STEREOTYPES OF LIBRARIANS

Drawing of a 19th century spinster wearing glasses and a 
bun, holding a book and looking nervous.

Do you know this woman?

Let's call her the "bun lady," with the stereotypical hair in a bun, spectacles on a chain, long covered up dress, and worried expression. The only thing she's missing is a finger across her lips to signify "Shush!" And there are some people who say that "shushing" has contributed to the image problem of librarians.


We said no way to shh!...Why have librarians worn a groove in their lips fingering out that sound to the multitudes? We don't know the origins, but we do know that today it's the shame of the profession... To today's generation, silence is not golden...How can any lover of freedom and the human spirit find tolerable that ..insulting, repressive hiss directed at them? - Art Plotnick, The Liberation of Sweet Library Lips in The Revolting Librarian, 1972

Although this seems to be an enduring stereotype of women's occupations (teachers and nurses as well at one time), many people remember the film image of "Marian the Librarian," a rigid woman in a rigid town, in the movie "The Music Man." And the image of male librarians (post-Cassanova, of course; yes, Cassanova was a librarian for 13 years) has not been more flattering.

In books, films, TV, cartoons, comic strips, the unmistakeable impression emerges of a very dull, earnest body, usually female, with glasses (probably those little half glasses), her hair in - yes here it comes - a BUN, wearing sensible shoes, support hose, tweed skirt, droopy sweater...need I continue? You name something uncomplimentary, and it's probably been said about a librarian somewhere! (Hall, 1992)

Are Stereotypes a Problem?

"The importance of an image lies not so much in its truth as in its consequences." (Naegele and Stolar, 1960)

If this statement is true, then whether or not librarians are shy and unassertive, rigid and no fun at all, or any of the other negative stereotypes foisted upon the profession, a stereotypic image may impact on the status and treatment of those in the field. And it appears to be an image that lasts.

Enduring Images

When we discuss the public, collective image of librarians and librarianship, we meet the Crone: an older, single woman who is crotchety, withdrawn, and fearsomely protective of her domain. She is also known as Baba-Yaga, Kali, Witch, and Hag. She has lived in story and verse for thousands of years as the devourer and the deliver, the mother of death and birth, the grandmother of the devil... we don't want to be associated with the Crone. But our connection to her is well-established. She has become so inextricably linked with librarians the she cannot be cast out, only pushed further into the shadows. (Engle, 1991)

Although the power of the crone may indeed be something librarians can hold onto, most women do not want to be associated with an image of a woman who is unattractive. Nor do male librarians like their own stereotypes (Morrisey and Case, 1988; Carmichael, 1992).

In general, the librarian the stereotype has been based on is the most visible information servant: public librarians. In many ways, they are the Image Keepers for the profession. The stereotype was probably not based on school librarians nor academic librarians, who are mostly known by students. For the most part, the public doesn't know much about special librarians or archivists, who both serve a specialized clientele. The stereotype has become pervasive, as a short-hand for a certain kind of woman, and librarians began to blame themselves.


Librarians Speak About Image

Are we responsible for our own image? Is there anything we can do about it? Remember, although it may not seem altogether fair, we are, ultimately, responsible for our own image, our own reputation. Only we, as individuals, can alter this rather dismal portrayal. We have to move beyond the bun, and show the world there is more to us than our perceived stereotype. (Hall, 1992)
This section could be called "How we blame ourselves and decide all we have to do to change our image is change ourselves."

Many books we found in our literature search contain advice for librarians to change their behavior if the image is to change. In Paul and Evans (1988), the authors remark, "If we, as a profession, work collectively to improve the quality of our service and out attitude to our users, the public's perception of us will change to one which more nearly matches our own." (p. 28) They follow that belief with the words of another source: "A single rude or socially inept librarian can make a mockery of the most carefully conceived marketing strategy," without adding the obvious: No profession with a stable status needs to fear the behavior of one member. The stereotype goes beyond individual behavior.


So is the librarian really to blame for the image? Our stereotypic image may have nothing to do with the contemporary information science profession. It endures for other reasons.

