It is a well established fact that librarianship is a predominately female career field. In 2004 the Canadian Library Association (CLA) conducted a study and found that nearly eight in ten librarians in Canada were female. Among paraprofessionals, females held nine out of every ten positions. The least likely to be female were librarians and paraprofessionals working in academic libraries. Generally, most Canadian librarians were characterized as 79% female, and 65% were over 45 years of age (CLA 43-47). A similar study was conducted among the membership of the American Library Association (ALA) in 2006. The ALA discovered that credentialed librarians were mostly women, aged 45-54. Library assistants were more predominantly female and likely to be younger than 35. In total, 80% of the ALA membership at the time was female (ALA 10). It is within this context that a distinct profession has emerged, and with it an equally distinct stereotype. The perception of librarianship has shifted. Originally considered an exclusively male profession, the 19th and 20th centuries saw librarianship become feminized, beginning a cycle wherein female librarians have both reinforced, developed, and appropriated stereotypes.
In a discussion of librarian stereotypes, it is important to note that male stereotypes existed well before female ones. In early times, libraries were primarily academic, and staff were exclusively male. As the profession changed, so did the image. Prior to 1870, when more women entered the profession, Jody Newmyer asserts that librarians were perceived as “grim, grouchy, eccentric, and male” (44). Arnold Sable reaffirms this image, categorizing male librarians as “bibliophiles, a pale, undernourished man who lived only for is books” (Dickinson 99).
Modern libraries had their origin in colonial America in institutions of higher learning. Libraries had limited hours, short loan periods, and loaned exclusively to professors or people with special permission. Thad Dickinson maintains that these restrictions on libraries aided in the formation of stereotypes for librarians as enforcers and strict disciplinarians, as once a month librarians had to inventory the books, and personally account for the missing books financially at the end of this term (Dickinson 99).
In early library history, the status of librarians was unclear. At some colleges, professors would rotate as librarian and sometimes the presidents would serve in that role. Other scholars say that there was no status associated with the job, and no special qualifications needed (Dickinson 100). The stacks were closed, so only librarians had access to the materials. There was no reference service provided to patrons, and no instruction on information literacy. There was also no collection development, as librarians relied almost solely on gifts, until later when they had to fundraise for new materials.
Eventually there was a shift in colleges towards research as part of higher learning, which benefited libraries. They now needed bigger collections and more access. Coupled with this was the emerging public library movement, which helped pave the way for reference services, traditionally considered as a distraction from the librarian’s duties as keeper of the books (Dickinson 101). This movement likely served to reinforce the stereotype of librarians as frigid and unaccommodating. This is backed by some classic portraits of librarians. John Langdon Sibley, a Harvard librarian from 1856 to 1877, was considered “primarily a collector and a conservator” who had “little interest in casual readers and had no tolerance for the abuse of the materials or infraction of rules.” One anecdote refers to the president of Harvard asking Sibley what he was so excited to be doing, and Sibley replying that he was hunting for two books missing from the collection. Sibley conformed to the stereotype of librarians as unyielding authority figures. Similarly, a professor at Columbia University in 1876 wrote of librarian Beverly Robinson Betts, claiming, “he seemed generally displeased when anyone asked for a book and positively forbidding when asked to buy one” (Dickinson 101). Historical figures like Sibley and Betts provided the basis for building librarian stereotypes.
With the introduction of women into the profession, these same stereotypes took on a new meaning. Dee Garrison argues that rapid feminization of libraries also played a role in the change in attitudes to women in the workforce in general. In 1852, the first female clerk was hired in the Boston Public Library; by 1878, two thirds of library employees were women. By 1910, women comprised 78.5% of library workers. The library offered lots of jobs for women. The pay was low, but the tasks required educated workers, both reasons why men didn’t oppose women in the job. The library was molded to fit the women’s sphere of activities, as the work mirrored skills found in housekeeping and cultural activity, and did not require other skills or strength (Garrison 132). In the long term, this made it difficult to professionalize librarianship and affected the type of service provided by the library. As one of the few places open to educated women for employment, it served to further the low status of women, and shaped the role of the library in society which marginalized it as a source of amusement.
