In the small New England town where my husband and I spend our vacations, the jewel of Main Street is a lovely public library built in 1907 from local marble. It’s a “Carnegie library” – one of the 2,500 libraries established worldwide with grants from steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.
A fictional version of one of those small-town Carnegie libraries is the setting for most of the pieces in The Librarian at Play by Edmund Lester Pearson, a delightfully humorous volume recounting, among other things, the daily interactions of the librarians with the quirky patrons of the library.
Pearson was a librarian and author, now best known for his fascinating true crime books, such as Studies in Murder, which are now classics of the genre. Educated at Harvard and the New York State Library School, he began his library career in Washington, D.C., and worked for a time at the Library of Congress. Beginning in 1906, he wrote a column, “The Librarian,” for a Boston newspaper, and it was this column that provided the amusing pieces in The Librarian at Play. The book was published in 1911, after he had moved back to his home town of Newburyport, Massachusetts – which, ironically, didn’t need a Carnegie library, because it had had a library of its own since 1854, and Pearson served on its Board of Trustees.
The pieces in The Librarian at Play poke good-natured fun at books, readers, modern fictional characters, and even inventions. One piece features a salesman trying to sell the library an “interest gauge” that one attaches to a book to determine how interesting it is (the Letters of Junius doesn’t do too well, but a Conan Doyle story shoots the gauge up to a high level). Another piece concerns the exciting installation of a telephone at the library, which enables patrons to call for help in identifying a bird on the front lawn, or to get the answer to a newspaper contest question, or to locate a novel of which they know only the barest outlines of the plot, but not the title or author (“You see, it starts this way….”)
Even Andrew Carnegie is a source of playful humor. One fellow strongly suspects that the library doesn’t carry a particular socialist newspaper “because it’s Carnegie’s library, ain’t it, miss?” When the librarian replies that Carnegie merely donated the money for the building, the man insists that “he runs it, just the same” by using “people in his pay.” In another piece, an equally jaded gentleman opines that an overdue book notice demanding a fine is “just one of Carnegie’s games to get money out of yer.”
The Librarian at Play may be little known compared to Pearson’s true crime books, but it is a bright little gem in his body of work. Many thanks to the Distributed Proofreaders team for bringing it to the Project Gutenberg library.