The Librarian with

an Alterego Convention


Librarians with Alter Egos

Hey! What do you think that prim librarian with the pencil in her bun is really up to? She looks meek and unassuming, but that's the very sort I don't trust! Such is the suspicion frequently played out in books, movies, television and comics. Somewhere in popular culture, most of us eventually encounter the convention of a librarian who possesses an alter ego -- a wild or hidden side which contrasts the other stereotypical mild and scholarly side. In this convention, the librarian might function as a positive or negative character, but in either case, eventually demonstrates a sharply polarized persona. This alter-ego may erupt when the librarian character suddenly snaps, or it might lie hidden until some development exposes the subterfuge. A similar convention occurs for libraries as well, the best examples of which include libraries which house a revolving bookcase or a hidden stairway leading to some mysterious setting of intrigue. These conventions appear largely in gothic or mystery genres, but are not limited to them. They crop up in comedy, drama and even unlikely popular culture sub-genres such as so called "reality T.V.". Where does this convention come from and what does it reveal about our society's fears and fantasies regarding librarians? Initially I proposed two theories to the group and then we found a third theory in the recent library literature.

My first theory concerns a biblical, perhaps puritanical fear of the information we manage. Knowledge is dangerous - the first temptation in Genesis was not sex, but knowledge from the apple, which the serpent graciously offered to Adam and Eve. This theory might explain why the Dark Arts often emerge as part of the secret the library/librarians hide.

My other theory is Freudian. Libraries, as the preservers and providers of our culture's external memory, represent civilization. Civilization has its discontents --mainly the repression of the id and libido. Therefore, perhaps it is not surprising that fictional depictions of librarians and libraries might involve conflict where a struggle between control and chaos takes place. This theory would account for stories in which librarians reveal some unexpected sexual side. (Another component of my Freudian theory concerns fear of libraries as dark enclosed places ... but ... um, I'll get to that later).

We found a third theory in two recent articles from library journals. These articles explored the postmodern linguist Foucault's observations that the institution of the library creates a "discourse of fear". He feels that this fear lies in a socially constructed dynamic between the librarian and the user, deeply embedded in our culture's consciousness. Foucault further analyzes this phenomena in terms of the library as a gateway or boundary between order and chaos (in which the user fears both possibilities) and also in terms of the library as an arena where the user fears humiliation. The group discussed several examples before deciding which theories we found most pertinent or plausible.

Examples of the Convention:



1. Bender, Aimee. "Quiet Please", from The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. New York: Doubleday 1998. p.57
In this short story, a librarian learns of her father's death, snaps, and seduces seven different men in the library's back office in one afternoon. She pops back out to the circulation desk to check out books and conduct reader's advisory between sexual trysts. Bender writes:

Sitting at her desk with her back very straight, she asks the young man very politely, the one who always comes into the library to check out Bestsellers, asks him when it was he last got laid. He lets out a weird sound and she says, shhh, this is a library. She has her hair back and the glasses on but everyone has a librarian fantasy, and she is truly a babe beneath. (P.58)

2. Bellairs, John. The Dark Secret of Weatherend. New York: Puffin Books, 1984
The Lamp from the Warlock's Tomb. New York: Puffin Books, 1988
The Mansion in the Mist. New York: Puffin Books, 1992
The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn. New York: Puffin Books, 1978

These four young adult books make up Bellairs' "Anthony Monday" mystery series, in which Anthony Monday, a 16 year old boy, solves supernatural mysteries with his good friend Miss Eells. Miss Eells is the retirement aged, bespectacled, frail and notoriously clumsy librarian at the Hoosac Public Library in Minnesota. When it comes to fighting wizards and evil spirts however, she is surprisingly forceful, both mentally and physically. No one sees this side of her except Anthony and her brother, the occult scholar, who dabbles in the Dark Arts. Miss Ells hides a long term secret identity in the books, but also in The Dark Secret of Weatherend, experiences a moment where she suddenly snaps. In this novel, Miss Eells becomes possessed by a nefarious spirit, causing her to act out her worst impulses. She suddenly attacks Mrs. Oxenstern, a society woman and library board member, who because of her contributions to the library, has been able to mercilessly usurp all of Miss Eells authority in the library -- even forcing her to serve punch at a dreaded genealogy meeting. We learn:

As usual, Mrs Oxenstern's silver-gray hair was done in a rippling permanent wave that looked so permanent, Miss Eells always imagined attacking it with a hammer and chisel to uncover the plaster beneath. Everything was as it should be--polite and indescribably boring. ...At that moment something very strange happened. It was as if Miss Eells had been suddenly seized by some force outside herself. She went reeling madly across the room , elbowing people aside and slopping punch everywhere. She stopped in front of Mrs. Oxenstern, and then, with a jerky motion of her hand, she threw punch all over the front of the fat woman's dress. All Mrs. Oxenstern could do was stare in stupefied horror. (p.62)


