Comments to: Michael Engle, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

Kali among her skulls must have her hour.

It is time for the invocation, to atone
For what we fear most and have not dared to face:
Kali, the destroyer, cannot be overthrown;
We must stay, open-eyed, in the terrible place.

When I first became a librarian my curiosity was aroused by the recurring appearance of stereotype articles in the literature of librarianship. Why, I wondered, were librarians were so concerned about their image? I have since discovered that the image issue has been inherent in discussions of the professionalization of librarians since the 19th century. An article by Allan Angoff in 1959 indirectly presents the image issue as a challenge to the manliness of male librarians. In the debates over image and professional status, the stereotype has carried a lot emotional weight over the years. Librarians tend to have one of two reactions: distress or denial. As I thought about it during the 1980s, it seemed that the response of ALA and many librarians--highlighting examples of the stereotype in the media and writing critical letters to the people or corporations responsible for disseminating the image--left out something important.

One characteristic of librarians' responses so far has been a failure to recognize the underlying archetype that is the source of the stereotype's power. Archetypes are broad and enduring characters in the stories and beliefs of peoples that cross the boundaries of time and cultures. Stereotypes are limited and inferior versions of archetypes, and , as such, are repugnant to the people who are stereotyped. The dominant members of a culture often project their fears onto the less powerful through highly reductionistic and demeaning versions of archetypes. Neither stereotypers and the stereotyped are conscious of the source of the stereotype, but both sense its power. Speaking out against a stereotype is a step toward rediscovering the archetype. Work done by feminists, mythologists, poets, and psychologists has contributed to the rediscovery of archetypes that appear as women.

American Libraries Features "the Image"

A significant change in dealing with the stereotype occured in January, 1985, when American Libraries introduced a regular column, "Image: How They're Seeing Us." This feature continued through 1988 and highlighted representations of librarians and their work from various media. Some were positive, some negative. A surprising variety of images surfaced in that column through the years. If nothing else, the AL series revealed that representations of librarians were not so uniformly negative as some had feared. Nevertheless, the familiar stereotype of an unattractive woman wearing straight hair or a bun, unfashionable glasses, and sensible shoes turned up frequently. She was usually old, crabby, unmarried, and restrictive. Through these examples, librarians saw images of this woman squarely and publicly. She was named and visible. Complaining and letter-writing allowed librarians who were upset about the stereotype to channel their feelings into specific actions, but those responses did not take into account the richness and energy inherent in these representations of librarians. Persuading the media, an ad agency, or a company not to publish a particular image of librarians is closer to the act of censorship, something librarians professionally deplore, than an action consistent with the fury of the archetypal Crone.

Historical Background

The history of the image of librarians begins in the 1870s, when librarianship emerged as a profession. In the dominant value system of the Victorian era in Anglo-America, the highest and best lifework for middle-class women was making a warm, spiritually uplifting home for her world-weary husband and her children. Protestant white women were responsible for maintaining a high moral tone in the household, softening their husbands' rough male ways, and educating their children with sweet stories and carefully selected religious literature. Conversely, the men they married were born to function in the world outside the home and to provide economic support for the family. Unlike the women, whose higher spirituality raised them above such things, men were subject to base and uncontrollable drives which they needed to survive in the competitive jungle of the world beyond the home.

This arrangement left the single women of the era in a particularly difficult position. It was not acceptable for them to work outside the home, yet there was often no place for them inside it either. After the Civil War, women increasingly sought opportunities to make use of their education, talents, and higher moral sensibilities for the good of society. The rise of women-intensive professions--librarianship, social work, nursing, and elementary school teaching--provided an opportunity for work outside the home in a profession developed by and for unmarried women. Library work was acceptable because books were seen as a means of intellectual development and moral uplift. The job of librarians in public libraries was to recreate the atmosphere of a middle-class home with good and morally uplifting books, to rescue the masses from moral and intellectual poverty in much the same way that nurses and social workers sought to improve the lot of the sick and the materially poor. (Garrison)

The role of the Victorian Mother, the Angel in the House, was translated from the home into the library as single women entered the workforce. Over time, of course, married middle-class women also began to work outside the home. But the social pressures on women to maintain gender roles and the nuclear family ideal of the mother at home during the Great Depression and the 1950s, reinforced by the hiring practices of many libraries, kept librarianship well-populated with single women well past the middle of the 20th century. There was little support for women to assume responsibility for managing libraries, and many women worked decades in the same positions at the bottom of the library hierarchy. During this period the role of the librarian as the Good Mother educating children and the benighted poor with morally uplifting books evolved into something darker: the Crone.

