A closer look at the reel librarians in the original Ghostbusters

I have written about 1984’s Ghostbusters in bits and pieces before on the blog, including a “Who you gonna call?” post delving into the Librarian Ghost, as well as a “Repeat offenders” post highlighting John Rothman and his penchant for playing insensitive librarians in the early ’80s, including Ghostbusters. The comedy classic was also on the original list of reel librarians films I watched for my original undergraduate thesis, as well as on my list of best librarian films by decade.

However, when I recently rewatched Ghostbusters, I realized there was an opportunity for a closer, more comprehensive look at the librarians and library scene that opens the film. After all, the film features not one, but three, librarian characters in the opening scenes filmed at the iconic central branch of the New York Public Library.

Opening scenes in the library

The film opens on the steps of the New York Public Library, with a close-up gaze upon one of the iconic “Library Lion” statues guarding the central branch.

Reel Librarians | One of the "Library Lion" statues at the New York Public Library, opening shot of 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

One of the “Library Lion” statues at the New York Public Library, opening shot of ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

The film then immediately cuts to a close-up of a reel librarian, who is also as stone-faced as the statue outside. Character actress Alice Drummond, 56 years old at the time of filming, plays a public librarian named Alice, and her librarian props are out in full force, with a cart and books. Her clothing, consisting of a ruffled tie blouse and a cardigan sweater, is also conservative and buttoned-up. The only thing missing to complete the picture of a stereotypical librarian is a pair of glasses on a chain!

Reel Librarians | Opening shot of Alice the librarian in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

Opening shot of Alice the librarian in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

We follow Alice as she goes downstairs to shelve a few books.  The DVD commentary revealed that while the upstairs scenes were filmed in the actual New York Public Library — the library allowed the film crew to film until 10 a.m., so they had to work quickly! — the downstairs scenes were filmed at the Los Angeles Public Library.

As Alice walks deeper into the stacks, spooky things happen behind her back (literally), as books float past shelves, and card catalog drawer fly open and start spewing cards into the air. (I learned through the commentary that this was a practical effects shot of pushing drawers from behind a fake wall and blowing air through tubes to make the cards fly up.)

Reel Librarians | Paranormal activity in the library card catalog, in the opening scene from 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

Paranormal activity in the library card catalog, in the opening scene from ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

It’s interesting to note that Alice is almost completely silent through this opening scene. The first time we hear her voice is when she screams. It’s also very clever that we don’t see the ghost ourselves in this opening scene. In fact, with the screaming and up-lit visage of the scared librarian, she looks kind of like a ghost herself!

Reel Librarians | Reel librarian screams in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

Reel librarian screams in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

You can see a clip from the opening scene here:

Ghostbusters Library Index Card and Entrance Theme,” uploaded by Dan Baierl, Standard YouTube license

A quick scene in-between the two library scenes takes place at a local university, at the Paranormal Studies department, and helps establish the characters of the scientists and soon-to-be-Ghostbusters.

Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) is conducting an experiment when Ray Stantz (Dan Ackroyd) bursts in, excitedly shouting, “This is it. This is definitely it!” He goes on to explain:

At 1:40 p.m. at the main branch of the New York Public Library on 5th avenue, 10 people witnessed a free-floating, full-torso vaporous apparition. It blew books off shelves from 20 feet away and scared the socks off some poor librarian.

This bit of dialogue bridges to the library scenes, as Venkman and Stantz meet up with Egon Spengler in the library itself. Venkman makes noise slamming a book on the table, which alerts the library administrator. This is our first glance at Roger Delacourt (John Rothman), who is dressed conservatively in a dark blazer and tie:

Reel Librarians | First glance at the library administrator in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

First glance at the library administrator in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

Delacourt — notice that he gets a last name, plus a pair of glasses! — approaches the three scientists. After brief introductions, he immediately gets down to business and reveals his real concern:

Thank you for coming. Hopefully we can clear this up quickly, and quietly.

Reel Librarians | Meet cute between the library administrator and the Ghostbusters

Meet cute between the library administrator and the Ghostbusters

Next, everyone is clustered around a table, with “some poor librarian” on her back and murmuring. This scene is also when we first hear her character’s name, Alice (but we only get her first name). Delacourt, the library manager, hovers around as if he’s fighting the urge to all shush them for causing a scene in the library.

Reel Librarians | Not a meet-cute between the scared librarian and the Ghostbusters

Not a meet-cute between the scared librarian and the Ghostbusters

Remember, up to this point, all we’ve heard from Alice is her screaming. This next scene, we get to hear her actual speaking voice as Venkman asks her a series of questions, in order to gauge her competency.

Alice:  I don’t remember seeing any legs but it definitely had arms, because it reached out for me.

Peter Venkman:  Alice, I’m gonna ask you a couple of standard questions, okay? Have you or any member of your family ever been diagnosed schizophrenic, mentally incompetent…?

Alice:  My uncle thought he was St. Jerome.