Let's do some reality checking: Some stereotypes may be true about some librarians. For example, it is not surprising that many librarians (especially after years of close work!) do wear glasses! Those in public service positions are not always polite (yet store clerks do not have as bad an image as public librarians!). Or it may have something to do with the way a library is not a flashy place and it is a setting that does call for quiet. (People may be connecting the setting with the profession.)

Still, that may not be the reason the image persists. Somehow, whatever we think about the stereotype, it serves a function in society: to characterize those women (or men) we do not want to emulate, to offer a convenient representation of the "rejected, unattractive, meek" character in a book, movie, or casual conversation.

At times, it may seem that we ourselves don't have a favorable impression of the profession. One librarian from Australia discusses negative self-image in an article entitled Self Love and Joy and Satisfaction in Librarianship.

In a fascinating and wide-ranging book, Wilson (1982) presents a social psychological theory to account for the way many librarians themselves don't seem to like librarians. Using research by Kurt Lewin (with conclusions mirrored in recent years by Tajfel in Bristol, England and Taylor in Montreal, Quebec), she notes that librarians as a group react to their occupational identity, as attributed to it by the stereotype, as if they were part of a minority group. (Discussion of this topic begins on p. 31). Different people in the field may react in ways characteristic of "internalized oppression," such as believing others in the field possess these negative attributes and holding them in contempt.

"How does this condition of self-contempt and self-doubt come about? It results from seeing one's group and oneself through the eyes of the majority, through the eyes of the "other," in this case through the eyes of the nonlibrarians who stereotype librarians. One becomes ashamed of one's group and ashamed to share its characteristics. Whether the alleged characteristics actually are true does not matter..." (p. 36)

What's Gender Got to Do With It?

Could it be that some of the negativity surrounding the field is connected to the predominance of women in it? Well, yes. Secretaries, nurses, and teachers (and stewardesses before they became "flight attendants") have all been badly stereotyped. America's anti-intellectualism has also been blamed for stereotyping, especially of men who choose the field. (Carmichael, 1992, p. 416)


Media Images

Some of the best examples of negative images were collected in an American Library media watch column: Our Image: How They're Seeing Us." As column editor Edith McCormack explained in a phone conversation, the Image Column was developed by AL editor Arthur Plotnick during the 1970's, and was published as often as people sent in examples of negative or positive media images. Readers were encouraged to send in protests to the offending parties. There were many, many negative examples, including an eyeglass ad where three photos of a drab looking woman were accompanied by three insulting captions: Edna Blue Rinse - Suburban!, Betty Bland - the washed out woman, while the third reads, "Yes, I'm the Chief Librarian."

However, after a while, ad campaigns began to run more positive images of librarians, sometimes by corporations. In 1987, an ad agency ran a corporate image ad focusing on its special librarians. "Sandra's got connections," ran the caption accompanying a photo of an sophisticated woman wearing a smart suit (no glasses! nice haircut!). She is described as a "charming, efficient, and very smart librarian."

Why has the column become such a rarity in 1990's? The image may have improved, but another factor has been at work according to McCormack: "We've screamed pretty loudly. Now there are not as many violations. The worst one happened last year in a computer ad which showed librarians in a row looking like they were goosestepping and saying Shhh." She added, "There are all kinds of librarians, from preservationists to pop culture habituees. There's an evolution in the image of the librarian. I think the image is changing a great deal."

Librarians in Literature

The Image of the Library: Studies and Views from Several Countries (Stelmakh, 1994) contains views of the library world by authors from Russia, France, England, Australia and Hungary. Image is an issue and a problem everywhere, it seems, though the social conditions underlying this differ from place to place. (In the former Soviet Union, for example, those who lost academic jobs due to political problems often became librarians.) Included in this collection are several papers on librarians in literature and film.

An essay from France by Chaintreau and Lemaitre uncovers a group of "sexy librarians" in a 1918 novel by Edith Wharton, and in films like "Cal" (Ireland, 1984). There are also some "career women" characters, though the categories of "old spinsters" and "lonely young librarians" abound. They also found that the male librarian was often portrayed as shabby, bald, and shy, fussy old bachelors, and even suicidal. Male movie librarians (like Peter Sellars in "Only two can play," the roller skating library assistant in "You're a big boy now," or Jean Gabin as a library-gangster in "Leur derniere nuit") may be more glamorous.

