Reel librarians of color, 2021 update

In the coming year, at least half of my posts will focus on reel librarians of color and more diverse portrayals of librarians onscreen

Last month, I came across a Twitter round-table thread about archivist/librarian/archives depictions in pop culture from Students and New Archives Professionals Section (@SNAP_Section). The responses from real-life archivists and librarians were illuminating and thought-provoking, with several lamenting the lack of diverse representation onscreen. It brings tears to my eyes to think about how much representation matters.

Here’s an example from the #snaprt discussion thread posted by Gina Murrell, a Digital Collections Librarian, who mentioned a prior post from Reel Librarians:

Tweet from Gina Murrell about the "5 movies feature Black reel librarians in major roles" post

Personal reflections

I spent a lot of time reading through this discussion thread and reflecting on my own years-long journey to learn more about my White privilege, how to be a better ally, and how to be intentionally anti-racist in my own personal and professional spheres. I also thought about previous posts I have written on this blog about reel (and real!) librarians of color, and about the statement I wrote in my “What Hollywood Gets Wrong (and Right!) about Librarians” article that was published on ALA’s I Love Libraries site:

Over the years, many readers have asked about reel librarians of color, and this is an area I keep track of (see my posts here in 2013 and 2017). We librarians have a long way to go in diversifying our profession—both on and off screen!—but generally, I would say that portrayals of librarians in film are becoming more ethnically diverse. 

What Hollywood Gets Wrong (and Right!) about Librarians,” I Love Libraries, 26 May 2020

This section of the article got edited down in the final published version, but I was basing that statement on what I have perceived as an increase in more ethnically diverse reel librarian roles, particularly several recent roles that have been more substantial. Some immediate examples that come to mind include Wong from the Marvel series of movies, played by Chinese-British actor Benedict Wong; the recent movie versions of It with the main librarian character Mike Hanlon, played by Isaiah Mustafa, a Black American actor; and movies like The Public (2018), which feature an ethnically diverse range of reel librarian characters, including Jeffrey Wright, a Black American actor, as head librarian Mr. Anderson.

But we can do better.

Rachel Rosenberg wrote in the recent Book Riot article, “Why Aren’t There More Librarian in Pop Culture?,” that:

“Pop culture needs (a) more librarians and (b) more POC librarians.”

Rachel Rosenberg, “Why Aren’t There More Librarian in Pop Culture?,” Book Riot, 2 March 2020

I wholeheartedly agree, on both counts. And I can do better, too.

Several years ago, I wrote a post inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2009 TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” and I wrote then that:

“What I am doing is simply exploring a connection, that stereotypes and the ‘danger of a single story’ echo throughout every part of our lives, small and large, professional and personal. Stories matter, and this site is an opportunity for me to share many stories.”

But how well have I done at my stated goal, to “share many stories“? To assess this, I went back through all my posts and tagged posts with a new “librarians of color” category and tag, as one (small) way of making related posts more discoverable and more visible on this site. Here’s a screenshot of where to find that category in the category cloud, located along the right column of this site:

"Librarians of color" tag in the category cloud

I then went back and analyzed the results. Thus far, in my 9 years of blogging and 492 published posts about librarians in film, only 42 posts focus on or include librarians of color. Less than 10% of my posts focus on the racial diversity of librarians.

I can do better.

Representation matters

As a White woman and librarian, I am very well represented on screen, at least visually. And visual representation matters. Black lives matter. Brown lives matter. (These statements are not and should not be controversial. If you disagree with these statements, then please find another blog to read.) I would argue there has been an increase in representation onscreen in recent years, but there’s no way to sugar-coat the fact that there are still not that many cinematic representations of librarians of color, and even fewer roles that are major characters.

And you could argue that this reflects the lack of diversity within the librarian profession as a whole. Again, representation matters. The percentages of reel librarians of color are even lower (I estimate around 10%) than the already low numbers of real librarians of color (~15%). 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 racial diversity of librarians versus the general population.

There are also several recent books written about the lack of diversity in our librarian profession, including: Where are all the Librarians of Color? The Experiences of People of Color in Academia (2016), edited by Rebecca Hankins and Miguel Juarez; Topographies of Whiteness: Mapping Whiteness in Library and Information Science (2017), edited by Gina Schlesselman-Tarango, and Pushing the Margins: Women of Color and Intersectionality in LIS (2018), edited by Rose L. Chou and Annie Pho.

Action plan and goals

I’ve been thinking and reflecting a lot about how I can be more intentional in applying the anti-racist values and principles I’ve been learning and thinking about to my work here on this blog. And for a start, here’s what I commit to:

  • Be more intentional about highlighting more reel librarians of color on this blog
  • Make posts about reel librarians of color more visible and discoverable on this site
  • Do more research about cinematic portrayals of POC librarians
  • And in the coming year, at least half of my posts will focus on reel librarians of color and more diverse portrayals of librarians onscreen

So, where to begin putting this plan into action? As I mentioned earlier, I have previously written about reel librarians of color (see my posts here in 2013 and 2017), so let’s start by revisiting that thread. Have there actually been more movies featuring reel librarians of color in the past few years?

Caveats and parameters:

  • I am a White woman; therefore, I have limited perspectives, and I will make mistakes. I have to be okay with this discomfort, and I am serious when I ask for feedback that will help improve and diversify this space.
  • I know that it is a sensitive issue to count and categorize portrayals of librarians of color, especially because I am not myself a librarian of color. There are many complicated issues when it comes to race or recognizing race, because race is a social construct.
  • For the categories below, I have focused first on the race/ethnicity category that reflects the librarian role, rather than starting with the race/ethnicity of the actors themselves. I do this because in my research, I have always focused my analysis on the purpose reel librarians serve in any given film. Do you agree or disagree with this approach? Please let me know. There are many other lenses with which to analyze librarians onscreen, and I recommend this 2015 article, “The Stereotype’s Stereotype: Our Obsession with Librarian Representation” about looking at librarian portrayals through the lenses of gender, race, class, and sexuality.
  • When the race/ethnicity of the librarian role is not clear/ambiguous, I then default to the ethnicity of the actor, which I try to ascertain through research.
  • It can be awkward when actors of color have been tasked to play ethnicities that are different from their own. Again, when this happens, I include them in the ethnicity category that reflects their role, rather than the ethnicity of the actors themselves. I then provide a note explaining this. I recognize that this categorization is imperfect also in not providing for multi-ethnic or biracial characters.
  • It’s especially problematic when White actors have been tasked to play characters of color. When this happens, I will NOT include them in the ethnicity category that reflects their role, but I will also provide a note explaining this.
  • I have gone back and forth on including Jewish reel librarians as a separate category. I am not personally Jewish, so I have been seeking out different Jewish perspectives regarding POC identity (Behan, 2017; Gorenberg, 2017; Zaleski, 2020), and I have read about how and why Jewish actors began playing WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) characters in mainstream Hollywood films (Erens) and issues about non-Jewish actors playing Jewish roles (Friedlander, 2020). Several White-presenting reel librarian roles have been played by Jewish actors or actors with Jewish heritage — but there are fewer reel librarian roles that are explicitly written as Jewish. Should I explore this in a separate post? Should I include a POC category for librarian roles that are intentionally and explicitly Jewish? If you identify as Jewish, would you like to write a guest post for this blog? I would really appreciate readers’ feedback about this.
  • And one last note: I am focusing on American films and films primarily in the English language. Therefore, I have not included here reel librarians from international films (please see my list of Foreign-language films).

Reel librarians of color, at current count (45 total):

  • 45 roles with reel librarians of color
    • 11 major roles
    • 34 supporting or cameo roles
    • 24 roles counted in 2013; 32 roles counted in 2017

Black or African descent || Asian + South Asian || Latinx + Hispanic || Arab + Middle Eastern || Native American

Librarian roles, Black or African descent (27 total):

I have organized each category below into two main sub-sections: (1) major roles and (2) supporting and cameo roles. I then organized each sub-section chronologically by the films’ release years, as a way to help gauge if portrayals of POC reel librarians are increasing (or not).

Major roles:

  • Escape from Alcatraz (1979): Paul Benjamin as English (prison librarian)
  • Stephen King’s It (1990, TV mini-series): Tim Reid as Michael “Mike” Hanlon (public librarian)
  • Men of Honor (2000): Aunjanue Ellis as Jo (public librarian)
  • The Time Machine (2002): Orlando Jones as Vox (librarian of the future)
  • Beautiful Creatures (2013): Viola Davis as Amma (public librarian — apparently, this character was changed from a maid character in the book to a librarian in the movie version! I will have more about this in my next post.)
  • BlacKkKlansman (2018): John David Washington as Ron Stallworth (police records librarian/archivist)
  • It: Chapter Two (2019): Isaiah Mustafa as Michael “Mike” Hanlon (public librarian)

Related posts5 movies featuring Black reel librarians in major roles ; First impressions: ‘It: Chapter Two’ (2019) and the town librarian hero ; First impressions: ‘BlacKkKlansman’ (2018) ; Scary clowns + reel librarians ; Stylish male reel librarians

