Perceptions of a profession: librarians and stereotypes in online videos.

Author:Attebury, Ramirose Ilene


The popularity of YouTube has grown rapidly in recent years, and librarians are just one of many groups that routinely create and post videos to the site. Unlike prior representations of librarians in mass media formats, which have been largely controlled by non-librarians, the increased opportunities for amateur video distribution on sites like YouTube have allowed librarians themselves to decide how they are portrayed. It stands to reason that librarians have a vested interest in portraying themselves and their profession in a positive light. Indeed, an earlier study of YouTube videos correctly identifies a preponderance of negative librarian depictions in YouTube videos not created by librarians (Poulin, 2008). However, this current study argues that the manner in which video creators are portraying librarians form a complex picture that can best be understood by considering theories about stereotypes, the history of stereotypes in the library profession, and the use of parody and mimicry to call into question prevailing societal stereotypes. It is also argued that YouTube videos created by non-librarians should be compared to those created by librarians themselves in order to fully understand the contrasting representations available to YouTube video viewers. An analysis of 100 videos created by librarians paints an interesting picture about what message librarians are sending to viewers and how effectively they are challenging negative stereotypes. A comparison of these videos to those created by non-librarians shows differences from the ways that librarians portray themselves and hints at alternative methods that librarians might want to employ to combat negative stereotypes of the profession.

Stereotype Theories

Scholars have proposed several reasons for the existence of stereotypes, none of which are mutually exclusive. Leyens, Yzerbyt, and Schadron (1994) have explained that stereotypes are processes aimed at regulating social interactions while McGarty, Yzerbyt, and Spears (2002) add that they help alleviate information overload. That is, putting items into categories saves energy by requiring a person to understand only the category rather than each individual item in it. While librarians, as information professionals, will undoubtedly appreciate the usefulness of stereotypes in this context, there are also drawbacks to using stereotypes as time savers. Brewerton (1993, p. 22) writes, "They [stereotypes] are used by advertisers, writers and journalists who do not have the time or inclination to develop characters." With the rise of YouTube, amateur video creators could be included in this list, and their use of stereotypes too often represents negative and untrue assumptions about all members of the profession rather than serving as useful categorizations.

Not everyone views stereotypes as necessarily negative (Shauer, 2003). Stereotypes may indicate shared a group identity resultant from similar experiences and also a desire to be part of the "in-group." For example, a librarian might deliberately yet unnecessarily don a pair of glasses so as to appear more bookish or intellectual and to fit in with peers of a similar nature. On the other hand, Brewerton argues that "stereotypes are often based on outmoded concepts and are invariably negative" (1993, p. 22). Problems with stereotypes arise when a person fails to realize that categories are made up of individuals who are not exactly identical. Weber and Mitchell further that "images in popular culture can even displace personal memories," so that stereotypes conjured up about librarians can easily stem from unfair representations seen in the mass media rather than from real experiences with them (1995, p. 26). Stereotypes are even more problematic when they cease functioning as mere categories and instead are used as the basis for judgment that has a real-life impact on the unique individuals in the category.

Changing stereotypes is no easy task, especially for someone who feels he or she has been saddled with an unfair image. Worchel and Rothgerber (1997) argue that this is because stereotypes are multidimensional, like a diamond with many faces. Therefore, changing just one facet of a stereotype will not necessarily alter or eradicate its entirety. If stereotypes comprise many traits, one may replace another or become more salient in the minds of those who hold the stereotype. Thus, a bun-headed librarian may be replaced with a sensible-shoe-wearing librarian, but the image of a librarian as one who is practical with little concern for appearance remains. Worchel and Rothgerber also note the importance of perceived homogeneity when considering stereotypes. A trait will be more difficult to alter if it is considered representative of all members of a group rather than a select few or even a simple majority. Thus, while hipster librarians may weaken the idea that librarians don't care about their appearance, the image of a librarian fixated on books rather than technology will be considerably more difficult to dislodge given that nearly all members of the profession still work in buildings dominated by print materials.

Librarians and Stereotypes

The library profession has no shortage of stereotypes, and the library literature has no shortage of articles discussing them. One hundred years ago, Keller outlined the characteristics of a mythical ideal librarian. Among her qualities were a neat appearance, cordial manner, avoidance of alcohol, drugs, tobacco, gambling, profanity and vulgarity, and a character deserving of the description "wonderfully adaptable, besides being omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, and always working overtime at something with superhuman energy and enthusiasm." In other words she described a librarian as one who devoted her entire being to work at the library (1909, p. 296). Although Keller went on to say that this image "must go before the downtrodden average, ordinary, human librarian can have a fair chance" (p. 297), from the vantage point of one-hundred years later it seems that the image did not go, but rather the negative characteristics of it became even more pronounced. The idea of superhuman energy and enthusiasm continued, but not in the form of outstanding public service as we might hope for today, but rather was transferred into a superhuman, and often overzealous, energy for the care of books, for the sanctity of the building, and for the organizational system that characterized the library.

Focusing on the image of this organizational system rather than just the librarian who works in it and further offering a suggestion for the persistence of librarian stereotypes, Radford and Radford (1997) draw on the work of Foucault and feminist theorists to help explain some of this stereotype surrounding female librarians. Portraying the library as an institutional symbol and enforcer of a venerable system of cultural knowledge and power, the authors claim that the negative trappings of female librarianship serve to mitigate the awesomeness of the system. That is, true, "the female librarian is presented as fearsome, but beneath the stern exterior, there is nothing to fear: there is only a woman" (p. 261). Female attributes, especially those typically denigrated by society, are therefore played up in the image of a librarian to alleviate fear of a "key institutional mechanism" that controls both the discourse and order of society. The authors further state that beyond serving an anxiety-reducing role, female librarians are also warnings about the power of the system. Those who dare enter into the complex world of order, indexes, catalogues, and rules, can become controlled by it, losing other essential aspects of their humanity: empathy, forgiveness, and sexuality.

Early in the development of US librarianship, the idea of complete allegiance to the library system required of librarians met little resistance from a society that already demanded a woman choose between a career and a family. Thus, it was a short step from Keller's enthusiastic ideal librarian who devoted herself to her job with such alacrity to the stereotype of the Old Maid who had devoted herself perhaps too much, to the point she missed out on other more social aspects of life, such as marriage and children. Donna Reed's character in It's a Wonderful Life is often held up as an example of this stereotype. Without the possibility of marriage to James Stewart, Reed was forever able to devote the required hours to her job as a librarian, enforcing the rules of silence that serve to demonstrate reverence to the cultural symbol that is the library. Implicit in this movie's portrayal of Reed as a librarian is the notion that Reed's life as a spinster librarian is considerably less desirable than her alter-life as a wife and mother.

Thus at some point, a transformation occurred from Keller's ideal librarian, which in actuality is still a fairly positive image, into derision toward unmarried spinster librarians. Oram (1989) offers an additional suggestion as to why this shift might have occurred. Identifying the growing distrust of spinster teachers in England between 1918 and 1939, Oram posits that the developments in the field of psychology led to growing assertions that unmarried women were deviant and unnatural. Any spinsters, including those who devoted themselves entirely to the library profession, would have increasingly been seen in the same light. Although Oram also suggests that part of the concern about spinsters was their economic freedom from men, it was masked by a discussion of women's sexuality. Likewise, in the United States, a growth of conservative political views, concerns over "race suicide," and backlash against college-educated female reformers prompted many to advocate that women should devote more time to producing and caring for families and less to fighting for sex-solidarity and careers (Gordon, 1987)...

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