Ten Songs about Libraries and Librarians

By Philip Sutton, Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
April 18, 2017

The New York Public Library recently published a blog post about favorite fictional librarians. I'm a librarian who plays music—and the drummer in my group is also a librarian—which got me thinking about songs about libraries and librarians. I came up with this list of ten songs about libraries and librarians (researched at the library). Suggest your own favorites in the comments section below.

1. "Karen" / The Go-Betweens

Quote from Jonathan Lethem "I loved this book, How elegant that the dark-horse band lavished with obsessive and loving attention by David Nichols should be the one whose weird and lovely depths can truly sustain and reward it - the life-altering Go-Betweens." Album cover for The Go-Betweens.

The Go-Betweens

 Nichols, David.

Formed in Brisbane, Australia in 1977, The Go-Betweens featured the twin talents of singer-songwriters Robert Forster and Grant McLennan. The group released 9 albums between 1981 and 2005. The Forster penned hymn to a librarian named Karen was the b-side to the group's first single 1978's Lee Remick. This song  is the only one I know that  praises a librarian's readers advisory skills. Forster sings:

Helps me find Hemingway

Helps me find Genet

Helps me find Brecht

Helps me find Chandler

Helps me find James Joyce

She always makes the right choice.

You see what I did there? We just can't help ourselves!

Go-Betweens (Musical group)

Go-Betweens (group)

2. "Young Adult Friction" / The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart 

A lot of songs that mention libraries seem to be about things happening in the library that are not strictly study related. I couldn't find a single song about, say, bibliographic instruction or collection development. But that's OK. In their song "Young Adult Friction," New York City indie-poppers The Pains of Being Pure at Heart sing about an activity taking place in the library that should not be taking place in a library. Sex and libraries in songs is a common theme. Characters are either hanging around the library before going somewhere to do their courting, or are hoping for a date (or more!) from the sexy librarian. The lyrics to "Young Adult Friction" refer to "stacks" and "microfiche," and there is a pun on Young Adult Fiction, so bonus points to The POBPAH. Knowledge of library terms also suggests that this group might have spent some time in the reading room. 

Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Musical group)

3. "Library Rap" / MC Poindexter and the Study Crew  

Photograph through center hallway of the stacks

Stacks at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building are closed. So no Pains of Being Pure at Heart-style shenanigans here.

Image ID: 2006656

Enough with all this bookish indiepop. It's time for some bookish rap, albeit pretend rap. As I write this I am working from the reference desk, so can't listen to this tune in order to discern it's musical qualities, but I heartily endorse the sentiment in this sample of the lyrics.

The silence is golden

To books I am beholden

I know I'm bad,

'Cuz of the knowledge that I'm holdin'!

And I give you one warnin'

There will be no repeats:

Get out of my face

While I'm readin' my Keats. 

I 'd not heard of MC Poindexter and the Study Crew, so I did some searching online. It would appear that this song  appears in the 1990s science fiction show Sliders, in an episode called Eggheads (Season 1, Episode 7). MC Poindexter is actually actor Mark Poyser. Fittingly enough, the episode in question is available to borrow on DVD from The New York Public Library. So you can see and hear for yourself! 

Library Rap video

Sliders. First and second seasons.

4. "Lost In The Library" / Saint Etienne

Taken from their 1999 Japan only album The Misadventures of Saint Etienne (could I be more obscure?) by the English dance pop group of the same name, Lost in the Library is an instrumental song. So I cannot be sure whether it is about losing oneself in a world of knowledge, of books, prints and photographs, archive folders, and microfiche, or a song about struggling to find the geography section. Or perhaps it's about a quiet existential crisis in the reading room? Whatever, it's a plangent, acoustic piece whose mood is most relaxing. Quiet calming. Like the library.

Saint Etienne (Musical group) Performer    

5. "Thee Ecstatic Library" / Comet Gain

Young Adult, Margaret Scoggin

Is that a young Devo seeking readers advisory from  Margaret Scoggin, YA librarian at the 58th Street branch?

