The Quotable Librarian | Poetry excerpts from 10 poet-librarians

April is National Poetry Month, so let’s highlight poetry from real-life poet-librarians!

The last post I did for the “Quotable Librarian” series was in 2018 — “The Quotable Librarian of Congress” post which featured Carla Hayden, the first woman and the first Black American to lead our national library — so I think it’s time to revisit this series, don’t y’all? April is National Poetry Month, so it feels right to highlight poetry from some real-life poet-librarians. This also feels like a companion post for previous posts like “Unreflected glory: Librarian authors and their mediocre movie adaptations” and “The Quotable Librarian | Inspirational quotes from famous librarians” (including quotes from real-life writer-librarians).

Where to start looking for real-life poet-librarians? These resources proved invaluable for this post:

Top row, left to right: Audre Lorde (CC BY), Jorge Luis Borges (Public domain), Christopher Okigbo (CC0 Public domain); Middle row, left to right: Stanley Kunitz (Public domain), Reinaldo Arenas (CC BY SA), Marianne Moore (Public domain); Bottom row, left to right: Philip Larkin (Painting by Humphrey Ocean, CC BY SA), Kavevangua Kahengua (screenshot from Township Productions video), Mao Zedong (Public domain)
Not pictured: Ana Rosa Núñez (I couldn’t find an openly licensed photo of her)

I have organized the entries and excerpts for the 10 poet-librarians below in chronological order by birth year.

Marianne Moore (1887-1972)

Marianne Moore, born in Kirkwood, Missouri, was a celebrated modernist poet, critic, and translator. Moore worked as an assistant librarian at the at the Hudson Park branch of the New York Public Library from 1921-1925. According to this post from the NYPL blog, her commute was only 42 steps! Moore’s poems were first published in 1915, and her first book of poetry was published (against her wishes!) in 1921. She published many more collections, and her Collected Poems in 1951 was awarded the Bollingen Prize in Poetry, the National Book Award for Poetry, and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Moore’s personal private library is preserved in its original layout — and available for public and digital viewing! — at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia.

In the meantime, if you demand on one hand,
                in defiance of their opinion –
        the raw material of poetry in
     all its rawness, and
     that which is on the other hand,
        genuine, then you are interested in poetry.

Marianne Moore, excerpt from “Poetry,” published in the literary magazine Others: A Magazine of the New Verse, 1919

Mao Zedong (1893-1976)

Mao Zedong (also spelled as Mao Tse-Tung), born in a Hunan village in south central China, became known as Chairman Mao and was founder of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). He worked as a librarian’s assistant at Peking University from 1918-1919 and reportedly “earned only $8 a month carrying periodicals to the readers and organizing shelves” (Newton). This American Libraries article argues that Mao’s independent studying in libraries and experiences as a library worker helped shape his revolutionary outlook and ideas. He wrote poetry his entire life, typically in the style of traditional Chinese poetry.

Filled with student enthusiasm
Boldly we cast all restraints aside.
Pointing to our mountains and rivers,
Setting people afire with our words,
We counted the mighty no more than muck.

Mao Zedong, excerpt from “Changsha,” 1925 (English translation)

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)

Jorge Luis Borges, born in Buenos Aires, worked as a municipal librarian at the Miguel Cané Library in Buenos Aires from 1937 to 1946 and became Director of the National Library of Argentina in 1955. However, he was forced to resign from his library posts — twice, in 1946 and in 1973 — due to political clashes with Juan Perón. Borges was most famous for his short stories, but he also wrote poetry, essays, screenplays, and literary criticism. Borges’s most famous line has to be “I have always imagined Paradise as a kind of library” from “Poem of the Gifts”/”Poema de los Dones” (1960), but I have chosen another poetic excerpt to share here.

Beyond the greying window night is fading
And in the stack of books whose lopped shadow
Makes it seem taller on the dim-lit table,
There’s one we’ll never get around to reading.

