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Thursday, July 11, 2002
By Paul Ford
A hypothesis regarding portrayals of librarians, intermixed with images of tigers in libraries. A fiction, sort of.
I had a dream of tigers in a library. They prowled the stacks. I was alone in the library but for the tigers. They yawned and curled up in the children's section. I looked up tigers in the card catalog, thumbing the dented cards, finally finding the right typewritten card, with the call number crossed out and a new number written above in ink. The book was called Tigers Climb the Himalayas to the Sun.
Where does the stereotype of librarian as dour spinster come from? Authors, screenwriters, librettists. And where did they come into their vocations? Lonely Saturday afternoons at the library. Take each portrait of the undersexed spinster or the pale shh-ing crank in film, play, novel, or musical. The artists who draw librarians this way may have the confidence of success in their craft today, but spin the world counterclockwise a dozen years or more and you'll see them as an under- or over-fed boy or girl, sitting among the old oak desks of the closest library accessible by bicycle, cultivating a love of words when their fingers could reach no other love.
Their 12-speeds chained safely outside, these nascent creatives piled five or six books before them, dipping in and out of each volume. The oak desks were donated by some monstrish stockholding benefactor, the prodigal son of the library's namesake. One of the books might be profane, laden with complex, adult interactions and lust. One might be about science, impenetrable but filled with thrilling equations. The stories of the operas might sit next to them, and next to that a history of Western Literature, or a textbook in psychology, or The Life of Johnson, all half-understood, to feed the reader's self-conscious and compensatory pride in intellect. The point of going to the library is not to read, but to swim in words.
Around these lonely children moved the librarian; it was she or he who kept the refuge in order, who worked, humble before overflowing filing cabinets and surly liars refusing to pay fines, to bring the patrons with narrative and facts. Why did they punish her, make her undersexed?
This is my idea: the screenwriters, authors, and librettists were ashamed that they needed the library. Those of them - us - who spent our youths among books, the dust, silverfish, hiding in a bathroom stall with a racy novel too embarrassing to check out, developed a perverse need to mock the librarian, to punish her (so rarely him in the idiom) for providing a place of silence and peace.
And why? Because who knew more than the librarian how vulnerable we were? She - let me fall into the idiom as well - must have seen dozens of us over her career, the lonely but self-important boy or girl drawn to a certain section of the stacks - math, or biology, or poetry - the call letters on the edge of the shelves like a lighthouse. And of course we would, at some level, hate the library for being the witness to our loneliness, our strangeness or intellects banishing us to the stacks. From their books authors, who were not human but published, part of the history of the world, would speak to us without patronizing, would challenge us to think like adults by the nature of their prose, assuming we were adults. Wrapping my mind around the prose of strangers I realized some of what it would mean to be an adult, some of the workings of the the strange world of handshakes and mixed drinks neckties, always in awe at the quantities of footnotes at the back of any serious work, sometimes more books than I'd read in my lifetime.
Then the writer, the librettist, the screenwriter leaves the library, and resents the librarian for staying behind, and punishes her. He puts her hair in a bun, makes her stubborn, makes her every utterance follow a shush. He then confounds, or deflowers, her. Punishment for his own lonely library days, and so unfair, when you consider how smart and well-read most librarians are, their awareness of categories.
“He was a big fan of tigers,” he said.
“Detroit Tigers?” I asked.
“Just tigers. The cats. Liked reading about them. Read all the books we had on them.” I didn't press my luck any farther. He looked uncomfortable, guilty telling me about a patron. Even a dead patron. I folded another $20 into his hand and thanked him. I went to the card catalog. Subject. Ta-Tu. Tigers, Detroit. Baseball Team. Tigers. The Story of Tigers. Tigers in the Wild. Tigers Climb the Himalayas to the Sun.
This last one, someone had crossed out the call number, written in a phone number instead. Local number. I wrote it in my notebook, then went upstairs and got the book, rifling through the pages. An envelope fell out, and I pocketed it before anyone saw me. Not that anyone would have made much of it. It was almost sundown. I had no time to read what was inside. I sprinted to the pay phone by the bathrooms, kept my voice low, and dialed the number from the card catalog.
“Will Greener there?”
“Heh,” said the rough North Brooklyn accent on the other side. “Not available. Ever again. Wrong number.” He hung up. I turned back to see the librarian towering over me.
“Library's closing,” he said. “We close early on Fridays.” The windows were almost dark. Which meant a 4-mile walk home.
Categorization is one of the most difficult endeavors that a human might undertake. Sit down and try it - try, for instance, to put this essay into a system. Is it about librarians? Yes, so far. But it's also about tigers. It is about epistemology, and it is about my memories of libraries, and my dreams of tigers. File it under libraries-memories-tigers. File it under tigers, in libraries. Or hook it to my name, under "essay" or "autobiography," but I am often lying making it fiction, or quasi-fiction, Schrodinger's fiction that may or may not be true. And of course it's not printed out, this piece, so it's even more ephemeral, and it will likely never be categorized, unless I chose to categorize it.
