Monthly Archives: September 2016

BIFF!! KERPOW!! SPLAT!! SHUSH!!!

Regular followers may be able to cast their minds back to the section where we discussed famous people who had also been librarians and will recall that the posts were overwhelmingly, in fact completely, dominated by men. This was because for a long time it was a bit tricky for women to get into the library business when the top line of the job description usual said “Must be a monk”. So female examples of good role models for the library profession are a bit thin on the ground but we have saved the best one until now. You would think that a female librarian who not only reached to top of her profession but also overcame severe disability to develop an internationally important information business and was even elected to the United States Congress and who also became internationally famous in a quite different field might have come to your attention by now and who knows maybe she has.

Barbara Gordon - Head Librarian

Barbara Gordon – Head Librarian

Barbara Gordon was from Ohio and was adopted by her uncle Jim Gordon and his wife Barbara after her parents died in a road accident when Barbara was still only 13 years of age. Barbara was a very talented pupil partly because of her photographic memory and earned a scholarship to the local university eventually graduating with a doctorate in library science and took a job as a researcher at the City Library whilst she sought to pursue her ambition to join the police force in which her uncle was a senior officer. Unfortunately back in those days being fearsomely intelligent and a martial arts black belt wasn’t enough to get you into any US police forces,  They would claim that at 5’7” and weighing 126lbs she did not meet the physical requirements; they seemed to prefer brute force and ignorance and being a man always helped too.  Unable to make a career in the law Barbara remained in libraries and because there weren’t any monks in that part of the States and 5’7” wasn’t a problem either she eventually became Head Librarian of the City Library.

Sadly Barbara’s career was cut short when she was shot and paralyzed during an armed raid and she became very depressed. In a remarkable recovery however she realised that even confined to a wheel chair she could still be a valuable member of the information community and she created one of the earliest and most powerful computer information systems synthesising all the major news publications across the world and making them available to the crime fighting community. Her success eventually led to her election to the US House of Representatives. Barbara’s achievements have been celebrated in print, on television and even in film and there are dozens of web sites and blogs from other librarians where her accomplished are used to raise the profile of both her information profession and her gender so it is remarkable that someone that apparently well known and with such a rich backstory is still not familiar to you but then the most remarkable thing about Barbara Gordon is that she doesn’t exist.

Despite her complete backstory Barbara Gordon wasn’t born in Ohio at all; she sprang to life a fully formed adult in 1967 from the fertile imaginations of Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino the creative talent behind Detective Comics  and if you are wondering what a librarian is doing in a comic dedicated to fantasy superheroes well in DC #359 Barbara made her debut where she became the second incarnation of Batgirl replacing an earlier version that first appeared in 1961, you see now you know her don’t you?

batgirlThere was a general belief that the only reason Betty Kane the original 1961 Batgirl was introduced into the Batman series was to counter the growing suspicions amongst middle-America readers about the relationship between Batman and his young protégé Robin in the absence of any obvious female presence. Middle-America had warmly embraced the c20th as far as farming technology was concerned but their moral outlook was still firmly rooted in the Dark Ages so the absence of the little lady at home had to be addressed and Batgirl was the answer.

So in 1967 Barbara Gordon became the new and for some the definitive Batgirl. Her day job was in Gotham City Public Library where her first outing in a Batgirl outfit really was just fancy dress because she was just a bit obsessed with Batman. As comic book stories have it of course she has to go to Bruce Wayne’s mansion to deliver a rare book and she is involved in helping solve a crime by one of Batman’s many arch enemies. After this of course she decides she prefers the figure hugging Lycra suit and the sexy mask to her librarian clobber and sets herself up as a crime fighter in her own right but it is only later that she is let in on the secret of Wayne’s heroic alter ego although presumably not what is going on with Robin. So although Batgirl is constantly quoted as a positive female role model for librarians in fact she is just another fantasy woman invented by men hence the tight Lycra.

