The Hollywood Librarian

Yesterday, as part of the Heritage Week festivities, the Royal College of Physicians opened the doors of their Heritage Centre to the public and screened ‘The Hollywood Librarian‘ in one of their fabulous lecture theatres.

They described the film as one which “focuses on the work and lives of librarians, and promises to hold some surprises for people who may think they know what librarians do.” ID-100176170

Basically, the documentary uses clips from movies and clips of ‘real-life’ librarians talking about their jobs and their love of libraries. There is even a very emotional clip of a man who is speaking about how the library changed his life by helping him to become literate and able to open a bank account and hold down a job.

The film is very sentimental. Starting with reminding us that “humans alone can save their language” and that reading is also “a uniquely human privilege.” The ‘power of the book’ is illustrated as many movie stars read the opening passage of David Copperfield in various movie scenes. This importance of books runs the whole way through the documentary. Now, I love books so it does pain me to say this but I think the importance placed on books in this film is overpowering and the makes me feel as though the documentary was filmed in a very different era, not 2007. However, you can see where the film-makers are coming from, trying to tug at the heart-strings of the general public. They are trying to get them to reminisce about how they used to read as a child, how books can make the world a smaller, safer place and how they can educate and inspire you. The nostalgia of childhood in the library. (I must admit they got me with a clip of Matilda leaving the library with her red wheelbarrow piled high – I used to think Roald Dahl wrote it just for me.)

While I was a bit peeved at all the book references – one thing I really enjoyed about the film was that it really showed the growth in the stereotypical view of the librarian, ‘the bun-head,’ ‘the irritated shusher’ and the ‘bespectacled stamper of books.’ The first librarian mentioned is Hypatia, the Alexandrian mathematical scholar and lecturer. We are told of a time when librarians were revered and held in the highest esteem by those of the highest powers, working as trusted advisers and tutors to those in the top ranks. Then we move to more recent times, clips of the stereotypical librarian like the ‘spinster’ from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” They bring us to the 1800’s when becoming a librarian was one of the few positions a respectable women could hold, alluding to the fact that this is why librarians are perceived to have a ‘proper’ or ‘no-nonsense’ air. We see women shushing, and stamping and shelving books.

Now in order to dispel these stereotypes, the film-makers included interviews with librarians talking about their jobs, programmes they run in their libraries and their attitudes about the profession. Unfortunately, as far as I was concerned they really didn’t make enough of this opportunity to showcase the work of librarians outside the world of public libraries. Again, I think this was because the intended audience was the general public, most likely to come into contact with a public library service but they really had an opportunity here to show that librarians are needed in healthcare, law, special libraries and other organisations. These various paths are mentioned but not really explained in great detail. For example, a medical librarian speaks about her frustration when people questioned the need for her to get a degree but instead of taking this opportunity to show how the information she organised or provided aided in patient care, they just kind of glance over this and launch into public libraries again. I appreciate that they are trying to show that there are so many aspects to a librarian’s role and so many avenues for librarians and their skills but I would have liked them to delve a bit deeper into how the work these librarians do affects people.

The work of public libraries is beautifully displayed, everything from programmes for very young children to develop literacy, to language skills courses and cultural events, to the development of peer literacy programmes in the a prison library. They also do a pretty decent job of explaining that a librarian does more than just catalogue information. They show how librarians can be the teachers, problem-solvers, business people and sometimes all in one day. Another very positive aspect was showing the strength of librarians against things like censorship and being fiercely determined to protect their readers privacy when faced with the Patriot Act.

There was a small amount of time given to information technology, a quick mention of an information architect (with actually a rather lovely comparison between information architecture and creating ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics) and a insightful moment when a librarian talks about how card catalogues were really the first hyperlinks. Really in order to focus on the work of librarians, I personally felt that this wasn’t enough.

Something which I hadn’t noticed before but that struck me as being very poignant in this time of financial crisis for libraries was that films that deal with the end of civilisation often depict a library in ruins. “The Time Traveller,” “Battlefield Earth” and “The Day After Tomorrow” are a few examples. I really understand this motif because to me the end of libraries is in some part an end to our civilised world. People talk about cutting libraries in order to save money but by doing this the are really taking the last resource away from the poor that really and truly need it. People without money need libraries for education, for a space to go, for access to the technology that unfortunately some people assume everyone has at home, and a whole host of other reasons. Closing libraries really does mean marginalising people and it would a backwards step for all of us. The happy ending of this film saw closed libraries re-opening after community support but this is an issue that is not going away any time soon and it is something we need to be aware of.

After watching this documentary I started thinking about stereotypes and how we can change them. My go-to librarian in TV world is Giles from Buffy because I’m a total Whedonite (and I’m mentioning him here because I was disappointed he didn’t feature in the doc at all). Anyway, wouldn’t it be great in a re-make of Buffy if Giles was digitising all those old books to make it quicker to find out what monsters they were dealing with (and you-know, store them in the cloud so that they don’t all just disappear when the Hell-Mouth opens.) I mean, House should have featured a librarian, where the hell were they getting all the info for their crazy diagnoses? (I volunteer to star in Grey’s Anatomy if they’re looking.) How many movies have we seen about lawyers and yet no law librarians sorting them out with the information?

Anyway, its a very interesting 96 mins and I would recommend a watch, especially with someone who isn’t a librarian in order to get their thoughts. If you do see it or have seen it I would love to know what you thought.