Reel librarians vs. reel archivists

“Sometimes the line between a library and an archives can blur. It becomes difficult to distinguish between a library and an archives”

A few years ago, in a 2014 post, I had written about how there are many kinds of librarians in both the real and reel world, and I had included archivists in that list. But I’ve been reading more recently about pop culture analyses and portrayals of reel archivists, and how those portrayals differ from those of reel librarians.

Let’s explore those different perspectives, shall we?

Archivist and librarian poster collage
Poster on left: “Rogue Archivist” by justgrimes is licensed under CC BY SA 2.0  // Poster on right:  “uge librarian party march 2007” by katdandy is licensed under CC BY ND 2.0

Reel Librarian posts including archivists

Below are a few posts/film analyses from my blog that included archivists:

  • Abandon (2002): The credits for this film list Robert Burns in the role of Archivist, but I honestly could not recall seeing or noticing this role while rewatching the film, which has several scenes set in a university library. Regardless, I stated that this role serves as an Information Provider.
  • Agnes of God (1985):  A psychiatrist (Jane Fonda) investigates the mysterious death of a newborn child in a convent. A male archivist librarian (Victor Desy) helps Fonda locate the convent’s blueprints in the National Library Archives of Quebec.
  • Archangel (TV, 2005):  There are two library/archives scenes in this TV film, the second of which takes place in a small-town archives room in Russia. Both scenes are also pivotal in propelling the plot forward, as the rule-bending librarian/archivist provides a crucial bit of info.
  • Citizen Kane (1941):  A brief but memorable scene shows how a female librarian/archivist — a woman in an aggressively gender-neutralized exterior — controls access to the personal papers of a prominent male figure, in this case the archives of newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane.
  • Enough Said (2013): A quirky slice-of-life glimpse into the budding romance between two middle-aged, single parents: Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a free-spirited masseuse, and Albert (James Gandolfini), a digital archivist at the fictional American Library of Cultural History. In one scene, Albert takes Eva on a tour of the archives, his office, and the public viewing room.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2012):  In this American version of the Swedish novel about a disgraced journalist (Daniel Craig) who investigates the 40-year disappearance of a young woman, he is aided in his search by a punk investigator/computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara). Late in the film, Lisbeth researches records in a company’s archives, disgruntling an older archives librarian.
  • In the Name of the Father (1993): In this Best Picture nominee, Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis) is coerced into confessing to an IRA bombing and spends 14 years in prison trying to prove his innocence. His lawyer (Emma Thompson) tries to locate police records, but the chief archivist is not cooperative. She does get records when another archivist is on duty — and the information she gathers eventually leads to Conlon’s release.
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001):  This Best Picture nominee, the first in a film trilogy about a hobbit’s quest to destroy a powerful ring. There is a short scene early in the film in which the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) needs some info about the ring, so he visits the archives in Gondor. There is a quick flash of the Gondorian Archivist (Michael Elsworth) leading Gandalf down a winding staircase to the archives.
  • The Monster That Challenged the World (1957):  An earthquake in California unleashes radioactive mollusk monsters. Nearby Naval base officers work to stop the horde of monsters, and a museum archivist appears in three short scenes to help find a map of underground rivers.
  • The Night Strangler (1973):  In this TV sequel to The Night Stalker (1973), Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is back and investigating a series of murders in Seattle, a strangler of women who leaves decaying flesh behind. Wally Cox plays Mr. Berry, a newspaper archives librarian who helps Kolchak crack the case.
  • Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth, 1967):  The third film in the Quatermass series starts off with a discovery of ape-like human skeletons at a subway excavation site. When scientists further discover a missile-like metal shape, the armed forces are called in. Professor Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir) and an assistant scientist, Barbara (Barbara Shelley) do some digging of their own — in the research archives. This leads them to the Westminster Abbey archives and a short scene with the Abbey Librarian.
  • Rising Sun (1993):  To solve the crime of a young woman found strangled in the L.A. headquarters of a Japanese corporation, Lt. Web Smith (Wesley Snipes) partners with John Connor (Sean Connery), an expert on Japanese culture. In one brief scene halfway through the film, Smith gets a tip that a weaselly investigator is digging up dirt on him at a newspaper library and enlisting the help of “Lilly the Librarian,” a rare portrayal of a newspaper librarian/archivist.
  • Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002):  During his talk with the archivist librarian (Alethea McGrath as Madame Jocasta Nu), Obi-Wan discovers that the planet has been removed from the navigation maps of the Jedi archives.

Overlapping interests:

The two professions — archivists and librarians — are different and serve different roles, but there is overlap. For example, there was a museum and archives track where I went to graduate school, and I took a preservation course during my graduate library science studies. Archivists and librarians are also included together with the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a primary source of federal support for the nation’s libraries and museums. And many academic libraries, including the one I work at, contain archives in their organizational structures.

It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to determine roles, titles, or background for some characters in a lot of films, so I basically have included any onscreen character who works in a library within that “reel librarian” umbrella, and that has included archivists. Do I rail against doing that in real life? Yep. Do I succumb to doing that in reel life? Yep. Mea culpa. For better or for worse (most likely the latter), it’s not a hard “either/or” type of situation for me, so I err on the side of inclusivity when it comes to librarians and archivist portrayals onscreen.

Although I have clearly included and analyzed archivist portrayals on this blog, as I detailed above, I wanted to share perspectives on this pop culture issue from archivists themselves.

Reel archivists research:

I found the following articles insightful, and I have pulled out some illuminating passages from each:

Aldred, Tania, Gordon Burr, and Eun Park. “Crossing a Librarian with a Historian: The Image of Reel Archivists.” Archivaria: The Journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists 66 (Fall 2008): 57–93.