Peter Venkman:  I’d call that a big yes. [Pause] Are you habitually using drugs, stimulants, alcohol?

Alice: No. [horrified]

By this point in the interview, Roger begins to look even more nervy and agitated.

Peter Venkman:  No, no, just asking. Are you, Alice, menstruating right now?

Roger can no longer stand it and butts in.

Roger Delacourt:  What has THAT got to do with it?

Peter Venkman:  Back off, man. I’m a scientist.

Reel Librarians | The library administrator gets the jitters in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

The library administrator gets the jitters in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

The three paranormal scientists then go down to the library basement themselves. The first spooky thing is… symmetrical book-stacking! The horror! As Venkman assesses, “You’re right, no human being would stack books like this.

We learn on the DVD commentary that it was Ivan Reitman’s idea on the day to do the symmetrical book-stacking!

Reel Librarians | Paranormal book-stacking in a library scene from 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

Paranormal book-stacking in a library scene from ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

They then come across the card catalog drawers and ectoplasmic residue — “Look at this mess!” — and as they round a corner, a bookcase topples. Turns out, this bit was not planned!

The part where the bookcase falls over and Venkman asks Ray “Has this ever happened to you before?” was not part of the original script. The bookcase actually fell over of its own accord (possibly from being disturbed by various crew members) and the subsequent lines were ad-libbed. It was decided to leave this material in as it added an extra element of mystery to the atmosphere as to whether it was a natural occurrence, or a malicious act on the part of the ghost for which the soon-to-be Ghostbusters were looking. (from IMDB.com Trivia page)

Reel Librarians | A library bookcase falls -- by accident! -- in a library scene from 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

A library bookcase falls — by accident! — in a library scene from ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

The scientists then come across the Librarian Ghost — excuse me, the “full torso vaporous apparition” — who is reading a book and floating in her Victorian-style dress.

When Venkman tries to speak to her, the ghost shushes him. (That’s how we know it’s a librarian!)

Reel Librarians | The library ghost in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

The library ghost in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

When they try to corner the Librarian Ghost, she morphs into a monstrous form and scares the socks off them, “some poor scientists.”

The DVD commentary revealed that this scene was one of the first ones they finished the special effects for. This first moment of seeing the librarian ghost was one the producers screened about 3 weeks after editing the film, and the audience freaked out, screaming and laughing at the same time. That’s when they knew the film was going to work!

As the soon-to-be Ghostbusters run screaming from the library, the hapless library director runs out after them.

Did you see it? What was it?

We’ll get back to you.

WHAT?!

Reel Librarians | The library administrator freaks out, at the end of the library scene in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

The library administrator freaks out, at the end of the library scene in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

The role of the librarians

Now that we’ve gotten a look at all three reel librarian in Ghostbusters, let’s delve into the roles and purposes they provide in this Class III film:

I previously identified Alice as fulfilling the dual roles of the Spinster Librarian character type, as well as the Comic Relief character type.

Her Spinster Librarian role is reflected in:

  • Her conservative, buttoned-up clothing
  • Uptight demeanor, as shown in the first shot, turning into timid/meek personality, after being scared by the librarian ghost
  • Rule-monger who is horrified first by the mess made by the spilling of library cards in the card catalog
  • Her sexual undesirability, or at least de-emphasis on her femininity, as revealed through the menstruation question and her horrified (and speechless) reaction to it

In my post about Comic Relief librarians, I wrote:

“The films that provide glimpses of librarians for comedic purposes only also are the films that depict the crudest portrayals overall of librarian stereotypes. The Comic Relief librarians mostly wind up in comedies — shocker, I know — or at least in films that include comedic undertones or situations. Their purpose is the most obvious of all reel librarian roles, but the librarians of this type do not necessarily entertain themselves or other characters in the film — rather, they entertain the audience. Exclusively minor characters, the Comic Relief librarians serve as the target of jokes, and the audience is encouraged to laugh at them.”

This description perfectly sums up how Alice fulfills the Comic Relief role in this film. We most definitely laugh at her distress, or at least remove ourselves, like the Ghostbusters, from her personal distress in order to focus on the cause (the ghost) rather than the effect (“some poor librarian”).

I also enjoyed putting together the different facial expressions of Alice the librarian. Her facial range is impressive!

Reel Librarians | The many facial expressions from Alice the librarian in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

The many facial expressions from Alice the librarian in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

Interestingly, the Librarian Ghost (Ruth Oliver) also fulfills the Spinster Librarian role:

  • Conservative, buttoned-up clothing? Check.
  • Hair in a bun? Check.
  • Rule-monger? CHECK. (Evidenced by her shushing.)
  • Unfriendly/stern demeanor? DOUBLE CHECK. (She suffers no fools, y’all.)
Reel Librarians | The varied facial expressions of the library ghost in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

The varied facial expressions of the library ghost in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

The library administrator, Roger Delacourt, is in his early 30s, a white male. He is an insensitive, nervy library bureaucrat, one who is more concerned about his precious reputation than about his librarian employee who got the shock of her life in the New York Public Library basement. His role fulfills the Anti-Social Librarian character type:

  • Conservative clothing
  • Poor social skills
  • Elitist—rates the library and its rules above the public
Reel Librarians | The main facial expression from the library administrator in 'Ghostbusters' (1984)

The main facial expression from the library administrator in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

His job centers on protecting the library’s reputation. He seems totally oblivious that a poor librarian (Alice Drummond) was scared out of her wits by a ghost. He is concerned only with how people will regard the library, and by association, himself.

