Tag Archives: humour

Michael Portillo or the banyan tree…

It is an everyday scene perhaps in a library near you. The camera pans from the sign demanding SILENCE across a small but busy library, suddenly, bursting through the large imposing wooden doors walks a man in a long black coat carrying an unfeasibly large armful of books which he takes to the girl behind the library desk whose over-large glasses fail completely to disguise the fact that she is very attractive.

The librarian treats our handsome borrower with studied indifference even as he starts singing to her. Nearby a rabbi takes a seat in the library, a chimpanzee sitting nearby puts his finger to his mouth asking for quiet and as the singer realises that the girl is unimpressed by his attentions he turns to the card catalogue and as he opens the drawer the cards fly away. The girl is left to deal with the next customer who is playing his keyboard in front of her with a stony face whilst the chimp covers his face. As the singer continues to get in the way of the librarian who remains studiedly uninterested, a string trio play on a convenient nearby balcony as the camera pulls back to reveal, for no obvious reason, a reader in a gas mask. In a final desperate attempt to gain some traction with the librarian the singer pulls a fake gun that unfurls the word BANG and finally tired of all this nonsense she pulls and twists his nose in a very painful and decidedly unplayful manner.

So perhaps not a day in a library near you after all then, and not just because you haven’t got one any more. Nor is it the sort of tortured nightmare suffered by Directors of Libraries stressing about the draconian budget cuts they have to make, my dreams were much worse than that. It is though, clearly,  no ordinary library[1]  after all how many libraries have you been in where someone is singing at the top of their voice, a keyboard player is hammering out a tune and a string trio is playing for all their worth and it’s only the chimpanzee that asks them to be quiet.

This can of course only be a promotional video for a pop song in this case for Head over Heels the 1985 hit single by Tears for Fears who were at the time about as hot it got in pop music but with no known previous convictions for disrupting libraries. This was also in the early days of pop videos when weird was the standard. And this was definitely weird particularly as the song appears to have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with libraries, or chimpanzees or indeed rabbis or gasmasks for that matter.  It is as far as I know the only pop video that features a library which is why it has made it into the blog but as we saw in the previous post libraries do feature more than you might think in music and especially in pop music.

Newcastle Lit & Phil Library. Much loved by Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys

Neil Tennant, one half of the semi legendary Pet Shop Boys has publicly professed his membership and love of Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society Library and Morrissey the singer and former front man of The Smiths claims perhaps not entirely seriously that he that he was born in Manchester Central Library, (“probably in the crime section”) where his mother was a librarian are some of the improbable links between music and libraries.

Libraries can make it into pop and rock songs of some stellar performers, but having started at the top with some pretty big stars whom we will return to in future blogs we now need to spend a little time exploring the less well known pop and rock music stars who have been careless enough to use libraries as a subject for their songs and who lurk in the shadowy undergrowth of the internet only coming to light when someone is stupid enough to disturb their hard earned and well deserved obscurity.  I have included many links in case you want to make up your own minds but frankly I wouldn’t bother and I hope you will be appropriately grateful that I have listened to these so that you don’t have to.

Cursor Miner otherwise Robert Tubb is an underground electronica producer and one reviewer describes his lyrics as “twisted, like if Lewis Carroll wrote lyrics for Gary Numan.” Well here is a sample and you can make up your own mind if they are twisted and fantastic and in the spirit of Lewis Carroll or if they have just nicked some lyrics from the cutting room floor at Sesame Street. These are some of the lyrics from his song The Library

Kids there’s a really cool place you can be

Its a lot of fun now you will see

You’ll learn a lot about the world that way

Living in the Public Library

The Library the Library

It’s a place where books are free

The Library the Library

It’s a lot better than watching TV”

Bearing in mind that this was I assume aimed like his other stuff at an adult audience it sounded like one of the early rejects from a library marketing project set for 16 year olds. It has a cartoon video too which you can find on YouTube and it is a hypnotically annoying earworm of a song that is catchy for the first two or three listens but leaves you pondering places to shove his synthesiser long before the end of the third hearing. It is memorable, though, for the lines that manage to squeeze in not only plate tectonics and embroidery but also bizarrely Michael Portillo,

“You’ll always find something you’re interested in

Plate tectonics or embroidery

Michael Portillo or the banyan tree

perhaps less for the lines

The library, the Library it’s a place where drugs are free

and not at all for a video in which the cartoon car bringing kids back from the library drives off a cartoon cliff only for the driver to eject to safety and leave the kids in the car presumably plunging to cartoon oblivion. Remember kids don’t let your parents do this at home.

Amongst the other remaining songs referencing libraries and librarians many are feature them fleetingly brief and even more for no discernible reason that we won’t waste a lot of time on them. But here goes with a whistle stop tour through songs “inspired” by libraries and librarians that were perhaps left to rest in peace deep in the internet underworld.

