The Other Columbus: A librarian reviews movie libraries

The good and (mostly) bad of onscreen ventures into the world of books

Scott Woods
Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt in "Seven"

While I have nothing against “The Breakfast Club” as entertainment, I despise it when it is listed as a film about a library. It is a film that takes place in a library, but it has nothing to do with books, literacy, customer service or the art of research. It presents the library as a prison, and despite being surrounded by the history of the world, none of its protagonists care that they are in a library, or what it can be or do. Seeing as how they’re all delinquents, it’s a wonder that the Brat Pack didn’t just light the place on fire at the end, screaming “Alexandria!” at the top of their lungs.

“The Breakfast Club” isn’t special in this disrespect. I’ve worked in public libraries for almost 30 years and I can tell you that movies almost never get libraries right. Libraries are apparently good enough to film in, but not compelling enough to be presented in their actual light. It’s no wonder people come into modern libraries and are surprised at the well-lit rooms and lack of singing. 

This is what I mean:

“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”

I’m sure many of you adore this movie for its timeless fashion and despite its racism, but you should know that when it comes to portraying libraries, it’s trash for that, too. First off, if you take someone on a date to a library and they say they’ve never been in one, that should be the end of the date. The real crime, however, takes place in the scene where Holly Golightly and Paul Varjak take a copy of Paul’s book off the shelf and then proceed to autograph in full view of the librarian like she isn’t standing there. I get that Holly is a little soft when it comes to public property, but Paul should have known better. In a real library, the librarian would have demanded he pay for the damaged book on the spot. Libraries don’t mind being your cheap date spot, but you gotta respect the books.

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“It”

Libraries get a lot of play in Stephen King’s tombstone-thick novel “It,” and the adaptations have done pretty good by them. Mike Hanlon is a fine curator, specializing in local history, which enables him and his childhood friends to fight and defeat the murderous monster Pennywise. Without Mike’s knowledge and stewardship, the cause would have been lost. Librarians with specialized knowledge like that are exceedingly rare in public libraries these days. Definitely a dying breed outside of academic or archival libraries. Equally rare is that Mike is a Black librarian. He may in fact be one of only two I have ever seen in cinema, and that disparity is actually not that far off in the profession.

“It’s A Wonderful Life”

I watch this film every Christmas Eve and the librarian bit never ceases to entertain. For the uninitiated: After an extremely terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, George Bailey wishes he were never born. An angel, Clarence, grants his wish, and then proceeds to guide George through a version of the world without him, including the love of his life being resigned to a life as an old maid working at the library. Now, reading that line as it sits on the page comes off as pretty mild, but understand that it’s one of the dramatic highlights of the film. George is at wit’s end, standing over the grave of his brother, wracked with guilt and remorse. He then turns to the angel in great despair to ask what became of his wife. You expect Clarence to say, “Over there, by the old oak tree, her stone as cold as snow” or something, but it’s gut-bustingly funny when he finally manages to sputter out, “She’s just about to close up the library!” For the record, libraries aren’t where barren women go to die. Most librarians these days are pretty hip, and I wouldn’t characterize a single one I’ve seen hired in at least the last 20 years as an old maid.

“Party Girl”

Parker Posey nails the passion generally associated with people who dedicate themselves to the work of libraries. The scene in which she blows up on a guy who mishelves a book pretty much  makes her the patron saint of librarians everywhere. Mind you, no librarian would ever say what she said out loud to a patron, but we’re not robots. We have feelings. Just give us back the books you don’t want. We’ll figure it out. 

“The Shawshank Redemption”

Another Stephen King story that features a library even more prominently than “It.” Shawshank is a prison library, but once Andy Dufresne and his crew of convicted bookworms get it up and running, it captures what a traditional library is: people checking out books and music. The part that is chillingly on the nose is the amount of energy libraries spend trying to convince politicians to fund them. Usually an administrator writes those letters, not a front-line librarian, but the dynamic is the same. The only part I called foul on was when Andy agreed to start doing taxes for the guards. 

“Seven”

The library scene in this film has always fascinated me, mostly for the many rules it breaks. Detective Somerset is let in after hours by a guard to do some research. He strolls through the shelves pulling out books, making photocopies of certain passages, while four security guards play poker and smoke cigars. By now, you can probably start picking out the problems in the scene I just described, but I will tell you that there are five issues here. While an overnight guard might let in their old cop buddy to do some midnight research, it would cost them their job if anyone found out. Never mind that most libraries don’t have overnight guards, let alone four of them; libraries have security systems. Also, Somerset pulls out a pile of books which are going to have to be reshelved by some worker the next morning, so that’s rude. Somerset also uses a copy machine at will, which is patently ridiculous, since library copy machines aren’t free. Maybe he has the moral fortitude to pay for his copies, but something tells me that if he’s breaking into libraries in the middle of the night, he’s probably not paying for copies either. Finally, I don’t care how much you don’t like your job: Smoking in a library is pretty much begging to be caught. Books trap smoke, so that poker game would happen maybe twice before the shelves started telling on them. I have come up with reasonable enough explanations as to why each of these things occur in this otherwise excellent movie, but it’s important that audiences realize that this is in no way how any library operates in the real world, even when a serial killer is on the loose.  

“The Public”

This movie is the ultimate slap in the face to libraries. I’m sure everyone involved in this debacle thought they were doing libraries a great service by painting them as catch-all community centers that willingly transform into citadels for the downtrodden when the need calls for it. I assure you that library staff will not participate in guerrilla takeovers of their buildings, order dozens of pizzas for the cause and strip naked alongside dozens of arrested customers singing “I Can See Clearly Now” on their way to jail. Yes, these are all things that someone was paid to write, film and unleash on audiences in the real world. That this film takes place in Cincinnati is a cause for great shame to me as both a Buckeye and a librarian.