Honorable Mention

Here are some extras rounding out my top picks for reel librarian portrayals.

Because of Winn-Dixie (2005):

At first glance, Miss Franny seems to be a spinster librarian, but we soon see her as a warm, friendly kindred spirit to the film’s heroine.

The Human Comedy (1943):

There is a brief, but heartwarming, scene in which the elderly librarian shares her love of books to two young boys.

Lorenzo’s Oil (1992):

One of the best reference interviews on film—an academic librarian calms an irritable patron without patronizing him.

The Music Man (1962):

Not one of my personal favorites (sorry, Robert Preston fans), but it is a good film notable for its influence in cementing librarians in popular culture.

The Substitute (1996):

A school librarian stands up to hoodlums—and backs it up by packing a pistol! Probably not the most family-friendly reel librarian (she’s got a potty mouth, as well) but one of the most memorable!


Hall of Shame

Bottoms up!

Here are my bottom picks for reel librarian portrayals — for now. Again, I have tried to limit my comments to specifically address the depiction of the librarian(s) in each film. Some of the films in this Bottom 10 are good, or even classic, films, so I am not judging the films on just their artistic or storytelling merit. I am, however, judging the portrayals of librarians in these films. So here’s my personal take on how the following depictions (mis)represent the occupation. Arranged in alphabetical order.

Cain and Mabel (1936):

One of the plainest and most severe Spinster Librarians ever onscreen! A couple kisses in a public library, and a librarian — wearing a high-necked blouse, cameo brooch, and wilted print dress — immediately descends upon them, quite like a vulture.

Citizen Kane (1941):

Another severe Spinster Librarian, one who is loath to give out information to a reporter. She doesn’t so much as have hair as a helmet!

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946):

Another Spinster Librarian (a pattern perhaps?), this one arguably the most recognizable of all reel librarians. Lovely Mary becomes — what else?! — a librarian in the film’s nightmare alternate reality, after her husband George is granted his wish that he had never been born. In this classic film — which I’ve written about before, it’s one of my favorites as a film, but not as a librarian film — the message is depressingly clear: get married soon, or you will end up an old-maid librarian.

Joe Versus the Volcano (1990):

This film is not so much a lamentable depiction of a librarian — Joe seems to want more responsibility in his job — as a (perhaps unintended?) criticism and over-the-top depiction on how little librarians are valued and respected. In one scene, he is asked about his job, and he states, “I was an advertising librarian for a medical supply company.” The reaction? “Oh. I have no response to that.” Devastating.

The Name of the Rose (1986):

There are two male librarians in this medieval mystery — one a scary-looking, almost skeletal, man who restricts any access to the library and the other an overweight flagellant who engages in sexually manipulative behavior. Not the reel librarian’s finest hour.

Off Beat (1986):

A completely ridiculous film — the title isn’t kidding! It’s a film that involves satiny cop costumes, a bank heist, and show tunes — no, I’m not kidding, I just put all those words into one sentence — with a cast of library employees who are all dysfunctional and socially inept in some way.

Prick Up Your Ears (1987):

This film made me sit up and yell at the screen! It includes the completely unethical behavior of two librarians, who set a trap — using information from circulation records, no less! — to turn two frustrated writers into the police. Yes, the writers had typed obscene passages onto book covers, but that does not justify one mean-spirited librarian’s actions.

Rollerball (1975):

A thoroughly depressing depiction of libraries and librarians in the future. Librarians have turned into censors, as their job now is to summarize and edit manuscripts to be suitable for the public. They are also completely ineffectual as computers have replaced them; one librarian flippantly laments a computer’s loss of all data from “the whole of the thirteenth century.” Sigh.

A Simple Plan (1998):

For me, this quote sums up why this film is on this list: “What about me — spending the rest of my life 8 hours a day with a fake smile plastered on my face, checking out books?” Double sigh.

Sophie’s Choice (1982):

After Sophie (Meryl Streep in an Oscar-winning role) dares to ask a question, an intimidating and rude librarian causes her to faint! Enough said.

