Yeah, I’d like to have been a librarian”

So now you know all about where libraries come from we can concentrate on other things and over the next few weeks we will look at appearances from libraries and librarians in fiction, cartoons, in film on TV and even in music but first I want to spend a bit of time looking at some librarians of whom you may well have heard but may never have known ever went anywhere near a library. To kick this off this post will look at the development of the profession of the librarian adopting exactly the same cavalier approach to facts and details as we saw in the previous history posts never being afraid to jettison or adapt either or both in favour of cheap humour.

Smirnoff Ad

“…a lifestyle so mundane it yearned to be made more interesting”

One of the more common things that you find as you surf for references to libraries and librarians in the ever more tangled thicket that is the internet is the compulsory list of famous librarians. This rather gives the game away about the very thin skin that some librarians have about the recognition that they feel is for ever denied to them as professionals. You don’t get this for other professions in the same way I know because I have looked. There is just one similar list I could find, of famous accountants, but with the exception of John Grisham who left accountancy to become a novelist they all seem to have ended up as CEO’s of companies which seems to me to rather miss the point that librarians are attempting to make. For a start I am not sure you would ever have heard of any of those accountants and secondly becoming CEO seems like normal career progression for an accountant unlike some of our librarians who left the profession to become world renowned dictators, national leaders or produced literature still revered around the world.

So from this we can deduce two things I think. Firstly that librarians need to develop a thicker skin and secondly other professions have found it far more productive to worry less about the image of their profession and instead go out and get a life.

The earliest librarians were not in any sense professional librarians but scholars appointed for their learning and for whom running the library was merely a sinecure where any library responsibilities came a distant second to their scholarly research. Nowadays of course we call these University Librarians or County Librarians. The early librarians at the Library of Alexandria, for example, included several poets as well as three of the most famous Homeric scholars. Who knows, if there had been a real librarian in charge who was actually keeping an eye on what was going on, they might have noticed that small fire in the cloakroom and done something about it but sadly there wasn’t and the rest as they say is history. Even when the concept of the professions grew, the list of professions did not for a long time include librarians. Everyone knows of course what the very earliest profession was but that wasn’t really an attractive career option for many. It was often short lived and the clap you received at the end of your career had absolutely nothing to do with praise for your achievements. The three classic professions have always been the church, the law and medicine which under the guise of being socially useful were really clever ways of making and retaining wealth if you didn’t qualify under the normal arrangements which were inheriting it, marrying it or stealing it.

Others professions followed. With the growth of population and of a middle class other skilled workers began to think of themselves as a cut above the ordinary run of traders, merchants and artisans and began creating the wherewithal to become professional themselves. In reality of course professions were nothing more than a closed shop to keep numbers down and income high by restricting membership to those whom you liked, sons of those you slept with or those who paid enough so that you couldn’t refuse. The working classes tried this too in order to try and improve their starvation wages by creating trade unions but whilst surveyors, architects and pharmacists achieved status and respectability through their closed shops the labourers found themselves transported to Van Diemen’s Land as criminals. But I am getting off the point.

The point is that librarians were a bit late in achieving the same level of professional recognition than other professions only just making it ahead C-list trades like marketing and hypnotherapy but they did so eventually and there have indeed been many accomplished and talented librarians who have helped develop, maintain and manage, the wonderful network of libraries that we are able to enjoy across the globe. Not that you will have heard of any of them which is why librarians get a bit touchy about their professions. It isn’t helped by comments like those from Richard Bradford in his biography of Philip Larkin who describes the library profession as “ a lifestyle so mundane it yearned to be made more interesting”, so it is hardly surprising that many people who became famous in other fields but have spent some time working in libraries got out as soon as they decently could or, like Casanova only got into the game when they were not up to the physical demands of their original interests. On the other hand some who never were librarians who went on to make names for themselves in other fields would reflected later with tongue possibly ever so slightly in the cheek on what might have been.

Bill Whyman a man who needs no introduction to any rock music fan born before about 1990 when asked in an interview in The Guardian in 2000 about that he might he have been had he not become a member of arguably the greatest rock band of all time he said “A plumber, maybe that or a photographer or a librarian. Yeah I’d like to have been a librarian”. For some their library career was very brief. Allan Border considered by many to be Australia’s greatest cricket captain, for example, worked briefly as a clerk in an oil company’s picture library whilst playing Grade cricket in Queensland before turning to cricket full time and winning the Ashes and just about everything else, Who knows what they each might have achieved in the world of international cataloguing standards had they concentrated on libraries rather than practising those bass riffs and elegant cover drives.

