December 7, 2014 by libroshombre
“Tyrannio” would be a great name for a library director, and, in fact, it was. His real name was Theophrastus, but his disposition was such that a teacher aptly nicknamed him Tyannio. If you owned a new library full of books looted from Greece and Egypt, like Sulla, the general who’d raided Athens in 86 B.C.E. and took Aristotle’s tattered personal library home to Rome, Tyrannio the best librarian in the world, was the guy you wanted to repair and organize it. After taking care of Sulla, Tyrannio revamped Cicero’s fabulous library, and in his spare time, he accumulated his own 30,000 volume collection.
A similarly-sized library back then is comparable in size to UAF’s Rasmuson library today. Roman librarians administered staffs of literate slaves who copied borrowed books to add to their masters’ libraries, and Tyrannio had his scribes run off extra copies for himself. After his access to Sulla’s library, Tyrannio owned one of the most complete set of Aristotle’s works, and many of which wouldn’t have survived otherwise.
Librarians are often stereotyped as meek and retiring, but some of my library colleagues are among the bravest people I’ve known. That didn’t make the Coulee News “10 Myths About Libraries and Librarians” a few years back, though. Their list included myths like public libraries only being busy during the school year and busy only during the summer, that librarians are fast readers and have lots of time to read on the job, etc.
They also didn’t “librarians know everything” their myth list. However, once a librarian, you’re tainted for life and some people retain an unwarranted faith in my knowledge base and recall abilities. Ever aged public librarians are nothing if not service-oriented, and when Jennifer Jolis asked about a word’s origin, I answered the call. It was a special case. Jennifer’s currently director of Stone Soup Kitchens, and for decades Jennifer’s put her money and time where her mouth is when it comes to improving our community. Recently, Jennifer asked my sweetie, a Stone Soup volunteer, if I knew the origin of the term “rapscallion.” I usually know the answers to such questions, but I do know where to look.
Jennifer’s a culinary guru, and I hoped “scallions” had something to do with it, but alas. The Oxford English Dictionary says “rapscallion,” a “rascal, rogue, vagabond, scamp,” dates from the late 1600’s and comes from an earlier word with the same meaning, “rascallion,” which was first cited in 1649. That appears to come from “rascal,” which meant, chronologically speaking, a “young, lean, or inferior deer (1399),” “one belonging to the rabble or the common herd (1461),” a “low, mean, unprincipled, or dishonest fellow (1586),” and a “a mild term of reproof (1610).” There’s also “rascaless,” a female rascal.
“Rascal” is inordinately rich in suffixes that fairly trip along the tongue, including “rascalry,” meaning “rascality,” “rascalism, “ the “character or practices of a rascal,” and “rascaldom,” the “world or body of rascals.” The world of rascals contains a few prominent librarians, like that horrid anti-Semite and sexual predator Melvil Dewey. Don’t forget J. Edgar Hoover, Mao Tse Tung, and Elvis Presley, who all labored among the stacks at some point, though the King’s time there was rather brief. And, as mentioned earlier, once a librarian …
The hands-down winner for rascal librarianship is Giacomo Casanova, the renowned Venetian lover and adventurer who also maintained catalogues and checked the stacks for mis-shelvings. His autobiography, “Story of My Life,” is a diverting read, as well as an excellent resource on 18th century European social life, for besides a multitude of ladies, Casanova hung out with Voltaire, Goethe, and Mozart, as well as various kings and popes. He also orchestrated his own prison break, established the first state-run lottery, and practiced alchemy in search of the so-called “philosopher’s stone” before writing his memoirs while employed as librarian for the Bohemian Count Waldstein, for in his day librarians with spare time wasn’t a myth.
Casnova might now have been the best librarian, but he was among the most entertaining. As singer Debbie Harry put it, “You always fall for the rascal or the guy who’s got a little bit of the devil in him.”