Movie in a haystack

How do I go about finding which movies have librarians?

I love movies, and I love librarians. And I love watching librarians in movies. That much is obvious. Most people are surprised when I mention there are hundreds, even thousands (when you count up the foreign films, TV shows, etc.), of examples of reel librarians. But I’m sure that other professions, like lawyers or teachers, have scores more cinematic counterparts. Of course, most reel librarians are not significant to the film (see my lists for Class III and Class IV), so when you think about major roles for reel librarians, the number is considerably smaller (see my lists for Class I and Class II). And hey, while you’re at it, take a look at my Master List for the most complete list I have compiled so far of reel librarian films.

I’ve already written about how I go about getting movies to watch. But how do I go about finding which movies have librarians?

It helps that I’m a list-maker. 😉

Selected bibliography for my thesis
Selected bibliography for my thesis – click for larger image

So here’s how I’ve done it, starting with research for my undergraduate thesis, A Glimpse through the Glasses: Portrayals of Librarians in Film, over a decade ago. First, I wrote down all the librarian movies I could think of. As I remember, that list wasn’t very long, but I’m sure It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Desk Set (1957) were on that initial list. (FYI, I eventually ended up with a list of 47 titles for my thesis.)

Then I gathered as many sources as possible about the subject — you can see these in my Resources page — including books, articles, dissertations (gold mines!), and web sites. I began a file of movie titles, and checked this growing list against any new resource I was able to get my hands on.

This remains my basic strategy.

The Whole Library Handbook series is quite useful, with a “Librariana” section and “Media” sub-section in every edition. There are several annotated filmography articles out there, including Martin Raish’s website, Librarians in the Movies: An Annotated Filmography, which have proved invaluable. And, as I’ve mentioned before, Raish’s interest grew from asking his students for examples they knew of. The Film Librarian site is also a good starting point.

I also have scoured sites like Amazon, using “advanced search” features to look for librarian films. Searching tip #1: Seek out and use any advanced search options you can!

And IMDb – the Internet Movie Database. How I love thee. I cannot even count the ways. It has fantastic basic and advanced search options, including keyword, plot summaries, advanced title text searches, etc. Its advanced keyword search is called MoKA, Movie Keyword Analyzer. Fancy! I have been using the IMDb to help compile these lists for years now, and its search features and capabilities have continued to improve.

IMDb search bar
IMDb search bar

My family has been very supportive of my research and contribute ideas and titles all the time. My mom has sent film copies my way – always much appreciated (thanks, Mom!). My husband has come back from several academic conferences with books in tow — including the best book published so far on the topic, The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999.

So, as you can see, there’s not just one approach — I use many, many sources available in various formats. Sometimes, it can be tedious, as it IS a bit like finding a movie in a haystack. But the hunt can be as exciting as watching the films themselves.

I enjoy re-browsing some of my favorite sites on this topic, including Movie Librarians: Notable Librarians & Libraries in Film, as well as the newest addition to my resource list, the Libraries at the Movies blog. For example, from these sites I’ve added about 15 new titles in the past couple of weeks, including: Jury Duty (1995), Grave of the Vampire (1974), The Incubus (1982), Frankenstein (2005 TV movie), The Namesake (2005), The Pink Chiquitas (1987), and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979, plus a remake is coming out soon).

I continue to add movies to my various lists, and I’d like to think that one day, my site will be a go-to resource for others interested in the topic. I keep my ears and eyes open for any news about upcoming librarian films or characters.

And I find that people, those who are aware of my interest, come to me about new (or old) movies with reel librarians. I love when that happens! So let me know if you have a movie in mind with a memorable librarian. And please share your personal favorites – I always enjoy discussing reel librarians. 🙂

Repeat offenders

Highlighting actors who have portrayed reel librarians more than once

I was recently updating my Actor list, and I noticed a couple of actors who have portrayed reel librarians more than once. And I don’t mean those who have portrayed the same character in multiple movies (Stringer Davis in the Miss Marple series of the 1960’s; Noah Wyle and Bob Newhart in The Librarian TV movies; Rachel Weisz in The Mummy franchise). I’m talking about those who have multiple reel librarian characters to their resume.

Let’s take a look, shall we?

