From Spinsters to Cyberpunks: The Changing Face of Female Librarians
Women have been a part of library history since the profession’s first major expansion in the late 1800s. For years, the image of a part Victorian schoolmarm, part Industrial Age spinster has stuck, causing a level of professional concern that threatens to hamper women’s progress in librarianship as they seek to prove themselves greater than a two-dimensional image. Mass media has molded the caricature into a cultural icon, further cementing the figure in society and causing further anxiety within the profession. As society continues to advance into the Internet age, the female librarian is due for a makeover that is more in line with the tech-savvy force to be reckoned with that she has become.
“She can go into a convent. Let her become a librarian with thick glasses and a pencil in her hair, I’m not paying for any more cancelled weddings.” —Walter Matthau as Roy Hubley, from the Neil Simon film Plaza Suite (1971)
Image and identity are strongly linked. As Dominguez-Martinez and Swank (2009) write, “Individuals learn their abilities from appraisals from others and experience.” It is not an exaggeration to state that people judge one another on their looks, and in turn judge themselves by how others see them. Images create identities with which people connect. Doctors wear lab coats and stethoscopes; nurses wear white dresses or scrubs; policemen wear blue uniforms and badges. People create (usually) favorable associations and build relationships based on images.
When many people think of a librarian, the image is not favorable—she, for the librarian is usually female, is often pictured as a dowdy, middle-aged woman with a dour expression, glasses and clunky shoes. Her clothes are unfashionable and matronly and her hair is fixed tightly in a bun secured to the back of her head. Her index finger is at the ready, waiting to shush anyone who dares to speak in her domain at volumes above the slightest of whispers. She is a sexless spinster, too wrapped up in the textual world to experience real life (Seale, 2008), which doubtless contributes to her unpleasant demeanor.
This image, attached to librarians since women first flowed into the profession in the late 19th century, causes unparalleled professional anxiety among library professionals of both genders. The negative image continues to exacerbate librarian stereotypes, leading librarians to create new identities as “information professionals,” “information scientists,” or “media professionals.” They write article after article with assertions that they are not “your grandmother’s librarians.” They belly dance, wear lipstick and are superheroes. This discomfort, even shame, over a stereotypical image threatens to overwhelm the profession as it continues the vicious cycle of passing this discomfort onto newcomers. Dupré (2001) argues in “The Perception of Image and Status in the Library Profession” that the obsession with the stereotype, not the stereotype itself, is the problem.
Is this image detrimental? Does it keep people away from libraries? Does it cause librarians to be laughed at on the street, or cause them physical harm? It is quite the opposite. Seale (2008) studies librarian depictions in the mass media and the public’s relationship to them in “Old Maids, Policeman, and Social Rejects: Mass Media Representations and Public Perceptions of Librarians.” She determines that the images are not the problem, but the public’s misunderstanding of what the librarian’s job entails is. Overall, the public thinks positively of librarians—helpful is usually the first word that comes to mind—but does not connect the librarian with more than shelving and checking out books. The position’s intangibles—knowledge management and collection development skills, for instance—go unnoticed, leaving the stereotype as the resonating image. Seale’s assertion that “media stereotypes become powerful simply because there are no other readily available images of librarians” indicates that people do not dislike or look down upon librarians. The general public is unaware of what they do, and it does not occur to anyone to ask.
Social activism is at the root of modern librarianship. Despite issues with segregation and racial inequality in the earlier period of librarianship, libraries became more aware during the Civil Rights movement in the tumultuous 1950s and 1960s. Many librarians were rejected by their communities and, in some cases, their own families for believing that information was for all, color of skin notwithstanding. Juliette Hampton Morgan was a librarian (and later director of research) at Montgomery Public Library in Montgomery, Alabama, during the 1950s. A white woman from a respected family, Morgan was repulsed by segregation; she loathed seeing the treatment of blacks by bus drivers who would leave them standing in the rain or drive off after they paid their fare and before they could get to the back of the bus. She wrote to newspapers, exhorting others to speak out against segregation and disrupted bus service whenever she witnessed abusive behavior. Eventually, her activism alienated her from her friends, family, and neighbors. She was a target for hate crimes including hate mail, obscene phone calls, and public humiliation. A cross burned in front of her home. The library superintendent and trustees refused to fire her, prompting the mayor to suspend funding from the library in retaliation. In July of 1957, she resigned her position at the library. That evening, she committed suicide (Stanton, 2008).
