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Stereotypes of the Library Profession

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Issues of gender and sexuality have contributed to the formation of library stereotypes. Stereotypes are constructed in much the same way as gender.  In Night to His Day, Judith Lorber points out that gender as a social status is "constructed through prescribed processes of teaching, learning, emulation and enforcement" (56).  The two most common stereotypes of librarians in American popular culture are that of the austere sexless female and the sexy librarian.  It is in the euphemism, "knowledge is power" that these seemingly contradictory images are seeded and coupled.  The American Library Association was established in 1876 and at the beginning of librarianship in America the profession was largely male dominated.  At the turn of the century women began entering the workplace.  These jobs were usually in the helping professions, like nursing, teaching, social work, and librarianship.  Librarianship shifted to a predominately female profession. According to the Library Student Journal "Decade after decade the ratio of female to male librarians remains roughly 4:1"(Goodson).  Society's changing attitudes toward gender roles are helping to moderate the ratio of female to male librarians.  Libraries' shift to technology may also increase the number of male librarians. Stereotypically, technology expertise is viewed as predominately male, similar to tinkering and auto mechanics.  Women entering the workplace were expected to deny sexuality.  Those entrusted with the education of America's youth especially were charged with the responsibility of upholding high moral standards.  The female librarian developed a reputation as being sexually unreachable.  That which is forbidden is more desirable as depicted in the musical, The Music Man. 

“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” (“Marian the Librarian”).


Librarians are often depicted in American popular culture as police, handing out retribution often in the form of humiliation as in the scene from the movie Party Girl.  Indeed the library does depend on a system of order and librarians are the guardians of that order.  Librarians as the possessors of knowledge hold a certain power.  Participants in this dynamic either subdue or submit to power.  It is a test of sexual prowess to subdue the august librarian This story is told in the song, Librarian performed by My Morning Jacket.


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Like other social constructions such as gender, stereotypes persist in our culture because people adhere to them.  As Lorber wrote, "gender is constantly created and re-created out of human interaction, out of social life, and is the texture and order of that social life.  Gender, like culture, is a human production that depends on everyone constantly doing gender." (54)  

The stereotype of librarian as policeman does lend some authoritative legitimacy to this job requirement of librarians.  Sometimes librarians will attempt to free themselves from the bun-and-glasses image as in the picture below of Tulsa librarians taken for a Tulsa World story about professional stereotypes.  Librarians themselves will sometimes mimic the librarian stereotype as in the amazing shushing action librarian figure modeled after librarian Nancy Pearl. Parody, mimicry and humor can help to disarm the negative stereotypes. Perhaps this was the goal of the YouTube video, Librarians do Gaga, made by students and faculty from the University of Washinton's information school.   Librarians are often perceived to be more connected to the world of books than to the external real world of the human experience.  While professional stereotypes can create a negative image they also serve to establish a professional identity. 


Redheaded librarians (from left) Linda Saferite, Erin Clay, Marcy Elder, Ellen Cummings and Jennifer Greb strik a pose near the BookMobile at the Central Library. -From JASON ASHLEY WRIGHT article, "Breaking the Mold," Tulsa World Published: 5/6/2001



Librarians Do Gaga

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Party Girl

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American Library History

Segregated Libraries

The Future of Libraries

Libraries Works Cited



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