Screenshot from 'BlackkKlansman' (2018) trailer
Don’t mess with records librarians! John David Washington as Ron Stallworth, who started out in the Records Library at the Colorado Springs police station

Supporting and cameo roles:

  • Pickup on South Street (1953): Jaye Loft-Lyn as Microfilm Library Clerk (public librarian)
  • All the President’s Men (1976): Jaye Stewart as Male Librarian (government librarian)
  • Somewhere in Time (1980): Noreen Walker as Librarian (public librarian)
  • Fatal Attraction (1987): Uncredited Black male actor as a book cart shelver (law librarian)
  • City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold (1994): Uncredited Black male actor as a book cart shelver (public librarian)
  • With Honors (1994): Uncredited Black female actor as a librarian (academic librarian)
  • Dangerous Minds (1995): Jeff Feringa as Librarian #1 (school librarian)
  • Party Girl (1995):
    • C. Francis Blackchild as Wanda (public librarian)
    • L. B. Williams as Howard (public librarian)
  • Bed of Roses (1996): Mary Alice as Alice (children’s librarian)
  • Autumn in New York (2000): Delores Mitchell as Librarian (research librarian)
  • Men of Honor (2000): Demene E. Hall as Mrs. Biddle (public library director)
  • Follow the Stars Home (2001, TV movie): Octavia Spencer as Hildy (public librarian)
  • The Ring (2002): Ronald William Lawrence as Library Clerk (medical librarian)
  • Back When We Were Grownups (2004, TV movie): Lynette DuPree as Librarian (public librarian)
  • Ella Enchanted (2004): Merrina Millsapp as Hall of Records Attendant (archivist)
  • The Manchurian Candidate (2004): Duana Butler as Library Clerk (public librarian)
  • Winter’s Tale (2014): Norm Lewis as Custodian (newspaper librarian)
  • Spotlight (2015): Zarrin Darnell-Martin as Intern Wanda (newspaper librarian)
  • The Public (2018): Jeffrey Wright as Mr. Anderson (head public librarian)

Related posts‘South Street’ librarian ; All the president’s librarians in ‘All the President’s Men’ ; ‘Somewhere’ in the library ; Law librarian sighting in ‘Fatal Attraction’ ; A tale of seven shushes in ‘City Slickers II’ ; With or without honors ; Research and high school library scenes in ‘Dangerous Minds’ ; Graduate library school discussion in ‘Party Girl’ ; 5 movies featuring Black reel librarians in major roles ; Meet Hannah in ‘Follow the Stars Home’ ; Library research montage in ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ (2004) remake ; A not-so-enchanting librarian in ‘Ella Enchanted’ ; ‘Spotlight’-ing a news library

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Pickup on South Street'
Jaye Loft-Lyn as Microfilm Library Clerk, the first Black reel librarian onscreen I have been able to find
Reel Librarians | Librarian retirement in 'Follow the Stars Home' (TV, 2001)
Octavia Spencer as Hildy in Follow the Stars Home (2001, TV movie)

Honorable mention?

  • Jenny Douglas-McRae played the Librarian in the video for TOTO’s song “Africa.” Fun fact: Douglas-McRae was a vocalist for the band!

Related posts: Welcome to the library jungle

Librarian roles, Asian + South Asian (12 movies, 10 roles total):

I have organized each category below into two main sub-sections: (1) major roles and (2) supporting and cameo roles. I then organized each sub-section chronologically by the films’ release years, as a way to help gauge if portrayals of POC reel librarians are increasing (or not).

Note: Wong is listed below for each Marvel movie his reel librarian character recurs in thus far, but I only counted his role once overall.

Major roles:

  • Doctor Strange (2016): Benedict Wong as Wong (special librarian/archivist)

Related posts: Sorcerer librarians of ‘Doctor Strange’

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)
Benedict Wong as Wong in ‘Doctor Strange’ (2016)

Supporting and cameo roles:

  • The Golden Child (1986): Shakti as Kala (special librarian)
    • NOTE: Shakti Chen, a Chinese actress, played Kala, whereas Marilyn Schreffler, a White American actress, voiced the character.
  • Necronomicon: Book of the Dead (1993):
    • Tony Azito as Librarian (academic librarian)
    • Juan Fernández as Attendant (academic librarian)
    • NOTE: This one is complicated! Tony Azito was Italian-American, and Juan Fernández is Dominican, but in this film, they play monks who appear at first to be South Asian or Indian, which is why I have included this movie and reel librarian roles in this category.
  • Finding Forrester (2000): Sophia Wu as Librarian (public librarian)
  • Elephant (2003): Alfred Ono as Mr. Fong (school librarian)
  • Age of Adaline (2015):
    • Anjali Jay as Cora (research librarian/archivist)
    • Hiro Kanagawa as Kenneth (research librarian/archivist)
  • Avengers: Infinity War (2018): Benedict Wong as Wong (special librarian/archivist)
  • To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018): Uncredited Asian female actor (school librarian)
  • Avengers: Endgame (2019): Benedict Wong as Wong (special librarian/archivist)
  • Let Them All Talk (2020): Uncredited Asian female actor (cruise ship librarian)

