My Life is Like a Movie… Starring Librarians!
Kristen Arnett Comes to Terms with Libraries in Pop Culture
A couple years ago I went out with a friend to a bar in downtown Orlando. I will not name this place because it’s truly embarrassing and also closed now, but I will tell you that we chose it because ladies drank free on Thursday nights and I’m all about free drinks. While waiting for my beer at the ice bar (a BAR! Made of ICE!) my friend and I were approached by the owner and asked if we’d like a tour. We dutifully followed him around as he pointed out all the new features he’d implemented (did you see the ICE BAR?) and after getting a couple more free drinks, he finally asked what we did for a living.
“I’m a librarian,” I said.
“Oh cool,” he replied. “I saw a library in a movie once.”
While this sentence became a long running joke for me and my friend (we developed a drinking game based on it; any time we could work “saw it in a movie” into a conversation the other person took a shot), I had to wonder if it was honestly the only time this man had experienced a library in his life. Had he never been inside one?
And then I asked myself the bigger question: how many people only understand libraries from what they’ve seen in pop culture?
In the past, librarianship has been portrayed in television and books as something that’s either very sexy or completely geeky. But now! We’ve got slogans on t-shirts. Dewey decimal-themed socks. Bars and restaurants filled with barcoded books. Entire hotels where you can stay in a room themed after a place where we have to sometimes kick people out for sleeping (I never do this; please sleep wherever you like). Adding to the confusion of what exactly librarians do comes this new thing: a lot of people now think librarianship sounds kinda cool. We’re smart and funny and we keep all the books. We can tell you how to fix your Netflix account and find the right tax forms. We know shit.
We’re not superheroes, but we get the job done.
I mean, I get it. I drink my daily coffee out of a bright yellow “KISS THE LIBRARIAN” mug—a tribute to exceptional librarian Rupert Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There are a plethora of shows and movies that contribute to this powerful image. Librarians who time travel. Librarians who fight mummies. Librarians who utilize weaponry. Librarians with unlimited budgets (that’s seriously the wildest concept of them all). On Parks and Recreation, the most fearsome foe of the parks department is the library division run by Tammy Swanson, a woman magnificently described as a “manipulative, psychotic, library book-pedaling, sex-crazed she-demon.” Tammy knows what she wants and she gets it. Also her library closes at 3pm, which is wild as hell considering lots of librarians end up working 40-plus hours a week.“A lot of people now think librarianship sounds kinda cool. We’re smart and funny and we keep all the books. We can tell you how to fix your Netflix account and find the right tax forms. We know shit.”
Growing up, TV and movies certainly formed my opinion of libraries. I watched Matilda just like everybody else. Pervasive quiet? Unlimited access to information? Being left alone? Hell yeah! I liked the idea of librarianship in terms of what it would bring me—I related as the patron, not the librarian. Actually working in the field has meant reassessing what it means to work in a public profession. It’s meant looking at libraries as bastions of community service, discovering what help I can bring to other people. I love these contemporary models of librarianship because they press the trope of active-versus-passive. We’re not quiet, shushing, demure. Librarians are ready to fight for accessibility. To get you the information you need to succeed in every area of life. In a time when things in our country seem especially grim, librarianship makes me feel like I can contribute in a helpful, necessary way. It gives my life meaning.
Honestly, I need that kind of optimism right now, too. It’s rough out there. Easy to get burned out and bogged down. To feel like nothing will help or make things better.
Like most library staff, much of my day is spent dealing with yawn-inducing minutiae and outrageous stress. I’m fixing the copy machine (again and again and again). I’m checking in and out materials and repairing books when someone decides they make a great coffee coaster. I’m dealing with patrons who want to ride their bicycle inside the library. I’ve gotta listen to someone yell because they don’t like the kind of soap we’ve got in the bathroom. Library staff have the kinds of brains where you can do five or six things at once and know you still have ten more things left on the back burner. Those small moments when real work gets done happen between all the rest of the daily grind. Seeing librarians reflected in pop culture as awesome and strong reminds me why I do my job. We’re reflected this way in the media because people understand our importance. They value what we bring to the world.
I need to see librarianship reflected this way because it reminds me that I have abilities that can help others. I love that people are excited about libraries and what we can do for them. I want to see us continue to bolster our communities. If being an advocate means dealing with someone leaving swaths of post-it notes in a million reference books, so be it. I’m here for you. I’m ready.
But if you tell me you’ve seen a library in a movie once, you’re buying my beer.
Hey New Yorkers! I’d like to take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to hype up a very cool upcoming event at NYPL for teens. As a queer person and a librarian, I cannot recommend this highly enough. Check it out:
This Friday (6/8), The New York Public Library will hold its 14th-annual Anti-Prom, a night which provides an alternative, safe space for teens, regardless of sexuality, gender identity, or dress. As one of its founding librarians describes it, “a night to make teens feel special and appreciated and celebrate their uniqueness—which might not happen at their own schools or within their own families.”
Held at the iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Anti-Prom—which is entirely free—kicks off with a fashion show featuring designs from students of the High School of Fashion Industries. Offering an inclusive space to the city’s teens, Anti-Prom allows the non-conforming a night dedicated to their uniqueness, bolstered by support from the Library and other participants of the evening such as Planned Parenthood and Columbia’s BeWell.