Tag Archives: libraries

BIFF!! KERPOW!! SPLAT!! SHUSH!!!

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

Barbara Gordon - Head Librarian

Barbara Gordon – Head Librarian

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbara Gordon and Batgirl - spot the difference

Barbara Gordon and Batgirl – spot the difference

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

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

Oracle aka Batgirl aka Barbara Gordon aka whatever...

Oracle aka Batgirl aka Barbara Gordon aka whatever…

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

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

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

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Goalkeeping librarians and librarians on the Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Library Wars

Library Wars

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

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

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

 

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NO COOKIES, JUST BOOKS, NO COOKIES!!

Sincere apologies for the lengthy delay since the last post but real life will keep breaking through won’t it. Still now we can wrap up our trawl of librarians on TV

As you might expect after 40 years in libraries although the vast majority of people you meet are really excellent I have also come across some pretty unpleasant characters. There were the usual collection of obnoxious, loud, opinionated, entitled and objectionable users but you just had to get used to the fact that this was what professors were like and some of the students could be as bad but I am pretty sure that I have never come across anything in a library that is as quite so terrifyingly unpleasant as Vashta Nerada. No she isn’t a new age folk singer, you’re thinking of Vashti Bunyan, nor is it an unpleasant skin condition; no Vashta Narada appeared in an episode of the celebrated TV sci fi show Doctor Who, one of the few examples I have come across of libraries in science fiction on television.  I should start though by saying that sci fi is not one of my favoured TV genres falling as it does in my watching pecking order someway behind  Made in Chelsea which is a long way behind Homes Under the Hammer  but just in front of any soap you care to mention and all of them well outside the top 50 of anything you will ever find me watching.

I was a big fan, though,  of the early days of Doctor Who and followed all the Doctors for several years even as the stories became more implausible but by the time they felt the need to introduce the tedious K9, a sort of sci fi Lassie with antennae, I had begun to lose interest and the frequent appearance of the equally tiresome Brigadier finally put me off so I never did get round to giving the C21st revival a chance until I caught this episode in one of those bewildering instances of serendipity that happen every now and again. I don’t read much sci-fi as I said and watch even less so have no idea if libraries feature large in the genre but had always imagined not. The brief and unsuccessful attempt at using Jedi Archives in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones by Obi-Wan Kenobi was the only other example of which I was aware and seemed hardly worth a mention but a Doctor Who series on a library was too good to miss so it was a shame that I never really got to grips with what the hell the story was all about apart from the library but I’ll do my best to explain.

Run... for God's sake run and stay out of the shadows

Run… for God’s sake run and stay out of the shadows

The Doctor is summoned to a 51st century library, the greatest in the universe containing every book ever published (don’t they all in sci-fi) which was a cue for cheap jokes about Jeffery Archer, and is the size of a planet but complete uninhabited. It transpires that the library has been empty and sealed for the past 100 years and the only message they receive as they enter is a recorded warning message from the Head Librarian warns them “Run…. And please switch off your mobile ‘phones” and the rather sinister “if you want to live, count the shadows”.

They soon become aware that there are life forms running the library, but not as we know them Doctor, that cast shadows without a body and you really should avoid them and their shadows as they are worse than any vindictive librarian; a fine of a few bob and a withering look is nothing compared to Vashta Nerada who have the appetite of a shoal of piranhas and prefer invading your space suit and eating you alive for even being in their library which they claim as their own because they say all the books are made from the wood of their native planet so it’s only right.

But as the Doctor and Donna try to understand what has happened to the library I was astonished not that the library was a sealed and  deserted, it’s probably in a Tory controlled galactic authority but that we still have libraries at all by then. At the present rate of austerity driven vandalism we won’t even have any libraries in Leicestershire by the end of next year never mind in 30,000 years’ time. The plot runs over two episode and in the second we discover that not only does the library hold every book ever published but has saved lots of people too by absorbing their consciousness into the computer memory to save them from those evil little Vashta Nerada that are devouring everyone they can catch. In the end The Doctor does a deal with them and agrees they can have the library if they will allow everyone to leave unharmed. This is the most sense I could make of the story and have left out tricky details like the little girl back in the c21st inside whose head this seems to be happening, the psychologist who doesn’t help by telling her the nightmares about the library are real and anyway she may already be dead, a bunch of inter-galactic archaeologists including the mysterious River Song who knows the Doctor from the future but he hasn’t met her yet and Donna‘s children whom she hasn’t had yet.

Can you help me please I seem to be trapped in some sort of loopy Doctor Who adventure?

Can you help me please I seem to be trapped in some sort of loopy Doctor Who adventure?