Screenshot of "Crossing a Librarian with a Historian: The Image of Reel Archivists" article
  • I love the practicality of this research, which includes the checklist used for assessing the films for archivist portrayals!
  • “The stereotypical portrayals of archivists are a minimally researched yet important area of archivy: archivists should be aware of how the media portrays them and how the public perceives their profession.” (p. 59)
  • “Past studies concerning librarians in films have shown a lack of standardization in their terminology, resulting in the selection of films irrelevant to their study. These authors… seemed to be confused as to the definition of a librarian as opposed to that of an archivist. The studies were often attempting to examine information professionals in general, yet were incorrectly terming them ‘librarians.'” (p. 67)
  • “Sometimes the line between a library and an archives can blur. It becomes difficult to distinguish between a library and an archives when dealing with those in medieval or earlier times, or when libraries retain archival material.” (footnote on p. 68)
  • In a footnote on p. 70, this article also included a list of films they discarded from their analysis, which I found interesting (including Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring for the brevity of the role for the Gondorian Archivist!), as well as a bibliography of films of reel archivists that they did analyze. I checked this bibliography with my own Master List and identified several cross-over titles, including:
    • Agnes of God (1985)
    • The Avengers (1998)
    • Blade (1998)
    • Citizen Kane (1941)
    • In the Name of the Father (1993)
    • Just Cause (1995)
    • The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)
    • National Treasure (2004)
    • Possession (2002)
    • Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
    • The Time Machine (2002)

Buckley, Karen. “‘The Truth is in the Red Files’: An Overview of Archives in Popular Culture.Archivaria: The Journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists 66 (Fall 2008): 95–123.

Screenshot of "The Truth is in the Red Files" article
  • This author used 69 sources for the article, which included 34 TV movies or TV series
  • The title reference to the “Red Files” comes from a line in the TV series The Pretender (“The Bank” episode, Season 2, airdate May 9, 1998)
  • “[F]our strong common themes readily became apparent… 1) protection of the record is equated with protection of the truth; 2) the archive is a closed space and the archival experience is an interior one for the characters (with all the obstacles and frustrations that that implies); 3) records in an archives are “lost” and “buried,” and characters must spend much time and effort “digging” in order to unearth them; and 4) the archival record invariably centres around the search for self or truth.” (pages 97-98)
  • “Despite the essential differences in their purpose, contents and management, popular culture consistently substitutes libraries for archives.” (p. 98)
  • “There are no truly iconic representations of archivists in popular culture, owing to the fact that archivists are rarely principal characters.” (p. 100)
  • “Frequently, popular culture only has the time or the need for the surface elements of the archival experience: an individual sitting passively at a desk surrounded by mountains of boxes and files. However, this simplistic view does not provide any opportunity for narrative tension, nor does it produce plot development or pithy dialogue.” (p. 115)

Daniel, Anne and Oliver, Amanda. “Seeking an Identity: The Portrayal of Archivists in Film.” Western Libraries Staff Presentations, Paper 42, 2014. 

Screenshot from "Seeking an Identity: The Portrayal of Archivists in Film" slides
  • These are slides from a professional presentation, and the authors compiled a list of 77 potential films and narrowed down to what looks like 46 titles
  • One of the guiding questions for the research was, “Is there a lack of distinction between archivists and other information professionals in film?” (p. 4)
  • Identified several reel archivist findings (p. 22-33), including physically isolated archivists; archivists who restrict access (including Jocasta Nu from Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones!); archivists who are liars, vandals, and flirts; and my personal fave, the “All Knowing Archivist.”
  • Concludes that “Although it is positive that archives and archivists are portrayed in a variety of films, the lack of consistent image suggests a lack of professional identity” (p. 36)

Continuing the conversation:

I highlighted these examples of reel archivist research in part to demonstrate how there is scholarship in this pop culture arena, and there are different perspectives in that scholarship. Scholarship is, after all, a conversation, and we must be open to how that conversation can shift and change, and even loop back on itself.

I admit that I have my own biases when it comes to portrayals of librarians onscreen, and I want to be transparent about those biases. I can definitely relate to the frustration of archivists who do not see an accurate representation onscreen of what they do in real life, and want to bring attention to these portrayals in order to help bring about change or, at the very least, bring about more awareness of what archivists really do. I felt myself nodding along with a lot of the problems — and ultimate conclusions — that these archivists identified through their film analyses and research.

So what has going down this research rabbit hole done for me? It has helped me be more aware of how archivist roles differ from what librarians do (on and off-screen), and I will take more care in the future when identifying roles that blur the lines between archivists and librarians. I will continue to include archivists in my Reel Librarians research, but I think it’s important to go back through my archives of blog posts and lists and tag roles more clearly with the “archivist” label. I was also inspired by that checklist used for assessing the films for archivist portrayals… perhaps I will be inspired to adapt a version for reel librarians…

What are your thoughts about reel archivist portrayals? Have you thought much about the portrayals of reel archivists versus those of reel librarians? Please leave a comment and share. 🙂

Sources used:


Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

6 thoughts on “Reel librarians vs. reel archivists”

  1. As a trained archivist who works as a librarian (usually, it’s the other way around), I’ve thought about this occasionally as I’ve read your reviews. One thing I’d note is that the big difference between library school and archives school is how much time is spent just trying to define and defend some kind of clear identity. Archivists have something of an inborn identity crisis, and media analyses tend to strengthen that.

    1. Oh good, I’m so glad I explored this issue on the blog then! It’s always worthwhile to pull in additional perspectives, and the archivist perspective is valuable when it comes to the blurred lines between librarians and archivists onscreen. I guess I hadn’t realized that archivists have and face identity crises/issues even more acutely than librarians. And it’s very cool to learn that you are a trained archivist… your Century Film project and blog make even more sense now! 😀

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