Anyone who’s seen Spotlight, the recent Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, may have noticed something surprising. The Boston journalists investigating abuse in the Catholic Church had a few unexpected and powerful allies: Librarians. That’s right, librarians played a crucial role in this important story. You might assume that librarians exist only in public, school, or university libraries; on the contrary, librarians work in a wide range of settings, including museums, high-powered corporations, and yes, newspaper offices. The librarians that we see in the film are responsible for organizing and pulling old articles, or “clips” as they’re called. We see librarians dropping off folders overstuffed with clips, moving compact shelving with the press of a button, and gathering reels of microfilm. In one scene, we see three of the reporters huddled in the basement of what we can assume to be the Boston Globe’s library, poring through directories that list the placements of Boston priests over the years. Without these tools, it would have been nearly impossible for the reporters to build their story and expose decades of corruption and cover-ups.
Let’s be honest: When we think about exciting professions, we don’t automatically think of librarians. How can any job that requires you to speak in a low voice be exciting? Of course, this is not true. Working in a library is about much more than quieting a room and wearing glasses. Similar to journalists, librarians are dedicated researchers and investigators, chasing leads and using everything at their disposal to get to the truth of a question. Although the librarians in Spotlight don’t have major roles, their presence is felt throughout the film, as research is gathered and rudimentary spreadsheets are created. This got me thinking about other fictional librarians on the big and small screens…
Until I started digging, I hadn’t realized that there is actually a real niche for swashbuckling librarians! In The Mummy, Rachel Weisz’s Evelyn Carnahan is right in the thick of things, as is Dr. Abigail Chase (played by Diane Kruger), an archivist in National Treasure. On the small screen, there’s Rupert Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer; mild-mannered high school librarian one moment, demon-fighting Watcher the next. Currently, the latest breed of adventure-seeking librarians can be found on the TNT series The Librarians. Spun off from a series of TV movies starring Noah Wylie (AKA Dr. Carter from ER), a group of four people are tasked with guarding or recovering artifacts and fighting off mystical, magical forces, all in the name of protecting The Library. Okay, I will admit that working in an ordinary library is not as exciting as working in a magical library.
Unfortunately, librarians don’t always receive the fairest treatment in film. It breaks my heart a little to admit that my favorite movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, is guilty of buying into the typical librarian cliche. If you recall, when George Bailey imagines what life would be like if he had never been born, a consequence of his absence is that his beloved Mary lives a life of spinsterhood, working late at…Gasp! Shudder!…the local library! Mary is dour and meek, hardly resembling the high-spirited young woman who had once done the Charleston into a swimming pool. Considering the many things that Frank Capra got right, I choose to ignore this misstep.
On a lighter note, the characters on Parks and Recreation view the library and librarians as adversaries, constantly and aggressively maligning the profession. The humor can be found in the over-the-top ridiculousness of this hatred. In one episode, Leslie Knope explains, “The library is the worst group of people ever assembled in history. They’re mean, conniving, rude, and extremely well read, which makes them very dangerous.” The point of the joke is the very same reason why libraries are actually beloved far and wide: Librarians only want to do good.