You’ll have to watch it won’t you but you’ll understand why I usually give sci fi a wide berth. You can get away with any amount of counter-intuitive, counter-factual twaddle like that because unlike say historical fiction there are no inconveniently recorded facts to limit your fantasies. The same could be said of the continuing and frankly bewildering fascination of popular culture with the undead.

Who would think that one woman’s fight to save America from the undead would dominate our television screens but I want to go back to a more innocent period long before the current US Presidential election campaign to a previous incarnation of that battle.  For a few years either side of the turn of the century one girl’s battle against the undead was one of the most watched TV shows around the world, mainly but not exclusively amongst young adults, a battle which rather surprisingly involved a librarian

Rupert Giles is the Librarian at Sunnydale High School in California and his corny English name is not the only unlikely thing about him. Rather than spend his time issuing books to truculent teenagers and keeping them in order when they are thrown out of the classroom for disruptive behaviour he spends his time watching and spending uncommonly long periods in the company of young people and in particular a very attractive blonde girl called Buffy Summers.

Not only that but he actually encourages and aids and abets her own violent behaviour.  In the UK any middle aged man who spent that much time in the company of a an attractive high school student would soon have rabid mobs calling him unpleasant names and trying to burn his house down but in Planet US TV not only is this acceptable but is actively encouraged with a job title to go with it. Bearing in mind that Buffy is an attractive teenage schoolgirl and Giles is a middle aged librarian in a tweed suit in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer Giles is called, without a hint of irony, Buffy’s Watcher. You see what I mean about a more innocent age.

Anyway for those of you have managed to miss all of this by being on a remote desert island with no means of communication with the outside world back then or maybe not having teenage daughters the central premise of the hugely successful TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that Sunnydale has a bit of a problem. It seems that the best efforts of the surveyors, developers and architects, local school boards and assorted local councillors had all missed the slight snag that the  School has been built over the Hellmouth; a sort of demonic wrinkle in space time where the undead can slip into c21st California to wreak havoc and mayhem or worse . The only thing that stands in their way is young Buffy. Despite any ambitions she may have harboured to become a hairdresser, a derivatives trader or maybe run for President Buffy is stuck with the  job of slaying vampires because apparently she comes from a long line of Slayers so it is fortunate for all sorts of sound marketing reasons that Buffy is an attractive blonde student.

Buffy and Giles look surprised to be discovered together in the Library! At least the book is the right way up, that would have given the game away wouldn't it?

Buffy and Giles look surprised to be discovered together in the Library! At least the book is the right way up, that would have given the game away wouldn’t it?

Giles’s role is to watch after her, offering help and support as she goes about her mission of …well slaying. The support role does not require him to be involved in any actually hand to hand grappling with the un-dead he isn’t allowed by his bosses apparently, something to do with health and safety and anyway only Buffy has the right licence from whomever it is who dishes out slaying licences. No, whenever Buffy comes up against a new threat to Western civilization Giles has an encyclopaedic knowledge of creatures from the dark side and if he doesn’t know it he will have just the right, suitably old book to hand in his rather idiosyncratic library that he can share with Buffy, which sounds suspiciously like inviting her up to see his etchings but never mind.

Despite the obvious potential for a sub text involving the clearly unattached and surprisingly handsome Giles in a real or imagined relationship with the attractive and very sexy Buffy it never happens and  one of the reasons it appears that there is no obvious chemistry between the handsome librarian and the sexy serial assassin is that Buffy clearly has the hots for dead people. Her two love interests in the series are the tragic and damaged Angel, a Good Vampire and after the screenwriters grow tired of him, in the final series, Buffy falls ludicrously for the vampire version of Lex Luthor who has been a running enemy of hers for the past several years; Spike the Bad Vampire! Quite how a story of a wholesome blonde West Coast school girl trying to get her rocks off with the forces of darkness survived in the home of evangelical Christianity is beyond me. But is no more unbelievable than the strikingly urbane and handsome Anthony Head being cast as the Librarian rather than someone short and fat like Bob Hoskins for example and for this I am sure all those librarians who moan about the librarian stereotype are eternally grateful.