Related posts: The dragon lady librarian in ‘The Golden Child’ (1986) ; ‘Necronomicon’: Dead on arrival ; ‘Finding’ a reel librarian ; A reel librarian for the ages in ‘The Age of Adaline’ ; Sorcerer librarians of ‘Doctor Strange’ ; First impressions: ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ ; First impressions: ‘Avengers: Endgame’ (2019) ; 3 reel librarians who have died in the line of duty ; School library scene in ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Age of Adaline' (2015)
Anjali Jay as Cora and Hiro Kanagawa as Kenneth in ‘Age of Adaline’ (2015)

Librarian roles, Latinx + Hispanic (4 total):

I have organized each category below into two main sub-sections: (1) major roles and (2) supporting and cameo roles. I then organized each sub-section chronologically by the films’ release years, as a way to help gauge if portrayals of POC reel librarians are increasing (or not).

Major roles:

  • Bound by Honor, aka Blood In, Blood Out… Bound by Honor (1993): Damian Chapa as Miklo (prison librarian)
  • Before Night Falls (2000): Javier Bardem as Reinaldo Arenas (public librarian)
    • Note: Javier Bardem is Spanish, whereas Reinaldo Arenas, a real-life writer, was Cuban.

Related posts: Oscar-nominated reel librarians ; Best librarian films by decade, Part II: 1960s-2000s

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

Supporting and cameo roles:

  • Just Cause (1995): Liz Torres as Delores Rodriguez (newspaper librarian)
  • The Ultimate Gift (2006): Rose Bianco as Bella (public librarian)
Rose Bianco as Bella in 'The Ultimate Gift' (2006)
Rose Bianco as Bella in ‘The Ultimate Gift’ (2006)

Librarian roles, Arab + Middle Eastern (3 total):

I have organized each category below into two main sub-sections: (1) major roles and (2) supporting and cameo roles. I then organized each sub-section chronologically by the films’ release years, as a way to help gauge if portrayals of POC reel librarians are increasing (or not).

Major roles:

  • Day of the Falcon, aka Black Gold (2011): Tahar Rahim as Prince Auda (special librarian/archivist)

Supporting and cameo roles:

  • The Mummy (1999): Erick Avari as Dr. Terrence Bey (special librarian/archivist)
    • Note: It appears that no one in this film set in Egypt is actually played by an Egyptian! (I went through the cast list and double-checked as best I could.) Erick Avari is an Indian-American portraying the Egyptian director of the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo. Because I believe the role is meant to be Egyptian, I have included it in this ethnic category.
  • Doctor Strange (2016): Ezra Faroque Khan as Kamar-Taj Librarian (special librarian/archivist)

NOTE: Although the reel librarian Evelyn “Evie” O’Connell (nee Carnahan) from the Mummy series states in 1999’s The Mummy that her mother is Egyptian, I am not including her here. I feel uncomfortable doing this because in the first two movies, Rachel Weisz played the role (Weisz herself is British, and her paternal ancestry is Austrian-Jewish), followed in the third film by Maria Bello (an American actress whose parents are Italian-American and Polish-American). This reel librarian character faces challenges primarily due to her gender, not necessarily because of her stated biracial identity. Again, is my thinking off-base here? Please let me know your thoughts. Side-note: I also recommend reading this Vox article about how “Hollywood likes to pretend that ancient Egypt was full of white people.”

Related posts: Revisiting the reel librarian hero in 1999’s ‘The Mummy’ ; Sorcerer librarians of ‘Doctor Strange’

Erick Avari at Motor City Comic Con 2009” video uploaded by bloggingchick is licensed under a Standard YouTube license
Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)
Ezra Faroque Khan as Kamar-Taj Librarian in ‘Doctor Strange’ (2016)

Librarian roles, Native American (1 total):

Supporting and cameo roles:

Have I completely overlooked a movie or role featuring a reel librarian of color? Do I need to make any corrections? Please leave a comment, to help improve and expand this 2021 list spotlighting reel librarians of color!

Sources used:


Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

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