A ‘borstal’ kind of librarian

Surprise to me, the librarian continues to pop up throughout ‘Borstal Boy’

The 2000 film Borstal Boy is based upon the autobiography of (in)famous Irish writer and activist Brendan Behan, and it focuses on his time in a borstal (a kind of youth prison/labor camp in the UK) during WWII. I didn’t personally know anything about Behan before watching this film… and after watching the film? I still didn’t know much about him. So I looked up a little bit about him on the interwebs. His works are Irish classics, as are his spirited appearances on talk shows. He died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 41. None of this is apparent in this tame-by-numbers biopic.

About twenty-three minutes into the film, we spy the prison library. Which looks like, from the outside, a combination of outhouse and shed (see below).

Library entrance in Borstal Boy
Inviting, no?

The camera quickly cuts to a male librarian (Arthur Riordan), sitting down behind a makeshift Circulation desk. He wearily asks two young lads, including Behan (Shawn Hatosy), “What are you looking for?” The boys mumble something about pictures, so the librarian points and says, “Comic books over there.” He looks puzzled as the boys scurry off. (And he has reason to be puzzled — the boys are trying to find resources to help plot an escape.)

He’s a white, middle-aged male, with thinning brownish grey hair, no glasses. He dresses quite well, although conservatively, with a dark blazer, tan waistcoat, white button-down. The only bit of flash about him is his polka-dot bow tie.

Borstal Boy librarian
Borstal Boy librarian

We then see a wider shot of the library, a small room with faded white painted walls, with a few low shelves and pieces of furniture with books stacked up. There’s a hexagonal table in the middle — looks like a card table — with some chairs. Most of the windows are painted over or blocked in some way (because of blackout regulations during the war?), so the light inside the room is relatively dim. In one wide angle, a large ledger is visible on the shelf behind the librarian, most likely the ledger where he records what’s checked out. There are a few bookcases filed with books behind the Circulation desk. Despite the bookcases, it still looks like a converted store room.

A borstal library
A borstal library

At this point, I thought this was going to be it for the prison librarian. I was thinking he would turn out to be your standard  Librarian as Failure character type (who else would work in this makeshift prison library?). But I was wrong! Surprise to me, the librarian continues to pop up throughout the film.

In this first library scene, he starts a conversation with Behan:

“And you are an Irish rebel, am I right?” the librarian asks as he stands up.

“Only one, as far as I know.”

“Very thing for you.” The librarian turns to a tall bookcase beside his desk. “Life of Oscar Wilde, by Frank Harris.” (Note: The Life and Confessions of Oscar Wilde by Frank Harris was published in 1914.)

“Not interested in Oscar Wilde.”

The librarian responds: “Blasphemy. A fellow Irishman, a fellow jailbird and rebel.”

“You know what he was down for, don’t you?”

“He was put in jail for buggering the son of the Marquis of Queensbury. Shocking.”

“No Irishman if he was a black caper.” (Aside: Is this a reference to The Black Cap, a famous gay pub in London, dating back to the 1700s?)

What is the librarian’s aim in this exchange? He was definitely smirking at Behan during this little talk (see screenshot below). The issue of homosexuality — and Behan’s evolving response to it — is a theme explored throughout the film.

Borstal Boy librarian
Borstal Boy librarian

Behan then starts putting his escape plan into action and asks the librarian, “What do you got in local history?” The librarian tosses his head, “Ah… let’s see” and turns back to the shelves.

A few minutes later, Behan is using a book about local history to trace a map for an escape route. Using a flashlight to shine down on the book, he’s obviously doing this in secret, after lights out.

The warden’s daughter makes a stir upon her arrival — and Behan immediately sets his sights on her. When the girl quotes Oscar Wilde to him and recommends, “You should read it,” Behan immediately (!) gets a copy of the book. This is, of course, based on the girl’s suggestion, NOT the librarian’s. He even steals lines from the librarian:  “He’s a jailbird like myself.”

