It's a completely cool, multi-purpose blog.

Monday, September 29, 2008

What I did on my weekend

I saved B2's life on Saturday. Alright, it was on my watch that he plunged headfirst into the swimming pool in the first place, but I fished him out in under a second. He looked soggy and bewildered but otherwise fine.

I had Friday off work and very little planned, so it was a long, lazy weekend.

There are a bunch of photos on Flickr if you are interested, and I have also made these 2 video clips:

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Bs update

B2 had another hospital appointment this week, and the news is provisionally good. They are happy with how the burn is healing at the moment, and (bliss!) we no longer have to strap him into an extremely uncomfortable-looking arm-splint every night. Onwards and upwards!

Meanwhile, B1 has decided that she no longer needs songs at bedtime, but only if it's her Billy-Bragg-voiced daddy doing the singing "I don't need no songs tonight!" she cries, getting F for grammar but A for musical discernment.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


B1 is developing some decidedly odd habits. Here is pictorial evidence of what happens when she is permitted to choose her own clothes - she is particularly pleased by odd socks.

She has recently taken to fondling a bowl of jelly as it sets in the fridge.

I think she may turn out to be rather eccentric, which is a Good Thing.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Travel plans

We are now looking at no less than 3 overseas trips in 2009! The Bs continue to collect more airmiles in their first few years of life than Sarah Palin managed in her first forty.

(Sorry, I am trying to steer clear of the American elections as my views will be profoundly unsurprising to you, but...I'm scared. Really, really scared. Aren't you scared?)

1) Easter in Rarotonga

It looks preposterously beautiful in the pictures I've seen, and the resort we are going to is kid-friendly. Best of all, the scuba diving looks spectacular. M&I haven't managed to get underwater for a few years now (pregnancy & kids rather put the kibosh on it), so this is a wonderful opportunity to get back in the swing.

Anyone been there?

2) June/July in Brentwood

Our annual Big Trip will go ahead as usual.

3) Christmas in Switzerland

A man I know needs to spend some money in Switzerland - don't ask - so we're along for the ride. Details are sketchy, but a visit to the UK will probably get tacked on for New Year 2010 or thereabouts.

It's ridiculous, innit?

Monday, September 15, 2008

I got the self-employment blues

M is working a lot at the moment, which is good financially but, as she has to knuckle down whenever she isn't kid-wrangling, means that we barely get to spend any time together. I get home from the library, we feed/bathe/settle the Bs and then she's straight onto the computer, which is frustrating for both of us.

Another issue that arises from self-employment is something that I recognise from postgraduate student days, the difficulty of switching off and just relaxing:

SCENE: A couple in their bedroom, enjoying a quiet chat before a well-earned sleep

WOMAN: If I can manage to finish this report tomorrow morning before I interview the guy for the next one, then my supervisor can get back the revisions to me in time for the court appointment and I can concentrate on getting the preliminary report on that other case sorted out...

MAN: Mmm...I find it hard to get interested in the details

WOMAN: Why? OK, tell me about your day.

MAN: Well, first I had a meeting about which applicants should receive some scholarship money, then I sorted out a problem with a returned book that was mouldy, before heading over to Fisher Library for a briefing about the organisational restructure...


The plus side of M's monastic retreat to the study is that I get a lot of time with the kids, as was the case this weekend. As you can see from the photo, B2 is now perambulating about the place most merrily, and B1 has curbed her recent behavioural excesses (for now) and is an absolute delight.

Oh, and I also watched 6 movies and 3 football matches in 3 days.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Movie miscellania

My David Stratton History of World Cinema course restarts tomorrow, for the final semester in a staggering 10 year programme. Its a chronological course and this 12-week sequence will start in 1979 before racing through the best of the 80s. I picked up the trail shortly after arriving in Sydney, in 1946 so to speak. My hope (and David's, I believe) is that next year we will loop right back to the beginning and start all over again in the silent era.

I've watched a few movies recently, including:

If... (Satirical & surreal)
The Last Waltz (Hard to take seriously post-Spinal Tap)
La Captive (The worst kind of artwank)
Tell No One (Vertigo-inspired, twisty-turny fun)
The Quiet Man (Ireland as theme park)

In the 1001 list, I have now seen 745, leaving me about one a week for the next 5 years. Eminently do-able I think.

Finally seeing If..., which I have been wanting to see for years, left me wondering what the most embarrassing omission in my cinema-watching history is, and it's getting to be something pretty obscure. Greed? Shoah? The second Pirates of the Caribbean movie? I'm thinking it's Raise The Red Lantern.

Anyways, I recognise most of the clips in this absolutely stunning YouTube video, put together by a librarian no less:

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Depiction of American Public Libraries in Film - Bibliography

10. Bibliography


2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1969)
All The President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941)
Battlefield Earth (Roger Christian, 2000)
The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)
The Blot (Lois Weber, 1921)
The Blue Kite (Zhuangzhuang Tian, 1993)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961)
Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
City of Angels (Brad Silberling, 1998)
Desk Set (Walter Lang, 1957)
Die Hard: With a Vengeance (John McTiernan, 1995)
Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson, 1989)
Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984)
Hairspray (John Waters, 1988)
Hammett (Wim Wenders, 1982)
The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (Curtis Hanson, 1992)
Hear My Song (Peter Chelsom, 1991)
Henry Fool (Hal Hartley, 1998)
Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)
It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1947)
Logan’s Run (Michael Anderson, 1976)
Matilda (Danny deVito, 1996)
Misery (Rob Reiner, 1990)
Moscow on the Hudson (Paul Mazursky, 1984)
The Music Man (Morton da Costa, 1962)
The Pagemaster (Joe Johnston & Maurice Hunt, 1993)
The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)
Prick Up Your Ears (Stephen Frears, 1987)
Public Access (Bryan Singer, 1993)
Rollerball (Norman Jewison, 1975)
Salmonberries (Percy Adlon, 1991)
Se7en (David Fincher, 1995)
Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)
A Simple Plan (Sam Raimi, 1998)
Somewhere in Time (Jeannot Szwarc, 1980)
Sophie’s Choice (Alan J. Pakula, 1982)
Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973)
Stanley and Iris (Martin Ritt, 1989)
Suspect (Peter Yates, 1987)
The Time Machine (George Pal, 1962)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Elia Kazan, 1945)
The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998)
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
Wings of Desire (WimWenders, 1987)

Libraries – Books

Benge, Ronald C., Libraries and Cultural Change, Clive Bingley, 1970

Foerstel, Herbert N., Surveillance in the Stacks: the FBI’s library awareness program, Greenwood Press, Westport CT, 1991

Harris, Michael H. & Davis Jr., Donald G., American Library History: a bibliography, University of Texas Press, London, 1978

Johnson, Peggy & MacEwan, Bonnie (Eds.), Collection Management and Development: issues in an electronic era, American Library Association, London, 1994

Jones, Helen L., Metropolitan Los Angeles, A Study in Integration: XIII. Public Libraries, Haynes Foundation, Los Angeles, 1953

Josey, E.J., The Black Librarian in America, Sacrecow Press, New Jersey, 1970

Kinnell, Margaret & Sturges, Paul (Eds.), Continuity and Innovation in the Public Library: the development of a social institution, Library Association Publishing, London, 1996

Martin, Lowell A., Enrichment: a history of the public library in the United States in the twentieth century, Scarecrow Press, Maryland, 1998

Murison, W.J., The Public Library: its origins, purpose and significance (3rd ed.), Clive Bingley, London, 1988

Olle, James G., Library History, Clive Bingley, London, 1979

Roach, Patrick and Morrison, Marlene, Public Libraries, Ethnic Diversity and Citizenship (British Library Research and Innovation Report 76), Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations & Centre for Educational Development, Appraisal and Research, University of Warwick, 1998

Slater, Margaret, Career Patterns and the Occupational Image: a study of the library/information field (Aslib Occasional Publication no.23), Aslib, London, 1979

Usherwood, Bob, The Public Library as Public Knowledge, Library Association, 1989

Wagner, Gulten S., Public Libraries as Agents of Communication: a semiotic analysis, Scarecrow Press, London, 1992

Wilson, Pauline, Stereotype and Status: librarians in the United States (Contributions in Librarianship and Information Science, Number 41), Greenwood Press, London, 1982

Libraries – Websites The Anarchist Librarian Webé/7423 The Street Librarian The Laughing Librarian The Barbarian Librarian Fun For Bookworms Cool Librarians by Frederick Duda The American Library Association The Modified Librarian Article about public perception of librarians The Ska Librarian The Top Ten Films Featuring Libraries, Librarians and the Book Arts by Steven J. Schmidt The Naked Librarian Librarians in the Movies: an annotated filmography by Martin Raish Discussion and news site on librarianship issues The Adventures of the Librarian The Lipstick Librarian The Intolerant Librarian Image and the Librarian: an exploration of a changing profession The Belly-Dancing Librarian The Image of Librarians in Pornography

Libraries – Journals

Brewerton, Antony, Sex, Lies and Stereotypes, Assistant Librarian, vol.86 no.2, February 1993, pp.22-27

Hall, Alison, Batgirl was a Librarian, Canadian Library Journal, vol.49 no.5, October 1992, pp.345-347

O'Brien, Ann & Raish, Martin, The Image of the Librarian in Commercial Motion Pictures: An Annotated Filmography, Collection Management, Vol.17 no.3, 1993, pp.61-84.

Walker, Stephen & Lawson, V. Lonnie, The Librarian Stereotype and the Movies, The Journal of Academic Media Librarianship, vol.1 no.1, Spring 1993, pp.16-28

Film – Books

Bazin, Andre (translated by Hugh Gray), What is Cinema? (2 vols.), University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1967

Belton, John (Ed.), Movies and Mass Culture, Athlone Press, London, 1996

Bernstein, Carl & Woodward, Bob, All The President’s Men, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1974

Bordwell, David & Thompson, Kristin, Film Art: an introduction (5th ed.), McGraw-Hill, New York, 1997

Clarke, David B. (Ed.), The Cinematic City, Routledge, London, 1997

Johnson, William (Ed.), Focus On The Science Fiction Film, Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1972

Katz, Ephraim, The Macmillan International Film Encyclopedia (New Edition), Macmillan, London, 1994

Kuhn, Annette (Ed.), Alien Zone: cultural theory and contemporary science fiction cinema, Verso, London, 1990

Mast, Gerald & Cohen, Marshall, Film Theory and Criticism: introductory readings (3rd ed.), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985

Monaco, James, How To Read A Film: the art, technology, language, history, and theory of film and media (Revised Edition), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1981

Ousby, Ian (Ed.), The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Cambridge University Press, London, 1988

Smith, Betty, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Pan Books, London, 1986

Tudor, Andrew, Theories of Film, Martin Secker and Warburg, London, 1974

Walker, John, Halliwell’s Film Guide (8th ed.), Grafton, London, 1991

Wells, H.G., The H.G.Wells Omnibus, Heinemann/Octopus, London, 1981

Young, Jeff, Kazan On Kazan, Faber and Faber, London, 1999

Film – Websites Hollis Compton’s review of Debbie Does Dallas The filmunlimited database The internet movie database

The Depiction of American Public Libraries in Film - Conclusion

9. Conclusion

This study demonstrates that, contrary to the expectations implied by less rigorous research in this area, libraries are portrayed in an overwhelmingly positive light in American cinema. Although negative depictions such as Sophie’s Choice and It’s A Wonderful Life spring readily to mind for many commentators (see Chapter 3) and are notable for their extremity, they are far outnumbered by their positive counterparts. Furthermore, it tends to be those films that feature the public library most prominently, for example Salmonberries and The Pagemaster, that give the most accurate and flattering depictions.

