Librarians: Keepers of Dangerous Knowledge
December 7, 2001
DIS 209: Social Impact of Information
Dr. Howard Besser
Stereotypes of Librarians and Libraries
Ask almost anyone what the stereotype of a librarian is, and the answer comes back quickly – a spinster with sensible shoes, a bun whose primary job is keeping order and quiet. This stereotype is widely documented in library literature (Radford, 1997) and visible across the spectrum of popular culture. Most discussions, however, revolve around documenting the stereotype’s presence, demonstrating its falsity, or presenting ways to eradicate it. It is however, difficult to do this in any kind of a meaningful way without first asking why the stereotype came into being and what its importance to the general population is. When this is done, it is apparent that the meaning of this image is much greater than the comical (or depressing depending on one’s viewpoint) caricature of a profession. It is often in the divergence between the image and the reality that the true significance of the image can be seen.
One way of starting this process is to view the image of librarians as symbolic rather than a stereotypical. As a stereotype, the image can tell us only about how people see the profession of librarianship in respect to themselves as individuals. As a symbol, however, the image of a librarian can tell us about how people view the world and themselves. Librarian, then, are a symbol of what? The initial association is so simple that it is ridiculous -- libraries. This association is logical and tangible, an easy step. The next association is logical, but not tangible. Libraries, in turn, are symbolic of knowledge.
Libraries are the storehouses of knowledge. There is a common perception that within their walls lies the compendium of everything known and understood by humanity. Although often we see them “portrayed as almost holy places, the repositories of the accumulated knowledge of mankind, most of it in the form of printed books,” (Hall 1992, page 346), just as often we see them as dark, confusing or labyrinthine, possessing of secret rooms and hidden places.
As the physical manifestation of knowledge, the library has come to be the symbol of that knowledge. As such, ways that it is portrayed can also represent views of knowledge itself. How many libraries actually contain hidden rooms? How many libraries are actually physically (or mentally for that matter) dangerous? Although there are no readily available statistics, it seems likely the number is quite low. Images of libraries, however, are drastically different. In fictional books and movies, for example, the library with the hidden door is a common device, as are libraries as places that are dark and frightening. It is not just in fiction that some of these images of danger exist. Examples of this are attempts to use books checked out as a means of profiling dangerous individuals and Dr. Laura Schlesinger’s condemnation of public libraries as pornography distributors. This discrepancy raises the issue of whether it is the libraries themselves that frighten and discomfit people or what they contain and represent.
The librarian serves as the human intermediary between individuals and the wealth of knowledge contained within the walls of the library. Librarians, then, are the keepers of knowledge and understanding, the delegates of humanity to be in possession of its own secrets. As images then, they represent a view of how knowledge should be treated and kept much more than they represent individuals belonging to a profession. Taken like this, the image of the librarian as a repressive force is very interesting, and seems in direct contrast to the categorization of the current time as the “information age.”
Knowledge vs. Information
In order to reconcile these seemingly opposing views, it is necessary to make a distinction between information and knowledge. Information “is essentially corpuscular” (Nunberg 1996, page 117), it consists of discrete bits, which may or may not be related to other discrete bits. It is quantifiable, neat, and lends itself well to being organized. It is essentially non-threatening, except perhaps in its quantity. Take the date January 7, 1960 as an example. Although it represents a particular day and can be categorized according to year, month, day of the week, etc., without any kind of association or context it holds very little greater meaning.
Knowledge, however, is so much more. Knowledge is understanding, wisdom, context. Knowledge, if not inherently dangerous, certainly has the potential to be so. How often do we see the results of someone “knowing too much”? As a society, individuals are expected to have a certain amount of knowledge, a certain understanding of the world, but not too much and certainly not in too much depth. In Genesis, the expulsion from Eden was caused by Adam and Eve’s eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Knowledge, in the form of both books and people, has been burned in a number of different time periods. Take the previous example of a bit of information, January 7, 1960. On its own, it is fairly innocuous. If it is contextualized as your birthday, however, it takes on a whole new meaning. Now that date can provide such disparate things as the pin number for your bank account, or the basis for an age-discrimination lawsuit. It is no longer a completely neutral bit of information.
It is in the understanding of the connections between and context of the individual bits of information transforms into knowledge and becomes dangerous. It is when someone can put together our social security number, with our birthday, with our mother’s maiden name, with our phone number, with our address, with our buying patterns, with our credit card number, with us that we are afraid. With knowledge in general, as well as privacy issues, it is the understanding of the connections and context that frightens us, not the bits of information themselves.
