Monday, September 18, 2006

Librarians and Romance

The American Library Association will be holding a Banned Book Week soon (23-30 September):
Banned Books Week (BBW) celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them. After all, intellectual freedom can exist only where these two essential conditions are met.
That's definitely something worth celebrating, in my opinion. And as we have some extremely well-informed and helpful librarians on the Romance Scholar listserv , and last week there were two librarians, Kelly Watson and Wendy Crutcher blogging at Romancing the Blog, I thought maybe we should express some appreciation for librarians as well as for the freedom to read books. So it seemed like a good time to blog about librarians and the romance genre. Do all librarians love romance? And does the romance genre love librarians?

Well, as far as librarians are concerned, it seems that their attitudes towards romance have been slowly changing:
library related literature from the 1980s and 1990s suggests a bias against romance novels on the part of librarians. The literature suggests that the reasons for these attitudes include the marketing of romance novels as commodities rather than literature, the presence of sexuality in the novels [...] To counter this negative perception, some library and information science (LIS) authors and practitioners have worked to foster positive views of the genre. Many female, and some male, librarians admit to reading romance novels, while others proudly admit to writing them. (Adkins, Esser & Velasquez 2006: 54)
Research into Missouri librarians' attitudes towards the romance genre showed that 'library directors and staff [...] appear less judgmental and more concerned about patron satisfaction', though some librarians remained dismissive of the genre. For example, one respondent reported that colleagues had joked about romance being shelved in the 'Red Dot District' (Adkins, Esser & Velasquez 2006: 61).

Romance novelists would appear to be considerably more positive in their portrayal of librarians. Margaret A. Elliot’s Master's dissertation
examined the portrayal of 28 librarians depicted in 25 romance novels published between 1980 and 1995. The purpose of the study was to measure how that portrayal compared to the stereotypical image so often criticized in the professional literature. [...] The romance novel librarians were presented as youthful, attractive, and well-dressed; their values were not those of the stereotypical puritanical librarian, and they were comfortable with members of the opposite sex. [...] The romance novel librarians were overwhelmingly female, very refined, and white. [...] Librarians [...] were presented as helpful, friendly, and attractive professionals. (1996: ii)
Elliot noted that:
several of the novels in this study were written by former librarians Cathie Linz and Jayne Ann Krentz (Krentz also uses pseudonyms Jayne Castle and Stephanie James.). Although Linz and Krentz portrayed librarians as competent, attractive and stylish, they allowed the image problem to come up through comments or thoughts from the hero. (1996: 27)
Elliott therefore suggests that:
Librarians who are also novelists could hasten the updated image by refusing to use all images and allusions to the stereotype. If it is never referred to, it will gradually disappear into the annals of library history where it belongs. (1996: 29)
To give you an example of how the stereotype tends to appear alongside a refutation of it, here's part of Anne Marie Winston's Walk on the Wilde Side (it's in the Mills & Boon free Online Read Library, which I can't link to directly, but you can get there from here):
She wore her hair in a too-severe grown-up twist now instead of the bouncy ponytail of high school years, but he'd know her anywhere. Behind her glasses — small rimless ones instead of the big bug-eyed violet ones she used to wear — her eyes were the same changeable shade of gold and green. Her skin was still the smoothest, satiny-looking skin he'd ever seen on anything other than a peach and her face was still a delicate heart shape with a jaw that was just a bit too firm for her to be the quiet wallflower that everyone assumed she was. [...]

"I still live here." She was busy pushing herself out of his arms and tidying her skirt, her narrow, graceful hands moving restlessly as she indicated the house behind her. "I'm the librarian now."

Ethan chuckled, absently wondering what she'd have done if he hadn't let her go. The job was a perfect fit. "The librarian." He shook his head. "I should have put a bet on that before I left town," he said.

She made a small pout of dissatisfaction. "Was I that boring?"

He'd swear her voice quavered, and he quickly tried to amend his bald words. "That wasn't what I meant. You're the smartest woman I've ever met. You were the class valedictorian. Makes sense to me that you'd find your niche helping other people to appreciate books."
Even if the librarians are not portrayed as boring or puritanical, there might still be some element of sexual innocence (whether real or assumed) clinging to the portrayal of some librarians in romance. My sample is even smaller than Elliott's, but I thought it was perhaps significant that the librarian in Walk on the Wilde Side is a virgin, and although Mitch, the hero of Jennifer Crusie's What the Lady Wants has had seven girlfriends who were librarians, and two others whose work involved books (2002: 136) he ends up with Mae: 'She didn't appeal to him the way the librarians had. She wasn't shyly sexy, she was up-front, in-your-face, you-talkin'-to-me? sexy' (2002: 170). And maybe it's just as well - librarians might be in for some nasty shocks if readers started coming in to libraries expecting more than just a good read in the 'red dot district'.
  • Adkins, Denise, Linda Esser & Diane Velasquez, 2006. 'Relations Between Librarians and Romance Readers: A Missouri Survey', Public Libraries, Volume 45, Number 4, July/August 2006.
  • Crusie, Jennifer, 2002. What the Lady Wants (Ontario: MIRA Books).
  • Elliott, Margaret A., 1996. 'The Librarian's Stereotyped Image in Romance Novels, 1980-1995: Has the Image Changed?', Master's Research Paper, Kent State University. [Available via ERIC.]


  1. At a Library I Once Knew, controversial titles were not banned, but sequestered - in a small room off the furnace room, know by the staff as "The Hot Box."

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  3. Linda Howard's OPEN SEASON features a librarian heroine who goes through a makeover. She starts out as stereotypical small town librarian and becomes a bit of a vamp--which of course puts her in the target of a killer. Punishment for dressing outside the box?

  4. Perhaps it all started with "The Music Man" and "Marian, Madame Librarian." Shirley Jones certainly put a sweet face on librarians everywhere.

    My high school librarian, Mrs. Baker, was not at all dismissive of so-called popular reading, and when she saw that I had checked out "Jane Eyre" and "Pride and Prejudice," she recommended also "Lorna Doone" and "Horatio Hornblower." It was also in her library that I discovered my first Patricia Veryan novel, "The Mistress of Willowvale," which I went on to write a book report on for my 8th grade English class.

    Through the years, one immures oneself to carrying great armloads of romances to the checkout desk. Sometimes the ladies will even make recommendations, like "The Historian," which I am now reading. One even suggested to me Laurell K. Hamilton's Meredith Gentry novels, which are like non-stop roller-coaster rides of sex! Not your grandmother's librarians today, by any means.

    I considered becoming a librarian once, myself, but I was told that most have at least a master's degree in library science and jobs were competitive. I was timid then and afraid of computers, perfect for hiding in libraries, I thought. Little did I know librarians had become a new breed of scientist.

  5. It's really only in the past year or two that I've been taking lots of romances out of the library, and at first I did feel a bit embarrassed, wondering what the librarians would think about me. But, as you say, Jennifer, 'one immures oneself to carrying great armloads of romances to the checkout desk', and after all, 'there are worse things I could do, than pick up a romance or two, even though the neighbourhood thinks they're trashy and no good...' (paraphrasing of course). I've also thought about becoming a librarian, but I suspect I'd be far too tempted to spend all my time reading the books.

  6. Well, I can only report that my wife is (or was until our move) a librarian, fancy Master of Library Science and all, and she's the romance reader. Mysteries and romance almost always. I, unfortunately for all of you, am the blogger. If you could combine her knowledge with my verbosity, you'd have something.

  7. If you could combine her knowledge with my verbosity, you'd have something.

    A romance version of the Borg, maybe, working to assimilate all humans into the romance-reading community? ;-)