10 Surprising Former Librarians

Len Trievnor/Getty Images
Len Trievnor/Getty Images

It's National Library Week! To celebrate, we're taking a look at 10 people who once worked among 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 Records System.

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 used 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 library was perfect job site for this avid reader: Carroll 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 for his literary achievements in 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 and offered 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 3rd 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?" Cleary answered by writing dozens of children's classics, the first of which featured Henry Huggins and his dog Ribsy.

10. Batgirl

When DC Comics 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 character, Bat-Girl, had been 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!

8 Surprising Facts and Misconceptions About Recycling

iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz
iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

If you pat yourself on the back for just remembering to separate the recycling or haul that big blue bin to the curb each week, you're not alone. Despite the strides we appear to be making toward eco-consciousness as a country, we have a long way to go in helping the Earth, as evidenced by our complicated relationship with recycling. These facts about the most prevalent of the three Rs will make you pause the next time you throw anything away.

1. The United States's recycling rate is low—really low.

Figures from the Environmental Protection Agency show that America recycles about 34.7 percent of the garbage it produces. (The world's top recyclers—Germany, Austria, Wales, and South Korea—report a rate between 52 and 56 percent.) But Mitch Hedlund, founder and Executive Director of the organization Recycle Across America isn't even sure the recycling rate often quoted is accurate because there is so much junk mixed in with actual recyclables.

Recycle Across America is currently working to encourage the use of standardized labels for recycling bins to eliminate the confusion over what actually belongs in these receptacles. "If the U.S. gets the recycling number up to 75 percent, which we believe is completely possible once the confusion (over what to place in the bins) is removed, it will be the CO2 equivalent of removing 50 million cars from the roads each year in the U.S. and it will create 1.5 million permanent new jobs in the U.S. (net)."

2. Proper recycling can result in monetary savings.

Businessman stepping on green squares with recycling symbols
iStock.com/Rawpixel

While Hedlund admits the idea of providing universal labels clearly stating what should be placed in the bins is a simple one, it's making a serious impact on those who have jumped on the bandwagon. "Many schools are seeing dramatic increases in their recycling levels since using the society-wide standardized labels on their recycling bins," she says. "For instance, in the pilot program at Culver City schools in Los Angeles [County], their recycling levels doubled when they started using the standardized labels and the materials they were collecting in their recycling bins were so much less contaminated with garbage." Another story, she says, is that "as a result of a donation from Kiehls (who makes a donation to Recycle Across America each April in the sum of $50,000), all of the schools in the San Diego Unified School District and San Diego County started using the standardized labels. San Diego Unified School District reduced their landfill hauling fees by about $200,000 (net) in the first year."

3. Recent changes from China have severely impacted the recycling industry.

Until 2018, China took 40 percent of the United States's recycled paper, plastic, and metal. But in January of that year, China imposed strict new rules on the levels of contamination (think food or other garbage mixed in with the recyclables) it's willing to accept—standards American cities are largely unable to meet. Because of that, and a lack of suitable destinations closer to home, many cities have been forced to incinerate or stockpile recyclables until they can find a better solution.

4. Only 9 percent of plastic is recycled in the U.S.

The nation recycles less than 10 percent of its plastic, compared to 67 percent for paper materials, 34 percent for metals, and 26 percent for glass. And China's restrictions have especially affected plastic—while exports of scrap plastic to China were valued at more than $300 million in 2015, they amounted to $7.6 million in the first quarter of 2018, down 90 percent from the year before.

5. Clothing can be recycled, but it rarely is.

Clothing at a garage sale
iStock.com/alexeys

Unfortunately, most curbside haulers don't accept textiles, and America has a serious problem with old clothes ending up in the trash. In 2019, the nation is on track to throw away more than 35 billion pounds of textiles, according to the Council for Textile Recycling—almost double the number from 1999. On the plus side, some cities have set up drop-off points for unwanted clothes, and there are a variety of ways to sell or donate unwanted items. Some brands, including Eileen Fisher and Patagonia, have also introduced buy-back programs for their items.

6. Aluminum is the world's most-recycled packaging product.

Crushed aluminum cans
iStock.com/hroe

Nearly 70 percent of aluminum cans are recycled internationally, according to Novelis, a leader in rolled aluminum products and recycled aluminum. Aluminum is infinitely recyclable without degrading, meaning it can be reused in a way completely different from what it was in its previous life, or recast into its original form. Not only is aluminum the world's most-recycled product, it's also the most profitable and the most energy-efficient. Using recycled aluminum instead of virgin materials saves about 95% of the energy, compared to 60% for paper and 34% for glass [PDF].

7. That soda can you're drinking from could find its way back to you more quickly than you think.

According to Novelis's research, an aluminum can that is recycled can be back on a grocery store shelf within 60 days [PDF]. That's a seriously speedy turnaround.

8. Scrap recycling is big business.

While the words scrap recycling might have you humming the Sanford & Son theme song, it's far from being a junkyard industry. According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), in 2017 U.S. scrap recyclers processed more than 130 million tons of scrap metal, paper, plastic, glass, textiles, and more—material that was sold back to industrial consumers in the U.S. and around the world, generating close to $18 billion in export sales. All told, scrap recycling was a $117 billion industry in 2017 [PDF].

This list first ran in 2015 and was updated by Mental Floss staff in 2019.

From Cocaine to Chloroform: 28 Old-Timey Medical Cures

YouTube
YouTube

Is your asthma acting up? Try eating only boiled carrots for a fortnight. Or smoke a cigarette. Have you got a toothache? Electrotherapy might help (and could also take care of that pesky impotence problem). When it comes to our understanding of medicine and illnesses, we’ve come a long way in the past few centuries. Still, it’s always fascinating to take a look back into the past and remember a time when cocaine was a common way to treat everything from hay fever to hemorrhoids.

In this week's all-new edition of The List Show, Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy is highlighting all sorts of bizarre, old-timey medical cures. You can watch the full episode below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here.

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