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.

A good year

A look back at stats for the first few months of Reel Librarians

Happy 2012! Around March, I’ll probably get used to writing out 2012 instead of 2011. Before moving full steam ahead, let’s take a tiny look back. I started this blog in late September 2011, and the experience continues to be so personally rewarding! Thanks to everyone who has stopped by, subscribed, or just had a chuckle or two while reading my musings on reel librarians.

Quick stats:

So let’s roll some numbers on stats I do have, breaking down my blog for 2011:

  • 2085 total views
  • 221 tags
  • 104 days
  • 93 pictures uploaded
  • 60 posts (not including this one)
  • 54 categories
  • 43 comments total
  • 18 visits daily average
  • 3.5 months

Most popular pages:

I don’t have any stats on how many times I’ve mimicked Amy Adams in Julie & Julia

“I could blog about that.”


Best librarian films by decade, Part II: 1960s-2000s

My criteria is quality of the films themselves and the prominence and depiction of the librarians in those films.

Continuing my picks for best librarian films per decade… Like I said in my Part I post, Best librarian films by decade, 1910s-1950s, my criteria is two-fold:  

  • quality of the films themselves (differing from my Hall of Fame list, although there are some overlaps) and
  • the prominence and depiction of the librarians in those films.

The reel librarian depictions aren’t necessarily flattering in my following choices, but they are noteworthy and/or influential. As you’ll see, I haven’t limited my choices to just one per decade (it’s just too difficult!).


The Music Man (1962)

The Music Man (1962), a classic musical, includes one of the most indelible reel librarian roles (and songs) in Marian the Librarian. Includes a young Ron Howard!

Related posts: Marian or Marion? ; Revisiting favorites | ‘Marian or Marion?,’ May 28, 2012 ; Marian and Ms. Jones ; Reel librarian love for Valentine’s Day: Movies for different romantic moods ; Updating the list of Best Picture nominees featuring librarians

Goodbye, Columbus (1969)

A quirky and sensitive film, I like Goodbye, Columbus (1969) better each time I see it. A lot of it has to do with Richard Benjamin’s leading man portrayal of Neil Klugman (and let’s be honest, Ali MacGraw’s entire wardrobe). The film is refreshingly honest — even about his uncertain attitude about his future working in the public library.

Related posts: The Liberated Librarian (guys, it’s your turn)

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) is a tense, dramatic, stylish film in black and white. Yet nothing in this film is so clear-cut — especially not Richard Burton’s role as Alec Leamas, a spy who falls from grace (and into a library job). The film also boasts the excellent Claire Boom as fellow librarian Nan.

Related posts: War films and reel librarians ; Oscar-nominated reel librarians ; Notable additional occupations for reel librarians


Foul Play (1978)

Foul Play (1978) boasts a glowing Goldie Hawn as public librarian Gloria Mundy. This screwball comedy is cheerfully fun and tongue-in-cheek, with charming performances by the whole cast (Dudley Moore is HILARIOUS in a small role). And Goldie Hawn is so resourceful with an umbrella!

Related posts: Librarians save the day! ; The Liberated Librarian (ladies, you’re up)

Love Story (1970)

Again with Ali MacGraw and a fantastic wardrobe — this time, she’s a student library worker (although not for long) in Love Story (1970). Although never as deep or significant as it thinks it is, the film still has an enduring charm with effective performances by the lead actors and a stirring theme song. Seriously, once that melody gets in my head, it takes a day or two to get it out.

Related posts: Reel librarian love for Valentine’s Day: Movies for different romantic moods ; Stylish female reel librarians

Soylent Green (1973)

Soylent Green (1973) takes a totally different direction into a dystopian future. Sure, it’s slightly cheesy and grainy, but it all kind of works. The future of libraries and librarians (called Books) — literally the last-standing guardians of history and knowledge — is bleak yet stirring in its own way. This movie makes you think.

Related posts: Reader poll of runner-ups, Fall 2016: ‘Soylent Green’ and the Books ; Reel librarians in political-themed films ; Battle of the sexes


Major League (1989)

Major League (1989) still stands up, minus the dated ’80s hair and wardrobe — it’s addictively rewatchable! And bless Bob Uecker. I always enjoy Rene Russo’s turn as special collections librarian Lynn Wells — smart, beautiful, sassy, and a former world-class athlete. A winning combo.

