Tag Archives: books about libraries

Please, I want to be a librarian

Apologies for the extended break since the last post. Although I had intended to take a break over Christmas I hadn’t factored in getting a flu virus that took me out for about 5 weeks including a rather slow recovery period. So quickly to recap where we were we were exploring depictions of librarians in comic book and graphic fiction and there was just one more post to complete that section of the blog so here it is.

night-bookmobile003To those of us in the profession and indeed to many of our customers librarians are wonderfully knowledgeable, always helpful, constantly dedicated and sincerely considerate, quick to help and slow to anger and in short collectively excellent candidates for the Birthday Honours list if not the Nobel Peace Prize. Surprisingly though there are others with a rather different view otherwise how do we explain all those negative and cruel portrayals in popular fiction without which this blog would have been finished long ago and how indeed to explain the librarian who will close our look at librarians in graphic and fantasy fiction; a very odd and to my mind quite disturbing character who featured in a serialised graphic strip written by author and artist Audrey Niffenegger. Audrey Niffenegger has previous when it comes to portraying librarians in fiction as we shall see when shortly we meet her naked librarian but first, as I said something to my mind at least, a lot more disturbing.

After cutting her teeth with a librarian as a character in her best-selling novel The Time Traveller’s Wife which we will return to later  Audrey Niffenegger followed it up with a graphic short story serialised in the Guardian newspaper entitled The Night Bookmobile. The story features a young woman, Alexandra, who after a row with her boyfriend is out walking the streets at 4am when she comes across a mobile library as you do and without really stopping to consider what a mobile library is doing out at four in the morning outside Wrigley’s Field in Chicago, especially one with I Shot the Sherriff by Bob Marley playing loudly through the open door. Still, she hops on board and of course her life changes completely from then onwards. She is welcomed by an older man, who has a superficially avuncular appearance that seems to hide something more sinister and you expect him to say “come in my dear” and quietly close the door behind her and reach for the  rubber gloves and hypodermic, but no he’s a librarian so obviously he invites her to look at the collection because this is a mobile library and he is Mr Openshaw, the librarian who has clearly been drawn and conceived to be played by John Malkovich in the eventual film.

bookmobileAlexandra whom you will recall was not phased in the slightest by finding a random mobile library in the early hours eventually has her suspicions raised when she notices that many of the books have stamps from other public libraries leading her to suspect that Mr Openshaw has been stealing them but when she discovers one of her own diaries on the shelf the librarian explains.

They are all yours. The collection consists of all the books you’ve ever read. We also have all the periodicals and ephemera – cereal boxes and such…”

And she discovers he is right. The library also includes books she never finished that contain blank pages after the point where she abandoned the book and Mr Openshaw, it appears, is her personal librarian but before he can explain more it is closing time and you know how strict libraries and librarians are about that so now thoroughly rattled by meeting someone who seems to know more about her own life than she does and meticulously stores it all in his mobile library Alexandra is rudely turfed out into the deserted streets all alone without even the offer of a lift home.

Obviously poor Alexandra is a bit disturbed by this encounter and had it been you or I we would probably be straight down the nearest police station first thing in the morning reporting a serious case of stalking but not Alexandra. No she starts looking for the Night Bookmobile every night after that becoming just a little obsessed with it and at the same time becoming withdrawn, living on her own and only interested in her books and in reading seeming to want to bury herself in her past. It was as though I had dreamt the perfect lover, who vanished as I woke, leaving me pining and surly”.  She spends weeks going out looking for the Night Bookmobile again but it isn’t there of course and it doesn’t re-appear for another nine years. night-bookmobile001When the Night Bookmobile does eventually re-appear Mr Openshaw is still there obviously with the usual excuses “Oh dear I do usually get around a bit faster than that I’m afraid there have been a shortage of staff, budget cuts you know.” She is delighted to meet him again and asks to become his assistant but the offer is rejected forcing Alexandra to do the next best thing which is not to hit the prosecco, emigrate or get some therapy instead she becomes a real life librarian with a successful career rising to become a Library Director by the time she finds Mr Openshaw again 12 years later.

Again Alexandra is rebuffed when she asks to join him as librarian, the rules won’t allow it apparently and he adds sadly but ominously “You don’t know what you are asking.” But Alexandra does and that evening alone in her flat surrounded by books she takes the ultimate step to achieve her ambition. What follows is a particularly bizarre episode which I am not sure I followed exactly or perhaps I missed an instalment which explained it all but Alexandra wakes in a great celestial library that looks uncannily like the British Museum Reading Room where Mr Openshaw finally hires her as a librarian. As a story about obsession and loneliness as well as about the relationship we have with books and reading it is certainly a refreshing change from all the other cosy stuff about libraries and librarians but I found it an uncomfortably sad and disturbing story and I don’t do ghost or horror stories anyway, not since being scared witless by Quatermass on the television when I was very young and  impressionable.

night-bookmobile002The other thing that disturbed me was the slightly angular full face drawings of Alexandra until I worked out that they bear an uncanny resemblance to the author herself and then read the notes at the back of book which reveal that the story was indeed based in part on her dreams. It is we are told the first instalment of a longer story so we shall see how the story unfolds. So far it hasn’t.

As I said at the outset Audrey Niffenegger has a record of portraying librarisn in her fiction.  Henry Detamble is one of the protagonists in her very successful novel The Time Traveller’s Wife. Henry is a librarian who for no obvious reasons suddenly goes time travelling, a pastime that his long suffering wife is able to endure but not enjoy herself which is perhaps as well because he turns up in awkward places in his own past or future. This would be entirely implausible of course but regular followesr of the blog will know that Terry Pratchett and the Librarian of the Unseen University have introduced us to he bookworm holes in space where  “all libraries everywhere are connected by the bookworm holes in space created by space time distortion found around any large collection of books (see previous post – October 20, 2016 ) and through which librarians can travel and of course given Henry’s profession it all makes sense. Well most of it anyway. I am not sure that the Head Librarian from the Unseen University has ever been found naked in a field owned by his wife’s parents especially having travelled back to the past when his wife was only six at the time and he’s in his 40’s. There’s never an easy explanation for a stark naked man at the house of a six year old girl and if you are spotted it won’t help to explain to a very angry and protective father’s that you have gone back in time and will one day marry his daughter and so bringing in the bookworm holes in space probably won’t help much either.

