Libraries, librarians and library use in popular culture

As mentioned in a previous post, one version of my thesis included research on the role of libraries and librarians in popular culture. As I didn’t follow this aspect for my thesis, I thought that I might as well share what I had discovered. Here follows a somewhat more academic tine than I’m used to taking on this blog. I’d love to hear any comments.


‘Stereotypes do not arise from a vacuum and are originally modelled to some degree on reality’ (Heylman, 1975, p. 26) and this is probably true of how librarians were and were depicted in the past. However, fifty years after the portrayal of Marian the librarian in Hollywood film The Music Man and nineteen years after the introduction of the unhelpful and obstructive Madam Pince (Rowling, 1997, p. 146), the school librarian in the Harry Potter series, the question of what has changed in terms of librarianship and in turn, the depiction of librarians is still of interest. Certainly libraries and the way libraries are used have changed dramatically in that same period. The introduction of computers, the Internet, eBooks and maker spaces (areas in a library where patrons can use technology to create objects, Bagley, 2012) has led to libraries reinventing themselves to remain relevant and to ensure that they are serving the evolving needs of patrons. Where books and periodicals were once the mainstay of libraries, all types of multimedia, interactive and creative resources have been added to collections and resources. Librarians now develop learning sessions for patrons on how to access and download eBooks, they run how to use Skype demonstrations and demonstrate what can be made with a 3D printer. As libraries, librarians and library use have changed, is it useful to ask if the depictions of all three of these points of interest have also changed and whether the depictions are positive or negative.

Popular representations of librarians tend towards stereotypes which have stagnated since the early 1960s (Shaffer & Casey, 2013, p. 39). This is despite the fact that libraries and library use have been undergoing dramatic changes since the introduction of computers (White, 2012, p. 7). One recent example of the depiction of librarians in popular culture aimed at children (although not exclusively so), suggests that an outdated image of librarians persists despite the rapid changes in libraries of recent history. In 2013, Lego introduced a librarian minifigure, a cardigan and glasses-wearing female who holds a coffee mugs bearing the slogan “Shhhh”. The Lego website (2013) states:


Books are just about the Librarian’s most favorite thing in the entire world. Reading them can take you on exciting adventures in far-off lands, introduce you to new friends and cultures, and let you discover poetry, classic literature, science fiction and much more. If only everybody loved to read as much as she does, the world would be a better place… and quieter, too! The Librarian feels that it’s extremely important to treat a book with the proper respect. You should always use a bookmark instead of folding down the corner of the page. Take good care of the dust jacket, and don’t scribble in the margins. And above all else, never – ever – return it to the library late! (Lego, 2013).

Lego’s resurgent popularity means that this stereotypical example of librarians will be widely disseminated, to both children and adults, particularly as it is part of a set of minifigures that has already sold out. The text accompanying the minifigure endorses a stereotypical and nostalgic view of librarians, with no reference to the tasks and activities undertaken in a hyperconnected world

Popular Culture

The definition of popular culture alone could be the topic for its very own thesis, and the terminologies used for the word ‘audience’ can be pejorative; however, I will attempt to define it as simply as possible due to the constricts of space yet giving due weight to which the terminology plays in this investigation. In 1972, Horkheimer and Adorno decreed that ‘Movies and radio need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce.’ (1972, p. 121). However, by 1992, Fiske defines popular culture as the cultural tastes of people who are ‘subordinated’, especially those who make up minority groups (1992, p. 30). In 2007, Kidd (2007:86) states that popular culture is something that we encounter every day and is a normal part of our lives and that popular culture also includes items that have found global popularity (2007, p. 72). These three statements encompass the development of the definition of popular culture over the last four decades, from suspicion, to a niche market, to mainstream acceptance; popular culture once struggled to be recognised as a serious concept but now is accepted by the academy. Kidd explains (2007, p. 72) that in contemporary terms, the term popular culture is used as a marker of a text’s broad acceptance by society and may also be termed as famous.

Popular culture is ‘an informal socializing agent’ (Fluck, 1987, p. 36) and mass media is used by teenagers as a method of ‘self-socialization’ (Arnett, 1995, p. 520). This echoes the sentiments that popular culture helps to shape our interpretations of the world (Kidd, 2014, loc. 324). This feature of popular culture is similar to that of both libraries and children’s literature as they all have functions or roles of educating those who utilise them. While popular culture has a more informal role in the educational and socialisation process and libraries feature a type of self-education where patrons often pursue individual interests, children’s literature has a more traditional and formal and educational process. However, the shared educational and socialisation functions of libraries, popular culture and children’s literature can perform both independently and collectively to inform consumers of these modes to assumptions, beliefs and values ascribed to libraries, librarians and library use.  

