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 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?
There 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.
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. 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
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 book 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!
 Mine was usually kept in the bottom drawer of my desk, underneath the Good Beer Guide