The Modern Librarian: A Role Worth Checking Out

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 24, 2007

Men in tuxes and women in gowns smartly walk the red carpet at the Washington Convention Center, to the "woo-hoo!" of adoring fans. A cameraman records the procession, photographers angle for close-ups. One carpet-walker, a woman in blue sequins, strikes a come-hither pose, and a security guard taps a female spectator on the shoulder.

"Are they famous?" he asks.

"No," she replies. "They're librarians."

Librarians, with the notable exception of Laura Bush, aren't often in the spotlight and publicly appreciated -- which is exactly why Ann Seidl decided they deserved a movie.

Seidl, a 43-year-old consultant, first became inspired to create a cinematic tribute in 1997 while pursuing her master's of library and information studies at the University of Denver. There, she realized that the sourpuss book-marms long depicted in film bore little resemblance to her passionate colleagues. Her decade-long campaign for librarian respect, fueled mostly by private donations, has culminated with "Hollywood Librarian."

Friday evening, the first night of the 128th annual American Library Association convention here, Seidl premiered her $185,000 opus to an audience of 5,000 very, very grateful colleagues.

"I hope this movie busts some myths," said attendee Nathan Bomer, a 29-year-old librarian from Tulsa. "Our profession is in need of a serious image change."

To illustrate his point, Bomer opened his backpack and produced a souvenir, just purchased at the convention's gift shop. It was an action figure. Of a librarian. Her weapons: a stack of books and a pair of Coke-bottle glasses. Her superpowers are limited to "Amazing Shush-ing Action!"

"My life," Bomer said, "is nothing like that."

Precisely the problem, Seidl said. Today's librarian is less likely to be a mousy Marian than the highly trained captain of a one-stop community center, navigating everything from social services to fundraising socials -- and doing it all on tightly bound budgets. Over the past four years, local governments, which provide the lion's share of funding, have cut library allocations by a total of $188 million, including decreases of as much as 10 percent in some communities.

"Hollywood Librarian," one of 65 sessions or events during the six-day conference -- intersperses clips of some of the silver screen's most celebrated book lovers (Katharine Hepburn in "Desk Set," Parker Posey's "Party Girl") with interviews with librarians from across the country. We meet the misunderstood cataloguer. The noble researcher. The director of the Houston Public Library, who, with 600 employees, sees herself first and foremost as a businesswoman.

We also meet a half-dozen small-town librarians, whose days are filled with tasks they never anticipated in "library school," as some affectionately call it.

Susan Turrell, a star of the film, is director of Tunkhannock Public Library, serving a community of 28,000 in rural Pennsylvania. At a reception preceding the screening, the 62-year-old Turrell, speaking in a soft drawl, cited her absurdly broad range of duties:

Providing tech support, plunging toilets, changing light bulbs, spraying for ants, browsing MySpace, dressing as Winnie the Pooh, proofreading résumés for library patrons, safeguarding against online porn, providing pro bono therapy -- and coordinating endless fundraising efforts that have included golf tournaments and square dances. All without even the benefit of office space, which was converted into community rooms.

"Some days," she said, due to the sheer busywork of the job, "I don't even see a book."

Darby O'Brien, a silver-haired librarian in Utica, N.Y., can empathize. "Public libraries are just about the last place that anyone can go. We serve the homeless and the mentally ill, we teach the disenfranchised how to use the Internet. We're also the last bastions of democracy and free speech, which is in short supply under this administration," she said, because of such legislation as the Patriot Act.

"Darby!" admonished her co-worker Mary Lou Caskey.

"Well. It is."

Speaking of talking freely, watching a movie with several thousand librarians is surprisingly . . . loud. There were cheers for clips from "Matilda," groans for "Zardoz" and guffaws for a " Shhhhhhhh!" montage featuring 70 years' worth of Hollywood librarians telling patrons to simmer down . The biggest round of applause came during a scene from "Party Girl" in which a prim cataloguer interrogates her hapless trainee: "I assume you are familiar with the Dewey Decimal System?"

Heh heh heh. Librarian humor.

Laughing at themselves is something librarians are very good at. (Check out the highly excellent "March of the Librarians" on YouTube). They have to be, they say, when the profession is so misunderstood. One librarian from Wisconsin recalled a friend asking -- seriously -- whether the MLS degree took so long because librarians first had to read all the books. As in, all of them.

Laughter is also the best way some of them have found to deal with the real crises facing the field. As experienced librarians retire, the profession lacks an infusion of young blood. Not that some public library systems could afford many new employees, anyway. One of the film's recurring themes is lack of funding, illustrated with the story from Salinas, Calif. -- John Steinbeck's hometown was forced in 2005 to shut its three branches for nearly a year, after citizens voted down a tax increase to fund the libraries.

Primarily, the ALA conference devotes itself to addressing serious issues like these. The sessions cover topics from preserving intellectual freedom to recruiting black male librarians, who are in extremely short supply. Julie Andrews, Judy Blume and former senator Bill Bradley are just three of the speakers scheduled to discuss the importance of literacy and library education.

For the "Hollywood Librarian" premiere, the librarians could combine those issues with a little bit of glamour -- giggling on the red carpet, joking that Joan Rivers should have attended.

After the screening, Ann Seidl relaxes long enough in her emerald-green gown to snap a few photographs with fans. But by the next morning, she'd be manning a booth, persuading her colleagues to screen "Hollywood Librarian" at their own branches and spread library awareness to patrons.

Seidl hopes the film will penetrate, grass-roots style, the consciousness of everyone who has ever loved a library. "If everyone knew how smart and funny and dedicated librarians were," she says, "no library would ever be shut down again."

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