So a naked librarian and the bookworm holes in space seems as good a time as any to close this short section of the blog that looked at comic book and graphic book portrayals of librarians. If you thought some of this was odd well join me again soon because the next section bizarrely is all about libraries and librarians in songs with contributions from almost all genres, from The Beach Boys through Jimmy Buffet to musical theatre. I am still undecided about whether to include Frank Zappa and his sons library card; its wierd but not as wierd as Mr Openshaw and his Night Bookmobile

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Tweed skirt and gun

Last time we discovered how handy librarians might be at protecting themselves and their work if called upon. The heroic and resourceful librarians of The Edge Chronicles with their consummate skill in swordplay and hand to hand combat offer the kind of cautionary tale that should be compulsory reading for all new government ministers with responsibility for libraries so that they understand the extraordinary power of librarians and the terrible retribution they can wreak if they are attacked with malicious intent. Then again most ministers are probably complacent enough to laugh off the idea of a band of paramilitary librarians as just fantasy from some fictional other world; what they might be less blasé about is the fact that the warrior librarians have a rather more realistic looking c21st counterpart.

library-war-manga2When I first came across the name Library War as part of my research I entertained all too brief images of some mighty international battle between the great libraries of the world over who has the oldest Shakespeare Folio or the rarest Gutenberg Bible and then my mind drifted and I though it sounds like a great idea for a more high-minded version of those vapid, life draining Saturday evening reality TV shows that invite members of the public desperate for TV exposure to make fools of themselves in the name of entertainment; the modern version of bear-baiting. The show would have three distinct phases to test all aspects of skill a bit like the Krypton Factor. Teams of librarians from all over the country will be put through their paces first answering questions about their collection; do they know their Gone Girl from Gone with the Wind or The Da Vinci Code from The Highway Code; then the numerical challenge to see who can construct the longest and most convoluted classification number for obscure books on astrophysics so that no one can find them on the shelves and finally their physical strength and agility is tested, taking a wonky trolley of newly returned Mills and Boon and Nora Roberts romances and Wilbur Smith adventures up a steep slippery slope, across a lake avoiding the giant swinging inflatable Finance Directors hoping to save a few bob by dumping them in it, and then the supreme challenge, running the gauntlet of dozens of older borrowers who have spent the past week locked in a secret location away from all reading material and are now desperate for a romance or thriller fix. The winner is the librarian who gets to the end of the assault course with most books still on their trolley or if there aren’t any left with fewest serious injuries. …Sorry got carried away there and anyway Library War isn’t anything like that.

Library War(Toshokan Sensō in Japanese) is a Japanese light books series (books aimed at young adults) and manga comic book and it together with its later spin-off TV series called Library Wars is set in the not too distant future of 2019 where there is a group of armed and trained paramilitary librarians dedicated to the protection of libraries, information and the freedom to use them which isn’t quite as unlikely at the moment as there actually being any libraries left  in 2019 to protect but let’s leave that for the time being.

Right - which of you sent me this demand for an overdue book

Right – which of you sent me this demand for an overdue book

Library Wars, because we will concentrate on the TV series which is more easily accessible than the light novels or manga comics, is as I said set in the not too distant future and is a fantasy so it’s not real, well not yet anyway. The Government, in this case a fictional Japanese government, has decided that the explosion of easily available information has become a threat to a stable society, which as usual is a euphemism for the rich and powerful ruling elite, and has introduced draconian new laws that restrict access to information that they feel is undesirable for ordinary people to get their hands on. They have also created a new government department, The Media Betterment Committee, to manage access to government approved information and to remove critical material and punish those using or protecting it; the job that the The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph  usually do here in the UK. They also have agents decked out to look Gestapo-menacing who are sent out to track down and close down any sources of uncontrolled information by any means necessary.   For many local authorities and their librarians however this is in direct conflict with the Freedom of Library Law that outlaws censorship of any kind and they want to uphold that freedom. Yes local authorities wanting to support freedom of information, I told you it’s not real. The premise however is based on an actual real life Statement on Intellectual Freedom in Libraries that is as far as I can see part of the Japanese Constitution and has been since 1954. Many countries and indeed The International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), a sort of FIFA for libraries but without all the dodgy deals with shady characters and the secret bank accounts, have such statements but as far as I can see Japan’s is the only one that includes as one of its tenets to actively oppose censorship if it is imposed. This is used in the stories as the basis for the creation of local armies of armed “book soldiers” who comprise the Library Defence Force to fight the government’s attempts at censorship and the agents of the Media Betterment Committee.

librarywarsWith the wonderful attention to detail that these science fantasy stories inspire the LDF has not only its own insignia which is oddly and for no immediately apparent reason other than it was the favourite flower of the commander’s late wife, the German Chamomile, but also a proper hierarchy of military ranks just like a real army. These include Library Clerks 1st, 2nd and 3rd Class, Librarians with three similar grades and finally Supervising Librarians with at the highest rank Supervising Librarian Special Class. So nothing like an army really more like a real library where grades and titles for years were ridiculously tautological signifiers of importance, seniority and status producing such meaningless but genuine titles as Deputy Under-Assistant Librarian (Periodicals)! At the top of this hierarchy of supposedly military strength is not, as you might imagine, the fighters but the Administration Department responsible for HR, budgeting and presumably Health and Safety so just like real libraries then. So whenever a library (and there are still real librarians in this mythical future by the way just getting on with cataloguing or whatever librarians get up to in the C21st) is threatened by the Media Betterment Committee the Library Defence Force spring into action although they are constrained by rules about what they can and cannot do and where they can and cannot go they are after all they are librarians and  librarians must play fair.