1. Stephen Walker and Lonnie Lawson's article, "The Librarian Stereotype and the Movies", (The Journal of Academic Media Librarianship, v1 no.1, Spring 1993: 16-28) describes several movies which depict stereotypical librarians. The movies he mentions which most fit in with the idea of a librarian with an alter ego include : Their Last Night (1988) in which the librarian is actually a master thief; and the adults-only version of Alice in Wonderland in which Wonderland awakens a sexually repressed librarian and initiates her into a world of sexual freedom.

2. Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag (1992-USA) PG-13 starring Penelope Ann Miller, Eric Thal, Alfre Woodward, Cathy Moriarty, Julianna Moore.
" Everyone took the mousy, small town librarian for granted until she finds a gun and confesses to a murder. Later on, Betty Lou uses her new found celebrity at the open house scene to create a wonderful teaser for libraries." (Found in " Top Ten Films featuring Libraries, Librarians and the Book Arts", compiled by Steven J. Schmidt <> see Heather's webpage on Stereotypes of Librarians in the Movies for a link to this)

3. The Black Mask. (Hak Hap 1996). Jet li plays Tsui Chik, a gentle, mild-mannered Hong Kong librarian who is also the genetically engineered superhero Black Mask. Early in the film he gives a short monologue about his appreciation of library work: it's quiet, non-violent, and people do not bother you. For most of the movie he battles the cyborg-like bad guys who want to take over the Asian drug trade. At one point he uses CD-ROM"S as deadly weapons, throwing them at the enemy. In Chinese with English subtitles.

1. In "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", the character Rupert Giles seems like a mild mannered scholarly high school librarian. Unbeknownst to everyone in the town, except Buffy and her friends, Giles is a vampire slaying mentor to Buffy and a Dark Arts force to be reckoned with himself. The audience knows of this alter ego through the whole series but in one episode he also snaps and we find out more about him when dark forces cause him to relive his younger college days. Apparently he used to go by the psuedonym "The Ripper". As "The Ripper", he had been a wild occultist who on a dare, had summoned a murderous demon. Giles's guilt about this episode caused him to learn humility and settle down to become the librarian most of the town sees. (Graceanne A. DeCandido's article "Bibliographic Good vs. Evil in Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in American Libraries, September 1999, p.44 describes how this character provides a positive image for librarians in many ways)

2. On the daytime soap opera, "General Hospital", the character of Lucy Coe first appeared in 1986, as a frumpy stereotypical librarian. She turns out to have a hidden side as a long legged vixen who wears a tight red dress and has helped her boyfriend murder her husband. Her stint as a librarian is both real (she apparently has an MLS) and a ruse to hide her identity. In her librarian guise with hair back and glasses on, she bears almost no resemblance to her identity in the red dress (if one can suspend disbelief in typical soap opera fashion) <>.

3. Reality T.V. - The show "20/20" placed an add in the paper asking for librarians who might be willing to switch lives for one day with Las Vegas showgirls. One young librarian, Jennifer Lucas responded to the add and the show followed her in her new identity for the day as a Vegas showgirl. Jennifer, who earned her Master's degree in library and information science at Indiana University, switched places with Janu, a dancer at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino. Jennifer did a "top-on" version of the cassino's Folies Bergere. (From <> accessed 10/23/2001.

- The show "Hard Copy" aired an expose on a Library of Congress cataloger who kept a well organized, neatly labeled wall of porno videos at home. (I don't have a definite source for this story, but two people in the group remembered seeing this on t.v)

Bat Girl is a librarian by day and a sexy costumed crime fighter by night. She gets her MLIS at GSU (?) And takes a job as Head Reference Librarian at Gotham City Public Library. (See Allison Hall's article, "Batgirl Was a Librarian." canadian Library Journal 49 (Oct. 1, 1992):345 for a very brief mention of Batgirl in a discussion of librarian stereotypes).

