‘South Street’ librarian

Earliest film I have come across so far to feature an African-American reel librarian

The 1953 film noir minor classic, Pickup on South Street, stars Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, and Thelma Ritter. It includes a brief library scene that combines microfilm, a pickpocket, and the first African-American librarian portrayal on film — all in less than a minute!

A well-known pickpocket, Skip McCoy (Widmark), picks the wrong purse one day on the subway, accidentally stealing a roll of microfilm a lady (Peters) was on her way to deliver. As you do. This leads to a clash between the police and a Communist gang — OF COURSE — while Skip schemes amongst all the chaos.

Skip discovers the microfilm in his stash and has the idea to visit the public library in order to get a close look at the microfilm. Very clever! About 25 minutes in, he skips (har har) up the stairs to the New York Public Library, where we get a shot of a sign that reads, “Newspapers on Microfilm — Apply Here.”

Screenshot from Pickup on South Street
Microfilm sign

The camera then pans over two white gentlemen behind a library counter, both in white shirts and ties. The older gentleman is flipping through a book with a male patron, as seen above. Skip moves down the counter to a African-American male, also outfitted in the standard white shirt and tie.

Screenshot from Pickup on South Street
First African-American librarian sighting in film — 1953!

Microfilm Library Clerk:  May I help you?

Skip:  Yes. I’d like to see a copy of the New York Times, January 5, 1947.

Microfilm Library Clerk [hands him a card and pencil]:  Fill this out, please.

The microfilm library clerk, played by Jaye Loft-Lyn, is portrayed as friendly and competent, a classic Information Provider. No fuss, no muss. The scene lasts only seconds, ending up in the Class IV category. Although the length of the scene is short, it is significant, as I mentioned before, in that it is the earliest film I have come across so far to feature an African-American reel librarian. Too bad the role is uncredited.

The next scene cuts to Skip rolling the stolen microfilm onto the library microfilm reader, looking TOTALLY nonchalant and unsuspicious while doing so.

Screenshot from Pickup on South Street
Looking oh-so-innocent

Although the public machine is used for illicit reasons, Skip did end up a satisfied library patron! 😉

I also watched the remake of Pickup on South Street (1953) — I am NOTHING if not thorough, and it’s all for you, dear readers!  —  a tedious 1967 affair called The Cape Town Affair, which changed the locale from New York to Cape Town, South Africa, and starred James Brolin as pickpocket Skip McCoy. Instead of going to a local library, Skip goes to a fellow thief (one who has ripped off a camera store) to view the microfilm. A decidedly inferior remake in every way, including in its decision to nix the opportunity of showcasing a library onscreen.


Sources used:


  • Pickup on South Street. Dir. Samuel Fuller. Perf. Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Richard Kiley, Thelma Ritter. 20th Century Fox, 1953.

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.