What do picture when you think of librarians? Librarians are often stereotyped as being conservative, orderly, thorough, and passive (1, 2, 3)? Perhaps the best known librarian stereotype is the "spinsterly and authoritarian naysayer over-concerned with regulations and maintaining a hushed library environment" (4). But where do these stereotypes come from, and are they really true?
Perhaps librarians' professional invisibility is to blame for some of the stereotypes. Most people think that everyone who works in libraries is a librarian, and that librarian duties consist mainly of shelving and checking out books (5, 6).
Librarians are not usually involved in ...view middle of the document...
Talking was strictly prohibited in the scriptoriums, and hand signals were devised for communication (8). Although the hand signals have fallen out of use, perhaps the image of librarians as strict silence enforcers has its roots in the medieval scriptoriums. (For more information and illustrations, see this web site on Medieval Book Production).
Beginnings of Public Libraries
Public libraries in both England and North America began in the 1850s (9). They were seen as a way to improve society, both through technical and cultural education. In particular, cultural education was supposed to refine the behaviour and moral standards of the working classes (7). According to one prominent 19th century librarian, books were carefully selected to instill in the workers' minds "a taste for the better class of literature" which would prevent workers from "constantly wallowing in the lowest depths, amidst all the foulness of books teeming with vice and false morality" (7).
Are the conservative, moralistic, and rule-abiding stereotypes of librarians descended from librarians like this one? Hmmm...
It's not surprising that librarians' images are portrayed through books; after all, cataloging, classifying, and providing access to books are some of librarians' main responsibilities!
Fictional portrayals of librarians are mixed. While some books portray librarians as "a species of walking dictionary" (5), two studies of children's books found that librarians are often portrayed non-traditionally. Though these librarians are still predominantly female, they are not all old maids. Rather, they are often portrayed as young, attractive, and either married or likely to marry (10).
Academic, non-fiction books show a more exciting and proactive side to librarians. For example, they detail librarians' contributions to the feminist (11), civil rights (12), and anti-war movements (12). In addition, academic books also detail the importance of libraries to democracy (13).
Finally--windows into the librarian soul! And some men! Books like Lester Pearson's 1911 Librarian at Play (14) and Harlan H. Ballard's 1929 Adventures of a Librarian (15) have promising titles. A cursory reading of these autobiographical stories and essays reveals librarians who were most often learned, gentle, social, humorous, compassionate, wise, and even a bit mischievous. But by today's norms, they don't exactly seem adventurous. Still, what's wrong with that? Those are all admirable qualities.
Similarly, though Johanna E. Tallman's 1985 book, Check Out a Librarian, promises "amusing, unusual and occasionally scary experiences" (16), it deals more with library administration than adventure, and reveals a librarian who is hard-working, efficient, and dilligent.
On the other hand, the 1972 book Revolting Librarians, edited by Celeste West and Elizabeth Katz, is dedicated, in part, to...