There are some well-known archetypes that literary fiction and the media in general rely on when a librarian character is conceived and evoked. First, there is the know-it-all librarian with brilliant intellectual power albeit physically weak at the same time. Then, there is also the Indiana Jones-like librarian that has superhero skills which help them save the day and the world from ultimate destruction. Lastly, the ubiquitous sexy librarian archetype is a highly recognizable one with her usually female representation, sexually charged and repressed at the same time, and the target of the desire of other characters. These archetypes endure because of the widespread stereotypes about librarians, libraries and of knowledge at large in our societies. In this post, I’d like to present examples of a fourth archetype: the evil librarian.
Arguably, most of my librarian colleagues might be appalled at my interest in this topic. Stereotypes about librarians in culture and media reinforce negative preconceptions and unrealistic expectations that have some real life consequences for librarians and libraries. The fear of not being able to engage with patrons, losing budget revenues and deteriorating relationships with key stakeholders and communities because of misconceptions and fallacies about librarians and libraries is real and understandable. Here in the United States, several states are engaging in a race to censor writers, remove books, threaten librarians and restrict access to information and content because they are deemed “controversial”, “uncomfortable”, “obscene” and “disgusting”.
Despite all of that, I’d like to do a different exercise in this post and look honestly and intentionally at where the evil librarian archetype has been portrayed and the core beliefs and fears that these stereotypes might be feeding from. By looking into our deepest fears, I believe we can learn more about ourselves and use that knowledge to build a different relationship.
As you might be aware, popular culture already abounds with examples of evil or monster librarians in movies, tv shows and fiction novels. Two recent ones came to mind right away when brainstorming about this post: Monsters University’s Librarian, Margaret Gesner and Harry Potter’s Librarian, Irma Pince. These two fictional librarians have a lot in common. They are unwelcoming, strict, obsessed with rules and quick at passing negative judgements and harsh punishment on patrons, usually children or teenagers. In contemporary popular media, these two examples are far from being the only or the scariest ones. Let me show you two examples of some pretty evil librarians, particularly in video games. The book and subsequent video game, Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky portrays a group of monsters with gorilla features, sharp teeth, long arms, incredibly powerful and zombie-like presence. They are called the librarians because they are found only inside the Moscow State Library. And on the subscription-based content platform called Patreon, I found a video game called the Forgotten Library featuring The Librarian, “a lawful evil”, shown in the image.
This is not a new phenomenon. Now, I’d like to feature a few literary examples of the evil librarian in fiction in Western literature. Taking into account all of these examples, I believe there are some core fears that make these characters so appealing and believable. If you know of other examples, please share them in the comments section or you can reach out to me directly.
Evil Librarians in Literature
A simple search on google will retrieve a few well-known examples of this trend specially on young adult literature. The Evil Librarian series by Michelle Knudsen, the series of Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson and the Girl Who Cried Monster in the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine are the most obvious examples of young adult literature featuring a malevolent, intransigent and punitive librarian with a vicious desire for punishment particularly directed towards children and teenagers not following library rules or policies. Dr. Horace Worblehat, the Orangutan Librarian in the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett is also relevant as an example of a monstrous librarian zealously devoted to safeguarding the books and knowledge from the “malicious tendencies and ways” of children.
In the realm of horror stories, Ardelia Lortz in Four Past Midnight’s novella, “The Library Policeman” by Stephen King deserves an honorary mention as one of the most notoriously malevolent librarians of all times. Ardelia is an insect-like, inhuman and revengeful entity on a mission to feed on children’s fears and to live forever as she transports from one body to another. Her vampire tendencies reveal an insatiable hunger for children’s fears and secrets. This “ill-natured, dangerous, resident dragon” of a librarian is “all authority, all power, all force.” “The darkness in her called to the darkness in them.” “It’s inside… but it’s forever an outsider.” At first, she enchants the kids, then she wants to make them cry and provoke a “legacy of nightmares” on them. She thinks “children are the worst. They have little regard for order and they dare profane the silence in the library.”