But of course all of this serious stuff about censorship and freedom means nothing without human interest which is provided by the ensemble cast of library soldiers who feature in the books and TV anime series led by young female trainee soldier, Iku Kasahara and her stern instructor Atsushi Dojo. He doesn’t rate his new recruit much; he thinks she is ill prepared and out of her depth and so he gives her a hard time and as she makes mistakes he gets on her back and she gets all upset. Of course you all know how this mismatched-odd-couple-who-can’t-stand-each-other-at-the-start scenario is going to end up and it does. But there are lots of gun battles too just to try and keep all the blokes interested as well.

It is probably a bit unlikely that in the c21st librarians will have to take to the barricades and weapons to defend libraries and freedom of information but just in case I intend to register the copyright for a couple of defiant T-shirt slogans. One features a bespectacled librarian in the turret of an armoured vehicle with the slogan I swapped my tank top for a tank and in a witty play on the old tweed skirt and bun stereotype a matronly librarian with an AK-47 acros her chest and the sloga Tweed skirts and gun. I am sure readers can do much better than that.

And of course before I finish I should wish all of who you have again persevered with all this drivel a Very Merry Christmas and a Very Happy New Year and I will see you after the festivities I hope.

santa

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Librarians on the Edge

If the Librarian of the Unseen University, whom we met last time in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is the best known librarian in fantasy fiction he is also unique not just because he is the only librarian with arms that reach the floor, eats only bananas and peanuts and is in short an irascible, bad tempered orangutan but also because apart from the odd catastrophe caused by random outbursts of malevolent magic he is a librarian with no immediately obvious predators and sufficient strength to see them off if there were. Other librarians are not so fortunate. Elsewhere librarians may be slightly greater in number but those numbers are persecuted by ruthless and merciless predators determined to drive them to extinction forcing those remaining to find sanctuary wherever they can but we don’t have time to talk about the real world of local council budget cuts as this week we are talking about the fantasy world of the Edge; on the other hand the similarities are remarkable.

The first of the Edge Chronicles featuring the Knight Librarians

The first of the Edge Chronicles featuring the Knight Librarians

The Edge not unlike Discworld is a huge chunk of rock floating in space and again like Discworld has so far managed to remain undetected by those offensive creatures on Earth and so spared the fly-tipping of their malfunctioning space probes. The Edge is also the setting for The Edge Chronicles[1], the marvellous fantasy creation of Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell which despite a target audience of pre and young teens are a bit less flippant than the irreverently comic tone of Terry Pratchett’s novels. The dangers to which the inhabitants of the Edge are exposed are considerably greater than on Discworld. The Gloamglozer, Rock Demons, Hoverworms, Muglumps and a variety of vindictive gnomes and trolls are amongst many lurking terrors that are to be avoided at all costs as are the most frightening of them all the dreaded Shrykes, who instil the same cocktail of terror and loathing achieved only in our own world by the Gestapo, The Spanish Inquisition and for at least half the world population apparently, Marmite.

In the world of the American fantasy comic the world would be protected from those terrors by an army of superhuman mutant heroes able to destroy any threat to civilization when their awesome supernatural strength, agility, speed  or weapons grade martial arts skills are automatically activated as a soon as they slip into a garish lycra outfit. In The Edge this task is delegated to librarians. But the people of The Edge needn’t worry because these are not just any librarians, these are Knight Librarians; the authors clearly attracted by the comic dissonance of a name that has the same oxymoronic plausibly as poet-footballer, ballet dancer-accountant, or philanthropist-banker.

Part of The Edge is being destroyed by a deadly stone sickness and the Librarians are part of an alliance with The Guardians of the Night (pay attention because there is a lot of this to take in) to try and save their world.  Unfortunately tactics were never a librarian’s strong point and whilst they researched the problem collated findings and called meetings to agree solutions the rest of the Guardians led by the unscrupulous and ruthless “evil usurper” Vox Verlix decide it is a simpler solution to blame the librarians and drive them into exile.  Vox Verlix appears to be an early prototype for the Chair of the most current council councils with a remit to destroy libraries but whereas the Chair has strictly limited legal powers Vox Verlix maintains an army of goblin mercenaries solely for the purpose of hunting down Librarians. The forces of darkness, like some local councillors, fear scholarship and hate those who promote it and protect the fruits of its research, which pretty much means The Librarians. As Vox Verlix says in his best Ernst Blofeld voice “That’ll show those accursed librarian knights … they think they are so clever with their books and learning.”

The Great Storm Chamber Library - award winning and innovative... and damp

The Great Storm Chamber Library – award winning and innovative… and damp

Outmanoeuvred by The Guardians of the Night the hunted and persecuted librarians have been driven into exile in the Great Storm Chamber Library otherwise known as an underground sewer that serves Undertown one of the tougher neighbourhoods of The Edge; a bit like Victorian Whitechapel but not quite so safe. In the Great Storm Chamber Library it is a constant battle to keep out the rainwater and damp as it seeps down the walls playing havoc with the lighting, the books and the arthritis of older librarians. Older librarians in theb real world will instantly recognise the similarity with many early Polytechnic libraries which were housed in old factories, converted Nissan huts or leaky extensions to faded stately homes; public librarians will recognise this as a description of any newly built library described as innovative, award winning or ground breaking.

