April 24, 2018

Law & Order: THE Show for Librarians

In amassing my collection of all available Law & Order DVD sets, I’ve concluded that no other show has more consistently or creatively paid tribute through the years to American libraries.

That L&O exec producer René Balcer is a fan of libraries is no secret: he’s asked viewers to help him fund the construction of libraries in developing countries, and he even created, for L&O spinoff Criminal Intent, a librarian character, whose superheroic son, Det. Robert Goren, regularly rolls out such phrases as "I must get to a library before it’s too late!" and “I need to use my most important investigative tool—my library card.”

But what really accounts for L&O’s frequent featuring of libraries in its storylines is more likely this: that narrative element that’s so integral to any detective/lawyer drama—the tracking of private citizens—is nowhere better played out than in libraries, where the decision to use or not use surveillance cameras, to filter or not filter Internet access, and to share or not share with police a patron’s checkout selections is exactly the stuff of which good television is made.

and its offshoots—Criminal Intent, SVU—have, for 18 years and counting, produced inumerable episodes set in or involving New York City libraries. Off the top of my head:

a schizophrenic rape victim points detectives to a library’s surveillance camera, helping them to identify her attacker
a library’s policy against the use of surveillance cameras enables a suspected rapist to temporarily evade capture

a college student sends an anonymous, threatening email from her school library’s computer

the members of a library circle/urban society are the prime suspects in a writer’s murder

a library card helps detectives identify a young murder victim

an overdue library book leads detectives to a woman on the lam

detectives break their case upon finding an authentic antique map at the library

a woman tracks down the father of her child using a library computer 

For the record, I am not a fan of Trial by Jury. Nor am I a fan of those redheads and that short-haired elfish automaton from Criminal Intent (something’s happened with the casting, lately, it used to be spot on—e.g., Jill Hennessy, Carey Lowell, Angie Harmon, Elisabeth Röhm—and now, at the price of all discernable acting ability, calls only for a tailored suit with prominent clavicle/cheekbone [the exception here being the superclassy S. Epatha Merkerson, aka Lt. Anita Van Buren, who thankfully still remains]).

I believe, like many others do, that the show died with Jerry Orbach, that Adam Schiff was the best D.A. ever, and that the 90s were the golden years of this inconsistently superlative franchise. Nonetheless, I do wish L&O (given a major casting shuffle) a long and prosperous life, and, through it, continued exposure to the show’s uniquely gritty take on privacy issues at the library.



  1. We can say that L&O plays out the decision whether or not to share with police a patron’s checkout record, but let me ask this: Has there ever been an episode where a library staff person doesn’t share a patron’s checkout record? I’ve watched a lot of L&O and I enjoy the show (original & spin-offs) immensely, but what drives me absolutely bonkers is that in every instance when the detectives query a library staff person for a patron’s checkout record, the staff person immediately rolls over. This is just ludicrous, and the portrayal is an injustice to all library staff who value patron privacy. Just once, I’d like to see the staff person say, “Come back with a court order.” Just once!!


    You know what, ejan? You are totally right on the money.