South Street librarian

Pickup on South Street (1953), a film noir minor classic starring Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, and Thelma Ritter, includes a brief library scene that combines microfilm, a pickpocket, and the first African-American librarian portrayal on film — all in less than a minute!

A well-known pickpocket, Skip McCoy (Widmark), picks the wrong purse one day on the subway, accidentally stealing a roll of microfilm a lady (Peters) was on her way to deliver. As you do. This leads to a clash between the police and a Communist gang — OF COURSE — while Skip schemes amongst all the chaos.

Skip discovers the microfilm in his stash and has the idea to visit the public library in order to get a close look at the microfilm. Very clever! About 25 minutes in, he skips (har har) up the stairs to the New York Public Library, where we get a shot of a sign that reads, “Newspapers on Microfilm — Apply Here.”

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Pickup on South Street'

The camera then pans over two white gentlemen behind a library counter, both in white shirts and ties. The older gentleman is flipping through a book with a male patron, as seen above. Skip moves down the counter to a African-American male, also outfitted in the standard white shirt and tie.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Pickup on South Street'

Microfilm Library Clerk:  May I help you?

Skip:  Yes. I’d like to see a copy of the New York Times, January 5, 1947.

Microfilm Library Clerk [hands him a card and pencil]:  Fill this out, please.

The microfilm library clerk, played by Jaye Loft-Lyn, is portrayed as friendly and competent, a classic Information Provider. No fuss, no muss. The scene lasts only seconds, ending up in the Class IV category. Although the length of the scene is short, it is significant, as I mentioned before, in that it is the earliest film I have come across so far to include an African-American reel librarian. Too bad the role is uncredited.

The next scene cuts to Skip rolling the stolen microfilm onto the library microfilm reader, looking TOTALLY nonchalant and unsuspicious while doing so.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshots from 'Pickup on South Street'

Although the public machine is used for illicit reasons, Skip did end up a satisfied library patron! ;)

I also watched the remake ofPickup on South Street (1953) — I am NOTHING if not thorough, and it’s all for you, dear readers!  —  a tedious 1967 affair called The Cape Town Affair, which changed the locale from New York to Cape Town, South Africa, and starred James Brolin as pickpocket Skip McCoy. Instead of going to a local library, Skip goes to a fellow thief (one who has ripped off a camera store) to view the microfilm. A decidedly inferior remake in every way, including in its decision to nix the opportunity of showcasing a library onscreen.

Pickup on South Street vs. Remake

Click collage for image sources

Librarian t-shirt collection

I was going through some of the archived posts here on this Reel Librarians blog, and I came across this early post about my “Marian the Librarian” coffee mug. And then two things clicked:

  1. My husband just gifted me a new library-themed t-shirt for my birthday
  2. I realized that I hadn’t yet highlighted my ever-growing collection of librarian t-shirts

Oversight corrected. You’re welcome. ;)

Reel Librarians  |  Librarian t-shirt collection

From top to bottom, left to right:

I became a librarian for the money — the power and fame were just a bonus.

(This t-shirt was a gift from my mom, who is also a librarian. ;) )

Librarian Appreciation:  LONG OVERDUE

(I picked this neon green tee up as a giveaway at the most recent
American Library Association (ALA) Conference.)

This “Worship a Librarian” t-shirt is AWESOME. Behold its manifesto:

Ok, sure. We’ve all got our little preconceived notions about who Librarians are and what they do. Many people think of Librarians as diminutive civil servants, scuttling about “Sssh-ing” people and stamping things.

Well, think again buster. Librarians have degrees. They go to graduate school for information science and become masters of data systems and Human-Computer interaction. Librarians can catalog anything from an onion to a dog’s ear.

They could catalog you. Librarians wield unfathomable power. With a flip of the wrist they can hide your dissertation behind piles of old Field & Stream magazines. They can find data for your term paper that you never knew existed. They may even point you toward new and appropriate subject headings.

People become Librarians because they know too much. Their knowledge extends beyond mere categories. They cannot be confined to disciplines. Librarians are all-knowing and all-seeing.

They bring order to chaos.

