Information professionals as Action Figures and Reality show characters. What’s next … a Nude Librarian Calendar? Yes!

Breaking the mold: information professionals as Action Figures and Reality show characters. What’s next … a Nude Librarian Calendar? Yes!

Elyse Kroll

The Hottest Job Around

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Corporate Librarian is a Hot Job for 2003/2004. But that’s not all. From music to movies, from action figures to nude calendars, information professionals are tweaking their image and getting a lot of attention–and in the most surprising places.

A few years ago in New York City, on a disturbingly warm December evening, a group of moviegoers tried to conjure up the Christmas spirit by attending a public screening of It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra’s perennial holiday classic. While it is decidedly a period piece at this point, it has managed to remain relevant, and in many ways still feels fresh. That is, with one memorable exception-the infamous library scene.

You probably remember it: Clarence the angel offers suicidally dejected George Bailey a glimpse of how much worse off the world would be had he never been born, culminating with the horrifying revelation that if not for George, Mary Hatch would have wound up not just an old maid, but-horror of horrors–a librarian to boot! This moment triggered a huge laugh from the audience, a laugh that was probably not intended when the film was made in 1946. Unlike so much of the film, the stereotype of the old-maid librarian clearly had not withstood the test of time.

If anything, the image of the librarian has been revamped and modernized over the past few decades, as has the job itself. Once considered one of the few professions suitable for women, along with teaching and nursing, corporate librarianship is now one of the hottest jobs around. In a widely reported study conducted by the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., the position of Corporate Librarian is named one of the top three hot jobs for 2004, with an average salary of $60,000 to $65,000 per year (http://money.cnn.com/2003/08/28/pf/saving/hotjobsnow/index.htm). The study concluded that the demand for employees with library science degrees extends far beyond the corporate sector; government agencies, law firms, advertising agencies, museums, medical centers, research laboratories, and professional associations are all clamoring for librarians. And there’s nothing hotter than being in demand.

SLA Executive Director Janice R. Lachance remarked, “In every sector of the economy, the powers that be recognize the value that information professionals bring to their organizations. The myriad of top-notch professional development and networking opportunities that SLA offers have a direct connection to that value. The Challenger, Gray & Christmas findings are significant because they confirm that the expertise of corporate librarians is in very high demand.”

The study also supports findings by the Special Libraries Association. Data in SLA’s 2003 Salary Survey (released October 2003) confirm that the average SLA member’s salary is $61,522 (average in Canada $61,959 CDN), with the highest average salaries in New England at $66,179. (The highest average in Canada was Ontario, at $63,449 CDN.) Furthermore, a study conducted by SLA in 1999 revealed that 85 percent of companies ranked in the top 100 of the Fortune 500 list had libraries and information centers, compared to 50 percent of the companies ranked in the bottom 100.

In December, a Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., report projected that even with the outsourcing of many jobs to different countries, there will be a lot of U.S. jobs opening up from 2000 to 2010. In fact, they are projecting 111,000 job openings for corporate librarians in that period.

“For years, we have promoted the fact that information professionals play a pivotal role in gathering, organizing and coordinating access to the best available information sources for their organizations. Global organizations are realizing that there is a critical need for turning external information and internal intellectual capital into reliable and accessible knowledge, which in turn contributes directly to the organization’s on-going learning, decisionmaking, and most importantly, bottom line revenue. This creation of usable knowledge can only be achieved by hiring qualified information professionals,” remarked SLA President Cynthia V. Hill.

From Old Maids to Superheroes

Nearly 60 years ago, Capra’s portrait of Mary Hatch as a brittle, bespectacled old maid was probably taken seriously; a cautionary tale of what can become of a young woman who chooses to spend her time among books rather than in pursuit of a husband. Fast-forward 20 years to the introduction of DC Comics’ Barbara Gordon and her alter ego, Batgirl. Barbara earns her paycheck as Gotham City’s head librarian, but when crime strikes, she lets her hair down, trades her twinset and pearls for a skin-tight unitard and thigh-high stiletto boots, and kicks arch-villain butt. Even without her alterego Batgirl, Barbara Gordon is no shrinking violet. She’s an independent career woman who has a photographic memory (something even Batman doesn’t possess!), a brown belt in judo, and her own motorcycle. Barbara Gordon is a superhero with or without the mask and cape, and while she may not be the most realistic representation of librarians that the media has to offer, she’s certainly the most multifaceted.

