In writing The True and Untold Story of the Outlaw Tam Barker, I replaced the stereotype of the bespectacled, cardigan-wearing librarian with a crack-team of highly-trained, gun-toting, stogie-chomping misfits. These librarians operate outside law, tracking down books that have been banned by the government. Think bullet, blood and books.
Whenever I write a book, I tend to think that I’m the first person on Earth to have that particular idea. And then remember I’m not. The idea of librarians kicking butt, slinging guns and being as far away from the ones down your local library isn’t a new one and a few have come onto my radar before I wrote this particular tale – and some after. Here, in no particular order are my top five fictional librarians.
I was a big fan of The Twilight Zone as a kid and, after wracking my brain for this post, I realised that I remembered this one really well; this one and the William Shatner one. In fact, now I think of it, I wonder if this one, The Obsolete Man, had more influence on the book that I thought. Romney Wordsworth is a librarian, who’s on trial for obsolescence. The powers-that-be have banned all books and being found guilty of being a librarian is a capital offence. However, Romney is allowed to choose the method of his death, and he goes for an assassin to kill him in a particular way. Being The Twilight Zone, Romney manages to turn the tables on the State and sort of wins in the end. The True and Untold Story of the Outlaw Tam Barker was written around about the time our government was starting its first major swathe of library closures, was making noises about banning certain texts from the National Curriculum and preventing prisoners from accessing books. Not good. With all that going on and The Obsolete Man living somewhere in the back of my head, I think Romney Wordsworth had more than a little to do with the story.
Yes, I’m a comic-head. While I love Marvel, DC was my introduction to comics, through the world of Batman. I got into Batman in the early 70s around about the time they started rerunning the Adam West series. Suddenly I could get double-Batman: in the comics and on the telly! The Caped Crusader was always my favourite, but who could forget Batgirl? Librarian by day and super-hero, by night! As a young boy, back in the Stone Age, heroes and heroines tended to be aimed at their respective genders: boys liked the male heroes and girls liked the female ones. But Batgirl is one of the first female heroes I remember that cheerfully walked the line between the two, probably paving the way for future characters, like She-Hulk and Spider Woman. I wanted to write a female character that was the female answer to Clint Eastwood, to the point that her gender became unimportant. Tam is a product of her environment and her thoughts, words and deeds belong to both heroes and heroines.
I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer when it was first broadcast, in the 90s. Personally, I didn’t get on with it. There were a few things that narked me – but possibly because I’m a bit stuffy about certain things. I didn’t like the way the vampires were reduced to being stupid creatures that hung around in groups. I like my vampires uber-intelligent and solitary. I also wasn’t a fan of the continual wise-cracking between Buffy and her buddies; for me it reduced the peril and the threat. However, I watched it and, amidst my narks, I found a character I really did like: Rupert Giles, the high-school librarian. Rupert was the stereotypical librarian: bookish, shy and impeccably-mannered. For me, he was a welcome antidote to the smart-mouth attitudes of the other characters and it was a genuine surprise when you saw him going toe-to-toe with a supernatural being or two. As an aside, I worked with Anthony Head years later and can confirm that he is as nice as you think he is.
An orangutan who protects the world’s knowledge and can travel through L-Space. What’s not to like? I’ve got to be honest, I’ve only read two of Pratchett’s books: The Hogfather and The Colour of Magic and I read these because I was cast in the TV adaptations (check out Kring, the Magic Sword – that’s me!). However, the idea of an ape as a librarian is so good, I had to give it a mention!
If you haven’t read the Rex Libris comics, get out there and get some. These are new to my radar; I discovered them after writing the Tam Barker book – and I’m glad it happened in that order. Rex is the librarian at Middleton Public Library and a typical day for him involves dealing with zombies blocking up the building, chasing aliens who haven’t returned their books on time across the universe and defending the Dewey Decimal System. These comics are brilliant and have played on the stereotyped librarian superbly; his super-thick, jam-jar specs are useful tools in his unwavering hunt for lost books. Alongside his fists of steel and formidable arsenal of weapons.
However, when all’s said and done, librarians are real and they are heroes, guiding us to the right portals through which we can escape the real world or learn something mind-bending. Real-life librarians don’t need guns or fists or costumes, but the odds they face are just as stacked as the ones you’ll find in books, movies or on your TV screen. If that’s not heroic, I don’t know what is.
Andy Robb is an actor and author, his latest book The True and Untold Story of the Outlaw Tam Barker is available now!