Librarian as Failure

Exploring the Librarian as Failure character type

Harsh and awkward title, I know, the Librarian as Failure, but I never was that good with titles. This is the category I have had the most trouble with, mainly because I used to include the male Liberated Librarians in with them (see this earliest post). Their role is to highlight flaws within the library or even society itself; they are social failures in that only “failures” would choose to — or have to resort to — working in a library. This is not me talking about real librarians — this is what I have observed in films. Don’t shoot the messenger! 😉

Whilst the male Liberated Librarians tend to be younger (they still have time to redeem themselves), the Librarian as Failure are middle-aged or older. They dress rather conservatively, in dark colors, suits, or drab uniforms.

Variations include males who fail as a plot device, and male librarians who only appear to be failures to other characters. An example of this is Richard Burton as Leamus in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965). His character, a British spy during the Cold War, seemingly gets fired and works in a library in order to fool the German spies that he’s hit rock bottom. Of course, it does the trick! When the enemy later confronts him in a pseudo-trial, he identifies himself as “assistant librarian” to continue the failed-spy image.

Quite a few of the films in this category involve prison librarians, including The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Gideon’s Trumpet (TV, 1980), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and Escape from Alcatraz (1979). I’ve often debated with myself to make prison librarians a separate category, but I’ve kept them here because they do serve the main purpose of this role — in the eyes of society, they are considered failures. That’s why they’re in prison. But these characters have a unique twist:  they often become prison librarians because they exhibit good behavior while in prison! Inside the prison world, they are (or make believe to be) model citizens; in the outside world, however, they are, at the very least, uncomfortable in social situations.

Brooks Was Here – The Shawshank Redemption” video uploaded by Chrismax is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Take Brooks (James Whitmore), the prison librarian in The Shawshank Redemption. In one scene, Red (Morgan Freeman) astutely sums up why Brooks is so scared to go on parole (see clip above):

The man’s been in here 50 years. … This is all he knows. In here, he’s an important man. He’s an educated man. outside, he’s nothing. Just a used-up con with arthritis in both hands. Probably couldn’t get a library card if he tried.

And how did “Doc” (Sam Jaffe) get to be prison librarian in The Asphalt Jungle? He very considerately tells us (see clip below):

I cause no trouble. The prison authorities appreciate that. They made me assistant librarian.

Clip from The Asphalt Jungle
Click to view clip from The Asphalt Jungle

There are quite a few minor characters who fulfill the Librarian as Failure type, characters used to contrast with other reel librarians, usually Liberated Librarians. This is exemplified in the aforementioned The Shawshank Redemption, as well as in Off Beat (1986), Fast and Loose (1939), Goodbye, Columbus (1969), Shooting the Past (TV, 1999), and Only Two Can Play (1962).

Next week, we’ll continue our peek inside the dysfunctional world of male reel librarians with the Anti-Social Librarian character type.

The Liberated Librarian (guys, it’s your turn)

Exploring the male Liberated Librarian character type

In my original undergraduate thesis, I had identified only four male character types. The more films I have seen, I have since added two categories, or rather, divided two existing categories. The first of these is the Librarian as Failure — sorry, never was that good with catchy titles — which I later split into two, giving full credence to the male version of the Liberated Librarian.

Rereading my thesis, I can see the idea there:

The films in this category demonstrate that any male who chooses (or perhaps does not choose) to work as a librarian must have something wrong with him. However, variations do exist […] most of the men are relatively young (with one notable exception), perhaps showing the audience that they have time to redeem themselves and find a better job. Interestingly, most of the males in these films triumph, in some way, in the end.

And that’s the major difference. The male Liberated Librarians may begin as failures, but they grow in character throughout the film, just like their female counterparts; their latent skills and talents find a way to rise to the forefront — but only through the instigation of an outside force, action, or other person. (I’ll delve into the Librarian as Failure later. They’re not going anywhere.) 😉

The male Liberated Librarian, as I mentioned, is usually young. Their physical appearance may or may not improve (compare this with their female counterparts, whose makeovers are practically a requirement!), but their wardrobes tend to get better. Personality-wise, they become more masculine and assertive. For major male librarian roles, the most common character type is the Liberated Librarian, with their liberation comprising the main plot.

This is evident in several films, including You’re a Big Boy Now (1966), Off Beat (1986), The Librarian TV movie trilogy (2004-2009), Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), Goodbye, Columbus (1969), and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983).