To finish this thankfully brief trawl of librarians on TV a couple of lighter comic examples. Jerry Seinfeld produced a very entertaining take on libraries merging the crime of the late return of a library book with the hard boiled film noir cop trope. A Bogartish Library cop chasing late books is full of amusing nods in the direction of just about every tough cop cliché somehow made not entirely inappropriate to the most common library misdemeanour. “That little stamp that says New York Public Library may not mean lot to you but it means a hell of a lot to me”. Absolutely finally, though, something cosy and silly and a librarian with whom we can all sympathise. Our librarian straight out of librarian central casting, balding, bespectacled, suited, purple furry face.; well perhaps not the last bit is confronted with one of those annoying customers who just don’t seem to get it. Having explained that this is a library and asking for quiet the librarian enquires what he can do to help his blue furry customer. “I’d like a box of cookies please” and being told they don’t do cookies he thinks again and seeming to get the idea asks. “I would like a book on Little Red Riding Hood.” “Good we can do that” says the librarian only to be interrupted by the customer who adds “….and a box of cookies”.  “Sorry” the librarian replies indulgently “perhaps you didn’t understand we only have books no cookies.” “Oh” replies the customer who thinks a second and then asks for a book on nursery rhymes…and a box of cookies. The librarian explains again, more firmly this time, that libraries don’t do cookies, just books. After several iterations as the librarians gets more and more agitated with the requests for cookies the librarian finally throws his toys out the pram shouting at the top of his voice “NO COOKIES, JUST BOOKS, NO COOKIES”.

No cookies, just books...!

No cookies, just books…!

Eventually the slow-on-the-uptake customer says “Now I get it. I would like a book on cookies…”, “Good” says the librarian to the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street adding as the librarian collapses“….and a glass of milk.”

 

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“I am a librarian and an Englishman”

Given the plentiful raw material that many people think librarians offer for casual humour you would think that proper comedians would be able to make something genuinely amusing out of that raw material especially if you applied the talents of some of Britain’s best comic scriptwriters to the task. Sadly you would be wrong. The results can charitably be described as uneven, even after you have eliminated the abysmal Sorry! about which more later. If you include Sorry! the results are pretty lamentable.

The legendary Two Ronnies had a couple of goes at librarians although given their overall brilliance neither was amongst their best sketches. One, the Confusing Library sketch, opted for a favourite fantasy of librarians themselves.. The Library is confusing because all the books on different subjects are mixed up and, unable to find the book he needs Corbett seeks help from the only half bothered librarian (Barker of course) who explains that it’s easy to find the books because they are all arranged by colour “all the blue ones over

Its a big green book. They're upstairs

Its a big green book. They’re upstairs

here all the red ones over there it was the architect’s idea”. Slightly bewildered and still unhappy Corbett is assured to hear that that they are of course subdivided …into small ones on the top, large ones on the bottom. Badgered by Corbett the librarian slowly and resentfully looks up the elusive book in the catalogue and tells him he’s found it…  “it’s a big green book. They’re upstairs!”  Ronnie Barker does a wonderful job as the superior and dismissive librarian doing an early version of Norman Stanley Fletcher’s accent and attitude but the ending is not one of their best but if you are really interested it is still available on the internet. Their other effort also still available played on the traditional silence of the old public library here complete with harassed female librarian, bun, wire-rimmed glasses cardigan the whole lot. Enter Corbett standing in front of the prominent SILENCE sign very loudly announcing he wants to join the library and told of course by the librarian to speak quietly, only he can’t that’s why he wants to join the library, to borrow a book called How to Stop Shouting. When the other library users complain and Corbett persists at the top of his voice the librarian calls for the Chief Librarian, Barker obviously, who when told the problem, tells Shouting LibraryCorbett the book is out and anyway its useless because he read it and it didn’t work and of course does this at the top of his voice only for another reader to announce he is reading it and it useless as he is now shouting too and so on until they are all shouting. It’s not up there with Fork Handles but its better by a very long way that some of the others.

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie have long since gone their separate ways, Laurie to be a US TV superstar and Fry to become a sort of latter day Oscar Wilde impressionist but early in their career they were a double act but were awfully uneven. Laurie after some stereotypical behaviour from an obstructive librarian finds a copy of the book that he is looking for on the last ten years of test matches between England and the West Indies only to find that it has been almost completely gutted except for a few strips of text. Complaining that the book is incomplete the librarian responds with the best line of the sketch; “have you read it before… then how do you know there are bits missing?”.

The male librarian (Stephen Fry playing the role of Stephen Fry) appears to support his colleague explaining that although the book includes only the words ”The West indies are not very good at cricket” that was how it was delivered to them.  Laurie’s claim that the statement isn’t true anyway and that England hasn’t beaten the West indies for 14 years is met by the belligerent Fry claiming that that England has won every test match since the war and offers copies of Wisden to prove his point, Wisden that is a single sheet of cut and paste that says “England is great and better than everyone else at cricket” and lambasts Laurie’s as one of those people who will insist on running down the English “I am a librarian and an Englishman, or rather an Englishman who just happens to be a librarian. If the day should come when I have to choose between being a librarian and an Englishman…” I told you they could be uneven but it is way better than a much later attempt to extract dubious humour from librarians.

England is great and better than everyone else at cricket...official, Wisden

England is great and better than everyone else at cricket…official, Wisden

Robert Webb provides one of the most uncomfortable if not deeply disturbing portrayals of a librarian that I can recall in his sketch series with David Mitchell. Openly mocking the lowbrow book that the female reader wishes to lend he then goes on to mock her taste, lifestyle and everything about her until she is reduce to a hopeless self-pitying wreck, at which point Webb says “How about a date”. I think I am too old to grasp the humour of Mitchell and Webb but even so this was just misogynist rubbish quite apart from its offensive calumny of librarians. It is a world away from what must be one of the best uses ever of libraries as a premise for a comedy programme.

Hancock’s Half Hour back in 1960 featured an typically manic visit to his local public library with Hugh Lloyd as the world weary librarian sneering at Hancock’s pursuit of a cheap thriller until he requests The History of the Holy Byzantine Empire, the Complete HancockRoman Law, Plato’s Republic and Homer’s Illiad and thinks he may have misjudged Hancock who of course promptly puts the books on the floor to help him reach the lurid thriller on the top shelf. The mime that Hancock is forced to perform to explain to his mate Sid the plot of another thriller to avoid all the shushing from the readers is worth the effort to find it on YouTube on its own*.

Finally if we absolutely must I will return to Sorry!.   For almost 20 years through the 1970’s and 80’s the Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker were the undisputed kings of TV comedy with their celebrated series The Two Ronnies. When their hugely successful partnership ended in 1989 the two went on to solo projects. Ronnie Barker went on to even more fame and acclaim as the legendary Fletcher in the magnificent Porridge one of the most popular comedies of all time Corbett went on to a solo vehicle called Sorry!. There has never been a more appropriate title for a TV show.  Sorry! demonstrated just where the comic talent lay in their partnership despite the fact that the scripts were from the duo who had fed the Two Ronnies partnership so effectively.  In the so called comedy Corbett plays a hapless, helpless overgrown middle aged schoolboy, Timothy Lumsden, terrified of his domineering mother and despite his desperation to get away from her utterly incapable of sorting out his life and particularly finding a girlfriend. He is of course a librarian. Somehow or other, presumably to justify the king’s ransom they paid Corbett to stay with the BBC, it ran to seven series which is at least seven too many. It is so irredeemably awful I am astonished that it has not been indicted at the relevant international court for crimes against light entertainment but it has at least thankfully sunk into well-deserved obscurity although clips are available on the internet but I advise you not to watch it alone or when you are depressed or in fact at all…..ever.

Still to come to complete librarians on TV we still have Dr Who, Buffy and The Cookie Monster but that’s for next time

*Thanks for reminding me Phil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You have to give up what you want to become a great librarian

This week should wrap up our look at films featuring libraries and librarians at least for the time being ; remember there are at least 500 of them and you will horrified to discover that we have barely scratched the surface so we may come back to them when we are desperate for subjects for future posts . Next week we will move on to something slightly different but this week librarians and the battle against evil. Not the usual stuff; noisy readers, coffee stained paperbacks and obnoxious precocious kids. No real evil… obnoxious pretentious parents. Sorry that was a joke I meant real evil like the forces of darkness. Sorry for proper effect that should be The Forces of DarknessTM voiced by Vincent Price and accompanied by lots of loud spine-chilling reverb.

Something Wicked This Way Comes is the 1983 film of Malcolm Bradbury’s dark horror fantasy about a demonic carnival that mysteriously appears in a small US town.  For UK and younger readers a carnival is a travelling collection of entertainments; rides that go spinning out of control and far too fast; cars where drivers bash into each other and nobody cares, trips down dark scary tunnels where you never what you will meet and even guns in the hands of complete novices firing at random targets. In the US they are carnivals, in the UK we call them funfairs in the Middle East they are called Baghdad.

Dr Dark indulges in a spot of wanton vandalism just for the sheer devilment of it

Dr Dark indulges in a spot of wanton vandalism just for the sheer devilment of it

