I have recently learned (never mind how) of a an extremely specialized library in Bradford PA, home of the Zippo lighter. The subject matter of this specialized library is, in fact, the Zippo lighter. The company has a museum and a flagship store in connection with which they maintain a digital archive about this iconic product.
Now, before I put the reader to sleep let me assure you that this blog post is not about ludicrously specialized libraries. It is, however, about the wide world of libraries and how, should a humble librarian be allowed to dream, there are a large number of potential dream jobs out there. No, Zippo librarian is not my dream job — but the fact that there is such a thing as a Zippo librarian makes me think my dream library is out there somewhere.
What might that dream job be?
Well, this is not the first time I have asked myself this question. Because I have deep roots in nerd land, it is a frequently revisited topic. Perhaps the first time I discussed it would have been with my mentor from undergrad days when the wooly mammoth roamed the earth. Her answer, and at the time I agreed with her in spirit if not in the precise choice: The Vatican Library.
And why not? Surely – and you know this if have read your Dan Brown – this is where history’s secrets are kept.
Now, I doubt very much if I would select The Vat (that’s what we insiders call it) if only because my Latin is poor, poor meaning “nonexistent” in this case. That does not rule out the general idea of selecting a large institution with a rich history to have the keys to the informational kingdom. This means large national libraries like the British Library and our very own Library of Congress or libraries associated with the more venerable world class universities, the Bodleian at Oxford being the best example.
Incidentally, the Bodleian holds a paltry 13 million items, more or less. The British Library may hold as many as 200 million, the Library of Congress might hold 170 million while the New York Public Library comes in at 55 million. The numbers are from Wikipedia and are subject to question, but the accuracy is hardly the point. With these sorts of numbers, accuracy is essentially impossible.
Sad to say, it would also be impossible for any one person ever to grasp the scope of such sizable collections. It undermines the idea that these represent dream jobs for librarians. In fact, I would think it enormously frustrating. No matter how many hours per day, no matter the number of days and years, one person can’t even come close.
Here is some depressing math. Try as you might, you probably won’t live 50 million seconds. Therefore, if by some miracle you could examine a book every single second of your life, sleeping and waking and including an illiterate babyhood, you would have looked at only 25% of the British Library. In other words, your entire librarianship would be a forever reminder that most of the stacks are beyond your reach.
Clearly, some other approach is needed for the perfect library job.
I thought about geography, but that is not really a question about the library, is it? If I said the perfect library was in Tahiti or Paris or the South Pole for that matter, I am really taking about Tahiti, Paris and the South Pole.
Then I considered the type of library, but I could not fairly distinguish between them. A college library has its delights, so does a public library. They do not share the same mission, but I love them both each in their own way. University libraries provide support of a community of burgeoning scholars while public libraries are engaged in broad community support. It is important work either way, just not the same work.
Do we need to return, in spirit only, to the land of the Zippo library? What I mean to ask is this: could a specialized library provide the answer to the question?
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about special libraries is that there are so many of them. I say “remarkable” instead of “surprising” because a little thought reveals why there are so many. A law library is a special library as is a medical library. Companies (like Zippo) have corporate libraries. Museums often have libraries attached to them. In central PA, that leads to libraries devoted to clocks, toy trains and automobiles – to name only a few.
If I can’t choose between either academic or public libraries, then choosing among the myriad of special libraries just is not going to happen. Therefore, I must be going about this all wrong. I am trying to identify my dream library by using real world logic. This is an error. This is an exercise in fantasy and, well, let me tell a brief tale from many years ago to prove a point.
Back when I was a new and relatively unscathed parent and Neanderthals were painting caves, my daughter came to me with an idea to watch a movie. She being quite the young thing, “movie” meant “cartoon”. I must have rolled my eyes. She said “Oh, you’ll like this one.” She was 100% right. Furthermore, there was a good reason for her being right. The movie was Beauty and the Beast and I was completely bedazzled – not by the story or the music but by the library at the Beast’s castle. I wonder: did I hit the pause button a few times to linger over this fantasy?
And with a leap into fantasy, I can really start to explore dream libraries. Consider, for example, The Librarian starring Noah Wyle. This movie eventually became a movie franchise then a TV series. It takes place in The Metropolitan Library. Like nearly all libraries, The Met has secret chambers full of magical artifacts, and the librarians must manage the collection usually via some sort of swashbuckling adventure.
Of course, I don’t need to buckle any swashes to work in a dream library. I might, however, need a really good spacecraft. There is, I am told a Jedi library that contains all the information in the galaxy. Or rather, in a galaxy, presumably one that is far far away.
But I am going to stick to Earth for my final selection. Even so, it is almost as unrealistic as either a Beast owned castle or a Jedi managed institution. It is the River City Public Library in Iowa. What’s that, you ask, how can a small-town Midwestern library be unrealistic?
Well, it is River City. You know, the place where there is trouble, that starts with “T” which rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool. There is also a ton of singing and dancing since (If you have not yet grasped the references) River City is the location of The Music Man with Robert Preston, Shirley Jones and no fewer that 76 trombones leading a big parade all over the place! Jones plays Marion the Librarian and, yes, even the library hosts some singing and dancing in River City.
I understand that the dream job is completely unreal. I mean, who in the world goes through a typical day just singing and dancing all the time.
Well, maybe we all should.