‘Let Them All Talk’ about cruise ship libraries and librarians

Let them all talk, indeed.. about this awesome cruise ship library!

I watched the movie Let Them All Talk (2020) this past December, when it was released on the streaming platform HBO Max. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the film stars Meryl Streep as celebrated writer Alice Hughes; Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen as Alice’s university friends Susan and Roberta; Lucas Hedges as Alice’s nephew Tyler, and Gemma Chan as Alice’s new literary agent Karen. The bulk of the movie happens on a cruise ship — shot on location on the Queen Mary 2 — and there are more shenanigans to the plot than I have head space to tackle here, so here is a trailer that sums up the plot:

I know that Soderbergh likes to experiment with moviemaking techniques, but I didn’t realize until after I watched the film that the dialog was mostly improvised by the actors, which explains a LOT about the film’s odd pacing and how circular and repetitive the dialog felt. (Out of this celebrated cast, I think Gemma Chan and Dianne Wiest best handled that improvisational style.)

I also didn’t expect there to be a library scene in the movie! And OF COURSE when a library appears in a movie, I have to pause so I can take notes in the moment. Libraries and librarians really do pop up in all sorts of movies at the most unexpected moments.

Library scene #1: Introduction to the cruise ship library

At 34 minutes into this movie, Alice visits the cruise ship’s library. I chuckled that she went to check out which of her books were in the library’s collection. That is such a writer thing to do! (I should know. I’m married to one.) She also checks out what books the library has of another writer on the same voyage, Kelvin Kranz, who writes popular thrillers. And there is an entire row of Kranz’s books, which irks Alice, who is a writer who writes “serious” fiction — and who takes herself very seriously, indeed.

But of course, I was most interested in this AMAZING library, with its glossy wood bookshelves and inset lighting. It’s so sparkly, and it displays the books like jewels.

As you can see in the screenshots below, when Alice walks into the library, you can see a younger White woman, with dark hair pulled back and dressed in a uniform, standing behind a counter and handing books to another woman, a guest in a floral dress. And as the camera pans down the row of books as Alice looks for her own books, you can spy call number ranges (or thematic/genre indicators?) at the end caps of the rows.

Behind Alice, a White woman hands books to guests at the counter in Let Them All Talk (2020)
Call number signs are visible at the ends of the book rows

And as Anna walks around another row of books, we see another cruise ship library worker, this time a younger Asian woman, again wearing a cruise ship uniform. She is wearing glasses and appears to be shelving books. Also, in the background along the wall, you can just spy a small gold sign that reads “Library.” (And you know I zoomed in on that sign to double-check, right? OF COURSE I did. 😉 )

You can spy the small gold “Library” sign along the back wall, in the center of this screenshot
A library worker shelves books in the cruise ship library

This scene lasts only a couple of minutes. I reviewed the cast list, and there are no credits for these cruise ship library workers. We know that the movie was filmed on the Queen Mary 2 cruise ship, so were these two women — the White woman at the counter and the Asian woman shelving books — actual workers in this cruise ship library? At this point, my thoughts are leaning toward YES. (We will return to this question.)

Library scene #2: More views of the cruise ship library

At 51 minutes in, we revisit the cruise ship library, this time with literary agent Karen, who also tracks Alice Hughes’s books in the library collection! She takes down a copy of Hughes’s most famous book, You Always/You Never (which Karen wants Alice to write a sequel to), and she sits down in a comfy reading chair to (re)read it. Along the way, we get treated to more views of the library’s amenities, including the comfy seating area and several desks and tables with library computers or OPACs on them.

Karen looks for Alice Hughes’ works in the cruise ship library, too
Karen chats with Kelvin Kranz, the writer of popular thrillers

While Karen dives into the book, the writer Kelvin Kranz finds her, and it turns out Kelvin and Karen know each other quite well! The plot thickens… and I won’t spoil any more of the movie for you all. 😉

Library scene #3: Alice Hughes’s private library

The final library scene is right at the end of the film, practically the final shot. Alice’s nephew Tyler returns to his aunt’s home in New York, and we get a glimpse into her magical, old-fashioned library, with its mezzanine, fireplace, and rows and rows of books.

So we get TWO beautiful, gleaming, light-filled library spaces in this film — so delightfully unexpected!

Alice’s personal library

Will the real cruise ship library please stand up?

So let’s return to that research quest to find out if we are seeing the actual workers in this cruise ship library.

The first step for me was to verify that the library we see onscreen was actually the library from the Queen Mary 2 cruise ship. So I searched online for any photos, and voilà, it is indeed the same library, as evidenced by this extensive slideshow of the Queen Mary 2’s library on this Cruise Critic site. Also, on slide 19 in this photo slideshow, you can see a chart of the color-coded call number system they use. (And props to the propmaster, if you scroll up to the close-ups of the book props for Alice Hughes and Kelvin Kranz, it looks like they used the same, or similar, color-coded call number stickers!! Such good attention to detail warms this librarian’s heart! ❤ )

I also uncovered this article about the Queen Mary 2 library in the professional journal Libraries & Culture, and it actually describes details about the staffing and set-up of the library:

“The library is physically connected to the ship’s bookshop. The librarian is stationed at a service point that serves both the library and the bookshop. There is usually at least one other individual who works at this service point; that person handles most of the bookshop sales but also helps with library duties.”

Richard D. Burbank, “The ‘Queen Mary 2’ Library” article published in Libraries & Culture, 2005, p. 547.

Y’all, I squealed with glee when I realized we actually see this description of the library staffing model in the film! The woman at the counter is most likely the main librarian described “at a service point that serves both the library and the bookshop,” which would also explain why that counter looked particularly busy. And the woman shelving books is likely the library assistant worker who “helps with library duties.” (But the two positions could be reversed.) There is no doubt in my mind now that we are seeing real-life cruise ship librarians in this movie!

Because the reel — and real-life! — librarians are seen onscreen for mere seconds and are there to help reinforce the library setting, they fulfill the role of Information Providers. Ultimately, the movie falls into the Class IV category, films with reel librarian cameos.

I also really enjoyed reading this article, “Which Cruise Ship Library is Right for You?,” published in The Washington Post in 2016, which was full of interesting tidbits. The Queen Mary 2 was ultimately rated the best ship library for traditionalists, as it has has the largest library at sea, with about 10,000 volumes! And I wholeheartedly agree with this summation:

“Staffed by full-time librarians, the collection holds a wide variety of materials, including bestsellers, classics and travel guides. Lush carpeting, leather sofas and armchairs, rich wood-and-glass shelves and semi-private Internet stations would be the envy of any public library.”