A common strand of public libraries in the films in this study is there use as signifiers for American values in either a reaffirming or a subversive manner. Most films have an implicitly patriotic outlook, reflected in their portrayal of libraries as government agencies. They are own to be of particular importance for groups who are otherwise lacking in power or resources. These groups include children (Matilda, The Pagemaster), immigrants (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), the semi-literate (Stanley and Iris) and the poor (Henry Fool).

In those instances in which the depiction of libraries is less positive, it is indicative of a broader problem in American society that the film-makers wish to investigate. Examples of such problems are corporate corruption (Chinatown), racism (Sophie’s Choice), moral breakdown (Se7en, It’s A Wonderful Life) and the complete disintegration of democracy (Rollerball). In both positive and negative depictions, the public library is representative of contemporary American culture as more widely seen by the film-makers.

An affinity between the worlds of film and public libraries is possibly explained by the startling amount that the two institutions have in common. Both were originally conceived in the nineteenth century but came to maturity over the course of the twentieth century. They are both made possible by and fundamentally serve capitalism, having come into being as a direct result of the industrial revolution . However, libraries are free and state funded, being regarded as socially beneficial by leaders of all political groupings. The commercial world of cinema has a more ambiguous role within society, so it is perhaps unsurprising if film-makers see public libraries as an institution with which it is advantageous to be associated.

A notable feature of the library scenes in film is the ongoing fetishisation of books. The standard cinematic grammar of libraries includes at least one tracking shot perpendicular to the orientation of the stacks, frequently showing a character in search of a particular item. The effect of this is to emphasise the massive range of material in the library. In a range of otherwise disparate sequences, such as those in Somewhere in Time, Se7en and City of Angels, the camera lingers lovingly over the page during close-ups of written text. The tendency is taken to an extreme in The Pagemaster, in which the books come to life to become characters in their own right. Books are signifiers of wisdom and history, and the public library is a place where these qualities are accessible to all. In contrast, computers and other sources of information feature only rarely, except in the science fiction genre which tends to emphasise technological possibilities. The internet, already a familiar resource for users of public libraries in the United States, is yet to make its cinematic debut in such a context.

There remains tremendous scope for further research in this field. In addition to any shortcomings the reader may detect in this study, additional research would be valuable in such areas as cinema from countries other than the United States, American films prior to 1940 and LIS sectors other than public libraries.

Both the cinema and the public library service face uncertain futures. Rapid developments in the field of information communications technology have enabled individuals to access almost limitless amounts of data, including digitised film files, from their desktop. In such a swiftly changing environment, the need for central meeting places in which services are accessed is brought into question. Both institutions will need to adapt in order to survive. It will be fascinating to observe the developing relationship between public libraries and cinema during the twenty-first century.

The Depiction of American Public Libraries in Film - Libraries in Science Fiction Films

8. Libraries in Science Fiction Films

An oddity in the depiction of libraries in film is the case of the science fiction genre, and particularly the dystopian future sub-genre. It is rare that the institutions featured in such films strictly adhere to the definition of public libraries, often because such places no longer exist in the postulated future, but it is nevertheless important to consider them for a number of reasons. Primary among these is the sheer frequency of library appearances in the genre, far higher than any other type of film. Secondly, the science fiction genre is both a speculative and an allegorical mode, hence the worlds they create can be extremely revealing of the era in which they were created. The depiction of libraries, or their imagined successors, may therefore reveal the underlying assumptions of the film-makers about contemporary library services. The final reason is the striking uniformity of the portrayal of libraries in science fiction. If the reason behind these factors are determined, the underlying assumptions about libraries can be revealed. In those cases where national boundaries do not apply in the futuristic setting, the study only applies to films produced in the United States.

There is a common thread in all of the science fiction films that are discussed here. Each features a hero placed at odds with the authorities in the dystopian world he inhabits. In every case, following a visit to the library or its equivalent, the hero comes to discover an earth-shaking secret that has been concealed by the ruling class and is thus propelled towards the conclusion of the story. This applies to (in chronological order) ¬The Time Machine, Zardoz, Soylent Green, Rollerball, Logan’s Run and Battlefield Earth. They can be divided equally into those that feature the ruins of a current public library that has long since fallen into disuse (Zardoz, Logan's Run and Battlefield Earth) and those that feature an example of what a future library may be like (The Time Machine, Soylent Green and Rollerball).

It is striking that four of these films were made between 1973 and 1976, and that they share a number of common themes, allowing them to be considered as a cycle. These are Soylent Green (1973), Zardoz (1974), Rollerball (1975) and Logan's Run (1976). Each of these posits a future where the world is run by recognisable extrapolations of the political or corporate bodies of their time, which the hero discovers to be concealing a terrible secret of some sort from the mass of the population. It is natural to read these films as a direct allegory of America in the mid to late Seventies, a nation facing up to both the failure in Vietnam and, in particular, the ongoing Watergate revelations. This was a watershed period in recent American history, in which the populace displayed an unprecedented level of mistrust in the government and virtually all of its agencies. Right wing commentators stepped up their rhetoric suggesting an implicit wariness of 'big government', consciously evoking the Declaration of Independence in doing so.

The significant point from the perspective of the information professional is the remarkable exemption of libraries from these negative connotations. Zardoz and Logan's Run feature the ruins of former libraries that are untainted by association with the imagined regimes. This suggests the huge importance of recorded information and implies that data in written form, and discovered via the institution of the library, is somehow inherently trustworthy and can be considered as neutral. In Zardoz, Zed (Sean Connery) finds a copy of L. Frank Baum's novel 'The Wizard of Oz' and is inspired to discover the power behind the throne of his own society. In the case of Logan's Run, Logan (Michael York) and Jessica (Jenny Agutter) discover the ruins of Washington D.C. and come across the crumbling Library of Congress, thereby understanding some of the culture that preceded them, i.e. twentieth century America. The film is not subtle in conveying its agenda, featuring a discussion of who the individual portrayed in a portrait might be (it is Abraham Lincoln) and the eventual impalement of the main villain on a flagpole bearing the U.S. flag, both of which take place in the main reading room.

Rollerball offers a more cynical outlook, wherein the central computer, known as Zed, is the last remaining repository of information. Zed refuses to answer the questions of Jonathon E (James Caan) concerning how and why important decisions are taken, but the apparent breakdown of Zed and its librarian (Ralph Richardson) implies that refusing to dispense answers is antithetical to its programming and purpose. This could be interpreted as a metaphor for the reaction of libraries when censorship is imposed, the suggestion being that a restriction on freedom of information is antithetical to the very nature of the 'library'.

It is Soylent Green that gives the most intriguing interpretation of the library of the future. It is explained to the viewer that paper is scarce, but a secretive 'Supreme Exchange' is revealed to exist, accessible only via a dark and dismal corridor and a coded knock on the door. A sign indicates 'Authorised Books Only'. The exchange is inhabited only by elderly people, including a female librarian with shaking hands, yet these unlikely figures are revealed to be custodians of the secret of Soylent Green, which is that food is being made from human remains. It is not made clear why the information has not been disseminated by the library, although the implication is that it is too shocking to be believed if no proof can be supplied as corroboration. The final scene shows Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston), having witnessed the reprocessing plant, being dragged off by sinister policemen whilst yelling 'You've got to tell them! Soylent Green is people! Tell the exchange!' The film suggests that the library wields a certain amount of power, but it is so ossified that it needs a powerful figure, embodied in the heroic form of Charlton Heston.

There are a number of common threads here. The first is of the libraries' key function as a repository of recorded information, available for future generations to study. This is particularly the case in those films in which a twentieth century library is discovered in a future age but also applies to The Time Machine and Rollerball.

The Time Machine features a future library that is discovered by a time traveller in an even more futuristic age, and also the discovery by George (Rod Taylor) of some neglected books which fall apart at his touch. One of the residents of the future disingenuously asks him whether he has learnt anything useful, to which George replies 'Yes, they have told me about you'.

In Rollerball, the librarian is preoccupied by the loss of all the data concerning the thirteenth century, albeit that it involves only 'Dante and a few corrupt popes'. The loss of historical context is assumed to be a loss to the present time, and the library is shown as a major factor in the preservation of both cultural heritage and specific factual information.

Battlefield Earth demonstrates both of these traits, with the hero, Jonnie 'Goodboy' Tyler (Barry Pepper) gaining inspiration from a crumbling copy of the Declaration of Independence and the means to defeat the alien invaders from a book about radiation in the Library of Congress.

It is intriguing that several of these examples attempt to bolster the historical authenticity of the libraries with a European element, either in the form of a European setting (the Geneva central repository in Rollerball) or using European actors to play the librarians (Ralph Richardson in Rollerball, Peter Ustinov in Logan's Run and Celia Lovsky in Soylent Green). Americans maintain an association between Europe and the concept of history, and by implication the notion of the United States as a young country, and these connotations are absorbed into the depiction of libraries in these films.

A pertinent point is that science fiction of this dystopian kind suggests an innate distrust of technology. In their depiction of libraries, these films share a faith in the straightforward book rather than the idea of computerised data. Zed in Rollerball is an obvious successor to the murderous HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, in that he conceals information from his human inquisitors and malfunctions as a result. Zed is last seen in a hallucinatory sequence, falling apart and spouting nonsensical yet pointed phrases such as 'Power is knowledge. Genius is energy.' The crumbling books in The Time Machine symbolise the utter dissociation between Eloi society and its past. By contrast, the conventionally dusty tomes in Soylent Green, Battlefield Earth and Zardoz contain supposedly 'neutral' wisdom and knowledge, untainted by changes that have occurred in the world at large. It is ironic that this speculative genre repeatedly returns to simple books, the longest surviving form of recorded information, especially when the films are viewed from the present perspective of ever-increasing digitisation of resources.

The astonishing trust displayed in libraries by science fiction film-makers reveals a faith in the public library ethos apparently unaffected by the disillusion with other government agencies, and indeed human nature, so evident in this form of cinema. Somehow, the form which places imagination above all else finds it impossible to imagine a deliberately biased or devious library. It is an indication of the respect with which the public library movement is held by the population as a whole .

The Depiction of American Public Libraries in Film - Libraries as Sites of Secrecy/Libraries as Sites of Sexuality

7. Libraries as Sites of Secrecy

A common thread in the public perception of libraries is the idea that they are a place where certain activities are forbidden. There is a useful dialectic between the sense of the public library as an area in which all are welcome and the need for certain rules to be imposed. Film-makers exploit this tension to produce a variety of effects, which can be broadly divided into two strands, the sexual and the non-sexual, of which the latter will be considered first.

By far the most commonly used aspect of the perceived oppressiveness of libraries is the need for quiet. The soundtrack often emphasises this aspect of the location by omitting music and featuring an almost subliminal sound affect to contrast with the pervading silence, such as the sound of Sophie’s (Meryl Streep) footsteps on the hard marble floor in Sophie’s Choice, the wheels of the book trolley in The Pagemaster or the squeaky ceiling fan in Chinatown.

Films often feature illicit, whispered conversations between characters hiding in the stacks. This technique is commonly used when a conspiratorial air is being conveyed. An example of this is the scene in A Simple Plan in which Sarah Mitchell (Bridget Fonda) is telling her husband, Hank (Bill Pullman), about a news story she has discovered through some research. The information she is relating is important, secret and urgent, factors emphasised by the risk of being overheard in a quiet, public space. The conversation is interrupted by Sarah’s boss calling for her to continue her work.

