Video lecture: ‘The African American Struggle for Library Equality: The Untold Story of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program’

“Being a librarian was something of honor for the African American community.”

In the United States, February is an annual observance of Black History Month, also known as African American History Month, which has always had a strong emphasis on teaching and learning more about the history and accomplishments of Black Americans. While I was growing up in Texas, I remember learning primarily about well-known Black Americans, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. I know my childhood school experience is not unique. Many critics argue that focusing on just one month does not encourage integration of Black history into education all year round, and that focusing on just a few major Black historical figures leads to oversimplification of their complex histories and experiences.

More and more lately, I’ve been reading about how vital it is to make this a time to research and reflect on more diverse, lesser-known stories and figures of Black American history — and present. Librarians and archivists can have a major role in amplifying diverse Black American voices and experiences. Therefore, when I came across an email in my work inbox about a lecture on library science programs that trained African American librarians, I thought it would be fitting to share this lecture with you all, as well. This also ties into my own personal goals for this site, as I shared in this post in January, to research and highlight more POC librarians. While my primary focus on this site and blog is about portrayals of librarians onscreen, I have also highlighted real-life librarians on this site, too. Art imitates life, right?

Background info

Part of the August Baker Lecture Diversity Series, this lecture, “The African American Struggle for Library Equality: The Untold Story of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program,” was presented by Dr. Aisha M. Johnson, Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator of Archives and Records Management at the School of Library and Information Sciences, North Carolina Central University.

Here’s part of the write-up for the program from the Augusta Baker Lecture Series site:

Many people are familiar with Mr. Rosenwald [former president of Sears, Roebuck, Co.] as the founder of the Julius Rosenwald Fund that established more than 5,300 rural schools in 15 Southern states during the period 1917-1938. However, there is another major piece of the puzzle, the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program. That program established more than 10,000 school, college, and public libraries, funded library science programs that trained African American librarians, and made evident the need for libraries to be supported by local governments.

Experience the lecture

Here is the video recording of Dr. Johnson’s lecture, which took place on February 4, 2021:

“Dr. Aisha Johnson – Spring 2021 Baker Diversity Lecture Series” video uploaded by
NicoleTheLibrarian, Standard YouTube License
  • 0-2:12 mins: Welcome message by Dr. Nicole Cooke, Augusta Baker Endowed Chair at the University of South Carolina
  • 2:13-8:29 mins: Personal introduction by Dr. Aisha M. Johnson & introduction to her book, The African American Struggle for Library Equality: The Untold Story of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program
  • 8:30-13:54 mins: Library development and philanthropy in the Southern U.S. & overview of the Julius Rosenwald Fund (active 1917-1948)
  • 13:55-28:57 mins: Overview of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program (active 1927-1941) and its impact on rural school libraries, African-American college libraries, high school libraries, county libraries, and non-Rosenwald libraries
  • 28:58-33:20 mins: Hidden narratives & impact on HBCU library science programs, standardizing and supporting Black librarianship
  • 33:21-37:07 mins: Goals for further research & call of action
  • 37:08-58:23 mins: Q&A time

Personal takeaways from this lecture

I learned so much watching this lecture and reflecting on what Dr. Johnson researched and shared. Here are some of my personal takeaways and “golden lines” from Dr. Johnson’s lecture:

  • Dr. Johnson’s first career choice was librarianship! I connected to how she framed that “aha” moment of librarianship being a career of impact and service: “That’s not you finding the profession, that’s the profession finding you.”
  • There was a theme throughout the presentation, that if you focus on the under-served, everyone will benefit. As Dr. Johnson said later in the program, “With that library program, [Rosenwald] focused on African Americans, but the entire American South won. The entire region got education, increased literacy, additional educational opportunities.
  • The Julius Rosenwald Fund came about because of the relationship that Rosenwald, who was Jewish, had with Booker T. Washington, a well-respected Black American educator and author.
  • The funding of rural school libraries helped debunk the myth that black children could not read because of their parents.
  • Because Rosenwald would only provide funding to desegregated county libraries, rural Southern counties started desegregating in the 1930s in order to get the funding!
  • The funding for African American college libraries and scholarships for library science programs was the most successful division of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program.
  • I teared up when Dr. Johnson shared that “Being a librarian was something of honor for the African American community.” That made me think about Black librarian portrayals in films like Men of Honor (2000) and Beautiful Creatures (2013), and how there is so much more cultural significance to these cinematic portrayals. Representation really does matter.
  • I also teared up thinking about how “Rosenwald’s commitment to literacy evolved the profession.” Again, that recurring theme of how everyone benefits when you focus on the under-served and under-represented.
  • The only current library science program in HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) is at North Carolina Central University, where Dr. Johnson teaches. And that’s where Dr. Johnson focused her call to action. We need to continue Rosenwald’s work and increase the opportunities in library science for African Americans. Again, everyone in our profession, and the communities we serve, will benefit.

About Augusta Baker and the Augusta Baker Lecture series

I’ve mentioned that Dr. Johnson’s presentation was part of the Augusta Baker Lecture Series (specifically the 2021 Baker Diversity Series), so I also learned more about who Augusta Baker was! Augusta Braxton Baker (1911-1998) was the first African American Coordinator of Children’s Services within the New York Public Library system, and she served as the storyteller-in-residence at the University of South Carolina from 1980 to 1994. You can read more about Baker’s life, librarianship, and legacy here and here, and you can explore her oral histories here.

Dr. Nicole Cooke became the Augusta Baker Endowed Chair in 2019, and you can learn more about Dr. Cooke here. The inaugural August Baker Lecture kicked off in April 2020, and you can experience that inaugural lecture, the Diversity Series lectures, and related webinars here on the August Baker Lecture site.

Sources used

New reel librarian additions from readers

Have you seen any of these (new-to-me) reel librarian characters or library scenes?

Last month, I shared the news about my post, “What Hollywood Gets Wrong (and Right!) about Librarians,” published on ALA’s I Love Libraries blog. The news also got shared on their social media channels via Twitter and Facebook, and many people shared comments about their own favorite reel librarians. It was so fun to read everyone’s comments! I also received lots of emails from new readers, sharing their personal favorites and tipping me off to some reel librarians I then added to the site. Below, I have highlighted the new additions. Thank you, readers — enjoy!

Sherman, aka “Swampy,” on Phineas and Ferb (2007-2015, animated series):

Via Twitter, WieBib shared this video from the animated series Phineas and Ferb, featuring Sherman the librarian, who used the stage name “Swampy” when he was a drummer for a band! Steve Zahn voiced this recurring character. I added this series to my TV Shows page.

Phineas and Ferb Music Video – Ain’t Got Rhythm #8” video, uploaded by DisneyXDUK, Standard YouTube license

Librarian on Hilda (2018-2020, animated series):

Via Twitter, Lawrence Bolduc shared this video from the Netflix animated series, Hilda. Kaisa Hammarlund voiced this recurring reel librarian character. I added this series to my TV Shows page.

The Librarian from Hilda” video, uploaded by Tony, Standard YouTube license

Penny Adiyodi, Librarian, on The Magicians (2015-2020, USA)

I had already included The Magicians on my TV Shows page, along with the Head Librarian character, Zelda Schiff (played by Mageina Tovah). Via Twitter, Rachel Rawlings alerted me to the additional librarian character at the Library of the Neitherlands, Penny Adiyod (played by Arjun Gupta). I have not yet seen an episode of The Magicians — it began as a series right before we cut off our cable subscription — but I’ve heard good things about it. It’s definitely on my radar to watch.

This video highlights a scene from Season 4 with Zelda, with a “sneak peek” of Penny at the end of the clip.

THE MAGICIANS | Season 4, Episode 7: Zelda’s Guilt” video, uploaded by The Magicians Love, Standard YouTube license

“A Trip to the Library” scene from the 1963 musical play She Loves Me

George H. emailed me about a “Trip to the Library” scene and song from the 1963 musical play She Loves Me, written by Joe Masteroff, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and music by Jerry Bock. This play is the third (!!!) iteration of the 1937 play Parfumerie by playwright Miklós László, which inspired the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner, starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan; the 1949 musical In the Good Old Summertime, starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson; and the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail, starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

The “A Trip to the Library” scene and song occurs in Act Two of the musical play. Here is a video of the scene from the 1993 Broadway production of the play:

“She Loves Me” Broadway ’93: “A Trip to the Library”-Sally Mayes” video, uploaded by
aurora spiderwoman, Standard YouTube license

Citation searching in an episode of The Big Bang Theory (2007-2019):

Bill B. emailed me about a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory TV series, in which Leonard and Raj go to a library to research citations for a scholarly article. This episode, entitled “The Citation Negotiation,” aired in November 2018. I added this episode to my TV Shows page.

