Friday, June 1, 2012

Case Study No. 0357: Ruth Harrison, Reference Librarian

A Prairie Home Companion: "Ruth Harrison, Reference Librarian" script, February 14, 2009
Ruth meets with the head of the library board, and does some hands-on research into love poems in this installment of The Adventures of Ruth Harrison, Reference Librarian.

Recorded live at the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul, MN on February 14, 2009. Script and more available at
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I try to listen to A Prairie Home Companion each Saturday evening, in large part because, despite being politically and socially liberal, I am personally quite conservative and prone to nostalgia and wistfulness for a purer experience of things that it seems I was denied by the unrelenting progress of history. This week's broadcast featured an episode in the adventures of Ruth Harrison, reference librarian, a character who is rather similar in that regard. She is educated, non-combative, socially permissive, but often silently critical of people's tastes and a widespread loss of noble ideals.

In this latest episode she editorialized for a moment in conversation with her twenty-eight year-old intern, Trent (not the other one, Brent, who is thirty-seven) after he had helped a patron find a thriller that showcased truly heinous crimes. Miss Harrison, voiced by the highly talented Sue Scott, commented: "In library school we were taught that the role of the library is to educate, to uplift, not to cater to every whim." I didn't even go to library school, but I have always had the same image of libraries.

On hearing that line of dialogue, I thought of the last couple of trips I have taken to the Central Library in the City of Buffalo. It has come a long way from the libraries that were so domestically familiar to me throughout elementary and high school. These days, when you walk around a library, you find that the stacks are deserted but that a sea of people stretches throughout the computer banks. On an occasion when I lost my internet connection, I had to carry my laptop to the library in order to borrow its wireless connection for a day. Doing so made me feel sort of cheap and disloyal, and it also gave me an opportunity to occasionally observe the behavior of the other patrons, which in turn made me feel worse.

I noticed a middle aged couple sharing a long game of solitaire on one computer. Elsewhere, a man about my age was watching Youtube. My eyes have passed over various computer screens each time I've been back there, and I find that these are extremely commonplace activities. Many different kinds of games are played in the Buffalo library – first-person shooters, adventure games, bejeweled and similar puzzles. A significant portion of the library patronage these days, perhaps the majority, is evidently poor people who have no access to such entertainment at home and utilize the library for the idle passage of time instead.

Oh, to be poor but also have such free time or the means of transportation to frequent the region's most expansive library! I understand not reading because you simply don't have the time amidst your exhausting and low-paying work, and I understand having little access to either books or technology, particularly in a town where everything is so spread-out. But here the people I've seen at the library have the opportunity to beautifully enrich their lives with the information and artistry that surrounds them in a variety of media, and they choose to play dull games. It is a tragedy that libraries are used this way, that they are little more than the low-rent internet cafes and LAN parties of the twenty-first century.

Even if people ventured away from the computers, I find that the most prominently featured books aren't all that much better. I want to believe that there are a few librarians who work in that building and react to the public much as does Ruth Harrison, diligently pointing them towards the popular fiction with easily digestible plots and few themes, then lamenting that she could have recommended Hemmingway or Faulkner. I've found that those sorts of lamentations often meet with comments along the lines of, "Hey, anything that gets kids reading." That's not the least bit persuasive to me. The mere act of allowing one's brain to process typewritten words doesn't in and of itself make for a richer intellectual experience than other alternatives. Is a child really better off reading Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown than watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos on DVD or listening closely to a Brahms symphony?

The sentiment of "as long as they're reading" speaks to what I think is the underlying misconception that drives the degradation of libraries and of collective appreciation of art and literature. It also speaks to the difficulty that we face in reversing the trend. I resent what libraries have become, but I see no way of changing them back into grand temples of information and culture. In order to draw in the public and avoid closure, they have to provide the type of access that people want. And as a matter of principle, anything that qualifies as information or culture should have a place there, regardless of its intrinsic quality. So it's not as if there is any cause for libraries to restrict people from being able to use them in such frivolous ways. But so long as easy escapism can be found there, the public will surely continue to gravitate toward it.

We need a collective breaking point to overturn the misconception, which drives both trends, that a greater quantity of information is effectively the same as a greater quality. I'm inclined to think that libraries think they are providing an adequate public service and that the public thinks it is adequately utilizing that service simply because, between the books and the high-speed internet, there's a lot of information that's directly accessible to the entire public. It doesn't seem to matter how it's utilized. But the danger to libraries is the danger to all of society – that as everything comes to be more and more at our fingertips, we will grow increasingly complacent about it and let the petty distractions dominate our attention. Since everything else is still there, such allowances seem to come at the expense of nothing, but in fact they come at the expense of our very minds.



A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor

Ruth Harrison, Reference Librarian
Saturday, February 14, 2009

MB (ANNC): And now, from the hushed reading room of the Herndon County Library-it's Ruth Harrison, Reference Librarian.


SS: Well, another hour and we'll be closing, Trent. Used to stay open until ten on Saturday night but the Library Board has been slashing the budget so we have to close earlier and earlier. I just wish they could see the patronage we've had today.

TK (TEEN): Three-hundred and thirteen patrons, Miss Harrison. That's pretty good for a Saturday in February.

SS: And did you notice all the people who came in to look at Shakespeare's sonnets?

TK (TEEN): Yeah. What's going on? Is there an exam?

SS: It's a poetry contest, Trent. A radio show is offering prizes for the best love poems.

TK (TEEN): Gee willikers. Wish I'd known that before. I would've written one and entered it. Could've been done by now.

SS: Could've been finished by now, you mean.

TK (TEEN): That's what I said.

SS: You said "done" — Dinner is done, Trent. People are finished.

