Fantastic librarians, or librarian fantasies?

In a recent post, I enthused about a few of my favorite fictional librarians, and invited others to share their favorites. The suggestions that followed were many and varied, ranging from Public Librarian Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, to Henry DeTamble from Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, to Garth Nix’s Lirael, who is given a job as Assistant Librarian, which turns her whole life around. There were nods to Armbruster, the crotchety monk librarian from Walter Miller’s post-apocalyptic classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Jane from Mindy Klasky’s Girl’s Guide to Witchcraft, the buttoned-down Rupert Giles of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, and the librarian witch Ophelia in Shirley Damsgaard’s Ophelia & Abby mysteries. One reader raved about Lucien, the chief librarian in the Dreaming from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series (“He’s stylish, kind, ethical, and gracefully manages to succeed in exemplary professional practice in quite a difficult environment”), while over in the Science Fiction aisle Signals Officer Adele Mundy from David Drake’s Lt. Leary series was mentioned, as was Sandra Foster from Connie Willis’ delightful Bellwether.

                                       Do you sense a pattern emerging here?

Could it be that librarians’ staid image is now bursting the seams of naturalistic fiction and spilling forth into the realms of imagination and empires of wonder? Are librarians truly fantastic, or are we just indulging in librarian fantasies? And what does it say about our supposed serious demeanor when possibly the most revered fictional librarian of all time is an orangutan? You’ll have to read The Color of Magic, first title in Terry Pratchett’s hilarious and perennially popular Discworld series, to learn just how The Librarian at the Unseen University Library became an ape, but once the transformation was complete, it isn’t hard to imagine why he decided to stay in that shape. Shelving books is so much easier, and imagine the time saved on email when you’re entire vocabulary consists of ‘Oook’ and ‘Eeek.’ He can also travel through L-Space (something I’ve always envied), and officiates as Best Man at weddings. 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 along your sense of humor. Oook!

Things get even curiouser when we consider the titular apes of Luis Fernando Verissimo’s delightful surreal literary mystery Borges and the Eternal Orangutans, who play a mystical role involving the theories of Elizabethan magus John Dee. But wait – wasn’t Jorge Luis Borges a librarian himself, and didn’t he write a great story about an infinite library? Could this all be coincidence, or am I finally on the verge of breaking through the L-Space barrier in the time space continuum? (And what role does Bigfoot play in all this?)

Great Apes and metaphysics to one side, my own favorite fantastic librarians are the uncivil servants at the heart of Sean McMullen’s steampunk Greatwinter Trilogy, where the future of humankind lies in our hands, and our classification systems.  Set in late 40th century Australia, Souls in the Great Machine introduces us to a low-tech world emerging from a crippling Ice Age to face a new threat hidden from a forgetful society in the wastes of time.  Mysterious machines on autopilot construct some ominous structure on the surface of the moon for a reason long since forgotten, and only the ruthless Highliber of Rochester, Zavora Cybeline has both the foresight and hindsight to fathom the danger, with the aid of a jaw-dropping primitive computer forged from flesh and blood.

So what does a world run by librarians look like?  Not nearly so well-organized as you might think. McMullen depicts a vast, seething bureaucracy where savage battles over rival classification schemes are settled with flintlock and steel, and scheming megalomaniacs sell their souls for a taste of the elixir, information.  You guessed it: McMullen has a library degree.  This stunningly detailed, thought-provoking trilogy continues with The Miocene Arrow and The Eyes of the Calculor.

37 thoughts on “Fantastic librarians, or librarian fantasies?”

  1. And how about Parker Posey’s character in the film Party Girl?1 Alright, at the end she decides to go to library school so is not technically a librarian…but it is a great evolution nonetheless!

  2. You are so right – ‘Party Girl’ should definitely be on any librarians viewing list, together with ‘The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag’ and, of course, ‘Desk Set.’ A great lesser known librarian flick is ‘Salmonberries,’ a great love/friendship story between a librarian and a lady pipeline worker, played by K.D. Lang.

