Here’s to the holidays, and a happy new year. 2013 was pretty crazy for me: new job, tons of new responsibilities, project management stresses, and much more. As you can see above, we decided to cap off the year with a holiday book tree composed of entirely-too-many NUC tomes. Fun and festive, and if you’ve never been on Pinterest before and seen the countless book trees other libraries have done, an entirely novel idea! (Seriously though, it was fun. I’m rather proud.)
Be sure to check out my holiday post from last year, It’s a Wonderful Life: How Mary Lost Her Groove. Ah, nothing says Christmas like spinster librarians, amiright? Remember, you’re likely only a librarian because your selfish, crook of a husband wished he had never been born. Every time a depressed guy throws himself off a bridge, a woman loses all sense of self and ends up writing MARC records for the rest of her days. Ho ho ho.
“A book has been taken. A book has been taken? You summoned the Watch,” Carrot drew himself up proudly, “because someone’s taken a book? You think that’s worse than murder?”
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?
“Beware the lustful fires that burn in a librarian’s heart.
They can rage beyond all control.”
— Fire Safety And Prevention Tips, The Onion (May 28, 2003)
Bunny Watson: I don’t smoke, I only drink champagne when I’m lucky enough to get it, my hair is naturally natural, I live alone… and so do you.
Richard Sumner: How do you know that?
Bunny Watson: Because you’re wearing one brown sock and one black sock.
Desk Set is to librarians as Citizen Kane is to cinefiles. Is that too general a statement? Let me explain. Every summer break my library has a lunch + movie afternoon for staff members. We choose a movie, eat pizza, and then pleasurably blow a couple hours in a dark conference room. The last couple years we’ve voted on the movie we get to watch – much to my chagrin, because some people have… questionable taste. The first year we held our lunch + movie (+ inevitable nap) day the film choice wasn’t in our hands, it was decided by the higher-ups. Nobody cared, however, because the film chosen was Desk Set.
It’s the most perfect of films about librarians because it stars the most perfect librarian in film history: Bunny Watson, as played by Katherine Hepburn. Although she was once box office poison, Hepburn is one of the greatest actors in the history of – okay, enough with the hyperbole, so let’s just say she’s a treasure. Desk Set was released in 1957, after The African Queen, The Philadelphia Story, and (my favorite) Bringing Up Baby – but before Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, On Golden Pond, and (my other favorite) The Lion in Winter. By comparison to these classics, Desk Set is little more than fluff. When one considers the impact it continues to have on the librarian figure in film, however, its true impact can be seen.
The film takes place at the fictional Federal Broadcasting Network in Manhattan. A sort of NBC, its reference library “which is responsible for researching and answering questions on all manner of topics” (Wikipedia). The head of this department is none other than Bunny Watson, a middle-aged, astute woman who knows all the names of Santa’s reindeer but who can’t seem to recognize that her seven-year relationship with a career-driven network executive is going absolutely nowhere. Making matters worse, the network is secretly merging with another company, and to help the transition they’ve hired a consultant named Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) to install two EMERAC computers in the reference library. Bunny and her fellow librarians fear they’re being replaced, and they rebel. However, as it becomes clear that the computers aren’t nearly as skilled as the librarians – they glitch and end up sending a pink slip to everyone in the company, even the president – it’s revealed that Sumner never intended the computers to replace the librarians, only to help them. All is forgiven, and like it so often happens with happy endings, Bunny and Richard decide to make a go for it. N’aww.
One of the main themes of Desk Set is learning to grow and change with the times. Part of why I think this film is so appealing is the fact that it’s pertinent even now, almost sixty years later. The threat of technology (computers! the internet!) is still on the minds of many librarians, even some of those I work with. The automation of information is terrifying to those who fear their job security becomes less assured as time goes on and budget cuts become more the rule than the exception. These are the same struggles libraries have been dealing with for years, and yet technology is here to stay: Bunny Watson and her coworkers recognized that, even in 1957.
Bunny, the strong, incredibly bright reference librarian, is an interesting figure when it comes to librarians in pop culture. Hepburn was 49 or 50 when the film was made and released, and Bunny is certainly the sort of unconventional characters that she was well known for playing. Bunny was unmarried, but in a long-term, intimate relationship. She’s extremely focused on her career, so much so that she has a winding, spindly plant growing all over her office – she’s literally put down roots in her library. And who wouldn’t? She has a great mind for facts, a closet of awesome dresses, and a group of positive and supportive women who work (and drink) with her. It’s arguably the most awesome job in the history of awesome jobs, and it’s been inspiring envy from librarians for years. Case in point: “I want Bunny Watson’s Job in ‘Desk Set'”. Who doesn’t?
However, because this is the 1950s, and it is a Hepburn-Tracey film, Bunny does want romance in her life. While she loves her job, she hopes hopes hopes that her longtime boyfriend will propose to her after seven years. When she breaks it off with him, she’s already kindling a relationship with Richard Sumner. At the end, when the wrongs are righted and it’s agreed the computers aren’t taking over, Richard asks Bunny to marry him, and she says yes. It’s interesting to note that the film was titled “His Other Woman” when it was released in the UK, referring to the EMERAC computer which Richard calls “Emmy” for short. Therefore for most of the film, the love triangle isn’t between Bunny, Richard and Bunny’s executive boyfriend, but Bunny-Richard-Emmy. The executive guy never stood a chance, but the real threat to Bunny and Richard’s happiness is the very thing that Bunny thinks is threatening her job security.
