“You Don’t Look Like a Librarian!”

What? Only 10? (From http://www.librarian-image.net/)

What? Only 10? (From http://www.librarian-image.net/)

Yesterday I attended a resource fair for incoming students.  While manning my booth, I greeted people who walked by, trying to make the Library seem like a great place to visit and hopefully utilize over the next four years of their college experience.  A few people seemed genuinely interested, but one in particular jived with me and my message.  In fact, this new student told me, and I quote, “It’s a good thing they [the library] sent you here; you don’t look like a librarian, you look like a student.”

As petty as it now sounds, I took it as a compliment. It seems that even for the class of 2017, “librarian” means old, stuffy, and out of touch. While of course it means a variety of characteristics – because all librarians are unique, awesome snowflakes – I couldn’t help but thank the kid for insinuating that I’m young, friendly and do not smell like I own ten cats.  I mean, that’s what he meant, right?  How strange must his high school library experience must have been, or how many times must he have seen The Music Man, for him to point out how much I stick out in my line of work?  I smiled and nodded at him, but in hindsight I wish I would have asked him what his frame of reference was, to whom was he comparing me, and oh bee tee dubs, mind if I blog about this?

This line of thought makes me want to check out “You Don’t Look Like a Librarian: Shattering Stereotypes and Creating Positive New Images in the Internet Age” by Ruth Kneale.  Has anyone read it?  I feel like I need to commiserate with others on this point.

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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.

“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

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.

Do Glasses Make the Librarian?

What Do You See” by BecaShoots @Etsy

Myopia is a condition that plagues many-a librarian – or, rather, that is what film and TV would have you believe. People who wear corrective glasses are often stereotyped as bookish, intelligent, and socially inept.  The glasses are a shield, a barrier.  They are props to be adjusted and cleaned when the moment calls for it.  They are fragile and expensive; they can also be smacked aside, stepped on, or otherwise damaged.  Finally (and perhaps most importantly) they can be removed from a mousy boy or girl, woman or man, in order to let a dormant attractiveness and sensuality shine through.

Eyesight, whether it’s perfect or messed up, is largely genetic.  I’ve been nearsighted all my life, the product of a nearly blind mother and a 50/50 sighted father.  I wore contacts in middle school and high school, but switched to glasses my first semester of college after realizing how difficult it is to stab little discs of plastic into your eyes after you’ve slept too late and are now running late for class.

However, according to Wikipedia, there have been studies which show the incidence of myopia increase with level of education.  And!  Other studies have shown a correlation between myopia and a higher IQ.  This is an interesting factor, seeing as how a large percentage of Asia is myopic compared to those in the United States.  When one considers the stereotype of the “nerdy Asian kid” who crushes test scores and wins first place at the science fair, glasses are usually part of the equation.

So where do librarians fit in all of this?  Well, librarians are a smart, typically well-educated breed.  We also tend to engage in activities – whether it be reading or sitting in front of a computer screen – that can certainly put strain on our eyes.  Despite my Google-fu being quite strong, I was unable to come across a study along the lines of “percentage of librarians who wear eyeglasses,” but I think it’s safe to say that a large percentage of us do.  Stereotypes are based on truth, after all.

Why does the librarian profession revel in its cat-eyed, coke bottle lenses?  Why the t-shirts and the prints (like the one above) and the constant media representation of the bespectacled book pusher?  Like most stereotypes, I think it’s a matter of recognizing something in yourself and embracing rather than denying.  Were I librarian with perfect vision, perhaps I would be somewhat annoyed at the trope that paints us as smart, but also unapproachable and weird.  It’s a symbol, and one that I embody.  For better or worse, I will always wear glasses, and I will (hopefully) always be a librarian.

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some books that need reading,” she said as she pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose.