Guest post: BIPOC archivists in animated series: Arizal and Grampa Park

Archivist Burkely Hermann delves into BIPOC archivists in animated series, including the characters of Arizal in ‘Recorded by Arizal’ and Grampa Park in ‘Stretch Armstrong & The Flex Fighters’

Burkely is back this month with another guest post, this time about archivists of color in animated series. If you haven’t already, make sure you check out Burkely Hermann’s first guest post on this blog about librarians of color in animated series. Some background: I highlighted one of Burkely’s posts about librarians in animated series back in November, and he also contributed lots of insightful comments on the Twitter round-table thread about archivist/librarian depictions in pop culture from Students and New Archives Professionals Section (@SNAP_Section), which I highlighted in this post from January, a post that set out my goals for this year to research and focus more on POC librarians. Therefore, I asked Burkely to contribute a couple of guest posts for this blog, because I think readers of this blog will enjoy his different perspectives of archivists and animated series. For this guest post, Burkely is going to delve into depictions of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) archivists in animated series, including the characters of Arizal in Recorded by Arizal and Grampa Park in Stretch Armstrong & The Flex Fighters.

A bit about Burkely:

Burkely Hermann is an archivist and researcher living in the U.S. He graduated from University of Maryland with an MLIS degree with a concentration in Archives & Digital Curation in December 2019, and earned a B.A. in Political Science, minoring in history, in May 2016 from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He started three blogs in the summer of 2020 about libraries, archives, and genealogy in popular culture: Genealogy in Popular Culture, Libraries in Popular Culture, and Wading Through The Cultural Stacks. He currently writes pop culture reviews for Pop Culture Maniacs, runs several genealogy blogs where he writes about his family history roots, and occasionally writes pieces for I Love Libraries, an initiative of the American Library Association. He has also been published in the American Archivist Reviews Portal, the SNAP RoundtableIssues & Advocacy, and Neurotastic. He is currently a writer for the Geekiary, an online pop culture review site, is exploring other sites to publish his work, and writes fictional works on the site Archive of Our Own about some of his favorite animated characters who travel to archives and libraries. Additionally, he volunteers as a judge for National History Day, likes hiking, reading webcomics, and swimming in his spare time.

*SPOILER ALERTS BELOW*


Archivists of color in animated series: Arizal and Grampa Park

~ Guest post by Burkely Hermann, MLIS

Archives are often portrayed stereotypically in popular media and confused with libraries, as is the case in the Star Wars franchise, the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series, and The Mystic Archives of Dantalian. Archivists themselves are often portrayed similarly to librarians and, as such, embody many of the same stereotypes. Archives are places where people can access, in person or online, first-hand accounts of events, including various original materials, whether paper documents, maps, photographs, and digital records, and are staffed by specially trained individuals called archivists. The records within these repositories are kept due to their continuing, and long-term, value to users and those creating the record. Archivists often attempt to make their collections publicly available, whether through outreach or digitization of existing records. While libraries also make their collections available, they include secondary sources, like books, non-print, and other print materials which are organized by author and subject, and can be checked out for home use. Archives, in contrast, are arranged according to the person, organization, or community which created them. Their records cannot be checked out by patrons because they include inactive, and unique, documents no longer needed for day-to-day operations, with specific guidelines in place for accessing those records.

Archivists are often shown negatively in popular culture, and when shown, they are mostly White women, with a lack of BIPOC archivists. This echoes the dynamics of the archival field, which is, as stated in the last census of archivists in 2004, and will be shown in the upcoming census of the field, majority White. Furthermore, Samantha Cross of POP Archives, a fellow archivist who has examined portrayals in popular culture, mostly points to White archivists and archives in her reviews. I have found the same when examining animated series with archives and archivists.

Two animated shows stand out in featuring BIPOC archivists: Stretch Armstrong & The Flex Fighters and Recorded by Arizal. Both series will be highlighted in this post.

Grampa Park shows Nathan and Ricardo how the newspaper archives is organized. (Note: He is listed as “Grandpa Park” in credits, but he uses the word “Grampa” for himself.)

