By Karen Stoner
Library Assistant, Customer Service
Librarians have come a long way in how they're portrayed on the big screen. From the days of date-stamped cards placed in physical books to the current popularity of electronic ones, librarians in film have seen just as much change in their portrayals.
Think back to 1946's "It's a Wonderful Life." George Bailey wonders what's happened to those important to him when supposedly he never existed. Clarence, his angel, warns about Mary, "You're not going to like it, George...She became an old maid. She never married.....She's just about to close up the library!" He finds her to be a frightened spinster, simply because she wasn't married to him. Being a librarian, or a teacher, in the early part of the 20th Century, was ideal for those who did not, or chose not, to marry.
"The image of the librarian has always been a little iffy," says Ruth Gilbert, a retired medical librarian in Denver, as quoted in "The Hollywood Librarian." "When I first got my degree, one of my friends said, 'How much is that per shhhh?'"
Ten years after "It's a Wonderful Life," the librarian branched out to become a more outspoken community member when Bette Davis played Alicia Hull in "Storm Center." The heroine stood her ground, refusing to withdraw a controversial library book, The Communist Dream, when she was pressured by local politicians. It was the first major anti-McCarthyism movie out of Hollywood. After a lot of chaos, the library went up in flames. Bette Davis proclaims: "I'm going to help rebuild this library. And if anybody ever again tries to remove a book from it, he'll have to do it over my dead body!"
Two years later, in 1958, "Desk Set" showcased a lighthearted librarian role with Katharine Hepburn as Bunny Watson. Hepburn and Spencer Tracy engaged in comedic banter as they work together in a broadcast station. It was a movie first when a computer was introduced as an aid to library research. "Desk Set" is my personal favorite (librarian movie) because it's the classic issue juxtaposing machine verses man. Well, in this case, woman," says Ed O'Brien, Adult and Teen Services Librarian for the Oak Park Public Library.
But perhaps the most memorable librarian role of all time is Shirley Jones cast as darling Marian Paroo in "The Music Man" (1962). Who could forget when Harold Hill (Robert Preston) serenaded her as "Marian, the Librarian" throughout some great choreography in the library. And she sang a lovely rendition of "Till There was You." At long last a real romantic working in the library.
The latter part of the 1960s had seen a lot of change. "Goodbye Columbus" (1969) finally features a male librarian, Richard Benjamin as library clerk Neil Klugman. In "Love Story" (1970) Ali MacGraw, portrays, Jenny Cavalleri, a sexy Radcliffe library clerk dishing it out to Harvard student Oliver Barrett IV (Ryan O'Neal). And the librarian role heated up even more with Goldie Hawn in "Foul Play" (1978), also starring Chevy Chase.
1995's "Party Girl" with Parker Posey is a contemporary librarian movie favorite for many. Mary throws terrific, but unfortunately illegal parties in New York City until she gets thrown in jail. To pay back the bail to her librarian godmother, she works alongside her as a library clerk. At first Mary hates it, but she is later empowered by the work and becomes a great clerk, all the while keeping her sassy fashion sense and cute falafel vendor.
In a sci-fi flick made a year later, "The Black Mask," Jet Li is Hong Kong librarian Simon when he's not fighting bad guys as the superhero Black Mask. Li's character gives great testimony to working in a library in the film's beginning. He proclaims it to be the perfect shelter for him, quiet, non-violent, and where he can find a most basic human quality, that of feeling.
Though a small part, actress Michelle Williams of "My Week with Marilyn" fame is a small town librarian in 2003's "The Station Agent." A resident calls her "a little hottie." And if that's not enough to prove the librarian stereotype has come a long way, consider Eric Bana's role in the quirky 2009 movie version of The Time Traveler's Wife. Gorgeous Bana is a Chicago librarian working in the nearby Newberry Library. As he constantly deals with a genetic disorder that causes him to time travel, each time he arrives at his new destination, it is without his clothes. Bravo the new librarians on the big screen!
Check out these librarians on DVD or Blu-Ray from the library. Have more librarians you love? Let us know.
This September, we're celebrating library card sign up month with "Love Your Library! Show Your Card!" Our partner businesses have special offers for Oak Park Public Library cardholders and we encourage you to share your love of the library at oppl.org/love.
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