Shushing the Librarian Stereotype

March 2, 2015 |
University of Arizona Research and Learning Librarians Cindy Elliott (left) and Nicole Pagowsky (right) explore librarian stereotypes at Confluencenter's Show & Tell event on March 11. photo: Jamie Manser

University of Arizona Research and Learning Librarians Cindy Elliott (left) and Nicole Pagowsky (right) explore librarian stereotypes at Confluencenter’s Show & Tell event on March 11.
photo: Jamie Manser/Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry

They are classic scenes in the 1984 film “Ghostbusters.” One is the opener with the grandmotherly librarian who gets the bejeezus scared out of her by the “free-roaming, vaporous, full torso apparition” haunting the New York Public Library. The other scene is with that ghost, who seems to also have been a librarian in her earthly life, shushing the Ghostbusters when they try to ask her questions while she is reading; she then terrorizes and chases them off when they don’t comply with her request to be quiet.

With the comedic team of Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis as the main focus, it is easy to gloss over the ghostly librarian typecast as an elderly white woman who wears her grey hair in a bun, shushes people and then turns monstrous when she’s not obeyed. It’s every little kid’s nightmare. But, let’s stop a minute, pull back for the wide angle perspective and look through a different lens.

If you are a librarian, the depiction probably touches a nerve because “Ghostbusters” certainly isn’t the only movie that perpetuates the stereotype.

“It’s everywhere,” says University of Arizona Research and Learning Librarian Nicole Pagowsky.

“It is everywhere,” agrees Cindy Elliott, also a Research and Learning Librarian at the UA.

“Especially in the media, the stereotypes are in everything from cartoons up into popular films, and television shows. Music, all kinds of things,” Elliott shares.

The three of us are chatting at the UA Main Library in mid-February, digging into the enduring and erroneous images often associated with librarians. The persistent portrayals and the implications will be shared, “in a fun way,” by Pagowsky and Elliott at Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry’s Show & Tell – a multimedia learning experience – on Wednesday, March 11.

Pagowsky, who is the co-editor of “The Librarian Stereotype: Deconstructing Perceptions and Presentations of Information Work,” imparts that her interest in examining the formulaic librarian representations stems from a curiosity about how these stereotypes affect the diversity of the profession, along with how librarians are perceived.

“The profession is over 85 percent white and over 80 percent women,” Pagowsky says. “A lot of it is because this stereotype is out there that we’re old white women or sexy white women. It’s not even necessarily, ‘Oh, I’m not sexy, I can’t go into it,’ it’s more like, ‘I’m not white’ or ‘I don’t fit into this demographic.’”

“And it’s damaging because if you don’t fit into that, you don’t see yourself in that role,” Elliott adds. “If you don’t see yourself represented there, you may not feel like ‘That’s for me.’ So that’s part of it too, we work really hard to try to recruit people from all types of backgrounds because it adds to our diversity. We need that to reflect what is going on with society.”

“And also with serving a diverse campus,” Pagowsky shares, “to just have a bunch of the same people with the same perspective developing our services, and our instruction and our interfaces and everything…”

“You want to recruit people from various backgrounds,” Elliott elucidates, “because it reflects our academic community and it reflects the community we live in.”

Along with dispelling the white, female dominated stereotype, Pagowsky also works to dismantle the idea of what librarians are supposed to wear through her blog “Of course being female dominated, (the stereotypes are) focused on how we look. Which is another issue.”

Elliott adds that “it is weird and interesting, how fashion is very tied to the way someone perceives a librarian, so that blog that Nicole has is great. It shows that there’s a wide variety of people.”

In addition to dispelling mythologies surrounding the surface aspects of what librarians look like during the Show & Tell presentation, Pagowsky and Elliott will also share the exciting assortment of work and research librarians do at UA. Some are archivists in Special Collections, dealing with rarities like space dirt and a vaudeville collection; another librarian helps people on campus deal with and understand copyright issues. There are also health sciences librarians who do community outreach and librarians who work in student retention and campus outreach.

Pagowsky sums up the goal of the Show & Tell presentation, her scholarly work and website by saying, “It’s to show that there’s not really one way that we all look. People dress differently, people work at all different types of libraries, there’s all types of people that are librarians.”

The free Show & Tell presentation, “Shushing the Librarian Stereotype,” is on Wednesday, March 11 at Playground Bar & Lounge, 278 E. Congress St., at 6 p.m. More details are available at or by calling 621-4587.

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