“You Don’t Look Like a Librarian!”

What? Only 10? (From http://www.librarian-image.net/)

What? Only 10? (From http://www.librarian-image.net/)

Yesterday I attended a resource fair for incoming students.  While manning my booth, I greeted people who walked by, trying to make the Library seem like a great place to visit and hopefully utilize over the next four years of their college experience.  A few people seemed genuinely interested, but one in particular jived with me and my message.  In fact, this new student told me, and I quote, “It’s a good thing they [the library] sent you here; you don’t look like a librarian, you look like a student.”

As petty as it now sounds, I took it as a compliment. It seems that even for the class of 2017, “librarian” means old, stuffy, and out of touch. While of course it means a variety of characteristics – because all librarians are unique, awesome snowflakes – I couldn’t help but thank the kid for insinuating that I’m young, friendly and do not smell like I own ten cats.  I mean, that’s what he meant, right?  How strange must his high school library experience must have been, or how many times must he have seen The Music Man, for him to point out how much I stick out in my line of work?  I smiled and nodded at him, but in hindsight I wish I would have asked him what his frame of reference was, to whom was he comparing me, and oh bee tee dubs, mind if I blog about this?

This line of thought makes me want to check out “You Don’t Look Like a Librarian: Shattering Stereotypes and Creating Positive New Images in the Internet Age” by Ruth Kneale.  Has anyone read it?  I feel like I need to commiserate with others on this point.

So, I’m the Worst Blogger Ever

librarian meta tattoo

Librarian meta tattoos are the way to go (via Pinterest)

My goodness, has it really been that long since I’ve posted?  Just when I was starting to delve into the complicated world of librarians in popular culture, I went MIA. Even my post on Guybrarians and Male Librarians, which went viral and garnered thousands of views (!!!) and several dozen amazingly insightful comments, didn’t help cover my absence.  I certainly want to get back to posting regularly – and I will! – but a little explanation may be in order.

In mid-April I became a professional librarian.  After nearly seven years of being an off-and-on-again student as well as a member of the support staff of a mid-sized academic library, I was promoted to the rank of faculty and the new position of Public Services Librarian in charge of marketing and outreach.  It’s been thrilling and exciting and bright and shiny and new, but it’s also greatly taken away from my trolling on the interwebs online activities.

Still, now that I am an actual librarian, this blog all of a sudden seems so much more important, so let’s forget about my brief disappearing act and get back to discussing why librarians are depicted the way they are in media and why that’s good/bad/wrong/hilarious.  Okay?

Morris Lessmore and his Fantastic Flying Books... or, what I thought being a librarian would feel like.

Morris Lessmore and his Fantastic Flying Books… or, what I thought being a librarian would feel like. Not so much?

Guybrarians and Male Librarians

guybrarian

According to this blog’s WordPress stats, the majority of search results that lead people to Pop Goes the Librarian categorize the profession as solely female.  How do I know that?

  • “hot librarian” : 37 views
  • “hot librarians” : 23 views
  • “hot lady librarians” : 15 views
  • “librarian chic” : 5 views
  • “smokin hot librarian” : 2 views

The list goes.  Although “hot” isn’t exactly a gendered qualifier, when followed by the word “librarian” it might as well be.  It’s fairly obvious to those of us who work in libraries that men are the minority. According to the article “Male Librarians: Gender Issues and Stereotypes“, “Without question the Library profession is female-dominated. Decade after decade the ratio of female to male librarians remains roughly 4:1, although the mix is closer to 3:1 in academic libraries.”  This ratio rings true for my own library; out of the 16 professional librarians we employ, only six are men.

So when we consider the main male librarian stereotype, what comes to mind?  First we have the Mean Librarian.  The horrible, no good reference librarian from Sophie’s Choice, for example, perfectly illustrates why librarians are so mean.  There’s also the highly amusing Conan the Librarian, who isn’t afraid to tell us what is best in life.

Conan-The-Librarian2

In many ways this figure closely resembles the Spinster Librarian image in popular culture: intelligent, introverted, socially awkward, academic to a fault, asexual, unmarried, be-speckled, etc.  Think Rupert Giles from the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; adorable in his tweed blazer, but largely socially inept and certainly hopeless in the love department.  The fact that he’s British, prim, and mostly unskilled at slaying vamps (again, we’re talking seasons 1-2 of Buffy) only exaggerate his emasculated characteristics.  However, a woman being written/portrayed as asexual is one thing – poor girl, so sad, but maybe she’ll find her prince charming one day? (*cough* Marian did *cough*)  On the other hand, an asexual man in a largely female-dominant profession can only mean one thing: he’s gay.