Library Journal editor Eric Moon launched a strike against segregation in Southern libraries in 1960 when he wrote an “incendiary package” condemning library segregation and the ALA(Lipscomb, 2005). He wrote, “it is common knowledge in the library profession that segregation is not something that happens only in schools and lunch-counters; that it happens in libraries, too.” He and Rice Estes, a southern librarian, advocated a number of potential actions to counter segregation, including withholding federal Library Services Act funds from libraries whose services are not available to all. (Lipscomb, 2005)
The American Library Association defended librarians who resisted providing circulation records to government agents on terrorist witch-hunts during the 1980s; raised by their baby boomer parents, the next generation of librarians learned early on that they could be the a force effecting change in this world. Generations X and Y joined Amnesty International chapters on their college campuses and helped found Rock the Vote in 1990, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that seeks to mobilize young people to vote in the United States by making voting “cool,” featuring television and radio spots with popular celebrities, encouraging everyone to register to vote. They set up tables at college campuses and rock concerts, staffed by volunteers (About Rock the Vote, n.d.). These are the generations flocking to librarianship—they are as comfortable with social activism as they are with technological and societal change.
The women’s movement took place within the library as it swept across the nation. From the beginning of recorded history until this time, men dominated the collection of knowledge that became the earliest libraries. As the scholars and the warriors, they had the ability to interpret knowledge and bring other people’s knowledge back from conquered lands. Women were the keepers of the home and the nurturers. It was not until the Industrial Revolution in America that women gained a place in library history. During the late 19th century, philanthropist Andrew Carnegie began donating much of his fortune to the establishment of libraries across the United States, Europe and other locations around the world. Melvil Dewey, a librarian and educator from New York, was an early champion of women as librarians and library school educators, but even he initially saw women in a more subordinate role, with men holding administrative positions unless the women were ambitious (that they were also middle-class is a rarely stated but nevertheless omnipresent assumption) (Forrest, 2005, p. 7). Women were considered a "natural" choice for the earliest children's librarian positions, as youth librarianship was considered a nurturing vocation in the same vein as teaching and nursing (Forrest). Women were also willing to work for lower salaries, and library positions did not initially require much education.
By the early 20th century, library programs were established at several schools, many founded by women; however, issues surrounding the adequacy of training persisted. In 1923, the Williamson Report, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation, identifid, among other things, the need for a consistent, standard curriculum in library schools and the need for trained teachers in these schools. The report also declared that training should last for two years (the Master’s degree was not a standard requirement until 1951). The ALA took action and the Board of Education for Librarianship (BEL) prepared training standards in 1925 and 1933. Setting standards was a step toward professionalization for women who sought a career in librarianship.
The 1920s and 1930s also appear to be the time period from which the troublesome image of the librarian emerged. Middle-class women, who were expected to adopt their husbands’ beliefs and ideas, were raised to engage in womanly arts like sewing and knitting; no socially acceptable young woman would find a husband if she was ‘too educated.’ Not generally encouraged to have career aspirations, women were expected to quit any jobs they held once they are married, further doing away with the notion that women should be paid an equal wage for their work. Men may not have seen a working woman as a woman with spouse potential at all, further contributing to the spinster image.
So where does the curmudgeonly attitude of our spinster
librarian originate? It is small wonder that such an
idea developed when one considers the factors stacked
against women: unequal pay; the idea that an educated
woman is not a "womanly" woman (Weihs,
2008); and the expectation that a female librarian
would vacate the working world to take her place as a
wife and mother upon marriage, should she be fortunate
enough to find a husband. Perhaps it was an attitude
invented by men who wished to paint an unattractive
picture of a working woman, scaring young women away
from the idea of becoming such a woman.
