Back when I was a young librarian in the days when now extinct creatures such as typewriters and library card catalogues roamed the earth some colleagues used to play the kind of game that entertained us before we became seduced by Xbox, Netflix and Strictly Come Dancing. They would quote a sentence or two from a novel featuring a reference to libraries or librarians and challenge the excited reader of the magazine in which the game featured to identify the book. It was an early prototype for University Challenge where they play about two bars from some obscure oratorio by some even more obscure baroque composer and ask the panel to identify the work and composer from all the accumulated canon of western classical music, a game better known to most of us in its dumbed down, pub quiz version of spot the ABBA lyric. The game was of course not intended to be won by its readers but was intended as a chance for people who should get out more to show what a smart arse they were, demonstrating the broad and classical sweep of their reading habits to make people like me feel inferior because my reading was chiefly Len Deighton level thriller pulp occasionally given some gravitas by yet another unsuccessful attempt to finish Middlemarch.
I mention this only because that was one of the very early triggers that set me off thinking there might be some mileage in that as an idea for a book that eventually led to this blog. The idea was simple enough; find some books that used libraries as a setting or for a plot or where librarians were the protaginist or part of the cast and bring them together in a witty and entertaining narrative. A surefire hit provided I could find sufficient raw material and the small matter of hoping a librarian could make it witty and entertaining.
Finding the books seemed the biggest problem. I did begin to look for and occasionally spot references to libraries in books that I read and duly noted them over several years rather half heartedly to be fair hoping to be able to raid the back issues of New Library World , the magazine in question, but this idea was scuppered because the journal and probably the novels it referenced had sunk into well earned obscurity. But when all else fails there is always serendipity.
The thing about serendipity is that you never know when it will strike. Strolling through the pleasant lounge of a lovely little hotel in Cambrils in Spain for example casually browsing the dog eared copies of Tom Clancy, Maeve Binchy and Jeffrey Archer together with a several random German novels left by thoughtful previous holidaymakers I came across a title I couldn’t ignore and so decided that as I had a week of relaxation ahead of me I might as well abandon my intended holiday booklist and read this one instead in the interests of reasearch. Sadly I should have realised that something falling into your lap like that was just too fortunate and bound to be a disappointment. Glenn Cooper’s Library of the Dead is an entertaining enough gothic fantasy but isn’t so much about a library as a sort of cosmic Registry Office, in fact if they had kept its original US title The Secret of the Seventh Son, it would have saved us all, well me at least, a lot of wasted time as you will see when we look at it in a future post.
This should have been a warning that serendipity as an alternative to proper research can be a triumph of hope over outcome and if it wasn’t well finding Gregory Norminton’s Arts and Wonders whilst browsing the bookshelves at some of my in-laws should have convinced me as the reference to “a Library of Arts and Wonders” on the cover encouraged me to invest several hours of my life that I will never get back. I even began to spot stuff that would never have registered on my consciousness before. In the local public library I spotted The Library Paradox by Catherine Shaw but a casual skim of this Victorian melodrama about a dead body in Kings College Library was enough to convince me that as so often apart from providing a location for a dead body the story had nothing to do with libraries or librarians at all. Others teased in the same way. The Herring in the Library by L. C. Tyler turns out of course to be really the red herring in the library because once the body has been discovered the library is of no further interest; Janice Keefer’s The Ladies’ Lending Library isn’t about a library at all, it’s a book club, and if you are even the slightest bit prudish please think very carefully before you start reading Alan Hollingshurst’s intriguingly entitled first novel The Swimming Pool Library. If you are expecting to discover lots of matronly librarians swapping their cardigans for a spot of the breast stroke or hunting for the latest Lee Childs in the deep end you will be surprised to find it doesn’t include any books or any ladies and any breast stroking has very little to do with swimming. As a clue to what you might expect to find, the philosophy of the book’s protagonist, William Beckwith, is that “a day without sex is a day wasted” so don’t expect much cataloguing either. It is a bit rude, no it’s very rude. So rude that it nearly didn’t find a publisher. The title comes from the practice at Beckwith’s boys prep school of naming the prefects “librarians” with specific duties thus Chapel Librarian , Football Librarian and in Beckwith’s case Swimming Pool Librarian. The Swimming Pool for which he is responsible becomes abbreviated to The Library where he and his fellow pupils gather to explore their common adolescent sexual preferences. You will find that they are explored with great gusto not to mention gay abandon and in considerable graphic detail regularly throughout the book.
Even when you have completed your research which we will come to later serendipity still strikes and is no more satisfying than before despite that initial frisson of excitement as you discover a potentially useful title in a quite unexpected location. On another holiday in Norfolk, at the compulsory second hand book stall, I discovered not one but two books featuring Library in the title, or least expected of all amongst the Book Swap volumes in the coffee shop that helps support the radio station that lets me present some if its shows. The Library of Gold, The Library of Shadows, The Lost Library I have them all; all hokum and worse, hokum with only the most tangential link to any library that you or I might recognise as you will also see later. Clearly the publishers’ marketing people feel that “library” has the same irresistible appeal to readers as BOGOF offers, two for the price of one or anything to do with baking.
So serendipity is not the best approach to research and anyway you can’t just go on browsing library shelves, second hand books stalls or the lounges of random European hotels and hope to find enough volumes featuring real libraries and recognisable librarians to produce a book about books about libraries .
So to complement serendipity and as an alternative to expensive Spanish holidays I started my research where all librarians start without actually admitting it; I did some trawls of the internet. Its remarkable what comes scurrying out once you disturb the undergrowth out on the world wide web and I was as amazed as I was disconcerted to discover two sources that supplied more references to books about librarians and libraries than I could possible imagine existed. First I came across an erudite academic paper the authors of which had discovered 120 novels featuring librarians which they had used for an academic analysis of the image of librarians in literature (1) a subject that continues, as I have explained, to vex many librarians and for which they were seeking to establish a proper understanding. I of course had no such noble intentions as you will see when we discuss those novels with nothing more in mind than cheap jokes. A list of 120 books that featured libraries or librarians, many of which were new to, was enough I figured, if I followed them up, to fuel this quixotic project. It was reassuring. All I had to do now was find that witty and entertaining narrative from somewhere. How do you make a list of 120 books featuring librarians interesting even to other librarians without it becoming the worlds most boring list of books since that often quoted book about watching paint dry. As It turned out this was the least of my worries thanks to a college in the States which I came across shortly afterwards.
Apparently the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts has been gathering what they refer to as bibliomysteries for about 30 years and have a collection in their Simmons Library of crime and mystery books that feature libraries or librarians so naturally I needed to follow this up to check how useful this would be for my own project. It was to say the least a bit of a shock to discover that over 30 years of assiduous collecting they had accumulated something like 600 books featuring libraries, librarians and anything else to do with books. Trying to match a collection on this industrial scale with the understandable expectations of readers for something pacy and entertaining and some way short of War and Peace in length was going to be a problem. I did flirt with plausible deniability; pretending I had never seen the website or its amazing list but librarians can’t lie so I needed a strategy to reduce this to a manageable number of references for an entertaining read. Just how this was accomplished will feature in the next blog and after that we will begin to look at some of the many books where libraries features with the hope that they are explored with wit and good humour but we’ll see.
(1) Christopher Brown-Syed and Charles Barnard Sands. “Librarians in Fiction; a Discussion.” Education Libraries. v.21. no. 1, 1997. There are other publications that do similar things but these are just unlucky that I happened to find theirs first!