Monthly Archives: July 2015

“Not at all a suitable occupation for a man of acute sensibility and genius”.

Regular followers will know that one of the undercurrents in all this stuff about famous librarians is that librarians take great exception to persistent stereotype of the librarian as a bespectaled, shy socially awkward misfit. So this week we are going to once again see if we can’t disprove that stereotype by looking at a librarian who was, bespectacled, prematurely bald, had a frequent tendency to stammer and was irredeemably shy and lacking in self confidence. He is a perfect Photofit of every stereotype of a librarian that has ever been rolled out by lazy hacks as shorthand for the dull and uninspiring. In fact if a casting director drew up a specification for a stereotypical librarian in a film he would probably end up describing Philip Larkin. But as we shall see appearances can be deceptive.

An awful lot of people know at least two bits of Philip Larkin’s poetry even if they have no idea that it is actually he who wrote them but it is probably the most poetry that many of us know. You know the the bits I mean; one refers to the negative effect your “mum and dad” have on your life(1) and the other accurately pinpoints the year in which sex started (2). Philip Larkin produced what one biographer calls “the Twentieth Century’s most outstanding body of English verse” and his official biographer Andrew Motion declares him “one of the greatest poets of the [20th]century”. Larkin was one of the giants of English literature; articles about him filled the arts pages of newspapers and he was the subject of several profiles on television including the influential The South Bank Show and on John Betjeman’s death he was hotly tipped to be and was indeed invited to be next Poet Laureate, although he declined the invitation. He was the best known most read and most praised poet of his generation but more importantly of course, for the whole of this public life, and indeed from 1943 until his untimely death in 1985 he was also a librarian. So we will be devoting a bit of time to Larkin over the next few weeks.

Philip Larkin in charasteristically carefree mood

Philip Larkin in charasteristically carefree mood

Brynmoor Jones, Vice Chancellor of the University of Hull during the early part of Larkin’s career there commented that people who have written about Larkin have made too much of his poems and not enough of him as a librarian but it would be very difficult to create as impressive a list of Larkin’s achievement in his 40 odd years as a librarian as commentators have of his life as a writer quite apart from the small matter that it would be dreadfully boring even for diehard librarians! On the other hand despite the fact that this is a section about librarians more famous for their achievements in other lives there isn’t a fat lot of point in repeating all the euglogies about his poetry because far better writers than I have done that much better than I ever could. Instead we shall look, briefly, at Larkin’s library career with some help from Andrew Motion’s biography but you will soon realise that this isn’t nearly enough to justify devoting a lot of time to him. Fortunately as we shall see the various posthumous publications about Larkin have revealed that there was quite enough else going on in his life whilst juggling his poetry and his libraries to justify an extended exploration in a publication that has set itself the improbable task of convincing a sceptical world that libraries and librarians can actually be very interesting and even entertaining.

Larkin had no idea what he wanted to do when he left Oxford until he was attracted to the post of librarian in the small Shropshire town of Wellington. Like many who back into a career in libraries when all else fails Larkin was less than enthusiastic and we can surmise that librarianship was not a profession for which Larkin had a youthful passion. Although his mother had chosen libraries as a career his biographer suggests Larkin himself was far from keen and in his letters he reveals that he was “not very proud of the fact” that he had obtained a post in the profession and just in case anyone should mistake his attitude he wrote elsewhere, with the succinct elegance that characterised his poetry, that he knew “sweet f*** all about librarianship.” Although I am sure that he is in good company as many of us even after many years in the profession have woken up in the night with the same despairing thought as we wrestle with perennial problems such as “do we put the physical geography books and human geography books on different floors as Dewey demands or all together where readers can actually find them or do we just put them all in a skip and see if anyone notices?”

To help overcome the ticklish problem of applying for a job about which he knew absolutely nothing his father had provided him with a fascinating read entitled “The Public Library System of Great Britain” which is at least better than Mein Kampf which it might have been given his father’s political sympathies, or Men Only which is the usual stuff dads feel able to pass on to their sons when they reach a certain age. He also encouraged Philip to find out how libraries worked and someone from his home town library in Coventry did indeed give him a rudimentary introduction to “how books were ordered, acessioned and catalogued and then given little little pockets with individual tickets in them that were slipped into borowers cards when the book is lent” all of which must surely have quickened the young Larkin’s pulse.

