All of us, apparently.
I’m starting back to library classes this week and read my first article (hurray!). It’s great to have my headspace back in the world of libraries again.
Libraries, Librarians, and the Discourse of Fear. It’s Focault and libraries put together. Amazing stuff.
I haven’t looked at Focault since my undergraduate courses in English and Gender studies, so I needed a quick refresher on his ideas. Basically, Focault saw that society was shaped, formed and determined by discourses. He saw that Western society places discourse (which is written and spoken words, conversations, theories, and ideas about wisdom, history, knowledge, philosophy, science, religion etc.) in a place of high esteem and authority. Discourse is powerful stuff. And it can also be dangerous. Society is inherently fearful of the power of ideas to create change or deception. Therefore, we create a threshold or safety zone into which certain discourses are allowed. Priviledged discourses are recognized as truthful and legitimate. The taboo, the false, the inflammatory and the dangerous is kept outside the mainstream discourses of society.
This article sees the library as the institution that governs all discourse. It is in charge of creating and maintaining control over knowledge to keep us all safe. Basically, the article uses Focault to make the library THE most powerful instrument in all of society–labelling, sorting and classifying with all-encompassing power. Yikes!
With that established, Focauldian theory can explain the way that librarians and libraries are represented in popular culture.
The Fear of the Library Policeman
Librarians in popular culture are often pretty nasty. As authority figures, librarians shame users into a state of humiliation and fear. Stephan King can make anything terrifying; the local public library is no exception in his tale from Three Past Midnight, The Library Policeman. William Styron’s Sophies Choice includes a description of a monstrous nazi librarian whose not a nazi at all. The author just choses that word because just looks exactly like one and is awfully mean. Librarians in these two examples, are depicted as monsters. Similarly, the library is an unsettling, otherworldly space in the Pagemaster (I remember this scene being scary as a kid). Conan the Librarian is another example of a menacing librarian wielding lots of power.
The authors of this article go so far as to compare the library to a prison. As a prison transforms its subjects into prisoners, a library transforms its subjects into users. Therefore, the discourse surrounding librarians and libraries will always be one of fear:
“Because of the negative ways in which libraries and librarians appear within the discourse of fear, there is the temptation, of course, to some- how situate the library within a different kind of discourse, one that is more upbeat, positive, and friendly. Unfortunately, this would be difficult, if not impossible. As Foucault has shown, one does not simply pick and choose a discourse. The process works the other way around; it is the discourse that makes the library recognizable as a library.”
I have to say, this is not a very optimistic or flattering view of libraries. It seems the authors of this article themselves view libraries as an institution of power, and they view their role in establishing the discourse of society as an all-powerful one.
I really think that all of this is changing. I think the emphasis on libraries these days is not so much the information it contains, or allows into its collection, but what it offers the community. The library as community hub, as recreation centre, as learning facility, as social venue….all of these things. With access to the internet too, (and in many libraries internet access is not filtered), the discourse of the library is all encompassing.
This article ignores the cardinal rule of librarianship, the one thing that we stand for above all else–FREEDOM OF INFORMATION. We are not a totalitarian dictatorship deciding what is in and what is out, what is read and what is discarded! We are there to protect new ideas, differing philosophies and provide equal access to the underprivileged members of society.
Of course, I am not so naive as to think that the library does not have great power. Of course it does. But I do believe that libraries do their best to represent a variety of discourses in their collections, and very rarely do they censor ideas.
One more interesting note about this article–all of the scary librarians discussed were male librarians. This is interesting because librarianship is a traditionally female profession. So… how do female librarians fit into Focault’s discourse of fear? In popular culture the librarian is often represented as a tight-lipped old lady with her hair in a bun–a de-sexed or masculinized figure, perhaps? And what about the popular sexual fantasy of the “sexy librarian”. I wonder if this is actually really a power-play fantasy….librarian=dominatrix?
Radford, Gary P., & Marie L. Radford (2001). Libraries, librarians, and the discourse of fear. Library Quarterly 71(3): 299-329.