About a half hour into The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) needs some info about the ring, and he needs it fast. So next we see the Gondorian Archivist (Michael Elsworth) leading Gandalf down a winding staircase to the archives. The elderly archivist is clothed in dark robes and hat, with no glasses. He serves as an Information Provider, although he has no dialogue. He provides directions only. The archivist shows Gandalf the way with an open torch (flames near old papers? insert internal scream here!).
The archives themselves have no apparent organization; as you can see below, some papers and books are stacked vertically, while others are loose on shelves.
Gandalf feverishly paws through archives, spilling pipe smoke and ash everywhere. He bends old scrolls and parchment in his haste of reading, amidst dripping candle wax and drinking cups (seen below). And after several hours or days, Gandalf does find the info he needs concerning the ring, from an obviously rare scroll of parchment.
First off, I love love love LOTR — the books and the films. The trilogy is a fantastic cinematic achievement. It deserved all the Oscars it got, and even some it didn’t get (mental hugs to you, Ian McKellen).
The librarian in me cannot help wondering how much quicker — if not cinematically dramatic, of course — the process would have been if:
(a) the archives had been in some kind of order, and
(b) the archivist was put to any use other than giving directions.
And, of course, I wanted to climb into the frame and clean up those archives. First step: no open flames or smoking! For me, “my precious” would describe not the ring but the priceless information contained in those archives.
And if you’re wondering, no, the librarian in me never has a day off. Once a librarian, always a librarian!
The 1945 film Brief Encounter is one of the greats. Yet it’s one of those films that still flies pretty low under the radar — but those who have seen it and share it with each other light up in remembrance. It’s a simple, quiet film, heartbreakingly beautiful. With the best use of Rachmaninoff EVER.
The film, based on Noel Coward’s 1935 one-act play Still Life, stars Celia Johnson (luminous in an Oscar-nominated role) as Laura Jesson, an ordinary English wife and mother, and Trevor Howard as Dr. Alec Harvey, an ordinary English husband and father. They meet one day by chance and fall in love. It’s that simple. But life is never really that simple, is it?
Almost twenty minutes into the film, Laura’s going about her usual shopping day in nearby Milford. She walks past a display window, full of new “holiday reads.” We then see her in what looks to be a kind of public library, smiling with a friendly female librarian (uncredited). The library is lined with shelves, with a main desk in the center stacked with books. The librarian is a white female with short, wavy blonde hair. She looks to be in her 30’s, appears quite friendly, and is dressed in a quite stylish cardigan (yes, there ARE some out there) with what looks to be military-style embellishments.
Laura narrates: “I changed my book at Boots. Miss Lewis had at last managed to get the new Kate O’Brien for me. I believe she’d kept it hidden under the counter for two days.”
Note: Kate O’Brien was an Irish novelist and playwright (1897-1974), who explored gay/lesbian themes in several of her works. Some of her work was quite controversial, as two of her books were banned in her native Ireland. It is also interesting to note that upon its initial release, Brief Encounter was itself banned in Ireland, due to its sympathetic portrayal of adultery.
But then we see Laura turn and step from the library into a chemist’s shop (see below). What??? From our travels overseas, I knew that Boots is a British pharmacy chain. What’s the deal? Is this library actually a bookstore? Is this just an odd film set?
Doing a little more digging (thanks, IMDb!), there’s an interesting answer:
Laura borrows books from the Boots Lending Library. Such Lending Libraries were an offshoot of Boots Pharmacies. Boots is a major pharmacy chain in the UK. It was founded in 1849 and still exists, although in a much different, more diversified form. The Lending Libraries were started in 1898.
Boots is still around, but their lending libraries ceased in the late 1960s. The Boots Lending Library was an example of a subscription library. You’d pay a small monthly or annual fee to the library — or a small fee per item — to be able to check out materials. Sound familiar? It’s basically the same idea as video rental stores or Netflix.
Ok, back to the film. That’s the only time we see the librarian, Miss Lewis — a typical Information Provider seen only for a few seconds — but her character still plays a role in the film, as you’ll see.
The library books are also mentioned a few more times throughout. A couple of minutes later, Laura and Alec are enjoying lunch, and he asks if she comes into town every week.
“Yes, I do the week’s shopping. Change my library book, have lunch and generally go to the pictures. Not a very exciting routine, but it makes a change.”
After spending the afternoon together, Laura is thinking about Alec as she boards the train to go back home. She sees a clergyman in the corner and flushes: “I felt myself blushing and opened my library book and pretended to read.”
Just over an hour into the film, their would-be love affair comes to a head. We see Laura running down the wet streets, with her library book under her arm. She knows she’s late and ducks into a tobacco shop to phone her husband.
We hear only her side of the conversation:
“Yes, everything’s perfectly all right, but I shan’t be home to dinner.
