Tag Archives: academic libraries

‘Til Daddy takes her Tbird away….

One of the activities with which I clutter up my life  now that I have sloughed off the cares of labour and one of reasons why there is less time than I originally hoped for the blog is presenting radio shows. By a series of events that I shall spare you, several years ago  I became part of a group of enthusiasts presenting a weekly folk music programme on the local community radio station (Hermitage FM in case you are bothered which broadcasts on 99.2 FM but only if you are within the licence restricted reception area of North West Leicestershire unless you listen on the net). It is still going strong but as usual with mission creep I also found myself helping out to fill gaps in the day time schedules with the standard diet of pop music; just until they found someone better you understand. That was 6 years ago and I am still doing that two days a week less because they can’t find anyone better more because they can’t find anyone with the time and inclination to sit in a soundproof room talking to themselves desperately hoping that someone, anyone is listening.

So just what exactly has this got to with a blog about libraries?

As a presenter I have access to an enormous database of popular music covering the past 60 or so years and if you asked me to find any library references from that database with two minor but in my case significant exceptions I would fail. I mention this because having explored books films, TV and comic books for references to libraries and librarians to which I could apply my juvenile attempts at humour I had assumed that I had exhausted the possibilities. It never entered my head, therefore, that I would need to explore the world of music for references to libraries and librarians pretty sure that the last place I was ever likely to find references to libraries was in music.

Even Haydn who managed an astonishing 104 symphonies many named after every imaginable thing from hens and  bears to clocks and schoolmasters never managed a Library Symphony and no one not even librarians have been stupid enough to suggest that John Cage’s 4’33”, four and a half minutes of silence, has anything at all to do with libraries. Miles Davis never did a follow up to Kind of Blue entitled Kind of Quiet, and despite the off-the-wall nature of their songs even great humourists such as Tom Lehrer and Flanders and Swann found libraries less of an inspiration than the Periodic Table of the Elements which Lehrer set to music or the antics of a gnu “moving in next to you” which was such a success for the latter.  When Herman’s Hermits sang about “There’s a kind of hush” disappointingly but unsurprisingly it was not a celebration of the life transforming qualities of the nation’s public library system but was actually the sound “of lovers in love”; bless. Even English folk music, obsessed as it was with sailing off to sea, marching to war and the fatal sexual antics of Lady Arnold and Matty Groves did not as far as I know have a single mention of libraries in its entire and extensive canon despite the use it frequently made of the day to day work of ordinary people. Libraries were clearly not as romantic as all those herring fishermen, cunning poachers and Orcadian weavers. So I was astonished to find that I was wrong and in unlikely circumstances which is how I discovered the first of my two exceptions.

And where on earth does he fit in…?

Our management team were looking for good, pithy marketing strap lines to help us imprint the value of the Library on the limited attention span of our student brain  occupied by beer or sex and sometimes beer and sex,  and the even more fleeting attention of the university’s management team. “Come to the Library; we pay the heating bill so you don’t have to” or “Use the Library it’s close to the Union bar” that sort of thing. It is the sort of exercise that is treated as mission critical by University senior management and by most staff on a continuum that runs from complete boredom through barely disguised ridicule to utter contempt leaving the service Directors in the middle to sort out the mess with as much imagination as they can muster. To my amazement one of my colleagues in an otherwise unconnected conversation suggested  “Libraries gave us power” which he explained was taken from a Manic Street Preachers song that had used this slogan as the opening line to one of their songs, Design for Life. Despite my love of just about any genre of music throughout my life the Manics along with all the other artists who appeared and flourished in the 1980’s had completely passed me by as it was from that period in our lives when our entire listening material to which were contractually obliged to sing along comprised an endless repetition of “the wheels on the bus go round and round” to very young daughters. When I pursued this with my much younger colleague he explained that the Manics were very much his era and added that he was glad to be reminded of the track because he hadn’t listened to much music himself recently as his entire current listening material to which he was obliged to sing along comprised an endless repetition of “the wheels on the bus go round and round” to his own very young daughter. And before I move on and to complete the cycle we are now in the phase of our life when my wife and I look after our grandson every week and guess what he likes us to sing with him…endlessly. But I am digressing

The slogan that the Manics employed is adapted from the inscription above one of the doors of a branch library in their home town of Newport, South Wales. The actual phrase is “Knowledge is Power” originally coined by Francis Bacon. Not the C20th painter who always seemed to clumsily smudge his paintings but from a much earlier Francis Bacon, the philosopher, Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who is also definitely not to be confused with Ken Morley better known as Reg Holdsworth former star of Coronation Street who chose “Knowledge is Power” as the title for his autobiography because it was a phrase he used a lot apparently. You will know better than me because the last time I watched Coronation Street Ena Sharples was still a pinup! The quote inspired the band to write Design for Life and seems to have come to their attention because bassist Nicky Wire’s wife was working for Newport Libraries at the time. It is rather bleak song that links the proud aspiration of working class learning that has always been a major part of public library history with the emptiness of the lives of some modern day young people who “don’t talk about love we only want to get drunk”. Borrowing inspiration from libraries is something they are unlikely to do again though as for their pains the band were roped into perform the official opening of Cardiff’s new Central Library where the lyric  “libraries gave us power” has been inscribed on a plaque at Cardiff’s new £15m library. This inevitably involved making all sorts of positive quotes about the value of libraries  which I am sure were very genuine but I can’t help wondering what Keith Moon the late drummer of the Who would have made of it? His claim to fame was driving his Rolls Royce into his swimming pool! Now that’s rock and roll!

This chance encounter as usual led to another. You wait years to find a song that mentions libraries and then several come along all at once. A few weeks after discovering Design for Life, I was inattentively listening to one or other of the Radio 2 programmes that act as aural wallpaper on my drive into work when John Humphries had become just so unbearably bombastic on the Today programme on Radio 4 that you would rather listen to the snivelling insincere and poorly briefed politicians than have him in interrupt again before they have got two syllables out in response to a his rambling question that was loaded with malice aforethought. I found myself singing along to a Beach Boys classic, Fun Fun Fun, about the poor little Californian rich girl driving round in Daddy’s Thunderbird and for once actually heard what they said about “she forgot all about the Library that she told he old man yeah” How come after listening to this track on and off for donkey’s years had I not heard the mention of the Library or at least the mention had not registered with me. Of course it was the classic teenage kids ploy “Just off to the Library Daddy, can I borrow the car please”, “Sure Honey, study hard” And off she goes to a clandestine assignation with the boy of whom Daddy disapproves but the mention of the Library is enough to deflect any parental concern. After all what could possibly happen in a Library?

It is exactly the same across cultures. One of my former PAs, a Muslim assured me that the reason why we had so many Asian students in the library was not because they were a particularly studious lot determined to make the most of the privilege of a place at university, although many were that as well, but because it was the place where parents would trust their youngsters to go without them messing around with the opposite sex which was what they wished to strictly control.  What Mum and Dad didn’t know and as we discovered every day in my own university library was that as soon as their daughter got to the library they went straight to the Ladies toilet put on their makeup changed into a shorter skirt and then spent all the rest of the day flirting with all the blokes who had driven up in their smart cars and spent all day in the library without a single book or notepad because their intention wasn’t studying either! In the evening the makeup would come of the skirt was changed and off they went home truthfully telling everyone that they had had a good day in the Library.

