Every holiday season, viewers who tune in to the perennial movie classic "It's a Wonderful Life" see what would become of George Bailey's wife should her husband vanish from Earth. As Bailey discovers, the darling, vivacious Mary would become - a librarian! A lonely, bespectacled librarian.
Oh, the horror.
Welcome to "The Hollywood Librarian," a revealing documentary by first-time Madison film director Ann Seidl. Eighty-five libraries across the U.S. and seven in Canada are screening the film this week to coincide with Banned Books Week, including UW-Madison's School of Library and Information Studies with showings at 7 p.m. today and Friday.
As Seidl waded through - and annotated, cataloged and organized in a self-built database (because she is a librarian, after all) -clips from 400 movies that portray librarians, she found a not-unexpected stereotype: The "bunned and tight-lipped" librarian who loves to hiss, "Shhhhh!"
"In most cases, librarians in film are oppressive, they don't like people, they're much more into maintaining the rules than in connecting with people," she says.
"I found one thing to be true: the shorter the reference to a librarian in a film, the worse the stereotype. The longer the role, the more likely we are to have a librarian that approximates the breadth and depth and skill it takes to be a librarian in the 21st century or took in the 20th century, when many of these films were made."
Take "Desk Set," the 1957 Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn movie where Hepburn is her typical brainy-but-beautiful self.
"There are four leading roles in that movie, and all four of them are librarians," says Seidl. "That's the top of the mountain for librarians in film." On the flip side: movies like "Sophie's Choice," where a librarian is so churlish he makes Meryl Streep collapse in a faint.
With her big glasses and tiny waist, Marion the Librarian in "The Music Man" is, by contrast, a multitalented woman of strong convictions, much more like the real-life librarians Seidl interviewed for her film. Not only are these people really, really smart; they're also the ultimate professional multitaskers: equal parts teacher, researcher, computer whiz, business manager, fundraiser and defender of the First Amendment.
Seidl, 43, who works as a library consultant, got into the field after changing course in graduate school from environmental policy to library science. Inspired by the 1995 films "The Celluloid Closet," an exploration of Hollywood depictions of gays and lesbians, and "Party Girl," where Parker Posey discovers the joys of working in a library, Seidl wanted to look at the role of the unsung heroes who are her colleagues. Several years, a tiny film crew and $185,000 later ($115,000 from the Carnegie Corp. and the rest donated by fellow librarians), she was ready to shoot and edit her film, a process that took close to two years.
Though some of the old movie clips are a hoot, Seidl's documentary also explores real-life fights against censorship, implications of the USA Patriot Act, and the painful budget cuts that libraries are experiencing around the country.
While making the film, "I grew more and more determined that the American public didn't understand what it is librarians do," she says. "What I found in my research is that people see libraries as sort of as a natural resource - like the Grand Canyon, a kind of natural phenomenon that will always be there.
"What they don't understand is that libraries are created by librarians," she says. "How does that book get there on a shelf? How did that computer get there, or that database get paid for?"
Not sure? Then ask a librarian.
"The Hollywood Librarian: A Look at Librarians Through Film" will be shown at 7 p.m. today and Friday in Room 4191, Helen C. White Hall, 600 N. Park St. Tickets are $8 for adults, $5 for ages 6-11 and 60 and older; free for library students and all library staff. Everyone must have a ticket. To reserve, call 263-2960 from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. today and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday.