“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?”
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.
“Now you may have gotten the impression that there are absolutely no uses for Librarians. I’m sorry if I implied that. Librarians are very useful. For instance, they are useful if you are fishing for sharks and need some bait. They’re also useful for throwing out windows to test the effects of concrete impact on horn-rimmed glasses. If you have enough Librarians, you can build bridges out of them. (Just like witches.)
And, unfortunately, they are also useful for organizing things.”
― Brandon Sanderson, Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia
Madam Pince: The library is now closed. Mind that you return anything you have borrowed to the correct – what have you been doing to that book, you depraved boy?
Harry Potter: It isn’t the library’s, it’s mine!
Madam Pince: Despoiled! Desecrated! Befouled!
Harry Potter: It’s just a book that’s been written on!
I love the Harry Potter series – I know, what a typical stance for a bibliophile librarian to take. The books are not masterfully written by any means, but the intricate plot, lovable characters, and overall emphasis on love, friendship, intelligence and perseverance really make my nerdy heart sing. Last summer when I visited Universal’s Harry Potter world, I wanted to dropkick children out of my way so I could experience butterbeer (amazing!) and perhaps even visit the wand shop for my very own not-so-subtle physical representation of my personality and skill set. That’s what wands really stand for, right?
Okay, so I’m a huge nerd. My favorite character is and will always be the goofy ginger Ron Weasley, and while that may cause you to dismiss me as a Hermione Granger, you’d be dead wrong. You see, I’m a Ravenclaw. After taking more online sorting hat quizzes than I’d care to admit, some things are certain: 1) I’m not brave enough to be in Gryffindor, 2) I’m not dull enough to be in Hufflepuff and 3) I’m not ambitious (or evil) enough to be in Slytherin. Ravenclaw members are characterized by their wit and wisdom – what better House to birth a Librarian?
Irma Pince – or Madam Pince, as she’s typically called – has a very small role in the books, and an even smaller role in the movies. Although she’s obviously a witch, her magic skills are rather undefined. What does define her is her protectiveness over her collection of rare books – who can blame her? She’s the only Librarian at the Library of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, so I think she can be forgiven for freaking out if she catches someone eating a chocolate frog amongst her prized possessions. She’s described as a “thin, irritable woman who looked like an underfed vulture” – not exactly flattering to librarians or vultures, if you ask me. She screams at Harry and his friends every now and then, prowls around the stacks looking for ne’er do wells, and is quite unpopular among the students. Perhaps this is why no one ever seems to ask for help when it comes to, I don’t know… research.
Because you see, Madam Pince is never consulted; her librarian skills are never put to the test. Hermione alone spends an almost unhealthy amount of time in the school’s library, researching evil phenomena and other highly academic subjects, but never does she happen to wonder up to the Head Librarian to ask for help. What purpose does Madam Pince serve, other than to screech and quite possibly cast spells on her beloved books? Quite simply, from the very beginning, the students are afraid of her. Worse, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry thinks better of asking Madam Pince to help him research Nicolas Flamel – the wizard who created the stone – but he chose not to because he didn’t want to raise her suspicions. As a shrewd and obviously uptight authority figure, the kids simply don’t trust her. In fact, they’re probably right not to.
Madam Pince therefore fulfills the tried and true old lady librarian stereotype: shriveled and ugly, screechy and irritable. Unapproachable. Unhelpful. Perhaps this is why she was only shown briefly in the film adaptations, where (portrayed by British actress Sally Mortemore) she bares a strange resemblance to Alan Rickman’s Snape – who is equally irritable, unapproachable, and unhelpful. She really serves no purpose, other than to vex Harry and his friends, causing them to sneak around and search for answers on their own. But, you might be protesting, the sneaking is what makes the books so much fun! As J. K. Rowling has said/apologized, perhaps the story would have been different had the children been saddled with a “better” librarian:
“I would like to apologize for you and any other librarians present here today and my get-out clause is always if they’d had a pleasant, helpful librarian, half my plots would be gone. ‘Cause the answer invariably is in a book but Hermione has to go and find it. If they’d had a good librarian, that would have been that problem solved. So … sorry.”
That’s not to say that sometimes reveling in the stereotype is at times fun: when Madam Pince curses Harry and Ginny’s things to chase them out when she catches them eating chocolate in the library, it’s hard for me not to feel a little satisfaction. Now there’s a skill many librarians wouldn’t mind having.