Hall of Fame

The all-stars

Here are my top picks for reel librarian portrayals — for now. The list will probably change the more librarian films I watch. For the following, I have tried to limit my comments to specifically address the depiction of the librarian(s) in each film. Some of my choices in this Top 10 might not be good films, but I am not judging the films on just artistic or storytelling merit. I am, however, giving my personal take on the portrayals of librarians in these films and how well they represent the occupation. Arranged in alphabetical order.

Desk Set (1957):

The librarians at a TV network’s research department are pitted against an efficiency expert’s data computer. The librarians, especially Katharine Hepburn, are depicted as both intelligent and feminine throughout the film — a rarity for reel librarians.

An Extremely Goofy Movie (2000):

Not a great movie, but it does contain one of the most memorable (animated) librarians. She seems at first a would-be spinster, but she soon reveals a different side—one that is sexy, playful, and confident enough to party in 1970s Abba-like green polyester.

Foul Play (1978):

Shy librarian Gloria (Goldie Hawn at her most appealing) battles an albino in the library after hours, solves a mystery, and falls in love—what’s not to like?!

Goodbye, Columbus (1969):

Neil, a poor Bronx librarian learns some hard life lessons during a summer romance. The film does NOT depict Neil’s co-workers in a positive light (they are all dysfunctional and anti-social), but there is one particularly touching scene in which Neil reaches out to a young African-American boy who likes art books. Even though Neil is not a career librarian (he admits that he doesn’t really know what he wants to do in life), he does actually care about public service.

The Librarian: Quest for the Spear (TV, 2004):

In one of my favorite scenes, Flynn Carson interviews for the librarian position, stating that he likes books, knows the Dewey and Library of Congress system, does web searching and “can set up an RSS feed.” The interviewer (a fantastically droll Jane Curtin) responds, “Everybody knows that. They’re librarians. What makes you think you’re The Librarian?” Most. Awesome. Quote. Ever. Also spawned two TV movie sequels with equally cheesy titles, The Librarian: Return to King Solomon’s Mines (2006) and The Librarian: The Curse of the Judas Chalice (2008).

Major League (1989):

One of the few films to highlight an athletic librarian. Lynn (the beautiful Rene Russo), a former swimmer and Olympic alternate, is smart, feisty, and proud that she has “put together one of the best special collections in the country.” We even get treated with a close-up of her license plate, which urges the audience to “READ.”

The Mummy (1999):

Evelyn Carnahan proclaims (albeit in a drunken stupor), “I am proud of what I am. I… am a librarian!” in another witty, feisty librarian characterization. It is Evie, not the male hero, who saves the day — and the entire world, I might add — by using her intelligence and knowledge. Also spawned a(n inferior) sequel, The Mummy Returns (2001).

My Side of the Mountain (1969):

An admittedly odd film (a 12-year-old boy leaves home and spends a year alone in nature—but that’s okay because he left a note to his parents and told them not to worry?!), but it does contain one of the most caring and thoughtful of all reel librarians. A public librarian helps a young boy find information about peregrine falcons and goes out of her way to find him more resources. She also gets a few scenes outside the library, where we see that she is an avid birdwatcher and nature enthusiast.

Party Girl (1995):

A comedy about Mary, a “party girl” who finds her true calling as a librarian, that flips librarian stereotypes upside down—and my sentimental favorite librarian film! Includes a rare scene that features library education, in which a group of librarians discuss the best school for Mary to obtain a library science degree.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983):

A town librarian, played with sensitivity and depth by Jason Robards, challenges the film’s villain, Mr. Dark, and saves the day and the whole town! A rare depiction of a male librarian as the hero.

The Time Machine (2002):

Vox has become one of my favorite reel librarian characters, and for me, is the star of this otherwise mediocre remake. He is the heart and soul of this movie — even of knowledge itself! He is the self-described “compendium of all human knowledge.” Vox is a classic example of the Information Provider character type.

A ‘weird’ librarian

Hell hath no fury… like a librarian scorned!

The 1944 film Weird Woman, directed by Reginald Le Borg, is a horror story, one whose title character could be either of the two main female characters in the film.

Weird Woman – Classic Movie Trailer” video uploaded by Cliff Held is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

While on an expedition in the South Seas, college professor Norman Reed (Lon Chaney, Jr.) marries Paula (Anne Gwynne), a native woman who continues her superstitious beliefs upon their return to the U.S. His unexpected marriage angers his ex-girlfriend, college librarian Ilona (Evelyn Ankers, who starred in several horror films, including the classic The Wolf Man), who embarks on revenge.