When I came across the animated series Stretch Armstrong & The Flex Fighters, I was excited to see an archivist of color, voiced by Sab Shimono (a Japanese–American actor), which inspired me to watch all the episodes of the series. While he never gets a proper name — only called Grampa Park — this archivist is the grandfather of a Korean-American kid named Nathan, who helps his grandson and his friend, Ricardo, do research in his “newspaper archives,” when the internet goes down. Unfortunately, the archives is in his basement, perpetrating another common stereotype of archives which is repeated in fictional works. Even so, federal records were once stored in basements of government buildings, although this soon ended after the records were under the control of the National Archives. At the same time, there are questions as to how well the newspapers are preserved and the fact the archives itself is his personal hobby, with archivists having a professional job to preserve records, not because it is their hobby to do so. There are some hobbyists who archive documents, but they likely do not have the professional training to do such archival work. While the basement archives of Nathan’s grandfather are a bit messy, with some records which are melting, he, a former reporter, asks what they need (engaging in reference work). They look through the stacks, organized by newspapers which are either local or worldwide. The newspaper archives reappear several times in the series, and the characters use it to access information which the villains try to keep hidden. Even with the reservations about the series, as I’ve previously explained, I still chuckled at his joyful declaration in one episode: “some say I’m packrat, archivist I say!” A proud archivist indeed.

Arizal explains global archive in this screenshot from the first episode of Recorded by Arizal

A much more positive portrayal of archives is embodied in the protagonist of Recorded by Arizal, a 16-year-old Filipina girl named Arizal (voiced by Christine Marie Cabanos, an American voice actress of Filipino descent). She is an aspiring recordkeeper, known as keeper for short, who will travel across the world, gathering materials along the way to add to the global archive, to preserve the history of humanity. Arizal lives in a futuristic city named Maktaba with her cousin, uncle, and aunt. She composes a series of vlogs during her summer vacation, as an extra credit assignment and part of a formal application to become a keeper. While she decides whether she wants to pursue this career path, and the episodes released so far are a coming-of-age story, a main driving theme is “the discussion of record keeping and learning” as confirmed by series creator Yssa Badiola. On other occasions, Badiola has stated that future record keeping and vlogging is archival in and of itself. As an aside, the word “maktaba” means library or place of study in Arabic, showing that the show paid close attention to cultural and historical notions.

Throughout the series, Arizal struggles to define why she wants to be a keeper. She begins the series by saying she became interested in becoming a keeper because of her friends Lia and Rizella. Afterward, a keeper tells her the harsh reality of gathering information, causing her to have a personal crisis, as she worries about leaving her prized possessions behind before making the journey. Later, she reflects on her dream when standing on a secretive overlook and how she got through it with the help of friends. In the final part of the series, it is shown that her application to become a record keeper is accepted by the athenaeum, a literary and scientific organization that advances learning. If the series is greenlighted for a full season, her role as a keeper will be explored as she “records her journey to adulthood” and tries to make the history of humanity all the more complete. 

There is one character who gets honorable mention in this post: Hermes Conrad (voiced by Phil LaMarr, a Black American actor and writer) in the mature animation, Futurama. It is worth asking if he can even be considered an archivist since he is described and shown as the Planet Express company bureaucrat who has a deep love for filing and organization. He is able to quickly look through the Physical File Archive so effectively that he secretly takes out a file hiding his role as an inspector of Bender Rodriguez, a robot who is part of the company’s crew. In order to spare himself from Bender’s wrath, he later destroys the file. The so-called “archive” is a single file cabinet with three drawers in an out-of-the-way location, hidden deep in the Central Bureaucracy. Brad Houston, an archivist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, countered the notion, saying that this “physical file archive” is a records center because it contains semi-active records, rather than an archive. 

