Recently on a trip to New York, I visited the city's world-famous Museum of Natural History. As I wandered around the exhibits, I was approached by two PhD students who were conducting a survey. They asked me questions about my perceptions of museums, archaeologists and curators and how much these perceptions had been moulded by what I had seen on television, in films and in the media.
This survey got me thinking about how librarians and other library workers are portrayed on the big sceen and in all other media in general, so I decided to do a little research.
The first thing that became apparent was that there doesn't exist an Indiana Jones of the librarian world; librarians unfortunately don't take the leading role. Instead, the 'librarian' character tends to fall into one of two stereotpyes: the terrifying matron who rules over a stuffy, silent library, or, the gentler, more timid guide, who provides the heroes of the story the way forward with their exepertise and knowledge. These two depictions are drastically different, but why? Let's delve a little bit deeper into these two opposing stereotypes...
The first representation definitely seems to be the most prevalent, particularly in films and television aimed towards children. In the recent Pixar animated film, Monsters University, the characters live in fear of the university's librarian. The librarian is a massive, many tentacled monster who is extremely strict about noise levels in her library and will remove loud and disruptive students by throwing them out the window... Although this children's film is pushing the envelope for comedic purposes, the implication behind this character is that librarians are fearsome authoritarians not to be crossed. There are a number of other severe and stern figures across television and film, including Mr Bookman from Seinfeld and Ms. Hushbaum from All That. Is such a negative portrayal of the librarian impacting the number of people who visit libraries for fear of coming across such an intimidating figure?
The second of these representations is certainly a more positive one; the king and knoweldgeable mentor. One of the most famous examples of this character is undoubtedly Rupert Giles, the school librarian from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Giles acts as the voice of reason through the series, often providing the answer when the gang of heroes can't seem to find it on their own. For this, he is loved universally by the characters and also by the show's large fanbase.
Another such character that I remember very fondly from my own childhood, was Christoper Lloyd's Mr Dewey, the wise and mystical librarian from the animated film The Pagemaster. This wonderful film told the story of a young boy afraid of just about everything, who is one night introduced to the many worlds one can discover between the pages of a book by a librarian, the 'Keeper of Books and Guardian of the Written Word', the eponymous Pagemaster.
One thing that struck me in all of these representations, was that none of the librarians ever interacted with any digital technology. In fact, Buffy's Giles has an active dislike of computers. Of course, some of the above characters were from the 90s, but the librarians we see on the big screen today should surely be interacting with digital content, highlighting the very real change that has affected the community of information professionals over the last decade.
This little research project of mine was extremely interesting, and it's left me feeling that this subject could be explored in much greater depth! There are still many librarian characters I haven't talked about, and many more that I probably didn't know about. What other librarian characters can you think of? How do you feel about the depiction of librarians on the big screen?