Apparently, bonding with the fellow Irish jailbird agrees with him, as he decides to put on an Oscar Wilde play for the benefit of the camp. The play in question? The Importance of Being Earnest, of course! The film then cuts to the auditions. And who is there? The librarian, of course! He’s there to provide copies of the play, most likely, but he’s also the one Behan confers with about casting. Behan asks who they’re going to get to play the girls.

The librarian — maroon bow tie quite erect and legs crossed — gives him a sidelong glance. “Well, frankly, I’ve always felt I was born to play a great lady… So perhaps I could be your Lady Bracknell.”

Librarian dressed up as a woman in a play scene in Borstal Boy
Dude looks like a lady

We then are treated to a close-up of the librarian in drag (see above), along with a fellow gay Borstal boy playing the role of Gwendolyn. When introduced, the audience members laugh uproariously. The librarian — indeed, born to play a great lady — talks in a suitably high-pitched voice and properly haughty demeanor.

Apparently, the play is a hit. And in the joyous after-party, the librarian is seen complimenting the boy who played the butler.

Toward the end of film, about an hour and fifteen minutes in, another scene takes place in the library. Behan (obviously reformed, by the looks of his turtleneck sweater and earnest expression, which has replaced his usual sullen expression) is helping another boy read. The book in question is about “the man that I loved” (another Oscar Wilde tome?). The boy asks how a man can love another man.

A lasting impression of the Borstal librarian
A lasting impression of the Borstal librarian

The librarian, standing behind them at the tall bookcase, seen above, turns to join the conversation.

“You love your father?”

“I love my wee brother.”

“You love a man then, don’t you?” the librarian sums up, hands on hips, with a scornful gaze. He then turns back to reshelving books.

This reel librarian ultimately serves two main roles, primarily as an Information Provider, and in the play scene, as Comic Relief.

At the end of this film — which feels much longer than its 93 minutes — Behan seems to be on his way to being a writer. All due to Oscar Wilde’s — and the librarian’s — influence!


Sources used:


  • Borstal Boy. Dir. Peter Sheridan. Perf. Shawn Hatosy, Danny Dyer, Michael York. Strand Releasing, 2000.

What’s in a name?

Great character names for reel librarians

The analysis in the “One of the Invisible Professions on Screen” article about the character of library science professor Sylvia Van Buren (played by Ann Robinson) is spot-on, and I agree that “Sylvia Van Buren” is a fantastic name for a librarian!

"Hello my name is sticker" graphic is in the public domain
“Hello my name is sticker” graphic is in the public domain

So that got me thinking… what are some other great character names for reel librarians? Here are some of my picks:

