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.


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.


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 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,”, 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,”, 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

Reel librarians of color, 2021 update

In the coming year, at least half of my posts will focus on reel librarians of color and more diverse portrayals of librarians onscreen

Last month, I came across a Twitter round-table thread about archivist/librarian/archives depictions in pop culture from Students and New Archives Professionals Section (@SNAP_Section). The responses from real-life archivists and librarians were illuminating and thought-provoking, with several lamenting the lack of diverse representation onscreen. It brings tears to my eyes to think about how much representation matters.

Here’s an example from the #snaprt discussion thread posted by Gina Murrell, a Digital Collections Librarian, who mentioned a prior post from Reel Librarians:

Personal reflections

I spent a lot of time reading through this discussion thread and reflecting on my own years-long journey to learn more about my White privilege, how to be a better ally, and how to be intentionally anti-racist in my own personal and professional spheres. I also thought about previous posts I have written on this blog about reel (and real!) librarians of color, and about the statement I wrote in my “What Hollywood Gets Wrong (and Right!) about Librarians” article that was published on ALA’s I Love Libraries site:

Over the years, many readers have asked about reel librarians of color, and this is an area I keep track of (see my posts here in 2013 and 2017). We librarians have a long way to go in diversifying our profession—both on and off screen!—but generally, I would say that portrayals of librarians in film are becoming more ethnically diverse. 

What Hollywood Gets Wrong (and Right!) about Librarians,” I Love Libraries, 26 May 2020

This section of the article got edited down in the final published version, but I was basing that statement on what I have perceived as an increase in more ethnically diverse reel librarian roles, particularly several recent roles that have been more substantial. Some immediate examples that come to mind include Wong from the Marvel series of movies, played by Chinese-British actor Benedict Wong; the recent movie versions of It with the main librarian character Mike Hanlon, played by Isaiah Mustafa, a Black American actor; and movies like The Public (2018), which feature an ethnically diverse range of reel librarian characters, including Jeffrey Wright, a Black American actor, as head librarian Mr. Anderson.

But we can do better.

Rachel Rosenberg wrote in the recent Book Riot article, “Why Aren’t There More Librarian in Pop Culture?,” that:

“Pop culture needs (a) more librarians and (b) more POC librarians.”

Rachel Rosenberg, “Why Aren’t There More Librarian in Pop Culture?,” Book Riot, 2 March 2020

I wholeheartedly agree, on both counts. And I can do better, too.

Several years ago, I wrote a post inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2009 TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” and I wrote then that:

“What I am doing is simply exploring a connection, that stereotypes and the ‘danger of a single story’ echo throughout every part of our lives, small and large, professional and personal. Stories matter, and this site is an opportunity for me to share many stories.”

But how well have I done at my stated goal, to “share many stories“? To assess this, I went back through all my posts and tagged posts with a new “librarians of color” category and tag, as one (small) way of making related posts more discoverable and more visible on this site. Here’s a screenshot of where to find that category in the category cloud, located along the right column of this site:

"Librarians of color" tag in the category cloud

I then went back and analyzed the results. Thus far, in my 9 years of blogging and 492 published posts about librarians in film, only 42 posts focus on or include librarians of color. Less than 10% of my posts focus on the racial diversity of librarians.

I can do better.

Representation matters

As a White woman and librarian, I am very well represented on screen, at least visually. And visual representation matters. Black lives matter. Brown lives matter. (These statements are not and should not be controversial. If you disagree with these statements, then please find another blog to read.) I would argue there has been an increase in representation onscreen in recent years, but there’s no way to sugar-coat the fact that there are still not that many cinematic representations of librarians of color, and even fewer roles that are major characters.

And you could argue that this reflects the lack of diversity within the librarian profession as a whole. Again, representation matters. The percentages of reel librarians of color are even lower (I estimate around 10%) than the already low numbers of real librarians of color (~15%). Based on numbers from the 2010 Census, the librarian profession continues to be overwhelmingly female (80+% for credentialed librarians) and White (83+%). See more facts and figures here and here, and read this excellent blog post, “The unbearable whiteness of librarianship” that compares racial diversity of librarians versus the general population.

There are also several recent books written about the lack of diversity in our librarian profession, including: Where are all the Librarians of Color? The Experiences of People of Color in Academia (2016), edited by Rebecca Hankins and Miguel Juarez; Topographies of Whiteness: Mapping Whiteness in Library and Information Science (2017), edited by Gina Schlesselman-Tarango, and Pushing the Margins: Women of Color and Intersectionality in LIS (2018), edited by Rose L. Chou and Annie Pho.

