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 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:
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)
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)
2. Gun in Betty Lou's
Handbag (1992-USA) PG-13 starring Penelope Ann Miller, Eric Thal,
Alfre Woodward, Cathy Moriarty, Julianna Moore.
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.
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) <http://abc.go.com/daytime/soaps/portcharles/bios/Lucy_Coe.html>.
- 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)
2. Bellairs, John.
The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn. New York: Puffin Books, 1978
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 tale...it 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)
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.)
What the Group Decided: Why Foucault Might Need Psychoanalysis
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.
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.
Bender, Aimee. "Quiet Please." from The Girl in the Flamable Skirt. New York Doubleday, 1998
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. <http://www.Saundrakaerobel.com/Cybarian.htm> accessed Oct.24, 2001
Kennerly, Brit. "Librarian Wins Role as Showgirl." TheRepublic.com. <http://www.therepublic.com> accessed Oct.23, 2001.
Schmidt, Steven J. "Top Ten Films Featuring Libraries, Librarians and the Book Arts." IUPUI University Library. <http://ww.iupui.edu/it/libref/lib_film.html> accessed Nov. 8, 2001.