Hell hath no fury… like a librarian scorned!

Ilona is blonde, young, beautiful, and wears striking modern clothing. However, she does not seem like a dedicated librarian because she is never in the library; rather, she is always in her office, which appears as large as or even bigger than the actual library. Of the actual college library, we only get to see a glimpse of bookcases, a ladder, and a dictionary stand.

Her student assistant, Margaret, shelves books, and students always have to open Ilona’s door in order to talk to her. Margaret, obviously intelligent and efficient, displays an eagerness to help. She  is a brunette with shoulder-length hair, skirt suit, and no glasses. Ilona, of course, abuses her assistant’s eagerness and stirs up trouble among Margaret, her boyfriend, and Professor Reed.

Ilona is a classic example of a Naughty Librarian who turns to violent and/or criminal manipulation when her love is unrequited or thwarted. She also uses her library’s resources to create more mischief (of course!). She is the (deserving?) recipient of several nasty, unflattering comments, including the following descriptions:

“A jealous old cat”

“There’s something about your smile right now that makes me think of Jack the Ripper”

An interesting note about the film’s 1962 remake: In Burn, Witch Burn! (aka The Night of the Eagle), the librarian character is changed to a female professor. The character’s name is also changed, from Ilona Carr to Flora Carr. The student library assistant’s name, Margaret Mercer, is also changed in the remake, to Margaret Abbott; her occupation, other than that of a student, is unknown in the 1962 version.

Sources used:

  • Weird Woman. Dir. Reginald Le Borg. Perf. Lon Chaney, Jr., Anne Gwynne, Evelyn Ankers. Universal, 1944.

The ‘Year of the Librarian’ continues

Research on this topic continues to build, and hopefully, more respect is given to reel — and real! — librarians in the process.

Since the 1970s, the study of “popular culture” has increased in academic relevance, but I believe the image of librarians in media really began to be looked at as a serious topic of research after 1989. That was when ALA declared it the “Year of the Librarian” in its January 1989 issue of American Libraries. The article, below, and theme focused on the media image of librarians and “public awareness efforts on the library professional for the first time.”

My well-used copy of the "Year of the Librarian" article
My well-used copy of the “Year of the Librarian” article

There had been general research studies on librarians before, like Pauline Wilson’s book, Stereotype and Status: Librarians in the United States, published in 1982. However, researchers began to look more at media portrayals of librarians, which had not really been delved into that deeply before.

In 1990, Martin Raish, an academic librarian, began a class discussion on the image of librarians and Hollywood’s contribution (as described in the 1997 School Library Journal article “Reel Librarians Don’t Always Wear Buns” – see Resources). This class discussion spurred a major project that has since produced several articles; a web site, Librarians in the Movies: An Annotated Filmography; and several book contributions. I appreciate that Raish went beyond stereotypes, as the article states:

For one, he doesn’t subscribe to the view that the film industry has portrayed librarians only as stereotypes. “There’s a lot of old ladies with their hair in a bun that go around saying ‘shush,'” he acknowledged, “but there’s a lot of films where they’re bright, young, energetic.”

Amen! However, there is a notice on his web site that he has retired, and therefore, the site will no longer be maintained. Martin Raish continues as one of the major voices in librarian film research because he was one of the first — he began just a year after ALA’s “Year of the Librarian.” Also, in that year, 1990, at least 5 related articles/studies, including 1 dissertation, were published (see Resources).

The Popular Culture Association, which teams its annual conference with the American Culture Association, includes a section exclusively for “Libraries, Archives, Museums, and Popular research.” In 2005, McFarland & Company published a book-length analysis on this topic, with the very well-researched title, The Image of Librarians in Cinema, 1917-1999, by Ray & Brenda Tevis (yep, I’ve got a copy!). And in 2007, The Hollywood Librarian documentary premiered at the ALA Conference in Washington, D.C.; the documentary combines film clips and interviews of actual librarians. (Note to self: I need a copy of this documentary.)

So it is quite encouraging that research on this topic continues to build, and hopefully, more respect is given to reel — and real! — librarians in the process.

Sources used: