February 16, 2018

What Popular Culture is Telling Us About Libraries and Why We Should Listen | Backtalk

Libraries and librarians are a regular occurrence in popular culture. From the occasional commercial to television and film, libraries pop up pretty frequently in any format you can imagine. Comics are dedicated to them, superheroes are evolved from them, songs are sung in them, and hellmouths are located underneath them. Libraries are a ubiquitous part of our culture, but are we listening to our audience? We need to look at how the public and culture at large are portraying libraries, listen to how they really perceive the library, and latch on to those ideas to further our place in society.

As libraries struggle to keep up with the competition both philosophically and financially—and we all know who the competition is—we need to look at ways to stay relevant, and not just offer great service and resources, because clearly that’s no longer enough. The librarian stereotype is pervasive in popular culture, but we need to look not at the librarian, but the library. We tend to focus on the figure representing the entity and not the entity in itself, when the entity is what actually drives the librarian.

When looking closely at the use of libraries in film, television, and print, one can start to see a few common themes emerge. I will argue that pop culture is telling us that libraries are mysterious (and possibly supernatural); Archives is futuristic (and potentially dangerous); and Library as Place is not just an overused library catch phrase. I believe that understanding those themes can help define the library’s place in the current and future culture at large.

Mystery Is Not Just In the Fiction Section

Libraries are mysterious. This is common knowledge. Ask any librarian if non-library people really know what they do all day. It’s not just what does a librarian do, but what a library contains. It’s as if having so much knowledge at your fingertips is frightening in some way, and extremely intimidating.  Rex-Libris is a good example of this fear. Rex-Libris is a comic that portrays a librarian as a superhero dealing with “some pretty tough patrons. Gods, undead, alien warlords, vampires, time travelers from the past… and future”. The Librarian in Rex-Libris is powerful because he armed with “the most formidable weapon of all—knowledge”. He has read all of the books in his library and has unwrapped the mystery in the texts. If knowledge is power, then it is assumed that he who reads everything in a library can be the most powerful of all.

What continues to be a mystery to popular culture is what exactly is found in the library and who has read those offerings. Usually the number of volumes in a library can range in the millions. The average person has no clue what could be found in those texts. So, they let their imaginations decide for them.

A good example of this is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Who would have thought that an average high school library would house the tools to vanquish demons?  The idea is that those who have read the texts in the library are armed with the knowledge to defeat even the evilest of foes. It’s not just Buffy who has all the power, but the team of “Scoobies” who research in the library for the good of all. What is not so mysterious is that libraries can contain the information you need to succeed, whether you are vanquishing your own demons such as phobias or dependencies, or finding ways to increase your knowledge on certain subjects. Libraries and what is contained within them can be valuable tools in ones’ arsenal.

More supernatural libraries can be found in the popular comic The Sandman and graphic novel The Night Bookmobile. In The Sandman, the Library of Dream is comprised of books where their authors “never wrote, or never finished, except in dreams”. These titles do not yet exist in reality. In the Night Bookmobile, the bookmobile is comprised of “all the printed matter ever read by anyone alive at this moment”. The person who enters the bookmobile will come across his or her own unique collection of read items.  What is most interesting about these libraries is the idea that a library can be something more than what currently exists. It can be personal and creative and dreamy, otherworldly and magical. What strikes me as the most interesting aspect of the Night Bookmobile is that one is not able to become the librarian of his or her own bookmobile. The cataloging and collecting of the materials is still done by another, continuing the mysteriousness of it all.

It is now necessary for libraries to remove the mystery. Tell everyone we know what really occurs in a library, what is really contained in a library, what is really needed in a library.

Dangerous Treasures

Digging treasures out of the archives is one way to decrease the mystery of libraries. Bringing archives into the front of the library as a dominant snapshot of what that library contains is important to the success of future libraries. But with that comes another problem: working with valuable items can be dangerous. At least, that is what the television show Warehouse 13 is telling us. If we are to believe that print is dead (and many do believe that), then it is safe to assume that the written and printed texts will gain value because they will become rare. With that rarity and value comes the desire to own those items. Warehouse 13 is a television show about Secret Service agents who are safeguarding and collecting items in a warehouse. It does not slip by me that once again a reference to a library is supernatural, as the items they are collecting are all supernatural. In actuality, they do not refer to libraries or librarians, but as a librarian it is clear to me what the warehouse really is—an archive. They are archiving valuable, supernatural, and dangerous items. It does not have to be a book, although it sometimes is, but all of the items of interest still require cataloging and safekeeping.  For example, in the pilot episode we have Artie trying to explain what the Warehouse is to Pete.

