Representations of Libraries and Librarians in Popular Culture, Particularly Science Fiction and Fantasy

[Note – this is a very slightly modified version of a paper I did in grad school]


The field of library science has long been concerned about its image.  Articles about the image of librarians, how these stereotypes evolved, and why, have been around since Melvil Dewey’s time (McReynolds, 1985).  There is something unshakable about the stereotypes of the spinster librarian, the library as inhospitable place, the librarian as guard rather than shepherd to information, and the general sternness of librarians.  One place these stereotypes originate is in the representation of libraries and librarians in popular culture—films, television, stories, novels, and more.   Even though these representations have been written about somewhat extensively, some genres have been largely ignored—the genres of science fiction and fantasy.

Examining all fictional portrayals of libraries and librarians is worthy and useful because it is the equivalent of taking the cultural pulse on the topic. But the science fiction and fantasy genres present a different set of opportunities for scholarship.  First, a working definition of each of these genres is needed.  Fantasy typically deals with the supernatural—things like magic, ghosts, vampires, and dragons—while science fiction is much more technology centered.  Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone, defined the genres this way: “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible” (as quoted in McClean, 2007, para. 7).  While all stories are, to some extent, reflective of our hopes, dreams, and fears, the genres of science fiction and fantasy de-contextualize humanity in ways that both excite our imaginations and allow for fresh examination of some of humanity’s greatest challenges.  Complicated and emotional issues such as discrimination, biomedical ethics, and war can be viewed once-removed from our present.

These genres have great power, and this is something that is being recognized and talked about outside the science fiction and fantasy community.  In an article in The Guardian, McLean (2007) noted “…never before have the TV shows involved seemed so resonant or indeed so influential.  Science fiction has never been more now, fantasy never more real” (para. 4).  And never has it been so popular.  In a Box Office Mojo list (2016) for highest all-time grossing films worldwide, 37 of the top 50 grossing films are science fiction or fantasy films.[1]   Of those 37, there are 32 films that have been made since 2000.  In 2004, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King became the first fantasy film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (“Academy awards,” n.d.).  And two science fiction films—Avatar and District 9—were nominated for Best Picture in 2009 (“Academy awards,” n.d.).  The 21st century is looking to be a new golden age for science fiction and fantasy.

This rise in popularity and valuation is not only happening in film, but also in literature.  Fassler (2011) recently wrote about the insurgence of genre into literary fiction.  One of the reasons for this, he notes, is that “our day-to-day lives are becoming more science fictional” (para. 17) with all of the rapid advances in technology.  Also, stories that are mythic do not go out of style, and much genre fiction has a mythic quality.

What does this mean for libraries and librarians?  The increasing popularity of these genres means library and information science professionals should be interested in how they are portrayed in them.  The existing literature on the topic of libraries and librarians in science fiction and fantasy thus far shows that the negative stereotypes have spilled over into these genres in many cases.  However, this area of research is severely underdeveloped, and there are many texts that have not been sufficiently analyzed or analyzed at all.  Also, since these genres are often aspirational, progressive, and forward-looking, they should be places of new possibility for libraries and librarians, as well.   Along that line, there is predictive value in these genres.  If science fiction can presage the cellular phone, hydrogen bomb, and tablet computer technology, then it might also have something to say about future technology in libraries.  The bottom line is that library and information professionals should not ignore these genres; as Pierce (2004) pointed out, just because something is fictional—and fantastic—does not mean it isn’t an accurate representation of human behavior.

Literature Review

One of the first articles to address the nexus between library and information science and science fiction was Frederick Pohl’s address to the Delaware Valley Chapter of the American Documentation Institute (ADI), which appeared in American Documentation in 1965.  Pohl, a science fiction writer, told this group that science fiction could provide inspiration for the design of better information retrieval procedures.  He said that science fiction was sometimes accurate in the prediction of new technology, and even though specific schematics weren’t provided by the writers, the ideological basis for the technology was.  Although this article was written more than 40 years ago, that statement is still true.   It is quite clear that the inspiration for modern cell phones and tablet computers came from the Star Trek corpus.  Even Apple’s new Siri search function for the iPhone 4S is eerily like the voice-activated computer on the starship Enterprise (Pohl even suggested to the ADI that library computers be programmed to volunteer information that is similar to what the user is searching for, which is quite like what Siri does).  But Pohl seems to be the only person who has tried to forge a link between science fiction’s predictive and inspirational powers and library and information professionals.

