Librarian Stereotypes, Alive & Well, Alas

May 21, 2010 at 3:57 pm 34 comments

If any of us ever did doubt that the traditional stereotype of the librarian is alive and well, here in 2010, right here in New Jersey, doubt it no more. Convincing evidence to confirm this is easily found. I’ve been reflecting on this since I read an article by Brad Parks from the April 11, 2010 Newark Sunday Star-Ledger. His headline was compelling “Budget Imperils New Jersey’s Libraries.” I was eager to read this story, as I am everything written in the NJ press about the impact of and reactions to Governor Christie’s proposed 74% budget reduction to NJ library funding. Parks’ editorial supports the library communities’ struggle for funding restoration, but even though he touts the value of libraries in promoting literacy and democratic access to information, he chose to open his article by evoking traditional librarian stereotypical images.

Reading the first words of his story made my heart sink: “In both stereotype and practice, New Jersey’s librarians are a fairly unexcitable bunch, more prone to shushing than they are to hyperbole. So take this into consideration was you read this from Edison Public Library director Judith Mansbach. ‘If this goes through, it’s going to be devastating.’” The three column article decries the proposed cuts and mentions the May 6th librarian rally in Trenton that many of us, myself included, later attended. (Some of us even got quite excited – imagine that.) Parks returns to the library stereotype by ending on this note: “Needless to say they could use your help. So if you value your local library – or literacy in general- please make your view known to your legislators. It’ll be one time your librarian won’t shush you for raising your voice.” I sincerely appreciate Mr. Parks’ support and thank him for asking readers to complain to NJ legislators about the ghastly cuts, but ask why could he not resist the cutesy and clichéd reference to librarians’ shushing that devalues our profession?

Post rally, Karen Sudol picked up the theme in her article: “Librarians Demand Christie Not Close Book on Services” in the May 7th Star-Ledger (p. 22). She begins: “Librarians accustomed to saying “Shush” and “Quiet, please,” spoke up at a Trenton rally yesterday in protest of a proposed 74 percent cut in state funding. ‘I think we’re going to dispel all of the shushing rumors that librarians are just quiet little people,’ said Patricia Tumulty executive director of the New Jersey Library Association which organized the two-hour event. ‘We’re strong advocates for the people of New Jersey to have good library services.” Pat’s advocacy and leadership continue to be strong, although I’m sad to say the “shushing rumors” are firmly ensconced in the press and popular culture, much to the detriment of our professional image.

This example is one of countless newspaper articles, blogs, cartoons, television shows, commercials, novels, advertisements, motion pictures, etc. in a broad range of mediated discourse, that continue to evoke the librarian stereotype. Librarians, usually female, are consistently portrayed as bespectacled, mousy, unassuming, sexually repressed introverts who primarily engage in three behaviors – shushing (as we see above), stamping and shelving books. The male librarian stereotype, although less prominent, is also unflattering to the profession. Usually portrayed as prissy with the ubiquitous horn rimmed glasses and bow tie, he is distinctly feminine and also therefore accorded the low status of the female librarian, deserving little respect.

This stereotype has persisted as remarkably intact since the early 1900s, despite the information age that has transformed the profession as one now immersed in sophisticated digitized systems and online services, Some, even within our field, may dismiss stereotypical texts and images as harmless, cute, or funny, and chide others to get a sense of humor. As one who has studied the librarian stereotype in depth, and published several journal articles on the topic in Library Quarterly, I have come to view these media representations as far from harmless, with serious, anti-intellectual, and anti-feminist messages. In these hideous budget times in NJ, and across the nation,  it is appalling to me to see how frequently the stereotypical librarian image appears.  In another recent example, on May 11th,  Library Journal reported on “Jay Leno’s Bad Library Joke” . If you click on this link you can see a video of Leno saying:  “People here in Los Angeles are upset [at] their mayor’s proposed plan to cut the budget of libraries…this could affect as many as nine people.”  The LJ link includes the letter from city librarian Martin Gomez who points out that over 17 million people use the LA libraries every year and that the budget cuts are no laughing matter.

Perhaps I should not be so appalled at these stereotypical images and low blows to libraries. After all, thinking of libraries as dusty, unused places (instead of vital community centers) and librarians as unproductive, fussy old biddies who shuffle around the library shushing, stamping, and shelving is useful to the powerful elite who use this ill-informed view as justification to cut already low salaries and benefits for public librarians, fire librarians, reduce hours and close libraries (including the library for the blind and handicapped).  This 74% cut is sadly going to occur at a time when NJ citizens’ need is greatest for what libraries have to offer: equal access to information to all, free to all.

By Marie L. Radford


Entry filed under: advocacy, Librarians, Media, Stereotypes. Tags: , , , .

Congratulations to Peter Bromberg! When in doubt, visit a library (or ask a librarian)


  • 1. Jagoda  |  May 22, 2010 at 3:50 am

    Thank you for this post Marie.
    I thought Croatian libraries have a rough time (25% acquisitions budget cut in Zagreb City Libraries), but you talk about the 74% in New Jersey!
    When stereotypes are concerned, my question is can we turn them, as frustrating as they can be, into our (branding) advantage?
    Any comments on that?

