The Fictional Librarian

Part 1 - The Orang-utan in the Library

By Daniel Gwyn

On the whole, the librarians featured in fiction tend to fall into the drab category. It is my intention to buck this trend by discussing a few of the more colourful librarians in fiction. I will begin this two-part series with a discussion about one of my favourite fictional librarians, who must surely be the most unusual ever to grace the page.

The individual occurs in Terry Prachett's Discworld novels. He works in the Library of the Unseen University. Although the author never saw fit to give him a name, there is plenty to distinguish him from other fictional librarians: his species for one. The Librarian is an orang-utan. Yes, you read that right, an orang-utan. He was accidentally transformed into an ape (not a monkey mind you, he is quite sensitive about such matters of nomenclature) due to a magical accident. In Discworld, magic is commonplace. The Unseen University is the most prestigious centre of academic learning about magic on this peculiar planet. It turns out that the axiom "Knowledge is power" is literally true on Discworld, as the written word affects people's perceptions of reality which, in turn, alters reality. Therefore, books about magic are doubly powerful, if not power squared. Collectively magical books function like weapons-grade plutonium: if a critical mass is allowed to build-up, very unpleasant things happen. This not only accounts for the Librarian's current shape but also illustrates some of the unusual difficulties faced by him in his professional capacity. The wizards of the Unseen University offered to transform him back to his original state but he refused as he found "life as an orang-utan was considerably better than life as a human being, because all the big philosophical questions resolved themselves into wondering where the next banana was coming from. Anyway, long arms and prehensile feet were ideal for dealing with high shelves." (Terry Prachett, Equal Rites, p. 207.) Let us hope that this lack of interest in theory does not exclude a proper interest in authority files.

Other occupational hazards the Unseen University's Librarian must face include the fact that high levels of magic have warped the fabric of space-time in the library to the extent that the library floor plan now exists in at least four, if not five dimensions, with resultant problems in creating a coherent self list. This arrangement does have its advantages as it is possible for the Librarian to travel backwards in time within the darker corners of the stacks, and even travel to other libraries. However, this is very dangerous because getting lost is a real and potentially fatal possibility.

The books themselves are sometimes individually dangerous. Some have to be chained to shelves to protect the users from them. Some unlucky readers have been fatally read by books, ending up as new appendices. Another type of magical volume is known to be cannibalistic, consuming other works. Others have to be kept in vats of ice water to prevent spontaneous combustion. One particularly dangerous book has to be kept in a room by itself with eight locks on the door, as well as countless warding spells. All of this makes the Librarian's job that much more difficult: how do you assign subject headings to a book that it is unwise to even open?

Another factor disrupting the life of the library are the academic politics of the Unseen University. While they generally remain out the library, the bickering of wizards has sometimes resulted in books being stolen, the library being threatened with arson, the budget being cut, and the Librarian being forced to play "Fay Wray" in an unusual series of events based on King Kong. (Don't ask, read Moving Pictures). Calling for silence under these conditions becomes difficult.

However, the Librarian is clearly up to the challenge. Indeed, he seems to thrive on adversity: he views his current species as an advantage, rather than a hindrance. His powerful physique allows him not only to shelve books with ease but also to intimidate unruly patrons. He has been known to eat the cigarettes of offending smokers. His loyalty to his library and by extension to knowledge is unquestionable and should remain so. He once used the warps in the fabric of space-time of his library to rescue significant books from another library that was in the process of being burned. (This also allowed the library to acquire several rare books without cost. Creative acquisition is a virtue in librarians.) In this aspect, one might say that the Librarians are perhaps a little warped as he views the theft of books as a more serious crime than murder.

It should not be thought that the Librarian only lives for his library for he has many other interests. Apart from being something of a party animal (sorry folks, I couldn't resist.) enjoying his beer and peanuts (or rather, peanuts and beer), he has shown considerable interest in the arts, both as a patron and as a performer. His attendance of theatre, dance, music and moving picture performances is well known on Discworld, as well as being somewhat feared by the actual artists and managers of those performances (should their efforts displease the ape, he has no compunctions about expressing his annoyance despite his limited vocabulary ("Oook")). His artistic contributions include playing piano for the band that played "Music with Rocks In", and the organ for an opera. He is a skilled arranger of music, able to rescore successfully and pleasingly "Doinov's romantic Prelude in G ... for [the] Whoopee Cushion and Squashed Rabbits" sound effects generated by a rather eccentric and potentially dangerous organ. (Terry Prachett, Maskerade, p. 282)

In addition to these occupations, he often participates directly, indirectly or tangentially in the many strange adventures that occur in Terry Prachett's novels. This has resulted in him being appointed as a deputy member of the City Watch, in what might be described as a plainclothes capacity, if he wore them. He might also be described as the long arm (or arms) of the law. His law enforcement duties did not prevent him from clobbering one member of the Watch over the head when he emerged through the Library's floor, after having dug his way out of the sewers, in a case of mistaken identity. As an image for librarians, the Librarian is unique in combining many traits that are not typically found in the library world. He is also one of Terry Prachett's most brilliant and endearing creations.

If any of you have forgotten or never knew what an orangutan looks like try the following links:

Next issue: Spies and Librarians