Friday, 20 June 2008

The Hollywood Librarian


Last week saw the screening of The Hollywood Librarian in Sheffield. Nearly 100 librarians and friends of libraries attended the event.

The film was in many ways better than some reviews in the professional press had suggested. It was a paean in celebration of books, libraries and librarians and although at times it might have gone OTT and sometimes sounded a bit desperate it was largely well meant and inspiring.

I had expected from the initial publicity that it would spend a bit more time on the old movie clips and look in more detail about how librarians were portrayed in them. In fact the extracts were usually very brief and served mainly to provide a quick laugh or a groan. Two interesting points were touched upon briefly. The symbolism of a decaying or destroyed library has been used in many films to represent the breakdown of liberal society. Zardoz, Cleopatra and Fahrenheit 451 were given as examples of this.

Looking at how female librarians were portrayed by Hollywood the film mentioned the paradox of their role - a safe job for the spinster/virgin on the one hand and the gatekeeper of all human knowledge on the other. It was suggested that the Dewey Decimal Classification was intended to remove the need for a "scholar librarian" with a detailed knowledge of the stock, and replace him with a system that could be run by clerical assistant - a suitable job for a woman. It is the same sort of disintermediarisation that we are now facing with Google.

A recent review described the real librarians who were featured in the film as "...a string of lady librarians, aged 50+, exhibiting severe haircuts, a passion for square-shouldered trouser suits and a tendency to speak in desiccated tones about values and modes of thinking that... are of little relevance to the communities they serve." This is unfair. Although they were largely of a type they spoke with enthusiasm and sincerity about their role and they were shown to be serving culturally diverse communities. Many of the public librarians had to provide for the disadvantaged in their community while at the same time reaching out to the more affluent sectors of the community that actually fund the library service through local taxation and charitable donations. It is easy to be cynical about some of the people featured and the views that they expressed but on the whole we need more, not less of this sort of passion about our profession.

1 comment:

Mark Clowes said...

I too was a little disappointed that the movie clips were so brief (presumably such footage is costly to licence, although one would hope that with so many librarians involved the filmmakers would have been well advised on any 'fair use' entitlements!)

I was also disappointed that the internet was only mentioned as a threat or rival to librarians, rather than as a resource which they can use (or about which they had a responsibility to educate their users). We librarians are all too happy to hear it said how much cleverer we are than a mere search engine - but we should remember that we're also a lot more expensive! We need to be seen to be moving with the times, and engaging with the wider information universe beyond what is contained in our buildings.

Overall I felt that despite some positive examples of the work US public libraries were doing, the film did little to dispel the stereotypes and was unlikely to win new converts to the cause of libraries.