Take Cyaneed for example. I have no idea why “a dead hot young super group consists of four girls from the far north of Norway who play a sort of catchy punk rock” have titled one of their albums “I rule this Library tonight.” I suppose I could listen to all the tracks, in the original Norwegian and find out the answer, but then I could also get someone to jump on my head until I scream for mercy! A band who briefly received good reviews in the music press was known curiously as Mr Hudson and the Library. Mr Hudson went on to greater things with Kanye West and the like but pointedly dropped The Library; I guess if Kanye wanted a library he just go out and buy one.

Singer/songwriter Anthony Rochester has an album, Music for Librarians for no immediately obvious reason that I can tell even after listening to a few tracks and there is a band called The Public Library one of whose albums includes a song called “The Hospital Library” where someone is for some reason is

“Working on the records of broken hearts and bones,

Like the books on all the sad things that you know

and headlining act Athlete have a track called “In the Library” As an audio experience it’s all right I guess until you try to unpack the lyrics which feature this isolated reference to libraries

“Swimming in a library
we’re not going anywhere.

Then again obscure lyrics never deterred any of us millions of Bob Dylan fans did it?

There is a song called believe it or not Librarians Rule the World but its potentially powerful impact is rather spoiled by the fact that it is from a band called Songs to Wear Pants To and is from an album that includes other titles such as “I am slightly awesome”, “I love to eat apples and bananas” and “Car Noise Waltz of the Egg Slicer”… oh and the track only lasts 37 seconds so not much of an empire to rule then. More substantial is singer songwriter Jonathon Rundman’s Librarian, from what is considered apparently, his best album, “Public Library” but whilst it is enormously gratifying to find people inspired to write songs about librarians (eat your heart out accountants and lawyers) the song does start by offering a portrait that does little to dispel the anorak image

 I’m a librarian, I’m a librarian
and I like it quiet so the pages can be heard

But fair play to him for someone who as far as I can tell has no brief to do a marketing job on librarians he does a considerably better job that any of those who are paid a shed load of money for doing it and actually the album is not that bad either

“I bring order out of chaos, I shine light into the dark
because power comes from knowledge just like fire from a spark
and like Gutenberg and Luther with press and pen in hand
I take the message to the masses in a form they understand

We should also expect something at least as flattering from Rob Lopresti because according to his website as well as being a songwriter and a blogger he was also a Reference Librarian at Washington State University, indeed the eponymous “Reference Librarian” from one of his albums. What we get is a very arch and mildly diverting inversion of that male fantasy we have seem before of the girl behind the library desk in which he is happy to let all of those pretty young students hoping to hit on him just what they can really get from the guy behind the desk.

“You’ve got a big term paper due

You better start it soon

‘Cause you just figured out its due tomorrow afternoon

You need two dozen sources on the pygmy crocodile

Let me at the keyboard, kid, and watch a master’s style

He knows that he doesn’t need to slowly take off his glasses and let down his golden locks or even stroke his beard with a sultry look in his eyes to reveal the siren underneath, he has a far more powerful aphrodisiac to offer his captive young audience. Who says librarians can’t do irony?

Piano Magic have a curious little number called “I am the Sub Librarian“ which is such an eerily accurate stereotype of some librarians I might have known in a distant era that the song must have come from somewhere deep in the band’s previous life as a librarian back in the 1970’s.

“A steady diet of Brautigan,

‘Tapestry’ on the Walkman”

And to round of this whistle stop tour of passing references to libraries, first “February Library” from Limited Expresses sounds just like you would expect a track to sound by a band billed as “a Japanese experimental punk trio” famed for their frenetic live performances. It sounded like chipmunks on speed and I have no idea what it has to do with libraries given my lack of fluency in both Japanese and double-time chipmunk. I am sure that the experimental punk fans on Okinawa got every word but I am afraid it was completely lost on me and finally in this post I also discovered there is an electronics duo called Libraries from Wilmington, North Carolina about which I know very little but they have one album out called simply the Wilmington Bootlegs. They are on Facebook and Bandcamp ( an open marketplace for musicians) but I am none the wiser and having sampled a few seconds of their music actually that’s fine.

[1] In fact the video was filmed in a real library, at the Emmanuel College Library in Toronto, Canada

 

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‘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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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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BIFF!! KERPOW!! SPLAT!! SHUSH!!!

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

Barbara Gordon - Head Librarian

Barbara Gordon – Head Librarian

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbara Gordon and Batgirl - spot the difference

Barbara Gordon and Batgirl – spot the difference

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

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

Oracle aka Batgirl aka Barbara Gordon aka whatever...

Oracle aka Batgirl aka Barbara Gordon aka whatever…

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

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

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

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