Librarians and their libraries have become staple images of popular culture, symbolizing a source of knowledge, comedy, romance, and adventure. Common depictions of librarians and information professionals represent a stodgy spinster waiting to break free from the perceived oppression of their librarian identities. This character trope, dubbed the ‘Liberated Librarian’ by pop culture blogger and real life librarian Jennifer Snoek-Brown of Reel Librarians, appears in countless media. The following list of film and TV characters represents the true diversity of librarians who break the mold of the ‘Liberated Librarian’ stereotype to redefine and liberate themselves through their librarian identities.
1. Bunny Watson – Desk Set (1957)
Legendary romantic Hollywood duo Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy star as opposite sides of the information profession in a film that evolves from a run-of-the-mill battle of the sexes into a playful examination of 1950s librarianship.
Lesson: Bunny Watson’s acceptance of the computer foreshadows the present-day co-existence of librarians and technology.. Nowadays, technology fosters rather than hinders the work of modern librarians, aided by the position of many librarians and libraries at the forefront of tech developments – and by the fact that computers no longer take up entire warehouses.
2. Alicia Hull– Storm Center (1956)
In this 1956 film, Bette Davis, another iconic silver screen star, plays a stalwart librarian battling the encroaching McCarthyism that threatens the democratic integrity of her collection. The creation of Davis’ character Alicia Hull was inspired by real-life activist librarian Ruth W. Brown who advocated desegregation and is the first librarian to be recognized by the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the American Library Association.
Lesson: Libraries and librarians are evolutionary and potentially revolutionary spaces and people. The power of knowledge can be wielded for both positive and negative purposes, but the most effective weapon to ensure a negative outcome is ignorance. Empowered librarians can better serve the intellectual needs of their communities and fully realize their abilities to abate the impending threat of ignorance.
3. Library Defense Force – Library Wars live-action film trilogy (2013-2015)
In the same vein as Storm Center, the Japanese series Library Wars envisions a near-future suffering severe censorship at the hands of the nefarious Media Betterment Act. The law dictates that any extra-governmental publication that is seen as harmful to society, and later any self-expressive media, is banned, confiscated, and eliminated.
Lesson: Library Defense Force emphasizes the agency of libraries and represents the possible strength of information professionals when united. The films also reveal an interesting dynamic between libraries, seen as powerful bastions of expressive freedom, and governmental bodies attempting to suppress them. Ultimately, one message rings loud and clear – don’t mess with Japan and its libraries.
4. Rupert Giles – Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
Rupert Giles, perhaps the best-loved character of this list, is the guardian and mentor (Watcher) for destined vampire-slayer Buffy Summers. Portrayed by British actor Anthony Stewart Head, Giles works as a librarian at Sunnydale High School in order to keep tabs on his Slayer – and any overdue library books. Although famously wary of using technology, he is not afraid to dust off his books and dig his teeth into research to resolve whatever apocalyptic force threatens his team of teens.
Lesson: As well as teaching the Scooby gang a healthy respect for resources, Giles acts as a guide, educator, and advocate of patron interaction. While he may not be the best librarian role model – notably for facilitating his students in slaying mythological creatures – he does show the importance of librarian-patron interaction, represents the librarian as a stable source of knowledge, and demonstrates that one should never fear with a librarian in one’s corner.
5. Barbara Gordon – Batgirl (1967- )
Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Batman’s go-to police officer Commissioner Gordon, is the crime-fighting Batgirl and includes in her impressive credentials a doctorate in Library Sciences. Quick of mind and body, Barbara uses her intellect – honed by years of information research – to solve whodunits and defend the weak.
Lesson: Masked or not, librarians can be dynamic, multi-faceted people who use knowledge as a powerful tool for societal improvement. The less relevant but still implied message is that a librarian is a great cover for a superhero– in either case, the meaning is clear: don’t underestimate them.
6. Flynn Carsen – The Librarian film franchise (2004-2008)
While being a librarian is a great superhero cover for Batgirl and Black Mask, Flynn Carsen (Noah Wyle) uses his research skills and knowledge to become a superhero-like figure known as The Librarian. Flynn changes from a bumbling academic hiding in his ivory tower into a swashbuckling academic climbing temple walls, cracking ancient mysteries, and recovering magical artifacts – all through the power of The Library.
Lesson: The overarching messages of Flynn’s quests are that knowledge can be fun and exciting – and learning itself is an adventure. While all librarians can’t live the Indiana Jones style life, being a librarian is a flexible position in a diverse field and a near-endless amount of variations. As Flynn professes to his disapproving mother at the end of the first film, “Being a librarian is actually a pretty cool job.”
7. Sipho Makhaya – Nothing but the Truth (2008)
While Flynn Carsen is a fictionalized heroic librarian, the character Sipho Makhaya was inspired by a real one. This South African film is based on the one man show of playwright, actor and director John Kani depicting the trials and tribulations of a librarian as he navigates the aftermath of Apartheid and the death of his exiled brother.
Lesson: Libraries, and librarians, are essential parts of culture, and, while this particular librarian is not fighting for his library, he still remains true to his position as a proponent and guardian of truth. Furthermore, libraries may not currently be centerpieces of Nollywood cinema, but Sipho creates hope that their continued cultural relevance will lead to greater African pop culture representation.
8. Evelyn ‘Evie’ Carnahan – The Mummy (1999)
On the other end of the African continent, the fully-fictional Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) is firm in her identity as an Egyptologist, and, while clumsy and library-destroying at times, is ultimately the brains of the operation to uncover the long-lost Book of the Dead. Her rugged counterpart Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) believes he has liberated her from the stuffy stacks of her Cairo library, but Evie does not share his arrogant assertions. Instead, she drunkenly professes, “Look, I… I may not be an explorer, or an adventurer, or a treasure-seeker, or a gunfighter, Mr. O’Connell, but I am proud of what I am. I… am a librarian.”
Lesson: Of Evie’s quoted list of professions, few of the former is effective without the latter – librarians are the Swiss army knives of occupations, accounting for knowledge and information across a diverse range of fields. Evie’s character also emphasizes a much-deserved pride in library services that, while not particularly educational, serves as a satisfying reminder to librarians of their participation in a noble profession.
9. Mary – Party Girl (1995)
Most librarians like Evie enter into the profession eagerly, but Parker Posey, as the eponymous ‘party girl’ Mary, must work as a library clerk in order to repay a loan. Like many movie-goers exposed to the stereotypical depictions of librarians and libraries, Mary initially resists the constraints of library life but, thanks to a midnight dance party and newfound passion for the Dewey Decimal categorization system, finds her calling in library sciences.
Lesson: Libraries and their librarians have personality and embrace people from all walks of life. As seen in Mary’s unique experience and the inventive film distribution, diversity and innovation go hand-in-hand, with acceptance and implementation of one naturally leading to the other. Party Girl demonstrates the ability of libraries to serve multiple members of the community – and, most of all, the importance of proper categorization systems.
10. Mr. Dewey– The Pagemaster (1994)
Many of the library lessons represented in the aforementioned films are translated and mediated to a younger audience through the lighthearted film The Pagemaster, starring Christopher Lloyd and Macaulay Culkin. Mr. Dewey (Lloyd) is the mystical librarian and titular Pagemaster, “the keeper of the books, the guardian of the written word,” who enables young Richard Tyler (Culkin) to begin his adventure alongside anthropomorphic animated books with the simple gift of a library card.
Lesson: Libraries and librarians are just the beginning; they act as initiators and facilitators of knowledge. Nurturing a life-long love for reading and an appreciation for libraries at a young age can arise from the libraries and librarians themselves. Not only could this lead to greater overall literacy, but also empower children to become information-seekers and boldly engage with the adventure of learning.
Even if they’re largely fictional, these TV and movie librarian characters can still teach us a thing or two about reality. The diversity of these figures demonstrates how librarians can do so much and further affirm their frequent use within popular culture. From vampire slayers to freedom fighters, these characters all share an identifier as librarians – representing the profession with the pride it deserves and the adventure it possesses.
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Image credit: Tess Barrett