Information Update - Spring 1998

Hollywood Looks at the Library

Professionals often complain about the unrealistic way their jobs are portrayed in movies. We hear, for example (John Grisham not withstanding), how court cases arc much more histrionic on screen than the slow machinery of the law would ever allow in a real courtroom, and how movie lawyers are portrayed unrealistically as either altruistic crusaders or conniving sharpies. Nurses, doctors, teachers, and many others bristle at their portrayals on the big and small screens.
But what about libraries and librarians in movies? A number of movies have scenes that take place in libraries. Many times librarians are portrayed with the usual stereotype (which I won't go into). Other movies, though sometimes hit the nail on the head of what working in a library is really like. For example, anyone who has ever labored in a small library dependent on donations will recognize the contents of the prison library (National Geographics and Reader's Digest condensed books) in The Shawshank Redemption. Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, which a patron arrives to research a newspaper article just as the Library is closing for the night, also rings an all too familiar bell. And the 1967 British film The Whisperers fuel the poor, the elderly, and other disenfranchised members ,of society queue up everyday to warm themselves and pass the rime in a public library, each in his or her own favorite and jealously guarded spot, is all too heartbreakingly real particularly if you have ever worked in a big city library.
I can think of only two films, though, where the main focus of the plot is on library work. One of these movies, a rather old one from 1957, is Desk Set with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. The other movie ,from 1995 Party Girl with Parker Posey. Even though both films are comedies, they are fairly realistic in their portrayal of library work.
Surprisingly, the older of these to films deals with the major change in libraries in the past decade, namely, computerization. In Desk Set Hepburn is the head of the research department of a TV network. Tracy is an efficiency expert who has been called in just before the Christmas holiday to evaluate the department and give recommendations for modernization. These recommendations will include computerization of reference and, possibly, a few pink slips for members of the staff made obsolete by the computer name "Emerac"or "Emmy" for short. Of course, some of the details are the mark. "Emmy," for example, is a big galoot of a machine (which computers were in those days) which makes the typical funny noises computers make in films of the fifties and sixties. "Emmy" is not a database, or a collection of databases, on any particular topic, but a compendium of all information; storage space of this infinite amount of information does not seem to be a problem. Also, reference queries are addressed to the machine in question form; I suppose Hollywood did not think audiences were quite ready for a short primer on Boolean logic or search strategies in the middle of a comedy.
However, in many ways Desk Set is extremely prescient. For example, "Emmy" is only as accurate as the person searching on it; if a word is misspelled or a question is asked incorrectly, the computer is unable to think or reinterpret the question correctly. A query for information on the island of Corfu, for example, results in the computer beginning to spew out to the printer the complete text of the poem "Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight" because the inquirer has misspelled the keyword. Furthermore, the operator is unable to stop the printing of this enormous file once it has begun (does that sound familiar?). While the computer searchers are struggling with 'Emmy},'' Hepburn is able to answer the question from a printed source because she, unlike the computer, has a mind which can interpret the question. Also, Hepburn's character has a remarkable memory, a definite asset for any reference librarian, which, of course, does not match or function like a computer's memory, but in many ways has an edge on even the machine's fantastic abilities.
At the conclusion of the movie "Emmy"' has not put anyone out of a job. Hepburn and her staff learn to use the computer to make their jobs easier. As in real life, computerization has not replaced the reference librarian. Rather it has redefined what the reference librarian does. Tasks which took ages to do or were impossible to do before automation can now he done simply, and nobody who has been willing to keep up with the ever-changing technology has been put out of a reference job.
Party Girl, the other hand, addresses not automation, surprisingly, as it is a very recent film, but rather the question of what is a good librarian and, by extension, a good professional in any career. In this movie Parker Posey plays a twenty-something denizen of the Village who has succeeded at nothing in life except having a good time and getting herself in trouble with the law. She is forced to turn to her godmother, a librarian at a branch of the New York Public Library to bail her out financially and, ultimately, spiritually. This spiritual bailout comes as a result in the godmother giving her a job as a library assistant not a librarian; the movie is very good in pointing out a distinction not always apparent to the non-professional public. A librarian has a master's degree in library Science; a library assistant does not.
Posey is at first rather dismissive of the notion of working in a library; after all, anybody could do that work. She finds, however, that the job is somewhat more challenging than she realized. The Dewey Decimal System at first completely eludes her. A task as simple as shelving books is beyond her abilities because she fails to comprehend that there is a system at work that has a necessary logic to it. Reference work (Which she is not really supposed to be doing as she is not a librarian) is even more of a disaster because she does not listen to what the patron is asking. A request it The Origin of Species is misinterpreted as a request for information on "oranges and peaches" (a rather obvious example of librarian-patron misunderstanding, her I've seen worse in real life). Unable to do this job which she at first considered to be beneath her Posey becomes obsessed with mastering the fundamentals of library work. In a very funny scene, she applies the principles of the Dewey classification system to her DJ roommate's record collection, classifying and cross-referencing the albums, much to his dismay as he is just ready to start a gig at a big club.
More importantly, Posey gains a respect for her godmother's profession and the problems (staff shortages, lack of funding, difficult patrons) that plague a big city library. At the end of this movie the good-time airhead has decided to buckle down and find a new lease on life by going back to school to gets a master's in library science (what a happy ending!).
I hasten to add that both movies are considerably funnier than my descriptions might lead you to believe. The chemistry between Tracy and Hepburn is, of course, legendary, and, although it may not rank as one of their best comedies, it is still awfully good. Parker Posey gives a wonderfully dizzy performance; she is able to make her character both obnoxious and likeable at the same time. Working in a library may help you to appreciate some of the nuances of these two films, but even viewers who haven't been in a library since grade school (heaven forbid) should find both movies enjoyable.
Kevin Norris
Pride, Passion, Promise: Experience Our Jesuit Tradition