I totally agree with Bill when he stated:

They go to the (physical) university library and haul bound volumes off the shelf.  There is nary a hint of using databases for the task.  Very surprising for a seemingly savvy show.

Here’s a clip from the episode that features the library:

“Raj is scared” The big bang theory S12E9 ( The Citation negation)” video, uploaded by sakth bros, Standard YouTube license

Librarian in an episode of Mister Peepers (1952-1955)

Via Facebook, Edith A. shared her memories of the librarian in an episode of Mister Peepers, a TV show starring Wally Cox. Here’s how she described it:

My favorite will be the librarian character who did the book check-in or check-out routine on the old Mr. Peepers (Wally Cox) show. […] I will always remember that routine with a smile.

I tracked down the episode and character — Charity Grace played the Librarian in “The Leather Chair” episode, which aired in November 1953 — and added this episode to my TV Shows page.

I couldn’t track down a video of that specific library scene, but here’s a digitally restored excerpt from another episode to enjoy:

Excerpt from “Mister Peepers”” video, uploaded by UCLA, Standard YouTube license

Mr. Ambrose on Bob’s Burgers (2011-, animated series)

Rachel K. emailed me about the librarian character, Mr. Ambrose, on the animated series Bob’s Burgers. This character is voiced by comedian Billy Eichner. I added this series to my TV Shows page.

Here’s a clip from an episode about “the strangest librarian ever” … not encouraging words about a reel librarian!

The Kids Meet The Strangest Librarian Ever | Season 3 Ep. 16 | BOB’S BURGERS” video, uploaded by Bob’s Burgers, Standard Y ouTube license

Sean on A Discovery of Witches (2018-)

Steve L. emailed me about this TV series, A Discovery of Witches, based on the first book in the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness. (It’s been renewed for a second season!) The series is primarily set in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and the librarian character of Sean is played by Tomiwa Edun. I added this series to my TV Shows page.

Here’s a trailer for the series (which looks AWESOME!):

A Discovery of Witches Season 1 Trailer | Rotten Tomatoes TV” video, uploaded by Rotten Tomatoes TV, Standard YouTube license

Mika Coretti in Ninja Assassin (2009)

Megan J. emailed me about the 2009 film, Ninja Assassin, directed by James McTeigue and starring Korean pop star Rain and British actress Naomie Harris as Mika Coretti. I have added this film to my Master List.

Here’s how Megan describes the reel librarian connection:

She [Mika] has discovered that a string of deaths of top ranking officials worldwide has been carried out by the Ozunu which puts her in danger of being killed. Raizo becomes her protector.

At a later point in the film she says to an unconscious Raizo, “I know you can’t hear me, so I’m sure this doesn’t matter but I’m going to say it anyway. I’m just a forensic researcher. It’s like a fancy way of saying I’m a librarian. By myself I can’t do anything to help you, but I wanted to thank you for saving my life. And I hope you can forgive me for this.

Here’s a trailer for the film:

Ninja Assassin – Official Trailer [HD]” video, uploaded by TVK1337, Standard YouTube license

Continuing the conversation:

Thanks again to everyone who commented or emailed me! Have you seen any of these (new-to-me) reel librarian characters or library scenes? Please leave a comment and share! 🙂

‘Naughty Librarian’ character type summed up in an ‘SNL’ skit

Be careful what you wish for!

In last week’s post featuring the reel librarians program I recently presented, I mentioned that a class of students were able to attend. The students were really engaged during the program and asked lots of questions. I’ve also enjoyed follow-up interactions from a few of those same students, who have been letting me know about how much more aware they are now of librarian portrayals. It is so true that when you start looking for librarians in film, you start seeing us EVERYWHERE.


‘The Librarian’ SNL skit:


A couple of students have even passed on additional movie or TV examples of reel librarians, including a Saturday Night Live skit Margot Robbie did a couple of years ago, a skit entitled “The Librarian.”

