A reoccurring theme of the stereotype is that librarians are asexual. They wear shapeless, drab clothing, they are generally older and often frigid. Sometimes librarians are also portrayed as virginal. As Manley points out, it is particularly strange that librarians are stereotyped as sexless considering they have to deal with an overwhelming amount of sexual-related problems that do not come up in the majority of other professions. This includes educating patrons on topics like homosexuality and puberty, as well as championing for unrestricted internet access (Manley 120). Adams affirms that the “shriveled-prune stereotype” is an exclusion strategy; it assures ‘normal’ women of their attractiveness when being compared to this old maid librarian. Female stereotypes are “a structural necessity in developing and perpetrating normative definitions of femininity” (Adams 294-295). This is rooted in the idea that academia is not sexy and the stereotype is “part of a broader cultural notion that says intelligent women cannot be physically attractive” (Adams 295).
The response to this would be the plethora of hyper-sexualized librarian images found throughout popular culture. With this, there comes to be two opposing stereotypes of librarianship. A dichotomy has developed as a result of the asexual old maid and the racy naughty librarian images. The majority of the sexualization has come from outside of the profession as a consequence of fantasy.
In terms of popular culture there are few examples of the sexy librarian in film. An example that was referenced repeatedly in the literature was the 1995 film Party Girl starring Parker Posey. Her character is portrayed as a free-spirited and sexually aware character. At the time, this was seen as a meaningful example because there had been no real depictions of librarians engaging in any sexual activity (Adams 295). By comparison to today’s standard, Party Girl is a fairly tame example as there is no sex depicted on screen and Parker Posey is not really considered to be the most sexual figure. More examples can be found in television presenting different attitudes towards sexy librarians. In an episode of Seinfeld, Kramer and Jerry visit a library where Kramer constructs a complicated fantasy upon seeing the librarian at the circulation desk. (Link). While the librarian conforms more to the old maid stereotype, Kramer feels that there is a sexy library waiting to be unleashed. He thinks she is a lonely woman and possibly a virgin. He objectifies her and states that “she needs a little Kramer.” A more recent example from Supernatural depicts librarians in a more flattering light. (Link). Trying to describe a woman conservatively dressed and wearing glasses, Sam likens her to librarian. Dean responds, “your kind of librarian or my kind of librarian?” Sam answers, “well, she was wearing clothes so…” Dean clearly promotes the sexy librarian stereotype while Sam rejects the notion that all librarians are naughty but at the same time still promotes a stereotype of a librarian by describing the woman as a librarian based on the way she looks. It is a fleeting moment of humour which shows not only that this idea can be used for humour but also the way in which the stereotype is thrown around. As a final example, in Community, Troy and Abed talk about the librarian in a sexualized way but also with respect. (Link). Abed is attracted to her because she is the “keeper of knowledge” and Troy says that being a librarian makes her “even hotter.” Unlike the Seinfeld librarian, this librarian dresses provocatively which makes it seem like she is more aware of her sexual nature and calling attention to her sexuality.
It is not unusual for advertisers to use sex to sell their products and several advertisements use a recurring good-girl-gone-bad librarian, playing on that naughty librarian fantasy to promote their products. This is not a new idea, several print advertisements ran with the dirty librarian image in the past. Hanes ran an ad promoting their “Mystrece” line of stockings implying that by wearing their stockings you can transform from a bookish librarian into an “unforgettable, disarming” woman. (Link). Tiparillo cigarettes takes the naughty librarian image further appealing directly to men with sexuality of the librarian depicted. (Link). Even though one ad is aimed at women and the other at men, both employ the sexy librarian. Hanes encourages women to be her and Tiparillo wants men to be with her. A more recent ad for Bacardi also utilized the dirty librarian trope and the good-girl-gone-bad idea along with a scantily clad woman to sell their rum. (Link). This ad, more so then the others, implies that librarians live a double life, the one that you see in the library and the one that comes out when inhibitions are lowered.
