Tag Archives: The Head Librarian

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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