Revisiting reel librarian totals

There’s no way or even a reason to sugar-coat the fact that there are not that many cinematic representations of librarians of color, and even fewer roles that are major characters.

Note: The info in this post has been updated; please see my 2021 “Reel librarians of color, 2021 update” post

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a follow-up to my call for reader questions and ideas. I plan on addressing all the great reader questions and ideas that came my way — thank you again, dear readers! Today, I address an email request from a reader who preferred to remain anonymous, who asked me to revisit the previous questions readers asked me from the 2013 Reader Q and A post:

How many movies have librarians in them?
How many movies are there with librarians of color?

Here was my immediate reaction:

It would definitely be worth going back over those lists again and seeing how those numbers have changed!

"Laptop and calculator" by TheAngryTeddy is licensed under Public Domain CC0
“Laptop and calculator” by TheAngryTeddy is licensed under Public Domain CC0

So that’s exactly what I did:  I went back over my reel librarian lists again and added up the numbers again, in order to revisit these running totals.

Reel librarian totals:

First up, the number of movies with librarians in them!

This number keeps growing, because movies are made each year that feature reel librarians, and I keep uncovering past movies that I hadn’t come across yet. Therefore, I am always adding to my Master List of titles that I am also slowly working my way through and verifying.

At current count:

Running total = 1,234 reel librarian films

  • an increase of 193 titles in 4 years
  • 1,041 titles counted in 2013

Reel librarians of color:

Again, this number continues to grow, as I work my way through my Master List, a lifelong project. Whenever I watch (or re-watch) a film, I add it to my Reel Substance section, which currently includes 259 film titles, representing almost 30% of the total films on my Master List.

Therefore, for this question, I took another look through the films in the Reel Substance section to (a) keep count of total films I’ve actually seen, and (b) jot down portrayals of librarians of color. It is admittedly a sensitive issue to count and categorize portrayals of librarians of color, especially considering our society’s racist history (and present). It’s also awkward when actors of color are tasked to play different ethnicities — because no one will care or notice?! (Sigh.) When this happened, I added them to the ethnicity category that reflected their role, rather than the ethnicity of the actors themselves. This categorization is imperfect also in not providing for multi-ethnic portrayals.

Side note:  I choose to focus my reel librarian analysis primarily on the purpose reel librarians serve in a given film and how we advance plot. There are many other lenses with which to analyze librarians onscreen, and I would recommend this 2015 article, “The Stereotype’s Stereotype: Our Obsession with Librarian Representation” to read about looking at librarian portrayals through the lenses of gender, race, class, and sexuality.

Without further ado, let’s roll some numbers on the current running totals for reel librarians of color. Please keep in mind these are portrayals from the 259 film titles thus far in my Reel Substance section, Classes I through IV, and that the ethnicity category reflects the role, not necessarily the ethnicity of the actors playing the role(s).

At current count:

  • 32 reel librarians of color
    • 7 major characters
    • an increase of 8 roles in 4 years
    • 24 roles counted in 2013

Librarian roles, African or African descent (19 total):

Time Machine(2002) Vox System” video uploaded by Stamatios Giannoulakis is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Librarian roles, Asian + South Asian (7):

Monk librarians in Necronomicon: Book of the Dead (1993)
Monk librarians in Necronomicon: Book of the Dead (1993)

Librarian roles, Latinx (4):

Before Night Falls (2000) Official Trailer – Javier Bardem, Johnny Depp Movie” video uploaded by Movieclips Classic Trailers is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Librarian roles, Arab + Middle Eastern (1):

  • Erick Avari as Dr. Terrence Bey in The Mummy (1999) — NO ONE in this film set in Egypt is actually played by an Egyptian! (Seriously, I went through the cast list and double-checked.) Avari is an Indian-American portraying an Egyptian who is the director of the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo. Because the role is meant to be Egyptian, I have counted it in this ethnic category.
Erick Avari at Motor City Comic Con 2009” video uploaded by bloggingchick is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Librarian roles, Native American (1):

There’s no way or even a reason to sugar-coat the fact that there are not that many cinematic representations of librarians of color, and even fewer roles that are major characters. I have cataloged an increase the last 4 years, but these numbers remain woefully slim.

Are these numbers reflective of diversity, or lack thereof, within the librarian profession as a whole? The percentages of reel librarians of color are even lower (I estimate around 10%) than the already low numbers of real librarians of color. Based on numbers from the 2010 Census, the librarian profession continues to be overwhelmingly female (80+% for credentialed librarians) and white (83+%). See more facts and figures here and here, and read this excellent blog post, “The unbearable whiteness of librarianship” that compares diversity of librarians versus the general population.

However, as we also celebrate our first official Librarian of Congress who is a person of color — you can read all about the fabulous Carla Hayden and her predecessors here in this post — I hope that we are moving in the right direction toward addressing the lack of diversity in librarianship, both reel and real.

Sources used:

Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

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