Jason Robards finds himself an unlikely hero pitted against Jonathon Pryce’s splendidly satanic Mr Dark who turns up literally out of the blue with his travelling carnival and persuades the unlikeable townsfolk that he can make all their secret dreams can come true.  The sort of Party Political Broadcast that all the credulous love and even if it seems too good to be true the venal townsfolk can’t see it but two young boys have seen through the demonic Mr Dark and are now on the run from him.  Enter the hero who is the only one who can protect and help the boys and it turns out defeat Dr Dark. Jason Robards is grouchy and deeply unhappy about his life and about his relationship with his son (one of the boys now on the run from Mr Dark) and he is especially bitter about growing old. It is Charles Holloway (Robards), the librarian who discovers the sinister secret of the carnival, that Mr Dark is a toxic cocktail of two parts Pied Piper, two parts Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Child Catcher, and about 10 parts Mephistopheles from the Faustus myth who will indeed make your dreams come true but the in the small print it just happens to mention that there is the small cost of sending your soul to damnation or if you really upset him, to Baghdad.  How will a mere librarian and a couple of young boys defeat the Devil when he can crush your hand in a second and the Dust Witch (it is a fantasy all right, and we don’t have time to explain)can stop your heart at will; will the librarian be tempted by the offer to regain his lost youth and surrender the boys,  or will he be more upset by the memorable scene in the wonderfully atmospheric library where Dr Dark confronts Holloway to show him how powerless he is mainly by destroying a valuable book before the librarian’s eyes as he offers him his youth. Well, because this is a classic Walt Disney librarian v evil allegory and not real life the librarian wins but not before ending up near to death thanks to that Dust Witch and by realising just in time that in the best Disney traditions laughter and love are the most powerful weapons against the heartlessly demonic ambitions of the carnival. No longer gloomy but forced to laugh and be happy and loving just like real people the librarian manages to destroy not only Dr Dark by literally loving him to death but also his sidekick, the Dust Witch, by laughing at her, the carousel that does tricky things with your age if you ride on it and the equally tricky Mirror Maze (watch the film it will all make a bizarre kind of sense) as well as save his son and become a happy singing and dancing librarian all in a matter of minutes. They don’t make films like that anymore…or librarians come to think of it.

Actually referring to our next bad guy as the Forces of EvilTM is a bit strong to be fair because Professor Harry Hill (no not that one) played by Robert Preston is not evil just cynical and greedy and besides it’s a musical. Harry breezes into River City in Music Man (1962, not to be confused with the significantly inferior 2003 remake with Matthew Broderick)with a plan to save the youngsters of the town from the from the depravity of a life playing pool in the town’s pool hall by creating a boys band starting by raising the money for instruments and uniforms. He starts to charm the town with his plans to rescue their young people and everyone thinks this is a terrific idea apart from the pool hall owner obviously and Marian the piano teacher played by Shirley Jones who already has her own plan to bring culture to the backwoods community but has failed to persuade the dull townspeople.  Aware that he will have to win over Marian for his plans to succeed the Professor cynically decides that seducing her is the best approach. Marian is not unattractive but she is prim and unmarried and not at all sure about men so obviously she is also the town librarian. I had also assumed the name Marian was some sort of subtle reference to Maid Marian until I realised that Hollywood doesn’t have a word for subtle.

The professor has some success with Marian even after he disrupts her quiet library by singing at her and with his corny pick up routine which includes the immortal lines – Exasperated Librarian “What do you want to take out?”, Dodgy Customer, “The Librarian” but because she is a librarian Marian also has the resources and is smart enough to check on the Professor’s credentials and discover that he is up to no good.  When someone who knows the Professor’s crooked past confirms that he is a career con man who plans to head off on the next train just as soon as he gets his hands on the money raised for the band of course Marian doesn’t expose him but keeps it to herself.  When you play fast and loose with the truth like you can be sure it either means you are in love or you are a

Marian the Librarian researches the Dewey number Annoying Singing Con Man

Marian the Librarian researches the Dewey number for Annoying Singing Con Man

politician and of course Marian has fallen for the dodgy professor. Even when the truth comes out and the professor is faced with being tarred and feathered it is Marian who sticks by him and of course this being Hollywood the Professor realises that he has actually has fallen for Marian too. So of course they all live happily ever to the sound of the boys’ band playing 76 Trombones .It is hard to take seriously a film that features a song entitled Marian the Librarian, a song that would struggle to make the Azerbaijan entry for the Eurovision Song Contest but at least any quiz fans reading this will now know from which film the song 76 Trombones  comes.

Now you would think librarians would be delighted that there is an entire series of made-for-cable films under the banner The Librarian but I had decided that it all sounded to implausible to feature whilst researching the original book on which I was working. However my wife spotted one of the films on some obscure niche channel whilst desperately searching for anything worth watching on our 60 odd channels and settled on this because it was the best she could come up with. Surely I would be interested in a film called The Librarian: Return to King Solomon’s Mines! So we watched it despite my misgivings, all of which were more than fully realised over the next 90 minutes or so.