Artie: And that is exactly what we do here. We take the unexplained… and we just safely tuck it away in this super-sized Pandora’s Box.
Pete: Metaphorically speaking.
Artie: Well, actually, Pandora’s box is over in Aisle 989-B. Empty, of course.

If we are to believe that they store Pandora’s box in this warehouse, it is just as important to believe that it is right where it should be. That is pretty much the premise of this show, to make sure artifacts are where they should be, safely stored within the Warehouse. Sound familiar? However, what happens when someone else wants that item? This comes up quite a bit on Warehouse 13. Each episode leads the audience to believe that collecting and safeguarding artifacts is dangerous, and not just because of the supernatural qualities of the items. If we go back to my earlier argument that the mystery in a library is not always what it contains but what it could contain, then we can assume that one might desire to acquire what is contained in an archive because of what it could contain rather than what it does contain.

The unknown quality about the Archive creates desirability. This idea is showcased in the film National Treasure. In National Treasure, they are looking for a treasure map drawn on the back of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration, of course, housed in the National Archives, is one of our nation’s most valuable processions. They need to steal it to get the clue. So, again, it is what is unknown about the objects in the Archive that is the most appealing. I especially enjoyed the scene in the Library of Congress where they are using resources there to find a way to steal the Declaration. So, not only does the archive contain a hidden clue to treasure, but the information to help you get it. When they finally find the treasure, housed within a treasure room, they pan to a scene similar to those in Warehouse 13. The treasure room is essentially a Warehouse 13, containing valuable artifacts, which include scrolls from the library of Alexandria.  Although this is a complete fabrication, it is not beyond our beliefs or expectations. Clues could be found within texts that we treasure, and the drive of someone to find and take our treasure could lead to dangerous situations. Or, you could already be in a dangerous situation and what is hidden or obvious in those treasures could be essential to your survival.

So, you are trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. What do you really need?  A good library, of course. In Season 2, Episode 5, of The Walking Dead, Dale says, “If I had known the world was ending, I would have brought better books.” In this post-apocalyptic world computers do not work, definitely no smartphones, so if we no longer have those electronic resources available, where do we get our information? It goes back to the library. Archives storing fountains of information are available to them. Perhaps the solution to the whole zombie problem can be found in one of those books. So, if we can imagine such a future, archives become the most important way to preserve our knowledge, and maybe our humanity as well. Archives are futuristic because they will always have a place in our future, good or bad.

The Place To Be

It’s the human aspect that can be the most intriguing thing about a library. Identifying what is important to us as humans is tricky business. One thing that has prevailed in popular culture is the idea that the Library is not just a building with books and resources: it is also a location. The whole “library as place” movement is not so modern if you look back at all of the instances where a library is used in film, television, commercials, even pictures in magazines.

The library as a place, as an entity, is important to our society.  It represents information and tranquility. It also represents neutrality and safety, and finding common ground. The library does not have an ownership because it belongs to the community. In that community we have a variety of people with seemingly nothing in common who can gather and share and potentially find a common bond that will connect them and it is the library as a location that provides that opportunity. It is also seen as a place that lacks activity, so it serves as an excellent backdrop for scenes that require little disruptions from the main attraction. That could be dialog, or action. Whether it’s a group of kids in detention such as The Breakfast Club, a study group in a community college in Community, a location for a grisly school shooting like in American Horror Story, or an upbeat location for a singalong in Glee, monotonous rows of books do not distract us from what the directors of these works want us to focus on, the story.

I believe that the neutrality of the library as a place is the best we have to offer society. Sure we have the resources, but one resource we have that gets overlooked is the location. A great place to be never gets old. In the children’s show The Backyardigans, The episode titled “the Masked Retriever” gives us a little insight into what children are told about libraries in the song “I love the library” (unfortunately, video is not available).  Here is a sample of the lyrics:

The library, the library, I love, love, love the library
One thing you should know about me, I love, love, love…the library!
It’s a place that’s bright and warm
It’s a place that’s calm and quiet
It’s a place where you can read a book and you don’t…have to buy it
The chairs are nice and comfy
The lighting is just right, any book you want is here
And if I could…I’d stay all night! I like to read biographies and scientific theory
There’s comic books and cookbooks, too, and the history of…Lake Erie
I find a book and sit and read by the light of the tasteful lamp
And if you want to take it home, I’ll stamp it with…my trusty stamp
What if I want a particular book that’s high up on a shelf?
We’ve got rolling footstools and you can get it down yourself
And if the book’s up really high?
That’s no tricky matter, just come and ask the librarian and I’ll climb my fancy ladder
The library, the library, I love, love, love the library
You love it just as much as me
We love, love, love…the library!

