‘The danger of a single story’ for reel librarians

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

Last week, I attended the excellent regional ACRL-OR/WA Joint Fall Conference 2016, and the theme for this year’s conference was “Enhancing Creativity and Turning Inspiration Into Reality.” The closing keynote address was by Hannah Gascho Rempel, a faculty librarian at Oregon State University, and she talked about factors for inspiring creativity at all levels.

I wrote down lots of ideas during her keynote, and one note sparked an idea for a blog post here on Reel Librarians. At one point, Rempel mentioned Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2009 TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” to illustrate how creativity is enhanced by collaboration and by multiple voices.

The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, TED Talks, is licensed under a CC BY NC ND 4.0 license.

If you have not already watched this TED Talk, then please do so. Adichie is so inspiring, and I found myself connecting to what she said in so many ways. Just one of those ways involves why I began researching portrayals of librarians in film almost 20 years ago and what sustains me to keep doing it.

Let me pull out a few quotes from Adichie’s talk and explore how, in my mind, they connect to researching reel librarians:

So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become. [at 9:27]

All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only those negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. [at 12:58]

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. [at 13:11]

What if someone’s first (cinematic) or ONLY encounter with a librarian was through It’s a Wonderful Life (in which the main White female lead becomes a spinster librarian, weak and afraid of men)? Or had only seen Big Bully, in which the first thing an elderly, White school librarian remembers is how many days overdue a library book is? What is they had never seen, or known about, the dynamic and varied reel librarian characters in Desk Set or Party Girl, or the librarian heroes in Something Wicked This Way Comes or It?

I am lucky in that I am a librarian who grew up in a family of educators. I knew there was a difference between the Spinster Librarian I saw in It’s a Wonderful Life and my mother, a real-life school librarian. I knew that there was not a single story for librarians. But what about those who don’t have a librarian in their lives, to provide that kind of contrast and context?

It is easy to get bogged down in the many, many, many different negative and stereotypical portrayals of librarians onscreen (and elsewhere). We librarians tend to get very defensive about the well-worn stereotypes and tropes. (The shushing librarian, the sexy librarian, the spinster librarian, etc.) Our defensiveness is borne of frustration — because, as Adichie says so eloquently, “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.

I — like my fellow real-life librarians — am many things:  smart, naive, funny, serious, helpful, frustrated, bored, boring, fascinating, sarcastic, klutzy, graceful, inspiring, inspired, the list goes on. I am not just one thing: not as a woman, not as an American, and not as a librarian.

I want to see myself on that screen. I want to see my profession on that screen. I want to see the varied sides of librarians in reel life just as I witness in real life. So I continue to seek that. And I seek to share what I find with you all, to bring witness to the hundreds of examples of reel librarians that I see in films, from bit parts to protagonists. I do this to show that there is not just one story.

"A Librarian's 2.0 Manifesto - Wordle.net" by Anna-Stina Takala is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“A Librarian’s 2.0 Manifesto – Wordle.net” by Anna-Stina Takala is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Now, I am not equating the issues of reel librarians with huge, global issues of world hunger or racism. What I am doing is simply exploring a connection, that stereotypes and the “danger of a single story” echo throughout every part of our lives, small and large, professional and personal. Stories matter, and this site is an opportunity for me to share many stories.

And maybe, just maybe, by being more aware of the many different librarians you encounter onscreen, this might lead to an increased awareness (and curiosity?) of the many different librarians you might encounter in real life. Or perhaps seeing a friendly librarian onscreen might help you, or your children, feel more confident in going to your local public library. Or perhaps seeing an effective reference interview in a movie might lead you to seek out research help from a librarian at your local college the next time you have a research paper. I don’t know if any of these things happen, or will happen, or even if people are aware when or if they do happen. All I know is that the more stories we share, the more possibilities open up.

Adichie concludes her talk with a line inspired by Alice Walker:

That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story, about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.

And, of course, her concluding line reminded of Jorge Luis Borges — a librarian in real life! — whose line about libraries is often quoted:

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.

So here is to Paradise, and to librarians, onscreen and off.


Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

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