Carol Sottili, “Which Cruise Ship Library is Right for You?” published in The Washington Post, 11 June 2016

We got to see everything described in that article — the librarians, the collection with bestsellers and classics, the carpeting, the leather armchairs, the gleaming book shelves, AND the Internet stations — in the movie. Let Them All Talk, indeed.. about this awesome cruise ship library!

Have you watched this movie? Have you ever been on a cruise ship that had an awesome library? Please share your thoughts and comments on this post. 🙂

Additional cruise ship librarian & library posts

Can’t get enough of ship librarians and libraries? Check out these additional posts!

  • In this 2011 post, ‘Bon voyage’ to the ship’s librarian, I delve into Bon Voyage! (1962), a Disney comedy about an American family on a “dream” vacation to Europe. In one scene, the father (Fred MacMurray) goes to the ship’s library and is greeted enthusiastically by the Ship’s Librarian, played by James Millhollin.
  • In this 2014 post, A ‘Libeled Lady’ and a library, I set sail on an ocean liner with William Powell in the 1936 film Libeled Lady. Although we never see a librarian on board in the film, Powell rings the ship’s steward for books on angling.
  • In the 2018 round-up about Private eyes in reel librarian films, I highlight the 1934 film, The Captain Hates the Sea, in which an alcoholic newspaperman boards a ship, hoping for a restful cruise and the chance to quit drinking and begin writing a book. Also on board is a private detective hoping to nab a criminal with a fortune in stolen bonds — and a librarian on vacation! However, this reel librarian may be using this occupation as a cover for illicit activities…
  • In this 2019 post about the 1960s Miss Marple movies, featuring her trusty sidekick and village librarian, Mr. Stringer, we get to see Miss Marple (played by Margaret Rutherford) visit the ship’s library in Murder Ahoy! (1964). In the ship’s library, Miss Marple finds a copy of a book that serves as a vital clue that proves Miss Marple’s theory about a murder — and she later uses this same book to catch the killer in the final act!

Sources used

The Quotable Librarian | Poetry excerpts from 10 poet-librarians

April is National Poetry Month, so let’s highlight poetry from real-life poet-librarians!

The last post I did for the “Quotable Librarian” series was in 2018 — “The Quotable Librarian of Congress” post which featured Carla Hayden, the first woman and the first Black American to lead our national library — so I think it’s time to revisit this series, don’t y’all? April is National Poetry Month, so it feels right to highlight poetry from some real-life poet-librarians. This also feels like a companion post for previous posts like “Unreflected glory: Librarian authors and their mediocre movie adaptations” and “The Quotable Librarian | Inspirational quotes from famous librarians” (including quotes from real-life writer-librarians).

Where to start looking for real-life poet-librarians? These resources proved invaluable for this post:

Top row, left to right: Audre Lorde (CC BY), Jorge Luis Borges (Public domain), Christopher Okigbo (CC0 Public domain); Middle row, left to right: Stanley Kunitz (Public domain), Reinaldo Arenas (CC BY SA), Marianne Moore (Public domain); Bottom row, left to right: Philip Larkin (Painting by Humphrey Ocean, CC BY SA), Kavevangua Kahengua (screenshot from Township Productions video), Mao Zedong (Public domain)
Not pictured: Ana Rosa Núñez (I couldn’t find an openly licensed photo of her)

I have organized the entries and excerpts for the 10 poet-librarians below in chronological order by birth year.

Marianne Moore (1887-1972)

Marianne Moore, born in Kirkwood, Missouri, was a celebrated modernist poet, critic, and translator. Moore worked as an assistant librarian at the at the Hudson Park branch of the New York Public Library from 1921-1925. According to this post from the NYPL blog, her commute was only 42 steps! Moore’s poems were first published in 1915, and her first book of poetry was published (against her wishes!) in 1921. She published many more collections, and her Collected Poems in 1951 was awarded the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, the National Book Award for Poetry, and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Moore’s personal private library is preserved in its original layout — and available for public and digital viewing! — at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia.

In the meantime, if you demand on one hand,
                in defiance of their opinion –
        the raw material of poetry in
     all its rawness, and
     that which is on the other hand,
        genuine, then you are interested in poetry.

Marianne Moore, excerpt from “Poetry,” published in the literary magazine Others: A Magazine of the New Verse, 1919

Mao Zedong (1893-1976)

Mao Zedong (also spelled as Mao Tse-Tung), born in a Hunan village in south central China, became known as Chairman Mao and was founder of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). He worked as a librarian’s assistant at Peking University from 1918-1919 and reportedly “earned only $8 a month carrying periodicals to the readers and organizing shelves” (Newton). This American Libraries article argues that Mao’s independent studying in libraries and experiences as a library worker helped shape his revolutionary outlook and ideas. He wrote poetry his entire life, typically in the style of traditional Chinese poetry.

Filled with student enthusiasm
Boldly we cast all restraints aside.
Pointing to our mountains and rivers,
Setting people afire with our words,
We counted the mighty no more than muck.

Mao Zedong, excerpt from “Changsha,” 1925 (English translation)

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)

Jorge Luis Borges, born in Buenos Aires, worked as a municipal librarian at the Miguel Cané Library in Buenos Aires from 1937 to 1946 and became Director of the National Library of Argentina in 1955. However, he was forced to resign from his library posts — twice, in 1946 and in 1973 — due to political clashes with Juan Perón. Borges was most famous for his short stories, but he also wrote poetry, essays, screenplays, and literary criticism. Borges’s most famous line has to be “I have always imagined Paradise as a kind of library” from “Poem of the Gifts”/”Poema de los Dones” (1960), but I have chosen another poetic excerpt to share here.

Beyond the greying window night is fading
And in the stack of books whose lopped shadow
Makes it seem taller on the dim-lit table,
There’s one we’ll never get around to reading.

Jorge Luis Borges, excerpt from “Limits” published in Poetry, June 1993, translated by R. G. Barnes and Robert Mezey

Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006)

Stanley Kunitz, born in Worcester, Massachusetts, to parents of Jewish Russian Lithuanian descent, was a poet and editor. Although he never worked a librarian, he had the honor of being appointed — TWICE! — Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, first in 1974 and then again in 2000. While working at H.W. Wilson, he edited Wilson Library Bulletin, a well-known and respected trade journal for librarians, published 1914-1995. He also edited major reference works for libraries, such as the Twentieth Century Authors series, so I think he deserves to be included here — or at least an honorable mention? — for being directly involved in producing several professional journals and reference works for librarians and libraries. Kunitz’s first collection of poems, Intellectual Things, was published in 1930, and his 1959 collection, Selected Poems, earned the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Stanley Kunitz, excerpt from “The Layers,” 1978, published in The Collected Poems by Stanley Kunitz, 2000

Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

Philip Larkin, born in Coventry, England, was a poet, novelist, and librarian. After graduating from St. John’s College, Oxford, with a first in English Language and Literature, Larkin completed professional librarian studies, and he worked in libraries his entire adult life! He started out in public libraries, first working in 1943 at the public library in Wellington, Shropshire. After working as librarian at University College, Leicester, and at Queen’s University of Belfast in Northern Ireland, Larkin became University Librarian in 1955 at the University of Hull in Yorkshire, England, where he stayed the rest of his life. Larkin was awarded the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 1975. His first poem, “Ultimatum,” was published in the Listener in 1940, and he only published 4 complete poetry collections during his lifetime. Nevertheless, Larkin was “one of post-war England’s most famous poets, and was commonly referred to as ‘England’s other Poet Laureate’ until his death in 1985″ (Poetry Foundation).

Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,   
And age, and then the only end of age.

Philip Larkin, excerpt from “Dockery and Son,” Whitsun Weddings, 1964

Ana Rosa Núñez (1926 – 1999)

I could not find an openly licensed image or video of Ana Rosa Núñez to include in the gallery of poet-librarians above, but you can see a photo of Núñez here in this article about the founding women of the Cuban Heritage Collection.

Ana Rosa Núñez, born in Havana, Cuba, was a librarian and poet who published more than a dozen works, including collections of poetry, prose, and translations. She earned a library degree from the University of Havana in 1955 and worked as head librarian of the Tribunal de Cuentas de la Republica de Cuba (National Audit Office) from 1950-1961 and was a founding member and vice president of the Colegio Nacional de Bibliotecarios Universitarios (National College of University Librarians) from 1957-1959. She immigrated to the U.S. in 1965, and worked as a reference librarian at the University of Miami’s Otto G. Richter Library, where she helped found the Cuban Heritage Collection. As a poet, Núñez had a particular interest in Japanese haiku, and below is one of her haikus from the California State Library’s American Haiku Archives.

Nothing of the old cypress remains
light makes its nest
on the railroad tracks

Ana Rosa Núñez, haiku published in the collection A Dozen Tongues: Our Vanishing Wilderness, 2001

Christopher Okigbo (1932–1967)

Christopher Okigbo, born in Ojoto, Nigeria, was a poet, teacher, and librarian. He was killed fighting in the Nigeria-Biafra war in 1967 and was posthumously awarded the National Order of Merit of Biafra. While working as a librarian at the University of Nigeria, he founded the African Authors Association. You can read more about his life and publications here at the Christopher Okigbo Foundation site. I came across a couple of beautiful readings of Okigbo’s works by another Nigerian poet, Uche Ogbuji, and the following excerpt comes from that post and interview about Okigbo’s poetry and literary legacy.

Then we must sing,
tongue-tied without name or audience,
making harmony among the branches.

Christopher Okigbo, excerpt from “Siren Limits,” 1964

Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

Audre Lorde, a prolific poet and writer, was born in New York City to Caribbean immigrants. A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” (as qtd. in Poetry Foundation), Lorde’s poetry has been published in many collections, including her own anthology Chosen Poems: Old and New (1982) and in the anthology The 100 Best African American Poems (2010, edited by Nikki Giovanni). Lorde earned an MLS from Columbia University and worked as a librarian at Mount Vernon Public Library from 1961 to 1963 and at New York City’s Town School Library from 1966 to 1968. Lorde also served as New York State Poet laureate from 1991-1992. Two years after her death, the Audre Lorde Project, a Brooklyn-based organization for LGBT+ people of color, was founded.

Love is a word another kind of open—
As a diamond comes into a knot of flame
I am black because I come from the earth’s inside   
Take my word for jewel in your open light.

Audre Lorde, excerpt from “Coal,” The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, 1997

Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990)

Reinaldo Arenas, born in the Holguín province in Cuba, was a poet, novelist, and playwright. His posthumously published autobiography, Before Night Falls (1992), was adapted into a film of the same name in 2000; lead actor Javier Bardem, who is from Spain, was nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of Arenas. Arenas was a researcher in the José Martí National Library from 1963 to 1968 and an editor for the Cuban Book Institute from 1967 to 1968. In the 1970s, he was imprisoned in Cuba for his writings and his open homosexuality. In 1980, Arenas escaped to the U.S. and settled in New York City, where he mentored several other Cuban writers in exile.

I am that child with the round dirty face
who on every corner is bothering you with
his “can you spare one quarter?

Reinaldo Arenas, excerpt from “Viejo Niño,” 1983, translated by Lázaro Gómez Carriles

Kavevangua Kahengua (?-present)

Kavevangua Kahengua, born in Botswana and living in Namibia since 1993, is a contemporary poet and currently works as a Special Collections senior librarian at the University of Namibia. In addition to being a librarian scholar, Kahengua has also published a book of poetry called Dreams in 2002 and another collection, Invoking Voices: An Anthology of Poems, in 2012. A reviewer in the Journal of African Poetry described Kahengua as “a leading Namibian poet” (Malaba). You can enjoy videos of Kahengua reading his poem “The Walk” and Windhoek High School students in Namibia reciting his poem “Old Man Walking.”

Yet happiness is concealed in the privacy
Of mansions one wonders
What sins have their owners committed
To possess such riches!
Or whose labour have they exploited?

Kavevangua Kahengua, excerpt from “From Within,” Dreams, 2002

Sources used

Guest post: BIPOC archivists in animated series: Arizal and Grampa Park

Archivist Burkely Hermann delves into BIPOC archivists in animated series, including the characters of Arizal in ‘Recorded by Arizal’ and Grampa Park in ‘Stretch Armstrong & The Flex Fighters’

Burkely is back this month with another guest post, this time about archivists of color in animated series. If you haven’t already, make sure you check out Burkely Hermann’s first guest post on this blog about librarians of color in animated series. Some background: I highlighted one of Burkely’s posts about librarians in animated series back in November, and he also contributed lots of insightful comments on the Twitter round-table thread about archivist/librarian depictions in pop culture from Students and New Archives Professionals Section (@SNAP_Section), which I highlighted in this post from January, a post that set out my goals for this year to research and focus more on POC librarians. Therefore, I asked Burkely to contribute a couple of guest posts for this blog, because I think readers of this blog will enjoy his different perspectives of archivists and animated series. For this guest post, Burkely is going to delve into depictions of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) archivists in animated series, including the characters of Arizal in Recorded by Arizal and Grampa Park in Stretch Armstrong & The Flex Fighters.

