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.