If you are a librarian and you also watched any of this the series in eager anticipation you will have asked yourself “what on earth this has to do with libraries and librarians”. If you are a film fan you will have asked yourself “how on earth did this get made” and if you are a film fan and a librarian you will no doubt be more worried that your profession should be associated with such a load of derivative old twaddle.  For a start the job that Floyd Carsen (Noah Wyle) ends up with isn’t really a librarian despite the job advert, because although his library does have some rare books the film chooses to focus on its collection of admittedly bizarre, and literally fabulous artefacts including, in no particular order of risibility, The Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, Pandora’s Box, Excalibur and the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg. Oh and a Unicorn obviously! In fact it is so complete a collection of impossible fantasy items that you will probably find the UK government’s education policy in there somewhere. But at the risk of appearing professionally snobbish over-sensitive, nerdy or just pedantic isn’t that what a museum is for and so shouldn’t he then be called a Curator. I can only presume that the producers thought that a film franchise entitled The Museum Curator – The Quest for the Spear, or perhaps The Bloke Who Looks after Weird Old Things – The Quest for the Spear was not as catchy and marketable as one entitled simply The Librarian. Given all that we have explored here about image and Hollywood’s use of “librarian” as shorthand for a particular kind of character I am bemused about just what sort of audience they hoped to attract naming it after a bunch of badly dressed, mean-spirited mousey and insignificant professionals. Only they and the marketing people will know the answer to that

What is even more astonishing than all of this is that enough people paid to watch the first in the franchise, The Librarian -The Quest for the Spear all about how Wylie ends up with the Librarian job and how he and his library sidekicks including Bob Newhart keep all of this stuff from the Brotherhood of the Serpent; sorry I mean from the Sinister and EvilTM Brotherhood of the Serpent, (more Vincent Price and reverb) that they produced two sequels and a TV series spin off. Not only that but it became the top cable film of 2004 which presumably asks questions about just what was the competition. In the first sequel, The Librarian: Return to King Solomon’s Mines, the collection of impossible artefacts has grown to include amongst others the Head of the Medusa and the Turin Shroud and if you look closely possibly a Labour Government.

Noah Wylie as the Librarian. Not to be confused with Indiana Jones or even a real librarian

Noah Wylie as the Librarian. Not to be confused with Indiana Jones or even a real librarian

The film was a curious experience which my wife enjoyed because it was the usual unbelievable hokum that somehow seems all the more entertaining on a rainy Saturday evening.  It was a sort of Indiana Jones Lite or to be more accurate Indiana Jones Featherweight put together it seemed from the floor sweepings of a particularly unsuccessful Indiana Jones script conference. The eponymous Librarian, played by Noah Wyle has an expression of permanent bewilderment whatever the circumstances and is spectacularly inept as an action hero as you would expect of a librarian. In fact in the first film he is protected by the Librarian’s Guardians whom I mention solely because her name is Nichole Noone. In particular Wyle must have been bewildered at just how many other famous films were referenced by the director/screen writer presumably to help disguise the paper thin plot.  There was a faithful Native American sidekick in the opening sequence straight out of The Lone Ranger, the “when-I-say-jump-jump” moment as they approach a cliff above a fast lowing river borrowed from Butch Cassidy, the wicked uncle from Aladdin as well as the chase through the bazaar by obviously evil henchmen searching for a vital document in the hands of a good spy that finds its way into the hands of our hero from Casablanca, and just in case you missed that reference they chuck in the airport tarmac farewell scene at the end too. And no, I’m sorry I can’t remember any of the plot, if indeed there was one.

The Bob Newhart character is an avuncular wizard who could be Merlin or Gandalf, take your pick, only here in a smart suit and there is the woman from Human Resources who is Miss Moneypenny in all but name. And although it is not entirely clear why such a fabulous organisation would actually need someone from Human Resources at least Charlene, played by Jane Curtin, has the good grace to acknowledge how bonkers all this is. Asked to call the police to the Library she reminds our hero that this might mean mentioning the Golden Goose, the Unicorn and Ali Baba’s Flying Carpet and that the police understandably might decide what the caller really needed was to be locked up under close supervision for their own benefit. There are the deliberately set up, unexpected attacks borrowed from Clouseau and Kato in Pink Panther only here the assailant is played not by Burt Wouk but by the magic sword, Excalibur. By the time the second sequel The Librarian: The Curse Of The Judas Chalice was produced the library has pretty much disappeared  and the plot was beginning to sound even more like it was written by an 18 year old on powerful hallucinogens featuring as it does Dracula, a beautiful and alluring jazz singing vampire, the satanic chalice of the title and a decidedly dodgy professor in a wheelchair borrowed from The Rocky Horror Show or whichever film they borrowed it from.

Of course we also have to have the inevitable piece of sententious philosophy clearly intended to set the scene for the plot as well as to inspire a new generation of cataloguers and subject experts in our library profession. “You are a good librarian but you have to give up what you want to become a great librarian,” so that will be dress sense, romance and any semblance of a life then. I’ve seen worse and I suppose its saving grace is that it is a light-hearted spoof on the classic old B movie adventure and peril yarns we used to watch as kids at the cinema but as a grown-up it definitively tests the willing suspension of disbelief well beyond destruction.