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The past several decades have provided memorable depictions of librarians in the media, but recently, librarians seem to be everywhere–they’re in the news, in film, in music, and even in toy stores.

Librarians as Recording Stars?

Librarians have also recently made it onto the record charts. Tori Amos’ new album is called Tales of a Librarian, a title that, she explained in a recent live MSN Web chat, refers to the fact that she sees herself as a librarian, and her songs as the tales, or books, with which she is entrusted. “I’ve always said the songs are alive and I’m really a librarian,” Amos explains. “These are books that come to me in sonic form….” For the album cover, Amos has chosen a beguiling image casting herself as the librarian in the title; she is seated in a dark leather wingback chair, which could belong in a library or reading room, albeit a very tastefully appointed one. Her gaze is direct and her clothing is strictly 1940s femme fatale. The overall effect is of intelligence and strength equaling sexiness. Nothing about the image plays to the old librarian stereotype.

Breaking the Mold-Librarians as Reality TV Heroes

One of the most amusing current entries in the librarian image catalogue is a short film called Breaking the Mold: The Kee Malesky Story, an ironic take on the after-school special, featuring an aspiring librarian as its heroine. Two years ago, Maryland Public Television (MPT) approached filmmaker Joshua Seftel about making a short fiction film. Seftel, 35, an international award-winning documentary filmmaker since the age of 22, had always wanted try his hand at narrative fiction. MPT offered Seftel the entire budget and complete creative freedom. There was just one catch–the film had to teach middle school children about indoor air quality, hardly the most cinematic of topics. “For months, I struggled to find a way to accomplish this,” says Seftel. “As I read about indoor air quality, one subject that came up time and again was toxic mold. I found articles from all over the country about families that had suffered the effects of mold growing in their homes.”

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So how did the idea for a film about toxic mold wind up becoming a satire of pop culture with a heroine named after a famous librarian? Seftel found his inspiration for how to handle this unlikely topic in an even unlikelier place. “When I sat down to write Breaking the Mold, the reality television boom was just setting in,” explains Seftel. “So I thought, why not set a toxic mold story in a reality house and turn it into a comedy that comments on the state of popular culture?” Seftel envisioned the film as illustrating the opposition between popular culture and what’s deeper and more profound in our culture. If toxic mold serves as an apt metaphor for the former, Seftel saw the library as the perfect symbol for the latter. “The library has an appealing sense of order and safety,” he explains. “It’s the last bastion of where ideas and culture are kept, something that’s not being well-maintained in the world around us.”

“I had this idea of a librarian as the protagonist,” he adds, “specifically, a young, unfulfilled librarian who hasn’t realized her dream and who reluctantly winds up on a reality program.” At the suggestion of his sister, a librarian, Seftel contacted SLA member Kee Malesky, the reference librarian at National Public Radio (http://www.npr.org/about/people/bios/kmalesky.html) and one of the best known librarians in the country, with a strange request–would she allow him to name his central character after her?

As Seftel expected, Malesky thought the request unusual and told him she’d have to think it over. “She told me couldn’t think of a reason to say no, so she said yes.” Malesky adds, “I thought it would be fun, especially since my name is out there because of NPR. And he offered to show me the script so I could tell him if there were outstandingly egregious library errors.” To further the NPR connection, the film is narrated by NPR’s Scott Simon, and very observant NPR fans will recognize the theme to All Things Considered playing in the background.

The 27-minute-long film is the offbeat story of (a completely fictional) Kee Malesky, who by age seven had already won a nationwide library research contest and was on her way to developing a new, more efficient method for cataloguing library books that would replace the Dewey Decimal System. But when Kee’s brother, Mo, emerged as a pee-wee hockey star, Kee quickly slipped into his shadow. Before long, Kee had stopped going to the library altogether.

Ten years later, Kee (Danielle Percy) is in a deep funk, spending most of her time cataloguing her teen magazine collection and helping her mother polish Mo’s trophies. It takes the guidance of her friend, Shelly Kugelman (Zabeth Russel), an appearance on a popular reality show, and a severe mold-induced asthma attack to finally get Kee back on track.

