Columns > Published on January 23rd, 2013

Library Love : The Sexy Librarian And Our Collective Imagination

There’s no use denying it: men and women alike are familiar with the image of the sexy librarian. If you’d like to conduct some research on the subject, I recommend you start with two arenas: fashion and porn. In my view, nowhere else can you get such a clearly defined image of the stereotype.

Let’s look at porn. (!) A search for “librarian” on your favorite porn site typically results in a few consistent themes: dark hair (often pinned up), white skin, glasses, short skirts, ladders. The sexy librarian in porn is authoritative, and the unleashing of her sexuality is a big part of the, uh, process. She has no qualms about sex in the stacks. (Nor do the patrons, if YouPorn is any indication.)

When she’s not busy staring into the camera, fashion’s sexy librarian spends her time reading, drinking coffee, and shelving books. Sometimes she rides a bike. A great place to explore the sexy librarian in fashion is on Pinterest. This site exists for reasons I cannot fully comprehend, but it is full of “Sexy Librarian” boards compiled by the site’s overwhelmingly female membership. A few themes emerge: pencil skirts, glasses, Oxford pumps, updos, cardigans, and Zooey Deschanel.

This media-centered view of the stereotype reveals a consistent image which doesn’t quite match librarian reality. The question now is where did the sexy librarian come from?

Ancient History

There is always something to be said about a profession that has been around for a long time. Just think about it: members of the Roman Empire surely had a mental stereotype about lawyers, just as we do today. Was it based entirely on fact? Speaking of Ancient Rome, did you know that many people attribute the burning of the Royal Library of Alexandria to Julius Caesar?

Thanks a lot, Gaius.

We discard the de-sexualizing elements of the stereotype and retain elements of authority. The result is a sexualized power image that clearly appeals to both men and women.

I digress. But my point is this: certain stereotypes are not new. Doctors, nurses, lawyers, politicians, teachers, writers, professors, librarians – we’ve been around the block enough times for our stereotypes to have lives of their own. Typically, they are 100% gendered, even though times have changed and the whole women’s liberation movement thing happened. Women can be doctors and men can be nurses, but do a Google Image search for “nurse” and see how many of the images are of men. Our stereotypes are sexist.

And that brings us to librarians.

Librarians have been around as long as there have been libraries, but women entered the workforce en masse in the late 1800’s. Perhaps it was the much smaller salary we received compared to our male librarian counterparts (or just some bad fashion sense), but the stereotype of the middle-aged, frumpy, spinster librarian with her hair in a bun has been with us ever since. Christine Lutz’s Master’s thesis on librarian stereotypes traces how librarians and their (mostly male) administrators have dealt with this image problem for the last one hundred years. The typical “fix” was to hire young, attractive women and promote them in library literature and marketing.

At this point, I believe, the dichotomy emerges. Let’s consider what the librarian and library represent. Librarians are role models for scholarship and behavior. In public libraries, they are stand-ins for teachers and enforce a certain level of quiet and restraint with young patrons. In academic libraries, they are sometimes seen as the embodiment of knowledge.  A fascinating article by Gary and Marie Radford equates libraries with prisons and librarians with guards. They see the library as an environment of fear, in which surveillance and control are a constant, and the librarian is in a position to deny and humiliate the patron.

I think the enduring power of the librarian stereotype and her role in the collective sexual imagination draws from this place in the psyche. We discard the de-sexualizing elements of the stereotype (frumpiness, old age) and retain elements of authority (conservative work “uniform”, glasses). The result is a sexualized power image that clearly appeals to both men and women.

Real Librarians

Librarians are more than aware of the frumpy and sexy librarian stereotypes, and spend plenty of time in graduate school bewailing them. It doesn’t help that stereotypes exist in fantasy, and librarians’ objections are rooted in reality. Librarians would like to see a stereotype reflective of the diversity (racial, sexual, gender) embraced by the profession, which is unlikely. There is also an overwhelming objection to the frumpy spinster stereotype, and any time it is reinforced, the profession collectively groans. The librarian action figure, which was modeled after real-life librarian Nancy Pearl, elicited such a response.

Some librarians have taken matters into their own hands and presented their own image of the sexy librarian… in calendar form. There’s Tattooed Librarians of the Pacific Northwest, Tattooed Ladies of the Texas Library Association, Tattooed Youth Librarians of Massachusetts (do we spot a theme here?), and my favorite, Men of the Stacks. These calendars enjoy a mostly internal audience (aside from Men of the Stacks, which received an enormous amount of national attention). They are effective in that it's useful for librarians to remind ourselves that the “face” of our profession is constantly changing. But do they actually combat stereotypes? In my mind, no.

I agree with the Radfords that the library’s underlying power structure is what gives form to the sexy librarian stereotype. She manifests differently based on medium (porn, fashion, etc.), but her overall qualities are the same. Is this a problem? I don’t think so. I would much rather work in a profession that has a place in the collective imagination than in one that doesn’t (sexy financial analyst, anyone?). And just because someone watches librarian porn doesn’t mean they automatically sexualize all librarians; we don’t deal with a disproportionate amount of sexual harassment from our patrons. As for fashion, I think media portrayal of women in professional and educational settings is always a good thing.

No conflict here.

About the author

Stephanie Bonjack is an academic librarian based in Boulder, Colorado. She teaches the relentless pursuit of information, and illuminates the path to discovery. She has presented at national and international library conferences, and is especially interested in how libraries evolve to serve the needs of 21st century patrons. When she’s not sleuthing in the stacks, she enjoys chasing her toddler across wide open spaces.

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