In spirit of the new year, I will spend some time delving into each of the librarian character types I’ve identified on this site (found under the Role Call section). So for each Friday for the next couple of months, I’ll highlight a different librarian character type.
I have already mentioned the Spinster Librarian character type quite a few times already. It felt fitting to put this character type at the beginning of this series (or would it be more appropriate to call it a mini-series? hah!), as it is often the first image that comes to mind when one mentions librarian. And such a visually stereotypical image at that. For my undergraduate thesis, “A Glimpse Through the Glasses: Portrayals of Librarians in Films,” I originally referred to the Spinster Librarian type as “The Meek Spinster.”
This is perhaps the most recognizable image of a librarian, one that conjures up an image of a bespectacled older woman, unattractively thin or even gaunt, with her hair scraped back into a severe bun. Lanyards are the Spinster Librarian‘s accessory of choice. Fussy bows, long skirts, hats, and shirts buttoned all the way up complete the typical uniform. Of all the stereotypical roles, the Spinster Librarian is most identifiable by physical characteristics and appearance. Personality wise, the adjectives uptight, meek, or unsociable spring to mind.
These women usually have small roles, ones not integral the plot. Indeed, the Spinster Librarian is best portrayed in a small amount of screen time! As stated in the article “The Librarian Stereotype and the Movies” (see Resources), “the longer a stereotype remains on screen, the less credible it becomes” (p. 17). And it makes sense that almost all of the Spinster Librarian characters I’ve identified so far are found under Class III, a listing of films in which the librarians are secondary characters, usually with only a few lines in one memorable or significant scene.
The silent film The Lost Romance (1921) seems to be the first film featuring a Spinster Librarian, as identified by Ray & Brenda Tevis in The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999 (p. 9). A not-so-noble tradition was born! A film still from this film (at left) reveals the glasses, bun, dowdy clothes, and forbidding expression prevalent of the Spinster Librarian. The Tevises also make an interesting observation that this film also established this type as a primarily supporting player, a role used to contrast with younger, more attractive female characters in leading roles, who are usually Liberated Librarian or Spirited Young Girl character types. I’ll get to those roles soon, no worries.
The most (in)famous example of the Spinster Librarian should come as no surprise… Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life. Or rather, Mary as she’s portrayed in the second half of the film, when George experiences life as if he’d never been born. This cartoon (click image to see the original, larger version) sends up this stereotypical portrayal.
Is Mary a famous — or infamous — character in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’?
Mary, Merry Christmas. I’ve written a lot already about Mary Bailey’s immortal (and infamous) 30-second reel librarian character in the nightmarish alternative reality featured in the second half of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). But hey, it’s a classic Christmas favorite — and one of my favorite films of all time.
Charlie’s whole world falls to pieces in that library … but order struggles to win in the end.
The 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt, reportedly one of Hitchcock’s personal favorites of his own films, is a clever suspense story. He smartly cast Teresa Wright as Charlotte “Young Charlie” Newton, the moral center of the story, who begins to wonder if her beloved Uncle Charlie is the notorious “Merry Widow Murderer.” And Joseph Cotten, as her namesake uncle, gets to show off some of his best acting skills in this film, in a role that requires him to be quite charming in a way that lets you know there’s more beneath the surface.
Hitchcock shot most of the film on location in Santa Rosa, California, and there is a brief library scene. The old library — a Carnegie library built in 1904 — was torn down in 1964. The library, in quintessential Carnegie style, is made of brick and covered with ivy, with a large sign proclaiming it a “Free Public Library.”
Charlie hurries out to the library to look up a newspaper clipping — a vital clue to the mystery of the “Merry Widow” murders. We see her hurry through town, spliced with quick shots of the town hall clock, almost colliding with a car while trying to cross a busy street. The lights in the library switch off (helping to set the tone of suspense and shadows) and the bells begin to ring just as Charlie scrambles up the front steps. Finding the doors already locked — this is one efficient librarian! — Charlie doesn’t give up; she knocks several times on the front glass door (which prominently displays the opening and closing times) until the librarian, Mrs. Cochran, reluctantly lets her in.
Played by Eily Malyon in an uncredited role, the reel librarian is an older woman with her white and grey hair pulled back in a bun. She does not wear glasses but is dressed quite sensibly with a long-sleeved dark shirtdress that hits below her knees. Her makeup, if any, is minimal, but she does wear a classic pair of pearl earrings. Of course, she is also wearing a watch!