Of particular importance when addressing the issue of the dangerous aspects of knowledge is the portrayal of librarians as female. Knowledge in the hands of women is often seen as particularly dangerous historically. It is often associated with secrecy, immorality and the occult. Although men have certainly been persecuted for the acquisition and recording of knowledge, it is events such as the Salem witch burnings that stand out through time. Even in times when male knowledge was seen as something to be desired, female knowledge was seen as suspect and dangerous.
With all of this in mind, there are certain images of librarians and libraries in popular culture that are particularly informative. These images are each intended to be a thematic representative of many others, and were selected due to their particularly relevancy and clarity. They are by no means an attempt to be at all comprehensive, as the proliferation of images is incredibly vast.
The 1957 movie, Desk Set, ultimately makes a definite distinction between information and knowledge. The main character is a newspaper reference librarian who contextualizes even unrelated bits of information as a memory device. Because of her understanding of various topics, she is able to retrieve specific information either immediately (from memory) or fairly quickly (from printed resources). She is set against a machine which provides specific answers to questions that, while possibly correct in a limited sense, are incomplete or even wrong when the intent of the question is taken into account. Knowledge in this case is seen as an essentially human characteristic. It is interesting that although the librarian is a positive character (although very much a creature of her time period), she is still a spinster and seen as vaguely threatening by other people. It takes someone of deep perception to see her true worth.
The Giver (from the children’s novel of the same title) serves as a repository of all the group memories of his community. Individuals have access only to their own personal histories, which are carefully monitored to keep them fair and free from pain. The Giver serves as a human library both for history and emotion. He is selected at twelve years of age as the Receiver, which means that he spends his time being given memories of past times and emotions until he eventually becomes the Giver himself. The community views this knowledge as unnecessary and dangerous to the well-being of individuals, although the author’s point is that its removal leads to sterility and ultimately de-humanization. Without the memories, the society freely practices euthanasia, and is characterized by triviality and personal distance. In this novel, although knowledge may be frightening and dangerous, it is also what leads to compassion, love and wisdom.
The theme of the Club Dumas is hidden knowledge. The protagonist is a rare-book researcher who, in tracking down editions of a particular title, obtains knowledge leading to his physical association with the devil. The novel has a secondary but related storyline about a secret society associated with the author Alexandre Dumas, noted for the writing The Three Musketeers. In the novel, the protagonist is able to contact the devil because of information hidden in four editions of the same 17th century book. Each edition has one illustrative plate that is slightly different from the rest. As information, the individual plates have no meaning. Taken as contextualized whole, they allow communion with the devil. It is interesting that the movie based on this novel (The Ninth Gate, starring Johnny Depp), which was marketed to a much broader audience, cut out almost all of the plot unrelated to the occult, dramatically reducing the scope of the work.
Rupert Giles is the school librarian in the incredible successful TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was based on the cult movie classic by the same name. Although technically a school librarian, he spends much of his time researching occult issues for the teens involved in vampire slaying. He does this with a collection of rare books not generally found in school libraries, and, in fact, put very little effort into his actual job. The information he finds, although for the “good” side, is inherently dangerous and associated with evil.
The library in The Name of the Rose is labyrinthine and dangerous to both the body and the soul. Although many monks deal with individual books, only the librarian has access to the whole. A monk who attempted to retrieve a work denied to him by the keeper almost lost his mind. The images in this novel speak to both the view of the library as dangerous, and to the difference between information (as contained in the single volumes) and knowledge (found in the library as a whole).
It is interesting that although The Foundation Trilogy is set far in the future, its image of a library focuses on hidden knowledge from the past. This is somewhat of an exception for science fiction, which tends to focus on information rather than knowledge, particularly when the topic has to do with retrieval. In this portrayal, although a single bit of information is sought, in order to make sense of it and be able to use it, it is necessary to understand the historical context involved.
The majority of the presented portrayals relate more to the underlying concept of knowledge as dangerous than they do to the stereotypical presentation of librarians. Although not obviously of use when discussing the stereotype, they provide invaluable background to the forces underlying the stereotype. It is only through understanding these forces that it is possible to come to a complete understanding of the stereotype, which is necessary to facilitate either dismantling or accepting it.
With so much hidden power behind it, it is unlike that simply increasing advertising showing librarians in a positive light will have a significant effect. If the only issue were the views of the public of a particularly profession, this would absolutely be an effective strategy. It is unlikely, however that simply advertising will change the stereotype of librarians when it ties to issues that run so much deeper. This is a critical issue that needs to be addressed on many levels so that we do not end up in a society like that in the Giver, devoid of compassion and cut off from knowledge and understanding of our past and our selves.
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