Libraries in Books

As a librarian, I am always interested in how the public perceives libraries and librarians, especially since so many libraries are publicly funded institutions. I get tired of seeing libraries constantly referred to as “dusty” and “musty”, and don’t get me started on librarian stereotypes.

Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl thinks we should have more of a sense of humor about our public image, and served as the model for the librarian action figure, complete with shushing action. The action figure irritates me no end, not least because if you’re going to have a librarian action figure, at the very least she should get a cape! Librarians are super-heroes, after all.

Ann Seidl has done some thinking about librarians in the public image as well, and June 22 will see the world premier of her documentary, The Hollywood Librarian. The film looks at the work and lives of librarians by interweaving interviews of actual librarians with film clips of librarians in American movies which will “serve as transitions between the themes of censorship, intellectual freedom, children and librarians, pay equity and funding issues, and the value of reading.”

This got me to thinking about how libraries and librarians are portrayed in books, particularly works of fiction. In general, we don’t come off too well. In fact, in adult fiction, we don’t appear much at all. There are numerous mysteries in which the sleuth is a feisty small-town librarian, or a rare book dealer or some such, and many romances in which the uptight librarian finds love and sheds her horn-rimmed glasses and tight hair bun… There are also mysteries and thrillers in which libraries and archives prove integral to the plot, but in general, our appearances are infrequent and do little to dispel stereotypes of libraries as dusty relics and librarians as stern, uptight women with no social lives.

There are exceptions, of course, and a few of my favorite examples will be described below. But it’s children’s and young adult books where librarians really shine. This may be in part because these books are trying to encourage children to use libraries. It has also been suggested that it is because libraries account for a large percentage of children’s and young adult book sales, thus making it in the author’s best interest to portray librarians well.

However, when searching through my local library’s catalog under the subject heading “libraries-juvenile fiction,” I was struck by the number of titles related to being trapped in a library overnight, or to what happens in a library at night after everyone has gone home. Other themes include librarians as monsters (who turn out to be nice in the end), teaching kids how to use the library, addressing fears about what happens when a book is overdue, showing that libraries are fun and not scary or boring (usually by having a character reluctantly discover the joys of reading/storytime), and animals who live in libraries. There are also numerous books depicting libraries as magical worlds full of treasures where anything can happen. Lots of popular series characters visit libraries as well, and provide additional cheerleading for the profession.

After awhile, many of these books start to feel a little tired, like they’re trying too hard, and I almost found myself wishing for a truly great librarian villain. I’ve yet to find one, nor are there many truly great librarian super-heroes. But the following is a list of some of my favorite books which feature a library or librarian. I’d be interested to hear about your favorite or least-favorite fictional library or librarian, and how you think popular media portrayals affect popular stereotypes and mindsets towards the profession.

Adult Fiction

Umberto Eco. The Name of the Rose. Eco gets a lot of flak for being a pretentious snob, but this is one of my favorite books. It’s a murder mystery set in a medieval monastic library, with themes of heresy and censorship woven in, showing just how far some people will go to prevent “unsuitable” materials from being disseminated. In this case, the librarian is not your friend. The destruction of the library and Brother William’s reaction makes me cry every time.

Jorge Luis Borges. “The Library of Babel.” A short story in which Borges presents his vision of an infinite library.

Jasper Fforde. The Eyre Affair (etc.) Fforde’s imaginative mystery series is set in a world in which literature is of paramount importance, and the plots of classic literature can be forever changed by changing the original manuscript. While not featuring a library in the traditional sense of the word, literary detective Thursday Next gets pulled into a world where she can travel behind the scenes within books, where there is a Well of Lost Plots containing everything that has been written but never published, and where literary characters have lives beyond the roles in their books.

Young Adult Fiction

Terry Pratchett. The Light Fantastic and many many others. The Librarian is, according to Wikipedia, one of the most popular Discworld characters. Due to his work with dangerous magical books, he was accidently turned into an orangutan and refuses to be changed back. Not only is The Librarian an awesome character, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he never says anything but “ook”, but he is adept at travelling through “L-space”, a dimension Pratchett created inspired by Borges’ Library of Babel (see above). L-space is entered through books, and is based on the idea that knowledge is power, which leads large quantities of books to warp space and time around them.