  • Bebe Neuwirth as Sylvia Marpole in An Extremely Goofy Movie (2000, animated) — another Sylvia, but this one is way more fun
  • Goldie Hawn as Gloria Mundy in Foul Play (1978) — one of my favorite reel librarian characters, with a name that winks at her “Girl Monday” characteristics
  • Selina Cadell as Miss Battersby in Prick Up Your Ears (1987) — a very descriptive surname for this uptight public librarian
  • Valerie Curtin as Miss Ophelia Sheffer in Maxie (1985) — an innocent-sounding name for this Naughty Librarian
  • Judi Dench as Marcia Pilborough in Wetherby (1985) — an imperial name for this imperious librarian
  • Emilia Fox as Spig in Shooting the Past (TV, 1999) — a wonderfully quirky name for this Spirited Young Girl character
  • Frances Sternhagen as Charlotte Wolf in Up the Down Staircase (1967) — another (unfortunately) descriptive name for this school librarian
  • Barbara Stanwyck as Lulu Smith in Forbidden (1932) — the quintessential name for a Liberated Librarian! Her surname sounds so generic and blah, seemingly perfect for a small-town, mild-mannered librarian, but the fanciful first name hints at what lies beneath the surface (see right)
  • James Frain as Forney Hull in Where the Heart Is (2000) — Southern names are kind of endearing, aren’t they? You just want to root for a guy saddled with a name like “Forney”
  • Claudia Wilkens as Iona Hildebrandt in Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) — a lot of name for this librarian cameo, but with a name like that, she manages to get in a few zingers
  • Katharine Hepburn as Bunny Watson in Desk Set (1957) — you’ve got to have a female librarian named Bunny at some point, and Katharine Hepburn pulls it off in matter-of-fact fashion
  • Charles Grodin as Harrison Winslow in Heart and Souls (1993) — can’t you just SEE the bow tie and buttoned-up demeanor in this name yearning to break loose for this Liberated Librarian?
  • Morgan Farley, John Barclay, Belle Mitchell, and Cyril Delevanti as The Books in Soylent Green (1973) — in this dystopian tale, the librarians are known simply as “Books” — appropriate yet a bit forbidding, as this utilitarian moniker strips away their personal identities
  • Peter Kastner as Bernard Chanticleer and Rip Torn as I. H. Chanticleer in You’re a Big Boy Now (1966) — I just like repeating the surname. Chanticleer. Chanticleer. Try it! It’s fun.
  • Shirley Jones as Marian Paroo in The Music Man (1962) — a reel librarian list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Marian the Librarian, right?!

Sources used:


My precious, my archives in ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’

Disorganization in the archives

About a half hour into The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) needs some info about the ring, and he needs it fast. So next we see the Gondorian Archivist (Michael Elsworth) leading Gandalf down a winding staircase to the archives. The elderly archivist is clothed in dark robes and hat, with no glasses. He serves as an Information Provider, although he has no dialogue. He provides directions only. The archivist shows Gandalf the way with an open torch (flames near old papers? insert internal scream here!).

Gondorian Archivist in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
The Gondorian Archivist

The archives themselves have no apparent organization; as you can see below, some papers and books are stacked vertically, while others are loose on shelves.

Gandalf feverishly paws through archives, spilling pipe smoke and ash everywhere. He bends old scrolls and parchment in his haste of reading, amidst dripping candle wax and drinking cups (seen below). And after several hours or days, Gandalf does find the info he needs concerning the ring, from an obviously rare scroll of parchment.

First off, I love love love LOTR — the books and the films. The trilogy is a fantastic cinematic achievement. It deserved all the Oscars it got, and even some it didn’t get (mental hugs to you, Ian McKellen).

BUT.

The librarian in me cannot help wondering how much quicker — if not cinematically dramatic, of course — the process would have been if:

(a) the archives had been in some kind of order, and

(b) the archivist was put to any use other than giving directions.

Disorganization in the archives of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Disorganization in the archives
Open flames amidst the archives in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Open flames amidst the archives

And, of course, I wanted to climb into the frame and clean up those archives. First step: no open flames or smoking! For me, “my precious” would describe not the ring but the priceless information contained in those archives.

And if you’re wondering, no, the librarian in me never has a day off. Once a librarian, always a librarian!


Sources used:


Letting our hair down

Whether you love it, hate it, or feel indifferent, the Naughty Librarian is here to stay (and play).

Librarian or not, you’ve probably heard (or voiced?) something similar to the following:

“Glasses can make ladies sexy as well, but only as they are taken off, followed by a slow-motion shake of the head to let her hair down out of that librarian bun.”

Stephen Colbert, “Men With Glasses,” People Nov. 27, 2006: 133.

The naughty, or sexy female librarian, is a pretty common role for reel librarians — and I would venture a common fantasy also — as illustrated by this Naughty Librarian character in Tomcats (2001):

Tomcats at work
At work
Tomcats at play
At play

Mindy Kaling wrote an interesting article, “Flick Chicks: A Guide to Women  in the Movies” in a recent issue of New Yorker magazine (Oct. 3, 2011, p. 36). Although the article focuses on female roles in romantic comedies and doesn’t mention librarians at all, this quote caught my eye:

“And since when does holding a job necessitate that a woman pull her hair back in a severe, tight bun? Do screenwriters think that loose hair makes it hard to concentrate?”