So where do we place Bunny among the short list of librarian stereotypes? She’s an old maid, but she doesn’t act like one. She loves her job (go librarians!), but she also wants romance. In the end, she gets both. Hepburn isn’t Hot Librarian material, but she also isn’t dowdy – she’s fashionable and likable as well as wicked smart. When Sumner asks her pointed questions in order to determine how the mind of a truly capable reference librarian works, I can’t help but marvel at her skills and good humor:
I would say that Bunny does not fit into a classic stereotype, which is what makes her so appealing. She is a positive, go-getter librarian figure amongst a sea of Mean Old Lady and Mousy and Sexy Librarians. She’s tough. She’s skilled. She’s confident. She’s kind. She’s willing to accept change in her career.
I don’t want Bunny Watson’s job, I want to be her.
- Librarian Gift Guide, or A Candle That Smells Like Library (libraryjoy.com)
- The Secret Titles of Librarians (eduhacker.net)
- Desk Set 1957 (pixclips.wordpress.com)
- Legendary Actresses: Katharine Hepburn (moeatthemovies.com)
BTW, I’m on Pinterest. Sorry, what I meant to say is I’m constantly on Pinterest. It’s addicting and mind-numbingly entertaining. Funny things, pretty things, nerdy things: I pin them all. Recently I managed to talk my academic library into creating a Pinterest account. Yes, even academia loves creating digital pinboards – albeit, library-related pins are usually kind of snore-worthy. LibGuides are great, but I’d much rather pin pictures of piles of puppies.
A while back I created a board to chronicle the interesting, amusing and sometimes bizarro media representations of librarians – find it here. While looking over my past pins, I noticed that I had not one, but three separate images showing what I thought was a meme called Ostrich Librarian. After a quick image search, I found the official title for this frazzled oversize bird: Judgmental Bookseller Ostrich. This meme may have begun by chronicling the trials of overworked booksellers, but quite a few of these “I’m surrounded by idiots!” lamentations are shared by equally overworked librarians, especially those who work with the general public. A coworker of mine who has experience with the public library in town once told me that after a prolonged time of working a desk day in, day out, you gain a sixth sense. For example, when a certain type of person walks up to you, you just know they’re looking for Fifty Shades of Grey. (Wait, is that still a thing? Tell me it’s not and you get a cookie.) Even in the world of academic libraries, there is repetition. With repetition comes boredom. And as regular readers to this blog may know, with boredom comes evil librarians.
There is therefore some overlap between librarian and bookseller, and not just because we both deal in information and dead trees. Whether this ostrich is a better fit for either profession is up for debate, but her visage definitely leans toward spinster, myopic librarian. She’s wearing a pair of cat’s eye glasses, her hair is sticking up and about in a comical fashion, and her mouth is open in a Joker’s smile/grimace that makes her seem she’s truly at the end of her rope. She’s a sarcastic know-it-all, ready with a comeback no matter the horrible question she receives, especially if that person has bad taste in books.
I pinned her three times on Pinterest not because I know how she feels – to be honest, very few people ask me about actual, honest to goodness books. (E-books, yes. Book-books, not so much.) On the other hand, I recognize the sentiment. We live in an age of information, and yet sometimes the questions you’re asked are just… depressing. The Judgmental Ostrich can stand for anyone who puts themselves out there in the public realm who perhaps think themselves above the people they serve every day. That’s why I sometimes look at the Judgmental Ostrich and think “I know that feel, sis. I know that feel.”
Pearle Vision isn’t the first retailer to base an advertisement around the librarian image. Their ever-present “Naughty Librarian” commercial aside, librarians have been used to hock just about everything. As Kathrin Dodds states in her 2009 presentation titled Advertising the Librarian Image: Stereotypical depictions of librarians in advertising:
For decades, the image of the librarian has been used to sell everything from cars to chewing gum, shampoo to vibrators and even anti-diarrheals! Whether the portrayal is of the dowdy version or the closet sexpot, advertisers are banking on the perception of the image of the librarian to sell their wares.
The various librarian stereotypes are so recognizable, they need little introduction or explanation, making them perfect fodder for magazine spreads or 20-second television spots. If like me you’re a fan of Mad Men, you know that creating a good advert is all about selling the Big Idea. As long as you make your audience connect with something – usually a desire – chances are they will want to buy it. Librarians are therefore used in a variety of ways: sometimes they are stealthily sexy, attractive and desirable, which means that if you – the consumer – get that thing that makes the librarian sexy, attractive, etc.,, you will become like them – or better yet, you’ll attract these secret sexpots. 1960s ad. “Loves books. Loves new ideas.” Loves reading in the nude.
Ad for The Library in NYC’s East Village, complete with “sassy-pants bartendresses“
Other times, librarians are shown in a negative and/or comedic light. Dowdy, bun-wearing, shushing old lady librarians with a penchant for picking on noisy patrons. Old fashioned, the opposite of desirable, and completely unapproachable. Even if such a character is present in an ad for two seconds, the effect is profound: librarians are bad news, and you should do anything in your power to not piss them off.
Sony’s Digital Reader, sexier than a librarian. This is of course an inverse of the two previous ads, in which a librarian is not sexy – but a hunk of plastic is
What other librarian adverts or commercials can you think of? Feel free to post links in the comments!