The notes and slides I used at the CILIP Graduate Open Day, in October 2009.
Realising your potential: rising above the stereotypes
Realising your potential: rising above the stereotypes
Not a real advert, but it might be how we are perceived outside the profession
WE know it isnt true - but were fighting peoples preconceptions all the time
Im Ned Potter, digitisation coordinator for Leeds Library
I provide key materials online for the students, via the VLE a job I could do without ever really setting foot in the library building Yet I carry the baggage of associations I am defined by the building I work in however little time I spend there
Weve escaped the physical confines of the library, without being able to escape the preconceptions which go with it
Ill be talking about: what the preconceptions are, why they are important, and what we can do to change them
Didnt realise how much was written when I started
Entire books have been written on the subject. From back in the 80s - or as recently as last year, such as You dont look like a librarian! Shattering Stereotypes and Building Positive New Images in the Internet Age by Ruth Kneale, I couldnt get hold of it, even on inter-library loan shame libraries dont stock it
Weve been preoccupied with this for a while, and why not? We have a role in teaching and educating our users these days, and no one wants to learn from someone they dont respect
While teachers + social workers are often demonised in the media and nurses, computer geeks and others often get a very 1-dimensional portrayal in popular culture, no other professions seem to have quite the range of negative stereotypes, from such a broad range of sources, that we have to endure
Were all familiar with the most common clichs
Last year in the Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship, Maura Seale explored this area in detail. She came up with 5 major categories of librarian in mass media, popular culture, and public perceptions
Personally I might add to that list, The Bibliophile Librarian who loves books so much they really dont want to share them with anyone, let alone members of the public, and a colleague of mine also suggested The Kindly Librarian an elderly man or woman who meets an unhappy child and, perhaps remembering their own experiences growing up, frees them from the bullies by allowing them to enter the world of their own imagination
Seale does capture the main portrayals well, and its worth examining them in a bit more detail. Old Maid is dominant stereotype what I was referring to in the ad
Frumpy, sexless, sat behind issuing desk, oozing unhappiness
Seale also points out a Young Maid derivative of this potentially attractive but: their appearance also indicated repression in some way.
Idea of repression is important: in Doug Highsmiths examination of librarians in comic books he notes that Batgirls librarian alter-ego dresses in such a way as to heavily disguise any physical attractiveness she may possess
Were all familiar with the moment in the film where the Young Maid shakes out her bun in slow-motion, removes her librarians glasses, and affects a swan-like transformation into the love-interest of the hero
Library Policeman is the person who takes delight in punishing library users. For lateness, noise-levels, or just anything at all
Building is important in this definition it is because the library is their domain that policemen can scare people who wouldnt normally look twice at them in the street
Perhaps we could be encouraged to think these two things are directly connected? Its because they are marginalised by wider society that they take delight in exercising authority in their own building
Extract revenge with petty grievances fond of humiliating users (Seale also describes the policeman as a know-it-all figure)
She also mentions a Stephen King story The Library Policeman. Look it up it features a sinister figure who assaults the hero for late return of book. Turns out he molested the hero as a child for the same offence. Also features Old Maid who is a sort of mosquito-esque monster who sucks the life force out of childrens eyes to make sure they are well-behaved. She later kills the policeman who interrogates her, kills herself and comes back as a ghost in order to continue working at the same library!
Suddenly the boring stereotype doesnt seem quite so tough to endure
Librarian as Parody takes us into murkier waters. This involves being fully aware of the stereotype, and either playing up to it or becoming an exaggerated opposite
Example of the latter is the film The Librarian in which the macho hero is, to quote Seale a sexy, adventurous librarian with two love interests.
An example of the former is the Nancy Pearl Action Figure
Nancy Pearl is a cult librarian figure in America, works for Seattle Library, appears on talk-shows, author of Book-Lust. Has her own action figure as seen on the slide; comes with own stack of books. Most controversial aspect push to shush function
Is this an example of librarians appropriating the stereotypes for themselves, subverting them by embracing them, undermining them with kitsch librarian dolls? Or just pandering to and perpetuating the stereotype?
(Interestingly, the toy-maker responsible for the doll offered two alternative actions one was the shushing, and the other was having hair in a bun which could pop off. This bun idea proving just how entrenched the bun is as part of the librarians armoury of stereotypes was dropped for technical reasons and because having two such clichs was considered over the top)
Generally the shushing action is funny. But there is an over-arching issue here which is that it perpetuates the stereotype any librarian as parody figures draw attention to the stereotypes and further engrain them into the culture (even if they treat them ironically or otherwise try to subvert them) so part of me sees the doll as a bad thing
It takes a popular librarian, famed for her mass appeal, who promotes a positive image for the professionand reduces her to just another Old Maid / Library Policeman hybrid, stamping out the fun one shush at a time
But by thinking this Im conforming to the joyless librarian stereotype! ===
Moving on down the list the inept librarian is not inept at their job, it must be stressed. They are inept at life. They are socially inept, awkward, or confused about modern life===
The HERO Librarian is more positive portrayal, but can descend into parody
Interestingly, in Seales summary of what others have written, she notes that Rupert Giles, the librarian from Buffy is characterised by some as inept and others as heroic. Although Giles is friendly and elegant, and his library and his knowledge have apparently saved the world on countless occasions, he is still seen as sometimes befuddled and out of touch.
Crucially he also inhabits a sort of Victorian ideal of a library, all dusty shelves and wooden cabinets full of old books. He has no familiarity with Information Technology at all, really You can buy an official Buffy the Vampire Toy Library:
Here is a picture of it. Is this good? Kids playing at being librarians should be a positive thing, right? And yet look at it old fashioned books, a globe on the table, candles in the windows! And not a computer in sight
Even a relatively positive portrayal of a librarian, such as Giles, is obstructive to our users seeing us as we really are. And little Johnny and little Jane are going to get an awful shock if they grow up wanting to be librarians because of playing with the toy Buffy library set as kids, and then on their first day they have to deliver an Information Literacy session to 20 Google Generation students, using cutting edge screen-capture technology, podcasting, and the Virtual Learning Environment!
Technology is perhaps the one thing which runs through all the modern library jobs customer services, the systems team, the VLE team, the cataloguers, the e-Resources Team, the Digital Repository they arent defined by any one thing, but all use technology to some degree
And yet people like Buffys Giles reflect exactly the opposite! Which brings us neatly to
Do the stereotypes matter at all? Some, like Nancy Pearl, would argue that perhaps they dont.
I wanted to know how my colleagues felt about the way in which Information Professionals are perceived, so I devised a brief questionnaire and advertised it in the staff bulletin. Clearly this was important to people, all across the age range, as there were 50 responses within a week
I first asked if they thought Librarians were portrayed fairly in Popular Culture. 88% said no.
I asked them if they thought there was any truth in the library stereotype
As you can see the majority felt it was no longer relevant to the modern professional
There was also a section for comments, and this is where the strong reactions came in.
One person said:
Later I asked if there was anything we could do to improve our image. Responses included:
All responses were anonymous, but the survey software allowed me to see that the three comments in the last two slides were from three different people who clearly felt along similar lines
It isnt that they dont believe the stereotypes are unimportant, as such rather that they dont think people like me should be putting so much emphasis on it in papers like this!
However, it is my belief that the stereotyping issue is significant enough that we do need to confront head on. Because ultimately it interferes wi