When he was appointed to the post in Wellington Larkin was hardly more enthusiastic about the career than before; the books in the library were he claimed “mostly very poor with no poetry later than Houseman” (obviously people in Shropshire felt that they did not need any more poetry after “A Shropshire Lad”) and had to deal with the customers particularly the local tramps who found the stuffy, snug and above all free facilities at the Library much to their liking. It is quite possible that his daily encounters with customers of doubtful hygiene whose chief need for the library was a warm place to sleep off their drinking was why he felt so at home in university libraries later in his career

But by 1946, tiring of the rural life, Larkin successfully applied for a post of Sub Librarian in the Library at University College Leicester. It was at was at Leicester that Larkin met Monica Jones whom you will come across again later. Despite confiding that librarian “was not at all a suitable occupation for a man of acute sensibility and genius” Larkin immediately appears to have taken to the companionship of academic life far more enthisiastically than he did to the customers of Wellington and engaged with local activities including being a regular visitor to Leicestershire County Cricket Club. One of his friends referred to Larkin’s “inclination towards misery” and as a life long LCCC member myself I can understand how Larkin would have been entirely at home with the rest of us who still sit through dull summer days watching the familiar ineptitude of yet another Leicestershire batting collapse against a mediocre Kent pace attack with the air of people resigned to all the disappointments that life throws in our direction before trudging off the the pub for lunch to cheer ourselves up by discussing the imminent prospects for socialism and a fair and just society!

After four years though Larkin felt the need to move on again and he successful applied for a post of Sub- Librarian at Queens University Belfast and after a further five years he felt he had learned enough to apply for the job of Chief Librarian at what had just become the University of Hull. Although he was ambitious enough to wish to move on Larkin was typically unsure of his own abilities. On learning of the vacancy at Hull Larkin was desperately in need of reassurance which he inevitably sought from Monica Jones “The Librarianship at Hull is vacant;” he wrote, “but do I want a headship? Damned if I think I do.. Branch librarian at Bridport is more my line really.” I have to confess that I did nearly miss that important reference as I was distracted by the previous page of the collected correspondence with Monica Jones from which it came. It’s easily done when the letter features prominently in italics the phrase “You and your bottom” and then having caught my eye I just happened to notice that it continued. “…I lay in bed one morning last week remembering one after breakfasttime (sic) when you were looking out of my kitchen window and let me tuck your skirt up around your waist to be admired. You were wearing the black nylon panties with the small hole in”

The Brynmoor Jones Library, Hull, planned and designed by Larkin when he wasn't composing poetry

The Brynmoor Jones Library, Hull, planned and designed by Larkin when he wasn’t composing poetry

That was of course just a glimpse of the Larkin that was revealed after his death and if you are patient for just a little longer you will begin to understand why we are investing a bit of time in him. One of the perils of trying to disaggregate Larkin’s library life from the rest of it is that the rest of his life is infinitely more diverting but we shall get to that shortly.

Despite his misgivings Larkin was appointed Librarian at the University of Hull. “I’m now I fancy the youngest University librarian in GB. Much good may it do me” he reflected. Larkin was 32 and he remained at Hull until his death in 1984. From “sweet f*** all about libraries” to being Chief Librarian at a university had taken not much more than 10 years.

On his arrival at Hull Larkin was initialled viewed a little askance by his new Secretary, you’ll come across her later as well, unsure about his bright red socks and her doubts were not much allayed by his installation of a spy glass in his office so that he could peruse the new intake of female students. At the time it seems to have been viewed as a curious but endearing indiosyncracy rather than cause for a discreet call to Operation Yewtree as it would today.

Despite such an inauspicious beginning Larkin oversaw a spectactular increase in the fortunes of the Library thanks in part to an excellent working relationship with Brynmoor Jones his first Vice Chancellor who would joke that he paid Larkin a Librarian’s salary to write poetry but was astute enough to realise the value of Larkin to the university. Larkin too was smart enough to know which side his bread was buttered. In an invitation for an entry for Who’s Who in America he tells Monica that he described himself as University Librarian “as long as I get four times as much for this role as for ‘author’, ‘writer’, ‘poet’ I shall go on doing so”

Under Larkin the Hull Library budget almost doubled, the collection grew more than three fold and staff from 12 to 100 but the self-doubts remained. In May 1955 caught up in the wrangling over whether Hull would get a new library he confides to Monica “Actually they should never have appointed me, I am quite the wrong man since I don’t care 2d about all” which I only mention because he adds with no obvious relevance to the new library building at all “I would much rather kiss your pretty measurements…” But I must try and stick to the library details and not be distracted by all the interesting and prurient stuff. But I did just notice in passing that in the same letter but penned a few days later he ends a sentence about the burden of the huge library for which he is now responsible with a compliment to Monica on how much he “liked the red suspender belt ”

Larkin appears to have had a well respected and until the last few years at least a satisfying professional career to which Andrew Motion gives plenty of air time and as I have said you can read all of this in Motion’s excellent biography from which I have filletted out all the relevant bits as this is a book about libraries and librarians and have done the same with the letters to Monica Jones but to be honest even a world champion library nerd wearing all of their anoraks at once would have to admit that all of the stuff about libraries pales way past insignificance by comparison with all the other things that went on in Larkin’s life and will I hope demonstrate that the life of a librarian really doesn’t have to be even more dull than a rainy Tuesday afternoon in February. So we’ll come to that next time. Just be patient.

