This interview is over 1 year old and may no longer be up to date or reflect the interviewee/interviewees’ positions
by Leigh Milligan, Head Editor, INALJ Wisconsin
Jennifer Snoek-Brown…Reel Librarians Blog
Jennifer was previously interviewed as a success story on INALJ.
Film and librarians, my two loves! So glad I had the opportunity to interview Jennifer Snoek-Brown on her blog Reel Librarians.
Leigh: Please give us a little bit of a summary of what “Reel Librarians” is about and also provide us with a definition of what a “Reel Librarian” is.
Jennifer: Reel Librarians is a website and blog exploring hundreds of portrayals of librarians in film and what these reel librarians represent. So a “reel librarian” is the term I use to refer to a librarian in the movies — and makes for fun comparisons to real librarians! The site’s homepage is a blog, updated weekly, in which I post film analyses, character explorations, pop culture tidbits, and more. But there are also sections of the site that serve as the foundation of my cumulative research, including a “Movie Lists” section that includes a Master List of titles I’m slowly working my way through; the “Reel Substance” section, which classifies films into how important the librarian’s role is to the film, and a “Role Call” section that identifies common character types for both male and female reel librarians, including character types like “The Spinster Librarian” and “The Naughty Librarian.”
Leigh: How did you come up with the idea for “Reel Librarians”?
Jennifer: I’ve been researching reel librarians since my undergraduate days, and I definitely see this as a lifelong research love! For my undergraduate studies, I wrote an honors thesis called “A Glimpse Through the Glasses: Portrayals of Librarians in Film,” and began my first website on the topic in 2005. My current website, which I began in September 2011, is a continuation of that first site. I’ve also written a post all about my initial inspiration, stemming off a 1997 movie magazine article about film portrayals of dentists. I’m a second-generation librarian — my mom is a school librarian — so that got me thinking, “What about librarians in film? I want to know!” And I’m still on that journey to answer that question. 🙂
Leigh: What is your favorite film that portrays a librarian and why?
Jennifer: Such a tough question… that’s like asking a librarian what his/her favorite book is! My favorites include Desk Set (1957), Party Girl (1995), and Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983). They all have quite positive, fully rounded portrayals of librarians. Desk Set stars Katharine Hepburn as Bunny Watson, the head of a TV station’s research library. She’s funny, smart, and feminine. And my love for Hepburn’s portrayal only grew when I learned that one of her real-life sisters, Peg Perry, was a children’s librarian for over 50 years.
Party Girl stars Parker Posey as the title’s namesake, Mary, who starts working in her godmother’s library — a branch of the New York Public Library — to pay off her bail money (!) and realizes her true ambition to become a librarian. This vision comes to her after a night of dancing and deciphering the Dewey Decimal system. As one does. 😉
Something Wicked This Way Comes stars Jason Robards as the town librarian and father of the main character, a young boy, who confronts true evil and (spoiler alert) saves the town. A rare portrayal of a male librarian as hero!
But there are so many other good films, like The Mummy (1999) and Foul Play (1978) — as well as interesting portrayals of librarians in not-so-good films, like Twisted Nerve (1968) and Where the Heart Is (2000). You can also read more of my personal faves here and here.
Leigh: What blogs and websites do you recommend for learning more about Reel Librarians?
Jennifer: I keep collecting more related sites and blogs on my Resources list, so that would be my first stop. A couple of my personal favorites are on the “Related Links” sidebar on the blog homepage, including Libraries in the Movies and Pop Goes the Librarian. One of the first researchers on this subject, Martin Raish, put together an annotated filmography online, Librarians in the Movies. This site, although it hasn’t been updated since his retirement in 2011, continues to be a great starting point for anyone interested in learning more about reel librarians.
Leigh: I find the class system you created really helpful in knowing what to look for librarian-wise in the films. How did you come up with the class system located under the “Reel Substance” section of your blog?
Jennifer: Thanks! As I mentioned above, I’ve created a “Reel Substance” section, in which I’ve classified films I’ve seen according to how important the librarians’ role is to the film. This just felt practical to me! As I was collecting films for my undergraduate thesis, I wanted to know which films had librarians as major characters. So I started classifying films in this way early on, and have continued doing so. Class I includes films in which librarians are major characters AND their occupation is somehow integral to the plot; Class II has films with librarians are major characters but being a librarian is NOT that important to the plot. This felt like a key distinction to me. Class III has librarians in supporting roles, and Class IV includes librarians in cameo scenes with little or no dialogue. I have another category, Class V, which has no librarians at all. I’ve actually been thinking recently about splitting Class V into two, one for films with library scenes but no librarians (like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 2008); and then those films that have been mistakenly identified as having reel librarians (like Red Dragon, 2002, which has a bookshop clerk but not a librarian).
Leigh: What do you think the future is for librarians being portrayed in film? Do you think we will start to see some Library 2.0 librarians in film, or will be continue to see the old-fashioned librarians?
Jennifer: I think there will continue to be a mixture of reel librarian portrayals. We keep popping up in all kinds of films, historical and modern. Desk Set, one of my personal favorites that I’ve already described, takes place in the 1950s and includes an early computer prototype — a room-sized “electronic brain” called EMARAC — brought in by an efficiency expert. The film’s plot revolves around the question, “Are librarians needed when machines are available?” And (spoiler alert), the final message is that we need both! Technology doesn’t discount the expertise of librarians and that very human element we bring to research and in connecting together information and people. Rather, technology enhances what we librarians do. I love that this film, which is over 50 years old, is still so relevant — and still so true!
Leigh: Is there anything else you would like to share about Reel Librarians and/or your blog that we should know?
Jennifer: There are so many films that include librarians! Librarians or not, many people are surprised by that. And my Master List keeps growing! And we’re in all types of films, including musicals (The Music Man, 1962); drama (The Shawshank Redemption, 1994); sci-fi (The War of the Worlds, 1953); comedy (Joe Versus the Volcano, 1990); action/adventure (The Mummy series, starting in 1999); whodunits (Hammett, 1982); romances (Love Story, 1970); horror films (Scream 3, 2000); and even animated films (An Extremely Goofy Movie, 2000).
Librarians also often provide key plot points in films; it’s a useful shortcut to securing an audience’s confidence to have a librarian — a trusted, reliable source — provide the much-needed information.
And that’s really the starting point for my own personal perspective on librarians in film. I like to look at the purpose we serve in films. And that makes sense, because that is how I like to view our profession, by how useful we are to the users we serve. Reel vs. real librarians, we’re not so different after all. 😉
Jennifer Snoek-Brown is a second-generation librarian who loves movies, books, cats, blogging, and Nancy Drew (not necessarily in that order). She loves being a librarian and pop culture, and she gets to combine those two loves in her Reel Librarians site and blog! Jennifer has lived and worked her way across Texas, Wisconsin, the UAE, and Oregon, and has visited a library in 8 different countries outside the U.S. Along with her two cats, Jennifer and her husband now call Portland, Oregon, home, and plan to keep it that way. Jennifer is a faculty librarian and coordinator of Library Instruction at Mt. Hood Community
image of librarian on reel of film taken from: http://reel-librarians.com/