Storm Center and the story of Ruth Brown, the radical librarian who inspired it

Senate House Library is currently running an exhibition called Radical Voices, displaying items associated with activism for positive change in society, which have been preserved in the library’s collections. As part of this exhibition season the library hosted a film night, showing Storm Center (1956), directed by Daniel Taradash and co-written by Taradash and Elick Moll.


Storm Center stars Bette Davis as a public librarian who is fired for refusing to remove a book about communism from her library. While the film itself is significant for being the first Hollywood film to challenge McCarthyism, I found it more interesting to discover the real-life story behind the film.

Dr Richard Espley (Head of Modern Collections at Senate House Library) introduced the film, explaining that it was inspired by a true story: the dismissal of Ruth Brown, a public librarian in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, in 1950. Although Brown was dismissed for circulating communist materials, many believe that the real reason behind it was her civil rights activism. Brown was a member of a group affiliated with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). She had made efforts to promote racial equality, for example by running an integrated library, trying to introduce an integrated story-time, and taking part in a sit-in with two African American teachers at a local drugstore (Robbins, 2007). This was in 1950, before sit-ins became more widespread as part of the Civil Rights Movement. Despite the complaints of a “citizens committee”, Brown could not be dismissed for her actions and had been careful not to break the law. The library board that supported her was replaced by the City Commission, who interrogated and then fired her.

An intriguing detail concerns a photograph published in the local newspaper during the controversy and claimed to be of subversive materials removed from the library. In an attempt to calm the situation, the library board had moved copies of these magazines to locked storage, but on top of them were two books about communism, which later could not be located (Robbins, 2000). The library board denied knowledge of the books, and it has since been asserted that the copy of Marx’s Das Kapital was not even from the Bartlesville public library, but had been checked out from the Tulsa public library for the unauthorised picture in order to incriminate Brown (Robbins, 2007). Presumably the book was returned to the Tulsa public library and remained there free from censorship.

After Brown’s dismissal, a group called ‘The Friends of Miss Brown’ was formed in order to defend her and protest against the censorship of library materials. The group’s spokesperson, Darlene Anderson Essary, wrote in a letter to the Saturday Review, “the denial of Constitutional rights to our citizens has significance beyond the boundaries of our town”. It was this letter that inspired Daniel Taradash and fellow screenwriter Elick Moll to make a film based on the events in Bartlesville (Robbins, 1998).

Storm Center is historically significant for challenging McCarthyism, and is an enjoyable, if melodramatic, film. However, as Espley pointed out, it is ironic that a film about fighting censorship and defending intellectual freedom actually censors the real-life story upon which it is based. The film makes no mention of the civil rights activism of Ruth Brown. Louise S. Robbins researched the story and wrote a book about it: The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship, and the American Library (2000). The photograph of subversive materials mentioned above appears on the cover of the book.

Thank you to Dr Richard Espley and Dr Jordan Landes at Senate House Library for hosting such an interesting event. I am excited to attend the related conference next month, Radical Collections: Radicalism and Libraries and Archives.

There has been talk of organising a regular film night at #citylis in order to watch movies about librarians. I think that this is a great idea, as there are many more films featuring librarians! The 10 best librarians on screen: Staff at the BFI Reuben Library nominate their top 10 librarians in film and television.

Senate House Library blog post: The (partially) radical librarian on film

Robbins, L. (2000) The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship, and the American Library. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press

Robbins, L. (1998) Fighting McCarthyism through Film: A Library Censorship Case Becomes a “Storm Center”. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 39 (4), 291-311. doi:10.2307/40324305

Robbins, L. (1996) Racism and Censorship in Cold War Oklahoma: The Case of Ruth W. Brown and the Bartlesville Public Library. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 100 (1), 18-46.


How do we document performance?

On Monday I attended a symposium at City, called ‘The Future of Documents: documenting performance’. As both a library school student and someone with an embarrasingly large collection of theatre programmes and tickets, this was bound to be a fascinating and enjoyable event! The day left me with a lot to think about, especially the different ways in which we document performance, whose point of view we are documenting, and who we are doing it for.

The first speaker of the day was Toni Sant, and he called for a focus on “documentation” rather than just “documents”. I think that for me this means thinking about the purpose of documentation and what future users will get from it, rather than being dismissive of traditional “documents” themselves.

What we might think of as traditional documents related to performing arts are scripts, programmes, posters, photographs, technical plans, designs, reviews and articles. Liz Harper told us about her work at the Royal Albert Hall, and how their archives are used for education and promotion. A wonderful example of this is the mural by Peter Blake, composed of photos of performers drawn from the archive, which now adorns the entrance hall.

Interactive version and quiz of the Peter Blake mural:

It was exciting to hear from Jenny Fewster about the development of AusStage, a database of performing art events, venues and resources in Australia. Ramona Riedzewski from the V&A spoke about their collaboration, using AusStage as a basis for creating a database for UK performing arts. An “IMDB for the performing arts” sounds like it would be a fantastic resource for researchers, professionals and enthusiasts alike!

Video is another way of documenting performance, normally from the point of view of the audience. Archival videos are often filmed with a single static camera, such as those filmed for the National Video Archive of Performance held at the V&A, or for the British Library’s collection. Other, multi-camera recordings are made for commercial use, such as for National Theatre Live or Digital Theatre. Stacie Lee Bennett spoke about the use of hand-held cameras and GoPros in developing training resources for actors and dancers, using the camera to capture the performer’s perspective. GoPros were also suggested as a way of creating an immersive experience of a perfomance, with multiple possible viewpoints.

Sound recordings are also used as a way of documenting performance. Eva del Rey spoke about the British Library’s Drama and Literature recordings, which include gems such as the only known recordings of James Joyce’s voice (reading from Ulysses), as well as oral histories and audio recordings of live performances. The BL’s ‘Save Our Sounds’ project highlights the problem of format obsolescence and degredation (or “plastic-rot”) which affects archives such as these.

Listen to James Joyce reading from Ulysses:

Audio recordings can be a better choice for documenting performance, as Yaron Shyldkrot demonstrated in his paper about theatre in the dark. In this case, there is a focus on the atmosphere of anxiety and isolation created by being in complete darkness. This feeling can be recreated more effectively using sound and headphones, rather than trying to film or photograph the performers.

It was great to hear about documenting another aspect of performance when Hansjorg Schmidt spoke about The Library of Light. I think it is exciting to explore the different ways of documentation that are possible, for example the use of network technologies, as explored by Zeta Kolokythopoulou in her presentation. She described the use of livestreaming and Twitter in Forced Entertainment’s Speak Bitterness, which encouraged audience members all over the world to partipate with their own contributions using the hashtag #FESpeaklive.

Article by Time Etchells of Forced Entertainment about Speak Bitterness:

An interesting comment came from an attendee, suggesting that we should not dismiss the effectiveness of a paper document over current trends for video and technology, for example the prompt book (a master copy of the script, annotated with the actors’ moves and technical cues), which may be a better record of a complex performance. It is important to think about who we are documenting performance for and what future users will want to get from it, whether it is the perfomers or companies themselves, audience or researchers, or all of the above.

The question of whether a performance can ever be truly documented, or if it is a unique live experience that cannot be captured is an interesting and, I expect, eternal one. However, the importance of the documention that is possible cannot be ignored, as was demonstrated by the breadth of possibilities explored at this event. I would like to thank all of the speakers, and I am sorry that I have not managed to mention every one in this post!

See the full programme and abstracts here.

The event on Storify.

APAC (Association of Performing Arts Collections):