John Rothman is one of those character actors who have been in LOTS of movies — so when you see him, you feel a flash of vague recognition. He has portrayed two reel librarians, each one quite brief yet memorable. He played Roger Delacorte in Ghostbusters (1984) and the Librarian in Sophie’s Choice (1982). He was obviously the go-to male librarian of the early 1980s.

His role in Sophie’s Choice has already made my “Hall of Shame” list — talk about a memorable first impression! He is so rude in the brief library scene that Sophie (Meryl Streep) faints right after. Yes, of course, there are other factors affecting her poor health — but I am convinced it is the tongue-lashing she receives from this terrible reel librarian that pushes her over the edge (see below). In a film filled with flashbacks of Nazi soldiers, his librarian character STILL manages to come off as mean. Yikes.

Research scene” video uploaded by SoFewChoices is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

So how did Rothman do his second time around? Not much better, I’m sorry to say. In Ghostbusters, he plays an insensitive, nervy library administrator, one who is more concerned about his precious reputation than about his librarian employee who got the shock of her life in the New York Public Library basement. Sigh.

Ghostbusters opening scene” video uploaded by Estuardo Salazar is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Justine Johnston has also played two reel librarians. She barely registers in Running on Empty (1988) when she helps the main characters with some microfilm.

However, she certainly makes a bigger impression in her next reel librarian role, in The New Guy (2002). In that film’s opening scene, Johnston’s character portrays some of the most crass behavior EVER from a reel librarian! Let’s just say she provides a unique twist to the film — and to a young man’s certain sensitive body part. This unfortunate — and, no doubt, painful — incident happens in front of the entire school. So this reel librarian basically becomes the reason the main character switches schools. Poor guy!

Sources used:

  • Ghostbusters. Dir. Ivan Reitman. Perf. Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis. Columbia, 1984.
  • The New Guy. Dir. Peter MacDonald. Perf. DJ Qualls, Eliza Dushku, Zooey Deschanel. Bedlam Pictures, 2002.
  • Running on Empty. Dir. Sidney Lumet. Perf. Christine Lahti, Judd Hirsch, River Phoenix, Martha Plimpton. Warner Bros., 1988.
  • Sophie’s Choice. Dir. Alan J. Pakula. Perf. Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol. Universal, 1982.

‘Woof!’ Beware of librarian

“Remember getting trapped in that library? I still have nightmares about that!”

The 1989 film Woof! details the comic adventures of an English boy, Eric (played by Edward Fidoe), who turns into a dog — a Norfolk terrier, to be exact — whenever his nose starts twitching. The movie, although a bit dull and hokey to me, is connected to a long-running (!) British TV series.

Stereotypes abound in this movie. There is the stuffy, child-hating teacher who yells at students to keep off the grass; the absent-minded and slightly buffoonish father; and, of course, the glasses-wearing, sour-faced librarian. This movie seems harmless enough, but I got an overwhelming sense of rules, rules, RULES. There are rules about not walking on the school lawn, no toys in the pool, no dogs allowed, no talking, and so on. Perhaps the boy (subconsciously) simply wants to escape!

The boy becomes determined to figure out why he keeps turning into a dog and tells his parents he’ll be going to the library later. His mother’s reaction? To feel his forehead and ask if he’s all right. It seems in this household, going to the library is odd behavior and cause for concern. Brushing away his mom’s concern, he tells his not-so-bright friend, Roy, at school that they must start by collecting data. Roy sees a light bulb, “Oh, that’s why you asked about the library tickets!”

Their first stop is the school library, a small room with few books available. There doesn’t appear to be any school librarian. The room is filled with older wood-and-metal tables and chairs, a chalkboard, a bulletin board covered with pictures, and a few low bookcases. From one angle, we see a large window along the back wall with a view of trees. There are a few books haphazardly stacked up on one bookcase, and a small 6-drawer card catalog on top of another. Overall, the look is very cluttered and disorganized.

Screenshot from 'Woof!' movie
The school library from the Woof! movie – no school librarian to be seen
Screenshot from the 'Woof!" TV series
The school library in the TV series seems to be better stocked – did they finally get a librarian?

