10 Surprising Former Librarians

Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong
AFP/Getty Images

It's National Library Week! To celebrate, we're taking a look at 10 people who once worked amongst the bookshelves.

1. MAO ZEDONG

Before he led the Communist Party of China, Mao Zedong worked as a librarian's assistant at Peking University between 1918 and 1919. He needed a job, and earned only $8 a month carrying periodicals to the readers and organizing shelves. "My office was so low that people avoided me," he once said.

2. J. EDGAR HOOVER

The future FBI Director got his start in government when he worked at the Library of Congress ("the world's largest filing cabinet") while attending night school at George Washington Law School. At GWU, you had to be a government employee to attend night school. He started as a messenger, but soon rose in rank to cataloger, then clerk. While working at the Library of Congress, Hoover mastered the Dewey Decimal system, which became the model for the FBI's Central Files and General Indices.

3. LAURA BUSH

First Lady Laura Bush reads a story about 'Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer' during a visit to the Children's National Medical Center in 2007.
MANDEL NGAN, AFP/Getty Images

The former First Lady holds a masters degree in library science from the University of Texas at Austin. In addition to teaching in the public schools, she was a librarian in the Houston, Dallas, and Austin school systems. Bush parlayed her passion and enthusiasm for reading during her time in the White House, launching with Congress the first National Book Festival in 2001.

4. LEWIS CARROLL

The talented author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass served as Sub-Librarian at Christ Church, Oxford University. The perfect job for this avid reader, he kept track of the library's books and their borrowers in addition to tutoring students and lecturing in mathematics.

5. JORGE LUIS BORGES

Although he never won the Nobel Prize he deserved for his advancements in literature for Latin America and beyond, Jorge Luis Borges did work as a public librarian in Buenos Aires. When he supported the allies during WWII, Juan Perón dismissed him from his position, offering Borges a poultry inspector position instead (he declined). Once Perón fell from power, Borges was appointed director of the Biblioteca Nacional, but stepped down when Perón regained control of Argentina. While serving in this prestigious position, Borges also taught literature at the University of Buenos Aires.

6. GIOVANNI GIACOMO CASANOVA

Venetian-born adventurer, abbe, alchemist, cabalist, magician, gambler, violinist and womaniser Giovanni Giacomo Casanova
Keystone, Getty Images

"The World's Greatest Lover" worked for 13 years at the castle of Count Waldstein in Dux, Bohemia. Down on his luck (and low on funds), Casanova asked for a favor, since the occultist Count was known to have an affinity for fellow adventurers and fascinating people. Casanova set out to catalog the Count's more than 40,000 volumes and clean the library, but he spent most of his time writing. It was there that he wrote his famous Memoirs.

7. JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe explained his passion for the details of a librarian's job when he said, "The library organization proceeds little by little, slowly enough. I hold my course, and seek to push on from section to section. I profit occasionally from an hour of poetry, or a bit of scientific knowledge." Goethe worked at the Weimer Library, one of the most important libraries in Germany, where he meticulously organized and cataloged. His success here led to other branches asking for his help.

When cleaning and organizing the disarrayed Jena library, Goethe needed more room for books, and his request to use an empty room was denied. He was determined to succeed, so much so that he broke through the brick wall to complete his project. Later, because the dampness of the library was damaging to the books, Goethe wanted to break down a city wall, and did the same thing.

8. ERATOSTHENES OF CYRENE

In addition to measuring the Earth's circumference, Greek mathematician and geographer Eratosthenes served as head librarian at the Library of Alexandria, and also personally tutored the Greek-speaking King of Egypt. Alexandria was considered the scientific and cultural center of the world in the third century BCE, and being a head librarian gave Eratosthenes the reputation of a universal scholar. He was a model bibliographer and possessed an all-around broad knowledge of many fields of study.

9. BEVERLY CLEARY

A photo of Beverly Cleary
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

This Newbery Medal-winning author and creator of beloved characters such as Ramona Quimby served as a Children's Librarian in Yakima, Washington.

After studying at the School of Librarianship at the University of Washington in Seattle, she took the job, where she enjoyed interacting with all sorts of children. Cleary's favorite guests were the ones who had homemade roller skates and scooters and asked her, "Where are the books about us?" Her first of many answers: Henry Huggins and his dog Ribsy.

