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A Failure of National Library Week

Everyone knows how I love articles about librarians busting stereotypes. National Library Week is the week to break free from library and librarian stereotypes, and a kind reader hinted that the Google News Archives would show that this has always been the case.

If you don’t believe it’s the week to break free from library and librarian stereotypes, you can read this recent column that has very nice things to say about librarians. It quotes a public library director:

“The library today is not your old mausoleum of silence and dusty classics,” she says. “Libraries are not the stuffy worlds some people recall from their childhood.”

That’s right! This isn’t the library of old that people recall from their childhoods! But whose childhoods would those be?

Before you answer, take a look at another piece, Sydney J. Harris’ “Strictly Personal” column that mentions National Library Week and stereotypes.

If you haven’t been in most libraries for a long time, you’re in for a pleasant shock. Especially if you’re of my vintage, when public libraries were considered the private preserve of the librarians.

These dragons guarding the sacred precincts of literature and sand scholarship did more to discourage library patronage than anything else in my school year;

All this has changed nowadays….

They are different not only in age, looks, and temperament, but also in professional attitude. They are excited about good books, and want to get readers excited. They have excellent standards, sound values….

Today, librarians everywhere see themselves in the forefront of the fight against capricious and arbitrary censorship. They recognize that they are the first line of defense against the Know-Nothings and the Roundheads who would ban any book that threatens their parochial smugness. And they have spoken up boldly against all forms of censorship based on prejudice, partisanship, or plain jackassery.

Yet the communications systems of the new libraries have been a relative failure. Many, if not most, people are not aware of the modern library has to offer, and how bloomingly it has changed.

Sounds like something that could show up in the Huffington post this week, but those of you old enough to remember Sydney J. Harris know that it didn’t. It was written in 1973, when Harris was in his fifties, so his childhood memories would have been of the 1920s and 1930s. That communication system still seems to be a failure.

You can also look to Cape Gireadeau, MO, hometown of someone I’m sure is a huge fan of public libraries, Rush Limbaugh! In a profile of their new public library director, we hear about the stereotypes, and how those darn librarians are breaking them.

In years past, booklovers have had ample reason to be alternately amused and infuriated by the people they found behind library desks. Librarians seemed to fall into two categories: sweet little old ladies who were authorities on the care and feeding of cats, but could not exactly identify Shakespeare, or stern martinets more interested in “Silence” signs than books.

Unfortunately, many people do not realize that such librarians are as rare as Stanley Steamers. The purpose of National Library Week…is, among other things, to show the modern librarian as a highly trained, dynamic individual, concerned with people, books, ideas, and their relation to one another.

Boy, do those librarians sound dynamic! I’m glad that’s the way libraries are now, not like the old days when we were all children! Except that article was written in 1965. Young Rush was 14 then, but something tells me he didn’t spend a lot of time at the library.

From a USA Today puff piece this past weekend about National Library Week:

“Forget stereotypes about libraries. You’re likely to find art exhibits, lounge chairs and free Wi-Fi. Monday marks the start of National Library Week, but visitors don’t need an excuse to visit.”

Sounds a lot like what’s happening in Kentucky:

The library literally has become the cultural hub of many communities with art displays and classes, lecture series, drama and concerts being sponsored in or by the library.

From the old idea of a “house of books” the modern library in many cities has emerged as a technological masterpiece with recordings of great works of literature and music to be checked out….

Ugh, not that nasty old “house of books” stereotype again! Things were getting exciting in Bowling Green libraries in 1967.

Though not strictly during National Library Week, the New York Times didn’t let me down on content. We know they’re big fans of hip librarians, and they love to run articles about librarians busting stereotypes:

To some people the word “librarian” conjures up the image of a whispery old lady in musty crepe, who exists only to stamp books, riffle through card catalogues and perhaps suggest the latest mystery novel.

To a new generation of librarians who staff the libraries in New York, this stereotype Is both outdated and inaccurate.

If you go to the historical NYT and read the next paragraph, you’ll have some idea of the era of the article and the gender of the writer:

“Librarians can be pretty hairy,” said librarian Helen Dunbar, a well-curved 29-year-old, wearing a quantity of blue eye shadow.