There was even a poster on exactly that theme on my office wall many years ago, which I have since lost, showing the back of a sofa, several naked arms and legs and random underwear strewn about with the caption “If Mom calls tell her I’m at the library” which has even been hijacked as the strap line for a London bar adjacent apparently to Barnet College cleverly called The Library. So I think we are beginning to see a trend here which as we shall see will feature prominently in this chapter.

These two quite unexpected encounters with libraries in pop and rock music set me off on the trail of other musical references that I might have missed or simply knew nothing about. After all if headliner bands such as Manic Street Preachers and The Beach Boys have used the library motif then who knows what lurked in the dense undergrowth of the music that rarely gets air time on national or local radio from performers hoping to make it big, bands who never will and the largest sector, acts that don’t care whether they make it or not but are just happy to keep on making their kind of music for their kind of fans. What I discovered will keep us occupied and I hope interested for the next few posts.


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“I’ve had it with libraries, they are full of wierdos”

From this week I have decided to change the blog a bit because the posts were frankly getting a bit long and presumably tedious for followers given our modern digital attention span. So the posts will be a bit shorter in future which I hope will meet with the approval of all of you with busy lives including those of you who think I should go and get any sort of life at all instead of doing this. Also for those of you bored now with librarians in film we will turn our jaundiced attention to how librarians have fared on television.

UK Television has been far less liberal in its depiction of librarians than Hollywood but you will still over the next couple of weeks find Inspector Morse, Miss Marple, The Two Ronnies, Fry and Laurie, Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Tony Hancock and even the Cookie monster featuring in libraries. There are even fewer appearances of libraries on TV but then there is no British equivalent  of that magnificent icon The New York Public Library but libraries do have their moments on British TV even if

The Library at Keele University which masqueraded as the Vice Chancellor's Suite in A Very Peculiar Practice. For any real VC's reading this a Library is the heart of academic life; its that big building full of books computers and students that you keep meaning to visit

The Library at Keele University which masqueraded as the Vice Chancellor’s Suite in A Very Peculiar Practice. For any real VC’s reading this a Library is the heart of academic life; its that big building full of books computers and students that you keep meaning to visit

sometimes they are incognito. The excellent TV series A Very Peculiar Practice was an enormously enjoyable black comedy from the second half of the 1980’s set in the medical practice of a modern UK university and featured an idealistic but naive young doctor, a self-important doctor with no absooutely no self-awareness and a cynical and wasted old doctor and if all that sounds familiar it could indeed be a template for Father Ted  with the important difference that the woman who makes up the cast is not as in the Irish classic a witless housekeeper but a worldly doctor whose brazen bisexual appetite would make Mrs Doyle drop her tea tray and reaching for her rosary beads in horror.

Anyway the only reason for mentioning this at all is because the imposing building with its Italianate steps and impressive clock tower that features prominently in the series is not as you are led to believe the Vice Chancellor’s residence but actually the unattributed library at Keele University. Probably the nearest most Vice Chancellors will ever get to a library.

The London Library is a public subscription library that in its own was is perhaps as well known in certain circles as the NYPL but for all its wonderful collections it lacks the magnificence of the NY building as it is tucked, slightly apologetically  into a corner of St James Square but it did feature in a 2011 edition of BBC’s New Tricks. The light drama where three retired cops are invited to re-examine case only they are old enough to remember and solve them mainly by bickering amongst themselves, features in one episode a cold case of a dead academic in a modern university. Someone has apparently jumped off the university library roof and an open verdict was returned but suicide was the most likely suspect.  Now new evidence has emerged that suggests he may not have jumped in desperate frustration at the fact that like many libraries the lifts weren’t working again but he may have been pushed. Our heroes uncover a sorry tale of academic skulduggery in which we meet a familiar cast of academic characters; the oleaginous but ruthless Vice Chancellor, a handyman who might as well wear a big sign saying “Dodgy Character” as soon as he reveals his Eastern European accent and a couple of instantly untrustworthy researchers. They are all after a very rare book worth millions and certainly worth enough to throw someone off the library roof and make it look as if he couldn’t wait for the lift engineer.  The clue that sets our team bickering towards a solution are found when the cerebral one from the geriatric detective trio follows up a lead in the London Library. Brian has already had a run in with libraries at beginning of the show being escorted from his local branch library after screaming “SILENCE” at the now familiar lively noise of the modern library.

New Tricks's investigator Brian decides libraries are not for him after the Vice Chancellor tries to kill him

New Tricks’s investigator Brian decides libraries are not for him after the Vice Chancellor tries to kill him

He welcomes the chance to sample a research library naively anticipating a peaceful and reflective world where researchers are all virtuously absorbed in their esoteric study only to discover to his cost when he is mugged and almost killed in the library what everyone in academia already knows that the best researchers are the most cynical and ruthless . Eventually though they get their man…and woman. Satisfyingly for anyone who has ever worked in higher education or indeed libraries it is the slippery and arrogant Vice Chancellor who wants to do away with the library who dunnit with help from the female librarian whom you just knew was up to no good looking that attractive. And Brian well he now understands libraries a lot better. “I’ve had it with libraries he says. They are full of wierdos”

Whilst we are talking about policemen blundering around in libraries we can’t ignore the ITV series Morse featuring the lugubrious eponymous Chief Inspector which ran for 33 episodes so it is unsurprising that libraries should feature in the Oxford set series as the city is virtually one big university. Surprisingly though libraries  only featured in a few episodes although shots of the Radcliffe Camera, part of the Bodleian Library and Oxford’s most iconic building is often used as the stock anchor shot to just to make sure you know where you are.

The Radcliffe Camera, part of the Bodleian Library used to remind the cast that they are supposed to be in Oxford despite the fct that the filming is done in St Albans

The Radcliffe Camera, part of the Bodleian Library but mainly used to remind the cast of Morse that they are supposed to be in Oxford despite the fact that the filming is done in St Albans

You may recall that this sort of opening shot was a staple of series like The Saint whose trip to Paris always started with a shot of the Arc de Triomphe and he could never go to Rome without a quick car trip past the Coliseum specially included to sell it to an American audience surprised to discover so many countries beyond Idaho. The Bodleian is used for research and a little light flirting and possibly much more in The Wench is Dead and there is a library scene in Twilight of the Gods where a Library is used as a convenient vantage point for an attempted assassination completely unrelated to the Bodleian’s draconian overdue book fines policy . Finally the Bodleian also featured in the  follow up to Morse named after his former Sergeant Lewis, in an episode that actually did feature a body in the Library (well in the basement anyway) but the series was so unmemorable I couldn’t be bothered to watch it.