    Jagoda Ille

    • 2. Marie L. Radford  |  May 22, 2010 at 1:55 pm

      There are ways to work against stereotypes, may post on this as it is no easy fix as you might imagine. I’m headed to LIDA in Croatia, perhaps I will see you there?

      • 3. Jagoda  |  May 24, 2010 at 7:11 am

        I’m not attending LIDA this year. Maybe the one in 2012. Or is the world going to end before the end of May? :)))

  • 4. Joye C-L  |  May 22, 2010 at 9:34 am

    Thank you so much for this post, Marie!! You said many things i was thinking but couldn’t quite articulate. Even the NJ News coverage of the Rally had comments about the librarian stereotype image. The coverage was really well-done otherwise, but those few comments really annoyed me. I just don’t want to be too harsh when I feel like I should be thankful that at least our plight is getting coverage of any sort. It is a very sad state of affairs…
    (By the way, you were inspiring at the Rally.)

    • 5. Marie L. Radford  |  May 22, 2010 at 1:55 pm

      Thanks for the positive feedback. Yes, is difficult when the papers are trying to help, but are actually undermining our image.

  • 6. Lisa Coats  |  May 22, 2010 at 11:07 am


    This is a terrific post about a very sad and frustrating topic. I am going to post it on my FB page for all my friends — especially those outside the library world who probably STILL feel this way, albeit secretly around me, I’m sure.

    Thanks for all your work in this area and your ability to articulate what many of us think but cannot put into words.

    Lisa Coats

    • 7. Marie L. Radford  |  May 22, 2010 at 1:56 pm

      Thanks! I’m glad to express something that others are feeling.

  • 8. Larry Schwartz  |  May 22, 2010 at 11:17 am

    Letter writers responding to these articles via letters to the editor should emphasize the stereotype of journalists being alcoholics or on the take a la “The front page.” Include the phrase “gin-soaked” or imply that the writer was suffering the effects of a three-martini lunch or was obviously nipping at the hip flask — or, if not the writer, then the editor. Librarians are not to be messed with.

    • 9. Marie L. Radford  |  May 22, 2010 at 1:57 pm

      LOL, you make a good point. Thanks for your comment!

  • 10. Kathy Dempsey  |  May 23, 2010 at 11:40 am

    good post, Marie. continuation of these stereotypes is too pervasive, and, I believe, insulting and damaging (rather than harmless and funny). I hope you do find time to post on how to fight the stereotypes.

    Meanwhile, I’m going to share this post over on The M Word and see if anyone will share ways they’ve fought the old images.

    as for the many reporters who have referenced shushing, two thoughts:
    1. it may be all that many of them know about libs (or at the very least, the first thing they think of).
    2. I’m going to send them one of my “radical, militant librarian” buttons that were made & sold after we started fighting the PATRIOT Act!!!

  • 13. thewikiman  |  May 24, 2010 at 9:01 am

    I’ve written about this before, too – people are bored of the subject, which is a real shame because it’s still just as important as it always was. Stereotypes influence public perception, which in turn influences our ability to deliver a service. One study I’ve cited found that 27% of respondents described staff in an academic library as ‘computer literate’. This was a ‘tick all that apply’ question, so you could argue 73% *wouldn’t* describe library staff as computer literate… This impacts on our ability to do our job, as our job has so much do with our digital-and-information literacy.

    I think an important part of defending ourselves against misleading or untrue statements is to respond to them using the same platform they originally appeared on, where possible. It’s no use just expressing outrage among ourselves; we have to appeal to the people who were misled in the first place.

  • 14. Marie L. Radford  |  May 24, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    Yes, that is true. Some people are bored with the topic, and I can understand that. The point is to have something new to say about it all.

  • 15. Tamara  |  May 24, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    I don’t live in New Jersey, but I have had difficulty with the stereotype, and I haven’t even begun my MLS yet! When I told my fiance that I was switching tracks from graduate school in biology to library science, he literally told me that if I was going to do it, I’d be doing it alone, because he didn’t want to live with someone who was just going to check books out to people for the rest of her life. It was only after many arguments that it dawned on me he thought “librarian” meant “reference assistant,” and he had never questioned how titles ended up on the shelves or who managed the databases. It was quite a shock because he’s in information technology and should know better. Rest assured I set him straight.

    • 16. Kathy Dempsey  |  May 25, 2010 at 8:24 am

      Tamara, what a nightmare story!! Sadly, many people think of “librarian” as “the person who shelves & checks out books.” Those in our profession who think everyone understands their value need to hear real stories like this to prove that we need to work on our image, brand, and public perceptions.

      I hope that, as part of his penance, your fiance agreed to tell all his IT buddies what real librarians do and spread the word about their tech-savvy!! Oh, and make him read a few issues of Computers in Libraries magazine (which I used to edit) so he gets the real picture of librarianship! (

    • 17. Janie Jones  |  June 24, 2010 at 10:07 am

      I am interested in learning whether or not your fiance is convinced that librarians.NE.their stereotypes. And if he is, what was the compelling argument?