Mrs. Cochran loses no time in reprimanding Charlotte:
Really, you know as well as I do the library closes at 9. If I make one exception, I’ll have to make a thousand. I’m surprised at you, Charlie, no consideration. You’ve got all day to come here… I’ll give you just 3 minutes!
Charlie apologizes quite profusely but wastes no time herself in bee-lining it to the (quite impressively large) newspaper section. She quickly locates a back issue and finds the article she’s looking for about the Merry Widow murders.
Shocked and disoriented, Charlie stands up; visually reflecting her emotions, the camera then reels up to a bird’s-eye view of the library’s main floor. We then get to see a more expansive view of the library (thank you Hitchcock!), with its large, wooden Circulation desk, multiple tables and chairs, classical columns, and glimpses of adjoining rooms. The camera work is impressive; as Jim McDevitt and Eric San Juan write in their interesting work, A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks with the Master of Suspense, “The dramatic pullback shot in the library, when realization first dawns on her, punctuates the isolation she must feel at that moment” (p. 158).
Charlie’s whole world falls to pieces in that library, based on the info she finds in that newspaper — but order struggles to win in the end. As Hitchcock visually demonstrates, the columns stand tall, the wooden doors and panels seem solid — but they’re half-obscured in shadow. Despite Charlie’s internal confusion, the walls of her outside world are still standing. But is it all just surface, a mirage, a public room almost empty? (I totally get symbolism. ;))
So what is the point of the reel librarian in this short, but important, library scene? Mrs. Cochran serves to intensify the tension and suspense, an obstacle Charlie must overcome in a race against time to find out if her uncle is a serial killer or not. The librarian provides another layer to the tension caused by the conflict between order and chaos. Mrs. Cochran is also the gatekeeper — in a literal sense — of information vital to the mystery. In this way, Mrs. Cochran fulfills the Information Provider role.
She also exhibits some characteristics of the Spinster Librarian, albeit a less severe one. Uptight, no-nonsense personality? Check. Focused more on rules than people? Check. Hair in a bun? Check. Sensible, nondescript clothing? Check.
McDevitt, Jim, and Eric San Juan. A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks with the Master of Suspense. Scarecrow Press, 2011.
Shadow of a Doubt. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotton, Henry Travers, Hume Cronyn, Patricia Collinge. Universal, 1943.
“Remember getting trapped in that library? I still have nightmares about that!”
The 1989 film Woof! details the comic adventures of an English boy, Eric (played by Edward Fidoe), who turns into a dog — a Norfolk terrier, to be exact — whenever his nose starts twitching. The movie, although a bit dull and hokey to me, is connected to a long-running (!) British TV series.
Stereotypes abound in this movie. There is the stuffy, child-hating teacher who yells at students to keep off the grass; the absent-minded and slightly buffoonish father; and, of course, the glasses-wearing, sour-faced librarian. This movie seems harmless enough, but I got an overwhelming sense of rules, rules, RULES. There are rules about not walking on the school lawn, no toys in the pool, no dogs allowed, no talking, and so on. Perhaps the boy (subconsciously) simply wants to escape!
The boy becomes determined to figure out why he keeps turning into a dog and tells his parents he’ll be going to the library later. His mother’s reaction? To feel his forehead and ask if he’s all right. It seems in this household, going to the library is odd behavior and cause for concern. Brushing away his mom’s concern, he tells his not-so-bright friend, Roy, at school that they must start by collecting data. Roy sees a light bulb, “Oh, that’s why you asked about the library tickets!”
Their first stop is the school library, a small room with few books available. There doesn’t appear to be any school librarian. The room is filled with older wood-and-metal tables and chairs, a chalkboard, a bulletin board covered with pictures, and a few low bookcases. From one angle, we see a large window along the back wall with a view of trees. There are a few books haphazardly stacked up on one bookcase, and a small 6-drawer card catalog on top of another. Overall, the look is very cluttered and disorganized.
Although the scene is only two minutes long, the message of RULES gets hammered again. Two girls come in and immediately ask, “Have you got permission to be in here?” Then a teacher — the same one who had yelled at them about walking on the grass — bursts in and yells again. “What are you up to?!” The fact that he’s holding a gun in his hand is commented on but never explained. Decidedly odd.
“It’s not easy is it, research?” Eric muses, on their way to the public library. This five-minute scene takes place toward the end of the first hour of the movie. The public library looks cheerful from the outside, with its traditional red brick and gold lettering; it seems quite busy and popular with lots of people going in and out. No “beware of librarian” signs to be seen.