In the Great Storm Library the apprentice Librarians continue to look for a solution to the stone sickness studying the great barkwood scrolls of the Library  each housed in large and unwieldy wooden lecterns suspended by what appear to be large helium balloons left over from someone’s birthday party presumably to protect them from the damp floor. When they are consider ready the apprentice librarians make the next stage of their development. They are sent off on a journey to the Librarians’ Academy at Lake Landing in the Freeglades in the heart of the Deepwoods where they can and seek more solutions and if they are successful become fully fledged Knight Librarians. The delightfully sounding names of course give you no clue to the insurmountable obstacles that have to be overcome before they can achieve their goal. They are confronted at every turn not only by that menagerie of fantastically deadly creatures and shadowed everywhere by Guardian spies but more dangerous of all they have to avoid those fearsome menacing and deadly Shrykes. Shrykes are six foot tall birds of prey in full body armour with a huge, vicious raptor beak and 8” talons as sharp as stilettos and wielding a sharp and very deadly weapon. So they are best avoided ; if it helps try to imagine the bloodthirsty and sadistic big brother of the Gruffalo. Shrykes combine the murderous brutality of the Stasi with a merciless slave trade business and a ruthless extortion racket that would make a Mafiosi smile in admiration thanks to their control of the only route across the dreaded Mire and which will be familiar to travellers across the Severn Crossing or the M6 toll.

edge-shrykes

Shrykes – don’t be fooled by their appearance; they are much more evil than they look

Even worse it turns out that Vox Verlix was a pussycat compared to Orbix Xaxis who overthrows him (I told you there was lot to keep up with).  Orbix Xaxis harboured a pathological hatred of librarians in fact he hated them so much that he simply slaughtered as many as he could using his favourite method of lowering them in a cage to let the Rock Demons tear them apart which might cause real world librarians to reflect on just what unseen and long lasting psychological damage they might be inflicting on young readers when they give them a hard time for putting the books back in the wrong place. But the result is that last stage of the Librarian qualification is a bit like sitting your Finals but with a sword and hunted by a pack of psychopathic monsters.

So it’s a good job that the young trainees have spent their time in the Great Storm Library developing the skills and knowledge needed for such an ordeal giving them a firm grounding in the librarian martial arts of classification, cataloguing and putting the books in order as well as the rudiments of hand to hand combat and piloting skyships, skills that could usefully be added to the real world librarians’ curriculum just in case it ever comes to a last ditch defence of The Last British Library which it might[2]

Rook Barkwater - don't be fooled by his appearance - he's a Librarian

Rook Barkwater – don’t be fooled by his appearance – he’s a Librarian

The young librarian hero of this strand of The Edge Chronicles is Rook Barkwater and of course the novice Knight Librarian succeeds even if like many of us who became chief librarians he succeeds without really understanding how it happened. Unlike the rest of us in the real world however young Rook even gets to rescue a maiden in distress and he gets to utter the immortal words after the style of the great super heroes “I am a knight librarian I’ve come to rescue you.” Despite the fact that she has been captured by and is guarded by those terrible Shrykes he surprisingly gets a positive response and not as you might imagine a dismissive  “Thanks but at the moment I am trapped in a dungeon guarded by birds the size of a grizzly bear with 8” talons and I’m waiting for a real superhero in a tight lycra outfit to help me. I’ll call you when my books are due back.”

 

[1] I am eternally grateful to my former colleague Sandy Forster who brought The Edge Chronicles to my attention

[2] It is not surprising that Chris Riddell as the current Children’s Laureate has made the defence of libraries and in particular school libraries, one of the major themes of his tenure. He is the illustrator of The Edge Chronicles and obviously of all the illustrations I have taken the liberty of including here.

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The bookworm holes in space

There is no British equivalent of closet librarian superhero Batgirl and it is perhaps just as well. A mysterious spaceship depositing an alien baby in a Midwestern town like Smallville might work as a backstory but substitute a Pennine village like Ramsbottom and the effect is not quite the same. It has also spared us British superhero librarian backstories that might have run like this

It had already been a bad day for Kevin. The Chief Librarian was on his back because he was behind with the cataloguing, three old ladies had been very abusive about the lack of copies of Game of Thrones and as he stepped out of the local library his mother had rung and once again left him feeling inadequate. It was bad enough that his girlfriend had refused to come back to his flat again until he cleaned up a kitchen she said resembled a grease covered scrapyard which explained the box of powerful household cleaner now clutched to his chest under his coat because the thunder that had been rumbling all afternoon had finally brought the threatened torrential rain. Just as he wondered how his day could get worse he lost his footing on the pavement that now resembled a shallow lake and was forced to steady himself against the school railings just as the first bolt of lightning sent 30,00 volts of explosive energy through the evening sky, through the school railings and right through Kevin’s body. Kevin was left semi-conscious in a pool of water as the contents of the cleaning product seeped into the water leaving him lying in a pool of liquid detergent. At least that was the story that Flash would always tell when asked to explain his mysterious sudden appearance as a crusading superhero committed to battling the forces of darkness and stubborn household grime.

Desperate Dan

Desperate Dan

Superman

Superman

No there has there never been a comparable British comic industry to rival the American fantasy experience of DC and Marvel Comics; the Beano and Dandy may be iconic comics but Desperate Dan and Minnie the Minx are unlikely to be confused with Superman or Harley Quinn and Roy of the Rovers may be a superhero for snatching vistory from the jaws of defeat with his spectacular winning goals but he’s never going to save the world especially when he comes up against a Lex Luthor XI.

The British have fared better though at fantasy literature US although unsurprisingly there is, no mention of libraries or librarians in Lord of the Rings; Hobbiton doesn’t appear to have a library but then it doesn’t appear to have a pub or a post office either but maybe Hobbits live simpler lives than we do or have already been badly affected by Middle Earth County Council cuts, or perhaps once again I am just missing the point! Apart from one brief visit there isn’t much of a library in Harry Potter either despite being set in a school but then when did kids in secondary education ever use the library apart from for detentions and rainy lunchbreaks. In fact the only uses of the school library I can recall are finding endless books on Gladstone when I had to do an essay on Disraeli and having my Green Lantern DC Comic confiscated as it was not suitable reading material for a sixth form student in a Grammar School; and I never got it back did I Miss Smith?!

