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From old maids to heroes

From old maids to fetishised pin-ups; power-mad authority figures to heroes and revolutionaries; there are countless variations of ‘The Librarian’ available to us in popular culture and in our own imaginations.

What is the history of these stereotypes and images? What is the true history of the librarian and the profession of library and information science? How does public perception affect/differ/engage with the real-life responsibilities of the librarian? Are the true details of our roles invisible, overshadowed instead by lazy stereotypes?

Maura Seale’s article Old Maids, Policeman, and Social Rejects: Mass Media Representations and Public Perceptions of Librarians serves as an introduction to this discussion and raises questions for self-reflecting librarians. In her essay Seale raises three vital 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?

Through a study of cinema, literature, comics, and real life librarians Seale outlines the five most recognised stereotypes of the librarian in the mass media:


While some of these images in popular culture are comical and appropriated as library heroes (i.e Batgirl, Rupert Giles etc), other images are not quite so simple, in fact many of these conjure negative and damaging aspects of the profession. The stereotypes outlined by Seale certainly warrant further investigation such as the view of gender in these representations in comparison to the profession.

In preparation for our upcoming event Hollywood Librarians, it’s vital to raise these issues as points for discussion and debate. While stereotypes are essentially visual shortcuts in the media and popular culture, it is necessary for librarians to be aware of public perception. Whether it is to engage with public perceptions or whether we choose to appropriate and treat these visual shortcuts with a pinch of salt.

Steven J. Schmidt’s Film Librarian is a comprehensive database of films featuring librarians and is an invaluable resource for researching all forms of representation of librarians in popular culture. Schmidt introduces his listings by stating that ‘many of these films offer a negative image of our profession, but just as many show our strengths. They all just serve to remind us that sometimes we need to remember the way others see us, and laugh.’

Schmidt, S.J (2006) 'Top Ten Films Featuring Librarians' [online] http://www.filmlibrarian.info/

Seale, M. (2008) 'Old Maids, Policeman, and Social Rejects :

Mass Media Representations and Public Perceptions of Librarians' in Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship. Vol 9 No 1