Matthew Skelton. Endymion Spring. A young boy who doesn’t really like reading all that much gets pulled into dark world of mystery and magic in the Oxford University libraries. The story revolves around a magical book printed on dragon skin, and parts of the story take place back in time, with Gutenberg’s apprentice as the narrator.

Susan Bonners. The Silver Balloon. Gregory sends an index card with his name and address off on a helium balloon and soon he is corresponding with a farmer named Pete. The two exchange “mystery gifts” with their letters, and Gregory and his friend Tommy visit the library often to try to identify the objects Pete sends them. Not only does the book give a very postive view of libraries and librarians, it shows an innovative use for library materials beyond school reports and storytime.

Children’s Books

Tomie dePaola. The Knight and the Dragon. The knight and the dragon have decided to have a duel, and each does research (the knight uses the castle library) and practices in preparation for the big day. When the day finally comes, the librarian (who is never mentioned in the text, but appears several times in the background looking like a princess) appears with books for each of them, and the knight and the dragon turn the knight’s armor and the dragon’s fire-breathing ability into a successful barbecue restaurant. The librarian is the silent hero!

Sarah Stewart. The Library. Story told in rhyme about a woman who loves to read and reads wherever she goes and eventually has so many books there is no more room in her house, so she bequeaths her books to the town to start a library. It’s not exactly about libraries or librarians, but it shows that books are meant to be shared (and shows how easily they can take over your life!). David Small’s illustrations are fantastic.

Michelle Knudson. Library Lion. One day a lion shows up in the library and causes some consternation, but since he is not breaking any rules he is allowed to stay. Eventually he is forced to break the rules, and the moral of the story is that sometimes there is a good reason to break the rules, even in a library. Wonderful illustrations by Kevin Hawkes, and a very stern, no-nonsense librarian in the figure of Miss Meriweather with her bun and straight skirts, but even she understands that there must be exceptions to rules.

Jackie Hopkins. The Shelf Elf and The Shelf Elf Helps Out. These books are designed to teach children how to use the library and handle books properly, and how the Dewey Decimal System works. They are rather pedantic, but the illustrations are magical, with little creatures living in the books and shelves, doorways in the spines of books, etc. At the end of each book is a list of things for readers to identify in the pictures, including storybook characters.

Colin Thompson. How to Live Forever. In a library with copies of every book ever written, a book is missing, one which tells how to live forever. The library is inhabited by thousands of small residents who come out at night, and one of them dedicates himself to finding the lost book. The illustrations are full of detail, including hundreds of pun versions of classic titles.

Carmen Agra Deedy. The Library Dragon. There’s a dragon in the library, and she won’t let anyone touch the books. Eventually she is convinced that books are meant to be shared and read, and she transforms from a dragon into the librarian. There is an average of 3 horrible puns per page.

Eric Houghton. Walter’s Magic Wand. Walter makes a magic wand and takes it with him to the library. The librarian asks him to stop poking it at the things on her desk, and in revenge he points it at various books in the library and says the magic words, causing tigers, pirates and oceans to appear and threaten the library and its patrons. But every time the resourceful librarian saves everyone and politely asks the attackers not to harm the books.

Judy Sierra. Wild About Books. Rhyme in the style of Dr. Seuss about librarian Molly McGrew’s bookmobile which ends up at the zoo where all the animals get hooked on reading. Adorable illustrations of animals reading in all different situations.

Suzanne Williams. Library Lil. Written by a librarian, and you can tell. Library Lil is the librarian in a small, TV obsessed town and is incredibly strong thanks to years of reading and carrying huge piles of books around. During a storm that knocks out the power she converts the town to reading. When a biker gang comes to town and discovers that there is no TV in the bar on which to watch wrestling, they demand to know who is responsible. Lil takes care of them, too.

Comic Books

Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes. Unshelved. This comic strip is written by a librarian and features stories from actual libraries and librarians. The main character is Dewey, a sarcastic, work-averse young adult librarian, and the series provides the funniest, most realistic look at library work and library patrons I’ve seen yet.

