marginal librarian The Marginal Librarian
library links


During a vacation on Martha's Vineyard in 1977, my dad dragged me to a cinema to see All the President's Men, the film about the two Washington Post reporters who uncovered the Watergate scandal. Along the way, they occasionally get help from librarians and there is a visually stunning scene in the halls of the Library of Congress. I remember thinking: "Wow, cool! Become a reporter and bring down the government. Or, become a librarian, work in a palace and bring down the government!" Dad, of course, urged me to go the journalism route and warned against becoming a librarian: "You'll be poor, no one will ever notice you and they'll think you're so boring you'll never, ever have sex!"

Anyway, after graduating I did try the reporter thing for a decade. But, as you know if you read the papers, the government went and got itself reelected last June. So I figured it was time to try librarianship as a second career. My colleagues at work looked at me like I had just decided to run off and join a Japanese death-cult. I quickly spewed out we "knowledge specialists" these days did things like design "fuzzy logic interactive multimedia GUIs for real-time parsed serials retrieval" or some buzzwords to that effect. Their eyes glazed over but it sounded geeky enough for them to be impressed.

Except for the 12-year-old daughter of one of the reporters.

She thought I must be a worldclass journalist because I had once actually talked to someone who was actually in touch with an actual record producer for the Backstreet Boys. There I was basking indirectly in the eternal glory of the Cute Ones With the Buttery Smooth Lyrics, and, bang, I decide to ruin it all by going off to some book stamping school.

"Ohmygawd, like, I used to think you were, like, soooooo kewl", she said. "Wow, like, why would anyone want to do THAT? Yech, like, get away from me!".

I was quickly beginning to realize most of the people I knew had an image of librarianship derived in large part from disjointed snippets and flashes from pop culture. Let's see now, there's the spinster who throws George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn out of the library in Breakfast at Tiffany's; Miss Megabitch archivist in Citizen Kane; bespectacled, hair-in-a-bun Donna Reid in the fantasy sequences in It's A Wonderful Life; the unfriendly homophobe in Philadelphia; the xenophobic reference "help" desk twit from hell in Sophie's Choice; the passiveaggressive county archivist in Chinatown. And of course, in The Name of The Rose, the decrepit and psycho serial killer monk who ends up burning down the library.

Do I sense a P.R. problem here? Maybe we should call Hill and Knowlton. Aren't they the P.R. firm that helped improve the image of the Buenos Aires junta back when their secret police liked to drop drugged prisoners out of helicopters over the open seas? Never mind.

Of course, it isn't all 100% bad. There are quite a few crime thrillers where investigators go to a library for research or for help from a librarian: The Big Sleep, Hammett, a series of four Miss Marple flicks in the 60s, Seven, Wicker Man, Day of the Jackal, Pelican Brief and the Canadian movie Conspiracy of Silence.

The librarian as partner in crime-busting, I like that. (Come on, let's all fantasize together about pulling out the sawed-off shotgun from under the reference desk: "Go on, punk. Make my day. Just you try to reshelve Biography Index in the wrong place. "). There are also movies where ordinary citizens get assistance from librarians to solve a serious problem. Blue collar worker Mike Farrell looks up info on a local company whose pollution has killed his daughter in Incident at Dark River. Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon search periodical indexes for drug information in Lorenzo's Oil. Hey, even Kevin Costner ends up hitting the stacks in Field of Dreams when he isn't breaking his back building that diamond. If you're really thirsting for professional recognition, try these three:

  1. The Shawshank Redemption with Tim Robbins, a jail movie in which the prison library is a place people want to be.
  2. Angel at My Table, based on the autobiography of New Zealand poet Janet Frame. As a girl, she wins a free trip to a library and we see her roaming the aisles picking books for all the members of her family.
  3. Salmonberries with k.d. lang as a user who befriends Roswitha, the smart, committed librarian from behind the Iron Curtain.

And my favourites:

  1. UHF with David Bowie and Weird Al Yankovic: Weird Al manages a strange little TV station with some very, very weird shows, including Conan the Librarian. Conan likes to threaten users who don't know the Dewey Decimal System. When people bring back overdue books, Conan whips out his sword and slices them in half. Very over-the-top.
  2. Party Girl: main character gets bailed out of jail by her godmother. To pay off the debt, she takes a job at the library. Weirdest scene: one night, she breaks into the library because she "wants to learn the Dewey Decimal System." Yeah, sure. At the time, if I recall, she is stoned out of her mind. A " library classic. "
  3. And the creme de la creme of library-in-media images: the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy is a normal high school teenager. She's got boyfriend problems, can't get along with her mom and dreams of making it as a pom-pom girl on the cheerleading squad. She also has the power to slay vampires and other supernatural beasties. What's interesting about the show is that Buffy and her vampire fighting friends always turn to school librarian " Rupert " for advice and guidance (played by British actor Anthony Head). He's strong, tall, smart, brave, friendly, concerned, professional, and kinda good-looking (in a nerdy bespectacled way - call it " geek chic "). So, if you run into bad vibes the next time you mention to people you're in library school, just start dropping hints about Buffy and Rupert and see if that doesn't change their attitude.

(MLIS I student Michel-Adrien Sheppard still works part-time as a desk editor with the Canadian Press news agency in Montreal.)
Michel-Adrien Sheppard home back to the top MLISSA PRODUCTION