I am following up on another reader question from my call earlier this year for reader questions and ideas, a question posed by Kvennarad, who left a comment that contained several very intriguing post ideas, including this one:
Every novel and every adaptation of a novel set in a big house in England will, at some point, feature a library. This is a rule. Every novel and every adaptation of a novel where any of the characters are at university will feature a scene where a character is studying in the university library. These are the rules!
Here was my initial response to Kvennarad’s comment, in my reader Q&A follow-up post:
This is so true! I primarily focus on the portrayals of librarians, rather than just libraries, but I have also often written about onscreen libraries, especially in film analysis posts of Class V films. I have thought about writing a post about private libraries, like the ones seen in films or series set in a big house in England (have you found your Gutenberg Bible, yet, Lord Grantham of Downtown Abbey?!)
What is the purpose of private libraries onscreen?
I am primarily interested in the purpose of librarians onscreen, but it’s an interesting exercise to extend that question to thinking about the purpose of showing private libraries onscreen. As I went through my own lists and prior posts that mentioned private libraries, I noted a few recurrent themes about what purposes private libraries served when seen onscreen:
- Private libraries are used to reflect personal OR work collections of books or materials
- Private libraries often help establish setting, particularly of characters in upper social classes (like those seen in English country homes) and/or characters whose occupations are in academia or education.
- Private libraries can be used to reflect the level of education or culture for a character, even if that character is seen as coming from a lower social class
- Private libraries can be used to contrast with a public or college library setting — a smaller, personal collection versus a larger, more impersonal collection
- Private libraries can sometime serve as the setting for a main action in the film, providing a contrast to heighten the plot and provide interest (such as a brutal murder taking place against the relatively sedate backdrop of a private collection of books)
- The collection or items within a private library can serve as the reason or impetus for the main plot, like a rare book or artifact that someone would steal or kill for.
List of notable private libraries/librarians onscreen
Below are a list of films, organized alphabetically by title, that I’ve analyzed thus far on this site that feature notable personal libraries or personal librarians and their purpose in their respective films. It is not an exhaustive list, but rather I tried to spotlight films in which private libraries serve one, or more, of the purposes I outlined above.
College senior Katie (Katie Holmes) deals with exams, finishing her thesis, job interviews, and a cop (Benjamin Bratt) investigating the disappearance of her ex-boyfriend (Charlie Hunnam). Then Katie starts seeing her boyfriend again around campus—is she hallucinating, or is he stalking her? A few scenes highlight the socially awkward Mousy Julie, a student library assistant at the college library.
When I analyzed this low-key horror film, I noticed that in addition to several scenes set in the college library, there were also quite a few private library collections featured in the film, including rows of books and bookshelves in:
- the thesis advisor’s office
- the counselor’s office
- the cop’s home
- Katie’s dorm room
- Embry’s dorm room
- and… you could argue the thesis-related collection Katie builds in her private study cubicle in the college library serves as a miniature version of a personal library collection!
[Click here for my full analysis post, “An Abandon-ed reel librarian“]
Fast and Loose (1939)
This comedic mystery revolves around a stolen manuscript and the rare books business. A personal library in a private home serves as the main setting for the film — and the library’s collection serves as the main motive for the murder mystery!
Joel Sloane (Robert Montgomery), a rare books dealer, takes a commission to buy a Shakespeare manuscript from a personal collection and private library. Joel meets up with his protégé, Phil Seargent (Anthony Allan), who is currently working as private librarian and secretary. The plot quickly spirals into murder. As Joel says early on, “something funny is going on at that library.”
Here’s an original trailer for Fast and Loose, which includes footage of a private office library starting at the 1:37 mark, as well as a larger country home’s private library at the very end of the trailer, at the 2:16 mark:
From a Whisper to a Scream, aka The Offspring (1987)
In this film, a private library serves as the main setting and structure for the plot — a collection of “short stories,” so to speak.
In a small Tennessee town named Oldfield, a local private librarian and historian (Vincent Price, in one of his later roles) retells four horror stories — stories about the town’s “long history of violence” — to a nosy reporter (Susan Tyrrell). White and the stories from his library serve as a framework for the film, but none of the stories he retells involve a library or librarian.
The historian’s private library is set in his private home, and the reporter walks through decaying, crumbling hallways until she stumbles upon the equally decaying, crumbling library. The room is filled with books, antique furniture, books piled over a big desk, and red velvet curtains. The librarian/historian sits in a red leather chair, his own personal throne amidst a crumbling empire.
[Click here for my full analysis post, “Welcome to Oldfield“]
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1973)
Two siblings, Claudia and her brother, Jamie, run away from home to stay at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They try to solve the mystery of the new angel statue, rumored to be the work of Michelangelo, which leads them to the statue’s donor and famous recluse, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (played by Ingrid Bergman).
At the end of the film, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler takes Claudia to her private library to find a particular file. Her private library and filing cabinets are organized from floor to ceiling. I love that in this film, the personal library — or rather, the files within them — serve almost as title characters! 😉 It also shows a bit of diversity in what constitutes a private library collection, as her library is a collection of files more so than books.
