More than Just Books: Perceptions of Librarians as Tech Workers

More than Just Books: Perceptions of Librarians as Tech Workers

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4735-0.ch008
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This chapter explores popular images of librarians. Such images provide librarians with insight into how the general public understands their work. But by focusing on how librarians themselves react to these images, deeper insight is gained into how librarians understand their professional identity. When librarians engage with popular representations of their profession, they bring different understandings and meaning to the image than the general public. This understanding is the product of the professional education and their experiences as a profession. As they interact with the representation, they express and make sense of their professional identities. This chapter focuses on three images of the profession: Bunny Watson from Desk Set, Rupert Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Vox NY-114 from The Time Machine. Librarians have generally reacted very positively to these images. Bunny is seen as stereotype-shattering, Giles is understood to portray librarians as heroes, and Vox is celebrated for being the compendium of all human knowledge. The popular stereotype of librarians rarely includes them interacting with technology, and the professional literature often focuses on how inaccurate this portrayal is. Librarians clearly understand themselves to have a closer relationship with technology than the stereotype allows.
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A teenage girl walks into her school library. She’s new to the school and looking for textbooks. A middle-aged man, wearing a tweed suit and glasses, asks with a British accent: “Miss Summers?” The teenager, Buffy Summers, looks shocked and wonders if she is the only new student at Sunnydale High School. The man introduces himself: “I’m Mr. Giles ... the librarian.” Before Buffy can tell Giles what information she is seeking, Giles says, “I know what you’re after,” and pulls out a book entitled Vampyr. This is a scene from the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Buffy) (Whedon and Smith, 1997). Buffy Summers is one of a long line of “chosen ones” who are mystically selected to protect the world from vampires and demons. Rupert Giles is Buffy’s Watcher. His job is to help Buffy in her quest to protect the world by training her and providing research support when she is unsure who, or what, it is she is fighting. Buffy was a cult hit television show that aired from 1997 to 2003. During this time, Giles was the only consistent popular representation of a librarian on television. How librarians have been depicted in popular culture has been an object of some discussion within the LIS literature (Luthmann, 2007). Popular images of the profession provide librarians with insight into how the general public understands the role of librarians within society, but a closer examination of how librarians themselves react to these popular images can provide insight into how librarians understand their own identities. Using examples of popular images of librarians, this chapter will explore the question of the professional identity of librarians and their relationship with technology. How do popular images of librarians compliment or contradict the professional identity librarians possess? What do popular images of librarians tell the profession about how library users understand the role of the librarian?

The intent here is not to examine every representation of librarians in popular culture, nor is the intent to try and demonstrate that librarians do not in fact fit the stereotype. Even the most cursory look at images of librarians in film, television, and books demonstrates that librarians are common characters in stories. Who can forget Marion from The Music Man or Evelyn “Evie” Carnahan from The Mummy films? Librarians even have their own action figure (which has apparently out-sold the Jesus action figure on the manufacturer’s website [Kneale, 2009]), sitcom (The Librarians from the Australian Broadcasting Company), and comic strips and books (Unshelved and Self Check to name but two). Instead, this chapter will examine three images of the profession from television and film that offer examples of librarians who interact with technology, and in one case is itself a piece of technology: Bunny Watson (played by Katherine Hepburn) in the 1957 film Desk Set, Rupert Giles (played by Anthony Stewart Head) from the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Vox NY-114, a computer-generated virtual librarian played by Orlando Jones, from The Time Machine (2002). Although there are perhaps more current examples of librarians within popular culture (Megan Mullally’s Tammy Swanson from Parks and Recreation or Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony, for instance), the three case studies that Bunny Watson, Rupert Giles, and Vox NY-114 offer are examples of fictional librarians directly interacting with technology. This will be followed with an examination on how librarians have reacted to these representations. The majority of the comments included in this study were written within the past 15 years. As such, they give us some insight into how contemporary librarians make meaning out of popular representations of their profession–even when those representations are over 50 years old. The reaction of librarians to Bunny, Giles, and Vox provides insight into how the profession describes its own identity. All three characters are, for the most part, understood to positively represent the profession and counteract prevailing stereotypes. In the case of Bunny and Vox, their close relationship to technology is considered to be part of their positive portrayals, to the degree that their more negative qualities are completely overlooked. Even Giles’s technophobia is overlooked by those who regard him as a positive image. Next, the discussion will extend into a broader look at how librarians as a profession react to popular images and what this means for understanding their professional identity, especially as it relates to the role of technology.

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