The image of the librarian Past, present and future

We all recognize the librarian stereotype. The caricature that shows a woman, not especially young, probably a spinster, wellread, humourless, sensibly but boringly dressed – probably in a tweed skirt, cardigan, comfortable shoes, old-fashioned spectacles (with a neck cord), stern expression and always saying ‘shush’. We all recognize the librarian stereotype. The caricature that shows a woman, not especially young, probably a spinster, wellread, humourless, sensibly but boringly dressed – probably in a tweed skirt, cardigan, comfortable shoes, old-fashioned spectacles (with a neck cord), stern expression and always saying ‘shush’.

From cardigans…

This stereotype is common in newspapers and magazines and often features in literature and films. A recent example in current literature can be found in Denise Mina’s novel The Dead Hour (2006): “The clippings library was a pocket of calm order in the chaos of the newspaper. Helen, the chief librarian, dressed like a real librarian would, in tweed pencil skirts and jerseys. Her glasses hung on a red beaded chain around her neck.” Just why female librarians have become a favourite motive for caricaturists is a matter for speculation. Could it possibly be that women are rewarding subjects of ridicule? Or is it simply because the profession is dominated by women?

The profession of librarianship has a long tradition. (Remember Alexandria). But it was first during the early 20th century that women were able to gain employment as librarians. Prior to that, men monopolized the profession. The male librarian has never, however, been subject to stereotyping the way female librarians have.

Admittedly the male librarian has occasionally been represented as geeky, or tired and reclusive, or, in a more modern variant, a hip person with a pony tail. But none of these stereotypes have had the same impact as the image of the woman in the tweed skirt.Male librarians have been overshadowed by the ‘the real librarian’.

Another limitation of this stereotype is that it one-sidedly reflects Anglo-American cultural values. The existence of female librarians in African or Asian libraries doesn’t appear to have registered with caricaturists. Of course the climate in these countries is hardly conducive to the wearing of woollen skirts and cardigans. That’s one explanation. Another more probable explanation is that an overly nuanced caricature becomes conventional and thus less humorous.

Generally speaking, the profession is not overly receptive to an image that communicates a misleading representation of libraries and librarians. Efforts have been made to correct, modify and modernize this image, albeit without noteworthy success. The stereotype has proven to be tenacious and endures despite fashion trends. Clothing styles and fashion trends change but the image of the female librarian remains the same.

… to overalls

When a new generation of librarians stormed into Swedish libraries during the early 1970s they were quick to discard pumps, woollen skirts and cardigans. The important thing was relating to patrons. This meant, among other things, dressing in flannel work shirts, beak boots, overalls and other clothing styles associated with the work ethos. Swedish libraries teemed with proletarians. To what degree Swedish workers appreciated this has never been investigated. There is however documentation showing that workers constituted a minority among library visitors. The overalls have since disappeared. If one were looking for a reliable indication of current fashion trends among librarians, the Swedish Library Association’s Annual Meeting or other library conferences would be a logical place to start. These are hardly the type of events a caricaturist would attend – and if he did, the chances of meeting a librarian in a tweed skirt would be minimal.

In these days of globalization an international perspective is perhaps judicious; for instance the fashion styles displayed by IFLA’s female delegates. Not a tweed skirt in sight. Rather, the tendency is towards exclusive brand name garments. The fact that elegance is more in evidence than ever reflects, perhaps, a rise in the status of the profession. Subtle fashion details allow conclusions to be drawn regarding nationality. I refer here to delegates from same cultural spheres; for instance Western European countries, the United States or other Western Countries.

Delegates from non-Western Countries differ dramatically. The female delegates from various African countries are often clothed in stylish, colourful robes; the Indian delegates in elegant silk saris, while delegates from Muslim countries tend more towards a more discreet, dark voluminous garb. In short, the stereotype librarian is rare in real life – nationally or internationally.


The technological developments that have had such a dramatic impact on library activity should, reasonably enough, have even contributed positively to the general image of libraries and librarians.

Libraries have been quick to adopt the new technology. Technological competence has developed in step with ICT advances. In many places it is the library that is in the forefront in using information technology and techniques. The new technology embodies the new future – the new recipe for success. Tradition-bound institutions like libraries have a fairly low hip-factor. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the technological advances in libraries have contributed to modifying the image of the library as book collecting institutions and only that.

The profession has, in any case, been quick to realize the potential of new information technologies and to adopt them as a way of updating the image of the library. The efforts made in this respect have often been of a semantic character. It’s a well-known method: changing the name of something in the hope of replacing a negative connotation with a positive association. During the 1980’s expressions such as ‘information specialist’ began to appear. In articles in the trade press it wasn’t uncommon to come across assertions such as: “Librarians have to move up and become information specialists or they can move out”.

New appellations flourished. Titles such as Knowledge Manager, Knowledge Resources Specialist, Electronic Resources Coordinator, Content Manager, Interface Specialist, etc., endeavour to displace the word Librarian. The designation Cybrarian is, so far, probably the most innovative of these and about as far as you can get from the stereotype of a librarian in a tweed skirt.


Even the very word Library has been displaced by more dynamic and modern terms. Many libraries display new signs calling themselves ‘Mediatek’ or ‘Infotek’. New designations are rapidly introduced: dot.com Library, e-brary, Digital Library or Library Without Walls. In Great Britain the establishment of ‘Idea Stores’ has become popular. Library associations have succumbed to the temptation of renewing themselves by changing names. The illustrious Library Association based in London is now called the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP). Other library associations have removed the word library from their logotype.

So far, these efforts haven’t made a noticeable difference. But it does take time to change fundamental perceptions. The question arises as to whether the efforts to combat a stereotype stand in reasonable proportion to the results. Is it possible to eliminate such a deeprooted image? Why not do the opposite by turning the caricaturists’ own weapon against them and transforming the caricature into a trademark.

Certainly, the stereotype exudes a sort of propriety that borders on the boring. But the image of ‘the real librarian’ does actually communicate a positive message: a sense of knowledge, reliability, quality and tradition.

It is certainly true that to a certain extent libraries have lost their monopoly as information brokers thanks to the rise of the Internet and search motors like Google. These days, most people – even students and researchers – search for their own information. In many places the pressure on library reference desks has lessened. But in an age of information overload, the librarian will in all likelihood still be a key person.

So, let us recognize the positive aspect of the stereotype and use it. Professional competence certainly doesn’t reside in a cardigan or spectacles with a neck cord. But, if these superficial attributes communicate a sense of professional competence then we’d be foolish not to take advantage of the situation. Besides, the image is quite funny.

Barbro Thomas

Translated by Greg Church