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, 2003).

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. 62).

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. (p. 347)

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. Leather Librarian, 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 17, 2003).

Although the shushing librarian doll triggered the latest battle in the war over the librarian stereotype, the controversy is sure to continue. 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 figure that 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 librarianship 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. 287-301.

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 accessed 8/16/2003.

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 States. Westport, CT; London: Greenwood Press.





Katy Shaw is a second year student in the day MLIS program.