The Archetypal Crone and Work

The dark side of the good and fertile Mother who gives life is the Crone, the Mother of Death. This powerful old woman in her various manifestations has long been known to worshippers in some religions, and to poets, literary critics, anthropologists, and psychologists. The Crone is not tied to a particular cultural or historical situation: she has appeared in similar forms in many cultures for thousands of years. Archetypal symbolism is especially strong in religious imagery, mythology, and folktales. Images, figures, and symbols with similar characteristics appear in many different cultures: the Joker/Coyote, the Witch/Sorcerer, the King and Queen, the Warrior/Amazon. (Moore) And so the Crone was also known as a witch to the Celts, medieval Catholic Christians, and New England Protestants; as Baba-Yaga to nineteenth-century Russians; and as Kali to the Hindus. (Afanasev); Moon 162-65; Walker) She is a woman who has passed through menopause. Free of the restrictions of fertility, she lives in the wilderness of forest or battle, related to no one, man or woman. She consumes the living and the dead. She is restrictive, possessive, and utterly without fear or scruple: the Death Mother, the shadow version of the One who gave us all life and nurtured us through childhood. The Crone is the dark side of the friendly, helpful librarian. It is her presence we experience as the "urge to kill" some patron who has gotten under our skin--the library user who refuses to be helped, no matter how hard we try. When trying hard and being good no longer works, then we're ready to visit Baba-Yaga's house.

What does it mean, in practical terms, to visit the Crone's house? Marc Hequet reports that some organizational trainers and consultants are attempting to tap the old stories by running seminars in which they retell the myths and folktales that describe the operative archetypal figures in a given organization to groups of its workers. The tale telling and the follow-up discussions bring the nonhuman characters operating in workplace dynamics into conscious awareness. Hequet calls these nonhuman characters or archetypes "respositories of psychic energy." Identifying an archetype such as the Crone that has been at work unconsciously in an individual or group makes the energy from that archetype available to be put to conscious use.(48) But becoming conscious of an archetype's identity is only the first step in a much longer process.

Beyond freeing up energy for work, an awareness of how archetypes figure in our work behavior allows us to be both more human and more humane. We have all experienced the presence of strong negative emotions, in others or ourselves, that seem inappropriate to the outer context in which they appear. This strong reaction is often a sign of the presence of an unconscious archetype; the other person seems to be demanding a response and the only response available seems to be an equally strong reaction. One way to make these difficult encounters more human is to be aware that a nonhuman archetype is at work in the other person and in ourselves. The other person is unaware of acting out an ancient role. A personal response is not appropriate. Rather, we must silently acknowledge the presence of the archetype. Then we are free to remain at an appropriate distance.

For librarians, becoming aware of the Crone is a way of claiming our humanity. When we recognize her presence without being swallowed by her, we are no longer caught in or restricted by the too-nice, too-good Mother. By learning how to stand in the face of the irate patron, the controlling boss, the manipulative colleague, we will gain the perspective we need to act wisely.

Using Folktales to Prepare to Meet the Crone

There are a number of household tales and folktales that give guidance in this transition from the too-nice librarian to the wise and wizened one: Grimm's "Old Woman in the Wood" from Germany and Afanasev's "Baba-Yaga" and "Frog Princess" from Russia. In Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, Clarissa Pinkola Estes retells "Vasalisa the Wise," a story from Russia and Eastern Europe. This story describes the process of leaving the too-good mother, finding and living with the Crone, and then returning, changed, to the starting place. Making this journey is both a personal and professional opportunity for librarians.

