Reviewing ‘The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999’

In last week’s post, I mentioned and quoted from a book I have in my personal library, The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999, written by Ray Tevis and Brenda Tevis and published by McFarland in 2005. Although I have quoted from this book in several previous posts, and the book is included on my Resources page, I realized that I had not yet devoted an entire post to this book!

Reel Librarians | Front cover of 'The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999'

Front cover of ‘The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999’

My husband picked up this book for me at a Popular Culture Association Conference years ago, knowing that I would find it useful. And I have! In prior posts, I have described this Tevis book as “invaluable” and “well-researched” and “a great source for information on reel librarians.” The authors also refer to librarians in cinema as “reel librarians,” as evidenced in their table of contents.

Reel Librarians | Table of contents of 'The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999'

Table of contents of ‘The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999’

The Tevises, who are themselves librarians, organize the book by time period and highlight patterns throughout film history in regards to librarian portrayals onscreen. (Librarians have been in film since the silent screen days, with one of the first reel librarian film sightings in 1917, with A Wife on Trial.) The Tevises identify an early turning point for reel librarians — for better or for worse — with the 1923 film, Only 38; they continue to use that phrase, “only 38,” throughout the rest of the book. As they highlight:

Throughout the twentieth century, the majority of reel librarians, especially those in supporting roles, will be afflicted with this “only 38” characteristic. These reel librarians are portrayed as middle-aged or older, a stigmatization of librarians that begins the first time individuals, when as children, enter a library and encounter an adult librarian, an “only 38” person. (p. 13)

Reel Librarians | Page in 'The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999'

Section in book about the film ‘Only 38’

In a 2012 post entitled “The Liberated Librarian (ladies, you’re up),” I connect the “only 38” stereotype with my own “Liberated Librarian” character type.

The Tevises also include a filmography of films included in the book and note common characteristics of reel librarians in those films, such as “B” for “Bun” and “E” for “Eyeglasses.”

Reel Librarians | Filmography in 'The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999'

Filmography of movies that were included in the book

These details then are collected in tables in the Afterword, with percentages of reel librarians who wear eyeglasses, etc. I highlighted these tables in my “Visual characteristics of reel librarians” post, comparing characteristics of “reel” versus “real” librarians. Take a look at that past post — the comparisons might surprise you!

There is also a filmography of films NOT included in the film, along with the reasons why. For example, they did not choose to include science fiction/fantasy films, TV movies, short films, or prison films, among others. (I do choose to include these kinds of films in my own Master List and other related lists on this site.)

Reel Librarians | Filmography in 'The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999'

Filmography of movies not included in the book

On the back cover, the write-up highlights a silent 1921 film that “set the precedent for two female librarian characters: a dowdy spinster wears glasses and a bun hairstyle, and an attractive woman is overworked and underpaid.” The (unnamed) film referred to on the back cover is 1921’s The Lost Romance.

Reel Librarians | Back cover of 'The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999'

Back cover of ‘The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999’

Reel Librarians | Page in 'The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999'

Section in book about the film ‘The Lost Romance’

So if you are interested in this research topic, then I would recommend checking out a copy of this book, as it is one of the most comprehensive collections and analyses of reel librarians I have come across in printed form. It is available, new or used, on Amazon.com, and according to WorldCat, it’s available in multiple formats in almost 400 libraries worldwide, if you’d like to request it from your local library via InterLibrary Loan (ILL).

I do refer to The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999 as a “reference book,” as it is not the kind of escapist book you read in bed the end of a long day. It doesn’t serve that purpose — not even for me! It has been referred to in one external review as “slow-moving” (libref); I would describe the pace as methodical, as the authors work through 80+ years of reel librarian portrayals and “employ a content analysis methodology to examine reel librarians” (Riggins).

I am grateful that Ray and Brenda Tevis spent years researching this topic — kindred spirits, I am sure! — and were able to capture that research in this book, which I will continue to find useful in my own exploration of reel librarian portrayals.

Works Cited:

Libref. “Librarians in Cinema.” Wells Reference Blog, Indiana University Libraries. 22 October 2015. Web. 14 June 2016.

Riggins, Adina L. “Review of the book ‘The image of librarians in cinema, 1917-1999.” NC Docks, The University of North Carolina, Greensboro. 2009. Web. 14 June 2016.

Tevis, Ray and Brenda Tevis. The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2005.

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2 comments on “Reviewing ‘The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999’

  1. popegrutch says:

    Thanks for all the info! Looks like I’ll need to track it down by the end of the year. I wonder if I can find a copy of “Wife on Trial” in time for the centenary…do I smell a dual review?

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