Think of a librarian and chances are a certain image will form: generally female, early middle age, neat yet frumpy clothes, glasses and possibly hair scraped back into a tight bun. This is an image that the past 100 years of cinema has done little to counteract, and the moving image archives are littered with painful examples of the ‘spinster librarian’ type: bitter, dried-out husks surveying their reading rooms with a gimlet eye, and generally acting as killjoys when any fun appears on the horizon.
The reality couldn’t be more different!
So we’ve handpicked those screen representations that contradict the stereotypes and prove what those of us in the know knew all along. Librarians are pretty cool.
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Alicia Hull (Bette Davis) – Storm Center (1956)
Bette Davis playing a forthright librarian standing up to censorship and the petty mindedness of small town America, what’s not to love? ‘The Communist Dream’ is on the bookshelves of her beloved town library, but in this era of cold war panic and McCarthyism the council members want it gone. As any true librarian would, Alicia Hull refuses to censor a book from her shelves, even if it means losing her job over it. In her inimitable style Davis tells the male-only town council: “You have the power to remove the book from the library. You have the power to remove me. And if you do one, you will have to do the other.” Librarians stand for many things; chief among them is freedom of speech. We can all hope to react like Bette if the time ever comes in our professional lives.
Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn) – Desk Set (1957)
Katharine Hepburn’s wonderfully acerbic Bunny Watson is the librarian that everyone wants to be when they finally grow up. She loves a drink and a party, and is in possession of both a fabulous wardrobe and a wicked sense of humour. These are little-known yet essential qualities for any would-be information professional. More importantly however, she is a consummate professional with a degree and postgraduate qualification, she has an encyclopaedic knowledge of her collection, and an absolutely formidable memory. She was a walking Google before Google was even a thing.
Marian Paroo (Shirley Jones) – The Music Man (1962)
Possibly the quintessential representation of what most people think of when they picture a librarian, Shirley Jones’s prim and proper librarian Marian has a special place in the hearts of the BFI Reuben Library team. She may come across as officious and unyielding, not afraid of the librarian’s ubiquitous defence against noise pollution (the crisply enunciated “Shh!”), but underneath the surface of that devoutly professional exterior is a passionate woman waiting to be unleashed. And when she figures out con-man Harold for what he really is, yet again it’s a librarian who saves the day.
Barbara Gordon (Yvonne Craig) – Batman TV series (1966-68)
What’s that? You need a female crime-fighting superhero? As equal in skill, cunning and intelligence as Batman, but someone whom if you met them in their day-to-day life, you’d never suspect they were a superhero in their off hours. Well, you need a librarian then, don’t you? This may or may not be the conversation that went down between DC Comics and Batman executive producer William Dozier in the late 60s, but the end result was the same. In its third season, Batman got a female sidekick, and the world of information professionals got its first bona-fide superhero in the shape of Batgirl, aka Dr Barbara Gordon, PhD in library science, head of Gotham Public Library. Heck, even without the cape, she’s our kind of hero.
Gloria Mundy (Goldie Hawn) – Foul Play (1978)
The effervescent Goldie Hawn is Gloria Mundy, working in a San Francisco public library after a painful divorce, and hiding (not entirely successfully – she’s Goldie Hawn) behind huge glasses. Despite the stereotypical eyewear, she sports a highly fashionable 1970s wardrobe and drives a yellow VW Beetle around the city like the newly liberated modern woman that she is. Foul Play’s Hitchcockian plot sees our heroine become embroiled in a web of intrigue, murder, and dastardly villains. While her library colleague Stella warns her about the dangers of lurking men and recommends carrying mace and a knuckleduster in her handbag, Gloria does just fine with her umbrella when she’s attacked in the stacks while doing some last-minute shelving. After all, librarians are renowned multi-taskers.
Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) – The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The only innocent man in Shawshank prison, Andy Dufresne built up the kind of library most of us would be proud to work in. His sheer persistence and single-mindedness in repeatedly asking for funds and donations from the local authorities proves that librarians, on film as in real life, are a tenacious bunch undeterred by bureaucracy. Tim Robbins instils the role with steely determination hidden beneath the well-mannered exterior, whether it’s painstakingly carving a chess set for Red from the rocks in the prison yard, or building a library up from nothing. Robbins is a librarian we can believe in.
Mary (Parker Posey) – Party Girl (1995)
Arrested after throwing an illegal party in her apartment, 24-year-old Mary is bailed out by her godmother Judy, a professional librarian in the New York Public Library service. In order to repay her debt, Mary is given a job as a library assistant and, after some false starts and personality clashes, she soon becomes the fastest shelver in the place. Party Girl not only captures the spirit of mid-90s New York and the party scene of the time; it is also deeply respectful of the library profession. There are several scenes that will have librarians punching the air with righteous joy – not least when Mary loudly berates a patron for failing to adhere to the Dewey Decimal shelving system. Party Girl is certainly proof that media stereotypes of librarians are just that.
Rupert Giles (Anthony Head) – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1997-2003
Rupert Giles is the man you want running your school’s library when that library is literally built on top of the Hellmouth. With a cage full of ancient and magical texts and a pathological fear of technology, Giles is the quintessential Englishman abroad: mild-mannered and bespectacled with a passion for books and knowledge. Sent from England to Sunnydale, California to act as Watcher and mentor to the Slayer, Giles juggles classifying school textbooks with martial arts training, using his formidable knowledge of the dark arts to defeat the latest supernatural force to threaten the town and acting as a father figure to Buffy – whether she wants it or not. He may not be a shining example of the modern, technologically savvy information professional but Giles is definitely the librarian to have beside you in a fight to save the world.
Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) – The Mummy (1999)
When Evelyn stands up in the middle of the Sahara desert after imbibing a bit too much of the local firewater and declares “I am proud of what I am – I am a librarian!” a chorus of “hell yeahs” can be heard from the information profession worldwide. Not since Bunny Watson has there been a librarian we’d most like to be. Perhaps it’s the clipped British accent, the can-do attitude, or the fact it’s Rachel Weisz playing her, as there’s something about Evy the Librarian that sets her apart from the rest. Even if the first time we encounter her she manages to accidentally destroy her library with an unintentional game of domino bookshelves.
Vox (Orlando Jones) – The Time Machine (2002)
It’s the year 2030 and librarians at the New York Public Library have been replaced by the Vox system. A holographic artificial intelligence that links every database on the planet, or as Vox NY unit 114 explains it to Guy Pearce’s hapless time traveller: “I’m a compendium of all human knowledge.” Welcome to Librarians: the Next Generation. Orlando Jones’s small yet significant role in this 2002 take on the H.G. Wells classic hints at the innovations to come in our world of open source and linked data, making it easier to find the information you need at the touch of a button, and yet also implies that a ‘human’ interaction will still be required. Librarians are not done for yet.