I’m with Miss Lewis. Miss Lewis, dear. You know, the librarian I told you about at Boots.
Yes, I can’t explain in any detail because she’s outside the box now.
I met her in the High Street a little while ago in a terrible state. Her mother’s been taken ill, and I’ve promised to stay with her until the doctor comes.
Yes, I know, but she’s always been awfully kind to me, and I feel so sorry for her.”
So she uses poor Miss Lewis (“Miss” – of course) as an excuse for being late!!!
Why? Most likely, the library book she had with her provided the inspiration. Also, being with a librarian MUST be respectable and above board, right? 😉 There would be no questions asked (and really, why WOULDN’T one feel sorry for a poor librarian?), and as Laura says, “It’s awfully easy to lie when you know that you’re trusted implicitly.”
I can’t help but wonder how Laura will react to Miss Lewis the next time she visits the lending library…
Brief Encounter. Dir. David Lean. Perf. Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard. Cineguild, 1945.
“Pick any book, and if we don’t have it here, I will move mountains to get it for you.”
The 2004 film Dear Frankie is one that I visit time and again — it’s a beautiful, touching film that never gets treacly or sentimental. The bracing Scottish backdrop helps, of course. Plus, it boasts a quietly stellar cast, including a young(er) Gerard Butler and the always intriguing Emily Mortimer.
The Frankie of the title is a deaf boy (Jack McElhone) who receives a lot of letters from his seafaring dad — but all those letters have actually come from his mom (Mortimer). His dad’s (fictional) ship is about to come into town, so his mom hires a stranger (Butler) to pose as Frankie’s father.
In one early scene, his mom composes a letter in what appears to be a library — or perhaps an archives room or historical society. No librarian in sight, but there looks to be the standard library prop of a shelving cart stacked with folders and boxes.
In another scene about fifteen minutes into the film, Frankie visits the local library — it’s called the “lending library” by the sign on the glass door — which has a light, cheerful atmosphere with its stained-glass windows.
Frankie browses the shelves and catches the attention of the librarian. The librarian (Elaine Mackenzie Ellis) is a white female, with short dark hair, and a shorter, rounder frame. She wears glasses, modest clothing (a light blue top and matching cardigan), and minimal jewelry (small earrings and silver necklace). She’s also holding a book, the most obvious prop to mark a reel librarian!
The librarian — unnamed in this film and listed only as “Librarian” in the credits — starts speaking to him, not realizing he’s deaf. “Yes? Can I help you? Hello? Hello, I’m talking to you.”
Obviously offended at the boy’s seemingly defiant inattention, she steps out around the desk. “Come back here, please. I’m talking to you. Cheeky wee devil, you!”
So she tracks the boy down and says, “I am well aware that a wee boy your age should be at school at this time of day.”
Frankie then puts in his hearing aid. When she realizes he’s deaf, the librarian’s tone and demeanor completely change. “I didn’t realize. I’m so sorry.” Her tone becomes encouraging, her facial expression quickly softens, and she starts exaggerating and over-enunciating her words.
“Pick a book. Pick any book, and if we don’t have it here, I will move mountains to get it for you.”
The next shot cuts to Frankie leaving the library, holding an armful of books (and a slight smirk on his face).
Surely he’s pulled this kind of trick before? Frankie must find it a bit amusing to see how people’s reactions change after they realize his handicap. The librarian here fulfills the role of the Information Provider — no surprise there — as she helps Frankie find books he wants. She also serves as a typical example for how a majority of the public treats Frankie and other children with physical handicaps.
Dear Frankie. Dir. Shona Auerbach. Perf. Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, Gerard Butler, Sharon Small. Miramax, 2004.
He personifies the concept of “efficiency” for all librarians ever after.
My vote for the quickest reel librarian EVER? The Microfilm Clerk in The Changeling (1980). Behold (and please excuse the grainy quality of my screenshots):
If this library clerk (played by David Peevers) had set up this microfilm in 4 minutes, I would have been impressed! But this scene demands suspension of disbelief, as the young clerk is able to take the microfilm box out of the drawer (top screenshot), roll the microfilm out of its box, thread it through the microfilm reader in the next room, AND spin it through to the requested article — all in 4 seconds (!!!!). WOW. He personifies the concept of “efficiency” for all librarians ever after.
Not sure what microfilm is? Read more about it here. The microfilm reader — kind of looks like a computer, right? — can be seen in the 2nd screenshot above.
Where were we? Oh yes, the fastest reel librarian ever. The library clerk is a young, white male with short brown hair and mustache, and he wears a fairly conservative brown sweater and dark collared shirt. He begins the reference interview with “1909? I’ll set it up for you” and leaves them with “It’s all ready to go, and the scanner’s on the right.” They thank him for his help (yay!).