There is also of course the obligatory body in the library in episodes of the glossy Agatha Christie adaptations for television. The makers of the Miss Marple series featuring a roll call of differently excellent actors in the title role have tried to stay more faithful to the books than Margaret Rutherford’s early big screen versions even if Rutherford does have a librarian for a sidekick that had nothing whatever to do with Christie. But you are still stuck with those creaking plots. So in the denouement to The Body in the Library, Miss Marple points to scratch marks on the floor which she alone has spotted and deduced they must be where the secret door swings open to lead to a secret passage as she reveals the solution to the  library murder riddle. The solution is greeted with general astonishment by the cast but for regular Christie readers and watchers this was already so blindingly obvious you might just as well have put up a sign reading SECRET PASSAGE –Only to be used when all other plausible explanations have been exhausted.

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“The Library defends itself … You might enter and you might not emerge”

This week the last of our look at books before we move on to to other things

Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, barely 30 years after it was published has been acclaimed as a classic, praised for its portrayal of “the late medieval world, teetering on the edge of discoveries and ideas” and as a breath-taking novel of ideas and a masterpiece of postmodern literature. It has also been called one of the greatest whodunits. If you wanted to be intellectual you could say it is a novel about ideas, learning and ignorance, about faith and heresy, scepticism and doubt; and it is a novel about truth and who decides what’s true but who wants to be bothered with all that intellectual stuff; most of all it is just possibly the greatest novel about libraries ever. It is a novel about when librarians were not quiet, inoffensive and helpful but powerful, cunning and ruthless; today if you are a librarian you are at considerable risk of being made redundant and replaced by a retired accountant. In medieval Europe if you were a librarian you ran a considerable risk of ending up dead. So if you are tired of all those dead bodies in the library and the dead librarians we seem to be racking up in recent posts you may want to give this post and indeed the novel a miss because the library provides the context for several more mysterious and gruesome deaths. And you thought the worst harm you could come to in the library was dropping War and Peace on your foot!

If this complex and absorbing whodunit had been set in interwar Europe Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple would pop up in chapter two; if it was present day Oxford, Morse would be making cynical noises about academics and if it was Victorian England then it would inevitably involve Holmes and Watson. But as it is medieval Italy step forward a reluctant monk, and just to point us in the right direction about all the twists and turns and false trails we can expect our unassuming hero monk is named William of Baskerville. And yes of course Umberto Eco, a semiotics professor knew exactly what he was doing when he gave his protagonist that name and it’s a lot more subtle than putting his monk in a deerstalker!

Name of the Rose BookSome might consider it quite irresponsible to reduce such a wonderfully rich and powerful classic novel, with more layers than a prize winning onion at the village show, down to a series of set pieces about libraries and librarians but that’s not going to stop me of course because the library, at the heart of a great medieval abbey, is also at the heart of the plot throughout. Anyway it is Eco himself who offers the library of the novel as a metaphor at the heart of his story referring early on to “the greatest library in Christendom” but hints at the mystery of the plot when one frustrated and disgruntled cleric describes the library and the abbey as “a den of mad men…fallen from its pedestal as the champion of learning in the days when abbots acted as abbots and librarians as librarians”.

The Library is so important that the abbey which hosts it has been built as “as a citadel to defend the library” and just to show how clever he is Eco’s has imagined a library that clearly pays homage to one of the most fantastical libraries of literature, Borges’s The Library of Babel. Borges’s Library is “composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries… From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors…” whilst the Library that William of Baskerville encounters he describes as “the quadrangular form included, at each of its corners a heptagonal tower…” with “a greater octagon producing four minor heptagons which from the outside appeared as pentagons.” If you have read Borges short story Eco knows you will spot the homage and if you haven’t well you don’t care do you and frankly it’s a hard going so I wouldn’t bother on my account! All you need to know is that it probably involved an architect playing their usual games, which is why the Abbott is able to say of the labyrinthine design “The library was laid out on a plan that has remained obscure to all over the centuries”.

But I wouldn’t be wasting your time or mine on a novel that just wants to show how clever the author is. It’s here because not only is it a wonderfully constructed and complicated thriller it is also full of some of the most memorable quotations about libraries that you are ever likely to find. So wonderful in fact that for years I used several of them, and in particular the one above, in presentations about library building design in a desperate attempt to create comic effect. So if you have ever had to sit through any of my talks that might be another reason for skipping this post and taking the cat for a walk or something more rewarding like that. But let’s get on with that plot.

William of Baskerville a monk with a reputation for Holmesian deductive skills has been sent to one of the medieval world’s most famous monastic libraries because it is scene of a gruesome and inexplicable death. No, not another locked library, well not quite. The dead body of a young novice has been discovered outside the library at the foot of a high, sheer, unscaleable wall below the windows of the library, the only place from where the body could have fallen where it did. But all the windows are closed so it isn’t suicide and that part of the abbey is locked and forbidden to everyone after nightfall, when the death occurred, and protected by fiendish defences. With such an impossible scenario The Abbott fears diabolic forces or worse, one of the monk, so Baskervilleand his young assistant Adso are asked to solve the mystery.

And just to make it a little trickier Baskerville is forbidden from entering the library despite the fact that this was clearly material to whatever happened. Not because they are waiting for the scenes of crime officers and forensic scientists, they have not been invented yet. In fact everyone is routinely denied access to the library apart from the select few. As the Abbott explains with logic that would warm the hearts of many old-school librarians who could never understand why, when you had compiled a collection of the most wonderful literature, you would want to pollute it by letting people anywhere near it because they’ll only keep putting them back in the wrong place and getting coffee stains all over them. “Only the Librarian has received the secret from the librarian who preceded him and he communicates it while still alive to the assistant librarian…the secret seals the lips of both men. Only the librarian… has the right to move through the labyrinth of the books and he alone knows where to find them and where to replace them”.

It might help follow the post if you keep the picture of Sean Connery in the film role in your mind, rather than Sherlock Holmes in a monk’s habit. His young assistant, Adso, is Watson but without the moustache and a lot younger.

It might help follow the post if you keep the picture of Sean Connery in the film role in your mind, rather than Sherlock Holmes in a monk’s habit. His young assistant, Adso, is Watson but without the moustache and a lot younger.

Even after a second murder that clearly points to the library Baskerville is denied access because the Abbott and Librarian take the view that despite the vast and important collection in the library impressionable young clerical minds need protecting from all that potentially corrupting literature. As the Abbott explains again “Only the Librarian knows ….what secrets what truths or falsehoods the volume contains. Only he decides how, when and whether to give it to the monk who requests it.” The power of the librarian back then eh…Wouldn’t happen today would it? “Never mind the latest Jo Nesbo, I’ll tell you what book you are allowed to borrow today madam!” But please don’t tell my local County Council because they might just think this is nearly as brilliant an idea as letting volunteers run libraries without giving them any money.

