Posted in blogging about LIS

Shushing and Shelving: Librarians in Pop Culture

“Wait, you need a master’s degree to be a librarian?” “Why do you need that to shelve books?” “Oh, you’re going to be a librarian? You must love books and reading!”

Being a library science students means fielding questions and comments like these. Even before OR-10 started their first semester with SLIM, they were like bombarded with these misconceptions as I am sure OR-11 is now. It is hard to blame the public as popular culture has helped misconstrue the career we are working toward.

When the public imagines a librarian, what do they see? Likely the image they conjure will be an older, bespectacled white woman in dowdy clothes and her hair tied back in a bun. What’s she doing? Shelving books. Where do they get this idea? It’s everywhere! Very rarely do we see a representation of a librarian or the library that does not involve this image. In Recasting the Debate: The Sign of the Library in Popular Culture, an article OR-10 read for our first course (LI801 – Foundations of Library and Information Science), the library in popular culture was discussed by examining the representations of librarians in three movies. For the majority, this representation of the librarian

be it female or male, is overwhelmingly stereotypical and emphasizes negative features such as lack of imagination, dowdy appearance, excessive orderliness, indecisiveness, and, generally, a “mousy” character.'” At the other end of the (still) negative stereotype is the Nazi librarian who guards the books he or she is entrusted with to the point of absurdity and whose sole purpose in life is the humiliation of the main (sympathetic) character (Tancheva, 2005, p. 530-531).

Think about this for a moment and think back on TV shows and movies you’ve seen with a librarian in it. How many line up with Tancheva’s statement? There are two parts to this stereotypical representation that seems to have the public befuddled about our (future) profession: image and activity. When first thinking about this blog post, I made a list of all of the movies and TV shows I could remember in which librarians were featured in some way and I come up with eight. Three of them really stood out in comparison to Tancheva’s statement: Ghostbusters, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (which was one of the films discussed by Tancheva). In these three films, we have a group of older female librarians, dedicated to order, and generally mousy. When we first see the (living) librarian in Ghostbusters, what is she doing? Shelving and in a frumpy sweater, no less. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the woman behind the counter hates noise and seems generally annoyed that anyone, particularly someone like Audrey Hepburn, would want to look at a book (it’d be out of order then, after all) and is billed as a librarian even though our only indication is that she holds power of access in the library. In Star Wars we have a woman, even in a technologically superior galaxy far, far way, so committed to her classification scheme that when something isn’t where it should be, it is deemed not to exist. Finally, when the titular characters happen upon the ghost librarian in the basement in Ghostbusters, what is she doing? Reading. And shushing. Even when we’re dead we’ve got our noses stuck in books and our fingers stuck to our lips!

While it may be seemingly hip to be a librarian these days (even though people don’t know what it means), the image is still stereotypical. Take this line from the 2007 film Juno discussing  “girls who play the cello and wear Converse All- Stars and want to be children’s librarians when they grow up.” We’ve got our quirky, counterculture character conjuring up an image of a severe looking white woman, hair in a bun, glasses of course, sitting behind a desk, and looking generally alternative and not friendly. As someone who does wear Converse and is going to be a children’s librarian, this doesn’t look like a children’s librarian to me. The word children seems to just be a throw away concept because, of course, a librarian will always looks like that, despite the multitude of specialties and interest areas. It doesn’t matter if you’re interested in archives, are going to work in a music library, do cataloging, be the master of access services, or anything else. If your title is librarian, this is your image. You’ll be delightfully befuddled by the world outside your library like Evy in The Mummy. If you’re in the library, you’ll always be filing and wearing glasses like Lynn in Major League. And you’ll be a woman, like in seven of the eight examples I came up with.

This isn’t to say that all popular culture representations of librarians are negative or totally stereotypical. Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a man (surprise!), a mentor, and uses the library as a center for learning. Plus, he doesn’t spend a whole lot of time shelving books or shushing. The movie that really inspired this post was Party Girl, an independent film from 1995 staring Parker Posey that centers around the library in a positive, mostly nuanced manner. This is one film I know of that talks about the virtues of academic versus public libraries, the need to go to school to be a librarian, the importance of cataloging, and how to really help a patron through reference interviews and thorough service. Though Mary does get obsessive with Dewey Decimal Classification (because it’s a library and shelving must be shown!), at least she has reasoning behind it. However, even this movie is exempt from librarian stereotypes. When Mary decides she wants to be a librarian, how does she show it? By ignoring her idiosyncratic tastes in fashion for a pulled together suit and her hair pulled back.

