It’s time for what has become a National Libraries Day tradition: taking a look at some libraries and librarians in popular culture.
In 2012, for the very first #NLD, we got very excited about Nancy Pearl, Batgirl and Casanova. In 2013 we explored some of the odder reaches of real life and in 2014 we had some great quotes about libraries. Last year, in 2o15 we ranged from Katherine Hepburn to Noah Wyle… have we now covered everything? Nope!
If any readers have been watching BBC4 recently, and since you’re all highly intelligent types you probably have, you may have had the misfortune to come upon repeats of the 1980s sitcom Sorry! in which Ronnie Corbett plays a middle-aged librarian still living with his domineering mother and henpecked father. Frankly, it’s embarrassing. I doubt anyone has been inspired to enter a career in library work because of this (though it was inexplicably popular at the time).
Fortunately there are plenty of better role models for aspiring librarians – let’s look at few cinematic information workers, going back to the era of silent cinema…
According to The Image of Librarians in Cinema 1917-1999, the first film to feature a librarian was A Wife on Trial based on a best-selling romance novel The Rose Garden Husband. The heroine Phyllis, played by Mignon Anderson (yep, it’s her real name) is a hardworking but impoverished children’s librarian who dreams of her own garden and who is offered a marriage of convenience with wheelchair-bound Allan Harrington, who has a house and a rose garden. A reviewer for Motion Picture World wrote that it was
“alive with sentiment of an appealing sort and has a touch of what the sarcastic dramatic critics call ‘sugary sweetness’. But it gets it over extremely well and will please the average audience immensely.”
The film was successful enough to spawn a sequel, The Wishing Ring Man, with Dorothy Hagan as Phyllis, now a mother of two.
Our next cinematic librarian appears in The Blot, a 1921 film film directed by one of the few female directors in silent films, Lois Weber, who made more than 100 films though only about 20 survive. The Blot, filmed at the University of Los Angeles, is about a genteelly impoverished professor whose librarian daughter (played by Claire Windsor) is courted (well, pestered) by one of his obnoxious wealthy students who hangs around her workplace – though the ending leaves it ambiguous as to whether she is won over by his charms.
A more famous film librarian came along in 1932 when Carole Lombard, later the highest paid female star in Hollywood, appeared in No Man of her Own, alongside her future husband Clark Gable. Gable plays a gambler hiding out in a small town who finds his way to the library and follows Lombard to the reserve stock in order to get a better look at her legs. Photoplay magazine wrote that
Sadly the film only has one scene in the library but I guess it’s one recruitment angle that might appeal – the suggestion that your next reader might be the biggest star in Hollywood!
Lombard died tragically in a plane crash in 1942 at the age of only 33 and Gable, heart-broken, joined the American airforce and flew five combat missions.
His first film after the war saw him romancing another librarian, this time played by English actress Greer Garson, then best known for his Oscar winner role as the upper class British housewife Mrs Miniver, The film was Adventure, famously advertised with the tagline “Gable’s Back and Garson’s Got Him”. Gable plays a rough sailor who is wooed by Garson’s stereotypical strait-laced librarian (though at least she doesn’t have a bun or glasses).
The film was a commercial and critical flop and rightly so as Gable, frankly, behaves appallingly in the scene where he approaches Garson in the reference library, behaving disruptively and trying to smoke. Obviously, in a romantic comedy, we know what’s going to happen, but please don’t try this seduction technique In Real Life.
Another Oscar winner played a heroic small-town town librarian in 1956’s Storm Center. Bette Davis plays the widowed Alicia, sacked after refusing to withdraw a book called The Communist Dream from the library and the chain of events this sets off ends with a child burning the building down. Fortunately this causes the residents to have a change of heart and a new library is buiit and Alicia reinstated. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times wrote that
“they have got from Bette Davis a fearless and forceful performance as the middle-aged widowed librarian who stands by her principles. Miss Davis makes the prim but stalwart lady human and credible.”
A less heroic librarian was played by Sylvia Sidney in the Technicolour crime drama Violent Saturday. Sidney plays that rare thing in fiction (and in real life!) a larcenous librarian who steals a unattended purse after receiving a letter from her bank telling her that her overdraft is being withdrawn. When she tries to pay the stolen money into the bank she is caught up in an armed robbery on the ‘violent Saturday’ of the title. Sadly, as the New York Times pointed out, Sidney doesn’t get the screen time she deserves:
‘Lost and forgotten in the scramble of the writers and directors to include all of these people in the happenings is Sylvia Sidney, who plays the lady librarian. She is fortunately given a fast brush. The last expression we see on her baffled visage as much as says, “What the heck is going on?”‘
Nearly as rare as criminal librarians in cinema are male ones, but one heroic gentleman librarian is Charles Halloway, the middle-aged librarian played by Jason Robards Jr who saves the day in 1983’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, based on Ray Bradbury’s novel of the same name. Halloway uses his librarianly skills to research and defeat the mysterious carnival owner Mr Dark who has a tattoo of every person he has tricked into servitude. The film was the first major Hollywood feature to use computer generated animation but Halloway needed no such trickery to defeat Mr Dark – just the wisdom and research skills that all reference librarians possess.
And to finish off, possibly the most popular cinematic library worker with actual librarians is the one played by Parker Posey in Party Girl. Like most real librarians, she has a lively social life and when she’s arrested at an illegal rave, her godmother bails her out and then offers her a job as a library clerk to pay off the fine. She soon discovers the joys of the Dewey Decimal System and abandons her wild ways for study and helping her friends in their careers using her new-found library science skills. For a generation of librarians, it’s like looking in a mirror!
So remember, when you visit a library on National Libraries Day, that you never know what the person behind the counter might have been up to…