A bit about Burkely:

Burkely Hermann is an archivist and researcher living in the U.S. He graduated from University of Maryland with an MLIS degree with a concentration in Archives & Digital Curation in December 2019, and earned a B.A. in Political Science, minoring in history, in May 2016 from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He started three blogs in the summer of 2020 about libraries, archives, and genealogy in popular culture: Genealogy in Popular Culture, Libraries in Popular Culture, and Wading Through The Cultural Stacks. He currently writes pop culture reviews for Pop Culture Maniacs, runs several genealogy blogs where he writes about his family history roots, and occasionally writes pieces for I Love Libraries, an initiative of the American Library Association. He has also been published in the American Archivist Reviews Portal, the SNAP RoundtableIssues & Advocacy, and Neurotastic. He is currently a writer for the Geekiary, an online pop culture review site, is exploring other sites to publish his work, and writes fictional works on the site Archive of Our Own about some of his favorite animated characters who travel to archives and libraries. Additionally, he volunteers as a judge for National History Day, likes hiking, reading webcomics, and swimming in his spare time.

*SPOILER ALERTS BELOW*


Archivists of color in animated series: Arizal and Grampa Park

~ Guest post by Burkely Hermann, MLIS

Archives are often portrayed stereotypically in popular media and confused with libraries, as is the case in the Star Wars franchise, the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series, and The Mystic Archives of Dantalian. Archivists themselves are often portrayed similarly to librarians and, as such, embody many of the same stereotypes. Archives are places where people can access, in person or online, first-hand accounts of events, including various original materials, whether paper documents, maps, photographs, and digital records, and are staffed by specially trained individuals called archivists. The records within these repositories are kept due to their continuing, and long-term, value to users and those creating the record. Archivists often attempt to make their collections publicly available, whether through outreach or digitization of existing records. While libraries also make their collections available, they include secondary sources, like books, non-print, and other print materials which are organized by author and subject, and can be checked out for home use. Archives, in contrast, are arranged according to the person, organization, or community which created them. Their records cannot be checked out by patrons because they include inactive, and unique, documents no longer needed for day-to-day operations, with specific guidelines in place for accessing those records.

Archivists are often shown negatively in popular culture, and when shown, they are mostly White women, with a lack of BIPOC archivists. This echoes the dynamics of the archival field, which is, as stated in the last census of archivists in 2004, and will be shown in the upcoming census of the field, majority White. Furthermore, Samantha Cross of POP Archives, a fellow archivist who has examined portrayals in popular culture, mostly points to White archivists and archives in her reviews. I have found the same when examining animated series with archives and archivists.

Two animated shows stand out in featuring BIPOC archivists: Stretch Armstrong & The Flex Fighters and Recorded by Arizal. Both series will be highlighted in this post.

Grampa Park shows Nathan and Ricardo how the newspaper archives is organized. (Note: He is listed as “Grandpa Park” in credits, but he uses the word “Grampa” for himself.)

When I came across the animated series Stretch Armstrong & The Flex Fighters, I was excited to see an archivist of color, voiced by Sab Shimono (a Japanese–American actor), which inspired me to watch all the episodes of the series. While he never gets a proper name — only called Grampa Park — this archivist is the grandfather of a Korean-American kid named Nathan, who helps his grandson and his friend, Ricardo, do research in his “newspaper archives,” when the internet goes down. Unfortunately, the archives is in his basement, perpetrating another common stereotype of archives which is repeated in fictional works. Even so, federal records were once stored in basements of government buildings, although this soon ended after the records were under the control of the National Archives. At the same time, there are questions as to how well the newspapers are preserved and the fact the archives itself is his personal hobby, with archivists having a professional job to preserve records, not because it is their hobby to do so. There are some hobbyists who archive documents, but they likely do not have the professional training to do such archival work. While the basement archives of Nathan’s grandfather are a bit messy, with some records which are melting, he, a former reporter, asks what they need (engaging in reference work). They look through the stacks, organized by newspapers which are either local or worldwide. The newspaper archives reappear several times in the series, and the characters use it to access information which the villains try to keep hidden. Even with the reservations about the series, as I’ve previously explained, I still chuckled at his joyful declaration in one episode: “some say I’m packrat, archivist I say!” A proud archivist indeed.

Arizal explains global archive in this screenshot from the first episode of Recorded by Arizal

A much more positive portrayal of archives is embodied in the protagonist of Recorded by Arizal, a 16-year-old Filipina girl named Arizal (voiced by Christine Marie Cabanos, an American voice actress of Filipino descent). She is an aspiring recordkeeper, known as keeper for short, who will travel across the world, gathering materials along the way to add to the global archive, to preserve the history of humanity. Arizal lives in a futuristic city named Maktaba with her cousin, uncle, and aunt. She composes a series of vlogs during her summer vacation, as an extra credit assignment and part of a formal application to become a keeper. While she decides whether she wants to pursue this career path, and the episodes released so far are a coming-of-age story, a main driving theme is “the discussion of record keeping and learning” as confirmed by series creator Yssa Badiola. On other occasions, Badiola has stated that future record keeping and vlogging is archival in and of itself. As an aside, the word “maktaba” means library or place of study in Arabic, showing that the show paid close attention to cultural and historical notions.

Throughout the series, Arizal struggles to define why she wants to be a keeper. She begins the series by saying she became interested in becoming a keeper because of her friends Lia and Rizella. Afterward, a keeper tells her the harsh reality of gathering information, causing her to have a personal crisis, as she worries about leaving her prized possessions behind before making the journey. Later, she reflects on her dream when standing on a secretive overlook and how she got through it with the help of friends. In the final part of the series, it is shown that her application to become a record keeper is accepted by the athenaeum, a literary and scientific organization that advances learning. If the series is greenlighted for a full season, her role as a keeper will be explored as she “records her journey to adulthood” and tries to make the history of humanity all the more complete. 

There is one character who gets honorable mention in this post: Hermes Conrad (voiced by Phil LaMarr, a Black American actor and writer) in the mature animation, Futurama. It is worth asking if he can even be considered an archivist since he is described and shown as the Planet Express company bureaucrat who has a deep love for filing and organization. He is able to quickly look through the Physical File Archive so effectively that he secretly takes out a file hiding his role as an inspector of Bender Rodriguez, a robot who is part of the company’s crew. In order to spare himself from Bender’s wrath, he later destroys the file. The so-called “archive” is a single file cabinet with three drawers in an out-of-the-way location, hidden deep in the Central Bureaucracy. Brad Houston, an archivist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, countered the notion, saying that this “physical file archive” is a records center because it contains semi-active records, rather than an archive. 