It is fairly common, as in the case of A Simple Plan, that a staff member is the agent of the library’s oppression (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Philadelphia Story, Salmonberries). Walker and Lawson have demonstrated that librarians are commonly considered by the public to be ‘quiet, mean or stern (and)…..stuffy’ . Nevertheless, users are also frequently shown as disapproving of the behaviour of central characters, either independently (Henry Fool) or in conjunction with staff (Ghostbusters, Stanley and Iris). Such occurrences confer a number of desirable characteristics onto the main characters, such as individuality, rebelliousness and non-conformity. The library’s status becomes that of an unthreatening, largely benign, institution that can be disrupted without fear of serious consequences.

In the instance of Chinatown, the supercilious librarian is overtly unpleasant and obstructive, so the audience is gratified when the rebellious J.J. Giddes (Jack Nicholson) tricks him into lending out a ruler, which is then used to surreptitiously rip out a page of an important ledger. There is a particularly revealing point of view shot from the librarian’s perspective, showing Giddes disappearing into the stacks and thus out of the library’s sphere of surveillance and control.

The example of Chinatown reflects a common suggestion in films that the stacks or, occasionally, the closed collection reflect the uncontrolled areas of the library. This can be extrapolated into a psychoanalytical framework, the open areas of the library becoming a metaphor for the ego of the brain and the hidden areas become the wild and barely controlled id. This is well demonstrated by the scene from Ghostbusters based in New York Public Library. The opening shots of the exterior and the reading room show a calm, ordered environment with users working quietly at their desks. The camera then follows an elderly, female librarian down some stairs into the dark, low-ceilinged closed collection. The mood immediately shifts to one of menace, signalled by the ominous music and trailing steadicam shot most commonly associated with the horror genre. Unseen by her, books begin to fly around and the card catalogue sprays from the drawers. The rise of the Gothic genre in the eighteenth century created a link in the public consciousness between the uncanny movement of inanimate objects and the unconscious, or what Freud later termed the id. There is also a mock psychoanalysis scene which takes place in the reading room, during which the librarian admits that ‘I had an uncle who thought he was Saint Jerome ’, thereby overtly introducing the ideas of psychotherapy and madness to the film.

In a later scene, we see the ghost of an old, female librarian floating in the closed collection. Initially, she fulfils the stereotypical behaviour of the job, shushing the Ghostbusters as they talk amongst themselves. However, the barrier between the controlled and the uncontrolled breaks down under provocation, when she mutates into a terrifying, threatening figure, suggesting that the id is barely suppressed. In this instance, the library is a site of behavioural suppression, but the suppressive qualities disappear in the closed collection.

It is clear that the library takes on a large range of connotations in Ghostbusters, emphasised by the foregrounding of these scenes at the start of the film and being the location for the first ghostly sighting. The film-makers are using a number of signifiers that the library represents: history, secrecy, the hidden, the sense of order that is soon disrupted.

7.1 Libraries as Sites of Sexuality

There is a natural progression from the suppressed behaviour suggested by the cinematic library environment discussed in the previous chapter to the revelation or enactment of sexual desires. Brewerton argues that, despite the largely sexless image of librarianship as a profession, 'libraries are widely acknowledged to be sexy places...the silence and the regulations breed a tense sexual atmosphere.'

This is most commonly indicated in films by flirtatious conversations in the stacks between potential lovers. Like the urgent, whispered conversations common in thrillers (See Chapter 7), the library represents a silent, repressive environment against which to rebel in a range of films including The Philadelphia Story, The Big Sleep, The Music Man, Public Access, Salmonberries, City of Angels and Henry Fool.

The gentlest form of this is the type shown by the courting couple, Zaneeta Shinn (Susan Luckey) and Timmy Everett (Tommy Djilas), in The Music Man. The relationship is one of classical young love, as signalled by an early shot of the couple reading Romeo and Juliet in the library. We later see the pair engaged in the age-old conversation wherein the young man is trying to persuade the young woman to meet ‘at the old bridge’, a place previously mentioned as a notorious spot for lovers. The appeal of the illicit, unsupervised meeting place is strengthened through the contrast with the studious, quiet library.

A somewhat more aggressive form of flirtation is shown in Henry Fool. The obnoxious Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan) states that ‘This place is crawling with chicks’, and encourages his friend, Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) to pursue a woman. There is then a sequence of shots from Simon’s point of view showing a number of attractive young women working at desks or OPAC machines. No other individuals, either staff or users, are shown, reflecting the heightened sense of reality apparent in the film as a whole and the sexual fantasies of the shy Simon. Eventually he selects a woman to approach but is only able to write a poem, leave it on her desk and leave hurriedly. The impression left on the audience at the time is a romantic one, but this is later comically undercut by a reference to the letter as a ‘pornographic note’. The implication is that sexual desire is virtually indistinguishable from romance, and that it is only barely suppressed by the controlling yet public environment of the local library.

Salmonberries contains a number of library scenes in which the stacks are clearly a metaphor for the id. The small library is generally shown in dim light, with mist visible indoors, emphasising the coldness and mystery of the Alaskan setting. The narrative charts the developing relationship between the middle-aged librarian, Roswitha (Rosel Zech), and Kotzebue (k.d.lang). A strand throughout the film is the romantic pursuit of Roswitha, who is unsure of her sexuality, by Kotzebue. This theme is dramatically introduced in an early scene in which Roswitha has mistaken Kotzebue for a boy. Kotzebue then disappears into the stacks, to reappear provocatively naked. The stacks are once again representative of the unconscious mind, and the appearance of Kotzebue is a metaphor for our subliminal desires emerging into the conscious world.

The logical extension of this aspect of the public library environment is the popularity of it as a location for sexual activity in pornography . Debbie Does Dallas , one of the most popular pornographic films from the genre’s 1970s heyday, features a pair of scenes set in a library. In one, a library assistant called Donna is visited by her boyfriend Tim (Herschel Savage) who, in a somewhat less euphemistic reprise of the scene in The Music Man, persuades Donna to engage in intercourse in the stacks. They are caught in the act by the librarian, Mr Biddle (Jake Teague), who takes Donna to his office and agrees not to sack her in exchange for the opportunity to spank her. These two scenes demonstrate in an overt way the two elements of the library as a site of sexuality that emerge from the films discussed in this chapter. Respectively, these are the stacks as an uncontrolled area wherein the id is permitted to emerge into the conscious world and the librarian as an agent of control in the library environment.

There are also examples of films (Hairspray, Imitation of Life) in which young characters claim that they are going to the library as a way of escaping parental control, when they are in fact engaging in sexual activity of some form elsewhere. This suggests that libraries, for the parents, represent a controlled, educational and safe environment in which good behaviour can be assumed. In story-telling terms, irony is evoked through the contrast between the dowdy image of the library and the glamour to be found in other places. In Imitation of Life, Annie Jones (Juanita Moore) is shocked by the revelation that her daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), is not 'reclassifying books after hours' at Manhattan Public Library as she claimed, but is in fact dancing at a seedy nightclub. The role of the library as the counterpoint to the wild nightlife of New York is reinforced by Annie's cry of 'You told me you had a respectable job at the library'.

The enactment of private desires in a public place is the essence of the library as a site of sexuality. The overheard thoughts of users in City of Angels are explicit in this respect, including the lines 'What if I screamed, just screamed right now?' and 'She’s been looking at me for the last half hour, maybe I could just hang here a little longer’. The distinction between controlled behaviour and baser instincts is portrayed as a thin line, and consequently the public library becomes a more interesting place than it may initially appear.

The Depiction of American Public Libraries in Film - Libraries and Children

6. Libraries and Children

Libraries have attached a special importance to their services for children since approximately 1900, and emphasis on this aspect of the institution’s work has grown throughout the twentieth century:

Today, in the minds of both the general public and of government officials, it is one of the main reasons for supporting the public library. This supportive view remains even though schools teach reading and schools probably have their own libraries. A sociological appraisal of the institution in 1950 concluded that children’s service was its “classic success”

In contrast with the controversy over the role of adult public library services (see Chapter 5), the role of the children’s service has never been in doubt since its inception in the 1920s. Pioneering children’s librarian Augusta Baker summed up its purpose as ‘to contribute to lifelong competence and self-fulfilment’. The relationship between children and libraries in film is therefore worthy of study in itself.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, though set at the turn of the century, depicts a child using a library that seems more rooted in 1945, the year of the film’s making. The story revolves around Francie Nolan (Peggy Ann Garner), the daughter of a poor family in Brooklyn, who is determined to better herself and her family’s circumstances. She uses the library resources both as a means for self-improvement and as an escape from the difficulties of her everyday life. In Betty Smith’s source novel, the library is depicted as ‘a little old shabby place' , and the librarian repeatedly recommends the same two books for children without even glancing up from her paperwork. As a result, Francie’s experience is largely miserable:

She stood at the desk a long time before the librarian deigned to attend to her…She loved the library and was anxious to worship the lady in charge. But the librarian had other things on her mind. She hated children anyhow.

Interestingly, the film (made some years later) gives a very different impression. The library is smart rather than shabby, and Francie uses the alphabetical card catalogue in the most literal possible way by attempting to read through every book in order, declaring ‘I want to know everything in the world!’ The young, pretty, female librarian (Lillian Bronson) is attentive and friendly, expressing surprise at Francie’s choice of Robert Burton’s ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’. She urges the girl to add Charles Major's ‘When Knighthood Was In Flower’ to her selection ‘just for fun’, a work that could be regarded as both entertaining and educational.

The film’s director, Elia Kazan, has been described as both ‘liberal’ and ‘a quintessential humanist’ . Himself an immigrant who spent his formative years in New York City, he appears to identify strongly with Francie’s plight. It is possible that the film differs from the book because Kazan wished to show the role of the public library as an important resource for the disenfranchised urban poor.

Matilda also features a precocious girl who uses the public library to escape grim family circumstances, in this instance grotesque parents unappreciative of her brilliance. At the age of four she is left alone at home but sneaks out to visit the local library, following her parents’ refusal to buy her any books on the basis of ‘why would you wanna read when you got a television set sitting right in front of you?’. The library seems very imposing, the point being made by a combination of camera angles alternating between high overhead, making Matilda (Mara Wilson) appear extremely small, and low child’s-eye perspectives, emphasising the largeness of the surroundings. The elderly librarian, Mrs Phelps (Jean Speegle Howard), is friendly and directs Matilda to the children’s section. The room is lit with soft amber, paintings adorn the walls and the furnishings are comfortable, the overall impression being one of welcoming wholesomeness. A montage shows Matilda reading various books and displaying emotions such as wonderment and laughter. Later, Mrs Phelps explains the borrowing system and provides Matilda with a library card, which is used to take out items including ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Ann of Green Gables’.

The role of the library as an opportunity for children to access great works of literature and thus develop their imaginations is the central theme of The Pagemaster, in which Macauly Culkin plays the nervous, exceptionally safety-conscious Richard Tyler. When hiding from a storm in the large public library he encounters the librarian, Mister Dewey (Christopher Lloyd), who initially appears intimidating and eccentric. The first impression of the library, reflecting Richard’s trepidation, is reminiscent of a Gothic castle: close-ups of the gargoyles on the exterior giving way to a dark, high-vaulted antechamber, with the thunder and lightning of the storm outside intruding regularly, whilst sinister music plays on the soundtrack.

Richard is reluctant to use the library but Mister Dewey produces a library card for him, telling him ‘consider this your passport to the magical, unpredictable world of books’. The magic metaphor is then transformed into a literal experience when Richard gets lost in the stacks and enters a fantasy world, a change signalled by a switch from live action to animation. Mister Dewey is transmuted into the Pagemaster, who refers to himself as ‘keeper of the books and guardian of the written word’. The library is highly romanticised, as in the Pagemaster’s description of the fiction section ‘where all is possible, where a boy’s imagination can take root and grow to incredible heights, where a boy’s courage is a wind that moves him to discovery, and where your journey begins’.

