Arts + Life
4:31 pm
Wed August 7, 2013

Libraries' Leading Roles: On Stage, On Screen And In Song

Originally published on Thu August 8, 2013 4:04 pm

When I was 9, I spent a lot of time at a public library just down the street; I was already a theater nerd, and it had a well-stocked theater section. Not just books, but original cast albums for Broadway shows old and new. One day, an addition: The Music Man, about a salesman who was crazy about a girl named, as one song put it, "Marrrrrrrion, madam librarian."

I just assumed our librarian, who was maybe 23, was that most regrettable of midcentury things, a "spinster." (She was so much older than my baby-sitters.) Later I learned that The Music Man was spoofing that idea, by making Marian young — maybe 23 — and sexy once she let down her hair and utterly irresistible to the traveling salesman, who'd presumably had many a fling.

But then of course the Spinster Librarian is a durable literary construct and hardly the only one I picked up from pop culture. Others include librarians as detectives, libraries as fortresses protecting us from ignorance, whole science-fiction worlds devoted to the storage of ideas and history. Like, say, the deserted planet in an early episode of Star Trek that seems the only remaining trace of an entire civilization.

It's hardly surprising that writers, who deal all the time with words, would find fascination in great repositories of them — Jorge Luis Borges, imagining the universe as a "Library of Babel" containing all possible books; Neil Gaiman stocking Lucien's Library, in The Sandman, with every volume anyone has ever dreamed of writing but never written; George Lucas imagining holobooks and datasticks for his Jedi Temple library; a whole universe's worth of knowledge stored in Doctor Who on a planet-sized library that contains whole continents of biographies.

On Earth As It Is In The Heavens

These are all otherworldly libraries, not much resembling the Terran ones where you can actually check out a book. But pop culture is littered with those, too. Sometimes they're pictured as dreadful dead ends, as in It's a Wonderful Life, when Clarence reveals to George Bailey that without him around, his wife Mary Hatch would never have married; instead she'd've spent lonely evenings closing up the library after everyone had gone home. (That spinster librarian thing again — fate worse than death, right?) Happily, that was the same year an eager young bibliophile was haunting her local bibliotheque in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, trying to read every book on the shelves in alphabetical order, so she would know "everything in the world."

Knowing everything in the world would make her — well, a librarian, more or less. They know so much, in fact, that they can even beat computers, or at least Katharine Hepburn could in 1957's Desk Set. Admittedly, while she could quote Longfellow from memory, she was also a little high-strung. Happily, Spencer Tracy was around to calm her down.

The notion of librarians as obsessive and almost devout about books leads naturally to connections between religion and libraries. In literature, that's reflected in, say, the illiterate monks of A Canticle for Leibowitz, who archive what's left of civilization after an atomic war. Or the friars in The Name of the Rose, a medieval mystery in which a Franciscan realizes that a series of priestly suicides may be related to what cannot be found in the monastery's library.

"Where are the books?" he wonders, as the author turns the abbey's library into a maze, in both a literal and a literary sense, providing fun for readers and lending the stacks an air of excitement they don't always possess.

That complements the cool factor that teen fiction has bestowed on libraries, which often offer a little something extra in that genre — the dragon section Harry Potter could consult at Hogwarts, for instance, and the towering bookshelves Belle fell for before she fell for the Beast who owned them. The archive where Batgirl was a librarian. And of course, the school library perched atop a hellmouth at Sunnydale High, where the point is less getting students to read than it is giving Buffy and her vampire-slaying buddies the tools to fight for their lives.

When A School Failed A Giant, A Library Offered Refuge

There are few weapons more powerful than facts and ideas, and as libraries are full of those, they naturally appeal to firebrands. Playwright August Wilson, for instance, who wrote Fences, The Piano Lesson and the eight other plays in a decalogue that's among the crowning achievements of American theater. As a 1960s teenager, Wilson practically lived at his local library, which turned out to be great for his writing, less great for his grades. He penned one paper on Napoleon that was so well researched, his history teacher rejected it.

"He didn't think I had written it," remembered the playwright many years later, adding that at 15, this so infuriated him that he threw it in a wastebasket and stomped out of school, never to return.

Where he went instead — avoiding truant officers for three years, while getting an education good enough to inspire Pulitzer Prize-winning art — was Pittsburgh's public library.