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Transformed by love, struggle and cataloguing

Foxes Badge 2

CHAMPIONS

This week as well as looking at some more librarians in film we will be just a little bit self indulgent as we celebrate an historic week for my football team but we will come to that at the end

Ever since the Prodigal Son came trotting back home a changed man, character transformation has become one of the great recurring themes in storytelling. Sometimes it is a literal transformation, Beauty and the Beast, Dr Jeykll and Mr Hyde or Clark Kent becoming the Man of Steel  are obvious examples but our interest here is the more subtle transformation; the personal journey through love, struggle, adversity or in Clark Kent’s case  a handy phone box  to a higher level of personal satisfaction or achievement even if Clark never does quite get the hang of  the correct trousers/underpants sequence. Of course to make this effective the protagonist has to start out as a pathetic, inadequate or insignificant character or as Hollywood likes to refer to them a librarian.

As we have already seem Hollywood seems to use the role of librarian as a convenient way to signal a combination of adjectives from a non-exclusive list that includes insignificant, quiet, prim, dull but this is sometimes because it gives unimaginative directors an easy or perhaps lazy way into the classic ugly duckling transformation plot as characters are placed either in peril or in comic situations or both, that enable them to emerge as a different and by implication better people if not actually better librarians. Sometimes it is love that is the catalyst for transformation. Navy BluesThis is what happens to prim and frosty librarian Doris Kimbell (Mary Brian) when she falls for dumb sailor Rusty Gibbs in the 1937 film Navy Blues. Not realising that womaniser Rusty has picked her up for a bet his unexpected interest succeeds in bringing out her natural beauty mainly by taking off her glasses and of course he ends up falling for her anyway but only after trying on a couple of deceptions to convince her he is more than just a thick sailor including some story about being in naval intelligence. This is all the set up for classic pre-war spy story where Rusty as part of his pick-up routine fakes interest in an algebra book that he borrows from Doris’s library as a pretext for getting to know her not realising that it contains secret codes from Doris’s current boyfriend who is not only stringing her along but is also deceiving her because he is a real spy for the bad guys.  Do try and keep up.  Rusty ends up being chased by both sides; the US Navy thinks he is working with the bad guys and the bad guys want their book back because it holds the key to their plot. Rusty and Doris are captured and interrogated by the bad guys including the boyfriend who ruins his chances with her when he ties her to a chair and she is gutted to find that this is not the start of some erotic bondage fantasy.  It all ends happily of course because it’s a screwball comedy so Rusty  end up as the hero of the hour, the spies get their comeuppance, Doris and Rusty get together properly and the Library gets its algebra book back and I presume Doris will let Rusty off for bringing it back late.

Carole Lombard tries to encourage Cary Grant to take up reading by explaining what a book is

Carole Lombard tries to encourage Cary Grant to take up reading by explaining what a book is

No Man Of Her Own (1932) must count as a double transformation when dull small town librarian Carole Lombard runs off to the Big City after a whirlwind romance with a distinctly dodgy Cark Gable and finds a new life for herself and in the process makes a new man out of Gable which might explain why he was back in a library a few years later getting a kiss behind the stacks in Cain and Mabel (1936)

Peril works much better than romance though if you want a good ugly duckling movie. Let’s take librarian Betty Lou Perkins as a case study shall we. In The Gun In Betty Lou’s Handbag (1992), the eponymous heroine is as stereotypical librarian as you could wish to meet; mousey, quiet, cardigan the whole lot, but one who is tired of not being taken seriously so she comes up with the kind of novel plan to get herself noticed that only makes sense in so-called screwball Hollywood comedies or if you haven’t taken your medication for a few days. Betty Lou finds the gun that was used in the murder of a local mobster but no one takes any notice when she takes it along to the police station because a librarian in a police station is nearly as unlikely as a policeman in a library. To get their attention she fires the gun and of course ends up in the cells and just for good measure confesses to the murder which of course she hasn’t committed. Which is a bit of a problem for her husband who doesn’t take much notice of his wife either but he is a policeman tracking down the murderer so that’s his career down the pan then. It doesn’t get any better either because to teach him a lesson she also claims to have been the dead man’s lover, so that’s his home life down the drain too then. Betty Lou meanwhile ends up in the cells with all the hard-case girls and hookers and this being a screwball comedy they all take a liking to her instead of taking her Betty Louapart as they might have done in real life which is the cue for an Olivia Newton John in Grease level transformation in her appearance. Of course this is just the start of her problems as both the crooks and the cops are on her case. The real killer is convinced that as the dead man’s lover she must have the incriminating tape he wants back so he starts looking for her to have a quiet chat with the help of his other gun but finding her is a lot easier than he might think because the cops also want to use her as bait to smoke out the real killer which is of course a cue for a mere librarian to outsmart the cops, the robbers and her own husband who of course will be very attentive now that he knows how handy she is with a gun. Which is more than audiences were.

