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.
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.
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.