A couple of intriguing rhetorical questions. Discuss!

Yes, pulling the hair back tightly is a convenient, simple way to visually demonstrate seriousness. And the image of a woman then shaking her hair loose — symbolizing the loosening of her libido, perhaps? —  adds to the fantasy. Whether you love it, hate it, or feel indifferent, the Naughty Librarian is here to stay (and play).

Pearle Vision “Naughty Librarian” Commercial” video uploaded by Jay is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Sources used:


  • Colbert, Stephen. “Men With Glasses.” People, Nov. 27, 2006, p. 133.
  • Kaling, Mindy. “Flick Chicks: A Guide to Women  in the Movies.” New Yorker, Oct. 3, 2011, p. 36.
  • Tomcats. Dir. Gregory Poirier. Perf. Jerry O’Connell, Shannon Elizabeth, Jake Busey. Columbia TriStar, 2001.

The Quotable Librarian 1

“Now you’re in trouble. You owe 25 cents.”

Out of the mouths of reel librarians… Laugh, cry, sigh, enjoy!


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969):


This is a library. Not a fun fair!

Isla Cameron as Miss McKenzie (school librarian)
Screenshot from 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' (1969)
Screenshot from ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ (1969)

Love Story (1970):


You have your own library, preppy.

Ali MacGraw as Jenny Cavalleri (student library assistant)
Screenshot from 'Love Story' (1970)
Screenshot from ‘Love Story’ (1970)

Pump Up the Volume (1990):


Now you’re in trouble. You owe 25 cents.

Samantha Mathis as Nora Diniro (student library assistant)
Screenshot from 'Pump Up the Volume' (1990)
Screenshot from ‘Pump Up the Volume’ (1990)

The Mummy (1998):


Look, I may not be an explorer, or an adventurer, or a treasure seeker, or a gun fighter… But I am proud of what I am. I… am a librarian!
[then falls over drunk]

Rachel Weisz as Evelyn Carnahan (Egyptologist librarian)

The Philadelphia Story (1940):


What does thee wish?

Hilda Plowright as Quaker Librarian (public librarian)
Screenshot from 'The Philadelphia Story' (1940)
Screenshot from ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)

Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002):


If an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist!

Alethea McGrath as Jocasta Nu (archives librarian)
Screenshot from 'Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones' (2002)
Screenshot from ‘Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones’ (2002)

Party Girl (1995):


He’s not a dick, he’s a patron.

Sasha von Scherler as Judy Lindendorf (public librarian)
Screenshot from 'Party Girl' (1995)
Screenshot from ‘Party Girl’ (1995)

Sources used:


  • Love Story. Dir. Arthur Hiller. Perf. Ali MacGraw, Ryan O’Neal, John Marley, Ray Milland. Paramount, 1970.
  • The Mummy. Dir. Stephen Sommers. Perf. Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, Arnold Vosloo. Universal, 1999.
  • Party Girl. Dir. Daisy von Scherler Mayer. Perf. Parker Posey, Sasha von Scherler, Guillermo Diaz, Liev Schreiber. First Look, 1995.
  • The Philadelphia Story. Dir. George Cukor. Perf. Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey, John Howard, Roland Young. MGM, 1940.
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Dir. Ronald Neame. Perf. Maggie Smith, Robert Stephens, Pamela Franklin. 20th Century Fox, 1969.
  • Pump Up the Volume. Dir. Allan Moyle. Perf. Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis, Jeff Chamberlain. New Line Cinema, 1992.
  • Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Dir. George Lucas. Perf. Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Christopher Lee, Samuel L. Jackson. 20th Century Fox, 2002.
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