Germaine Greer wrote that "a library is a place where you can lose your innocence without losing your virginity," and songwriters have joined poets and philosophers to offer their own takes on that notion — from Jimmy Buffett, in his song "Love in the Library," to Tori Amos, who on her album Tales of a Librarian arranged the tracks according to the Dewey Decimal System.

In songs and books and movies and art, libraries are sanctuaries, places of bustling quiet, storehouses of ideas that fuel the imagination.

"When you're growing up," a wise man once said, "there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you."

That wise man was Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who ran up thousands of dollars in overdue-book fees.

Don't believe me? I know where you could look it up.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Carl Sagan once wrote: We are the only species on the planet, so far as we know, to have invented a communal memory stored neither in our genes nor in our brains. The warehouse of this memory is called the library. This summer, NPR is exploring the idea of public libraries and their place in American life. And our film critic, Bob Mondello, asked if he could broaden that mandate a little to look at the library's place in America's fantasy life.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: When I was nine years old, I spent a lot of time at a public library just down the street because it had a well-stocked theater section. Not just books, but original cast Broadway albums. And one day, a new one came in, "The Music Man," about a salesman who was crazy about a girl named...

(SOUNDBITE FROM MUSICAL "THE MUSIC MAN")

ROBERT PRESTON: (Singing) Marian.

MONDELLO: The head librarian had recommended it and the next words explained why.

(SOUNDBITE FROM MUSICAL "THE MUSIC MAN")

PRESTON: (Singing) Madam librarian.

MONDELLO: I just assumed our librarian, who was maybe 23, was a spinster because she was so much older than my babysitters. Later, I found out "The Music Man" was spoofing that idea.

(SOUNDBITE FROM MUSICAL "THE MUSIC MAN")

PRESTON: (Singing) I love you madly, madly, madam librarian, Marian.

MONDELLO: Spinster librarian is a literary construct and hardly the only one I picked up from pop culture. Librarians as detectives, libraries as fortresses protecting us from ignorance, whole science fiction worlds devoted to the storage of ideas and history, like the deserted planet in an early episode of "Star Trek" that seemed the only remaining trace of an entire civilization.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW "STAR TREK")

LEONARD NIMOY: (As Spock) This appears to be an archive or a library of some kind.

WILLIAM SHATNER: (As Capt. James T. Kirk) Then we're certainly in the right place to find out where the inhabitants are and if there are any left now.

DEFORST KELLEY: (As Dr. McCoy) Well, that's fine. Where do we start?

IAN WOLFE: (As Mr. Atoz) I am the librarian. May I be of assistance?

NIMOY: (As Spock) Perhaps you can. Mister...

WOLFE: Mr. Atoz.

MONDELLO: As in A to Z.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW "STAR TREK")

WOLFE: I confess that I'm a little surprised to see you, but the surprise is a pleasant one. After all, the library serves no purpose unless someone is using it.

MONDELLO: It's hardly surprising that writers, who deal all the time with words, would find fascination in great repositories of them. Borges imagining the universe as the Library of Babel containing all possible books; Neil Gaiman stocking Lucien's Library in the comic book series "The Sandman" with every volume anyone has ever dreamed of writing but never written; George Lucas imagining holobooks and datasticks for his Jedi Temple library; and a whole universe's worth of knowledge...

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW, "DOCTOR WHO")

DAVID TENNANT: (as the Doctor) The library.

MONDELLO: Stored in "Doctor Who."

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW "DOCTOR WHO")

TENNANT: So big it doesn't need a name, just a great big book.

CATHERINE TATE: (as Donna Noble) It's like a city.

TENNANT: It's a world, literally, a world. The whole core of the planet is the index computer, the biggest hard drive ever. And up here, every book ever written, whole continents of Jeffrey Archer, Bridget Jones, Monty Python's Big Red Book.

We're near the equator, so... these must be biographies!

MONDELLO: These are all otherworldly libraries, not much resembling ones where you can actually check out a book. But pop culture is dotted with those, too, sometimes pictured as dreadful dead ends, as in "It's A Wonderful Life."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE")

JIMMY STEWART: (As George Bailey) Please, Clarence.

HENRY TRAVERS: (As Clarence) You're not gonna like it, George.

STEWART: (As George Bailey) Where is she?

TRAVERS: (As Clarence) She's an old maid. She never married.

STEWART: (As George Bailey) Where is Mary? Where is she?

TRAVERS: (As Clarence) She's just about to close up the library.

