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My Top 5 Librarians in History

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I thought it would be fun to write a post of my top favourite and most inspiring librarians in history (and a bonus one). There are many others I have left out, but these are the ones whose works I have had the pleasure of reading. It will become apparent shortly as to why they are so inspirational:

  1. Jacob Grimm

grimm-jacob-imageJacob Grimm is by far my favourite librarian. This man, like most librarians on this list, was multi-talented. First, he’s one of the two ‘Brothers Grimm’ which is what he’s most famously known for. The two brothers (Jacob and Wilhelm) collected fairy tales and wrote them down (and refined them). Jacob though, was also a prominent linguist and he contributed greatly by creating “Grimm’s Law” which was very useful when studying Old English. Jacob Grimm also worked as a librarian in Kasel, after graduating with a law degree. His work on language, and fairy tales has had a huge impact on my life and career trajectory, which is why he gets the #1 spot.

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  1. Lillian H. Smith

IMG_20170425_164640Lillian H. Smith was the first head of the children’s services at the Toronto Public Library in the earlier days of the public library (starting with the 1920s). She created many programs for children like story time and founded the Girls’ and Boys’ House. The reading clubs that she hosted expanded in all aspects of storytelling like puppet shows, literary discussion/debate, and historical subjects. She was a firm believer that a librarian’s job was to deliver “the right book, to the right child, at the right time.” Her published work The Unreluctant Years: A Critical Approach to Children’s Literature (1953) includes the choices of literature she deemed appropriate as well as her new classification system specific to children’s literature. Her services for children and philosophy spread worldwide and she was a highly influential woman. Her name is currently used as the name for one branch of the Toronto Public Library.

  1. Jorge Luis Borges

jorge-luis-borgesJorge Luis Borges was an Argentinian writer who made significant contributions to literature in the 20th century and nominated many times for the Nobel Prize in literature but alas did not win. He lost his sight completely in his later years. He was a municipal librarian from 1939-1946 in Argentina, before getting fired by the Peron regime. One of his most famous short stories, “The Library of Babel,” depicts the universe as a huge library and is one of my favourite stories of all time. His poetry, essays, and reflections on literature, as well as his own major contributions have made him a prominent author—and often his librarian role is discussed as an extra.

  1. Eratosthenes

Eratosthene.01Eratosthenes the chief librarian at the Great Library of Alexandria. In addition to pretty much running the world’s greatest wonder, Eratosthenes discovered the system of latitude and longitude and made significant contributions to astronomy. He calculated the circumference of the earth without ever leaving Egypt, and has been nicknamed “the father of geography.” His work Constellation Myths: with Aratus’s Phaenomena was recently reprinted by Oxford Classics.

  1. Lewis Carroll

300hCarroll is known for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland but his main career was in mathematics. After graduating from Oxford with a B.A. in mathematics, he became a sub-librarian at Christ Church there. He left that position in 1857 to become a Mathematical Lecturer. In addition to this, my favourite fun fact about him was that he was a stickler for near writing. He would often get great ideas for writing after he had already gone to bed but didn’t want to wake up and light the lamp, and he also didn’t want to have messy writing under any circumstance.

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A recreation of the Nyctograph and the alphabet Carroll created for it

So he created this rectangular device called the nyctograph, where he would have his own “alphabet” and write in code at night, so it looks neat in the morning. Recently someone printed a copy of Alice completely in nyctograph from, and that’s just awesome. Carroll’s bibliography is vast and I don’t have to convince you that he was amazing. The key thing here is that he was also a librarian which makes him extra amazing.

Bonus Librarian: Benjamin Franklin

BenFranklinDuplessisBenjamin Franklin founded America’s first lending library the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731. He served as librarian there for three months (Dec.1733-Mar.1734). He was a huge fan of John Baskerville’s printing work back in England and is responsible for bringing back to America the font of John Baskerville. Franklin also started the first medical library in Pennsylvania. I can’t list in a paragraph all the incredible things Franklin did in his lifetime. He was an inventor, a printer, an intellectual in every sense of the word, a newspaperman, a library founder, politician, mathematician, oceanographer, and scientist. I think sometimes his other works are so incredible that they overshadow the fact that he was a librarian and founded many of America’s firsts special and lending libraries—which is pretty amazing.