Like the print ads, television commercials play on the same themes of sex and fantasy when using librarians in their commercials. The good-girl-gone-bad librarian is also something that is used to sell products and the idea is featured in all three ads that were looked at. The first ad from Michelob Light features a librarian who sneaks a library book into a man’s bag so that he sets off the alarm and has to return to the circulation desk to speak to the librarian. The librarian, although she is young and attractive, fits the typical librarian stereotype. (Link) She wears conservative clothing, glasses, has her hair pulled back and is apparently a little timid and shy. She transforms, however, when she goes to the bar with the man she met in the library into a more confident, fun loving woman. While she might not be a bad girl, she certainly changes and makes a show of taking off her glasses and hitting the man with a book, playfully shedding that typical librarian image. The ad and its idea of a transformation is related to the Bacardi advertisement which hints that there is another woman hidden beneath the librarian exterior, waiting for someone to discover her and trigger her transformation. Similarly, the Axe Vice commercial also presents the idea that within every nice girl librarian there is the potential for a bad girl and she is just waiting for the right man to bring about her transformation. Again we are presented with an attractive young librarian but this time she transforms from a nice girl to a criminal. Apparently, the scent of a young man’s Axe body spray incited the woman to accost the man in the stacks of the library, aggressively branding him with an overdue stamp until she is taken away by the police. (Link). The commercial does not make any attempt to hide the idea that they are selling sex along with their product. According to the slogan that runs at the end of the commercial, Axe Vice “turns nice girls naughty.” The final commercial from Pearle Vision is more subtle about the way that they advertise their product but they still rely heavily on the fantasy of the naughty librarian to sell their glasses. The commercial opens with a close up of a women with glasses, a collared shirt and with her hair pulled back staring into the camera and speaking to an unseen man about not returning his library books on time. (Link). Throughout the commercial, she takes on the idea of the authoritative library saying that she needs to teach the delinquent patron a lesson. This commercial, also uses the idea of a transformation, which is signified when the woman takes her hair down. However, with the way that the woman stares into the camera and playfully scolds the man she is speaking too, it seems like the advertisers want the audience to believe that she is naughty all along. In the end, the camera pulls back to reveal that the woman is in fact not a librarian but a customer trying on glasses and adopting different looks at a Pearle Vision store.
The echoes of this idea of the fantasy, naughty librarian can be seen in the types of user-generated videos that are produced by members of the general population. Videos of sexy librarians on YouTube feature female librarians who do not seem interested in their jobs and who exist merely as sexual figures. Other videos are more exploitative and even voyeuristic with one, apparently appealing to those with foot fetishes, featuring an actual female librarian working at her desk (Poulin 6). Although advertisers are promoting the sexualized librarian stereotype as a fantasy in order to make a sale, the perpetuation of the stereotype, as evidenced by some of the videos on YouTube, can not only be damaging to the profession but degrading to women.
A final interesting phenomenon is the appropriation of ‘typical’ library garb as sexy Halloween costumes. The naughty librarian costume follows the same lines as the naughty nurse and naughty stewardess costumes. These occupations are all considered to be traditionally feminine, and are all sexualized by the public for entertainment. (Link).
In response to these cultural depictions, a new generation of librarians have began to claim the stereotype of the sexy librarian, and make it their own. The most obvious example of this is found through librarian-created videos on YouTube. While some of these videos are meant to teach patrons about library resources and facilities, some are more explicitly created in reaction to negative stereotypes. As Attebury contends, the majority of librarian-created videos present the librarian as “a fun, positive, upbeat individual who is always ready to help patrons. Another technique with a similar goal but a different approach is that of parody and mimicry” (Attebury). While she finds fewer videos that explicitly portray the librarian in a sexual manner, this trait is often worked into wider ranging depictions of librarians.
Aside from videos, other attempts have been made at adopting the sexual stereotype. Adams references the “lipstick librarian” ideology, first espoused on www.lipsticklibrarian.com. Arguing for self-acceptance, this ideology slyly incorporates sexuality and the old-maid stereotype, into an idea of librarian as “glamorous mistress of information” (Adams 297). Similar to this is an article from Vice Magazine, in which Swedish librarians pose for a fashion spread, dressed in stereotypical old maid librarian clothing, but the librarians also pose in mildly provocative poses, and discuss their experiences in librarianship, often in the context of romance and sexuality. http://www.vice.com/read/fashion-uk-v13n12.
The sexuality expressed by librarians is not always so subtle. At the 2009 ALA conference in Chicago, a librarian opened an anonymous Twitter account (@alasecrets) intended to give librarians attending the conference a forum to express what they were thinking. The account’s name and password were circulated among the attendees of the conference so that they could post freely and anonymously. While some tweets dealt with frustration at the conference proceedings, a large majority were about the sexual exploits of the librarians in attendance. This was picked up by the media, and sensationalized to support the stereotype of sexy librarians. However, it is interesting that some librarians, when given a chance to freely express themselves, chose to discuss their sex lives.
Some sample tweets:
“Hey! Is that a Kindle in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me, #ala2009 librarian? Evening looks promising…”
“Saturday evening. Chicago out of lube. #CityNotPreparedForTwentyThousandHornyLibrarians.”
