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
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.
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,
School Library Journal
Online. "People Like the Net and Libraries." 1/9/1996. <http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/articles/news/20001121_9245.asp>
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.