They bring wisdom and culture to the masses. They preserve every aspect of human knowledge. Librarians rule.

And they will kick the crap out of anyone who says otherwise.

I have secret powers… I’m a librarian!

(I’ve had this baseball t-shirt for years!)

23 Mar 1984
04 Apr 1984
18 Jun 1984
24 Jul 1984
18 Aug 1984
28 Sep 1984

(This library-stamped t-shirt from Out of Print Clothing
was a recent birthday gift from my husband!)

Li•brar•i•an  n  1 : a specialist in the management of a library
2 : an information professional
3 : the person who finds sh!t

(So true! I love this shirt, but I don’t wear it to work. ;) )


(Hah! This was also a recent gift from my husband,
who picked up this Unshelved t-shirt at a writer’s conference. Looooooove it.)

There are so many cute and clever librarian-themed t-shirts out there, and I love adding to my personal collection!

The ultimate Information Provider

The action comedy RED (2010) features one of the most textbook examples of the Information Provider reel librarian character type. It’s a cheeky, action-packed film, with funny, committed performances by all the leads, including Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, and Helen Mirren. They all play RED agents, which stands for “Retired but Extremely Dangerous.” Someone has been a hit out on Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), so he teams up with his fellow retired agents to get revenge — and romance along the way with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker).

About a half-hour or so into RED (2010), Frank and Sarah follow up a lead in New York from a reporter who had been killed. When they question the reporter’s mother, they come across an odd number written on back of a postcard:

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

The next scene cuts to Frank and Sarah outside frosted glass doors that read “Downtown NYC Campus Branch” library. (By the way, no such library. The film credits list the Toronto Reference Library as the location for the library scene; the director most likely was playing off the NYU name.)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)
Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)
Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

Sarah:  Why are we here again?

Frank:  Because those number on Stephanie Chang’s postcard are actually the call number for a book.

Sarah:  Call numbers start with letters.

Frank:  In Library of Congress, yeah. In Harvard-Yenching, it’s a classification for Asian literature.

Sarah:  How could you possibly know that?

Frank:  [Starts speaking Mandarin]

They use that call number — which points to a book in the Christianity section, by the way, because you know I looked that up! — to find a book, inside of which they find clues to a hit list. Which leads to the next plot point as well as the next RED character… libraries and reel librarians really are so useful to propel plots forward. :)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

NOTE:  By the way, the Harvard-Yenching classification system was begun in the late 1920s to catalog Chinese-language materials in the Harvard-Yenching Institute. The Library of Congress (LC) system was not capable at the time of classifying those kinds of materials, so other libraries around the world followed suit by using the Harvard-Yenching system to catalog their own Asian-language collections. Through the 1970s and 1980s, however, the LC system added extensive subject headings for Asian and other languages and literatures, and most U.S. libraries now classify Asian-language materials under the LC system. You can read more about the Harvard-Yenching classification system here and more about the Harvard-Yenching Library here.

I was impressed by Frank’s knowledge of call number systems, but the reel librarian fun doesn’t stop there!

In the next scene, which takes place at CIA Headquarters, a director gives a file number to agent William Cooper (Karl Urban) to look up info about Frank Moses. “That’s a file number. You need to visit the back room. You’re going to meet the Records Keeper.”

William Cooper’s reaction to the “back room” is an incredulous, “I didn’t even know this place existed.”

The records keeper (Ernest Borgnine), wearing a cozy grey sweater and a scowl on his face, turns and replies, “It doesn’t.”

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

The back room of records is a room full of metal file cabinets, although the entrance looks like a bank vault.

The records keeper pulls out a large file labeled RED, its contents heavily blacked out with marker. The Records Keeper then fulfills his Information Provider role, providing exposition about what “RED” means to both the young agent as well as to the audience.

William Cooper:  You gotta be kidding me.

Records Keeper:  Frank Moses was one of the most effective black op agents we’ve ever had. … He was truly gifted.

William Cooper:  Why was he retired?

Records Keeper:  He got old. Some thumbsucker came along and tagged him “RED”

William Cooper:  Red?