Jorge Luis Borges, excerpt from “Limits” published in Poetry, June 1993, translated by R. G. Barnes and Robert Mezey

Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006)

Stanley Kunitz, born in Worcester, Massachusetts, to parents of Jewish Russian Lithuanian descent, was a poet and editor. Although he never worked a librarian, he had the honor of being appointed — TWICE! — Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, first in 1974 and then again in 2000. While working at H.W. Wilson, he edited Wilson Library Bulletin, a well-known and respected trade journal for librarians, published 1914-1995. He also edited major reference works for libraries, such as the Twentieth Century Authors series, so I think he deserves to be included here — or at least an honorable mention? — for being directly involved in producing several professional journals and reference works for librarians and libraries. Kunitz’s first collection of poems, Intellectual Things, was published in 1930, and his 1959 collection, Selected Poems, earned the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Stanley Kunitz, excerpt from “The Layers,” 1978, published in The Collected Poems by Stanley Kunitz, 2000

Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

Philip Larkin, born in Coventry, England, was a poet, novelist, and librarian. After graduating from St. John’s College, Oxford, with a first in English Language and Literature, Larkin completed professional librarian studies, and he worked in libraries his entire adult life! He started out in public libraries, first working in 1943 at the public library in Wellington, Shropshire. After working as librarian at University College, Leicester, and at Queen’s University of Belfast in Northern Ireland, Larkin became University Librarian in 1955 at the University of Hull in Yorkshire, England, where he stayed the rest of his life. Larkin was awarded the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 1975. His first poem, “Ultimatum,” was published in the Listener in 1940, and he only published 4 complete poetry collections during his lifetime. Nevertheless, Larkin was “one of post-war England’s most famous poets, and was commonly referred to as ‘England’s other Poet Laureate’ until his death in 1985″ (Poetry Foundation).

Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,   
And age, and then the only end of age.

Philip Larkin, excerpt from “Dockery and Son,” Whitsun Weddings, 1964

Ana Rosa Núñez (1926 – 1999)

I could not find an openly licensed image or video of Ana Rosa Núñez to include in the gallery of poet-librarians above, but you can see a photo of Núñez here in this article about the founding women of the Cuban Heritage Collection.

Ana Rosa Núñez, born in Havana, Cuba, was a librarian and poet who published more than a dozen works, including collections of poetry, prose, and translations. She earned a library degree from the University of Havana in 1955 and worked as head librarian of the Tribunal de Cuentas de la Republica de Cuba (National Audit Office) from 1950-1961 and was a founding member and vice president of the Colegio Nacional de Bibliotecarios Universitarios (National College of University Librarians) from 1957-1959. She immigrated to the U.S. in 1965, and worked as a reference librarian at the University of Miami’s Otto G. Richter Library, where she helped found the Cuban Heritage Collection. As a poet, Núñez had a particular interest in Japanese haiku, and below is one of her haikus from the California State Library’s American Haiku Archives.

Nothing of the old cypress remains
light makes its nest
on the railroad tracks

Ana Rosa Núñez, haiku published in the collection A Dozen Tongues: Our Vanishing Wilderness, 2001

Christopher Okigbo (1932–1967)

Christopher Okigbo, born in Ojoto, Nigeria, was a poet, teacher, and librarian. He was killed fighting in the Nigeria-Biafra war in 1967 and was posthumously awarded the National Order of Merit of Biafra. While working as a librarian at the University of Nigeria, he founded the African Authors Association. You can read more about his life and publications here at the Christopher Okigbo Foundation site. I came across a couple of beautiful readings of Okigbo’s works by another Nigerian poet, Uche Ogbuji, and the following excerpt comes from that post and interview about Okigbo’s poetry and literary legacy.

Then we must sing,
tongue-tied without name or audience,
making harmony among the branches.

Christopher Okigbo, excerpt from “Siren Limits,” 1964

Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

Audre Lorde, a prolific poet and writer, was born in New York City to Caribbean immigrants. A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” (as qtd. in Poetry Foundation), Lorde’s poetry has been published in many collections, including her own anthology Chosen Poems: Old and New (1982) and in the anthology The 100 Best African American Poems (2010, edited by Nikki Giovanni). Lorde earned an MLS from Columbia University and worked as a librarian at Mount Vernon Public Library from 1961 to 1963 and at New York City’s Town School Library from 1966 to 1968. Lorde also served as New York State Poet laureate from 1991-1992. Two years after her death, the Audre Lorde Project, a Brooklyn-based organization for LGBT+ people of color, was founded.

Love is a word another kind of open—
As a diamond comes into a knot of flame
I am black because I come from the earth’s inside   
Take my word for jewel in your open light.

