Hollywood movies influence the public's thinking about the image of librarians, but how much is hard to say. However, by looking at Hollywood's treatment of librarians we discover indications of how the public is viewing us. To the general public the word "librarian" is a readily recognizable label. The label need not include those aspects of librarianship that librarians want to claim. Several years ago on the "Family Feud" game show a group of 100 people were surveyed and asked what they believed to be typical "librarian" characteristics.The top 5 characteristics disclosed showed that librarians were:
"American Libraries" has a semi-regular column ("Image: How They're Seeing Us") with a quote, advertisement, cartoon, or other reflection of society's view of the librarian. Some of these examples are positive reflections, but more often they reinforce the negative stereotype librarians repudiate. To determine how librarians were stereotyped in Hollywood movies thirty films were studied. The librarian stereotype in these films is first discussed in relationship to the significance of character traits and job duties, and it is then examined as it appeared according to gender, age, marital status, characterization, and film genre. Films containing librarian roles were identified through two means. First through a search of the term "librarian" in the Magill's Survey of Cinema online data base. The second depended upon the authors' experience of film viewing. The majority of films mentioned in this study were personally viewed. When films were unavailable, summary descriptions of them were taken from Magill's and from magazine reviews. The random spread of the survey does not neatly distribute the films by decade, at least until the 1940s. The pattern is one film for the 1920s, none for the 1930s, six for the 1940s, seven for the 1950s, five each for the 1960s and the 1970s, and six for the 1980s.
Movies Discussed Title Date Adventure-Sam Zimbalist 1945 Alice in Wonderland-Bill Osco 1976 All the President's Men-Walter Coblenz 1976 The Blot 1921 Desk Set-Henry Ephron 1957 Foul Play-Thomas L. Miller & Edward K. Milkis 1978 Ghostbusters-Ivan Reitman 1984 Good News-Arthur Freed 1947 Goodbye-Columbus, Stanley R. Jaffe 1969 Hammett-Fred Roos, Ronald Colby & Don Guest 1983 Horror of Dracula-Anthony Hinds 1958 The Human Comedy-Clarence Brown 1943 It Happened Tomorrow-Arnold Pressburger 1944 It's a Wonderful Life-Frank Capra 1946 Mind Killer-Sarah Liles 1987 Murder, She Said-George H. Brown 1962 The Music Man-Morton DeCosta 1962 Off Beat-Joe Roth & Harry Ulfland 1986 The Offspring-Darin Scott & William Burr 1987 Only Two Can Play-Frank Launder & Sidney Gilliat 1962 Shadow of a Doubt-Jack H. Skirball 1943 Something Wicked This Way Comes-Peter V. Douglas 1983 Storm Center-Julian Blaustein 1956 Their Last Night-CCFC Prouctions 1953 They Might Be Giants-John Foreman 1972 Violent Saturday-Buddy Adler 1955 War of the Worlds-George Pal 1953 Web of Evidence-Maxwell Setton & John Sloan 1959 The Wicker Man-Peter Snell 1974 You're a Big Boy Now-Phil Feldman 1967
Amid the thousands of films produced by Hollywood, librarians appear in a small number. They may be in brief scenes or have starring roles, with portrayals running from censure to
approbation. In Magill's Survey of Cinema online data base, the term "librarian" is indexed in only forty films. This statistical evidence is hardly definitive, but the indication is that librarians make infrequent appearances. One reason for this rarity is the non-cinematic nature of a librarian's work. Answering reference questions is not the stuff of movie action. Even if such a movie as "All the President's Men" gives a vivid glimpse into information collecting, it is the newsmen who are the collectors while the librarian at the other end of the telephone is simply a tool. When reel librarians make an appearance it is because of their traits or their job. They are associated with certain recurring traits that form a stereotype which is seldom as simple as a severe, old-maidish librarian in glasses with a finger to her lips. Stereotypes are shorthand for attitudes and to work they must be recognized by the audience as such. When a character is a stereotype an audience knows certain traits have an excellent chance of being present.
Treatment of librarian qualities range from subtlety to outrageousness, from flattery to ridicule. For example, the heroic librarian of "Storm Center" contrasts with the ghost librarian of "Ghostbusters". Both are under the same librarian rubric, but their dramatizations are very different.
For a serious dramatic work the longer a stereotype remains on screen, the less credible it becomes. It is noteworthy that the purest librarian stereotypes are those that have a small amount of screen time, such as the old-maid librarian -- Donna Reed -- in "It's a Wonderful Life". Not only does Reed act and look the part, but another character informs the audience that she is an old maid.
Dialog makes explicit a librarian identity and reassures an audience's expectations. There is no surprise in "Foul Play" when "repressed librarian" Goldie Hawn is admonished for no longer being a "cheerleader" type. However, movies that prefer judgmental characterization to judgmental dialog present a message likely to be less explicit but more subversive.
One reason Hollywood has included a librarian in a movie is because the story may take energy from her or his assumed personality traits, as when in "Off Beat" a mild library worker enters into the tough world of cops. Changing a librarian into, say a lawyer or a doctor, changes the story not simply because of the change in professions, but because the change introduces another set of audience expectations for stock characteristics (e.g., caginess in a lawyer, folk wisdom in a doctor).
There is a distinction between the traits that make up a stereotypical movie librarian and librarianship. However, part of a movie librarian's character is defined by her or his work. On the job librarians are inhabitants of a vague book world and customarily represent a manifestation of "bookishness". Most of the movies under examination were made during the time of the pre-computer library. If librarians are associated with any tool, it is the book. The computer belongs to many professions, while the book is traditionally and uniquely associated with librarians. Knowledge librarians show is related to books, especially reading ("I've been reading books for seventy years", says the librarian in "The Human Comedy").
Reel librarians at work are represented as book stackers and book caretakers rather than either active "accessors" of information or bibliographical instructors. Their work, like their character, can function as a motivation for bringing them into a dramatic situation. This is true of "Horror of Dracula", where Jonathan Harker is summoned to the vampire's castle because of his index expertise. (Magill's 1988) In a different way this is also true for "The Blot's" theme of poverty, enriched by such detail as a woman librarian's low pay -- a point of sociological relevance. (Magill's 1988) Occasionally, a librarian's identification as an information giver is appropriate to the plot, as with "It Happened Tomorrow" or "The Offspring".
A librarian's workplace is traditionally a library, and when a library is integral to a movie's story, as in "Something Wicked This Way Comes", the introduction of a librarian is logical. However, for a movie to present a librarian there need not be a
library, or a library may simply endow a librarian character with authenticity. In "Off Beat" the library furnishes a necessary dramatic background for a shy, mild-mannered personality, and in "You're a Big Boy Now" a light-hearted scene presents the protagonist roller-skating as part of his library work. (Magill's 1988)
In movieland, virtually any adult who works in a library is liable to be called a librarian, which is a typical patron view. Under the term "librarian," Magill's indexes movie characters who are not librarians but are either other library workers or people who have the librarian-related occupations -- library science teacher ("War of the Worlds") and curator ("You're a Big Boy Now").(Harding 1967, Variety vol. 11, Magill's 1988) Like the index term, a movie's story may incorrectly label a character as a librarian. (Regrettably, this study uses the label "librarian" inexactly. Unless the character is clearly a non-professional, it will be assumed that the character is a "librarian.") The distinction may not be clarified even through watching a film. As a reflection of its audience Hollywood cannot be expected to understand the subtleties that define library professionalism.
Although there is no clear way of distinguishing a movie librarian from a movie non-professional library worker, in this sample the latter appears in the minority. In the few instances where it is apparent, such a person plainly performs non-professional tasks.Typically, this worker is a young adult, as in "Goodbye,Columbus".(Kauffman 1969, Variety vol.12, Magill's 1988) The tasks stress book shuffling, which presumably makes for more cinematic interest than information expertise. Library workers may retrieve or return or even check out books, and that probably confirms what the audience imagines as "library work." Hence, tasks on the level of library workers are more likely depicted than duties of librarians, as in "You'rea Big Boy Now" and "Goodbye, Columbus".
Women compose the majority of both real and reel librarians, and how movies view women has doubtlessly been very influential on the librarian stereotype. To quote from "The Role of Women in the Movies", "The movies not only reflected but profoundly influenced our perception of the role of women in western society." (Janus Films 1979) Women who are movie librarians may appear as typical romance heroines. However, certain traits are dominant. Recurring characteristics include primness, introversion, and sexual anxiety, which are present in such films as "The Music Man", "Violent Saturday", (Magill's 1988) "Alice in Wonderland", "Adventure"(1976), "It's a Wonderful Life", and "Foul Play". By contrast, atypical characteristics belong to librarians in "Hammett", "Storm Center", and "The Wicker Man".
Few librarians are depicted as never-married, older women ("old maids"). This suggests movies seldom associate librarians with old maids. What one often finds as a norm is the young maid -- an introverted but attractive librarian. Librarians are not supposed to be openly attractive or sexy, even if they are portrayed by such beautiful actresses as Greer Garson ("Adventure"). A telling scene is found in "Good News", where June Allyson is working her way through college in various odd jobs, including "librarian." Upon dressing up she asks a girlfriend for her reaction, and the friend responds about her "sure not looking like a librarian".
In several examples a young librarian is unmarried when the story begins, but when the story ends marriage is a romantic prospect. Thus, "Adventure's" reserved Greer Garson and gallivanting Clark Gable fall in love.(Magill's 1988) Love also brings a change of attitude, as with Marian the Librarian (Shirley Jones) in "The Music Man". The MOTION PICTURE GUIDE states that lead Robert Preston "changes Jones, nearing the age when she will be known as an old maid, into a radiant woman passionately in love with him."(Nash 1986,2063) Marian and her ilk just need certain circumstances to thaw them out of their old maidish condition. The most lurid example of this is the adults-only "Alice in Wonderland", in which Wonderland awakes the heroine from sexual repression to sexual liberation.
The change from being single to that of romantic involvement is, therefore, likely to be accompanied by a transformation from timidity, sexual repressiveness and other "librarian" qualities to such healthy characteristics as assertiveness and sexual honesty. This gives an extra dramatic layer to the story and a re-definition to the character.
Young female librarians outnumber middle-aged to elderly female librarians by a ratio of twelve to five. (Martin 1983, 243) Of the latter, two are incidental to the action ("The Human Comedy" and "Shadow of a Doubt") and one is a heroic censorship-fighting character portrayed by Bette Davis ("Storm Center"). "Ghostbusters" parodies the older librarian stereotype, while "It's A Wonderful Life" pities it.
Reviewers' terms used to describe male librarians are "fussy and timid" ("Murder, She Said"),(Gill 1962, Variety vol. 10, Magill's 1988) "poor" ("Only Two Can Play"),(Kauffman 1962, Magill's 1988) and "respectable"("Their Last Night").(Magill's 1988) The terms do not describe a Hollywood action hero or matinee idol. The male librarian is not a private eye, cowboy, adventurer, or soldier. In the eyes of Hollywood male librarians don't display the stereotypical macho characteristics of audacity, rebelliousness, and physical prowess, but rather such opposite (feminine?) qualities as mildness, civility, and intelligence. Probably, because of the nature of their job, work in a library more likely draws on intellectual characteristics, such as knowledge of crime in "Murder, She Said". On occasion knowledge may veer into eccentricity, as with the "oddball curator of rare books" (Variety vol.10) in "You're a Big Boy Now".
No example of a young male librarian was identified among the thirty movies studied, but there were four examples of non-professional library workers who were both young and male
--"Goodbye, Columbus", "Off Beat", "You're a Big Boy Now", and "Mind Killer". Among the eight male librarian examples, three were elderly ("It Happened Tomorrow", "The Offspring", and "Murder, She Said"). In the first instance the character's age makes plausible his death, a key resolution to the plot. In the second movie, the librarian's age adds authority to his knowledge of his town's history. The knowledgeable librarian in "Murder, She Said" was played by the then sixty-six year-old actor Stringer Davis.
Doubtlessly because of his middle-age, the "humble little librarian" of "Only Two Can Play" suffers the seven year itch. He may be the male counterpart of the female librarian stereotype characterized by sexual repressiveness, that associate of spinsterhood. He is also virtually the only male librarian who is married. All in all there appears to be no ageist stereotype aimed at male librarians. Whether there is an equivalent "old maid" label for them is too problematic to conjecture.
Librarians have not been portrayed as downright villains. The closest example is "Their Last Night", where the librarian image is just that -- the protagonist is really a master thief. (Magill's 1988) The librarian is a petty thief in "Violent Saturday", while in "Goodbye, Columbus" the racism of a librarian is revealed through his prejudice toward a black child. Humor deflates the monstrous ghost librarian of "Ghostbusters", and the library worker transformed into a monster in "Mind Killer" is too outrageous to be a serious villain.
The number of good or crime-fighting librarians far outweighs the bad. Many are actively on the side of moral right ("Storm Center", "The Music Man") or of the law ("Off Beat", "Murder, She Said", "Foul Play", "Hammett" and others). One of the most notable examples of the librarian as hero is in "Something Wicked This Way Comes". Played by Jason Robards Jr., the librarian is middle-aged and bookish. His relation with his son is strained by a sense of past shame because, unable to
swim, he helplessly watched the boy nearly drown in a lake. He redeems himself on several levels through confronting the evil Mr. Dark in the library and rescuing his son from a sinister carnival. He is a flawed but recognizable hero.
Librarians are nearly twice as likely to be major rather than minor characters, but they are usually not heroes or heroines in the classic sense. They are average people caught up in circumstances that may be dramatic, mysterious, or humorous.
Comedy is as important as drama in what it tells about stereotypes. It offers an alternative world view that through both exaggeration and oversimplification can be revelatory about the ways that people see others.
As mentioned earlier, film makers caricature the old-maid image in "Ghostbusters". They play with the sheltered or meek aspects in "Foul Play", "Only Two Can Play", "Off Beat" and "Alice in Wonderland". In each of these the character undergoes an appropriate transformation of self-realization by the end. Similarly, the innocence of a library worker is transformed by experience in "You're a Big Boy Now", a comic bildungsroman. A librarian's job may be the basis for a comic situation. In "Desk Set" the humor results when a computer that is introduced into an office setting affects those who do the work of a computer -- that is, the librarians.
Librarians are relatively well-represented in this area. In mysteries and thrillers librarians are either involved in the solution of a mystery, give clues, or perpetrate a crime. Examples of the first category are "Web of Evidence", (Magill's 1988) "Hammett", "Foul Play", "They Might Be Giants" and "Murder, She Said". Only in this last movie do librarian skills contribute to a solution; the librarian's reading (a benign stereotype) has made him an expert on crime.
Librarians as clue-givers appear in "All the President's Men" and "Shadow of a Doubt". In the first an unseen Library of
Congress librarian on a telephone relates an important piece of information about a patron, and then -- as an apparent member of a conspiracy --disclaims her knowledge. Likewise obstructive is Shadow's passive and reluctant public librarian, who is more interested in closing the library on time than allowing a patron to search through a newspaper.
As perpetrators the villainies of librarians have already been mentioned in the thrillers "Their Last Night" and "Violent Saturday". Another thriller, "The Wicker Man", depicts a librarian participating in sacrificial pagan ceremonies.
The stereotype is not especially relevant to fantasy, but the occupation does have some importance to the plot in several movies. Its presence in "It Happened Tomorrow", "The Offspring" and "Horror of Dracula" has already been discussed. In "Mind Killer" the leading character, a library worker, becomes an accessor of information with a vengeance when he transforms into a mind-controlling creature. Similarly, librarians are portrayed as ghosts in the above-mentioned "It Happened Tomorrow" and "Ghostbusters". In the latter, not only does the library setting call for a librarian, but the stern and "shushing" stereotype is cleverly allied with the implicit authoritarian fear it evokes.
What is the portrayal that Hollywood both acknowledges and amplifies? At best, reel librarians are people worth respecting, and even at their worst they are represented by character or physical limitations rather than moral turpitude. Adultery, crime, and bigotry may be ascribed to a few of the librarians, but this is more the result of an individual role than a stereotype.
A movie librarian is frequently female, and she is likely to be introverted, unmarried, prim, shy and young. In view of the traditional old maid label, it is ironic that appearance per se is not diagnostic of a librarian, for such young and physically
attractive stars as Greer Garson, Goldie Hawn and Shirley Jones were cast as librarian characters. This study has found that the old maid image is uncommon, but attributes such as timidity and drabness are prevalent.
Movies are more likely to stereotype women librarians, but the roles for women are more numerous and more important than for men. In addition, a heroic character such as the anti-censorship librarian in "Storm Center" is worth a dozen of "Ghostbusters"' librarian spook. Yet the judgements about women librarians are nastier. Explicit and implicit characterizations in movies like "Ghostbusters", "It's a Wonderful Life", "Foul Play", "The Music Man", and "Alice in Wonderland" reinforce in their own way the fate-worse-than-death view of women who are librarians. The Hollywood-created librarian is connected with the Hollywood-created woman, and it may be that the feminist awakening in the 1960s has had an influence, though this study has detected nothing concrete.
Like the public opinion they reflect, the movies in this sample dramatize the librarian stereotype with a mixture of judgemental attitudes, from benign associations, such as reading, to unflattering ones, such as timidity.
The stereotype of the librarian is not unique to one genre or to a particular era, and it has not changed much in Hollywood films. Nor does it appear that the stereotype will vanish, as is evident in 1992's "The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag". In the films of the future it is likely the celluloid librarians of the past and present will continue to perform their prim work.
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