He’s… Conan the Librarian!

“Never before in the history of motion pictures has there been a screen presence so commanding, so powerful, so deadly. He’s… Conan the Librarian!”

I haven’t featured that many male reel librarians so far, so let’s bring out the big guns (or swords, rather) with Conan! The! Librarian! from the 1989 cult comedy, UHF. In this film, George Newman (Weird Al Yankovic) takes over an almost-bankrupt public TV station, and it becomes an unexpected hit. And one of those hits is showcased in a brief sketch — only 40 seconds long! — in the form of a television ad for the show “Conan the Librarian,” a parody of the famous “Conan the Barbarian” character created by R. E. Howard. I think it’s a bit fun, too, that the name serves as a subtle (and unintentional?) riff off the “Marian the Librarian” character and song from The Music Man (1962).

Conan’s first scene shows a balding, middle-aged man with thick glasses, cable-knit sweater, and tweedy jacket (really, doesn’t HE look more like a stereotypical male librarian?) who asks Conan the Librarian, “Can you tell me where I can find a book on astronomy?”

Conan’s classic response?  To heave the poor man up by his lapels, of course, and shout, “Don’t you know the Dewey Decimal System?”

FYI, the astronomy books would be in the 520’s. And as a librarian, I have repeated this line — and Schwarzenegger-type intonation —  many times. It is ALWAYS funny!

Conan then goes on to showcase more what-NOT-to-do examples for providing reference services, including slicing a young man in two because his books were overdue.

UHF Conan The Librarian” video uploaded by sirstrongbad is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

UHF successfully parodies the “Guardian of the Library” image and the librarian character types who display anal-retentive qualities — the Spinster Librarian and her male equivalent, the Anti-Social Librarian immediately spring to mind — who are prone to shushing anyone who dares to be loud in a library, or reel librarians who express over-the-top anxiety about late or damaged books. Conan the Librarian is a classic Comic Relief character type, with its crude portrayal of librarianship and extreme physical characteristics.

The scene’s over-the-top humor is more potent because it plays against type: a reel librarian, especially a male librarian, is often portrayed as weak or effeminate. Conan the Librarian shows off his physical superiority at every opportunity. (Fun fact! We first see Conan hanging out in the 613’s, which is the Dewey Decimal number for Aerobics.) Librarians are also usually portrayed as intelligent — even if a condescending type of “book smart” — and this Conan characterization riffs off of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s dim-yet-tough brand of acting in his classic 1982 Conan the Barbarian. Although Conan the Librarian is a VERY bad librarian, he is a hero in one sense: he helps save the UHF television station. He’s so bad that he’s funny.

So although only 40 seconds long — again, a short scene provides an immortal reel librarian! — this scene packs a punch (literally) while laying waste to several reel librarian stereotypical traits. Just as Conan the Librarian helped save the fictional TV station, I think this funny scene and unforgettable librarian helped save the film itself. UHF was a notorious flop at the time it was released, but has since solidified fame with its cult status.


Sources used:


  • UHF. Dir. Jay Levey. Perf. Weird Al Yankovic, Victoria Jackson, Kevin McCarthy, Michael Richards. Orion, 1989.

The fastest librarian in the West, as seen in ‘The Changeling’

He personifies the concept of “efficiency” for all librarians ever after.

My vote for the quickest reel librarian EVER? The Microfilm Clerk in The Changeling (1980). Behold (and please excuse the grainy quality of my screenshots):

Microfilm librarian in The Changeling
The clerk takes the microfilm box… starting the timer…
Microfilm in The Changeling
… and 4 seconds later!

If this library clerk (played by David Peevers) had set up this microfilm in 4 minutes, I would have been impressed! But this scene demands suspension of disbelief, as the young clerk is able to take the microfilm box out of the drawer (top screenshot), roll the microfilm out of its box, thread it through the microfilm reader in the next room, AND spin it through to the requested article — all in 4 seconds (!!!!). WOW. He personifies the concept of “efficiency” for all librarians ever after.

Not sure what microfilm is? Read more about it here. The microfilm reader — kind of looks like a computer, right? — can be seen in the 2nd screenshot above.

Where were we? Oh yes, the fastest reel librarian ever. The library clerk is a young, white male with short brown hair and mustache, and he wears a fairly conservative brown sweater and dark collared shirt. He begins the reference interview with “1909? I’ll set it up for you” and leaves them with “It’s all ready to go, and the scanner’s on the right.” They thank him for his help (yay!).