Title screen for the upcoming S.A.L.E.M. animated series

I am optimistic there will be further BIPOC archivists in future animations, due to the hopeful premiere this year of shows like S.A.L.E.M.: The Secret Archive of Legends, Enchantments, and Monsters on YouTube, and the other shows on a growing number of streaming platforms. I say this because popular animated series such as Amphibia, Carmen Sandiego, Little Witch Academia, and Bloom Into You, all feature either archives or archivy settings. The same can be said about The Bravest Knight, Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure, Steven Universe, and Manaria Friends all of which feature archives. Even so, these shows are cases of archives that have absent archivists, with some of these archives literally being abandoned. Furthermore, this article could be expanded further if George and Lance, the self-declared historians of the archive-library-museum in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, and the possible manager of the Ancient Egypt special collections room of the PYRAMID school library in Cleopatra in Space, Khensu, the mentor of the show’s protagonist, Cleopatra, are included. In the latter case, however, it is not known if Khensu is the one that organized the information or if it was someone else instead. In the end, I’ll keep writing about this subject to engender continued discussion while pushing for more, and better, representation of the archives profession in popular culture. 

To continue reading Burkely’s insights into librarians and archivists, make sure you visit his Libraries in Popular Culture and Wading Through the Cultural Stacks blogs.

Sources used

Guest post: BIPOC librarians in animated series: ‘She-Ra’ to ‘Yamibou’

Archivist Burkely Hermann delves into depictions of BIPOC librarians in animated series, including: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, Ascendance of a Bookworm, and Yamibou.

I have a treat for y’all! I am featuring a guest post by Burkely Hermann — if that name sounds familiar, it’s because I highlighted one of his posts about librarians in animated series back in November. Burkely also contributed lots of insightful comments on the Twitter round-table thread about archivist/librarian depictions in pop culture from Students and New Archives Professionals Section (@SNAP_Section), which I highlighted in this post from January, a post that set out my goals for this year to research and focus more on POC librarians. I asked Burkely to contribute a couple of guest posts for this blog, as he is an archivist and has a personal interest in anime and animated series (areas of pop culture that I know little about). I think readers of this blog will enjoy these different perspectives. For this guest post, Burkely is going to delve into depictions of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) librarians in animated series, including: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, Ascendance of a Bookworm, and Yamibou.

A bit about Burkely:

Burkely Hermann is an archivist and researcher living in the U.S. He graduated from University of Maryland with an MLIS degree with a concentration in Archives & Digital Curation in December 2019, and earned a B.A. in Political Science, minoring in history, in May 2016 from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He started three blogs in the summer of 2020 about libraries, archives, and genealogy in popular culture: Genealogy in Popular Culture, Libraries in Popular Culture, and Wading Through The Cultural Stacks. He currently writes pop culture reviews for Pop Culture Maniacs, runs several genealogy blogs where he writes about his family history roots, and occasionally writes pieces for I Love Libraries, an initiative of the American Library Association. He has also been published in the American Archivist Reviews Portal, the SNAP RoundtableIssues & Advocacy, and Neurotastic. He is currently a writer for the Geekiary, an online pop culture review site, is exploring other sites to publish his work, and writes fictional works on the site Archive of Our Own about some of his favorite animated characters who travel to archives and libraries. Additionally, he volunteers as a judge for National History Day, likes hiking, reading webcomics, and swimming in his spare time.

*SPOILER ALERTS BELOW*


BIPOC librarians in animated series: She-Ra to Yamibou

~ Guest post by Burkely Hermann, MLIS

Libraries have often appeared on the silver screen, whether in the form of stereotypes like the spinster librarian, Mary, in It’s A Wonderful Life and the glimpse of a librarian in Jennifer’s Body. Streaming shows have had their share of librarians too, like the unnamed librarian in the second episode of The Queen’s Gambit, or the value of the library emphasized in the first season of My Brilliant Friend. In the past year, I’ve come across a number of BIPOC librarians in Western animated and anime series. I’d like to review some of the ones I know of at the present in order to shed some light on these characters.

Western animation does not have a good track record when it comes to BIPOC librarians. Shows such as Zevo-3 and The Simpsons feature librarians, but both are White. The female-coded librarian named Turtle Princess in Adventure Time and a male librarian named Mr. Sneillson in Mysticons are voiced by White men. DC Super Hero Girls has Kimberly D. Brooks, a Black American actress who famously voiced Jasper in the Steven Universe series, voice a White female librarian, rather than have her voice a Black female librarian as a character. There are almost no BIPOC female librarians in Western animated series like the White young female librarian in Hilda, who is given a name in the show’s most recent season. Even Mira, the protagonist of the children’s animation, Mira, Royal Detective, based on late 19th century India, who sings about libraries with the people of  Jalpur, is only a librarian for one episode, serving at the pleasure of the queen as a royal detective for the rest of this series. However, one series showcases BIPOC male librarians unlike any other: Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, a remake of the 1980s series, She-Ra: Princess of Power

Lance and George, two librarians in the She-Ra and the Princesses of Power animated series

In the season 2 finale, Princess Glimmer and her friend, Adora, travel deep to the magical woods to find their brown-skinned friend, Bow, who has gone “missing.” They find a library, and believe they need to “rescue” him. They discover that Bow is there visiting his two dads, George, and Lance, claiming he is on break from a boarding school, when he is actually fighting in a war against the show’s villains. As it turns out, George and Lance run the library, which serves as a residence and a museum. It is beautiful in its own right even if it has vines growing on the outside. You could call it a hybrid between an archives, a museum, and a library. In any case, George and Lance call themselves historians, like Bow’s brothers, but they are librarians who have collected books as part of their research on the planet’s first settlers. Both are enthralled when they learn that Adora, who can transform into a warrior-princess named She-Ra, can read the ancient and dead language of the first settlers. Later, a battle with a creature, accidentally released by Adora, destroys part of the library, and Bow is forced to reveal who he is to his shocked dads. After they embrace him and his friends, these librarians help the protagonists by giving them information to help with their quest to find out more about the planet’s past. 

George and Lance later attend the coronation of Glimmer in the show’s fourth season. The library is revisited by Bow and Glimmer in the show’s fifth, and final, season. Sadly, the library has been abandoned and trashed. George and Lance leave a note to Bow, telling him where they went into hiding with a riddle. Bow and Glimmer find George and Lance in the ruins of a former castle, who tell them about writings they discovered about an ancient rebellion against the planet’s first settlers. They play a recording that details a fail-safe that could destroy the superweapon in the center of the planet. Bow and Glimmer share this information with their friends, helping them defeat the villainous Horde Prime later in the season. In the end, the value of libraries, librarians, and conducting detailed research is emphasized in the episode.