As the twentieth century approached, the number of libraries grew rapidly. The 1876 Report on Public Libraries included 3682 libraries in the United States, with a collective holding of just over 12 million books. With this growth of libraries, male library administrators welcomed more women as library assistants. Public libraries were supported by donations and taxes, therefore libraries needed a low cost workforce so that most of the money could go to the books. At a 1877 conference of British and American librarians in London, Justin Winsor stated women “soften our atmosphere, they lighten our labor, they are equal to our work, and for the money they cost – if we must gauge such labor by such rules – they are infinitely better than equivalent salaries will produce of the other sex” (Garrison 133). He also instructed libraries to look to the female colleges for employees, where “we can command our pick.” The only other job at the time that would hire women at similar rate was teaching. The teaching profession also needed educated women to do the jobs, and while librarians had similar qualifications as the teachers, the library wages were less. Library work allowed women to practice their “presumed special feminine talents” (Garrison 133).
Garrison contends that as new ideas emerged, they clashed with the idea of the women’s sphere. Women began to claim their right to individualism, but there was no radical call for social change to accompany this. Theories began to develop as to why women could now work in certain fields. Teaching was related to mothering and therefore acceptable for women, and female writers, musicians and artists were acceptable because of the Victorian ideal of feminine love of beauty and their sensitivity. Women were moving into the workforce but still maintained that idea of the women’s sphere. The library also worked with this women’s sphere theory because it held books which were representative of culture. Women were now seen as the guardians of culture as it fell within their sphere (Garrison 135). Female librarians only made the idea of women as the guardians of culture more clear. Education and charity were also considered part of the female sphere, and educating and uplifting the morals of the masses was a major mission of the early library.
One proponent of female librarianship was Melvil Dewey. He saw the librarian as holding a higher place in society then the teacher or the clergy. Dewey stated “is it not true that the ideal librarian fills a pulpit where there is service every day during the waking hours, with a large proportion of the community frequently in the congregation? … [The library is] a school in which the classes graduate only at death?” (Garrison 136). Additionally, he encouraged women who were considering teaching to go to the library for a job instead, because it was less strenuous and crowded than teaching, and that this peaceful nature of the library would make up for the lesser pay.
As more women joined the library profession, the literature changed to reflect it. The focus changed to a sort of welcoming, homey atmosphere, which softened the library. Garrison avers that dual purpose to this. It served to draw in more patrons by making them feel more welcome, and by subtly expanding the women’s sphere to include libraries by making library skills feminine skills (Garrison 137). Women were also preferred for cataloging duties, as they needed patience and attention to detail for the monotonous task. The role of the librarian in regards to children was also undisputedly female.
Men in the same jobs were paid more and headed the biggest and most prestigious libraries. In spite of this the literature of the time emphasized the pride that women were so prevalent in libraries and not this inequality. The twelve female representatives at the ALA 1876 meeting only added to the submissive image. They were “the best listeners, and occasionally would modestly take advantage of gallant voices, like Mr. Smith’s, to ask a question or offer a suggestion” (Garrison 139). Essentially, it appeared as if women did not want to bring about major change, as if they were afraid of rocking the boat, or they didn’t want to upset the male/female relationships, even if they did want to advance their positions within the library. Societal ideas were holding women back, as generations of women were taught that success depended on marriage and not work. They needed to think how to conform to feminine ideals. As much as they were widening the women’s sphere, they were also affirming their own positions as the feminine ideal. Librarianship was considered a proper pursuit for women, and encompassed female ideas (Garrison 140).
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.
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?
While many librarians welcome and propagate their sexualization, what is their response once it expands outside of their control? At some point, sexualization becomes explicit objectification, and a certain danger lies in cultivating an unhealthy sexual perception of female librarianship.
There is a large amount of literature published over the last forty years that deals with sexual harassment of female librarians. However, much of this focuses more on sexual discrimination in terms of career advancement, than on actual physical or emotional assault on the grounds of gender. Christina Baum’s Feminist Thought in American Librarianship describes sexual harassment as “unwanted, unreciprocated, unsolicited advances of men to women” (Baum 48). While this excludes the very real occurrence of sexual harassment of men, that topic will be covered in our discussion of male librarians, thus leaving this section to address unhealthy sexual attitudes towards female librarians specifically.
There are well-documented instances of sexual harassment coming from within the library institution, the same cannot be said for external sources of harassment towards female librarians. Multiple surveys of the profession have shown that female librarians are exposed to sexual harassment from library patrons. In Will Manley’s sex survey, 78 percent of the female respondents indicated that they had been sexually harassed by a library patron. What exactly constitutes harassment is not clarified, and though his survey process is far from scientific, that number is alarmingly high nonetheless. A more recent study, the Survey of Academic Librarians: Satisfaction with Library Employment, found that 11.35 percent of respondents had been sexually harassed either in their current position or in a previous library job. While this number is significantly lower, it is important to point out that it sampled only academic library staff members, and not public library staff. Academic libraries are much more formal and exclusive than public libraries, where patrons arguably have more freedom to interact with the library staff.