TK (TEEN): You made dinner?

SS: No, Trent. Never mind.

TK (TEEN): Oh, by the way there was some guy at the circulation desk, waiting for you or something.

SS: Thank you Trent, and don't forget to reshelve thesebooks now. Thank you.

TK (TEEN): You bet, Miss Harrison. (TO SELF) Let's see...The Private Secretary...How Black Was Her Chemise...Raging Passions Of The Giant Sea Turtles... (FOOTSTEPS)

GK: Oh. Hello.

SS: I'm sorry, sir, I was busy helping my intern. What can I do for you?

GK: I couldn't help but notice you correcting his grammar.

SS: Yes, well, that's how we learn, you know. From people daring to correct us.

GK: I was sitting in the reference room writing a poem and suddenly I thought maybe you could read it and tell me what you think.

SS: A love poem? (UNCOMFORTABLE LAUGHTER) I'm only a reference librarian, sir. A literary critic I'm not.

GK: No, but you're a woman. And you know what a woman feels and I need to know what someone would think reading the poem I wrote.

SS: Well—

GK: I'm sending it in to that contest.

SS: I thought the deadline had passed.

GK: So you wrote a poem too?

SS: No. I was thinking of it and then— I don't know— I just wasn't in the mood, I guess.

GK: Well, I was. I think I was. So I wrote this—

SS: When is the deadline?

GK: In ten minutes.

SS: Oh. Well, let me have a look. (PAPER)
Let them talk about us if they like. I don't care.
I am engrossed in your excellent profile,
Your noble nose and quick lips and mahogany hair
Clipped up high in a Grecian goddess pile.
You are of all women the most exquisite,
Most elegant in or out of clothes—
And I remove them and my own—

GK: Is there a problem? A grammatical problem?

SS: I'm not sure. It just doesn't sound quite right.
"You are of all women the most exquisite,
Most elegant in or out of clothes—
And I remove them and my own—"

GK: I remove your clothes and my own...

SS: Oh. Okay. Sorry.

GK: You seem flushed.

SS: Oh, it's just a virus or something— anyway—
I remove them and my own—and we visit
In your great flowery bed and my heart goes
Boom — and I—

GK: I'm sorry. Can't you read my handwriting?

SS: I can. Yes. I just stopped for breath.

GK: Is there something wrong with it?

SS: I don't know how to answer that question.

GK: Well, if you'd rather not read it, I'll just send it in.

SS: No, it's fine. I'm just reading it closely —
"— and I hear you say,
"Speak to me in a voice that is soft and low
And kneel right there —and I'll turn this way —
Yes, like that — " and on and on we go
Up to the top and Boom and then the slow descent,
Me lying beside you, happy and enormously content.

GK: So what do you think?

SS: I'm not sure about "me lying beside you" —

GK: Oh?

SS: Maybe it should be "I was lying beside you"—

GK: Maybe it should be I— doesn't sound right. I think I should be "maybe it should be me lying beside you—

SS: No, you misunderstand—

GK: But if you want it to be you lying beside me—

SS: That's not what you have here—

GK: No, but I could change it—

SS: Well, one of the rules of the contest was that it should be written for a specific person—

GK: Right.

SS: So this was written for someone?

GK: This poem?

SS: Yes. Was it written for someone?

GK: I'm starting to think so, yes— (DOOR OPENS, FOOTSTEPS)

MB (LOUD): Ruth! Ruth! Oh there you are.

SS: Oh— it's Mr. Anderson from the Library Board. Excuse me, sir—

MB (LOUD): Just came by to pick up the January usage report before the Board goes on its weekend retreat.

SS: The Library Board has been retreating for years, Mr. Anderson— why set aside one weekend?

MB (LOUD): Very funny, Ruth. Anyway, all ten of us and our wives are heading to Hilton Head. On Mr. Parker's company's private jet. Play some golf and talk about fiscal problems.

SS: How lucky for you.

MB (LOUD): Been such a hectic year with all the budget cuts. Very exhausting for us Board members. So we thought a weekend on the golf course might help us get back that old team spirit.

TK (TEEN): Hey Miss Harrison-I found this rat in the rare books room. (RAT)

SS: Looks like the same one we caught there last week, Trent.

MB (LOUD): You don't have mousetraps?

SS: Cut out of the budget, sir.

MB (LOUD): Well, you should've spoken up.

SS: I did. Anyway— take him down the block, Trent. Set him down by the deli, he'll be happier there.

MB (LOUD): What's this? You had three hundred patrons in the library today?

SS: Three hundred and thirteen.

MB (LOUD): Well, I better be off, Ruth. Our private jet leaves in an hour.

SS: And tell the Board that people love their library and we can't keep reducing the hours and we can't keep cutting the book budget.

MB: No reason to be so hostile about it, Ruth. We're doing our best.

SS: That's what we're afraid of.

MB (LOUD, OFF): Well, I'm outta here, Ruth. Anything I can bring back from Hilton Head? (DOOR OPENS, CLOSES)

SS: How about a new Library Board?

TK (TEEN): I don't think he heard you, Miss Harrison.

SS: They never do, Trent. — Say, where'd the man go who was standing right here?

TK (TEEN): The one you were talking to?

SS: Yes. He was here just a minute ago.

TK (TEEN): Guess he must've left. What's that he left on the counter? Let me see that—

SS: Never mind, Trent.

TK (TEEN): Looks like a poem. "Me lying beside you, happy and enormously content."

SS: Just you never mind.

TK (TEEN): Is that good grammar? "Me lying beside you"?

SS: Depends on who it is, Trent.


MB (ANNC): From the hushed reading room of the Herndon County Library, this has been the Adventures of Ruth Harrison, Reference Librarian.

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