The next few decades saw women quietly making strides in the profession. Men continued to hold the majority of influential positions in administration and directorship, but women pressed on. During World Wars I and II, they took on positions held by men and proved their competence as they endured the criticism leveled at them for taking advantage of the men’s absence to advance their own careers and were “sufficiently manlike in their methods to take it” (Weihs, 2008).
By 1951, a master’s degree was considered a standard requirement for full librarianship and the ALA formed the Committee on Accreditation, responsible for evaluating and endorsing library programs. The Baby Boom was in full swing, and the expanding economy (and society) needed more schools. As a result, more libraries with bigger and better collections were in demand, leading to the need for more librarians and schools to train them. This “Golden Age” of librarianship brought libraries a bonanza in federal support for construction and development (Hildenbrand, 2000). The profession’s credibility could not be denied; however, women were still expected to resign their positions and focus on their families once they married. The number of female library school directors continued to decline; and men still held the lion’s share of administrative positions within the system. Cataloging and children’s librarianship were still considered the strongholds for female librarians, while men received more notice for administrative, science, academic and research positions.
While library women lack an accurate place in
professional history, the image of the shushing spinster
is alive and well in the media of this time,
particularly the movies (Hildenbrand,
2000). From the 1920s to the 1940s, dozens of
films were released featuring stereotypical librarians.
They are rude, curt and frumpy or they toil away in the
stacks until they are "rescued" through marriage. Worse,
they are spinsters, never finding a man to love them.
Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) provides one of the best examples of the stereotypical librarian scenario. In the movie, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, wishes he was never born. An angel, Clarence, shows him the impact his existence has had on the lives of his family and friends and what their lives would be like without him. When George demands to see what has become of his wife, Mary, played by Donna Reed, Clarence confesses that Mary never married and now works in the town library. George sees Mary walking along the cold, lonely street, glasses and bun firmly intact; he tries to speak to her, but she shrieks and runs away. The message of the scene is clear: if a woman is happily married, she can be beautiful, stylish and have perfect vision. If she does not find the right man, she is doomed to a life of drab, lonely, near-sighted spinsterhood. For those poor souls, there is always space at the library. Other films, such as Citizen Kane (1941), Desk Set (1957) and War of the Worlds (1953), feature similar images of the female librarian. Some wear ill-fitting clothes, some have buns and some have braids, but all are socially awkward, passive and unmarried.
The 1960s was a turbulent time in America; it was a decade marked by the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Liberation movement, and Vietnam War protests. In 1963, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, considered the hallmark of a feminist rebirth (Hildenbrand, 2000), was published, motivating Baby Boomer women to voice their desire to be visible and to receive equal education, opportunities, pay and recognition. This movement was reflected in the pop culture of the time. Librarians still pop up as cranky “shushers” in the media of the 1960s, but they also take a decidedly different turn. Marian the Librarian, the iconic character in 1962’s The Music Man, is young, attractive and rebellious. One might suggest that she is one of the first champions, at least on film, of Banned Book Week, as she makes the scandalous works of authors such as Balzac and Chaucer available to her community. And she sings while she works! The spinster image itself appears to take a more playful turn in the 1960s. Consider the cranky librarians in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). These librarians are played for laughs. They are caricatures, a playful nod to the surly image and its place in the evolution—or revolution—of the female librarian.
The 1960s also provided librarians with their own superheroine. In 1967, Batgirl appeared as a recurring character on the television series Batman (1966-1968). The daughter of Commissioner Gordon, head of the police in Gotham City, Barbara Gordon is a single and attractive young librarian. Using her connections to the Gotham City police, she listens to her father’s conversations with Batman about criminal activity in the city. Her alter ego, Batgirl, appears just in time to help save the day. With fighting abilities and trusty gadgets of her own, she ends up bailing Batman and Robin out of trouble on many occasions. Batgirl is a huge leap in the right direction for women as a whole and the profession in particular and she remains a popular character in the DC Comics and television universe today. From 1989 until 2011, she operated under the code name Oracle, an information broker to the superhero community. She found answers and unloced secrets for her colleagues, and was arguably the first digital librarian in the comic book universe (Hulshof-Schmidt, 2008).