Related posts: Spring training and special collections in ‘Major League’ (1989) ; A reel librarian returns in ‘Major League II’ (1994) ; Is reading a spectator sport? Librarians in sports movies ; Notable additional occupations for reel librarians ; Whaddya mean, you’re a librarian?

Ghostbusters (1984)

Ghostbusters (1984) features less-than-desirable librarian roles — a frumpy librarian scared out of her wits by a spinsterish librarian ghost and an uncaring boss — but that opening scene in the New York Public Library sure is memorable! And it’s a good movie. The comedic timing, Sigourney Weaver, the soundtrack, the tagline, and the final villain? Classic.

Related posts: A closer look at the reel librarians in the original ‘Ghostbusters’ ; Who you gonna call? Not the librarians in ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) didn’t really impress when it came out. Maybe the expectations were too high. To succeed, this kind of story has to rely on tone and atmosphere — and this film has that in spades. It is a genuinely scary scene when the evil Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) threatens town librarian — and eventual hero — Charles Halloway (Jason Robards).

Related posts: Victims or villains? Librarians in horror films and thrillers ; ‘Libraries raised me’ – a tribute to Ray Bradbury


I know, it seems I can’t make up my mind, as I keep picking more and more films for each decade. But looking back, the ’90s were uncommonly deep in significant reel librarian roles!

Party Girl (1995)

One of my all-time faves, of course, is Party Girl (1995). It’s so unique in so many ways, with its insider look into and hilariously tongue-in-cheek frustrations about libraries and librarians (see clip below). I could quote from this film for days. And Parker Posey in the title role is a joy to behold, so sassy and fearless.

Related posts: Graduate library school discussion in ‘Party Girl’ ; Stylish female reel librarians

The Mummy (1999)

I appreciate genre films that revel in its genre and have fun with it. The Mummy (1999) is an adventure film with lots of humor — and damn proud of it! (Not so much the sequels.) And Rachel Weisz makes me smile every time in her drunken “I’m a librarian” campfire scene.

Related posts: Revisiting the reel librarian hero in 1999’s ‘The Mummy’ ; Librarians save the day! ; Reel librarians on library ladders

Shooting the Past (1999, TV movie)

You may not be familiar with this British TV movie, but it’s a real gem. Shooting the Past (TV, 1999) is about a special collections library — with priceless photo archives — and its oddball librarians who fight to save it. A suspenseful and intriguing film, it boasts one of the most complex reel librarian roles ever, Lindsay Duncan as head librarian Marilyn Truman.

Related posts: What’s in a name?

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Ah, The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Another totally rewatchable film that never gets old. Although it’s a bit long — that’s probably why it’s such a popular move to air on TV during any kind of holiday — I can watch it at any point and get caught up in the story, as well as the universally excellent acting. And I tear up each time I think of Brooks, the old prison librarian.

Related posts: Updating the list of Best Picture nominees featuring librarians ; A list of banned reel librarian movies


The Librarian TV movie trilogy

They’re cheesy, I know, but the TV movies of The Librarian trilogy (The Librarian: Quest for the Spear, 2004; The Librarian: Return to King Solomon’s Mines, 2006; The Librarian: The Curse of the Judas Chalice, 2009) are so much fun! Although the plots are pretty predictable, and the special effects not-so-great in places, Noah Wyle’s performance (as the Liberated Librarian male prototype, Flynn Carsen) is worth the effort.

Related posts: ‘Quest for the’ Liberated Librarian ; All about ‘The Librarian’ ; A promotional peek behind ‘The Librarian’ ; The Quotable Librarian 4 ; Stylish male reel librarians

Before Night Falls (2000)

In an Oscar-nominated role, Javier Bardem stars as real-life poet Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls (2000). He gets his start by winning a writing contest sponsored by the National Library — the prize is a job at the library! A beautiful and complex film — but be warned, it’s a wrenching journey.

Related posts: Oscar-nominated reel librarians ; Literary librarians, reader question follow-up

The Station Agent (2003)

The Station Agent (2003) is a quiet film, heartfelt and quirky. It’s about a man born with dwarfism (Peter Dinklage, always a first-rate actor) who just wants to be alone. But of course, that’s just not possible in a small town. Starting with this film, Michelle Williams — although in a minor role as public library assistant Emily —  really began her quest to break out of Dawson’s Creek and develop into a serious actress.

Related posts: Librarians save the day!

Best librarian films by decade, Part I: 1910s – 1950s

My criteria is quality of the films themselves and the prominence and depiction of the librarians in those films.