Title screen for the upcoming S.A.L.E.M. animated series

I am optimistic there will be further BIPOC archivists in future animations, due to the hopeful premiere this year of shows like S.A.L.E.M.: The Secret Archive of Legends, Enchantments, and Monsters on YouTube, and the other shows on a growing number of streaming platforms. I say this because popular animated series such as Amphibia, Carmen Sandiego, Little Witch Academia, and Bloom Into You, all feature either archives or archivy settings. The same can be said about The Bravest Knight, Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure, Steven Universe, and Manaria Friends all of which feature archives. Even so, these shows are cases of archives that have absent archivists, with some of these archives literally being abandoned. Furthermore, this article could be expanded further if George and Lance, the self-declared historians of the archive-library-museum in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, and the possible manager of the Ancient Egypt special collections room of the PYRAMID school library in Cleopatra in Space, Khensu, the mentor of the show’s protagonist, Cleopatra, are included. In the latter case, however, it is not known if Khensu is the one that organized the information or if it was someone else instead. In the end, I’ll keep writing about this subject to engender continued discussion while pushing for more, and better, representation of the archives profession in popular culture. 

To continue reading Burkely’s insights into librarians and archivists, make sure you visit his Libraries in Popular Culture and Wading Through the Cultural Stacks blogs.

Sources used

Guest post: BIPOC librarians in animated series: ‘She-Ra’ to ‘Yamibou’

Archivist Burkely Hermann delves into depictions of BIPOC librarians in animated series, including: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, Ascendance of a Bookworm, and Yamibou.

I have a treat for y’all! I am featuring a guest post by Burkely Hermann — if that name sounds familiar, it’s because I highlighted one of his posts about librarians in animated series back in November. Burkely also contributed lots of insightful comments on the Twitter round-table thread about archivist/librarian depictions in pop culture from Students and New Archives Professionals Section (@SNAP_Section), which I highlighted in this post from January, a post that set out my goals for this year to research and focus more on POC librarians. I asked Burkely to contribute a couple of guest posts for this blog, as he is an archivist and has a personal interest in anime and animated series (areas of pop culture that I know little about). I think readers of this blog will enjoy these different perspectives. For this guest post, Burkely is going to delve into depictions of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) librarians in animated series, including: She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, Ascendance of a Bookworm, and Yamibou.

A bit about Burkely:

Burkely Hermann is an archivist and researcher living in the U.S. He graduated from University of Maryland with an MLIS degree with a concentration in Archives & Digital Curation in December 2019, and earned a B.A. in Political Science, minoring in history, in May 2016 from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He started three blogs in the summer of 2020 about libraries, archives, and genealogy in popular culture: Genealogy in Popular Culture, Libraries in Popular Culture, and Wading Through The Cultural Stacks. He currently writes pop culture reviews for Pop Culture Maniacs, runs several genealogy blogs where he writes about his family history roots, and occasionally writes pieces for I Love Libraries, an initiative of the American Library Association. He has also been published in the American Archivist Reviews Portal, the SNAP RoundtableIssues & Advocacy, and Neurotastic. He is currently a writer for the Geekiary, an online pop culture review site, is exploring other sites to publish his work, and writes fictional works on the site Archive of Our Own about some of his favorite animated characters who travel to archives and libraries. Additionally, he volunteers as a judge for National History Day, likes hiking, reading webcomics, and swimming in his spare time.

*SPOILER ALERTS BELOW*


BIPOC librarians in animated series: She-Ra to Yamibou

~ Guest post by Burkely Hermann, MLIS

Libraries have often appeared on the silver screen, whether in the form of stereotypes like the spinster librarian, Mary, in It’s A Wonderful Life and the glimpse of a librarian in Jennifer’s Body. Streaming shows have had their share of librarians too, like the unnamed librarian in the second episode of The Queen’s Gambit, or the value of the library emphasized in the first season of My Brilliant Friend. In the past year, I’ve come across a number of BIPOC librarians in Western animated and anime series. I’d like to review some of the ones I know of at the present in order to shed some light on these characters.

Western animation does not have a good track record when it comes to BIPOC librarians. Shows such as Zevo-3 and The Simpsons feature librarians, but both are White. The female-coded librarian named Turtle Princess in Adventure Time and a male librarian named Mr. Sneillson in Mysticons are voiced by White men. DC Super Hero Girls has Kimberly D. Brooks, a Black American actress who famously voiced Jasper in the Steven Universe series, voice a White female librarian, rather than have her voice a Black female librarian as a character. There are almost no BIPOC female librarians in Western animated series like the White young female librarian in Hilda, who is given a name in the show’s most recent season. Even Mira, the protagonist of the children’s animation, Mira, Royal Detective, based on late 19th century India, who sings about libraries with the people of  Jalpur, is only a librarian for one episode, serving at the pleasure of the queen as a royal detective for the rest of this series. However, one series showcases BIPOC male librarians unlike any other: Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, a remake of the 1980s series, She-Ra: Princess of Power

