Librarian characters in films have long been the subject of academic study, usually comparing their features with those of the stereotype or real librarians. Little attention is given to the value librarian characters bring to visual narratives. This qualitative research explores contributions of onscreen librarians by identifying role function within a sample of 30 narrative realist horror films. Function relates to how a character's traits, behaviors, and interactions create meaning that advances the story. The horror genre offers popular conventions and a wide variety of librarian character types.
Because the term stereotype is too limiting to describe librarian roles in films, an observational framework is applied that interprets data as signs using constructs defined by Charles S. Peirce. A librarian character, when viewed as an indexical sign, is the product of any combination of signifiers culturally associated with the image that will induce recognition of the occupation, e.g., hair bun or bald, young (and naïve) or old (and frigid), male or female, repressed or wild, helpful or obstructive. A semiotic approach permits contradictions and neutralizes emotions vested in the librarian symbol by members of the profession. Using Esslin's Table of Signs System for data collection, librarian character functions fall into 17 categories, with analyses thematically grouped based on the level of communication flow between filmmaker and audience.
Data show that most of the sample films include librarians as protagonists or pivotal characters that express multiple functions. A significantly larger percentage of male librarians appear in these horror films than in general cinema or in real life. While features of the negative librarian stereotype are exaggerated in some films, they support narrative purpose and are not gratuitous. Positive aspects of the librarian symbol are strongly represented. Most of the films in the sample include library settings with familiar cultural signifiers that augment librarian functions. While the portrayal of information services within a library setting ground minor roles, more fully-fleshed characters fulfill a wide range of functions including murderers, victims, action heroes, sources of humor and irony, emotional support, sexual objects, and other purposes. As working librarians they provide information, obstruct information, enact routine library tasks, maintain library rules—and violate them. Whether on the job or interacting in other narrative settings, librarian characters impact their stories, showing the librarian index to be fertile, expressive and capable of communicating deep narrative meaning. This research successfully argues that librarian roles within the narrative realist horror film genre are relevant and, despite a stodgy stereotype, often support drama and excitement.