Male teachers (K-12), male nurses, and male librarians all share the common thread that there’s something wrong with them, simply because they’re men working in a woman’s world.  Who in their right (heterosexual) mind would do that? The term “male nurse” is just as sexist as “guybrarian” is, simply because it creates a distinction based on gender.  Etymologically speaking, “nurse” and “librarian” are not inherently female terms, but we tend to recognize them as just that simply because of what we’re exposed to.  After all, most nurses and librarians are women.  Remember Meet the Parents, in which Robert De Niro’s uber male character constantly reminds his future son-in-law of the fact that he’s a male nurse?  He’s doing the work of a woman, so obviously he’s unworthy.

male librarian

via the Penny Arcade

I’m obviously speaking as a woman, so it’s best not to get too political here.  I will say that the term “guybrarian” does seem to set teeth on edge, if only because it creates a cutesy distinction where one isn’t needed. When we think of pop culture, however, the male librarian figure isn’t nearly as prominent as the various female representations.  My favorite librarian in literature (Lucian from Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman series) admittedly fits the guybrarian stereotype perfectly – but, alas, I’m saving him for another post.  But who else is there?  Are there any other librarians-who-just-so-happen-to-be-men in popular culture who fit the stereotype?  Which ones buck the trend?

BTW, for some real-world context and examples, Agnostic, Maybe has a very interesting thread from late last year dedicated to Gender, Librarians, & Librarianship.

Visual Cues: What Makes a Librarian?

via Faehe on Pinterest

“The glasses are a bit fey, but the argyle swear. Yes.” Image via Faehe @ Pinterest

Have I mentioned I’m really into Pinterest? (2,222 pins and counting! Woohoo! Send help.)  One of my favorite ways to waste time on that time-sucker of a website is to search for a random keyword and gauge the variety of results.  This is an interesting way to pin down – pun so intended – what other people think is attractive, or desirable, or simply what defines a certain term.  So what do you get when you search for “librarian”?

Not surprisingly, the result list includes quite a variety of images.  Some are pro-library illustrations and quotes; some are amusing library-related jokes/memes; others are photos of attractive, young women wearing vintage glasses and sweaters, carrying books, and drinking tea.  These latter examples are typically posted on fashion-related boards such as Styles I Love or My Style Pinboard, which means that many young, Pinterest-reliant women are inspired to dress themselves using the visual cues that constitute librarianship.

via Danny Williams @ Pinterest

“Librarian #style” via Danny Williams @ Pinterest

The nerdy, librarian chic look is one of the things that makes the stereotypical librarian figure stand out in popular culture.  As the tumblr Librarian Wardrobe shows us, professional librarians dress in a variety of styles: casually, professionally, quirkally, you name it.  We’re a mixed bag.  However, if we were to describe the stereotypical fashionista  librarian, what would she (because it’s always a “she”) look like?

  • Young (early twenties to mid thirties)
  • White
  • Glasses (preferably Lisa Loeb style: thick-framed, cat-eyed)
  • Vintage sweaters, cardigans, dresses, and shoes (thrifty and old fashioned; what’s old is new again)
  • Hair is artfully pinned up/back
  • Books, books, books
  • Bonus points for an old fashioned background setting, such as a sepia-tinted, stuffy library/office with similarly sepia-tinted, stuffy books

In considering the often-used visual cues, these young, white women in sweater clips are decidedly smart and reserved.  Their vintage style may be old fashioned, but that is surely part of their appeal – unhindered by current trends, their style is reminiscent of a more innocent time and, similar to the books they’re usually toting around, very romantic.  Another luring stylistic choice is the inherent femininity apparent in these cues, which probably makes the Hot Librarian trope such an easy target.  The buttoned up cardigans, glasses and stacks of books are hiding more than they’re showing; not only are these women obviously hiding something (sexy sexiness, obv), but what curious mind wouldn’t want to take a peek behind the barriers?

Now it’s your turn, dear readers! What other visual cues would you suggest for librarians?  Do you consider librarian chic to be a positive representation?  Do you rejoice or despair when you search Pinterest?

Why Are Librarians So Mean?

Rude.  Unhelpful.  Downright mean.  Why are librarians usually depicted as being vile representations of customer care?

First, let’s get a few things straight: I’ve been working with library patrons for the past ten years: roughly four years as a student assistant in Circulation/Administration, six years as a Senior Library Services Associate in Special Collections, and now as a Library Services Specialist in Public Services – all before the age of thirty.  I’m a spring chicken when it comes to librarians, which rather goes against the ultimate old lady librarian stereotype that is oftentimes displayed in film, TV and literature.  I would also like to think that I’m not rude, unhelpful or mean – I deal mostly with college students and faculty/staff, and I enjoy what I do.  So when I see a depiction such as this scene from  Sophie’s Choice, I begin to wonder: why are librarians so mean?