  3. Though it would be hart to argue for them as fantastic, I’m surprised to see no nod here to the evil librarians in Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson. I hardly suspect that the world they’ve created is what it would *actually* look like if librarians ruled the world–but then again, that’s probably what they want me to think.

  4. Hey, that is a great tip. I kind of feel like an Evil Librarian myself today. Or maybe just a bit punk. In any case, our library has lots of copies of the Sanderson’s Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians on paper and on CD. I must check it out!

  5. I read “Alcatraz…” to my son, and he *loved* teasing me about taking over the world, and asking how many people I had killed so far. : )

  6. Somewhere in H.P Lovecraft the world is saved from the forces of Cthulhu by a librarian who comes up with just the right book at the right time. It’s been years since I read it, can’t come up with the title, but I’ll bet somebody here will.

  7. Well now that one I’ve got to find – it would be the perfect thing to read for our library’s Thrilling Tales Adult Story hour!

  8. Rupert Giles is my favorite librarian! Long live Ripper! I just discovered Lireal this past month, which was a lovely surprise – an excellent YA series. I have to say that Alcatraz didn’t thrill me – I didn’t like the writing style at all, but the premise is good.

  9. Speaking of which, there is a great Lovecraftian horror novel featuring not librarians but booksellers, stuck doing a late night inventory in a big box store built on top of some ancient reeking evil. The Overnight by Ramsay Campbell.

  10. This is a stretch but what about Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption? He was not a librarian but he did create the “best prison library in New England” in that movie.

  11. I always love Evey (sp?) in The Mummy movies. The best scene is where she has gotten drunk and he asks her who she is. Then she stands up, wobbling, and proudly proclaims, “I am a librarian!” and promptly passes out.

  12. How about the Unitary Authority of Warrington (otherwise known as Cheshire) Cat in Jasper Fforde’s Well of Lost Plots? He’s the librarian of the Jurisfiction Library which is 200 miles in each direction and has a copy of every book that will ever be written.

  13. How about Bellis Coldwine, in China Mieville’s The Scar?
    I suppose she’s kind of an unwilling librarian, but still.
    One of my favorite books ever.

  14. Another one for the comic books! It appears that the somewhat new character of Patriot (grandson of the WWII era black Captain America) in Marvel comics for their “Young Avengers,” series is a page in the New York City library.

    For some reason, romance writers and the science fiction/fantasy crowd seem to have more respect and can see the possibilities of what someone with information access can really do. I think it might be because of the daunting amount of research involved in creating a believable historical or otherworldly setting.

  15. Another science fiction librarian is the old gentleman (I can’t recall his name and don’t have the book handy) from City of Ember and People of Sparks. I would say he, like the Liebowitz monks, falls into a sort of sub-category of science fiction librarians dealing with the recovery of lost knowledge– and the preservation of knowledge even when you don’t understand it yourself.
    I also have to mention Diane Duane and her Young Wizards universe. Mrs. Lesser is not a wizard herself, but she definitely does facilitate Nita getting her wizard’s manual. The related story The Book of Night with Moon also features the New York Public Library system and one of its cats (more, if you count the lions).

  16. Another nice thing about Rupert Giles is that he has a much darker side which we see only ocassionally. On the other hand, he is not an actual librarian as far as we know.

  17. I can’t believe so few are mentioning Rupert Giles, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Whenever the show’s characters were in trouble, they turned to books AND the internet. Or is that the Internet AND books?
    We don’t know if he had a library degree, but he WAS the librarian and we don’t know he didn’t.

  18. I seem to recall that Anne McCaffrey featured a librarian in her early SF novel, “Restoree”; not part of the Drgaons of Pern but a stand-alone title. It’s been quite a while since a read it, but I also think the character used her encyclopedic knowledge (gained from her work as a librarian) to help solve/resolve some problems on her newly adopted world.

  19. I also liked the plot of Alcatraz, but I agree with whoever said they didn’t like Sanderson’s writing style, that was one drawback to the book. I’ve noticed in these postings, as well as others that concern books/movies,etc. about librarians or libraries that they always leave out Eco’s “The Name of the Rose”. While the Sean Connery character (in the film) and other monks were technically not librarians, they were the keepers and scribes of the book collection. Not to mention that a large part of the movie concerns the hidden library at the monastery.