[See the story "Vasilisa the Wise" retold by Estes, chapter 3]

In her analysis of "Vasilisa the Wise," Estes pulls the threads of the story one by one to reveal nine tasks embedded in it. These tasks are (1) allowing the too-good mother to die, (2) exposing the crude shadow (observing the first appearance of the Crone), (3) navigating in the dark (using intuition), (4) facing the wild Crone, (5) serving the nonrational (living with and working for the Crone), (6) separating this from that (discernment of fine distinctions), (7) asking the mysteries, (8) standing on all fours (taking on immense power to see and affect others), and (9) recasting the shadow (finding the Crone in our own inner selves and in the outer world of our culture and transforming it with the fiery energy of the Baba-Yaga). (Estes 74-114) "Vasilisa the Wise" suggests a new interpretation of the appearance of the Crone in librarianship. Rather than stimulating a call for censorship, the Crone's appearance is an chance to explore our inner (psychic) lives and our outer (work and collective) lives. The Crone lives in both places and librarians are identified with her. Because we carry her in our work, librarians have a particular, even a peculiar, opportunity to integrate her into the life of our culture .

Applying the Crone's Lessons at Work

Key to dealing with the Crone character of librarianship is acting on the awareness that she is present in a given situation. When we recognize her presence, we can begin the process of working through the necessary tasks. The stories are always extending an invitation and providing direction. When we get lost, the stories are there to reread, to read aloud, and to make our own. Part of the story of librarianship in our time is moving beyond the too-good mother from the Victorian era and working with the richer, deeper, and much darker image of the Old Woman who is beyond the reach and power of men, family, and morality.

It is understandable that we are afraid and upset when our humanity disappears into a stereotype, when we are no longer human to others because they are seeing someone who belongs to them or to the culture at large; when they no longer see us as living, complex beings. Becoming well acquainted with the unhuman, impersonal figures in ourselves and others allows us to be human in their presence. Our response to their presence then moves beyond reactionary, inhuman, and stereotyped. Our response can be measured, human, and appropriate to the actual situation. Only when the archetypes are known to us can we respond to their presence in a way that celebrates the humanity of us all.

Adapted from a paper presented at the Fall Conference of the Eastern New York Chapter of the Association of College and Research Libraries, Plattsburgh, New York, 7-8 October 1993. Last revised 08 August 2006.


Afanasev, Aleksandr. Russian Fairy Tales. Trans. Norbert Guterman. New York: Pantheon, 1945.

Angoff, Allan. "The Male Librarian--An Anomaly?" Library Journal 15 February 1959: 553-56.

Clarkson, Alelia and Gilbert B. Cross, eds. "The Baba-Yaga." World Folktales: A Scribner Resource Collection. New York: Scribners, 1980. 179-84.

Estes, Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Ballantine, 1992.

Garrison, Dee. Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876-1920. New York: Free, 1979.

Grimm, Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm. "The Old Woman in the Wood." Grimm's Fairy Tales. Ed. Louis and Bryna Untermeyer. 2 vols. New York: Heritage, 1962. I: 162-64.

Hequet, Marc. "Poof! Myth and Fable Appear as Human Development Tools." Training December 1992: 46-50.

Hubbell, Larry. "Four Archetypal Shadows: A Look at the Dark Side of Public Organizations." Administration and Society 1 August 1992: 205+.

Isele, Elizabeth. The Frog Princess. New York: Crowell, 1984. (Adaptation of Tsarvena-liaqushka collected by Afanasev)

McCormick, Edith, ed. "Image: How They're Seeing Us." American Libraries. [monthly column; first appeared in v. 16, no. 1, January 1985; bimonthly beginning with v. 18, no. 11, December 1987]

McWhinney, Will and Jose Batista. "How Remythologizing Can Revitalize Organizations." Organizational Dynamics 17 (Autumn 1988): 46-58.

Moon, Beverly, ed. An Encyclopedia of Archetypal Symbolism. Boston: Shambala, 1991.

Moore, Robert. King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine. San Francisco: Harper, 1990.

Sarton, May. "The Invocation to Kali." Collected Poems of May Sarton. New York: Norton, 1978. [Return]

Walker, Barbara. The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom, and Power. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.

Michael Engle, moe1[at]
106 Olin Library
Ithaca, NY 14853
Last major text revision 12 February 1998
Markup and links updated 12 April 2005
Additional editorial changes and corrections 08 August 2006