Seftel has succeeded in creating a deft satire of our current popular culture, skewering the reality show craze and the disposable celebrities it produces, and the film has been appearing at festivals around the country and will air on public television stations this spring. As for the real Kee Malesky’s thoughts about the finished film and her fictional namesake, she has this to say: “The film pokes fun at library work, but in a good-spirited, respectful way. Yes, the character of Kee is mousy and underappreciated by everyone around her, including her family, but there is a strength of character beneath that. She does what she thinks is important and gets a great deal of satisfaction from it. It leaves you with a positive feeling about libraries and research.” As for Seftel, he hopes that this successful first foray into narrative fiction will help pave his way to eventually direct feature films. But for the time being, he hopes this film “will make you laugh, make you cry, and teach you something about toxic mold.”

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Librarians as Action Figures

Perhaps nothing has caused more uproar among librarians and information specialists than the debut of the Librarian Action Figure, complete with pushbutton “shushing action.” “The shushing thing just put me right over the edge,” Diane DuBois, library director of Caribou Public Library in Caribou, Maine, told CNN.com. “We’re so not like that anymore. It’s so stereotypical I could scream.”

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The Archie McPhee company created the 5-inch figure wearing frumpy clothes, spectacles, and sensible shoes. She is, however, modeled after Nancy Pearl, a Seattle-based librarian who can be considered heroic in her efforts to share her love of reading and to promote literacy. She created “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book,” a reading project that spread nationwide. She is also the author of Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Reason.

In a Seattle Times article, Pearl was quoted as saying the shushing motion would determine “which librarians have a sense of humor.” Regardless of how anyone took it, the doll received a lot of press. When was the last time so much was heard about librarians?

Anyone who has seen the real Nancy Pearl admits that the doll is a faithful representation of her appearance. “I liked the idea of the action figure,” says Kee Malesky, “but then I saw it and thought it’s the same old thing; sensible shoes, pencil in the hair, and shushing–I’ve never shushed anyone. But then you see Nancy Pearl,” Malesky confesses, “and she really does look like that. So I have mixed feelings because it while it may seem stereotypical, you can’t say it’s not true.” Pearl summed it up best when she told the Seattle Times that “the role of a librarian is to make sense of the world of information. If that’s not a qualification for superhero-dom, what is?”

Nude Librarian Calendar

One of the most titillating recent appearances of librarians not only sidesteps superhero costumes and sensible shoes-it does away with clothing altogether. Librarians have now posed nude for a charity calendar. According to a report in the Telegraph News in the United Kingdom, librarians from the London borough of Camden have broken the long-running myth of librarians as being prim and proper. The Telegraph reported:

The volunteers, aged between 37 and 60, said that they were determined

to challenge the stereotype of the dull librarian. Miss October, Diane

Bowman, 42, a senior librarian, said: “Some colleagues didn’t need

much persuading, while others needed their arms twisting a little

bit.”

The Camden New Journal also reported on the calendar–and you can visit its site to get an eyeful–or two eyes full! (http://www.camdennewjournal.co.uk/f111203_1.htm).

Not to worry–although the librarians have posed nude, the photos are strictly G-rated. All body parts racier than a bare shoulder are tastefully concealed behind publications.

Past images of librarians in the media vacillated between that of the strict, bun-wearing old maid and that of the repressed librarian with an alter ego longing to emerge, be it a sexpot, a superhero, or both. But the most recent images of librarians seem to celebrate them for exactly who they are and what they do, no transformation required. Some may bear a surface resemblance to the old stereotypes, and some may flout it, but closer inspection reveals many layers and a common core of respect for the profession. Perhaps it has to do with librarians emerging as the staunchest defenders of the First Amendment in their recent showdown with Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act. Perhaps it’s because of the increasing importance of information specialists in the Information Age. Perhaps it’s simply that the profession is at long last getting its due.

Elyse Kroll Is a co-author of Dreaming for Two: The Hidden Emotional Life of Expectant Mothers (Plume, 2003.) She can be reached at elysekroll2000@yahoo.com

COPYRIGHT 2004 Special Libraries Association

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