The Stereotype Stereotype

Our obsession with librarian representation

October 30, 2015

The many faces of the librarian stereotype. Illustration: Rebecca Lomax and Vlada Young/Shutterstock
The many faces of the librarian stereotype. Illustration: Rebecca Lomax and Vlada Young/Shutterstock

As far back as the early 1900s, librarians have observed and commented on their public perceptions. Over the last 10–15 years, this interest in librarian stereotypes, especially those concerning fashion, sexuality, and subcultural membership, has only increased. But why are we so deeply interested in, invested in, and driven to change librarian stereotypes?

The answers lie in understanding the history of stereotypes in our profession and also in looking outside the profession to larger social conditions.

We cannot separate our understanding of library stereotypes from the history of librarianship that influenced their development in the first place. Librarians are not explicitly responsible for the creation and perpetuation of negative stereotypes, but neither are they fully removed from the cultural milieu that gave birth to those stereotypes. Both the development of those stereotypes and the sustained interest in them come from two root causes: the history of the development of librarianship as a profession, and the negotiation of gender, race, class, and sexuality within library organizations.

There are numerous librarian stereotypes, with the most recognizable being the middle-aged, bun-wearing, comfortably shod, shushing librarian. Others include the sexy librarian, the superhero librarian, and the hipster or tattooed librarian. These stereotypes are all characterized predominantly as feminine, white women. Newer librarian stereotypes, particularly those proffered by librarians themselves, tend to be depicted as younger white women. The original librarian stereotype, which was superseded by the introduction of his prudish sister, was that of the fussy (white) male curmudgeon.

Roots of the stereotype

Librarian stereotypes can be traced, in part, to cultural anxieties about the emergence of the profession. One of the central arguments in library history over the last 60 years has been whether or not librarianship is, can be, or should be a profession and, if it is a profession, whether or not librarianship succeeds at the professionalization project.

Librarianship emerged in its modern form during a time of rapid change in American society, as the Victorian era was coming to a close and a new and youthful urban attitude was taking precedence over more traditional values. The burgeoning field of librarianship was swept up in this change, which was largely coming from the overwhelming success of the capitalist business model.

Early American librarians almost exclusively came from New England gentility or, by virtue of their educational background and politics, became accepted as part of that class. They believed in the possibilities of moral uplift for the poor and uneducated and saw themselves as the perfect missionaries for the job.

By the mid-1870s, however, American society was turning away from the educated class as a beacon of moral and economic authority. Instead, the sons of educated men began turning to individualistic pursuits, and those who followed more communal paths were seen as old-fashioned. At the same time, after the American Civil War, a new ideal of masculinity was emerging: the “self-made man.”

As librarianship resisted the hypermasculine modern consumerist culture, it also became a natural harbor for the newly adventurous modern woman.

In his article “What It Means to Be a Man: Contested Masculinity in the Early Republic and Antebellum America” (History Compass, Vol. 10, No. 11, 2012), Bryan Rindfleisch describes how the self-made man was at odds with the old masculine ideal, the patriarch, on a number of raced and classed levels. Although the patriarch’s strongest foothold was in the South, he, like library leaders during the late 1800s, was steeped in cultural values that valued a “non-laboring livelihood” as “the emblem of one’s elite status.” Old-guard library leaders were something of a hybrid version of this archetype since they indeed labored for a living, but they revered the elite status the patriarch represents.

As gentility was abandoned by young men, it became more identified both with old-­fashioned values and with femininity. Women were looked to as keepers of the culture, and they took that responsibility seriously. As genteel society became almost entirely embodied by the “lady,” the genteel lady became “a new social type—a curious transitional blend of feminist and domestic queen.” So, as librarianship resisted the hypermasculine modern consumerist culture, it also became a natural harbor for the newly adventurous modern woman.

Melvil Dewey was a prime example of the self-made man, and as such he linked professional status with power and influence. He applied business tactics, such as efficiency and entrepreneurship, to his work as a library innovator. Dewey was driven to professionalize librarianship, and he was able to convince his colleagues to pursue this path. This drive resulted in the founding in 1876 of the American Library Association and, in 1887, of the School of Library Economy at Columbia College.

