The Sexy Librarian is (Un)Dead. OR I’m a rock star (and so are you).

gorgeous librarians
“Neon Librarian” by Karla Irwin is licensed under CC BY-SA. (Photo taken in Las Vegas, NV.)

For this blog post, I decided to take a break from my previous pattern of expressing librarian existentialist angst (i.e. professional identity issues) and instead focus on what makes us so awesome. Through this, I’ll be indirectly addressing those professional identity issues. I’ll also come to my eventual conclusions via a discussion of the infamous Librarian Stereotype. Again, like some of my other ACRLog post topics, these topics are discussed commonly already. That is the case for a reason – these topics are so important, and fun. Hopefully I can offer a fresh angle on them.

So, librarian stereotypes. I just watched an episode of iZombie on Hulu (spoiler alert) that flaunted some pretty scandalous librarian stereotypes. The show is about a functional zombie – a former medical student, Liv, who works in a morgue and has easy access to brains, which she needs to eat to stay functional, pass as a living person, and not transform into the grotesque, blood curdling version of “zombie.” When she eats the brains of a person, she acquires some of their memories and personality, and she uses those memories to help solve murder cases.

In this episode I just watched, “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter,” Liv eats the brains of a public librarian. Much to the chagrin of my librarian friends and I who watch this show, this particular personality was typecast as the “sexy librarian” – Yes, even an author of erotica literature who was constantly fantasizing about sex and had very little control over her sexual urges. So that’s great. Hyper-sexual librarians with little to no self-control? Again, just great. (Of course there are other stereotypes here that will go unnamed, mostly because they are NSFW (not suitable for work) and because they would necessitate a lengthier, more complex conversation about stereotypes going both ways.

The toned-down, broader version of “sexy librarian” is still damaging to the profession because it devalues and minimizes the hard, important professional work that we do. We want to be taken seriously, and we should be taken seriously! And the “sexy librarian” is an objectification and fetishization of our profession and of our embodied experience. For those who are perceived to fit that particular image of the sexy female librarian, it says that we are objects that serve to gratify the sexual and emotional needs of men, tantalized by our intellectual and physical charms and convinced of our maternal or feminine roles and functions. The sexy librarian serves as a placeholder – it is the one professional image that many people have of us, obscuring what we actually do; as others have suggested in works such as The Librarian Stereotype: Deconstructing Perceptions and Presentations of Information Work (ed. Nicole Pagowsky & Miriam Rigby, 2014), people largely don’t know what librarians do precisely because of these stereotypes. (See, for example, p. 5.)

The Librarian Stereotype might even limit others’ openness and receptiveness to persons who are librarians who do not fit the stereotype, to librarians who do not match the following characteristics: perfectly female-bodied, young, thin, sexy, usually white, conservatively yet fashionably dressed, with glasses, maybe a little rebellious or devious beneath the playfully conservative appearance – a tease. You know them all. And when librarians do not match those characteristics, we also might be judged or discriminated against. (“You’re a librarian? You don’t look like one!”) It’s a lose-lose situation for librarians. If we fit the stereotype, we’re not taken seriously because we are objectified and sexualized and our work is consequently devalued. If we do not fit the stereotype, we are judged and thus not taken as seriously because we do not look like the professional we are purported to be.

In fact, could it be possible that this limiting stereotype serves to keep some people out of the profession who do not fit the image, and perhaps attracts people to the profession who do (although there are infinite examples of librarians who defy the Librarian Stereotype, who “do not look like librarians.”)?

The other stereotypes – some of which, such as being punitive, may or may not accompany the aforementioned stereotype – and that we read all the time and shush people…these don’t have to be sexualized necessarily, and sometimes people have a stereotype of librarians in which we are desexualized – the frumpy, old, and stern librarian who wears long skirts, blouses buttoned all the way up, with a bun to boot. These stereotypes are also negative. They imply that we have nothing better to do but to enforce rules, judge others, and experience intellectual gratification or escapism, remaining alone and stubborn all the while. The old, stern, frumpy librarian lives in a bubble and is guarded and unapproachable.

On the other hand, there may be a positive side to the existence of strong librarian stereotypes.

We are also rock stars! I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me, “Whoa, you’re a librarian? That is so cool! I wanted to be a librarian when I grew up…” etc. etc. I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences. People venerate and idolize librarians! Because our job is awesome! We have *all* the things…everything that contains information! – the books, the journals, the ephemera, the manuscripts, the papers of famous and important people…etc., etc.!

And that really simply means we are responsible for preserving the scholarly record. People do know what librarians do, they just aren’t familiar with our day-to-day tasks.

What do we actually do on a day to day basis? Preserving the scholarly record means a whole lot of things.

My Dean, Patty Iannuzzi, recently held a workshop for library faculty and some staff on the scholarly record. (I had to be late due to teaching a class; it was probably better that way because I hear she talked about me and our previous conversations on professional identity before I got there.) The workshop was a planning workshop for future services that the Libraries may offer to the campus community. There were spreadsheets – lots of spreadsheets – of possible services, and we were to decide which ones we should be offering. They included everything from author’s rights and copyright consultation and assistance, piloting ORCID IDs, generating citation reports and advising on bibliometrics and altmetrics, and publishing Open Access journals to research data management and storage services. In our discussions, everyone thought we should offer services in virtually every area. The disagreements were really over wording that made it sound like librarians would be doing things for campus community members instead of consulting or collaborating with them.

This is so exciting to me – that so many of these important services do fall within the realm of what librarians do, that faculty and students trust that we will have expertise in these areas, because, in many of the areas, liaisons, especially, are already the point persons for exploring and providing such services. At UNLV, librarians are actually leading the way towards our campus’s Top Tier goal, and it is because we are responsible for the scholarly record and all the duties and objectives associated with it. We truly are rock stars!

I could continue to rant and whine about how people don’t know what it means to be a librarian – how I especially don’t know what it means to be a librarian, at least right now in my first year. But really, there are reasons why it is so hard to pinpoint what our professional identity is. It is because it is so simple, that it is easy to devalue or minimize (preserving the scholarly record=having all the books=reading all day and shushing people, all the while being a sexy young female-bodied person). It is also because it is so complex at the same time, it encompasses so many different types of activities. As a liaison, I know this…I help with anything and everything that faculty and students might need surrounding sources of information. That’s a lot! And those who have narrower focuses – their jobs are super important as well, just more focused on particular aspects of librarianship, such as the institutional repository and Open Access, or other technical services such as cataloging – these services are so important, so people can actually find the perfect materials that suit their scholarly needs. I’ll also mention public librarians here, to bring in the iZombie episode once again; they play an incredibly important role, especially through providing information access to communities who might not be able to access that information through other means.

Finally, as technology, culture and society change, so too our job descriptions and responsibilities are always changing. And that’s exciting! People are trusting us to lead the way!

So, I am a rock star, and so are you.

The Sexy Librarian is a zombie, after all. Long live the Smart & Savvy, Nonconformist Rock Star Librarian who has it all (…all the information, that is)!

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