Hmmm… I think I should add him to either my Hall of Shame or Dishonorable Mention lists…

The role of research

The combined scenes in the library wrap up by 12 minutes into the 105-minute film. We never go back to the New York Public Library — what happened to the Librarian Ghost?! — but the role of research still played a vital role in the film.

Even though the Ghostbusters lose their university funding because their “methods are sloppy” and their “conclusions are highly questionable” — thus providing the incentive to start the Ghostbusters business — the three scientists do highlight their scientific chops in a brief scene after Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) comes to report a demon named Zuul in her refrigerator.

Venkman:  There are some things we do, standard procedures in a case like this, which often brings us results.

Stantz:  I could go to the Hall of Records and check out the structural details in the building. Maybe the building itself has a history of psychic turbulence.

Spengler:  I could look for the name “Zuul” in the usual literature.

Stantz:  Spates Catalog.

Spengler:  Tobin’s Spirit Guide.

Dr. Spangler also references the book, The Roylance Guide to Secret Societies and Sects (also known as simply the Roylance Guide), in the film.

Side note:  Y’all know I looked up those titles, right? Although they were invented for the film, making Wikipedia’s List of Fictional Guidebooks, each title does play a role in subsequent Ghostbusters-related series and games. Each title — as well as the book Dr. Spengler wrote later on, Spengler’s Spirit Guide — is detailed in the Ghostbusters Wikia site. See here for the entry on Tobin’s Spirit Guide, here for the entry on Spates Catalog, and here for the entry on the Roylance Guide. Also, Ghostbusters: Tobin’s Spirit Guide was published last year, as a guide for the original movies, as well as the “expanded Ghostbusters universe, delving into supernatural phenomena from the comics, animated shows, video games, and other aspects of the franchise.”

An hour and 10 minutes into the film, Stantz pulls out the building plans — in a jail cell, as you do — and reveals that “the whole building… was designed and built expressly for the purpose of pulling in and concentrating spiritual turbulence…. Spook Central.

Their research pays off! 😀

Need more Ghostbusters?

Alice, the one who got her “socks scared off” in the film, is also featured in the music video for the Oscar-nominated title song by Ray Parker, Jr.

Ray Parker Jr. – Ghostbusters,” uploaded by RayParkerJuniorVEVO, Standard YouTube license

For those who would like to read more of those bits and pieces I’ve written previously about Ghostbusters:

Do you vividly recall the film’s opening scenes in the library? I have to admit that I had forgotten that the two scenes in the library were on either side of the scene in the Paranormal Studies office. I had melded the two library scenes together in my mind.

Have you revisited the original Ghostbusters lately? Or seen the recent remake? Please leave a comment and share! 🙂

 

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5 comments on “A closer look at the reel librarians in the original Ghostbusters

  1. popegrutch says:

    I proudly watched “Ghostbusters” eleven times the summer it was in theaters (many more times since). My mother accompanied me at least once and praised the film for its use of New York locations. She had worked at the 42nd Street Branch (the actual name of that library, incidentally, not “The Main Branch” as it is called in the movie) and was particularly pleased that they showed the stacks, which were closed to the public. Fortunately she’s passed on now, so I don’t have to tell her that scene was shot in LA!
    I did watch the remake, and was less impressed than a lot of other people seem to have been. A lot of it has faded after one year. The equivalent scene takes place in a made-up private library that seems to be based on the Frick (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frick_Collection) or the Morgan (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morgan_Library_%26_Museum). I don’t recall a librarian, although there’s some kind of curator character.

  2. Tess Stacks says:

    Hey Jen, So good to relive my favourite bit of GhostBusters! Thanks for the vivid re-telling. I must admit that every time I see a full card catalogue I expect a little haunting.
    Just a note on the gender of the librarians depicted: I wonder if it says more about the times or the profession that the librarians depicted are female but the manager of the library is male.
    Just sayin’.

    • Hi Tess, thanks so much for commenting! I think you have made a very good observation about the gender dynamics in the librarian vs. manager. This is common in the profession itself — even though women outnumber males overall (to the tune of around an 80/20 split!), male librarians still earn more, on average, than female librarians. Why? Because they tend to be managers or directories of libraries and therefore earn higher salaries! I really should flesh this out more in another post… thanks for the inspiration! 🙂

  3. […] not as memorable as the original film’s opening scene in the New York Public Library, which I analyzed in-depth in this post.) A tour guide is leading a group of people through the first level of the mansion, which he […]

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