Popular culture can take short cuts in producing easy sentiments developed by audiences by using overworked and tired clichés (Jenkins, 2007, pp. 2-3). The way in which libraries and librarians are depicted in popular culture seems to fit perfectly into this mould and is an important pointer of how consumer perceptions may be acquired and therefore stereotypes perpetuated. However, popular culture can enable communities to transform (Kidd, 2007, p. 80) and popular culture can designate a number of other vital social purposes including the development of customs (Kidd, 2007, p. 86). However, if we fully subscribe to Kidd’s theories of social change and the generations of norms, then the way in which libraries and librarians have been depicted in mass media and popular culture may be a driving force to honour libraries but undermine the profession of librarianship now and into the future.

Stereotypes in popular culture can be defined and classified as ‘“mental cookie cutters” – they force a simple pattern upon a complex mass and assign a limited number of characteristics to all members of a group’ (Nachbar and Lause, 1992, p. 236). Further, ‘Stereotypes are direct expressions of beliefs and values. A stereotype is a valuable tool in the analysis of popular culture because once the stereotype has been identified and defined, it automatically provides us with an important and revealing expression of otherwise hidden beliefs and values’ (Nachbar and Lause,1992, p. 237).

As stereotypes can be applied to people, vocations and places (Nachbar & Lause, 1992, pp. 236-237), it is apt to investigate the employment of stereotypes of libraries, librarians and library use in popular culture as the use of stereotypes both in popular culture and literature are valuable pointers to the assumptions, beliefs and values governing libraries, librarians and library use. Through popular culture, assumptions about librarians and their roles are rendered and disseminated to a broad audience, yet remain renderings of years gone by (Shaffer & Casey, 2013, p. 39). Nevertheless, these portrayals are both powerful and dangerous, perpetuating a false stereotype where one result of such stereotyping is that people outside of the stereotype (white, female, middle aged) may not consider librarianship as a profession (Lutz, 2005, p. 4), possibly denying the profession an eclectic and vibrant workforce that may represent people from a range of social and ethnic backgrounds.

Libraries, librarians and library use in popular culture

There has been little literature produced by the academy on how libraries and library use have been depicted in popular culture. However, the reverse is the case with librarians, with this profession having many examples of portrayals in popular culture and as such much has been written about these depictions. Most, if not all, of these essays have been written by librarians or library academics, echoing Heylman’s earlier statement regarding the interest in which librarians take in the portrayal of their profession (1975, p. 25).

Librarians have long acknowledged their problematic perceptions by the general public and that the view of a ‘lonely, stern, priggish, and strict spinster’ (Shaffer and Casey, 2013, p. 39) is the fulcrum of the stereotype of the profession in conventional civilisation. The image of librarians are either the ‘dragon’ or ‘meek, weak, geeks’ (Posner, 2003, p. 121) and it is simpler for characters to be classified in ‘black or white’ terms, rather than delving deeper into other hues (p. 112). In films, librarians with certain personality types are both ‘underrepresented and overrepresented’ (Williamson, 2002, p. 55) in comparison to the distribution of ‘real’ librarians amongst personality types. This shows a reliance on the age-old stereotype of the librarian without using depictions that are more true to life. Librarians have been stereotyped by their portrayal in Hollywood films (White, 2012, p. 38) and that the stereotype began with the cinematic release of the 1962 film The Music Man, where the ‘bun and glasses’ librarian is born into popular culture where the main female part, Marian the librarian, ‘sets the foundation for the curt, spinster librarian’ (Bukoff, 2002, p. 39). We begin to see the formulaic rendering of the librarian on the screen, which is further illuminated by the librarians seen in Hollywood films such as Ghostbusters and The Mummy where the librarians are depicted respectively as middle-aged, cardigan wearing and inept, and an inept, prudish spinster. The Mummy sequels portray Evelyn the librarian as a more glamorous character than the first movie; however, her profession is diminished in the sequels as it is only mentioned once and she is distanced from her profession (White, 2012, p. 45). The interpretation here is that a glamorous character and librarianship do not align. These representations of librarians in popular culture have the effect of ‘teaching’ audiences that such portrayals are representative of the librarianship profession, whereas there is no particular personality type that may be attributed to librarians (Fisher, 1988, p. 44).

