Comic book figures are all the rage at the multiplex this year as the Green Lantern, Thor, X-Men and Captain America leap onto the silver screen.
While women superheroes have chronically been in short supply, one of the more visible female counterparts of 20th century comic book lore was someone we book pushers could relate to.
Batgirl, aka Barbara “Babs” Gordon, was the daughter of Gotham City Police Commissioner Gordon. The cover of the comic book in which she made her 1967 debut carried the tantalizing question, “What is her startling secret identity?”
You guessed it! Concerned about the attention that her meteoric academic progress is generating, Ms. Gordon decides to cultivate a lower profile by earning a library and information science degree. After which she becomes head reference librarian at the Gotham City Public Library and fights evil in her spare time.
Although Gordon’s alter-ego was initially stereotyped as passively dowdy so as to give greater contrast to her exciting adventures as Batgirl, her depiction as a career oriented woman (albeit in a mainstream occupation deemed acceptable for an unmarried young woman) was symbolic of women’s empowerment in the 1960’s. By the 1970’s, the character had given her civilian identity a makeover by running for Congress.
One wonders how many little Batgirl impersonators getting dressed for trick or treat from 1967 to 1988 knew they were also “going as a librarian.” Let’s face it; even librarians don’t attend Halloween parties dressed as other librarians. (“Who are you supposed to be?” “Melvil Dewey!” “Uh-huh. Sure.”)
That does not mean, however, that librarians – particularly children’s librarians – don’t relish secret identities.
In May 1978, I spent a week dressed as a Super Librarian touring every classroom in 12 elementary schools to promote that year’s Summer Reading Program theme “Super People Enjoy the Library.” Wearing an eclectic costume combining blue leotards and red satin gym shorts, knee high black boots, and a Superman logo shirt with a scarlet lined U.S. Navy nurse’s cape, I used a red eye mask to conceal my true identity.
On the afternoon of Day Two, my loyal assistant Kay bet me five bucks that I wouldn’t walk from the Rhinelander District Library up Stevens Street to Zion Lutheran School and back.
In full costume. In broad daylight.
Hey, easy money!
Hands on hips, I strode along the sidewalk as though the only thing on my mind was a pressing appointment with the Green Hornet. We didn’t find out until later that a concerned citizen had actually called the Rhinelander Police Department to report some nut in a supersuit was roaming the city streets, presumably looking for a tall building worthy of leaping over in a single bound!
Luckily, the police chief’s secretary (whose secret identity was president of the Friends of the Library) was at her post when the call came in.
“Oh, don’t worry; about THAT!” Helen told the dispatcher. “It’s just the children’s librarian!”
Librarians may not wear a red cape in real life but we perform amazing interventions as superheroes every single day. Our greatest superpower is the ability to organize great collections of things so that they can easily be retrieved even after many years.
We don't get in the news much for saving the world, but we save most of the information that the world produces. And we know where to find it again, even on the Internet, which resembles a library tossed by vandals.
Librarian superheroes save people every day. We save them time and money. We save some from needless anxiety. We save others from unemployment and a lack of educational opportunities. We save them from boredom and poor consumer choices.
Sometimes, we even save lives. Not in the classic fireman’s carry from a burning building sense, you understand, but in myriad ways large and small that can make a profound difference, especially to a child.
Consider, for example, award winning author Gary Paulsen who ran away from home at age 14 and lived with relatives or on his own. He sold newspapers to make money for food and clothes. One day Gary went into the public library to get warm. The librarian there offered him his own library card and began recommending books to him. The way Paulsen tells it, "I don't think of any of the good things that have happened to me would have been possible without that librarian and libraries in general....It saved me, it really did."
Librarian superheroes save communities, too. Public libraries in Smallvilles across the nation are being faced with an unprecedented level of demand, expectation and responsibility due to a phenomenon I’ll call “rural shrink.”
Amidst economic upheaval and ongoing withdrawal of services and agencies from small towns – losing businesses, local doctors, closing post offices and government agency service centers – the public library has become more and more of a recognized community focal point, meeting place and access facility for a broad range of purposes. Not the least of these is meeting the need for high speed Internet access while assisting the technological disadvantaged to successfully negotiate the maze of a digital world.
The fictional Barbara Gordon fought evil in her spare time. Real librarians fight evil every single day behind the circulation desk – the evil of ignorance, of discrimination based on income or geography, of adversity that can only be mitigated by fair and equal access to information.
Super Librarian certainly deserves a rightful place in the League of Justice!
For a bibliography of Batgirl comics featuring librarian Barbara Gordon go here.