Monday, January 31, 2011

Cats in the Library

I am the most frustrated of cat lovers because I am violently allergic to cats. Growing up, my family always had at least two and sometimes three cats (as well as birds of various types, frogs, turtles, and whatever else turned up), but as an adult, I developed serious allergies to them which made it impossible for me to have even one cat. So I must admire cats from afar--a huge frustration, as I said. I have never worked in a library with a resident cat, although many libraries do have them. The most famous was probably Dewey Readmore Books, who lived at the Spencer Public Library in Spencer, Iowa. Dewey was found in the library book return in 1988 when he was still a kitten, and adopted by the staff after the authorities approved. He was vaccinated, neutered, declawed (I have big reservations about declawing cats, but that is a subject for another day), and named as the result of a contest. The staff and public contributed their soda cans to pay for Dewey's food and care so that he would not cost the taxpayers anything. There is a webpage devoted to Dewey, who died in 2006 at the age of nineteen, and a book has been written about Dewey by the retired director of the Spencer Public Library.

Dewey was a member of the Library Cat Society, whose founding was inspired by Royal Reggie, the resident cat of the Bryant Public Library in Sauk, Minnesota. "The Society is now defunct, but at its peak, it had dozens of member libraries that offered safe havens to cats dumped in their parking lots or stuffed in book-return chutes." This description comes from Wikinut, "an online publisher for the masses." Wikinut goes on to say that "a fact sheet published by the American Library Association ... [states that today] there are 16,671 public library buildings in the United States today. Today there are 200 library cats in the United States but only 35 are the permanent residents of a library." Of course, book stores, especially used book stores, frequently have resident cats. I have only heard of one academic library that had a resident cat, Wesleyan University in Connecticut, but perhaps there are others.

Researching this subject, I came across an article entitled "Does Your Library Have A Resident Library Cat?", written by the same author, Jerry Walch, who wrote the entry in Wikinut quoted above. According to Walch,

Cats have been a part of library history dating back to the middle ages and beyond. Experts trace the origins of library cats to ancient times, when Herodotus reported the existence of libraries in Egyptian temples. While many felines prowled the fields of early Egypt protecting crops, others underwent special training to stop rodents and serpents from infesting houses and temples, where preserved papyrus has since been unearthed. In the Middle Ages, records indicate that monks deployed domesticated mousers to their medieval monasteries to prevent rats from eating costly manuscript[s].

Down through the ages many library cats have [been] immortalized in stone and bronze after their passing on. The New York Public Library's sculpted lions, who have been greeting patrons since 1911, symbolize felines as guardians over literary works. They were sculpted by Edward Potter and were originally dubbed Leo Astor and Leo Lenox for library founders John Jacob Astor and James Lenox.

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia renamed them Patience and Fortitude in the 1930s, and they have been known by those names ever since. Wondering how many library cats there were worldwide, I came across the Library Cats Map, which has not been updated for almost two years. Iron Frog Productions is responsible for the map, and would like the public's help in compiling a definitive list of library cats. The map shows nearly 600 library cats around the world, but this number is probably not accurate.

This research project began when my husband showed me an online list of public libraries from the New York State Library. As part of the list, there is a small cat icon that indicates if a library has a resident cat. If so, there is a link to a webpage about the cat. I counted only seven public libraries in New York State with resident cats. Still, I thought this feature was charming and really humanized the public library system in my state.

1 comment:

Betsy McKenzie said...

Thank you so much for this post, Marie! I have so much enjoyed the cat map. I have had a terrific, ongoing conversation out of this with my sister-in-law, who used to live until recently, in Rome, Georgia, where the library cat map shows the public library has 2 cats. My sister-in-law confirms this with pleasure. She went on to tell me that her college, Shorter, has 3 library cats, which are much loved by the students and staff.