What is interesting is the focus of the song is how wonderful the library is as a location. Sure, it has lots of books, but the atmosphere and ambiance is even better. Not only that, but this perception has not changed much from what a library was 100 years ago. Our children are fed this idea that a library is a fabulous place to visit. The song does not include references to electronic resources or computers, just a great building with great books.  And that is what these children are expecting from their libraries because that is what popular culture is telling them libraries are. We know differently, but does it matter if that is what they are expecting? Probably not.

Perception and Reality

We need to recognize that while the library is changing rapidly internally, the perception of libraries externally is ultimately unchanged. The library is still a mysterious place that contains items that may or may not be of value of the natural and supernatural variety, and provides comfortable seating for reading and a great place to gather. We should embrace these and market the library in a way that demystifies what a library contains while still catering to the desire for a location that is safe, neutral, and not distracting.  We should also safeguard our valuables, because you never know when there will be a zombie apocalypse.


Karen Glover is Access Services Librarian, Assistant Department Head, and Library Service Desk Manager at Georgia Tech Library. She presented this paper at the 2012 Popular Culture Association Annual Conference. Her writings can be found at pezlibrarian.com.



Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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  1. Thanks for this, Karen. Yes, the library as a place, a location, is our best foot forward. The format of the media may change. But, as Librarian of Congress James Billington likes to say, our constant theme is “the life of the mind.” A library is a great place for people to gather together to live the life of the mind. Reading, writing, studying, listening, watching, collaborating, creating, conversing, going to meetings – the library is the place. True a hundred years ago, true now, and true in another hundred years if we play our cards right.

  2. Geoff Young says:

    This is funny! “A location for a grizzly school shooting like in American Horror Story.”
    They shot a bear? Or was it especially horrible, as in grisly?

  3. Meredith Schwartz Meredith Schwartz says:

    Thanks Geoff! I didn’t see the movie but I’m guessing she meant the latter; I’ll fix it.

  4. Not to be too spammy, but I just so happen to write a series of tween novels about a library –where the books hold strange and mysterious things. It’s called the Library of Athena.

  5. As you said, lots of the appeal in libraries in popular culture comes from the fact that you never know what amazing things you could find there (the library in Harry Potter is another good example).

    But that doesn’t mean libraries should be made LESS mysterious (although sure, educating the public about librarians’ work is good).

    It actually means libraries might want to PLAY UP the mystery–as in, who knows what powerful, amazing, beautiful information or finds might be found within them.

    No matter what anyone does, libraries will always hold that mystery anyway–how can they not, with so much information held within? Why try to negate that?

    I take away from your article that emphasizing libraries’ role as a starting point for quests for knowledge, solutions to problems, as a wellspring of unsought, as-yet-unknown goodness might be beneficial. Maybe you were getting at that, too?

    BTW, I’m not a librarian. Just happened to see the article.

  6. Really interesting article, which I enjoyed, thank you. However, I believe that you’re quite wrong. If we have a library defining a librarian, it’s entirely the wrong way around. If I go into a library, am I suddenly a librarian? Of course not. The library needs to be used by the librarian in order to further the aims, needs and requirements of the community that library is in. It’s up to the librarian, working in conjunction with the community to work that out.

    Let’s just look at one example you gave – the Buffy/Giles library. Sure, great fun, but how many other people did we ever see using it? I can’t recall any. Even when Cordelia came in, she was very much along the lines of ‘what is this whosit for?’ (Yes, of course it was a tv programme, but if you want to use it for an example, have to take the good with the bad.)

    I agree that the mystery needs to be removed. But a ‘library’ can’t do that. The librarian and the community can however. The library absolutely DOES have an ownership, because it IS owned by the community. I agree that libraries should be viewed as dangerous though – I gave a talk on that only the other day. A library, in conjunction with the librarian and community provides access to thoughts, ideas etc – and that should be dangerous.