10. BATGIRL

When the comic wanted to generate female interest, a "grown-up" version of Batgirl appeared in January of 1967 in Detective Comics #359. In this later incarnation (the original, Bat-girl, was created in 1961), Barbara Gordon was the grown daughter of a Police Commissioner and worked as a librarian. She only began her crime-fighting career by accident, breaking up a robbery when she happened to be wearing her Halloween costume. Who was the victim of this crime? Bruce Wayne, of course!

5 Simple Ways to Upgrade Your Green Bean Casserole

iStock.com/bhofack2
iStock.com/bhofack2

Green bean casserole became a fixture of Thanksgiving spreads shortly after Dorcas Reilly invented the dish in 1955. The classic recipe, which includes Campbell’s condensed cream of mushroom soup and French’s French fried onions, is a sacred piece of Americana—but there's nothing stopping you from playing around with it this Thanksgiving. Just brace yourself for skeptical looks from your more traditional relatives when these variations hit the table.

1. USE HOMEMADE FRIED ONION RINGS.

Green bean casserole typically calls for crispy fried onion bits from a can—and that's fine if you're pressed for time on the big day. But if you're looking to make your casserole taste unforgettable, it's hard to beat to fresh onion rings fried at home. Homemade onion rings are more flavorful than the store-bought stuff and they provide an eye-popping topper for your dish. If you're interested in making onion rings part of your Thanksgiving menu, this recipe from delish will walk you through it.

2. ADD SOME GOUDA.

This recipe from Munchies gives the all-American green bean casserole some European class with shallots, chanterelles, and smoked gouda. Some family members may object to adding a pungent cheese to this traditional dish, but tell them to wait until after they taste it to judge.

3. LIGHTEN IT UP.

As is the case with any recipe that calls for a can of creamy condensed soup, green bean casserole is rarely described as a "light" bite. Some people like the heavy richness of the dish, but if you're looking to give diners a lighter alternative, this recipe from Food52 does the trick. Instead of cream of mushroom soup, it involves a dressing of crème fraîche, sherry vinegar, mustard, and olive oil. Hazelnuts and chives provide the crunch in place of fried onions. It may be more of a salad than a true casserole, but the spirit of the classic recipe is alive in this dish.

4. MIX IN SOME BACON.

Looking to make your green bean casserole even more indulgent this Thanksgiving? There are plenty of recipes out there that will help you do so. This "jazzed-up" version from Taste of Home includes all the conventional ingredients of a green bean casserole with some inspired additions. Crumbled bacon and water chestnuts bring the crunch, and Velveeta ups the cheesy decadence factor to an 11.

5. TURN IT INTO A TART.

If your Thanksgiving menu is looking heavy on the side dishes, consider making your green bean casserole into an appetizer. This green bean and mushroom tart from Thanksgiving & Co. has all the flavors of the traditional casserole baked on an easy-to-eat tart. A tart is also a tasty option if you're looking to repurpose your green bean casserole leftovers the day after.

9 Not-So-Pesky Facts About Termites

iStock.com/Thithawat_s
iStock.com/Thithawat_s

Termites get a lot of hate for chewing through buildings, but the little creatures are far more interesting—and ecologically valuable—than we often give them credit for. Unless, of course, you’re Lisa Margonelli, the author of Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Terminology, a new book that explores their amazing world. Here are nine facts about the highly social—and occasionally pesky—insects that we learned from the book.

1. THERE ARE FAR MORE TERMITES THAN PEOPLE ON EARTH.

Termite queens live up to 25 years, and can lay somewhere around 30,000 eggs a day. As a result, a single mound can be home to millions of individuals at a time. While the numbers vary from study to study, scientists estimate that the biomass of all the termites in the world is at least as great as that of humans.

2. MOST TERMITES AREN’T PESTS.

Of the 2800 named termite species in the world, the majority have no interest in eating your house. Only 28 species are known to chow down on buildings and infrastructure. Most are actually very beneficial to their ecosystems, clearing dead wood, aerating the soil with their intricate tunnel systems, and enhancing plant growth. Researchers have found that contrary to being pests, networks of termite mounds can help make dry environments like savannas more resilient to climate change because of the way termite mounds store nutrients and moisture, among other benefits.