Marcia Myers and Deborah Core (1998) came the closest to Pohl in attempting to show science fiction’s potential influence on the field.  In their article, they stated that positive portrayals of librarians and libraries in science fiction could generate interest in the field.  And they appear to be the only scholars who have discussed this particular angle.  Many anecdotes can be found from scientists claiming that science fiction inspired them to take the career path they did.  In fact, NASA recently partnered with Tor-Forge Books (a major publisher of science fiction) to create books to inspire interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Alexander, 2011).  Libraries and librarians ought to be curious about a similar partnership relative to libraries.  This is exactly the sort of thing that Myers and Core hoped for in their article.

This article is seemingly an outgrowth of Myers’ (1998) concurrent work on the portrayal of librarians in science fiction and fantasy.  In that work, there was not discussion about positive representations potentially bringing new people to the profession (though, she did mention that her work could be used by recruiters, but that is the only mention).  Instead, Myers merely examined whether or not portrayals were positive or negative, what role gender may have played in those portrayals, and if there was a correlation between the portrayal and the time period in which the story was published.

While Myers (1998) was focused on the positive/negative binary, Hayes (2010) looked a little deeper into the images of librarians.  His focus was on the representations of libraries and librarians in 19th century utopian fiction, and centered heavily on Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888).  Hayes compared the expectations of the fictional libraries with the real expectations people had of libraries in that time period.  He found that the libraries in utopia were very different than the libraries in real life—they were easier to access (they were open 24 hours a day in Looking Backward) and comfortable. He also discussed how novels are a reflection of the culture out of which they arose, so even when they are science fictional and forward-looking, they are telling us something about the present.  This is an insightful line of inquiry.  Writers cannot escape their own historical and cultural moments, so while science fiction novels may be a type of futures research they are also historical artifacts.

Griffen (1987) also looked at science fiction as a sort of futures research.  She sorted science fiction libraries into four categories:  the roboticized library, the rehumanized library, the post-apocalyptic library, and the mental high tech library.  Within the article, she used a framework borrowed from Willis Harman to explore the roles of libraries in science fictional futures, which dealt with our assumptions about the possible, the probable, and the desirable.  Griffen took a more holistic view of library and information science, addressing not only librarians and libraries, but universal access, end-user control, archival preservation, information overload, and the library as an integrated part of the community.  This approach resulted in a meaningful analysis of how science fiction can be helpful to librarians who are planning for the future.  Griffen, at the end of the article, suggested an exercise for librarians—to consider his or her assumptions about the future of libraries and to then evaluate which of those may be possible at all and, finally, to decide what comports with the librarian’s values and desires for the future.  Taken together with Pohl (1965) and Myers and Core (1998), this article shows there is a cumulative argument for further examination of libraries and librarians in science fiction and fantasy.

One perspective not explored anywhere else is Pierce’s (2004) discussion of the representation of information seeking behavior in three works of fantasy.  Pierce pointed out that there is not much, if any, scholarship on how information seeking behaviors are portrayed in fiction.  She argued that libraries were essential to fantasy fiction, so this genre was a good place for scholarship.  Pierce refuted earlier research by Gross (1995, 2000) by claiming that the young adults in Harry Potter are not disengaged, but highly motivated to find information.  Like Tancheva (2005), Pierce also discussed the work of the Radfords (1997 and 2001) and how the portrayal of the libraries in the fantasy fiction she examined mirrored what the Radfords theorized.  This portrayal of libraries as imposing, church-like places certainly influenced the information seeking behaviors of the characters Pierce examined.

Another point of view is that ofTim Blackmore (2004) who examined the fictional Librarian program in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), as well as the novel’s treatment of the gap between those who have information and those who do not.  Even though the novel is about a society that is heavily dependent on technology, Blackmore argued that human and technology needed to work together to avert a crisis.  Neither the Librarian program nor Hiro, the protagonist, could have triumphed alone.  Blackmore also argued that the Librarian program helps people become better people.  So it does not matter whether or not the Librarian is portrayed positively or that the Librarian is part of a completely digital library, but that the Librarian had a humanizing effect and was a partner to humans.  Blackmore specifically analyzed the meaning of the Librarian.