Audre Lorde, excerpt from “Coal,” The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde, 1997

Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990)

Reinaldo Arenas, born in the Holguín province in Cuba, was a poet, novelist, and playwright. His posthumously published autobiography, Before Night Falls (1992), was adapted into a film of the same name in 2000; lead actor Javier Bardem, who is from Spain, was nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of Arenas. Arenas was a researcher in the José Martí National Library from 1963 to 1968 and an editor for the Cuban Book Institute from 1967 to 1968. In the 1970s, he was imprisoned in Cuba for his writings and his open homosexuality. In 1980, Arenas escaped to the U.S. and settled in New York City, where he mentored several other Cuban writers in exile.

I am that child with the round dirty face
who on every corner is bothering you with
his “can you spare one quarter?

Reinaldo Arenas, excerpt from “Viejo Niño,” 1983, translated by Lázaro Gómez Carriles

Kavevangua Kahengua (?-present)

Kavevangua Kahengua, born in Botswana and living in Namibia since 1993, is a contemporary poet and currently works as a Special Collections senior librarian at the University of Namibia. In addition to being a librarian scholar, Kahengua has also published a book of poetry called Dreams in 2002 and another collection, Invoking Voices: An Anthology of Poems, in 2012. A reviewer in the Journal of African Poetry described Kahengua as “a leading Namibian poet” (Malaba). You can enjoy videos of Kahengua reading his poem “The Walk” and Windhoek High School students in Namibia reciting his poem “Old Man Walking.”

Yet happiness is concealed in the privacy
Of mansions one wonders
What sins have their owners committed
To possess such riches!
Or whose labour have they exploited?

Kavevangua Kahengua, excerpt from “From Within,” Dreams, 2002

Sources used

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

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

A reel librarian’s multi-faceted role in ‘Beautiful Creatures’ (2013)

I very much enjoyed Viola Davis’s multi-faceted and fascinating portrayal as Amma, a complex reel librarian role with powers of her own.

The 2013 movie Beautiful Creatures — not to be confused with the 2000 British film of the same title, which starred Rachel Weisz — is an adaptation of the 2009 YA novel written by authors Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. Richard LaGravenese, an American of Italian descent, both adapted the novel for the screen and directed the film. I first checked a DVD of this movie out from my library a few years ago, but the DVD was so scratched that I couldn’t finish the film or follow the plot very well, since the DVD kept getting stuck or skipping past entire scenes. I had a vague idea that Viola Davis played a librarian, but I couldn’t determine the extent of her role. Therefore, when I saw this movie come up in my local public library’s Hoopla streaming service recently, I pounced on the chance to rewatch it.

Here’s the description from Hoopla:

“Based on the New York Times best-selling young adult novel, this hauntingly intense coming-of-age story about two teenage star-crossed lovers in a small South Carolina town who uncover dark secrets about their families, their history and their town has been adapted by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King).”

And here’s the trailer:

“Beautiful Creatures (2013) Official Trailer [HD]” video, uploaded by Roadshow Films, Standard YouTube license

My initial thoughts after finally being able to watch the movie all the way through? It is a frustratingly disappointing film, especially as you can see the level of talent involved and how it could have been so much better than the film ended up being. It really seems to be trying SO hard — too hard — to be an epic love story and build a foundation for the rest of the Caster Chronicles series. For me, the two leads — Alden Ehrenreich as Ethan Wate and Alice Englert as Lena Duchannes — were just not compelling enough to carry the film, which was promoted as a “supernatural love story.” Ehrenreich seemed to be over-acting, while Englert seemed to be going for mysterious but landed on sullen. Also, having grown up in the American South myself (in the eastern side of Texas, which has a different kind of accent from other parts of Texas, let alone other parts of the South!), it grates on my nerves when each actor speaks with a different kind of Southern accent.