Lance and George, two librarians in the She-Ra and the Princesses of Power animated series

In the season 2 finale, Princess Glimmer and her friend, Adora, travel deep to the magical woods to find their brown-skinned friend, Bow, who has gone “missing.” They find a library, and believe they need to “rescue” him. They discover that Bow is there visiting his two dads, George, and Lance, claiming he is on break from a boarding school, when he is actually fighting in a war against the show’s villains. As it turns out, George and Lance run the library, which serves as a residence and a museum. It is beautiful in its own right even if it has vines growing on the outside. You could call it a hybrid between an archives, a museum, and a library. In any case, George and Lance call themselves historians, like Bow’s brothers, but they are librarians who have collected books as part of their research on the planet’s first settlers. Both are enthralled when they learn that Adora, who can transform into a warrior-princess named She-Ra, can read the ancient and dead language of the first settlers. Later, a battle with a creature, accidentally released by Adora, destroys part of the library, and Bow is forced to reveal who he is to his shocked dads. After they embrace him and his friends, these librarians help the protagonists by giving them information to help with their quest to find out more about the planet’s past. 

George and Lance later attend the coronation of Glimmer in the show’s fourth season. The library is revisited by Bow and Glimmer in the show’s fifth, and final, season. Sadly, the library has been abandoned and trashed. George and Lance leave a note to Bow, telling him where they went into hiding with a riddle. Bow and Glimmer find George and Lance in the ruins of a former castle, who tell them about writings they discovered about an ancient rebellion against the planet’s first settlers. They play a recording that details a fail-safe that could destroy the superweapon in the center of the planet. Bow and Glimmer share this information with their friends, helping them defeat the villainous Horde Prime later in the season. In the end, the value of libraries, librarians, and conducting detailed research is emphasized in the episode.

In contrast to Western animation, anime series feature various librarians, almost all of whom are women, at least from the series I’ve seen so far. Some like Hisami Hishishii in R.O.D the TV, Fumi Manjōme in Aoi Hana, Chiyo Tsukudate in Strawberry Panic!, or Azusa Aoi in Whispered Words are students behind the circulation desk, while others engage in more wide-ranging duties. For instance, Anne and Grea, two friends who love each other, in Manaria Friends close up the school library, shelve books, and play a game of hide-and-seek within the library. Similarly, Yamada, the protagonist of B Gata H Kei, fails to seduce her male friend, Kosuda, in the library, on multiple occasions, embarrassing herself over and over again. Apart from the unnamed librarians in Cardcaptor Sakura who help the protagonists Sakura, Sayoran, and Tomoyo, find a book in the local public library, which is literally flying away from them, there are three librarians who stand out. They are: Doctor Oldham in Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, Myne in Ascendance of a Bookworm, and Lilith in Yamibou

A collage of screenshots from Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet (left) and Ascendance of a Bookworm (right)

The first of these examples, in the series Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, is Oldham, a middle-aged man living in Gargantia, an interconnected fleet of ships that travels across the world, which is completely covered by water. He is a medical doctor, considered a sage and wise man by those in the fleet. He lives atop a spire, perhaps a nod to the idea of an “ivory tower.” Anyway, Amy brings Ledo, a soldier who crashed on the planet by accident, to his dwelling, which has a degraded library filled with books and not much else, so he can learn more about the Gargantian society. While the library seems to be a book depository, Oldham does inform Ledo about the social organization in Gargantia and laughs at him for his absurd ideas about society. As such, he fulfills the role of a librarian as an Information Provider, even though he is not called a librarian and does not call himself a librarian. He later appears in an original video animation where he helps at a library on another part of the fleet, aiding others in looking through records there with Bebel, Amy’s brother.