[Click here for my full analysis post, “From the mixed-up files“]
In this recent remake of the 1984 original Ghostbusters with female leads, the personal library in a private home has become part of a museum — and it is the main setting for the opening scene, which puts into motion the rest of the film.
The film begins in a library, a private library in a house museum called the Aldridge Mansion Museum. The ghost in the opening scenes is not a reel librarian, however, but rather the ghost of an Aldridge family member. (Definitely not as memorable as the original film’s opening scene in the New York Public Library, which I analyzed in-depth in this post.)
It is an impressive private library, although the word “library” is not mentioned at all during the tour. However, there is an “Announcements” sign by the guest book that includes “library hours,” as well as a large sign beside the velvet ropes in the atrium, which reads, “Aldridge Family Library, circa 1830.”
The Aldridge Mansion Museum’s historian, Ed Mulgrave (played by Ed Begley Jr.), then seeks out help from scientist Erin Gilbert (Kristin Wiig), because of a book she wrote years ago, Ghosts from Our Past: Both Literally and Figuratively: The Study of the Paranormal.
[Click here for my full analysis post, “Analyzing the library scene in the ‘Ghostbusters’ remake“]
The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
In the first five minutes of the film, we are introduced to a private library, as well as a book called Unsolved Murders that becomes central to the “locked room” mystery plot. Another private library that serves as the main setting and impetus for the film’s plot!
The private library in question belongs to Brisbane Coe (Frank Conroy), who employs a private secretary, Raymond Wrede (Ralph Morgan). Five minutes into the film, we are treated to a classic cinematic shot of a bookshelf, revealing a close-up of Brisbane’s face. The bookshelves serve as a natural framing device. Brisbane grabs a book entitled Unsolved Murders, places it in an overnight bag, and prepares to leave on a trip.
A little over a half-hour into the film, Philo Vance (William Powell) leads the detectives to Grand Central Station, where they locate Brisbane’s bag. Philo takes out the Unsolved Murders book, which has a bookmark opening up to a chapter that includes a description just like the murder scene of his brother. The plot thickens from there!
[Click here for my full analysis post, “Kennel clubs and unsolved murders“]
Pride and Prejudice (1940)
The 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice changes the already humorous character of Mr. Collins from a clergyman in Jane Austen’s original novel to a personal librarian for Lady Catherine de Bourgh. The occupational change seems to serve the absurd and ridiculous qualities of Mr. Collins — we do not pause and wonder at a bumbling librarian, whereas we might be offended at a bumbling clergyman.
It is also interesting to note that we, the audience, never actually get to see the inside of the library that Collins curates for Lady Catherine; his profession is mentioned once at the beginning and never referred to again. And it is quite revealing on retrospect that Mr. Bennet, who has his own personal library which serves as an important personal retreat, does not mention libraries or books at all with Mr. Collins. Mr. Bennet does not take the opportunity of using an apparently mutual love of libraries to bond with his cousin and heir.
[Click here for my full analysis post of “Pride and Prejudice and librarians“]
Soylent Green (1973)
Another major character who serves as a private librarian! Edward G. Robinson, in his final film role, plays Sol Roth, and we meet him within the first five minutes of the film. He’s described in the trailer as:
Sol Roth, Thorn’s private library. A Living Book in a world without books.
This futuristic world has stopped printing books for almost 20 years. The word “Book” now refers to people, to former scholars and librarians who serve as personal researchers for others. Sol is a self-described “Police Book,” assigned to Detective Sergeant Thorn (Charlton Heston), and there is a “Supreme Exchange” where he goes almost daily for information and to talk to other Books.
Real books are treasures to be hoarded in this overcrowded, dirty, violent nightmare of a future, and Thorn and Sol live together in comparative luxury, in an apartment filled with bookcases. You could argue that they live inside their own private library.
[Click here for my full analysis post, “Reader poll of runner-ups: Soylent Green and the Books“]
A real-life private librarian
Before wrapping up this post, I had to mention Casanova, the famous lover — who in real life ended up a private librarian on a private estate. However, in the 2005 film version of his adventures in Venice, in which Heath Ledger plays the title role, libraries and librarians are never mentioned in this film. There is, however, a literary angle explored in the film, and a young lady, Francesca Bruni (played by Sienna Miller), visits a libreria, which is Italian for bookstore. There are a few scenes throughout the film set in this bookstore.
[Click here for my full analysis post, “Casanova, the lover and the librarian“]
Private and personal
And a final note about private libraries, you can tell a lot about a person’s interests by looking at their personal collection of books. Private libraries are therefore quite personal, in both real and reel life. As Douglas Groothius stated in this blog post, “Thoughts on Your Personal Library” from his personal blog and website:
If your collection of books crosses the mystical threshold and becomes a library, then you should curate it well. It is both a reflection of you and you are reflection of it.
What does your own private library reveal about you? Is there a notable private library in a film that I have not included in this post? Please leave a comment — or two! — and share.