SNL's The Librarian skit, 2016
SNL’s The Librarian skit, 2016

Click the images in the post to open up the video in a new window.

The concept of this skit, available on NBC’s Saturday Night Live site, is simple. Margot Robbie plays a school librarian, Ms. Dalton, complete with a pussy-bow blouse, cardigan, glasses, and bun. She confronts a bunch of male students drooling over her and begins to take her hair out (literally)… and then some. Things turn unnerving and horrifying very quickly, turning desire into distress. As The Independent noted at the time, “That ‘Ohhhhhhh yeeeeeeaaaaaah’ song you might remember from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (‘Oh Yeah’ by Yello) plays as Robbie starts to undress, but then things take a turn for the macabre.” The “Oh yeahs” morph into “Oh NOs!”


The ‘Naughty Librarian’ character type:


This skit lasts only 3 minutes and 5 seconds, but WOW is it spot-on, acknowledging and then upending soooooooo many stereotypical traits of the “Naughty Librarian” character type.

Margot Robbie as The Librarian in the 2016 SNL skit
Margot Robbie as The Librarian in the 2016 SNL skit

This skit basically checks every box for this character type:

  • ✔ Young to middle-aged
  • ✔ Wears conservative clothing and then “lets her hair down”
  • ✔ Includes sexual undertones in conversation
  • ✔ A flirtatious or sexually charged librarian who often becomes violent (or demonstrates otherwise criminal behavior) when sexual desires go unfulfilled, repressed, or challenged

Fantasy… or nightmare?


I primarily focus on film, so I admit that I’m not as knowledgeable about TV series or skits featuring reel librarians. This skit, which went live in fall 2016, was not on my radar (so I am thankful for the student letting me know about it!). So it was interesting to watch this clip for the first time after the #MeToo movement, which has, and continues, to bring about a social reckoning of sexual harassing behavior, behavior both explicit and/or passive-aggressive (this skit has both). Sure, this skit is fun and sexy, and you don’t have to go any deeper than that. But there’s a darker undertone that I argue actually feels right at home in our current climate. The boys in the skit start out passive-aggressive, making suggestive and sexualized comments at their table about the librarian, but then one student says one out loud to Ms. Dalton, albeit by proxy (“Jeremy thinks you’re hot!“). The librarian directly calls out the student and challenges him (“What are you going to do about it?“), which sounds like a fantasy at first… until that fantasy quickly turns into a nightmare. Be careful what you wish for! Ultimately, Ms. Dalton holds the male students accountable for their behavior and brings about her own reckoning.

And Margot Robbie totally commits to this skit, bringing the same maniacal edge to Ms. Dalton as she did to the character of Harley Quinn in 2016’s Suicide Squad. A Nerdist review even wonders, “If Harley had to fight the Librarian, who would win?

Bottom line? Don’t mess with librarians — real OR reel!


Sources used:



And if you have more examples of reel librarians to send my way, please leave a comment and/or contact me via email (reel.librarians@gmail.com). Thanks in advance!

Video recording for ‘Shush-ers, Spinsters, and Sirens: Exploring Librarians in Film’ presentation

You can finally put a voice to the words I write every week on this blog

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I presented about reel librarians at my college a few weeks ago as part of our “Library Lunchtime Lecture” series. My talk was filmed by our Media Services staff, and they’ve uploaded it to our college’s YouTube channel. So if you’re a longtime reader (thank you!), you can finally put a voice to the words I write every week on this blog. 😉


Shush-ers, Spinsters, and Sirens: Exploring Librarians in Film:


Check it out below!

“Shush-ers, Spinsters & Sirens: Exploring Librarians in Film (5708140 Melissa Adams),” uploaded by TCC Multimedia, Standard YouTube License

Please note that this recording does not include captions.

The camera operator kept the camera pretty close (to protect students’ privacy), and I wore a mic (which I promptly forgot about, so there are times when I hit the mic that was pinned to my denim jacket, sorry). The room was full, so there were 40-50 people present in total, including one entire class of students. The energetic vibe in the room on the day isn’t all that evident in the video recording (especially because you can’t hear anyone else!), but it was a really fun program to present!