There is a great push by the people who engineer the standards beneath the Internet to have web content developers include metadata in their documents, so that categorization might be automated, so that the entire Web might connect itself, become a great self-assembling card catalog, the cards flying in virtual space. There are a great number of acronyms and terms - RDF, XML, XHTML, Ontologies, Schemas, N3. From their syntactic statements, it is hoped, a Semantic Web might emerge, a Web of meaning. I find all of this hard to understand, in my work as a web developer and information architect for a large music and media conglomerate, and my attempts to fiddle with it have led to little so far - save that my efforts have been used as a “bad example” in one software developer's documentation, a way not to do it. But I want to categorize stories, make them more like machines that churn inside themselves, sort the characters and settings into a database, make the world explicit and clickable. I don't know why I want to do this, or if I can succeed.
I imagine categorization makes librarians stare at their ceilings at night, listening to their lovers breathe in the bed beside them, thinking of ways to navigate through the great spheres of knowledge. I don't envy them, having to paddle through a sea of words with only LOC classification, MARC records, Google, a Master's Degree in Information Science, to guide them. A person should be careful about loving a librarian; if your systems of classification collide, you might be plucked out of the “lover” subject heading and dropped into “ex-.”
I wanted to be a librarian like Samantha. Among the many things I wanted to be, it was maybe the second or third option. I wanted to work in the music industry, I wanted to build Web sites, and I wanted to be a librarian. I have done two of those things, but the third - I am too scatterbrained. Still, I dream of stacks, of cubicles and books.
The opening words of Tigers Climb the Himalayas to the Sun, written by myself, are “I had a dream of tigers in a library.” It continues:
I woke from my dream of tigers. Samantha was asleep on the floor. Sometimes she rolled off her bed in the night and stretched on the floor, without blanket or pillow. I could see her teeth, the top slightly bucked out and the bottom dented; she'd been a thumbsucker. We had a day of driving. It was to be mostly her day, and I would navigate. She was snoring. Samantha is my stepsister. We were making up a story as we drove. It was a detective story about Hiram “Crash” Lenkenheimer, an Orthodox Jewish detective from Crown Heights, and his assistant, Percy, the Shabbas Goy who provided the muscle and did the detecting on Saturdays.
We drove out of the hotel, connecting to the right exits, and were back on the highway. “What happened next,” Samantha asked.
I put on my Shadow voice, the road flashing past. “When we last left our hero, he had just found a mysterious phone number connected to the Will Greener case.”
Samantha cried last night, sitting in a deep hotel chair.
“What the fuck am I doing?” she asked.
We were in a Best Western. I was lying on the bed. I turned to look at her. “You're taking a trip. When you get out west you're going to stay with your friends.”
“I had an entire life, you know, all set.”
“I wouldn't know what that's like.”
“I miss it.” Two fat tears went down her face, then she smiled and said, “Let's have a shot and swim in the pool.”
I got up, my legs still numb after the day in the car, and went to a duffel bag, pulling out a bottle of whiskey. I left her and walked down the hall to get some ice, and came back. She was switching into her swimsuit, and I saw a brief flash of breast. There was nothing tense, no potential, but of course I noticed it; it was smooth and comforting and reminded me of home.
“I walked home,” I said, as Hiram. “Percy was waiting on the corner with the key already out. He let me into the apartment and turned on the light of the living room. As always I looked to Rebecca's portrait over the mantle, her serious face and bright eyes looking back. 'You want me to stick around, Hi?' asked Percy. I wanted to talk the case, wanted to pull out the envelope in my pocket and read what was inside. But not for another 24 hours. Who knew what would happen in 24 hours? Well, Greener wouldn't come back from the dead, I thought. 'No, Percy, you might as well go home. Come back tomorrow, though, ready to work.'”
“'I'm always ready to work, Hi,' he said. True enough, I thought. It had been a long night. I went into the bedroom and fell asleep.”
“Wouldn't he pray or something?” Samantha asked.
“Probably. I don't know.”
“Tell me more about Rebecca.”
“In the story, or in my life?”
“In your life.”
I told Samantha a story about Rebecca Dravos and Scott Rahin and Rebecca's dog Elephant and her cat Rockstar.
“Maybe what I need is a nice librarian like Rebecca for myself,” Samantha said. “Being a lesbian would make things much easier.”
“Being a lesbian hasn't made a single thing easier in Rebecca's life. It's made most things harder.”
“I know I'm being stupid. Don't tell me about it.”
“Okay,” I said, apologetically.
I had work-study ($4.25 an hour) at the college library my senior year of college. I opened on Sunday mornings, crawling out of my too-short dorm bed at 8am, and walking over to pull open the heavy wooden doors and turn on the lights, then take a seat behind the counter, ready to check out books and interpret magazine request slips.