Gerard, writing of "The Fictional Librarian," presents a British perspective and discovers that "myopic, spinsterish, effaced are as succint a formula to describe the stereotype as you could find anywhere in the labyrinth of literature in which librarians figure. And they figure surprisingly often." The Australian author, Frylinck, found an abundance of literary descriptions of librarians as positively repulsive, especially in mystery books, though some portrayals are better. In all these portrayals, the profession of librarian serves the purpose of creating a certain kind of character who evokes a certain set of images in the mind of the public.


Let's Go To The Movies!!!

Spinsterish. Bespectacled. Shy. What image do these terms bring to mind? What about "attractive," "capable," or "courageous"? If you answered "they all describe librarians!" you may fastforward past these opening credits. In fact all these words, plus others such as "mysterious," "surly," "sensible," and "ruthless," have been used to describe librarians portrayed in the movies... (O'Brien and Raish, 1993)
Martin Raish's webpage Librarians in the Movies is a wonderful guide to a surprisingly large number of librarian citings. He begins by asking: "Is the meek spinster with her hair in a bun (such as Donna Reed in "It's A Wonderful Life" or Hilda Plowright in "Philadelphia Story") more or less common than the young, innocent blonde (such as Carole Lombard in "No Man of Her Own" or Goldie Hawn in "Foul Play")? Are male librarians more often like the surly John Rothman in "Sophie's Choice," the reclusive Jason Robards in "Something Wicked This Way Comes," or the lecherous Peter Sellers in "Only Two Can Play"? Questions such as these cannot be answered with confidence until we have a better grasp of the overall picture (so to speak...)." (See our Resources page for other websites on movie librarians.)

The ImageHomepage authors went to the videostore to catch up on some of these classic and not so classic movie portrayals.

In Desk Set, Katharine Hepburn does wear a bun (and on her it looks good), but she doesn't otherwise fit the stereotype. All four of the research and reference librarians are attractive, well dressed, intelligent, and vivacious (no buns and no glasses!). Matching a "female stereotype," they are portrayed as "man crazy," bringing such preoccupations into their workday, but that is hardly the librarian's stereotype. Reference work is presented as work that requires intelligence, imagination, organization, and worldliness. (One has to be ready for any question, from baseball batting averages to the total weight of the earth.) By the end of the film, the librarians were even getting used to the idea of a computer.

Party Girl stars Parker Posey as a wild young thing who runs illegal house parties for a living. When forced by an arrest to stop, she takes a job at a public library branch run by her godmother (who is sort of the stereotypical type). At first, the party girl describes her work as "Cell Block 8 meets the 4H Club," but when she decides to get serious about it, she falls in love with the work. The librarians and library assistants are all portrayed as smart and funky types who also do a good job. By the end of the film, Posey's on her way to library school (but we know she’ll also still be a party girl). There's one other interesting thing about this film, a monologue by the chief librarian (Posey's godmother) about the undervaluing of the profession: "Melville Dewey hired women as librarians because he believed the job didn't require any intelligence. That means it's underpaid and undervalued!" Unfortunately, this same woman told the party girl earlier in the film that "a trained monkey learned the (Dewey Decimal) system in three hours on PBS." Internalized oppression? Still, it's a fun movie (with definitely a new image of librarians).

There's a positive image of a male librarian in Only Two Can Play, a 1962 film starring Peter Sellers. In his role as a librarian in a small Welsh town, Sellers manages to retain both his efficiency and sex appeal. In the end, he refuses to play the library management ladder-climbing game and stays faithful to his wife. Then they both take jobs on a traveling library van!

Of course, there are even more negative portrayals. (NOTE: We didn't see all of these! Some were suggested by friends or described in the literature!) There is a nasty male librarian in "Philadelphia" (he tells the main character to leave the library when he suspects him of having AIDS) and "Sophie's Choice" (he ridicules Sophie because of her poor English). There's a small town "repressed librarian" in Forbidden (1932) with Barbara Stanwyck, directed by Frank Capra. There's also Bertha, "the world's meanest archivist," in "Citizen Kane" (1941), the shushing spinsterish librarian in "Breakfast at Tiffany" (1961), and the prim, drab librarian who becomes a ravishing beauty when she meets a man in "Navy Blues" (1937).

