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.

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.

Rupert Giles – Pop! Profile

Buffy and Giles

Giles: Everything’s terrible. Total catastrophe.
Buffy: Giles, what’s wrong?
Giles: Have you seen the new library? There’s-there’s-there’s nothing but computers. There’s not a book to be seen.

I can’t say I was ever a huge fan of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, either the original film or the show it spawned.  However, whenever I did watch it, my favorite character was always the bookish, mild mannered librarian by day, Watcher by night, Rupert Giles.  Played by English actor and musician Anthony Head, Giles serves as a protector and sometimes father-figure for the diminutive and surprisingly kick-ass Buffy Summers.  When not deciphering ciphers or catching vampires, demons and other types of bad guys, Giles works as Sunnydale High School’s librarian.

Beyond the Buffy mythology, Giles is a quintessential polite, mind-mannered British man which compliments his rather polite, mild-mannered “guybrarian” sensibilities.  He speaks in a soft, non-poncy accent and he loves books, knowledge, and research.  There are several times in the show when Giles has to throw a punch or defend himself, but it’s never to the effect of making himself seem macho; on the other hand, it’s always kind of a surprise whenever Giles does so.  His main role in the show is to provide guidance, usually in the form of the many, many books on the occult that he has at his disposal.  (BTW, does no one else visit this library?  How does Giles deal with students who are stressed out about mid-term exams rather than, say, demon possession?)

Buffy ran from 1997 to 2003, during a time that the library as a whole was changing, mainly due to the internet taking over.  Giles, an old fashioned bloke in his tweed jackets and ties, is also a rather old fashioned librarian.  (i.e., technophobe.)  As seen in the quote above from the episode “Lies My Parents Told Me,” Giles just couldn’t bear the idea of letting go of his precious tomes in favor of the WWW.  It makes me wonder whether or not Giles, or Buffy for that matter, would have been as successful with the use of Google instead of a physical library.  Would Giles have been a young, techie librarian with an iPhone and a custom-made Watcher app?

Oh, but when the man switches out his tweed for a black turtleneck, and his tie for a guitar, this happens… and then I think I need to start watching Buffy on Hulu ASAP.