Most Sunday afternoons, there's a crowd of people queued up in front of the Conrad Sulzer Regional Library right before it opens. Like addicts waiting for a fix, they pace and fidget, alternately glancing at their watches and the library's front doors. When the portals finally open at one they stream inside and head for their departments of choice.
Performance artist and filmmaker Nancy Andrews includes a similar scene in the film that accompanies her new work, Hedwig Page, Seaside Librarian, to illustrate just how passionate people can become about libraries. The show combines animated film, music, sound effects, radio, and puppets to tell the story of a librarian who is "the personification of applied skill."
Andrews says she visits the Sulzer branch a few times each week to do research and possibly to bump into something interesting. "I like starting somewhere and finding these clues and going from one place to another and finding something that refers to something else, like a scavenger hunt. That's one reason I don't like using the computer as a tool so much. There's not so much of an ability to cross over between things fluidly."
One of her discoveries was a dusty set of back issues of the Wilson Library Bulletin dating from the 1920s, where she found a wealth of information about library life. "There seemed to be a lot of articles that were not exactly what you'd expect to find in a trade journal, but musings on what librarians are," she says. Parts of them ended up in the script, including "She spendeth hours looking for something in which you only had a passing interest. She pities but does not excuse your ignorance in the holdings of the library. She sendeth a polite card to remind you your book is late."
One of Andrews's favorite finds was a book of librarian humor that included a cartoon depicting a restaurant customer ordering a meal using the Dewey decimal system. "It's like a whole little world of librarians, which I'm not even sure exists, but I like to think it does, like a secret librarians' club," she says. "It seemed like they had this real identity thing going on, where they fit in--and the whole marm problem."
In Andrews's show Hedwig Page is depicted by a puppet on film and by Andrews onstage--both sport an oversize bun. The piece describes Hedwig's beginnings as a child prodigy who mastered the Dewey decimal system before she could read, her subsequent career as a top-notch librarian, and her later burnout and retirement. It's the third in a trilogy of biographies of unusual characters that began in 1995 with An Epic: Falling Between the Cracks, the tale of a documentary filmmaker's obsession with tiny heroine Francis Coco; Andrews likens it to "a space-age, existential Nanook of the North." In 1996 she created Woods Marm, a piece about an amateur entomologist and botanist named Hermione Pine, who lives in a tree. The common denominator, Andrews says, is "they're all about trying to find a place in the world." In Hedwig's case, she leaves the library and takes up residence at the seaside, where she collects seashells and ends up starting a seashell library.
Andrews, who moved here from Baltimore five years ago, teaches animation, sound, and performance at the School of the Art Institute. She says combining different forms "allows me to create another world that would otherwise be impossible or impractical." Though she doesn't pin Hedwig Page down to an exact time period, she says all of her shows hark back "to some degree to a different era, when people went around doing these traveling film shows, like travelogues, where they would do voice-overs and talk about them."
Despite the modern library's new role as a receptacle of electronic information and a cheap place to access the Internet, Andrews believes some vestiges of the librarian's mystique still exist. "Often I can't find a book on the shelves, and when I ask for it the librarian disappears for a while and comes back with it," she says. "I'm convinced there are more books in the basement."
Andrews will perform Hedwig Page, Seaside Librarian at 8 this Friday and Saturday (and May 29 and 30) at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. Tickets are $10, $7 for students and seniors; call 773-935-6860. --Cara Jepsen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Nancy Andrews photo by J.B. Spector.