In "The Attic" (1979) a woman librarian devotes her life to caring for her wheelchair-bound father. A small town librarian improves her image in "The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag" (1992) when she finds a murder weapon. "Transylvania Twist" (1990) is about a librarian from Transylvania who must collect the fines on a 200 year overdue book. (We didn't get details on this one, but it sounds gruesome.)

Let's not forget the negative image of a librarian in the old movie, "It's a Wonderful Life," starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. The Jimmy Stewart character contemplates suicide when he thinks his business is going under, so God sends an angel down to help dissuade him. When Jimmy says to the angel that he wishes he'd never been born, the angel shows him what might have happened to his loved ones if he'd never been on this earth. Guess what was the fate of his wife, Donna Reed? She was the "old maid" librarian at the public library in town. Jimmy gets to see her coming out of the library in a very severe, unflattering outfit, wearing glasses, and no makeup. He calls out to her, she starts screaming hysterically. Not a pretty picture...


New Images!

So, if we don't like the old images of male and female librarians, what would we like to see? How about the full range of types of library professionals in all types of libraries, from public to school to academic to special? Obviously, librarians come in many shapes and sizes.
And there are some more moderate images, some developed by the media machine, as cited in the American Library columns discussed above, such as this attractive blonde librarian in a suit - with no bun or glasses!

There are, however, some more RADICAL images we could imagine... This image, of a spiked hair, nose-ringed library worker, was taken from an Library Journal article "Should a Library Have a Dress Code?" (Anderson, 1992).

Attractive
blonde librarian in a suit - no bun or glasses!
Library worker with
spiked hair and a nose ring There are some other suggestions for reforming our image, according to the website author of The Lipstick Librarian, a website that promotes a glamorous image and gives advice on how to achieve it. Absher said the idea came to her when while she was in library school: "When I told people what I was studying, I got the inevitable comment "You don't *look* like a librarian... What compounded my frustration was the 1992 ALA Conference in SF (my first library conference). I was astounded how many people actually lived up (or down) to the stereotype: big, ethnic earrings, glasses, sensible shoes, etc... Thus the idea was born." Let's not miss a new site called The Belly Dancing Librarian! And go to Erica Olsen's new wild webpage and find out "why you should fall to your knees and worship a librarian."

Would a name change improve the image of the profession? In 1905 Robert Louis Stevenson called a librarian a "virgin priest of knowledge" (in his book Prince Otto: A Romance), so you know we've made progress. In the film "Salmonberries" (starring kd lang, not as the librarian), an Inuit father greets his librarian daughter as "my beautiful educated princess of the world of books." (Wow!) The Guest Book of the "Lipstick Librarian" had some great suggestions: "Cybrarian, Info-seeker, Information Manager" from one writer, and my favorites from yet another guest book respondent, "Information Goddess or Reference Diva."


And here's some advice for changing our behavior in order to change our image from an essay in the book Revolting Librarians, a 1970's critique of the profession.
The Sensuous Librarian: I don't think I ever met one, have you?
When I was a kid, I was brainwashed into believing that all librarians had silver hair,
wore half glasses, tailored suits, sensible shoes, and had their index fingers
permanently frozen into a pointing position. . .

Librarians of the world, UNITE!
It's time to break away from the old maid-Marian-Librarian image,
or if the case may be, the fairy-Harry-Librarian image.
Practice a few sensuous exercises to make the library full with the joy of life,
and to help make you feel like a real person, and not just a role:

Pull up the shades. Open the windows . . .
Greet the patron (your friend and taxpayer) with a smile . . .
Dress like Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall, but don't ever dress like a librarian . . .
Let the joy of living spread happiness to your work, to the people you work with,
and to those you meet everyday.
- Katherine Glab (West, 1972)


Resources of Books and Websites that Examine Image Stereotypes.

View our
Resources webpage for a selected list bibliography of related materials. There's a large literature on this issue!



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