There are some more minor characters fulfilling the male Liberated Librarian role. The male librarian (James Frain) in Where the Heart Is (2000) is a supporting character, but the arc of his liberation mirrors the liberation of the lead role, played by Natalie Portman. And Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid) in the TV movie Stephen King’s It (1990), is the only one of the seven lead characters to stay behind in Derry, Maine, a town that hides an inherent evil manifesting as Pennywise the Clown (a chilling Tim Curry). Hanlon, the town librarian, sarcastically referred to as “the answer man,” eventually unites everyone to fight against that evil.

The notable exception to the age characteristic I mentioned above is Jason Robards in Something Wicked This Way Comes. He plays the aging librarian Charles Halloway, who has a bad heart and professes that he never takes risks — risking his son’s respect in the process. However, he is motivated by the evil carnival owner, Mr. Dark (a deliciously evil Jonathan Pryce), to take a risk to save his son and, consequently, saves the entire town.

Several of my personal favorites showcase this category, including The Librarian TV movie trilogy, Goodbye, Columbus (1969), and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983). For these and other favorites, see my lists for Hall of FameHonorable Mention, and Best Librarian Films by Decade, Parts I and II.

Stay tuned for next week for a deeper look into the Spirited Young Girl character type.

What’s in a name?

Great character names for reel librarians

The analysis in the “One of the Invisible Professions on Screen” article about the character of library science professor Sylvia Van Buren (played by Ann Robinson) is spot-on, and I agree that “Sylvia Van Buren” is a fantastic name for a librarian!

"Hello my name is sticker" graphic is in the public domain
“Hello my name is sticker” graphic is in the public domain

So that got me thinking… what are some other great character names for reel librarians? Here are some of my picks:

  • Bebe Neuwirth as Sylvia Marpole in An Extremely Goofy Movie (2000, animated) — another Sylvia, but this one is way more fun
  • Goldie Hawn as Gloria Mundy in Foul Play (1978) — one of my favorite reel librarian characters, with a name that winks at her “Girl Monday” characteristics
  • Selina Cadell as Miss Battersby in Prick Up Your Ears (1987) — a very descriptive surname for this uptight public librarian
  • Valerie Curtin as Miss Ophelia Sheffer in Maxie (1985) — an innocent-sounding name for this Naughty Librarian
  • Judi Dench as Marcia Pilborough in Wetherby (1985) — an imperial name for this imperious librarian
  • Emilia Fox as Spig in Shooting the Past (TV, 1999) — a wonderfully quirky name for this Spirited Young Girl character
  • Frances Sternhagen as Charlotte Wolf in Up the Down Staircase (1967) — another (unfortunately) descriptive name for this school librarian
  • Barbara Stanwyck as Lulu Smith in Forbidden (1932) — the quintessential name for a Liberated Librarian! Her surname sounds so generic and blah, seemingly perfect for a small-town, mild-mannered librarian, but the fanciful first name hints at what lies beneath the surface (see right)
  • James Frain as Forney Hull in Where the Heart Is (2000) — Southern names are kind of endearing, aren’t they? You just want to root for a guy saddled with a name like “Forney”
  • Claudia Wilkens as Iona Hildebrandt in Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) — a lot of name for this librarian cameo, but with a name like that, she manages to get in a few zingers
  • Katharine Hepburn as Bunny Watson in Desk Set (1957) — you’ve got to have a female librarian named Bunny at some point, and Katharine Hepburn pulls it off in matter-of-fact fashion
  • Charles Grodin as Harrison Winslow in Heart and Souls (1993) — can’t you just SEE the bow tie and buttoned-up demeanor in this name yearning to break loose for this Liberated Librarian?
  • Morgan Farley, John Barclay, Belle Mitchell, and Cyril Delevanti as The Books in Soylent Green (1973) — in this dystopian tale, the librarians are known simply as “Books” — appropriate yet a bit forbidding, as this utilitarian moniker strips away their personal identities
  • Peter Kastner as Bernard Chanticleer and Rip Torn as I. H. Chanticleer in You’re a Big Boy Now (1966) — I just like repeating the surname. Chanticleer. Chanticleer. Try it! It’s fun.
  • Shirley Jones as Marian Paroo in The Music Man (1962) — a reel librarian list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Marian the Librarian, right?!

Sources used: