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Between the Covers: Libraries in the literary world

By Esther Moberg

For Seaside Signal

Published on November 8, 2018 5:32PM

Last changed on November 9, 2018 7:47AM

Shirley Jones as

The Music Man

Shirley Jones as "Marian the Librarian" in the film "The Music Man."


When you are a in a specific field or profession, it’s always interesting how that profession is portrayed in books, movies, and TV shows. Librarians in particular get a very stereotypical treatment in Hollywood that is enjoyable to observe. Some of these portrayals are very silly, some not too far off the mark, and some a crazy caricature of what an actual librarian looks like or acts. Of course any librarian in a movie is at some point going to do a round of “shushing,” it’s pretty much expected. I’m rounding up just a few of my favorite literary and movie librarians, so join me as we follow a path littered with rose colored pince-nez, buns, shushing, pencil skirts, and sensible shoes. While sensible clothes are still the regimental uniform of the library professional today, some of the stereotypes are a far cry from the real deal. Although I do admit, I walked into a library in Scotland last year, and immediately identified a librarian by their clothes, (cardigan, sensible shoes, and glasses), as well as an upper-management librarian (a little more business professional-style clothes that still retained that classic joie de vivre of librarian comfort and style that apparently is the same all around the globe). I guess the question is, if a librarian doesn’t have a cardigan or pencil skirt, do they have to turn in their librarian card? The answer is probably yes. Because for librarians, practical clothes rule. Typically, librarians are too busy helping folks and using their brains to worry about the latest fashions.

A classic in the librarian world is the movie “Desk Set” (1957). Actor Katharine Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, who runs the library reference desk at the business. Fun fact: Bunny was apparently based on the real-life CBS librarian of the time. In the movie, Katharine matches wits with the inventor of two new computing machines (Spencer Tracy) that are brought in to help with staff efficiency. The plot revolves around whether the computers are replacing folks, and sparks fly with romance blossoming by the end of the movie wherever Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey are concerned. While the technology is pretty funny in today’s world of smart phones, the repartee between Katharine and Spencer sparkles and it’s a fun stereotype of librarian smarts.

Of course thousands of people have sung along to Marian the Librarian, one of the catchy songs from the movie “The Music Man” (1962). Most librarians are portrayed in movies as very uptight because of course, they have to follow and enforce all of those library rules. Marian the librarian is no exception but when the Music Man hits town, he eventually melts her heart and some of the most memorable songs in the movie center around the library and the librarian. This library is probably one of the most unique little public libraries portrayed in the movies, with both an open dumbwaiter elevator that takes books to the second floor (usually they are enclosed) and a metal circular staircase that figures into the choreography of the song.

“The Librarians” was a short-lived TV series that was pretty much a fantasy about fighting forces of good and evil in a thin plotline that revolved around libraries and librarians (all of which were able to fight evil and magical powers because apparently that is what librarians do). The TV show was created based on “The Librarian” movies, with actor Noah Wylie as lead. Probably the most ridiculous part for real life librarians in the premise of these movies is that the character played by Noah Wylie had 22 educational degrees including 6 masters’ degrees, and apparently not one of them was an actual degree in library science. For me, the best part of this TV show was the fact that some of the episodes were shot in Portland and actual libraries in Multnomah County were used for some of the sets or backgrounds.

In the movie “Dr. Strange” (2016), the library of Kamar-Taj holds the most ancient of all secrets and it is here that Dr. Strange quickly learns how to do some of the most dangerous spells the world has ever known. The librarian is a monk who enjoys listening to Beyoncé while guarding the books. While Dr. Strange thinks he gets away with borrowing the books without permission, not much gets past the all-knowing librarian Wong, who eventually becomes his good friend as they guard the world together.

In books, authors love to include librarians and libraries into their stories. In fact, most slip them in half the time without the reader even realizing it. There is an endless list of libraries and librarians in books which is no surprise given the natural affinity between writing, authors, and libraries. Harry Potter spends a lot of his time in the library searching for information at Hogwarts School to solve mysterious happenings while his friend Hermione practically lives in the library to get ahead in her studies. Most fantasy or magic related books including books by Terry Pratchett, Patrick Rothfuss, and Terry Goodkind have some kind of wizarding library full of secrets locked away, often with a super-secret entrance. I’m glad libraries don’t have super-secret entrances for the select few in real life.

To name just a few of my favorite books with a librarian or library inside include kid’s chapter books “Inkheart,” by Cornelia Funke and “Matilda,” by Roald Dahl. Some of my favorite picture books about libraries include “Library Lion” by Michelle Knudsen and “Bats at the Library” by Brian Lies. In teen books, “The Librarian of Auschwitz” by Antonio Iturbe is an amazing book about a hidden library of eight books in Auschwitz that were used to teach the children who were in the internment camp over the years. The list of adult books both fiction and nonfiction about libraries and librarians is too long to list here. Next time you read a book, pay attention, you never know when a librarian or library will pop up in a book, often in the most surprising ways.



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