“Power, Knowledge, and Fear” in the Library

A Google image search for “action figure” brings up over a million pictures of little plastic toys, ranging from typical superheros and rock stars to Jesus, Van Gogh with a patched-up ear and easel, a Hillary Clinton action figure/nutcracker, and Barack Obama fighting Darth Vader.  As these examples demonstrate, the action figure is an instance of idolatry, ridicule, or sometimes both.  Fittingly, there is also an action figure of a librarian with “shushing action.”  While on the surface this seems just a silly representation of a wide-spread stereotype, it reveals some of the complexity of this stereotype in that it represents the librarian in a position of power (complete with the ability to punish) while also inverting the power relationship (here, the user has power over the inanimate librarian figure).  If we take the action figure as a reflection of cultural imagination, the librarian is consequently both an idol and an object of ridicule, or to be more specific, an idol that incites ridicule.

An in-depth discussion of the librarian stereotype can be read in Marie and Gary Radford’s article “Power, Knowledge, and Fear:  Feminism, Foucault, and the Stereotype of the Female Librarian” published in The Library Quarterly in July of 1997.  Although it is not the newest article in the field, Radford and Radford’s argument is compelling for all those interested and invested in libraries and/or in cultural theory.  On the surface, their argument is twofold:  they set out first to discuss how the stereotype of the librarian is related to Foucault’s theories of discourse and secondly, how it can be seen in light of feminism.  As the former is a far more in-depth and satisfying discussion than the latter, it will serve as my focus here.

Radford and Radford argue that the librarian stands between order, which in its extreme can be represented by a perfectly organized  library with absolutely no books checked out, and madness.  The librarian guards the order of the library and understands its system, while the user, who takes books off the shelves, checks them out, and may not return them on time, is ultimately the source of disorder.  To maintain the order of the library, the librarian must create and enforce rules, giving the librarian not only power over the organization of knowledge within the library but also power to punish those who would use it.  The user approaches the library with fear, sensing that the knowledge she seeks is somewhere inside but fearing the path to it.  This creates an image of the librarian as a god, powerful and terrifying to approach.

Then Radford and Radford bring Foucault into the mix, and it really gets fun.  Foucault describes the library as a site of control, selection, and distribution of discourse which aids in averting the dangers that uncontrolled discourse could cause.  This makes the library an extremely important institution because, according to Foucault as described in this article, we fear uncontrolled discourse–first, because it is transitory in nature (i.e. we fear death–note that this is my extreme simplification), and secondly, because it can open up a grey zone of unknown powers and dangers (i.e. sometimes it’s better not to know what’s out there).  The library overcomes these fears by preserving discourse (fear #1) and controlling it (fear #2).  However, to approach a library is to approach discourse, which is still a frightening activity.  Radford and Radford argue here that the stereotype of the librarian allows the user to diffuse her fear of discourse by turning the librarian into an object of ridicule.  While the librarian possesses a fearsome shell (think shushing), underneath she is a woman and therefore ultimately powerless and worthy of derision, so Radford and Radford say.  Rather than reigning over the order of the library, the librarian is sometimes represented as controlled or possessed by it, and therefore becomes a figure to be ridiculed or even pitied.

As an aspiring librarian of the 21st century, at a time when Foucault is canonized theory reading from back when our parents were young, feminism has already made its waves, and now queer theory is pushing the boundaries of gender performance, I enjoy reading those who analyze the core of this cultural stereotype and cheer on those who push for changes in the image of the librarian (see an earlier post on the Men of the Stacks 2012 Calendar).

However, if the stereotype of the librarian does not change as quickly as the reality of who librarians actually are is changing, we can at least thank Radford and Radford for a peek into why it may have such staying power, particularly in an institution traditionally concentrated on preservation and control.


Radford, Marie L. and Gary P. Radford. “Power, Knowledge, and Fear: Feminism, Foucault, and the Stereotype of the Female Librarian. The Library Quarterly. Vol. 67(3). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997. 250-266.

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40039722