Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship

v.9 no.1 (Spring 2008)

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Old Maids, Policeman, and Social Rejects: Mass Media Representations and Public Perceptions of Librarians

Maura Seale, Arts and Humanities Librarian
Zumberge Library, Grand Valley State University, Allendale, Michigan, USA


This paper investigates the relationships between mass media representations of librarians and users’ perceptions and consequent use of librarians and libraries by asking three questions: 1.  How are librarians depicted by the mass media?  2.  How does the public perceive librarians and how might these views relate to mass media representations?  3.  What are the potential effects of these representations and perceptions?  Representations of librarians by the mass media generally fall into one of five somewhat discrete categories.  Public perceptions of librarians are somewhat different; although librarians are often described in positive terms, there is nearly no awareness as to the knowledge, duties, skills, and education of librarians and, as a consequence, public perceptions draw more heavily on stereotypical representations of librarians’ personalities.  Ultimately, librarians and libraries tend not to be effectively utilized, as users remain unaware of librarians’ abilities and responsibilities.

“I love you madly, madly, Madam Librarian...Marian
It's a long lost cause I can never win
For the civilized world accepts as unforgivable sin
Any talking out loud with any librarian
Such as Marian.....Madam Librarian” [1].

One of the most famous representations of librarians in American mass culture is that of Marian Paroo, the heroine of the 1962 Broadway musical and movie, The Music Man, and the librarian of River City, Iowa.  In this scene, she is being wooed by Harold Hill, a traveling salesman and con man, whose attentions she initially spurns because as her mother contends, her ideas about men are formed out of Marian’s “Irish imagination, [her] Iowa stubbornness, and [her] library full of books” and therefore no human male could possibly measure up to them [2].  The character of Marian as revealed through these two songs evokes several popular stereotypes of librarians – that they are sexless spinsters, that they are too wrapped up in the textual world to experience real life, that they always discourage talking.  These representations are not insignificant or unimportant; as media theorist Stuart Hall has argued, the mass media “produce…representations of the social world, images, descriptions, explanations and frames for understanding how the world is and why it works as it is said and shown to work” [3, p. 90].  Hall suggests that these representations, images, and so forth are essential to the formation of ideology and that individuals interpret and make sense of the social world from within ideology [3, p. 89].  These interpretations are thus inflected by but not reducible to the representations produced by the mass media.  The understandings of librarians promulgated by The Music Man and other items of mass culture can influence the public’s perceptions of and therefore uses of these institutions and their staff.  This paper seeks to investigate these relationships by addressing three questions:
  1. How are librarians depicted by the mass media?
  2. How does the public perceive librarians and how might these views relate to mass media representations?
  3. What are the potential effects of these representations and perceptions?

Mass Media Representations of Librarians

Mass media depictions of librarians have been extensively studied and the media selected for analysis have been quite diverse: television programs and made-for-television films [4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9] , advertisements [10, 11, 12], films [13, 4, 14, 10, 9, 12, 15], novels [9, 12, 7, 15], short stories [9, 12], children’s books [9, 16], comic books [17], action figures [10], and websites [14].  The approaches taken by these authors also vary widely.  Radford and Radford and Adams employ poststructuralism in order to assess representations of libraries and librarians while Dickinson and Yontz discuss the history of these ideas.  Others, such as Tobias, Black, and Walker and Lawson, analyze a specific format by tracking trends in how libraries and librarians are depicted; Kniffel’s, Cullen’s, and DeCandido’s articles each discuss a single fictional character and Posner’s work examines a single motif across several mediums.  Despite the variety in mediums and approaches, the ideas around librarians as identified by these authors do considerably overlap and can be classified into the following categories, which are not completely discrete: the old maid librarian, the policeman librarian, the librarian as parody, the inept librarian, and the hero/ine librarian.  The specifics of each category as well as examples will now be discussed.