Sir Terry Pratchett the presiding genius who created Discworld and much much more

Sir Terry Pratchett the presiding genius who created Discworld and much much more

Discworld on the other hand not only has its own university but it features a library and librarian who makes frequent cameo appearances throughout the fantasy world created by the genius of Terry Pratchett. For those of you unfamiliar with Discworld, maybe you have been trapped for some time in a parallel universe, following the US Presidential race for example you  may need to know Discworld is as its name implies an entirely flat disc-shaped world supported on the backs of four elephants themselves supported on the back of “Great Atuin the star turtle shell …with eyes like ancient seas and that The Unseen University is the Disc’s premier college of magic so not one to bother with on young Charlie or Amelia’s UCAS forms then.

Obviously because it is a college of magic the Library and the Unseen University is not like any public library you may be familiar with, partly because unlike your local library it’s still open, partly because  the Library is probably the only one in the universe that has Mobius shelves which the pedants and quiz nerds will know, go on forever but mainly because the library comprises mostly books of spells or grimoire as they are known in the trade and they are much more violent than your average Lee Childs novel.

The novel in which we are introduced to the Head librarian and the perils of looking aftre grimoire

The novel in which we are introduced to the Head librarian and the perils of looking aftre grimoire

The Library and the Head Librarian appear for the first time in the novel The Light Fantastic in a story that demonstrates just how dangerous magic libraries can be to the unwary librarian.  After a lifetime in libraries I can say with some confidence that libraries are at the “more risk free than average” end of the health and safety industry continuum; a pulled thread on a pair of trousers, a phantom case of RSI and the occasional dust originated sneeze are about all the hazards with which I can recall dealing . It’s not like that in the Unseen University Library. Librarians sensibly like to put all the books on the same subject together to help their customers but in a library of grimoire this is a lot less sensible than putting lots of cans of petrol near an open furnace.  Grimoire “are deadly”; they not only read themselves but also write themselves and have been known to swallow up readers who then spend the rest of their life as an extra appendix to the volume. When too many of them are put too closely together their magic can leak and cause “randomized magic with a mind of its own” and if the Librarian is careless enough to let a Critical Mass build up then “a flock of thesauri” tear themselves from their shelves and hurl themselves at any passing reader, books shred their own bindings and begin to fight amongst themselves. The worst books are chained to the shelves not as you were taught to prevent theft but to prevent flight and at least one grimoire is so powerful that is bound closed with chains designed by “someone who had spent most of his life making training harnesses for elephants”[2]

When the library first appears and before we have even met our Head Librarian we discover just how dangerous the role of Librarian is. A fireball of elemental magic has drifted through part of the Library as it always seems to do when you are least expecting it “reassembling the possibility particles of everything in its path”, not unlike our annual experience of wave after wave of bewildered new students forced to be introduced to their university library before they have even managed to get pissed or laid for the first time. Part of the floor of the Library of the Unseen University has been transformed into small newts, some of the books appear to have become “pineapple custard[3]”, and “several of the wizards later swore that the sad looking orang-utan sitting in the middle of the floor looked very much like the formerly human Head Librarian”. When we do eventually meet the

Unseen University Head Librarian - like the rest of us paid peanuts

Unseen University Head Librarian – like most librarians – paid peanuts

Librarian he has hands like a leather glove, the only noise he makes as he attempts to talk comes out as “Ook” and he has developed a strong preference for bananas and a liking for payment in bags of peanuts. In a later novel he is described as “a small pot-bellied man with extremely long arms and a size 12 skin in a size 8 body”[4] and I am almost certain I worked with someone fitting that description earlier in my career. Actually on second thoughts it probably was me earlier in my career.

You would think that in a University of Magic it would be a simple matter to return the Librarian to his former incarnation and indeed it may well be but as we discover in a later novels[5] the Librarian is the one resisting this having discovered that life as an orang-utan is infinitely preferably to that of a human and that having seen humanity “not a day goes by without thanking the magical accident that moved him a few little genes away from it”. All those tricky philosophical questions pondered by humanity have now “resolved themselves into wondering where the next banana was coming from” and when pondering the unfathomable antics of humans he has reached the conclusion that “the human mind was a deep and abiding mystery… and he was glad he didn’t have one anymore[6]

His simian state does not prevent the Librarian from taking a full part in University activities. As well as being the goalkeeper for the university team chosen on account of his ability to reach both goalposts without moving from the centre of the goal he was also in a magical rock band, The Band with Rocks[7] 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.  And like all good librarians the Head Librarian is as feared as he is loved by academics. Some of us used to instil fear by threatening to move the ancient, unused but seminal texts of particularly obnoxious professors to the remote store where remote, we tell them means the Orkneys when in fact it was down in the basement but it got their attention, or by cutting the racing results from the daily newspapers.  The Head Librarian’s fearful reputation is though on an altogether higher plane of menace. Inadvertently call him a monkey, even address him respectfully as Mr Monkey, and you will find yourself trampled very flat by several tons of angry simian and with the honourable exception of sharing them with the rest of his hungry football team the Head Librarian’s usual response to anyone hoping to take a banana from him is simple enough; “if you try to take these bananas from me I will reclaim them from your cold dead hands”[8].

The head librarian took a full part in the University's leisure activites

The Head Librarian took a full part in the University’s leisure activites

By contrast I usually achieved the undying respect of academics by offering to reprieve the threatened seminal texts or racing results provided the usual plain brown envelope was on my desk by the end of the working day.

