Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Women in the Library

The place of the library and the librarian in film culture is, one would be inclined to think, at least partially determined by the nature of the audience. It is for the most part, except on the art house circuit, a popular audience, not particularly educated or particularly cultured, young – after the 1950s or 1960s perhaps increasingly teenage – and one which is inclined to find value not in quiet or concentration but in breakout, fun and making whoopee.

The library in film, therefore, can be a place that has the potential to be somewhat comical or ludicrous, and occasionally even sinister. Hollywood, one feels, would probably have portrayed the church in the same way if it thought it could have got away with it; but it couldn’t. The library scene is the one where the snappy, quickfire dialogue we've been getting up to this point must be suspended, or reduced to whispers, where if voices are even slightly raised the straitlaced librarian or the other users - often creepy - will, frequently in unison, shout SSHH! or point with exaggerated irritation at the notice reading QUIET or SILENCE. (The library is where Sally Bowles in Cabaret memorably announces to her boyfriend, Brian, in a loud voice, “God damn it, I’m going to have a baby!” But perhaps the disturbed readers, given that they are German, don’t understand her.)

There is of course in film a great temptation to violate the sanctuary of the library and scenes of mayhem, pursuit and murder, even sexual congress, among the stacks are not uncommon. Order is to be disturbed, silence broken, and won’t those enormous tall shelves look great crashing down like dominoes? Then there are the librarians, irascible bow-tied men of uncertain masculinity or sour, disapproving spinsters. George Bailey (James Stewart) in It’s A Wonderful Life, doubting the value of his existence, is shown by his guardian angel what would have happened to his lovely and loving wife had he not been there for her: yes, she would have remained unplucked and ended up as that dried-up, bespectacled little librarian. Ingo Tornow, in a chapter on film in a sumptuously illustrated German history of the library, Die Weisheit Baut Sich Ein Haus (Wisdom Builds Itself A House), notes that while in popular cinema almost no one wears spectacles women librarians almost invariably do. It is of course a marker of unattractiveness and frigidity ... and yet, and yet, there is the very attractive bespectacled Gloria Mundy (Goldie Hawn) in Foul Play, and others. The Hollywood librarian, can on occasion it seems, like the Hollywood secretary (“Why Miss Jones, you’re beautiful!”) be quite dramatically transformed simply by removing her glasses and shaking loose her hair. In America no one is beyond redemption.

Moving to more mundane – if more important – matters, the employment of women as librarians was pioneered in the United States, as Robert Crawford tells us in a recently published essay. It certainly had a political, or emancipatory, context, being one of a relatively small number of white collar (or “respectable”) employments open to women. It may also have had an economic one, as one can be sure library guardians were disinclined to pay women what they might have felt obliged to pay men. Speaking in London in 1877 the recently appointed librarian of Harvard and president of the American Library Association announced with pride that at Harvard

they take lady assistants into the library at £100 a year, and gradually raise their salary to as high as £200, and £240 in exceptional cases. They obtain ladies having a fair knowledge of Latin, Greek, French and German, and a usable knowledge for library work of Italian ... They had present, he was glad to say, a representative of the American lady librarians (loud cheers), one who had been librarian of Wellesley College, eight miles from Boston, where the president is a lady, all the professors are ladies, and 400 ladies are the students.

Britain and Ireland may have lagged a little behind American progressive practice, but there were a few women librarians in eighteenth century England and certainly one much celebrated one. Esther Caterer (née Esther Saunders) took over the running of her father’s Sheffield subscription library on his death. A library in an industrial city, with a clientele that was working class and mercantile, “the approach was bad; the staircase was winding, the room was dark and inconvenient, but still there was no small number of good books”. And Esther herself was a character, given to hiding away books for her regulars and much loved by the library members: “She was a great favourite on account of her easy good temper; and she was a great newsmonger too. Marriages were whispered in her little room long before they took place; deaths were known as soon as the bell tolled; and all the affairs of the town and country were amply discussed."

On Caterer’s death in 1818 the poet John Holland wrote an extended elegy to her memory in the affectionate mock-heroic style of Robert Burns. I think it’s worth quoting in full as it’s not often that librarians get the praise that is their due:

Ye book-worms, a’ wi’ sorrow meet,
Nor wi’ few tears your een be weet;
For eens, spite o’ the warld’s deceit,
                                By pity led,
Be yours the wail o’ Surrey-street,
                 Auld Esther’s dead!

She was a canty clattering dame,
A servant gude; abroad, at hame,
She had an honest matron’s frame;
                     Nor could I spread
A mickle stain owre a’ her name ‑
                     Auld Esther’d dead!

When gentles came, in studious mood,
To fash their brains ’mang learning’s brood,
Or tak’ their meal o’ mental food,
                        Wi’ ready head
She ken’d where every volume stood. ‑
                 Auld Esther’s dead!

An’ when the storm blaw’d hard an’ reekit,
An’ the warm room ye ran an’ seekit,
‘Tis fearless truth, an sic I speak it,
                 Free frae a’ dread.
Wi’ heer the hours like minutes sneakit. ‑
               Auld Esther’s dead!

The books are grievin, ’mang themselves,
From folios fat down to lean twelves,
As if sad ghaists and wailing elves
               A clamour spread;
And sighing a’ alang the shelves:
             Auld Esther’s dead!

Sigh for her, every ancient book,
Auld Chaucer i’ the poet’s nuik;
A’ ye romances, dolorous look,
       Your gude friend’s fled;
For muckle pride in you she took. ‑
            Auld Esther’s dead!

Robert Crawford’s essay “The Library in Poetry” is published in The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History (Princeton University Press), which will be reviewed in the Dublin Review of Books in the autumn.

31/08/2015