Ok, a little context. In this atmospheric thriller, George C. Scott plays John Russell, whose wife and daughter are killed in a freak road accident. He rents a house with a mysterious — and murderous — past and goes about researching the tragedy he believes the house is trying to communicate to him. John first goes to the local Historical Preservation Society and meets Claire (played by then-wife in real life, Trish Van Devere), who joins him on his research quest. Their next step is the local library, to look up newspaper articles from 1909.

Note: This is in a time period before full-text articles become available through electronic library databases — but some newspaper archives are still only available through microfilm or microfiche. Not sure what an electronic library database is? Read all about ’em here.

The label on the microfilm box? It reads “Seattle Daily Times, Jan. 13, 1909 thru Feb. 22, 1909,” which fits John’s inquiry. However, this drawer of microfilm is not organized very well, as one box of the Seattle Daily Times sits next to Farm Electrical Studies in the Pacific Northwest. But hey, with the fastest librarian in the West on your staff, who needs organization?!

John gets more help when he goes to the Hall of Records. The Archives Clerk (Robert Monroe), an older white male with glasses, thinning hair, and white beard and mustache, is quite tall and wears a dark shirt and grey blazer. He shows John property atlases of Seattle and helps explain the system of maps and legends.

Although the two male librarians in this film combine for very little screen time, they are helpful and efficient Information Providers — supplying information vital to John’s discovery of the film’s central mystery. It is also refreshing how the film showcases an effective research strategy. Remember, ask a librarian!


Sources used:


  • The Changeling. Dir. Peter Medak. Perf. George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas. Image Entertainment, 1980.

The shush heard ’round the world in ‘The Good Companions’

The first occurrence of a reel librarian uttering, “Shush!” onscreen

The 1933 film The Good Companions, adapted from J. B. Priestley’s novel of the same name, tells a story of three wayward souls finding their way to a variety troupe called the “Dinky Doos” (no, I do not make this stuff up). Thankfully, they change the name straightaway to “The Good Companions,” hence the film’s title. This decidedly minor film, remade in 1957, takes its time setting up the characters and the plot.

The Good Companions (1933) clip” video uploaded by films411 is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

The librarian (Hugh E. Wright) shows up for less than a minute, and we never see his face — only the back of his head (see below). His appearance is notable only because it appears to be the first occurrence of a reel librarian uttering, “Shush!” (as determined by Ray & Brenda Tevis in their book, The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999). The Tevises also take note at how the low camera angle — revealing only the back of the librarian’s head — visually de-emphasizes the reel librarian.

The reel librarian is a white male, older, and quite thin. He is wearing a black coat, and his hair is short, grey, and appears to be thinning. We see a glimpse of spectacles as he turns slightly to the side at one point.

View over the reel librarian's shoulder, in The Good Companions (1933)
View over the reel librarian’s shoulder, in The Good Companions (1933)

The library scene occurs one hour and 17 minutes into the film (the 113-minute UK version, NOT the 95-minute US version). Right before the library scene, the two female leads, Miss Elizabeth Trant (Mary Glynne) and Susie Dean (Jessie Matthews) enjoy a picnic; the older woman laments a long-lost love, and Susie schemes to bring the two former lovers back together. The gentleman in question is a doctor, and the Susie muses that “there’s a medical register at any public library.” Next, we see a shot of Susie looking up the medical register and finds the name she’s seeking and the town where the doctor lives, Dingley. She then asks in a loud voice, “How far’s Dingley?”

Immediately, we hear a “Shush!”, then the camera pans back to reveal the library and the back of the reel librarian, who then answers “20 miles” to her question. Susie, quite unconcerned at her mild reprimand, tosses off a quick thanks. She then brings the big book back to the Circulation desk and asks the librarian what kind of illness would bring a doctor in from 20 miles away. He seems puzzled — who wouldn’t be? — and replies, “Well, I don’t know. Heart attack?” Susie seems quite pleased with his response, thanks him, and leaves. He fulfills the basic Information Provider role, one punctuated by the inaugural and soon-to-be-infamous (and oft-repeated) “Shush!”

The back of the reel librarian in The Good Companions (1933)
The back of the reel librarian in The Good Companions (1933)

We see one wide shot of the library itself, with the reel librarian perched on the edge of the stool at the far right. Anybody else visualizing Ebenezer Scrooge?! The long, wooden Circulation desk spans the bottom part of the frame, and the obligatory card files flank both sides of the librarian — another visual barrier. The left side of the frame reveals a fairly populated reading room, most likely for newspapers and other periodicals, while the larger space to the right is empty except for the girl. Is it just me, or does the library backdrop almost look painted? There are tall stacks of books, and we spy a second floor with more bookshelves, tables, and library lamps; in the close-up, we see thick velvet ropes — yet another visual barrier — curtaining off the tall stacks.


