If it’s fun you can’t do it in a library. This is what I used to say to students many years ago as I introduced them to the university library where I worked, making a desperate joke to try and disguise the obligatory petty rules and regulations. Of course it always was possible to have fun in libraries indeed nowadays fun is one of the major selling points of many of our libraries. I would also like to think that despite the popular stereotype which we will come back to in later blogs librarians also have a sense of humour as I hope to demonstrate in this blog.
So what do the films Philadelphia, It’s a Wonderful Life and Sophie’s Choice have in common with each other as well as being cinema classics. And what do they also have in common with horror classic The Wicker Man and comedy favourite Ghostbusters as well as, rather more disappointingly, with at least two soft porn films, Debbie Goes to Dallas and a rude spoof version of Alice in Wonderland. The same common factor also links those films to many novels including some by well-known authors such as Kingsley Amis, Jeffrey Eugenides, Lindsey Davis, Umberto Eco and Terry Pratchett in a thread that can also at a pinch encompass a Beach Boys single, and album tracks by Green Day and country legend Jimmy Buffett. Remarkably all of them feature libraries or librarians or both.
A pivotal event in Philadelphia takes place in a public library, Meryl Streep is shamefully bullied by a librarian in Sophie’s Choice and in the future that didn’t include George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life his wife never marries becoming an old maid working as a librarian obviously just to emphasise the point. The brief appearance of the librarian in the Wicker Man is about the only instance of a naked librarian in a mainstream film but then that was Ingrid Pitt. If you get away from the mainstream into the murky world of soft porn you can see other naked librarians too but you might want to give them a miss as I am sure you can imagine what happens when library worker Debbie needs to earn some money to go to Dallas and when demure librarian Alice skips down that rabbit hole! You may also decide that timid small town librarian Sally, protagonist of a cult gore film is just a bit too severe on readers who can’t return their books but you’ll find out about her version of sanctions for careless borrowers in a later post. The New York Public Library plays a tiny but still significant part in the plot of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, Alexandria one of Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco novels is about the eponymous Library and its librarians and of course Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is set in a medieval library a world away from the public library which employs the priapic South Wales librarian whose comic antics form the plot That Uncertain Feeling Kingsley Amis’s follow up to Lucky Jim and filmed with Peter Sellers as the librarian. Finally you will recall perhaps that in the Beach Boys song daddy took her Tbird away because she “forgot all about the Library that she told her old man now”.
These are the very tip of a significant iceberg of references to libraries and librarians in popular culture such as books, films, TV and even music and they comprise a large part of the subject of this blog. From that iceberg I have selected some of what I hope are the more entertaining references including those above and tried to create an amusing narrative about a profession that kept me busy and remunerated for almost 40 years. To complement all those references I have thrown in a section about various well known modern and historic figures including Casanova, Chairman Mao, Golda Meir, J Edgar Hoover and even cricket legend Alan Border who despite being well known for their various accomplishments have all at some time or another worked in libraries or as librarians. Not just the usual list that will of course include Batgirl, but a more detailed look at what exactly they did as librarians, or in most cases didn’t do. And if your interest has already waned you will not want to know that for good measure I have chucked in a section with a brief and unreliable history of libraries that explores, amongst other fascinating topics, why we need libraries instead of just using the loft space for all those old books, just who is in the frame for carelessly burning down the Great Library of Alexandria, which are the best ancient library ruins to see on your package tour holiday and how, just to prove they did have their uses once, we owe a debt to the Liberal Party here in the UK for creating public libraries.
All that is still to come in future posts from the Bedside Blog of Libraries. Over the next however-long-it-takes I shall share with you many incidents of librarians and libraries in books, films, and even popular songs with a commentary that aspires to be entertaining and even humorous but I shall leave you to be the judge of that and now and again for a bit of diversion I might also add in some examples of the kind of stuff about which former colleagues would get so hot under the tank top substituting their indignation with I hope a wry smile. I hope you find it interesting. We’ll start next week with the first part of that unreliable history of libraries Part 1 – From Sumerian shopping lists to who burned the Great Library of Alexandria. I hope you feel able to join me! So here’s a little taster from that first post in case it encourages you to drop in
A Brief And Occasionally Accurate History Of Libraries – Pt1
You can pick up a history of libraries from any decent library if you still have one anywhere near you although you might have to wait while they order it because their own shelves are groaning with James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell so I don’t intend to make you sit through a history lesson that for the UK alone can run to 3 volumes. A very brief introduction, however, to explain how the libraries that we know today emerged and evolved seems a reasonable way to start our exploration of libraries and librarians in popular culture and in any case it will at least save you the trouble of ordering that three volume marathon.
By general consent libraries go back at least as far as the ancient Sumerians with evidence of libraries in the Middle East as far back as 1900 BC although they were not libraries as you or I might recognise them now; they wouldn’t have a kiddies corner for a start, there were no ugly machines for borrowing and returning books and the Local History Group didn’t meet there the 3rd Wednesday of every month.…