7 Novels That Reveal Librarians Behind the Shelves

Laura Sims, author of "How Can I Help You," recommends books with librarians as main characters

Hand reaching for book in shelf
Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

It isn’t unusual for libraries to feature prominently in novels; novelists, after all, are merely adult versions of the little people who fell in love with books at public libraries. But what of librarians? The keepers of the books, the ones who know you prefer romance, science fiction, or self-help?

You rarely see them as protagonists; instead, they linger in the background of many novels, shushing anyone who speaks above a whisper or pushing a book cart silently through the stacks. They’re shy and retreating, and like Mary Bailey’s shadow self in the classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life, they seem wholly dissatisfied with their lot.

There may be a few librarians like that out there—but I haven’t met them. The librarians I know are dynamic, funny, outgoing, proudly weird, whip-smart, and do much more than push carts full of books around. So I’m delighted when I find novels that showcase librarian characters in all of their complex human glory. Below are seven of those novels; read them, dear reader, and pay respect to the real keepers of the books.  

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng 

Mayumi, the errant librarian star of this enthralling novel, wants more than she can find in the pages of the books she loves, and more than her unsatisfying domestic life on a small island off the coast of New England can give her. When she connects with a new patron, she finds passion and true companionship; the catch is, he’s seventeen—and she’s married with a child. Their illicit summer affair turns Mayumi’s life upside-down, but the real surprise is her connection with the boy’s mother, which bears fruit late in this unique, beguiling tale.  

Weather by Jenny Offill

In her classic fragmentary style, Jenny Offill tells the story of Lizzie, a university librarian reckoning with the existential terror of climate change amidst the cascading demands of everyday life: a family crisis to navigate, entitled patrons (tenured professors) to assist, and mounting bills to pay, all while the glaciers melt and sea levels rise. Offill’s compelling narrative keeps you quickly turning pages as it beautifully captures the impossibility/inevitability of continuing to live our lives inside an overwhelming reality.

Belle Greene by Alexandra Lapierre 

Belle da Costa Greene, personal librarian to J.P. Morgan, comes vividly to life in this carefully researched and detailed work of historical fiction. The child of a famous Black activist, Belle broke from her family, passing for white so she could achieve her dreams in defiance of racist limitations. She did that and more; she became one of the most admired intellectuals of New York society in the early 1900s, traveled widely, loved liberally, and created one of the most incredible and enduring private book and manuscript collections in the world. 

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai 

Children’s librarian Lucy takes offense when she learns that her favorite ten-year-old patron’s mother wants to censor his reading choices. When she finds the boy camping out after hours in the children’s room because his parents plan to send him to an “anti-gay” camp, Lucy takes him on a zany road trip that lands her in the realm of “kidnapper,” despite her noble intentions. Though written in 2011, this title couldn’t be timelier today, in the midst of library book bans and challenges across the nation. Lucy makes some questionable choices, but she’s still a librarian-hero for our times.

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

In this gripping LGBTQIA+ sci-fi/fantasy novel, Esther lives in a fascist society in a future American Southwest. With her best friend/lover executed and her impending marriage to a man she can’t love looming, Esther runs away to join the Librarians, a group of women who deliver “appropriate reading material” for the State via wagons. She hopes they can set her straight, make her an “upright woman.” Instead, this troupe of traveling lesbian librarian-bandits takes her along for a far more interesting—and perilous—ride. 

The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections by Eva Jurczyk 

For years, Liesl Weiss has been happy to stay in the background of her university’s rare books department, keeping things running smoothly. But with her boss, Christopher, incapacitated by a stroke, Liesl steps forward to lead right when a rare and valuable manuscript goes missing. Not long after, a colleague goes missing as well. Liesl is encouraged to leave these seemingly connected mysteries alone—for the sake of her inert boss and the university, she’s told—but she can’t help investigating, even if it means upending her safe and orderly life.

The Librarianist by Patrick DeWitt 

The protagonist of Patrick DeWitt’s latest novel both upholds and belies the image of the quiet librarian. When Bob Comet, retired librarian, begins volunteering at a local senior center to fill the void he’s felt since retirement, we start to learn more about his colorful, complex past. As he gathers a coterie of interesting new acquaintances around him, these mingle and mix with characters from his past to create an engaging read about a seeming introvert’s far-from-ordinary life. 

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