The Old Maid Librarian

The old maid librarian is perhaps the most common stereotype of librarians found in the mass media; it is discussed in seven articles and might briefly be described, as Adams does, as “a shriveled prune,” “loveless frump,” and “sexless automaton” [14].  Highsmith’s discussion of Batgirl’s alter ego, Barbara Gordon, expands on this: she is “attired and made up in such a way as to guarantee to minimize whatever physical attractiveness she might possess beneath her frumpy exterior” [17, p. 78].  Walker and Lawson note that that the “young maid,” who is young, potentially attractive, and highly introverted is more common than the “old maid” in film, but the traits of bookishness, “primness, introversion, and sexual anxiety” are prevalent among young maid librarian characters such as those in The Music Man and It’s a Wonderful Life as well [13, p. 20].  Black also highlights the sexlessness of librarians in her discussion of Marian Parroo in The Music Man and notes that “[f]or TV librarians, love is usually bound up with books…they depend on books for romantic fulfillment,” citing examples such as Love Boat and Newhart [5, p. 40].  As with film, television librarians are better described as young maids, according to Black, as they are attractive but their appearance also always indicates repression in some way [5, p. 43].  The sexlessness and repression identified to librarians also seems to manifest itself in male characters, albeit in a different way.  Walker and Lawson observe that male librarians can best be described in terms of “mildness, civility, and intelligence,” which they suggest may be seen as feminine qualities [13, p. 21].  Similarly, Dickinson notes that male librarians have been portrayed as effeminate in the past and continue to be characterized as “mild,” “meek,” or “dreamy” [4, pp. 106-107].  In addition to being physically unappealing, introverted, repressed, and sexless, the old maid librarian is also old-fashioned and uncool.  Riccio and Radford and Radford find that several advertisements, including ones produced by HP, Saturn, and Bacardi, as well as the Nancy Pearl action figure associate being outdated and dull with librarians [12, 10, pp. 10-11] while Tobias notes that the figure of the librarian is often the “buffoon” in advertisements aimed at children and adolescents.

The Policeman Librarian

The fullest discussion of this depiction of librarians is found in the works of Radford and Radford.  In their 1997 article, Radford and Radford argue that the library is emblematic of order, rationality, and positivism; the “librarian-god” is the “guardian of rationality and knowledge…who has the power to render discipline and punishment” [12].  This argument is expanded to include the motifs of the library police and the humiliation of the user in Radford and Radford’s 2001 article [9].  The humiliation of the user is characterized by the depiction of the librarians as “a fearsome figure…capable of handing out punishment in the form of public humiliation” and can be found in the films such as Sophie’s Choice and Party Girl and fiction such as The Name of the Rose  [9].  Occasionally, this humiliation is infantilizing and like a parent, the librarian is often portrayed as engaging in the surveillance of users [9].  The library policeman is a fuller depiction of these authoritative librarians, who also has “the ability to humiliate, to shame, [and] to mete out punishments,” but unlike these librarians, can also “carry out terrible and brutal retribution,” such as the title character in Stephen King’s short story, “The Library Policeman” [9].

Although Radford and Radford emphasize the theoretical implications of these representations to a greater extent than other authors, this depiction of librarians often appears within other analyses.  Dickinson briefly mentions a Seinfeld episode that features a “library investigator,” who is “extremely zealous” and vaguely threatening as well as the librarian in Sophie’s Choice [4, p. 107].  Black discusses television librarians who demonstrate an “excessive need for control and order” and their propensity for “exacting, disproportional retribution” when faced with unruly users and overdue books [5, p. 45-52).  In a different interpretation Church suggests that librarians are often portrayed as panoptic [18, p. 9]; similarly, Posner identifies the trope of the “know-it-all” or omniscient librarian and finds examples of it in Party Girl, Sophie’s Choice, and The Name of the Rose [15].  Posner argues that in these representations, the power and authority of the librarian is directly bound up with his/her knowledge.  The main characteristics of the policeman librarian can thus be seen as the possession of authority and/or knowledge and the ability to act on it.

