Thursday, March 25, 2010

Movie Review: "The Hollywood Librarian"

If it’s true that dentists are the most chronically depressed professionals, there may be a strong chance that librarians are the happiest. “The Hollywood Librarian,” presents interviews from a number of librarians in a variety of fields, each giving a slightly different image of the importance and role of librarianship in the United States. What each librarian has in common, however, is the twinkly-eyed, grinning enthusiasm that lights up their face when asked about their work. But why are librarians so pumped? “The Hollywood Librarian” explores the world of librarianship, through the lens of Hollywood films and through the spectacles of real librarians. The movie seeks to dispel the image of the librarian as a pinch-faced, grumpy spinster with a tight bun in her hair and a permanent frown on her face. The librarians interviewed all gush about how much they enjoy their work, particularly the aspects that allow them to help their patrons—whether those patrons are preschool children or medical doctors. The movie also strives to disabuse viewers of the notion that librarianship is simplistic or inconsequential, describing complicated aspects of cataloguing, and exploring the influence that a librarian has on their patrons and community through their collection building and through community programs. One of my favourite sequences includes a montage of librarians in film defending their choice to lend out banned or controversial books.

The most interesting part of this movie, however, is its discussion of why we need libraries. Scenes from the Twilight Zone and Fahrenheit 451 explore the hell of a world without libraries—but “The Hollywood Librarian” does not simply assume the viewer will automatically abhor these images. Instead, the movie introduces us to a variety of libraries and library programs that strongly benefit their patrons, and, in so doing, humanity in general. We visit the library program at San Quentin, where inmates who entered prison with third grade reading skills improve their literacy to the point of completing technical degrees while incarcerated. Those men who serve shorter sentences are able to re-enter the world with the necessary literacy to find work, and to leave their former lives of crime and poverty behind them. Those sentenced to decades or to life in prison remain to teach literacy to their fellow inmates, making a valuable contribution to the outside world from the enclosure of the prison. We also visit Salinas, hometown of John Steinbeck, where funding cuts were set to force all of the town’s libraries to close. The film shows the negative impact the closures would have on the community, especially children. The town eventually holds an election to grant the necessary funding to the libraries, despite the objections of conservative voters that the measure was simply a liberal, partisan plot. The library is also given additional funding diverted from San Quentin, where inmates insisted that funding to their own services be diverted to fund library programs for children in Salinas. Having been granted access to the world of reading, the inmates believed access to a library would prevent the children of Salinas from ending up in a place like San Quentin.

One of the librarians interviewed insists on the library as a symbol of freedom. Basic literacy skills empower individuals to find work and to take control of their lives, while a variety of texts can open our minds to new ways of thinking—from empathizing with someone different from you, to identifying and rooting out the social injustices of our culture. Libraries represent not only freedom, but also autonomy. One librarian reflects on his abusive home life, where he was always told he was stupid. In the library, as a child, he found a space where his curiosity was rewarded. The library, often even more than the classroom, is the place where we learn to think for ourselves, and to escape negative, coercive control of our minds. The library is the place where we are most free to imagine a better life for ourselves, and a better world for everyone. I can see why librarians like their jobs.

Helen Hajnoczky recently completed her BA Honours in English and creative writing from the University of Calgary, where her research focused on feminist avant-garde poetics. Her work has appeared in Nod, fillingStation, Rampike, and Matrix magazines, as well as in a variety of chapbooks. She is the current poetry editor of fillingStation magazine. Her first book of poetry, Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising, is forthcoming from Snare Books.

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