“They open up the world. Because knowledge is useless if you don’t know how to find it, if you don’t even know where to begin to look.”
So says prize-winning author Patrick Ness about librarians and on National Libraries Day, who are we to disagree with him? But if you thought a librarian’s life was all about stamping books and saying ‘Shush!’, think again (though actually we quite enjoy both of those rare activities).
First let’s look at some real-life library activities that you might not have expected. All this week on Twitter, @VoicesLibrary has been handing over the reins to a different librarian each day. From a solo museum librarian to a public librarian in the London Borough of Lambeth, each one details their day and you can find out what a wide range of work they do.
Here in Westminster we have a full programme of events and activities on the day, ranging from a gig at Westminster Reference Library to break-dancing in Marylebone. Librarians have never been short of ideas to encourage people to come and use our buildings – you may have read about one Scottish library running pole-dancing classes. But our cousins across the pond are even more adventurous (is adventurous the word I’m looking for…?). Check out the amazing Book Cart Drills our American colleagues do so enthusiastically. A particular favourite is this spooky one, performed to Saint-Saens’ Dance Macabre.
Surely this sport is a must for the 2020 Olympics?
The list of real-life librarians who have achieved fame is a long one. You can read more about Philip Larkin, curmudgeonly poet and popular Hull University librarian in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (you’ll need your Westminster Library card number). According to his entry
“Larkin had had no particular bent for librarianship, and always maintained that his entry to the profession was an accident of wartime circumstances. But, for all the bewildering drudgery of the job (he found he had to stoke the boiler as well as stamp the books, make reports to the district council, clear the reading room of derelicts, for long hours on low pay), he became a popular and influential figure.”
142 librarians are listed in the ODNB, notably Lionel McColvin, the City Librarian of Westminster during the war years, who founded Charing Cross Library.
Libraries have, not surprisingly, played an important role in the arts. The British Library has compiled a site devoted to libraries in film (what librarian hasn’t dreamed of a job in the Beast’s library from Beauty and the Beast? while The Shawshank Redemption demonstrates the importance of a library to men with little hope in their lives). See also this carefully classified site devoted to librarians in films with its list of actors who have played librarians (including Judi Dench, Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi and Helen Mirren) and this rather excellent blog – Reel Librarians (check out the 30 October 2012 entry for some library workers you really wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of). And of course no list of on-screen librarians would be complete without mentioning Barbara Gordon, Chief Librarian by day, but by night… Batgirl! (currently doing a very good line in book recommendations on Facebook).
There’s no shortage of books featuring librarians and indeed studies of librarians in books. Favourite fictional library workers include ‘The Librarian’ in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, who finds it very convenient to have been turned into an orang-utan (no need for a ladder to get to the high shelves) and William of Baskerville, the monk-detective in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (filmed in 1986 with Sean Connery). Kingsley Amis (a close friend of the aforementioned Philip Larkin) made an amorous librarian the hero of his comic novel That Uncertain Feeling, set in a Welsh seaside resort.
Larkin himself wrote A Girl In Winter about a wartime refugee working in a provincial library. There are also bibliomysteries, now a popular genre of crime fiction set in the world of libraries, bookshops and publishing. Why not check out The Hunt for Sonya Dufrette in which a librarian tries to solve the mystery of a child’s disappearance at Charles and Diana’s wedding 20 years earlier?