However, this new entrepreneurial ideology was not embraced by the majority of library leaders until the 1890s, and in the meantime the old guard did not go down without a fight. As American librarianship was burgeoning into a profession, the very things that had defined the erudite, educated librarian began to fall out of favor, and modernization dimmed the genteel class’s preeminence as the arbiters of cultural correctness.

During this time, librarianship was in full-throttle moral-uplift mode, battling the tides of labor unrest and popular fiction. This tension between an idealized vision of educated gentility and the relentless push of capitalist modernization, and between the self-made man and his suffragist sister, can still be felt in debates within librarianship today over censorship, the preeminence of technology, information access, and social activism.

Librarianship tends to be a very public-facing occupation, both on the job and off the job. People recognize librarians throughout their community and engage them in conversation. This creates a sticking point for librarians: At what point in their day can they take off the mask of professionalism that they are wearing? This extends beyond physical space. Consider the situation in which librarians become acquainted with their patrons through social media. Does the idea of professionalism extend to this realm as well?

With the rise of online communication, librarians now have venues for discussion that are speedier and more frequently updated than either the postal service or conferences. Those venues allow for intercultural communication, not just among different varieties of librarianship, but across diverse geographical locations. The openness of these mediums brings up an interesting issue with professionalism.

Librarianship as a profession

Contemporary librarians find themselves reflecting on the same questions that have dogged our field since its earliest days: Is librarianship a profession? If so, what does that mean? What does it mean that librarianship is a feminized profession? How can we as a profession resist gendered societal pressures to be passive and nurturing at the expense of respect and compensation? Is the lack of respect afforded to librarians simply due to the decline of professionalism (and its attendant power) in general? Or are librarians themselves somehow responsible for the lack of respect afforded them? Are stereotypes a way for our culture to work out its ambivalence about the status of librarians? Is it true that people tend to respect their doctors, lawyers, professors, and clergy even if they do not always understand them but do not respect librarians in the same way?

And if, as Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor Brenton Faber argues, “professionalism is a social movement predicated on knowledge control, social elitism, and economic power,” do librarians really want to be considered professionals? Does, in fact, “professionalism” work in direct contradiction to stated librarian ethics? And, conversely, do our professional ethics actually work against our professional status? The work of librarianship revolves around providing access to information, following the belief that an informed citizenry makes a robust democracy, while the hallmark of professionalism is undoubtedly gatekeeping.

Ultimately, librarians’ opinions about librarianship as a profession and the public’s opinions on the topic are in agreement on the most salient point. Based on the numerous articles in the library literature that grapple with the status of librarianship and question librarianship as a profession, as well as popular media that explores librarian stereotypes, we can conclude that, despite being beloved by a number of prominent and not-so-prominent individuals, librarianship as we know it is often treated in popular culture as a low- status profession or not a profession at all.

Negotiation of class, gender, and sexuality

The Librarian Stereotype: Deconstructing Perceptions and Presentations of Information Work, edited by Nicole Pagowsky and Miriam Rigby (Association of College and Research Libraries, 2014).
The Librarian Stereotype: Deconstructing Perceptions and Presentations of Information Work, edited by Nicole Pagowsky and Miriam Rigby (Association of College and Research Libraries, 2014).

Librarianship was not always a female-dominated occupation. Middle-class white women in the United States began entering “genteel” professions such as librarianship only in the late 19th century. It was much later that women of other races and ethnicities were given entry into the profession. The earliest librarians in America were educated white men from established families in New England. Many of them had fathers who worked as clergy or professors. Early male librarians were also career changers, which contributed to the stereotype of librarians as “men who failed at something else.” As clerks tasked with baby-sitting books, male librarians were seen as passive, fussy, and custodial.

When (white) women began entering the profession in the 1880s, the librarian stereotype took on a new dimension. As the male librarian stereotype became more pronounced, there arose a new female librarian stereotype. By 1900, the passive, submissive, and plain librarian stereotype we recognize today had emerged. Women were hired to take over the less desirable aspects of librarianship and were paid low wages because they had no leverage. Administrators endeavored to hire women because they were better educated than men attracted to the profession and were unable to demand comparable wages.

By the end of the 1920s, white women did indeed come to dominate librarianship. In fact, in 1930 librarianship was 90% female. In response, librarians tied themselves in knots trying to rationalize that fact.

