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Alaskan Range: Library Cats

"Cats long have been associated with libraries,'' writes columnist and librarian Greg Hill.

There are genial animal paintings, like “Dogs Playing Poker,” that lighten our hearts, but “The Monkey and the Cat” by Abraham Hondius isn’t one of them.

Hondius was a 17th century Dutch master who spent most of his career in London painting animals, often in disturbing situations, like his final work, “Ape and Cat Fighting over Dead Poultry.”

For “Monkey and Cat” he drew upon a fable by his contemporary, the Frenchman Jean de la Fontain’s story about a monkey who convinces a cat that they’ll share their master’s roasted chestnuts if only the cat will pull them from the embers. The monkey helps by holding the cat’s paw to retrieve the nuts, and winds up eating them all.

Many artists have illustrated the scene, but the intensity of Hondius’ monkey, and his cat’s stark terror are striking. So is the number of definitions of “cat’s paw.” Besides the creature’s appendage and the fable, it’s a sailor’s knot, carpenter’s nail-puller, a plant, an instrument of torture also known as the Spanish Tickler, capillary waves on the surface of water, and a Star Trek episode. “Cat’s paw” was recently featured along with other cat-related words on the A.Word.A.Day website, along with “chatoyant,” which means “having a changeable luster like that of a cat’s eye at night,” and “Catbird seat.”

Sometimes confused with mockingbirds, catbirds are noted for their protective nests, and “catbird seat” means “a position of power and advantage.” It was popularized in the early 1940’s by Red Barber, the legendary Brooklyn Dodger baseball announcer who appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition Friday mornings into the nineties. It’s first print appearance was American humorist James Thurber’s short story by that title, about “a meek accountant” driven to contemplating the murder of a Dodger-loving co-worker who used trite phrases incessantly, including “catbird seat,” which he picked up from Mr. Barber. Barber learned it from a man who’d vanquished him in a poker game. “Inasmuch as I had paid for the phrase,” said Barber, “I began to use it.”

“Ailurophile,” from the Greek for cat, “ailouros,” and lover, “philos,” is fancy talk for “one who loves cats,” according to Anu Garg, the A.Word.A.Day founder, who uses the term to illustrate how to use “affixes” to remember words. An affix, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is “a word element, such as a prefix or suffix, that can only occur attached to a base, stem, or root.” Others include

“-phile,” or “lover of,”

“-mania,” or “excessive interest,” and “-gamy,” or “form of marriage.”

Garg’s illustrative example of “ailurophile” came from Women’s Review of Books: “It is said that no cat book ever loses money. Maybe it’s true; bibliophiles tend to be ailurophiles, and both are tenacious breeds.” It explains why so many librarians are cat people.

Cats long have been associated with libraries, as confirmed in “History of Library Cats,” a CatChannel.com article by Allie Kagamaster. Beginning in Medieval times, domesticated cats were used to protect books from various rodentia. Today, 809 cats reside in libraries worldwide, according to the Library Cats Map on the IronFrog.com site of Gary Roma, who made a documentary about them a few years ago. And 664 of those cats live in U.S. libraries, despite legal rulings here and there outlawing them.

The courts have maintained that people allergic to cats shouldn’t lose their access to their public libraries because of cat dander. That right’s precious. It’s rare in today’s world and unknown in the past, and deserves protection.

The first truly public, tax-supported library is the Peterborough Town Library in New Hampshire. The library’s 1837 annual budget of $30 was provided by all the people of the community, even those who didn’t use it, because it made their town better in myriad ways.

Public libraries raise the level of discourse in their communities, promote reading, assist learning and understanding, and improve local work forces and businesses. Our libraries keep everyone connected to needed information. That’s why more Americans have library cards than Visa cards, why there are more public library outlets than McDonalds, and why more Americans are using their libraries than ever before. In the Information age, American communities with healthy public libraries are sitting pretty in the catbird seat


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