Buns on the Run: Changing the Stereotype of the Female Librarian
By Katy Shaw
The stereotype of the typical librarian is well-known to anyone familiar
with American popular culture. She is a sour-faced frumpy old maid with
spectacles, a crisp bun, sensible shoes and a preoccupation with shushing
noisy patrons. This image was recently immortalized by Accoutrements, the
parent company of Archie McPhee’s in
Ballard, which created a librarian “action figure” modeled after well-known Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl. To the delight
and dismay of librarians in Seattle and across the world, the doll comes
complete with glasses and sensible shoes and has a push button “shushing
action” which raises its finger to its lips. Although many librarians
think the doll is kitschy, harmless and funny, many others in the profession
view it an irritating example of the negative stereotype of librarians
that has been perpetuated during the last century.
For over eighty years, librarians have waged war on the shushing bun-and-glasses
stereotype. In fact, librarians have become downright obsessed with eradicating
this image from the American consciousness. Wallace (1989) reports that “surveys
done as a part of ALA’s strategic long rage planning process show
that the image of the librarian ranks among the top five concerns of
the profession—right up there with library finances, access to
information, intellectual freedom, and library personnel resources” (p.
22). The uproar caused by the librarian action figure is just the latest
skirmish in this battle. Within a week after Jack Broom published a story
in the July 10, 2003 edition of the Seattle Times publicizing the release
of the new action figure, he received over 50 responses by the librarian
community—many of which were decidedly negative (Broom July 17,
Librarian stereotypes are as old as the American Library Association
itself. In his futuristic story “The Last Librarian” (2001),
Norman Stevens chronicles the birth and progression of the librarian
image. He starts with Dewey, who in 1876 remarked that “a librarian
was a mouser in dusty books” at a time when the profession was
predominately made up of men. In 1907, when the profession was primarily
made up of women, Edmund Lester Pearson contributed spectacles to the
stereotype, and by the 1930s the old maid image “was well established
and regularly appeared in comic strips, movies, and even advertising” (p.
Librarians have fought back against image in a variety of ways. In her
work Stereotype and Status, Pauline Wilson (1982) points out that librarians
have been struggling against this image since as early as the 1930s.
Article titles such as “Are We Librarians Genteel?” (1937), “Can’t
Librarians be Human Beings” (1945) and “Librarians Do Have
Dates!” (1947) reveal an early backlash against the unloved spinster
stereotype. ALA and SLA spent thousands of dollars in the 1980s on a
task force to study the image of librarians in the profession (Marinelli
and Baker, 2000).
Starting in 1985, a column in American Libraries entitled “Image:
How They’re Seeing Us” reprinted pictures of the caricatured
bun-and-glasses librarian from the popular media, along with quotes from
librarians expressing outrage and frustration.
The overwhelming majority of articles on the subject agree that the
stereotype has got to go. The following advice of Alison Hall (1992)
is typical of the pervasive attitude that librarians must do something
to change their image:
Are we responsible for our own image? Is there anything we can do about
it? Remember, although it may not seem altogether fair, we are, ultimately,
responsible for our own image, our own reputation. Only we, as individuals,
can alter this rather dismal portrayal. We have to move beyond the bun,
and show the world there is more to us than our perceived stereotype.
Librarians have suggested a number of ways to go about changing this
stereotype. Wallace (1989) and others have attempted to change the image
by calling for more positive representations of librarians in the media.
Some theorists conclude that librarians’ professional behavior
is to blame and suggest that the answer lies in friendlier, people-centered
service. Others, such as Mark Herring (2000), complain that “when
it comes to professional dress, librarians are slobs” and try to
get librarians to dress with more taste. Deidre Dupré (2001) asserts that the repeated discussion of the librarian stereotype is detrimental
to the profession and believes that the only way to get past the stereotype
is to quit talking about it. Feminist theorists point the finger at a
society that undervalues professions that are dominated by women.
The newest battle in the war against the old maid stereotype is being
waged in cyberspace. Generation X librarians are fighting back with a
barrage of websites reinventing the frumpy spectacle-wearing stereotype.
