Spring 2009 Newsletter

Cat Chat

Library Cats

By Nancy Marano

Ever since Dewey, the Spencer, Iowa, cat profiled in the best-selling book and upcoming movie, Dewey, pawed his way into our consciousness and tugged at our heartstrings, people have been curious about cats in libraries. Was Dewey just an oddity or were there more library cats?

Cats and libraries have always had a natural affinity with at least 744 libraries around the world being graced by resident library cats. Yes, people keep statistics of things like that.

Many famous authors rely on their cats for inspiration. Colette credits her cat with being her constant muse. Readers of the popular Joe Grey mysteries by Shirley Rousseau Murphy know her cats are quite familiar with Molena Point's library. And cats certainly played a large role in T. S. Eliot's life. Cats in libraries bring a homey feeling with them. They are a wonderful incentive to get children to use the library and many older people, who can no longer have pets in their home, like to visit with the library cat. Of course, all the attention isn't bad for the cat either. Library cats have a full, busy life with lots of pats and special treats. Some are local celebrities who appear on postcards and promotional materials for their library.

Library cats star in the 1997 award-winning video by Gary Roma, a Massachusetts-based documentary filmmaker. "Puss in Books: Adventures of a Library Cat," follows library cats from across the United States as they roam the stacks, do rodent-patrol duty, check out patrons' book choices, help at the circulation desk and attend children's story hour. When Roma made the film, there were only 125 known library cats. But the number continues to grow because library patrons enjoy having a cat on duty in the library.

Roma also presides over a website devoted to library cats (www.ironfrog.com/catsmap.html) which includes a map showing where in the world those cats are now. He includes a few cats other than the purring variety, such as virtual library cats, stuffed lions, cheetahs and Siberian tigers as long as they perform the function of guarding the library and promoting its activities. He also includes one ghost cat for a haunting good time.

According to Roma, there are no documented library cats in Wyoming, South Dakota or Delaware. He also can't document any in the Middle East or South America. But he invites readers to help him update the map. Europe, England, Australia and New Zealand all proudly list their library cats.

Although I am a librarian, I was never lucky enough to work in a library with its own cat but other librarians fared better. A librarian at the Ocean Shores Library in Washington saw Roma's film and was intrigued by the idea. She convinced her boss to let her survey the patrons about whether they would like to have a library cat in residence. Out of 213 patrons surveyed all but two wanted the cat. The library board agreed and a calico kitten named Trixie was employed. When Trixie died, Waldo and Olivia moved in to the library. All three cats were named for characters in children's books.

Most library cats have names belonging to the library or literary world. Dewey Readmore Books, the Dewey of bestseller fame, is named for Melville Dewey, inventor of the Dewey decimal system, used by most public libraries to classify books. Melville Dewey seems to be the paws down favorite as a namesake. Dewey and Deci lived at the Fort Worth Library, while another Melville Dewey lived in the Eastham, MA library. Gaylord, named for a book distributor, lived in the El Centro, CA library. And then there was Emily at the Mystic-Noank Library in Mystic, CT, who was named for Emily Dickinson and Emily Bronte.

Library cats even have their own organization thanks to Phyllis Lahti who began the Library Cat Society (LCS) in 1987 to advocate the establishment of cats in libraries and recognize the need to respect and to care for library cats. Reggie served as the library cat at Lahti's own library in Sauk City, MN. She gathered stories from other librarians about their cats and started The Library Cat newsletter to allow these librarians to chat about the questions that arose from employing a library cat. She then wrote an anthology, Cats, Librarians, and Libraries: Essays for and About the Library Cat Society.

Two famous library cats of the inanimate kind are Patience and Fortitude the lions who guard the front of the New York Public Library (NYPL) at 5th Ave. and 42nd St. They have watched people come and go since 1911 when the library opened. How many parades they've witnessed no one knows. At Christmas they are decked out with wreaths and are featured in the photos of many tourists. They are now the Library's official mascots and are represented in the Library logo.

Generally library cats do better finding a job in small towns where the pace is a bit slower and the library buildings are of the older, cozier variety. Nooks and crannies where a cat can hide or take a cat nap are welcome for break time. While there are occasional complaints from patrons who are allergic to cats or who just don't like them, most library cats have earned the affection and gratitude of their town's citizens. Library cats receive Christmas cards, birthday cards, treats, toys and tributes from loving admirers. Not a bad life for a cat. After all, reading and studying always go better to the sound of purrs.

Nancy Marano is an award-winning author who is owned by two cats, Sammy and Rocky, and a Westie named Maggie May.

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