In contrast to Western animation, anime series feature various librarians, almost all of whom are women, at least from the series I’ve seen so far. Some like Hisami Hishishii in R.O.D the TV, Fumi Manjōme in Aoi Hana, Chiyo Tsukudate in Strawberry Panic!, or Azusa Aoi in Whispered Words are students behind the circulation desk, while others engage in more wide-ranging duties. For instance, Anne and Grea, two friends who love each other, in Manaria Friends close up the school library, shelve books, and play a game of hide-and-seek within the library. Similarly, Yamada, the protagonist of B Gata H Kei, fails to seduce her male friend, Kosuda, in the library, on multiple occasions, embarrassing herself over and over again. Apart from the unnamed librarians in Cardcaptor Sakura who help the protagonists Sakura, Sayoran, and Tomoyo, find a book in the local public library, which is literally flying away from them, there are three librarians who stand out. They are: Doctor Oldham in Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, Myne in Ascendance of a Bookworm, and Lilith in Yamibou

A collage of screenshots from Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet (left) and Ascendance of a Bookworm (right)

The first of these examples, in the series Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, is Oldham, a middle-aged man living in Gargantia, an interconnected fleet of ships that travels across the world, which is completely covered by water. He is a medical doctor, considered a sage and wise man by those in the fleet. He lives atop a spire, perhaps a nod to the idea of an “ivory tower.” Anyway, Amy brings Ledo, a soldier who crashed on the planet by accident, to his dwelling, which has a degraded library filled with books and not much else, so he can learn more about the Gargantian society. While the library seems to be a book depository, Oldham does inform Ledo about the social organization in Gargantia and laughs at him for his absurd ideas about society. As such, he fulfills the role of a librarian as an Information Provider, even though he is not called a librarian and does not call himself a librarian. He later appears in an original video animation where he helps at a library on another part of the fleet, aiding others in looking through records there with Bebel, Amy’s brother.

The second example is Myne in Ascendance of a Bookworm. Unlike any of the characters previously described in this post, she is the anime’s main protagonist. In fact, before she took on her form as a sickly, but highly intelligent, young child, she was a book-loving librarian, killed, ironically, by a stack of books. To her horror, she lives in a medieval town in an era before the printing press or public libraries, and she makes it her life mission to become a librarian. This was made clear in one episode where a priest, angry at her for threatening his position in the society’s elite, purposely wrecks the church library to stop her from coming to an important festival. Upon seeing this, she declares that the priest should be executed for this “crime.” Luckily, she calms down, re-organizing the library using the principles of the Nippon Decimal Classification System, after rejecting her own proposal to organize the library based on her own ideas. The latter system is the Japanese version of the Dewey Decimal System. Myne is gleeful to organize everything inside the library itself. Even more than this, the episode features PSAs from Myne about this system and the role of Melvil Dewey. Later, Myne even argues the importance of giving away books for free rather than for profit, angering Benno, who is the sponsor at her guild. It is unique that a character would have a song about re-organizing books, even while the library is portrayed as a book depository, with other materials not mentioned. She is the most positive depiction of a librarian in anime I’ve seen to date.

The third example is Lilith in Yamibou, a caretaker of the Great Library, a repository containing thousands of books that contain all the book-worlds of the universe. For most of the series, she travels with Hazuki, her crush, looking for Eve, who is another caretaker of the library. You could say that Lilith is doing her librarian duties by making sure that worlds within the books are secure, meaning they are a key part of the series. While she, like Oldham, is not identified as a librarian in the series, the official site of the visual novel that the anime is based on calls her a library administrator at the “center of the library world,” and says that she “manages all the books in the library.” The same is stated on the anime’s official website when translated into English. Unlike Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet and Ascendance of a Bookworm, the mechanics for the world’s shifting is “an interdimensional library,” with each of the books representative of another reality and the “home base” of Lilith, as pointed out by the Anime News Network. It turns out she is a “reluctant cosmic librarian,” as Eve, the real librarian and administrator of the Great Library, vanished years before into a “world of books.” 

While Western animation series do not, generally, have BIPOC librarians, there are various BIPOC librarians of note in anime series, specifically in Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, Ascendance of a Bookworm, and Yamibou. Although these are not all of the examples of BIPOC librarians in animated series, there is the possibility for upcoming series to include libraries as settings for characters and BIPOC librarians as characters themselves. After all, with Clara Rhone, a Black woman who runs a library, appearing in the series Welcome to the Wayne, there is hope yet for Western animation series. The same can be said for anime as Myne will be making a reappearance in the third season of Ascendance of a Bookworm.

For more of Burkely’s insights into librarians and archivists, make sure you visit his Libraries in Popular Culture and Wading Through the Cultural Stacks blogs. Burkely will also be back next month with a follow-up guest post about BIPOC archivists in animated series. Stay tuned!

Sources used

A closer look at the library scene in ‘Hidden Figures’ (2016)

Dorothy Vaughan doesn’t let an obstructionist librarian get in the way of her future.

Four years ago (!), I wrote about my first impressions of the library scene in Hidden Figures, which I watched in theaters. (That feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it, actually going to movie theaters? #PandemicLife). That post has remained one of the most popular posts on this Reel Librarians blog, so it felt time to revisit the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures film and take a closer look at its library scene. March is also Women’s History Month, and it feels fitting to focus on a movie that champions Black American women in STEM, including:

  • Katherine G. Johnson, mathematician and one of the first Black women scientists at NASA (played by Taraji P. Henson)
  • Dorothy Vaughan, mathematician and computer programmer and first Black female supervisor at NASA’s West Area Computers division (played by Octavia Spencer, in an Oscar-nominated performance)
  • Mary Jackson, NASA’s first Black female engineer (played by Janelle Monáe)

As I said in my 2017 post:

These are stories of American heroes that need to be shared and experienced.

A closer look at the public library scene

In that original first impressions post, I recalled the library scene clocking in about 2/3 of the way through the film. I can now say that my memory was totally off-base! The library scene begins at 49 1/2 minutes through this 126-minute film, which means this scene happens a little over 1/3 of the way through.

“Library Scene-Dorothy Vaughn Hidden Figures” video uploaded by Natalie Pedrianes, Standard YouTube License

But first, some context before we visit the library: Dorothy Vaughan has learned that NASA has installed an IBM electronic computer, and she realizes that this machine threatens to replace “human computers,” particularly the West Area Computer division of Black women computers she supervises. She realizes she needs to learn the language of this electronic computer. And where do you go for information? The public library, of course!

On their way to the library, Vaughan and her sons, Kenneth (Alkoya Brunson) and Leonard (Ashton Tyler), pass by an anti-segregation demonstration. We can hear calls for “Segregation must go,” and we see signs that read “Segregation hurts us all” and “The presence of segregation is the absence of democracy!” We also witness, along with the Vaughans, a couple of White policemen running to the scene of the protest. Vaughan says to her boys, “Don’t pay attention to all that. We’re not part of that trouble.

Protest scene in Hidden Figures (2016)

We then see the Vaughans walking up the side entrance to the public library, which I have to assume was the “Colored” entrance at that time. In the next frame, Vaughan is browsing through bookshelves as the two boys read to each other on the floor. (Props to the propmaster — I appreciated all the call number stickers on the books!)