Eco completes his picture of the all powerful library with a quote that I thought was the perfect introduction to a conference paper on the design of library buildings “The Library defends itself immeasurably… You might enter and you might not emerge”

And of course only the librarian understands the classification scheme as Malachi the abbey librarian explains “only the librarian is allowed access to the library. It is therefore, only right and proper that only the librarian knows how to decipher these things.” I am sure that just about any library user in a hurry would entirely concur. Readers have never needed to understand these things despite all the hours librarians spend trying to explain how the Dewey classification system works. As soon as assignment deadlines converge with pub opening times they just wander up to a Helpdesk with a helpless girly or dumb bloke look on their face and ask a librarian to find the material for them which of course we always do. And Dewey is nothing like as infernally complicated as the classification system used in the abbey library, which appears to be a cryptic version of Mornington Crescent, based on a map of the ancient world, the letters of the alphabet and the invasion route for German Panzer divisions during the Second World War. All the combinations of which the librarian would of course know by heart but the hapless reader would give up trying to follow in despair two stops out of Cockfosters. If that isn’t enough to deter the curious minded who manage to get into the impregnable library then the library is protected by its impossibly elaborate construction and by the fear created by the skilful use of ventilation to create unworldly howls, the monsters generated by your own reflection in the sort of distorting mirrors that you find at cheap seaside fairgrounds today or more disturbingly the use of psychotropic drugs cunningly disguised as incense. It’s so much easier nowadays to fob off readers looking for material. The harassed and irritable assistant librarian simply tells the poor reader that due to the budget cuts we can’t afford it. It has the same deterrent effect but is nothing like as satisfying as scaring the pants off them with the drugs and the funny mirrors.

Eco being an accomplished thriller writer of course there are plenty of red herrings and false leads in The Name of the Rose. Is the motive for the murders gay lust amongst the monks? Is it the increasingly worldly venality of the monks? Is it about heresy or witchcraft, is it about the battle between the Pope in Avignon and the Holy Roman Emperor or is it about power because back then of course the Librarian was the second most powerful person in the abbey who automatically became the next Abbot. Unless he gets bumped off of course. The answer is no, no, no, no and possibly. But all, at various times, are used to distract or mislead our sleuths and us. And like all good whodunits our hero finds the solution by accident after misreading too many of the clues by which time the body count has reached Midsommer Murders levels.

If you need confirmation that this really is a novel about a library rather than one where the library is discarded after about Chapter Two, when he does his Poirotesque exposition towards the end William begins “it was always the Library”. Or to be more precise it was about the books. “The library was perhaps born to save the books it houses but now it lives to bury them” he says. The real motive was controlling access to the books that might challenge the established order of things if they were read by the uninitiated which is everyone apart from the monks then. They remain hidden in the Library denying people access for fear that they will think for themselves in a way that the Church and the powers that it supports would not approve and could not control. Of course we are much freer with our sensitive information nowadays, apart from the Official Secrets Act, confidentiality agreements and the use of “commercial sensitivity” to undermine the Freedom of information Act all of which perform much the same function.

From one perspective the book portrays how powerful librarians were in the medieval world, where to read was rare and have access to anything worth reading even more so. Librarians were the guardians of the accumulated knowledge since the beginning of the written word and this bestowed enormous power. It was this power that made it possible for the Librarian to succeed the Abbot. Sadly no longer. I recall a time when out on placement at a college library from my post-graduate library and information diploma I was asked how libraries appeared to have changed and in response being cocky said that it used to be that in academic processions the librarian used to walked right behind the Vice Chancellor, nowadays they were lucky to get in ahead of the tea trolley and the caretaker so much had our position been eroded. So in the Abbey at the heart of Eco’s story the ambitious young radical monk determined to end the conspiracy of the library can easily be bought off by the offer of initiation into the secrets of the library as the new Assistant Librarian. Those were the days; when librarians could control the Abbott, dictate who read what, wield great powers of patronage and were still the only ones who knew where all the good porn was. Nowadays you can read what you like, the librarian is a figure of fun and porn is instantly available on your mobile phone but on the other hand as a librarian you stand less chance of ending up dead.

Spoiler alert!!

If you haven’t read the book and intend to you might like to skip the rest of the chapter as I will be giving the game away.

A splendid edible tribute to libraries created by baker Kathy Knaus. If your library is closed by the penny pinchers just bake your own. Go to Kathy's Facebook page too see more examples of her entertaining baking. Many thanks to Val for sending this to the blog

A splendid edible tribute to libraries created by baker Kathy Knaus. If your library is closed by the penny pinchers just bake your own. Go to Kathy’s Facebook page too see more examples of her entertaining baking. Many thanks to Val for sending this to the blog

In one of my early posts on librarians in literature I referred to an academic article that referenced The Name of the Rose in which the authors decided that “in casting a librarian as one of literature’s most fiendish villains, Eco has paid our profession the ultimate compliment.” It is an interesting thesis that; if we are to get respect for the library profession we need a few good evil psychopathic librarians in novels. Which would be fine apart from the fact that the old Librarian who is Eco’s villain, is Spanish, elderly and blind so painting him as such a consummate villain will almost certainly infringe a whole raft of modern equality legislation on race, age and disability not to mention mental health as he is clearly bonkers. And of course the final scenes in the Library with all those naked flames, blind alleys and absolutely no fire escapes would certainly be used by any health and safety inspectors to prosecute just about everyone involved. I wouldn’t like to be the PR agency given the account to sell The Name of the Rose as an advert for the modern professional librarian even if it is the best book about libraries ever.

And that seems as good a place as any to finish looking at libraries and librarians in novels although as I said many weeks ago there are potentially hundreds more with more appearing as we speak. This was never meant to be exhaustive as it would have been exhausting long before we reached that point but I hope that I have at least managed to provide a taste of the rich and varied range of books that feature libraries and thank you all for persevering so far. But now you can have a rest from literature. As I trailed a week or two back, next we will have a look as some film and TV portrayals of librarians.

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Cosy crime, a bawdy librarian and a librarian’s revenge

After last week’s digression into things that I perhaps ought to leave to better commentators than me it’s back to novels about libraries and librarians.

I know I have been rather less than generous in previous posts about some of the plucky-librarian-versus-the–shadowy-cabal thrillers but at least I gave them some air time because they had something going for them and did indeed feature real librarians not just another dead body amongst the geography books. The same can’t be said for many of the mystery novels that feature librarians most of which were mercifully consigned to the bin at an early stage of the culling process. Surprisingly, though one of them has put up a bit of a fight and even made it on to the screen.

Popular and well established American author Charlaine Harris is best known for her modern day supernatural fantasy books but she cut her writing teeth on a fictional librarian called Aurora Teagarden before she moved on to the hard stuff. The Aurora Teagarden series ran to about 8 titles on and was originally completely ignored in my research as the reference to her in the Bibliomysteries catalogue is quite dismissive (“not much about libraries” or something similar I think). The only reason she now rates a mention is that I noticed quite by chance that a couple of books are now out as TV movies the first premiered this April. So to on the off-chance that some of you might have spotted that and to avoid all of you asking where Aurora Teagarden is I thought I would acknowledge her existence but then swiftly move on. And no I didn’t watch it. Quite apart from having little or no library interest it was produced by Hallmark Pictures, that’s the twee greetings card people and although I don’t mind a bit of cosy crime, I even watch Midsommer Murders after all but that suggest that this was likely to be at the cuddle-up-with-a-cute-cat-and-hot-chocolate-in a-cosy-blanket end of the cosy crime spectrum which is way beyond where I draw the line!

