by Christine Anne George
Two years ago, I gave a presentation about archivists in pop culture. (Spoiler alert: the name of the presentation, “You Have a Better Chance of Finding Waldo,” was the TL;DR (or I guess it should be TL;DL since it was a presentation) summation.) I found one exception to the dearth of archivists in pop culture—an instance of an archivist being mentioned on prime time major network programming.* There’s an episode of Modern Family that featured comically skewed, adult versions of the three Dunphy kids. Grown-up Alex explained she was an archivist, and not an exorcist as Haley thought. Unfortunately, Alex mispronounced it as “ark-EYE-vist” and turned out to be a crazy cat lady. Not really a win for the profession, but a mention is a mention.
Since then, I’m always on the lookout for mention of archivists. I hadn’t really thought about law librarians until a few days ago when I was watching the backdoor pilot for the upcoming show Chicago Justice. I watched as an Assistant State Attorney and his team scrambled to put together a case. Even though it didn’t necessarily fit the plot line (there was a lot of emphasis on interviews and analyzing surveillance footage), I kept wondering, where’s the law librarian with all this? Or if not the law librarian, then the law library? The question stuck with me after that show, and I started to think about all the other lawyer shows on TV. Bit of a disclaimer here—I tend to avoid legal dramas, so I wound up relying on viewing habits of others. Where’s the law librarian on any of the Law & Orders? The one I thought for sure must have a law librarian was How to Get Away with Murder because that at least is set in a law school, but friends who are avid viewers told me there isn’t one.
Why does this matter? Television is an early introduction into careers. During our formative years, it can provide a glimpse into jobs that we might not be aware of. Depictions of those careers on television and in other media create preconceived notions for the general public. Doctors run around yelling, “Stat!” while lawyers spend all their time arguing in a courtroom. There are more to the jobs than what’s shown on screen, but the day-to-day drudgery hardly makes for good television. Sure, there are subject matter consultants, but getting things exactly right isn’t really expected. For the people who have careers featured on television, there’s the annoyance of having to explain that what they do isn’t what so-and-so does on that show. For all the annoyance, though, at least there is some frame of reference. Trying to explain to friends and family what I do leads to a lot of smiling and nodding of their part. My sister once admitted she just tells people who ask that I put away books. Sometimes paper.
Is it necessary to have elementary school kids announcing on career days that they want to be law librarians? Personally, I think that would be pretty awesome, but, no, that’s not the point. It matters because it’s acknowledgement. With all the press coverage questioning whether libraries, and by extension librarians, are necessary, cultural depictions of our careers would provide a reminder that we exist and are an essential if behind-the-scenes part of law school and legal practice. During my presentation about archivists, I raised the point that it’s really hard to advocate for something if you have to spend time explaining what it is you do.
I won’t be holding my breath in anticipation for a major law librarian character on television that will allow me to point and say, “This! This is what I do!” I’m realistic. But just in case I ever happen to run into a network executive, I’ve got a great pitch for a series about an academic law librarian who works reference.
*Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn’t count no matter what anyone says. He was a librarian who used archives to save the world.