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From the archives: the top 5 movie scenes set in libraries

Paul Feig’s Ghostbuster’s remake has made waves on both sides of the Atlantic. As the original 1984 film set some significant action in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library, we couldn’t help but indulge in a rifle through the archives of cinematic tributes to libraries.

The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, particularly its Rose Reading Room, is perhaps the most omnipresent library of the silver screen, having also starred in Philadelphia, Sex and the City: The Movie, and The Day After Tomorrow. Though we’re firm believers that libraries are the ultimate refuge, we can’t quite forgive the characters of the latter for burning some of the library’s precious books.

Films such as the adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda necessitate several library scenes, as do legal dramas or investigative journalism procedurals (most recently Spotlight, which saw Mark Ruffalo make several fraught visits to public legal archives). There’s also a whole collection of films which not only feature libraries as places of reading and research, but create memorable set pieces or story arcs concerning libraries. These are highly entertaining while also representing and celebrating the diverse benefits provided by modern libraries. In short, there’s a film, and a library service, for everyone. Here are five of the best:

Love’s Labour’s Lost ­(2000)

Kenneth Branagh’s madcap reinvention of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost mashes up the Bard’s Renaissance men with a ‘20s style musical caper in the vein of Singin’ in the Rain. As you might expect from this genre-bending, the “scholars” spend as much time dancing in their beautiful round library as they do studying. One of the most memorable numbers is “I’d Rather Charleston”, in which the scholars declare and energetically demonstrate their preference for dance over reading. Thankfully, many public libraries now host dance classes so you don’t have to choose between the two.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

John Hughes’ biggest hit takes place almost entirely within the school library of its Shermer High School protagonists. Although the choice of the library as a setting for an all-day detention might suggest a negative attitude towards libraries, it’s in this space that the characters learn to empathise with one another, breaking down social barriers and learning about themselves and each other through a series of famed monologues. Despite the physical entrapment of the single setting the students conversely become more and more free as the film progresses, and this is most obviously manifested when they burst into dance like Branagh’s scholars before them. They do, however, exhibit some behaviour that is wholly inappropriate for the library (not to mention illegal), so we’re not saying you should follow their every example…

Nebraska (2013)

One of the most touching scenes in Alexander Payne’s lyrical contemplation on family and growing old takes place in a library of sorts. Protagonist David (Will Forte) and his father Woody (Bruce Dern) visit Hawthorne, Nebraska, the town where Woody grew up, and David takes a trip to the town’s newspaper office. Surrounded by the paper’s archives David talks to the owner about a story she plans to run on Woody. Through hearing the perspective of this woman who knew a younger Woody, David begins to understand him as a man as well as a father. The literal local archives provide the ideal backdrop for a scene concerned with family history.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Books are a crucial part of the fabric of prison life in this well-loved adaptation of a short story by Stephen King, who is himself a supporter of libraries. There’s Brooks, the kindly prison librarian who delivers fresh reading material (and, inevitably, contraband) to the cells, and Andy’s (Tim Robbins) campaigning to improve the library’s stock. In the current climate, Andy’s persistent lobbying of the government is an inspiration, and it’s immensely satisfying to see it eventually pay off. More recently, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black has taken up the mantle of celebrating the comfort and empowerment a prison library can provide. Litchfield’s library is a relatively safe space where inmates connect with one another, escape through fiction, and conduct legal research to mount appeals.

Monsters University (2013)

The library battle in Monsters University is a cheeky set piece which dares to ask “what’s so scary about a little old librarian?”. The librarian character is lazily stereotyped, but she deserves to be applauded for her commitment to maintaining the sanctity of her quiet study hall as Mike, Sully et al compete in an increasingly disruptive game of capture the flag. Pixar’s animation aptly echoes the style of an ornate old-fashioned library, with heavy wooden furniture and those classic green lamps. Look out for the bespoke shelving strategies neatly dividing up books of different sizes.

Watching someone study in a library won’t make for a thrilling movie, so these filmmakers have found ways of integrating libraries into their stories in engaging and often flamboyant ways, while also commenting on the wonders of libraries we can all enjoy, even if you don’t happen to be a Ghostbuster.

Featured image: “New York Public Library” by Jeff Hitchcock, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Andrew Porter

    How about the lengthy scenes set in the 42nd Street main branch of The New York Public Library, in the film “The Day After Tomorrow”?

  2. Alice Schoenfeld

    What, no” Wings of Desire”? The most beautiful
    library scenes of all by Wim Wenders

  3. Tex

    What about Lorenzo’s Oil? Partly set in a library and shows how library staff organise information for researchers to make new connections.

  4. […] Source: From the archives: the top 5 movie scenes set in libraries | OUPblog […]

  5. Hilary

    I’d like to speak up for the scene in the public library in The Philadelphia Story.

  6. S

    I can’t believe Ghostbusters is not in this list.

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