This could be a Christmas story. Stories told at this time of year, in the middle of winter, are meant to be a little bit scary. As the narrator tells the tale, the wind howls outside – or at least gives a little groan – the flames of the fire flicker, and people draw round to hear the story. And sometimes the story happens to be true, as this one is.
“Have you heard of the lost librarians of Las Vegas?” I ask.
And you shiver, look over your shoulder, and say, “No, well, not exactly …” And then you add, “Las Vegas?”
And I nod and say, “Yes, Las Vegas.”
And you say, “Are you sure it’s not an urban legend – like the story of the axeman dressed up as a little old lady or the lap dog who turned out to be a large rat?”
“Certainly not. Those are untrue. The story of the lost librarians of Las Vegas is about something that actually happened.”
‘Well, in that case …”
It began with an invitation I received last year to speak at the annual conference of the American Library Association. This august body was to have its conference in Las Vegas, of all places, in July – right in the middle of the summer – and they wanted me to go and speak to them. There would be, they said, twenty-five thousand librarians there for the occasion.
My publishers encouraged me to go. “These people are really nice,” they said. And then they added, almost, but not quite, as an afterthought, “And they buy books.”
I wanted to be accommodating. I can think of several things I would prefer to do in July than go to Las Vegas, but if the librarians were going to face the savage heat of the desert to do their duty, then I should too. So I accepted.
I had been to Las Vegas on a couple of occasions before. On one of these I had been asked to speak to a meeting of the Las Vegas Literary Society, and had done so over lunch. Afterwards the secretary asked me whether I would care to visit the Liberace Museum – one of the great museums of Las Vegas (since then, I gather, it has fallen down) so great does not necessarily mean permanent. I paid that visit, and was kindly shown round the museum by its director. Among the fascinating objects he showed me were Liberace’s wardrobe and his collection of Cranberry glass modelled on goblets owned by the Queen Mother, with whom Liberace had apparently had dinner. This sort of thing counts as high culture in Las Vegas.
That whetted my appetite for the attractions of the extraordinary city, and so I flew to Las Vegas for the opening of the conference of the librarians. The librarians were there in force, and many of them were staying in the same hotel as I was – Caesar’s Palace. Now Caesar was a Roman, and Las Vegas is about as far as you can get on the surface of this earth from Rome, but did that deter Las Vegas from recreating Rome right there? It did not. There it all was – statutes and fountains – just like Imperial Rome, as long as one discounted the gambling machines, the roulette tables, and the female croupiers in fetching pink bikinis and jaunty white military caps.
The librarians were clearly enjoying themselves. I saw them in the casino and also at the display of dancing musical fountains outside the hotel. I saw them walking about with their American Library Association bags, gazing at the architectural treasures of Las Vegas: the Eiffel Tower, the Great Egyptian Pyramids (also a hotel), the Grand Canal of Venice!
The conference took place and then everybody went home. Or did they? What happens when you send twenty-five thousand librarians to a place like Las Vegas – some of them never make it home. Some of them stayed, just as some Scottish football fans go to watch Scotland playing football in Spain and never return to Scotland at the end of the match. They marry Spanish girls, or get arrested, or take up jobs as taxi drivers: there are many things for a Scotsman to do in Spain.
I have no concrete evidence to support this, but I decided what was likely to have happened to at least some of the librarians who went to Las Vegas. Some of them undoubtedly got married in the Elvis Chapel, possibly to people they met for the first time in Las Vegas: the Americans do not believe in excessively long engagements, even if you are a librarian.
Some decided to try their luck on the roulette tables and lost rather a lot of money rather quickly. Did they then stop, as any sensible librarian would do? No. They cashed further cheques and were last seen waiting for part-time jobs in the local fast-food outlets. Or they fell foul of the moneylenders who had come up with their stake. Nobody knows what happened to these, but the Hoover Dam is not far away, and there is at least one shoe-shop in Las Vegas that advertises concrete shoes.
I did recognise one or two of the librarians when I was on my way to check out of Caesar’s Palace. One – a particularly attractive librarian from Kansas – was now a pole dancer in the casino area, entertaining gamblers when they took a brief respite from the tables. She looked happy enough. Another was selling drinks from a tray while wearing a Bunny costume of the sort popularised by Playboy magazine. And other one was actually in Playboy magazine – in the books section, of course.
Male librarians also stayed. One, I noticed, was now a bouncer at one of the clubs on the Strip. I spoke to him briefly and he said, “I should have had this career change a long time ago.” He, too, seemed happy with his new job.
I left Las Vegas wondering what would have happened had the Library Association gone somewhere different for its annual conference. The answer must be that nothing much would have happened, and certainly none of the things I saw would have taken place.
I went back this year. The librarians were still there, and still thriving.
“People think we have rather quiet jobs,” said one. “But you know, it’s anything but quiet being a librarian.”
“Yes,” I said, and then thought, “Why do librarians have all the fun?”
I could think of no answer to that question – none at all.