The end of the year, and it’s time for every web site and blog to send up some “best of” lists. This blog is no exception. Plus, I’m a listmaker. It just feels natural. So here are my top choices — for right now, at least — for best librarian films per decade.

My criteria is two-fold:  

  • quality of the films themselves (differing from my Hall of Fame list, although there are some overlaps)
  • the prominence and depiction of the librarians in those films

The reel librarian depictions aren’t necessarily flattering in my following choices, but they are noteworthy and/or influential. As you’ll see, I haven’t necessarily limited my choices to just one per decade (it’s too hard!).

This is Part I, through the 1950s. Enjoy!


It appears that the major librarian films of this decade are all presumed lost. However, from the thorough write-ups in The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999 (culled from primary source docs and reviews), I would say the following films are the most noteworthy:

A Wife on Trial (1917) and its sequel, The Wishing Ring Man (1919)

A Wife on Trial (1917) and its sequel (!) The Wishing Ring Man (1919), feature a librarian in a leading role. Phyllis is a children’s librarian who dreams of a rose garden. The film is based off The Rose-Garden Husband, a bestseller in 1915.

Related posts: Librarians lost ; Reviewing ‘The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999’

A Very Good Young Man (1919)

Bryant Washburn plays LeRoy Sylvester, a public librarian and the title role in A Very Good Young Man (1919). In fact, in a decidedly rare occurrence, the leading man’s occupation was changed from a brass bed factory worker in the original stage play to a librarian in the film!

Related posts: Reel librarian firsts ; Librarians lost


The Blot (1921)

The Blot (1921) boasts one of the best women directors of that time period, Lois Weber, who also one of the highest-paid directors of the era, period. The tone of this silent film is both sensitive and intelligent, with a touching story about poverty and societal disregard for intellectual professions as well as effective acting, including Claire Windsor as public librarian Amelia Griggs. The film was generally well-received upon its release, earning good reviews in Variety and Motion Picture News. It’s an important film to showcase early independent film — and good works by early women directors — as well as highlighting librarians as efficient, pleasant, and well-liked (although lowly paid) members of the community.

Related posts: Silence is golden in the silent film ‘The Blot’


Forbidden (1932)

Forbidden (1932) features a spirited performance by Barbara Stanwyck as public librarian Lulu Smith, who quits her library job and sets sail for Havana, en route for romantic adventure. Deliciously melodramatic!

Related posts: Reel librarian firsts ; Reel librarian love for Valentine’s Day: Movies for different romantic moods

Fast and Loose (1939)

I have a soft spot for Fast and Loose (1939), a comedic mystery in the Thin Man style, this time with the dynamic duo of Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell. It includes two male librarians as supporting characters — and fellow murder suspects! — and the rarely featured world of archival manuscripts and private libraries. Although not on the same level as the Thin Man series, the film is still witty and fun. Keep an eye out on TCM for this one.

Related posts: Private libraries + librarians onscreen, reader question follow-up ; Literary librarians, reader question follow-up


It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Of course. Was there any doubt this would make the list? It’s a great film, one of the best ever on ANY list. Sure, I sigh and roll my eyes at its Spinster Librarian fate alternative for Mary, but I still love the film. A noteworthy, if not flattering, entry for the reel librarian.

Related posts: ‘It’s a wonderful’
 stereotype? ; All hail Mary? ; The Spinster Librarian

Movie musicals: Good News (1947), Wonder Man (1945), and Strike Up the Band (1940)

And for those of you who like a bit of music, the 1940s had a surprising number of noteworthy musicals featuring reel librarians in leading roles, including Good News (1947), Wonder Man (1945), and Strike Up the Band (1940). The latter is one of the best of the Mickey-and-Judy “let’s put on a show!” series and includes one musical number, “Nobody,” in the public library.

Related posts: Musical numbers for the library-minded ; Reel librarian love for Valentine’s Day: Movies for different romantic moods


Desk Set (1957)

Desk Set (1957) is one of the finest efforts pairing Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Hepburn plays the best reel librarian EVER — sassy, funny, smart as hell — a woman who isn’t afraid to downplay her professional skills or love of pretty dresses. The film crackles with wit, style, chemistry, and an enduring central issue of how technology affects libraries and librarians.