The rest of the plot involves Richard and three anthropomorphised books representing the genres of Adventure (Patrick Stewart), Fantasy (Whoopi Goldberg) and Horror (Frank Welker) progressing through a series of episodes based on such well-known tales as ‘Moby Dick’, ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ and ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. As a result of his journey Richard develops courage, imagination and self-reliance.

Each of these films reflects the prevailing cultural views of childhood as an innocent time and books as an escape from reality into other worlds. The child protagonists are deprived the privilege of imagination through poverty, lack of family support or pathological over-caution, but they come to improve themselves through reading. The function of the public library is arguably the most traditional one, the provision of a free book lending service. In every case a friendly librarian provides an introduction to the service, but no other children are present and the library remains an essentially solitary place. However, this solitude is not necessary a negative quality as it’s role is to provide a contrast to chaotic lifestyles in other areas. In every film the child is the central character of the narrative and the audience is given ample time to witness the positive influence the public library has on each child who uses it.

A curious feature of these films is the relative lack of children’s literature, the books referred to including instead a seventeenth century paramedical treatise (‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’ in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), a Dickens satire of Victorian England (‘The Pickwick Papers’ in Matilda) and a gruesome study of the nature of evil (‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ in The Pagemaster). The children in the films, all depicted as exceptional intellectually and in other ways, tend to read what their parents (and of course the film-makers) would ideally wish them to read rather than anything an American child is actually likely to enjoy. It is revealing that the only book mentioned in all 3 films is Melville’s ‘Moby-Dick’, not only ‘considered by many to be the greatest work of American fiction’ , but repeatedly referred to in American art as totemic of the nation as a whole. This suggests a role for libraries as cultural signifiers similar to that of its role for immigrants (see Chapter 5), as an introduction to the national character and self-perceptions.

In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Matilda the library features early on in the narrative, as a way of introducing the girls to the world of fiction. The disparity between home life and imaginary existence is emphasised in both cases by the girls’ reluctance to admit to their respective families where they are going, demonstrating a wish to keep the two spheres completely separate. The children progress beyond books specifically aimed at young readers to adult literature, although this is achieved despite the encouragement of benign librarians to read ‘just for fun’. In both cases, the library is forgotten after the girls begin attending school and thus discover other channels for learning. The films suggest the library is at its strongest when used by autodidacts with no other opportunity to learn, casting the institution in the role of learning resource of last resort rather than supplement to other educational activities. This is perhaps an unintentional and unfortunate depiction, more due to the fact that school presents greater dramatic possibilities through social interaction than any reflection of how libraries are perceived by the film-makers.

Indeed, the portrayal of the public libraries in each of these films is generally extremely positive. Although it may originally appear as an intimidatingly grand environment, as in Matilda and The Pagemaster, the overwhelming impression is of a friendly and inspiring place. The film-makers in fact arguably come over as actively didactic in their promotion of public libraries as places of learning and wonder for children who might otherwise find both of these qualitities unobtainable.

The Depiction of American Public Libraries in Film - Libraries as Cultural Signifiers

5. Libraries as Cultural Signifiers

Public libraries occupy a unique niche in American society. They are dependent upon federal funding, but the semi-autonomous directorship management structure ‘has insulated the agency from political influences and pressures to a degree’ . Throughout the century, financial support from the government has exhibited a consistent, if gradual, upward trend under both Republican and Democratic administrations. Both conservative and liberal thinkers are able to claim the public library network as exemplifying their own values . The ambiguity of the public library’s true purpose stems from the early years of the institution at the start of the century. Martin has identified three central strands of thought at this time, which he usefully terms humanitarian, educational and recreational.

The earlier emphasis upon a record of the world of knowledge can be called the humanitarian view of the mission of the institution. It was an elitist conception of what people ought to read. (We can also see) this trend picked up by revisionist historians to derive a reform motive for establishing the public library.
The later emphasis upon education and wholesome recreation can properly be called a democratic view of the purpose of the public library. The humanitarian view was imposed from above; the democratic conception came from the people, the culmination of the many social libraries of the nineteenth century that led in time to the twentieth century institution that we now know.

The humanitarian strain pointed towards collections made up of classics, approved literary works, and standard subject books. The educational goal required publications that specifically supported the self-improvement activities in which people were engaged. And the recreational aim called for the popular current literature designed to provide diversion. The three pulled in different directions and competed for the money available.

Each of these views still has proponents today, and the argument has never been satisfactorily resolved. In reality, libraries have continued attempting to maintain a balance between the three, but in cinematic terms the humanitarian perspective is largely invisible. The educational aspect is evident in films such as Stanley and Iris, the recreational in The Pagemaster.

What is undeniable is that public libraries have attained the status of totemic signifier of national culture as a whole. Ulrich, Hechlik & Roeber's study of occupational stereotypes found that 'The librarian may appear to be a good example of a middle class culture bearer' . It is reasonable to assume that, if that is the role of the librarian in the perception of the public then the library system as a whole would be considered to fulfil a similar function. Whether or not this is an accurate impression of the role of the network, it is valuable to determine how films represent the role of the public library in order to gain some insight into how such stereotypes are generated or reflected.

It is possible to divide cinematic public libraries into two broad types, the small-town library and the city library. This reflects the fact that, according to a study published in 1951 , 2 percent of libraries served over 100,000 people and 65 percent served less than 5,000. Small-town libraries function as symbols of civic pride, reflections of local idiosyncrasies, and fulcrums of social life. An excellent example of each of these facets is The Philadelphia Story, in which the only scene based in the small town itself is centred on the library, underscoring it’s importance as cultural signifier for the area. As is common in cinematic small-town America, the library is an ivy-covered, classically styled building conveying a sense of importance and authority (Field of Dreams, Shadow of a Doubt). The style of architecture is typical of the Carnegie libraries , which 'were more a tribute to civic pride than functional structures for library service'.

A stock film plot involves a stranger arriving in town, events occur which change both the character and the town, and at the end the stranger either leaves town or chooses to stay. In such cases, such as The Philadelphia Story, The Music Man and Public Access, the town library often serves as a repository of local history which the stranger uses to discover useful information, ‘family history, stuff like that’ as Macauly Connor (James Stewart) puts it in The Philadelphia Story. This film, befitting its mode of screwball comedy, soon abandons the serious research to concentrate on the quirky quaker librarians, one of whom (Hilda Plowright) inquires ‘can I help thee’ and advises him ‘if thee will consult my colleague through there’. The city dwelling Macauly’s bemused response of ‘er, thank thee’ underscore the differences between idiosyncratic town and sophisticated city that forms a theme of the film as a whole.

Macauly then happens to encounter Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn), who is in the library reading Macauly’s book of short stories. It is no great surprise to either character that they should meet in this setting, the implicit assumption being that a public space in a small town is inevitably going to provide a meeting place and location for chance encounters. Their flirtatious conversation, interrupted by a shushing librarian, also reflects the sexual undercurrents of the library environment (see Chapter 7.1).

The city library tends to be a far more imposing place, often emphasised by high camera angles (Se7en, Ghostbusters , Sophie's Choice, All The President's Men). The effect is to isolate the individual in the grand surroundings. In contrast to the small-town library role in preserving local history, the city public library comes to represent the awesome weight of human achievement and knowledge, which dwarfs the individual character.

The exception to this rule is City of Angels, set in Los Angeles but largely filmed in San Francisco's modern, bright and spacious public library. Seth (Nicolas Cage) is an angel who can read people's minds. A representative mix of people are studying and the audience can hear their thoughts as voice-overs such as 'What happened to the cards? You could touch the cards', and 'What if I screamed, just screamed right now?' The final voice-over is an elderly man reading the quintessentially American 'A Movable Feast' by Ernest Hemingway, a text that comes to bear some importance in the story. Many angels are shown to be present in the library 'listening' to the users and Seth later states that 'I live here', an indication that it is place where people of all kinds come to think important thoughts.

Public libraries are often portrayed as strong signifiers of specifically American ideals. The Stars and Stripes flag is frequently visible either in the exterior establishing shot (Shadow of a Doubt) or hanging on an interior wall (All The President's Men, Public Access, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). The symbolism is at its most overt in Logan's Run, a science fiction film in which the nation is a forgotten concept. However, the climactic scene is set in the ruined Library of Congress in Washington D.C. and revolves around a fight between the hero, Logan (Michael York), and the villainous policeman Francis (Richard Jordan I). Logan triumphs by piercing Francis' chest with a flagpole bearing the United States flag, reasserting American values over the dystopian future state even if Logan is unaware of the fact. Similarly, in the nightmare future of Battlefield Earth Jonnie 'Goodboy' Tyler (Barry Pepper) finds a copy of The Declaration of Independence in what remains of Denver Public Library.

More commonly, the use of the flag is ironic. A Simple Plan, All The President's Men and Public Access all feature tales which clearly deal with the debasement of the American Dream through greed, corruption or mental weakness, as in this exchange between characters in A Simple Plan who discover a hoard of stolen money:

Lou (Brent Briscoe): It's the American Dream in a goddamn gym bag!
Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton): You work for the American Dream. You don't steal it.
Lou: Then this is better.

Public Access features the public library in a number of scenes, as a contrast to the public access local television station of the title. It is seen as a pleasant, relaxing environment, but essentially passive and reactive as personified by the pretty but easily manipulated librarian, Rachel (Dina Brooks). The psychopathic anti-hero Whiley Pritcher (Ron Marquette) easily outwits, seduces and ultimately murders her after she discovers crucial information through some library research. The image of her body lying on the library floor is an image of innocence having been defiled by irrational yet powerful forces of the media, government and violence. The critical information has been lying unused in the library until the climactic scenes, suggesting that people are more likely to accept information disseminated via the largely unregulated media than to actively seek or check it themselves. This image of the public library as unused and ineffectual is worrying, but the institution is nevertheless seen as a force against corruption and untruth.

In Se7en, a film that suggest that the United States is at heart a violent and miserable place, a more complex vision of public libraries emerges. In one scene, the cerebral Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) visits the library after hours, his banter with the library guards (Hawthorne James, Roscoe Davidson, Bob Collins and Jimmy Dale Hartsell) suggesting that this is a regular occurrence. He teases the men, remarking ‘I’ll never understand. All these books. A world of knowledge at your fingertips. And what do you do? Play poker all night.’ He is convinced that a recent spate of killings is inspired by the seven deadly sins and uses the library to research such figures as Dante, Milton and Chaucer. The mood is sombre but warm. Classical music is played and the camera lingers over close-ups of poems and beautiful illustrations. Somerset's solitary lucubration is clearly connected to his wisdom and set in clear relief by the argument of his hot-headed partner Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) who says (with reference to the killer) 'Just because the fucker's got a library card doesn't make him Yoda'.

Later, John Doe (Kevin Spacey) is tracked down by checking the borrower records at the public library. Somerset explains that 'Certain books are flagged. Books on, say, nuclear weapons, or Mein Kampf. Anyone who gets out a flagged book has his records fed into the FBI's computer...Legal, illegal, these terms don't apply'. Somerset obtains this information by bribing a contact at the FBI and picking up the details after a conspiratorial drop-off. Although it seems unlikely, this incident is almost certainly inspired by the FBI's Library Awareness Plan, an 'attempt to recruit librarians as counter-intelligence "assets" to monitor suspicious library users and report their reading habits to the FBI' .