MONDELLO: That spinster librarian thing again, a fate worse than death, right? Happily, that was the same year an eager young bibliophile was haunting her local bibliotheque in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN")

PEGGY ANN GARNER: (As Francie) I've read all the authors beginning with A and all the Bs down to Burton. It's next.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (As librarian) You mean you're trying to read your way straight through the library?

GARNER: Yes, ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: But a book like this, you'll only be confused...

GARNER: Please, I want to read clear through the alphabet. I want to know everything in the world.

MONDELLO: Knowing everything in the world would make her a librarian, more or less. They know so much, in fact, that they can even beat computers, or at least Katharine Hepburn could in 1957's "Desk Set." Admittedly, while she could quote Longfellow from memory, she was also a little high-strung.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DESK SET")

KATHERINE HEPBURN: (As Bunny Watson) Wah-way-taysee, little fire-fly/ Little flitting, white-fire insect,/ Little, dancing, white-fire creature. You're welcome.

SUE RANDALL: (As Ruthie Saylor) Ms. Watson, here's that $5 I borrowed.

HEPBURN: Thank you, Ruthie. You can keep it if you need it. I don't want it. I would gladly wait till payday. On the shores of Gitchigumi.

MONDELLO: The notion of librarians as obsessive, almost devout about books, leads naturally to connections between religion and libraries. In literature, that's reflected in, say, the illiterate monks in "A Canticle for Leibowitz," who archive what's left of civilization after an atomic war. Or in "The Name of the Rose," a medieval mystery in which a Franciscan friar realizes a series of priestly suicides may be related to what cannot be found in the monastery's library.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "THE NAME OF THE ROSE")

SEAN CONNERY: (As William) Did you notice how few books there were on the Scriptorium shelves? All those scriveners, copyists, translators, researchers, thinkers. But where are all the multitude of books that they need for their work, hmm? And for which this abbey is famed? Where are the books?

MONDELLO: "The Name Of The Rose" turned its library into a maze, in both a literal and a literary sense, providing fun for readers and lending the stacks an air of excitement they don't always possess. That complements the cool factor teen fiction has bestowed on libraries that often have a little something extra - the dragon section Harry Potter could consult at Hogwarts, for instance; the towering bookshelves Belle fell for before she fell for the beast who owned them.

The archive where Batgirl was a librarian, and of course the school library perched atop a hellmouth at Sunnydale High, where the point is less getting students to read than giving them the tools to fight for their lives.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SHOW "BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER")

SARAH MICHELLE GELLAR: (As Buffy) Do you have any more copies of Emily Dickinson? I need one.

ANTHONY STEWART HEAD: (As Rupert Giles) Buffy, while the mere fact of you wanting to check out a book would be grounds for a national holiday, I think we should focus on the problem at hand.

GELLAR: (As Buffy) I'm sorry, you're right. Vampires.

MONDELLO: What better spot to look up garlic recipes, right? There are few weapons more powerful than facts and ideas, and as libraries are full of those, they naturally appeal to firebrands - playwright August Wilson, for instance, who wrote "Fences," "The Piano Lesson," and the eight other plays in a decalogue that is among the crowning achievements of the American theater.

As a '60s teenager, Wilson practically lived at his local library, which turned out to be great for his writing, less great for his grades. He penned one paper on Napoleon that was so well researched, his history teacher rejected it.

AUGUST WILSON: He didn't think I had written it. I tore the paper up and threw it in his wastebasket and walked out of the school. I was 15 years old. I did not go back.

MONDELLO: Where he went instead, avoiding truant officers while getting a good enough education to later satisfy the Pulitzer judges, was Pittsburgh's public library.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE IN THE LIBRARY")

JIMMY BUFFETT: (Singing) Love in the library, quiet and cool. Love in the library, there are no rules.

MONDELLO: Germaine Greer wrote that a library is a place where you can lose your innocence without losing your virginity, and songwriters have joined poets and philosophers to offer their own takes on that notion, from Jimmy Buffett, in this song, to Tori Amos, who on her album "Tales of a Librarian" arranged the tracks according to the Dewey Decimal System.

In songs and books and movies and art, libraries are sanctuaries, places of bustling quiet, storehouses of ideas that fuel the imagination. A wise man once said, when you're growing up, there are two institutional places that affect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you.

That wise man was Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who ran up thousands of dollars in overdue book fees. Don't believe me? I know where you could look it up. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "THE LIBRARY" BY KIMYA DAWSON) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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