The second example is Myne in Ascendance of a Bookworm. Unlike any of the characters previously described in this post, she is the anime’s main protagonist. In fact, before she took on her form as a sickly, but highly intelligent, young child, she was a book-loving librarian, killed, ironically, by a stack of books. To her horror, she lives in a medieval town in an era before the printing press or public libraries, and she makes it her life mission to become a librarian. This was made clear in one episode where a priest, angry at her for threatening his position in the society’s elite, purposely wrecks the church library to stop her from coming to an important festival. Upon seeing this, she declares that the priest should be executed for this “crime.” Luckily, she calms down, re-organizing the library using the principles of the Nippon Decimal Classification System, after rejecting her own proposal to organize the library based on her own ideas. The latter system is the Japanese version of the Dewey Decimal System. Myne is gleeful to organize everything inside the library itself. Even more than this, the episode features PSAs from Myne about this system and the role of Melvil Dewey. Later, Myne even argues the importance of giving away books for free rather than for profit, angering Benno, who is the sponsor at her guild. It is unique that a character would have a song about re-organizing books, even while the library is portrayed as a book depository, with other materials not mentioned. She is the most positive depiction of a librarian in anime I’ve seen to date.

The third example is Lilith in Yamibou, a caretaker of the Great Library, a repository containing thousands of books that contain all the book-worlds of the universe. For most of the series, she travels with Hazuki, her crush, looking for Eve, who is another caretaker of the library. You could say that Lilith is doing her librarian duties by making sure that worlds within the books are secure, meaning they are a key part of the series. While she, like Oldham, is not identified as a librarian in the series, the official site of the visual novel that the anime is based on calls her a library administrator at the “center of the library world,” and says that she “manages all the books in the library.” The same is stated on the anime’s official website when translated into English. Unlike Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet and Ascendance of a Bookworm, the mechanics for the world’s shifting is “an interdimensional library,” with each of the books representative of another reality and the “home base” of Lilith, as pointed out by the Anime News Network. It turns out she is a “reluctant cosmic librarian,” as Eve, the real librarian and administrator of the Great Library, vanished years before into a “world of books.” 

While Western animation series do not, generally, have BIPOC librarians, there are various BIPOC librarians of note in anime series, specifically in Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, Ascendance of a Bookworm, and Yamibou. Although these are not all of the examples of BIPOC librarians in animated series, there is the possibility for upcoming series to include libraries as settings for characters and BIPOC librarians as characters themselves. After all, with Clara Rhone, a Black woman who runs a library, appearing in the series Welcome to the Wayne, there is hope yet for Western animation series. The same can be said for anime as Myne will be making a reappearance in the third season of Ascendance of a Bookworm.

For more of Burkely’s insights into librarians and archivists, make sure you visit his Libraries in Popular Culture and Wading Through the Cultural Stacks blogs. Burkely will also be back next month with a follow-up guest post about BIPOC archivists in animated series. Stay tuned!

Sources used

BONUS! Check out this ‘Fright Club: Library Horror’ podcast

I joined MaddWolf on their newest Fright Club podcast, all about library scenes in horror movies

Exciting news to share with all y’all Reel Librarian readers! Last week, I was invited by George Wolf and Hope Madden of MaddWolf.com, a very cool movie review site, to be a guest on their Fright Club podcast. (!!!) This is a podcast all about horror movies, and each podcast theme is different (e.g. Motorcycle Mayhem, Best Cosmic Horror, Grief in Horror Movies, etc.) And the latest podcast theme all about library horror came about by reader demand! 🙂 There are soooooo many library scenes and reel librarians in horror movies, a theme I have written about many times before on this blog. In fact, MaddWolf came across this Reel Librarians site and blog when doing research for this podcast, and they actually delayed their podcast recording in order to invite me to join them. I had a blast — my first podcast! — and it was fascinating to glimpse a bit behind-the-scenes about what goes into recording a podcast.

So be sure to visit MaddWolf.com to listen to the “Fright Club: Library Horror” podcast, in which I join Hope and George to chat about microfiche, creepy librarians, and memorably frightful library scenes. Check it out… if you dare! 😉

And bonus good news on this bonus post… Hope and George have invited me back in a few weeks for a follow-up Fright Club podcast that will dive into memorable portrayals of librarians in horror movies. I will keep you updated on Part 2! In the meantime, would you like to help me compile my list? Please comment and share your personal favorite librarian characters in horror movies!