Some people did make it as librarians though and then achieved fame later but it is perhaps fanciful to think that when historic Fourth Street School in Milwaukee was renamed in her honour that it celebrated Golda Mabovitch’s time there and her subsequent work as a well-loved teacher who managed the school library but her brief stint as librarian was of somewhat less significance than her role in later life under her married name of Golda Meir as Prime Minister of Israel during one of the most turbulent periods in its history, although she may have looked back wistfully at helping 10 year olds with their project on the Ancient Romans as she coped with the Munich Olympics massacre and the Yom Kippur War.

Golda Meir wasn’t the only politician to use libraries as a stepping stone to political success. Seyd Mohammad Khatami who unexpectedly became the fifth president of Iran in 1997 was previously in charge of Iran’s National Library and Archives from 1992-1997 and Achille Ratti spent a number of years as a librarian at the Ambrosian Library before eventually becoming Head of the Great Vatican Library. Ratti oversaw the reorganisation of the archives and even developed his own classification system, presumably one that conveniently left out numbers for divorce or contraception and included an entry under same-sex marriage saying “see also Eternal Damnation”. All of which appears to have done him no harm at all when he was elected Pope Pius XI in 1929.

Two famous Russians were also actively involved with libraries but are far better known for other things. Russian author Boris Pasternak was for a year or so after the October Revolution of 1917 a librarian at the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment, but will be remembered rather less readily for any plans he might have had to reclassify all the books on capitalism as heresy or perhaps fantasy than he will for Dr Zhivago. Considerably higher up the Soviet political food chain was Nadezhda Konstantinova Krupskaya.

Krupskaya is best remembered if she is remembered at all outside of Russia as the wife and biographer of Vladimir Ilych Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution, but she is one of the rare examples of a powerful politician with a passion for libraries who actually knew what she was talking about and actually achieved something for libraries laying the foundations for the modern Russian library system which is probably why very few people have heard of her. Of course like the Catholic Church many years earlier she was very careful about what her beloved but easily mislead proletariat should read and the early library collections comprised mainly the Complete Works of Marx and Engel, the collected essays and speeches of Lenin and Results and Prospects by Leon Trotsky whilst the children’s section probably included Rotten Romanovs, and the series of Karl and Fred books, starting with Karl and Fred play with their collective farm and ending abruptly after the rise of Stalin with Where’s Leon?

I was completely unaware of Ms Krupskaya and would have possibly remained so but for my first scatological acquaintance with her name as a post graduate student in Liverpool. Drinking one evening in a pub made famous at the time by the art college students, artists and other creative people who used to drink there, including a young student called John Lennon, I had a need to visit the toilet. The toilets were famous for the intellectual quality of their graffiti and so of course you had to explore this aspect of the pub as well. The one mural philosophical exchange I remember vividly was a quote from Lenin scrawled on the wall by the inevitable far left supporter who was still happy to drink good capitalist bitter, “Smash the system” or something equally imaginative (as opposed to the later and much copied satirical alternative in every toilet in the country “Smash the cistern”). Below this in the spirit of intense intellectual debate someone had written “Lenin was a wanker” to which the riposte below that was “Krupskaya refutes this!” Well I was amused but then I was young and impressionable and probably well lubricated but of course had to find out who Krupskaya was after the headache wore off the next day!

Krupskaya Chocolate: a fitting tribute to a true revolutionary – much better than all those statues the blokes get

Krupskaya Chocolate: a fitting tribute to a true revolutionary – much better than all those statues the blokes get

Anyway I now know that Krupskaya, as well as defending her husband’s private sexual preferences, was also responsible for the development of a decent library system in the Soviet Union but she is remembered in the most bizarre way in Russia. Not just by the school named after her but by a product that carried the proud slogan “From the factory named after the wife of Lenin”. It must warm the hearts of feminists everywhere that one of the leading thinkers of the October Revolution who achieved so much genuine change in her country is now only remembered as the wife of a husband who predeceased her and as the name of one of the country’s most popular chocolate bars.

So there you are the little known library lives of just a few well-known people although to be honest this post has featured the least well known of them. Future posts will feature a host of writers and artists as well as more politicians and some infamous names that the library profession might just want to forget including scabrous figures such as J Edgar Hoover, Chairman Mao and Casanova as well as many more.

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