Dismissive, condescending and somewhat terrifying: this man literally looks down on Meryl Streep‘s character as if she’s a bug he would love to squash.  “Do you want me to paint you a picture?” he nearly shouts.  Look at this woman, his upturned nose implies; she has no clue what she’s talking about.  Watching this scene, I want to push him aside and patiently say to Sophie, “Do you mean Emily Dickinson?  She’s an American poet.  Here, let me show you where her books are located.”

In any job description where you have to deal with the public at large, there will be misunderstandings.  When it comes to academia – books, research, scholarly articles, timelines, grade point averages! – there is quite a bit aggravation involved.  I’ve personally been screamed at (by a professor, no less) and been told I wasn’t much help.  Sometimes it’s hard not to become annoyed, simply because patrons sometimes don’t know what they’re talking about.  Since I began working Reference, I’ve learned to never trust a patron; if they say they found a source somewhere, chances are it’s somewhere else.  Don’t trust they know what “peer reviewed” means, or whether or not they logged in properly.  It is my job to explain these things, over and over, to every single patron that shows up with a confused look on their face.

Librarianship, like many other jobs, can at times become monotonous.  Very rarely is a unique question ever presented, and I suppose if you’ve been dealing with knuckle-headed students for 30+ years, it can wear on you.  The librarian in Sophie’s Choice may deal with silly questions every day, especially because – unlike me – he’s catering to the general public.  People ask stupid questions.  (True story: once I was asked what rocks are made of.)  And yes, sometimes people think they know better than you about something you’ve studied every day for the past heaven knows how many years.  Then again, sometimes you simply misunderstand what the person is asking for; you make assumptions, you point them in the wrong direction, and maybe they call you out on it.  Maybe they become irritated and roll their eyes or speak sarcastically.  It bruises the ego.  It makes you testy.

Worse. Librarian. Ever.

These situations – the monotony, silly questions, simple misunderstandings – exist in nearly every facet of customer service.  I become annoyed when someone in Home Depot dismissively tells me the garbage bags are on aisle 14  when they’re really on aisle 16 – but why does that scene not show up when you Google “Why are Home Depot guys so unhelpful/mean/rude”?  My theory is that when it comes to knowledge, the stakes are higher.  Garbage bags < Emily Dickinson.

So what happens when a Real Life Librarian can’t answer a patron’s question and, for whatever reason, becomes annoyed?  In the real world, you perhaps call for backup from one of your colleagues, and let them help you puzzle out the question.  Dickens?  Poetry?  Oh wait, maybe she means Dickinson?

When the same situation happens to a Librarian in Film, he coldly watches as the woman crumples to the floor in front of him.  Then he goes back to sorting the card catalog.

On Crones, Meanies and Sex Kittens

Google Image Search is a wonderful thing.  I’m a fan of the interface, as well as the never-ending scroll so you don’t have to keep clicking for the next page.  As with all things Google, even if you enter in the most broad search term it will try to help you narrow your subject.  For example, when I search for “librarian,” Google suggests related searches like “hot librarian,” “old librarian” and the ever popular “mean librarian.”

And there we have it: three of the most enduring stereotypes for the librarian character in pop culture.  Crones, meanies and sex kittens.  While there may be some overlap between the first and second stereotype, the latter is perhaps in a league of its own. Of course, one does not to be employed professionally as a librarian in order to be saddled with this stereotype; both the Scary Librarian and the Hot Librarian have rather extensive pages at TV Tropes, which include non-librarian characters who behave in rather stereotypical librarian ways.

Tina Fey: just one of the many images you’ll find if you search for “hot librarian”

In the case of the Hot Librarian, a woman need only be “a very attractive but prim and prudish woman, who would be gorgeous if she would just take off the glasses (or not), let down her hair, and unbutton her top button”.  Therefore a Hot Librarian has to do with the transformation – whether it be real or imagined.  When Evie from The Mummy gets her makeover – forgoing her glasses for a lacy veil and black eyeliner – she instantly goes from dowdy spinster to smoking hot.  Latent attraction is what causes the male lead to do a double take and reconsider the female costar as a possible mate.

Alcohol also helps!

The “makeover” is a trope that takes place constantly in film.  (She’s All That, anyone?  Grease?  Freaking Ladybugs? )  The societal pressure of, wow, that girl would be so much more desirable if she just tried is overwhelming, and the librarian character – if it’s a trim, young woman with pretty good bone structure – seems like the perfect breeding ground for this obvious plot twist.  Just think, all that beauty has been hiding under the surface, and the only thing to draw it out is the need for a boyfriend.

Usually in these pop culture references, there’s a “learning moment” in which the male concedes to the fact that the newly turned Hot Librarian was always attractive; he was merely too shallow to notice it before!  However, it’s the hotness of the once non-impressive, bookish girl that catches his eye – and ultimately keeps it.

Do Glasses Make the Librarian?

