Tag Archives: The Unseen University

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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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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