Another theme which Hollywood has worn way past threadbare and a close relative to the ugly duckling cliche is the zero-to-hero plot where rich socialite/playboy/girl tire of their empty lives, experience an epiphany and resolve in a tearful denoument to become a nun/missionary/charity worker/world champion whatever. So it must have brought a gleam to the eye of jaded producers when someone pitches the idea for Party Girl (1995)  Hey, why don’t we subvert those cliches with a satirical take; how funny would that be? Well, in the case of Party Girl it would be about as funny as funny as Carry On Shawshank Redemptioning or to put it another way bloody awful.

When one of the wild parties she throws for her cool but shallow friends leaves her needing to borrow bail money from her godmother, hedonistic, irresponsible Mary is shamed into taking a job to pay the money back and show she can act responsibly. To make sure Mary’s humiliation is complete she is forced to work at the public library where Judy her godmother is the chief librarian. Not only does Mary hate the job but she is continually criticised by her godmother until finally she  is goaded into showing she really she can do the job and so begins her long dark journey of the soul; she masters the Dewey Decimal Classification Scheme. So taken is she with her new skills that she helps her friends by classifying the record collection of one and the clothes of another who show their appreciation by being horrified.

Party Girl demonstrates how well she has grasped the basics of being a librarian

Party Girl demonstrates how well she has grasped the basics of being a librarian

She also manages to show how much she enjoys her job by choreographing her book shelving, dancing on the library tables, and having sex in the library although to be fair that does get her the sack although many librarians would have shown her the door after the dancing. Mary’s epiphany is a spectacularly decadent birthday party and a bad trip. Resolved to sort her life out and go to Graduate School Mary arranges to discuss her future with Judy back at her flat where her friends noticing how down she has been lately have organised a surprise party.  To help the audience grasp her epiphany Mary has swapped her usual day-glo psychedelic party outfits for the librarians uniform of sober grey suit, bun and dark rimmed glasses but Judy’s scepticism is confirmed when she witnesses the wild party. This is cue for the usual emotional denoument where our hero pleads for a chance to be nun/missionary/charity worker/world champion whatever. In this case though Mary plea for Judy’s help to become a librarian isn’t helped by the over close attention of a male stripper gyrating all over Mary’s sober suit in only his jock strap and gets even more surreal when Mary is quizzed about her librarian skills with the naked stripper chained to a drain pipe in the background. Of course it is all resolved when Judy relents and even joins the partying.

Party Girl is most unusually an entire film about librarians, a kind of reverse Pygmalion or My Fair Librarian as the heroine moves from Gaultier outfits and wild hip parties to become the “mainstay of the public library”; I would have entitled it From Disco to Dewey but that is why I don’t work in marketing.  Delighted though I am that my profession has made it properly to the silver screen I’m not sure which comes off worse all that hedonistic partying or librarians and an emotional denoument that includes the lines “I want to be a librarian” doesn’t just lack the dramatic popwer of “I want to be champion of the world” its is, frankly, just bizarre.  Nonetheless it already has a place in cinema history as the first film to premiere on the internet which is an achievement better than the TV spin off which lasted just four episodes.

Finally before we move on and just in case you are one of the two people who actually watched the TV pilot I will make a passing mention of Final Notice (1989). It which features yet another librarian this time played by Melody Anderson who gets herself mixed up in the kind of deadly games that Library School could only have prepared her for if they ran modules on being held at knifepoint by psychopaths, being very scared and screaming. A number of books with all the  images of women mutilated are discovered in her library followed by a real murder with similar mutilations and the librarian teams up with the detective to track down the killer.  I haven’t included that in our films about the transformation of librarians because there isnlt one. Melody’s librarian is attractive, confident and makes all the running in the usual mis-matched love affair plot with the unhappy, cynical cop.  I also left it out of the post about bodies in the library because although the bodies were library users they weren’t actually found dead in the library. In any case I am sure that some zealous library users may find the fact that the film features the gratuitous vandalism of library books more disturbing than the discovery of dead bodies.

Finally those who know me will not be surprised that we cannot leave a post in this historic week without celebrating the achievement of a team I started watching in the very early 1960’s. It has been called, and who am I to argue

The Greatest Sporting Story of All Time

LCFC Champions

FEARLESS

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