So this week some other novels which I haven’t actually read but found out enough about to think them worth a passing if somewhat dismissive mention in dispatches before we look at one I have indeed read.

www.citymetric.com Ridwan Sururi and his horse named Luna with their version of a mobile library bringing books to the remote villages of Indonesia. The Kudapustaka ( 'horse library' in Indonesian) brings donated books to villages and schools in Central Java where illiteracy remains high

Ridwan Sururi and his horse named Luna with their version of a mobile library bringing books to the remote villages of Indonesia. The Kudapustaka ( ‘horse library’ in Indonesian) brings donated books to villages and schools in Central Java where illiteracy remains high

A librarian and library are central to The Last Reader by David Toscana. “A fascinating, if bizarre, tale, set in a Mexican village, about an eccentric librarian who sees life through the books he reads” might sound a pretty good fit with my own fascinating if bizarre book about libraries but I decided against taking it on for a number of reasons. Firstly I noticed that one reviewer said that Toscana avoids “plot, character and structure” which left me think what’s left, a crossword puzzle? The premise of the book was also disturbing enough to put me off. A dead girl is found in the well in a drought ridden Mexican village by the son of the village librarian who immediately advises his son, as any sensible librarian would, to ditch the body and play dumb in case the dim witted authorities blame him for the death. Thankfully this isn’t a circumstance I have ever come across in my professional life so it is difficult to make value judgements or to offer a professional opinion on the wisdom of his moral approach. I do though have a lot of sympathy with the librarian’s idiosyncratic but simple book selection policy; the ones he likes he keeps, the ones he doesn’t are ditched including The Bible because “he has read it before”.

Claims that the book was a “spell-binding read” were tempered by another that it “can be a chore to navigate” but the real reason I avoided the book was that reviewers did keep mentioning Toscana in the same breath as Roberto Bolano. I have tried this much praised Mexican writer I really have. I persevered through all of Bolano’s highly acclaimed Savage Detectives and remained baffled to the end about what the book and indeed all the fuss was about. I was left reflecting, as so often with these intellectual writers, whether I wasn’t better off sticking to something a bit closer to my own intellectual level, like the new Ian Rankin thriller or maybe even The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It was a relief to discover Toscana’s book was not available in the UK.

A book I did feel tempted to try and get hold of but it too wasn’t available was The Grand Complication: A Novel by Allen Kurzweil if only to find out more about a librarian protagonist described in reviews as a witty, browbeaten employee of the New York Public Library and a sexually malfunctioning husband which sounds just like something straight out of the “Librarian” section of the bit-part character directory in Central Casting. Even more intriguing not to mention less feasibly there is also a “bawdy” library director whose nickname is the “Librarian of Sexual Congress”. But then again bearing in mind my theory about the disconnection between excessive marketing hype and actual reading satisfaction I decided to pass on a novel that reviewers refer to as “a remarkable novel a flawless blend of adventure, intellect, suspense, humour and antiquity, an enchanting quest and an intellectual romp.” There is way too much to live up to there as other reviews confirm and the description “bawdy librarian” has the same alarmingly cringe inducing ring to it as “Dad dancing”!

Of course if we want better portrayals of librarians or libraries in novels we obviously need more librarians to write them and the idea had fleetingly crossed my mind in those rare idle moments between masterminding yet another miraculous escape for the library from the annual university budget crisis or responding to another lecturer’s lament that we have too few journals in their esoteric branch of some obscure field of science and the complaints from the students that we don’t have enough books because we spend too much on obscure esoteric science journals I often contemplated packing it all in and trying something less frustrating like solving the Middle East crisis or inventing a perpetual motion machine or more realistically writing the novel we are all said to have in us. For many years I had enjoyed writing elaborate library strategies, identifying unlikely performance indicators, preparing glowing reports charting stellar progress against those indicators, composing my annual appraisal review and similar works of fanciful creative fiction so how difficult could a novel be; after all Jeffrey Archer manages them. More importantly other writers like Patricia Cornwell, a forensic scientist, Dick Francis, a jockey, not to mention all those former SAS soldiers have produced hugely popular fiction using their experience from previous professional lives to provide added authenticity to their plots. So why not a librarian; and how about a librarian sleuth? It’s got to be better than yet another dead body in the library plot.

A good plan if a little ill developed and with just one small snag; I had been beaten to it.  Veronica Stallwood, who worked at the Bodleian Library and also at New College Library writes crime mystery novels which regularly include scenes in, or the use of, libraries or librarians and feature Kate Ivory, a novelist who used to be a librarian, well there’s a surprise then, but who also does a handy side-line in amateur detective work in Oxford which must get right up the noses of that Morse and Lewis. Mention of her library background is curiously ignored on Veronica’s website which suggests that she didn’t have that great a time in libraries a thought reinforced by her brief portrait of the unhelpful and obstructive Librarian’s secretary in one of her novels “upholding the old, unfriendly traditions of Leicester College Library” *.

Image from Google books

Image from Google books

No one, though, has used their own unhappy experiences as a librarian quite as effectively as Philip Larkin who seems to have used his second novel to wreak some kind of literary revenge on his first place of work and his first employer. A Girl in Winter was published in 1947 shortly after Larkin left his first library position in a drab, run down provincial branch library in Wellington in Shropshire to take up his new post in Leicester. Given the endless creative possiblities for a location for his unhappy leading lady who would have thought that he would come up with the idea of using a drab, run down provincial branch library as one of the backdrops for his story of love, longing and disappointment. Larkin describes his fictional library with all the sympathy of someone who loathed and despised his own workplace from the moment that his illusions about the stimulating intellectual cocoon that it promised evaporated. Larkin’s fictional library “smelt inimitably of poor children” and is staffed by disaffected library assistants “forced to do everything to books but read them” and blighted by “the daily round of string bags, trembling old men, tramps reading newspapers through magnifying glasses” This is unsurprisingly close to Larkin’s openly confessed detestation of Wellington Library , “a quite impossible job…handing out antiquated tripe to the lower orders of the general public…It was horrible” The Library doesn’t actually play much of a role in the narrative arc of the novel but it does provide an opportunity for Larkin to get a few things off his chest including his contempt for the pompous bureaucrats to whom he reported in Wellington. They were used as the inspiration for the novel’s despised Head Librarian, described in one memorably graphic passage as resembling “a clerk at a railway station who had suffered from shell shock”

Larkin was very justifiably proud of his novel and presumably found some satisfaction in exorcising some of the ghosts of his early career by including them in his fiction. He was considerably less impressed, however, by another novel about a librarian that made scurrilous use of more of his experiences particularly when that novel was by one of his close friends and confidante’s. We’ll look at that next time when we explore Kingsley Amis’s follow up to his famous novel Lucky Jim.

*Leicester College here is a fictitious Oxford University College not the tertiary education College in Leicester the city, a college library which is I am sure admirably helpful.


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“Quite simply, the sexiest librarian in all Christendom”

So we left our hero (all right then me!) with the usual thriller series cliff-hanger dilemma at the end of the previous post. Helpless in the face of an avalanche of bibliomysteries, how will he manage to convert several hundred references to books about libraries and librarians into the entertaining read that is his mission with nothing much to help him apart from a dubious sense of humour and a alarmingly short attention span.

