“…librarians are the madams pimping their books”

As promised this post will provide a rest from all those celebrity librarians although they will be back for a couple more weeks when we look at the careers of Casanova and Philip Larkin. This week though I will help bring you not up to date with just why librarians can get so touchy about their the lack of respect shown their profession.

In the About page for this blog I mentioned that much of the raw material for the original prospective book came from various publication and websites all vigorously defending the image of the poor maligned librarian in the face of what they saw as disrespectful and damaging stereotyping especially in books and films but also on television and in adverts. If anyone was looking for cheap joke at the expense of a hapless loser or a petty and officious authority figure or for unassuming and insignificant they would use a librarian as a convenient shorthand that everyone would understand. As I have said I always found the response to this a bit tiresome but to be fair if you look at some of the examples that will appear later in the blog you can see why some get so upset…it’s still tedious though.

Briefly and just in case you are still unaware of the librarian stereotype about which my colleagues complain so vociferously, you may for example have just returned from many decades of self-imposed exile on a remote pacific atoll or opted for total immersion in the fantasy world that is Facebook it is, to be fair, a pretty demoralising stereotype that few other professions have had to endure; doctors, for example are always in clean white coats with stethoscopes and nurses in crisp uniforms even if occasionally they are unfeasibly short and the necklines provocatively low. For women librarians the image is more often than not a tweed skirt, twin set and pearls and preferably hair in a bun and always thick spectacles. For men it is invariable a tweed jacket barely hiding a tank top with optional remnants of several day’s breakfasts. It may be 2015 in your world but in the minds of c-list creatives it is still 1954 for librarians. For example if you searched for an image of a librarian in Clipart before it was pensioned off this is what you would get.

Clipart LibrarianThis is the look I referred to as a cross between Miss Trunchbull and Miss Marple. The women are always overbearingly dominant and aggressive whilst the men are insignificant or vindictive or both and he is most accurately portrayed by Ronnie Corbett in the execrable TV comedy Sorry and both tend be shorthand for bitter and unfulfilled lives. It is a stereotype that is invariably painted in a palate that runs from beige to grey. Like this rather cruel advert from Canon showing how just a little colour copying can spruce up anything apart from a librarian!Canon AdvertHow we laughed. Or this when brilliant cartoonist Steve Bell was looking for a way to satirise the woeful John Major’s attempts to hang tough after the Chinese reclaimed Hong Kong.

SteveBell Cartoon

Yes I know outrageous. How dare he claim that we would ever allow someone like John Major into the library profession!

At the heart of this though as always is the problem that like all stereotypes this image might be outdated and misplaced but it almost certainly contains enough of a kernel of truth for people to instantly get the reference. And of course despite their protestations librarians are often their own worst enemy.

Philip Larkin’s sardonic reflection on his first public library post that he would be “handing out tripey novels to morons” could have been a view shared by many librarians of that post-war era who saw themselves as guardians of an intellectual treasure trove that had to be protected from uncultured workers for use by those more worthy. They were the killjoys who vindictively cut the racing pages out of library newspapers upsetting not only the keen punters but also those readers who didn’t read that sort of stuff but disliked having the middle cut out of the crossword over the page. In another act of remarkable foot shooting library staff in the 1960’s asked to be excused from handling Lady Chatterley’s Lover when Penguin were eventually allowed to publish it after the celebrated obscenity trial, for fear, presumably, of being contaminated by its grubby contents by some curious osmotic process. If you want to see this period brilliantly sent up see if you can find the Hancock epsode set in a library called The Last Page.

More recently there was the man from New York, Stan Friedman who sat sit in a recliner for more than 29 hours and watched endless sports on large-screen television to win an Ultimate Couch Potato Competition. He claimed his secret was superior bladder control as well as all the time he spends sitting doing thousands of online searches in his 12 years as a librarian! But that pales into insignificance by comparison with a radio news report I caught in 2010. Graham Barker a 45-year-old from Perth, Australia had earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records and sold his record winning collection to a museum for an undisclosed sum. “The raw material is worthless” he said “but as a unique world record collection and a piece of cultural heritage, of debatable merit, it has some curiosity value”. Mr Barker said he had come across a handful of collectors but none had taken their hobby to such lengths. He explained: “One guy might have persisted, but he got married and his wife ordered him to stop.” Over several years Barker had amassed several clear jars worth grams of lint from his belly button fluff! Let’s just think about this for a minute; someone not only saved his own belly button fluff for years but then felt it was worth donating to a museum and then the museum decided to accept it and to put it up for The Guinness Book of World Records. Oh yes I almost forgot. Graham was a librarian.

