Libraries and Librarians in Literature

If you’re looking for evildoing in literature, you might not find much of it in books that feature librarians, library users, and library scenes. Heck, evildoers who want to research their future evildoing probably do it on their home computers…

So, with libraries in lit, you often get characters who are likable and intelligent and other good things. Which might mean a little less drama, but still some nice reading. Nothing wrong with that once in a while!

For instance, it’s appropriate that Novalee Nation, a working-class woman always open to learning more, meets another kind person in a library. He is Forney Hull, who has a major impact on Novalee’s life after she was abandoned in Oklahoma by her no-good boyfriend in Billie Letts’ Where the Heart Is.

The also-working-class protagonist of Jack London’s Martin Eden makes the ambitious transition from sailor to writer partly by spending countless hours in the library educating himself.

In L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, Valancy Stirling likes to visit the library to get the latest book by her favorite author — an author who will affect her life in a way she can never imagine.

Chicago librarian Henry DeTamblen involuntarily jumps around in time in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. Another book in that genre, Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back, includes a poignant library scene in which the late-20th-century protagonist Sam Fowler sees a photo of the all-dead 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings team he had recently grown to know in person.

Then there’s Carol Milford, who worked as a librarian for several years before moving to Gopher Prairie, Minn., to live with her new husband Dr. Will Kennicott in Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street. The liberal, free-spirited Carol tries to bring change to the narrow-minded, fixed-in-its-ways town, but is totally thwarted — ironically, even by a local librarian who doesn’t encourage reading. Can anyone say “wrong profession”?

Also less pleasant than most librarians is Hogwarts’ strict keeper-of-the-books Irma Pince in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. Heck, she even makes it hard for Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore to use that wizard school’s library.

While Robin Sloan’s novel is more about a San Francisco bookstore, a secret society’s private library in New York City plays a significant role in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

At-home private libraries are ruthlessly burned in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; a monastery library figures prominently in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; Mr. Rochester impersonates a gypsy during a memorable Thornfield Hall library scene in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; the library is visited a number of times in Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; a college library is one locale in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys; and the main branch of the New York Public Library is mentioned in Jack Finney’s From Time to Time.

In the nonfiction realm, a memorable book is the poignant Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter. The formerly abandoned Dewey lives in an Iowa library, and becomes a feline celebrity.

There’s also The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the classic written with Alex Haley, in which the civil-rights leader recalls educating himself with the help of a prison library.

What are your favorite literary works featuring librarians, library users, and/or library scenes? Also welcome are your general thoughts on the value of libraries, your worries about adequate funding of these wonderful institutions, your recollections of library experiences, etc. 🙂

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

Note: Later this month, I have relatives visiting and then a conference, so I’ll probably skip doing June 21 and June 28 blog posts. I’ll still reply to comments posted under this June 14 column, though at times more slowly — and will definitely put up a new column the evening of Sunday, July 5!

For three years of my Huffington Post literature blog, click here.

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.