On National Libraries Day it is time once again to take a look at some of our favourite fictional (and real) library staff.
The British Film Institute are currently holding a season celebrating the work of four times Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn herself played a reference librarian threatened with redundancy by Spencer Tracy’s new computer in Desk Set. Obviously the computer loses but the film has always been a favourite with reference librarians, dazzled by Hepburn’s virtuoso display of learning, though shocked by her failure to check her sources as she recites Hiawatha and names Santa’s reindeer…
One of Hepburn’s fellow library workers is played by Joan Blondell, an accomplished comedienne whose career stretched from the Busby Berkeley musicals of the early 30s to Grease. Blondell was herself a former library worker.
According to her biographer Matthew Kennedy:
“Joan secured a job in a circulating library at Broadway and Eighty Ninth for eight dollars a week. Her shift was typically 8am to 1pm then again from 4pm to 11pm, which was perfect for attending mid-day auditions. Her boss, kindly Esther Wright, recalled that Joan ‘was a good clerk on account of she would not let boys have dates with her unless they joined [Esther’s] circulating library. One night there were seventeen boys lined up to join.’ Joan wrote their numbers on the wall near the telephone behind the circulation desk, which eventually looked like a directory of Manhattan’s available young men.”
As part of the Hepburn season, the BFI are showcasing one of her greatest films, The Philadelphia Story. In a famous scene, reporter Macaulay Connors, played by James Stewart visits a Quaker archives and the following exchange takes place
Librarian: What is thy wish?
Macaulay Connor: I’m looking for some local b – what’d you say?
Librarian: What is thy wish?
Macaulay Connor: Um, local biography or history.
Librarian: If thee will consult with my colleague in there.
Macaulay Connor: Mm-hm. Dost thou have a washroom?
Macaulay Connor: Thank thee.
Hepburn wasn’t the only grande dame of Hollywood to play a librarian. In Storm Center, Bette Davis plays a widowed librarian who fights against her local council’s attempts to ban a book supportive of Communism. A brave film that was the first to openly take on the McCarthy witch-hunts, it deserves to be better known as, sadly, libraries are still faced with pressure to ban books.
Check out the Movie Librarians site for more celluloid information workers. And for more on the careers of Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis and Joan Blondell, why not have a look at this marvellous archive of Hollywood fan magazines?
One noted television reference worker is Flynn Carsen, the eponymous Librarian, played by Noah Wyle in a series of television movies and more recently a spin-off series about a whole team of Librarians solving ancient mysteries and generally being awesome (though it has to be said that the script is a little cagey about their exact qualifications). While you’re watching The Librarians rescue the crown of King Arthur or turn into Prince Charming just remember – you never know what the staff of your local library are capable of!