Information Provider librarians

Exploring the Information Provider character type

Now it’s time to shine the spotlight on our intrepid Information Providers (for previous entries in this series of librarian character types, click here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). As I wrote about in my previous post in this series, I used to combine this category with the Comic Relief librarians, entitled “The Librarian Who Provides Information or Humor.” Yep, telling the truth when I was said I was bad with titles.

Their role seems pretty self-explanatory:  supporting or minor characters who provide information — or misinformation — to a character.

Take the film All the President’s Men (1976), which includes a trio of Information Providers. One librarian, a female, is heard only over the phone; with her frightened manner of supplying the wrong information, she helps heighten the tension of the Watergate scandal at the center of the film. Contrast her role’s purpose with the two other Information Providers in the film:  two male librarians, one Caucasian and one African-American, both of whom work in the Library of Congress. The white male is, shall we say, reluctant to help the two reporters, but the African-American librarian’s helpful research spurs the two reporters on their successful trail to uncovering the Watergate story. The two male librarians are both more helpful than the untruthful female librarian in the film.

The Information Provider character type may also simply provide information to the audience, such as helping to establish:

For example, the library scene in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn highlights the diligence and intelligence of little Francie (Peggy Ann Garner), and in Bed of RosesLewis Farrell’s (Christian Slater) friendship with the children’s librarian at the local public library reveals his character’s inner sensitivity.

In Philadelphia, Tracey Walter plays a librarian who gives main character, Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), a book about HIV discrimination and proceeds to ask if he wants a private room. After Andrew’s refusal, Walter is almost rude in his insistence, demonstrating his (and society’s) discrimination. This brief role helps turn the audience’s sympathy even more toward Andrew, and the movie relies on this sympathy to move the plot forward.

Physically, Information Providers are the most diverse of all the character types, spanning ages, clothing styles, gender and ethnicities.

The Information Providers are also the most identified with occupational tasks, such as shelving, filing, stamping, pushing carts, checking out books, etc. The tasks and props usually included in a reel library setting are most associated in real life with library assistants or technicians. See my post on library education and job duties.

There are so many examples of Information Providers that although they make up the majority of reel librarian roles, they are the least important roles overall of librarians in film, at least according to screen time. Makes sense, then, that they are almost exclusively ensconced in the Class III or Class IV film categories.

For my money, the most informative Information Provider ever onscreen — so far — would have to be Vox from the 2002 remake of The Time Machine. In his time travels, a disillusioned inventor (Guy Pearce) encounters Vox (Orland Jones), a holographic librarian who supplies him with information about time travel and the history and evolution of the planet and its population. Vox is truly informative, but he also embodies the library itself. Hundreds of thousands of years later, Vox IS the library, literally all that remains of the “compendium of all human knowledge.”

Next up in our series, we’ll be peeking in on the Naughty Librarians. Stay tuned! 😉

First impressions: ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’

Is it wrong that I smiled at comparing a library to a lion’s den?

In an earlier post, I had highlighted some librarian films about to be released, including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and mused that “it might be fun to do some posts about my first impressions in the theater, and follow up with more in-depth analysis later on.” So here we are, with my first impressions of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, an adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel and remake of the 1979 British miniseries.

Note:  I have not yet seen the 1979 miniseries, starring Alec Guinness, but I have it on order through my local public library.

I was super psyched to watch this film. It had entered my radar by way of Colin Higgins’s Libraries at the Movies blog, and I strongly suggest reading his reviews of the miniseries and recent adaptation. The trailers looked AWESOME and there was something hypnotic about the way Gary Oldman’s voice said the title, like a spine-tingling nursery rhyme (see below). And I do love spy thrillers, especially British ones, and especially especially ones that make you think.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Official US Trailer” video uploaded by tinkertailormovie is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

What I liked:

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy came this close to living up to my expectations. First off, Gary Oldman as George Smiley, the aging agent forced out of MI6 but called back in to investigate a mole, is fascinating to watch even when he doesn’t appear to be doing anything onscreen.