3. TERMITES ARE GOOD FOR CROPS.

Termites can help make soil more fertile. In one study, researchers in Australia found that fields that were home to ants and termites produced 36 percent more wheat, without fertilizer, compared to non-termite fields. Why? Termites help fertilize the soil naturally—their poop, which they use to plaster their tunnels, is full of nitrogen. Their intricate system of underground tunnels also helps rainfall penetrate the soil more deeply, which reduces the amount of moisture that evaporates from the dirt and makes it more likely that the water can be taken up by plants.

4. TERMITES HAVE VERY SPECIFIC ROLES IN THEIR COLONY.

Each termite colony has a queen and king termite (or several), plus workers and soldiers. This caste system, controlled by pheromones produced by the reigning queen, determines not just what different termites do in the colony but how they look. Queens and kings develop wings that, when they’re sexually mature, they use to fly away from their original nest to reproduce and start their own colony. Once they land at the site of their new colony, queens and kings snap off these wings, since they’ll spend the rest of their lives underground. Queens are also physically much larger than other castes: The largest type of termite, an African species called Macrotermes bellicosus, produces queens up to 4 inches long.

Unlike their royal counterparts, most workers and soldiers don’t have either eyes or wings. Worker termites, which are responsible for foraging, building tunnels, and feeding the other castes in the nest, are significantly smaller than queens. M. bellicosus workers, for instance, measure around 0.14 inches. Soldier termites are slightly bigger than workers, with large, sharp mandibles designed to slice up ants and other enemies that might invade the nest.

5. TERMITES ARE ONE OF THE FASTEST ANIMALS IN THE WORLD.

Apologies to cheetahs, but termites hold the record for world’s fastest animal movement. Panamanian termites can clap their mandibles shut at 157 miles per hour. (Compare that to the cheetah’s run, which tops out at about 76 miles per hour.) This quick action allows tiny termite soldiers in narrow tunnels to kill invaders with a single bite.

6. TERMITES ARE SKILLED ARCHITECTS.

In Namibia, quarter-inch-long termites of the genus Macrotermes can move 364 pounds of dirt and 3300 pounds of water each year total in the course of building their 17-foot-tall mounds. Relative to their size, that’s the equivalent of humans building the 163 floors of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, no cranes required. And that’s not even the tallest termite mound around—some can be up to 30 feet high. More impressively, termites cooperate to build these structures without any sort of centralized plan. Engineers are now trying to replicate this decentralized swarm intelligence to build robots that could erect buildings in a similar fashion.

7. TERMITES BUILD THEIR OWN AIR CONDITIONING.

Some termites have developed an incredibly efficient method of climate control in the form of tall, above-ground mounds that sit above their nests. Organized around a central chimney, the structures essentially act as giant lungs, "breathing" air in and out as the temperature outside changes in relation to the temperature inside. Thanks to these convection cycles, termites keep underground temperatures in their nest between roughly 84°F and 90°F.

8. TERMITES ARE FARMERS.

Humans aren’t the only ones cultivating crops. Termites farm, too. They’ve been doing it for more than 25 million years, compared to humans’ 23,000 years. Some species of termite have evolved a symbiotic relationship with Termitomyces fungi, growing fungus in underground gardens for food. When they fly off to create a new colony, termite queens bring along fungus spores from their parent colony to seed the garden that will feed their new nest. Foraging termite workers go out and eat plant material that they can’t fully digest on their own, then deposit their feces on the fungus for it to feed on. They can then eat the fungus. They may also be able to eat some of the plant material after the fungus has sufficiently broken it down. The mutually beneficial relationship has led some scientists to suggest that the fungus, which is much larger in both size and energy production than the termites, could in fact be the one in control of the relationship, potentially releasing chemical pheromones that lead the termites to build the mound they live in together.

9. TERMITES ARE MICROBIAL GOLD MINES.

As scientists begin to understand the huge role that micobiomes play in both the human body and the rest of the world, termites provide a fascinating case study. About 90 percent of the organisms in termite guts aren’t found anywhere else on Earth. In their hindgut alone, they host as many as 1400 species of bacteria. These microbes are so efficient at converting the cellulose-rich wood and dead grass that termites eat into energy, scientists want to harness them to make biofuel from plants.

Want to learn more about termites? Get yourself a copy of Underbug on Amazon for $18.

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