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


Anonymous on April 23, 2013


Marion the Librarian - Music Man.
Love your blog Lisa - very cool how you added the movie clips.

dapplegate on May 9, 2013


Also, Red. A great scene where Bruce Willis and Mary-Louise Parker are in a Library (Harvard?) and part of a clue is that a call number is in Harvard-Yenching. Yes, Library Nerd.

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