Conan the Librarian
I had the great fortune to work for ten years in a large city library system. The last half of that time I did reference work. Helping people get smarter — best job I ever had. This was back in the olden days of the 80s, when it was still cool to know stuff. Today, with the right-wing evangelical tea party nutcase barbarians at the gates, knowledge, science, and reason itself under heavy attack. We need to man the barricades against this assault, so I retain the persona I created then, that of Conan the Librarian.
Doing reference at a small library branch is challenging. This was before there were computers for the patrons to use. I know — ancient history. We didn’t have that giant carrousel of reference books that the Main Library had at their fingertips. The most versatile resource turned out to be the World Almanac It’s amazing how much you can find in one of those.
The reference person was also the backup for the Children’s Librarian when they were sick or on vacation, and this included preschool & toddler story time. My first one was an unforgettable experience, I can tell you. It just so happened that it was Halloween, so I was in costume. I’d painted all my exposed skin blue, and wore a harmonica holder around my neck, so my costume was “blue singer.” Get it? Blues Singer. Don’t worry, no one else got it either, least of all the preschoolers and toddlers. That was the longest hour of my life, and will be forever etched on my memory circuits — in battery acid. I got better, though.
The 80s saw major changes in libraries. We went from index catalog cards to the computerized system. Someone came up with one of the greatest ideas ever, books on tape. Our branch housed the system’s main collection of Large Print books, and one of my jobs was delivering packets to a dozen or so nursing homes in the area. For those people, it was like Christmas every month. During Halloween, someone would usually complain about the display of children’s books with witch characters. Satanic, you know. Each year during Banned Books Week we set up a display of books that had appeared on one list or another. Of course there was Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for its “guttural language and vulgarity.” But there was also The Diary of Anne Frank. What? Why would anyone put that on a banned list? Because it “flaunted a lack of respect for authority.” Wow. Conan the Librarian had his work cut out for him, alright.
Those were happy times; I enjoyed my job and the people I worked with, and was paid a decent wage with good benefits (city workers belonged to the AFSCME union). But that was before the Video Zombie Apocalypse. The library administration, in an effort to boost its circulation numbers, began buying videos (VHS) for all the branches. Now you could check them out rather than rent them. It did the trick alright, but it brought in a whole new demographic — the rabble. Most of these people had no interest in books. I even coined a term for them — vidiots. I guess I just resented spending funding that should have been going for knowledge, and pissing it away on multiple copies of The Berenstain Bears and My Little Pony — the new babysitters.
Against the swarming huns victories were few, and mostly symbolic. But hey, a win is a win. One evening a creature shambled up to the checkout desk with a video of Puccini’s “La Boheme” clutched in one meaty paw, and asked, “Is this some kind uh musical, or whut?” I, Conan the Librarian, was behind the desk. Looking down my nose, I answered in my snootiest John Cleese as Basil Fawlty, “It’s an OPera,” with great emphasis on the OP. Ann Romney couldn’t have done it better. “Oh,” it said, as it shuffled back to the video display.
They say that in comedy, timing is everything. That’s certainly true, and this simple principle was beautifully illustrated in another incident involving a person of the video persuasion.. Because VHS tapes were fragile objects, you weren’t supposed to put them in the overnight drop box, because books piled on top could easily damage them. It was a $2 fine, and all this was written on each video. That didn’t deter one angry lady, who stomped up to the front desk one afternoon and pounded her fist down. She’d gotten a fine for the above offense. “Who’s the clown in charge around here?” she barked.
The clown in charge that day was Jeannie, the Children’s Librarian, a very bright and funny lady. She had just finished story time, and it must have had a circus theme of some kind, because she was in full clown regalia; suit, shoes, rainbow wig and red rubber nose. She walked up to the angry lady and calmly asked, “What seems to be the problem?” The lady turned to look at her, and you could see the blood drain from her face. She blurted out something about the fine, but there was no conviction in her voice now, all the wind had gone out of her sails. Jeannie politely said, “I’m sorry, but it’s written right there on the box.”
I don’t work at the library anymore, I have my own (astonishingly, it includes quite a lot of VHS videos). Meanwhile, nearly half of all Americans don’t believe in the theory of evolution (how they feel about the theory of gravity I’m not sure). And over the past twenty years, vast numbers of Americans have actually devolved into a ghastly mob of religious troglodytes. So Conan the Librarian still mans those barricades against the mutant hordes of irrational, faith-based illiterati who are storming the walls of the Fortress of Knowledge. He stands with an ancient weapon in one hand — a fountain pen from the last of the once great stationery stores (mightier than the sword, right?). In the other he holds an LED flashlight, to illuminate the dark recesses of religious fundamentalism, stupidity and ignorance, with the light of truth, reason, and sanity.
The two most common things in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.
— Frank Zappa