Actually as in all those Saturday lunchtime fake peril serials dealing with this kind of problem isn’t as difficult as it sounds. For many years as a library manager I was faced at least once a year with the results of advertising for library assistants where applications can run to 3 figures so popular and broadly specified are those roles. The process for getting that mini avalanche down to maneagable proportions goes something like this;-

The first round of rejections in staff selection is easy; first to go are all the applicants who clearly were applying for anything they could find with no real attention to the title of the post or the skills it asked for, and especially those who were too lazy or stupid to bother to change the application from the previous job they applied for and so are applying to your library offering top quality customer skills, excellent communication and a range of hygiene qualifications that they are certain will interest me in offering them a career in fast food retail. Then, out go all the applications that were sent off to avoid losing unemployment benefit offering the bare minimum of information, a blank page where former employment should go and with a single sentence in the why do you want this job box. “I am keen to find work”. But not as keen as I am to hang on to my benefit! Next its all the ones who didn’t bother to use the spell checker, or who thought a handwritten application would be fine despite being in the age ubiqitous keyboards and keypads and social media but forgot that it even if it is handwritten it also had to be legible and still needed a spell checker, or Mum as it is often, more commonly, known and finally out go all the burned-out teachers, stressed-out architects and redundant senior executives all of whom are looking for a new direction in life and think libraries would be good because they like books! In fact anyone whose main motivation in applying for the job is because they like books is out. You wouldn’t take on a shop assistant because they said they liked cornflakes would you? So I applied the same ruthless approach though with different criteria obviously, to the wharehouse full of bibliomysteries. Helpfully the wonderful people at GLIS Simmons have provided brief but very helpful annotations to all of their collection which we will use as the bibliographic equivalent of the details on an applicaton form. All I need to do now is to find some pretexts, no matter how spurious or flimsy, and unrestrained by equal opportunities, to reduce the size of the book mountain.



Another sensitive and respectful use of the library profession in advertising

First of all out went all the books that were nothing to do with libraries or librarians. As the definition of bibliomystery was widely drawn to include books about books, books about reading and writers, books about booksellers, about publishers, antiquarian book dealers and even the Dead Sea Scrolls this reduced the list by a surprisingly large number. Then out went those where the link to libraries was tenuous or tangential. So, “murder victim’s girlfriend is a librarian” – gone; “murder clues found in library” – gone; “murder in a library foyer” – gone; or even more tenuous still “on the library steps” even if it is the New York Public Library – gone; “one of the characters on the hijacked bus is a librarian” – gone – well she won’t be doing much cataloguing for a while will she, and so on. It was even easier to remove books where the library link seemed almost desperate. For example “at some point in the narrative, Mrs. Mallory always winds up in a library” –good for her but still gone; or “a public typewriter in a local library is one of the clues” – definitely gone. And just because it is famous you surely wouldn’t want to keep John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People in the list for one sentence; “Smiley is called from his desk in the reading room of London Library in St. James Square where he was composing a monograph on the German baroque poet Opitz” so that’s gone as well and anyway reference to obscure German poets is just showing off.

The resulting list was now down to just under 200 titles featuring a librarian, albeit sometimes tenuously, and around 150 are set, one way or another in a library. Just over 30 stories feature college or university libraries where, most popular for nefarious activities, appear to be The Bodleian at Oxford and Harvard University Library with three citations each. Quite what Cambridge and Yale who don’t appear to feature at all have done to avoid dead bodies or murderous professors I don’t know. Perhaps they are a bit more fussy about who they let in! Another 30 or so stories are set in public libraries of which the most popular for foul deeds is New York Public Library (NYPL) which features six times and that doesn’t include that nasty incident mentioned earlier on the steps outside! NYPL also features in other novels too that don’t make the bibliomysteries collection but fortunately I just happen to have read . In a small cameo that triggers profound events, a 14 year old girl left in the NYPL to await her parents who have an appointment with a doctor to discuss her condition decides to use the library to look up some of the words used about her by the doctor and as a consequence runs away from home and inadvertently causes the death of her father as he desperately tries to bring her home, This could be the plot of an entire short story but in the context of Jeffrey Eudenide’s Greek American family saga Middlesex despite the devastating effect of the brief library interlude is almost incidental.

Overall in the bibliomysteries collection the diversity of libraries featured is admirable. There is clearly no discrimination in bibliomysteries; you can end up dead in any kind of library. There is a Buddhist library, the Hebrew University Library, cathedral and monastery libraries and even the Vatican Library. There are palace libraries, libraries in ancient Rome, libraries in private gentlemen’s clubs, a Jacobite Library, and a whaling musuem library. Who knew you needed a library about whaling and who would expect to find a dead body there? As for the librarians they appear as a victim on about 18 occasions and there are about the same number of random users also murdered in or in the vicinity of a library; the librarian is the murderer, the thief or other perpertrator of whatever crime the plot revolves around in about 10 titles and although murder is by far the most popular crime to commit in libraries there are plenty of others including stolen books, vandalised books, political skullduggery including espionage and even, sadly, accusation of child molestation and at least one library that is blown up. I do hope the current UK government isn’t reading this because that is likely to give them ideas!

As you might expect many librarians who feature in these novels are used as a convenient shorthand for sad and lonely characters but there is also a pretty diverse collection of other characterisations. As well as the inevitable “bored and boring” librarian there is at least one “virginal” librarian and there are also “seductive” librarians, “libidinous “ librarians, “philandering librarians”, “feminist “ librarians, “distraught” librarians and even one “deeply ambitious” librarian.There can’t be many of them so he’s obviously the murderer then. Oh and there is a librarian with the distinctly unlikely name of Trixie.

For some curious reason cats provide a regular theme in these, mainly US, bibliomysteries. Garrison Allen’s spinsterly heroine and her cat (called Mycroft, naturally), like Miss Marple, demonstrates just how many times the police need the help of an nosy, female, amateur investigator in small towns and Shirley Rousseau Murphy has at least eight “cat” titled mysteries where the eponymous cat is the library cat. But star billing in feline sleuthing must go to Lillian Jackson Braun who also features the word cat in the titles of all of her novels and she has written far more, in fact about 26 as far as I can see.

The librarian is often only a peripheral character in many of these books although the librarian from the Garrison Allen series deserves special mention as she is “quite simply, the sexiest librarian in all Christendom”. And whilst we are on cats and if you are a feline fan you may want to know about a ‘heart-warming’ and ‘feel-good feline biography’ that doesn’t make the bibliomysteries list which is Dewey: The Small-town Library-Cat Who Touched the World a story by Vicki Myron. It features a newly appointed town librarian in Spencer a remote farming community in Iowa, hoping to put a series of personal tragedies behind her whilst also coping with a farming community in crisis as librarians are so often called upon to do; their cataloguing and shelving skills can be of inestimable help with a jammed combine harvester. On a freezing morning she finds a kitten close to death from the cold in the library book drop. The cat survives and becomes both the symbol of and a metaphor for the town’s revival. Dewey as she was inevitably christened gets up to hilarious antics as cats do but also has a knack rather like Lassie or Skippy for knowing when humans need help. It all sounds like a script for a failed cable TV series but is apparently a true story; not only that but Dewey’s fame spread across the country and around the world but it seems to have passed me by until researching for this book and I am eternally grateful that it did. Sadly I have discovered no books about libraries featuring dogs so you will have to make do with Lassie…or Scooby Doo!

