4/13/14 – LOSING THE LABEL
“She’s an old maid! She never married … She’s just about to close up the library!”
Recognize that line? It’s from the film It’s A Wonderful Life and illustrates the sad fate of Mary Hatch had her husband George Bailey never been born. That’s right; the poor thing would have lived her life repressed, bespectacled, alone. In short, she’d have been … *gasp* … a librarian!
In the 1980s, the American Library Association (ALA) and Special Libraries Association (SLA) paid for a task force to study the image of librarians. Of course, the study couldn’t help but turn up all those caricatures of unattractive, near-sighted bunheads shushing everyone in sight. Library workers who voiced their frustrations with this stereotype certainly were not the first to do so. Librarians as far back as the 1930s and 1940s had been similarly displeased, defending their lovability with articles such as “Are We Librarians Genteel?” (1937), “Can’t Librarians Be Human Beings?” (1945), and “Librarians Do Have Dates!” (1947).
After the 1980s study, however, librarians were more determined than ever (and technology more far-reaching) to shake the stereotype. Rogue librarians have sprouted up all over the place. There are more than a few websites and blogs depicting sassy librarians, among them “Lipstick Librarian,” “Bellydancing Librarian,” “Librarian Avengers,” and “Mr. Library Dude.” There have been far-from-prudish fundraisers: the Men of the Stacks 2012 calendar presented twelve more-or-less dressed male librarians doing their best to remedy stodgy ideas about library workers. Additionally, the success of the “Tattooed Librarians of the Ocean State” 2014 calendar surprised even its sponsor, the Rhode Island Library Association. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been such a big surprise, since the project was inspired by the success of “Tattooed Youth Librarians of Massachusetts” and similar fundraising campaigns in Texas and the Pacific Northwest. To quote one of the Men of the Stacks models, “We have to be the ones to go out there and tell people who we are” (Von, librarian, PhD student, and June’s model).
The drab, puritanical stereotype of the librarian that’s been around in films and novels for ages is clearly exiting stage right. But perhaps it’s time to recognize that it’s been replaced by another stereotype, that of the edgy, super-cool librarian. Is this really any better?
As is true with any profession, libraries are staffed by real people, and no image or stereotype can accurately reflect who they are. What’s more important is what they do, a fact that often gets lost in efforts to create a representative persona.
And librarians do a lot. According to the Public Library Association, today’s librarian is “a technology expert, information detective, manager, literacy expert, trainer, community programming coordinator, reader’s advisor, children’s storyteller, material reviewer, and buyer.” Many librarians see themselves as defenders of free speech and champions of curiosity and learning. They’re not wrong, either. In some areas, the library is the only place outside of school where knowledge is valued and information exists to help turn dreams into reality. When you think about it, all this is way cooler than any trendy image could ever be.
Today kicks off National Library Week in the United States, and the National Library Association is encouraging you to think about and share how the library has changed your life. While you’re thinking, I bet a librarian or two pops into your memories, defying stereotype simply by virtue of doing her/his job well. And that’s the way it should be.
In honor of National Library Week, I leave you with a few famous librarians who spent time serving American libraries: Benjamin Franklin, Melvil Dewey (founder of the Dewey Decimal System), Golda Meir, J. Edgar Hoover, Beverly Cleary, Laura Bush, Madeleine L’Engle, Joanna Cole, Stanley Kunitz (U.S. Poet Laureate), Jessamyn West, and Nancy Pearl.
Now go read something!