No one would come in until 9. It was me, and a quarter-million books, and for a few moments before some local came in (it was too early for students) for the Sunday New York Times, I could run my fingers over ten thousand spines, read Rolling Stone and The Nation and 100-year-old copies of Harper's.
As a gift, I snuck in a steel carousel to hold the rubber stamps they used at checkout, and no one knew where it came from. I'd found it at a thrift store in Philadelphia. Later, when the library put up a large board of suggestions with the official library response, I stole a pad of suggestion forms, and, with my roommate, wrote up both the suggestions and the library's “official” response.
As filled out, the suggestion form, in cramped hand, would ask the librarians to hire an exorcist to get the three-eyed monster out from under the east stairwell. The response would insist that an exorcist came in twice a month already. Another suggestion asked the library to get the "uncensored" version of Seymour Cray's classic video What's all this about Gallium Arsenide?, the one with bare bosoms. And my roommate and I wrote asking why we (as our pseudonyms Wilfred Smicket and Warren Teufel) were never invited to the cool library parties with crank and smack.
The librarians loved them - even the one from the local Methodist preacher who asked for private microfilm room to review Playboy - and left them up for months. I was suspected - especially when I made a joke about Gallium Arsenide while riding in a car with a librarian and her boyfriend, another librarian. She said, “Gallium arsenide? It was you” and I turned the color of karo syrup, but I insisted that it wasn't me, and my guilt as the secret library suggestor was never proved.
Hiram was in a cliffhanger. It was Friday afternoon and he had three hours to stop a bomb from exploding in the country courthouse. The person who'd set the bomb was the same one who'd shot his wife Rebecca. Samantha stopped me as the action began. I was driving.
“You know, this was good for me. This trip.”
“I think so too. I've never known you to be less than a ray of sunshine. I was getting a little worried.”
“Should I call him?”
“I don't know. It's always easy to go back, I know. Sometimes it's the right thing. Depends what you want.”
“I want to swim in the Pacific. I want to hear how Hiram saves the courthouse and avenges his wife before sundown.”
“I want to swim in the Pacific, too. I'm a little sick of Hiram. He might have to die to save the courthouse.”
“No sequels then.”
“We're going to Portland, not Los Angeles.”
“I'm glad we did this. You were a real shithead once, you know. I'm amazed at how we ended up like one another.”
“Well, you've become much less of a rank bitch.”
“I had my reasons.”
“We turned out okay.”
“We turned out. We learned to drive. We found ways to make a living. One of us became a librarian. The other worked for a record company promoting the music of idiots using both print and electronic means. He was the good-looking one. She was the smart one.”
“No, it's the other way around. I'm the good looking one and the smart one.” I didn't reply, just rolled my eyes. She said, “Because I like you, and because you are going to stop at the next rest stop, I forgive you for stealing my Nancy Drew novels and getting peanut butter on them.”
“I read one. I was curious. You said I was a faggot when you found me reading them. You told Chrissy Chamber. I loved her. I was 12. You told her I was a butt-packing faggot. You came up at lunch when I was trying to tell her a joke and said, Chrissy, my brother is a butt-packing faggot. He reads Nancy Drew books. Keep away or he'll get his faggotness all over you.”
“I would have said that, huh. I'm sorry. I guess I forgot.”
“I didn't. And you now offer me your forgiveness. After tormenting me over my totally unambiguous sexuality, now you're lusting for my friend Rebecca.”
“I'm allowed.” She looked out the window. “I am sorry I did that.”
“It's okay. We worked it out in group.”
“I still want you to find me a restroom. Would you stay in Portland if you found work?”
“I don't know. I'd hate to give up New York.”
“Yeah, I understand. I'm not going to miss Upper Darby, see. So it's much less of a problem.”
“I'm sure they need a lot of good reference librarians in Portland. As long as you can answer questions like, 'what is the tensile strength of a corncob? Because I want to build an addition on my house' or 'do you have any books on the Goddess?' Can you shush dirty hippies, or is that a violation of their rights? Do you want to practice your shushing?”
“Yes.” She punched my shoulder, hard, and said, “Shut the fuck up. How's that?”
“I hope you will punch hippies like that.”
“I'll punch hippies for sure.”
“And the pixie cut has to go. How can you craft a bun out of that?”
“I'll never have a bun.”
“We'll get you a false one. Nice and tight-looking.”
I wish for tigers to enter the library and protect the books, and the librarians, and Samantha, from those who could damage the books or cut the budget. With tigers at their behest, no library budget would be cut again; a simple appearance by a librarian with a tiger would encourage the most ferocious finance committee to temper their zeal for cutting funds.
In my dream, librarians are safe under the auspices of tigris foruli, what the Romans called “bookshelf tigers.” Among the stacks there is a place of order and comfort, open to all, knowledge and contemplation protected by the savage and beautiful beast, all shoulders and snarl.