Other well known films include Academy Award winning movies It’s a Wonderful Life, Philadelphia and Sophie’s Choice, which depict librarians as lonely and dowdy, ‘heartless, ill-informed…’ and racist respectively (White, 2012, pp. 50-55). Whereas the librarians in these last two films are derided, libraries are not, as both movies depict the library as a constructive place where patrons can find materials to improve and perhaps even change their lives (White, 2012, p. 55). The film Sophie’s Choice portrays a male librarian whose behaviour is so heartless, his abuse ultimately leads to Sophie’s suicide (White, 2012, p. 55).

Popular culture helps develop feelings that are widely shared by the broader community (Jenkins, 2007, p. 3). Here is where two dangers in the stereotypical renderings of librarians in popular culture can be located; the first is that these feelings are thoughts and emotions shared by many people from different cultures across the globe. If all of the people sharing the feeling that librarians are invariably controlling, mean, socially inept, unhelpful, unattractive and loveless, it is little wonder the profession is viewed in this way by the broader community. An example of this is where the media in the United States of America contribute to the problems of libraries by running ‘”Death of the library” stories’ (Miller, 2014, p. 8) which are problematic as they further promote the misinterpretations of libraries that are held by the wider community. If the journalists who produce such articles have visited a library recently or even completed any research into contemporary libraries at all must be questioned (Miller, 2014, p. 8). It appears that popular culture references, rather than research or personal experience, inform the media, which in turn perpetuates the stereotype of the library and librarians, which reinforces these concepts to broad audiences. The second danger can be identified as librarians having such memorable roles in some aspects of popular culture may lead audiences to see librarians as the most important aspect of libraries, to the detriment of libraries and library users. The way in which libraries are presented and used seem to have a reduced role in comparison to the renderings of librarians in popular culture, examples include The Music Man, Desk Set, Ghostbusters, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Sophie’s Choice.

The incidence of librarians being portrayed more frequently than libraries in popular culture relates to the fact that the majority of writings on librarianship in popular culture are engaged with the stereotypical rendering of the librarian character (Tancheva, 2005, p. 530). However, Tancheva helps fill the gap in the literature regarding the depiction of libraries in popular culture by critiquing the role and portrayal of libraries in three films; The Name of the Rose, The Wings of Desire and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. The library in The Name of the Rose is likened to a fortress (p. 534) and ‘is an institution of fear’ (p. 534). The Wings of Desire depicts both library and library use. The library and its books are well used by patrons, who do not need any guidance or assistance from librarians (p. 538) and the library is a place for and of the people, not for ‘the ideas in books’ (p. 538). In Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, although the library appears well organised, ‘there are no patrons… no books’ (p. 540); however, the presence of a stereotypical bun and glasses librarian is noted (p. 540). What is unusual though, is the ontological assertion by the librarian about the power the library holds over the reality of the planet (p. 540). Thus the planet must maintain its existence within the library’s archives or the planet will cease to exist. This is a powerful library indeed, but one that is managed by a stereotypical librarian. Each library analysed embodies the importance of ‘access to information’ (p. 542) and asks the question ‘who has the power to decide what makes it into the library: the chief librarian, the rulers of the state, religious and/or spiritual leaders, users?’ (p. 543). I find Tancheva’s use of the word ‘power’ most interesting here, as I believe that it is the power of the librarian, who in most cases selects the information held within libraries, that is of concern to the patriarchy. Librarianship is a feminised profession (Carmichael 1992, Piper & Collamer, 2001, p. 406 and Lutz, 2005, p. 6), and many feminised professions suffer from low status and salaries (Kroeger, 1994, p. 52). Thus the feminised profession of librarianship, which has the power to influence patrons through the selection (and censorship) of library materials is seen as a threat to the patriarchy, therefore I believe this is why librarians, but not libraries, are often weakened by unflattering stereotypical depictions in popular culture and, in some cases, literature.

