Libraries as seen by non-librarians

July 15, 2010

I’ve been thinking recently about how libraries (and librarians) are seen by people outside of Libraryland. The old stereotypes (glasses-wearing, hair-in-a-bun old lady shushing people, primarily) persist even as libraries become more active in their communities and younger people join the ranks. Every time some reading-related technological innovation is announced, people predict the death of libraries, which are apparently just big rooms full of outdated books. But libraries have their supporters, too–bibliophiles who love their libraries and wear “librarian” glasses, frequent library users, even just those feeling nostalgia for the good experiences they had in libraries growing up. And all of these people see different things in their libraries and expect different behavior from their librarians, so it’s interesting to see what non-librarians think about libraries and librarians.

There have been three things in particular recently that have gotten me thinking about our image in pop culture and the media. The library-oriented corners of the Internet imploded with glee yesterday when the Old Spice guy (you know, the sexy shirtless one) posted a video response to a tweet asking him to say a few words about libraries. (See the original requester’s blog post response, too.)

While the Huffington Post called this a “defense” of libraries, I’m not sure it goes quite that far in just 34 slightly silly seconds, but it’s still exciting to have that contact with pop culture. And, you know, to have a sexy shirtless guy talk about books.

While it was first posted in January, someone recently pointed me to Flavorwire’s mixtape “10 Best Songs About Libraries and Librarians”. Lots of the songs feature the librarian (a woman, of course) as an object of desire, often unaware of her own sexiness. The library itself is a place to tell your parents you’re going when you’re really headed somewhere else as well as a place to study.

And over the Fourth of July weekend, Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion included a new “Ruth Harrison, Reference Librarian” sketch. Ruth, keeper of the books and answerer of questions, harbors a secret interior life of passions and crushes. The stereotypes are amped up to ridiculous levels: most recently Ruth was planning a vacation to “The Readers Resort […] for two delicious weeks by Lake Bellelettre in Reading, Pennsylvania.” But the sketches occasionally have little details that seem surprisingly spot-on and make me wonder if one of the staff writers was (or still is) a librarian. In 2008, Ruth met Brad Carruthers, the author of a romance novel involving a librarian that she rather enjoyed, and she desperately wants to become his personal librarian and live aboard his ship with him. In that episode, though, the initial reference interview is just perfect with the patron’s initial vague request and Ruth’s probing questions and reflective listening to discover just what it is Brad wants.

I’m not really sure that there’s some sort of overarching conclusion I’m trying to draw here, but it’s interesting to see what people who aren’t librarians think of us and our institutions and how we appear in culture and the media.

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3 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. BookElfLeeds  |  August 17, 2010 at 10:50 AM

    Hi there, I have a strange question relating to this post. What do you think about using self-deprecating humour in promoting your library? We are doing so in mine in a promotion video that we made where the first half is all black and white ‘old school’ showing all the odl typewriters etc. There is a line ‘need help? ask a librarian, she’ll be a woman, wearing glasses’. The video stars and member os staff who is a woman and does wear glasses and a bun most days. The video then turns ‘modern’ using pop art etc to show that the library has changed and is now a friendly space, and we won’t except people seeing our staff as sterotypes.
    Myself and the other people who made the video have been accused of being sexist. We have been accused of using stereotypes that the other librarians are trying to get rid of, even though we were ‘trying to be funny’.

    What do you think? Is it wrong to use self-deprecating humour in order to engage in a dialogue with your end users and are being being sexist when we mock a stereotype?


  • 2. Gretchen  |  August 17, 2010 at 10:54 AM

    I think in the example that you provide, you’re playing off of old stereotypes in a way that shows the library isn’t like that anymore. If you’d cut from the old-timey footage to color footage of a bunch of ladies with glasses and buns, you’d be reinforcing the idea that libraries are still full of shushers. But it sounds like your video shows people how things have changed and how hip the library is now!

  • 3. BookElfLeeds  |  August 17, 2010 at 10:59 AM


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