Books in the Park

suggestions from the Barbara S. Ponce Public Library at Pinellas Park

Desk Set (1957)


desk setSpencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn star in this delightful romantic comedy about a group of research librarians who fear that the newly hired efficiency expert will replace their entire department with a computer.

Bunny Watson (Hepburn) is the brilliant head of the research department of a major TV network. Each day she and the rest of her all-female crew answer countless questions from the mundane to the bizarre. For seven years, Bunny has been romantically involved with one of the network’s ladder-climbing executives with no hint of marriage in sight. When a “methods engineer” named Richard Sumner (Tracy) wanders into the department one day, Bunny worries that he’s going to replace not only her job, but her love interest as well.

So, this movie is much more about clever wordplay and subtle romance than it is about job automation. But I still find it interesting that, as early as 1957 when computers were just becoming viable workplace tools, there was already the fear that people’s jobs—even ones involving in-depth research—could be replaced by automation. Decades later, as computers have become more advanced and affordable than ever, job automation is still a legitimate concern. I can tell you that in modern librarianship, there is a definite worry that reference librarians, especially, are quickly becoming obsolete when the answer to any question is freely available on the Internet. But, as fantasy writer Neil Gaiman famously put it, “Google can return 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.” Being a good librarian means not only that you can use the Internet as an essential tool, but that you also have the expertise to sift through all the misinformation out there to find the correct information with efficiency. Still, as technology evolves, I do often wonder what the future holds for me and my career as a librarian. Can an algorithm ever be programmed to tell fact from fiction? Only time will tell.

In any event, Desk Set is a clever and adorable movie with Tracy and Hepburn at the top of their game. Highly recommended.

Check the PPLC Catalog for Desk Set.

3 thoughts on “Desk Set (1957)

  1. I’ve seen Desk Set dozens of times, and not just because I used to own a copy. It was one of the few period movies where women’s mental strengths and talents were given at least SOME of the limelight alongside men. Massive, hardcore sexism still won out in a numbers game (which is why I got rid of that DVD) but I can replay the victorious moments of the story in my mind.

    There is one thing a computer can never beat a librarian at: sussing out just the right descriptive word for a situation. As a writer, I occasionally arrive at the spot where an adjective or other descriptor should go and I can FEEL the meaning but the word is doing that Right on the Tip of My Tongue Thing that causes so many writers to turn to drugs and alcohol. Five minutes with my go-to guy at my local library and we’ve either found it or our banter has dislodged the mental logjam enough for me to carve another path. You’re the best, P.J.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the insightful comment. I didn’t think about gender issues in Desk Set, though in hindsight it is an obvious talking point! This is a rare ’50s feature film in which women in the workplace are treated with some modicum of decency.

      You are also spot-on with descriptive words, which we call “keywords” in librarianship. The correct keyword is absolutely essential to database and Internet searches.

      Yay, P.J.! 😉


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