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Libraries and Librarians in the Movies

Librarians in movies tend to fall into a cranky spinster stereotype — you know at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life” when the horrible, alternate reality is that Mary has become a librarian? — while libraries are dusty, old buildings. In real life, that’s just not the case; libraries play host to life-changing moments and librarians do inspiring and cutting-edge work. In honor of National Library Week, here are several movies and documentaries featuring libraries and librarians that break those outdated molds.

Movies

“Desk Set” (1957) 

In “Desk Set,” Katharine Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, a reference librarian at the Federal Broadcasting Network. The network is planning a merger and brings in two computers (new technology at the time!) to aid in the transition. This film is an early exploration of the suggestion that computers can replace human librarians, and just how wrong that suggestion turns out to be.

“Storm Center” (1956) 

“Storm Center” stars Bette Davis and takes place at the height of the Red Scare in the United States. Davis plays Alicia Hull who is asked to withdraw the book The Communist Dream from her library’s collection; she refuses and the town turns against her. Ultimately, there is a happy ending to this parable about the dangers of censorship, as her community experiences a change of heart and Alicia renews her commitment to prevent books from being removed from the library.

“The Breakfast Club” (1985) 

“The Breakfast Club” might not seem like a library movie at first, but all of the action takes place in the school library! With the bookshelves and study tables as background, the five students at the center of the movie learn about each other and themselves.

“Party Girl” (1995)

Parker Posey stars in “Party Girl,” which was, incidentally, the first film to premiere on the Internet. On its surface, “Party Girl” is about the 1990s club scene, but it’s also about library work. It stars a library clerk (Posey) who works to repay her godmother who bailed her out of jail. She masters the Dewey Decimal system and other library skills and helps her friends over the course of the film. By the end, she wins the confidence of her godmother.

“The Public” (2018) 

This new movie written and directed by Emilio Estevez focuses on a public library in Cincinnati. Movie stars include Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, and Gabrielle Union, along with other celebrities. When a cold front moves into the city, homeless patrons occupy the library in a sit-in that becomes a stand-off with local police. This movie sees that conflict through and demonstrates the role of libraries in this pressing social issues.

Documentaries

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library” (2017)

This epic film clocks in at three and a half hours, but every minute is worthwhile. Smaller clips create the bigger-picture documentary. These clips include patrons and librarians showing or talking about the libraries in the NYPL system, and what they mean to them. NYPL administrators and librarians also share their roles in running the system and branches. This documentary gives a rare inside glimpse into one of the biggest public library systems in the United States.

“Free For All: Inside the Public Library” (2019) 

“Free For All: Inside the Public Library” is set to be released this year. The trailer suggests this documentary film will include first-hand accounts of experiences with public libraries, from both the patron and library staff perspectives. While the documentary is intended for broadcast on PBS, the “Free For All” project includes other multimedia efforts. This includes a national storytelling booth hosted in libraries and short web videos which are available now.

“Change the Subject” (2019) 

Another documentary that will be released this year is “Change the Subject.” This one focuses on Dartmouth students who challenged the use of the term “illegal aliens” as a subject heading. The students first petitioned Dartmouth’s library to change the term, which eventually failed. They then went to the Library of Congress, and this issue ultimately became part of the national immigration debate. The film will premiere at Dartmouth in late April and will then enter the national film festival circuit.

Georgia Westbrook

Georgia Westbrook

Georgia Westbrook is a first year student in the MLIS program at the iSchool. She works in the Learning Commons at Bird Library. Georgia is interested in oral histories, news librarianship, and open access.

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