This is exactly the kind of approach that Tancheva (2005) pushed for.  She wrote that more analyses need to be done which take into account context, culture, and genre because meaning is fluid not fixed.  She cited the works of McReynolds (1985) and Radford and Radford (1997 and 2001) as examples of the sort of theoretical analysis she advocated for.  Tancheva proposed that the library was a cultural sign “which represents and constitutes a discourse” (p. 533).  She also cited the kind of work that was not advancing the understanding of how librarians are represented—DeCandido (1999) was among this list of people “sometimes stretching a point in their zeal” (Tancheva, 2005, p. 531).

As to DeCandido’s (1999) article, it was an enthusiastic discussion of the role of Rupert Giles, the school librarian, in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  She made the argument that even though Giles carried some of the typically “negative” attributes of a librarian, he overcame them and subverted those stereotypes.  Cullen (2000) strongly disagreed with this analysis, and claimed exactly the opposite—that the character of Giles was a very negative portrayal and oversimplified.  Neither article provided extensive analysis nor did they address what the library signified in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

David Oberhelman (2008) wrote about libraries in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.  He was interested in how libraries were related to the cultural memory of that world and also the transition in that world from a culture of orality to one of literacy.  Tolkien’s portrayal of libraries in Middle-earth closely parallels the development of libraries in ancient history, Oberhelman claimed.  He went on to discuss how the Fourth Age in Middle-earth looked to be very different from the other ages with regard to libraries, as the collections of materials were transitioning from being held in the great libraries of the dominant civilizations to being collected in the personal libraries of the Hobbits.  Since there is a shift from print to digital in our own age, there are lessons to be learned by examining the transitions of earlier civilizations.  Many works of science fiction take place after this shift has taken place, so they do not bear witness in the same way as Tolkien’s work.  Libraries may not be a main focus of Tolkien’s work, but his characters are very interested in the telling of stories and the transmitting of those stories.  They have a great concern for the cultural memory.

A transition that our society has long feared—apocalypse—is something that Spencer (1991) examined in her work.  She was interested in oral and literate culture in two works of science fiction.  Though she did not speak specifically about libraries, she explored the idea of how knowledge was stored and accessed in Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953) and A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller (1959).   She was also interested in how these societies rebuilt the store of knowledge after its destruction.  We live in a dangerous world in which weapons technology gets better all the time; it is conceivable that there might someday be large-scale destruction of both property and people, and with them knowledge.  As Griffen (1987) advocated, a periodic examination of what is possible and probable can assist us plan for such events.

Discussion and Conclusion

As has been stated, there has not been much scholarship done with regard to the representations of libraries and librarians.  It should be noted that much of the work that has been done has been published in trade journals such as American Libraries.  This in itself is evidence that there is a need for more academic work in this area.  In the scholarship that does exist, there are a variety of issues explored, but there is still no theoretical underpinning, as Tancheva noted in 2005.  She proposed how such theories could be started, but did not delve into the endeavor herself.  This sort of analysis needs to be done for science fiction and fantasy if for nothing else than to compare the representations in these genres to other representations in popular culture.  If there is a significant difference, then the theoretical underpinnings should be explored.  Even if further exploration of this topic finds that librarians are grossly underrepresented in science fiction and fantasy, then that should be examined.  The Radfords (1997 and 2001) make extensive use of the concept of Foucauldian discourse in their work.  By relocating librarians and libraries (both literally and figuratively) do science fiction and fantasy effectively change the discourse and other dynamics?  What could this mean for the image of the profession?  These are just some questions for future scholarship.

Since most of the work in this area takes on different topics, it is difficult to comment about consensus.  There is a consensus, certainly, that the field is worthy of continued scholarship and that there are stereotypes of libraries and librarians.  Tancheva (2005) and Cullen (2000) both suggested that it is sometimes librarians themselves who are perpetuating the stereotypes they seek to get out from under.   Also, in this body of work, there is little said about possible course of action to change how libraries and librarians are portrayed in these genres.

Efforts should be made not to be too restrictive when analyzing science fiction and fantasy.  Myers (1998) adhered to a strict interpretation of what a library or librarian was in the works she examined.  As a result, she excluded some works that were included in other analyses—notably Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  Because science fiction and fantasy are speculative in nature, direct corollaries of elements in our world may not be present.  Instead, there may be an extrapolated version of a library or librarian.  For a broader and more complete view, we must be willing to examine information behavior, cultural memory, information technology, and the places where all or any of these intersect.