And the director, Tomas Alfredson, is clearly talented at setting a mood — which was also evident in his Swedish child-vampire film Let the Right One In (remade in the U.S. as Let Me In). The film also features the excellent acting of Benedict Cumberbatch (he of Sherlock fame) as fellow agent Peter Guillam — and frankly, it’s always fun to write or say Cumberbatch’s name out loud.

What I didn’t like:

However, I always felt like I was rushing to understand what was going on. And I kept getting names and faces confused. I’m looking forward to watching the miniseries, where there is scope to understand all the characters and what’s really at stake. Because at the end of this film, at the reveal of the all-important MacGuffin, I was left with a niggling “So what?” question of doubt.

Library/archives setting and scenes:

And so what of the library and librarians? A shot of the library was included in the trailer, where you get a fleeting impression of multiple levels of bookshelves and lots of iron banisters. I remember liking how near the beginning of the film, the camera followed a woman’s hands placing a large book in a kind of dumbwaiter and then up the pulley into a level far above. In that first shot, with the closeup of the hands, you could spy rows of bookshelves behind her. I thought this was an effective way of using the library as an establishing shot of tone and location.

Later — about 2/3 through the film? — Smiley sends Guillam into “the lion’s den” to retrieve a smaller MacGuffin, some vital records that proved something or other.

Is it wrong that I smiled at comparing a library to a lion’s den?

And we meet two reel librarians, a man and a woman. Or at least I think there were two librarians. The man had more screen time and more lines, I think, but I remember the woman. Probably because I noticed that she was the same actress, Laura Carmichael, who plays Edith, the scheming middle sister on Downton Abbey. Wearing a dark red turtleneck that contrasted with her red hair, she acted a bit nervous and breathy, like her character really fancied Guillam and wanted to impress him. And, of course, he probably knows that she fancies him but has no interest in her whatsoever. ANYWAY.

So armed with some complicated directions provided by the female librarian, off Guillam goes into the library archives. With NO supervision or guidance, I might add. I couldn’t help thinking how lax this was for a top-secret organization to send people off, alone, in the closed stacks. There’s a reason behind closed stacks, folks. Closed stacks are usually reserved for archives or other important records — you know, like for records used in an organization involving spies and super-secret info, perhaps? — and librarians get the items and therefore maintain order and organization and privacy. But whatever. Of course it was necessary for Guillam to be alone in the library stacks. He needed to be in order to succeed at swiping the records he needed and the plot to move forward. Chalk it up to suspension of disbelief.

Final verdict:

Overall, I enjoyed the film — a solid B+ for me. And I look forward to watching Alec Guinness’s interpretation of George Smiley’s inscrutability in the 1979 British miniseries. Stay tuned…

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) Trailer” video uploaded by ricardobarretta is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Sources used:

  • MacGuffin” via Wikipedia is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Dir. Tomas Alfredson. Perf. Gary Oldman, Mark Strong, Colin Firth. StudioCanal, 2011.

I got your Information Provider right here, in ‘Gods and Monsters’ and ‘Caroline?’

The films themselves are not similar, but the librarians are.

While watching a couple of films the other day, I realized the similarity of the reel librarians in both. The films themselves are not similar, but the librarians are. Let’s take a look.

Gods and Monsters:

First up is Gods and Monsters (1998), the intriguing fictionalized account of James Whale, the famed director of such horror classics as Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and The Invisible Man (1933). The film is based off of Christopher Bram’s novel, Father of Frankenstein, which was published in 1995. Ian McKellen gives a tour de force performance as Whale (and should have received the Best Actor Oscar for that year, IMHO), and the cast in general is top-notch.

In one brief scene about 25 minutes into the film, we see the hunky gardener Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser) walking down the steps to the Santa Monica library. He wants to find out more about James Whale… and where else to go first but your local public library? Good boy.

Santa Monica public library, Gods and Monsters library exterior
Santa Monica public library, Gods and Monsters library exterior

The next scene cuts to him sitting down, surrounded by large volumes. We see low shelves of books behind him, with murals on the walls. The scene is stylized, with everything really flat and long, with strong horizontal lines cutting across the frame.

The reel librarian — a young white female, with dark hair pulled back in a french twist or bun, no glasses — appears on screen for a few seconds only. She’s dressed in basic 1950s style, in a black-and-white, polka-dotted shirtdress and a string of pearls.