The next shot showcases the main librarian (Sheila Steafel), checking out books with a scanner at the Circulation desk. She appears to be middle-aged, with short blondish hair, glasses perched low on her nose. She wears a tan cardigan and a light blue/grey blouse with an undone bow at the neckline. She wags her finger at two girls, who promptly move to the other side of the librarian’s right side (again, RULES alert!). After the girls have moved to the proper place, the librarian then motions for their library card. There is another librarian, uncredited, with her back to the camera. We see glimpses of her later on; she is of African descent, and she also wears rather conservative clothing (a black cardigan, white button-up shirt, long black-and-white polka-dotted skirt).
We get to see more of the public library, which has many bookcases, light-colored walls, and several informational signs. A character even mentions a second floor. There are several dark wood tables and comfy chairs visible.
The boys apparently find more books, judging by the stack on their table, but their research is cut short. Next, we see the librarian standing in the middle of the floor, in a light tan, calf-length skirt and brown flats, but without her glasses. She’s waving a large bell, a not-so-subtle way to signify closing time. Seeing no reaction from two kids right beside her, she waves the bell right in their faces (see above). Still no words, just crude gestures. After putting the bell back on the desk, she turns to a book cart, then taps impatiently to the man standing on the other side of the cart. He moves quickly (fearing worse her bite or her bark?), and she hurriedly pushes the cart in front of him.
Disaster strikes! Eric turns into a dog at the library. Roy leaves his duffel bag of the library table, where it catches the ire of the librarian, who is busy pushing the cart and clearing up books. When she spies the offensive bag, she rolls her eyes, gives it a glare, huffs, and throws the bag on the cart. While Eric’s friend is trying to figure out a way to get them out of the library without the librarian seeing, the director cuts to the librarian back at the Circulation desk. (Side note: we see the electronic scanner, but no computer. Hmmmm…..) Up to this point, the librarian has been more of the “Actions speak louder than words” type, but she finally speaks up — albeit in a whispering tone — in the presence of an adult (her perceived equal?), a schoolteacher. The teacher, who is also the cricket coach, invites the librarian — and even calls her by her first name, Marjorie, although she is listed only as “Librarian” in the credits — out to the cricket match. The librarian seems horrified at this idea. The teacher, giving no notice to the librarian’s obvious social discomfort, leaves by trilling, “Till this evening.” This prompts the librarian to finally raise her voice, shouting out, “NO! I — ” before breaking off. She seems quite embarrassed at her outburst — breaking her own rules, tsk tsk — and looks around guiltily while biting her nails (see below).
When Roy braves his life to ask the librarian about the missing duffel bag, we see the librarian glare at the boy with pursed lips. She shows no concern, airily telling him that the teacher took the bag. She shows much more concern about getting out of there, as she is in the process of putting her glasses up in a case. The boy, not getting the message from the librarian’s first dismissive smile, earns a scathing warning, “We are CLOSED now, actually” and another dismissive nod. Roy then walks slowly away, carrying out Eric-turned-dog in his other bag. Eric lets out a bark — what a mischief-maker! — which causes a look of confusion on the librarian’s face (in yet another close-up). She purses her lips again, raises her eyebrows, and looks around in confusion, as if she’s hearing things. She puts on her wide-brimmed black hat (which is NOT shaped like a witch’s hat), and that is that.
So what’s the point of the library scenes? Eric thinks of the library first when it comes to research — yay! — and seems to find more info at the public library than at the woefully understocked school library. But the kids are definitely on their own, either way. No help from this librarian. She appears quite dowdy, with a dismissive attitude when it comes to children or library users in general. She is not social — the idea of going out in public to a cricket match scares her into a shout! — and her mannerisms betray this social awkwardness. The only library tasks depicted are checking out books, pushing a cart, picking up books, and telling people to go home.
The public librarian serves as yet another authority figure who presents obstacles for the kids and delivers more rules. She is another guard dog — mirroring the big, scary black dog the boys have to confront every morning on their paper route. But her bark — or glare, in this case — is decidedly worse than her bite. Not a flattering portrait. She serves as both a Spinster Librarian (an uptight rule-monger) and Comic Relief (the target of derision and laughter in socially awkward situations).
Eric succinctly sums up his experience with the public librarian. At the end of the movie, he says, “Anyway, I’m glad it’s over. Remember the swimming baths, the telephone box, getting trapped in that library? Tell you, Roy, I still have nightmares about that!”