Unlike Party Girl, which differentiates between librarians and library paraprofessionals, for many people, anyone working in a library is a librarian. Just see this article from the Oregonian last month about the Heathman Hotel’s library regarding their special collection. The undergraduate student working in the library is referred to as a librarian even though her job duties are described as pulling books for guests, building a collection database for the hotel, and talking to guests about books and writing. The comments section includes a note from someone also confused about the supposed librarian status of the undergraduate, which is unfortunately followed by the a comment including the aforementioned assumption: anyone working in, managing, doing anything related to a library is a librarian, special certification not required.

So what does this mean for those of us studying and striving for that special certification? It means we have got work cut out for us. Libraries are losing funding, losing professional-level staff, losing hours, and their buildings. After all, why pay someone that much money to shelve books? We have to inform the public about librarians and what they actually do. We know they are important, but instead of just bemoaning the misconceptions, we should correct them, let people know there is  so much more to being a librarian than shelving books. We are future information professionals, so let’s disseminate! We should be passionate and shout, like Mary, “I want to be a librarian” and then show the world what that actually means: we don’t all shush, we aren’t all women, some of us enjoy fashion, some of us aren’t into literature or books. We’re (future) librarians and we’re as diverse as the people we serve.

And sometimes we might want to yell about classification schemes. As a bonus, here’s one of my favorite scenes from Party Girl. Classification is important!

References:

Birckmayer, H. (Producer), & von Scherler Mayer, D. (Director). (1995). Party girl [Motion  picture]. United States: Sony Pictures.

Brillstein, B. (Producer), & Reitman, I. (Director). (1984). Ghostbusters [Motion picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures.

Drake, J. (Producer), & Reitman, J. (Director). (2007). Juno [Motion picture]. United States: Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Hallman Jr., T. (2010, September 21). Portland’s Heathman hotel library is one of a kind. The Oregonian. Retrieved from http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2010/09/heathman_hotel_library_is_one_1.html

Jarre, K. (Producer), & Sommers, S. (Director). (1999). The mummy [Motion picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.

McCallum, R. (Producer), & Lucas, G. (Director). (2002). Star wars episode II: Attack of the clones [Motion picture]. United States: Twentieth Century Fox.

Rosenberg, M. (Producer), & Ward, D.S. (1989). Major league [Motion picture]. United States: Paramount Pictures.

Shepherd, R. (Producer), & Edwards, B. (Director). (1961). Breakfast at Tiffany’s [Motion picture]. United States: Paramount Pictures.

Tancheva, K. (2005). Recasting the debate: The sign of the library in popular culture. Libraries & Culture, 40(4), 530-546.

Whedon, J. (Producer). (1997-2003). Buffy: The vampire slayer [Television series]. Los Angeles, CA: Twentieth Century Fox.

Rebecca Chernay is a member of ESU’s OR-10 cohort and plans on specializing in children’s librarianship. She is the Web Presence & Social Networking Coordinator for SCALA, a lover of movies (and movie trivia), and a baker of cupcakes and other goodies. As of yet, she has not yelled at anyone about shelving books or classification schemes.

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4 thoughts on “Shushing and Shelving: Librarians in Pop Culture

    1. Thanks Slaven! I just noticed that even on the clip I posted, it’s titled “Librarian Lays Down the Law” even though Mary is not a librarian. It’s everywhere!

  1. Just found this in the Emerald database. Haven’t read but in keeping with the media images of librarians I figured I’d share citation and abstract. MM

    Storm Center: a discursive approach to constructions of library workers
    Author(s): Evelyn Kerslake, Ann O’Brien
    Source: Library Management Volume: 20 Issue: 8 1999
    Abstract
    “The film Storm Center was released in 1956, featuring Bette Davis as a librarian in small town America. The narrative is a parable of anti-communism in the McCarthy era where the town council tries to remove a book on communism from the library. The librarian opposes this and is fired. The details and consequences provide a rich framework for a discursive approach to the text. A discursive approach is chosen because of the film’s extensive use of thematic oppositions around the central concern of censorship and freedom of information. A number of discourses are briefly explored including: femininity; the individual and the group; emotion and scientific rationalism. Concludes that qualitative work in library and information studies might benefit by considering the type of questions posed by discourse theory, as outlined here.”

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