Gods and Monsters library interior and reel librarian
Gods and Monsters library interior and reel librarian

She carries in three large volumes of bound newspapers (a large volume labeled Daily Herald is visible in the foreground) and says, “Here are the trade papers you wanted.” She smiles at Boone and briskly walks away. The film then cuts to a close-up of newspaper articles about Frank Whale (just in case you didn’t get what he’s looking for).


Second stop, the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie, Caroline? (1990). I was excited to finally get my hands on a copy of this TV movie; I requested it through my local community college reciprocal borrowing service. TV movies are harder to get copies of, in general, but this one had won multiple Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Directing and Outstanding Drama. Strange, then, that it isn’t more readily available. I enjoyed Caroline? — it’s well-acted and well done in every aspect, a hallmark of the Hallmark Hall of Fame series.

The TV movie, adapted from E. L. Konigsburg’s book Father’s Arcane Daughter, focuses on a mysterious woman (Stephanie Zimbalist, always reliable) who claims to be a rich man’s daughter, Caroline Carmichael, long presumed to have been killed in a plane crash fourteen years earlier. Is she really Caroline? The film explores that question, but goes to some unexpected places, including the education of handicapped children.

So where does the library come in?

About fifteen minutes in, Caroline’s younger half-brother, Winston, and half-sister, Heidi, are being packed off to the library. During their absence, a family conference will be held to investigate the mysterious woman and her true identity.

As Winston walks down the front steps to the car, we overhear the maid telling Heidi, “You have your coloring book, in case you get tired at the library.”

The mother asks Winston, “Did you remember your library card?” (Of course he does. Winston is a very efficient young man.)

Heidi, who is handicapped and presumed to be mentally slow by her parents, receives a light warning by her mother:  “Heidi, the library is a special place. You can’t talk loud.” The poor girl gets shushed even BEFORE she sets foot in the library.

The next shot cuts to the library, with a reel librarian (Laura Whyte as Librarian, the last one listed in the credits) visible in the foreground. She is a middle-aged, white female with shoulder-length brown hair. She wears thick black glasses and a bright blue suit. The conservative cut of the suit is quite typical for reel librarians — and in style for the 1950s — but the bright color is a bit unexpected.

Library card scene in Caroline?
I got your library card right here

Winston, ever efficient and practical, immediately steps up to the librarian behind the Circulation desk. Visible library props in evidence: Messy stack of books? Check. Box full of filing cards? Check. Stamp and stamp pad? Check.

Winston: “Excuse me please. I was wondering where we could find old newspapers. I’m looking for an obituary.”

Librarian: “How long ago?”

Winston: “About 14 years ago. But I’m not sure of the exact date. I’ll have to look through them. But I have a library card.”

Librarian: “I’ll show you where they are. But you sure have your work cut out for you, son.”

We then cut to a close-up of newspapers — just to make sure we know what he’s looking for, the same cinematic shortcut used in Gods and Monsters — and then a wider shot of Winston and Heidi at a table, with the library in the background as well as the librarian in the bright blue suit, who is filing alongside a large wall of card catalog drawers.

The library appears quite cheerful, with lots of light and windows and light yellow walls. The bright atmosphere of the library contrasts with Winston discovering dark secrets, information kept from both children.

Caroline? library interior
Caroline? library interior

Poor Heidi — totally bored with her coloring books — gets shushed again. But not by a librarian. This time, her brother tells her to “be quiet for a few minutes” when she asks him what he’s looking for.

“Clues, Heidi. Information.”

And he does find the information he’s seeking about the plane crash, and the mysterious death of her mother later — an apparent suicide — but it is HE who finds it, not the librarian. After all, the librarian made it clear that he was on his own when it came to finding what he wanted. And the kids are LITERALLY on their own, chaperoned only by their driver.

It seems that the library, with its world of books and information, made a lasting impression on Heidi. At the end of this TV movie, Heidi has become the head of Caroline Carmichael’s School for handicapped children and proudly shows off the school library to Winston. The school library is quite busy, with special computers for disabled children, bookcases, and tables.

The school library in Caroline?
The school library in Caroline?

