Librarians: We're Not What You Think

A PDF version of this essay with a gallery of images about the Cultural Image of Librarians is available. (the file is 8MB and you may need to upgrade your Acrobat Reader to view it). A web photo gallery is also available.

From the spinster librarian in It's a Wonderful Life to the crotchety archivist in Attack of the Clones, librarians are often portrayed (in everything from movies, musicals, children's books, literature, science fiction, comics and cartoons to pornography - yes, pornography) as something less than noble or admirable. The perception of librarians has been a popular topic recently, with several articles focusing on the fringe-type librarians (ska, tattooed, bellydancing, modified, bodybuilding, laughing, and lipstick). Although something of an anti-stereotype, these people illustrate the range of librarian personalities.

Many people may hold the image of a librarian as a shushing school marm who does little more than stamp and shelve books because that's all they've seen librarians do. Well think again - that's about as inaccurate as believing that Alan Greenspan is nothing more than a glorified bank teller. The job titles may change but the mission of the profession remains the same: organize information and help people find it. Libraries have been around a lot longer than the Internet, and even library technology can hold its own with the best out there. For example, Google's savvy results ranking was hardly the birth of citation analysis (next up: "metadata" - cough, cataloging, cough), and there are enormous library systems that also predate the Internet. And did you know that you can borrow much more than just books at a library? DVDs, for example, are usually available, and free sure beats Blockbuster's prices. Same goes for answers to questions about almost anything (also, a library is sometimes much more useful for researching information than the Internet).

Although library geeks and technology nerds may have contrary images, in today's world the boundary between the career of the librarian and the information technologist is disappearing. Librarians today not only administer Web servers and dynamic databases to help manage large digital collections and thousands of electronic resources, they teach people how to use library systems. And just as enlightened computer engineers are advocates of noncommercial software and campaign for online rights, the library profession not only is part of the Open Source movement but also has a long history of staunchly defending freedom - from book burnings to the FBI's Library Awareness Program to the latest copyright battles and almost all other current issues in intellectual freedom.

Check out LISNews and some library related blogs if you're interested in reading more about real librarians. For related sites see the Librarians in Society category at the Open Directory Project. There is also a movie in production titled The Hollywood Librarian.

This essay was written by John Hubbard (write to me). The accompanying image gallery uses copyrighted material without permission for research purposes (full disclaimer). It was created on July 14, 2002, and has also been published by Slashdot. It was also discussed on WUWM's AT 10 on April 4, 2006 (use the "Manual Download" link to listen). This page was last uploaded on December 04, 2007.