Wan Shi Tong – Pop! Profile

Wan Shi Tong (via the Avatar Wiki)

Wan Shi Tong (via the Avatar Wiki)

“I am Wan Shi Tong, he who knows ten thousand things, and you are obviously humans; which, by the way, are no longer permitted in my study.”

Let’s get this out of the way first: I’m not a big fan of anime. Friendly, furry tree spirits aside who like umbrellas aside, I’ve never understood the appeal. That said, I began watching Avatar: The Last Airbender with my husband, who is a fan of anime. Three or four episodes in, I became hooked. Aang and his group of friends are endearing, the story is magical and unique, and the world of the story is fascinating. In the same way that Harry Potter engenders the imagination, Avatar makes you think about our own world in relation to the make-believe, and it even allows you to match your background and personality with that of the different tribes. For example, I know very well (after taking numerous online quizes) that I’m a Ravenclaw and a waterbender. So there! So, forget about the travesty that was the 2010 film adaptation directed by He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named – in fact, forget I even mentioned it right here. The show is brilliant. Period.

The second season of a follow-up series, The Legend of Korrais currently airing on Nickelodeon. The story centers around the next Avatar in line after Aang, a waterbender named Korra. While it touches on a few of the same themes, it just isn’t the same experience for me. The world is similar, although “newer” and less rough, but the characters are older and more annoying. I don’t feel the same love for Korra and her friends as I did for Aang and his. We’ve been dutifully watching new episodes on Hulu, but without much interest. Lo and behold, I was quite pleased the other night when we sat down to watch the latest episode and one of my very favorite characters made an appearance: his name is Wan Shi Tong, and he’s an owl. Well, more to the point, he’s a spirit owl. Oh, and he’s a librarian. And his ancient library is amazing.

Wan_Shi_Tong's_Library

The ancient library. I mean, LOOK AT IT.

In the world of the original Avatar series, the ancient library was largely a mystery – no one truly knew where it was located, as it had been buried in the sand for centuries. Team Avatar (Aang and his buddies) needed to do some research about blah blah plot details, so they go out to look for it in the desert. In the end, they are only able to locate the structure because they happen to see a Knowledge Seeker enter the building through an opening in the desert sand. What is a Knowledge Seeker, you ask?

Helpful_Knowledge_Seeker

Knowledge Seekers: cute fox-like spirits seeking knowledge one tome at a time

Yes. Fox spirits. These knowledge seekers do exactly that: they travel the world looking for books to add to the ancient library. Even after the library is buried and all but inaccessible, they still fulfill their duties. They also assist patrons when they need to locate information. In these ways, they serve as both acquisitions and public services staff members, and they all serve Wan Shi Tong – the head librarian.

Wan Shi Tong is the worst example of a librarian: he’s mean, territorial, single-minded, and spiteful. He’s the reason why the library is buried in sand to begin with, and after he encounters Team Avatar, he’s the reason the library vanishes all together from the human world. That he takes the form of an owl is no coincidence; owls often symbolize wisdom, which is a fitting animal for a librarian spirit. The barn-owl mask is also an interesting choice, because it gives him a stony, ghostlike expression that changes little. The actor who voices Wan Shi Tong, Héctor Elizondo, does so with a slight haughty grace, but it’s subtle and not cartoony by any means.

His innate distrust of humans reminds me of a prickly, old librarian who has dealt with the public far too long and can therefore no longer trust them. (Remember: Librarians are Mean.) His main concern is the collection and protection of knowledge, which in librarian-speak makes him a kind of archivist. If that’s the case, he’s one of those paranoid archivists who dislike the idea of their precious rare materials getting in the wrong hands; soon enough, the “wrong hands” become “anyone’s hands.” Wan Shi Tong allows Team Avatar to peruse his library, but forbids them to use anything they find to aid them in the war against the Fire Nation. Spoiler alert: Team Avatar totally goes against Wan Shi Tong’s rules and as a result the ancient spirit Shuts. Down. Everything. Out of spite, he pulls his library from the human world forever. All that knowledge, gone.

