Thursday, January 10, 2008

On Libraries & Librarians

Ro: This week I'm in Philadelphia preparing for the American Library Association's MidWinter meeting. Twenty-five mystery writers from MWANY will be meeting and greeting librarians from all over the country.

Almost every writer I know has a favorite library or librarian story. Tell us yours. In the meantime here's one from best-selling author Clea Simon

Clea: How do I love libraries? Let me count the ways. While I was researching my last nonfiction book, “The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats,” I saw a mention on a TV special of a study done in England on predation by cats in a small West Country village. Seriously. Being the tech savvy girl that I am, I immediately went online to find it. Well, I did. In German. Which I do not speak. And when I tried the Google “translator” the result was wildly humorous, but not at all useful.
So I went down to my local brick-and-mortar (or, this being Cambridge with its beautiful 19th Century H.H. Richardson Romanesque castle of a library, hewn-stone-and-mortar) library and explained my predicament to one of the librarians. “No problem,” she said to me. “But it may take a few days.” Within two days, she had the original journal article – in English – copied for me. Once again, I was reminded that electrons in the ether are still easily trumped by human ingenuity, know-how, and (I suspect) a phone call from one research librarian to another, perhaps overseas. I thanked her profusely, and in the “Feline” acknowledgments, but it hardly seems enough.
I wish I could drop by my local library tomorrow, seek out that librarian and thank her again. But for now, I can’t. My library is being renovated – its beautiful lawn with the names of great Greek thinkers set in stone, its Japanese peace garden, and its shady walks are all torn up, replaced by a construction site that looks more like a crime scene. There is hope: The copper beach, such a pleasure to read under, is still standing. And all the plans posted along the makeshift fence promise everything else will soon be back, perhaps as early as this summer. But until then, it’s a mess, more than half the books in storage, accessible through a temporary library housed in a nearby school. And that’s not the same, somehow, and I miss my library something fierce.
So when I was asked to contribute to a small volume by local writers celebrating the return of our library – oh, soon, I hope! – I wrote a mini-mystery featuring a local cat, who waits under that tree, and waits and waits for the day her book-borrowing friends will come back. I guess at heart I am that cat, waiting and hoping. How could I not?
Neither libraries nor librarians figure in my current full-length mystery series, in “Cries and Whiskers,” “Cattery Row,” or “Mew is for Murder.” The heroine of these books, Theda Krakow, knows how to research, but as a freelance music journalist. One of her best buddies, Bunny, works in a newspaper library – aka the “morgue – but while she invariably helps Theda dig up useful and interesting background tidbits, she hasn’t had a huge part in the action. Not yet. But in a nonseries book that I’m working on, my grad student heroine spends much of her time in Widener, the main Harvard College library. It’s a place I came to know and love during my undergrad years, and I’ve recently signed up for an alumna pass so I can revisit the scene of my youth – and figure out where exactly a killer would hide. I have very mixed emotions about setting a scary chase scene in a library. But, hey, mysteries all resolve, so I won’t be chasing anyone out of the stacks, will I? Maybe a little bit of suspense will just lure more of us in to that wonderful world, a mystery of its own.

Clea Simon is the author of the Theda Krakow mysteries, most recently “Cries and Whiskers,” and three nonfiction books. She can be reached at


  1. Thanks for having me here! Sorry that my guest blog all seemed to come through as one giant block o' type, though.

    I've linked to your site on a library-related blog of my own over at "cats & crime & rock & roll" at

    Have a great time at the ALA!

  2. Technical genius that I am, I was able to hit "space" and magically reconfigure the type. On the other hand, much as I love Musetta, the editing kitty, I wanted to upload a pic of Cries and Whiskers, Clea's latest book. You guys will just have to visit Clea's website to check it out.

  3. As a 31 year library worker (not a librarian) I love this post. I've worked in every department of 4 different libraries, and I loved it all. Now days, I manage the website for an urban library and that's fun too.

    It's great hearing how people like our services.

  4. I should say that I'm not an MLS -- I am considered a librarian these days. It's a little weird though after nearly a lifetime as a paraprofessional....

  5. "like" your services? How about worship and are eternally grateful for your services? And MLS or no, you have probably accrued so much know how that I bet you are invaluable to your library of the moment!

    thanks for reading.

  6. One of the trends I've enjoyed in Genre Fiction (I think I first noticed it about 10 years ago) is that libraries and librarians are showing up in important roles in the stories.

    I've seen this in mysteries & romance novels in particular. And I think it's great.

    Thank you for your VERY kind words, librarians everywhere appreciate patrons like you.

  7. Welcome to Jungle Red Clea! Love the topic. We all love librarians! Libraries in New England have been so enthusiastic about Sisters in Crime and we're grateful beyond words.

  8. Hey Katiebird! So nice to see you here! I'm a major lurker on Nancy Pickard's blog, and hear from you often there, so it's nice to see you in this part of the cyber-world.

    I used to hide in the school library..loved the smell of the books, and the idea that all those stories were there waiting for me. I also, weirdly, love the Dewey Decimal system. We can talk about that another time.

    In the ain't it a strange Clea/library/Hank/library coincidence world--
    Clea and I will be the featured authors during ‘An Afternoon of Mystery’ at the Duxbury Free Library on Sunday, Jan. 13 at 2 p.m. We'd love to see you all...

  9. Hi, Hank! What's your favorite number :) Mine are the 700s.

  10. Those numbers always make me think of Shakespeare.....

    Sometimes, I miss doing shelf-checks. Oh, well, Life goes on. Virtual Libraries are fun too.

    I'm not so sure about virtual books, though.

  11. Hank, laughing. Thanks, katiebird. I can only assume that you know all the numbers by heart... Um, gosh, do you?

    May I just ask--how do the numbers get "assigned"? I mean, who does it? I started madly looking into the fronts of books this morning, just looking for the DD numbers (I was supposed to be doing laundry, but whatever) and some seem to have them, and some don't.

    Are all mysteries 813.6?

  12. I'm with you on virtual books, Katiebird. I mean, if other people want to downloand my work onto their Kindle or whatever, great. But where's the fun in that?

    Somewhat off topic: does anyone here know Beckham's bookstore in New Orleans? I adore them because they regularly have great old novels from the 1900-1920s, books that are so long out of print that I have trouble finding out anything about their authors. Translations from the French, predictable and sentimental romances, "wildlife" adventures. I I always load up on a few for the trip back. It seems like old homeowners regularly unload their libraries there (or their heirs do). Luckily, Beckham's survived Katrina (it's in the Quarter), but I can only hope it keeps getting these great deaccessioned books.

    Hey, see you tomorrow at the Duxbury Library, Hank! (Anyone else around? Come join us at 2 p.m.)

  13. Hi, ladies,
    I'm still down in sunny Philadelphia with 10-12,000 of my closest friends. All of the MWANY who are attending with me are having a blast - we kicked off the weekend with a Bloody Mary welcome reception on Friday night and it's been nonstop since then - signings, giveaways and lots of meeting and greeting.
    Wish you were here!