Libraries in Pop Culture: Shushing Librarian Stereotypes 🤫

As we slowly emerge from the other side of Covid (fingers crossed - I'm writing this as variants spread...) and restrictions are lifted, some of us find ourselves returning to the work tasks and duties of pre-pandemic days. For me, this means my library building is open, and I am no longer working from home. Instead, I've immediately reverted to the inflexible work schedules and services of the "before-times" while still offering virtual research and reference services to students, faculty, and staff in various formats and at individual points of need.


Of course I'm happy to do so, but just as it was a massive transition from on-ground to remote, it is as equally disorienting transitioning back from remote to on-ground. I've been back in the building full-time less than a month now, and it’s already physically, logistically, and mentally exhausting.


Despite my exhaustion, though, I taught an in-person library instruction workshop (my first since March 2020!) just the other week. I was a little uneasy at first, but guess what?!


It 👏 Felt 👏 So 👏 Good! 👏


 

The Audience


I was tasked with building an hour-long, one-shot session for my university’s Equal Opportunity Program (EOP). This program runs each summer before the fall semester and offers academic support services to socio-economically disadvantaged and/or first generation college students (Hsieh, McManimon, & Yang, 2013, 313). As my library's in-house information literacy advocate, I've pushed to incorporate library instruction sessions into EOP for the past six years with varying success. It is my belief that library involvement in this transitional and retention-based program is vital, especially "with the vast amount of information materials being offered digitally and library services and outreach now being offered online...EOP students...have been disadvantaged historically due to a digital divide [and] cannot be ignored" (Myers-Martin & Lampert, 2013, 230). Considering the at-home learning struggles of many students during the height of Covid lockdown, these considerations are as relevant as ever.


I witnessed some of these struggles first-hand in July 2020. Last year's deep Covid-era EOP instruction took place online in a remote, two-part Zoom session. Students were required to read the article "Search Tips from a Seasoned Searcher" by William E. Badke between sessions, complete an online question form, and be prepared to discuss in class. I was excited for this lesson and to begin building student-librarian relationships. What did I get instead? Sleepy, unresponsive students in dark rooms with cameras pointed at ceilings. Despite my best efforts to remain upbeat, it was clear that many had skipped the assignment and were struggling to engage in not only my session, but the program overall.




While it's part of an academic library's mission to support all student populations and build learning environments to accommodate learning styles in both face-to-face and digital spaces, this was one scenario where I truly felt online learning was ineffective. It was difficult to gauge whether they learned anything about their new library. I felt like I failed these students - it was incredibly frustrating as an educator.


Needless to say, I was thrilled to learn that EOP would take place face-to-face again this year!


 

The Lesson


As the work of libraries and librarians are continuously being questioned and misrepresented by popular media, administration, and even library users themselves, I decided to approach my usual click-here, search-there style EOP workshop with something a little more snazzy: a lesson titled Libraries in Pop Culture: Shushing Librarian Stereotypes.


This new lesson was built entirely on LibGuides (a content management and information sharing system designed specifically for libraries) using primarily video clips and large scale images. It was partially inspired by a Mr. Library Dude blog post and designed to facilitate conversation about the (mis)perception of librarians as seen through media & entertainment.


Per my experience, library stereotypes are found in all types of media, especially film and television. They are often negative and directly undermine the valuable work that information professionals do in the increasingly information rich world in which we live. For example:


LIBRARIES are negatively stereotyped as:

  • empty/going unused

  • dark and devoid of light

  • quiet spaces only

LIBRARIANS are negatively stereotyped as:

  • meek, timid, and unassertive in nature

  • continuously telling library users to be quiet

  • reading on the job/being lazy/moving slowly

  • overtly and overly sexy OR sexually repressed

  • an unapproachable egghead

  • a spinster

  • staggeringly rude and unhelpful

As directly stated to my students:

"It's important to be mindful of these stereotypes because they can have an impact on your understanding of the library as a valuable tool and resource."
 

Part 1

After a general welcome and introduction, we started with a team-based brainstorming activity where students were split into three teams and asked to give five answers to the following two questions:

  1. What do you think of when you hear the word librarian or library?

  2. What do you think a librarian does?




Some of the more popular answers included or were related to books, glasses, or librarians saying "shhh." (Sliding ladders was my favorite response.)









It was unsurprising (and a little funny) to see and discuss these stereotypical responses. They were welcomed as a natural way to examine how their beliefs about libraries may not apply to the academic library they will soon use in college.



Part 2

Once we discussed each response in relation to their academic library on campus, students were invited to more deeply consider the impact of stereotypes on perception by viewing clips of libraries and librarians in film and television previously curated by yours truly.


1. Consider stereotypes. Ask yourself:

  • What exactly is a stereotype?

  • What is the impact of stereotypes on our lives?

  • What actions can we take to stop the perpetuation of stereotypes?

2. Watch the video clips below. Ask yourself:

  • What stereotypes do I see?

  • Do I believe in or have I experienced these stereotypes?

  • Why is it important to know what librarians really do?


Clips were shared via embedded video players on the lesson resource guide:

  • Monsters University

  • Ghostbusters

  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

  • SNL Skit - The Librarian

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer

  • All That Skit - The Loud Librarian

  • Mr. Bean Librarian

  • Game of Thrones

  • Beauty and the Beast

  • The Librarian

  • The Pagemaster

  • Matilda

There was not enough time in this 50-minute session to watch every clip, so instead I selected a few and asked for student suggestions. We watched six in total.



Part 3

With all of these stereotypes in mind, I then pivoted the conversation to highlight ten of the most important aspects of our library that students should know, debunking stereotypes as I went with more detailed information about the specific job duties of each of the library staff members.

I covered:

  1. borrowing

  2. reference

  3. reserves

  4. interlibrary loan

  5. class instruction

  6. website navigation & databases

  7. virtual services

  8. workshops & events

  9. study space

  10. archives

"Remember," I said, "You might think the most important resource of a library is the book or database collection. But actually, it's the librarians - we are curators and interpreters of information!"

Wrap-Up

I always like to conclude a lesson, especially a one-shot, with a short reflective exercise where students reply to the following:

  • What is one thing you learned today?

  • What is a question you still have about the library?

Overall, I was impressed by the students' answers, which ranged from "no questions" to inciteful interpretations of what we had just discussed. It was so rewarding. What a difference face-to-face instruction can make - to both student and librarian alike.


 

Further Reading


Badke, W. E. (2018). Search Tips From a Seasoned Searcher. Online Searcher, 42(1), 59–61.


Hardenbrook, J. (2016). You do what? Re-working a librarian “career day” presentation. Mr. Library Dude. https://mrlibrarydude.wordpress.com/tag/stereotyping/


Hsieh, M. L., McManimon, S., & Yang, S. (2013). Faculty-librarian collaboration in improving information literacy of educational opportunity program students. Reference Services Review, 41(2), 313–335.


Meyers-Martin, C., & Lampert, L. D. (2013). Mind the gap: Academic library outreach and EOP. Reference Services Review, 41(2), 219–232.