For those of you who have spent your life worrying about positive female role models for librarians, or the influence of fantasy characters in tight fitting Lycra costumes on women in the information professions, on YouTube you can see a pilot for a possible Batgirl TV series  featuring her first ever TV appearance. It has all the usual clunky, camp stuff; deceptively attractive female librarian in big glasses helping a random handsome unattached male millionaire called Bruce Wayne who just happens to be passing time in the local city library, random sinister looking blokes in space uniforms and funny hats and antennae whom no one has noticed are not your average library users but obviously are waiting for a chance to kidnap any unsuspecting millionaire who just happens to be dropping in to renew his books.

Barbara Gordon and Batgirl - spot the difference

Barbara Gordon and Batgirl – spot the difference

Fortunately Batman and Robin are a lot more observant than the Library staff and can recognise the  henchman of the notorious criminal, Killer Moth for what they are, returning to challenge their nefarious plans with all the usual POW, THWACK, BIFF stuff you know and love. Sadly they are thwarted by one of the bad guys but are rescued by the mysterious new hero Batgirl (played by Yvonne Craig) whom we, the viewers, know was quiet librarian Barbara Gordon who was conveniently locked in her office with its secret closet containing her equally secret superhero outfit[1]. Who is this “dazzling dare doll racing away on her Batbike?” “Is the dynamic duo about to become the triumphant trio?” says the corny voice over at the end that was probably the final nail in the coffin and the series never reached the schedules. It was though enough to persuade the studio to include Batgirl in the third series of the Batman TV show in 1967 making more than 20 subsequent appearances.

Eventually as any dedicated librarian would she tires of dressing up in fancy dress and thwarting master criminals with ridiculous names and can’t wait to get back to the doing the annual library statistics for the City Council and dealing with all of those dysfunctional customers who invariably plague public libraries when you retire from crime fighting.  But once a Lycra clad superhero there is no hiding place for Barbara and she is shot and paralysed by The Joker which seems excessive revenge just for giving someone a hard time about a damaged library book even if it was a Walt Whitman first edition. But then again it might have had something to do with her being the adopted daughter of Gotham City’s Police Commissioner and the Joker wanting a bit of revenge on him. Barbara is cast into a deep depression.; maybe its because Batman just doesn’t fancy her or that she has failed with Robin too, clearly having missed all those rumours about their relationship, and now she is stuck in a wheelchair and to cap it all she has been pensioned off by DC Comics

Oracle aka Batgirl aka Barbara Gordon aka whatever...

Oracle aka Batgirl aka Barbara Gordon aka whatever…

But you can’t stay depressed for long in the graphic comic game and Barbara realises that being shot by a madman with a permanent rictus grin a maniacal laugh and a bad haircut is not a fitting epitaph for any self-respecting female librarian role model and this conveniently coincides with DC realising just how popular Batgirl was and so Barbara returns and establishes herself as the leading anti-crime information broker and rebranding herself as Oracle providing crime fighting intelligence for superheroes. As for her on-off relationship with Robin that continues to be.. well on and off…and on and then off and in any case the  character has well and truly lost the librarian link by this time. So much so in fact that when Oracle did briefly re-appear in a Warner Brothers TV series as recently as 2002 Barbara Gordon was now a teacher and so despite being an admirable role model for female crime fighters with mobility difficulties she serves no further purpose in this blog. But just so you know not to mess with fantasy librarians the show where she was not a librarian was canned after just 13 episodes.