Sources used:


  • The Good Companions. Dir. Victor Saville. Perf. Jessie Matthews, Edmund Gwenn, John Gielgud, Mary Glynne. Gaumont British Picture Corporation, 1933.
  • Tevis, Ray, and Brenda Tevis. The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999. McFarland, 2005.

‘Bon voyage’ to the ship’s librarian

Although only in a couple of scenes, the ship’s librarian definitely makes an impression, but not a very positive one.

The Disney comedy Bon Voyage! (1962) is about a typical all-American family who set sail on a “dream” vacation to Europe. Mishaps ensue. Side note: Isn’t ensue a fun word?

"1962 - Colonial Theater Ad- 10 Jul MC - Allentown PA" is in the public domain
“1962 – Colonial Theater Ad- 10 Jul MC – Allentown PA” is in the public domain

In an early scene on the cruise ship, the husband and head of the family, Harry Willard (Fred MacMurray), mentions the book State Fair, and the next morning, his wife (Jane Wyman) is reading it. That’s our (subtle?) first clue there’s a library on board the ship.

Harry then visits the ship’s library. Second (not-so-subtle) clue: Several bookshelves are arranged along the wall. We are introduced to the ship’s librarian by seeing his back first. First impressions? Extremely skinny with gelled hair. This is typical of a Comic Relief librarian, where exaggerated physical characteristics add to the visual humor. Character actor James Millhollin, seen below, plays the Ship’s Librarian, his official title in the fim’s credits — late 40’s (47 in real life), with dark, short hair oiled back, no glasses. He’s wearing a ship’s uniform — perhaps considered a member of the crew? or just posturing? — with a bow tie (!). The librarian extends a greeting and adjusts his cuffs while standing behind the Circulation desk. This extra clue is added by a file box full of cards, the standard movie prop for a Circulation desk.

"James Millhollin in trailer for "No Time for Sergeants" (1958)" via Wikipedia is in the public domain
“James Millhollin in trailer for “No Time for Sergeants” (1958)” via Wikipedia is in the public domain

The reference interview commences:

Ship’s librarian: “May I help you?”

Harry: “I’m looking for something in the way of a mystery. I guess I’d like to read about somebody else’s troubles for a change.”

Ship’s librarian: “Very good, sir. We have any number of stimulating items in that category. I rather learn toward the intellectual type of crime myself.”

He then leads Harry straight to another bookcase and takes down a book. Harry, perhaps turned off by the librarian’s manner and also caught up in his family woes, is quite dismissive and says he’ll find something but “thanks very much.”

Ship’s librarian: “Just as you say sir. Oh, and good hunting.”

Later, Harry sees his daughter researching architecture in the library, with books spread out all over the desk. She and her dad get into an argument about a boy, resulting in the daughter running off.

Ever-so-helpful, the librarian then comes over, straightening his coat. He is very fastidious about his dress, always straightening something — again, adding to the humor. Leaning over, he continues the reference interview with an oblivious smirk:

Ship’s librarian: “Did you find your mystery, sir?”

Harry: “Yes. It’s called The Case of the Puzzled Parent Who Can’t Understand Why His Children Keep Saying He Doesn’t Understand.” [Stalks off.]

Ship’s librarian: “Hmmm…. That’s an oddish title.” [talking to himself, obviously puzzled]

Not the most socially bright crayon in the bunch, is he?! He fits the Comic Relief character type perfectly, with his skinniness and mannerisms exaggerated so that we laugh AT him, not WITH him — but we wouldn’t have a chance anyway, as he doesn’t display any sense of humor. The Comic Relief librarian’s role is to serve as the butt of jokes, and this ship’s librarian fills that role to a super-straight T.

Although only in a couple of scenes, the ship’s librarian definitely makes an impression, but not a very positive one. On the plus side, he knows “his” collection — he does seem like the type to describe it like that, doesn’t he?

On the negative, he is consistently overly solicitous, oblivious to people’s needs or the concepts of sarcasm or humor. (The sarcasm in this post would most likely fly over his well-oiled hair.) He just doesn’t “get” people — but doesn’t get that! — and comes across as too formal or proper. The ship’s librarian is just not that great at customer service, which is comically at odds with the purpose of his job. Cruises are supposed to be fun — I’ve never been on one, but I’ll go out on a limb with that assumption — and this librarian most certainly is NOT fun. But he sure is fun to make fun of! Bless.


Sources used:


  • Bon Voyage! Dir. James Neilson. Perf. Fred MacMurray, Jane Wyman, Tommy Kirk, Deborah Walley. Buena Vista/Walt Disney, 1962.