Bonus reel librarian love on ALA’s I Love Libraries blog

I explore what Hollywood gets wrong (and right!) about librarians

If you are a fan and reader of this Reel Librarians blog (as always, thank you!), then you will probably also love the I Love Libraries blog, an initiative of the American Library Association (ALA) that shines the spotlight on fun stories for library lovers. A few weeks ago, I was super excited (and surprised!) to be contacted by a content manager at the I Love Libraries site, who asked me about collaborating on a guest post and exploring some questions about librarians in film and media. It took me about two seconds to say YES. ❤

I Love Libraries logo

The resulting post, “What Hollywood Gets Wrong (and Right!) about Librarians” is live on the I Love Libraries site, so please check it out! Here are the questions that I explore in the post:

  • What are some things Hollywood gets wrong in its portrayal of libraries and librarians?
  • What are some things Hollywood gets right in its portrayal of libraries and librarians?
  • How has the portrayal of librarians in media changed over the years?
  • Do you have any “guilty pleasure” portrayals of librarians in Hollywood?

For more fun stories for library lovers, please consider subscribing to the I Love Libraries newsletter.

First impressions guest post: ‘Columbus’

Happily, Columbus is not a film about the job prospects for people with advanced degrees in library science.

Today, I am very excited to introduce you to a guest post by Dale Coleman, a librarian I am lucky enough to work with in real life — and a fellow movie buff. We have enjoyed many interesting conversations about movies! Dale is the one who alerted me to Columbus, which also made several film critics’ “best of ” lists of 2017, as I highlighted in a post a few weeks ago. I asked Dale to contribute a guest post of his own “first impressions” of Columbus, in the tradition of my other “first impressions” posts of reel librarian films.

Dale has a wicked sense of humor and is one of the kindest fellow librarians I have ever had the pleasure to work with. You can enjoy his insight and sense of humor here on his Twitter account and his Instagram account. Dale also talks about movies online, here on his Letterboxd profile. After the “Columbus plot + trailer” section below are Dale’s thoughts and “first impressions” of Columbus. Enjoy!


Columbus plot + trailer:


A quick introduction to the film Columbus, which is the debut film from director Kogonada. The film stars Haley Lu Richardson as a young library worker living in Columbus, Indiana, who also loves architecture. She meets Jin (John Cho) and starts to show him her favorite buildings around the city. (A quick glimpse of the library can be seen in the trailer below, at 1:24 mins.) Rory Culkin plays Haley Lu Richardson’s co-worker, the library director, and he enjoys a fair amount of screen time.

Columbus Trailer #1 (2017) | Movieclips Indie,” uploaded by Movieclips Film Festivals & Indie Films, Standard YouTube license

‘First impressions’ of Columbus from a real-life librarian


by Dale Coleman

There are two scenes in Kogonada’s visually rich and quietly stirring debut feature, Columbus, that I identify with more than any scene from any other film in 2017 (with the possible exception of Rooney Mara eating an entire pie in A Ghost Story). The first scene is one in which it is revealed that John Cho’s character once confessed his undying love to Parker Posey’s character when he was 17 years old. Same here.

The second scene I identified with requires a bit of backstory.

In late 2012, I found myself at an existential crossroads. After completing my undergraduate degree and promptly realizing that there probably was no future for me in public relations or campaign speech writing, I decided to go a different way. Drawing from my delightful work study experience as a circulation assistant and a handful of research assistant jobs, I landed a gig as a reference specialist at Tacoma Community College. In short time, I realized it was the library life for me. Accordingly, around this time, as I weighed the prospects of pursuing an advanced degree in library science, a fun Forbes article made the rounds within the library blogosphere. In a ranking of master’s degrees, based on employment prospects and mid-career median salary, the MLS ranked… (you already know) dead last. I decided to power through and get my MLIS anyway. Buoyed by data from job satisfaction surveys, a handful of wonderful mentors, and my own overwhelmingly positive experience working in libraries, I got my dang master’s (and a job). I’m super glad I did.