 Image ID: 1151159

Esoteric musical choices are a necessity in this post as I'm steering clear of library clichés, as mentioned, so I have to take what I can find. It appears that most of the songs in this selction are by acts you probably haven't heard of. Some are new to me too. Oh well. We're here to experience new things. Comet Gain, a British indie band founded in 1992,  recorded this song for their 2011 LP "Howl Of The Lonely Crowd." I love the idea of a psychedelic library, where everyone is ecstatically happy, high on the new things they discover. I'm not sure that's what this song is about , but that's not my problem. The song says "Music will save you again and again." Which is a good thing. Where can you find music? In the library. So logically the library can save you again and again. And it does. If you think about it.


6. "At the Library" / Green Day

All life happens in the library. Green Day is not a band I am very familiar with despite their being much the most well-known act in this post. This song seems rather jolly. I say seems... the protagonist, too shy to talk to the girl he has a crush on, sees her leave the library with her boyfriend. But he's not bitter. He hopes maybe they'll meet again someday. Maybe that'll be in the library?  He's already in the right place to kill time. This song is from the group's 1990 release 39/Smooth. You can read about, and listen to Green Day using materials held by The New York Public Library.

About Green Day (Musical group)

By Green Day (Musical group)

7. "French Navy" / Camera Obscura

Historic photo of library window display

Many songs are about finding love in the library...

 Image ID: 1252869

Spent a week in a dusty library

Waiting for some words to jump at me

I was sure Scots twee legends Belle and Sebastian would have written a song about libraries and librarians, but it seems I may have been wrong. Perhaps a keener fan will know? Fellow countryfolk popsters Camera Obscura do, and seem to have had more luck with love in the library than Green Day, as described in the song French Navy, taken from their 2009 LP My Maudlin Career. Sitting in the library. Looking for some inspiration. Suddenly! Love happens! We can't guarantee love will happen in your library, but if you don't go looking for it, you never know what you might find. More microfiche? Not sure how much work these love-struck folk are getting done, but hey, what better place to meet people? 

Camera Obscura (Musical group)  

8. "Swinging London" / The Magnetic Fields

Stack maintenance

Librarians preparing to provide reference at a poorly lit rock concert.

I read your manifestos and your strange religious tracts.

You took me to your library and kissed me in the stacks.

Hmm. Perhaps I am being unrealistic expecting to find lots of songs about collection development, the Dewey Decimal System, and Library of Congress subject terms? Yes. I am.  Whether the narrator in this song was taken to a public library I'm not sure. I hope so. This is another sweet song that involves a library. That people are going to libraries is what matters. Use it or lose it people! This is one of The Magnetic Fields more electronic sounding songs.

Magnetic Fields (Musical group)  Performer

9. "Library Card" / Frank Zappa 

Library bar-code, PE label

Student must carry this card at all times,

And present upon demand for identification

This card are not while currently [enrolled pony]

You may be liable for any unauthorized use of this card prior to notifying the used card office

In writing, of possible unauthorized use due to loss or theft

I agree to comply with all library regulations

And to assume responsibility for all use made of this card

Wow. This ain't no Carpenters. Possibly not a song about library cards. I sense something more sinister is afoot. "Students must carry this card at all times" suggests some kind of authoritarian dystopia, as if the library card has ceased to be your free pass to a world of knowledge, and has become a means of control by the state. Perhaps it's a critique of education? Of Western teaching? I'm not sure. Hmm. Too surreal for me. You can make your own mind up by using your New York Public library card to request materials by and about Frank Zappa: there's lots to choose from. By the way, if you are worried about privacy issues and your NYPL library card you can review The New York Public Library's Privacy Policy.

By Zappa, Frank

About Zappa, Frank

10. "Lisa Librarian" / Velocity Girl

I'd heard of this song from my bandmate, the drumming librarian whose name is Lisa. This is the first time I've actually heard this tune. I was thrown because I thought Velocity Girl, out of Washington, D.C. (1989-1996) had a female singer. Which they did usually, one Sarah Shannon. But this is a chap. I clearly need to listen to more Velocity Girl. The recording is a sort of shoegazey meets Pavement affair. Like most shoegaze music, it's quite hard to make out what the words are from the muffled singing, but...

I'd like to tell you something

But I have to think of something first

I want to visit you at work

It is all quiet

It is so quiet at work

These are the best lines in the song, and the most pertinent to libraries. Our hero needs some inspiration to help him think of something to tell the librarian. How about an icebreaker first? He could borrow from Robert Forster. "What do you have by Hemmingway? Can you recommend a book by Genet? Brecht? Chandler? James Joyce?"  I'm sure Lisa, like Karen, will make the right choice.