What 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.
Dorcas 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 into 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 cruel 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?