Newsletter of the Association of Library and Information Science Students (ALISS)




 title of the newsletter: The Silverfish


March 2004

Vol VIII Issue III

ischool logo
Information School
University of Washington
About the Silverfish
Editorial Board
Submission Guidelines
Current Issue


Next article >>

The Hollywood Librarian:
A former librarian captures scenes in the stacks for a documentary film

By Linda Johns, MLIS Evening
For those of us headed toward public library work, these might be the most valuable words of our education:

“He’s not a dick, he’s a patron.”

That line, of course, comes not from LIS core courses (at least none I’ve taken yet) but from the 1993 movie Party Girl, where Parker Posey discovers her inner-cataloger.

Librarian-turned-filmmaker Ann Seidl, speaking at the Public Library Association (PLA) conference in Seattle last month, says there’s much to celebrate in more than 100 years of film. And that’s why she’s producing an independent documentary called The Hollywood Librarian.

The impetus for the film came in 1993, the year Seidl earned her MLIS degree (University of Denver) and saw Party Girl for the first time. In the following years her desire to reverse the stereotypes of librarians grew stronger.

Seidl first looked to what she calls the "holy trinity of librarian films." There's Storm Center (1956, Bette Davis as librarian), Desk Set (1958, Katharine Hepburn as our quintessential hero librarian), and, of course, Party Girl. But for the ultimate list of librarians in film she turned to Martin Raish, librarian at BYU/Idaho, who has developed the authoritative filmography of librarians in film.

Seidl is in the development and preproduction stage of The Hollywood Librarian. To date, she has taken 192 clips from analog films and digitized them. Those fortunate enough to be at her PLA presentation got a taste of these clips through a series of montages that show the flavor of her film.

The clips fall into tantalizing categories, such as “Danger in the Library” (Goldeneye, Ghostbusters), “Book Burning” (Pleasantville, Footloose, Fahrenheit 451), “Fundraising Challenges in Libraries” (think of Tim Robbins in Shawshank Redemption), and “Love in the Stacks.” One of the best flirting scenes comes from Desk Set, where amidst all the fear and suspicion of technology we find Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in the stacks in a scene that sparkles with sexual tension.

Libraries themselves play distinguished roles in many films, including City of Angels, where the San Francisco Public Library plays the part of the LA Library. In All the President’s Men, we see one of the most amazing views of the Library of Congress, panning from a small slip of paper of text all the way up to the dome. In the 2002 version of The Time Machine, the New York skyline looks vastly different, but the Fifth Avenue NYPL branch remains intact thousands of years in the future, with lion statues Patience and Fortitude still standing guard on the steps.

“You don’t know what you’re going to find when you go into the library,” Seidl says, introducing a powerful clip from Lorenzo’s Oil, where Nick Nolte researches his son’s rare disease, adrenoleukodystrophy, in a medical library. The viewer sees Nolte reading what basically amounts to a death sentence for his son; we feel his anguish as the information he needs so desperately is not at all the information he set out to find. “Betty the librarian does a terrific reference interview and then becomes a nexus of hope,” Seidl adds. Indeed, Betty is the one who leads Nolte’s character to eventually find references to erucid acid, now often referred to as Lorenzo’s Oil.

Seidl maintains a soft spot for Marian the Librarian from The Music Man. In one scene, Hermione Gingold, playing the wife of River City’s mayor, storms into the library and demands, “Is this the sort of book you give my daughter to read?” Who’d have thought that Marian the Librarian (Shirley Jones) would hold her ground in protecting a young patron’s intellectual freedom and right to read what she wants to read?

The producers of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn must have had a soft spot for librarians, too. Unlike the novel, where the librarian is a cranky and uninspired snit, the movie librarian lets 11-year-old Francie Nolan make her own choices. At first the librarian questions whether Francie really wants to check out Anatomy of Melancholy. Francie passionately explains that the author, Robert Burton, is next on her alphabetical list and that she so desperately wants to read everything and learn everything. The librarian softens (who wouldn’t?), stamps the due date card for the Burton book, and then urges Francie to also take When Knighthood Was in Flower. In the next scene, we see Francie sitting on the fire escape of her Brooklyn building, a noisy tenement scene. But the girl is oblivious, lost as she is in a book recommended by the librarian.

The movie stereotype of a librarian as a female wearing her hair in a bun and her glasses low on her nose persists. “They take a shortcut,” says Seidl. “It doesn’t change. But the more we’re in movies, the better we look. If you have a speaking role that’s great. More than two scenes, and we’re looking even better.”

Librarians are heroes, Seidl asserts. In her “person on the street” interviews asking people to associate words with occupations, nearly everyone says “books” in response to the prompt “librarian.”

One little girl translates for her father. His answer when asked for one word to describe librarians:


The Hollywood Librarian web site will be live by late March 2004.

Next article >>