Unleash your inner librarian!

image-of-library-stamp-courtesy-of-exlibrisWhat are the odds? The brand spanking new Library of Congress subject heading for “Public Libraries – California – anecdotes’” is getting quite a workout. In the past six months we have seen the publication of two humorous memoirs by librarians in the Los Angeles area: Don Borchert’s Free For All: Oddballs, Geeks and Gangstas in the Public Library and Scott Douglass’s Quiet Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian. They’re both entertaining slices of the library life (or as I like to call it, “The Game”), and I recommend them both. You may have to get in line, as they are both proving to be very popular, and not just with library staff either! It seems a lot of you are interested in exploring your inner librarian. While you’re waiting to get a behind-the-scenes look at the glamorous, high-stakes world of public librarianship, let me introduce some of my favorite fictional librarians.

Meet Cassandra Mitchell, librarian of the small town of Sechelt, British Columbia. While perhaps less well-known than the prim and plucky Miss Helma Zukas just down the coast in Bellehaven, Miss Mitchell is smart, compassionate, resourceful, sexy, a trained professional with a deep commitment to her community, and a love of books, which, she writes, “are my work, my comfort, my joy.” This, in a personal ad answered by RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, who observes her well-rounded character in acute detail. “He noticed that as she shelved the books, she pulled some slightly farther out, and then, unthinking, ran her fingers along the spines as if playing a harp.” Small wonder Alberg becomes her love interest and fellow crime solver in nine evocative, psychological mysteries by L.R. (Lauralie) Wright, beginning with The Suspect, winner of the 1985 Edgar award for best novel. Readers with a Masters in Library Science will find special poignancy in A Touch of Panic, in which Cassandra is stalked by that most exasperating of villains, a pompous, predatory professor of library science. Wright died in 2001, but her masterful Northwest mysteries deserve to live on with fans of P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, and mainstream fiction readers as well.

shushing-librarian-courtesy-of-rachel-youngDorcas Mather, head of Rhode Island’s Squanto Library and droll narrator of Jincy Willett’s cunningly titled Winner of the National Book Award, in which she offers her uproariously trenchant views on readers and books, most notably a tell-all crime story written by her twin sister. Abigail Mather is sensual, fleshy, impulsive and free-spirited, while Dorcas is bookish, angular, self-contained and sensuous only toward books. “When I was twelve, and An American Tragedy was my favorite summer book, (Abigail) thrilled to Forever Amber…” Yet the odd pair is linked by mutual love, and the despicable attentions of the superlatively creepy Conrad Lowe, with tragicomic results. Although Dorcas seems at first glance stereotypic spinster librarian, her keen perceptions, vulnerabilities and devastating wit make this a compelling, hilarious and irresistible read.

Myrtle Rusk, the academic librarian heroine of Michael Griffith’s Bibliophilia who has been pressed image of bibliophilia book coverinto service by the head librarian at LSU to prowl the stacks in search of clandestine coitus and to curtail all such free exchange of bodily fluids on library property. Not surprisingly, Myrtle resents being placed in the role of “…deputy sheriff of nookie… a sexless functionary …that joy-spurning old biddy, the Puritan at the Circulation Desk.” It is fair to say that the library itself resents it as well, for one can feel the life force pulsing through the aisles, yearning to break free of its hidebound restraints in small transgressions and grand flagrances, just as Griffith’s prose roils and bubbles with savory expressions. When the library director’s vampish daughter sets her sights on Seti, a pious, charmingly befuddled Egyptian exchange student studying water management, Myrtle must somehow find a way to dam or channel the inevitable deluge.

Then there are librarians’ librarians, such as Alexander Short, the brilliant young hero of Alex Kurzweil’s The Grand Complication, who sublimates his personal insecurities and shortcomings into the exhilarating chase after elusive knowledge, and whose relentless skill at unlocking puzzles and finding arcane answers just opens up more questions. Or William of Baskerville, that daring champion of free thought from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose who must puzzle through that image-of-bookgrl-w-librarian-action-figure-courtesy-of-bookgrlcruel perversion of learning – a library ingeniously designed to confound its users. Who of us have not shared his frustration from time to time?

We’ve only scratched the surface, so look for more posts on great fictional librarians. And make some noise: Who are your favorite librarians, in fact or fiction?

24 thoughts on “Unleash your inner librarian!”

  1. How can you possibly have left off The Librarian from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books? The Librarian and L-space are two of the best things in the funniest series of books I’ve ever read.

  2. I like the librarian in Connie Willis’s Bellwether; she keeps the heroine up on current book fads.

  3. I like Ophelia in the Abby & Ophelia mysteries. She’s a librarian and a witch. The books are by Shirley Damsgaard.

  4. I must agree with Heather, even if Pratchett’s Librarian is an orangutang and his library positively sizzles with magic. An early discworld book that features the Librarian is “Guards! Guards!” and is as good a place as any to start your discworld journey. Bring your sense of humor. Oook!

  5. I bet a public library with the Discworld librarian at the helm would not have to worry about security nearly as much as a public library without one would — but our circulation rates are surely much higher.

  6. Lucien, the chief librarian in the Dreaming (the realm of Dream of the Endless, in the comic series The Sandman by Neil Gaiman), definitely wins my vote! He’s stylish, kind, ethical, and gracefully manages to succeed in exemplary professional practice in quite a difficult environment.

  7. Again, the Librarian at the Unseen University Library in Discworld gets the vote. Yes, he’s an orangatang, but that doesn’t bother him. It makes it easier to shelve books on the top shelf! What ever you do, don’t call him a monkey!!!!!

  8. My favorite non-fictional librarian is Jorge Luis Borges. Although if I think about it, maybe he is a fictional librarian, after all. A meta-fictional librarian, perhaps. At any rate, it looks like we’ll need to make this an irregular series @ Shelf Talk! So stay tuned for Borges and Orangutans (and, I suppose, Luis Fernando Verissimo’s charming book “Borges and the Eternal Organgutans,” as well. Hmmm… curiouser and curiouser…)

  9. I have to give a shout-out to Armbruster, the crotchety monk librarian from Walter Miller’s _A Canticle for Liebowitz_, simply because he’s one of the only librarians I can recall from post-apocalyptic fiction. But my vote goes to DiscWorld’s Librarian. I have a stuffed version of him at work!

  10. Lirael, from the Garth Nix novels, is my fav. She’s depressed because she’s not like the other “Daughters of the Clayr” and is given a job as Assistant Librarian, which turns her whole life around.

  11. Girl’s Guide to Witchcraft, and its sequel, Sorcery and the Single Girl, by Mindy Klasky, feature a librarian named Jane. She’s not my favorite character in the world, but some of the comments she makes about problem patrons and grant writing tickled me.

  12. Parker Posey “Party Girl” is great fun. If we’re including movies/videos in our thoughts then how about Katherine Hepburn in “Desk Set.” Tracy vs Hepburn, librarians vs computer, champagne and Christmas… and of course love and a happy ending.

  13. I found the character of Miss Leech in Nuala O’Faolain’s “My Dream of You” to be an inspiring portrait of a small town librarian who is a local history resource for the main character. Could the mystery at the heart of the book have been solved if she’d spent more time with her librarian instead of all that soul searching?

  14. Hey! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering which blog platform are you
    using for this website? I’m getting sick and tired of WordPress because I’ve had issues with hackers and I’m looking at alternatives for another platform. I would be great if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.

    1. Hello Lorrie. ShelfTalk is actually running on the WordPress platform. We don’t have any recommendations but our suggestion is to see what’s available and test them out to see if the blogging platform has the features you need for your blog. Thank you for reading ShelfTalk!

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