We should even examine science fictional aspects of other popular culture mediums.  For instance, the character of Penelope Garcia in the CBS television show Criminal Minds does not have the title of librarian, but she acts as a super reference librarian to the investigative team.  This, in itself, is not science fictional, but the search technology certainly is.  Anyone who has worked reference knows that information that seems like it should be easy to cross reference can take days of tedious research, not the lightning-quick speed of Ms. Garcia.  There is a supposed “CSI effect” in the field of criminal justice, wherein it is theorized that juries may be coming to have unrealistic expectations of forensic science because of the television show.  That television show is also a drama with some very science fictional technology.  Is there a “Garcia effect,” then, in regards to reference?  This is a question worth exploring.

In terms of scholarship regarding libraries in science fiction, there is a notable omission—there does not seem to be any scholarship about information professionals in Star Trek.  Star Trek is arguably the most culturally significant set of science fiction stories ever.  Like many fictional futures, Star Trek does not have a human librarian, but the society it portrays is very information dependent.  In Star Trek: The Next Generation there is the LCARS (Library Computer Access/Retrieval System) which is the programming interface of the Enterprise computer that acts as a librarian.  Lieutenant Commander Data, an android, could also be viewed as a sort of librarian.  Not only are there the Enterprise computer and Data to consider, there are the Borg (cybernetic beings).  These beings access information completely differently because they are a collective mind; there are no individuals.  Collective intelligence is a vibrant field of study these days.  We may not be a collective like the Borg, but we are plugged in more now than at any other time.  While there is still a digital divide, and there are many places in the world where technology is not as omnipresent, the people who are connected are connected in increasingly interdependent ways.  If the Borg are a possible future for humanity, then this would represent a completely new paradigm of information seeking.  What would information professionals look like in a more collective and connected environment?

While there is no scholarship on libraries and information professionals in Star Trek, there is discussion going on regarding those issues.  In Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, a class is taught by Professor Anthony Rotolo called “Star Trek and the Information Age” (Rotolo, n.d.).  Perhaps some of these students will be inspired to contribute some scholarship of their own to this field.

Exploration of the library in Buffy the Vampire Slayer also gets short shrift.  DeCandido (1999) and Cullen (2000) argue over whether or not the portrayal of Giles is positive, but completely ignore the library as place.  Even after the school is burned down, the library continues as an entity, but in a slightly different guise.  Giles opens up a magic shop called The Magic Box.  It is here that he now houses the books, but also all of the magical supplies.  It is the library repurposed.  It is still a place of information, primarily, but it has changed to meet different needs.  This is reflective of what libraries have been going through in order to remain relevant—repurposing of space for computers and cafes to entice users who have different expectations.

Fantasy libraries are explored much less often than science fiction libraries.  There are several works out there with significant portrayals of libraries or librarians that could be examined—Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004), The Magicians (2009) and The Magician King (2011) by Lev Grossman, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, and “In the House of the Seven Librarians” by Ellen Klages (2006).  Also, the Harry Potter series would be served well by further analysis of the library and librarians in those books.

Even though there is a whole discourse out there about the stereotypes of libraries and librarians, perhaps it’s time that we look at the issue through a new lens.  Science fiction and fantasy are popular and increasingly respected genres that have the power to explore humanity’s thorniest issues in ways that make them more accessible.  These genres are just the lenses we need in order to get new perspective on ourselves and our profession.  There is much work yet to be done, but all we need to do is be brave enough to boldly go there.


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[1] This number was obtained using IMDb’s classification of the movies on the list.  Of the remaining 13 films not categorized by IMDb as science fiction or fantasy, 5 are animated films involving talking animals and toys; these could arguably also be fantasy, but were not counted as such here.


photo of books

Hello and welcome

photo of booksI spend a lot of time thinking about science fiction, information science, and writing. I always wish that I spent more time writing about these things, as writing helps me organize my thoughts and learn more about a topic. This blog is my way of giving myself permission to explore the topics I love.

Some of the things I love and will probably post about: Star Trek, The X-Files, and any number of other stories I follow; fictional librarians and libraries; discussions about the genre boundaries of fiction; and maybe even an occasional book review.

Because I’m a librarian, I also love databases, so I hope to share some of my favorite resources on here, as well.

If anyone out there wants to follow along, welcome.