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

BONUS! Check out this ‘Fright Club: Library Horror’ podcast

I joined MaddWolf on their newest Fright Club podcast, all about library scenes in horror movies

Exciting news to share with all y’all Reel Librarian readers! Last week, I was invited by George Wolf and Hope Madden of MaddWolf.com, a very cool movie review site, to be a guest on their Fright Club podcast. (!!!) This is a podcast all about horror movies, and each podcast theme is different (e.g. Motorcycle Mayhem, Best Cosmic Horror, Grief in Horror Movies, etc.) And the latest podcast theme all about library horror came about by reader demand! 🙂 There are soooooo many library scenes and reel librarians in horror movies, a theme I have written about many times before on this blog. In fact, MaddWolf came across this Reel Librarians site and blog when doing research for this podcast, and they actually delayed their podcast recording in order to invite me to join them. I had a blast — my first podcast! — and it was fascinating to glimpse a bit behind-the-scenes about what goes into recording a podcast.

So be sure to visit MaddWolf.com to listen to the “Fright Club: Library Horror” podcast, in which I join Hope and George to chat about microfiche, creepy librarians, and memorably frightful library scenes. Check it out… if you dare! 😉

And bonus good news on this bonus post… Hope and George have invited me back in a few weeks for a follow-up Fright Club podcast that will dive into memorable portrayals of librarians in horror movies. I will keep you updated on Part 2! In the meantime, would you like to help me compile my list? Please comment and share your personal favorite librarian characters in horror movies!

Video lecture: ‘The African American Struggle for Library Equality: The Untold Story of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program’

“Being a librarian was something of honor for the African American community.”

In the United States, February is an annual observance of Black History Month, also known as African American History Month, which has always had a strong emphasis on teaching and learning more about the history and accomplishments of Black Americans. While I was growing up in Texas, I remember learning primarily about well-known Black Americans, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. I know my childhood school experience is not unique. Many critics argue that focusing on just one month does not encourage integration of Black history into education all year round, and that focusing on just a few major Black historical figures leads to oversimplification of their complex histories and experiences.

More and more lately, I’ve been reading about how vital it is to make this a time to research and reflect on more diverse, lesser-known stories and figures of Black American history — and present. Librarians and archivists can have a major role in amplifying diverse Black American voices and experiences. Therefore, when I came across an email in my work inbox about a lecture on library science programs that trained African American librarians, I thought it would be fitting to share this lecture with you all, as well. This also ties into my own personal goals for this site, as I shared in this post in January, to research and highlight more POC librarians. While my primary focus on this site and blog is about portrayals of librarians onscreen, I have also highlighted real-life librarians on this site, too. Art imitates life, right?

Background info

Part of the August Baker Lecture Diversity Series, this lecture, “The African American Struggle for Library Equality: The Untold Story of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program,” was presented by Dr. Aisha M. Johnson, Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator of Archives and Records Management at the School of Library and Information Sciences, North Carolina Central University.

Here’s part of the write-up for the program from the Augusta Baker Lecture Series site:

Many people are familiar with Mr. Rosenwald [former president of Sears, Roebuck, Co.] as the founder of the Julius Rosenwald Fund that established more than 5,300 rural schools in 15 Southern states during the period 1917-1938. However, there is another major piece of the puzzle, the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program. That program established more than 10,000 school, college, and public libraries, funded library science programs that trained African American librarians, and made evident the need for libraries to be supported by local governments.

Experience the lecture

Here is the video recording of Dr. Johnson’s lecture, which took place on February 4, 2021:

“Dr. Aisha Johnson – Spring 2021 Baker Diversity Lecture Series” video uploaded by
NicoleTheLibrarian, Standard YouTube License
  • 0-2:12 mins: Welcome message by Dr. Nicole Cooke, Augusta Baker Endowed Chair at the University of South Carolina
  • 2:13-8:29 mins: Personal introduction by Dr. Aisha M. Johnson & introduction to her book, The African American Struggle for Library Equality: The Untold Story of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program
  • 8:30-13:54 mins: Library development and philanthropy in the Southern U.S. & overview of the Julius Rosenwald Fund (active 1917-1948)
  • 13:55-28:57 mins: Overview of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program (active 1927-1941) and its impact on rural school libraries, African-American college libraries, high school libraries, county libraries, and non-Rosenwald libraries
  • 28:58-33:20 mins: Hidden narratives & impact on HBCU library science programs, standardizing and supporting Black librarianship
  • 33:21-37:07 mins: Goals for further research & call of action
  • 37:08-58:23 mins: Q&A time

Personal takeaways from this lecture

I learned so much watching this lecture and reflecting on what Dr. Johnson researched and shared. Here are some of my personal takeaways and “golden lines” from Dr. Johnson’s lecture:

  • Dr. Johnson’s first career choice was librarianship! I connected to how she framed that “aha” moment of librarianship being a career of impact and service: “That’s not you finding the profession, that’s the profession finding you.”
  • There was a theme throughout the presentation, that if you focus on the under-served, everyone will benefit. As Dr. Johnson said later in the program, “With that library program, [Rosenwald] focused on African Americans, but the entire American South won. The entire region got education, increased literacy, additional educational opportunities.
  • The Julius Rosenwald Fund came about because of the relationship that Rosenwald, who was Jewish, had with Booker T. Washington, a well-respected Black American educator and author.
  • The funding of rural school libraries helped debunk the myth that black children could not read because of their parents.
  • Because Rosenwald would only provide funding to desegregated county libraries, rural Southern counties started desegregating in the 1930s in order to get the funding!
  • The funding for African American college libraries and scholarships for library science programs was the most successful division of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program.
  • I teared up when Dr. Johnson shared that “Being a librarian was something of honor for the African American community.” That made me think about Black librarian portrayals in films like Men of Honor (2000) and Beautiful Creatures (2013), and how there is so much more cultural significance to these cinematic portrayals. Representation really does matter.
  • I also teared up thinking about how “Rosenwald’s commitment to literacy evolved the profession.” Again, that recurring theme of how everyone benefits when you focus on the under-served and under-represented.
  • The only current library science program in HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) is at North Carolina Central University, where Dr. Johnson teaches. And that’s where Dr. Johnson focused her call to action. We need to continue Rosenwald’s work and increase the opportunities in library science for African Americans. Again, everyone in our profession, and the communities we serve, will benefit.

About Augusta Baker and the Augusta Baker Lecture series

I’ve mentioned that Dr. Johnson’s presentation was part of the Augusta Baker Lecture Series (specifically the 2021 Baker Diversity Series), so I also learned more about who Augusta Baker was! Augusta Braxton Baker (1911-1998) was the first African American Coordinator of Children’s Services within the New York Public Library system, and she served as the storyteller-in-residence at the University of South Carolina from 1980 to 1994. You can read more about Baker’s life, librarianship, and legacy here and here, and you can explore her oral histories here.

Dr. Nicole Cooke became the Augusta Baker Endowed Chair in 2019, and you can learn more about Dr. Cooke here. The inaugural August Baker Lecture kicked off in April 2020, and you can experience that inaugural lecture, the Diversity Series lectures, and related webinars here on the August Baker Lecture site.

Sources used