Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Supernatural and the Public Library

“I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure.”

–Virginia Woolf, English writer and literary modernist

Bobby breaks into the Sioux Falls Public Library [6.04 Weekend At Bobby’s]

I love Supernatural for many, many reasons. It is one of the best television shows ever made. From the plot, to the production, to the quality of performance, you would be hard pressed to name a show that has ever done it better. I also believe part of the beauty of the show is the fact that so many people find their world in it. It is a commentary on everyday, hard pressed, down and dirty, good old fashioned LIFE. Yes, it is told through fictional storylines of angels and demons, ghosts and vampires, hunters and monsters but its themes are found in life in New Zealand or Germany or bustling Las Vegas or small town Wyoming, USA. The small piece of my world that is so beautiful represented in Supernatural is that of public libraries. Libraries rarely are treated with such love and respect on the screen as they are in Supernatural.
I have worked in public libraries for 13 years. It is a job which most people don’t realize still exists or one that is steeped in antiquated stereotypes of old women in hair buns and bifocals, “shushing” anything that breathes inside the walls. See this exchange for example:

Dean: What'd she look like?
Sam: Kinda like a librarian.
Dean: Your kind of librarian, or my kind of librarian?
Sam: Well, she was wearing clothes, if that's what you mean.
[6.17 My Heart Will Go On]

While those perceptions and stereotypes still exist in small form, most 21st century libraries are bustling hubs of modern, innovative thought and community. Instead of marble halls and hushed conversations, they have become open, fresh, bright buildings with energetic staff who not only perform traditional library duties but are also highly trained in modern technology and current culture. (Side note: one of my favorite blog posts is this one from the Huffington Post about tattooed librarians). But public libraries have evolved in a way that still acknowledges the traditional and at the same time celebrates the new. You will see microfilm machines next to 3D printers and archive collections sometimes dating back 400 years right next to Anime & Graphic Novel collections. It is that kind of diversity that I love to see Supernatural revel in.

“Before we came over here we stopped by the library and did a little homework ourselves.”
–Dean Winchester, 2.04 Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things

Supernatural, without any obvious spotlight, honors public libraries. They are woven in the fabric of the show. They are mentioned in normal conversations. They are used CONSTANTLY in the series, in almost every episode. When after 8 years, the show built it’s massive home base for its main characters, the main hall featured a monumental library. Ironically, the very first scene that Jared and Jensen ever shot together in “The Pilot” [1.01] took place in a library. That is the beauty of local, public libraries. They are pillars in communities without people even realizing it. People of every race, creed, color, religion, sexual orientation or economic standing are welcomed with open arms. Diversity is celebrated. No question is too strange or unworthy. Librarians make it their mission to answer every inquiry posed to them in a way that goes above and beyond. One of my favorite library moments in the series is after Demon!Dean terribly beats up Cole in “Reichenbach” [10.02], Cole stumbles into a nonfiction section of a local library, bleeding all over the books and asking for “everything you have on demons.” The librarian’s face looks like this:
While the scene ends there, I know for a fact, that librarian got right up and spent hours helping Cole find all the lore and legends of demons. Because when we next see Cole in “Girls, Girls, Girls” [10.07] he is very knowledgeable about demons and the ways to fight them.

“A great library is one nobody notices because it is always there, and always has what people need.”
–Vicki Myron, American author and librarian

People ask me all the time if I think libraries are becoming a thing of the past with the dawning of the digital age. Instant knowledge is always at our fingertips. Google provides us with thousands of answers for any question you might ask. Apps will read text to you. Unlimited numbers of digital books can fit on a tablet that takes up less space than one printed book. While these are all well and good, I believe there 3 huge reasons libraries have lasted for thousands of years and will continue to have a major presence in society for thousands of years to come. All of those reasons are candidly and plainly woven into the world of Supernatural. Let’s explore them.


“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”

–Neil Gaiman, English author and screenwriter
The problem with today’s user-generated knowledge is that it gives the illusion that everyone’s opinion is of equal authority, and that’s not true. Our digital culture has given us all a stage where we can voice our opinions to the world, but that doesn’t always mean we should listen. When everyone is an expert, nobody is. Libraries combat that trend. Their shelves are full of materials from authorities in all subjects. Their databases are teaming with accredited information.
In “Hook Man” [1.07], the Winchester brothers are researching the urban legend of the Hook Man. I guarantee if they would have gone to Google to research it they would still be in Ankeny, Iowa trying to gank that dang monster. Just for the fun of it, I googled “the legend of hookman” and got over 61,000 results. But instead the Winchesters went to the local Ankeny library to do some research.