Related posts: Comparing two ‘Desk Sets’ (and I don’t mean furniture) ; Revisiting favorites | ‘Comparing two desk sets,’ Jan. 26, 2012 ; Reel librarian love for Valentine’s Day: Movies for different romantic moods ; Stylish female reel librarians

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Sam Jeffe earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal as an ex-convict and former prison librarian in The Asphalt Jungle (1950). A gritty film noir classic.

Related posts: Oscar-nominated reel librarians ; Notable additional occupations for reel librarians

Enjoy Part II, Best librarian films by decade, Part II: 1960s-2000s!

Sources used:

  • Tevis, Ray, and Brenda Tevis. The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999. McFarland, 2005.

With or without honors

The quintessential feel-good movie about how terrible higher education is.

Ah, With Honors (1994). A major film of my youth, and very mid-’90s (the soundtrack, the earnest acting, the annoying Joe Pesci accent, the lumpy sweaters and plaid). The quintessential feel-good movie about how terrible higher education is.

Some scenes were filmed on the Harvard campus, but film locations also included the University of Illinois at Chicago; University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana; and the University of Minnesota. The Widener Library plays a big role in the film, although its librarians are featured only briefly.

"Widener Library, Harvard University 2009" by chensiyuan is licensed under CC BY SA 4.0
“Widener Library, Harvard University 2009” by chensiyuan is licensed under CC BY SA 4.0


At the end of the opening credits, campus radio DJ (Patrick Dempsey) reports on a Walt Whitman ghost sighting in Widener Library (“America’s greatest poet haunting the library?”). A few minutes later, uptight Harvard student Monty (Brendan Fraser) accidentally drops his thesis down the grate and discovers that the library ghost is a homeless man, Simon Wilder (Joe Pesci), living in the bowels of the library. Simon strikes up a deal with Monty — food and lodging in exchange for the thesis.

About a half-hour into the film, Simon and Monty enter the Widener Library together (see film clip below). Simon attracts a lot of negative attention but waxes rhapsodic, “This library’s like a church isn’t it?” (Yes, it is quite beautiful.) An older, bespectacled librarian (Patricia B. Butcher as Librarian) with a short, grayish bob and wearing conservative clothes (a grey suit and a white, frilly, high-necked blouse) and conservative jewelry (a string of pearls and a brooch), walks across the room to the pair. She taps Simon the shoulder and tells him he can’t stay there. How do we know she’s a librarian? She’s carrying a book, of course!

Monty hurriedly says he’s with him, “He’s part of my research project.” The librarian responds, “Oh, I beg your pardon” and walks away, looking back once over her shoulder.

Not bothered by the incident, Simon remarks, “Women. Ain’t they perfect?”

Monty — still reflecting a similar attitude to the librarian — warns him to keep his voice low so he won’t attract attention. But then when Monty asks a question, he earns a “Shhh!” from Simon.

The unnamed librarian is your basic Information Provider, reflecting the general social attitude toward homeless people.

The Library Scene (With Honors)” video uploaded by gaiaquest is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

A little over an hour into the film, Monty spends Christmas by himself. After hearing bad news about Simon’s health conditions, Monty’s back in the Widener Library, gazing blankly over a pile of books. Behind him, it looks like the library staff are (quietly) sharing Christmas gift exchange at a desk. We see the same librarian as before, sitting to the left, dressed in a festive red cardigan and white blouse. Three other females and one male librarian are grouped around the desk/table. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in a scene highlighting Monty’s loneliness and sadness, the librarians provide the (literal) backdrop!

Screenshot of With Honors (1994), where librarians are as much decoration as the actual holiday decorations
Screenshot of With Honors (1994), where librarians are as much decoration as the actual holiday decorations

Altogether, the reel librarians appear onscreen for less than a minute total, earning this film a spot in the Class IV category.

Although the reel librarians here don’t come across too well — neither does higher education — libraries still get a shout-out. Simon compares libraries to churches. He also is mad about losing his home in the library’s furnace room, and for good reason:  “I had a home. I had a warm place to sleep. 17 bathrooms and 8 miles of books. I had a goddamn palace!”

And at the very end of the film, after Simon has passed away, Monty goes back to the Widener Library. He looks around reverently and — bringing the film full circle — places a well-worn copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on an empty library table. The library/church has become Simon’s de facto mausoleum, a fitting conclusion to his memory and influence.

Sources used:

  • With Honors. Dir. Alek Keshishian. Perf. Joe Pesci, Brendan Fraser, Moira Kelly, Patrick Dempsey. Warner Bros., 1994.
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