(1) “They f*** you up your mum and dad
They do not mean to but they do…”
This be the Verse

(2)“Sexual intercouse began
In ninteen sixty three
(Which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles first LP…”
Annus Mirabilis


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Libertine, Libertarian, librarian

As promised this week we will return to our two remaining famous librarians. The sex obsessed, commitment-phobic poet will come next week as this week we concentrate on Casanova

According to Ian Kelly, one of his biographers, Giacomo Casanova was, a libertine and a libertarian unfortunately the biographer failed to complete a much more satisfying piece of alliteration by adding that Casanova was also a librarian. Casanova is invariably one of the names routinely trotted out as a rather cack-handed illustration of how interesting librarians can really be and he is the kind of iconic figure that needs no introduction. Almost everyone knows the name and what the name signifies in terms of personal achievements. Any man who has the inclination and time, not to mention the stamina, to indulge in sexual relations with more than a small handful of other people would once automatically be branded a Casanova.

Although the fact that Casanova was a librarian is well known to the people who matter, people like other librarians, pub quiz nerds and compilers of newspaper articles mocking librarians, surprisingly it has not been used by the library profession to try and counter the rather dowdy, sexless and dull image to which I alluded in the previous post. This is partly, I presume, because in the interests of gender balance and a desire to attract women the ad agency would have to come up with a companion female version of Casanova and there are possibly not many examples of women who combined a rampant sex life with a day job at the local branch library. It may also be because even if they did find such a woman she would almost certainly not be treated with the respect verging on admiration generally afforded to men with a Casanova reputation. Women get called altogether less flattering names and this would rather defeat the object of the recruiting exercise. More of a reason is probably that Casanova didn’t actually take up the post of librarian until he had pretty much given up on his philandering on account, presumably, of running out of steam or whatever it is you run out of when you are a Casanova. There will no doubt be recruitment campaigns less successful than the one with the strap line “Shag as many people as you like and then get a job in libraries” but it’s difficult to imagine what they might be at the moment.

Casanova’s dominate image is something of a shame, not only because it completely ignores his library pedigree, but more upsetting for Casanova’s legacy it completely obscures all the other significant achievements of his fascinating life. He trained as a priest but was at various times a soldier, a spy, a diplomat and a musician. He amassed fortunes only to lose them again, he was a gambler who helped set up state lotteries which may or may not be related to the previous point; he wrote more than 40 books as well as the large memoir on which much of his reputation is now based, he translated Homer and even had a hand in the libretto for Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I am sure that Casanova would have shared the frustration of many modern day celebrities who discover that in the pages of the tabloids no matter how considerable their achievements in their chosen field of endeavour as soon as they sleep with more than a dozen other people that is all they are remembered for.

“He would be a good looking man if he were not ugly”.

Casanova – “He would be a good looking man if he were not ugly”.

According to his memoir which we have few means of verifying Casanova made love to more than 120 women not to mention a few men. This may not be in the same league as the unfeasible 2065 claimed for Don Giovanni by his mate Leporello but given that the Don is mythical and Casanova was real this probably makes him the world champion and gold medallists in the Hapsburg Empire Sexual Olympics and a record that may stand for some time although modern day film star Warren Beatty and a few current rock stars and sportsmen making a serious attempt on that record. When asked if he had seen Don Giovanni, Casanova, apparently exclaimed “Seen it, I have practically lived it”.

Giacomo Casanova had just turned 60 when he took up residence at the castle in Dux in the north east of Bohemia finally accepting an invitation from Count Joseph Charles de Waldstein to take over responsibility for the castle library in 1785. Casanova had fled Venice where he had hoped to spend the later part of his life having rather overestimated the sense of humour of one of the most powerful men in the city who failed to see the funny side of a satire that claimed that the nobleman was the illegitimate son of an actress. Even in those days you didn’t question the parentage of an Italian and expect him to laugh at your witty fiction and so Casanova fled for Trieste and after wandering through Europe for a couple of years ended up at Castle Dux. Despite the fact that the job was secure and well paid and he was at the time homeless and penniless Casanova was not happy as the librarian at Dux and the post turned out not to be the pleasant sinecure that he hoped would entertain his later years. For one thing he was frustrated by the lack of access it gave him to the kind of upper class social circles in which he was used to operating.

Although he was the son of actors, a parentage he disputed, Casanova had high aspirations for his own social status and after failing to persist with careers as a priest and a soldier, through a combination of good luck and clever dissembling he was taken under the wing of a Venetian senator whose patronage allowed him to live the life of a nobleman which comprised chiefly gambling and sex apparently. It was a lifestyle that Casanova maintained for much of the rest of his life before washing up in Bohemia, combining bouts of extreme licentiousness with spells in prison when it caught up with him, each time moving on to a new patron and more sex.

