It’s being described “like The Office, but in a Library”. Never have I been so excited for an upcoming TV series. Anthony Q. Farrell (who worked as a writer on The Office for several seasons) and Counterfeit Pictures are hard at work with CTV to bring us Shelved, a workplace sitcom set in a public library in Toronto. As a Canadian MLIS student and Public Library worker, I can’t wait to see what will go on in and out of the fictional Jameson Public Library.
Only time will tell what this show will bring to the table, but it’s about time public libraries got a sitcom of their own! Here are some of my hopes and expectations for the series.
It’s no secret that, generally speaking, representation of our profession in movies and television has been scant and disappointing. (There are a few exceptions, of course… see Melissa’s recent blog post on the topic!)
Librarians are so often portrayed as the scary librarian, typically a bespectacled old lady with her grayish hair pulled up in a tidy bun, holding her fingers to her lips in her signature pose, the “Shhhh!”. Alternately, we’re the hot librarian, back arched and lips pursed as we push decorative carts or carry accessory books to complete the attractive look that overshadows our work. Sometimes we’re a strange combination of both of these types.
Of course, these portrayals are tired and overused, and certainly don’t reflect the passionate professionals working in libraries today.
Which brings us to…
Our profession is known to be a white- and female-dominated field with much work needed to be done in addressing barriers. Representation of diverse library staff in media is also overdue; people from all backgrounds and walks of life do important work in libraries, and there is no quintessential “librarian look”.
Up to this point, we haven’t seen much thoughtful representation of librarians or library staff in movies or TV at all, let alone those who are BIPOC, people with disabilities, LGBTQ2S+ , or who represent other types of potentially intersecting diversities. Representation is vital, and library folk, both staff and patrons, deserve to see role-models and characters they can relate to in library-related media.
The casting news for Shelved has been trickling in, with Lyndie Greenwood, Chris Sandiford, Dakota Ray Hebert, and Paul Braunstein confirmed in leading roles. With our first peek at their characters, it seems they each offer very different perspectives and skills. Additional cast announcements include Taylor Love, Varun Saranga, and Robin Duke.
With this promising cast list so far, I’m hopeful that viewers will see a lot of diversity in this show, in both the staff working in the library and the patrons being served. Parkdale is known as an artsy west-end neighborhood with a vibrant immigrant history. Justin Stockman of Bell Media provided more context about the setting in a promotional article: “there’s a place like Parkdale in every city, where the troubled neighborhood meets gentrification. There are many elements there, with different types of people dealing with everyday challenges.”
Parkdale is a setting full of possibilities.
Another type of representation I am very hopeful to see is some realistic depiction of the many, many hats public library staff wear. The general public has an enduring image of the library being a quiet study space: no more, no less. Yes, we do often spend time behind desks or walking around with books in hand, but on an average day in most public libraries we are just as likely to be seen hosting a lively discussion group, teaching a painting program, singing with toddlers, or leading a tour of rambunctious tween students.
The library depicted in the show’s news is said to be underfunded and “forgotten”, which suggests to me there is opportunity to show just how much hard work library staff put in to support their communities.
As a MLIS student, I’d also love to see any mention of the kinds of training and education staff might pursue in their library career. Including a bit about this would fight the misconception that we don’t do much but read books all day. Perhaps one of the staff on the show is also a part-time student working toward their MLIS, or another speaks about a specialized topic of interest at a remote library conference.
Workplace training episodes were utilized in The Office as a way to throw staff into uncommon situations and scenarios, bring together staff who didn’t normally work near each other, and to provoke conversations and interactions between characters with clashing personalities or views. I imagine something similar might be in store for us with Shelved.
Funny training episodes, yes please!
I’ve worked at a public library for over ten years, and from time to time I’ve actually considered how well suited libraries would be for sitcom material, particularly humour. Our workplaces are ripe with situations that could facilitate comedy gold: horrors in the book drop! Book cart shenanigans! Unwanted donations! Conference road-trips! Improvised bookmarks! Arguments about adopting a resident Library Pet! I could definitely go on and on.
I am ready for some hilarious library scenes and dialogue, and all of the memes that will surely ensue.
So, so ready.
Though not every good story needs a romantic element, that is a path the show could explore. Perhaps a couple of regular library patrons will meet and find love in the stacks. Someone might utilize the resources at the library to learn about healthy relationships or non-traditional relationship styles. A not-so-tech-savvy patron might seek out help from staff for setting up a dating app account, or planning a first date.
Will there be a beloved staff Library Couple stanned by legions of fans, like Jim and Pam from The Office? Only time will tell!
Conflict in the show could include a lot of humorous gags as small as “who keeps eating my lunch from the staff room fridge!?”. However, even a show with a comedic heart can take pauses to address serious moments in a more somber and respectful way. Introducing realistic conflict improves the pacing and interest of the show, and makes viewers feel more invested in the characters. I could imagine turmoil amongst staff involving scenarios such as handing censorship requests, navigating inappropriate or upsetting interactions with patrons, breakdowns in communication amongst staff, or wayward management.
While not every conflict in TV can meet a satisfying or happy ending, the overall feel or direction of Shelved will partly be determined by how the characters handle any overarching conflicts. There is opportunity here to make an impression on audiences who may never have considered the intricacies of library work.
As previously mentioned, Shelved is being compared to The Office, a beloved one-camera workplace sitcom that builds upon the drudgery of an office where employees sell paper. However, while I think this same one-camera sitcom format will work wonderfully for Shelved, there is a key difference in setting: a Public Library. I believe a Public Library setting offers the additional opportunity for inspiration amongst the highs, lows, and hilarity.
Fans of The Office love it for its characters and their shenanigans, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find an Office fan that discovered their life’s calling for pushing paper after binging the series. The rampant top-down corporate culture of Dunder Mifflin makes for some hilarious scenarios, but not an aspirational workplace (no matter how catchy a company jingle the staff may write, or how many company picnics they may attend). Any warm-fuzzies we feel from The Office come from our love of the characters themselves, not the work they’re doing, and that’s by design.
Contrastingly, libraries come from a place that is so very different than a capitalist, corporate company driven by sales goals and profit margins. We are at our heart sanctuaries that are community-led, working with and for our communities to offer equitable access to resources, information, entertainment, and togetherness.
Of course, libraries can have their own organizational issues, and not every library is created equal. I’m also not saying Shelved should encourage our tendency in librarianship to become wrapped up in vocational awe. Furthermore, I acknowledge this is a humorous sitcom we’re talking about, not a documentary about the Real Library. Yet, there is opportunity to inspire audiences, both existing library-folk and the general public. Perhaps the show will give a somewhat realistic portrayal of what we actually do and help to combat the tired and misinformed “why do we need libraries in 2022!?” question. Maybe Shelved will inspire some of the next generation of library professionals and MLIS applicants.
At the end of the day, if this show inspires even one more person to visit their local library, that’s a win! I have a feeling, though, or maybe a wish, that along with the laughs, Shelved will be an inspiration for many.
Shauna Murray has worked at Wood Buffalo Regional Library for over ten years in Reference and Information Services roles. She is currently completing her MLIS online through the University of Alberta, where she also obtained her Bachelor of Education with Distinction in 2015. She is passionate about critical literacy, community-led programs and services, fact checking, and diversity in collection development. Don’t talk to her about graphic novels unless you are ready to hear her wax poetic about the versatility of comics and how they are a format, not a genre! Her hobbies include needle-felting, printmaking, cosplay, and going on adventures with her dog Tegan. You can find her on Twitter and other social media @HideNGoShauna.