  • 18. Marie L. Radford  |  May 25, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Sometimes I’ve wondered whether the stereotype has prevented bright & energetic people from entering our field. I’ve wanted to do some research esp. with new MLIS students to see how these media images (and input/resistance from loved ones,based on these stereotypes) has affected them. Glad to hear you took on the challenge. One way to combat stereotypes is one person at a time.

  • 19. Liz  |  May 27, 2010 at 7:32 am

    Most professions have an unflattering stereotype (lawyers anyone?), so it doesn’t bother me as much. But maybe that’s because I break the stereotype totally and completely. People tend to be a bit shocked that I’m a librarian because apart from the nerdy glasses, I really don’t look the part. I’m young, trendy (but not so trendy that I fit in the other end of the library edginess spectrum), and my background isn’t in literature.

    I guess I just don’t let it bother me because I know I can’t control how other people choose to pigeonhole me. I will continue to set a good example, and resign myself to the idea that parts of the world (usually those that don’t use libraries) will always see me as an antiquated Marian the Librarian type.

    • 20. Marie L. Radford  |  May 28, 2010 at 3:17 am

      Will perhaps bother you when you are offered a lower salary and when male colleagues are promoted before you. Our profession is approximately 80% women, but our library directors, deans, etc. are still at approximately 80% male according to recent ALA statistics (Denise Davis, ALA). There is a joke for library school students to be nice to the few men in their classes as they will soon be their boss.

  • 21. BAW  |  May 27, 2010 at 8:26 am

    And what about Noah Wylie’s and Bob Newhart’s characters in “The Librarian” movies?

    • 22. Marie L. Radford  |  May 28, 2010 at 3:19 am

      Yes, and there is Conan the Librarian too. Check out the male librarian in “Sophie’s Choice.” He embodies the male stereotype.

  • 23. Scott  |  May 27, 2010 at 10:11 am

    Marie, this is a great article. This is something I always struggle against. I absolutely hated that stupid Nancy Pearl “action figure” that came out a few years ago. However, I was much happier once I realized that her raised finger reached conveniently to her nose. Perfect!

    • 24. Marie L. Radford  |  May 28, 2010 at 3:20 am

      I think the Nancy Pearl action figure did much more harm than good.

      • 25. Kathy Dempsey  |  May 28, 2010 at 7:42 am

        me too! the fact that she allowed that to be created, with those clothes and the “shushing action,” turned me off to Nancy Pearl forever. she is not doing us any favors!!

  • 26. Justine Shaffner  |  May 27, 2010 at 11:10 am

    great post Marie, the librarian/library stereotype in many politicians’ mind really do make it easier to cut our services as they see them as out of date and not worthwhile – if only they’d actually visit the typical noisy, busy, exciting modern public library!

  • 28. Neysa  |  May 27, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    Not only do the stereotypes persist, but the perception of low pay, also. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be more true. After many years, I’m leaving the field at its lowest ebb. Nothing but low pay and no respect. Amen.

    • 29. Marie L. Radford  |  May 28, 2010 at 3:23 am

      Sorry to hear you are leaving the field. These are dark days for librarians and unfortunately many excellent, dedicated, and forward-looking people are making this difficult choice. Is a tragedy for our field for most of them will not return.

  • 30. Joye  |  May 27, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    How perfect is today’s “Unshelved” strip, in regards to this conversation?!?!

    • 31. Marie L. Radford  |  May 28, 2010 at 3:25 am

      Hy Joye,
      Wonderful! I may seek permission to use this the next time I speak on this topic!!! Thanks for sending.

  • 32. Missu  |  May 31, 2010 at 12:55 am

    Great story! I am a MLS student and I get nothing but weird looks and librarian stereotypes when I tell people what I am going to school for. The other day I was having my eyes checked to see if I would be able to get LASIK eye surgery; I told the doctor that I was only interested in the particular kind of LASIK that is safer (because there are two kinds, etc.) and he said that of course I was since I was a “conservative librarian.” Just rediculous. Oh and this comment was in addition to the exaggerated “shhhhh!” he gave me after I told him what I was going to school for.

  • 33. Neysa  |  June 1, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    There’s an old 1932 Barbara Stanwyck movie entitled, “Forbidden,” in which a librarian (complete with horn rim glasses) runs away from her dull life and goes to the big city where she lands a job working on a newspaper and then becomes the life-long mistress, but never wife, to a well-connected executive who ends up becoming governor. (Sad ending, but I won’t spoil it for anyone who desires to see this Pre-Code flick). So we can see that the stereotypes perpetuated in motion pictures go way back in movies, too. Time to change this perception!

  • 34. Kathy Dempsey  |  June 14, 2010 at 8:13 am

    For those of us keeping score, the NY Times just had an article packed with stereotypical images:
    “Not typically ones to raise their voices, librarians staged an overnight read-in on the steps of the Brooklyn Public Library on Grand Army Plaza to criticize the city’s plan to close 40 branches by month’s end, and to reduce hours and employees at those that remain.”
    The event’s slogan, “We will not be shushed,” sure didn’t help…

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