Action plan and goals

I’ve been thinking and reflecting a lot about how I can be more intentional in applying the anti-racist values and principles I’ve been learning and thinking about to my work here on this blog. And for a start, here’s what I commit to:

  • Be more intentional about highlighting more reel librarians of color on this blog
  • Make posts about reel librarians of color more visible and discoverable on this site
  • Do more research about cinematic portrayals of POC librarians
  • And in the coming year, at least half of my posts will focus on reel librarians of color and more diverse portrayals of librarians onscreen

So, where to begin putting this plan into action? As I mentioned earlier, I have previously written about reel librarians of color (see my posts here in 2013 and 2017), so let’s start by revisiting that thread. Have there actually been more movies featuring reel librarians of color in the past few years?

Caveats and parameters:

  • I am a White woman; therefore, I have limited perspectives, and I will make mistakes. I have to be okay with this discomfort, and I am serious when I ask for feedback that will help improve and diversify this space.
  • I know that it is a sensitive issue to count and categorize portrayals of librarians of color, especially because I am not myself a librarian of color. There are many complicated issues when it comes to race or recognizing race, because race is a social construct.
  • For the categories below, I have focused first on the race/ethnicity category that reflects the librarian role, rather than starting with the race/ethnicity of the actors themselves. I do this because in my research, I have always focused my analysis on the purpose reel librarians serve in any given film. Do you agree or disagree with this approach? Please let me know. There are many other lenses with which to analyze librarians onscreen, and I recommend this 2015 article, “The Stereotype’s Stereotype: Our Obsession with Librarian Representation” about looking at librarian portrayals through the lenses of gender, race, class, and sexuality.
  • When the race/ethnicity of the librarian role is not clear/ambiguous, I then default to the ethnicity of the actor, which I try to ascertain through research.
  • It can be awkward when actors of color have been tasked to play ethnicities that are different from their own. Again, when this happens, I include them in the ethnicity category that reflects their role, rather than the ethnicity of the actors themselves. I then provide a note explaining this. I recognize that this categorization is imperfect also in not providing for multi-ethnic or biracial characters.
  • It’s especially problematic when White actors have been tasked to play characters of color. When this happens, I will NOT include them in the ethnicity category that reflects their role, but I will also provide a note explaining this.
  • I have gone back and forth on including Jewish reel librarians as a separate category. I am not personally Jewish, so I have been seeking out different Jewish perspectives regarding POC identity (Behan, 2017; Gorenberg, 2017; Zaleski, 2020), and I have read about how and why Jewish actors began playing WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) characters in mainstream Hollywood films (Erens) and issues about non-Jewish actors playing Jewish roles (Friedlander, 2020). Several White-presenting reel librarian roles have been played by Jewish actors or actors with Jewish heritage — but there are fewer reel librarian roles that are explicitly written as Jewish. Should I explore this in a separate post? Should I include a POC category for librarian roles that are intentionally and explicitly Jewish? If you identify as Jewish, would you like to write a guest post for this blog? I would really appreciate readers’ feedback about this.
  • And one last note: I am focusing on American films and films primarily in the English language. Therefore, I have not included here reel librarians from international films (please see my list of Foreign-language films).

Reel librarians of color, at current count (45 total):

  • 45 roles with reel librarians of color
    • 11 major roles
    • 34 supporting or cameo roles
    • 24 roles counted in 2013; 32 roles counted in 2017

Black or African descent || Asian + South Asian || Latinx + Hispanic || Arab + Middle Eastern || Native American

Librarian roles, Black or African descent (27 total):

I have organized each category below into two main sub-sections: (1) major roles and (2) supporting and cameo roles. I then organized each sub-section chronologically by the films’ release years, as a way to help gauge if portrayals of POC reel librarians are increasing (or not).

Major roles:

  • Escape from Alcatraz (1979): Paul Benjamin as English (prison librarian)
  • Stephen King’s It (1990, TV mini-series): Tim Reid as Michael “Mike” Hanlon (public librarian)
  • Men of Honor (2000): Aunjanue Ellis as Jo (public librarian)
  • The Time Machine (2002): Orlando Jones as Vox (librarian of the future)
  • Beautiful Creatures (2013): Viola Davis as Amma (public librarian — apparently, this character was changed from a maid character in the book to a librarian in the movie version! I will have more about this in my next post.)
  • BlacKkKlansman (2018): John David Washington as Ron Stallworth (police records librarian/archivist)
  • It: Chapter Two (2019): Isaiah Mustafa as Michael “Mike” Hanlon (public librarian)

Related posts5 movies featuring Black reel librarians in major roles ; First impressions: ‘It: Chapter Two’ (2019) and the town librarian hero ; First impressions: ‘BlacKkKlansman’ (2018) ; Scary clowns + reel librarians ; Stylish male reel librarians