Or that would have been the case, had The Legend of Korra not revisited Wan Shi Tong and his library in the recent episode “A New Spiritual Age.” Korra and her friend Jinora travel to the Spirit World, and Jinora makes her way to the library. Wan Shi Tong is even more hostile to humans, if that’s even possible, and he becomes angered when Jinora (who is Aang’s granddaughter btw) challenges his Under No Circumstances rule when it comes to humans entering his library again. In a wonderful moment, Jinora tries to trick Wan Shi Tong into honoring an old rule of his: that a human may remain in the library if they offer new knowledge in exchange. (Awesome loophole is awesome!) While Wan Shi Tong does not fall for this, claiming it’s an “old rule”, he does allow Jinora to look around, but it turns out that Wan Shi Tong is in league with Korra’s enemy, her uncle Unalaq. Gasp shock! (Remember: Librarians are Also Evil.)

Librarians are also freaking terrifying?

Librarians are also freaking terrifying? (via Hypable)

Despite his evilness, Wan Shi Tong and his library make for an incredible story. He’s a fan favorite character from the first series for a reason: you feel respect, awe, irritation, and terror at the idea of an incredibly old, intelligent, and diligent being who wants nothing more than to cultivate a mass of knowledge and keep it safe. His thirst for knowledge makes him lower his guard twice – once for the Avatar, and again for his descendent – and every time he does so, his belief in the folly of human-kind is reinforced. “Humans don’t want to learn,” he thinks. “They want to destroy.” Is he wrong? Is he so very wrong for wanting to keep his books – the very things he is meant to protect – out of the equation?

Mean librarian, old librarian, evil librarian – sure. But what about tired librarian? Been there, done that librarian? Besides – how bad can a character be if he hires fox spirits to staff his awesome library?

So you tell me: are you a fan of Avatar or The Legend of Korra? What do you think of Wan Shi Tong? How much do you want a pet fox now?

Worse Than Murder

The Librarian - Discworld by ~the-primitive-muse

The Librarian – Discworld by ~the-primitive-muse

“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?”

The Librarian gave him the kind of look other people would reserve for people who said things like “What’s so bad about genocide?”
Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!

Summer Movies Mean… Librarian Cameos?

Monsters U Librarian

So, I see an awful lot of movies in the theatre. When summer rolls around, I can usually be expected to have seen one new film a week – not as much as post-Thanksgiving, pre-New Years, when all the Oscar-bait films come out, but still more than the average moviegoer.  Sad films, happy films, funny films, weird films: as long as it doesn’t fall under the category “gratuitous slasher flick” I’m typically going to see it.  And if I love it/hate it, I’ll talk about it.  Forever.

This past weekend my husband and I went to see Monsters University, which fell under the umbrella of “liked it, didn’t love it, but had some great parts.”  For a sequel it was certainly strong, and it’s hard to go wrong with Nathan Fillion and Helen Mirren playing bad guys in the same movie.  The film is very much a creation story; we see Mike and Sully meet during their Freshman year at school, quickly become enemies, begin to work together, learn from each other, and then finally become friends and colleagues.  Monsters U, the school itself, is prestigious and honorable, and it has a typical division of clubs and cliques: jocks, hot chicks, emo kids, nerds, and weirdos.  They’re all pitted against each other during the school’s monster triathlon, the Scare Games, which consists of a series of trials to choose the best Scarers on campus.  One of the trials – called “Don’t Wake the Parent” – takes place in the university’s library.  Can you see where this is going?  I could, and it was glorious!

Monsters U Librarian2

Uh oh?

The “Parent” in the trial’s scenario is of course the curmudgeonly, be-speckled, old lady/squid-like librarian who hates noise and has a penchant for chucking ne’er-do-well students into the lake outside.  It’s over the top and silly and so much damn fun.  She’s everything a Freshman might expect from their university librarian, especially if the university in question is as old fashioned as Monsters U.  Look at all those books!  The wood paneling!  HER OUTFIT!  Of course the library is destroyed when the librarian  furiously lashes out, but you just know part of her enjoyed putting it back together again.  It’s gloriously over the top (really, could they have made her any uglier?) but I just can’t bring myself to roll my eyes.  Sometimes you just have to laugh.