Inevitably with all of this sex he fathered a number of children about eight in fact but Casanova was not a terribly attentive parent usually having moved on to someone or somewhere else long before the nine months was up which did cause problems. In 7161 he fell so instantly in love with the mistress of an impotent Neapolitan Duke that he was impelled to ask the Duke to release her so that he might himself become her lover. Only later when he was in bed with one of his other lovers, after the Duke’s refusal, did he discover that the girl, known as Leonilda, was his own seventeen year old daughter. Not that this prevented him some time later from consummating his relationship with his daughter apparently because she was getting so little satisfaction from the Duke and he wanted to cheer her up! Several years later, whilst on a welcome trip out from Castle Dux to the theatre in Prague Casanova met a young Marchese whom he calculated was his grandson, the son of Leonilda and her husband the Duke. But on closer inspection and remembering that the Duke was impotent he realised it was most likely in fact to be his own son. Life could be so confusing for an C18th libertine without today’s modern organisational aids such as iPad, contraception and DNA testing.

Despite all of this Casanova was decorated by the Pope, seemingly for donating a valuable book to the Vatican Library rather than for services to Catholic parenthood, met Mr and Mrs Great; Frederick and Catherine, sleeping surprisingly with neither it seems, as well as George III on his only visit to England. He had hoped to become rich by setting up a lottery England but ended up with venereal disease which is probably why they waited another 200 years before the government decide it was safe to have another go at setting up a lottery. He argued with Voltaire met Benjamin Franklin and helped de Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, with helpful suggestions for Don Giovanni, all of this with no obvious consistent means of support apart from his good looks and even they deserted him in later life. One of his best friends claimed that “He would be a good looking man if he were not ugly”. When that’s the best your friends can say you know it is time to start thinking about a future beyond sex which brings us back to the Library.

The Castle Dux Library contained somewhere between the 40,000 volumes claimed by the Count and the 12,000 insisted on by the Count’s brother who clearly has much more discerning reading tastes than his brother as he also claimed that he would have flung most of them on the fire. There are no details in Casanova’s biographies of what he actually did as librarian and it appears this is because it was very little, either because little was expected or because that is how Casanova decided to interpret his duties. His access to polite society was limited because, despite their apparent closeness, the Count, who would have provided his introductions, was often away. The French Revolution was occupying the minds of the noble families across the entire continent as more and more of their French peers found their heads in a basket. The dashing Count, not one to sit idly by whilst liberty, fraternity and most of all equality could be vanquished, decided to audition for the soon-to-be-created role of The Scarlet Pimpernel by attempting to rescue members of the French Royal Family which he spectactularly failed to do but he must have been heartened that it was claimed he cut quite a dashing figure as he failed to do so. So Casanova saw very little of his patron who clearly felt that the threat to the nobility of Europe was more important than deciding where to classify the new Voltaire editions.

Castle Dux, now Duchov Chateau. The Library is probably tucked away at the back somewhere!*

Castle Dux, now Duchov Chateau. The Library is probably tucked away at the back somewhere!*

Casanova’s mood was not improved by the company he was forced to keep at the Castle in the absence of the Count. The Chamberlain was another grumpy old man with a self-image problem who clearly felt that the post of mere librarian should bow to his authority and took considerable exception when Casanova failed to concur with his take on the castle pecking order.  As a confirmed urban socialite Casanova was not made to feel any more at home by the unavoidably rural nature of life at the castle which revolved around hunting shooting and horse racing, activities not always closely with the sex that was his usual pastime nor much associated with libraries especially as most of them ban The Racing Post anyway.

What saved Casanova from this nightmare was meeting up with an old friend from the past, a refugee from the revolution in Paris, who was now living at the nearby spa resort, Teplice. Teplice seems to have been a sort of C18th version of Monaco providing a haven from the horrors of revolution for all the chattering classes. Prince Charles Joseph de Ligne had known Casanova in Venice and Paris and was happy to renew the friendship as he knew they shared a taste for limitless pleasure including the widespread distribution of sexual favours. Casanova became a regular feature in the Prince’s party and the two old reprobates cheered each other up with tales of their lurid exploits as well as sharing friendship with another two women although it not clear how far those relationships went as Casanova complained in his memoir about how reduced his powers were. Still it was better than messing about in that dull old library.

The Prince’s close friendship did not though prevent him from recognising how bitterness and anger had consumed Casanova since his appointment as librarian, which as we established in the previous post are not actually prerequisites for the role, nor how much ridicule he brought down upon himself though his constant complaining and pretentious mannerism which weren’t among the key competences of library posts either. His friend wrote that Casanova complained about everything from the breakfast he was served to the priests who kept trying to convert him and including, rather surprisingly, how people borrowed books without asking the librarian. Bearing in mind the enormous volume of writings that poured from his pen whilst at Dux which included on his death almost 1800 letters and nearly 400 poems in addition to his memoirs it is hardly surprising that readers couldn’t be bothered waiting just in case this very occasional librarian turned up and could find the time to issue the book that they wanted to borrow. The fact that the unauthorised borrower was usually the Count who had given him a job with security and a good salary and who owned the Library anyway seems to have counted for nothing and is an example of the kind of sensitive and circumspect customer service to which, if we are to believe the stereotype, generations of librarians have aspired.

Just because Casanova found the life of a provincial librarian tedious and inconvenient, however, compared with the dissolute abundance of his life before his flight from Venice, it doesn’t mean that the rest of us don’t find the role a little more congenial otherwise how on earth would the world’s great literature and information get organised, and exploited to universal benefit. But then again not all of us have 122 other amorous alternatives with which to compare it. But if you have please let me know and you can have a post all to yourself too.

Next week the Librarian at the University of Hull who also wrote some poetry.

*“Front side of Duchcov castle in Czech Republic” by Zacatecnik – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

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“…librarians are the madams pimping their books”

As promised this post will provide a rest from all those celebrity librarians although they will be back for a couple more weeks when we look at the careers of Casanova and Philip Larkin. This week though I will help bring you not up to date with just why librarians can get so touchy about their the lack of respect shown their profession.

In the About page for this blog I mentioned that much of the raw material for the original prospective book came from various publication and websites all vigorously defending the image of the poor maligned librarian in the face of what they saw as disrespectful and damaging stereotyping especially in books and films but also on television and in adverts. If anyone was looking for cheap joke at the expense of a hapless loser or a petty and officious authority figure or for unassuming and insignificant they would use a librarian as a convenient shorthand that everyone would understand. As I have said I always found the response to this a bit tiresome but to be fair if you look at some of the examples that will appear later in the blog you can see why some get so upset…it’s still tedious though.

Briefly and just in case you are still unaware of the librarian stereotype about which my colleagues complain so vociferously, you may for example have just returned from many decades of self-imposed exile on a remote pacific atoll or opted for total immersion in the fantasy world that is Facebook it is, to be fair, a pretty demoralising stereotype that few other professions have had to endure; doctors, for example are always in clean white coats with stethoscopes and nurses in crisp uniforms even if occasionally they are unfeasibly short and the necklines provocatively low. For women librarians the image is more often than not a tweed skirt, twin set and pearls and preferably hair in a bun and always thick spectacles. For men it is invariable a tweed jacket barely hiding a tank top with optional remnants of several day’s breakfasts. It may be 2015 in your world but in the minds of c-list creatives it is still 1954 for librarians. For example if you searched for an image of a librarian in Clipart before it was pensioned off this is what you would get.

Clipart LibrarianThis is the look I referred to as a cross between Miss Trunchbull and Miss Marple. The women are always overbearingly dominant and aggressive whilst the men are insignificant or vindictive or both and he is most accurately portrayed by Ronnie Corbett in the execrable TV comedy Sorry and both tend be shorthand for bitter and unfulfilled lives. It is a stereotype that is invariably painted in a palate that runs from beige to grey. Like this rather cruel advert from Canon showing how just a little colour copying can spruce up anything apart from a librarian!Canon AdvertHow we laughed. Or this when brilliant cartoonist Steve Bell was looking for a way to satirise the woeful John Major’s attempts to hang tough after the Chinese reclaimed Hong Kong.

SteveBell Cartoon

Yes I know outrageous. How dare he claim that we would ever allow someone like John Major into the library profession!

At the heart of this though as always is the problem that like all stereotypes this image might be outdated and misplaced but it almost certainly contains enough of a kernel of truth for people to instantly get the reference. And of course despite their protestations librarians are often their own worst enemy.

Philip Larkin’s sardonic reflection on his first public library post that he would be “handing out tripey novels to morons” could have been a view shared by many librarians of that post-war era who saw themselves as guardians of an intellectual treasure trove that had to be protected from uncultured workers for use by those more worthy. They were the killjoys who vindictively cut the racing pages out of library newspapers upsetting not only the keen punters but also those readers who didn’t read that sort of stuff but disliked having the middle cut out of the crossword over the page. In another act of remarkable foot shooting library staff in the 1960’s asked to be excused from handling Lady Chatterley’s Lover when Penguin were eventually allowed to publish it after the celebrated obscenity trial, for fear, presumably, of being contaminated by its grubby contents by some curious osmotic process. If you want to see this period brilliantly sent up see if you can find the Hancock epsode set in a library called The Last Page.

More recently there was the man from New York, Stan Friedman who sat sit in a recliner for more than 29 hours and watched endless sports on large-screen television to win an Ultimate Couch Potato Competition. He claimed his secret was superior bladder control as well as all the time he spends sitting doing thousands of online searches in his 12 years as a librarian! But that pales into insignificance by comparison with a radio news report I caught in 2010. Graham Barker a 45-year-old from Perth, Australia had earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records and sold his record winning collection to a museum for an undisclosed sum. “The raw material is worthless” he said “but as a unique world record collection and a piece of cultural heritage, of debatable merit, it has some curiosity value”. Mr Barker said he had come across a handful of collectors but none had taken their hobby to such lengths. He explained: “One guy might have persisted, but he got married and his wife ordered him to stop.” Over several years Barker had amassed several clear jars worth grams of lint from his belly button fluff! Let’s just think about this for a minute; someone not only saved his own belly button fluff for years but then felt it was worth donating to a museum and then the museum decided to accept it and to put it up for The Guinness Book of World Records. Oh yes I almost forgot. Graham was a librarian.

