From the Library: The Librarian Stereotype on the Big Screen


Christmastime classic It's a Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey, an unhappy man who is contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve. Clarence, a guardian angel, is sent on a mission to convince George of his life's worth. So he decides to show George what things in Bedford Falls would have been like had he never been born. George is given the chance to see how his town, friends, and family would be different if they hadn't known him. Towards the end of the film, George has yet to see where his wife has ended up, and he demands that Clarence tell him where she is:

(A spoiler alert is in order if you haven't seen It's a Wonderful Life. But I'm 99.9% positive that you've seen It's a Wonderful Life. You have, right?)

Video: George repeatedly asks that Clarence tell him where Mary is. Clarence gives in and says, "She's an old maid! She never married!" and when George continues to demand where she is, Clarence yells, "She's just about to close up the library!"

It's a Wonderful Life tells us a story about what it means to be a librarian. In this alternate reality, Mary is portrayed as a librarian in order to convey just how bad things got without George around. Mary is an old maid, and in 1946, "old maid" was synonymous with "librarian". When Clarence tells George where Mary is, George runs to the library, where he finds her locking up the front door for the night. Alternate Reality Mary is bespectacled and worriedly looking around as she clutches her purse and walks away from the library. She looks terrified before she's even noticed George (who in this scene plays a creepy man who accosts her, claiming to be her husband).

Video: Mary is walking away from the library when George approaches her and attempts to get her to recognize him. Mary runs away from him. He chases her, grabs her, and continues to try and get her to recognize him while she pulls away. He chases her into a bar, where he tells a crowd of people, "That's my wife!" and Mary faints into a group of women standing around her.

In just a short minute, this scene says a whole lot about what happens to a woman when she doesn't have a man. Librarian Mary is portrayed as being timid, helpless, and when she passes out into the arms of the women standing around her, she is also shown as being weak. Not to mention the physical differences between Mary's two characters. Let's take a moment to look at two pictures. One is of Mary with a husband, and the next is of Husbandless Mary:


Images: Mary with a husband, Mary without a husband. Can you spot the differences?

Husbandless Mary is wearing glasses. Her dress is less feminine and has a higher neckline. Her hair is pulled back into a bun (how very stereotypical) and covered up with a hat. She looks incredibly worried. And the trees casting shadows across the scene don't make her alternate identity any brighter.

This character certainly reflects societal beliefs about librarians in 1946: that librarians were single, unhappy women. Librarian identity in film has become a bit more complex since then, but Mary's character is still all too familiar.

Let's look at a few more stereotypical representations of librarians in the movies:

First, there's the librarian in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), who reinforces the belief that the main job of a librarian is to shush library patrons and chastise them for damaging books:

Video: The library scene from Breakfast at Tiffany's.

And we see another portrayal of the librarian as a shusher in Ghostbusters (1984). The librarian is a ghost, but the stereotype is still spot on:

Video: The library scene from Ghostbusters.

In 1978, Goldie Hawn stars as a librarian in Foul Play. This scene portrays Hawn as a single woman who spends too much time in the library instead of out on the town:

Video: Goldie Hawn's character talks with a friend on the couch in Foul Play. Her friend says, "Ever since the divorce, you lock yourself in that library and hide behind those glasses. Look at you. You used to be a cheerleader. You used to show some cleavage!...What are you playing, Old Maid?"

Finally, take a look at this scene from Tomcats (2001), one of those douchey movies where a group of guys makes a bet about who will be the last remaining bachelor. Tomcats portrays a librarian who appears to be sexually repressed but is actually a closeted dominatrix. In this scene, Jerry O'Connell's character schemes to sleep with the librarian, who he appears to think is going to be easy to bed if he just acts super interested in libraries...because that's all that librarians care about, right? After all, librarians identities are wrapped solely around their jobs.

Video: Scene from Tomcats.

When we see librarians in the movies, they are usually fulfilling the role of a very narrow stereotype. They are almost always unmarried and introverted. They are usually sexually repressed, and oftentimes their only role in the film is to shush the main characters while they spend time in a library.

How do you think these portrayals of librarians in movies have shaped your ideas about librarians? Can you think of another movie where a librarian has depicted the librarian stereotype? What about a movie where the librarian has broken the librarian stereotype? In an upcoming post, I'll be looking at more nuanced portrayals of librarians that movies have shown us in recent years. Stay tuned!

by Ashley McAllister
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16 Comments Have Been Posted

Don't forget about Marion

Don't forget about Marion the librarian! Those damn librarians, always putting a damper on anything fun in life...

