Image of Libraries in Popular Culture

Past and Future Images vs. Current Actuality

There are two major categories for the presentation of information professionals and information provision in popular culture, those of the past and those of the future. Interestingly, neither is a particularly accurate portrayal of librarians today.

Images of the past have more to do with the way information and the people keeping it are portrayed than when the portrayal takes place. In the category, librarians are shown as keeping stacks upon stacks of books, or drawers upon drawers of microfiche, all of which contains an unlimited amount of knowledge. The librarian is repressive and compulsively organized, a sometimes draconian gatekeeper. All of the librarians energy goes into keeping the collection, nothing is left over for any kind of a personal life. This is the stereotypical librarian with the bun and sensible shoes. The knowledge being kept is generally considered to be dangerous in some fashion. It could be esoteric occult information or facts from a newspaper archive, but in some way it has the strong potential to damage someone. Also, although the information seeker may be looking for a specific fact, that fact generally gains most of its importance from its context.

On the other end of the spectrum are information systems of the future. Despite a general reliance on computer systems, a person or facsimile of a person is usually involved with the systems, they are rarely completely unmediated. The approach to information, however is very different. Information is approached as a collection of individual facts. Rather than being concerned with context and background, importance is placed on discrete facts. Rather than gaining knowledge and understanding, the information seekers gains a specific bit of information which is then used for a specific task. These images are less frequent than the previous one, and also more varied in their details.

One conclusion that can be drawn from this spectrum of information professionals is that librarians started with the historical image and are moving toward the futuristic one. Not only is this conclusion overly simplistic, as much as it can be proved, it is false.

For starters, although the historically stereotypical librarian is a woman, women only entered the profession in large numbers in the 20th century. Also, although there are libraries that do resemble the dusty stacks of books with which most librarians are associated, it is likely that most people experience of libraries has been more along the lines of the library outreach programs to immigrant populations in the early parts of the 20th century. Not only does the stereotypical librarian not exist now, it is likely that she never did.

The future stereotype is likely just as false. Although it is difficult to disprove something that has not yet happened, how likely is it that society's entire relationship to information and knowledge will completely change? Will context ever be irrelevant? Will it ever be possible to reduce the complexity and depth of knowledge down to individual bits?

As an exercise, members of the group took the Myers-Briggs personality type inventory to compare our results with the generally accepted view of a librarian. Only one of the five came up with classical type of ISFJ. The remaining four were two ENFJs, and ENFP and an INFP. While this can hardly be called a representative sample of all librarians, it is interesting to note that the majority are extroverts, not introverts. Also, the majority are intuitive rather than sensing.


Selected Resources

Cooley, Martha. The Archivist. Matthias, the central character, is the archivist in charge of a series of letters from T.S. Eliot. He is an excellent example of the historical stereotype.

Cussler, Clive. Valhalla Rising. This action-adventure novel (and the entire "Dirk Pitt" series) features an extremely advance computer system that the main characters use for all their information seeking needs. The computer mastermind is Hiram Yeager, who developed an artificial intelligence system with a 3-d interface he modelled on his wife. The computer has access to an extensive collection of information on topics related to the ocean, but also independently hacks into other computer systems to get information to answer questions on any other topics.

Fountain, John W. Librarians adjust image in an effort to fill jobs. New York Times 08/23/2001, Nat'l Desk, Sec. A, p.12, col.1

Kurzwell, Allen. The Grand Complication. The main character, Alexander Short, is an NYPL reference librarian trying to track down information on a cabinet.

MacCann, Donnarae. 1989. Libraries for Immigrants and "Minorities": A Study in Contrasts. Social Responsibility in Librarianship: Essays on Equality. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

Majka, David. 2001. The Conqueror Bookworm. American Libraries. June/July, 61-63.

Patterson, Thomas. 2001. "Idea stores": London's New Libraries. Library Journal, May, 48-49.

Perez-Reverte, Arturo. The Club Dumas. The main character in this novel is an rare book researcher who is simultaneously tracking down books on Dumas and the occult. This was the basis for the movie "The Ninth Gate," although most of the plot was cut out.

Stern, Stephen. 1991. Ethnic Libraries and Librarianship in the United STates: Models nad Prospects. Advances in Librarianship. 15, 77-102.