Radford and Radford’s (2001) study is one of few academic papers that take examples of the depiction of both libraries and librarians in popular culture and uses Foucauldian discourse analysis to identify why these institutions and those who staff them are invariably rendered stereotypically. It is the relationship between ‘control, discourse and fear’ (Radford & Radford, 2001, p. 300) that almost necessitates writers and producers of popular culture to represent libraries and librarians in a stereotypical manner (pp. 308-309). As libraries are often depicted in popular culture (and indeed often are such in real life) as large, imposing buildings that house and control access to (sometimes) radical thoughts, philosophies and ideas of scholars long since dead represents extreme power, both physical and conceptual (p. 309). As some library users find such dual concepts of power frightening or overwhelming, they may fear the library (p. 313) and/or the librarian (pp. 317-318). As libraries tend to have complete control and order of resources, patrons can be nervous or afraid of unassumingly bringing disorder to such a place (by putting things back in the wrong place, or having overdue or lost books) and as such being humiliated by the gatekeeper, a librarian (p. 318-319) and taken back to childhood misdemeanours and being embarrassed by a figure of authority (p. 322). To me, it is a radical and worrying idea that libraries and librarians must be represented as objects of fear in popular culture, as this is how they are recognised by the masses (pp. 324-325). This would entail the stereotypical portrayals of librarians to continue into the future, while libraries may be seen as monstrous institutions that represent power over the library user.

The topics of libraries and librarians in popular culture are at the core of  Konstantinova’s (2013) study, one of the few academic papers that focus on the depiction of both libraries and librarians. In this instance, three television programs; Doctor Who, The Librarian and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were analysed. The libraries in Doctor Who and The Librarian were deemed to be positive depictions (Konstantinova, 2013, pp. 14-15); however, there was no representation of a librarian in Doctor Who (p. 14) and the title character in The Librarian holds no formal library qualifications, is ‘socially awkward’ (White, 2012, p. 47) and has no life outside of the library (p. 50). My view that of the mythical, powerful library, and the impotent, unnecessary or invisible librarian is reinforced by these examples.

Regarding the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series, ‘the library as a space and the significance of Giles’s job as librarian are points that have heretofore escaped most critics’ attention’ (Konstantinova, 2013, p. 20). I agree that critics of popular culture have rarely attended to the school library as either a physical form or a learning space; however, amongst library academics, there has been discussion of Giles the character. Due to the popularity of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television show (it is listed as one of the top 50 television shows in the United States of America, CBS, 2002), the image and role of Rupert Giles, Sunnydale High School’s librarian is a pervasive and divisive representation of school librarians. Giles has been described both as providing ‘one of the most negative and over-simplified images of a librarian ever depicted by the entertainment industry’ (Cullen, 2000, p. 42) and a ‘hero librarian’ (DeCandido, 1999, p. 44). He is further described as ‘inept’ (DeCandido, 1999, p. 44) and ‘befuddled’ (p. 44), and the librarian stereotype is ‘not necessarily positive’ (p. 44). Giles’s focus on providing information to Buffy is at the educational expense of the rest of the Sunnydale High School student cohort (Cullen, 2000, p. 42). As the teachers or students rarely use the library for curriculum purposes, research or recreational reading, I consider Giles’s role is ineffectual. The danger that such a negative depiction places on the library profession   is far-reaching; ‘If future politicians, university deans, and other fund managers are brought up on a diet of popular movies and TV shows that never realistically portray the services librarians offer, none of them will value our skills and expertise enough to keep us in business’ (Cullen, 2000, p. 42). This demonstrates that the image of the librarian as portrayed by popular culture is embodied in the expectations and assumptions of the general public and thus such erroneous depictions are dangerous to the profession of librarianship.

It seems that Hollywood finds the stereotypical image of the librarian much more profitable to portray, rather than focussing on libraries and library use; certainly the academy has written far more about the image of the librarian in popular culture as opposed to libraries and library use. However, my view is that it is the belief of a patriarchal society that the power of librarianship, which is a feminised profession (Carmichael 1992, Piper & Collamer, 2001, p. 406 and Lutz, 2005, p. 6), must be negated in some fashion, and this is achieved in popular culture through the stereotypical rendering of librarians.

Thus, generally, the depiction of libraries, librarians and library use in popular culture can be grouped into two contrasting themes. Libraries are depicted, as helpful places where information gleaned may have the power to change and even save lives. The depictions of library use is somewhat confusing; library use is often rendered as traditional, that is, books seem to be valued over other forms of information as the key to unlocking both knowledge and power; however the use of the library can be a catalyst for changing lives. These positive aspects are largely juxtaposed with either the invisible or the stereotypical, negative or unhelpful librarian, with few exceptions. However, one study justifies the depiction of libraries as imposing places and librarians as stereotypically rendered (Radford & Radford, 2001, pp. 309) as it is believed that this is how audiences understand them.


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