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.