In Lee Kalcheim's play Defiled, (which played at the Geffen Theater in Summer 2000), Jason Alexander plays Harry, a librarian with a Nicholson Baker attitude about the card catalog, who snaps one day and takes the library hostage. Until this time, he leads and lonely, scholarly life. (His one girlfriend having dumped him in college after he wrote her thesis for her!) He threatens to blow up the library with explosives he has strapped to himself as well as strung along the library, unless the library administrators return the card catalog. Peter Falk plays a detective who almost talks him out of his plan. At the end, Harry almost walks out of the library, but has second thoughts for a minute and runs back. The explosives go off causing catalog cards to waft all over the audience. (See <> for a review and synopsis of this wonderful play>)


1. Eco, Umberto. The Name of the Rose. New York: Warner, 1983.
In this novel, the library holds dark and fearful secrets. In a discussion between two monks, one says, "But over there.. The secrets of learning are well defended by works of magic.." He then alludes to strange rumors. When the other monk asks him of what sort, he replies, "Strange. Let us say, rumors about a monk who decided to venture into the library during the night, to look for something Malachi the librarian refused to give him, and he saw serpents, headless men, and men with two heads. He was nearly crazy when he emerged from the labyrinth..." (p.89) (These quotations from the novel are quoted in Gary and Marie Radford's article "Libraries, Librarians and the Discourse of Fear" Library Quarterly v71, no3 (July, 2001): 299)

2. Bellairs, John. The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn. New York: Puffin Books, 1978

In this novel, not only does Miss Eells the librarian have a secret identity, but the library itself holds many secrets. The wealthy town eccentric who built the library embedded secret clues in the library suggesting where he hid an ancient magical biblical artifact. Anthony Monday, with the help of Miss Eells, finds the clues hidden behind a large mirror. Clues also lie within the architecture of library (replete with gothic turrets and the like). The following description of the library establishes it as a place of mystery:

When he got to the far side of the park, he stopped and looked up at the library,

A dark shape looming over the bare trees... The Hoosac Public Library was like a castle out of a fairy had battlements like a castle... like a castle, the building was made of stone, black stone that glistened when it was wet, and it was covered with fantastic carvings. (p.8)

1. In the Batman series, Batman's secret lab was hidden behind a book case of revolving books in the library/parlor.

2. Dark Shadows was a gothic/vampire soap opera created and produced by Dan Curtis which ran from 1969 to 1971. (Is anyone else old enough to remember Barnabas Collins??) The lead vampire character, Barnabas, played by Jonathan Frid, would pull back a book on a book shelf to be able to access his secret room with his coffin. (In all fairness however, by the time the series ran its course almost all the rooms at the Collinwood Estate had secret panels, staircases or the like.)

1. Cartoons from the New Yorker about libraries These cartoons show that while cartoonists portray, chain bookstores (our competitors), as shallow and insipid, they tend to portray libraries as intimidating and elitist. Most of these cartoons show the library as labyrinth-like places with an almost supernatural quality of intimidation and inaccessibility.

1. The Pagemaster. A children's film, produced by Paul Gertz and directed by by Maurice Huntand Joe Johnston. Twentieth Century Fox, videocassette, 1994.
In this film, a 9-year-old boy rides his bike through a dark tunnel and when he emerges, finds himself in a magical world with an imposing and frightening library. The library is cathedral like with high ceilings and granite roaring lions. There are "huge eerie shadows" and Richie fears getting lost in the labyrinth stacks. This film is also cited and described in Heather's Librarians in the Movies section of our webpage.

What the Group Decided: Why Foucault Might Need Psychoanalysis

After discussing our examples, I still liked my Biblical and Freudian theories . Others felt that whatever started the convention, writers then became too unoriginal to think of something new and perhaps the convention became self-perpetuating. No one seemed especially attracted to Foucault's theory (or privileged it as he might say). One problem with Foucault's theory is that it doesn't exactly address why the discourse evolved. Gary and Marie Radford, in their article, "Libraries, Librarians, and the Discourse of Fear" say, "As far as we can tell, to date there has not been any analysis conducted that has attempted to investigate the grounds from which the library is constituted in these terms." (p.20) What would Foucault say about a Freudian explanation of this fear? The Radfords also say in this article, "Foucault explored the strategies through which certain discourses became honored and others pushed to the margins in his discussion of power and knowledge. He described how the discourse of figures such as Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx became institutionalized and provided the foundations for contemporary discursive regimes of their own." (p.2) Thus Foucault exposes the artificial structures which cause us to privilege someone like Freud. I think I know what Freud might answer, however, and I will give him the last word. Looking up " librarians" and " libraries" in an index of Freudian symbols, I unfortunately did not find anything. I did however find "books." Freud posits that books, like boxes (which can snap shut), are vaginal symbols. So too are any dark, enclosed or intimidating structures including labyrinths, churches and fortresses, castles and citadels - all of which libraries have been portrayed as. (Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, p.156, 163) I believe that if Freud heard Foucault's assertions, that libraries seem like labyrinthesque places of fear which pose the threat of humiliation, he would conclude that Foucault suffers from castration anxiety! (Please see Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis p.208. for an explanation how the humiliation of getting caught in the context of a symbolic sexual situation relates to Oedipal conflict and castration anxiety.) Of course, possibly if both men had attended story hour at their local libraries as children, this particular discussion could have been avoided.

