to acknowledge this fact and do everything possible to teach library school students the best way to handle sensitive topics such as AIDS.

Parks and Recreation, created by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur 2009-present
Season 2: Episode 8 "Ron and Tammy"
Season 3: Episode 4 "Ron and Tammy: Part 2" 

The committee who works with Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) at the parks development department all hold a negative view of the library and librarians which is clearly illustrated by the following quotations: 

1. "The library is the worst group of people ever assembled in history. They're mean, conniving, rude, and extremely well read which makes them very dangerous"

2. "Pawny's library department is the most diabolical, ruthless bunch of bureaucrats. They're like a biker gang, but instead of shot guns and crystal meth they use political savvy and shushing."

3. "Punk ass book jockeys" 

While the descriptions seem harsh, it is clear they are said to illicit a laugh from the audience through their over-the-top nature. This absurdity is appropriate and appreciated because it allows people to laugh at the stereotype, the first step in overcoming it. The image of the tough, no-nonsense librarian has been a part of the societal image of the librarian for some time, but it is clear with current shows like Parks and Recreation that this image is being subverted. 

Male Librarian

Aloha Record and Ravonne Green wrote an article in 2008 entitled "Examining Gender Issues and Trends in Library Management from the Male Perspective", which discusses males in librarianship. They sum up the stereotype of the male librarian by writing, “male heterosexual librarians have a palpable, but potentially unfounded fear of being perceived as gay. He [Carmichael] concluded that these (mis)perceptions reflect the insecurities that they feel as a result of marginalization within a feminized profession” (pg. 196). Librarianship has somewhat recently become the domain of women, and men rarely enter the field unless they take administrative or technology jobs. As such, men who enter the field believe they will be perceived as gay or weak because they could not get a “real” job. The representations in media seem to follow this line of thought by making their male librarians mousey, weak characters. Although, perhaps some would argue that there is no such thing as bad publicity, I tend to disagree. While I am glad that male librarians are now entering media, I wish they were depictions that are more realistic. A couple examples follow: 

Cascada "Everytime We Touch"; track one on Everytime We Touch  2006

The librarian in Cascada’s music video is a male portrayed as a mousey, weak, young character wearing a sweater vest and glasses—the fashion of a much older man. The young man makes a small effort (gesturing) to stop Cascada from ruining the library by dancing on furniture and throwing cards out of the card catalog. However, she ignores his request and does not respect his authority, which is clearly seen when she takes off his glasses and throws them before she shoves him. The man eventually ignores her and attempts to straighten up the card catalog. When the fantasy of the music video kicks in and all the patrons in the library start dancing with her, the male librarian is seen apart from the other patrons, which reinforces his lack of power. The video ends with him running off with Cascada, which is beyond any comprehension. The video is a clear slap in the face to any librarian, but especially to males. He is a powerless, weak, mousey character whose patrons physically assault him. It could not be a worse illustration. 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer; various episodes created by Joss Whedon 1997-2003

Edmund Rupert Giles, more commonly referred to simply as Giles, played by Anthony Stewart Head, is the librarian at Buffy Summer’s high school. He is English, hyper-intelligent, stuffy, wears glasses, and must be rescued by Buffy more than once. While he is not a gay character, he is a weak character. He spends most of his time in the library, fussing over books, but never actually doing much work. Giles is far from a depiction of a “macho man” or the male librarian illustrated in The Librarian movies. This representation of Giles as a male librarian negatively influences the way society views males in the profession. Instead of being a “normal” man who is doing his job, Giles is shown as weak, effeminate caricature of a male librarian. 

Frumpy Librarian

I have decided to use "frumpy" as a blanket term to discuss the appearance typically associated with a librarian. This includes: older woman, hair worn in a bun, cardigans, glasses, and generally unfashionable. Another term that could have been used is "spinster" and because the woman is now too old to appeal to single men, she's also too old to look attractive and sexually viable; being attractive is only for the young stereotypically speaking. Presentations in media are varied and a few examples are as follows.

King of Queens, created by Michael Weithorn and David Lit 1998-2007
Season 4; Episode 21: "The Bun Dummy"

Leah Remini plays Carrie Heffernan a legal secretary and wife. In the episode “The Bun Dummy” Carrie discovers the ever versatile, comfortable, easy hairstyle: the bun and begins to wear it all the time to work, to the gym, around the house and even to her husband’s high school reunion. Her husband Doug comments several times about how he doesn’t like her hairstyle and that it reminds him of a librarian or an old lady. When they are at Doug’s reunion, they pay tribute to Mrs. Palsgraf, their former high school librarian that recently passed away. The image is of an older woman, hair in a bun, sharp face, and wearing glasses. Carrie immediately takes her hair out of the bun, reinforcing the negative image associated with the librarian “look”. No one wants to look like a librarian. 

The Middle created by Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline 2009-present
"Average Rules" Season 1: Episode 24

Betty White guest stars as Mrs. Nethercott, the librarian working at Brick’s elementary school. She is an older woman who wears a cardigan and glasses; however, she appears slightly different from the other examples in that she has a “nice” face and does not wear her hair in a bun. While she represents some of the stereotypes related to how a librarian looks, she does not possess them all and looks more like a “normal, sweet, older lady” that happens to work at the library. This is probably due to the example being much more modern as the episode aired in 2010. It is not a complete break from the stereotype, but it is a step in the right direction. 

