As any search of the Internet will show, there are about as many stereotypes for librarians as there are for any other professional group. There is the traditional type (grey hair in a bun, conservative black or grey attire, sensible shoes with support stockings, with a perpetual finger to lips), who is both a rule enforcer and font of all knowledge. There is the femme fatale librarian (conservative on the outside, hellcat on the inside) who doesn’t have to be femme to be fatale, and no matter what the gender, projects a brainy sexuality with a possible secret side to their lives as well. Finally, there is the stereotypical male librarian who can possess aspects of the other two types but also has his own unique milquetoast mousiness. In constructing this meme, I thought it was important to show how different user groups in public libraries view we librarians, and how that can change depending on the different places (age groups, patron needs) in which a user may find himself.
Generally speaking, children using the library love the library staff. Like Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, librarians are viewed by children as the passports to intellectual fun; we provide them with entertaining programs such as story times and summer reading programs, and help them with those pesky homework assignments, giving them the “ruby slippers” of the children’s library, the information that will help them on their journey. This perception by children is pretty true; people who become children’s librarians usually enjoy working with children, so this stereotype is not far from accurate.
By the time a student is in her teen years, however, the vision of the librarian has changed from Glinda to the Wicked Witch of the East, calling on her flying monkeys to make life miserable for the teen patron. In her study of urban teens, Agosto found that teens perceive librarians as unfamiliar with the types of books they want to read, and find the library to be a dismal and unwelcoming place to visit. (Agosto, 2005). Howard’s (2011) research also showed that teens lack good relationships with library staff, preventing them from having positive feelings toward librarians.
Parents often use libraries as free child care facilities, believing that all library staff resemble Mr. Rogers in demeanor if not in wardrobe. They feel that library staff welcome their children to the library “neighborhood,” and that their children are as safe there as they are in their favorite sweater. Even the parents that remain in the library with their children often cast the librarian in a parental role, saying to their misbehaving youngsters that the librarian will charge them a fine if they talk too loudly (maybe this is what leads teens to have such a negative view of library staff!). Unfortunately, this perception of everyone in the public library being a safe Mr. Rogers figure is far from accurate; while staff members have been taught to watch out for children in the library, many members of the public who visit the library are less kind.
This leads us to our next category of patron, the misbehaving patron. In our library, quite often the misbehaving patron is an adult who is caught viewing inappropriate material on our public Internet computers. Library staff do usually have to put on their Grumpy Cat faces to handle those breaking the rules, whether the patron is eating in the library, talking on a cell phone too loudly, or is so disruptive that police involvement is required. The misbehaving patron does make library staff say “no” and a few other choice words that dominate the Grumpy Cat persona as seen by Google image searching “Grumpy Cat.”
The non-users of the library are perhaps the most likely to view librarians in the traditional stereotypical mode. Because their experience is limited to what the media teaches the viewer about librarians, non-users think this portrayal of librarians is correct, leading them to believe the library is not for them. Pagowsky (2014) cites the work of Green, who believes that the public’s lack of knowledge about what librarians actually do leads them to the stereotype and further denigrate the librarian’s public status.
Users of the public library who do venture so far as to ask questions of the staff often have a spiritually uplifting library experience which can cause them to view librarians as miracle workers who walk on water for their users when their questions are answered. Because the user has often tried searching for the information on her own with no success, she is especially impressed when library staff are able to find an answer to her question.
Unfortunately, some library patrons have an awkward perception of library staff — that underneath their professional appearance lurks a sultry vixen ready to take off her nerdy glasses and pull the bobby pins from her bun. This is rarely true, yet many an attractive staff member at the reference desk has been singled out for unwarranted attention. I myself was stalked by a patron back in my younger, thinner, cuter days; I did nothing to encourage this “gentleman” except wait on him as I did every other library user, yet he persisted in making every excuse he could to have me wait on him and even got in the habit of following me to my car when I left work. My situation had a happy solution when a police detective had a stern conversation with my unwanted “beau,” but I sometimes wonder how many wonderful librarians are turned off by this aspect of the profession.
The two ducks provide a great metaphor for the relationships between library staff and our fundraising groups. Many fundraising groups (represented by the white duck) feel (often rightly) that they have kept the library (represented by the brown duck) afloat, particularly during the recent economic downturn. The ironic side of this viewpoint is that as a result of this, some actions by fundraising groups may make staff ask who is really in charge of the library — the governing body or the fundraising group?
Are librarians the new superheroes? An argument can be made that in spite of the often negative stereotypes cast upon librarians, as a whole, we are well-educated dedicated professionals. Our specialized training has provided us with a variety of skills including not only those of the information seeking variety, but also people management skills. We’ve come a long way from non-library user’s point of view of that dowdy old matron.
Finally, what is true in this examination of stereotypes is that there are aspects of truth in each user group’s perception of the librarian. Because public librarians satisfy a number of patron needs both of educational and entertainment value, they are perceived as different things to different groups. Is this a bad thing? Certainly our profession is viewed favorably by children and their parents. We are revered by those we assist in the quest for knowledge, and provide a venue for residents to give back to their communities. We do still need to work hard to encourage new users to try us out, and to focus our customer service skills on the teen population as they are our next generation of voters. Once we are able to overcome these hurdles, librarians may just be viewed as superheroes by the whole community of users.
Agosto, D. E., & Hughes-Hassell, S. (2005). People, places, and questions: An investigation of the everyday life information-seeking behaviors of urban young adults. Library & Information Science Research, 27(2), 141–163. doi:10.1016/j.lisr.2005.01.002
[Boss duck image]. Retrieved November 8, 2014, from http://www.justmemes.com/funny-memes-pictures/like-a-boss/attachment/duckridelikeaboss/
[Glinda photographic image]. Retrieved November 8, 2014, from http://www.shindigz.com/party/glinda-good-witch-wizard-of-oz-standee/pgp/14szsupggw?source=igodigital
[Grumpy Cat image]. Retrieved November 8, 2014, from http://www.freeallimages.com/grumpy-cat-no/
[Grumpy Cat No image]. Retrieved November 8, 2014, from http://awesomeshit.ninja/2014/11/asn-movie-preview-grumpy-cats-worst-christmas-ever-trailer/
Howard, V. (2011). What do young teens think about the public library? The Library Quarterly, 81(3), 321-344.
[Jesus walking on water image]. Retrieved November 8, 2014, from http://www.whatdomormonsbelieve.com/2008/06/traveling-jesus/
[Librarian pinup image]. Retrieved November 8, 2014, from http://www.pinterest.com/pin/508836457868695629/
[Librarian reading image]. Retrieved November 8,2014, from http://bookriot.com/2014/06/24/what-do-librarians-read/
[Librarian super hero]. Retrieved November 8, 2014, from http://library.sdsu.edu/reference/news/attention-all-students-librarians-are-information-superheroes
[Mr. Rogers image]. Retrieved November 8, 2014, from http://thebus.net/fred_esquire1998
Pagowsky, N., & Rigby, M. (2014). Contextualizing ourselves: The identity politics of the librarian stereotype. In N. Pagowsky & M. Rigby (Eds.), The librarian stereotype: Deconstructing perceptions and presentations of information work (pp. 1–37). Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, American Library Association. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/publications/booksanddigitalresources/booksmonographs/stereotype
[Wicked Witch of the East image]. Retrieved November 8, 2014, from https://www.etsy.com/listing/155394187/wicked-witch-art-print-wizard-of-oz?ref=market