Viola Davis, who gets 4th billing in the cast list, does indeed play a librarian — and a reel librarian of color, as Davis is a Black American actress — and her role as Amma is VERY significant to this movie’s plot. Viola Davis always elevates each and every movie she chooses to invest her time and energy in, and in my opinion, she is far and away the best thing in this movie. Essentially, she is the only reason I would recommend watching Beautiful Creatures (2013), so I’m going to focus on her role in this post. Yes, I am biased in my love of Viola Davis, as well as in my love for librarians. #NoRegrets

Spoiler alert

There is no possible way I can adequately explain all the details and different relationships and characters relating to this book and the series. To get the gist and familiarize yourself with the main characters, I recommend visiting the write-ups on Wikipedia about the book and the movie version. And to delve into Amma’s reel librarian role, which is integrated throughout the entire film from beginning to end, I have to reveal major plot secrets.

You have been alerted to major spoilers. Let’s continue, shall we? 😉

A reel librarian’s role change

I have not read the original source novel, so I was unfamiliar with the world and characters of this series. In my prior post, I mentioned that Viola Davis’s role as Amma had been changed from a maid to a librarian, but it’s more complicated than that! It’s actually a merging of two different characters from the book:

  • Amarie “Amma” Treadeau: A grandmotherly figure to Ethan, as she was Ethan’s nanny and the family’s cook and maid, as well as a Seer who can communicate with her ancestors
  • Marian Ashcroft: The public librarian librarian (and librarian of the secret Caster libraries), as well as the best friend of Ethan’s late mother

The cinematic history of Black actors playing maids and other domestic servants is really complicated and sensitive, because it connects to and reflects the very real history of slavery in the U.S. and the painfully enduring effects of systemic racism. This is a subject for a book (e.g. A Long, Long Way: Hollywood’s Unfinished Journey from Racism to Reconciliation by Greg Garrett, 2020), but below are quotes from two Oscar-winning Black actresses that demonstrate the differences (and progression?) of perspectives on this issue this past century.

  • Hattie McDaniel, who became the first African American to win an Oscar in 1939 when she won Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind, faced criticism from the Black community, including the NAACP, for playing servant roles. McDaniel reportedly responded, “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one” (as qtd. in Garrett, p. 53).
  • Viola Davis won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2016 for her role as Rose Lee Maxson in Fences. After starring in 2011’s The Help in the Oscar-nominated role of Aibileen Clark, Viola Davis had “no intention of playing a domestic worker ever again” (Johnson). In a 2013 interview, Davis said she “was glad that the maid aspect of Amma was dropped from the film adaption.” Davis went on to say, “This is a total re-imagining of the character, and I like it. I’m going to be confident and bold and say I like it because […] this is 2013, and I think that when black people are woven into the lives of characters in 2013, then I think they play other roles than maids. I think that that needs to be explored” (Ford).

Atypical reel librarian

When I initially watch a film to analyze it for its portrayal of librarian(s), I always begin by jotting down notes as scenes unfold in chronological order (with a lot of pausing to get quotes correctly written down). That way, I get a sense of how important the librarian role is to the film as the plot progresses. And I often continue this basic structure in my analysis posts, where I detail each major scene with a librarian or library setting, and then sum up the purpose of the reel librarian role at the end. But that structure did not seem to make sense when I thought about how to put together this post. First of all, Amma is onscreen throughout the film in dozens of scenes. But most significantly, Viola Davis’s portrayal of Amma transcends easy characterization, as she is so multi-layered. As written, it makes sense that Amma is a more complicated character, as two characters in the book were merged together in this cinematic role. But Davis infuses Amma with much more depth; she has shared in several interviews that she did a lot of research about Black history and narratives for this role, and “Even if you didn’t see so much of it, it informed me, in a way” (Radish).

I argue that Amma’s role in this film is much more than that of an Information Provider character type. We are treated to so many sides to Amma’s character in this film that I believe this role falls into the Atypical character category, a(n imperfect) classification I use to denote portrayals that do not conform to type, i.e. characters with enough screen time to allow viewers to witness more fully rounded characterizations and glimpses of their personal life. Therefore, in this post, I will delve into Amma’s character and purpose through the different sides of her personality that we get to witness in this film.

Amma’s nurturing side

The first facet of Amma’s personality we see is her nurturing, maternal figure side. This makes sense, as it seems that Amma’s primary role in the source novel is to be a surrogate mother to Ethan, whose biological mother has passed away. In the film, she also shares that she promised Ethan’s mother that she would take care of him, and more importantly, that she wants to.