AhlbergThe collection compiled by GLIS Simmons is an amazingly impressive and varied collection of library related references and I would be very surprised if any other professions can boast such a record as the scene of, or involvement in, such a wide range of crimes. Even if there is one I would be quite astonished if anyone had bothered to try and locate and to document them in the detail that GLIS Simmons have so admirably and diligently done. Then again most other professions are thinking those librarians need to get out more. But now I understand the scope of the problem at least I can make some decisions about what I would and would not be prepared to read in the interests of producing this blog. We will make a start on looking at come of them next time.

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Never judge a book by its cover… particularly if it mentions libraries

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.

extract from"Hear It Again" by Ted Hughes in the introduction to New Library the People’s Network still available on the internet at http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/lic/newlibrary/intro.html

extract from”Hear It Again” by Ted Hughes in the introduction to New Library the People’s Network, 1998, still available on the internet.

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 .

Loafers HollowSo 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!


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“A short step from the jackboot to the book-jacket”

Having given you a break whilst I was away ( very nice thank you since you ask!) its time to conclude our look at famous librarians with an unapologetically prurient look at the the personal life of a librarian. By his own estimation Philip Larkin was no leading man summing up his appeal in one of his letters to Monica Jones. “Youth…” he exclaimed “Why didn’t I have one. I’ve always been aged 65”  sto how did someone looking like a stereotypical librarian from central casting manage to keep a string of women dancing in attendance for most of his adult life?

The courtship rituals of people in western society have been established for centuries. At a certain age we start taking an interest in other people with a view to creating some form of family unit for the purposes of companionship, procreation and mutual happiness, after, we hope a brief period of rampant sex of course. We may try a few people out for size as part of this process before we settle on a permanent lifelong partner of our dreams after finding that there wasn’t much beyond the sex or that the sex wasn’t up to much anyway. We might also when we discover that when the sex wanes we need a third party as well as the partner to get through life or we may need a couple of goes at finding the right partner when we realise that lifelong companionship with TV remote permanently attached to a barely conscious blob in on the sofa wasn’t what they were selling in all those teen magazines. Larkin’s life wasn’t at all like that containing as it did at least two life long loves co-existing uneasily in parallel, a series of affairs involving neither of these, other attempted affairs, at least one instantly regretted proposal of marriage and a number of other apparently platonc relationships with other women. And yes all this whilst a practising librarian. It is, as they say, complicated so pay attention.

You too can folloe in larkin's footsteps. Its a lot easier than tracking his love life

You too can follow in Larkin’s footsteps. Its a lot easier than tracking his love life

After some frustrating and humiliating experiences at Oxford Larkin found his first real relationship with one of his younger borrowers at Wellington Library, Ruth Bowman to whom he became very close and eventually fell in love. Larkin and Ruth were a typical courting couple sharing lengthy discussions about their range of common interests as well as meals, holidays and of course sex. In private though Larkin was already falling prey to the indecision and anxiety that was to come to characterise his life Larkin confided his fears that this developing relationship might clip his wings especially as in the same letter he talked through the pros and cons of trying to get one of Ruth’s friends into bed. Despite all of his vacillation and his private priapic fantansies, when he went to Leicester Larkin remained very close to Ruth despite the fact that she was now studying in London. His confused emotions did not prevent Larkin becoming engaged to Ruth though it was on the clear understanding that it would not necessarily lead to marriage straight away or indeed any time soon thank you very much. Part of this confusion was because, engagement notwithstanding, he was now developing an interest in another woman, Monica Jones a lecturer at Leicester University. He found an intellectual relationship with Monica that he could never share with Ruth but he was not brave enough to end his relationship with her. Then, just as Ruth moved to be nearer Larkin, Larkin like many men faced with a difficult choice between women decided that the most adult and honourable way to solve the problem was to run away, to Belfast. As always of course it only made matters worse. Realising the enormity of the implications of his engagement he withdrew the offer by letter, the contemporary equivalent of dumping someone by text message. Ruth decided that she had enough of his ambivalent attitude to her, returned the ring and got on with her life.

In Belfast, free of the suffocating committment to Ruth, Larkin still had the consolation of a developing relationship with Monica Jones. The fact that she was still in Leicester, rather than being a barrier to a successful relationship as it would be for many of us, was just how Larkin liked it and would continue to like it for the rest of his life and he found himself attracted to a completely new cast of women in Belfast. There were several women colleagues who seemed to welcome him if for no other reason than he was the only presentable male on the staff. Larkin also found their company enjoyable and became particularly close to Winifred Arnott alhough, or perhaps because, she was already in a relationship with someone else to whom she eventually became engaged making her unavailable. This didn’t stop Larkin dropping heavy hints about his ambitions towards her. Whilst this relationship was flourishing Larkin still continued to visit Monica in Leicester who may or may not have been aware of his interest in Winfred and as Monica did visit Northern Ireland to spend time with Larkin as far as she was concerned this confirmed that she had a particular place in his affections.

Larkin’s idea of such a commitment was to begin an affair with another woman, Patsy Strang, undeterred by the fact that she was the wife of one of his close friends. This was apparently a passionate affair and Patsy did offer to leave her husband and support Larkin whilst he wrote but again Larkin found the idea of commitment a bit tricky. So just to recap then in case this is getting a bit confusing and before we move on; Ruth, to whom he became engaged and then broke it off, has gone and so too has her best friend Jane whom I mentioned Larkin also attempted to bed, but Monica, who was around at the same time as Ruth, is still there and under the impression that she is the only one in his affections, but unfortunately there is now also Winifred in Belfast who has been joined by Patsy as well. Oh and I almost forgot Larkin has also started another entirely platonic relationship with another married friend from Belfast, Judy Egerton, with whom he corresponded very candidly for the rest of his life. Its complicated isn’t it but I hope you are keeping up because there is still more to come. If we had the space we could do one of those maps of the country with brightly coloured pins showing the location of the women and sweeping arrows showing the complex relationships between them all as newspapers do when they try to illuminate one of their “web of deceit” stories, or track the route of your flight home compared to that of your luggage! But we haven’t the space or the time so you will just have to pay attention.

Humble Boy Poster

Humble Boy Poster

Eventually this potentially tricky situation with various women was resolved by the simple expedient of Winfred marrying her fiancee and Patsy, despite her offer to Larkin, following her husband to Newcastle. Suddenly left with only the ever persistent and astonishingly faithful Monica still hanging in there Larkin now in his 30’s thought that Monica might be a good bet for settling down so of course it was also time then to meet yet another colleague to whom he is irresistably attracted and who appears to reciprocate his feelings. I told you to pay attention.

Maeve Brennan had worked with Larkin for five years at Hull before they started to become close and she soon became a serious rival to Monica. Part of her mystique was that as a fervent Roman Catholic she was firmly against sex before marriage which must have been some kind of new challenge to Larkin for whom at times sex seemed the only reason for a relationship. Once Larkin and Maeve became close for the rest of his life Monica and Maeve co-existed in full knowledge of each others existence and they ebbed and flowed for supremacy in Larkin’s affection showing remarkable loyalty in the face of both his frequent displays of cruelty and neglect to both of them and his all consuming selfishness towards both. And in the face of his terminal inability to choose between them. Eventually after a break in their relationship Maeve did sleep with Larkin and he professed his passionate love for her even though he had been telling Monica that the relationship was over.

