Between perfect order and perfect chaos

Merriam Webster’s definition of “anal-retentive”

Does “anal-retentive” have a hyphen?

(Yes, usually, but it depends — probably on whether you’re British or American, as the Oxford English Dictionary does not include a hyphen, whilst Merriam Webster does, see right). But that’s not the point… or is it? 😉

Having watched this week the most recent David Cronenberg film, A Dangerous Method (2011) — all about Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Sabina Spielrein, and the early years of establishing psychology as a science — it felt like a good time to explore more into why reel librarians are so often portrayed with anal-retentive qualities.

I’ve touched on this subject before, including this post about Myers-Briggs types of real librarians, the librarian as nightmare image, as well as in my explorations of the Spinster Librarian and Anti-Social Librarian character types. And please note that I’m talking here about broader archetypes and stereotypical characteristics; I’m not making a critical judgment on the profession in general or commenting on any specific person.

There are many kinds of onscreen tension lurking behind the cinematic portrayals of librarians (power struggles, battle for knowledge vs. battle between the sexes, etc.). One such tension is anal-retentiveness, a trait that shows up quite often in film portrayals of librarians, usually in smaller roles. Examples of anal-retentive behavior include loudly shushing any noisemakers in a library (City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold, 1994, see below); expressing anxiety when a book is late or damaged (as parodied in UHF, 1989); and showing reluctance to check any books out, thereby hoarding knowledge (for a most extreme example, see The Name of the Rose, 1986).

Shushing Lady in ‘City Slickers II’

Poor social skills also show up in conjunction with these characteristics, which seem to be rooted in the conflict or tension between order and chaos. In their 1997 article “Power, Knowledge, and Fear:  Feminism, Foucault, and the Stereotype of the Female Librarian,” the Radfords have noted that libraries, and thus librarians, are “structured by the values of order, control, and suppression” (255). Studying cataloging and organizational systems is standard practice for librarians, and shelving, carding, and stamping materials become essential in any well-organized library (see my post on library qualifications and job duties). It is this want — this need — of an organized system of resources that makes it easy, or at least manageable, for any user to find a resource he/she wants in a library’s system.

Mary (Parker Posey) in Party Girl (1995) throws a funny light on the serious business of shelving when she yells at a patron for randomly shelving a book (see below).  “Let’s put the book any damn place we want!”

The librarian is also charged with compiling the most complete collection he/she possibly can — whether that means digital or print resources — that reflects the community that library serves. But that collection can NEVER be complete, because users continuously check out those materials — thereby “disrupting” that so-called perfect harmony of the complete and ordered collection. Thus, cinematically, the librarian often displays characteristics of an uptight, sheltered, and, at times, almost manic personality in order to eliminate, sometimes at all costs, the potential disruption of stability. In The Name of the Rose (1986), abbey librarian Malachia strives to hoard the books in the abbey’s library. However, “it is this knowledge, rather than the texts themselves, that is so fanatically protected by the monks” (Radford, 257), leading to murder, arson, and chaos — or freedom, depending on whether you root for Malachia or not.

This tension between order and chaos felt by librarians (who want to protect the materials and their organizational order) and the users (who strive for knowledge by borrowing or accessing those materials) finds itself depicted in many screen portrayals of librarians. This tension is not gender-driven, however; both male and female librarians are depicted onscreen as people who are “obsessed with the order that rationality demands of them” (Radford, 261). Among others, Miss Anderson in Citizen Kane (1941), the librarian played by John Rothman in Sophie’s Choice (1982), and Elvia Allman in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) all exhibit the hypertension caused (or created?) by the inherent conflict between perfect order and perfect chaos.

What do you think? If you’re a fellow librarian, have you been able to find a personal balance between order and chaos? Or, like the question about the hypen in “anal-rententive” that started us off, does it even matter in the end? (Hee hee.) 😉

And now for something not-so-completely-different… the patented shushing super power from the librarian action figure.

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4 comments on “Between perfect order and perfect chaos

  1. Librarian-without-union-card says:

    I’ve worked in the library field for five years now, and unfortunately, I’ve found the unflattering librarian stereotypes to be true. Most librarians I’ve worked with (with the exception of two, one being a guybrarian) had bad social skills. You can’t help but wonder if people lacking social skills go into the library field because they think they’ll deal with BOOKS, not people, which is completely unrealistic. And my reasoning may not be so far fetched, because “reference librarian” among other library positions is a recommended job for people with autism, according to a certain autism website.

    • I agree with you that working with people is a primary skill for librarians who work regularly in areas like reference, instruction, or public services. To me, libraries are a type of social service. And I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of librarians in the U.S. and abroad, and been able to witness and appreciate a depth of diversity of librarians and a wide range of professional skills. 🙂

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