The most prevalent stereotype of female librarians is that of the old maid, or as Katherine Adams describes, “a loveless frump hiding behind her spectacles and surrounded by her books” (288). This representation of female librarians is grounded in the historical perceptions, as discussed in our section “Constructing the Image of Librarians.” The tendency in 20th century was to treat women who devoted themselves to any profession with derision. Unmarried women were seen as unnatural, and a challenge to the economic freedom of men. In this climate, the idea of a dedicated, or perhaps unmarried librarian took on a negative connotation (Attebury).
Gary and Marie Radford take a Foucauldian approach to explaining this female librarian stereotype. They consider the female librarian stereotype as part of the representation of repression of women, couched in terms of power and knowledge. They also look at the issue through feminist theory. To the Radfords, the librarian “exists to put a damper on all spontaneity, silencing the exuberance of the young with a harsh look or hiss” (253). This appears in many forms, like literature, movies, plays, newspapers, and cartoons, where it is presented for entertainment. Their argument constructs the library as a place of order and control. The librarian is the keeper of the library and the holder of that control. In contrast, the library user has the capacity to disrupt the order and prevent the realization of the ideal library. Librarians have to enforce strict rules, like circulation and fines, and this defines the relationship with the user. Users don’t know what librarians do and are afraid to ask questions, overawed by the library and its system of order. There is a fear of the institution and the discourse, and a subsequent fear of that disorder. Librarians are portrayed as gatekeepers of knowledge, who reflect and neutralize the dangers of disorder. The librarian is a warning to users to not disrupt the order (Radford 258-260).
This stereotype has worked its way into mainstream media, and is perpetuated by popular culture. A prominent example discussed throughout the literature is from It’s a Wonderful Life. In the film, main character George Bailey is shown an alternate reality in which he’d never existed, and in this scenario, one of his main concerns is what has happened to his wife, Mary. He is horrified to learn that she never married, and that she’s been forced into the life of a spinster librarian, complete with newly-acquired glasses (Lowe 77). Clearly this is a representation of the disdain for unmarried women that librarians were seen to embody. (Link).
This stereotype is not necessarily used for dramatic effect, but can be harnessed for humorous purposes. In an episode of the “The Middle,” a librarian portrayed by Betty White fits all of the physical stereotypes attributed to spinster librarians, like glasses and cardigan, as well as the behavioural stereotypes, such as a devotion to books and constant shushing of patrons. The humour is derived from her obsessive and possessive nature, so much so that she takes it upon herself to threaten a child who challenges her authority. (Link).
An additional humorous mainstream media representation is found in the world of advertising. A 1995 commercial for Saturn automobiles portrays a frumpy middle-aged, glasses-wearing librarian. The quietness of the car’s engine is contrasted to her strict library standards for noise level. She is depicted as mean and frigid, and the connotation is that librarians are solemn and not to be crossed. It is not an image that is inviting, and it perpetuates a negative representation of librarians. This commercial was contested by many librarians, who took their complaints directly to the company. The company responded that the commercial was never intended to offend anyone. Saturn did not consider that the advertisement could be seen as negative, and simply thought it was humorous (Dodd 3-4).
Portrayals of the old maid stereotype also appear outside of mainstream media such as user-generated content found on websites like YouTube. This is a demonstration of how the stereotype has permeated general society. The public is no longer reliant on the media for cultivating the stereotype as it has embedded itself into communal consciousness. According to a study of YouTube videos done by Ramirose Attebury, the majority of the user-generated, library centric videos presented librarians as inept or old maids utilizing harsh humour or parody. Attebury believes that this might be reactionary and have to do with their dissatisfaction with their own library. In contrast, the videos that were uploaded by librarians were largely portrayals of heroic librarians and when they did use humour, it was more to make it seem like they were in on the joke. Attebury maintains that this is a way for librarians to take control of the stereotype (Attebury).
Much of the literature makes reference to the idea that the concern about the librarian stereotype is something that exists almost solely within the profession. Gregg Sapp writes that “much more than members of other, more established professions, librarians feel slighted by their public image… The American Library Association has likened its crusade against the stereotype to a war” (Radford & Radford 254). Roma Harris adds that this obsession over the image has conditioned librarians to strictly monitor that image in popular culture and media, adding to the anxiety (Radford & Radford 254). Numerous studies of the personality traits of librarians have since been discredited by later scholars who poked holes in their methodology and conclusions. David Fisher looked at multiple personality trait studies like one done by A.I. Bryan, and found that even when the studies were flawed, the anxiety caused by the obsession with image made librarians see problems that were not actually there. For example, Bryan’s study found that librarians scored below average on leadership and self-confidence, average in terms of masculinity and lack of nervous tenseness/irritability. However, librarians seem to want to make the negative image worse by confirming it. A librarian reviewing those same results reported that librarians were “found to be insecure, suffered from inferiority complexes, were uncomfortable and inadequate in social situations and exhibited less dominant leadership characteristics” (Fisher 39).
Linked to this pervasive anxiety is the idea of defining librarianship as a profession. Since librarianship is largely a female profession, there has almost been a need to seek reassurance and legitimize the profession. The same can be said of other female dominated professions like nursing and as a result these lines of work try to mimic male professions like law and professorship (Harris 1-17). The professionalization movement helped to ground the old maid librarian stereotype. The anxiety felt in the profession became cyclical. It was something that was felt early in the profession when women were trying to be taken seriously, which resulted in the old maid stereotype. Then this stereotype became problematic in itself when it fostered more negativity.