  20. Let’s not forget Bunny Watson (played by the fabulous Katharine Hepburn) in Desk Set. One of my most absolute favorite movies of all time!!

  21. And what about Marian the Librarian from Music Man! The building was left to the town but the books were all left to her 🙂 I LOVED that musical!!

  22. Plus China Mieville’s newest book Un Lun Dun has adventurous librarians who utilize climbing gear in their enormous libraries! Libraries also function as “portals” (quite literally) to other worlds. You climb into a library in one world, and out of a library in a different one. Marvelous!

  23. Is anyone out there a Walter Mosley Fan? The lead character in his Fearless Jones series is a small bookstore owner and is always raving about his favorite librarian a wonderful Black female character. He also makes many references to the discrimination African Americans faced in this country- when we were denied access to public libraries in the south. He talks about learning that there was such a place as a library where there were countless books- only to be denied entry. His character actually moves to California because a neighbor tells him that libraries there are open to African Americans. Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series also makes many references to librarians. The lead character is a Black male detective who many times utilizes the library and a librarian with access to highly sensitive information to solve his cases. Walter Mosley always finds a way to promote the library and encourage the reading of Real Titles through his fiction.

  24. Ah yes! Gara Lemmon – a big part of “Blonde Faith.” But not all librarians get such raves. Indeed, it is a librarian – ‘an old battle-ax named Celestine Dowling’ – who so memorably shows Fearless the white library, viciously telling him he’ll never use it. Also there’s Mrs. Stella Keaton in “White Butterfly” who treats everyone like her own siblings and children, but who with her worship of Shakespeare and Dickens and insistence on ‘proper’ speech lacks the cultural sensitivity to serve her community well. Always something to think about in Mosely. He came and spoke at Seattle Public, and it was easily one of the most stimulating and thought-provoking author events I’ve ever attended. What a terrific and eloquent guy.

  25. My favorite has always been Mary Bailey’s alter ego in the alternative universe of “It’s A Wonderful Life”…I thought of her every time I locked up our small town library when leaving my job as an assistant there!

  26. Has anyone read Stephen L. Carter’s latest “New England White”? The “big clue” is hidden in the dusty basement of the Theology School Library. A gruff, but helpful librarian finds a way to help the unlikely professor turned lady detective without technically breaking the rules of the library. She hides away in the library after closing and takes the only elevator down to the restricted collection. Suddenly the elevator is being called back up to the main floor- who could it be? Okay, some of it is a little predictable, but it’s a lot less tedious than his first one. I liked it.

  27. Sandra Foster from Bellwether isn’t a librarian–she’s a sociologist who studies how fads start. And her office is a librarian’s nightmare between Pip and Sandra’s own non-organization system.

    Otherwise, great post!

  28. Thanks, Kerry – you are so right, re: Sandra Foster from Bellwether, and a “bad librarian” to me, for not checking before I passed on that error. Folks will recall that Sandra has a nice consult with a librarian early on in the book to glean the latest literary fads from the librarian’s intimate knowledge of the reserves lists, which at the time the book came out was experiencing a nasty infestation of Angels (remember them?). Bellwether is, by the way, one of those great books for passing along to fans of Funny & Smart, or any intrepid greenhorns tiptoeing into the SF section: a winning, winsome tale!

  29. Ah yes, Rex Libris: I have a little statue of Rex Libris on my desk. Better still is Jason Shiga’s ‘Bookhunter’ – circulation, Dirty Harry style.

  30. What about Edward George who is the main detective in a trilogy: Dewey Decimated (worth reading for the title alone!), the Best Cellar, and Carnage of the Realm? There are several riffs on controversies in the librarian world, including whether computerization is a good or bad thing. Somewhat dated but SO much fun! I couldn’t find biographical info on the author Charles Goodrum within the tattered paperbacks I have, but he HAS to be a librarian from the many details he includes in his stories.

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