The implication of Se7en is that fascism is a natural response to outright moral breakdown, and that the public library service can be a conspirator in this process. However, libraries are more often shown as essentially liberal institutions. In Stanley and Iris, for example, the public library enables Stanley Cox (Robert De Niro) to publicly demonstrate his new-found literacy and therefore his reconnection to mainstream society. In Field of Dreams, the very liberal central character, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), is clearly intended to represent the “American Everyman” of the baby boomer generation. One scene shows the local school threatening to ban a novel, urged on by the bigoted townsfolk until persuaded not to by Anni Kinsella (Amy Madigan). This is immediately followed by a trip to the public library to research the author of the novel. The library is presented as an open place, with helpful staff and attractive users. The contrast with the small-minded politics of the school is both stark and deliberate, and very much in the library's favour.
A major strand of liberal America's narrative of itself is its welcoming attitude to immigrants. Historically, the public library service saw itself as a part of this process:

The public library sought to mobilize its resources to help the newcomers to prepare for citizenship and employment, in the form of Americanization classes...Unresolved was the question of whether the program worked against the goals of cultural pluralism. This formal and concentrated effort did not last very long.

A number of libraries featuring immigrants as central characters feature libraries, including A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Moscow on the Hudson and Sophie's Choice. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn contains a very positive depiction of how a second generation Irish immigrant child uses the public library as a means of improving her life educationally and recreationally (see Chapter 6).

Sophie's Choice, however is a less optimistic portrayal of the immigrant experience. Set in 1947, one scene shows the Polish Catholic immigrant Sophie Zawistowka (Meryl Streep) visiting the library to find out more about Emily Dickinson, whose poetry she has heard at an English lesson. The oppressive silence, the high camera angles and the positioning of the librarian (John Rothman) at an elevated level all serve to emphasise the intimidating nature of the experience for Sophie. The librarian, who is young, white and male, is initially dismissive of her request that he mishears as Emile Dickens. Sophie struggles to make herself understood, and the librarian becomes openly hostile and sarcastic, saying 'you won't find any such listing...Charles Dickens is an English writer. There is no American poet called Dickens...listen, I've told you there's no such person, do you want me to draw you a picture?' Sophie, already ill, collapses on the hard marble floor and has to be rescued by a friend. The film-maker uses the institution that is supposed to represent a route to a greater understanding of American culture ironically, to show the racism that can block the immigrant's path to a successful lifestyle.

The ambiguous role of the public library allows film-makers to use them as a signifier of the nation as a whole. The overall tone and message of each film is reflected in the portrayal of the library, be it the wholesome quaintness of The Philadelphia Story, the warm humanism of City of Angels or the bleak nihilism of Se7en.

The Depiction of American Public Libraries in Film - Introduction, Methodology, Literature Review, Libraries as Representations of Research

1. Introduction

The twentieth century has seen the rise of two great cultural institutions, the cinema and the public library. Each was in its infancy in the year 1900, but by 2000 both are so ingrained in the culture of the West that it is hard to imagine society without them. This dissertation concerns the depiction of public libraries in American feature films.

From the film-maker’s point of view, the interesting representation of libraries causes a number of problems. If ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ , then how does one make a film about reading, not the most visually compelling of activities? A particular cinematic grammar has developed around the depiction of libraries that attempts to resolve this dilemma, a grammar that is revealing of the assumptions made about library activity as well as the dictates of directorial convention.

However, of greater importance in this study is the perspective of the information professional. Stereotypes have dogged the profession and the service throughout the century. When discussing stereotypes, Wilson states that:

Stereotypes are learned collective perceptions. They are learned from novels, short stories, plays, movies, TV, radio and newspapers...Once learned they become a social reality or social fact. They are real although they are not palpable. They become "pictures in our heads".

The public perception of the library service is of critical importance in a number of ways, some obvious and others less so. Individuals are far more likely to make use of their local library if they consider it likely to be a friendly, useful or attractive environment. It is the assertion of this study that the public image of libraries is likely to be influenced by their depiction in feature films, particularly amongst those sections of the population that do not use the public library on a regular basis. It is imperative for the future of the public library network that potential users are encouraged to see the library as a useful or enjoyable resource if new activity is to be generated.

The status of libraries in the eye of decision-makers may affect the funding of public libraries from government agencies and other library and information service (LIS)-related policy decisions. Although federal aid has generally increased throughout the twentieth century, it regularly comes under scrutiny from those seeking to cut state funding in the public arena . Public libraries also have a tendency to become embroiled in political controversies such as the current debate on internet filtering and the availability of pornography and erotica in their collections . The position of library advocates in such situations is strengthened if libraries are presupposed to possess certain characteristics such as trustworthiness, intelligence and honesty. Cinema can undoubtedly be a factor in producing such assumptions.

Furthermore, recruitment to the information professions is likely to be assisted if libraries are presented as interesting, inspirational places, and the librarians as attractive people respected by other characters. Brewerton asks 'How are we to recruit dynamic people if we have (a) dowdy image and how does this affect our dealings with the public?' As Martin has stated with regard to the recruitment difficulties in the past:

On their side, libraries still struggled with the uncertain image of the librarian…This was significant because new recruits in the 1960s would become the leaders and administrators of the 1980s and 1990s.

Many commentators have assumed that the image of libraries and librarianship in our culture is largely a negative one. In his obituary of Frank Capra, Gilbert Adair refers to the oft-mentioned library scene in It's A Wonderful Life (see Chapter 3):

The library is, in Hollywood's symbology, an unmistakable mark of failure, of solitude, and, where a woman is concerned, of prim, mousy, bespectacled, hair in a bun plainness - a fact that Capra...was confident his audiences would understand without elucidation.

It is clear that Capra was, in this famous scene, both using and exacerbating one stereotype of the library, but it is possible that multiple stereotypes can co-exist in the same culture. This study will contend that the portrayal of public libraries in American film is far more complex than Adair suggests, and that the overall impression is not that of 'the mark of failure' at all.

2. Methodology

This study is based on the careful viewing of over 45 films, all relevant works that were available for viewing, as listed in the Bibliography (Chapter 10). A methodology broadly definable as content analysis was utilised. Repeated motifs and themes from the films viewed were noted, considered, and placed into broad categories. These representations were then analysed for ideological meanings and relevance to the realities of public library services in the United States.

A broad interdisciplinary approach was adopted in order to prevent overly narrow readings of textual meanings. The themes extracted from the content analysis are varied, including generic approaches (Chapter 8), varieties of library use (Chapter 4 and Chapter 6), sociological and ideological concepts (Chapter 5) and Freudian readings (Chapter 7.1). A chronological approach was rejected on the basis that it would be prohibitive and hinder the primary goal of extracting thematic similarities between the films.

In addition, relevant literature was collected and studied, as outlined in the Literature Review (Chapter 3). Observations and trends were taken from the literature and served to inform the arguments discussed and conclusions drawn.

This study deals exclusively in the depiction of public libraries in the United States from 1940 to the present day. The reasons that these parameters have been set are largely practical.

It was necessary to establish a specific type of library to be studied. Examples of other sorts of libraries in films are numerous, particularly law libraries, academic libraries, school libraries and prison libraries. Each of these is worthy of study in itself, but space limitations place them outside the scope of this dissertation. It was considered that the public library provided the broadest spectrum of experience and representation, and was thus the most appropriate field to examine.

It has proved to be extremely difficult gathering information on films made before World War Two. Virtually none of those that were sought are available on video or similar formats, and the British Film Institute library was unable to supply viewable copies on film. Therefore, the decision was taken that the arbitrary date of 1940 was the most appropriate point at which to begin the study. It is also noted that Walker & Lawson were similarly able to view only one film made prior to 1940 for their research: The Blot, released in 1921.

The concentration on American libraries in particular is simply due to the amount of source material available. There are many films from other nations that are of interest from an information science perspective, for example Wings of Desire (Germany), Prick Up Your Ears (United Kingdom) and The Blue Kite (China), but only the United States has produced enough material to make a study such as this feasible. It was considered it inappropriate to extend the parameters beyond one country, as the relevant issues to be considered vary from one place to the next. Similarly, a comparative approach between the United States and, for example, British libraries would extend the scope of the study considerably but has been judged impractical in the space available.

One exception to the stated parameters is for the special category of science fiction films. The reasoning behind this is discussed in the relevant section of this study (Chapter 8).

3. Literature Review

This is the first serious and extensive study of the portrayal of public libraries in film. Related research has proved to be scarce, unsurprisingly so given the minority interest of the subject matter. Whilst this leaves large scope for this study to create original material, it also means that the material gathered for the literature review is so small as to make any generalisations somewhat tentative.
All of the material that has been identified is produced by library professionals and is generally concerned with the depiction of librarians as individuals (most use the fortuitous phrase ‘reel librarians’) rather than the library as a user-system interface. The vast majority (34 out of 44 examples cited by Brewerton) of such writing is available only on the internet, rather than in journals, books or other professionally published sources. The literature can be divided into three broad categories: the indexed, the analytical and the satirical.

The most extensive of the indexed resources by some distance is Librarians in the Movies: An Annotated Filmography, moderated by Martin Raish. The introduction states that ‘This filmography is an ongoing attempt to expand our collective memory, to find a more comprehensive and defensible basis for our acceptance or rejection of the “typical movie librarian” – whatever we think he or she is’. Despite this declaration, and the directory’s title, the website features not just librarians but also all instances in which a library is shown or referred to. Raish divides these instances into four groups labelled A, B, C and D. In the A group, ‘someone says or does something that clearly identifies himself or herself (or some other character) as a librarian’. Group B features films in which ‘(a) library is used for research, for study, to meet someone, or for some other purpose’. The C group consists of those films in which a library is only mentioned in passing, and D is a miscellaneous group for films of which insufficient information is available to place the entries into another group. A total of over three hundred films are featured, most with a brief description of the nature of the depiction, but minimal filmographical information. Nevertheless, the site is well-maintained, reasonably accurate and fairly comprehensive thanks to the way in which Raish encourages others to add to his database whenever possible.

Other indexes include less wide-ranging more idiosyncratic selections such as Frederick Duda’s Cool Librarians, which emphasises librarians in television and detective fiction, and Steven J. Schmidt’s Top Ten Movies Featuring Libraries, Librarians and the Book Arts. These lists are far smaller than the Annotated Filmography, and consist only of the author’s ‘favourite’ examples, which are invariably the most extreme, and therefore memorable. Schmidt includes Mary Hatch Bailey (Donna Reed) in It's A Wonderful Life, Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn) in Desk Set and the librarian (John Rothman) in Sophie's Choice, which is described as 'an example of the worst reference interview of all time'. Each of these is also mentioned in the introduction of Raish, and all are repeatedly referred to throughout the literature.

Analytical resources include Stephen Walker & V. Lonnie Lawson's The Librarian Stereotype and the Movies, Alison Hall's Batgirl was a Librarian and Antony Brewerton's Wear lipstick, have a tattoo, belly-dance, then get naked: The making of a virtual librarian. In addition, The Image of the Librarian in Commercial Motion Pictures: An Annotated Filmography by Ann O'Brien & Martin Raish is a hybrid, comprising a much-reduced version of Raish's online Annotated Filmography with an analytical introduction by O'Brien entitled Our Image in the Movies: A Brief Guide.

Every analytical study begins from the assumption, stated explicitly or implicitly, that the image of librarians is a negative one. None cite any authoritative research to confirm this view, unless Walker & Lawson's use of a survey made for a television quiz show can be considered authoritative. The inference is drawn from a highly selective set of source texts, and It's A Wonderful Life is repeatedly and predictably invoked.

The exception to the ubiquitous Donna Reed references is Hall, in which the approach is somewhat scattershot, claiming to look at 'the image of the librarian as portrayed in....books, films, TV, cartoons, comic strips', but in fact citing only 11 references, all of which are novels. This provides the most extreme example of the tendency to claim without any supporting evidence that 'the unmistakable impression emerges of a very dull, earnest body, usually female, with glasses (probably those little half glasses), her hair in - yes, here it comes - a BUN, wearing sensible shoes, support hose, tweed skirt, droopy sweater...need I continue?' This very specific image is then contradicted in all but one of the texts cited, the exception being a single line in a spy novel.

O'Brien & Raish and Walker & Lawson demonstrate a more thematic approach, for example dealing with common portrayals in different genres. The interpretation of the stereotype becomes more sophisticated as the arguments develop, although this can seem apologetic or grudging, as in the comment that 'It has to be admitted that in the majority of cases, what we get is various aspects of the stereotype'. Walker & Lawson also provide the perceptive point that ‘the purest librarian stereotypes are those that have a small amount of screen time’.

Walker & Lawson provides an interesting analysis of gender issues, concluding that 'Movies are more likely to stereotype women librarians, but the roles for women are more numerous and more important than for men...yet the judgements about women librarians are nastier'. This is in contrast to the sweeping generalisations of Hall, and demonstrates a much more considered approach to the subject.

Brewerton effectively provides a literature review of web-based material whilst also commenting on the image of the profession in general. It states that 'The vast majority of the image resources on the Web are concerned with the portrayal of librarians in the theatre and film', but provides only 8 examples from a total of 45 citations.

Brewerton cites 15 examples of what he terms 'image-busting' websites designed to challenge or lampoon the stereotypical image of the librarian in the eyes of the public, or, more precisely, what professionals perceive to be their image. Most of these satirical sites are unrelentingly light-hearted in tone and include such unlikely items as The Bellydancing Librarian, The Lipstick Librarian, The Intolerant Librarian, The Adventures of the Librarian, The Ska Librarian, The Laughing Librarian and The Barbarian Librarian. There are also sites dedicated to sex and librarianship such as The Image of Librarians in Pornography and The Naked Librarian. Brewerton attributes this to the fact that 'The tense sexual atmosphere of the quiet library and the repressed sexuality of library workers are well established elements of the image'. There is some truth in this, but it would perhaps be more noteworthy in the broader context of internet content if there were no references to sex and sexuality in librarianship.

There is also a strand of more serious satirical sites available including The Modified Librarian, which deals with library staff with tattoos and body piercing, Street Librarian and The Anarchist Librarian Web. These sites use humour to some degree but also promote an overt political agenda. For example, the Anarchist Librarian Web is a serious radical magazine site that runs under the banner 'The Revolution Will Be Cataloged' (sic).

The nomenclature used for many sites regarding the image of library workers is notably uniform, often using the form The (Something) Librarian. There is also a notably large number of links between such sites, suggesting that a community of internet 'image-busters' has developed as a reaction to public perceptions. However, these factors also suggest a degree of insularity in this area. A possible area of future research would be to determine the amount that these sites are read by other professionals compared with non-librarians. The number of jokes that rely on a certain knowledge of librarianship, for example the brilliant spoof bibliography in The Lipstick Librarian, suggest that the intended audience is that of fellow professionals. It follows that these sites fulfil a satirical role rather than a serious attempt to alter public attitudes.

The concentration on each of these sites is very much upon the image of the profession, as opposed to the overall impression of the service from the user's perspective. I would suggest that this is due to the informal nature of these studies, and the make-up of the intended audience, that is to say other library professionals. However, this can lead to misrepresentation, as in Raish's description of the key library scene in Stanley and Iris:

Jane Fonda and Robert De Niro are blue collar workers who lean on each other for support. Fonda, a recent widow, helps De Niro learn to read. Near the end of the movie he parades through the public library picking up every book he sees and proudly reading aloud passages from each. The librarian (played by Dortha Duckworth) is as stereotypical as they come -- old, spinsterish, with grey hair pulled tightly back. She scolds him with 'Shhh, this is a library,' to which he responds 'Yes! This is my library!'

Not only is this description factually inaccurate (her hair is neither grey nor tied back and the dialogue is mistranscribed), it also suggests that the scene is a negative portrayal of the library experience. On the contrary, in the context of the narrative as a whole the trip to the visit is a liberating moment, symbolising the empowerment of the formerly illiterate (and hence marginalised) De Niro character, Stanley Cox. An as yet unpublished book by Steven J. Schmidt, prospectively titled 'Librarians on Film', appears likely to continue the emphasis on the profession over the service.

The informal nature of much of the literature results in analysis that lacks necessary rigour. Little or no differentiation is made between public libraries and other forms of LIS, a large proportion of factual content is inaccurate, and opinion often skews the interpretation of facts to a problematic degree. Such shortcomings are perhaps inevitable in personal ventures, further emphasising the need for academic studies such as this.

Despite the constant emphasis in the literature on the librarian as an individual, no attempt has yet been made to analyse the socio-political aspects of their depiction of the profession beyond individual instances. There is no attempt to apply the politics of gender, race or sexuality to the films as a whole. It is surely noteworthy that in the films covered by this study there is only one (Somewhere in Time) that features an African-American library worker, but the serious imbalance of ethnic groups in these depictions has gone entirely unremarked.

4. Libraries as Representations of Research

Possibly the most familiar role played by American public libraries in film is that of the site of important research that furthers the narrative. Of the films listed in the bibliography, over seventy per cent fulfil this plot function to a greater or lesser extent. A typical, straightforward example of this is Somewhere in Time, in which Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve) goes to the local town library in order to investigate the life of a turn of the century actress. He persuades the librarian to get him some journals from the closed collection, the content of which is then disclosed to the viewer by a combination of voice-over and close-ups of the magazines themselves, particularly photographic content.

This scene epitomises its type as it includes a number of characteristics that are replicated in the majority of cases. The first of these is brevity. This makes sense for the film-maker in story-telling terms for which a lengthy scene would disrupt the overall pacing of the narrative. As a result, the information-seeking process is massively simplified, as in Somewhere in Time in which the character merely requests ‘some theatre magazines’, or omitted completely, with only the resulting data being shown. This tendency is at its most extreme in the thriller genre in films such as The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, Chinatown and The Big Sleep, wherein pacing is of critical importance and directors are least likely to dwell on the essentially undramatic business of research.

The concentration on journal sources is also typical. A variety of forms are used, most often newspapers (Dead Heat, Shadow of a Doubt, A Simple Plan), but also magazines (Field of Dreams) and journals transcribed onto microfilm (Public Access). This has the advantage of displaying material in the form of photographs or concise headlines, as well as suggesting that the information retrieved is of relevance to the ‘real world’ as opposed to the dry ‘facts’ found in reference books, that is to say stories rather than data. It can also be assumed that the library is the only location that such material can be acquired, whereas many well-educated and affluent characters may be assumed to possess a reasonable collection of books at home.

The example of The Time Machine demonstrates the advantages of using a library to convey plot information. In a future world, H.G.Wells (Rod Taylor) discovers the fate of humankind through a library in the form of a set of rings that contain audio information. Hence the audience is able to hear the archive material at the same time as the character. This scene has no counterpart in the source novella, in which the Time Traveller deduces mankind’s story through observation and deduction, a process difficult to convey on-screen.

It is often to the film-maker's advantage if an element of difficulty or tension can be introduced to the library sequence, thus maintaining viewer interest in the unfolding story. A common way of doing this is to present the library worker as either reluctant to assist the central character (as in Somewhere in Time and Shadow of a Doubt) or downright obstructive (as in Chinatown). This is unfortunate for the image of the profession, but does not necessarily mean that the library service as a whole is presented in a negative way. In fact there are only two instances in the films being considered here (Sophie’s Choice and All The President’s Men) of a visit to the library failing to elicit the material sought by characters. There is also the instance of Vertigo, in which ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) dismisses the service out of hand with the request to his friend to find some ‘history, not the kind you find in libraries, real history’.

The Watergate thriller All The President’s Men provides a fascinating case study of the library as a representation of the research process. In the book on which the screenplay is based the relevant action, an investigation into the interests of Howard Hunt, merits only this passage:

‘Bernstein and Woodward took a cab to the Library of Congress and found the office that handles White House requests for material in the library. Speaking to the reporters in a hallway, rather than his office, a librarian informed them politely that White House transactions were confidential. Eventually, the reporters found a more cooperative clerk and spent the afternoon in the reading room sorting through thousands of slips of paper – every request since July 1971, when Hunt was hired by the White House. None had Hunt’s name on it.’

The portrayal of these brief events in the film is instructive. Firstly, the sequence takes up several minutes of screen time, a far greater proportion of the narrative than is shown in the book. For the key shot of the journalists sifting through the slips, the camera is placed high above the action in the roof of the building, gradually zooming back to reveal more of the reading room. The slow pace of the zoom back, several fades in and out, and the stately, portentous music serve to indicate the passage of time. Unusually, the characters fail to retrieve the information that they are seeking so the plot is not furthered by the scene. The function of this sequence, therefore, is to encapsulate what was an extremely lengthy and complex research process into a brief, simple and readily understandable form. The scene becomes a synecdoche for the whole investigation.

Related to this is the way in which obstacles are places before Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) in the scene. The librarian that ‘informed them politely that White House transactions were confidential’ is played by a white, middle-aged man in a suit, exuding a sense of smug superiority. He is seated behind an imposing mahogany desk and a portrait of an old man looks down from the wall. The signifiers confer a sense that the librarian is a member of 'the establishment', and therefore unconsciously represents the forces that are trying to block the journalists' investigation. In contrast, the 'cooperative clerk' is a young black man, virtually the only black character in the entire film. The opposition once again transforms the library into a synecdoche of the film's broader concerns, comparing the stuffy obstructiveness of the establishment with the liberal openness of the youthful counterculture.

The sequence also enables the director, Alan J. Pakula, to simplify a hugely complex and lengthy investigation in a manner easily comprehended by the audience. The events, as described in the book, involved a massive amount of routine paperwork and telephone conversations that are clearly not conducive to compelling cinema. The visit to the Library of Congress allows for the portrayal of the routine and unproductive aspects of the research to be implied in a visually spectacular setting and in a way that the audience will recognise from their own experience.

It is this last point that is the key to the use of libraries as a representation of a longer research process. The public library is an institution of which virtually all of the audience will have some familiarity, so the experience of characters carrying out similar activity will carry resonance and require no explanation. The required facts or meanings are conveyed to the audience in a simple way, and the plot is allowed to continue.

The common occurrence of such scenes in films is recognition that public libraries provide a valuable service to the community. The overwhelming impression from these scenes is a positive one, likely to encourage the viewer to use the library when some information is sought.

The Depiction of American Public Libraries in Film - Abstract

This study consisted of an investigation and analysis of the depiction of American public libraries in film since 1940. A total of 46 films were studied. A review was conducted of the limited amount of literature on related subject areas, which was found to be lacking rigour. Thematic approaches led to analyses in the areas of research, cultural signifiers, children, secrecy, sexuality and the genre of science fiction. The overall portrayal of public libraries in film was found to be that of a place of enrichment, knowledge and American values.

Tom's Top 100 Novel Challenge (completed September 2005)

Tom's Top 100 Novel Challenge

"There's more to life than books you know, but not much more"

Well, I've finally finished and what a lot of fun I've had. I've enjoyed the self-imposed discipline that using the list has imposed, and conversely I can't wait to get stuck into the backlog of stuff I've got waiting on my bookshelf - much of it non-fiction. I feel that I'm much more clued up about novels than I was 2 years years ago but I still don't consider myself well-read; further reading would include Middlemarch, Bleak House, Humphrey Clinker, Roderick Random, The Decameron, The Bible, The Koran, Dante, Milton, bits of Shakespeare...