From those examples it is not difficult to see how easy it would be for commentators to view the librarian as an easy target for casual effrontery usually in pursuit of cheap laughs on say slow news days when no new wars have been started no royal babies have been announced and all the politicians have gone to the Caribbean for their holidays. Some years ago David Stafford writing for The Guardian, in the wake of another vacuous policy statement on libraries by Government, offered his own endorsement of libraries. ”Never mind how often people change their underwear, the test of a truly civilised culture is how often they change their library books”. “Librarians” he suggests “do battle with the amorphous chaos of human knowledge, understanding, passion myth and mess and subdue it to a state of submissive and accessible order”. But of course he can’t leave it at that can he and goes on to argue that sadly they fall short of his vision of perfection because of their enthusiasm for “exercise sandals and grey, cable knit, sleeveless woollies” he even goes so far as to say “bookshops are to libraries what prostitution is to true love” before realising that this is an analogy that is best left alone and goes off on a vaguely droll riff about how supermarkets could be better arranged by the Dewey Decimal Classification which is a dreadful idea because it would make the quinoa even harder to find than it is to pronounce correctly.

Dulcie Domum wrote a long running Guardian column about the “bonkbuster” she was writing, a word, incidentally, she coined to describe the breeze block sized bodice rippers that were fashionable at the time and indeed still are. As the story and the column neared its end and a previous age of austerity dawned her editor insisted she toned down the finale of the wedding of the heroine to a filthy rich banker. In ironic protest she had her heroine marry a librarian. Ha Ha! Also in The Guardian a few years later in a usually amusing filler column entitled How to…. they ran How to Use a Library which managed to poke fun at libraries but in what the author must have thought was an affectionate as well as entertaining manner. The opening line for example was a classic right up there with “Libraries make us free”. It said “Libraries are brothels for the mind…librarians are the madams pimping their books”.That’s rubbish” he continues “but it does wonders for the image of librarians”. So with that generous thought he presumed it was then all right to go on patronising librarians for all he was worth with observations about mobile libraries having to drive slowly so the books don’t fall off the shelves and how they could block your drive until you bring back your overdue books. It also included metaphysical conundrums such as would the large print version of 100 years of Solitude only last 40 years and pensioners, the author mused, use libraries like junkies use dealers reading an entire library in a year once they get hooked on Barbara Taylor Bradford and move on to harder stuff like Maeve Binchy.

But of course that was at attempt to be supportive. Not everyone is so measured and you can see the point of those from the provisional wing of the library profession who get so upset about the use of casual damaging stereotyping of librarians when you read those articles that are neither patronising nor supportive just gratuitously unpleasant. Sometimes it is nothing more than lazy journalists or clueless marketing and PR people who use this pre-existing image of the librarian as easy shorthand with its ready-made set of assumptions, visual prompts and general baggage that enables them to create a vivid impression instantly and with the minimum of back story to win cheap laughs.

The Sunday Correspondent was a short lived UK newspaper which barely survived a year between 1989 and 1990 but in its brief life still managed bizarrely to include a guide to careers in libraries. This was in the filler section at the end entitled Rear View that magazines use to fill the final couple of pages rather than pay yet another features writer to write 250 vaguely amusing words about their wedding/divorce/children/affairs or simply to ponder on the great mysteries of life such as why blokes are so useless or if the columnist happened to be a bloke why they are so terrorised by their wives/partners/colleagues. The feature was one of a series  on careers meant to be less a helpful guide to your future prosperity and happiness more a source of cheap laughs at all those not hip enough to be lawyers, doctors or even journalists. It didn’t take long after a deceptively proper introduction to the qualifications required for a librarian to seek lazy refuge in pointing out that the personal qualities required would rule out anyone unable to go “shhh” and that our appearance would include Hush Puppies, nylon shirts, suits worn with jumpers and Dr Scholl sandals(1). After that the piece deteriorated into the kind of calculated cruelty that small boys use on small helpless creatures The irregular hours included “operating half day closing immediately on sighting an old age pensioner struggling with a walking frame and eight overdue large print Catherine Cooksons”…. and “Librarians are sadists who resort to levying fines because they lack the facility to conduct public executions” and to demonstrate the kind of insightful and original piece journalism characterised by cutting edge wit that The Correspondent hoped would win it a new urbane and sophisticated audience the writer revealing that the Librarians’ motto was hilariously “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”. I am sure there is no link between the appearance of this small comic masterpiece and the demise of The Sunday Correspondent a few months later but of course we may wear tan tights and crusty tank tops but we also pick which newspapers, many that still retain their racing pages, are purchased for hundreds of libraries all over the country.

Of course there are hundreds of other examples of how librarians have been portrayed in popular culture that fuel the ire of proud and passionate librarians and many of them will feature in future blogs (2) but first in the next few weeks just a few more posts about the two remaining celebrity librarians that I want to bring to your attention. One was a librarian obssessed with sex in several varieties who kept several women dangling on a stringand committing to none of them, the other is Casanova whom we will look at next.

(1)Having always consider this a gross calumny against librarians, or possible Dr Scholl sandals or both I was perturbed to find out some years later that one of my more progressive colleagues admitted that she decided to become a librarian when she was about 10 years old because she loved the Dr Scholl sandals that her local librarian wore !

(2) If you are interested one of the better explorations of this has been done by Ruth A Neale as both article and a book. Try



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More than a number in his Little Red Book

The works of British writers with a secret life as librarians might not quite match the beauty of a Berlioz symphony or the notoriety of Duchamp’s urinal, the creative imagination of Borges or the even the cover drive of Alan Border and apart from the previously mentioned Rabbie Burns the only one I have found is David Hume. Hume is probably the least well known of all the “celebrity” librarians. As far as I know his list of female conquests is at best modest compared to Casanova, he never led any a great socialist revolution like Chairman Mao, he was not a red baiting secret cross-dresser like J Edgar Hoover about more os whom later and his poetry wasn’t that good either. He may though be better known to you if you are a students of, or otherwise interested in history or philosophy, or just possibly if you are Scottish. You may even have spotted him if you have visited Edinburgh and seen his statue on the Royal Mile, although you probably just assumed he was some random Ancient Roman as he is portrayed in an open toga which can’t have been much fun in an Edinburgh winter.

David Hume  - Not the best outfit for an Edinburgh winter

David Hume – Not the best outfit for an Edinburgh winter

David Hume is one of the great British thinkers, about whom the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy says he is “the most important philosopher ever to write in English” which explains why no one has heard of him. Hume produced numerous writings on philosophy, economics and history as well as a wealth of essays on many subjects and he is considered one of the great names in Western philosophy. He was also a librarian from 1752-1757 for the Faculty of Advocates, a law library, and one of the largest libraries in Scotland. The Library was, unusually for the time, a lending library when for example Edinburgh University Library was not. Although when I say lending library it is not quite the democratic free-at-point-of–use service we have today. Scholars were required to provide a deposit to the value of the books borrowed which is why you don’t see many working-class Scottish lawyers.

Libraries were not Hume’s career of first choice, as he applied unsuccessfully for two university Chairs of Philosophy, one in Glasgow and one in Edinburgh, but was rejected for both on the grounds that he was an atheist. Being an atheist in c18th Scotland was perfectly fine provided you weren’t looking for a job in public service, like universities, where all posts were in the gift of the fervently devout, and utterly, implacably and resolutely intransigent religious establishment who for some reason were not at all happy to hear people like Hume tell them that the God of whom they lived in perpetual fear didn’t exist. You’d think it would be welcome news to them so that they could go on with guilt-free shagging and drinking like everyone else, but no they seemed to prefer constant torment to worldly pleasures which was probably something to do with the climate up there in Scotland. So the offer of the post of librarian whilst not first choice was still welcome and it did provide him with the resources to write. During his period as librarian he completed a lot of his celebrated tracts including his most famous work which was rather oddly a six volume History of England which became an instant best seller and gave him the security he needed to continue his writing career. It also showed how much time he must have devoted to actual library work.

Hume also managed, as so many librarians since, to upset the natives with his selection of books for the library. He was accused of buying indecent books which given the zealous Presbyterian morals of the locals probably meant anything they wasn’t The Bible. Calls went up for his dismissal and attempts were even made to excommunicate him. Which seems a bit extreme; nowadays you just get outraged old ladies like my Aunty Molly ranting about how filthy the Jackie Collins novels are and sending them back in protest without bothering to waste the time of the Pope. The Library Trustees were in a classic dilemma caught between a few rabid bigots and the long standing library tradition of defending freedom of information and like many library authorities before and since showed their courage by cancelling the offending book order. Hume, instead of resign on principle hung on just to irritate them and just long enough to complete his History and then took off.

In any of the easily discovered random lists of famous librarians you may not find David Hume but will find that two are always mentioned and mentioned almost proudly despite their scurrilous reputations probably because the dissonance between their reputation and the stereotypical image of the inoffensive librarian is considered convincing testimony in itself to the fallacy of that image. One of these is Casanova about whom more at a later date. The other is Mao Zedong the leader of the people’s revolution who created the communist Chinese state that is now close to being the most powerful economy on earth. In China he is officially considered to be the Great Leader still revered by millions who travel every year to see his embalmed and crumbling remains in his tomb in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. To others he is a mass murdering monster who caused the deaths of millions in pursuit of his ideology and of power. It is hardly surprising that with all that noise going on it is usually forgotten that he was also very briefly a librarian, or to be precise a library assistant between 1918 and 1919 working at Beijing University.

Any book you like as long as its little and red

Any book you like as long as its little and red

Despite his library work being scandalously overlooked for some reason it is clear that those early days in libraries could have played a fundamental role in shaping Mao’s future. It seems commonly agreed amongst biographers that it was Li Dazhao, the Librarian or Curator, at Beijing University who first introduced Mao to the works of Marx and Lenin that became the basis of the philosophy that drove his revolution, and other library experiences also appear to have left an indelible impression on the young Mao and may be at the heart of some of his most famous or infamous acts as leader of China. We can only presume that during his brief flirtation with libraries Mao developed a passionate aversion to the idea that libraries should provide a wide choice of books for readers what with all the fuss of selecting them, organising them and then having to find where they go back on the shelves when they are returned. Laudably he thought that everyone should have books but to avoid all of those tedious library chores he decided that they could have any book they liked provided it was little and red and was written by Mao himself. Of course everyone instantly wanted one …if they knew what was good for them. When the impact of what the West christened The Little Red Book threatened to wear off as it was bound too once those capitalist lackeys The Drifters wrote a song about it Mao had to turn to more drastic methods to get his own back on the intellectual elite that he considered had slighted him during his spell as a librarian.

Mao decreed a Cultural Revolution which was basically to designed get rid of culture and all those sneering intellectuals as well by banishing them to the countryside where the illiterate peasants could teach them the error of their ways. At a stroke Mao had purged the psychological scars caused by his time as a librarian. In the Library in Beijing he was surrounded by the leading intellectuals of the day and despite attempts to engage them in conversation in his desperation to learn, he was rudely ignored because he claimed as a lowly assistant he was not worthy of their attention. Whatever its merits or failings The Cultural Revolution certainly extracted a humiliating and in many cases fatal revenge on all those intellectuals who snubbed him. It is often claimed that libraries had a profound influence on the development of millions of people around the world but there can be very few examples where they have influenced the development of an entire country. But then again perhaps that is reading too much into a few months of carting periodicals around a library

Despite the claims of Mao and Casanova it is a close call in the competition for the most disturbing famous librarian. One of the strongest candidates is missed off some lists of famous librarians possibly because he lacks the charisma of Casanova whom we will look at next week or the historical significance of Mao, but perhaps because everyone is still terrified of him or just possibly because all those cross-dressing revelations that appeared after his death made him a dubious role model for the library profession.

J Edgar Hoover the notorious head of the FBI who terrorised America for more than 50 years worked at the Library of Congress to pay his way through university. Beginning as a lowly messenger Hoover spent four and a half years at the Library and rose steadily to become a cataloguer. He also had the opportunity to work with Herbert Putnam who developed the Library of Congress classification system and was a master in the art of bureaucratic empire building. His admiration for Putnam’s methodical approach and his experience of classification systems were the basis for the infamous files that Hoover developed for the FBI, the information from which was used to imprison, deport or otherwise control whoever he considered to be a threat to US national security, had left wing sympathies or ran trade unions and definitely anyone who had spotted him in his little black number and heels on a Saturday night out. In fact anyone except the Mafia which he left alone saying it didn’t exist but then they probably sold him that little black number.

But despite Hoover’s strong claim over Mao and Casanova, the most disturbing famous librarian has to be Nancy Pearl. No, I hadn’t heard of her either but apparently she is big in the USA or rather to be accurate she is as big in the USA as a 12cm tall “action” figure can be. By action I mean she raises a finger to her mouth and says well what would a 12cm librarian doll say if you press a button in her back. Yes that’s right it says shhh! Who said Americans can’t do irony? Try to imagine Tweed and Bun Barbie and you’ll get a reasonable idea of what the doll looks like. You see what I mean about disturbing. Even more worryingly the figure comes with a stack of books and there is a deluxe version that comes complete with a DIY library comprising lots of books, an issue desk and a book trolley. I am amazed that Duplo haven’t copied it. But most disturbing of all, the model is based on a real librarian who really is called Nancy Pearl who has been described as the most famous librarian in the United States. Whether this refers to the model or the real librarian is unclear. The real version worked for many years in Seattle Public Library where she made a name for herself and for libraries, becoming “the talk of librarian circles” according to her website, by appearing on television and by publishing a best-selling book, Book Lust, sadly not an erotic library fantasy but about her love for books and reading. She is also, according to her website, “a rock star among readers and the tastemaker people turn to when deciding what to read next”. Of course we can’t go into that too much because we are more concerned with people who are librarians but famous for something else so we will concentrate on the doll which was designed as a tribute to the real Nancy. You can imagine Nancy’s delight when the tribute turned out to be a doll that said “shhh”. “It will demonstrate if librarians have a sense of humour” she said, so that’s all right then. Unfortunately Nancy from some of the reactions it seems most of them don’t!

Very similar to the real Nancy Pearl but the real one is just a bit taller and doesn't have a push button in her back

Very similar to the real Nancy Pearl but the real one is just a bit taller and doesn’t have a push button in her back

Thanks for sticking with this trip though the famous people you never knew were librarians. There are still a couple of them left but as they will take a bit of time next week I may give you a rest before we get on to them with a look at something a bit different. We’ll see!

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