A look at ‘The Hollywood Librarian’

Reviewing “The Hollywood Librarian: A Look at Librarians Through Film” documentary

For years, I’d been excited about Ann Seidl’s documentary, The Hollywood Librarian: A Look at Librarians Through Film (2007) — another librarian who loves movies and is passionate about our profession and how we are portrayed? Count me in!

The Hollywood Librarian site heading
The Hollywood Librarian site heading

I couldn’t make it to the ALA 2007 Annual Conference where the documentary premiered. And when film screening opportunities rolled out the following year, I was disappointed that my library wasn’t able to participate (to screen the film for the public, you had to charge for tickets, which wasn’t allowed for our university library). Then I went overseas for three years, basically putting my film research on hold. So this year, FINALLY, I was able to see this documentary on dvd.

The positives? There are a lot of ’em. It is well done, a documentary both thoughtful and thought-provoking. Seidl wrote, directed, and narrated the film — it took more than 10 years to realize this goal! — combining film clips of reel librarians and libraries with interviews of real librarians and library supporters and authors, including Ray Bradbury (who wrote Fahrenheit 451, a book about book burning, in a library). Much of what the librarians have to say is meaningful and SHOULD be heard by a larger audience. There are unsung heroes amongst the librarians, along with “superstar” librarians like Nancy Pearl, the author behind the Book Lust series and the (infamous) “shushing librarian” action figure. You can feel Seidl’s passion.

The negatives? There are a lot of ’em, too. Even though the documentary ends on a positive quote from Nancy Pearl, “People absolutely adore being librarians. And who wouldn’t? I mean, it’s a perfect job,” the tone throughout is not exactly uplifting. But it’s hard to criticize this documentary because it is so well-meaning, and everything in it is of value. But it feels like a documentary splicing together 6 or 7 different documentaries in an hour and a half. The segments highlighting library issues include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • history of women in librarianship;
  • Andrew Carnegie and his legacy of public libraries;
  • benefits of children’s library services;
  • benefits of prison libraries;
  • censorship and intellectual freedom;
  • lack of public funding and the fight to keep public libraries open in Salinas, hometown of author John Steinbeck; and
  • the destruction of libraries and priceless archives during wartime, including Afghanistan and Iraq.

In short — and that previous list is long! — the film tries too hard to fit everything in. Watching it, I felt like I was watching a lot of tangents but not a cohesive whole. And that was frustrating because like I said, everything in it was good, and the points are valuable. But this is, unfortunately, an example where the sum is lesser than its parts.

Was this a conscious choice? Did the project grow too big? Was Seidl (subconsciously?) making a point about how marginalizing librarians onscreen then marginalizes librarians in real life? Seidl commented on her goals for the project:

We must insist on our right to define ourselves not only as more than a stereotype, but as a cultural imperative. We must have our positive self-image with the public.

And on The Hollywood Librarian website, she reveals more about her motivations:

The handful of films that exists on this topic [librarianship] neither examine the image and stereotype of librarians, nor portray the real work that librarians do. I want to make a film that does both.

However, the film clips that are included — the raison d’être I had assumed based on the title — seem more like a sideline, a convenient yet throwaway method to transition between chapters. Toward the beginning, Seidl seems to sum up the reel librarian with “The fussy, bad-tempered librarian is a stock stereotype in film and television. Aside from a few positive roles, being a librarian — according to the movies — is usually anything but a wonderful life,” and a quick montage of clips, including Citizen Kane (1941), Sophie’s Choice (1982), The Music Man (1962), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and of course, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). And about an hour in, she highlights the “sexy librarian” stereotype with a few clips from The Music Man (1962), The Station Agent (2003), and No Man of Her Own (1932), among others.

This review post has taken me awhile to write — I’ve kept coming back to it, just as I’ve kept coming back to my reactions to the documentary. It is an intriguing idea, literally juxtaposing reel and real librarians and issues affecting our profession. Bottom line, I do believe media portrayals, fictional or not, of my chosen profession matter. And this documentary, in the end, also matters. It is, as they say, a noble effort. But I fear that the title will mislead, and frustrate, viewers, and leave them with more questions than answers.

But maybe that’s a good thing.

Have you seen this documentary? What are your thoughts?

The Hollywood Librarian Trailer” video uploaded by TheHollywoodLibrarian is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Below is a list of the film clips and interviews included in The Hollywood Librarian, arranged in alphabetical order. Please note that not all of the film clips feature reel librarians.

Film clips*

  • Battlefield Earth (2000)
  • Big Bully (1996)
  • Billy Elliot (2000) *
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) *
  • Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)
  • The Cider House Rules (1999) *
  • Citizen Kane (1941) *
  • City of Angels (1998)
  • Cleopatra (1963)
  • Dangerous Minds (1995)
  • David Copperfield (1999?) *
  • The Day After Tomorrow (2004) *
  • Desk Set (1957)
  • East of Eden (1955)
  • Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
  • Foul Play (1978) *
  • Gone with the Wind (1939) *
  • Goodbye, Columbus (1969)
  • I Love Trouble (1994) *
  • It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
  • The Librarian: Quest for the Spear (TV, 2004)
  • Love Story (1970)
  • Matilda (1996)
  • The Music Man (1962)
  • The New Avengers (TV, 1976) *
  • No Man of Her Own (1932)
  • Party Girl (1995)
  • The Philadelphia Story (1940) *
  • Plaza Suite (1971)
  • Sophie’s Choice (1982) *
  • Soylent Green (1973)
  • Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) *
  • The Station Agent (2003)
  • Storm Center (1956)
  • Threesome (1994)
  • The Time Machine (2002)
  • Tomcats (2001) *
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1942)
  • The Truman Show (1998) *
  • The Twilight Zone (TV, 1962)
  • Wonder Man (1945) *
  • Zardoz (1974)

* Uncredited film clips

Librarian interviews**

  • Chris Ewing (web support librarian, University of Southern California)
  • Martin Garnar (librarian and privacy expert)
  • Ruth Gilbert (retired medical librarian, Denver, CO)
  • Susan Hildreth (State Librarian of California)
  • Molly Kliss (library science graduate student, Madison, WI)
  • Jamie LaRue (library director, Douglas County, CO)
  • Rhea Lawson, PhD (library director, Houston Public Library, TX)
  • Pat Lawton, PhD (professor of library science)
  • Marilyn Martin (library media specialist, Denver Public Schools)
  • Maria Mena (children’s librarian)
  • Jan Neal (head librarian, Salinas Public Library)
  • Nancy Paradise (librarian, Long Beach, CA)
  • Christine Pawley, PhD (library professor, Univ. of Iowa)
  • Nancy Pearl (librarian and author, Seattle, WA)
  • Peg Hepburn Perry (librarian 50+ yrs, 1921-2006)

Katharine Hepburn’s sister! Even MORE reasons to love Desk Set (1957). This could be a documentary all by itself. Dear Universe, this needs to happen. Thanks for listening. ♥ Jennifer

  • Eugenie Prime (head librarian, Hewlett Packard)
  • Maria Roddy (branch manager, Cesar Chavez Branch – Salinas public libraries)
  • Eleanore Schmidt (library director, Long Beach Public Library, CA)
  • Susan Turrell (library director, Tunkhannock Public Library)

** Job titles and workplaces as listed/stated in documentary

Sources used:

  • The Hollywood Librarian. Dir. Ann Seidl. Overdue Productions, 2007.

Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

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