Although it is not apparent if the adults in this scene are librarians or teachers (or both), there is a brief close-up of one woman helping a child (far left in screenshot above). A white middle-aged female with short brown hair, she wears a dark blue shirtdress. It’s interesting to contrast her with the earlier librarian in the bright blue suit.

Both films, Gods and Monsters and Caroline?, include female Information Providers seen onscreen for a few seconds each. They are both classified under the Class IV lists, for films with librarians who are seen only briefly with little or no dialogue. The librarians are more props, rather than characters, which kinds of fits the 1950s time period of both scenes. Both reel librarians help locating newspaper archives — but they help by providing the materials only. It is the actions of the characters that unearth the needed information, in their quests to seek out newspaper accounts of past incidents and mysterious figures.

Sources used:

  • Caroline? (TV movie). Dir. Joseph Sargent. Perf. Stephanie Zimbalist, Pamela Reed, George Grizzard, Patricia Neal. Hallmark Hall of Fame, 1990.
  • Gods and Monsters. Dir. Bill Condon. Perf. Ian McKellan, Brendan Fraser, Lynn Redgrave. Lions Gate, 1998.

A tale of seven shushes in ‘City Slickers II’

Subtlety is not its strong suit, as we will also see in the library scene.

The 1994 film City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold includes a brief scene filmed in the beautiful Doheny Library Reference Room, University of Southern California. This library has starred in several films. Opened in 1932, the library has an elegant yet cozy feeling, with tall windows, light woods, tile floors, and stunning light fixtures.

That’s the good stuff.

Now for the rest…

In this vastly inferior sequel, the main plot is pretty obvious by the film’s subtitle. Subtlety is not its strong suit, as we will also see in the library scene.

The MacGuffin? Mitch (Billy Crystal) has discovered a treasure map in Curly’s hat. His excitable friend Phil (Daniel Stern) has been researching the Western Pacific Railroad because he suspects the money traces back to a train robbery. A trip to the library — a logical next step, no? — basically serves to legitimize the plot, such as it is.

The library scene takes place a little over 30 minutes into the film. The camera pans down from the gorgeously ornate library ceiling to a closer shot of Billy Crystal rifling through bound newspaper volumes. Blink, and you might miss a male reel librarian cruise by. Although unidentified in the film’s credits, how do you know he’a reel librarian? Because he’s pushing a shelving cart, of course! This unidentified African-American male is quite young (maybe in his 30s?), dressed in typically conservative outfit of grey slacks and a red button-down shirt.

Librarian with library cart in City Slickers II
Library cart alert!

I counted 7 shushes in this 3 1/2 minute scene — or a one-shush average per 30 seconds. Let’s count ’em down:

Phil is looking up old newspaper clippings on a microfiche machine, his eyes wide. He shouts out “I got it!” as he reads an article from the Carson City News.

He and Mitch talk loudly, and Phil excitedly shouts out again: “This is fate!”


Brought to us by an older man — billed in the credits as Annoyed Man in Library. There’s no indication that he’s a librarian, only that he’s following library rules. Phil shoots back an “Up yours” to Annoyed Man.

They get excited again (of course).

Annoyed Man in Library
Annoyed Man in Library


Again, by the Annoyed Man in Library. This time, Mitch whispers back, “Sorry, sorry.”

The Annoyed Man throws some more exasperated looks their way. Finally, he stands up, slams his book closed, and walks away.


These shushes come from other library users.

Mitch pushes Phil across the aisle and into the stacks — still arguing loudly.


Time to bring out the big guns! This time, a white, middle-aged female librarian gives them the shush, contributing her bit to Comic Relief. The reel librarian (Helen Sigh) whizzes by, pushing a shelving cart (of course). She wears conservative jewelry (gold button earrings and brooch) and clothing (a long-sleeved and high-necked green blouse), with glasses hanging off a lanyard.

Note:  She’s billed as Shushing Lady. Subtle.

Shushing Lady in City Slickers II
Shushing Lady in City Slickers II


Still more arguing. As Mitch turns away, Phil cries out after him, earning SHUSHES SIX and SEVEN from Mitch himself. Phil’s reaction? “Don’t shush me!”