In the 1970s, librarianship began the transformation from a feminized to a feminist profession (Stevens, 2001). Gaining momentum throughout the 1960s, library feminism spent the 1970s building a strong female voice. The Feminist Task Force (FTF), created in 1970, the independent Women Library Workers (WLW), formed in 1975, and the Committee on the Status of Women in Librarianship (COSWL), established in 1976, provided library women with a much-needed presence in the professional arena. Women were finally coming together and lobbying to make beneficial changes and expose the gross inequalities existing between the sexes, particularly in terms of pay. In addition, they protested the unsatisfactory professional climate for women who had domestic responsibilities as wives and mothers (Hildenbrand, 2000).
Where the 1960s saw a unified movement for women’s liberation, the 1970s saw these groups splinter into infighting. Librarians turned on one another, blaming each other for the undervaluing of the profession. They saw in each other weaknesses that undermined the profession as a whole rather than acknowledging that their status and control problems reflected a more global condition rooted in the power of politics and gender (Harris, 1993). Men insisted that women brought down the status of the profession, necessitating their need to continue elevating the profession by holding the top positions. Dee Garrison, in a 1973 journal article that foreshadowed the thesis of her 1979 monograph, Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876-1920, accepted the conventional wisdom regarding the low status of librarianship in the professional world and agreed that “female dominance of librarianship did much to shape the inferior and precarious status of the public library as a cultural resource” (Hildenbrand, 2000).
Media depictions of librarians in the 1970s illustrated this conflict as librarian characters appeared in pornographic movies like the erotic Alice in Wonderland (1976) and Debbie Does Dallas (1978), giving rise to the "naughty librarian" sub-stereotype:, a decidedly non-feminist image. Female librarians with two distinct personalities emerged in films released during this decade: the plain, priggish, not-quite-a-spinster librarian, and her alter ego, the attractive, off-hours persona. Some librarians appeared to be man-haters and the ever-popular spinster, portrayed with an amusing but loving nod in the 1960s, returned to her unloved, sometimes bitter role. For instance, Carrie Snodgrass’ librarian character in The Attic (1979) is a bride stood up at the altar, living at home, and is the outlet for her abusive, wheelchair-bound father. The stereotype is also alluded to in Plaza Suite (1971) when Walter Matthau, angry with his daughter for locking herself in the hotel suite bathroom and refusing to come out for her wedding, offers her several options. She can go into a convent, become the first spinster on the moon, or "Let her be a librarian, with thick glasses and a pencil in her hair" (Raish, 2010). Male librarians appeared slightly more often in this decade but were subjected to stereotypes of their own, whether they appear to be absent-minded like Ralph Richardson’s character in Rollerball (1970), who assesses the loss of 13th-century data as “no big deal, since there wasn’t much… but ‘Dante and a few corrupt popes’” (Raish, 2010), or sexless, as in Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1970), where a man believed to be a librarian claims to not have a girlfriend, and another man responds, "No, you're a librarian." (Raish, 2010).
The 1980s brought the technological age to the public at large. Personal computers became an affordable commodity for many home users and the end of the paper-based society was heralded far and wide. Feminism took on a less aggressive, more assertive role as the movement refined itself. Women donned power suits with sneakers and went to work. There was a subtle shift in how library professionals viewed themselves and decided how they want to be viewed. The discomfort of being associated with "women’s work" spearheaded a new vocabulary: Information Science, a term coined back in the late 1950s, began enjoying wider usage. MLS programs added the term ‘information’ to their degree programs, offering Library and Information Science degrees. School librarians referred to themselves as school media specialists and their libraries became school media centers.
Library women’s history enjoyed development and growth as library feminists collected and published the histories of the women who shaped the profession. Dr. Martha Boaz, then Dean of the School of Library Science at the University of Southern California, wrote Fervent and Full of Gifts: The Life of Althea Warren (1961), a biography of librarian and humanitarian Althea Warren, who served as director of the Victory Book Campaign, an effort which sent books to soldiers serving overseas during World War II. She was also elected President of the American Library Association in 1943 (Kraus, 1962). In 1973, Margo Sasse wrote “Invisible Women: The Children’s Librarian in America” for School Library Journal, about the group of 19th-century American women who are credited with beginning library service to children (Sasse, 1973).