From those examples it is not difficult to see how easy it would be for commentators to view the librarian as an easy target for casual effrontery usually in pursuit of cheap laughs on say slow news days when no new wars have been started no royal babies have been announced and all the politicians have gone to the Caribbean for their holidays. Some years ago David Stafford writing for The Guardian, in the wake of another vacuous policy statement on libraries by Government, offered his own endorsement of libraries. ”Never mind how often people change their underwear, the test of a truly civilised culture is how often they change their library books”. “Librarians” he suggests “do battle with the amorphous chaos of human knowledge, understanding, passion myth and mess and subdue it to a state of submissive and accessible order”. But of course he can’t leave it at that can he and goes on to argue that sadly they fall short of his vision of perfection because of their enthusiasm for “exercise sandals and grey, cable knit, sleeveless woollies” he even goes so far as to say “bookshops are to libraries what prostitution is to true love” before realising that this is an analogy that is best left alone and goes off on a vaguely droll riff about how supermarkets could be better arranged by the Dewey Decimal Classification which is a dreadful idea because it would make the quinoa even harder to find than it is to pronounce correctly.

Dulcie Domum wrote a long running Guardian column about the “bonkbuster” she was writing, a word, incidentally, she coined to describe the breeze block sized bodice rippers that were fashionable at the time and indeed still are. As the story and the column neared its end and a previous age of austerity dawned her editor insisted she toned down the finale of the wedding of the heroine to a filthy rich banker. In ironic protest she had her heroine marry a librarian. Ha Ha! Also in The Guardian a few years later in a usually amusing filler column entitled How to…. they ran How to Use a Library which managed to poke fun at libraries but in what the author must have thought was an affectionate as well as entertaining manner. The opening line for example was a classic right up there with “Libraries make us free”. It said “Libraries are brothels for the mind…librarians are the madams pimping their books”.That’s rubbish” he continues “but it does wonders for the image of librarians”. So with that generous thought he presumed it was then all right to go on patronising librarians for all he was worth with observations about mobile libraries having to drive slowly so the books don’t fall off the shelves and how they could block your drive until you bring back your overdue books. It also included metaphysical conundrums such as would the large print version of 100 years of Solitude only last 40 years and pensioners, the author mused, use libraries like junkies use dealers reading an entire library in a year once they get hooked on Barbara Taylor Bradford and move on to harder stuff like Maeve Binchy.

But of course that was at attempt to be supportive. Not everyone is so measured and you can see the point of those from the provisional wing of the library profession who get so upset about the use of casual damaging stereotyping of librarians when you read those articles that are neither patronising nor supportive just gratuitously unpleasant. Sometimes it is nothing more than lazy journalists or clueless marketing and PR people who use this pre-existing image of the librarian as easy shorthand with its ready-made set of assumptions, visual prompts and general baggage that enables them to create a vivid impression instantly and with the minimum of back story to win cheap laughs.

The Sunday Correspondent was a short lived UK newspaper which barely survived a year between 1989 and 1990 but in its brief life still managed bizarrely to include a guide to careers in libraries. This was in the filler section at the end entitled Rear View that magazines use to fill the final couple of pages rather than pay yet another features writer to write 250 vaguely amusing words about their wedding/divorce/children/affairs or simply to ponder on the great mysteries of life such as why blokes are so useless or if the columnist happened to be a bloke why they are so terrorised by their wives/partners/colleagues. The feature was one of a series  on careers meant to be less a helpful guide to your future prosperity and happiness more a source of cheap laughs at all those not hip enough to be lawyers, doctors or even journalists. It didn’t take long after a deceptively proper introduction to the qualifications required for a librarian to seek lazy refuge in pointing out that the personal qualities required would rule out anyone unable to go “shhh” and that our appearance would include Hush Puppies, nylon shirts, suits worn with jumpers and Dr Scholl sandals(1). After that the piece deteriorated into the kind of calculated cruelty that small boys use on small helpless creatures The irregular hours included “operating half day closing immediately on sighting an old age pensioner struggling with a walking frame and eight overdue large print Catherine Cooksons”…. and “Librarians are sadists who resort to levying fines because they lack the facility to conduct public executions” and to demonstrate the kind of insightful and original piece journalism characterised by cutting edge wit that The Correspondent hoped would win it a new urbane and sophisticated audience the writer revealing that the Librarians’ motto was hilariously “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”. I am sure there is no link between the appearance of this small comic masterpiece and the demise of The Sunday Correspondent a few months later but of course we may wear tan tights and crusty tank tops but we also pick which newspapers, many that still retain their racing pages, are purchased for hundreds of libraries all over the country.

Of course there are hundreds of other examples of how librarians have been portrayed in popular culture that fuel the ire of proud and passionate librarians and many of them will feature in future blogs (2) but first in the next few weeks just a few more posts about the two remaining celebrity librarians that I want to bring to your attention. One was a librarian obssessed with sex in several varieties who kept several women dangling on a stringand committing to none of them, the other is Casanova whom we will look at next.

(1)Having always consider this a gross calumny against librarians, or possible Dr Scholl sandals or both I was perturbed to find out some years later that one of my more progressive colleagues admitted that she decided to become a librarian when she was about 10 years old because she loved the Dr Scholl sandals that her local librarian wore !

(2) If you are interested one of the better explorations of this has been done by Ruth A Neale as both article and a book. Try  http://www.librarian-image.net



1 Comment

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One response to ““…librarians are the madams pimping their books”

  1. slpatalong

    In my defence I was only 4, not 10 and I was equally influenced by the local library, which happened to be the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne. The perfect shoes in the perfect environment. But I take your point.


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