A few seconds later, after spying a picture of the train robber who looks just like the deceased Curly, Mitch then lets rip a shush-curdling scream. The film cuts away immediately, so we can only imagine the reaction in the library!

Sources used:

  • City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold. Dir. Paul Weiland. Perf. Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, Jon Lovitz, Jack Palance. Castle Rock Entertainment/Warner Home Video, 1994.

With or without honors

The quintessential feel-good movie about how terrible higher education is.

Ah, With Honors (1994). A major film of my youth, and very mid-’90s (the soundtrack, the earnest acting, the annoying Joe Pesci accent, the lumpy sweaters and plaid). The quintessential feel-good movie about how terrible higher education is.

Some scenes were filmed on the Harvard campus, but film locations also included the University of Illinois at Chicago; University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana; and the University of Minnesota. The Widener Library plays a big role in the film, although its librarians are featured only briefly.

"Widener Library, Harvard University 2009" by chensiyuan is licensed under CC BY SA 4.0
“Widener Library, Harvard University 2009” by chensiyuan is licensed under CC BY SA 4.0


At the end of the opening credits, campus radio DJ (Patrick Dempsey) reports on a Walt Whitman ghost sighting in Widener Library (“America’s greatest poet haunting the library?”). A few minutes later, uptight Harvard student Monty (Brendan Fraser) accidentally drops his thesis down the grate and discovers that the library ghost is a homeless man, Simon Wilder (Joe Pesci), living in the bowels of the library. Simon strikes up a deal with Monty — food and lodging in exchange for the thesis.

About a half-hour into the film, Simon and Monty enter the Widener Library together (see film clip below). Simon attracts a lot of negative attention but waxes rhapsodic, “This library’s like a church isn’t it?” (Yes, it is quite beautiful.) An older, bespectacled librarian (Patricia B. Butcher as Librarian) with a short, grayish bob and wearing conservative clothes (a grey suit and a white, frilly, high-necked blouse) and conservative jewelry (a string of pearls and a brooch), walks across the room to the pair. She taps Simon the shoulder and tells him he can’t stay there. How do we know she’s a librarian? She’s carrying a book, of course!

Monty hurriedly says he’s with him, “He’s part of my research project.” The librarian responds, “Oh, I beg your pardon” and walks away, looking back once over her shoulder.

Not bothered by the incident, Simon remarks, “Women. Ain’t they perfect?”

Monty — still reflecting a similar attitude to the librarian — warns him to keep his voice low so he won’t attract attention. But then when Monty asks a question, he earns a “Shhh!” from Simon.

The unnamed librarian is your basic Information Provider, reflecting the general social attitude toward homeless people.

The Library Scene (With Honors)” video uploaded by gaiaquest is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

A little over an hour into the film, Monty spends Christmas by himself. After hearing bad news about Simon’s health conditions, Monty’s back in the Widener Library, gazing blankly over a pile of books. Behind him, it looks like the library staff are (quietly) sharing Christmas gift exchange at a desk. We see the same librarian as before, sitting to the left, dressed in a festive red cardigan and white blouse. Three other females and one male librarian are grouped around the desk/table. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in a scene highlighting Monty’s loneliness and sadness, the librarians provide the (literal) backdrop!

Screenshot of With Honors (1994), where librarians are as much decoration as the actual holiday decorations
Screenshot of With Honors (1994), where librarians are as much decoration as the actual holiday decorations

Altogether, the reel librarians appear onscreen for less than a minute total, earning this film a spot in the Class IV category.

Although the reel librarians here don’t come across too well — neither does higher education — libraries still get a shout-out. Simon compares libraries to churches. He also is mad about losing his home in the library’s furnace room, and for good reason:  “I had a home. I had a warm place to sleep. 17 bathrooms and 8 miles of books. I had a goddamn palace!”

And at the very end of the film, after Simon has passed away, Monty goes back to the Widener Library. He looks around reverently and — bringing the film full circle — places a well-worn copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on an empty library table. The library/church has become Simon’s de facto mausoleum, a fitting conclusion to his memory and influence.

Sources used:

  • With Honors. Dir. Alek Keshishian. Perf. Joe Pesci, Brendan Fraser, Moira Kelly, Patrick Dempsey. Warner Bros., 1994.
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