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 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.
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!
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!