We’re all familiar with the stereotypical conception of the librarian as a person—often a woman—of a certain age carrying a massive pile of books, eyeing you with suspicion over reading glasses before sternly shushing you. Nowadays there’s not as much need for shushing, as libraries are much louder and livelier than they used to be—budget cuts have spurred interest in community programming, and public computers combined with printers have raised the volume on average. It’s more likely that a librarian will give you the stink eye you for not being careful with your coffee while sitting at a computer.
Still, stereotypes live on in popular culture. Marian the Librarian in The Music Man, played by Shirley Jones, cemented the concept of the prim and proper librarian in the public imagination and has been reinforced countless times since then. The 1984 Ghostbusters managed to fit it in twice, Alice the librarian of the NY Public Library and the ghostly apparition that the heroes, uh, try to forcibly grab (not the best plan of attack). The ghost even shows off some champion shushing skills when Venkman gets too chatty.
Fortunately for professionals in the field, the popular image of the librarian has evolved a bit in the intervening decades. Rupert Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer was among the first to find action and magic in the card catalog. I had just finished library school at the time the show started airing, and the character caused a bit of a stir, even making it to the cover of American Libraries Magazine. On one hand, Anthony Stewart Head perfectly embodied the part of a stuffy British librarian—but Giles was also quick to cast a spell or throw a punch if necessary, and the perception of librarians in the public’s mind began to shift a bit toward more heroic possibilities.
Since then, science fiction and fantasy movies have continued to build upon this version of “librarian as Gandalf in tweed” with great success. Noah Wylie’s Flynn Carsen starred in three TV movies about an Indiana Jones-style librarian, and the follow-up tv series The Librarians built on it with great success. Their library definitely qualified as special collections, given the number of artifacts held there—I like to think of it as a magical version of the Library of Things. Even the MCU has their own take on the Action Librarian: In Doctor Strange, Wong (played by Benedict Wong) serves as the librarian at Kamar-Taj when Stephen Strange arrived, looking for answers. Seeing as how Wong’s predecessor was murdered during a book theft, it’s fair to say he takes the job seriously (though it doesn’t stop the future Sorcerer Supreme, of course).
Still, these are only a few higher profile examples. There are plenty of other magical and futuristic librarians on the big and small screens, struggling against the forces of evil, that aren’t as celebrated as they ought to be. Take a look at the list below for eight more fantastical librarians to cheer on, the next time you’re scrolling for something to watch…
The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)—Time Traveling Librarian!
Henry (Eric Bana) is a special collections librarian born with the ability to spontaneously travel through time. The movie (based on the book by Audrey Niffenegger, which you should also check out!) tells the story of how he met his wife, played by Rachel McAdams. The time travel is interesting in a timey-wimey kind of way and the romance is successful thanks to the chemistry of McAdams and Bana. Critics complained the plot has no heavy high-concept stakes—there’s no evil organization to battle against. Don’t let that stop you.
Dinotopia (2002)—Dinosaur Librarian!
Based on the popular books by James Gurney, Dinotopia was made first into a miniseries and then a (short-lived) TV series. In it, brothers Karl and Frank survive a plane crash and wash up in Dinotopia, a hidden civilization where dinosaurs and humans live together in harmony. The librarian of Dinotopia is a dinosaur named Zippo, one of the few who can speak English (along with several other languages). Charming to a fault, Zippo proved to be a bit of a fan favorite, and helped drive the plot in both series.
R.O.D.: Read or Die (2001)—Psionic Librarian!
R.O.D: Read or Die is an original animated movie set in the world of the Japanese manga series of the same name. The hero, Yomiko Readman, is an agent of the British Library’s Special Operations Division and has the ability to manipulate paper with her mind (she goes by the codename “The Paper”). If you’ve ever been interested in watching librarians and other bibliophiles going on missions to find rare books, this might be for you. There is a sequel of sorts, another manga series called Read or Dream that starred three women with similar powers also looking for lost books. Read or Dream is set in the same world as Read or Die—though when it came time to adapt the second series for television, it was no longer in the same universe. Confused? Doesn’t matter, as it’s still entertaining.
Black Mask (1996)—Superhero Librarian!
In Jet Li’s Black Mask, a fine example of Hong Kong martial arts movie-making, our hero is an escaped super-soldier from a mysterious government lab. After fighting his way to freedom, he lies low, working as a librarian. “I like it here, it’s quiet,” he says. “Nobody ever bothers a librarian.” Unfortunately, when other super-soldiers begin committing a series of violent crimes, he dons a disguise and becomes the Black Mask. While his library skills don’t particularly come into play, he does get to use a distinctively ’90s form of library technology as a weapon: CD-ROMs as throwing stars. If you’re old enough, you may remember those as the technological successor to microfilm.
Wilderness (1996)—Werewolf Librarian!
Another example of mid-’90s librarianship can be found in this British TV drama about a university librarian (played by Amanda Ooms) who’s also a werewolf. Unable to carry on a meaningful relationship or sustain any kind of real connection with anyone, she starts seeing a psychiatrist to learn how to control her transformations. When the stress of her therapy combines with a handsome library patron’s romantic intentions towards her, tension builds and things get out of hand. Based on the novel by Tor author Dennis Danvers, it was originally a TV mini-series. Unfortunately, this original version doesn’t seem to be out there, but you can find a version edited down to movie length out on YouTube.
The Time Machine (2002)—Hologram Librarian!
A relatively loose adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells novel starring Guy Pearce, this big-budget Hollywood version includes some expansion of the original story, i.e., the hero now has a lost love for motivation. He also needs more people to talk to, so he stops in 2030 and encounters an AI hologram librarian in the New York Public Library. Going by the name of Vox 114 (Orlando Jones), he has access to every database on Earth, can interact well enough to fool a Turing Test, and has an unbeatable power supply. Despite this, poor Vox isn’t aware that time travel is possible…(don’t worry, he eventually comes around).
The Dunwich Horror (1970)—Lovecraftian Librarian!
Oh, we’re going way back here: This movie is an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s novella of the same name. Sandra Dee stars as a library clerk who gets caught up with the villain, Wilbur Whateley (played by a dead-eyed Dean Stockwell). But the librarian to watch for is Dr. Henry Armitage, played by Ed Begley with authority and pomposity. His role is a bit looser than it was in Lovecraft’s story, where he was the head librarian at Miskatonic University, but it’s quite clear he’s still in the librarian camp. The movie’s a reasonable adaptation of Lovecraft’s story, and it does offer some fine examples of late 1960’s psychedelia. Purists at the time mostly hated it, possibly due to the addition of women to the story, but it holds up reasonably well.
MirrorMask (2005)—Cyborg Librarian!
Okay, let’s be honest here. MirrorMask is not a movie you’re going to stream. Directed by Dave McKean, written by Neil Gaiman, and produced by The Jim Henson Company, the movie is currently only available (in the US, at least) on DVD and Blu-Ray. It is so difficult to find Gaiman commented recently on Twitter that many people have told him they’d thought it was the product of their childhood imaginations. I haven’t seen it myself, only clips off of YouTube. If you can get hold of it, though, Stephen Fry voices the Librarian, a kind of cyborg who provides helpful advice and worries about depressed books molting. He also immediately shushes Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), because some tropes are hard to kill.
So, what do you think of these formidable librarians? Which one’s your favorite? Are there any others that we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments…
Jon Hansen is a writer, former librarian, and occasional blood donor. He currently lives in the Boston area with his wife, son, and three insistent cats. He is currently working on a novel, when not spending too much time on Twitter.