Records Keeper:  RED. R-E-D. Retired:  Extremely Dangerous.

Records Keeper:  Yeah. They don’t make them like that anymore.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

Contrast the spare look and feel of the CIA archives and records room, as seen above, with the files of another RED agent Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), who is the next stop for Frank and Sarah.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

Just a litttttttle bit different than the CIA files, eh? ;)

Almost halfway into the film, Frank Moses goes back to break into the CIA, with help from the Russian spies. We find out more info about the “back room” from Frank, as he reveals the records room is in the lowest basement level. He also reveals the record keeper’s name, which is Henry.

Henry’s reaction to Frank is very different from how he greeted the younger agent:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

Henry:  Mr. Moses. [shakes his hand] It’s been a long time.

Frank:  I’m going to need to see that Guatemala file.

Henry:  Guatemala? Uh huh. I think I can help you.

Henry:  You know, it’s been a whole new world around here since you left. Guatemala.

Frank:  You know you’re gonna catch hell for this.

Henry:  After what I’ve seen? [They both laugh.]

Henry then proceeds to warn Frank about the young CIA agent out looking for him. A true Information Provider to the end, and Frank thanks him warmly.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Red' (2010)

Although Henry makes no more appearances in the film, and does not get mentioned by name again, there is one final mention of the “back room” in the film.

Toward the end, agent William Cooper captures and interrogates Sarah, and he throws down the Guatemala file down on the desk. We get a closeup of its stamp, which reads “Archives copy.”

William:  Frank left this for me. Where did he get it from?

Sarah:  The secure records depository of the CIA.

William seems surprised at this, but Sarah has a total poker face as she reveals the truth. Perhaps Henry will “catch hell for this,” but along with Frank, we wish this Class III reel librarian the best.

RIP, Ernest Borgnine, rest in peace.

An FBI librarian

I had watched The House on Carroll Street (1988) many years ago, and I recently had the opportunity to rewatch it in order to revisit my notes about its minor reel librarian character. Everything about the film is minor, even though it features some major stars (Jessica Tandy, Jeff Daniels, Mandy Patinkin, etc.) and tackles the heavy-hitting subject of McCarthyism. Kelly McGillis, fresh off her role in Top Gun, stars as Emily, who gets involved in an FBI investigation after refusing to give names to a 1951 House Un-American Activities Committee hearing. Emily also gets intimately involved with FBI agent Cochran (Jeff Daniels).

There isn’t much to tell about the plot, except it involves a lot of running, dark alleys, red lipstick, retro waves, fedoras, and dark grey suits.

One of those dark grey suits is filled by an FBI librarian (played by William Duff-Griffin), who runs some stills and footage for FBI agent Cochran about three-quarters of the way through the film. The middle-aged, portly, white male — complete with glasses and receding hairline — shows off his technical skills by handling the projector as well as answering the telephone. [Tongue firmly in cheek.]

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The House on Carroll Street' (1988)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The House on Carroll Street' (1988)

He also shows himself to be a man of few words as he answers the telephone: “Library. Wentworth speaking.”

He then turns to Cochran to tell him that the boss wants to speak to him, which leads to the next plot plot; we learn that Cochran has meddled too much and has been taken off the case.

The FBI librarian is only onscreen for a few seconds and therefore ends up in the Class IV category of reel librarians. He serves as a typical Information Provider.

The film also includes a earlier scene set in a bookstore. Emily suggests the bookstore as a place to meet up with a suspected spy, thinking that it would be a safe place that no one else would think of. Wrong! They get caught immediately, and a chase scene ensues in the bookstore, complete with toppling bookcases and turned-over book carts.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The House on Carroll Street' (1988)

And what is the main clue for how to distinguish between a bookstore and a library onscreen, as mentioned in last week’s post? That’s right, there are no call numbers on the books in the bookstore! :)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'The House on Carroll Street' (1988)

So long, dear readers, and I’ll see y’all next week!

How to spot the difference between a bookstore and a library onscreen

For some reason, I had never gotten around to watching the 2006 family film hit Night at the Museum, starring Ben Stiller as a night guard at a museum where history comes alive at night… literally. But it has been on my Master List of films to watch, so I finally got around to watching it recently through my cable’s On Demand program.

