What’s wrong with being a librarian?

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 …

(‘Library of Swinburne University’, from WilLiao’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a restricted Creative Commons License)

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.

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4 Responses to What’s wrong with being a librarian?

  1. danamckay says:

    I would argue that the one advantage of the panic about the image of librarianship in the public eye is that it means people want to change it. My background is in a group that has an even poorer image than librarians — IT people. Now, however funny the IT crowd may be, I simply cannot watch it, because not only do I know people who fit exactly the stereotypes it plays on, but because those people are proud of being like that.

    Librarians are worried about being seen as bun-sporting, twinset-and-pearls-wearing shushers. Many IT guys are proud of being stereotyped as cola-addicted socially-inept nerds who don’t wear shoes or bathe regularly. I know which camp I would rather be in.

  2. tony says:

    I watched the first episode last night and I thought it was pretty good. I think I’ve worked with all those people at various times, sometimes in libraries and sometimes in other jobs I’ve had. Frances could have been based entirely on a former boss I had in the public service.

    I *loved* the blue-tacked “library” sign stuck underneath the pompous “interactive resource centre” or whatever it was. Hopefully we’ve now passed through the phase where you couldn’t call a library a library. I know we had a fight here at Swinburne when setting up the first library home page and certain people wanted to call it “information resources” and I’m so relieved that didn’t happen. It could have been worse, at UQ they have the “Cybrary”, and I believe one of the NSW university libraries had a “Cybrarian”.

    Actually, I swear “The Office” was based on my first public service job. I started another job at Telstra which was so bad that I left the office to have lunch on my first day and I never went back (I was very surprised to receive a cheque in the mail several weeks later for 4 hours pay).

  3. Sara Jervis says:

    Rebecca,

    I watched the show twice and found it neither funny nor clever.

    Now why did the writers choose a library setting to comment on:

    friendship – the warped needy cruel kind

    overeaters – the disabled kind

    losers – the drunk kind

    the priest – the try hard kind

    the boring author – the boring kind

    the gay – the Asian kind

    the looker – the one from the ministry

    the druggie – the deep cleavage kind

    the muslim – the bossy kind

    the premier – the sleeze kind

    the head librarian – the mean, the needy, the unhappy wife with the dub
    ponytailed husband, the desperate, the big L luckless kind.

    Why?

    I just have an idea – librarians are safe like everyone’s favourite aunt or uncle, and the writers can use steryotypes far more easily in a LIBRARY, the safe haven, and not be hauled before the tribunal for gross political incorrectness. So what if there is a woman who steals food, is overweight big time, is in a wheel chair ?She is a stock item even the Chasers would not lampoon and not necessarily because it would not be funny.

    SHE IS A LIBRARIAN

    Priests are suss.
    Gays have hearts of gold and/or are looking for love
    accountants are, well boring
    CEOs are ruthless
    wives are cheating
    husbands are cheating
    premiers are cheating
    office geeks are geeks
    teachers are riotous
    IT freaks are zany geeks
    bookshop owners are mad.

    But in a series set in a library, you can put all the above types in and, add to the mix, politically incorrect stereotypes and get away with it.

    (I think on reflection “The Office” had an overweight man in a wheelchair with a sweat stained shirt and the Extras had a lady with one leg – in the latter case the laugh was at Ricky’s expense not the lady; ditto the priest in the Extras)

  4. […] blessed LibraryThing it is …* I’ve already talked at length about the constant preoccupation of our profession with image, so rest assured that I’m not […]

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