Screenshot from 'BlackkKlansman' (2018) trailer
Don’t mess with records librarians! John David Washington as Ron Stallworth, who started out in the Records Library at the Colorado Springs police station

Supporting and cameo roles:

  • Pickup on South Street (1953): Jaye Loft-Lyn as Microfilm Library Clerk (public librarian)
  • All the President’s Men (1976): Jaye Stewart as Male Librarian (government librarian)
  • Somewhere in Time (1980): Noreen Walker as Librarian (public librarian)
  • Fatal Attraction (1987): Uncredited Black male actor as a book cart shelver (law librarian)
  • City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold (1994): Uncredited Black male actor as a book cart shelver (public librarian)
  • With Honors (1994): Uncredited Black female actor as a librarian (academic librarian)
  • Dangerous Minds (1995): Jeff Feringa as Librarian #1 (school librarian)
  • Party Girl (1995):
    • C. Francis Blackchild as Wanda (public librarian)
    • L. B. Williams as Howard (public librarian)
  • Bed of Roses (1996): Mary Alice as Alice (children’s librarian)
  • Autumn in New York (2000): Delores Mitchell as Librarian (research librarian)
  • Men of Honor (2000): Demene E. Hall as Mrs. Biddle (public library director)
  • Follow the Stars Home (2001, TV movie): Octavia Spencer as Hildy (public librarian)
  • The Ring (2002): Ronald William Lawrence as Library Clerk (medical librarian)
  • Back When We Were Grownups (2004, TV movie): Lynette DuPree as Librarian (public librarian)
  • Ella Enchanted (2004): Merrina Millsapp as Hall of Records Attendant (archivist)
  • The Manchurian Candidate (2004): Duana Butler as Library Clerk (public librarian)
  • Winter’s Tale (2014): Norm Lewis as Custodian (newspaper librarian)
  • Spotlight (2015): Zarrin Darnell-Martin as Intern Wanda (newspaper librarian)
  • The Public (2018): Jeffrey Wright as Mr. Anderson (head public librarian)

Related posts‘South Street’ librarian ; All the president’s librarians in ‘All the President’s Men’ ; ‘Somewhere’ in the library ; Law librarian sighting in ‘Fatal Attraction’ ; A tale of seven shushes in ‘City Slickers II’ ; With or without honors ; Research and high school library scenes in ‘Dangerous Minds’ ; Graduate library school discussion in ‘Party Girl’ ; 5 movies featuring Black reel librarians in major roles ; Meet Hannah in ‘Follow the Stars Home’ ; Library research montage in ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ (2004) remake ; A not-so-enchanting librarian in ‘Ella Enchanted’ ; ‘Spotlight’-ing a news library

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Pickup on South Street'
Jaye Loft-Lyn as Microfilm Library Clerk, the first Black reel librarian onscreen I have been able to find
Reel Librarians | Librarian retirement in 'Follow the Stars Home' (TV, 2001)
Octavia Spencer as Hildy in Follow the Stars Home (2001, TV movie)

Honorable mention?

  • Jenny Douglas-McRae played the Librarian in the video for TOTO’s song “Africa.” Fun fact: Douglas-McRae was a vocalist for the band!

Related posts: Welcome to the library jungle

Librarian roles, Asian + South Asian (12 movies, 10 roles total):

I have organized each category below into two main sub-sections: (1) major roles and (2) supporting and cameo roles. I then organized each sub-section chronologically by the films’ release years, as a way to help gauge if portrayals of POC reel librarians are increasing (or not).

Note: Wong is listed below for each Marvel movie his reel librarian character recurs in thus far, but I only counted his role once overall.

Major roles:

  • Doctor Strange (2016): Benedict Wong as Wong (special librarian/archivist)

Related posts: Sorcerer librarians of ‘Doctor Strange’

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)
Benedict Wong as Wong in ‘Doctor Strange’ (2016)

Supporting and cameo roles:

  • The Golden Child (1986): Shakti as Kala (special librarian)
    • NOTE: Shakti Chen, a Chinese actress, played Kala, whereas Marilyn Schreffler, a White American actress, voiced the character.
  • Necronomicon: Book of the Dead (1993):
    • Tony Azito as Librarian (academic librarian)
    • Juan Fernández as Attendant (academic librarian)
    • NOTE: This one is complicated! Tony Azito was Italian-American, and Juan Fernández is Dominican, but in this film, they play monks who appear at first to be South Asian or Indian, which is why I have included this movie and reel librarian roles in this category.
  • Finding Forrester (2000): Sophia Wu as Librarian (public librarian)
  • Elephant (2003): Alfred Ono as Mr. Fong (school librarian)
  • Age of Adaline (2015):
    • Anjali Jay as Cora (research librarian/archivist)
    • Hiro Kanagawa as Kenneth (research librarian/archivist)
  • Avengers: Infinity War (2018): Benedict Wong as Wong (special librarian/archivist)
  • To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018): Uncredited Asian female actor (school librarian)
  • Avengers: Endgame (2019): Benedict Wong as Wong (special librarian/archivist)
  • Let Them All Talk (2020): Uncredited Asian female actor (cruise ship librarian)

Related posts: The dragon lady librarian in ‘The Golden Child’ (1986) ; ‘Necronomicon’: Dead on arrival ; ‘Finding’ a reel librarian ; A reel librarian for the ages in ‘The Age of Adaline’ ; Sorcerer librarians of ‘Doctor Strange’ ; First impressions: ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ ; First impressions: ‘Avengers: Endgame’ (2019) ; 3 reel librarians who have died in the line of duty ; School library scene in ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'The Age of Adaline' (2015)
Anjali Jay as Cora and Hiro Kanagawa as Kenneth in ‘Age of Adaline’ (2015)

Librarian roles, Latinx + Hispanic (4 total):

I have organized each category below into two main sub-sections: (1) major roles and (2) supporting and cameo roles. I then organized each sub-section chronologically by the films’ release years, as a way to help gauge if portrayals of POC reel librarians are increasing (or not).

Major roles:

  • Bound by Honor, aka Blood In, Blood Out… Bound by Honor (1993): Damian Chapa as Miklo (prison librarian)
  • Before Night Falls (2000): Javier Bardem as Reinaldo Arenas (public librarian)
    • Note: Javier Bardem is Spanish, whereas Reinaldo Arenas, a real-life writer, was Cuban.

Related posts: Oscar-nominated reel librarians ; Best librarian films by decade, Part II: 1960s-2000s

Before Night Falls (2000) Official Trailer – Javier Bardem, Johnny Depp Movie” video uploaded by Movieclips Classic Trailers is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Supporting and cameo roles:

  • Just Cause (1995): Liz Torres as Delores Rodriguez (newspaper librarian)
  • The Ultimate Gift (2006): Rose Bianco as Bella (public librarian)
Rose Bianco as Bella in 'The Ultimate Gift' (2006)
Rose Bianco as Bella in ‘The Ultimate Gift’ (2006)

Librarian roles, Arab + Middle Eastern (3 total):

I have organized each category below into two main sub-sections: (1) major roles and (2) supporting and cameo roles. I then organized each sub-section chronologically by the films’ release years, as a way to help gauge if portrayals of POC reel librarians are increasing (or not).

Major roles:

  • Day of the Falcon, aka Black Gold (2011): Tahar Rahim as Prince Auda (special librarian/archivist)

Supporting and cameo roles:

  • The Mummy (1999): Erick Avari as Dr. Terrence Bey (special librarian/archivist)
    • Note: It appears that no one in this film set in Egypt is actually played by an Egyptian! (I went through the cast list and double-checked as best I could.) Erick Avari is an Indian-American portraying the Egyptian director of the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo. Because I believe the role is meant to be Egyptian, I have included it in this ethnic category.
  • Doctor Strange (2016): Ezra Faroque Khan as Kamar-Taj Librarian (special librarian/archivist)

NOTE: Although the reel librarian Evelyn “Evie” O’Connell (nee Carnahan) from the Mummy series states in 1999’s The Mummy that her mother is Egyptian, I am not including her here. I feel uncomfortable doing this because in the first two movies, Rachel Weisz played the role (Weisz herself is British, and her paternal ancestry is Austrian-Jewish), followed in the third film by Maria Bello (an American actress whose parents are Italian-American and Polish-American). This reel librarian character faces challenges primarily due to her gender, not necessarily because of her stated biracial identity. Again, is my thinking off-base here? Please let me know your thoughts. Side-note: I also recommend reading this Vox article about how “Hollywood likes to pretend that ancient Egypt was full of white people.”

Related posts: Revisiting the reel librarian hero in 1999’s ‘The Mummy’ ; Sorcerer librarians of ‘Doctor Strange’

Erick Avari at Motor City Comic Con 2009” video uploaded by bloggingchick is licensed under a Standard YouTube license
Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)
Ezra Faroque Khan as Kamar-Taj Librarian in ‘Doctor Strange’ (2016)

Librarian roles, Native American (1 total):

Supporting and cameo roles:

Have I completely overlooked a movie or role featuring a reel librarian of color? Do I need to make any corrections? Please leave a comment, to help improve and expand this 2021 list spotlighting reel librarians of color!

Sources used: