As I mentioned last week having shamefully mocked and trivialised the legitimacy of the intimidating number of books featuring libraries and librarians that I had come across from Simmons College I want to start, this week, looking at some of the books that I escaped that cursory but brutal cull. In other words fiction in which libraries and librarians feature with more substance than just as the repository for another dead body or indeed as just that dead body. Obviously there are still too many to hope to include them all; in practical terms it would be a rather life consuming work to try especially as many of them are not available in the UK and importing all of them them would incur extravagant costs which would be a nice idea but the painful aftermath as I tried to retrieve the imported books from where they had forced when my family realised just how extravagant is a price well beyond my pain threshold. So it will become clear that I have not made any attempt to do this but I have read a lot and indeed most of the novels that feature in any length in this and subsequent blogs but before we get on to those I want to come back to one of the other sources I mentioned earlier that alerted me to a number of novels featuring libraries and librarians and I want to do a similar hatchet job (sorry I mean of course another rigorous analysis) on them.
I mentioned a few weeks ago a journal article* which undertook a serious academic analysis of the image of librarians in fiction for. Looking at 120 novels they established their own taxonomy of portrayals ranging from librarian as background character to librarian as victim and even librarian as protagonist, which sounds so much better than murderer or psychopath. It is an interesting and serious minded piece of work unlike this blog which is neither of those things but I couldn’t help feeling that they had a missed golden opportunity to show how librarians are quite capable of laughing at themselves so I shall take that opportunity for them and as I am enormously grateful to the authors for bringing all those titles to my attention I hope they will forgive my shallow subversion of their work.
At one stage, for example, having found a librarian featuring prominently and positively in a series of detective mysteries by Canadian author L R Wright the authors complain that she is “being presented as a book lover and custodian of books rather than a proactive information professional”. I am not aware that the medical profession were terribly concerned about the accuracy of the medical skills in the portrayal of GP Dr Quimper in Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington (number 7 incidentally in the vote for The World’s Favourite Agatha Christie announced to celebrate the 125th anniversary of her birth just in case you were the slightest bit interested) , nor about the potential damage that the ghastly Mr Hyde might do to the medical profession’s image when he assumed the identity of dedicated Dr Jekyll; doctors almost certainly recognised that even though a doctor messing around with mind-altering drugs or bumping off most of the other characters so he can inherit a small fortune is not the best image of the profession, but they were also confident enough in their own profession to recognise that it was after all just fiction.
The authors also found that in a range of novels the predominately female librarians are variously “flirtatious”, “winsome”, “scholarly but sinister”, “klutzy” or sometimes merely “quirky” as well of course as you would expect as the more recognisable reticent and crabby but against most reasonable odds they also manage to find a librarian admired by her lover for “her naked perfection”. Now as this is an incredibly refreshing change from the usual stereotype of the female librarian as a cross between Miss Marple and a pit bull it would be cause you would think for celebration. But these are academics so this is what they have to say about that “naked perfection”, “Rachael is evidently acquainted with collection development, classification, budgeting, reference work, and all the major elements of professional librarianship – details of which are presented swiftly but faithfully in the novel”. I’m sorry, can we just go over that again; in a crime mystery novel where the plot is perhaps more important than the incidental detail about occupations they have discovered a beautiful female librarian with a real breathing lover and therefore, and contrary to popular belief about librarians, a sex life and they are keen to reassure us that she is also good at classification. Brilliant! Even allowing for the fact that Americans famously don’t get irony and their laudable commitment to political correctness it still seems to me that they have effortlessly reinforced the humourless stereotype of the librarian that they hoped to dispel whilst at the same time spectacularly missing the point.
And if that is rather missing the point when they get round to discussing the librarian as villain they seem to compound this by setting some sort of new gold standard for back-handed compliments. The authors note that in several cases librarians are portrayed as “as particularly delicious villains or victims”. Now I have no idea what a librarian as a delicious victim might look like apart from dead but the authors suggest that being portrayed in mystery novels in those roles pays the librarians the compliment of recognising them as interesting characters. So, in other words, it seems it is good for the image of librarians if they are found dead or better still if they are doing the killing! By way of illustration they quote the villain from another Wright novel A Touch of Panic who just happens to be a professor of library science, but not just any professor of library science a “millionaire professor of library science” who is “wealthy, attractive, suave, smooth-talking and ostentatiously fit” but the authors are most gratified not that a librarian can be well dressed, attractive and can casually inhabit the world of extreme wealthy and gracious living rather than a dingy semi in a back street in Chorley but “because the author emphasizes the scholarly as well as the practical side of the profession, it becomes apparent that librarianship possesses a body of theoretical knowledge”. Which I guess makes it all right for the professor to be also a serial obsessive stalker, kidnapper and murderer with a shallow grave waiting for any of his attractive female student victims after he has played his creepy little games with them. I’m pretty sure that when I was at Library School the professors just gave us a bad mark if we upset them but I guess standards are a lot higher now.