That was 1971. Ms. Dunbar, now pushing 70 if she’s still around, has probably retired. In Waterford, CT, we hear that Library week is the time to eliminate stereotypes:

In conjunction with National Library Week…, libraries across the country will be striving to create a new image of what an information center can be.

That was the big news for 1979. Did those librarians succeed in busting stereotypes?

Let’s go back further. The Wall Street Journal has an article from 1961, Librarians Endeavor to Shed Drab Image, Win Recruits to Field. It seems that there were 18,000 unfilled librarian jobs in 1961, and libraries in Los Angeles were worried they couldn’t fill 50 positions to open new library branches.

Among the huge case of popular American stereotypes…, none is more enduring than the prim, spinsterish librarian, who carries about with her the faint aroma of library paste and who peers shyly at the world with blinking book-strained eyes.

Not only is this picture usually erroneous, but it is causing a serious shortage of personnel in the field as young people seek to avoid what they think is a dead-end profession, library administrators complain. Therefore they have launched an aggressive campaign to transform their “image’ and to make their jobs more appealing to possible recruits.

The work of the librarian is “dynamic, fulfilling and creative,” declares one booster of the profession. Adds Miss Myrie Ricking, personnel officer of the Milwaukee Public Library and chairman of the American Library Association’s recruiting committee: “A librarian is not a docile, passive old lady. She has to know what’s happening in the world. She’s not sitting around with a bunch of dusty books and telling people to ‘shush.”

Oh dear. They weren’t just sitting around with a bunch of dusty books shushing people 50 years ago.  That’s good to know. Not like those stuffy worlds some people recall from childhood!

And for the good news, it looks like those 18,000 jobs got filled, probably by all the librarians who are supposedly about to retire and create another huge librarian shortage.

Considering we have 50 years of articles where librarians use National Library Week to inform people how times have changed from the musty old days, National Library Week and the “image” campaigns have been a failure at that goal, and we’re probably destined to 50 more years of articles talking about how libraries aren’t like they were back in the old days. At this point, the old days librarians have been talking about for 50 years are so old most people who could remember them are dead.

But there is one thing National Library Week has accomplished. I’ll save that one for a short post tomorrow.

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Comments

  1. This is an illuminating piece, AL — and it’s as much about gender as it is about libraries. These accounts would have been written differently about a profession dominated by males.

    Sexism is as persistent today as in the past, as evident in these articles from 2009:
    http://www.radicalpatron.com/sexism-thrives-in-portrayal-of-librarians/

  2. will manley says:

    AL…I for one loved my stuffy 1950s era public library and school library. I loved the books, I loved the quiet, and I loved the librarians. Whoever is orchestrating these National Library Week p.r. campaigns should keep in mind the lesson of Oldsmobile’s “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile” advertising campaign. They tried to break a stereotype and a few years after the campaign, they went under. Instead of trying to shed our stereotype (which clearly isn’t working), we should take a page from the groundbreaking VW bug ads of the early 60s…small is beautiful. How about this…in a world of beeps and buzzes, quiet is elegant? Let’s build on our stereotype. Anyway, I thought retro was “in” these days.

  3. Georges Pompidou says:

    Free Books, Free Movies, Free Wifi
    No Questions, Just Answers.
    - National Library Week 2011 -

  4. Melissa says:

    Thanks for the mini history lesson. I can’t remember running into the librarian stereotype in real life. I think I’ve only ever met one mean librarian who didn’t want us looking at the books (in high school). I’m not sure she even had much training, so I hesitate to call her a librarian.

  5. Britt says:

    Oof. This speaks to lazy journalism, I think. Somebody was assigned National Library Week by their editor, and went in search of one “hip” librarian to write a piece that 1) references the gender, age, hairstyle, and, for some reason, odor, of the “typical” librarian; 2) showcases their “hip” librarian as proof that all librarians are hip; 3) because librarians are hip, libraries are happening places. I still see pieces like this all the time. Fluff!

  6. If you “love articles about librarians busting stereotypes,” then you have to read this:

    “Librarians are Guardians of a Trust, by Jo Ellen Ringer, Notus Public Library Director and Guest Writer”

    http://tinyurl.com/JoEllenRinger