At 4 minutes into the film, we get our first visual introduction to Amma, as she walks into Ethan’s house and refills the refrigerator with groceries. She asks him, “Is that what we’re wearing our first day of school?” while bending down to kiss Ethan on the top of his head. She asks after his father; we never actually see Ethan’s father, who seems to have retreated from the world after his wife’s death. (Is this an early signifier of White privilege, that a White man is able to hide from the world and his responsibilities and trust that his wife’s friend, a Black woman, will take care of running his household and raising his son? Discuss.)

In our first glimpse of Amma, she greets Ethan with a kiss on his head, a motherly gesture of affection

We also see how maternal Amma is to Lena. At 90 minutes into the film, Lena learns the disturbing truth of how to break the curse that’s been placed on her family for generations, and Amma pulls Lena in for a comforting embrace.

Amma embraces Lena in the Caster Library

Amma: Lena, talk to me. 

Lena: There’s only one way to break the curse. Genevieve [an ancestor] used the forbidden spell. To give life to the one she loved. To break the curse, the one that I love has to die. 

Amma: Oh, God. What are you gonna do? 

Lena [reflecting words Amma had said to her earlier]: I won’t hurt Ethan. Never. They’re only our words, Amma. They can’t explain everything. There are all kinds of ways someone you love can die. 

In the next scene, we see the effects of Lena erasing Ethan’s memories of her and their love. Ethan wakes up to Amma, once again, refilling their refrigerator with groceries. As they talk, Amma realizes what Lena has done and that Ethan no longer remembers his relationship with Lena. This minute-long scene is a showcase for Davis’s acting skills. Her face freezes and then drops ever-so-slightly as we feel the devastation of her sadness, as well as Amma’s struggle to maintain her composure for Ethan’s sake. And in the next scene, Amma takes Ethan to church, again trying to comfort his soul — as well as her own.

Amma’s stricken face as she realizes Lena has erased Ethan’s memory of their relationship
Amma brings Ethan to church

At the very end of the film, Amma nurtures both Ethan and Lena. At 1 hour and 53 minutes into the film, Ethan is on his way out of town to tour colleges, but he stops off at the library to say good-bye to Amma, who is sitting at her desk behind the Circulation counter.

Ethan says good-bye to Amma at the public library before he leaves town
We get treated to Amma’s professional work space in the public library, squeeeeee!

Amma: You all set?

Ethan: Yep. We should be in New York by Thursday, if we make good time. We’re gonna go stay with Link’s cousin in Brooklyn.

Amma: Come here. [They hug.]

Ethan: I’ll call you as soon as I get in. 

Amma: You call whenever you can. 

On his way out of the library, Ethan sees Lena, who is seated at a table with a stack of books, and strikes up a conversation about the poet Charles Bukowski that mirrors another conversation they had at the beginning of the movie — only it’s obvious that Ethan still doesn’t remember their past relationship. After Ethan leaves, Amma comes over and places a consoling hand on Lena’s shoulder. She then walks over to the front door and turns over the Closed sign, to provide them some privacy.

Amma closes the library in order to comfort Lena, after Ethan leaves town

Amma’s protective/secretive side

Amma also is privy to secrets about the past, and she tries to protect and shield Ethan from knowledge that she feels could harm him.

For example, at 30 minutes into the film, Ethan wakes from another nightmare/vision, and he goes downstairs to their living room. There, he sees Amma sifting through a bookcase along one wall.

Amma and Ethan in his living room, which is filled with books

Amma notices a locket in his hand — which he found with Lena — and her face hardens.

Amma: Where’d you get that?

Ethan: I don’ t know.

Amma: Don’t lie to me.

Ethan: What’s wrong?

Amma: You listen to me. You go and bury that in Greenbrier and forget you ever found it.

Ethan: I never said I was in Greenbrier, Amma. 

This scene ends with no resolution, but we learn that Amma knows more than she’s telling!

At 71 minutes into the film, we return to that same living room, this time after Ethan and Lena have gone out on a movie date and experience a disturbing vision from the past that plays out on the movie screen.

Back at Ethan’s home, Macon, Lena’s uncle, and Amma explain the backstory about the family curse and that Lena’s mother, Sarafine, is not dead but instead practices dark magic as a Dark Caster. Lena gets angry at Macon for telling her that her mother, Sarafine, had been dead. Amma interjects, both figuratively and physically.