Woof! Dir. David Cobham. Perf. Liza Goddard, John Ringham, Edward Fidoe. Miramax, 1989.
One image I keep seeing, in different forms, is the librarian as nightmare.
Certain reel librarian characterizations, I believe, can transcend their stereotypes and become something more — a pop culture representation we can recognize, consciously or not. Film is an excellent medium for this; as the librarian becomes a literal image, the significance of that image can become strongly linked in our brains to deeper meanings. One image I keep seeing, in different forms, is the librarian as nightmare. Or maybe it’s the influence of Halloween. You decide.
The second half of the film explores how the town and certain characters’ lives would have changed if George Bailey (James Stewart) had never been born. Mary becomes a drawn, reclusive, and unattractive old maid who works in the library, and her failure to recognize her husband finally sends George over the edge and causes him to beg for his life back. She is literally the last straw for George, but she also acts as the last straw for US, the audience. In this frightening vision of a town without George, the horrible realization that Mary becomes (gasp!) a Spinster Librarian rings the final death gong for the nightmarish hell we have witnessed on screen. We want, as much as George, to escape from Pottersville and return to Bedford Falls. In the first half of the film, Mary represents the virtuous mother, but in the second half, she represents a nightmare — a cinematic journey of opposites and extremes. In her reincarnation as the Spinster Librarian, Mary reinforces the horrifying twist of reality that we seem to have no control over our lives.
There is also a significant sub-genre of horror films featuring librarians. Why? Personally, I suspect a deeper link to the obsession over the idea of control, or fear of losing control in our lives — and librarianship is a perfect profession to play off of that. It’s true, librarianship is inextricably linked to the ideals of organization (or control, if you’re feeling cynical). As a librarian, I see patterns of organization everywhere. It would be tempting indeed to extend that organizational tendency and tip it over the edge into obsession — or even insanity — to create cinematic drama and tension. Horror films are ripe for showcasing the librarian-turned-nightmare. Let’s look at some, shall we?
Chainsaw Sally (2004) features a “a calm librarian by day, and a brutal serial killer by night” — a nightmare come to life. In this case of extremes, it’s the librarian side of Sally — the “timid and harmless” side — that is the costume; the nightmare she becomes at night has become her true self. It seems her killer tendencies stem from traumatic childhood experiences, and her desperate attempts to exert control over her life manifest in both areas of her life, the librarian and serial killer.
The TV movie Wilderness (1996) treads familiar ground, but presents a twist on the librarian-as-nightmare image. “Mild-mannered librarian” Alice turns into a different kind of nightmare every month — a werewolf! Her daily life as librarian represents her obsession over control. Her secret life where she “is free to satiate her most personal and sometimes shocking desires” represents the wild break and loss of that controlling obsession.
Although a librarian is NOT the main character — thank goodness — in The Killing Kind (1973), the librarian in that film fantasizes about nightmares — or as she calls them “hallucinations, they’re so real.” One of her hallucinations includes a rape fantasy, a secret for which she immediately feels shame for sharing. Her sexual repression is represented in the seemingly constrictive binds of her profession. I’m not personally agreeing with that view, merely calling ’em as I see ’em.
The plotline in All About Evil (2010) may ring familiar: A “mousey librarian” discovers her inner serial killer — in this case, after she inherits a movie house. The obsession over control rears again; in the high-pressure situation of saving the family business, she resorts to churning our her own brand of “snuff films” of her own killings. Naturally, as according to a DVD Verdict review, she also “chastis[es] an indie film audience to do things like keep quiet and silence their cell phones.” Once a librarian, always a librarian!
Hopefully, these librarian characters will not haunt YOUR nightmares… Happy Halloween!
All About Evil. Dir. Joshua Grannell. Perf. Natasha Lyonne, Jack Donner, Julie Caitlin Brown. Backlash Films, 2010.
Chainsaw Sally. Dir. Jimmyo Burril. Perf. April Monique Burril, Mark Redfield, Alec Joseph. Shock-O-Rama Cinema, 2004.
It’s a Wonderful Life. Dir. Frank Capra. Perf. James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers. RKO, 1946.
The Killing Kind. Dir. Curtis Harrington. Perf. John Savage, Ann Sothern, Ruth Roman, Luana Anders, Cindy Williams. Media Cinema Group, 1973.
Wilderness (TV miniseries). Dir. Ben Bolt Perf. Amanda Ooms, Gemma Jones, Michael Kitchen. UK, 1996.