Monday, September 06, 2010

Lost Themes of American Literature: Librarian Love
The original title was Librarian Lust, but the genre of writing I am thinking of was not primarily lusty, at least in the carnal sense. The heyday of the library reminiscence was approximately the 1910-1955 era. The foremost practitioners of it were for the most part not the titans of literature, but the second and third tier authors, sentimentalists and literalists and the well-meaning, the Sinclair Lewises and Hamlin Garlands and Dorothy Canfield Fishers and Maud Hart Lovelaces and Charles Merzes, the likes of Hemingway and William Faulkner having more interesting and vital subjects on which to expend their energy. These authors are heavily concentrated in rural New England and the upper midwest--so many library stories come out of Iowa and Minnesota in particular that one is inclined to think of them as archetypal experiences of the sensitive young man or woman of this region (There is also a wide literature celebrating the New York City library system, especially the main location, but romance is not so much a feature of these stories as the headiness of real scholarship and the panorama of eccentric life on display in room 315 at any given instant).

One somewhat interesting characteristic of this genre is that the librarians, desirable and lonely and good as they may strike the easily smitten reader, are not always caught by the handsome researcher or college educated city-dweller inexplicably spending two months visiting his aged aunt in Mankato. Shyness is sometimes the culprit, but often the librarian at the moment of decision is clearly reluctant to give up the independence and power, however modest, which her position gives her. This is sad to me, because there are not many young women in literature more likable, as well as admirable, as a pretty and earnest librarian in a nowhere town in 1940, and I always desire to see them find love and intellectual companionship which is worthy of them, which unfortunately rarely happens. I briefly considered going to library school myself at one point, and even went down to a college in Boston that has a library science program on a prospective students' night to investigate the idea. I liked the people there--or the younger women anyway--quite a lot, and it might have been somewhat fun taken in itself separated from other experience. It is not of course for the most part a manly calling, and, as Parker Posey's aunt pointed out in the ur-90s film Party Girl, a favorite of mine, it pays accordingly (at the time, the average starting salary in the field was around $19,000; apparently this was serious). I grant that my current job is probably about equivalent on the manliness scale but at least I can pretend to envision, or have once envisioned, myself doing something else someday, and I am not a professional where my identity, education, etc, are strongly identified and tied into my occupation. Of course if you are the head librarian at a prestigious research university or of the public system in a large and important city like New York or Boston, you can make well over six figures, get treated with some respect by people of low to middling rank at least, and if you're a man maybe some of the female librarians under your charge develop the hots for you--maybe. However at the orientation they made it sound like the people who were going to get one of these jobs were either identified and groomed for the positions from early ages or were recruited from successful careers in other areas of academia, if not the larger world.

The library surviving through the current economic and technical upheavels as pillar of community life either of cities or universities I have real doubts about. The ones I go to in New England, provided they are in a town of any size, are always full, though it is true far more people there are using computers than reading printed material. In my town, which is a state capitol, where probably close to 50% of the population has at least a BA, where 99% of the population speaks English, and where the library building is a striking 1930s granite art deco structure that is frequently featured in architectural surveys of that era, library hours have been cut several times over the years and a few proposals have started to be made regarding shutting it down altogether. The arguments will start up over how it isn't 'necessary' in this day and age, but public libraries were never 'necessary' in the pure utilitarian sense (neither were schools). That was kind of the point of them. I am a fan of well-run, aspirational public institutions in general because they indicate respect to the insignificant individual citizen, which he needs, maybe even before he deserves it. These institutions played a substantial part in making this country strong, not just materially but culturally and morally as well, and I think that the day when we begin discarding them because we no longer can (or wish to) pay for them will be a very dark one in the annals of the republic/empire.

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