They are in the library twice in this episode. Once to see if the urban legend of the Hook Man really had any roots in this small town and again to see what happened to the hook that Jacob Karns’ spirit is attached too. Hearsay and lore wasn’t enough to go on this time so they dug deeeeep into the library’s records. Arrest records for the county dating back to 1851 and the log book for the Iowa State Penitentiary (although I am not sure why that would be in the Ankeny Library considering the Penitentiary is over 3 hours away in Fort Madison, IA but no matter, maybe they interlibrary loaned it...hee hee). Because of the authoritative records in the library they ganked the monster in short order.
Another scene from “The Great Escapist [8.21], this one in the Bunker library not a public library, is when Sam is trying to make heads or tails from Kevin’s research. He recognizes a reoccurring symbol in the notes and because of the extensive Bunker library collection is able to name it as a petroglyph from Native American culture meaning Messenger of God.

It's a death certificate. From the '30s. We got it at the library.
–Sam Winchester, 1.17 Hell House
In working for a library myself, I can attest to all the donations a public library receives DAILY. Boxes and boxes of books and records are constantly being donated from the public or from archives of other business and organizations in town. When one of the local funeral homes closed down after decades of service in our community they donated all their records to us. Now we have close to 40 years of cause of death and obituary records in our collection. It is valuable, necessary archives and what other place would be as suited to keep these records as a public library?
My favorite library scene in Supernatural is so brief you might actually miss it, but it features the greatest  archival achievement libraries have done. That is microfilm/microfiche (the difference being microfilm is in reels and microfiche is in sheets) collections of local newspapers. In my library we have film/fiche records of nearly 98% of the newspapers ever published in the entire 100 year history of the county. That is an impressive and frequently used collection. I have helped people from all over the nation who have called looking for articles and/or obituaries published in our county decades ago. Here, in this Supernatural scene, these records break the case open for Sam and Dean.
In “Something Wicked” [1.18], the Winchesters are completely stumped as to who the monster is that they are fighting. They know that it is a Shtriga but as Shtrigas take on a human form when not hunting it could literally be ANYONE in Fitchburg, WI. The old lady at the hospital was a dead end and now another small child has fallen ill. They are out of time and out of leads.
While Dean is at the hospital with the distraught mother of the latest victim, Sam takes it upon himself to head to the library and try to find out more about this Shtriga. He knows to look for articles about Ft. Douglas, WI from 16 or 17 years ago but then he keeps going. He finds articles from Ogdenville, then before that North Haverbrook, and even further back from Brockway. The furthest articles he finds is in Black River Falls in the 1890s. Every 15 to 20 years there have been a string of child deaths from an unknown illness. Then, with a satisfied look, Sam finds what he is looking for. The doctor treating the children in Fitchburg, Dr. Hydeker, is also in a picture of children being treated in 1893. GOTCHA.
Without the archived articles they might have never connected the dots to the doctor.

Librarian:  You do know there is a good reason he's called the unknown soldier, right?
Sam:  Right. We were just hoping maybe a theory or two had been a floated around over the years – something local, maybe?
Librarian:  There is one.
[8.06 Southern Comfort]

This reason alone could cement the library’s place in the future forever. Nothing, I repeat, nothing beats the first hand knowledge of a local.

This librarian is young but you know that she has lived in this town her whole life, and if I had to guess her parents and grandparents did too. When Sam asks for the local story she turns right to it. There is the official story and then there is the legend the locals tell. A good librarian knows both. She tells the story of two brothers who fought on opposites sides of the civil war. One killed the other and with his dying breath he swore vengeance on his brother. Many years later the living brother dug up his sibling and brought him home to be buried there. That is the theory of who the unknown soldier is. The librarian also points them in the direction of what the object was that was taken from the tomb and that the spirit is attached too. It is was a custom in the mid-1800’s to give a soldier leaving for war a penny on a string for good luck and some extra cash if needed. As it turns out, that theory is true and it leads Sam and Garth right to source of the spirit.

“I like libraries. It makes me feel comfortable and secure to have walls of words, beautiful and wise, all around me. I always feel better when I can see that there is something to hold back the shadows.”
Roger Zelazny, Nine Princes in Amber

There are a few other great mentions of libraries in Supernatural. Twice in the series, something very important was hidden in a library. In “Everybody Hates Hitler” [8.13] Rabbi Bass hides the red ledger in the university library. Also Sam uses a bookcart as a weapon in this library and let me tell you, from personal experience, those things can definitely be deadly. In “Book of the Damned” [10.18] Metatron hides Cas’ grace and the demon tablet in a book in a library.Then, of course my favorite quote about librarians is...
“These guys may have been sexist, but like all librarians, they were wicked smart, too.”
―Charlie Bradbury, 9.04 Slumber Party

In conclusion, I laud Supernatural for being true to the everyday person who still works in and uses public libraries. I have many friends in the fandom who are librarians and we all love to find the wonderful nuggets about libraries that are woven into almost every episode of Supernatural.

What is your favorite library memory or your favorite mention of them in Supernatural?

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