The second biggest library on the Disc is the Library of the Ephebians, according to its detractors “crammed with useless and dangerous and evil knowledge” and books that were never meant to be read but had to be written to secure your reputation,  a good description of those real library collections built up to pander to the vanity of the academics who wrote the books rather than to provide any actual benefit to succeeding generations of scholars, a process known to UK universities as the Research Assessment Exercise. Sadly the Library of the Ephebians suffers the same fate as the Library at Alexandria, destroyed by a fire started incidentally by its own librarian for the blindingly simple reason as he explains that “I am the only one qualified to do it.” Thankfully many of its rare scrolls are saved by a mysterious time travelling ape like creature who gathers many of the most valuable scrolls together and then disappear almost as soon as he had appeared and they find a new home in the Library of the Unseen University.

Terry Pratchett has clearly stumbled upon one of the library world’s best kept secrets; how you can order just about any book from any library and they will get it to you in your local branch. This service is known rather prosaically by the profession as interlibrary loans or by customers as “It will take how long to arrive!?” Librarians agrue that this made possible by a carefully constructed national collaborative network of highly committed customer focused library services but  Pratchett carelessly reveals that this wonderful service is in fact possible because  “all libraries everywhere are connected by the bookworm holes in space created by space time distortion found around any large collection of books.”[9] Librarians of course would rather you didn’t known this and so they keep harping on about Batgirl to distract you.

[1] You can discover many of the references to the Head Librarian in Discworld from a paper entitled The Fictional Librarian Part 1 – The Orang-utan in the Library by Daniel Gwyn which you can find at the following link sis-webspace.mcgill.ca/marginal/mar7-2/ape.htm. however when faced with this goldmine of information I felt it only proper to read all of the relevant novels myself rather than just plagiarise the excellent work of Mr Gwyn!

[2] Colour of Magic p218

[3] This is clearly not that unusual as in Ermanno Cavazzoni’s novel The Nocturnal Library some of the books turn to peat apparently.

[4] Equal Rites p268

[5] Equal Rites and Unseen Academicals for example

[6] Maskerade p 283

[7] Soul Music

[8] Unseen Academicals

[9] Small Gods p215

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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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“Of course I didn’t do it I’m a librarian. I’m not a bloody criminal”

NATIONAL LIBRARIES DAY – February 6th

Libraries in the UK are loved, valued and were visited an astonishing 265 million times last year! Libraries are a vitally important public service. Celebrate them on National Libraries Day, Saturday 6 February 2016. Find out more at http://www.nationallibrariesday.org.uk/

Libraries in the UK are loved, valued and were visited an astonishing 265 million times last year! Libraries are a vitally important public service. Celebrate them on National Libraries Day, Saturday 6 February 2016. Find out more at http://www.nationallibrariesday.org.uk/

Before we start there are more important things to think about than my glib comments about better writers than me. This Saturday is National Libraries Day here in the UK; the day to celebrate all that libraries mean to us, our families, and our communities. if you haven’t been in for a bit drop in on Saturday and join in their events, have a look round or just say hello and show your support for  a vital service under threat from politicians and others who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. In my local library Hermitage FM the radio station on which I present shows will be there all day as they have been for the past few years so if you can’t make your own library tune into 99.2FM if you live in the East Midlands or go along to our website and listen there.

“Of course I didn’t do it I’m a librarian. I’m not a bloody criminal”

Right back to normal now after that important announcement and a brief period of self indulgent self enjoyment over the festive season and after a trip to Hong Kong to see our daughter so where was I. Ah yes I seem to recall that I had shared with you my barely formed ideas for a novel about a librarian sleuth only to find I had been beaten to it by former librarian Veronica Stallword and her character Kate Ivory. What I failed to mention was that as someone who enjoyed good humorous writing it did lead me to think albeit briefly about a comic librarian sleuth not a combination of words you find very often mainly because when I say briefly I mean that it only took a few nanoseconds to realise what a spectacularly stupid idea this was so I went back to researching librarians in literature.

This was when I discovered the writing of Ian Sansom a journalist and novelist with as far as I can see no previous convictions for librarianship.

SansomIrish literature is rich in comic invention. I have read Flann O’ Brian’s The Third Policeman and thought Spike Milligan’s Puckoon one of the great comic novels when I read it as an 18 year old. When you are an 18 year old bloke a line like ”Vicar, the cat’s pissed on the matches” can easily convince you that you are reading comic genius whereas I had struggled frankly to find the humour in the dark and disturbing The Third Policeman. Well somewhere at a remote rural Irish literary crossroads were The Third Policeman intersects with Puckoon you will find Israel Armstrong. Ian Sansom has produced a series of well received novels about the comic antics Israel Armstrong who somehow or other manages to solve gentle low key crimes as his life slowly falls apart around him and guess what his job is? Yes Israel Armstrong is a librarian, a particularly hapless librarian running a mobile library service in rural Northern Ireland. You see that was my idea apart from the Irish setting obviously and the bit about the mobile library and the fact that the hero was called Israel; so nothing like it all then, but I might have got there too who knows? And now we never will because Ian Sansom got there first.

Israel Armstrong is another fictional librarian whom the library image makers might want to avoid as a potential role model for the library profession. The star of Ian Sansom’s The Mobile Library series occupies that stereotypically charmless and luckless wasteland somewhere between that nadir of the fictional librarian, Timothy Lumsden* , and Mr Bean. His snobbish mother who had hoped he would become a doctor or lawyer considers a librarian “somewhere on the social scale just below a social worker and just above bus driver”, his girlfriend who stays behind in London is too busy even to text him let alone phone or visit and the girl he fancies who helps with the mobile library is far too tough and feisty to be attracted to the sallow soppy librarian. He lives in a chicken coop and drinks beyond his capacity; he is a short fat lapsed Jewish misfit whom women like but never love and he never understands why or what to do about it. Armstrong’s most positive features appear to be remorseless self-pity and a chronic disillusionment with the mendacity and stupidity of the human race or at least the representative sample that regularly turns up as customers at Mr Armstrong’s libraries. There is a lot to admire if you are a short, overweight confused and frustrated former librarian who likes a drink.

