Librarians in Children's and Teen Literature

The Barbie image on our home page comes from a photograph of one of my daughter's dolls. I told her to pick one and dress it as a librarian. Although limited to the risque wardrobe Barbie enjoys, my daughter got it right stereotype-wise. She picked the one brunette of her 12 dolls (the other 11 are platinum blonds). Next she found glasses from a Ken doll and somehow knew to find a cashmere sweater. (The sweater comes from a Britney Spears doll who wears it open with a red tube top). The pencil in the hair and the books came next. Finally my daughter faced her biggest challenge - the shoes. Rummaging through Barbie's collection of footwear, she sighed, discarding one pair of high heels after another until her eyes lit on Ken again. With triumphant glee, she ripped his loafers from his feet and bestowed on our group's mascot her sensible shoes.

At 8 years old, my daughter has clearly internalized the stereotypical librarian image - but where exactly did it come from? Since she was born, we have looked at children's books together, and at some point read each of the picture books about a librarian listed in the short bibliography of picture books for this section.

Her two favorites, Sophie and Sammy's Library Sleepover and Clara and the Bookwagon, portray non-stereotypical, positive librarians. Five of these books, in fact show positive librarian characters who do not fit the stereotypical mold. Only three of the books feature stereotypical librarians and only two of those characters are negative. Two other books, The Library Dragon and The Librarian from the Black Lagoon, trace the transformation of a librarian character from a frightening creature to a nurturing helper. Clearly some of my daughter's perceptions could come from the few books like Stewart's The Library, in which a spinster wearing a bun and glasses turns her house into a library and moves out when the books she is collecting take up all the possible living space. This librarian, although positive, looks the stereotypical part, lives the stereotypical lifestyle and even owns the obligatory stereotypical cats.

I suspect that for my daughter and many other children, television also plays a significant role in helping to promote the negative stereotype of librarians. The librarian character on the PBS Arthur show for example, wears glasses and sports a pencil in her hair. She mostly sets a helpful even inspiring tone with a few lapses into severity. In the Arthur adventure, Locked in the Library!,the librarian cheerfully suggests exciting books to Arthur and his friend Francine but admonishes them not to forget that the library closes at exactly five o clock. Predictably, Arthur and Francine get distracted and fail to heed the warning. Once locked alone in the library, they are besieged by dark shadows and visions of bats and claws. They attempt to escape using books to get out of the window. When this strategy fails, they look in the card catalog for "How-To" books on escape. There is one on how to escape desert islands, one on how to escape prison and finally one on how to escape libraries- this last relevant one is checked out and therefore unavailable. Finally Arthur and Francine find the staff room and help themselves to ice cream, pizza and videos in this library employee area until their parents finally come. The idea of the librarian as someone who would warn them of a frightening consequence and then forget them does not enhance librarians' image for children. Neither does equating libraries with desert islands and prisons or the fact that in their time of need, they cannot access the one book they want. At the same time, the show resolves the situation in a positive manner. When the children discover the back room with all the comforts of home, it helps to humanize the idea of who librarians really are. The conclusion sends the opposite message of many of the examples given in our "Librarians with Alter Egos" section. Here, what lies hidden in the back room is that librarians are pretty normal people who might like to watch t.v. or eat pizza on their breaks. Furthermore, the children are ultimately rescued by their parents and the librarian who finally figure out that something has gone wrong.

Do these portrayals give children fears and negative feelings about librarians or do children draw a much firmer line between fantasy and reality than we give them credit for? Do some of these stories, even the negative ones, perhaps help them to work through their fears and ultimately like libraries and librarians better? Looking over the various picture books, the group had differing opinions. Some felt that better library/librarian images in children's literature would lead to children who are less afraid of the library and therefore use it more as adults. Others in the group felt that children's real experiences with their school or public librarian provided the key variable in shaping their perceptions of the library. Heather felt that the real experiences shape the perception and still remembers a grumpy, unhelpful male librarian she encountered in her childhood and his treatment of her.

Melissa A. McConnell, in her masters thesis for Missouri State University (1998), "The Presence of Stereotypes about Librarians: A Content Analysis of Children's Picture Books", looks at many more children's picture books than the 10 I brought to group discussion and analyzes them in terms of the presence of stereotypes such as bow ties for males and cats, glasses, and buns for women. For both men and women, she counts incidents of "shushing". She also considers the number of times a picture book portrays a minority as a librarian. She then presents bar graphs showing the number of these stereotypes in sets of books by decades from 1950 to 1998. The incidence of these stereotypes have changed over the decades and she summarizes her conclusions saying, "The negative images that were found in the books seemed to decrease with more recent copyright dates. Different ethnic backgrounds became more prevalent, as did the number of male librarians."(p.44). As far as how all these portrayals impact the children who read them, however, McConnell inconclusively offers the expected speculations.