Night at the Museum (2006) isn’t that great a film — there are some serious pacing issues, and too many random characters and meandering subplots — and there wasn’t a library or librarian in the film, after all. Wah wahhhhhhh. [Enter sad trombone sound.] Therefore, it ends up a Class V film, with no reel librarians.

But not all is lost. Ben Stiller, as Larry Daley, does do some research to figure out how to cope with all the exhibits and historical figures coming to life at night. About a third of the way through the film, he starts his research quest by first asking museum worker and historical researcher Rebecca (Carla Gugino) about Attila the Hun. The director then cuts to Larry sitting cross-legged, surrounded by books, and his own nose buried in a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Attila the Hun.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Night at the Museum' (2006)

Larry then switches from old-school investigations to searching online, and we are treated to websites about the Easter Island statues, stagecoaches, monkeys, and Roman war strategies. And all of this research DOES pay off in the end, as he saves the day as the main culprit is getting away. How did he know what to do?

“I read up on my history. Thanks for the tip.”

Of course, methinks he would have had an easier time researching if he had asked a librarian for help! ;)

And how do I know that he is reading that book in a bookstore and not in a library? I can see where there might be some confusion, as the camera pans at the end of this brief scene to reveal some kids in the corner and the back of a person who looks to be shelving books, as seen below.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Night at the Museum' (2006)

There is one major clue in how to distinguish between a bookstore and a library onscreen.

Hint:  Look at the spines of the books on the shelves.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Night at the Museum' (2006)

That’s right, there are no call numbers on those books! A real library will ALWAYS have call numbers and/ or other kinds of labels on whatever materials stock their shelves. It’s how we organize collections, and how users locate the materials. Trust me. I’m a librarian. ;)

Of course, it doesn’t help when propmasters mix up this simple rule of library books needing call numbers and stock non-library books to fill out a library set, like in the movie Urban Legend. [Insert eye roll here.]

Also, the book that Larry is reading, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Attila the Hun? It’s not a real book, either. I suspected as much when I saw that whoever designed that fake book cover capitalized the word “the” between “Attila” and “Hun” in the title — which you can spot, just barely, in the screenshot above. You’re not supposed to capitalize filler words like “the” unless it’s at the beginning of a title, subtitle, or sentence, so it immediately looked strange to me. But I looked it up just to make sure. (FYI, I checked WorldCat,, as well as the Idiot’s Guides site.)

Y’all knew I would look that up, right?

And one last thing… yes, I did watch the 2009 sequel, Night at the Museum:  Battle of the Smithsonian, just in case. No library or librarian in that film, either.

Y’all knew I would be thorough, right? ;)

What not to do in a library

Although the focus of this website and blog is all about librarians in movies, I wanted to highlight a TV episode this week. Last year was the final season of “What Not to Wear” (2003-2013), a long-running American spin-off of the original British reality makeover series. I was a general fan of the show, as their best episodes touched on deeper, complex issues such as self-esteem, postpartum depression, transgender body issues, and negative body issues that can haunt victims of sexual abuse. How you project an image through clothing/style/hair/etc. so often has psychological and sociological roots, as I’ve explored often on this site.

During recent “What Not to Wear” reruns on TLC, I came across the 2013 episode for “Courtney D.,” season 10, episode 15, about “a tomboy who wears camouflage is advised to accept a style that’s more appropriate for her age and body type.” This is NOT one of their best episodes; in fact, it’s downright uncomfortable to watch, as Courtney is painfully shy but also quite vocal about her (very understandable) privacy concerns. At the beginning of each episode, the hosts Stacy and Clinton surprise the unsuspecting person who has been nominated for the makeover, and they set up a scenario to fit the interests or lifestyle of that particular person.

For this episode, the producers set up a fake prize of a New York city guided tour, which included a stop at a library. “Little does she know that when we get to her library tour, the hit will be on.” :(

Here’s a shot outside the library building that was the first stop on a “tour of historic New York architecture.” (FYI, I haven’t been able to find a credit for the building they did use, and if indeed it was a library in real life or not.)