Check out the original Observer article and a subsequent, largely ill-informed discussion.

Scroll down for the full list and my individual comments on each book. Meanwhile I thought I would answer a few of the questions that have come up throughout in the form of a few lists, as follows:

Vital Statistics

100 novels
63 I had never read before starting out
About 2 years - that's about 11 or 12 days per book
Longest book: (6) Clarissa - 1500 pages
Shortest book: I reckon it's (88) the BFG, but I could be wrong

Favourite books, in no particular order

Don Quixote
Tristram Shandy
Dangerous Liaisons
The Way We Live Now
Huckleberry Finn
The Great Gatsby
Wise Children

Least favourite books, in no particular order

Nightmare Abbey
Little Women
Call of the Wild

"What the?" - Right author, wrong book

Daniel Deronda - George Eliot (Middlemarch is the one most people rate as one of the great novels - though I've yet to read it)
Nostromo - Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness, innit?)
Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov (Pale Fire or Sebastian Knight for me)
Haroun and the Sea of Stories - Salman Rushdie (Midnight's Children makes all the other lists, and I have a soft spot for Shame)
Atonement - Ian McEwan (A close call, but Enduring Love is a remarkable book)

"Where the hell?" - Books that should be there, but aren't

The Monk - M.G.Lewis (Hilariously OTT gothic romp)
The Awakening - Kate Chopin (Everyone on my degree course loved it, no-one else has ever heard of it)
P.G.Wodehouse - The Inimitable Jeeves (My knowledge of PGW is scant, but surely he's one of the greatest of all comic writers?)
On Broadway - Damon Runyon (Short stories but with a novelistic feel, I'm saying. S'Wonderful)
Graham Swift - Waterland (Stunning stuff both technically and emotionally)

Not to mention American Psycho, Downriver, Possession, the Regeneration trilogy, The English Patient, Nice Work etc ad nauseam.....

As to what's next? I was thinking about this...

So here's the list:

1. Don Quixote Miguel De Cervantes 1605

Absolutely brilliant. The first modern novel, and one that proves that Spain was way ahead of England at this time. There are points, especially in part 2, where one could use the term post-modern were it not for the fact that modernism was still 300 years off. Written around the same time as Hamlet, the two heroes have a surprising amount in common.

2. Pilgrim's Progress John Bunyan 1678

Definitely in the worthy but dull category. The first part is quite fun, where the Pilgrim journeys to the Celestial City via lots of allegorical places like the Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair. Then in part two, his wife and family follow him via the exact same obstacles, which is rather a bore.

3. Robinson Crusoe Daniel Defoe 1719

Less exciting than I had hoped, this. Lots of detail about life on the island but an oddly structured narrative detracts from the feel. Perhaps I've been too conditioned about what to expect by the various adaptations.

4. Gulliver's Travels Jonathan Swift 1726

Don't know quite what to make of this one; some very good gags, lots of interesting-in-its-day satire, and a very odd ending wherein Gulliver can no longer stand human company and sits talking to horses all day.

5. Tom Jones Henry Fielding 1749

A good old romp and some lively characters make for an entertaining enough read, especially when the narrator is addressing the reader directly. In part a satire of the strait-laced pomposity of Samuel Richardson (an attitude of which I thoroughly approve) as well as a forerunner of the outrageous digressions of (7) Tristram Shandy.

6. Clarissa Samuel Richardson 1747

Well, what can I say? In turns tedious, interesting, cripplingly slow, sporadically entertaining; but most of all looong. 1500 pages is just unnecessary for such a slight tale; 10 months on one book, albeit with a number of breaks. Thank God that one's over, we must never speak of it again.

7. Tristram Shandy Laurence Sterne 1761

Certainly one of the great novels for me, despite the fact that it has no plot and even the title character disappears half way through. Read the first page and if you find the account of Tristram's conception funny, you'll want to read more.

8. Dangerous Liaisons Pierre Choderlos De Laclos 1782

I haven't actually seen either the movie or the stage play, which probably helps, so I found this worked very well as a page-turner as well as a satire. The characters are compellingly heartless, and you almost feel cheated when they get their comeuppance.

9. Emma Jane Austen 1815

Fantastic, obviously. Austen was amazing in her use of the ironic narrative voice (that'll be yer Free Indirect Discourse folks), which means that any adaptation of her work for film or TV is pretty pointless. Then again, I don't fancy Colin Firth.

10. Frankenstein Mary Shelley 1816

I always like a bit of Gothic, and this is one of the best and most demented. Incidentally, I would have included M.G.Lewis's The Monk on this list too.

11. Nightmare Abbey Thomas Love Peacock 1818

Erm, I was a little bemused by this. It's short and very funny in parts, but I felt it was satirising something that I didn't know anything about in the first place, like an Amazonian tribesman trying to make sense of The Office.

12. The Black Sheep Honore De Balzac 1843

Nae bad. Some good stuff about human nature and provincial life, but dragged down by a pretty impenetrable plot and pages-long paragraphs of exposition.

13. The Charterhouse of Parma Stendhal 1838

Hmm. To be fair, I think I was reading a horribly clunky translation, because other people seem to find this great fun. Hard work for me.

14. The Count of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas 1844

I had great fun with this, a right old ripping yarn. It's long (1250 pages), but that's just about justified, partly because a central theme is the passing of time and the corrosive effects of obsession.

15. Sybil Benjamin Disraeli 1845

Odd combination of old-fashioned melodrama and lengthy discussions about early Victorian politics, neither especially interesting.

16. David Copperfield Charles Dickens 1849

Hopelessly sentimental, memorable characters, preposterous coincidence, creepy sexual politics, genuine emotion; but, most of all, extremely enjoyable. I saved this one for last and I'm very glad I did.

17. Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte 1847

I read this years ago at uni, but it still makes me feel quite emotional still, stirring stuff. An excellent version is available in semaphore.

18. Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte 1847

Another from Sheffield days. The main image that resonates is that of the mad woman in the attic.

19. Vanity Fair William Makepeace Thackeray 1848

Looong. Well not that long actually but it feels like it thanks to a complete absence of plot. Interesting in a way, but probably more trouble than it's worth.

20. The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne 1850

This was a slow read for a book of it's length, but the closing pay-off is very powerful. The strand of puritan fiction that starts with 2 Pilgrims Progress seems to have crossed the Atlantic with the Mayflower and is investigated both here and in...

21. Moby-Dick Herman Melville 1851

Lots of people get very frustrated with this book, but I love it all. The numerous digressions on whaling and other tangential matters take the whole thing onto a vaguely surreal level entirely in keeping with the plot. The central theme of obsessive madness makes it seem very modern.

22. Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert

I was very excited coming on to Bovary, only to find that it was, well, alright I suppose. Much less interesting than the similarly proto-feminist Kate Chopin's The Awakening, which really ought to be on this list.

23. The Woman in White Wilkie Collins 1860

High Victorian melodrama. Difficult to take seriously, but enlivened by the colourful, dastardly villains.

24. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland Lewis Carroll 1865

The greatest kid's book ever written. You can read it on any number of levels, you know.

25. Little Women Louisa M. Alcott 1869

Yeeuugh. Sentimental, hypocritical, sanctimonious rubbish. Strong contender for worst book on the list.

26. The Way We Live Now Anthony Trollope 1875

Magisterial, funny and ragingly angry, this is a great work about the late Victorian age and about human nature. The rich are worshipped with no reference to morality, the establishment are racist and corrupt, and the press push their own agenda masquerading as news. Thank heavens we've moved on, eh?

27. Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy 1876

Classic 19th century stuff covering the Big Themes (the individual trying to remain honest in a corrupt society, mainly) in a rip-roaring yarn. The autobiographical character of Levin really resonated with me on a personal level, too.

28. Daniel Deronda George Eliot 1876

Odd but impressive. Lord knows why the list's compilers went with this over Middlemarch, often regarded as the epitome of the intellectual Victorian novel, which I intend to read once I free myself from the shackles of Top 100dom.

29. The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky 1879

Very long, and it takes a while to get going, but damn it's worth it. Thoroughly modern and, like Paradise Lost, succeeds in making the case for Satan far preferable to that of religion. I'm dying to see the movie now, which stars Yul Brynner and William Shatner...

30. The Portrait of a Lady Henry James 1881

D'you know, I really feared this one thanks to James's reputation for being difficult and austere. To my delight this turned out to be both highly readable and very rewarding. I'm looking forward to reading more.

31. Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain 1884

Just great. This was one of those that I was embarrassed not to have read when starting this list, and I was right to be so. You'll laugh, you'll be moved, you'll be irritated by the weak ending.

32. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson 1886

Nominally set in London, this fairly reeks of Edinburgh's old town where it was written.

33. Three Men in a Boat Jerome K. Jerome 1889

Probably the book that has made me laugh more than any other, absolutely hysterical and wonderful. The only rival on the score would be the Yes (Prime) Minister books, which I would think is a less mainstream choice.

34. The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde 1891

This is a cracker, and it has the best prologue I've ever read, the one that ends "All art is quite useless". In which case, Oscar, why am I bothering with this list? What? Eh? Oh.

35. The Diary of a Nobody George Grossmith 1892

Very, very funny, and a wonderful portrait of a quintessentially English character. Mrs Pooter comes across as a saint.

36. Jude the Obscure Thomas Hardy 1895

I love a bit of Hardy, and this is probably his best, perhaps because it is so depressing. It also contains Hardy's best joke, at the start when Jude tries to drown himself but fails because the pond is frozen over. Kind of a precursor to those silent movies with Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.

37. The Riddle of the Sands Erskine Childers 1903

A boy's own yarn, which the title led me to expect would be set in a desert but actually takes place in some Dutch wetlands. It's about as exciting as the setting would suggest, but there are interesting political overtones presaging the Great War.

38. The Call of the Wild Jack London 1903

Badly written right-wing nonsense with an overtly racist bent. I suspect this is loved by those loony U.S. survivalist groups.

39. Nostromo Joseph Conrad 1904

Densely plotted and a little hard to follow, but ultimately perseverance paid off. There is some brilliant use of non-chronological narration where, for example, a body is found and then we flash back to how the character died, highlighting some clever ironies.

40. The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame 1908

Deeply weird English pastoral, nothing like what I remember from my childhood. Sexist, class-ridden, mystical and very enjoyable.

41. In Search of Lost Time Marcel Proust 1913

Perhaps I cheated a little here, having only read vol.1 (Swann's Way), but if you have a problem with that then you read the whole goddam thing then get back to me. Actually, I enjoyed it once I'd settled into the languorous pace and scattershot chronology. Also some hair-raising naughtiness for its day, light years on from (22) Madame Bovary.

42. The Rainbow D. H. Lawrence 1913

Much better than I expected, it basically felt like Thomas Hardy with added adjectives. Quite a lot of sauce for a book of its time, too.

43. The Good Soldier Ford Madox Ford 1915

Famous for it's first line: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard". Interesting because it feels like a piece of art straining to be free of the conventional restraints of the time, soon to be exploded by the Great War and the subsequent development of Modernism.

44. The Thirty-Nine Steps John Buchan 1915

The rule of thumb is that good books make bad movies and vice versa. I really like the movie.

45. Ulysses James Joyce 1922

I finished it! No, really, I did. This isn't as hard to read as they say, so long as you accept that a lot of it will go flying over your head at a great height. Bits of it are brilliant, especially Molly's monologue. Best book of the 20th century? Maybe. It's certainly right up there.

46. Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf 1925

Admirable, I suppose, would be the word. I keep telling myself I should read more Woolf but I have never summoned up the energy.

