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.

“Wonderfully Unhinged” Librarian

Mudshark by Gary Paulsen

“She was brilliant and joyous and she believed – probably correctly – that libraries contain the answers to all things, to everything, and that if you can’t find the information you seek in the library, then such information probably doesn’t exist in this or any parallel universe now or ever to be known. She was thoughtful and kind and she always believed the best of everybody. She was, above all else, a master librarian and she knew where to find any book on any subject in the shortest possible time.

And she was wonderfully unhinged.”

― Gary Paulsen, Mudshark

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?

The Judgmental Ostrich: When book-pushers become meme fodder

Ostrich LibrarianBTW, 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.

Ostrich Librarian2

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.”

Anatomy of a librarian

Do you think this infographic supports the popular culture stereotypes of librarians or disproves them? On a side-note, I’m seriously curious as to what “fire performance” entails. How many librarians are secretly members of Cirque du Soleil?

bluesyemre

AnatomyofaLibrarianLrg

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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.

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.