Never before in the history of motion pictures has there been a screen presence so commanding, so powerful, so deadly. He’s… Conan the Librarian!
I haven’t featured that many male reel librarians so far, so let’s bring out the big guns (or swords, rather) with Conan! The! Librarian! from the 1989 cult comedy, UHF. In this film, George Newman (Weird Al Yankovic) takes over an almost-bankrupt public TV station, and it becomes an unexpected hit. And one of those hits is showcased in a brief sketch — only 40 seconds long! — in the form of a television ad for the show “Conan the Librarian,” a parody of the famous “Conan the Barbarian” character created by R. E. Howard. I think it’s a bit fun, too, that the name serves as a subtle (and unintentional?) riff off the “Marian the Librarian” character and song from The Music Man (1962).
Conan’s first scene shows a balding, middle-aged man with thick glasses, cable-knit sweater, and tweedy jacket (really, doesn’t HE look more like a stereotypical male librarian?) who asks Conan the Librarian, “Can you tell me where I can find a book on astronomy?”
Conan’s classic response? To heave the poor man up by his lapels, of course, and shout, “Don’t you know the Dewey Decimal System?”
FYI, the astronomy books would be in the 520’s. And as a librarian, I have repeated this line — and Schwarzenegger-type intonation — many times. It is ALWAYS funny!
Conan then goes on to showcase more what-NOT-to-do examples for providing reference services, including slicing a young man in two because his books were overdue.
UHF successfully parodies the “Guardian of the Library” image and the librarian character types who display anal-retentive qualities — the Spinster Librarian and her male equivalent, the Anti-Social Male Librarian immediately spring to mind — who are prone to shushing anyone who dares to be loud in a library, or reel librarians who express over-the-top anxiety about late or damaged books. Conan the Librarian is a classic Comic Relief character type, with its crude portrayal of librarianship and extreme physical characteristics.
The scene’s over-the-top humor is more potent because it plays against type: a reel librarian, especially a male librarian, is often portrayed as weak or effeminate. Conan the Librarian shows off his physical superiority at every opportunity. (Fun fact! We first see Conan hanging out in the 613’s, which is the Dewey Decimal number for Aerobics.) Librarians are also usually portrayed as intelligent — even if a condescending type of “book smart” — and this Conan characterization riffs off of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dim-yet-tough brand of acting in his classic 1982 Conan. Although Conan the Librarian is a VERY bad librarian, he is a hero in one sense: he helps save the UHF television station. He’s so bad that he’s funny.
So although only 40 seconds long — again, a short scene provides an immortal reel librarian! — this scene packs a punch (literally) while laying waste to several reel librarian stereotypical traits. Just as Conan the Librarian helped save the fictional TV station, I think this funny scene and unforgettable librarian helped save the film itself. UHF was a notorious flop at the time it was released, but has since solidified fame with its cult status.
- The Creator of Conan (tor.com)
- Men of the Stacks (philbradley.typepad.com)
- “Librarians” – An Endangered Species? (scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org)
- It’s a Wonderful… Stereotype? (reel-librarians.com)
- Some thoughts on Conan the Barbarian (1982, 2011) & UHF (1989) (librariesatthemovies.blogspot.com)
- UHF (home.earthlink.net/~movielibrarians)