If casting fictional librarians as evil psychopaths is somehow supposed to be to the credit of the library profession I am sure that the marketing people from the professional body for librarians in the UK will want to consider as a core promotional text Ian Rankin’s debut novel Knots and Crosses
The young but very perceptive daughter of Rankin’s shabby hero Rebus sits in the children’s library in Edinburgh Central Library wondering why people sit in those “dull rooms reading those old books” but even as she summarily dismisses generations of library readers she is being watched by someone whom you have already guessed is probably a lot more dangerous than the down-and-outs we have already been introduced to in the library and possibly even than the sharp-elbowed old ladies skirmishing over the Mills and Boons. The villain has purposefully hidden himself in the best disguise he can think of for a serial killer bent on revenge against Rebus; as a children’s librarian. After all as the equally shabby librarian hero of Ian Sansom’s books reflects to himself as he tries to conduct his own inconspicuous investigation “It was amazing really where the word librarian would get you. As cover it was perfect: no one suspected librarians of anything except chronic timidity and dandruff…” We’ll come back to him later by the way.
In the late c20th equality legislation had ensured we were much better at fairly and indiscriminately matching people who apply for jobs to the skills needed for that job (apart judges and the posh end of the Civil Service obviously where they still make sure you went to the right school as well and even better if they knew your Dad) but we can all make mistakes. Thinking, for example, that you are appointing a promising young professional with bags of potential only to find within weeks of them starting that they have more hang ups than the Wembley Stadium cloakrooms is an example that still haunts me. So it is probably an easy mistake for the fictional Edinburgh City Librarian to make thinking that he or she was appointing “the nicest man you could ever wish to meet“, according to one of his colleagues, when unwittingly they had appointed “ the most dangerous man Rebus had met in his entire life”. “A children’s librarian and Edinburgh’s own mass murderer”. I know they didn’t have the benefit of CRB or DBS checks, or whatever they are called this month, back then but on the other hand to set out with the intention of appointing a talented individual to inspire the city’s young people to develop a love of books and discovery only to find that your candidate is a deranged psychopath who is systematically kidnapping and murdering those kids instead must mean that at the very least HR will insist you go on another recruitment and selection course as part of your next appraisal.
And if negative portrayals of librarians are somehow a positive step the professional bodies for librarians might also like to have a quick look at another fictional character by the name of Thomasso Grilli for possible use in marketing campaigns to encourage young people to join the library profession. Grilli is the anti-hero of Gregory Norminton’s novel Arts and Wonders. The Library of Arts and Wonders isn’t really a library at all just a collection of curiosities and novelties but you are well into the book before this becomes apparent and you realise that you are on a wild goose chase so I won’t waste your time with all the details; I have wasted mine so you don’t have to, but if bad is good for the image of librarians then Thomasso Grilli is terrific.
After a series of picaresque adventures in medieval Europe Grilli becomes the Court Librarian to the Duke of Felsengrude in an impoverished and obscure European dukedom mainly on the back of helping get the Duke laid for the first time. To digress for a moment, for those of you looking to secure competitive advantage in the job market today I don’t think that is allowed any more under that Equal Opportunities legislation I mentioned earlier. Back then though it was a winner and Grilli promises to reward the Duke by creating the Library of Arts and Wonders that will celebrate the splendour to which the Duke aspires for himself and his dukedom, but unfortunately like all vanity projects the Library consumes more and more money until the Treasury funds are exhausted so taxes have to increase and with it the dissatisfaction that leads to the Duke’s eventual and inevitable downfall. It comes as no surprise that the Library project ends in disaster because Grilli is a con man, a pimp and a forger as amoral as he is dishonest and as self-serving as he is self-deceiving and worse that all that he’s a rubbish librarian. It doesn’t help of course that he is also from birth a profoundly ugly and misshapen dwarf. But as I said, if portrayal as villainous role models and repulsive failures are a mark of the maturity of the library profession then Grilli would be ideal for future library recruitment campaigns. Of course if all this sounds a bit too villainous and repulsive for the marketing people hoping to encourage young people to join the library profession they might like to try a slightly more appealing villain… Vlad the Impaler for example whom I understand as well as all that impaling was pretty good at cataloguing and his reputation worked wonders for the prompt return of library books.
So that is what we will be doing for the next few blogs. Taking some novels where libraries or librarians feature and desperately attempting to subvert their original intention by seeking to derive comic entertainment from them. And there may be even more mileage in this than I originally thought or perhaps later feared as there are at least two more mysteries featuring libraries out this year! Next time though, if you still have the energy and patience, we will look at the unlikely involvement of the CIA, international bankers and the inevitable shadowy cabals ( cabals must it seems always be shadowy!) with libraries.
*Christopher Brown-Syed and Charles Barnard Sands, Librarians in Fiction: A Discussion. Education Libraries , v21 n1-2 p17-24 1997