Anyway, you can imagine the kaleidoscope of delight, anxiety, and empathy blooming in my consciousness, as this very Forbes article is referenced at the beginning of Columbus, a softly-told coming-of-age/coming-to-terms story, set amid the modernist architectural wonders of Columbus, Indiana. In this particular scene, Casey, a circulation assistant (played by Haley Lu Richardson, who seems poised for world domination) chats career prospects with her librarian colleague, Gabe (played with disaffected, smart-guy irony, by an all-grown up Rory Culkin). “Whatever you do, don’t get an MLS,” Gabe tells Casey in a deadpan mansplain. “It was recently declared the worst master’s for a job.” In spite of my bubbling defensiveness, I was kinda thrilled to see, even briefly, this weirdly specific, if somewhat pessimistic, depiction of librarianship as a career path.

Library scene from Columbus (2017)
Library scene from Columbus (2017)

Happily, Columbus is not a film about the job prospects for people with advanced degrees in library science. Casey (Richardson) is a recent high school graduate with an eye for architecture and a promising spark. She has a loving, but complicated, relationship with her mother, with whom she lives and very much fears abandoning. Jin (played by John Cho) arrives in Columbus, on leave from his high-pressure job in South Korea, to look after his estranged father in the wake of a medical emergency. Each at their own crossroads, the two strike up an unlikely friendship, touring the town’s architecture and sorting out their complementary existential dilemmas.

Architecture in Columbus (2017)
Architecture in Columbus (2017)

The visual appeal of this film is immediately striking. Anyone with even a passing interest in architecture will appreciate the loving eye at work in Columbus. (And if you are the type of person who can recognize an off-hand brutalism pun, you are in for a treat indeed.) The titular town is a bit of an architectural mecca, and the ubiquitous modernist marvels are almost characters themselves. The buildings frequently take the central framing of a shot with characters populating them as a secondary interest. Throughout the film, we return to a handful of set locations, often in a new emotional context or at a different time of day. It is a subtle technique that illustrates the manner in which our built physical environments are both spaces we inhabit, and reflections of our inner lives that change over time. It also adds a layer of visual poetry that propels the film. Of central thematic interest here is the ability of art to comfort and heal and offer new perspective. Thankfully, it’s explored in a way that doesn’t come off as banal or trite. The film also uses space to mirror the characters’ sense of confinement or restriction. Casey’s home, for example, is always shot through multiple door frames.

Library interior in Columbus (2017)
Library interior in Columbus (2017)
Architecture highlight in Columbus (2017)
Architecture highlight in Columbus (2017)

I also appreciate the way the characters in this film all all afforded dignity and complexity, even when they are being terrible. Standout performances all around, but Richardson shines brightest. Her portrayal of a character struggling to find her way, awash in the opinions and expectations of others, is literally transcendent. She has been racking up the breakout performances, and I can’t wait to see what she does next. John Cho also delivers an understated, impactful performance that is light years removed from Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. Parker Posey, in addition to being brilliant and perfect and wonderful in every possible way, does a bang-up job in her supporting role.

The supporting characters all feel like real people and not cartoonish plot enablers. Kogonada withholds a lot of character information in the early scenes, opting for more subtle nods to the relationship dynamics at play in the center of this film. By the time the exposition comes in the second act, it feels natural and believable. There is so much cultural and socioeconomic subtext at work in the background that this film seems content to simply let exist without being explicitly remarked upon. A certain type of viewer might be frustrated by the slow burn and quiet unfolding of this story, but the pace feels very intentional and appropriate to me. It compliments the art exploration themes. This is a film that invites you to wander the halls and appreciate the architecture, without hammering you over the head with melodrama. The delicate character development and languid camerawork are storytelling choices that will certainly reward on future viewing.

Reel librarian talk in Columbus (2017)
Reel librarian talk in Columbus (2017)

Columbus was an unexpected delight, and one of my favorite films of 2017. Shout out to Kogonada for crafting a quietly confident debut that portends great things to come. Shout out to Parker Posey for being my sun and moon and stars. And shout out to advanced degrees in library science for scoring me a librarian gig, after all.


Sources used:


  • Columbus. Dir. Kogonada. Perf. Haley Lu Richardson, John Cho. Depth of Field, 2017.