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11 Responses to Libraries in Books

  1. sulz says:

    very interesting post! i love reading unshelved, i subscribe to its feed. when i think of librarian characters in a book, i think of the time traveler’s wife, which again doesn’t paint a very impressive picture. he (the time traveler) gets to slack on his work a lot on the account that he get ‘sucks’ into time involuntarily. he does, however, has a very high sexual libido that is unexpected of librarians, for all that’s worth. 😛 but it’s a great book and you should read it if you haven’t.

    http://sulz.daria.be

  2. Jennie says:

    The new Fables spin-off, Jack of Fables, features the librarian, but he is bad, bad, bad.

    Did you get a chance to read The Historian? Lots of librarians and libraries and archives. And vampires.

    Personally, I love the Nancy Pearl action-figure librarian. Especially the automatic-shushing action. Librarians who whine and bitch that we don’t shush people obviously only work with adults. I also agree that we need to lighten up about our image– if nothing else I take great joy in watching people’s faces when they find out I’m a librarian.

    Also, as an interesting side note, in her Fair Garden and the Swarm of Beasts Margaret Edwards (the godmother of YA librarian-ship) has many stern edicts for librarians. Best of all, the book was published in the late 60s and she talks about this exact same thing– even then librarians were up in arms about being portrayed as little old ladies with a lot of cats. Her comment was that we were so upset because it hit a little too close to home. And when I look at a gathering of librarians, a good segment of the group fits the mold exactly.

  3. Dana says:

    You know, my elementary school librarian really didn’t help allay any childhood fears about what happened when a book was overdue. In our case, if your book was overdue, it meant you got a red bookmark in the pocket with your name on it on the class chart, so everyone could see. The next week, if it was still not returned, it was a black bookmark, and you had to copy a very contrite letter, in your own handwriting, to your parents about what an irresposible library user you were. And then sign it.

    My library books are never late now.

    Since Jennie already mentioned the latest Fables, I’ll point out that you didn’t say anything about TV shows or movies. What about those USA made-for-TV movies with Noah Wyle, in the vein of Indiana Jones? The Librarian: Quest for the Spear and The Librarian: Return to King Solomon’s Mines. How could you not think these were classics? I have them on my Netflix list. I do note that the description of the first one characterizes the hero as a “meek librarian” in the beginning, though.

    Oh, and I remember a short story I read at some point about a librarian who was very strict about none of her books leaving the library, and it turned out it was because she was really a dragon, and the books were her hoard. That one was pretty cool. I’ll have to see if I can find it again.

  4. TheGnat says:

    I’ve found that most fantasy and sci-fi novels portray libraries in a fairly reverent light, and the librarians are usually a bit musty but god-like.

    And I thought The Librarian was pretty bad, even as a parody of Indiana Jones.

  5. Madeleine says:

    This was very interesting to read, mostly because my mom is a librarian and I grew up with a very definite idea of what librarians are like. As you can imagine it’s mostly positive. But I’m well aware of the stereotype out there, and I’m glad to see someone covering a lot of areas.

  6. qugrainne says:

    The following is a quotation found in the book: The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime, by Miles Harvey.

    It is probably my favorite quotation in the book. I adore librarians!

    “What a vapid job title our culture gives to those honorable laborers the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians variously called Learned Men of the Magic Library, Scribes of the Double House of Life, Mistresses of the House of Books, or Ordainers of the Universe. Librarian – that mouth-contorting, graceless grind of a word, that dry gulch in the dictionary between libido and licentious – it practically begs you to envision a stoop-shouldered loser, socks mismatched, eyes locked in a permanent squint from reading too much microfiche. If it were up to me, I would abolish the word entirely and turn back to the lexicological wisdom of the ancients, who saw librarians not as feeble sorters and shelvers but as heroic guardians. In Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian cultures alike, those who toiled at the shelves were often bestowed with a proud, even soldierly, title: Keeper of the Books.” In the opinion of historian Barbara Tuchman, librarians believe that “books are humanity in print.” Librarians are guarding mortal flesh, and if books are not protected, the past dies.