Contemporaneous to both Terry Pratchett and Stephen King is Umberto Eco’s first novel, Name of the Rose. In this book, Eco features two viciously evil librarians, Malachi of Hildesheim, Chief Librarian and Berengar of Arundel, Assistant Librarian. Not only are both Malachi and Berenger capable of deceit and murder, but the space itself, the library, and what’s housed within are attributed with malicious, wicked and vile features. Of Malachi, Eco says: “Sadness and severity predominated in the lines of his face, and his eyes were so intense that with one glance they could penetrate the heart of the person speaking to him, and read the secret thoughts, so it was difficult to tolerate their inquiry and one was not tempted to meet them a second time.” Berenger is described as “a pale-faced young man”, “his eyes seemed those of a lascivious woman” and “he held the fingers of both hands enlaced like one wishing to suppress an internal tension.” Beyond their not so appealing physical characteristics, Eco creates two librarians consumed by sexual repression and lies, bending the lines of gender roles and expression, punitive and capable of anything to hide their own as well as the library’s secrets.
Both Pratchett and Eco have one thing in common: their adoration for the Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges. Pratchett revered Borges and made his admiration public on several occasions. Eco even goes further and names one of his characters in the Name of the Rose, Jorge of Burgos, a character both blind and erudite, just like Borges himself in real life. Borges’ the Library of Babel gets a special mention in our search for the evil librarian because it goes to the core beliefs and fears about someone with unlimited access to knowledge stored in just one place. Borges’ library has it all to make it an unwelcoming and inhospitable place. The Library of Babel is described as “unending“, “ab aeterno“, and containing all the possible books in the world. The Library is “unlimited and cyclical“. Most of the books included in the Library are “of formless and chaotic nature“, “senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences“. And guarding and inhabiting it all, you have “the imperfect librarian“, “the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi“. These librarians inhabit “remote regions” within the Library, sometimes they go mad, act like sects as they obsess over inaccessible books, how to eliminate useless works or idealizing books. They’re cult-like behaviors make them “prone to suicides” and delusions in their search for the “Man of the Book”, a librarian who knows the location of every book, has memorized the catalog and “is analogous to a god“.
Evil Librarians Triggering Fears
I believe the abundance of characters of unkind, strict and rigid librarians in young adult literature stems from the realization that your right to read all the books and have access to all the information in the library is directly depended on assuring that another person has that same right. In the school or public library, kids and teenagers realize that their rights to learn, read and know all they want come with a responsibility to assure that others have the exact same rights. As the person in charge, the librarian in young adult literature turns into an evil creature or monster the moment they try to ensure that everyone has the same access to all the materials in the library through library policies: levels of noise, overdue books, damaging books, etc. The intransigent, punitive and malevolent librarian arguably corresponds to a fear of taking responsibility for one another, of growing up and adulthood, of understanding the relationship between rights and responsibilities, of civic responsibility as a contributing adult in a community, group or society. It’s a sense of an end of innocence, and an end of unbridled and impulsive emotions and the evil librarian is the ultimate representative of that ending.
In adult literature, I think these characters go straight to our fear about the power of knowledge in general, of how much knowledge can be transformative individually and collectively and because of that, it needs to be regulated, limited and in some cases banned. In these stories, the role of the evil librarian serves as a “cautionary tale” against the desire to know “too much” which can presumably lead to insanity, isolation and zero grasp of “reality”. In these stories, the evil librarian is the person who couldn’t “control” their impulse to devour “too much” information and that knowledge made them evil, isolated, resentful and angry against society and children in particular. The librarian who is capable of reading and knowing our darkest secrets, deepest fears, our most feared nightmares because of all their knowledge must be evil. Unlimited knowledge gives librarian access to things you, the readers don’t want to reveal either consciously or unconsciously such as fears or traumas. Therefore, they must be evil.
Completely opposite to this fear, we also have the fear of knowing too little or being perceived as stupid or not smart. The evil librarian with their access to unlimited knowledge triggers our core insecurities and fears of not being in the known, not belonging to the smart group of those who know, especially not knowing some basic knowledge or not being capable or smart enough to grasp a concept or have access to particular information. After all, Parks & Recreation’s Leslie Knoppe did call librarians “mean, conniving, rude, and extremely well-read, which makes them dangerous”.
Finally, I believe the evil librarian characters awaken our fear of unknown worlds, alternatives, possibilities and ideas either externally or from within which can disapprove of everything we hold dear and give for granted, despite how inaccurate, damaging or irrational our worlds are. The librarian as a gatekeeper of books and knowledge might be perceived as evil because of the access they can grant to information contradicting our preconceived ways, traditions and established conceptions. Only an evil librarian could possibly have or grant access to ideas that can challenge the status quo, tear down our old structures and ensue liberating chaos.
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.