One of the frustrations of being a librarian — right up there with irritating patrons and not being allowed to drink coffee at work — is the occupational stereotyping. Like nuns and teachers, librarians tend to be depicted in books and movies as elderly spinsters, rigid and frigid. More recently, in a predictable attempt to subvert convention, the slutty librarian trope has emerged — young, hot-blooded, yet not exempt from the cats-eye glasses. As a librarian, it’s hard to see this as much of an improvement.
“Everyone has a librarian fantasy,” asserts the librarian-narrator of Aimee Bender’s story “Quiet Please,” from her collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, and then she sets out to prove herself correct, propositioning the patrons at the circulation desk and taking them into the back room. There is, naturally, eyewear to be torn off, long hair to be let down, and an overpowering smell in the mysterious and otherwise off-limits area behind the desk.
Nothing so exciting happened to me during my floundering career as a librarian, though I enjoyed the ceremony of putting on white gloves to handle a rare material. In some ways, I embarked on being a librarian as if it were an extended game of dress-up, attracted more to the stereotype of what it would be like — a quiet, bookish job in pleasant surroundings — than genuine interest in the profession as it really is now. I had once gone to a Halloween party dressed as a librarian — a “real one,” I feel it necessary to mention, not a sexy drunk one with date-stamps on her midriff. The night was a success and may have weighed on my subconscious when, a few years later, I decided to actually become a real one. I already had the right skirt.
In retrospect, this decision seems to owe too much to the Parker Posey movie Party Girl, in which a stint in the library puts a young woman’s disordered life into order. In the movie, the rules of the library straighten out the protagonist, who finds peace and purpose through correct use of the Dewey Decimal System.
Recently, at a professional crossroads in my library career, I read two books that happened to be about young women’s sexual identity and their journeys into — and out of — librarianship. Both books are set in an earlier era, and yet some elements remain extremely familiar.
In Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, originally published in 1958 but reprinted in 2007, Sally Jay Gorce, struggling to make it as an actress, moves to Paris, where she encounters a man so magnetic that when he clasps her hand in a café, she has an orgasm. Unfortunately, such concentrated charisma tends to lead to regrettable acts, and after many adventures, Sally Jay renounces the depravity of Paris and returns to New York to become a librarian: “And (here it comes): a librarian is just not that easy to become…Apparently there’s a whole filing system and annotating system and stamping system and God knows what you have to learn before you qualify.”
Revirginalized by her new occupation, she moves into an all-girls residence hotel and begins shelving books. Within paragraphs she has dropped some on the head of a male patron. The next morning, he asks her to marry him. (“I’m tired of living in sin with you.”) The whole good-natured romp of it bespeaks a clear message: Bad girls are redeemed in the library. Casually promiscuous would-be actresses can be reissued as the wives of successful photographers. No matter how many times an item is checked out, when it returns to the library, its past is wiped clean.
Just as being in the library exerts a purifying influence on hot-blooded Sally Jay, close proximity to libraries paradoxically brings wholesome girls into the orbit of depravity. This is a theme of certain paperbacks on eBay and also more tastefully and literarily rendered of Beverly Cleary’s memoir My Own Two Feet. In it, Cleary, then Beverly Bunn, is ambitious, hardworking, warm-hearted, and sensible — more Beezus than Ramona.
As a library school student, she and her classmates at the University of Washington concoct wholesome cataloguing challenges, like “an imaginary series of books…six volumes, each with a different editor or sometimes two, one of whom wrote under a pseudonym and the other under her maiden name, some volumes translated from foreign languages.”
And yet a less wholesome undercurrent intrudes. When she wears a red dress to work, a man whispers to her, “You look like bait in that dress.” When she’s chastised by the senior librarian for her sloppy handwriting, the word “fetish” is invoked: “I don’t want to make a fetish of printing, but…” Later, working in an army library, the commanding officer, “a huge man, tall and heavyset…sat up, reached out, pulled me toward him so I was standing between his knees, gave me two pats on my bottom, and said, “So you’re a librarian. You can have the job anytime you want it.”
What is most affecting about Cleary’s book is her evocation of the Depression and the grind of survival. In the girls’ co-op where she lived, residents earned part of their keep through chores and were not allowed to sit on the beds, which Cleary explains cheerily was no hardship for her as she never had been allowed to at home either. The idea was not to wear out the mattress prematurely.