What Do You See” by BecaShoots @Etsy

Myopia is a condition that plagues many-a librarian – or, rather, that is what film and TV would have you believe. People who wear corrective glasses are often stereotyped as bookish, intelligent, and socially inept.  The glasses are a shield, a barrier.  They are props to be adjusted and cleaned when the moment calls for it.  They are fragile and expensive; they can also be smacked aside, stepped on, or otherwise damaged.  Finally (and perhaps most importantly) they can be removed from a mousy boy or girl, woman or man, in order to let a dormant attractiveness and sensuality shine through.

Eyesight, whether it’s perfect or messed up, is largely genetic.  I’ve been nearsighted all my life, the product of a nearly blind mother and a 50/50 sighted father.  I wore contacts in middle school and high school, but switched to glasses my first semester of college after realizing how difficult it is to stab little discs of plastic into your eyes after you’ve slept too late and are now running late for class.

However, according to Wikipedia, there have been studies which show the incidence of myopia increase with level of education.  And!  Other studies have shown a correlation between myopia and a higher IQ.  This is an interesting factor, seeing as how a large percentage of Asia is myopic compared to those in the United States.  When one considers the stereotype of the “nerdy Asian kid” who crushes test scores and wins first place at the science fair, glasses are usually part of the equation.

So where do librarians fit in all of this?  Well, librarians are a smart, typically well-educated breed.  We also tend to engage in activities – whether it be reading or sitting in front of a computer screen – that can certainly put strain on our eyes.  Despite my Google-fu being quite strong, I was unable to come across a study along the lines of “percentage of librarians who wear eyeglasses,” but I think it’s safe to say that a large percentage of us do.  Stereotypes are based on truth, after all.

Why does the librarian profession revel in its cat-eyed, coke bottle lenses?  Why the t-shirts and the prints (like the one above) and the constant media representation of the bespectacled book pusher?  Like most stereotypes, I think it’s a matter of recognizing something in yourself and embracing rather than denying.  Were I librarian with perfect vision, perhaps I would be somewhat annoyed at the trope that paints us as smart, but also unapproachable and weird.  It’s a symbol, and one that I embody.  For better or worse, I will always wear glasses, and I will (hopefully) always be a librarian.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some books that need reading,” she said as she pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose.

Zombie Librarian

Two Halloweens ago I dressed up as a zombie librarian.  Not only did I win my library’s first annual Halloween costume contest, but my blood-splattered, Goodwill duds directly coincided with an exhibit I curated called “Zombies in Literature and Film.”  Best.  Halloween.  Ever.

Despite its advances, librarianship is seen as an old-fashioned profession.  Librarians work with books, obvs, and books are on their way out.  What young person in their right mind would ever want to become associated with such an old job?  Taking that into account, my outfit is not only a nod to the stereotypical old-lady librarian, but also a nod to old-fashioned zombies ala the original Night of the Living Dead.  Just as librarians have changed in the wake of technological advances such as the Internet and Web 2.0, zombies have certainly changed.  Instead of slowly shambling, mindless hunks of decaying flesh, the virus-infected rage zombies of today’s films and TV shows run!  They use tools!  They die and then come back as zombies no matter what omg.  In the 21st century, we tend to prefer our zombies somewhat less dumb and certainly more difficult to kill.  So why then do we continue to think of our librarians as ol’ bitties from the 60s, resistant to change?

Did I just equate librarians to zombies?  Yes.  Yes, I did.

Who/what/why am I?

Neil Gaiman quote

I’m a librarian.  I work in a library.  I wear glasses.  I read often, and for pleasure.  I drink tea.  I enjoy research and other academic pursuits.

As many students will attest, most research begins with Wikipedia.  According to the almighty W, “Stereotypes of librarians in popular culture are frequently negative: librarians are portrayed as puritanical, punitive, unattractive, and introverted if female, or timid, unattractive, and effeminate if male.” The librarians in popular culture article notes that librarians in film are “often portrayed as meek, timid, and unassertive in nature.”  They’re spinsters, eggheads, and recluses.  What a sad, pitiful existence these librarians keep.

So what does this umbrella of (mostly negative) connotations  mean to me, a self-professed non-stereotypical librarian?  Mostly it amuses me.  Yes, I’m a librarian — but I’m young!  Yes, I work in a library — but I’m studying web design and Web 2.0 applications!  And yes, I wear glasses, drink tea, and read for pleasure — but I also curse, do yoga, and read comic books.  I also edit Wikipedia.

The librarian field has been evolving for the past two decades.  Rather than ruling the roost of dusty tomes, librarians navigate the information highway that is the internet.  We are male, female, young, old, gay, straight, tattooed, be-spectacled — you name it.  Above all, we value knowledge and the passing of knowledge from one person to another.

I am not a stereotype, but some stereotypes are built upon truth.