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Pantsuits, pink and the power of the librarian by Alexandra Yarrow

September 14, 2011

Alexandra Jane Yarrow is a librarian at the Ottawa Public Library. She’s also a college instructor, blogger, recovering poet, and a voracious reader sitting on a tremendous oeuvre of (99%) unpublished fiction and poetry from her high school and university years (and wondering if she should get back into those fields).  Visit Alexandra’s site at

I don’t say this often, when asked, because it generally lends a tone of excessive sincerity to most cocktail parties, but I fell into my chosen profession because of a fervent belief in the ability of education and reading to dispel ignorance, and therefore prejudice.   I want to tell you about the librarian stereotype, but I’m preaching to the converted because, as Naipaul reminds me, there is also the female writer stereotype.

The librarian stereotype, if you are not familiar with it, is the bun-wearing, bespectacled, sharp-edged shushing spinster, the woman Donna Reid’s character in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life would have been had she not married Jimmy Stewart’s George. There has been much backlash within my profession, most markedly in recent years, against this stereotype (see particularly The Hollywood Librarian and You Don’t Look Like a Librarian). While I applaud these efforts, I sometimes think there is a jagged edge of self hatred hiding in this discourse, mixed with generous portions each of anxiety and self-congratulation: we seek to distance ourselves so much from the stereotype that we go around boasting about how we love noise in the library, how we hate the smell of old books, and, goodness, we would never own a cat or wear glasses. See, look, we have tattoos. We like to make music videos.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like tattoos. I also like cats, and the smell of old books. I enjoy both quiet and noisy libraries, depending on my mood. I’m multifaceted, as are any librarians … and as are any human beings. So why can’t we seem to shake the dehumanisation of the librarian?

Librarianship is a female-dominated profession. Ironically, I grew up in a household where my mother blazed a trail in a male-dominated one – the priesthood within the Anglican Church of Canada. I suppose I subconsciously thought I would walk an easier path in my profession. In some ways, I do: I am blessed with incredible women for mentors, and I am astounded every day by their strength, creativity, passion and commitment to improving the profession. In a world that overwhelmingly still struggles with these concepts, we are challenging what it means to be a woman, to wear pink, or a skirt, and still be the senior person in the boardroom (see – Hilary Clinton’s pantsuits; see also – Barbara Ehrenreich on breast cancer’s “pink kitch”).

I know that all around me are men and women, my fellow librarians, who daily provide “universal access to the universe of ideas” (thank you, Windsor Public Library) in varied communities (in cities and towns, schools and universities, government and businesses). Despite obvious passion, however, many librarians are terrible advocates for our profession. We are only now discovering the elevator speech and learning to build business cases. These are issues symptomatic of a profession that attracts introverts, which doesn’t help us escape our stereotype any faster. We’re out there fighting for the big things: intellectual freedom, fair copyright, equitable access to information for all people, multiple literacies, and, of course, the love of reading. Yet we are still too often portrayed as gate-keeping pushers of print media who are obsessed with the Dewey Decimal System.

To what extent does the librarian stereotype have its roots in the fear of women in positions of power, women who are guardians of literature and learning, women who question the status quo, women fighting for a cause, women who want to make a difference? That’s a far too tangled web to un-weave (for more on this, read “Power, Knowledge, and Fear: Feminism, Foucault, and the Stereotype of the Female Librarian” in the July 1997 issue of The Library Quarterly), but I think it’s safe to say that the easiest way to try to minimise the impact of a powerful force is to try to undermine its credibility. What I really struggle with, though, is that often we don’t do ourselves any favours: in an attempt to dispel one stereotype, we’re often simply constructing another, a cartoonish riotgrrrl librarian who can’t be taken any more seriously than Marian the Librarian.


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