For instance, from the 1960s through the late 1970s, gender-predicting personality tests were administered as entrance requirements for both library school admission and employment. The tests, such as the California Psychological Inventory Femininity Scale, asked subjects to answer true or false to such statements as “I want to be an important person in the community” (the correct feminine answer being false) and “I am somewhat afraid of the dark” (true). The feminine answer to “I think I would like the work of a librarian” was, of course, true. The more “feminine” answers the applicants gave, the more positively they were rated.

The most effective way to combat the negative effects of librarian stereotypes is to work diligently toward social justice for marginalized groups.

These practices were meant to give a scientific rationale for hiring decisions, but the logic was flawed. If librarianship is female-dominated, then all librarians (regardless of gender) will be, indeed must be, feminine-minded. Female and male librarians alike have been caught up in the resulting gender-role stereotypes. Female librarians were automatically sexually repressed spinsters because it was impossible for our culture to acknowledge an educated, intelligent woman with a healthy relationship to sexuality. Male librarians had to be gay because it was impossible to fathom a heterosexual (which is here conflated with masculine) man who would willingly do “women’s work.” These stereotypes persist despite advances in civil rights, because these cultural assumptions and inequalities still exist.

The trend in librarianship has been to counter the ill effects of being a feminized occupation with a strong dose of professionalism. In “The Male Librarian and the Feminine Image: A Survey of Stereotype, Status, and Gender Perceptions” (Library and Information Science Research, Oct.–Dec. 1992), librarian and scholar James Carmichael draws attention to the feminist critique that “professionalism has too often been modeled on preexisting masculinized institutional structures.” Other scholars argue that because “bureaucratic management—abstract, rational, objective, instrumental, and controlling—has been essentially masculine in the way it has been implemented and theorized … a case might be made, therefore, for viewing the library profession … as masculine in nature.” Thus librarianship resists easy categorization as either a “feminine” or a “masculine” pursuit while being claimed (and sometimes denigrated) as both.

In a survey sent to nearly 700 male librarians, Carmichael attempted to discern certain views of the profession from a male perspective. In asking about possible male stereotypes, Carmichael received some expected results that further reinforce the stereotype of the gay male librarian and of the dowdy male librarian, both of which rely on a stereotype of feminine (or emasculated) men. The survey results, however, provide a male-dominated, heteronormative view of librarianship. Underlying the respondents’ discussion of the gay male stereotype is a fear of being assumed to be gay or too feminine by being in a feminine profession. Ten years later, Paul S. Piper and Barbara E. Collamer recreated Carmichael’s survey for their work Male Librarians: Men in a Feminized Profession and found that male librarians are relatively comfortable in the field and moreover do not see it as a “woman’s profession.”

Cultural shifts

By the 1950s, librarianship was in what some call its golden age. Federal support was booming and libraries were relied on more and more to supplement public schooling. Library literature both noted and ignored the fact that women, who made up the majority of the library profession by this point, were hired more often at part-time rates as well as paid less and promoted less often than men. These statistics began to be addressed when there was an upswing in feminist perspectives in librarianship in the 1960s and 1970s.

Reviewing the history of librarianship and librarian stereotypes helps us to remember that libraries reside fully within current cultural climates. When we address library stereotypes at face value without taking into account the broader social realities that not only make them possible but also reinforce their potency, we put ourselves in a quixotic situation. This is when new (and equally damaging) stereotypes are invented, sometimes by librarians themselves, to supplant the old.

Because larger structural inequalities such as sexism, racism, and classism are at work in the creation and perpetuation of popular narratives about librarians, improving the psychological well-being of individual librarians is not the solution to the problem of librarian stereotypes. It is important to acknowledge that stereotype threat is at work within librarianship because of the raced, classed, and gendered reality of individual librarians’ lives.

The most effective way to combat the negative effects of librarian stereotypes is to work diligently toward social justice for marginalized groups. Furthermore, creating alternative imagery to supplant objectionable stereotypes in fact makes the situation worse. Ultimately, public perception will change, but if we wish to have some influence over it, we must both stop spending so much energy on policing our coolness factor and put more energy into being a profession that stands for fairness and equality among all people.

This is an excerpt from The Librarian Stereotype: Deconstructing Perceptions and Presentations of Information Work, edited by Nicole Pagowsky and Miriam Rigby (Association of College and Research Libraries, 2014).