Newsletter of the Association of Library and Information Science Students (ALISS)





Vol VII Issue VI

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Holiday reading ... with librarians for company

By Phoebe Ayers
That's right, we're all counting the days 'til winter break starts. And I, for one, in between visiting family, shopping, and lying comatose on the couch, intend to get some good solid fiction reading done (preferably fiction that doesn't have the phrase “information behavior” anywhere in it).

And yet, we wouldn't want to completely lose sight of our profession. Librarians show up in fiction pretty regularly -- authors and bibliophiles seem to understand our importance. However, librarian portrayals can be good, bad or indifferent. This topic has long been a source of fascination to librarians and particularly library students, who are thrilled to work on projects that involve popular culture instead of programming. Hence, if this column piques your interest, there are several websites with bibliographies of librarians in fiction for further reading that can be found with a simple Google search -- one good one is this list, from a class at UCLA in 2001. In fact, fictional librarians are such a popular topic that there's been an entire book devoted to them: Librarians in Fiction: A Critical Bibliography by Grant Burns.

So while you're all scrambling over yourselves to go check this tome out of the UW libraries (call number Z2014.L45 B87 1998, in Suzallo/Allen), in the tradition of Beverly Stuart's excellent September 2002 Silverfish column on this subject, I bring you a few brief reviews of various novels that feature librarians. I've tried to hit several genres, so there can be something for everyone.

The Archivist, by Martha Cooley (1998).

This is a depressing book, no doubt about it. In between memories of his formerly institutionalized, now dead wife, his lack of friends and family, and budding obsession with the graduate student who wants to examine the letters under his care, Matthias the archivist has problems. The letters in question are by T.S. Eliot, and are not supposed to be released to anyone for years hence. Will Matt crack, and let the student, Roberta, see them anyway? This is not really a book about archives, where objects stay immutable through time; rather, it is a book about the past and how it can shift and change and haunt us. Eliot's poetry floats through the pages, along with news clippings from the Holocaust, which Matthias's wife drove herself crazy over; all in all, it makes for a compelling but unsettling read.

Miss Zukas and the Library Murders, by Jo Dereske (1994).

On to lighter fare. This is the first book in the Miss Zukas series, all of which feature Helma Zukas, librarian of the Bellehaven, Washington public library, and of course, mystery solver extraordinaire. While I love the idea, and appreciate the Washington setting, this first book is a little silly. The plot is thin and the library setting could be amplified; the real joy here is in the characters, of Helma and her friend Ruth. I found myself groaning a bit at times -- does Helma have to be quite so prim and proper? Quite such a neat freak, eating her sandwiches with the crusts trimmed off, and a spinster to boot? But after Miss Zukas single-handedly fights off her would-be murderer, even I wanted to cheer. According to Amazon's reviews, the later books -- there are at least seven more -- get better and meatier. This was a very light read -- I finished it in an afternoon. Perfect for winter break.

The Great Piratical Rumbustification, and, the Librarian and the Robbers by Margeret Mahy (1978).

This fantastic children's book is really two books in one: “The Great Piratical Rumbustification,” and “The Librarian and the Robbers.” For whatever reason, the latter story is only available bound with the former, but they're both wonderful. In “The Librarian and the Robbers,” the beautiful librarian Serena Laburnum is carried off by robbers, who are hoping to get a rich ransom from the city council for her: “after all, everyone knows that the library does not work properly without you.” Miss Laburnum, of course, not only reforms the robbers and teaches them to use (and run!) the library, but she even marries their chief: “perhaps she herself was more of a robber at heart than anyone ever suspected.” This short book, marketed to kids 8 to 12, is a steal in paperback at $6.95, and, in a final stroke of genius, includes illustrations by Quentin Blake. Highly recommended.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992). 

My favorite character in my favorite science fiction novel is by no means the lead. Nor is he often even discussed much among fans of the book, which are legion. The librarian, after all, is not even human -- he's a computer construct, but one with manners and mannerisms. There's something about how he can silently enter a room, and, in summarizing results that have been programmed into him, inject them with a subtle, impossible wit (impossible because of course, as a program he could do no such thing) that captivates me every time. Ah, the librarian software. Coveted, expensive, the only piece of CIC ware more expensive than “Earth”: in the Metaverse, we know what's useful and what's important. The librarian rules.

(Of course, for those who haven't read it, the librarian is really a minor character -- there's a great deal more to the book, and you'll either love it or hate it. Dive in, revel in the madness, ignore the programming jokes -- or laugh at them: the last great cyberpunk novel still stands tall).

Enjoy the break!


The Archivist by Martha Cooley