Shadow of a Doubt 1943, directed by Alfred Hitchock

Mrs. Cochran, played by Eily Malyon, is a librarian at the public library. She is an older woman, with a sharp, unfriendly face, hair pulled up in a bun, and wearing a frumpy, ill-fitting dress that looks more like a bathrobe. Mrs. Cochran fits squarely in the stereotype of what a librarian looks like save a pair of glasses. The movie was released in 1943 and so that speaks to why the librarian is portrayed in this way. However, it does not excuse the modern depictions with the same attributes as seen in the King of Queens example above. 

Sexy Librarian

The "sexy" librarian appears to be one of the most famous views of librarians. A quick search of any Internet
 search engine will result in pages upon pages of "librarians" in various states of undress, seductively looking at shelves of books. The ideas exist in movies, music videos, Halloween costumes, TV shows, and X-rated films. While it is the most popular, it is the most puzzling and most untrue. It is true there are attractive people who happen to be librarians, but the job itself is not sexy or glamorous. Because the profession primarily focuses on customer service, it can be incredibly challenging. Nonetheless, the stereotypes remain as seen in the following media depictions.

Nympho Librarian by Les Tucker

This book is merely one example of many portrayals of librarians in adult books and videos. Each year more books are added to the list. For an interesting article about this subject see: Checking Out by Avi Steinberg. It is a fascinating and recent article about books, porn, libraries and how they are all related. Steinberg discusses several books with "sexy librarian" scenes and the implication that they have on literature as well as on libraries. Warning: some images and language used in the link are NSFW/"offensive".

Tomcats, 2001 directed/written by Gregory Poirier

Heather Stephens plays Jill, a seemingly quiet, mousey librarian who turns into a whip wielding BDSM aficionado in the bedroom. Tomcats (2001) is a comedy, and as is the nature of the genre, it creates a caricature in order to subvert the stereotype being attacked. It takes the “sexy librarian” and creates an absurdity so profound it collapses the idea that this person actually exists as the poster child for librarians.

The Librarian franchise movies
The franchise of Librarian movies started as a made-for-TV series. Noah Wyle plays Flynn Carsen a highly intelligent, hyper-attractive, male librarian who is forced to protect secret artifacts. While he is not “sexy” in the way the other examples in this list are, he is different from the stereotype of the male librarian. The films seem to scream, “Look! this male is a librarian! He isn’t gay or effeminate! He’s attractive and strong!” The films give a more positive example of a male librarian; however, it is still an un-reality. 

Rufus Wainwright with Helena Bonham Carter, "Out of the Game"

The music video portrays Helena Bonham Carter as a lonely librarian who is sexy regardless of her glasses, pulled up hair, straight-laced clothes, and sour disposition. This becomes apparent at the end of the video when she appears in bed, disheveled wearing lacey lingerie and no glasses. The transformation from uptight librarian to sex object has been completed. The video presents the stereotype in a rather classy way; yet, it only makes the issue worse because it makes the objectification of Helena Bonham Carter less obvious. The more I watch this video, the more I resent it because it encourages the stereotype of “sexy librarian” and promotes the stereotype of women as sex objects to be ogled at and not taken seriously as human beings or librarians. 

National Treasure 2004, directed by Jon Turteltaub under Walt Disney Pictures

Diane Kruger plays Dr. Abigail Chase who works as an archivist at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. While she does not hold the title of “librarian”, she represents a job in the information professions albeit not so accurately. Dr. Chase does not hold the typical attributes of a “sexy librarian”; she still represents the token attractive woman because she is blonde, and she is thin. She does exhibit some of her knowledge about history and her collection; however, she still represents an impractical view of librarians/information professionals. I have yet to meet an archivist who stole government documents, ran from foreign criminals, or decoded secret messages in national monuments/maps.  

Community, created by Dan Harmon 2009-present
 Season 2: Episode 15 "Early 21st Century Romanticism" 

Maite Schwartz plays Mariah, a librarian at Greendale Community College who is described in the show by another character as being hotter because as a librarian, she’s “the keeper of knowledge”. The stereotype portrayed here is subtle and slightly closer to an accurate depiction of a “normal” librarian. Mariah still wears glasses and her breasts are still accentuated, but she is seen doing actual library work instead of standing around being the token “hot girl”. This episode was released in 2010 and gives hope that the stereotype of “sexy librarian” is slowly dissipating and giving way to more realistic interpretations. 

Parks and Recreation, created by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur 2009-present
Season 3: Episode 4 "Ron and Tammy: Part 2" 

Megan Mullally plays Tammy Swanson, ex-wife of Ron Swanson and deputy director or the Pawnee Public Library. She is as Ron describes, a “manipulative, psychotic, library book peddling, sex crazed, she-demon” who uses her sex appeal to get what she wants, which in this episode is land for a new library branch. In the opening scene of “Ron and Tammy: Part 2”, she is bent over a desk with her thong clearly showing and smacks herself seductively (if that is possible) with beef jerky. Mullally’s character is such a horrible, overly exaggerated stereotype of the “sexy librarian” and the terrible ex-wife it becomes an absurdity. The audience can laugh at the stereotype and come to the realization that it is not how people actually behave. I sincerely appreciate this presentation because it was shown in 2011 and illustrates that currently the stereotype is being subverted through comedy.