I’ve never come across a profession so completely fixated on its own image as that of librarianship. Even now, for me choosing the word ‘librarianship’ is contentious and marked with a delicious hint of danger; I’m meant to call it ‘information services’ or ‘information management’ or ‘online content provision’ or something equally wanky. Yet I can’t get the image out of my head, from the first episode of the ABC‘s new comedy series The Librarians, of the fresh new paint on the window of the building, ‘Middleton Interactive Learning Centre’, and bluetacked underneath, a handwritten sign with a single, instantly-recognisable word … library.
Of course, for anyone who’s ever visited Swinburne Library at Hawthorn, the facade of the Middleton building may have given you another (more institutionalised) chuckle …
Accountants, historically plagued by the tag of ‘boring servant to the bourgeoisie’, are likely to be just as worried about their image in the media and in the hearts and minds of the people as librarians. But at least they’ve done something about it; those CPA adventurer ads are fantastic! What have librarians done about our situation? Prior to the series screening, there was mass panic about the effect The Librarians might have on our reputation, so much so that our professional association started a blog about the possible fallout. For God’s sake; the series is not even really about libraries; the library is just a convenient setting for a more extensive critique of the public service and the pervasive prejudice of middle Australia.
Why were we worried? Is it because we librarians are dogged by the unfortunate stereotype of the unfashionably dressed, bespectacled, book-reading middle-aged female pedant with a penchant for telling people to be quiet? This is slightly better than another emerging film-derived stereotype … that of the dominatrix librarian (I strongly advise against running a Google search on that one …).
The Librarians is just comedy. This has been my stance from the beginning. Of course, as anyone who has been watching the series will know, the only downside to my argument is that it’s not particularly funny comedy. Not like the wonderful British comedy The IT Crowd, aimed at our unfortunate colleagues in the IT department …
Has The Librarians adversely impacted the image of librarians in popular culture? So far, I would say not. Frances O’Brien, head librarian, is a petty, vindictive, hysterical, small-minded, hypocritical witch, but I think most of the audience will have met people like her before (particularly if they’ve worked in the public service). I don’t think the 1 million plus people who watched the first episode of the series will immediately associate her behaviour with that of librarians. The notion that people are so easily manipulated that a single TV series can change the way they view libraries is typical of the academic superiority many people resent in librarians.
Ultimately, library patrons are going to take us as they find us. That means that if we want it so badly, it’s our responsibility to change how we’re viewed, not the ABC’s.