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This is What a Librarian Looks Like | Book Review

“‘What do we need libraries for? We’ve got the Internet now!’ FACEPALM” – Cory Doctorow

“Wherever you are in America, there is a librarian fighting to get YOU something”

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This book will be published on May 16, 2017 and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.

Last week I recommended five non-fiction books on libraries which were mostly academic and history-focused.

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Front Cover

This book is not a history book but a celebration of libraries, and librarians, accomplished by a collaboration between photographers, librarians, publishers, and authors. By comparison to last week’s recommendations, this book is much more accessible. Kyle Cassidy published a photo essay on Slate in 2014 called “This is What A Librarian Looks Like,” a montage of portraits and a tribute to librarians. The essay had success and spread widely through social media. Cassidy expanded this project into what is now the new-coming book This Is What a Librarian Looks Like: A Celebration of Libraries, Communities, and Access to Information.

The book has three components:

  1. Brief essays on the history of the American Library
  2. Photographs of contemporary American Librarians
  3. Essays by writers, journalists, and commentators including Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Nancy Pearl, Cory Doctorow, Jeff VanderMeer, and others who discuss what the library means to them now, and what memories they have of the library from their childhood and/or youth.

The three sections are woven beautifully combining the history, interviews, and photographs according to historical periods and American geographical regions. Cassidy opens with an introduction to this book on the ideal of the library by discussing the Library of Alexandria. He writes:

“What made the Library of Alexandria great wasn’t just the collection of books, but rather, its intellectual raison d’être: the insatiable pursuit, creation, and dissemination of knowledge as a force to drive civilization.”

While discussing the leap across the digital divide and community service provided by librarians, this book urges readers not to look away while the Government is taking funds away from libraries. One such initiative is called Send Librarians to Congress, where the goal is to put a copy of this book in the hands of each member of Congress before Federal funding for libraries is eliminated as proposed in the “Skinny Budget” from President Trump. Cassidy writes:

“libraries in America today are at a crossroads, facing dangers not unlike those of the Great Library [of Alexandria] as well as an evolving technology that has the power either to make libraries exponentially more valuable or to erode their foundation if we are not careful.”

lcThe book then focuses a chapter on America’s First Lending Library: The Lending Company of Philadelphia which was opened in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin. The second history-based chapter is on artifacts and tablets interviewing Sumerologist Steve Tinney at the Tablet Room at the University of Pennsylvania, who focuses on the tablets similar to those which got us the Epic of Gilgamesh (British Museum) and Cuneiform writing.

Cassidy then turns his attention to individual library histories like the chapter “The Little Library That Tried” on M.N. Spear Memorial Library in Shutesbury, Massachusetts and “History you can Hold” focusing on the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library. There are also insights to libraries collecting non-texts like the Franklin Public Library which collects ‘The American Girl’ dolls instead. The book closes with “Archiving the Past” at University libraries in Texas and Iowa with a conversation between Cassidy and George R.R. Martin.

I really enjoyed this book with all its components, however, as a reader and librarian I was much more interested in the essays written by authors and the history parts. I wish they were longer. Some author interviews were only a paragraph long. For 220 images of librarians to fit in this large book, expect a coffee-table-style  book.  I understand the political undertones, specifically the one I mentioned above, where this book aims to put a face to the community of librarians in America for Congress, but as a physical codex, the book will become immediately dated because of the abundance of contemporary photographs. On the other hand, the same component makes it somewhat unique to preserving the ‘here and now.’ I would urge the reader to look at this book first and foremost as an art/photography book, where the histories and author essays are the supplements for the images, not the other way around as is usually the case. Nonetheless, the book advertises itself as a celebration of libraries and librarians, and in that respect, it has succeeded.

In terms of librarians photographed, this book is America-centric. Though the librarians are multicultural and diverse, the workplaces of the librarians photographed are mostly in the United States covering an array of public libraries, special collections, school libraries, and academic libraries. The authors interviewed are American, Canadian, and British. Overall this book focuses on the Western experience of the library.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in libraries, photography, and who has enjoyed blogs/books like Humans of New York which focus on individuals with an excerpt on what they do, and what they enjoy. I especially recommend this book to Congress.

Many thanks to Hachette Books, Black Dog & Leventhal for sending me a copy of this book for an early review.

I will leave you now with this excellent quotation on the importance of librarians taken from the introduction to the book :

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