Click on an image below to view in a larger size.

We then spy a reel librarian — a middle-aged White woman with shoulder-length, reddish hair, no glasses — peeking through the bookshelves. Her character is listed in the credits as White Librarian, played by Rhoda Griffis. What follows is a brief but devastating exchange (and one of the worst reference interviews I’ve ever seen onscreen).

White Librarian: We don’t want any trouble in here.

Dorothy Vaughan: I’m not here for any trouble, ma’am.

White Librarian: What are you here for?

Dorothy Vaughan: A book.

White Librarian: You have books in the colored section.

Dorothy Vaughan: It doesn’t have what I’m looking for.

White Librarian [shrugging]: That’s just the way it is.

Click on an image below to view in a larger size.

Side note: I noticed in the cast list on IMDb.com an uncredited stunt double for the White Librarian (Ruth Dalton). Why would this reel librarian character need a stunt double? Was this library scene originally going to be a bigger scene? Also, does anyone else notice the blurry figure in the background behind the White Librarian in the screenshot in the gallery above? Is that blurry figure in the background an uncredited library user in the “Colored” section of the library? Or a Black librarian? Was there originally going to be a “Black Librarian” character to contrast with the “White Librarian” character? It’s a detail in the background I had never noticed before. Am I overthinking it? What are your thoughts?

In the very next clip in this library scene, a White security guard (listed in the credits as “Library Security Guard,” played by Howie Johnson) escorts Dorothy Vaughan and her sons out of the front door of the library. We see a prominent sign on the front pillar that reads Hampton Public Library.

Library Security Guard [shoving the boys through the doors]: Go on now. You know better than this.

Vaughan: Get your hands off my boys! Don’t touch them. [Straightens up and adjusts her coat] You have a blessed day.

Dorothy Vaughan then walks past a White woman and her two boys. The two women exchange looks. Both have much in common in that moment — taking their two sons to the public library — and yet are worlds apart. There is so much said in that wordless glance between the two women.

Click on an image below to view in a larger size.

The scene in the library itself lasts 30 seconds. But then we get to see the effects of that library scene, as Dorothy Vaughan and her boys ride the bus home, seated in the back.

Dorothy Vaughan: Separate and equal are two different things. Just ‘cause it’s the way, doesn’t make it right. Understand? […] You act right, you are right. That’s for certain. Understand?

She then takes a library book out of her handbag. We get a closeup of the cover, the word “Fortran” visible in large letters, and a smaller line of indistinguishable text above.

Kenneth Vaughan [in a shocked tone]: You took that book, Mama?

Dorothy Vaughan: Son, I pay taxes. And taxes pay for everything in that library. You can’t take something you already paid for.

She then starts reading the book, “Fortran is a new and exciting language used by programmers to communicate with computers. It is exciting, as it is the wave of the future.” (Also, did y’all know that the word “Fortran” is derived from the phrase “Formula Translation”?! #WordNerd)

Click on an image below to view in a larger size.

This scene on the bus lasts about a minute long.

Although Dorothy Vaughan was not interested in exposing her boys to “that trouble” at the rally, she does demonstrate to them the value of “good trouble” (RIP, John Lewis). And what are the effects of Dorothy Vaughan’s good trouble act of taking that Fortran book from the “Whites” section of the public library? She teaches herself the Fortran language, and she pays that knowledge forward when she teaches her staff. She not only saves her job; she also saves the jobs of many other Black women mathematicians and computer scientists at NASA.

A closer look at the library book

Closeup of the Fortran book in Hidden Figures (2016)
Closeup of the Fortran book in Hidden Figures (2016)

Here is the best close-up I could get of the book Dorothy Vaughan takes from the public library, a relatively slim volume with a cover of multi-colored stripes. Although the word “FORTRAN” is visible on the cover, there seems to be a blurrier line of text right above. Dorothy’s hand is obscuring most of the author’s name at the bottom of the book, but it looks like a shorter surname. Was this book a real book — or at least based on a real book? Y’all know I looked that up, right?! OF COURSE I DID. 😉 So here was my process:

  • The film is set in 1961. First, I needed to see if there were any books published about Fortran in 1961 (or a year or two earlier).
  • Next stop: WorldCat, a world catalog of library holdings. I did an Advanced Search, typing in the keyword “Fortran” in the Title field and limiting my results to books published from 1960 to 1961. Here’s a link to those initial search results.
  • The first result was a Fortran manual published by IBM in 1961. Useful info, but I doubted that any public library would be snapping up brand-new technical computer manuals. In fact, of the 9 libraries that still have a copy of this title (!), almost all are college or university libraries.
  • I scanned down the results, looking for anything that had a title that looked similar to the one on the book prop. Bingo! Result #7 was a book entitled Introduction to Fortran, by S. C. Plumb, first published in 1961. And it is STILL available in over 200 libraries! Looking back at the blurry title and the shorter-looking surname in that book closeup, I am absolutely convinced that this book prop is based on — or is a really good original copy of? — Plumb’s book.

What do y’all think? Do you think it’s the same book? Do y’all enjoy reading about the details of my WorldCat sleuthing? I’m a college librarian, so I feel compelled to make my research process transparent. 😉

A closer look at the library’s filming location

I also wondered where this library scene was filmed. The “Hampton Public Library” sign was so prominent in the scene — was this a real library? Although the film is set in Virginia, I knew it was filmed mostly in Georgia. The IMDb.com’s Filming & Production page for this film states that the library scene (or at least, the exterior of the library) was filmed in Canton, Georgia.

I started by looking at public libraries or branches in Canton, to determine if any were named Hampton. No dice. Then I looked up the public libraries near where the NASA Langley Research Center is located, and bingo! Hampton, Virginia, is where that Center is located, and there is a Hampton Public Library, which began as the first free county library in Virginia in 1926, according to their library website. I also learned that Valerie Gardner, who is a Black woman, is the current library director of the Hampton Public Library! Although they did not film in Hampton, Virginia, I was so pleased that this film got that detail right, the name of the local public library.

So where did they film the exterior for the library scene? That’s when I searched online for filming locations for Hidden Figures, and the Movie Maps site provided details, that the library exterior was the Cherokee County Board of Education building, specifically the old Canton Grammar School, which you can see below in this historical image from the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. As you can tell by the white pillars in front and the side entrances, that’s definitely the location!

Also, when I searched for info about the old Canton Grammar School, which was built in 1914, I learned that the Cherokee County School Board postponed demolition of the old Canton Grammar School historic building in 2015. That was a good decision, because they filmed there for this movie the very next year! This building is also included on the Cherokee County Historical Society’s “Historic Sites Worth Saving” site.

