A Rally of Librarians Who Are Nonetheless Human and Other Bibliohumor
March 18, 2019 8:25 PM   Subscribe

It's 1906, and the librarians are bored, bored, bored by the American Library Association's Narragansett Pier (R.I.) Conference. So a few of them they sneak off and decide to found a small, subversive club of their own: The Bibliosmiles, "'Librarians Who Are Nevertheless Human' dedicated to 'keeping the dust off our top shelves,'" through comic song and speech, in the belief that "libraries could be a vital and innovative part of progressive change." Though short-lived, the group nonetheless had a long-lasting influence on library humor. Say the magic password—"Cheer Up, ALA"—and win a tour through semi-imaginary institutions, the umbrella problem, and an archive devoted to humor by and for librarians.

Among the Bibliosmiles's officers (the Grand Ha Ha; Minehaha; Subdued Snicker; Grim Reality; and others) was one Sardonic Grin, real name W. P. Cutter. He came by his trade honestly, being a descendant of Nathaniel Cutter, Esq., aka The Old Librarian. Nathaniel Cutter's opinions and counsel on libraries were published by Edmund Lester Pearson in 1909 as The Old Librarian's Almanack. How old? Pearson, Bibliosmile, novelist, and former library sciences student, dated the book to 1773...although the Opinions and Counsel were suspiciously modern in tone.

"Keep your Books behind stout Gratings," runs one bit of advice, "and in no wise let any Person come at them to take them from the Shelf except yourself." As for a book thief: "Let Book-Worms gnaw his entrails." Newspapers praised the almanack's historical value, not realizing until later that they'd been had: It was Pearson, inventing humor for librarians and other book lovers.

Flash forward to 1956, a classroom at Rutgers University, and two library science students are bored, bored, bored. To satisfy requirements for a paper, students Norman D. Stevens and Francis A.T. Johns (perhaps inspired by Pearson's sense of humor) concoct the Very, Very Respectable-sounding Molesworth Institute. (Named for Nigel Molesworth, the hero of Down with Skool! A Guide to School Life for Tiny Pupils and their Parents (1953) and other novels.) Stevens would go on to work for, and direct, several university libraries, and was also "an early advocate of computer technology in libraries for data management, shared cataloging, and research applications." He wrote numerous scholarly articles, as well as several books, and amassed an enormous collection of librariana. (Bonus pamphlet: The Molesworth Institute's Fifty Favorite Library Quotations.) He was a serious man.


The sillier side of the Molesworth Institute was never far from his heart (click page 94). He resurrected the Bibliosmiles (not the actual members, NEW librarians), promoted Pearson's humorous writings, and penned lots of library-related satire, including articles such as "The Umbrella Paper" ("...disappearance, exchange, and loss of umbrellas is a phenomenon closely associated with libraries."), "Preserving Books with Jell-O" (as Nouleigh Rhee Furbished, a Molesworth fellow), and "What's in a Name? A Superficial Analysis of the Business Cards of Librarians" (as Cecily Cardew, another Molesworth fellow). Other pseudonyms? Percival Gooch and Claude J. Bookstack. Satire it was, but often made serious points. As Stevens wrote, "The library world, like the real world, is impossible to understand on a rational basis."

Between his writing ("In Search of Library Humor," for American Libraries in 1985) and collecting, he amassed the material for one of the largest-ever collections of library humor. (Although as Jeanette C. Smith points out in her book, The Laughing Librarian: A History of American Library Humor, the Library of Congress does not include that particular heading.) The Molesworth Institute's Library Humor Archives now reside in the University Archives at the University of Connecticut's Dodd Research Center. Stevens, who died in December, 2018, "is now director, in perpetuity, of the Molesworth Institute at the University of the Great Beyond."

And so, some parting words from Stevens, from his foreward to The Laughing Librarian: "My final admonition to readers of this scholarly tome is: 'Lighten Up!' Don't take this work, or the tremendous body of library humor it encompasses, or yourself and Our Profession too seriously. How many librarians should it take to change a light bulb?"
posted by MonkeyToes (6 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Post inspired by Jessamyn, who wanted to know more about preserving books with Jell-O.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:26 PM on March 18 [5 favorites]

Delightful, MonkeyToes. Now, I am looking for this one book my wife mentioned, I think it was maybe blue? Or purple?
posted by mwhybark at 8:48 PM on March 18 [6 favorites]

And the title starts with 'the.'
posted by carrioncomfort at 5:55 AM on March 19 [2 favorites]

Homo Sum and Then Some
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:54 AM on March 19 [1 favorite]

I love everything about this, and it warms my librarian heart. And makes me giggle surreptitiously while I am working the circulation desk.
And I love the comments, especially the reference to the cover is blue. Can confirm 100%: the cover is always, always blue. And that's the only thing anyone can remember. Except maybe... it was written by a woman?

More library humor: check out (ha, I slay me) Roz Warren, humorist writer:
Weird Bookmarks found in the library
"Please Take Your Dildos With You When You Leave" (mentions of sex toys, also bodily functions)
She also posts on Facebook as Library Laughs, and makes me giggle.
posted by SaharaRose at 8:24 AM on March 19 [3 favorites]

I love this post so much. I was reading a history of Jell-O (shut up) and the little factoid about preserving books will Jell-O came up, I put it in a newsletter and MonkeyToes got the bug. And then I got the bug to make sure people knew about this guy and typed up a little Wikipedia article for him (surely noteworthy!) and, amusingly, can find no evidence that The Molesworth Institute's Library Humor Archives are actually at the University Archives at the University of Connecticut's Dodd Research Center. Like, they probably are. But finding aids are scarce and, to be honest, I'm a little grrr that the CCA doesn't have a landing page for their huge collection of stuff he bequeathed to them. Like... they used to, and then the website redesigned. Ha, joke's on us.

I keep coming back to this page which has a picture of Stevens as a respectable looking librarian type and then as you scroll down a photo of an obviously-elderly Stevens with... Clifford the big red dog. I think every librarian dreams they could have an impact omsehow on the profession while doing what they love. He was retired by the time I was a babybrarian and I am sorry I did not get to meet him but am glad people are keeping his legacy alive.
posted by jessamyn at 9:00 AM on March 19 [3 favorites]

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