    Again – thanks for the article. Really enjoyed it.

    • Thanks Phil, but I think we are both right. I don’t disagree with you at all, my focus was on the portrayal of libraries in popular culture instead of the portrayal of the librarian, which I see often. That does not diminish the importance of the librarian in my eyes, merely focusing on a different side of the same coin. But, you can have a library without a librarian and it’s still a library. I am not sure it would be true if reversed. Just throwing that out there for someone to freak out about :)

  7. Sheridan Alder says:

    The article has it TOTALLY wrong a-s-backward. The authors are merely using a common literary device – reversal of expectations. (And they say an arts degree is a waste of time! I’ve saved lots of money because I haven’t invested in the 21st equivalent of the South Sea bubble scheme or in the latest snake oil tonic, pardon “health supplement” – invaluable, I tell you, invaluable!)

    An example – remember the scene in “Men in Black II” in the sorting room of the Post Office? We realize that in reality sorting rooms are probably boring places full of elaborate machines, but the conceit of aliens performing the work was amusing. That and the fact that we all know a postal employee (all the friendly and professional USPS staff, you’re not included – you know I’m talking about that odd guy in the shift after yours…) that make you wonder if they’re from another planet.

    Most visits to the library and the post office are routine and mundane. Life is mundane. The intended audience knows that they are not going to find tomes on how to find demons and zombies in the library, and that boring ole dad isn’t a secret agent, and that the cute guy in your math class isn’t a vampire, but wouldn’t it be fun if one day….? Most of mass culture is based on reversal of expectations.

    Sometimes I think that upon graduation, “they” dictate a mass surgical removal of all the library grad’s humour and irony glands, and “they” missed me somehow.

    Literalism – the curse of the library classes.

  8. A couple more images for you:

    The library of Unseen University, in Terry Pratchett’s _Discworld_ stories. Where the books are chained to the shelves *to protect the patrons*, and mutter to each other in the night. Where you can get lost in the stacks, wander through “L-space”, and come out in another library altogether. Where the Librarian is a friendly, knowledgable, helpful wizard who happens to have been turned into an orangutan by a flubbed spell and decided he liked the change.

    Isaac Asimov’s _Foundation_ trilogy, in which we learn that, when the entire planet of Trantor was trashed by an interstellar war fleet, the students at U. of Trantor somehow managed to defend their library, the only structure left undamaged. (It’s a place of unexpected power. Hmmm.)

  9. MiketheLibrarian says:

    OK, I get that you’re trying to enhance the attractiveness of libraries. But we already have plenty of people who think you could replace everything we offer with one big server. In addition to those misguided souls, there are plenty who think that everything we do — shelving and circulation — could be done entirely by volunteers. Like every other librarian I know, people are aghast that we need an advanced degree (or even a college education) to do our jobs.

    If we want to preserve both the place and the occupation, both need attention. This is the kind of thing I’ve come to expect from the ALA, actually, focus on the building instead of what makes it great.

  10. Mike, I agree that librarianship has become very building focused. I think that the reason behind that trend is fear. The fear of losing our significance to society now that everything is electronic. If it’s not the research that brings them in, then we need to entice them with study space that can’t be found anywhere else that includes food, drink, and entertainment (not really joking). The intention of my article was to look at how libraries are portrayed in popular culture and how we can tune into those ideas to make the building and the occupation something that is relevant and meaningful to this and future generations. Maybe I did not articulate that enough in the article though.

  11. Karen – thanks for your thoughts. I’ll still happily disagree – a library without a librarian isn’t a library. It’s a collection of books, with very little difference to a bookshop. It takes an information professional to create, maintain and run a library. A librarian is still a librarian if they don’t have a library, because they have skills, expertise, a moral and ethical background that helps define their professionalism. If we accept that a library is defined by the artifacts, then once we don’t need the books libraries – and by implication librarians will cease to exist. That’s fundamentally incorrect – sorry!

    • Phil,
      I will agree with your argument to a degree. The librarian is responsible for the initial creation of the library but if he or she fails to maintain the library, it’s still a library. In a post-apocalyptic scenario that I joked about, it is reasonable to believe that one might find a library and still find it useful and necessary, even without the librarian. What I was trying to point out is that the library as a building and place would still have significance long after we (the librarians) are not around and playing to that is fundamental to keeping up with society. The general public think about the physical building when referring to a library and I don’t think that will change.