A closer look at what this scene represents

I love the tangents that research takes me on this site, but I want to revisit what this scene and reel librarian character represent. The reel librarian is only onscreen for a few seconds, so she lands in the Class IV category, but the impact of what she says and does (getting the Vaughan family kicked out for being in the “Whites” section of the library) is far-reaching. I think it’s clear that the reel librarian character — with the not-subtle moniker of “White Librarian” — is named to indicate her role in perpetuating White supremacy. It’s not subtle, and it shouldn’t be. This librarian is a gatekeeper personified, literally keeping Black and Brown library users from knowledge and resources available to White members of the public. Why? Because “That’s just the way it is.” But Dorothy Vaughan doesn’t accept that circular logic or the librarian’s resigned shrug. She doesn’t let an obstructionist librarian get in the way of her future.

I wrote in my first impressions post of Hidden Figures that the “White Librarian” character serves the role of Information Provider. However, she is there not to provide information to any characters, but rather to inform the audience about and to reflect the societal rules that librarians were also participating in a system to unjustly segregate citizens.

After rewatching this film, my husband asked me about what I thought, from my perspective as a librarian, about Dorothy Vaughan taking that library book. Did I feel conflict within myself, being both a librarian and a White woman trying to better understand my White privilege and work for social justice. My answer was immediate: I support Dorothy Vaughan in this scene. In general, sure, I do not advocate taking library books out on the sly — and certainly not because of the “I pay taxes” excuse — because I believe resources in a public library are for the community. But as this movie demonstrates, those books were not there at this time for the community’s inclusive use at large; they were there for exclusive communities. Dorothy is breaking rules that were perpetuating White supremacy and restricting access and resources to people of color in their community. The rules were unjust; Dorothy’s personal act of civil disobedience was, therefore, just. That’s what matters in this scene, and in my opinion, that’s the bigger lesson that this scene represents.

A closer look at film reviews and analyses

I also sought out additional perspectives and commentary about this library scene in Hidden Figures and what it represents, then and now.

Leesa Renee Hall, a Black writer and anti-bias facilitator, called out the importance of this scene and how it is key to showcasing Dorothy Vaughan’s forward-thinking flexibility and professional resiliency:

“Dorothy Vaughan taught herself FORTRAN back in the 1960s to stay relevant. […] Spotting trends and adapting to them is the key to survivability in today’s job market.”

Leesa Renée Hall, What a Scene From #HiddenFigures Can Teach Us About #Automation #Disruption and Staying #Employable, 2 March 2017

Janell Hobson focused on Black women’s hidden labor in a review of the film and spotlighted the library scene:

With keen insight as one of the human “computers” at NASA, she understands how quickly her role—and that of her team of black women computers—will be replaced by this daunting object. Having already suffered the humiliation of being ejected from the “white” section of her local library in Virginia—and displaying eloquent rage when she warns the police officer throwing her out to not touch her sons while catching herself suddenly as she code-switches to polite dialogue lest she be manhandled and arrested—Dorothy puts to the test her newfound knowledge of Fortran, the early computer-programming language she must master and which she learned from the book she smuggled out of the library.

Janell Hobson, “Honoring the Legacy of Katherine Johnson, Hidden Figures and Black Women’s Historic Hidden Labor,” Ms., 17 Jan. 2017

In a 2019 undergraduate thesis for Sanata Dharma University in Indonesia, Bertha Uli Fransiska Pasaribu argues that this library scene demonstrates Dorothy Vaughan’s persistence:

The persistence of Dorothy also can be seen as Dorothy and her children go to the public library. […] Dorothy is a persistent person since she does not like to accept something unfair or unequal right away even though it is acceptable in that era.

Bertha Uli Fransiska Pasaribu, “The Struggles Against Multiple Discrimination in Hidden Figures” undergraduate thesis, 2019

Christina Vasilevski, a Toronto-based writer, delves into how the film illustrates different ways that White characters in the film participate in systemic racism:

The movie illustrates how systemic these barriers are by showing that nearly every white person in the film is complicit in their maintenance. A white librarian tries to shoo Dorothy away from the math and computer books in the library because those are in the “whites only” section. […] One of the movie’s chief virtues is that it doesn’t hide that truth. Everyone takes part in racism, even if no one explicitly uses the N-word.

Christina Vasilevski, “Hidden Figures, Not-So-Hidden Meaning,” 5 Jan. 2017

In a commentary piece in the Austin American-Statesman, Maya Payne Smart wrote about how this scene illustrates barriers — barriers that continue today:

“As a book lover and community advocate for literacy and libraries, this scene got me thinking about today’s hidden figures. It distills so many dimensions of the enduring obstacles to equality in America, from restricted access to career-propelling information to the threat of rebuke for daring to challenge the social order. And to think that Dorothy was one of the lucky ones — a college-educated NASA employee.

Today, incredible barriers to adult education and career advancement continue to persist. And there’s not necessarily a villainous gatekeeper standing between workers and the information they need. Complex systems of discrimination and segregation conspire to limit opportunity for many.”

Maya Payne Smart, “Commentary: ‘Hidden Figures’ illustrates barriers to advancement,” Austin American-Statesman, 25 Jan. 2017

A closer look at library segregation in the South

We already learned last month from Dr. Aisha Johnson and her lecture on the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program that some rural counties in the South started desegregating in the 1930s in order to secure library funding. But it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — three years after this film is set — that discrimination in public spaces like public libraries was officially outlawed.

I also learned about how in 1939, five Black teenagers protested at the all-White Alexandria Public Library in Virginia, two months after the American Library Association (ALA) first adopted the “Library Bill of Rights” which included a statement that “Library meeting rooms should be available on equal terms to all groups in the community” (Weigand). On the Digital Public Library of America’s online exhibit about the desegregation of public libraries, I also watched a 1962 news clip of Black students demonstrating civil disobedience at the public library in Albany, Georgia. From this article on the Granville County Library System site, I read about the Greenville Eight, the Tougaloo Nine, and the St. Helen Four, and the impacts of their actions to desegregate public libraries.

And this article from the American Libraries magazine highlights additional untold stories of heroes who participated in sit-ins and protests at public libraries during the Civil Rights era, including Teri Moncure Mojganiwho participated in a public library protest in 1964 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and became a librarian herself, at Xavier University of Louisiana.

Here are some additional resources that explore segregation, past and present, in our public libraries:

It feels natural that in taking a closer look at this library scene in Hidden Figures, we end up taking a closer look in general at public library segregation in the U.S. It was devastating, but necessary, to read about the harmful effects of actions and non-actions of librarians and library organizations during this painful — and painfully enduring — time period. As I wrote earlier, “These are stories of American heroes that need to be shared and experienced.” We must not forget, and films like Hidden Figures are one vital way to help us remember.

Sources used