I was made aware of Batgirl’s legacy not just in the essays and articles by librarians still mithering about the librarian stereotype but also in Michael Chabon’s celebrated novel Kavalier and Clay which amongst other things uses the golden age of the US graphic comic as its setting. Joe Kavalier the creative genius/hero of the novel, inspired by his girlfriend to create a female hero, begins sketching the ironic plot line of the story of Miss Judy Dark, Under Assistant Cataloguer at the Department of Decommissioned Books in Empire City Public Library. Inevitably she is “a thin, pale thing in a plain gray suit, and life is clearly passing her by” Well she is a librarian stereotype what did you expect, Scarlet Johansen. “Poor little librarians of the world, those secretly lovely, their looks marred forever by the cruelty of a big pair of black eyeglasses.” Judy back in the emptiness of her lonely apartment decides to return to work late that evening, as lonely spinsters so often do, to view the mysterious and priceless Book of Lo devoted to the ancient Cimmerian Moth Goddess when the alternative is watching Bridget Jones again and when the wine rack is empty.  Finding thieves about to make off with the book, like the good librarian Judy feels the need to tackle them.  Somehow poor Judy manages to wrest the book from the large muscular villains but, as I am sure you have found, on the run from ruthless villains, Judy runs into that familiar comic bchabonook contrivance of a wet floor and a live power cable and with a book with mysterious magical powers clasped to her heaving chest. From the resulting shock she finds herself turned into a moth-like creature with huge wings and legs and transported back to Cimmeria a land ruled by women until men took over “and began making a hash of things”. Judy is now the Mistress of the Night with all the power of the Moth Goddess and is sent back to Empire City to right “the worlds many wrongs”. Inevitably she has to have an outfit which she is allowed to choose and as this is a woman invented by a man doing the choosing she sides firmly with the need to keep selling comics to its prime market of pubescent lads by opting for a green number where “tight green underpants are barely covered by the merest suggestion of a skirt” and her legs are “enmeshed in black fishnet and the heels of her ankle boots are stingingly high”. Although it was clearly just an entertaining diversions in an excellent novel and one that clearly had to be included in this book I was nonetheless left with several tantalising thoughts; how does she accomplish her transformation to Mistress of the Night whenever she wants a break from cataloguing; does she have to find a puddle and shove 40,000 volts through it every time; and what happens if she is holding Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros or The Gruffalo? But perhaps I am missing the point!

[1] Mine was usually kept in the bottom drawer of my desk, underneath the Good Beer Guide

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Goalkeeping librarians and librarians on the Edge

Personally I blame Humphrey Bogart. Ever since he chose the Acme Bookstore as a vantage point while he waited for Geiger to arrive back at his illicit publishing business in the Big Sleep and met Dorothy Malone’s seemingly spinsterish and bookish shop owner. “You might have to wait a while…and it’s raining she says”. “ You’re right I’d much rather get wet inside” he replies being quick on the up take “Hello!!” he says seconds later in a tone that says much more  as she takes off her glasses, lets down her hair and pouts. He has already been warmed up by the good looking blonde at the Hollywood Public Library, “You don’t look like a man who would be interested in first editions,” so what will they do to kill time as she turns the sign to say CLOSED. What indeed!  But we never see him admiring her calf bindings as this is prim and proper 40’s cinema and the camera pans across to the wet streets! Ever since then apparently frumpish, bookish bespectacled females especially  librarians have had a special place in the male fantasy catalogue as examples of the deep passions that they believe lay hidden behind thin veneer of cardigan and heavy spectacles.

It is an enduring frustration for the library profession and particularly for women librarians that they are either portrayed as Rosa Klebb[1] or as a porn star masquerading as Miss Marple. It doesn’t work in quite the same way for men. I am not aware of any female fantasy that involves finding George Clooney behind the unassuming disguise of a short fat bloke in a tank top. Usually beneath the short fat bloke in a tank top is a short fat bloke who would love to take his tank top off to display the powerful heart beneath but it would only expose the shirt stained with last week’s meals.

Rosa Klebb. Any similarity to librarians living ot dead is entirely coincidental; apart from the standard library issue knuckle dusters obviously.

Rosa Klebb. Any similarity to librarians living or dead is entirely coincidental; apart from the standard library issue knuckle dusters obviously.

Part of the reason for the enduring fantasy is perhaps that for a profession that is overwhelmingly populated by females it is notoriously difficult to find examples of famous librarians that are female and who can project a quite different image. Although Lynne Brindley did become first female Director General of The British Library and has been made a Dame for her efforts and a librarian did for a while become a university Vice Chancellor they don’t really have the same conversation stopping effect of reminding someone that Chairman Mao and Casanova were librarians . Perhaps the most visible female librarian ever was Laura Bush wife of former US President George W Bush but not only was she kept very firmly in the background during his presidency presumably because she was too bright and would show him up, she also became tarnished by association with possibly the most mocked President in US history. Almost the only example of a powerful and positive female librarian role model that you can find anywhere in the literature is Barbara Gordon a US public librarian who features in countless publications, web sites and blogs about libraries and women as librarians. We’ll look at Barbara next time when we will also find out about a goalkeeper librarian.