Larkin’s letters to Monica Jones provided a fascinating glimpse of the emotional contortions he appears to have gone through during this period of his life. Maeve Brennan appears merely as “Ms Brennan” in a 1955 letter but in February 1962 her presence in Larkin’s life has clearly upset Monica and he attempts to deflect any suggestion of a close relationship referring to her dismissively as “old Charity Boots”. Eventually however he does have to go into full damage limitation mode in 1964 when Monica discovers his affair and he has to grovelling admit how ashamed he is of the pain he has caused her as he attempts to expiate his guilty admitting he is“infantile & cowardly and selfish” and his inability to settle for one woman or the other “perhaps too fond of you perhaps not fond enough of her perhaps just too cowardly all round”. Unfortunately this awareness isn’t enough to prevent Larkin thinking that it is perfectly all right then to share with Monica his feelings for Maeve and using her as if she was just a close mate and not as he so frequently claims something significantly more. If you or I were having an affair, even if our regular partner were aware of it, we might well avoid any mention of the third party in letters home but not Larkin. In one letter he shares with Monica how upset Maeve gets when he is away on holiday with Monica, presumably expecting her to be understanding and sympathetic. It is perhaps as well that this was done by letter because if he had done it face to face across the dining table for example he may well have been surprised at how painful it can be when both hands have been pinned to the table by kitchen knives and your partner is attacking your head with a blunt instrument. I am sure she was just as understanding when Larkin explains how he tries hard to keep the balance between the two of them in his life. I am sure she found that very comforting and must have been even more touched when he adds that he recognises the sacrifice she has made for him and how lucky he is that she has not “frogmarched him to the altar”.

Perhaps her forbearance wasn’t quite as noble as it seems as their sex life appears to have been less than wonderful not helped by Larkin’s own admission of his rather inept lovemaking which gets more than a couple of mentions in his letters. Despite my best intentions to stick to library matters for some reason I found myself drawn to his letter of 9 August 1958 as I caught sight of the sentence beginning “I’m sorry our lovemaking fizzled out in Devon, as you rightly noticed” and he continues “And of course qualify it how I may I am not a highly sexed person or if I am not in a way that demand constant physical intercourse with other people. I tire very easily & and always more prepared for sex in the morning than at night.” Elsewhere he laments their “love making that hadn’t been concluded”. Adding intriguingly “I was a fool to bring those pants – I can’t think where to hide them – the cleaner will think I am robbing clothes lines.” Yes I know this is book is supposed to about libraries and librarians but I am trying to show how interesting librarians can really be so bear with me here.

Perhaps also there is a hint that Larkin was intimidated by the women in his life and that would explain why each of them was reduced in correspondence to a cuddly pet name; Monica was a rabbit and habitually addressed as “bun” in his letters, Maeve became “Mouse” a name Larkin borrowed from her previous relationship, Ruth had been a cat and Patsy a honey bear. A desire for life in a pet shop was clearly buried somewhere deep in his subconscious.

So the two women in his life coexisted uncomfortably for several years each striving for ascendancy but each at least aware of who and what the competition was. It would have been fascinating to be there when they each discovered that despite all of this; the intimate attentions of two women and his enjoyment of it; the pain he clearly realised he was inflicting on each of them; his self loathing guilt about this and his love hate relationship with sex, it hadn’t prevent him from beginning a deliberately planned and carefully conducted affair Betty Mackreth a relationship about which Maeve and Monica were blissfully unaware. Unlike Orson Welles’s Third Man the third woman was not skulking in a dark alleyway to avoid detection but right there in plain view in the office next to him every working day. Betty was his Secretary of the past 17 years and no one knew about Larkin and Betty until Andrew Motion’s autobiography of Larkin several years after Larkin’s death. You see I told you it would get more complicated.

Ben Brown’s play Larkin with Women tells the story of these relationships much better than I ever could and so if you want to follow up this intriguing menage then you might like to track down a copy of his play or find a revival when one comes along. In her very even-handed and generous review of Larkin with Women Maeve Brennan confirms that the play is a pretty good reconstruction of at least parts of those relationships although she wished that the author had shown “more of the tenderness and vulnerability which were present in such good measure in the man I knew”. Nor did she recognise the Larkin that that emerged after his death.
After his death of course and the subsequent biography and release of some of his letters Larkin’s reputation as the quiet avuncular poetic genius took quite a battering with accusations variously of racism, misyogny, misanthropy, a love of pornography and the frequent examples in his letters of what he called his “boiling rages” which led him to say of his Deputy that he would like to “bash his head in” or refer to his librarian colleagues at their annual conference as ”jolly ladies with hearing aids, awful seedy looking men with side whiskers and wet teeth who look as if they ought to be employed ghosting hack biographies of royal mistresses in the B.M., and thin young men in new chocolate brown suits & Brylcreem who resemble engineering apprentices.” Larkin had died long before I reached the same level as he did and earned the right to attend those same conferences and of course times change. For a start no-one still uses Brylcreem, but, actually, thinking about it apart from that, they hadn’t changed much. I don’t want to dwell on all that stuff, though, as it has been well documented elsewhere but I did want to mention just one critical essay about the revelations from someone who I would have thought knew better.

Alan Bennett gave voice to his feelings on the posthumous relevations in his 1993 review of Larkin’s biography in the London Review of Books. In the review entitled Alas Deceived. Bennett expresses his “disappointment” following the relevations saying that he feels he has lost a friend even though he never knew Larkin and although he is dispassionate enough to acknowledge that Larkin’s work just about emerges unscathed from its association with such a perverse character Larkin himself and his chosen professions don’t fare quite so well. Bennett is convinced that Larkin was always tarred with the brush of his father’s Nazi sympathies  but youcan’t help thinking he goes just a little too far when he spitefully suggests that his decision to go into libraries was an obvious one because “if you cannot be a gauletier then a librarian’s the next best thing“, adding just to sure you get his meaning that “It’s a short step from the jackboot to the book-jacket.” Which is a bit harsh really and as far as I can recall not even academically accurate. Although I have only a hazy recollection of the various projects and other tests that were required to achieve my professional accreditation as a librarian I am pretty sure I would vividly remember the practical exam in Formation Goosestepping, for the boots if nothing else.

When he died in 1984 the shy, stammering unprepossessing librarian had three women all of whom shared some of Larkin’s affection, all aware of his inadequacies, his neuroses and his utter selfishness and his frequent cruelty, all painfully aware that as Monica Jones put it they would never be able to make him want them enough, but all totally devoted to him. Not bad for a librarian who could write a bit of poetry as well. It is perhaps all best summed up by the word Monica speaks to Larkin in Brown’s play, as he is dying “Oh well. I guess you must have some redeeming qualities. Otherwise we wouldn’t stick by you, would we?”

And that concludes our look at all those famous people who you never knew were librarians together with our look at library history we have a common base from which we can now explore the many incidents of libraries and librarians on the world of literature, film and television and even music. All that will be coming up in future posts.

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