Rules like this seem unbearably intrusive now, 75 years later. In the decades since Cleary was a librarian, many aspects of the profession have changed. Books are no longer the only, or perhaps most important, element of a library. Handwriting doesn’t much matter, though competency with technology is useful. But though there is still tension about what the library and librarians of today should be, the connection between librarians and sex is surprisingly persistent.
Licentiousness in an atmosphere of restraint comes through in Tony Hoagland’s poem “Not Renouncing,” which begins:
I always thought that I was going to catch Elena
in the library one afternoon, and she would shove me gently backwards
into the corridor of 822.7 in the Dewey Decimal System,
where we would do it in the cul-de-sac of 18th century drama.
Why in the library? Maybe it’s the covetousness brought out from being around large quantities of things which may be borrowed, and renewed for two more weeks more, but may never actually be possessed? Or, perhaps, in a place where the mind is paramount, the body finds a way to remind you that it’s the one that brought you and will take you home.
Nicholson Baker’s work presents one possibility for where librarians are headed. Baker may be best known for Vox, a phone sex extravaganza, and The Fermata, with its memorable descriptions of non-consensual sex acts with women stopped in time. In 2011, he published House of Holes: A Book of Raunch. Amid these projects, he wrote a New Yorker article lamenting the demise of card catalogs and the 2001 book Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, which castigated librarians, in entertainingly severe terms, for discarding old newspapers. Librarians were shaken by the book and responded with a tsunami of aggrieved articles, blog posts, and even a pedantic book-length rejoinder, Richard Cox’s Vandals in the Stacks?
Baker, who writes about sex acts with pointillist attention to sensation and pragmatics, brings a similar level of attentive scrutiny to librariana — the card catalogs, annotations, marginalia, paper, and ink. The point of these objects, in Baker’s view, is that they bear up to sustained close attention, that each one is capable of an authentic and individual response that no scan or facsimile can provide. Compared to the original object, using a microfilm surrogate is, Baker quotes, “like kissing through a pane of glass.” There is something pretentiously smutty about the attention he lavishes on a broadsheet newspaper or his painstaking examination of penciled notes on catalog cards, recto and verso. But isn’t that what people want from their lovers, even more than from their librarians — to be examined, catalogued, known?
In Baker’s vision, libraries and librarians are in danger of becoming the opposite — soulless information providers like Siri, or Scarlett Johansson’s breathy-voiced character in the movie Her — efficient, non-corporal, excellent at answering standard reference questions, and only an illusion of humanity simultaneously conversing with hundreds or thousands of others.
In contrast, a more human-centered view of the librarian appears in The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken. Although its protagonist has some stereotypical librarian characteristics — she’s inexperienced at love and lives in a small town, in this case on Cape Cod — McCracken actually was a librarian, and her depiction of librarians is more sympathetic, more nuanced, and more like a job than like a long way of saying “shrew.” McCracken’s book, set in the 1950s and published in 1996, doesn’t so much turn a librarian stereotype inside out as bring us inside to inhabit it. Her librarian, Peggy, starts as a “perfect public servant: deferential, dogged, oblivious to insults…I conformed myself always to the needs of the patrons.” Peggy is serviceable, “a piece of civic furniture, like a polling machine at town hall.” She wears dreary skirts and patched underwear. Although she’s an incisive observer of library patrons — and for a librarian, one of the joys of this book is its sharp critique of the patrons — the library is also her refuge, from relationships and even growing up: “In eighth grade it seemed that puberty was a campaign whose soldiers could not find me — I was…already in a nook in the library, while puberty, like polio, struck the kids who hung around in crowds by the swimming pool or punch bowl.”
The Giant’s House embraces every librarian stereotype, from clunky shoes to coiled bun: There’s a scene where a man pulls off Peggy’s little hat, bobby pins clatter to the ground, and her hair falls loose around her shoulders. “Much better,” he says. But there’s a difference, a subversion. Peggy is complicit in living the stereotype, and it is her own perspective that is for once central and her pleasure in her work that comes through. The satisfaction of giving a patron the right book — one the patron hadn’t imagined existed — that, she says knowingly, is “a reference librarian’s fantasy.”
Inevitably, Peggy falls in love with a patron (the giant of the title, who is just a teenager), gets pregnant, is cagey about the father, and is fired from her job for violating public decency. And yet, however much you love libraries, this is a happy ending. Peggy wears lightly her new status as a scandalous woman, a giant’s lover, a legend in town. After all, who better to know how a story like this must end?
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