African American women, previously marginalized professionally and historically, began to be recognized for their contributions to the profession as well as the obstacles they encountered. Virginia Lacy Jones recalled the racism she encountered while pursuing her library degree in Illinois, while Jessie Carney Smith recalled the preference shown for male directors (Hildebrand, 2000). Years later, Betty Gubert wrote about Sadie Peterson Delaney, who serves for 34 years as the chief librarian of the U.S. Veterans’ Administration Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama. In Tuskegee, Gubert provided service to thousands of physically and mentally disabled African Americans and developed the art of bibliotherapy, receiving worldwide recognition (Gubert, 1993).
The media continued to use the spinster image in their portrayals of female librarians, but the spinster image itself shifted from the bitter, angry woman of the besieged 1970s to a defiant, even sexy one in the 1980s. The librarian as detective, a variation of the rebel librarian from the 1960s, surfaced in movies like Agent Trouble (1987). In this film, librarian Catherine Deneuve investigates a possible murder cover-up. Adrienne Barbeau helps solve the Jack the Ripper murder riddle in 1985’s television movie Bridge Across Time; and Final Notice (1989), another television movie, teams a librarian with a private detective to track down a killer. The actresses playing these roles are markedly different from the stereotypical image: they are beautiful, even sexy, but intelligent, in line with the powerful images of women that emerged in the 1980s. One of the most memorable films of the decade, Ghostbusters (1984), provides two librarian images that follow the classic stereotype: a mousy, jumpy librarian who calls the team after seeing a ghost in the stacks; and the ghost, obviously a previous librarian, a classic old “bunhead” who searches the card catalog and shushes the Ghostbusters when they disturb her. The scene is played for laughs, with no malice intended.
The 1990s brought Third Wave feminism to the nation. This wave, with roots in the mid- to late-1980s, tackled issues not fully addressed during the Second Wave of feminism in the 1960s, including sexual harassment, gender discrimination in the workplace (particularly regarding maternity leave policies and lack of advancement opportunities for women), lesbian and transgender issues and reproductive rights. This decade saw a wealth of writing for and by women of color, including an oral history of women of color in librarianship beginning in 1988 (Hildenbrand, 2000).
Technology continued its rampant expansion into everyday lives and workplaces as the Internet became indispensable by the latter half of the decade, and female librarians seized this opportunity to conceive new images for themselves. These anti-spinsters are belly-dancing librarians, foxy librarians, and lipstick librarians, and they are not going to shush you. They prolifically write articles and create websites pointing out exactly what is wrong with the stereotype and how they do not fit into that mold. Not content with the tongue-in-cheek, almost affectionate icon created by the media, female librarians began laying the groundwork for an anxiety that permeates the profession today, despite Roma Harris’ assertion that women need to ally themselves with other female-intensive professions, re-embrace the old librarianship by restoring it to a brand of female professionalism, and acknowledge that predominantly female areas of librarianship such as cataloging and children’s librarianship are worthy of status and financial reward. (Harris, 1992) In Harris’ view, re-labeling library work as information science or information brokering is sexist because service is in itself a female model of service. Re-labeling embraces a male model of service and therefore denies a woman’s place in library history altogether. Harris (1993) takes aim at Dee Garrison’s Apostles of Culture and Carol Hole’s “The Feminization of the Public Library” and the accusations these articles level at the “‘discreditable’ female qualities” of librarianship, blaming these feminine qualities for driving men away from the profession. Harris exhorts librarians to stop the erosion of the profession by embracing these feminine aspects of the work: organizing information to be manageable and retrievable, and assisting patrons in finding the information that they need. She also calls on librarians to stop berating one another for “not being professional enough or reshaping the profession away from its valuable core domain” and to understand that they “can strengthen their role in the information sector only by consolidating their control over their rightful turf, not by self-denigration and denial of their field’s woman-centered history” (Harris, 1993). Carmichael’s 1992 study, “The Male Librarian and the Feminine Image: A Survey of Stereotype, Status and Gender Perceptions” notes that male library workers report suffering from low self-esteem because of female stereotyping, leading them to shy away from typically “women’s areas” of librarianship, including cataloging and children’s librarianship (Carmichael, 1992). Piper and Collamer (2001) report that male librarians feel that while they do have promotional advantage in their careers, they often feel pushed into managerial positions against their will in a phenomenon referred to as “The Glass Escalator”. They also note that Harris’ (1993) claims continue to be supported by their research, and that a majority of male librarians do not feel that American culture has a positive image of male librarians, but that the majority has decreased from 1992 to 2001. As the authors state, “equality is only possible when the unique context of each gender is understood” (Piper & Collamer, 2001).