47. A Passage to India E. M. Forster 1925

Dazzlingly good; I went through a Forster phase in my teens but somehow never got around to this, surely his masterpiece. Interestingly topical too, in it's study of how an occupying power and an occupied people will inevitably create violence even through the simplest of misunderstandings.

48. The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald 1925

Insightful, moving and shocking. This is one of my favourite books, and although I've read it twice I mean to re-read it soon.

49. The Trial Franz Kafka 1925

Often spoken of in terms of social milieu (a Kafka-esque bureaucracy), I actually found this to be much more psychological, suffused as it is with religious and sexual imagery. really it's a dream sequence, perhaps even the dream of a guilty man?

50. Men Without Women Ernest Hemingway 1927

I've never quite understood the appeal of Hemingway. Macho writing eschewing such girlie flourishes as adjectives.

51. Journey to the End of the Night Louis-Ferdinand Celine 1932

Great writing, but the most single-mindedly pessimistic book I have ever read.

52. As I Lay Dying William Faulkner 1930

The model for Graham Swift's ace Last Orders. Clever, evocative of the Deep South but somehow uninvolving.

53. Brave New World Aldous Huxley 1938

I read this a few years back and thought...well, it's okay. The prose is not that much better than in, say, Philip K Dick or Ray Bradbury, and their ideas rather transcend the fairly dull dystopia presented here.

54. Scoop Evelyn Waugh 1938

Ace. Very quotable, and contains the most deliriously entertaining piece of deliberately bad writing I've ever read.

55. USA John Dos Passos 1937

Now, this is what I'm doing the top 100 thing for. A book I've never heard of, but it blew me away as a kind of American version of (45) Ulysses. A hugely ambitious panorama of early twentieth century America. I've only read volume one of the trilogy, but I'll read the rest soon.

56. The Big Sleep Raymond Chandler 1939

Brilliant, of course. Some of the snappiest one-liners ever written by an author who basically invented a genre. Not harmed by the brilliance of the movie either, although picturing Bogart, Bacall, Greenstreet and co undoubtedly defines your view of the characters.

57. The Pursuit Of Love Nancy Mitford 1945

Entertaining but basically forgettable, I'm baffled about its inclusion here.

58. The Plague Albert Camus 1946

I must admit that I started this with some trepidation, but it turns out to be extremely readable and strangely enjoyable. I must've missed a fair bit though - I still don't feel I know anything about the author's philosophy, except for that line that he learned most of it from football.

59. Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell 1948

Great, I even enjoyed the slab of faux political theory in the middle which many people skip. Orwell was a genius of the first order, check out the recent "Shooting An Elephant and other essays" if you don't believe me.

60. Malone Dies Samuel Beckett 1951

Checked beforehand with my in-house Beckett expert Ben Sherwood what this was like. His response was that "The title gives away the ending". He wasn't wrong, neither.

61. Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger 1951

Best enjoyed if you are a 16-year old boy full of hormones and undirected rage, which fortunately I was when I read it. I intend to go back as a bloke in his 30s full of, er, hormones and undirected rage. Plus ca change.

62. Wise Blood Flannery O'Connor 1952

Strange comedy in the Southern Gothic tradition, which I enjoyed but was kinda glad that it didn't go on too long. Perhaps has more meaning for readers of a religious bent.

63. Charlotte's Web E. B. White 1952

Yet another children's book, but one of the better ones here. It's, you know, for kids.

64. The Lord Of The Rings J. R. R. Tolkien 1955

Well, if you haven't read it by now I guess you never will. It's about this hobbit, see....oh never mind.

65. Lucky Jim Kingsley Amis 1954

Vivid memories of everyone reading this for Modern Fiction at uni, and the seminar being a group rant at how bad it is. In retrospect we were probably too unkind, and I now smile at the utter pointlessness of Jim's thesis, having done my own equally futile one.

66. Lord of the Flies William Golding 1954

One of the most read books on the list, I imagine, a hardy perennial of school curricula everywhere. Darn good though. Poor old Piggy.

67. The Quiet American Graham Greene 1955

Wonderful stuff. Greene is one of those writers, like Orwell and Evelyn Waugh, who are not overt stylists but who combine great story-telling with an uncompromisingly moral and humane vision.

68 On the Road Jack Kerouac 1957

Written on a typewriter using a load of bits of paper stuck together so as not to interrupt the flow, the jazzy style prompting Truman Capote to comment "That's not writing, that's typing". He had a point, I think, this is fairly monotonous and makes a simple point expansively. If this gets on the list, how come Burroughs isn't here? Gah!

69. Lolita Vladimir Nabokov 1955

Nabokov is one of my all-time literary heroes, and this is the Famous One. Not his best (Pale Fire? Sebastian Knight?) but it has the most shocking subject matter. The roots of my theory that people who use English as a second language often use it in a more precise manner than those of to whom it is too familiar, cf (91) Kazuo Ishiguro.

70. The Tin Drum Gunter Grass 1959

Deeply weird but definitely brilliant...I think. The central device is superb, using an insane narrator to describe life in Danzig from the 1930s through to the postwar period - any sane narrator couldn't reflect the lunacy of the age.

71. Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe 1958

Probably the best-known piece of African literature in the West, its inclusion here can't help but feel a tad tokenistic. I enjoyed it, though, and the ending is very powerful.

72. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Muriel Spark 1961

Impeccably written and structured, this starts of as a grown up version of the girls' school yarn, and then reveals itself to be something entirely more complex. Subtle and brilliant.

73. To Kill A Mockingbird Harper Lee 1960

I only read this staple of school curricula everywhere fairly recently, and you know what? It's over-rated. Ironically, the Boo Radleys went on to become the most under-rated band in the history of pop.

74. Catch-22 Joseph Heller 1961

I love this book. Screamingly funny, coruscatingly intelligent and extremely moving. In its central themes of war and insanity given a post-modern hysterical treatment, it could be argued as the definitive twentieth century novel.

75. Herzog Saul Bellow 1964

Impressive but I think it is aging badly. The central antihero is a compelling figure, but what may have seemed outrageous in 1964 isn't any more. Perhaps I should try a more recent Bellow.

76. One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1967

Glorious but hard work. Best to read Marquez on a holiday when you can really concentrate and are unlikely to be distracted by the newspapers, or the latest I'm A Celebrity.

77. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont Elizabeth Taylor 1972

I came to this in happy ignorance and it absolutely knocked my socks off: compassionate funny and extremely moving. Alright, I admit it, I blubbed. Well worth seeking out, I've no idea why it's so obscure.

78. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy John Le Carre 1974

I've read most stuff of Le Carre's, and the trilogy of which this is part one is just amazing. Politically and psychological insights of the first order. By the way, the traitor is (edited due to complaints).

79. Song of Solomon Toni Morrison 1977

Not Morrison's best this, I've read Beloved a couple of times and think it's beautiful. This has some lovely moments though, particularly the beginning and the end.

80. The Bottle Factory Outing Beryl Bainbridge 1974

Entertaining and haunting, with a fabulous black joke of a denouement.

81. The Executioner's Song Norman Mailer 1979

Long but always compelling true story about an intelligent but vicious criminal on Death Row. It's very uncomfortable to be in such close proximity to the man for so long.

82. If on a Winter's Night a Traveller Italo Calvino 1979

Oh my Lord, what a post-modern contraption of a book. Quite witty at first, but then you get the point and there's 200 pages still to go.

83. A Bend in the River V. S. Naipaul 1979

Impressive but not gripping. Like so many books about Africa, this is haunted by the ghost of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness".

84. Waiting for the Barbarians J.M. Coetzee 1980

Excellent if not exactly great, this notable for it's depiction of events that strongly mirror the current Iraq catastrophe: a powerful empire tries to destroy the neighbouring "barbarians" for morally murky reasons, resulting in Abu Ghraib-ish mistreatment of prisoners and so on. Thought-provoking.

85. Housekeeping Marilynne Robinson 1981

For crying out loud, how did this get here? It's the sort of pseudo-profound bobbins that gives feminist literature a bad name. Lifeless, witless and all-round useless.

86. Lanark Alasdair Gray 1982

Brilliant, dazzling stuff. An inspired amalgam of social realism, high fantasy, psychological study, literary playfulness and Blakean illustration. It's also extremely funny, particularly in the misleadingly-named "Epilogue".

87. The New York Trilogy Paul Auster 1986

This is clever-clever writing of a very high calibre indeed. Plenty of people find this stuff too uninvolving which is fair enough, but there's such a flinty intelligence here that I buy it. Reminiscent of the also oddly obsessional Nicholson Baker.

88. The BFG Roald Dahl 1982

This is ok, but I feel I speak the voice of reason when I state that James and the Giant Peach is clearly Dahl's magnum opus. The BFG is Rio Ferdinand's all-time favourite book; I leave you to draw your own conclusions on that score.

89. The Periodic Table Primo Levi 1975

Not a novel, actually, but a memoir based on metaphorical links between Levi's work as a chemist and his extraordinary experiences as a human being, most notably as a Holocaust survivor. Wonderful - I plan to read more.

90. Money Martin Amis 1984

I think people tend to love or hate Amis, especially since his public profile has grown so hugely and controversially. I confess to being something of a fanboy, and this is just a sensational novel. Brutally satirical and containing more exciting prose than just about any other contemporary author.

91. An Artist of the Floating World Kazuo Ishiguro 1986

Very good, but hardly in the league of Ishiguro's extremely ace The Remains of the Day.

92. Oscar And Lucinda Peter Carey 1988

The only Australian author on the list. Some would say that this demonstrates the culturally blinkered Euro-centric worldview of the Observer staff. I would say that it's because Carey is the only world-class writer they've got, and this novel really is world-class.

93. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Milan Kundera 1978

Beautifully written, thought-provoking and often very funny. Made me re-think some of my set-in-stone antipathy to anything resembling patriotism; would I feel the same if my country could cease to exist tomorrow?

94. Haroun and the Sea of Stories Salman Rushdie 1990

Somehow I've manage to read a fair bit of Rushdie without having read Midnight's Children, which is the good one, or The Satanic Verses, which is the famous one. This is an odd choice for the list then, but I enjoyed it very much, especially the shocking pun involving fishes with plentiful maws.

95. La Confidential James Ellroy 1990

Exception to the rule alert: good book, but the movie is better. The plot is hellishly difficult to keep track of and Ellroy tries to build tension by use of clauses instead of sentences, which grates after a while. The sheer cynicism/corruption of the "good guys" is entertaining and, scarily, realistic.

96. Wise Children Angela Carter 1991

Ruddy marvellous, as is just about everything Carter wrote. Funny and touching whilst retaining its bite, the perfect antidote to crap like #85.

97. Atonement Ian McEwan 2001

Yes, it's brilliant, and McEwan is the only real rival to Amis as a current writer in my reckoning. Once again, though, this seems an odd choice - Enduring Love, surely?

98. Northern Lights Philip Pullman 1998

Thoroughly enjoyed the whole trilogy, whilst still doubting whether it can really classify as a great work - what is it with this list and children's literature? After finishing this lot, perhaps I should gird my loins and have a go at Paradise Lost, which this book reflects.

99. American Pastoral Philip Roth 1997

Fantastic, and a revelation for those such as me who only knew Roth through Portnoy's Complaint. A great discovery for me.

100. Austerlitz W. G. Sebald 2001

What a disappointment. I'd really looked forward to this after reading rapturous reviews, and even halfway through I was still wondering whether you were supposed to view the narrator as a clever parody of a self-obsessed pretentious idiot. Turns out it wasn't a parody, and I was supposed to take this guy seriously. Oh, well.

Page last updated 21/09/2005