Amma [to Lena]: Lena! Our words, our language, cannot explain all that there is. There are other ways someone can die to us. 

Amma [to Ethan]: Sarafine’s using you. Macon’s right. 

When Macon then gets mad at Ethan, Amma stands between them, in order to literally protect Ethan. 

Amma’s no-nonsense side

I love that Amma also gets to show her no-nonsense side! She may be nurturing and protective, but she is no pushover. She does not suffer fools. In her calm, self-assured, no-nonsense way, she demands personal respect. Every time she calls out others on their disrespect, they immediately back down and apologize.

One example comes at 30 minutes into the film, at the beginning of that scene I first described above when Ethan wakes up and finds Amma shuffling their shelves of books.

Ethan: Oh Amma, what are you doing?

Amma: I’m looking for some books your mother had. I have to return them to the library.

Ethan then shouts at her, asking how he got back home. Amma blinks, and then calls him out.

Amma: Why are you shouting?

Ethan: I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

In an extended scene that begins 40 minutes into the film, we see Amma in her role as Seer. Macon joins her in her ritual to call upon her ancestors.

Amma: Macon, no danger better come to that boy [Ethan] because of your kind.

Macon: Yeah well, then you keep him on a leash!

Amma: What happened at Greenbrier?

Macon: I don’t know. Lena was hysterical. Boy was unconscious. I brought him home, called you. You’re the seer. You tell ME what happened!

Amma: This is the sacred place of my ancestors, you hear? You want some answers, you show me some respect. 

Macon: Yes. I apologize. 

At 77 minutes into the film, Ethan and Amma are back in the Caster Library (a secret underground library), while Lena reads a secret book of spells. Seemingly bored, Ethan touches a book, which shocks him with electricity. Without skipping a beat or even looking up, Amma calls him out.

Amma: What part of ‘you cannot touch it if you are not a caster’ don’t you understand? 

Like I said, Amma does not suffer fools. #TeamLibrarian

Amma and Ethan in the Caster Library. Ethan reads while Amma gets on with her work as the library’s Keeper.

Spiritual side

We witness Amma’s spiritual side through her role as Seer and her ability to communicate with her ancestors. From what I’ve read — again, I am not familiar myself with the book series — she can perform “Gullah magic,” and Gullah is the language of her ancestors. In an extended scene that begins 40 minutes into the film, we see Amma preparing for the ritual, spreading out a blanket and taking things out of her large bag. Macon joins her, and we learn that Sarafine, Lena’s mother, is still around and causing trouble, and that Macon is trying to protect Lena.

First, we learn that Amma is receptive to dark Caster magic.

Amma: I felt something tonight. I’ve been feeling something every night since you brought that girl [Lena] here. […] So you bring darkness to this town. I can feel it like a hand twisting my insides. 

Then we witness Amma’s ritual. She begins the ritual with offering of food to her ancestors.

Amma: Brought your favorites, Uncle Abner. Shrimp and grits. Fried oysters. And a coconut pie.

Macon: No wonder he’s no longer with us. 

Amma: Pay no attention to him, Uncle.

Then, she takes off her outer layers of clothing, down to her tank top. It’s an intimate moment made even more intimate by seeing the scarred markings on her shoulders and back. (Does anyone recognize the style of markings? If so, please leave a comment and share!)

Amma’s markings on her back and shoulders, visible during the ritual scene with her ancestors

Amma: Uncle Abner, we are in need of your intercession. Along with Aunt Ida and Auntie May, I humbly call upon your spirits. 

Macon: What are they saying?

Amma: Nothing yet.

Macon: Tell them they have to help us stop Sarafine.

Amma: Some things cannot be stopped. 

During this scene, she also admonishes Macon and alludes to how he — the leader of Caster families who were former slave owners — has a fraught history with her ancestors, who were former slaves.

Amma: You know, it wouldn’t break your face to ask for some help instead of expecting it, like your family’s been doing with mine for too many years. Now, don’t you roll your eyes at me. 

Amma calls to “Uncle Abner” in this scene, but I wondered how many generations of her ancestors she was calling to. I wasn’t the only one who wondered this! Here is an excerpt about this scene from a 2013 interview with BlackTree TV and reporter Jamaal Finkley. 

