The director of the public library in Thorntown, Ind., extended a job offer this week to a stray ginger tabby cat named Chance. He is to replace Tober, a much-loved library cat who died last fall after seven loyal years of service in the stacks.
Meanwhile, a thousand miles away in White Settlement, Tex., fur flew when city council members voted 2 to 1 to fire a mild-mannered tabby named Browser, who was, by all accounts, a model employee who had diligently performed his job as Chief Rodent Officer for six years. Browser’s managers said he regularly aced his performance reviews by helping kids to read, supervising the staff at the circulation desk and increasing visitor numbers. Many patrons have been outraged by the ouster, which resulted from sudden concerns about allergies — and, possibly,the disgruntlement of a city employee.
Critics might wonder whether the energy spent campaigning for — or against — a cat in the library would be better spent improving literacy rates and building up the collection. But both recent cases underscore the rapidly changing role of American libraries in an era in which people can receive a deluge of information in the palm of their hand.
Money-crunched towns and cities have used the rise of the Internet as an excuse to slash budgets and shutter branches. But what they don’t realize is that even as they provide information in a breathtaking array of formats, libraries are playing an increasingly key role as a place for people to gather. That is particularly important for people who don’t have computers or wi-fi and those who live or work alone, not to mention senior citizens and the parents of toddlers who view weekly story time as a life raft.
And that’s where a library cat can play a vital role.
Cats generally don’t discriminate — as long as you don’t pull their tails – and neither do libraries. In fact, libraries are among the most democratic institutions out there: They don’t turn anyone away. Plus, they’re free; any librarian will tell you that the number of visitors skyrockets during economically difficult times. I’ve interviewed several librarians who have feline co-workers, and they told me cats instantly make a library feel more welcoming, encouraging repeat visits while providing stress relief to overburdened staffers.
Cats and libraries have a long and storied history that dates back to ancient Egypt, when the animals were employed to keep rodents away from the papyrus scrolls in temples and libraries. And in the 19th century, the British government actually paid libraries to keep a cat or two on hand. The glue used to bind books has always been a kind of mouse candy, and shelling out for cat food is cheaper than hiring a human exterminator or replacing books.
A library cat can bring unexpected benefits: Most librarians I’ve talked to said their cats were strays or came from shelters, and that has inspired some patrons and staff to adopt a homeless pet of their own. And for people who can’t own a pet, a library cat can serve as a welcome salve. In the wake of a library cat’s arrival, circulation rates often jump, librarians say, because people pop into the library to see the animal and figure they might as well check out a book — or three — while they’re there.
To be sure, people who are afraid of or allergic to cats might not see the upside. But libraries with staff felines typically have a policy aimed at keeping everybody happy. With advance notice, smaller libraries might place the cat in a back room and perform lint patrol and vacuuming duties before a visit. White Settlement Mayor Ronald A. White told The Washington Post that the library there had long served allergic patrons without incident, and some of them even spoke in support of Browser at the fateful city council meeting.
Librarians at larger facilities also say a cat doesn’t appear to have much of an impact. Christine Sterle, director of the 14,000-square-foot Thorntown Public Library, said Tober frequently spent time around children with allergies. “They were able to pet him, wash up, and then go home with no ill effects,” she said.
As very popular employees, library cats can also help out with fundraising. In Thorntown, Tober’s photo appeared on bookmarks, tote bags and T-shirts.
“Browser is 100 percent self-funded,” said Lillian Blackburn, president of the Friends of the Library in White Settlement and a frequent volunteer. “We print up a calendar each year starring Browser that pays for his food and vet bills. People also donate food, and we give the extra to the food bank.”
By the way, all is not lost for Browser, whose future is on the agenda of a special city council meeting Friday night. More than 8,000 people have signed a petition to reinstate the cat. Another option being floated is a ballot measure to reinstate him. His fans are also threatening to vote out the council members who turned against him.
“Hopefully, they’ll see the light,” White, a Browser supporter but nonvoting moderator of the council, told The Washington Post. “If they don’t, well, there’s always election time.”
Lisa Rogak is a freelance writer and book author who co-wrote “The True Tails of Baker and Taylor,” a book about library cats. Follow her on Twitter at @lisarogak.