Librarian images in the movies made in the 1990s illustrate this anxiety with the return of the shushers as cranky old women. They show up in comedies like City Slickers II (Paul Weiland, 1994) and Big Bully (Steve Miner, 1996), where the character becomes an in-joke between the audience and the filmmaker. The librarians seem to appear for the sole purpose of "shushing" the main characters in order to garner an amused reaction. Is it a higher level of slapstick? Is it a gentle wink and nudge to the image, as in the eighties, or a more mean spirited point and laugh? It appears that even movie librarians want to be anything but a bun-head, as movie librarians in the nineties embrace the supernatural, with characters including Pearl, the obese, androgynous vampiric archivist in Blade (Stephen Norrington, 1998), and a werewolf named Alice in Wilderness (Ben Bolt, 1996). Other portrayals include the librarian as detective (Carolina Skeletons, 1991; Deceived, 1991) and the librarian as sexy home-wrecker (The Convent, 1995).
The Mummy (Stephen Sommers, 1999) offers a mash-up of stereotypes in Evie Carnahan, the attractive, young, intelligent but awkward librarian and Egyptologist who becomes involved in a dangerous, action-packed (and ultimately romantic) adventure to kill the mummy that has returned to take his revenge on the world (Raish, 2010). Party Girl (Daisy von Scherler Mayer, 1995) provides one of the best film interpretations of librarians yet as an attractive young woman initially takes a job as a library clerk in order to pay a debt and ends up deciding to pursue a degree. The librarians are young, attractive and well dressed, and the film is lauded for its positive image of women in the profession.
From the 1990s forward, rapid advancements in technology provide on- and off-screen librarians with a new face to present to the public: the tech-savvy librarian. Interestingly enough, gender bias manages to find its way into the movies even when technology is the topic. Pearl, the vampiric archivist from Blade (Stephen Sommers, 1998), may have all of vampire culture's archives computerized, but she is depicted as a sexless monster, shrill, bloated, and unable to react even to save her own life. In Star Trek: Insurrection (Jonathan Frakes, 1998) and Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, 2002), female librarians in the future are seemingly stuck in the past, wearing glasses, sporting buns, and armed with an unsupportive attitude. However, The Matrix’s (Andy and Lana Wachowski , 1999) male character, Tank, has been called “the ultimate reference/digital services librarian icon in recent Sci-Fi” for sitting in front of his computer monitors, looking up documents and manuals that help the main characters save the world (Raish, 2010).
These portrayals entrench the apprehension over female librarians’ professional identity and create an unhealthy obsession with professional status (Dupré, 2001). Librarianship, already undervalued directly related to the perception of being women’s work, has fallen victim to a vicious cycle as librarians obsess over their image and allow it to stay at the forefront of collective consciousness, further feeding the anxiety. Working relationships and the reams of existing articles fixating on this outdated image passes the anxiety to new and future librarians. These insecurities ultimately affect the future of librarianship; it already affects traditional concerns like employee motivation, recruitment of librarians, retention of quality staff, and salary issues (Dupré, 2001).
Traditionally, librarianship has been a "second career," a path many turn to later in life, but the landscape is changing. With two-thirds of the workforce over the age of forty-five and the Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree encompassing career paths beyond traditional librarianship, the profession is attracting a younger, more tech-savvy group of students. As retirements occur, many communities and organizations are hiring more degreed librarians as managers and staff developers (Haycock & Garner, 2009). New MLIS careers include literacy specialist, information analyst, web designer, and digital archivist, putting an entirely new face on the degree and its holders. The profession now demands a previously unprecedented comfort level with existing and developing technologies, with an additional focus on finding and sharing information beyond just that which is available in books. A new, younger librarian image is emerging (Jesella, 2007).