The Librarian as Parody

Adams contends that the film Party Girl approaches stereotypes of librarians through parody and mimicry, as the main character ironically embraces the old maid image of librarians; this tactic, Adams argues, “calls into question the referential authority of the stereotype,” pointing out its status as not true [14].  Although other authors do not approach the media representation of librarians in precisely the same way as Adams, their examples suggest that this portrayal is fairly common.  Radford and Radford discuss Party Girl in terms of the humiliation of the user, but Adams’s interpretation of the same film suggests that this episode may be satirical – playing off possible fears while pointing out their absurdity [9, 14].  Radford and Radford also discuss a sequence in UHF that depicts “Conan the Librarian” punishing children and physically enforcing the Dewey Decimal System and the Seinfeld episode featuring the library investigator, Lieutenant Bookman [9].  Due to the comedic nature of these examples, the representations of librarians as policeman might also be read as parodic or satirical.  Similarly, the television movie, The Librarian, parodies the stereotypes of librarians by making the hero of this action film a sexy, adventurous librarian with two love interests [6, p. 44].  In her discussion of the Nancy Pearl action figure, Riccio notes that the object is kitschy, which suggests that it is meant as a parody; the shushing action of the figure in particular satirizes the stereotype of the old maid librarian [10, p. 11].  As Adams proposes, each of these representations draws attention to stereotypical depictions of librarians by appropriating and reworking those same stereotypes.

The Inept Librarian

This category is similar to that of the old maid librarian in that librarians are also depicted as introverted and bookish but focuses less on appearance and sexuality or lack thereof.  Black’s analysis of television librarians provides the fullest explanation of this type: “withdrawn souls who prefer vicarious experience in the form of reading and promoting reading to ‘real’ experience in the ‘real’ world;” these representations often invoke librarians’ “discomfort” with the social world [5, pp. 39-45).  Black finds examples of these socially inept librarians in several television programs, including Barney Miller, Fantasy Island, The Equalizer.  Dickinson finds this stereotype is often used to describe male librarians and while the hero of The Librarian, is portrayed as quite macho, he is also “bookish, brilliant, and socially inept” [4, p. 107, 6, p. 44].  Two authors also categorize Rupert Giles, a character on the television program Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in this way.  According to DeCandido, Giles is portrayed as “stuffy,” “bookish,” “occasionally befuddled,” and has an “apparent lack of current awareness” whereas Cullen suggests Giles duplicates earlier stereotypes of librarians as “dizzy,” “absurd,” and “unhelpful and ineffective” [8, 7, p. 42].  This last trait points to how librarians are not only depicted as socially inept but inept in the working world as well.  In the case of Giles, both DeCandido and Cullen point out that he is “a Luddite working in a field that is reliant on information technology,” which implies that he may not be effective in his work [7, p. 42].  Black also notes that librarians on television have been depicted as incompetent, unhelpful, potentially unethical, and “[obstruct] information seeking behaviors” on programs as diverse as A Different World and Newhart [5, pp. 45-48].  The figure of the incompetent librarian also resonates with Posner’s discussion of the nescient or know-nothing librarian, who is depicted as only able to perform basic clerical tasks [15, pp. 117-119].  In Posner’s interpretation, the know-nothing librarian is not only ineffective on the job but also, due to their preference for books, does not possess “knowledge of the world” [15, p. 119].  The representation of the inept librarian thus incorporates failure in both the social and working worlds.

The Hero/ine Librarian

The final category of media representations identified by these authors is that of the hero/ine librarian; these are generally positive representations of librarians.  Despite being somewhat inept, DeCandido argues that the character of Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer is portrayed as heroic.  Not only does his research into arcane books often save the universe, Giles is also intelligent, elegant, and a “stable, friendly, and supportive adult” [8].  Similarly, Highsmith’s analysis of Oracle, the second incarnation of Barbara Gordon, suggests that this representation belongs to this category, as Oracle uses her “information gathering and analysis skills” to prevent crimes [17, p. 80].  The heroic librarian can also take more mundane forms; Riccio lists several films that positively portray librarians and their skills while Black suggests that despite the stereotypical old maid aspects of Marian’s character in The Music Man, she, too, is heroic for battling censorship [10, p. 10, 5, p. 35].  In her analysis of children’s books, Yontz claims that in general, “[l]ibrarians as depicted in this group of books are helpful, caring, service-oriented members of the community who have supportive encounters and positive relationships with library patrons” [16, p. 90].  These portrayals also evoke the hero/ine librarian, as they depict librarians and their work as fundamentally useful and important.