Israel has ended up in Northern Ireland as a result of restructuring despite the fact that his previous job was in London and it doesn’t take Israel long to discover that rural Irish customers are just as bad as the readers he has left behind in London. “Reading” he reflects “makes them … even less likely than your fellow man to or woman to be able to hold a conversation about anything that did not revolve around you or your ailments”. He concludes that reading is nothing more than a kind of “mental knitting,… a pleasant way of passing time before you die”. Ireland as you can see has not been as successful as Israel might have hoped and it gets no better when he becomes a suspect in a mysterious theft and the disappearance of a company director and falls into the hands of the Police Service of Northern Ireland where his surreal interrogation has definite overtones of The Third Policeman. The initial sarcastic bravado, “Truth is I am not a mild mannered fellow you see. I’m a dangerous criminal on the run from Interpol”, soon gives way to the comically desperate “Of course I didn’t do it I’m a librarian. I’m not a bloody criminal” as he realises that he really is a suspect in a crime he was supposed to be investigating, whilst an incident in the church with a fake boulder and a vanishing trick used to recreate the Resurrection was definitely redolent of Spike Milligan’s comic classic, Puckoon. And that is just one novel in the series there are two more!

As Israel reflects on the wreck that is his life he ponders that “If he’d been a detective in one of his favourite writer’s crime novels he’d have drunk a half bottle of whisky and gone driving into the night listening to his favourite music whilst making incredible deductive leaps. Instead he felt sorry for himself, made a cup of tea and went to bed” At that point I decided that this was becoming too spookily like reading an autobiography, made a cup of tea and went to bed.

No home life at all

FalcoLibraries seem to hold a particular attraction for writers of historical mystery fiction, most though not all set in medieval Britain or Europe. Lindsey Davis constructs a whole novel out of a story about a library and a librarian but then again this is the Great Library of Alexandria in a novel helpfully entitled Alexandria so she has a fair amount of raw material to work on there. Davis has written so many murder mysteries featuring her Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco in various parts of the Roman Empire that it was inevitable that one would be set in Alexandria which can only mean a mystery featuring the Great Library as there wasn’t a fat lot else there at the time by all accounts. And a good read it is too although there is so much packed into it that by the end it does give the impression of one of those exercises set by creative writing tutors; “Write a story set in Alexandria featuring a dead body in a locked library, a dead librarian and another librarian as a murderer, a stolen scrolls racket, a clever detective with an even more clever wife, lots of accurate period detail, a femme fatale. Oh and let’s say, to make it really interesting… a crocodile”.

The Librarian appears right at the outset of the novel, and despite being a librarian in Ancient Egypt and therefore a pretty important person he is clearly a character to whom we are not meant to form much of an attachment. We can tell this partly because his shabby clothes are “a fortnight overdue at the laundry” as he is a “natural slob” and partly because he is surly, drinks too much and talks very little unless you get on to horse racing, in fact a librarian after my own curmudgeonly heart. But we know not to get too close to him chiefly because he ends up dead on page 22.

Despite his rather peremptory demise it is clear that the librarian and his death are at the heart of some mystery. When last seen alive he was moody and in a world of his own “which seemed pretty normal for a librarian” and it becomes clear as the story develops that professionally he didn’t just have a chip on his shoulder so much as a very big bag of King Edwards. As for his private life, when the Librarian is found dead the next morning behind the inevitable locked door Falco immediately starts to seek reasons why after a good meal in good company and with free flowing wine the Librarian would want to go back to his office instead of straight home. “Poor home life” he muses out loud. “He is a Librarian, Falco” responds his assistant “No home life at all most probably” I thought that was a bit harsh and I can’t repeat what my wife said when I read it out to her without upsetting the censors!

But who would want to kill someone just because they forget to take their clothes to the laundry every week, and how was he killed in a room locked from the outside and how are you going to work that crocodile into the plot?

Equally significant especially for plot development is the fact that Librarian back then was a position of high status and power, unlike today when the government considers them so unimportant they can be replaced by random unpaid volunteers with as much power as your average trainee filing clerk The role of Librarian was a route to become Chief Ministe and so coveted by several other senior academics all of whom obviously become suspects for the killing of the Librarian. As a University Librarian I have of course heard reports of people saying “I’m going to kill that Librarian when I see him” on more than one occasions but that is usually because I have put a crotchety professor’s ancient unused journals in a skip or told a Dean of Faculty that they have to pay overdue fine just like real people, and anyway they don’t really mean it. Do they? The candidates here are a typical rag bag of immature dysfunctional suspects otherwise known as academics, completely expert in their narrow fields of study and absolutely useless at anything practical to do with the real world. They include a lawyer looking to achieve respectability as a Librarian which you don’t hear every day and two who are feuding over the manifold virtues of the voluptuous Roxanna as well as the Librarian post, and both seem to view winning the title and the girl as the equivalent of doing the Cup and League double.

The discovery of Great Library scrolls on a rubbish tip leading to the discovery of the theft of irreplaceable scrolls on an industrial scale gradually reveals the real villainy at the heart of the Great Library, not the librarian gambling away the book budget on the second favourite at Fontwell Park but the Director whom you never really liked anyway who has been gradually selling off the priceless scrolls from the Library and lining his own pockets. Oh and I forgot all about the crocodile. He’s an inmate in the adjacent zoo who accidentally on purpose is released from his cage by one of the contenders for the Librarian post hoping he’ll kill one of his rivals, leading later to the inevitably watery wrestling match with our hero but you already guessed that didn’t you?

DohertyPC Doherty like Lindsey Davis has written a lot of historical novels many set in the reign of Edward I that feature gentleman sleuth Sir Hugh Corbett and like Davis eventually he gets round to setting one in an Oxford college library. The Devils Hunt manages to tick most of the boxes required for libraries in thrillers including an impressive ancient library “that smelt of pure beeswax, parchment and leather” and houses most of the great works, a locked Library plot, a library book with significant pages removed and another library book that throws up the answer…oh and another dead librarian. Sadly the plot has nothing to do with any of these but revolves around Simon De Montfort and his defeated supporters, political treachery and betrayal and absolutely no cataloguing at all, although the initial mystery does involve the dead librarian trying to write the name of his murderer before he dies. Being a typical smart arse medieval librarian, though he tries to write it in Latin and then dies before he can finish it so no one knows what the hell he was trying to say. Because of his linguistic thoughtlessness there are at least two more murders but one of them is as a consequence of drinking wine on the Library which will, I know, bring a wry smile of satisfaction to some of the more fundamentalist librarians of my acquaintance who think consuming food and drink within a 10 mile radius of a library is indeed a capital offence.

There is of course just one more historical novel featuring libraries and librarians we must talk about before we move on to other media and that is as I keep saying the greatest novel about libraries ever but that will be for next time.

*The character played by Ronnie Corbett in a 1980’s BBC TV so called comedy series

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I’m a librarian I’ve come to rescue you

Welcome back to The Bedside Blogof Libraries. I hope you enjoyed your break both for the holiday and from the blog. Unless of course you were dedicated enough to use the time to catch up on all the posts you have missed for various unsatisfactory reasons. We still have a couple of posts about librarians in books to go but as it is the start of a brand new year I thought I should start it with a preview of some of the things you can expect to find in the months ahead just in case it prompts some of you to actually read the blog instead of allowing it to be sucked into your junk mail. After all The Bedside Blog has got to be better than that quixotic, annual act of self-flagellation known variously as Dry January, or New Year Detox either of which offers a brief frisson of superiority over the rest of us that soon evaporates after the second glass of Sauv Blanc on February 1st.

One of the librarians from the Edgeworld. Sword play and hand to hand combat to fight of ferocious adversaries were part of the curriculum of the younf librarians. By the time i went to Library School the sword for self defence had been replaced by sarcasm. www.readingreview.com/youngreader/freeglader.html

One of the librarians from the Edgeworld. Swordplay and hand to hand combat were part of the curriculum for the young trainee librarians who would have to see off fearsome adversaries. By the time I went to Library School sword fighting lessons had been replaced by practical sessions in sarcasm to see off awkward customers. http://www.readingreview.com/youngreader/freeglader.html

So as I said just a few more books to go this time historical novels including the greatest thriller about libraries ever and one about the Library at Alexandria featuring a crocodile. After that we are into films, music and fantasy as well as comic and graphic books which feature a surprising number of librarians. You will discover the library full of books that read and write themselves and have to be chained down for their own good all overseen of course by that orang utan librarian; there’s the librarian who keeps turning up naked in bits of his own past; you’ll meet the librarian of Gormenghast Castle as well as Gotham City’s Librarian, Barbara but better known by her other name, there’s the Japanese manga stories about Library Wars and most remarkably there are the books in which our hero utters the immortal words “I’m a librarian I’ve come to rescue you” from The Edge Chronicles.

If you thought there would be no songs featuring libraries think again. There are lots, all rubbish mind, but then quality control is not one of our strong points here at The Bedside Blog. To be fair though we have edited out all those jolly little tunes by well-meaning librarians aimed at brainwashing 6 year olds into borrowing books and reading them as well as the effort from Frank Zappa which might have made it for curiosity value were it not simply him reading the rules from the back of his son’s university library card to a sort of tune. Even for a librarian that was a bit too painful.We have left in though the well-known musicals featuring librarians, songs from contemporary rock acts like Greenday and country stars like Jimmy Buffet and if none of that rings a bell, anyone of a certain age will recognise the line “She forgot all about the library that she told her old man now” and if not you’ll have to read on for a few weeks won’t you to get the line out of your head and find out where it’s from. And there is a folk song with the unlikely title of The Bold Librarian

Frank Zappa ommitted on the grounds that his song Library Card was too boring even for librarians

Frank Zappa omitted on the grounds that his song Library Card was too boring even for librarians

The selection of films about librarians includes everything from highly acclaimed Oscar winning drama to low porn and from romantic comedy to dark drama about sinister forces, there is even a naked librarian but then that is Ingrid Pitt so what did you expect. They feature just a few from the 300 or so actors who have played librarians including Judi Dench, Katherine Hepburn, Jason Robards, Bette Davis, Eva Marie Saint, Peter Sellers, Hayley Mills, Derek Jacobi, Bob Newhart and Goldie Hawn. None though have appeared in films as many times as that the biggest and most persistent library star of them all New York Public Library which gets everywhere including a few times under false pretences. Oh and I nearly forgot there’s Sally. Sally gets very upset by bad library users…very upset.

You’ll meet all of these and many more over the next few months and if you think references to librarians and libraries in popular culture is about to run out of steam don’t worry (or maybe be very afraid) because there is more coming out all the time. Ali Smith’s book Public library and other stories is still quite new and even newer is a new volume of poetry with the wonderful title of Beautiful Librarians and if you can recall those books about secret ancient libraries and shadowy cabals well they keep on coming with at least two more published in 2015 and Glen Cooper one of the early adopters of the genre well he seems to be making a career out of it now.

So plenty for you to read and enjoy or alternatively just ignore as you have been doing but then you have to avoid eye contact with me in the pub when I ask if you enjoyed it don’t you?

In case it tempts you next time we will find out all about that crocodile at the Library of Alexandria as well as a dead librarian about whom it is memorably said when the detective asks about the victim’s home life  “He is a Librarian…No home life at all most probably”

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