Libraries are sanctuaries for lounging literati, curious children, and studying students. But did you know that about 142 libraries in the United States are home to a growing breed of library cats? I don’t mean cats as in beret and black turtleneck wearing cats of the ‘60s- I mean the real thing: four-legged, cold-nosed, fuzzy, purring, licking, mouse-catching cats. Living in libraries. Probably even in one near you.
To some, the concept may seem odd: why have a cat in a library? They can’t read and they can’t type and they certainly can’t complain about an overdue book. To others, (like me), the idea seems outright ridiculous. Dogs, I like. Cats, on the other hand, make me uncomfortable – they kill rodents, they slink about and they often snub affection. But for Phyllis Lahti, director and founder of the Library Cat Society, there is nothing more natural than a cat in a library. Yes, you are reading that correctly – there legitimately is a Library Cat Society. Founded in 1987, their main objective is to encourage libraries across the nation to own cats. For six dollars a year, Lahti sends subscribers “The Library Cat Newsletter,” detailing the lives of library cats around the country. But documentary film maker and comedian Gary Roma thinks it is such a “rich topic” that he spent three years putting together a documentary on Lahti’s beloved library cats titled, Puss in Books.
“It is nice to curl up with a book and a cat,” Roma, a self-proclaimed “cat-person,” says. It is? I personally prefer a big, loafing Golden retriever to rest my head upon while digging into Nabakov, but I keep that — and my cat disdain — to myself. Even after talking to him, I am hardly convinced that cats and books make the perfect combo, so I visit Roma’s website, www.ironfrog.com, peruse his extensive library cats map and contact several libraries about their cats and this strange library cat phenomenon.
Feeling somewhat guilty about my cat prejudice, I give Susan Thomas at the Montgomery Area Public Library in Pennsylvania a call. She is eager to talk about Mr. Kitty, an orange and white kitten she found on a cold, rainy night nearly four years ago. “I saved his life,” she tells me. After finding the kitten, she immediately set-up kitty litter and food for the stray, and called her friends to see if anyone would be interested in adopting him. There were no takers. Luckily for the abandoned kitten, the library board agreed to keep Mr. Kitty — a name Thomas chose because to her, all cats are automatically called “kitty.”
Which may explain her dirty little secret: she is not a cat-person! “I am actually allergic to cats, ” she admits, “I have a Maltese at home.” And then I wonder, if this person — who is not a cat person — can fall in love with Mr. Kitty, can I too become a dog-turned-cat-person? Have I been too judgemental about these library saavy cats?
Thomas continues to talk exitedly about Mr. Kitty. “His personality is perfect,” she boasts. “There is a bell that rings each time the door is opened, and Mr. Kitty is always happy to see people. He is the library’s official greeter.” And are people happy to see Mr. Kitty? In the small town with a population of 5,000, Thomas admits most people are not cat-lovers, but no one has ever complained about the purring greeter.
But not every library cat is well-received. Some patrons have been known to protest the resident cat. “A library is a public building and a library with a cat limits access to patrons who are allergic or afraid,” says Roma. “In the film I wanted to present a balance on the controversy. I think it is a difficult issue and a compromise between the library and the patron should try to be made.”
And compromise is exactly what Vicki Myron at Spencer Public Library in Iowa has to do with their library cat, Dewey Readmore Books. “One 12 year-old girl is deathly afraid of cats,” she says. “Her brother usually comes in ahead of her and lets the staff know that she wants to come in. Then we put Dewey in the office. We call it his ‘time out’.”
Time out or not, Dewey is a lucky cat. He, like most library cats, was rescued from abandonment. He was anonymously dumped in the library’s drop box 15 years ago when he was just a kitten. “For years, when we first got him, everyone denied leaving him in the box,” says Myron. “Since he has become famous (he has a starring role in Roma’s documentary and has had several articles written about him) everyone claims to have done it.”
Like Mr. Kitty’s greeting, Dewey also has responsibilites as the resident cat. According to the library’s website, Dewey’s job description includes “reducing stress for all humans who pay attention to him” and “attending all meetings as the official library ambassador.” Perhaps there are other responsibilities besides typing and reading that are crucial for a library’s staff. “I strive, as the library’s director, to make it less of an institution and more of a home,” says Myron — Dewey’s “mother.” Dewey aids in creating that atmosphere. Homeless people stop in to the library for Dewey’s unbiased affection, children who are allergic come in for a small dose of kitty loving and people driving through Spencer often stop in for quick cat connection.
Okay — fine, Dewey seems like a lovely animal. But why not have a library dog? I ask her. “A dog wouldn’t work,” she quickly replies. I could rebut her with the fact that Roma, in doing his research, found one dog in a small library in Norfolk, Connecticut, but instead I listen to Myron’s explanation: “Cats are more self-sufficient.” I realize she poses a good argument. With Miles, my four-month-old cocker spaniel, I have had my fair share of early mornings, standing in the rain, waiting anxiously to pick up poop. At times like that, cats seem plenty appealing.
Now a little more sympathetic to the library cat crusade, I sheepishly call Betty Cattrell, director of the Haysville Community Library in Kansas about her library’s cat, Libby Libra — named so because libra is the latin word for books. Libby, who has lived at the library for 18 yrs, was the resident de-mouser (ew!), but has since, in her old age, retired to be the “official greeter” (apparently a common occupation for these book-lorn kitties).
“Cats are tranquil individuals,” explains Cattrell, “I feel cats add to the atmosphere and have a calming influence.” Aptly convinced a library dog just wouldn’t work, I ask her, why not a fish tank? Fish, I say, are both independent and tranquil. “Aquariums are high-upkeep,” she says, although she admits, “it would be soothing.” Fish and dogs now sufficiently snubbed, Cattrell tells me that Libby is a much-loved library cat who adds to the library’s positive environment. “Several ladies in town bring her cat food and treats,” says Cattrell, “And the children have a birthday party for her every April.”
But all is not purring and parties in the world of library cats. Remember Mr. Kitty? The friendly greeter with the “perfect personality”? He bit a patron and no longer lives at the Montgomery Area Public Library. “I am sure it was not a vicious bite,” says Susan Thomas, “The man who was bitten got cat fever but did not sue,” she says. The man loved Mr. Kitty and didn’t want him to leave the library but we were afraid that if Mr. Kitty ever bit again, the library could get in a lot of trouble.” Thomas now keeps Mr. Kitty at home with her dog — photographs of Mr. Kitty are all that remain in the library today.
So would she ever consider getting another library cat? “I love Mr. Kitty dearly,” she says, “but I think we will just stick with stuffed animals from now on.”
How about a giant stuffed dog…?