Don’t mess with librarians.
On my blog, I’m using a stronger word than “mess,” the watered-down euphemism required by the kabuki of daily newspapering. Which, for the record, I object to. The nation is in continual crisis, if not circling the drain. Norms are trashed left and right. Newspapers are wan imitations of themselves as it is. Time to unleash all the words.
Librarians are badass. At least I can say that.
Yes, the National Archives is not, technically, a library so much as a repository of public documents. But it has its own library and a chief librarian, and is in charge of all presidential libraries. We’re on safe ground considering it a library.
And yes, those busting into Mar-a-Lago on Monday were not librarians, per se, but FBI agents acting as their proxy. Still, going down to Florida to collect their overdue materials was certainly a boss librarian move. The sort of hardball I’ve come to associate with librarians.
Librarians can’t be milquetoasts. They must deal with the public. Frequently wrangle other people’s children for hours. Librarians can’t suffer fools. Busting in, guns drawn, blowing the safe, is very on-brand for librarians. “I believe you have something that belongs to us!”
Experience has given me special respect for librarians. Not to be confused with affection. Closer to the survivor nostalgia that Marines feel for abusive boot camp instructors at Parris Island. There was Mrs. Rachel Beers — I remember her name — fixing me with her deadly laser stare from behind the circulation desk at the Berea High School Library. She once printed up school library rules on a special handout, personalized for me, and hand-delivered them, since I obviously didn’t seem to understand that the library rules applied to me, too. Especially to me.
Still, when my colleague Nader Issa wrote his eye-opening July 18 expose, “In an age of misinformation, why are there so few librarians at Chicago Public Schools?” I was aghast. Out of 513 Chicago public schools, only 90 have full-time librarians. Sure, librarians can be mean. They almost have to be. But they’re also the people who put the book in your hands that changes your life. Who teach you to hack through the dense online overgrowth of nonsense that too many Americans accept as fact, to get to the real, true, valuable stuff. That CPS would cut them, merely to save money, well, that’s par for the course, isn’t it? Like ditching playgrounds and recess and arts programs. The most important stuff goes first.
I’m proud to have worked in some of the great libraries of the world. The British Library. The Library of Congress. Widener Library at Harvard. The New York Public Library’s vast 42nd Street reading room. I display my bright yellow Newberry Library card prominently in my wallet. Paying for something, I delude myself imagining bystanders sneaking admiring glances. “Look at that card! He must be a scholar-in-residence at the Newberry Library. He has his own three-foot span of personal shelf.”
And I can tell you, whether tracking down an essential book, or helping patrons puzzle through card catalogues and databases, librarians step up. Librarians are your friends.
Generally. As this little incident down in Florida reminds us, there is a flip side: the fierce book protector, record preserver, gatekeeper aspect, and I’ve seen that, too.
I remember trying to breeze through the entrance of the main library at the University of Chicago using the same tattered Northwestern library card — noblesse oblige! — that worked at half a dozen university libraries around the country. Not so fast, buster, a maroon librarian said, stopping me. That may fly at Harvard. But it doesn’t work here. I ended up having to phone the U of C media office and beg Bill Harms to come over and walk me through the turnstiles.
Librarians can be tough, but they are forgiven. Because managing all the world’s knowledge is not a job for cowards or weaklings. Credit where due. I love the fact that Donald Trump might go down — he won’t, but we can dream — because of overdue books. Purloined classified government documents, anyway. Given the key role that determined ignorance has played in our past seven years of tumbling national decline, there’s poetic justice in librarians racing to America’s rescue. Saving the country while reminding us to return our books on time.