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Notes from Hollywood Librarian event

On Monday 14th September librarians from across London took part in the Stuart Hall Library Hollywood Librarian event. This was the first event of its kind in art libraries and was a forum to debate librarian stereotypes, discuss practicalities of the library and information profession, and also take part in screenings of librarians in cinema.

Librarians from Goldsmiths, Chelsea, Lambeth, UCL, NHS, Imperial College, Wellcome Library, Central Saint Martins, BFI, RIBA, University for the Creative Arts, local government, Tower Hamlets attended and took part making up a diverse range of librarians from varying sectors and with a vast range of experience. Hollywood Librarian was the first event

Hollywood Librarian was the first event organised by the Stuart Hall Library for other librarians and was intended to introduce a vast range of librarians to our library that might have previously unaware of our collection and resources. It was also a fantastic opportunity to gather all kinds of librarians to dispel the myth of what it is that we actually do and to share ideas and experiences.

The screening of the documentary Hollywood Librarian kickstarted the day and served as an introduction to this topic. Reactions to the documentary were mixed as the focus of the film is not in fact on cinematic representations of the librarian. These celluloid images are briefly referenced, but the documentary instead focuses on a selection of real life librarians, primarily based in the USA, while addressing specific issues of the Patriot Act and budget cuts.

While most were expecting a more in-depth look at the historical documentation of libraries and librarians through cinema, the documentary was a good starting point for discussion and documented a multiplicity of cinematic representations such as The Music Man, It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Librarian.

In relation to the documentary we looked at Mary Seale’s article
Old Maids, Policeman, and Social Rejects: Mass Media Representations and Public Perceptions of Librarians (2008). Seale identifies 5 librarian stereotypes :

  1. The old maid librarian
  2. The policeman librarian
  3. The librarian as parody
  4. The inept librarian
  5. The hero/ine librarian

In two groups we discussed the possibility of other stereotypes and other examples of fictional characters. A wide range of fictional representations were highlighted such as Phillip Larkin’s ‘A Girl in Winter’, Timothy from the TV programme ‘Sorry’, and also representations of librarians in Mills and Boon novels. In groups we discussed three other stereotypes to be added to the list:

* The grumpy librarian – resentful of people’s enquiries and hesitant to share his/her knowledge

* The pin-up librarian – the librarian as a sexy vixen or innocent seductress. We discussed the idea of the library as being taboo and forbidden.

*The rebel librarian – slightly different to the hero librarian and was inspired by the documentary in which real life librarians fight censorship laws and budget cuts.

We also used our group discussions as a way to talk about our own experiences and backgrounds in libraries. While we were all from various different sectors, many of our concerns and issues overlapped such as the misconception of our roles as librarians not only from our library users but sometimes occurring within our own institutions. The discussions served as a forum for sharing skills and knowledge to appropriate and/or dispel the negative stereotypes attributed to the library profession.

We discussed the historical aspect of the library profession and agreed this was an interesting framework for the discussion. Prior to Melville Dewey setting up the initial library schools and allowing women to become librarians, the library profession was a male profession and highly respected and revered. As the profession became a female dominated profession the role lost its respect and was instead subject to ridicule and negative stereotypes. We then discussed notions of gender in relation to these stereotypes. Some of the group had argued that the negative stereoypes in place for librarians could simply be seen as negative stereotypes for women. We discussed the idea of a fear of knowledge and power in what is seen as a female profession, and how in turn the representation of women as librarians are effectively punished for their access to knowledge.

We focused our discussion on barriers that exist in the library that affect user perceptions. We discussed aspects of the library environment that can often alienate or promote a negative atmosphere e.g. signs enforcing negative language that instruct users on what they can’t do rather than what they cant do. Many libraries are now assuming new identities such as creative hubs, social learning centres etc as a method of affecting change in relation to user perceptions. We discussed the merits as well as the complexities and problems with these case studies, and again our own diverse range of skills and experiences allowed a dynamic and genuinely useful discussion.

We discussed other examples of librarians who are attempting to change the way libraries are viewed such as the Love Libraries scheme, the Get it Loud in Libraries series of events in Lancaster, and also performances and activities in Westminster Reference library and Southwark libraries.

And after a heavy day of discussion and debate what better way to end things than with tea and cake and a screening of the cult library film Party Girl? Unfortunately we didn’t have time to have a discussion based on the final film but we would love to hear your thoughts! Let us know in the comments section of the blog what you thought of the film.

Hollywood Librarian was a wonderful opportunity to meet local librarians, art librarians, and public librarians and to establish the Stuart Hall library as a place for active discussion. We are already planning our sequel to this event for Spring 2010 with more film screenings and more discussions and will be posting here with details.

Until our sequel event there was significant interest in organising a book and film group dedicated to discussing examples of librarians and libraries in literature/comics/films. This is currently being organised and the list of suggested reading materials and films to view will be posted here monthly. If you are interested in joining this book/film group then please do let us know in the comments. Alternatively you can email us library@iniva.org

A big thank you to everyone that turned up on the day and joined in, it was a pleasure to have you in the library and we hope to see you again. Big thanks also to Obinna Nwosu, Josie Steele, and Maxine Miller.