Public Perceptions of Librarians

Somewhat surprisingly, there has been less work done on public perceptions of librarians, although there are still several trends that emerge from the literature.  In their review of the literature, Nilsen and McKechnie cite several surveys conducted in the U. S. and Europe that reveal general public perceptions of librarians and their work as helpful, useful, orderly, friendly, calm, service-oriented, people-oriented, passive, reactive, shy, and rigid [19].  Wallace echoes this in her less systematic survey; she notes, “[t]he responses are remarkably consistent with one word used over and over again; in fact, it’s usually the first word: Helpful” [20]  Despite these positive perceptions of librarians, the public does not view them as professionals according to Nilsen and McKecnhie, Fagan, and Posner [19, 21, 15].  Nilsen and McKechnie observe that librarians’ skills in reference are obscured by technology, that professional and paraprofessional tasks at libraries often overlap, and that their other duties, such as collection development, are not visible [19].  Fagan remarks that in her survey of 48 undergraduate students, “[m]any respondents showed a lack of understanding of the professional nature of librarians” while Posner comments that many people do not know that librarianship requires graduate education [21, p. 136, 15, p. 117].  As is apparent in Nilsen and McKechnie’s observations, this perceived lack of professionalism is related to the general public being unaware of the duties and skills of librarians.  The majority of Fagan’s survey respondents, for example, were unable to list five duties of librarians [21, p. 135] and Green cites several surveys that suggest that “the librarian’s information-finding abilities and role at the public desk are not perceived,” nor is their work “behind the scenes” [22].  Nilsen and McKechnie’s survey supports this, as the findings demonstrate that “most library users…did not know that librarians select the books and other materials in the library” and seem to believe, as Radford and Radford contend, that “the collection is a given” [19, 12].  Additionally, Church discusses two studies that indicate that even university faculty members are unaware of the abilities and responsibilities of librarians [18, pp. 19-20].  Overall, the public is unfamiliar with the education, knowledge, skills, and duties of librarians; the dominant public perception of librarians might then be said to be as invisible or nonexistent.

The Connection between Media Representations and Public Perceptions

Although some of the authors discussed in this paper have tended to conflate media representations with public perceptions, they are analytically distinct; public perceptions may be influenced by the mass media, but they cannot be reduced to media representations.  As Adams suggests, “signs and symbols work to create meaning at both the point of production and the point of consumption” and moreover, these meanings are always multiple, fluid, and malleable [14].  What is apparent, however, is that the representations of librarians promulgated by the mass media tend to focus on the character of the individual librarian – his/her dowdiness, awkwardness, or authoritativeness – rather than on his/her abilities and occupation.  When librarians are shown at work, they are generally shown, as Barbara Gordon or Batgirl is, “reshelving books and working at the Circulation Counter” or as book stackers and book caretakers [17, p. 78, 13, p. 18).  Perhaps, as Green proposes, “the image that is not portrayed is the barrier” as “[p]eople are left with no clear impressions of librarians or their professions” [22].  In Green’s analysis, media stereotypes become powerful simply because there are no other images of readily available images of librarians.  This supposition resonates with the work of Walker and Lawson, Tobias, Highsmith, Adams, and Nilsen and McKechnie, who suggest that stereotypes function as a kind of shorthand by “reducing individuals to a few essential characteristics that are exaggerated, simplified, and understood as natural” [14].  Stereotypical media representations of librarians, then, allow individuals to understand the term “librarian,” even without any knowledge of actual librarians, which is not as readily available.  As Adams notes, stereotyping is an exercise of power, in that it separates the normal/acceptable from the not normal/unacceptable and as such, librarians may be particularly susceptible to it as librarianship has long been a feminized and service-oriented profession [14]; the knowledge and skill bases are invisible; and there is little prestige associated with it [19, 20, 15, p. 118, 22, p. 5].  While these conclusions are speculative, there is undoubtedly a connection between media representations and public perceptions of librarians that should be explored more systematically.

Possible Effects of Media Representations and Public Perceptions

Although the connection between media representations and public perceptions may be unclear, these authors ultimately agree that “user perceptions negatively affect the ability of librarians to meet information needs, simply because a profession cannot serve those who do not understand its purpose and expertise” [19].  Their observations as to how exactly use is affected by representations and perceptions of librarians generally fall into two groups.  The first group of possible effects evokes the media representation of the policeman librarian, who is authoritative, omniscient, and powerful.  Radford and Radford suggest that the image of the policeman librarian produces tension between users and librarians, and connect this to a study that reveals that users are often afraid to ask questions because they fear their questions will be seen as “stupid” by the librarians [12].  Fagan discusses similar studies, which have tied library anxiety and the fear of asking questions to user perceptions of academic librarians; in one study, 65% of respondents revealed they would not ask for assistance from a librarian, in part because they “felt their questions were too basic” [21, p. 132].  Posner, too, contends that users often seem to fear that their questions are “stupid” and consequently avoid asking for help [15, p. 116].  Finally, Green proposes that users often feel unwelcome and view librarians as being unapproachable and that this results in fewer users asking initial and even follow-up questions of librarians [22].

The second group of possible effects seems to relate to how media representations and user perceptions do not reference the actual tasks, skills, and knowledge of librarians.  Fagan notes that her survey of undergraduate students indicated that students were generally “[ignorant] of a librarian’s education, knowledge, and skills” and goes on to suggest that perceptions such as these heavily influence students’ willingness to approach the librarian as well as their own success in using the library [21, pp. 137-141].  The end result is that information needs go unanswered and the funding and support of libraries is jeopardized; this is emphasized by Green, who contends that the lack of awareness of librarians produces inequality in access to information [22, 21, p. 133].  Radford and Radford argue that because users are uncertain as to the tasks performed by the librarian, they are often confused as to whether or not to approach them [12].  In their discussion of their study on users’ perceptions of collection development, Nilsen and McKechnie claim that if this important task remains invisible to users, “there are serious implications for staffing and funding” – namely, that both can be reduced or eliminated [19].  Nilsen and McKechnie also connect users’ lack of knowledge about librarians to the low status of the profession while Green furthers this interpretation by arguing that the low status and lack of professionalism attributed to librarians represents an additional barrier to use both by individual users and the home organizations of libraries [19, 22].  Despite the speculative relationship between media representations and public perceptions of librarians, the observed effects of user perceptions echo both the media image of the policeman librarian and the media’s emphasis on the character of individual librarians, rather than their training or duties


This paper has attempted to investigate the relationships between mass media representations of librarians and users’ perceptions and consequent use of librarians and libraries by asking three questions:

  1. How are librarians depicted by the mass media? 
  2. How does the public perceive librarians and how might these views relate to mass media representations?
  3. What are the potential effects of these representations and perceptions?

Representations of librarians by the mass media generally fall into one of five somewhat discrete categories: the old maid librarian, the policeman librarian, the librarian as parody, the inept librarian, and the hero/ine librarian.  Public perceptions of librarians are somewhat different; although librarians are often described in positive terms, there is nearly no awareness as to the knowledge, duties, skills, and education of librarians.  Although the connection between media representations and public perceptions has not been systematically researched, the evidence suggests that due to the lack of substantive representations of librarians that highlight their professionalism, public perceptions draw more heavily on stereotypical representations of librarians’ personalities.  The observed effects on how individuals approach and use librarians and libraries echo this lack of substantive representations and abundance of stereotypical depictions.  Ultimately, librarians and libraries tend to not be effectively utilized, as users remain unaware of librarians’ abilities and responsibilities.


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