Presentation timeline:


  • Introduction:  My intro lasts the first 17 minutes of the recording
  • Film clips:  The bulk of my presentation, including a majority of the brief film clips, start from 17 minutes in and last through the 48-minute mark.
  • Audience Q&A:  The questions start around the 48-minute mark and last through the final 1 hour, 2 minute duration of the video
    • I forgot to verbally restate the questions during the program for the benefit of the recording, so I’ve summarized the questions below and their approximate start times in the video:
      • What got you started in this research and your undergraduate honors thesis? [48:40]
      • What has been the greatest change in librarianship that you’ve experienced personally, things you didn’t know about librarianship until you became a librarian? [50:15]
      • Do you think you would have chosen librarianship if your mother hadn’t been a librarian? [52:10]
      • What is the reaction from other librarians when you present on this topic at librarian conferences? Is it well-received? Do they see the value in this research? [53:45]
      • What are some indicators of what it takes to be a librarian (in case some students present are interested in librarianship)? [56:00]
      • Have more recent films included more positive portrayals of librarians? [58:00]
      • Is there more diversity in librarianship itself? Or is art imitating life? [59:00]
      • From your personal experiences, do you have concerns about the profession or where it’s headed? [1:00:00]

Continuing the conversation:


Let’s continue the conversation! Please share any additional questions you’d like to know about my reel librarians research, and/or share anything you found particularly interesting in the video.

And if you actually did watch the video all the way through, then five gold stars for you! ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Ask the (public) librarians

How do you spend your day at the library?

Last week, I was browsing PBS shows online, and I came across the “Ask The…” public television series, including one recent episode from January 2018 entitled “Ask the Librarian.” Reader, I was intrigued.


Ask the experts:


Turns out, “Ask The…” is a public access show produced by WGVU, a service of Grand Valley State University in Michigan. Here’s the write-up from the WGVU site for the show:

“This informative program features a variety of topics, from medicine to sports, from animals to entertainment. Each week, host Shelley Irwin invites a group of experts into the studio to discuss new developments in their fields and to answer your questions. Viewers are encouraged to call in and ask questions on air, or questions and comments can be e-mailed to the show’s producer before the show.”


“Ask the Librarian” episode:


And here’s the “Ask the Librarian” episode in question (click the image to view the video in a new window):

Screenshot of "Ask the Librarian" TV episode
Screenshot of “Ask the Librarian” TV episode. Click the image to watch the full episode.

The group of experts for this episode consisted of three librarians from public library systems in Michigan, including an older female librarian who works with books for the blind and physically handicapped; a younger male librarian who works in a “library lab” and STEM programming; and an female library director.

So the episode is not so much about “Ask the librarian” as it is about “Ask the public librarian.”


Questions, questions:


I jotted down the questions that the host asked during the program, including:

  • How do you spend your day at the library?
  • Do you [librarians] have specialties?
  • So how does the e-system work? [the host is referring to e-books here]
  • It’s not difficult to get a library card, is it?
  • Do you still charge fines?
  • Do libraries use volunteers?
  • What’s the job market these days [for a librarian]?
  • What are you reading now? As every librarian should be reading a book… or two.

Probably the most interesting question of the lot, asked of the younger librarian who works at the “library lab,” was:

“You do, like beer-making opportunities on campus… what’s up with that?”

Judging just from some of these questions, one can tell that librarian stereotypes are still alive and well. For example, the following question was one of the first ones asked:

“Is today’s library system the same as it was when Grandma went through the front door?”

And the host summed up the program by stating:

“Grandma just wouldn’t have had any idea.”

Yeahhhh… this is the kind of stuff librarians hear when people don’t know anything about what librarians actually do. I’m kind of shocked the host DIDN’T ask, “Isn’t it nice to have a job where you just read all day?:\


NYPL reference questions:


If you’re interested in some actually interesting and challenging questions asked of public librarians, check out this recent “Ask a Librarian” article, all about past reference questions asked at the New York Public Library:

“When librarians were asked something novel or difficult, they’d often write the question down on a piece of card and file it away for future reference. A box of these cards from the ’40s was recently unearthed at the New York Public Library, and they’re every bit as hilarious as you’d expect somebody’s Google queries from 50 years ago to be.”

NYPL Library Reference Card from the 1940s
NYPL Library Reference Card from the 1940s

The New York Public Library has also been posting these reference question cards on their NYPL Instagram account, if you just can’t get enough. 😉


Sources used: