Of libraries and G-Men

J. Edgar Hoover’s connection to libraries

I have been slowly reading my way through Kathleen Low’s book Casanova Was a Librarian: A Light-Hearted Look at the Profession, published by McFarland in 2007. (By the way, Casanova was only a librarian the final four years of his life, a job he took out of desperate need for money.) While reading about famous librarians throughout history, my husband had to endure lots of “I didn’t know that!” shout-outs. For example, I never knew that J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous iron fist behind the FBI, was at all associated with libraries. In fact, he worked for five years at the Library of Congress. (By the way, I got to visit our nation’s premier library at an American Library Association Annual Conference, on a special behind-the-scenes tour for librarians. It was fabulous!)

Born in Washington D.C., Hoover got a job as a messenger at the Library of Congress in order to qualify for the federal work-study program, to help fund his way through George Washington University. He rose to the position of library cataloger and finally, clerk — but never to the level of librarian. After graduating with a master’s in law, he quit to pursue a position at the Department of Justice, and the rest, as they say, is history.

J. Edgar Hoover, FBI Photos, is in the public domain
J. Edgar Hoover, FBI Photos, is in the public domain

Several biographers, including Curt Gentry in J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and His Secrets, speculate that had Hoover stayed at the Library of Congress, he would have eventually become the head librarian. And the absence of a library science degree wouldn’t have been an issue. Of the 13 individuals — all men — who have held the Librarian of Congress title, only 3 have had prior experience and/or library education. (Sigh.)

But, of course, most librarian films do not mention library training or job qualifications (click here for a previous related post on that topic), and I personally include any library worker as reel librarians, as well.

So it looks like I’ll be putting the latest Clint Eastwood film, J. Edgar, on my list to watch. It has earned middling-to-respectable reviews, and lead star Leonardo DiCaprio has garnered Best Actor nominations for the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards. Will he get an Oscar nomination?

The Library of Congress can be glimpsed in the trailer below. And a review in the Seattle Times mentions a scene from the film set in the library, in which Hoover is “thrilled by the organization of the card catalog.” And who wouldn’t be? 😉

J. Edgar Movie Trailer” video uploaded by Kellvin Chavez is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Also, you might be interested in The F.B.I. Story (1959), cinematically illustrating (or embellishing?) the history of the FBI. Jimmy Stewart plays G-Man John Michael “Chip” Hardesty, who marries public librarian Lucy Ann (Vera Miles).


Sources used:


  • Gentry, Curt. J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. W. W. Norton, 2001.
  • Low, Kathleen. Casanova Was a Librarian: A Light-Hearted Look at the Profession. McFarland, 2007.
  • Macdonald, Moira. “Confusing ‘J. Edgar’ More Sketch than Portrait.” Seattle Times, 10 November 2011.

Whaddya mean, you’re a librarian?

Few films mention the education required for librarians.

In the film history of librarians, anyone who works in a library is deemed a librarian. I confess to doing the same for the purposes of this web site, even when the characters are not technically — or the audience has no way of knowing if they are — librarians. Sometimes, a character will make a distinction between librarians and library workers, as in Party Girl (one of my favorite librarian movies!), but that is the exception, not the rule.

Partygirl.WMV” video uploaded by deanxavier is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Above is a clip, with transcript below, from a library scene between Mary (Parker Posey) and her godmother, Judy (Sasha von Scherler), a public librarian:

Judy: I lost two dedicated clerks last month because I couldn’t afford to pay them a competitive wage. They make more money at McDonald’s. You… no, a girl like you couldn’t —

Mary: What do you mean, a girl like me? … You think I couldn’t be a librarian?

Judy: Darling, a librarian is a professional with a master’s degree in library science. Even a clerk, who merely shelves and stamps —

Mary: You think I couldn’t be a library clerk? …

Judy: A library clerk is smart, responsible —

Mary: You don’t think I’m smart enough to work in your fucking library?

Judy: I think nothing of the sort.  … Fine, you can start right now!

Mary:  Fine! I will. Great.

Typically, the term “librarian” is rarely said out loud in movies — most likely because of time — and in most films, there is really no need to verbally identify the librarians. Standing or sitting behind a counter or desk, shelving books, or pushing a cart is quite enough to establish a reel librarian.

Few films mention the education required for librarians. Again, Party Girl (1995) is an exception! There is a wonderful scene toward the end where Mary and her co-workers discuss the value of different library science degree programs. There is also a scene in the film, shown below, that highlights the 19th century qualifications for a “lady librarian”:

Party Girl: Mary Gets Fired” video uploaded by HackerX5 is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Major League (1989) includes a subplot about veteran ballplayer Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) trying to woo back his ex-wife, athlete-turned-librarian Lynn Wells (Rene Russo). This scrap of info about her education comes in the scene where he runs into her at a restaurant:

Lynn:  Jake? How’d you know I was here?

Jake:  Oh, just a hunch. I took you there when you got your master’s degree, remember?

A few other films also mention education specific to librarians. In The War of the Worlds (1953), Sylvia Van Buren (played by Ann Robinson) teaches library science courses, and the main character in Cheers for Miss Bishop (1941) almost quits her teaching position to take a college librarian course in New York. In Desk Set (1957), head librarian Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn) mentions taking a few college courses in her interview with efficiency expert Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy). Miss Watson more than earns Mr. Sumner’s respect — and ours! [The battle-between-the-sexes witticisms begin flying about a minute into the clip below].

Desk Set 1957 Part 4” video uploaded by angeloflove is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Sources used:


  • Cheers for Miss Bishop. Dir. Tay Garnett. Perf. Martha Scott, William Gargan, Edmund Gwenn. United Artists, 1941.
  • Desk Set. Dir. Walter Lang. Perf. Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Gig Young, Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill. 20th Century Fox, 1957.
  • Major League. Dir. David S. Ward. Perf. Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen, Rene Russo. Paramount, 1989.
  • Party Girl. Dir. Daisy von Scherler Mayer. Perf. Parker Posey, Sasha von Scherler, Guillermo Diaz, Liev Schreiber. First Look, 1995.
  • The War of the Worlds. Dir. Bryon Haskin. Perf. Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite. Paramount, 1953.