As disturbing as Manley’s findings are, a little discussed trend in publishing has pushed this negative sexualization even further. There is a large number of librarian-related erotic novels, and with e-book publishing exploding, these can be purchase off websites like Amazon.com for a very low cost. Candi Strecker provides synopses and commentary on several of these works. She explains that “part of the arousal factor seems to based on the paradox that a woman might be brainy and slutty. And even I am not immune to the erotic potential of the library setting, especially the dim and quiet seclusion of the stacks” (Strecker). Strecker’s summaries suggest that many of these works are somewhat positive in their portrayal of female librarians. The librarians are characterized as overworked and underappreciated, reclaiming their identity through their sexual exploits, which are presented as empowering and rewarding.
While the distinction between erotica and pornography is complicated by semantics, erotica is generally considered sensational, with the sexuality serving the plot, whereas pornography is considered to be exploitative and extremely graphic. Strecker presents the novels she studies as erotica, but the novel we chose to examine would likely be considered pornography. Heather Brown’s The Librarian’s Naughty Habit describes itself as a “chronicle of our times… the story of a woman trapped in a tide of social change” (Brown 3). Protagonist Samantha is presented as a woman of ambition and sexual liberalism, but this is misrepresentation. What initially begins with consensual, normative sexual encounters, soon turns unsettling. Samantha leverages the power of her sexual relationships to obtain her desired position as the children’s librarian, but then engages in sexual activity with 13 year old patrons. When she is removed from her position as children’s librarian, it is not even on account of her illegal behavior. Equally disturbing are a series of encounters which are not consensual on Samantha’s part, but which the author presents as otherwise. Finally, Samantha blackmails her supervisors to regain her position as children’s librarian, and the book’s final chapter suggests that the only way to get ahead in a field dominated by authoritative men and tightly wound old maids is to use your sexuality.
Fiction such as this perverts the sexualization of librarians. It is exploitative, and outside the control of librarians to normalize and promote. While the erotic fiction seemingly presents librarians in a somewhat positive manner, this work is degrading and dismissive of the profession, not to mention women in general. It is in situations like this that the sexualization of female librarians is no longer seen as a benefit to their self-consciousness, nor is it a method to encourage discourse on stereotypes; instead, it reinforces stereotypes, not only about sexuality, but also about the professional nature of female librarianship.
As has already been discussed, stereotype surrounding male librarians existed before the stereotypes about female librarians. Much of the basis for the librarian stereotypes that exist today for both men and women are rooted in the early idea of the academic male librarian (Dickinson 98). As the profession began to be considered largely a woman’s profession, the image of a typical librarian shifted from a man to a woman. As Penny Cowell puts it, a librarian is “a fussy old woman of either sex, myopic and repressed, brandishing or perhaps cowering behind a date-stamp and surrounded by an array of notices which forbid virtually every human activity” (Fisher 37). While this picture of librarians is negative and offensive as a whole, in particular the idea of a “fussy old woman of either sex” was damaging to male librarians. As a consequence, male librarians often separate themselves from the traditional role of librarianship. This has turned into male identity crisis within the profession and has resulted in a tendency to join ‘castes’ seen as superior in the library field, like academic librarianship (Harris 73).
However, it seems that this crisis surrounding the perceived effeminate identify of male librarians is only a concern within the profession (Dickinson 106). A study conducted by James V. Carmichael in 1991 of male librarians in the ALA paints an interesting picture of how male librarians view themselves. On one hand, men felt that they were implicitly expected to perform traditional male tasks while working in libraries, such as lifting and moving heavy objects, while being excluded from feminine tasks like interior decorating decisions (Carmichael 227). On the other side of things, male librarians believed that there were a greater number of gay men in the profession than proportional to other professions. Only 9% identified themselves as homosexual, which falls in line with studies of homosexuality in larger society which identified a rate of 8% at the time. “The fact that male librarians seem convinced otherwise may perhaps reflect their general feelings of insecurity about societal perceptions of librarians as ‘marginal’” (Carmichael 228). In a continuation of the study in 1992, Piper and Collamer found that when asked about the cultural view of male librarians 45.9% of academic librarians and 38.9% of public librarians felt there was a negative view (Piper and Collamer 409). Some respondents in Carmichael’s original survey admitted that if they had known how stereotypes would be before they entered the profession, they might have changed their mind about becoming a librarian (Carmichael 228).
This crisis culture that exists among male librarians seems to be contrary to how the outside world perceives male librarians. While there are fewer portrayals of male librarians in popular culture, when they are presented, the depictions are largely positive and vastly different from the picture of female librarians. While female librarians are either old maids or hyper-sexualized fantasy figures, male librarians are intelligent, capable and largely attractive if somewhat bookish. One example would be from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series where librarian/Watcher Rupert Giles helps Buffy to defeat demons and vampires. His knowledge is often key to Buffy’s success and the success of the plot (Luthman 77). Another example from Hollywood would be Noah Wyle in The Librarian film series. (Link). In these movies, Wyle plays a librarian hired to protect a collection of ancient artifacts and he becomes an action hero type of figure. Even the male librarians featured in YouTube videos are different from the portrayal of female librarians. While there are a lot of mock portrayals like inept male librarians and the authoritarian male librarians, a difference is that several videos feature violent, action hero librarians. For example, there is a video where a ninja librarian attacks a library patron for disturbing the library by talking on a cell phone (Poulin 5). It seems that while there is this concern about the male librarian image, that concern is largely unfounded. Unlike female librarians, men are not sexualized nor are they made to be “fussy old women.” While some of the characteristics of the librarian stereotype do come through, it is certainly not to the degree that female librarians are stereotyped
In addition to this, it seems that male librarians have better representatives championing for their cause and promoting positive images of librarians. The creators of the Men of the Stacks calendar acknowledge that there is a pervasive librarian stereotype of buns, glasses and shushing and they also acknowledge that the profession is largely dominated by women but they refuse to let that dictate how they see themselves and how they are perceived by others. In an effort to take control of the stereotype, support positive images and promote change, the Men of the Stacks made a calendar featuring 12 actual male librarians from around the world. According to their website, the project came about after the creators learned about another library themed calendar which featured only women. They later learned of all male library calendar but they felt that with both calendars, “either the stereotype was reinforced or it didn’t go far enough in breaking free of it.” This does not mean that the Men of the Stacks do not acknowledge some of the popular stereotypes that exist. In fact, they do quite the opposite as they feature a cheekily posed, nearly naked librarian for their January photograph. However, the example is more about the tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the stereotype then using sex and the naughty librarian image to sell. The rest of the calendar features librarians doing normal, everyday things like cooking. The goal of the calendar is to break down stereotypes by countering them with positive images of their own construction and under the control of the librarians themselves. Through the calendar, the creators hope to show who librarians really are, and nothing encompasses that better than their own words:
“We are, of course, professionals. We are educators, programmers, project managers, entrepreneurs, program coordinators, contractors, consultants, and speakers. We are academics. We are authors, diversity officers, historians, administrators, deans, professors, and researchers. We are creatives. We are musicians, bakers, painters, and storytellers. We are athletes, yogis, gym-rats, runners, and hikers. We are passionate. We are dog-lovers, radicals, conservatives, Christians, and Buddhists. We are in our twenties. We are in our forties. We are in relationships. We are perpetual bachelors. We are privileged beings who try to use their advantages to better the lives of others” (Men of the Stacks).
“Librarians would climb in cultural and economic value if Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep clamored to play exciting, complex librarians having love affairs and promoting information literacy in major cinematic roles” (Roberto and West 92). Whether it is the sexy librarian stereotype or the “fussy old woman of either sex,” the library profession is obsessed with the way that librarians are seen by the public. For better or for worse, librarians give a lot of power to these images that are created by others. Our obsession with image and the collection of these good and bad portrayals by those within the profession serves only to reinforce stereotypes and even to promote the idea of victimization (Luthman 778). While there is a never ending discussion about the images of librarians that exist in popular culture, very few librarians have suggestions for what to do to change the stereotypes.
Protesting and criticizing do nothing to change people’s perceptions, nor does ignoring the problem and doing nothing. The only solution is for librarians to do something, to act and to make things change. Once again, we defer to one of the few groups that is trying to make a difference in the way librarians are perceived, the Men of the Stacks:
“We can’t just leave it to others to tell the people who we are; that’s why the stereotypes about librarians continue to flourish. We have to be the ones to go out there and tell people who we are. It’s not enough to complain about inaccurate images of librarians; we must be able to present alternative, positive images in movies, books and, yes, blogs” (Men of the Stacks).
(Section titles taken from the LISNews Librarian Pickup Lines, accessed from http://lisnews.org/node/16369)
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