Although the scene is only two minutes long, the message of RULES gets hammered again. Two girls come in and immediately ask, “Have you got permission to be in here?” Then a teacher — the same one who had yelled at them about walking on the grass — bursts in and yells again. “What are you up to?!” The fact that he’s holding a gun in his hand is commented on but never explained. Decidedly odd.

“It’s not easy is it, research?” Eric muses, on their way to the public library. This five-minute scene takes place toward the end of the first hour of the movie. The public library looks cheerful from the outside, with its traditional red brick and gold lettering; it seems quite busy and popular with lots of people going in and out. No “beware of librarian” signs to be seen.

The next shot showcases the main librarian (Sheila Steafel), checking out books with a scanner at the Circulation desk. She appears to be middle-aged, with short blondish hair, glasses perched low on her nose. She wears a tan cardigan and a light blue/grey blouse with an undone bow at the neckline. She wags her finger at two girls, who promptly move to the other side of the librarian’s right side (again, RULES alert!). After the girls have moved to the proper place, the librarian then motions for their library card. There is another librarian, uncredited, with her back to the camera. We see glimpses of her later on; she is of African descent, and she also wears rather conservative clothing (a black cardigan, white button-up shirt, long black-and-white polka-dotted skirt).

We get to see more of the public library, which has many bookcases, light-colored walls, and several informational signs. A character even mentions a second floor. There are several dark wood tables and comfy chairs visible.

Librarian rings a bell in Woof!
Actions speak louder than words

The boys apparently find more books, judging by the stack on their table, but their research is cut short. Next, we see the librarian standing in the middle of the floor, in a light tan, calf-length skirt and brown flats, but without her glasses. She’s waving a large bell, a not-so-subtle way to signify closing time. Seeing no reaction from two kids right beside her, she waves the bell right in their faces (see above). Still no words, just crude gestures. After putting the bell back on the desk, she turns to a book cart, then taps impatiently to the man standing on the other side of the cart. He moves quickly (fearing worse her bite or her bark?), and she hurriedly pushes the cart in front of him.

Disaster strikes! Eric turns into a dog at the library. Roy leaves his duffel bag of the library table, where it catches the ire of the librarian, who is busy pushing the cart and clearing up books. When she spies the offensive bag, she rolls her eyes, gives it a glare, huffs, and throws the bag on the cart. While Eric’s friend is trying to figure out a way to get them out of the library without the librarian seeing, the director cuts to the librarian back at the Circulation desk. (Side note: we see the electronic scanner, but no computer. Hmmmm…..)  Up to this point, the librarian has been more of the “Actions speak louder than words” type, but she finally speaks up — albeit in a whispering tone — in the presence of an adult (her perceived equal?), a schoolteacher. The teacher, who is also the cricket coach, invites the librarian — and even calls her by her first name, Marjorie, although she is listed only as “Librarian” in the credits — out to the cricket match. The librarian seems horrified at this idea. The teacher, giving no notice to the librarian’s obvious social discomfort, leaves by trilling, “Till this evening.” This prompts the librarian to finally raise her voice, shouting out, “NO! I — ” before breaking off. She seems quite embarrassed at her outburst — breaking her own rules, tsk tsk — and looks around guiltily while biting her nails (see below).

Librarian bites her nails in Woof!
Librarian bites her nails in Woof!

When Roy braves his life to ask the librarian about the missing duffel bag, we see the librarian glare at the boy with pursed lips. She shows no concern, airily telling him that the teacher took the bag. She shows much more concern about getting out of there, as she is in the process of putting her glasses up in a case. The boy, not getting the message from the librarian’s first dismissive smile, earns a scathing warning, “We are CLOSED now, actually” and another dismissive nod. Roy then walks slowly away, carrying out Eric-turned-dog in his other bag. Eric lets out a bark — what a mischief-maker! — which causes a look of confusion on the librarian’s face (in yet another close-up). She purses her lips again, raises her eyebrows, and looks around in confusion, as if she’s hearing things. She puts on her wide-brimmed black hat (which is NOT shaped like a witch’s hat), and that is that.

