The Spinster Librarian

In spirit of the new year, I will spend some time delving into each of the librarian character types I’ve identified on this site (found under the Role Call section). So for each Friday for the next couple of months, I’ll highlight a different librarian character type.

I have already mentioned the Spinster Librarian character type quite a few times already. It felt fitting to put this character type at the beginning of this series (or would it be more appropriate to call it a mini-series? hah!), as it is often the first image that comes to mind when one mentions librarian. And such a visually stereotypical image at that. For my undergraduate thesis, “A Glimpse Through the Glasses: Portrayals of Librarians in Films,” I originally referred to the Spinster Librarian type as “The Meek Spinster.”

Google image search for "Spinster Librarian"

This is perhaps the most recognizable image of a librarian, one that conjures up an image of a bespectacled older woman, unattractively thin or even gaunt, with her hair scraped back into a severe bun. Lanyards are the Spinster Librarian‘s accessory of choice. Fussy bows, long skirts, hats, and shirts buttoned all the way up complete the typical uniform. Of all the stereotypical roles, the Spinster Librarian is most identifiable by physical characteristics and appearance. Personality wise, the adjectives uptight, meek, or unsociable spring to mind.

These women usually have small roles, ones not integral the plot. Indeed, the Spinster Librarian is best portrayed in a small amount of screen time! As stated in the article “The Librarian Stereotype and the Movies” (see Resources), “the longer a stereotype remains on screen, the less credible it becomes” (p. 17). And it makes sense that almost all of the Spinster Librarian characters I’ve identified so far are found under Class III, a listing of films in which the librarians are secondary characters, usually with only a few lines in one memorable or significant scene.

The first Spinster Librarian, as seen in A Lost Romance

The silent film The Lost Romance (1921) seems to be the first film featuring a Spinster Librarian, as identified by Ray & Brenda Tevis in The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999 (p. 9). A not-so-noble tradition was born! A film still from this film (at left) reveals the glasses, bun, dowdy clothes, and forbidding expression prevalent of the Spinster Librarian. The Tevises also make an interesting observation that this film also established this type as a primarily supporting player, a role used to contrast with younger, more attractive female characters in leading roles, who are usually Liberated Librarian or Spirited Young Girl character types. I’ll get to those roles soon, no worries.

The most (in)famous example of the Spinster Librarian should come as no surprise… Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life. Or rather, Mary as she’s portrayed in the second half of the film, when George experiences life as if he’d never been born. This cartoon (click image to see the original, larger version) sends up this stereotypical portrayal.

The worst fate in the world, as imagined by Sheldon Comic Strip

Citizen Kane (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Cain and Mabel (1936), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), The Caveman’s Valentine (2001), and Christine (1983) all boast middle-aged/older, no-nonsense Spinster Librarians. And TWO spinsters — one living, one a ghost — make for a memorable opening scene in Ghostbusters (1984).

Next week, a deeper look at the Liberated Librarian… stay tuned!

Reel Librarian Firsts

1912:

The Librarian, first film to feature a librarian

1919:

A Very Good Young Man, first film to feature a male librarian

Notable: The main character’s profession was changed from brass bed factory worker in the play to librarian in the film

1921:

The Lost Romance, first film to feature a librarian with glasses and a bun (the Spinster Librarian image begins!)

1932:

Forbidden, first sound film to feature a librarian

Notable: “Old lady foureyes!” In the film’s opening scene, two small boys shout this as public librarian Lulu Smith (Barbara Stanwyck) walks down the street.

1932: 

No Man of Her Own, first film to feature a librarian in undergarments


1933 & 1940:

First films to feature a librarian saying, “Shush!”

The Good Companions, 1933 (UK)
The Philadelphia Story, 1940 (US)

1943:

The Seventh Victim, first horror film to feature a librarian

1953: 

Pickup on South Street, first film to feature an African-American librarian

1984:

Cal, first (non-erotic) film to feature a nude librarian (Helen Mirren)


Source: Several items of trivia in this post I gathered together while reading The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1919, by Ray Tevis & Brenda Tevis, 2005, a great source for information on reel librarians.