Librarian heroes?

Today I catalogued a book called The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq, written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter. Yes, it is a children’s book, and yes, my Faculty library does collect children’s books — but only if they deal with the information profession.

Like a number of other works that I select for the library, The Librarian of Basra came to my attention in a circuitous way. One of our interns had told me about Alia’s Mission by Mark Stamaty, a graphic novel about a real-life librarian who tried to save her collection during the Iraq war. Another library on our campus had already purchased a copy, but I learned that a picture book had also been published about the same librarian and the same heroic deed that she had performed. None of the libraries on campus had it. I was determined to get a copy, in the hopes that more future librarians will learn about this story.

Flipping through Winter’s work, I was captivated by the vibrant illustrations. The language, too, was fascinating — because even though the words were fairly simple, the tone was sophisticated. For instance, on the second page, Winter writes:

Her library is a meeting place for all who love books.

They discuss matters of the world

and matters of the spirit.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story of Alia Muhammad Baker, she was the chief librarian at the library of Basra. When war broke out in Iraq in 2003, she had the foresight to rescue the books before the war destroyed the library. Enlisting the help of family, neighbours, the nearby restaurant owner, and his friends, they managed to save 70% of the collection before the armies arrived and the library burned down.

The story makes me think of how much librarians admire, aspire, and dream of being superheroes.

Another book that I recently picked up, out of sheer curiosity, was The Librarian: Return to King Solomon’s Mines: the Graphic Novel. It’s not based on real life, except in so far as it derives its story from legends we know. Its main character is a librarian who spends more time “rescuing” mythical artifacts and dodging bad guys in exotic locations than answering research questions.

In both of these stories, the heroic aspect of each librarian’s deed is very much rooted in saving cultural heritage by rescuing objects of culture. But The Librarian… the Graphic Novel took it a bit too far. The protagonist was clearly collecting for the sake of possessing them — in other words, war trophies — with barely a second thought to context or users.  I just wasn’t sure whether it was the image we want to be promoting.

We do so much more than collect physical items; and when we do collect anything, we do it with the thought of users and research in mind. I love books, and I love looking at objects in galleries and museums, and I love the stories that they tell. But we who work in libraries also know that we do much more than acquire. I like to think that the heroic part of our work lies in the act of helping our users (be they students, faculty, or the casual scholar) discover knowledge — and sometimes, in generating new knowledge of our own that builds upon the growing universe of information.