So what’s the point of the library scenes? Eric thinks of the library first when it comes to research — yay! — and seems to find more info at the public library than at the woefully understocked school library. But the kids are definitely on their own, either way. No help from this librarian. She appears quite dowdy, with a dismissive attitude when it comes to children or library users in general. She is not social — the idea of going out in public to a cricket match scares her into a shout! — and her mannerisms betray this social awkwardness. The only library tasks depicted are checking out books, pushing a cart, picking up books, and telling people to go home.

The public librarian serves as yet another authority figure who presents obstacles for the kids and delivers more rules. She is another guard dog — mirroring the big, scary black dog the boys have to confront every morning on their paper route. But her bark — or glare, in this case — is decidedly worse than her bite. Not a flattering portrait. She serves as both a Spinster Librarian (an uptight rule-monger) and Comic Relief (the target of derision and laughter in socially awkward situations).

Eric succinctly sums up his experience with the public librarian. At the end of the movie, he says, “Anyway, I’m glad it’s over. Remember the swimming baths, the telephone box, getting trapped in that library? Tell you, Roy, I still have nightmares about that!”

Sources used:

  • Woof! Dir. David Cobham. Perf. Liza Goddard, John Ringham, Edward Fidoe. Miramax, 1989.

Moving mountains — all in a day’s work in ‘Dear Frankie’

“Pick any book, and if we don’t have it here, I will move mountains to get it for you.”

The 2004 film Dear Frankie is one that I visit time and again — it’s a beautiful, touching film that never gets treacly or sentimental. The bracing Scottish backdrop helps, of course. Plus, it boasts a quietly stellar cast, including a young(er) Gerard Butler and the always intriguing Emily Mortimer.

The Frankie of the title is a deaf boy (Jack McElhone) who receives a lot of letters from his seafaring dad — but all those letters have actually come from his mom (Mortimer). His dad’s (fictional) ship is about to come into town, so his mom hires a stranger (Butler) to pose as Frankie’s father.

In one early scene, his mom composes a letter in what appears to be a library — or perhaps an archives room or historical society. No librarian in sight, but there looks to be the standard library prop of a shelving cart stacked with folders and boxes.

Frankie's mom writing a letter in Dear Frankie
Frankie’s mom writing a letter

In another scene about fifteen minutes into the film, Frankie visits the local library — it’s called the “lending library” by the sign on the glass door — which has a light, cheerful atmosphere with its stained-glass windows.

Frankie browses the shelves and catches the attention of the librarian.  The librarian (Elaine Mackenzie Ellis) is a white female, with short dark hair, and a shorter, rounder frame. She wears glasses, modest clothing (a light blue top and matching cardigan), and minimal jewelry (small earrings and silver necklace). She’s also holding a book, the most obvious prop to mark a reel librarian!

Librarian look in Dear Frankie
We know that look…

The librarian — unnamed in this film and listed only as “Librarian” in the credits — starts speaking to him, not realizing he’s deaf. “Yes? Can I help you? Hello? Hello, I’m talking to you.”

Obviously offended at the boy’s seemingly defiant inattention, she steps out around the desk. “Come back here, please. I’m talking to you. Cheeky wee devil, you!”

So she tracks the boy down and says, “I am well aware that a wee boy your age should be at school at this time of day.”

Getting ready to move mountains, librarian in Dear Frankie
Ready to move mountains

Frankie then puts in his hearing aid. When she realizes he’s deaf, the librarian’s tone and demeanor completely change. “I didn’t realize. I’m so sorry.” Her tone becomes encouraging, her facial expression quickly softens, and she starts exaggerating and over-enunciating her words.

“Pick a book. Pick any book, and if we don’t have it here, I will move mountains to get it for you.”

The next shot cuts to Frankie leaving the library, holding an armful of books (and a slight smirk on his face).

Leaving the library with a mountain of books in Dear Frankie
Leaving the library with a mountain of books

Surely he’s pulled this kind of trick before? Frankie must find it a bit amusing to see how people’s reactions change after they realize his handicap. The librarian here fulfills the role of the Information Provider — no surprise there — as she helps Frankie find books he wants. She also serves as a typical example for how a majority of the public treats Frankie and other children with physical handicaps.

Sources used:

  • Dear Frankie. Dir. Shona Auerbach. Perf. Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, Gerard Butler, Sharon Small. Miramax, 2004.

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.
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