“I don’t care if you are the head of the rare books collection, you are not sticking *that* in *there*…”
This idea of providing librarians with a chance to express their sexuality is nothing new. In 1992, librarian Will Manley was fired from his position at the Wilson Library Bulletin after he sent a survey on sex to subscribers. The magazine refused to publish the survey, and Manley later self-published it on his blog (http://www.willmanley.com/2010/04/11/will-unwound-78-the-1992-librarians-and-sex-survey-results-by-will-manley). Questions dealt with sexuality in collection development (with librarians largely supporting including sexual materials in their holdings), but more interesting were the questions about librarians’ personal sexual preferences. 20% of respondents admitted to having sex in the stacks, and 22% felt that libraries should have condom dispensers in their bathrooms. Blowing away the idea of the virgin librarian, only 4% of respondents had never had sex, while most respondents – 37% – had their first sexual encounter between age 19 and 21. 91% of respondents had read The Joy of Sex. Finally, Manley facetiously asked respondents to pick the Shakespearean title that best described their first sexual encounter. 28% chose Comedy of Errors, 23% chose Midsummer’s Night Dream, 22% chose Much Ado About Nothing, 21% chose All’s Well That Ends Well, and 6% chose Rape of Lucrece. While this survey is extremely dated, it demonstrates that librarians are not the prudish stereotype that popular culture would have us believe. It would be interesting to conduct a follow up survey along the same lines today.
As these examples show, librarians are not, as Manley describes them, “cataloger aliens from a distant galaxy [sent] to tidy things up a bit bibliographically here on Earth… reproduce[ing] through some asexual, biochemical cloning process” (Manley 120). Librarians are complicit in their own sexualization. This can be seen as a response to the negative stereotypes. However, rather than destroying the stereotypical representations, librarians tend to pick and choose facets of the stereotype and then further them. This movement perhaps stems from a desire to make the idea of old maid librarian their own. By redeploying the physical and behavioural components of the stereotype, librarians “can work within and against the cultural discourses that produced the stereotype in the first place” (Adams 291). Adams argues that this follows similar tactics used by other marginalized groups for combating stereotypes, like the self-appropriation of terms like queer by the gay community, and bitch by the feminist movement. By denying the representation, librarians will only serve to reinforce the idea, but by utilizing it, librarianship can develop a “new professional identity” (Adams 293).
It is this desire for professionalization that has in part led to this point in librarianship. Librarians have spent most of their modern history striving to prove themselves as professionals. This goes hand in hand with the established crisis culture of librarianship. The first female librarians were marginalized in their profession, and spent much of the twentieth century searching for a new identity that would put them on par with their male colleagues. With the spread of second-wave feminism in the 1960s, women increasingly fought for equity with men in the workforce. The corresponding movement toward professionalization is no doubt linked to an underlying fear of being treated as lower tiered librarians. By emphasizing the professional nature, and borrowing tactics from ‘respected’ male professions, like law, female librarians have attempted to restructure both their own view, and outside perceptions (for a comprehensive look at this subject, see Harris 1992). These strategies deemphasized feminine traits, focusing on presenting oneself in a professional, and implicitly masculine, manner.
The self-sexualization of female librarians can be considered a direct response to this. After years of attempting to deemphasize their sexuality, librarians have begun reclaiming it. This correlates with a larger trend in society wherein women have increasingly claimed ownership over their sexuality (Attebury). No longer satisfied with being seen as serious, sexless, professionals, female librarians have both accepted and perpetuated the new sexual stereotypes in media and popular culture. Can this be seen a reaction to a perceived equality finally achieved between male and female librarians? Do women as librarians feel as if they have been granted professional merit? Or does it stem from a different place? By asserting their sexuality, some of these women might be achieving empowerment and asserting their sexual equality in relation to men. Perhaps female librarians feel as if professionalization has never really been achieved, and this sexualization is simply a shift in the pervasive communal anxiety found in librarianship, as librarians focus on their ability to control at least one area of stereotype. What has emerged is a field where women are divided between stating their worth as skilled and staid professionals, and objectifying themselves for the purpose of humour or validation.
Recent years have seen a push for public libraries in particular to market themselves to their users in order to maintain relevance and funding. Sexualization can play into this. As librarianship becomes more and more business-oriented, some policy makers have suggested that libraries utilize this growing trend to promote their services. In Westminster, England, the city council head of communications, Alex Aiken, proposed that libraries could use their attractive staff for press and marketing purposes. At the 2006 Public Library Authorities Conference in Southampton, he argued that “the concept of the librarian has to change and perhaps a start would be to abolish the title itself, with its connotations of middle-aged conservatism… From racy books to photogenic librarians and new services that counter outdated perceptions, media is a powerful tool to shape image” (London Evening Standard). Unsurprisingly, this statement generated dissent, as librarians condemned Aiken’s remarks as sexist and offensive to their profession. What about those librarians who are complicit in their own sexualization? Would they see some merits in Aiken’s points? Or would they also dismiss his ideas, not out of a visceral reaction to being considered sexy, but because it’s a sexualization of which they are not in control?