Party Girl!

You are absolutely correct. In fact, <i>Party Girl</i> is going to get its own post sometime soon!

re: Party Girl?

This is the first film I thought of! Its so great :) I actually think watching it as a middle schooler made me want to be a librarian.

My mom is a librarian at a

My mom is a librarian at a high school and I am proud to say that she subverts the stereotype full-on. When I was going there at first (before she worked there), kids would always talk about the "zombie librarians" (yes, that was their wording), but my mom became more popular than me in the way that she would help kids with projects, encourage them to explore possibilities and even just be there to listen. I've been out of there for a while now, but whenever I go back I never hear the word "zombie" used to describe the library staff.

Actually... might have heard it today if you'd been at my library. I'm the teen services librarian at a public library, and as part of our "Scare Up a Good Book" summer reading program, today I ran a workshop to learn the Thriller dance. Lots of zombie mayhem and bad dancing (from me, at least).


In the movie Matilda, there is a librarian who helps Matilda, showing her the more adult books and allowing her to take them home.

Questionable Content

She Blinded me With Library Science! reads the shirt of Tai, a comic character who is a dyke lesbian with tattoes and electric red hair and glasses. She is also a librarian at the local college in the strip. Wait...what?
Yep, an exciting, fun, daring, witty, character in the webcomic Questionable Content also has a job as a LIBRARIAN.
I have also been interested in literature since elementary school, and am NOT a shut-in, meek, completely socially-awkward asexual. The comic character (lamely enough) made me feel a little less embarassed for wanting to be a librarian, just because i'm interested in books and would like a career surrounded by them doesn't mean I'd have to pick up a new personality to fit the stereotype.

I also love Tai. I knew

I also love Tai. I knew enough awesome librarians of all flavors that I didn't need her to make it ok for me, but it was really nice to see someone creating a comic who wasn't a librarian but "got" that.

Also, I've got plans to get my husband that shirt when I start library school in the fall. :)

My nit-picky, librarian self

My nit-picky, librarian self has to speak up a bit to say Tai isn't actually a librarian. She's a student who works in the library. Sitting back down now.

As I librarian, I'm also

As I librarian, I'm also pretty interested in this topic. There's a movie called Hollywood Librarian that is all about portrayals of librarians in film.

Librarians are a diverse lot (as are most people in most professions), but there is a common denominator that I feel like I've seen in my short 3 years in the librarian world: Most librarians are awfully quirky people. By which I mean, a little odd. In a good way! Usually!

The funniest librarian stereotype to me is the quiet-on-the-outside, raving-sexual-deviant-on-the-inside theme. Also, I find it hilarious that whenever a celebrity wears glasses, the tabloid blogs write something about her librarian look (and it's almost always female celebrities).

Oh poor Mary

Without George Mary got a masters degree and a job and didn't have those three kids (odd she didn't marry Sam Wainwright, who she dated before George, but I guess the point was that George was somehow her only reason for living). As a kid I thought it was kind of cool that Mary became a librarian in the alternate reality. Of course, when I was a kid I wanted to either be a librarian or Batgirl. But then, Batgirl was a librarian.

OMG I forgot that Batgirl

OMG I forgot that Batgirl was a librarian! Super badass.

The male gaze in the librarian mythos

I see the birth of the librarian myth arising out of a reaction to the fact that, originally, this field presented one of a very few options for women who wanted or needed to build a career.

One thing I noticed immediately in the difference between the two Marys is that the one whose life is entirely defined by her relationship to a man (the adoring wife and mother) wears make-up, sports pretty dresses, has her hair styled, and is presented as socially engaging while her man-less (the educated professional) version exists as a type of marginal woman.

The second Mary is allowed to be female--but since her profession implies a certain level of education, skill set, and ultimately a path to independence--she isn't allowed any of the traits of overt femininity (to be sexy, vibrant, attractive). These seem to only be reserved for women who accept certain allocated roles in the hierarchy.

The spinster-librarian myth is the ultimate warning to women: you don't want to end up like her! (gasp)

I find it's not only librarians portrayed in this stereotypical fashion; a woman in any profession that requires a master's degree or higher is often presented on TV or in films as geekish, awkward, frumpy and not having a life outside of her field of study.

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