To speculate myself, if the number of negative stereotypes vastly outweighed the number of positive depictions, I would be more concerned. I think that books such as Deedy's The Library Dragon, in which the librarian starts out as a fearsome book- protecting dragon and then becomes someone who loves to share her book lair with children, do more good than harm. Children probably fear the library a little simply from the newness of it and the formality of the routines. A book which explores the negative possibilities and then resolves them in a positive way, allows children to work out their library anxieties through safe fantasy. I am more worried about television portrayals because I don't trust all morning cartoons to follow through on these plots and resolve them in a comparable manner. Should we try to generate more books with positive portrayals? In Children's lit class last year, Dr. Walter responded to a student who asked if we should try to generate more books which promote healthy eating habits, by saying that great literature does not usually come from a perceived need for a certain image or didactic message.


Moving up to young adult fiction which portrays libraries or librarians, it seems that these, like children's books, include mostly positive portrayals. Cheryl told us about the plot of Lois Lowry's Newbery award winning book The Giver. In this science fiction/ young adult novel, the characters live in a futuristic dystopia. The society's attempt to protect people from painful experiences has backfired and created a nightmarish world in which no one understands what really goes on. People do not understand for example that being "released" means being killed. One character, The Giver, keeps all the memories and knowledge for the society and then imparts it to one new person who will become the next "Giver". This character functions as a librarian like character (preserving and passing on the culture's memories) and ultimately helps the main protagonist in the story to break free from the restrictive social order so he can understand pain as well as pleasure more fully. Here the librarian image is positive with the librarian character helping to ensure intellectual freedom for society.

Miss Eells from John Bellair's Anthony Monday mysteries similarly exemplifies a positive librarian portrayal. In the four mysteries which feature teenage Anthony Monday and the elderly librarian character Miss Eells, the reader learns that Anthony's dysfunctional family life exacts an emotional toll on him. Anthony's mother gives him almost no nurturing and seems to only neglect or criticize him. Enter Miss Eells! This librarian gives Anthony a comforting job at the Hoosac Public Library and also functions as a wonderful friend and confidant (albeit, one who unintentionally embroils him in demonic adventures). Anthony's mother distrusts Miss Eells but usually does not pay enough attention to Anthony to disrupt the relationship. The depiction of Miss Eells reminds us that librarians enjoy the rare position of being able to interact with teens without grading, parenting or judging them. In Jerry Spinelli's, The Library Card, a connected series of short stories also depict positive, helpful librarians who change the different protagonists' view of libraries and open up the door of learning to them. Even the televison show Buffy the Vampire Slayer promotes this positive kind of relationship. The librarian Rupert Giles is Buffy's "Watcher" who helps her and her friends solve mysteries and fight villains. He differs from other adults on the show, who as teachers, parents or principals etc., punish, grade, discipline or otherwise judge the characters from their positions of authority.

With all these positive images, why do young adults seem to generally stay away from the library? Vaillancourt, in Bare Bones Young Adult Sevices, cites a 1997 study of 2,000 teenagers in which 74% reported that they did not use libraries because of "competition from other activities, 38% lacked interest in library services and 31% lacked knowledge about library services." (p.6). Similarly, School Library Journal, citing a 1996 survey for the Urban Libraries Council, euphorically affirms, "75% of Net users also like libraries," but then reveals, "the shadow side of that statistic is that younger users 18-25 don't use the library much." The article continues, "other ULC surveys have shown that many children and teenagers don't find libraries welcoming places because of staff who lack skills in communicating with young people." The group felt that libraries need to be more welcoming to this age group which has largely been overlooked. Heather pointed out that as teen's information needs change the library doesn't seem to hold what they need. Young Adult librarians and sections are still rare and teens are often left to contemplate whether what they need is in the children's or adult section. In addition, Heather feels the children's librarians often turn the teens off because they are used to working with younger children and sound like kindergarten teachers. Well... hopefully the increasing implementation of teen centers and hiring of young adult librarians will mitigate some of these negative perceptions and lead to increased teen use.


McConnell, Melissa A. The Presence of Stereotypes about Librarians: A Content Analysis of Children's Picture Books. Missouri: Central Missouri State University, December, 1998.

School Library Journal Online. "People Like the Net and Libraries." 1/9/1996. <> accessed 10/2000.

Vaillancourt, Renee J. Bare Bone Young Adult Services: Tips for Public Library Generalists. Chicago: American Library Association, 2000. p.6

For an annotated list of the Children's and Young Adult Literature referred to in this section please see Children's Fiction About Libraries or Librarians in our group bibliography.