Can or Should We Try To Change this Convention?

Is the convention of the librarian or library with a secret identity good gothic fun, or is it symptomatic of larger and real problems for us as a profession? Regardless of which of the theories presented are correct, the types of fears about libraries/librarians expressed in popular culture may reveal why views like Dr. Laura's, that libraries promulgate pornography, resonate so strongly with the public. Our culture's subliminal fears may harm more than our image. Our funding and public stature can suffer. What can we do? Adams, in "Loveless Frump as Hip and Sexy Party Girl: a Reevaluation of the Old-Maid Stereotype", (Library Quarterly, July 2000 v70 p.287) feels that, "poststructuralist theories, allow the librarian to understand.. the discursive weaknesses in the stereotype and, hence, provide the basis of a more informed strategy for overcoming it."(p.1) She suggests that we remold the stereotype by satirizing it - not in fiction but in real life! She states, "One can use the stereotype against itself by redeploying the signs that compose it. In a move from deconsruction to reconstruction, librarians can use these signs for their own ends."(p.6) This rhetoric then leads her to suggest, "In terms of a librarian's workday world, parody and mimicry can be incorporated into daily experience through gestured, details of dress ...I can imagine sticking a pencil through a bun worn firmly on the back of my head as I sashay through he stacks of the library where I work. I can also imagine deflecting inappropriately personal questions during a reference interview by assuming an expression of prim hauteur."(p.7) This strategy sounds a tad impractical for most of us. Meanwhile, the Radford's article points to another potential problem with this reasoning. They state:

Because of the negative ways in which libraries and librarians appear within the discourse of fear, there is the temptation, of course, to somehow situate the library within a different kind of discourse, one that is more upbeat, positive and friendly. Unfortunately, this would be difficult, if not impossible. As Foucault has shown, one does not simply pick and choose a discourse...The portrayal of a librarian as young, energetic, and friendly would be meaningful only against the prevailing negative stereotype..The movie Party Girl is a perfect example of this. The value of the positive representation is always determined by its departure from the negative, and it would not constitute a new discourse in its own right. (p.19)

The problem with acting upon Foucault's view of the problem then, is that the exception only proves the rule. At the same time, I don't suppose that if my Freudian view is correct, we could get the whole public to undergo psychoanalysis. Maybe however, if we wear a true (not satirical) activism more overtly on our sleeves, it could eventually make our "hidden" side more visible and in this way exorcize the public's fear of the unknown.


Journal Articles:

Adams, Katherince C. "Loveless Frump As Hip and Sexy Party Girl: A Reevaluation of the Old-Maid Stereotype." Library Quarterly v70 i3 (July 2000): 287.

Cullen, John. "Rupert Giles, the Professional-image Slayer." American Libraries, v 31 i5 (May 2000): 42.

DeCandido, Graceanne A. "Bibliographic Good vs. Evil in Buffy the Vampire Slayer." American Libraries. v 30 i8 (Sept 1999): 44.

Radford, Gary P and Marie L. Radford. "Libraries, Librarians, and the Discourse of Fear." Library Quarterly v71 no.3 (July 2001): 299.

Radford, Marie L. and Gary P. Radford. "Power, Knowledge and Fear: Feminism, Foucault, and the Stereotype of the Female Librarian." Library Quarterly. V67 no.3 (July 1997): 250.

Walker, Stephen and Lonnie V. Lawson. "The Librarian Stereotype and the Movies." MC Journal: The Journal of Academic Media Librarianship, v1 no.1 (Spring 1993): 16.


Bellairs, John. The Dark Secret of Weatherend. New York: Puffin Books, 1984.
The Lamp from the Warlock's Tomb. New York: Puffin Books, 1988.
The Mansion in the Mist. New York: Puffin Books, 1992.
The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn. New York: Puffin Books, 1978.

Bender, Aimee. "Quiet Please." from The Girl in the Flamable Skirt. New York Doubleday, 1998

Eco, Umberto. The Name of the Rose. Translated by William Weaver. New York: Warner, 1983.

Freud, Sigmund. Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Translated and edited by James Starchey. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1920.


Hall, Alison. "Behind the Bun, or Batgirl was a Librarian." Saundra Kae Rubel's Cybrary of Resources, CA. <> accessed Oct.24, 2001

Kennerly, Brit. "Librarian Wins Role as Showgirl." <> accessed Oct.23, 2001.

Schmidt, Steven J. "Top Ten Films Featuring Libraries, Librarians and the Book Arts." IUPUI University Library. <> accessed Nov. 8, 2001.