Considering summer movies and surprisingly fun librarian cameos, did you know that last year had a similar set up?  The Spider-man reboot (The Amazing Spider-Man starring Andrew Garfield) included a scene in which the entire school was destroyed during an epic fight between Spidey and the Lizard.  The two crash through a wall – surprisingly easy to do in comic book movies – and on the other side? The school library, featuring none other than the legendary Stan Lee as the oblivious school librarian.  He’s rocking out to his old guy muzak and humming to himself as his library is destroyed behind him.  See the whole scene here:

Reel Librarians had a great write-up of this scene, as well as other Comic Relief librarians, but I think it’s worth mentioning that perhaps the reason our profession keeps showing up in these summer blockbuster films is because the profession is immediately recognizable as light, good fun.  We don’t need back story for why Monsters U librarian is so bent on shushing students – she’s a librarian!  We don’t need to know why bow tie-clad Stan Lee doesn’t notice his quaint little library falling to pieces around him – duh, he’s a librarian!  Like I’ve said before, sometimes you just have to laugh.

What do you think?  Have you seen Monsters University yet?  Looking forward to the next Spider-Man? Do you think summer 2014 will bring us another librarian cameo?

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?

Bunny Watson – Pop! Profile

Desk-Set-Poster

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.

Desk Set ladies

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:

Desk Set - tough

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.

It’s a Wonderful Life: How Mary Lost Her Groove

Mary, it's a wonderful life

In honor of this gloriously lazy holiday season, I present to you: Mary, the old maid librarian from 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life‘s kooky alternative universe. In the true reality in which her husband George exists, Mary is a loving, doting, perfect housewife with a few precious kids.  Without George in her life, she is matronly, alone, and apparently visually challenged.  (Seriously, where did those glasses come from? Is that the only way they could make Donna Reed look homely?)  The bulky coat, the glasses, the lack of makeup: these symbols signify alternate!Mary’s lack of worth. Without George, she is nothing; a woman reduced to the worst possible designation ever: unwed.

Furthermore, it’s made absolutely clear that being a librarian is the worst thing ever that could have happened to George’s lovely wife.  Here’s a clip of his shocking discovery, when he asks Clarence “where’s Mary?”

Oh, Mary. You deserve better.  She cowers and cries and faints when George (still not “getting it”, obviously) chases after her and makes a scene:

Bitchmedia perhaps says it best:

Husbandless Mary is wearing glasses. Her dress is less feminine and has a higher neckline. Her hair is pulled back into a bun (how very stereotypical) and covered up with a hat. She looks incredibly worried. And the trees casting shadows across the scene don’t make her alternate identity any brighter.

This character certainly reflects societal beliefs about librarians in 1946: that librarians were single, unhappy women.

 

Now that we’re all depressed, I hope you had a very merry Christmas indeed, and that your 2013 is a great one!

 

Librarians in Advertising

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!

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.

Library Dragons

Image

From The Library Dragon by Carmen Arga Deedy (image via The Unemployed Librarian)

Why are librarians often depicted as strict, inflexible, and sometimes downright mean?  Perhaps some librarians are dragon-like, but what public services-related position doesn’t have a person or two who obviously shouldn’t be anywhere near the public?  Ah, but we’re the keepers of knowledge – such a huge responsibility will turn anyone into a mean, old lady librarian, am I right?  That’s what this children’s book seems to teach.

When an elementary school advertises for a “thick-skinned professional” who is “on fire with enthusiasm,” it gets just that-and then some. A bespectacled, dress-wearing dragon, Miss Lotta Scales replaces all the books with spanking clean ones, and refuses to let the students (“with their gooey fingers and snotty noses”) touch them. The kids’ grades are “going up in smoke,” but neither the principal nor the teachers can convince the headstrong dragon to let the pupils near the stacks until one myopic girl accidentally wanders into the library and begins to read a story (“Snuff the Magic Dragon”) aloud. The tale manages to soften the librarian’s scaly skin-figuratively and literally.