In addition to studying the history of libraries and the basics of the profession, the new MLIS students write blogs and learn about metadata and Web 2.0. They are encouraged to keep one foot in the past while planting the other squarely in the future (Peate, 2007). The new librarians must be versed in HTML and have knowledge of scripting languages, the ability to translate library services into the online medium, the ability to troubleshoot computer and printer problems, and a healthy knowledge of emerging technologies (Farkas, 2006). They need a comfort level with technology that they can also share with their patrons who may not be as familiar with the newest equipment.
Library spaces are changing, too. No longer silent study halls, libraries have opened their doors to the public and have become part child-care center, part classroom, part Internet provider and part Ellis Island (Garrison, 1999). Libraries bring communities together. Walking into an urban library, you may be greeted by the sounds of cheerful children talking to one another, teens sitting at computer terminals playing video games or checking their e-mail inboxes, and a group of new immigrants practicing their new English language lessons together. With libraries developing services that center on experiences as well as books, tomorrow’s librarians need to have, in addition to technology skills that demand more than a passing knowledge of basic systems, an overall flexibility that the profession has never previously expected.
Author Bruce Bethke coined the term "cyberpunk" in his 1983 short story of the same name. Cyberpunk eventually grew into a subgenre of science fiction writing that features advanced science, such as information technology and cybernetics, coupled with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order. In cyberpunk writing, much of the action takes place online, in cyberspace, blurring the border between actual and virtual reality (Cyberpunk, n.d.). I believe that the spinster image of the librarian will eventually take a back seat as this new image of the cyberpunk librarian emerges.
The politically active Baby Boomers gave birth to Generations X and Y, who were born between the late 1960s and the 1980s. Generation X, long accused of being a ‘slacker generation’, was the first generation whose standards of living were not expected to exceed those of their parents. This generation inherited massive environmental damage, crippling fiscal debt, and an unsure retirement as funding for the Social Security system slowly dissipated. Despite paying more in taxes than ever before, Generation X-ers saw a decrease in funds available to run necessary public services. They also saw the environment slip into crisis mode due to the growing dangers of global warming and disappearing natural resources. They developed a nihilistic outlook that fits well with the cyberpunk mindset, tempered by a desire to take action and change these circumstances.
Despite being accused of being disengaged, Generation X has firm political beliefs; they just are less black-and-white than previous generations’. They do not support a two-party system, preferring an independent political view, and would rather affect change through advocacy and volunteer efforts where they can see the impact (Halstead, 1999). They are also the generation that grew up during the beginning of the most recent technology boom. They came of age watching the famous Orwellian Apple Macintosh Computer commercial; they went to high school listening to mix tapes in their Walkmans, and switched their album collections for compact discs when they were in college. More tech-savvy than their parents, they entered the workplace during the age of the Internet and helped to create the phenomenon.
Generation Y, also known as Millennials or Echo Boomers, have always had a computer in their home. A dial-up Internet connection is something that most of them only read about, and a dial telephone is something that exists in museums. Their status symbols are the latest electronic gadgets. This generation influences technology: their preference for downloadable music will eventually make the CD obsolete, their cell phones have more memory than Generation X’s first computers, and their college degrees are earned, more and more frequently, in the online universe.
As a socially conscious group, Millennials speak with their dollars. They give their business to companies and products that support good causes and give freely of their time to public causes they believe in. They are remarkably diverse and tolerant. One-third of Generation Y consists of minorities, and one-quarter come from single-parent homes. Homosexuality is not considered a "big deal," as most know someone who is gay or lesbian (Krotz, 2009). Traditional values and parental approval are more important to them than for Generation X. They have a desire for community that is evident as they make the world smaller through their participation in online social networks like Facebook and MySpace, and they share their thoughts and ideas with the world through blogs. It is all about connections with this group.