Modified Librarian, Lipstick Librarian,
Bellydancing Librarian and
Librarian Avengers are just a few of the websites
that portray librarians as young, hip and sassy. Radford and Radford
(2003) point out that “these sites have been deliberately designed
to challenge stereotypical views” (p. 68). Brewerton (1999) describes these websites as “image busters” and asserts that
they are an important part of changing the profession’s image by
attracting new blood to the field.
Rather than retaliating against the shriveled prune image, some scholars
have chosen instead to embrace it. Katherine Adams (2000) points out
that marginalized groups often take on stereotypical characteristics
in order to “diffuse and disarm the power dynamic that created
them in the first place.” Examples of this phenomenon include gays
and lesbians appropriating the term “queer” and feminists
using the term “bitch” to describe themselves (p. 292). Librarians
can use parody and mimicry in order to “hijack” the old maid
image so that it will come to signify a new meaning. Adams asserts that
by choosing to embrace certain aspects of the stereotype, librarians
can “change the associations made with the old maid…into
something positive” (p. 291).
Librarians who are enthusiastic about the new action figure feel that
it does just that—it pokes fun at the stereotype in a way that
causes people to reevaluate their assumptions about librarians. In Broom’s
report on librarians’ reactions to the figure, a librarian from
Lewiston Idaho named Heather Stout says “I thought [the action
figure] was a riot, myself. It’ll bring a chuckle to many librarians
who know it’s a play on an old stereotype…and I hope that
other people will see that it’s the librarian of the past” (July
Although the shushing librarian doll triggered the latest battle
in the war over the librarian stereotype, the controversy is sure
No doubt Accoutrements had no idea that creating a doll modeled after
a librarian would create such a commotion. Even if they did, it is
unlikely that the company would have shied away from making an action
rubbed a few people the wrong way—in the business community,
bad PR is generally preferable to no press at all. In a world where
as a profession has largely been dismissed as unimportant or ignored
altogether, many librarians are inclined to agree with this sentiment.
Adams, K. C. (2000). Loveless frump as hip and sexy party girl: A reevaluation
of the old- maid stereotype. Library Quarterly, 70(3), p.
Brewerton, A. (1999). Wear lipstick have a tattoo belly-dance then
get naked: The making of a virtual librarian. Impact: Journal of
the Career Development Group Available at: http://www.careerdevelopmentgroup.org.uk/impact/archives/abrewerton.htm.
Last accessed 08/17/2003.
Broom, J. (2003). Not all see librarian’s finger to lips as
tongue-in-cheek. The Seattle Times, July 17, 2003, p. D1. Accessed online via LexisNexis.
Broom, J. (2003). Toymaker finds librarian who’s a real doll. The
Seattle Times, July 10, 2003, p. A1. Accessed online via LexisNexis.
Dupré, D. (2001). The Perception of Image and Status in the Library
Profession. NewBreed Librarian, 1(4). Available at: http://www.newbreedlibrarian.org/archives/01.04.aug2001/feature2.html.
Last accessed 08/17/2003.
Hall, A. (1992). Behind the Bun, or, Batgirl was a Librarian. Canadian
Library Association Journal, 49(5), p.345-347.
Herring, M. (2000). On my mind: And we wonder about our image! American
Libraries, 31(10) p. 33.
Marinelli, S. & T. Baker. (2000). Image and the librarian: An exploration
of a changing profession. Available at http://home.earthlink.net/~cyberresearcher/ImageHomepage.htm. Last
Radford, M. L. & G. P. Radford. (2003). Librarians and party girls:
Cultural studies and the meaning of the librarian. Library Quarterly, 73(1), p. 54-69.
Stevens, N. D. (2001). The last librarian. American Libraries, 32(9), p. 60-64.
Wallace, L. (1989). “The Image—and what you can do about it
in the year of the librarian” American Libraries 20, p. 22-25.
Wilson, P. (1982). Stereotype and Status: Librarians in the United
Westport, CT; London: Greenwood Press.
Katy Shaw is a second year student in the day