Jamaal Finkley: One of the lines I found interesting is when you were in this scene with Jeremy Irons, and you’re talking about your ancestors. Do you think as a community, as a film community, that we do enough to celebrate our ancestors? I’m not sure if you was referring to the Gullah people or just slaves in general and that aspect, but in that scene, do you think that we could do more as an entertainment community to celebrate those people that are our ancestors?

Viola Davis: As Black people? […] Absolutely. When I did this role, one of the things I really researched was the past. Who we [Black people] were in the Civil War, who we were before we even came into America, and I went back to the Yoruba tribe. Actually read a memoir from a man who was born and raised on the plantation I was born on, Singleton Plantation in St. Matthews, South Carolina, and I think those stories are so interesting, they’re so complicated. The human beings, the people that we were in the past, the people that we are now, is interesting.

You can view the rest of this interview with BlackTree TV below.

“Viola Davis talks about honoring her history in Beautiful Creatures” video, uploaded by BlackTree TV, 2013, Standard YouTube license.

The spiritual side of Amma feels intrinsic to her character, and it is clear that Viola Davis took great care to root that spiritual side of her character in the traditions and stories of African and Black American culture.

Professional side

The final side we get to see of Amma is her professional side as a librarian. Although we learned early on that Amma is a librarian — Ethan reveals this 26 minutes into the film, when he shares that “maybe I’ll take over the library from Amma” — we do not actually SEE Amma in a library until the 80-minute marker, over halfway through the 124-minute movie. I kind of like that we get to see other facets of Amma’s character before we see her in her professional library setting. And we soon get double the library scenes!

After Sarafine reveals herself to Ethan — one minor spoiler I will not completely reveal — Ethan takes Lena to the Gatlin Public Library. Through the front windows, we can spy Amma under a “Circulation Desk” sign. Amma comes to the front door, where we can also see the library’s open hours.

Ethan: Amma, we need your help. 

Amma: Why come to me?

Lena: The way you talked about the locket, about the curse. Excuse me, Miss Amma, but I think you know more than you’re saying. 

Ethan: Please, Amma.

Amma: This isn’t the place you’re gonna find anything you need. Meet me in the back. 

They go down to the basement, where she opens a steel door. She opens a panel, which reveals an intricate lock, and she has a key. She then shares with them the secret Caster library and its history.

Ethan: This must run under the whole town. 

Amma: The whole country. Gatlin is like the capital of Caster America. It used to be under Washington, D.C., until Nancy Reagan made them move. She was the only mortal they were ever scared of. 

They go down a flight of stairs to a large room with books along the back wall and tables. Amma then reveals her role as Keeper of the Caster Library.

Ethan: Amma, why didn’t you tell us about this? 

Amma: A Keeper has to be asked.

Lena: A Keeper, as in you’re a …

Amma: The Caster Library has been the responsibility of seers like me for generations. [She glides her hand along a book podium.] Something I had no choice about either, by the way. And these books hold the histories of the casters from around the world, the laws that keep balance between light and dark. 

Ethan reaches out to touch a book. Amma educates him about manners (“Hey! Get away from that!“), and continues to educate us all about forbidden spells.

Amma: Macon comes here every day and reads every book he can for the forbidden spell. 

Lena: He found nothing? 

Amma: But you can do it. God gives us what we can handle, even if we don’t believe it ourselves. Close your eyes. See with your mind what you’re looking for, as if you’ve already found it. 

Another door opens and reveals a room containing a locked book on a pedestal. Once again, Viola Davis’s acting skills are on display, as she reveals a tiny, satisfied smile, as if to show to the viewer that Lena has passed a secret test.

Amma: I knew it. Book of Moons. It’s the most powerful book of the Otherworld. It’s as alive as you or me. Strongest of every spell, good and bad. 

Lena: Did Macon look through it?

Amma: No, he couldn’t. The book chooses who reads it. Its law is “like attracts like.” […] It won’t reveal itself so easy. A curse this dark takes its time showing itself. The dark will test you. 

Amma leads Ethan away, and Lena stays with the book, which slowly reveals itself to her. Time for a research and reading montage!

Amma and Ethan hang out in the Caster Library while Lena reads the Book of Moons.

