Cinema in the Stacks: Great Library Scenes

Libraries are sites of imagination and possibility. Each book contains a tiny world capable of transporting the reader into a radically different time and place. In a similar way, the space of the library itself -- whether dark and dusty or bright and modern -- also has the potential to transport us out of the realm of the ordinary.

In honor of National Library Week I'd like to present a few of my favorite cinematic libraries. All these titles are available to check out through DPL.

These two scenes, from  Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) present two different architectural fantasies of the ideal library. Belle's library is sun-drenched and spotless, filled with endless columns of pristine and neatly organized books that can be accessed through a system of gliding ladders. The Hogwarts library -- on the other hand -- is cozy and dimly lit, stuffed to bursting with ancient volumes of magical secrets.

Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and David Fincher's Se7en​ (1995) showcase libraries as islands of information in an uncertain world, places where vitally important facts await discovery. In the dim, watery light cast by the green lamps that fill the public library, Se7en's detective Sommerset uncovers the historical and literary inspirations behind the series of grisly murders he hopes to solve. In Shadow of a Doubt, young Charlie makes a suspenseful, last-second dash to her public library where she discovers a dark family secret. As the camera pulls up at the end of the scene we can feel her world expanding and changing.

Wings of Desire (1987) -- directed by Wim Wenders -- provides a beautiful illustration of Jorge Luis Borges's notion that paradise is a kind of library. The film centers on a pair of earthbound angels who can hear humans' thoughts but are unable to interact with them. They visit a public library in Berlin, in order to surround themselves with the music of literature and poetry as it passes through the minds of the library's mortal visitors. The space of the library is clean, bright, and modern -- a kind of minimalist oasis that provides respite from the chaos of modern life.

Alain Resnais's short documentary Toute la mémoire du monde (1956), paints a similarly Borgesian portrait of the library as universe and a labyrinth -- a repository for "All the World's Memory." His film presents a day in the life of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Accompanied by a witty and philosophical voice-over that departs from traditional documentary narration, Toute la mémoire du monde presents an intimate yet global view of the library that renders it both familiar and strange. Seen through Resnais's lens, the library is an ancient reliquary and a space-ship from another planet, a living organism and a supercomputer, a place where fact and mystery can exist side by side. (The entire 22-minute short film is available online in two parts, and it also appears as an extra on the most recent Criterion Collection DVD of Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad​ (1961).

What's your ideal library like? Are there other images of libraries from films, photographs, paintings, or books that spark your imagination?

Written by Lisa B. on April 16, 2013


BobbyE on April 16, 2013


I'm a big fan of the opening scene of Ghostbusters with Slimer at New York Public Library. A great tone-setter for the rest of the movie.

angela on April 16, 2013


What a fantastic list! I've always loved Party Girl -- more for Mary (Parker Posey's character) than the actual library she works in, but still.

Lisa B. on April 16, 2013


Thanks for These fantastic suggestions!

Gwen on April 17, 2013


There are scenes in the film version of A Civil Action that are supposed to take place at Harvard, but were really filmed in the Boston Athenaeum, a gorgeous library on Beacon Hill.

Laurie. on April 18, 2013


Oh, I admit I am a big fan of Sex and the City, the movie. Carrie returns a book of love poems and realizes the library is a perfect place for a wedding. I won't spoil the rest of the plot if you haven't seen the film. Breakfast at Tiffany's also has a fabulous scene of the central reading room at NYPL, midtown. I love that Paul was so eager to show Holly his name in the card catalog. Btw, I always like seeing card catalogs reused for other purposes; for example, Fancy Tiger uses them for holding knitting needles making it easy to browse for just the right size. Fun blog!

james on April 18, 2013


Loved the library scene in Wim Wender's Wings of Desire.

Lisa B. on April 18, 2013


Wow. I realized I've only uncovered the tip of the iceberg when it comes to library scenes. I've never seen A Civil Action or the Sex and the City Movie (although I was a fan of the TV show.) Its been quite awhile since I last saw Ghostbusters or Party Girl -- Parker Posey was definitely one of my favorite indie starlets. It's time to add some things to my holds queue!

Anonymous on April 18, 2013


Time Traveler's Wife

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