    Isn’t it sweet!?

  7. akdmyers says:

    Sulz:
    I have read The Time Traveler’s Wife and loved it; I had forgotten that he was a librarian.

    Jennie:
    I tried very hard to read The Historian, but I couldn’t make it past page 6; the prose was just too over-the-top for me.
    I recognize that a lot of librarians actually do spend more time than they would like shushing people, and I’m glad there is an action figure; I just think she needs to be able to do more than just shush. Like leap tall shelves in a single bound, and locate information with lightning speed. “Look! In the corner! It’s a mouse! It’s a robot! NO! It’s THE LIBRARIAN!”
    And yeah, way too many librarians fit the mold a little too closely. But not all of us, dammit!

    Dana:
    My school librarian scared the bejeezus out of me, too, though she was not quite that draconian.
    And no, I didn’t say anything about TV shows or movies because I wanted to focus on books, but I LOVED The Librarian movies with Noah Wylie. I haven’t seen the second one yet, but the first one is hiLARious. The parody of Indiana Jones is funny, and the meek librarian being dragged through the Amazon jungle by, well, an Amazon, is hilarious.

    (Sorry TheGnat. It was pretty bad, but I found it pretty bad in that way that’s so bad it’s good). And I have been intrigued by the trend you point out in fantasy and sci-fi novels portraying librarians as god-like. Do you have any specific titles you could recommend?

    Thanks for the quotation qugrainne; I’m not sure how I feel about what he’s saying. On the one hand, “librarian” really isn’t a good descriptor for everything we do. On the other hand, “library” is my favorite word in any language. I kind of like the title “Keeper of the Books”, but even that doesn’t convey what I think is the most important thing we do, which is to make information available to anyone who wants and/or needs it. If we start thinking of ourselves too much as gatekeepers, then we start to behave like the dragon in Dana’s short story reference, guarding our hoard and not letting any of it out of our sight. But we do have an obligation to preserve as well as share information, and sometimes that means restricting access. It’s quite the balancing act. I tend to think of the best librarians I know as magicians.

  8. Mike says:

    I like your points about the pop-cultural librarian, Ann. I was writing a short item today about an award for local library employees, and was startled that all eight nominees were women. Does that ratio bear out among library staffs? In pop-culture portrayals of librarians?

    Also, I’d just like to add that I might love public libraries as much as I love local newspapers. Which is a lot.

  9. akdmyers says:

    Mike:
    Yes, women far outnumber men in the library world. The department I work in now is rather unusual in that we have 3 male staff members, out of a total of 10. Most departments I have worked in have had one or zero male employees. Men show up more often in administrative positions (go figure), but are otherwise a minority in the profession. I can’t remember the exact numbers, but when I was in library school there were something like 75 students who started the year I did, of whom I think about 10-15 were men.

    Off the top of my head, the only pop-culture portrayals of male librarians I can think of are the main character in “The Librarian” movies, and Giles from “Buffy”. Also Dewey, the star of the comic “Unshelved,” who has a number of choice things to say about being a male librarian.

  10. Mark says:

    The Librarian, of Pratchett’s universe, is also male. The fact that he’s long-limbed and hairy, in the form of a primate, may or may not mitigate his membership in the very select ranks of male librarians.

  11. TheGnat says:

    akdmyers: I can’t think of any off the top of my head right now, but if I think of any, I’ll post a little list here. I’m a bit voracious when it comes to reading, so I start losing track of titles after awhile. I wish I could find a librarian well-versed enough in SF that I could walk in, describe something I’d read long ago, and s/he’d tell me the title!

    Mark mentions Discworld’s Librarian, and I think that character very much evokes that image of a god-like librarian. In “Small Gods”, which is set a long time before most Discworld novels, he shows up, because only librarians have access to L-space, and so he is able to save ancient texts from a fire. The power of the written word comes up constantly in Discworld novels, and all libraries are magical. The Librarian changes the entire course of events in “Jingo!” by giving Vimes a single book.

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