Magazine article American Libraries

You Can't Judge a Book by Its Librarian: Surprising Images among the Notables; All Manner of Images of Librarians Appear in Nominees for ALA's 1991 Notable Books List

Magazine article American Libraries

You Can't Judge a Book by Its Librarian: Surprising Images among the Notables; All Manner of Images of Librarians Appear in Nominees for ALA's 1991 Notable Books List

Article excerpt


All manner of images of librarians appear in nominees for ALA 1991 Notable Books list

Every so often Madison Avenue or Hollywood trots out another tired cliche of a librarian, and one of us mails in the example to the "Image" column of American Libraries. Short of a professional boycott, though, what can you really do about it?

But what if you discovered that writers-writers whose very books you displayed and circulated in your libraries were perpetuating these same disturbing caricatures or that other writers, obviously the more perceptive and talented ones, were saying positive things about librarians?

Well, of course you're all in favor of intellectual freedom and against censorship but.. . .

What follows is a selection of quotes about libraries and librarians from books published in the past year that I compiled while a member of the Reference and Adult Services Division (RASD) Notable Books Council. Although it seems apparent that memories of libraries and librarians would linger in the creative subconscious of many authors, I was still surprised at the abundance of such references as I read my way through our list of several hundred titles. The more I thought about it, however, the more it seemed likely that there is a symbiotic relationship between writers and librarians, an almost yinyang polarity:

One can't exist without the other.

It was also a surprise to find that, when tallied, the portrayals showed a slight bias toward positive renderings-though the negative images do have more bite. As committee members judging books on literary merit, we maintained our objectivity when faced with negative stereotypes of ourselves. In the end, our Notable Books List 1991 (covering books published between November 1989 and October 1990) included A. S. Byatt, Barbara Kingsolver, and Penelope Lively.

Oh, yes, one final note. Hypothetically, a database search could have produced a more comprehensive list, but these quotes were discovered the old-fashioned way, by reading books cover to cover.

McCorkle's "frazled' character

For some writers, memories of those censorious, fusty, old-maid-type librarians survived well into adulthood and turned up years later as fictional characters. Jill McCorkle, for instance, describes this frazzled librarian as seen through the eyes of a determined borrower: "You cannot check this out another time this year," the Pinetop librarian had said when I tried to check the book out for the tenth time; she was exasperated by all the noise a classroom of eight-yearolds can make just entering a room. "Somebody else might want to read about Helen Keller."

"What if I wait until the end and nobody's checked it out?"

"There are other classes, you know," she said, her lips pushed forward like all those cartoons of the North Wind getting ready to blow, and then she stomped off to yank Merle Hucks and R.W. Quincy by the arms and to tell them to stop rubbing their feet on the new indoor-outdoor carpet and then touching people to shock them."

(McCorkle, Jill: Ferris Beach, Algonquin Books, 1990.)

Entering heaven

The child protagonist in the preceding novel saw librarians as obstacles; others found no such barriers. Indisputably, they afl shared a common delight with books. As portrayed by Ellen Gilchrist, a gifted Native American girl has this wide-eyed first impression:

The sisters at the Catholic school sent out a letter to the parents saying the children should be taken to visit a public library and given a library card, so Mary Lily drove Olivia into town and introduced her to the library. It was an old Carnegie library that rose like a temple between frame buildings on either side. Olivia thought she was entering heaven to go through such wide painted doors and come into a room with so many books on shelves so high. "Can I come every Saturday?" she asked the librarian. …

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