It’s a treat that we get to see Amma be a professional in not one, but TWO, libraries. We see her professional work space in the public library, and we get to see her work with scrolls and old tomes in the Caster library. In the scene where she chides Ethan for touching a book even though he’s not a caster, she continues to impart wisdom as Ethan asks her questions.

Ethan: Were there casters in the Civil War?

Amma: Casters have been fighting alongside mortals for centuries, every war, every side. Just ‘cause they’re supernatural don’t make them any smarter. 

Ethan: You know, what I can’t figure, is you go to church every Sunday? How do you believe in all this and still believe in God? 

Amma: God created all things, didn’t he? It’s only men that go and decide which ones are mistakes. 

It’s clear Amma takes pride in her role as Keeper. I just can’t help thinking how difficult it must be for her to compartmentalize her dual roles as librarian. One of those roles is very public, while she has to keep secret her other role as the Keeper of the Caster library.

And that title, “Keeper” is revealing, isn’t it? It reinforces the (stereotypical) role of librarians as literal gatekeepers, shielding resources and knowledge from anyone until they are deemed worthy. And although Amma is proud of her role as Keeper, it is also clear that she works within a system that she is unable to change. (Is this yet another glimpse into her identity as a Black woman working within an oppressive and rigid system? Discuss.)

Amma’s style roots

I’ve been sharing screenshots of Amma throughout this post, and hopefully, you’ve been enjoying her AMAZING style. I love that her hairstyle, clothing, and jewelry all reflect her Black and African identity and culture. Amma comes across as very rooted in her personal identity, and that her culture — and her personal expression of that culture — help ground her. She experiments with patterns and colors, and her jewelry is always front-and-center. Amma is no wallflower reel librarian. As a Black woman in a South Carolina town that seems mostly full of White people (except at church), there’s no way she could visually blend in, even if she wanted to. And it’s clear she doesn’t want to blend in; rather, she seems to radiate joy and self-confidence in her personal appearance. I found myself looking for Amma in every scene, eagerly anticipating what amazing jewelry or pattern-mixing combination she would wear next. I will definitely have to update my “stylish reel librarians” posts, as Amma needs to be at the top of the list!

I also looked for interviews and info about the costume design choices. In this EW.com article, I learned that costume designer Jeffrey Kurland, who is Jewish, designed all the costumes and jewelry in the film. Here’s what he shared about designing Amma’s memorable style:

“Amma is a very spiritual person, so we decided that her African roots are seen in her spiritual longings and reflected in her wardrobe. There’s a good deal of color and the jewelry that she wears is very heavy and iconic,” says Kurland, who notes that most of the jewelry worn by Davis’ character jewelry is from a collection of pieces that he created. “The other pieces are from places like Morocco, Africa and Tibet. There’s a certain spirituality that I wanted to infuse into her look while also showing that she’s a woman of style.”

Jeffrey Kurland, “‘Beautiful Creatures’ costume designer on dressing the characters in the supernatural flick,” EW.com, 2013

Viola Davis also enjoyed rocking her natural hair texture in the role of Amma:

RADISH: Was it liberating not to have to wear a wig for this character?

DAVIS:  Yes, absolutely!

Viola Davis Talks BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, What She Discovered During Her Research, PRISONERS, ENDER’S GAME, and More,” Collider.com, 2013

However, the movie’s lighting was so dim most of the time that I couldn’t properly see what Amma was wearing! I found the lighting too dark overall — I guess they were going for moody? — and I’ve read before about how many cinematographers do not get properly trained on the best ways to light Black skin. I don’t know if that’s the case here — the film’s cinematographer, Philippe Rousselot, is an award-winning French cinematographer who has worked with many directors, including with Denzel Washington when he directed Antwone Fisher (2002) and The Great Debaters (2007) — but I thought that the lighting choices in Beautiful Creatures did not serve to highlight Viola Davis and her inner (and outer) luminosity.

To sum up, although I did not particularly like the film overall, I very much enjoyed Viola Davis’s multi-faceted and fascinating portrayal as Amma, a complex reel librarian role with powers of her own. There’s so much to unpack in this role and in Davis’s performance that I’m sure I have only scratched the surface. Have you also seen Beautiful Creatures (2013)? What did you think of the dual-librarian role of Amma? Have you read the original source novel or series? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used