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.
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.
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.
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.