Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Librarian Stereotype

One of my Christmas gifts this year was the Librarian Action Figure (with amazing shushing action!) I had wanted this little gem for a while to decorate my desk. Yes, it reinforces all those librarian stereotypes I usually bristle at, but it knows it's reinforcing that image, so doesn't that just make it kinda cheeky? I think so, so on my desk it goes.

On New Year's Eve, we had some friends over and we were talking about Christmas gifts. I mentioned my action figure; one of my dearest friends is also a librarian, and also owns a miniature of Nancy Pearl. The stereotype came up, and someone in the room stated that there is a lot of truth in the stereotypical librarian image.

This friend of mine works at a private liberal arts college in our area, and librarians occasionally use their facilities for meetings.

"You always know when there's a groups of librarians, because they all have that hair."

"What hair?" I asked, all offended.

"They all have the bowl haircut," he said. "You know, the short hair that's molded in place like those Little People dolls."

For those of you without children, Little People are the Fischer Price preschool dolls about as tall as a finger who come with the little barnyard, school house, zoo, and amusement park playsets. Every Little People, regardless of the intended sex or age, has the same hairdo: a little plastic football-helmet-shaped blob that hugs their head. This is not a flattering hair style for any real human.

I started to argue, but found myself laughing instead. I have known a good many librarians who sport a Little People hair helmet. Click on the link above to see the Librarian Action Figure and the librarian it's based on; if you put her in a little yellow toy Fischer Price school bus, she would blend right in with the others.

We're not all like that, certainly. The profession has changed a lot; many young people have energized the profession, and the emphasis on technology in today's libraries forces us to be a little more trendy, hip, and savvy. In my corner of librarianship, school libraries, I would say that we are quite an eclectic group. State school media conferences look more like a meeting of the Junior League than a Little People parade; we have some very attractive, fashionably dressed, well-blinged ladies in our profession (where they get the money for all the bling I see is beyond me; maybe in other parts of the state being a school media specialist is a big draw for ladies who marry well.) In my own county, I probably look more the part of the stereotypical librarian than any of the others, what with my glasses and sensible shoes (like Liz Lemon in 30 Rock, I wear the kind of shoes described by Jack Donaghy as 'bi-curious.") When we all get together, we just look like a bunch of different women; I don't see too many similar traits among us school librarians. The only thing that we all have in common at conferences is that for some reason we all carry our programs around in the free Baker and Taylor "cat" bags (which, unlike my public librarian friend, I have a weakness for.)

But my friend who made the Little-People-hair comment does come from the world of academia, and things are different there. My first professional library job was in a university library, and though I came at a time when a lot of older librarians were leaving and young, fresh-from-college librarians were getting hired, I was struck every day by how many of us looked alike. The other degreed librarian in my area and I got confused for each other all the time; we were both brunettes of average height and build who occasionally wore red-framed glasses. When I left so that my husband could take a job in Cincinnati, the librarian we hired to replace me was another thin, bespectacled brunette. I was starting to wonder if "nearsightedness" was a secret criterion the univeristy was using to intially screen its applicants. And among that university's more veteran librarians, there were quite a few bowl haircuts (even among the men.) Maybe my friend is on to something.

On New Year's Eve as I was trying to fight back and argue that we contemporary librarians are, in fact, a sexier bunch, I looked at my dear friend, my fellow librarian. Like me, she was wearing her glasses. Like me, she wears her brown hair in a bob. An elegant, non-Little-People one, of course. But maybe there is a grain of truth in that stereotype. A tiny, little grain. That's not so bad. We're not all dowdy, matronly, shushing, hair-up-in-buns types. Maybe we once were, but it's changing. In It's a Wonderful Life, Donna Reed's character, without Jimmy Stewart to save her, was the saddest woman in Bedford Falls: a homely, spinster, librarian. (Nooooooo! Anything but that! Make it right, Clarence!) In another "classic", The Mummy, Rachel Weisz's librarian is smart, funny, and sexy ("I may not be an explorer, or an adventurer, but I'm proud of what I am...I am a librarian!") Perhaps by the time my daughter grows up, the stereotypical librarian will be a glamorous, technologically gifted, Angelina-Jolie-as-Lara-Croft superwoman. I've always heard of the myth of the sexy librarian, the girl who is plain and reserved by day but who can let her hair down and pop in the contacts and party with the best of 'em in the off hours. Maybe that alter ego will push out her dowdy counterpart as more young librarians enter the profession and change our image (and get Lasik.)

For now, though, let me push my glasses back up on my nose, re-tie my black Eastlands oxfords, and shush this rowdy bunch of teenagers who just came in the library.


wanda y said...

Holy COW...that doll is modeled after "Pat"!

Diane J Standiford said...

I bow to librarians everywhere.
Crank on!