While Generation X shares the bleak outlook of the cyberpunk ideology, Generation Y subscribes to a more hopeful worldview. While Generation X is comfortable with technology, Generation Y does not know life without it. Both groups engage in the advocacy and social awareness that also inform the American Library Association’s philosophy. These are the new librarians, who have come to the profession with a desire to make life better for everyone. They combine their love of books with their love of information and their passion for uplifting society, and they bring with them an entirely new outlook. Librarians are avid bloggers, writing articles on policy, information, books, and whatever happens to be on their minds that day. They create virtual libraries in the Second Life universe, offering space far beyond a physical library’s capabilities, and staff these libraries on a volunteer basis. They write for hip literary magazines, create comics about librarians, and are notable not just for their pink-streaked hair but also for their passion for pop culture, activism and technology (Jesella, 2007). This is the face of the new librarian.
What happens to the bun-headed spinster? Despite the professional angst, I believe she is a beloved touchstone, an image that people connect with the profession. Witness the Librarian Action figure, based on librarian Nancy Pearl. Sensibly dressed and equipped with a “shushing action” finger and a stack of books (including Pearl’s own book, Book Lust), the figure is every librarian stereotype given form, yet it is a bestselling gift. Such a widely recognizable icon for librarians—even one with negative connotations and much baggage—at least means that the public at large has an understanding of what librarians are about (Stevens, 2001). The term "information scientist" brings a sterile, cold picture to mind. She is detached, sitting behind a computer, perhaps even in a lab coat, and does not have a connection with a patron. If she wears glasses, they reflect a computer screen, rendering her expression almost unreadable. She conducts a reference interview in perfunctory fashion, and does not hold aside a book, unasked, to hand to a well-known patron. An information scientist holds books solely on request. She does not evoke the warm memories, the maternal feelings that the bun-head does. Because no matter how disagreeable she may appear, that bun-head will always provide a curt but genuine smile as she hands a well-known patron the newest release by his or her favorite author as soon as it comes in, because she remembers.
Is the image an issue in the years to come? In the age of the Internet, the bookish spinster is fading away and a new image is taking her place: the cyberpunk, a tech-savvy and counterculture information jockey. In the New York Times article “A Hipper Crowd of Shushers,” Kara Jesella writes that “with so much of the job involving technology and a with a focus now on finding and sharing information beyond just what is available in books, a new type of librarian is emerging” (Jesella, 2007). In the same article, one librarian interviewed notes that MLIS enrollments over the last decade are not only increasing, but the students entering these programs are trending toward a younger age (Jesella, 2007).
Librarianship may still be a second career for many, but that second career switch is happening sooner. Call it a growing disillusionment with big business and the demands put upon workers nowadays or call it a desire to connect with others, but many young librarians and library professors say that the work is no longer just about books but also about organizing and connecting people with information, including music and movies. One librarian is drawn to the profession because it “combined a ‘geeky intellectualism’ with information technology skills and social activism” (Jesella, 2007).
People tend to fall back on a comforting image from their childhoods, and the traditional image of the librarian is an image that ultimately comforts everyone. This may be the real reason that the bun-head has endured for more than a century. After all, she provides a nostalgic reaction, a return to the warm feelings, perhaps, of our childhoods. While I prefer to see the image reclaimed and embraced, the possibility of her being replaced by a younger, tech-savvy cyberpunk persona exists. Even if that evolution takes place, I am not positive the beloved bun-head will—or should—ever totally disappear, as she not only stands as a reminder of how far women have come, but is a comforting, reassuring image for children and grownups alike.
Perhaps we will see a retro-humorous image develop that fuses the two images: a bun-head surfing the Web or maternal robot like Rosie on The Jetsons? There are no easy answers as we move into an increasingly technological future, but the bun-head’s image will keep us connected to our past. Marrying technology with social activism, with a splash of pop culture for good measure, may be just the formula to help shed the spinster image once and for all and elevate the profession to a more modern and accurate standing.
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Rosemary Kiladitis is a distance MLIS student at San
Jose State University. She holds a BA in Communications
from Queens College of the City University of New York
and has worked in the publishing industry. Her main area
of interest is youth literacy.
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