Since the Desk Set takes its name from the old film starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, I thought it might be appropriate to kick off my stint as guest blogger with a discussion of the representation of libraries and library issues in film. I recently attended a screening of two 1956 films curated by the wonderful Red Channels film series, Toute la mÃ©moire du monde (All the Memory of the World), a short essay film by Alain Resnais on the BibliothÃ¨que nationale de France, and Storm Center, starring an aging but still glamorous Bette Davis playing a small-town librarian whose commitment to intellectual freedom makes her a victim of the Red Scare. While the focus of each film differs fairly dramatically, they both demonstrate how libraries are deeply political institutions that are influenced by the pressures, interests, and ideologies (sometimes benign, sometimes sinister) of the governments and publics that establish and support them, a highly relevant concern for friends of the library in this time of uncertainty.
Before he made Toute la mÃ©moire du monde, Resnais established himself as a filmmaker of note with Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog), a short documentary masterpiece on the horror and brutality of the Holocaust. If the Holocaust represented the destruction of civilization, then Franceâ€™s national library stands as a monument to the lofty Enlightenment ideals of universal progress and reason. Resnais is clearly sympathetic to this vision in the film, but his depiction of the libraryâ€™s project implies a somewhat sinister side to it as well. We are reminded of the libraryâ€™s origins in the absolutist French monarchy, which used it to help maintain its control over information and legitimate its power and grandeur. Books and other materials are buried on shelves deep in the libraryâ€™s bowels or held in cages, seemingly never to be heard from again. As a sometimes portentous soundtrack plays, the camera pans across endless rows of bookshelves and readers at their study tables, evoking the rows of fetid latrines, cells, and gas chambers at the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Majdanek. The library catalogs books while the concentration camp catalogs victims.
Taking these two films together, Resnais seems to suggest that the ideas and technology that make something as grand as BibliothÃ¨que nationale de France possible can also be used in different political and cultural contexts to serve very destructive ends. Or at least one can read him this way. Itâ€™s a sobering reminder that the library is not a neutral, value-free environment independent of the world around us and that the values that animate it at its best must always be protected from the powerful and unscrupulous.
The powerful and unscrupulous certainly have their sights set on the library in Storm Center, the first Hollywood film to take on McCarthyism and censorship in the 1950s. Bette Davis plays Mrs. Hull, a widowed small-town librarian who seems to embody all of the best stereotypes of the profession. She knows everyone in town, serves as a mentor to the children, and is almost single-mindedly committed to adding a new childrenâ€™s wing to the old ivy-covered library building. It looks like the city council is set to approve the expansion, but with one condition â€“ that Mrs. Hull remove from her collection a book called The Communist Dream, which generated a number of angry complaints from the public. She accepts the deal at first, but as her guilt mounts she defiantly places the book back in the collection. The city council, led by an ambitious young politician, outs her previous, unwitting membership in Communist front groups in the 1930s and threatens to fire her if she persists in her defiance. When she refuses to budget, she is fired and ostracized. Freddy, her prized pupil, finds out about all this, turns against his former mentor, becomes a juvenile delinquent, and finally winds up burning down the library. The town learns its lesson and rehires Mrs. Hull to build a new library from the ashes of the old.
Now, this is not the best film. Itâ€™s melodramatic and formulaic, and much of the dialogue is pretty laughable. It does highlight some important ongoing concerns, however. In her showdown with the city council, Mrs. Hull pithily defines a librarian as a peninsula surrounded on three sides by politicians, and that definition is still quite apt. Libraries continue to rely for funding on politicians that all too often have very different priorities in mind. In most cases, they adhere to a vision of government that privileges business interests over public and cultural interests. In these times of budget crisis brought on by the failure of unregulated free-market capitalism, libraries around the country face potentially devastating cuts that will severely undermine their mission and purpose. To me, this shows that if librarians and friends of the library are to be effective defenders of their institutions and the profession, as citizens we should be forceful advocates for a politics that recognizes the need for a strong, generous public sector and an economy that places the public interest first.
Also, we seem to find ourselves in the midst of a new Red Scare in which even very mild efforts toward reform in healthcare and other fields are denounced by many Americans as communist, socialist, Marxist, Nazi, fascist, or some combination of the above. I wouldnâ€™t be surprised if libraries around the country are facing increased challenges to books that espouse supposedly subversive points of view. Storm Center performs a service by reminding us of our continuing duty to protect intellectual freedom and combat misinformation.
Iâ€™d like to close by asking you all what you think a film on libraries and librarians made today would be like. While many things in the profession have not changed since the time these two films were made, much else has. What kinds of conflicts would it depict? Which vision of the library would it reflect? Could it possibly be better than Party Girl? Letâ€™s work it out.