Libraries in pop culture: The Station Agent

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I feel like I’ve spent a lot of space talking about what pop culture gets wrong about libraries. The natural question is: are there any good or accurate examples of libraries in movies, books, or TV shows?

On the whole, The Public, a recent movie by Emilio Estevez, does a good job because Estevez took the time to do actual research about actual libraries—he even came to the ALA Conference in New Orleans a few years ago to talk about it. But the situation in that movie is both fictional and heightened. Except for a few short scenes early on, you’re not seeing the library as it would function in an everyday sense. (Although the questions the patrons are asking the librarian at the beginning are 100% spot on.)

A better example is probably a brief scene from The Station Agent.

The Station Agent, if you haven’t seen it, is a movie starring a pre-Game of Thrones Peter Dinklage along with Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Canavale. In the movie, Dinklage plays a quiet guy who seems to prefer solitude (basically the opposite of Tyrion Lannister) but gets drawn somewhat unwillingly into a tentative friendship with Clarkson and Canavale’s characters (Olivia and Joe), who are also both alone and/or lonely in their own ways. There is also amateur train chasing and a brief lesson on the origins of the phrase “right of way.” That probably doesn’t sound very appealing, but it’s really a lovely movie. Highly recommended.

Anyway. In the movie, Dinklage’s character, Finn, is new in town. He goes to the library to find a book about trains, a subject for which he has a great deal of passion, to put it mildly (he literally lives in an abandoned train depot). He goes to check out the book. In doing so, he startles Emily, the librarian played by Michelle Williams.(1) She screams in surprise. After recovering, she asks him if he has a library card. He doesn’t but wants to get one. She asks if he has a piece of mail with his address on it. He doesn’t. She tells him that to get a library card, he’ll need proof of address. Olivia arrives and offers to check the book out for him on her card. Finn refuses the offer and leaves. “Oh my God, I just screamed in his face,” Emily says to Olivia, embarrassed. The scene ends.

That’s it. That’s the whole thing.

What makes this such a great library scene?

So many things.


For whatever reason, this detail pleases me enormously. It is so exactly what would happen in an actual library that I have to think someone involved in the creation of that scene either worked in a library themselves or knew someone who did or had had a recent experience to this effect. Also, it’s a more realistic version of the trope of the unhelpful librarian. For comparison, one of the more egregious examples I’ve seen of this trope is in the movie Girl Most Likely, a dramedy starring Kristen Wiig and Darren Criss and a bunch of other people who frankly deserve better. In the movie, Kristen Wiig goes to a library to search for a nonfiction book written by her estranged father. She gives the librarian the name of the author. The librarian struggles to get the name right even though it’s not a complicated name. The search and the scene both take forever. Like the rest of the movie, it’s supposed to be funny in an awkward or uncomfortable kind of way that might work better for some viewers than it did for me. The relevant point here is that the movie is trying to be funny without seeming to have any idea how a library works or the actual obstacles to using it.

I’m not saying that movies and TV shows should portray librarians exclusively as heroes or whatever. In fact, Emily in The Station Agent is far from a portrait of expertise or even competent professionalism. Did I mention she screams in Finn’s face when he accidentally startles her? It’s awesome. What makes it awesome is that the humor of the moment (and it is pretty funny) isn’t derived from some lazy stereotype about librarians being fussy or obsessed with quiet or generally being unhelpful. It comes from her very human response to the situation in which she finds herself, both the initial reaction and the embarrassment that follows. You sympathize with Finn because you know from having watched the movie so far that he gets this kind of thing a lot and is understandably less than thrilled when it happens. But if you are an average-sized person, you might also sympathize with her because it’s easy to picture yourself making a similar faux pas.

Speaking of stereotypes. Librarians in television shows and movies tend to have a certain look. Cat’s eye glasses and cardigans and pencil skirts (sweater vests and hipster glasses on the rare occasion the librarian is a guy). Hair swept up in some kind of severe style. Either that or a cat sweater. Once in a great while, the story in question will deliberately go to the other extreme in order to defy a stereotype. The librarian will have a punk haircut and tattoos and maybe a nose ring. Still a stereotype, just in a different direction.

There are people who work in libraries who fit these stereotypes and there is absolutely nothing wrong with them. In The Station Agent, Emily wears jeans and a t-shirt and has what seems to me to be a pretty nondescript haircut. No glasses. This is in keeping with the movie’s overall less than glamorous aesthetic (and probably its budget) but also I think pretty it accurately reflects what the average librarian in the average small town public library looks like. I mean, a t-shirt and jeans was basically my uniform when I worked in a library similar to the one in this movie.

So that’s what The Station Agent gets right compared to other movies with library scenes.

Interestingly, The Station Agent was written and directed by Tom McCarthy, who went on to make Spotlight, the movie that one the Oscar for Best Picture a few years ago. That is also a movie that accurately shows, albeit in a small way, the role librarians might play in the process of researching a news story.

So kudos to him and his collaborators for getting this stuff right.


(1) For the sake of convenience, I’m going to be referring to the character as a librarian even though it seems more likely that she’s a library clerk.


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