Barbara Gordon; librarian, congresswoman and campaigner. She also likes a bit of fancy dress

Barbara Gordon; librarian, congresswoman and campaigner. She also likes a bit of fancy dress

Any self-respecting football or quiz team nerd will be able to tell you the names of the very small club of famous people who were football goalkeepers in their early days. For those of you saying “no don’t tell me I know this” I will be very sensitive and not immediately tell you the names so that you can have a few moments ponder the answer. For those of you already bored with this the answer is in the footnotes[2]. What even the quiz nerd will probably not know is that there is an even more exclusive club of librarians who were also football goalkeepers. I won’t waste your time asking you to try and name them but one of them is me obviously, and the other is the Head Librarian of the Unseen University. Despite this early similarity our narrative arcs as both librarians and goalkeepers have taken startlingly different trajectories.

I was a goalkeeper, much earlier in my career of course, although I continued to play well into my 30’s for a university staff team. I eventually retired from that role to play either an occasional midfield powerhouse, usually in wild daydreams, or more usually a crude but effective full back if we had too many precious academic who all wanted to be the elegant midfield playmaker. Unlike the distinctly unprecious composer Gavin Bryars, then a lecturer in our Polytechnic’s School of Performing Arts, who was an effective and dominating centre half making as few concessions to opponents as he now makes to his audiences. The Head Librarian of Unseen University has no previous experience of football and was chosen as goalkeeper on the perfectly sound premise that it is a considerable advantage to have a ‘keeper capable of standing in the middle of the goal and reaching either side of it without moving. I was chosen because no one else wanted to do it and as a goalkeeper I could only dream that one day I would have a football moment like the Head Librarian, arcing gracefully through the air to pull off a stunning save and in one movement hurl the ball almost the length of the pitch to the striker who had only to beat the last defender before driving the ball past the despairing opposition ‘keeper. By contrast I, at just barely 5’7” and of rather rotund build, was the wrong shape for a goalkeeper in at least two dimensions and I decided that I needed to find an alternative role to goalkeeper after a disturbing incident on Leicester’s Humberstone Park. After conceding three more goals in another dismal defeat, I was accosted by two young lads on their bikes as I trudged back to the dressing room. “’Ere are you the goalie” asked the larger of the two smart enough to recognise the significance of the bright orange jumper I was wearing when all the rest of the team were wearing green and black stripes. “Yes”, I replied pleased that at least someone was talking to me, “Oh he said…you’re fat for a goalie

The similarities between me and the Librarian from the Unseen University don’t end there. He was also in a magical rock band, The Band with Rocks in which he played a mean and pretty destructive keyboards but more culturally he also played lunchtime organ recitals though of distinctly atonal music in the University’s Great  Hall.  I was and suppose strictly still am in a band but there is nothing magical about our music and in any case I play guitar provided the song only has three chords and with modest aspirations as a singer but as Churchill once said about Atlee I have much to be modest about. Apart from those minor details the similarities are striking so we will tell you more about our goalkeeper librarian over the next few weeks.

Library Wars

Library Wars

We’ll also meet the Librarians on the Edge not ones driven to the edge of distraction by over boisterously cocky young undergraduates, pompous over important lecturers or the tiger parents of toddlers all fighting for the final copy of The Gruffalo but librarians who do actually live on the Edge and carry swords and rescue people: coming too there is also the unlikely sounding Library Wars from Japan and the even stranger librarians in the imagination of Audrey Niffenegger including the distinctly sinister Mr Openshaw and finally we won’t leave this series of posts without letting you make the acquaintance if you have not already done so of the librarian of Gormenghast Castle. I hope that has piqued the interest of a few of you at least for the next series of posts.

[1] A character in what is considered by many to be the best of the James Bond films From Russia with Love, played by Lotte Lenya she was a ruthless hatchet faced assassin with a pair of shoes that produced poisoned stilettos from the toe if you upset her. As far as I know, though, she has no previous convictions for being a librarian

[2] Luciano Pavarotti, Pope John Paul II, Julio Iglesias, and Albert Camus

 

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