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'What Not to Wear' episode

The producers explained the opening scenario to Stacy and Clinton:

Then the librarian is gonna tell her to look for something in the card catalog. She [Courtney] is gonna pull a book off the shelf, and then you guy are going to pop your faces in behind.

We get a special behind-the-scenes look at the set up of the library scene. At one point, a producer yells out, “So where’s the librarian?” and we are treated to a close-up of Jillian, the librarian, or rather the “librarian” as written on the screen.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'What Not to Wear' episode

I assume the grey-haired lady is an actress. However, she missed her cue (!) as they started the scene (er, tour). She put on her glasses and then sputtered, “Okay. Hold on. I didn’t know we were about to go.” The co-hosts and producers behind the scenes started cracking up, whispering, “She’s rogue! She’s rogue!”

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'What Not to Wear' episode

The rest of the scenario went off as planned. Stacey and Clinton then reveal themselves through the gap in the bookshelf, and they proceed to explain the whole “What Not to Wear” scenario in quiet whispers. Whenever anyone cheers, there are cuts to the librarian saying, “Shhhhh!” The co-hosts even shush THEMSELVES twice!

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'What Not to Wear' episode

Predictably, the “librarian” in this opening scene falls into the stereotypical image of a Spinster Librarian:  an older lady who wears conservative clothing and glasses, and of course, shushes anyone who talks above a whisper.


What not to wear? The librarian is wearing a scrunchie in her hair, for goodness sake! Maybe they should have started with the reel librarian instead! ;)

‘Meet cute’ marathon

I feel like quite a few of my posts begin by accident rather than design. I will happen to be watching a film when BAM! out of nowhere pops a library and/or librarian. Sometimes, I am elated. Sometimes, I am cranky because I wanted to watch the film instead of immediately taking notes and pics, if possible. Such is life for the Reel Librarian. ;)

While rewatching the 1976 thriller Marathon Man, starring Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier, I was at first surprised when there was a scene at a college library. I did not remember that scene the first time I watched the film, although to be fair, that was several years ago. One cannot help but admire the library interior, which is, of course, the focus — but you can juuuuuust spy the reel librarian checking out books in the lefthand corner, as seen in the screenshot below.

Reel Librarians  |  Screenshot from 'Marathon Man'

I was even more surprised when I realized that the library interior — while supposed to be the Columbia University Library in New York — was actually filmed in Los Angeles! More specifically, it was filmed at Doheny Library on the USC campus, which has been the library setting for many films, including City Slickers II (click here for that film analysis post). It was ALSO the library setting for Dustin Hoffman’s 1967 classic film, The Graduate. It’s a small world, after all, for reel libraries. ;)

A little more than a half-hour into Marathon Man (1976), Dustin Hoffman has a “meet cute” moment with a French-speaking lady sitting at his table. They both have a stack of books beside them.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Marathon Man'

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Marathon Man'

Dustin Hoffman, as graduate history student Babe, then hides one of her books — it happens to have her contact info printed inside on the front page — and then uses it as an excuse to meet up with her later. A little creepy, no? Here is their revealing conversation as he makes a play for her:

Elsa:  Why do you pursue people who sit at your library table?

Babe:  You’re pretty.

Elsa:  [Laughs, then starts to walk away]

Babe:  I can’t talk about how smart you are. I don’t even know you. … You won’t meet another thief like me in the library.


You see the reel librarian in this film for a few seconds only, and it comes as no surprise that the character is left out of the film’s credits. Therefore, this anonymous reel librarian gets to “meet cute” with the other Class IV reel librarians.

If you’re interested in more Marathon Man filming locations, check out this interesting post, complete with screenshots. The film holds up well, and the director, John Schlesinger, ratchets up the tension quite effectively. It’s also a film notable for turning its MacGuffin into a catchphrase (“Is it safe?”).

So is it safe to watch this film? Yes. But it’s not so safe to have your contact info pencilled in your books and then leave those books unattended in the library. Now you know. You’re welcome. ;)