Ok, a little context. In this atmospheric thriller, George C. Scott plays John Russell, whose wife and daughter are killed in a freak road accident. He rents a house with a mysterious — and murderous — past and goes about researching the tragedy he believes the house is trying to communicate to him. John first goes to the local Historical Preservation Society and meets Claire (played by then-wife in real life, Trish Van Devere), who joins him on his research quest. Their next step is the local library, to look up newspaper articles from 1909.
Note: This is in a time period before full-text articles become available through electronic library databases — but some newspaper archives are still only available through microfilm or microfiche. Not sure what an electronic library database is? Read all about ’em here.
The label on the microfilm box? It reads “Seattle Daily Times, Jan. 13, 1909 thru Feb. 22, 1909,” which fits John’s inquiry. However, this drawer of microfilm is not organized very well, as one box of the Seattle Daily Times sits next to Farm Electrical Studies in the Pacific Northwest. But hey, with the fastest librarian in the West on your staff, who needs organization?!
John gets more help when he goes to the Hall of Records. The Archives Clerk (Robert Monroe), an older white male with glasses, thinning hair, and white beard and mustache, is quite tall and wears a dark shirt and grey blazer. He shows John property atlases of Seattle and helps explain the system of maps and legends.
Although the two male librarians in this film combine for very little screen time, they are helpful and efficient Information Providers — supplying information vital to John’s discovery of the film’s central mystery. It is also refreshing how the film showcases an effective research strategy. Remember, ask a librarian!
The Changeling. Dir. Peter Medak. Perf. George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas. Image Entertainment, 1980.
The first occurrence of a reel librarian uttering, “Shush!” onscreen
The 1933 film The Good Companions, adapted from J. B. Priestley’s novel of the same name, tells a story of three wayward souls finding their way to a variety troupe called the “Dinky Doos” (no, I do not make this stuff up). Thankfully, they change the name straightaway to “The Good Companions,” hence the film’s title. This decidedly minor film, remade in 1957, takes its time setting up the characters and the plot.
The librarian (Hugh E. Wright) shows up for less than a minute, and we never see his face — only the back of his head (see below). His appearance is notable only because it appears to be the first occurrence of a reel librarian uttering, “Shush!” (as determined by Ray & Brenda Tevis in their book, The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999). The Tevises also take note at how the low camera angle — revealing only the back of the librarian’s head — visually de-emphasizes the reel librarian.
The reel librarian is a white male, older, and quite thin. He is wearing a black coat, and his hair is short, grey, and appears to be thinning. We see a glimpse of spectacles as he turns slightly to the side at one point.
The library scene occurs one hour and 17 minutes into the film (the 113-minute UK version, NOT the 95-minute US version). Right before the library scene, the two female leads, Miss Elizabeth Trant (Mary Glynne) and Susie Dean (Jessie Matthews) enjoy a picnic; the older woman laments a long-lost love, and Susie schemes to bring the two former lovers back together. The gentleman in question is a doctor, and the Susie muses that “there’s a medical register at any public library.” Next, we see a shot of Susie looking up the medical register and finds the name she’s seeking and the town where the doctor lives, Dingley. She then asks in a loud voice, “How far’s Dingley?”
Immediately, we hear a “Shush!”, then the camera pans back to reveal the library and the back of the reel librarian, who then answers “20 miles” to her question. Susie, quite unconcerned at her mild reprimand, tosses off a quick thanks. She then brings the big book back to the Circulation desk and asks the librarian what kind of illness would bring a doctor in from 20 miles away. He seems puzzled — who wouldn’t be? — and replies, “Well, I don’t know. Heart attack?” Susie seems quite pleased with his response, thanks him, and leaves. He fulfills the basic Information Provider role, one punctuated by the inaugural and soon-to-be-infamous (and oft-repeated) “Shush!”
We see one wide shot of the library itself, with the reel librarian perched on the edge of the stool at the far right. Anybody else visualizing Ebenezer Scrooge?! The long, wooden Circulation desk spans the bottom part of the frame, and the obligatory card files flank both sides of the librarian — another visual barrier. The left side of the frame reveals a fairly populated reading room, most likely for newspapers and other periodicals, while the larger space to the right is empty except for the girl. Is it just me, or does the library backdrop almost look painted? There are tall stacks of books, and we spy a second floor with more bookshelves, tables, and library lamps; in the close-up, we see thick velvet ropes — yet another visual barrier — curtaining off the tall stacks.
The Good Companions. Dir. Victor Saville. Perf. Jessie Matthews, Edmund Gwenn, John Gielgud, Mary Glynne. Gaumont British Picture Corporation, 1933.
Tevis, Ray, and Brenda Tevis. The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999. McFarland, 2005.