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Thursday, July 17, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Not all see librarian's finger to lips as tongue-in-cheek

Seattle Times staff reporter

To shush or not to shush.

That is the question on the minds of some of the 50-plus readers who responded to last Thursday's front-page article on an upcoming librarian "action figure" made by Seattle-based Accoutrements, parent company of the Archie McPhee store.

The doll, which will be on the market in about a month, is modeled after Nancy Pearl, director of the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library.

Most who wrote were enthusiastic about the action figure, with many indicating they plan to purchase the doll. But others took issue with the figure's sole movement: raising an index figure to its lips.

"The shushing motion really put me over the edge," said Diane DuBois, public-library director in Caribou, Maine. "Why not have a librarian driving a Harley (wearing leather and lace) or a librarian skydiving or snowboarding or using a laptop computer!"

On Long Island, N.Y., Rabbi Leslie Schotz called the gesture "a negative impression that has traumatized many people to hate libraries. ... As professionals we've gone to great lengths to change that."

Schotz, a school media specialist, said "If in fact ... the idea is to focus on the importance of librarians and their powerful role in society, why choose negative stereotypes?"

A few said the doll's appearance, with a long jacket, sensible shoes and glasses, also appears old-fashioned.

But Erlene Killeen, a school librarian in Stoughton, Wis., said librarians have far more to gain than lose from the doll.

"Just the fact that it exists and that it (a librarian) is being acknowledged as a role model is great." She doesn't find the shushing action harmful, adding, "You have to keep a sense of humor about this stuff."

The Times article, in addition to being published on the newspaper's Web site, was circulated by members of several librarian associations through group e-mails, triggering responses from across the United States and Canada — even Australia, New Zealand and Guam.

In Lewiston, Idaho, librarian Heather Stout, who plans to buy at least two of the figures — one for work, one for home — said, "I thought it was a riot, myself. It'll bring a chuckle to many librarians who know it's a play on an old stereotype ... and I hope that other people will see that it's the librarian of the past."

But Darby Fleming, who has directed small-town libraries in New Jersey and Maine, wants to silence the shush.

"This stereotype has continually gotten in MY way as a librarian and will continue to do so with other librarians if the shushing, bespectacled image continues to be the symbol," she wrote. "My 'library manners' rule has always been NO SILENCE! Silence stops communication, which, after all, is what being a librarian is all about."

Few library workers show off their shushing techniques like those in Santa Cruz, Calif., where the gesture is included in a routine done by a drill team of library employees in local parades.

Diane Noland, a library administrative assistant, said team members push carts of books in precision formations, guided by their director.

"When he calls 'Circulate!' we all push our carts around and then we stop and go 'Shush!' to the people on the side — and they always laugh and we always laugh."

Mark Pahlow, Accoutrements president, also has received some negative feedback, but says people haven't seen the total product yet, which includes not just the action figure, but the information to be printed on the packaging.

"If they see the context, they would understand the respect and celebration of library science that we have."

Although the packaging isn't complete, Pahlow may add some of its text to the Web site www.mcphee.com soon, to defuse some of the negative reaction.

Accoutrements hasn't become a success by playing it safe. Its Jesus Action Figure and spark-breathing "Nunzilla," for example, push the boundaries of what some may consider appropriate.

"We're interested in provoking some thought and some conversation," Pahlow said. "We're never abusive, but we may be more playful than some people think we should be."

Pearl anticipated that not all librarians would be amused by the shushing action.

"I'm sorry if people took it in a way that was not intended," she said of the figure. "It was done as a compliment to librarianship and the profession."

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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