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In the Wonderland of Libraries Are Cats Like Alis

Carrying on feline tradition, the Silverado calico found a home in a reading room.

February 18, 2002|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There were quiet moments in the Silverado Branch Library when the world seemed still, and words moved silently from the page, like sunlight through a window, and the only sound was the faint purr of a calico cat. Her name was Alis.

Little is known about her life before she arrived at the tiny library, located at the base of the Santa Ana Mountains in Orange County. She came to Silverado Canyon as a kitten in 1985, on a day when branch librarian Lucille Cruz was waiting--and waiting--for the newly created Automated Library Information System (ALIS) to recover from a crash.

As they waited, Cruz decided to send an assistant, who had been lobbying for a library cat, to a shelter in search of prospects. The assistant returned with the calico, and to reflect their hope that both cat and computer would work out, they assigned them the same name.

There are many cats, like Alis, living in libraries, stretched across warm computer terminals like vamps on gleaming pianos, or snuggled between volumes by Steinbeck and Stegner. There is a Web site, a documentary and even an organization, the Library Cat Society, based in Moorhead, Minn., that produces a newsletter to a nationwide membership.

It's not always smooth going, depending on the demeanors of cats and customers, but from the moment Alis arrived at the Silverado Canyon library, patrons welcomed her. They visited even when they had no literary needs. When they moved away, they sent her cards, and she wrote back, a paw-shaped stamp serving as her signature. Friends brought tasty treats on special occasions, played with her, listened for her soothing purr on still days. Young people in the canyon grew up with Alis, listened to glorious tales with her during the story hours of their childhoods. She made the library feel like home, says Cruz.

Even Carmen Franklin, a local woman whose affections included spy thrillers and historic romance but not cats, eventually came around to accepting Alis, who would hop up on the counter and rub against her, as if to say, "How could you not love me?"

Eventually Carmen, albeit with some hesitation, reached out, petted Alis a bit awkwardly and acknowledged, "I guess she's all right for a cat."

Both are gone--Carmen, who died in December, and Alis, who died last month--but even now, says Cruz, lifting her eyes and smiling, "Alis is probably up there buggin' her."

By all accounts, Alis was a friendly and courageous cat.

She stood her ground against the occasional rodent, reptile or dog intruding upon her domain, but when it came to people, especially the elderly, she extended warm invitation, leaning against ankles in gentle pursuit of soft strokes.

After more than 15 years of library life, Alis died of a stroke on one of the last days of January. She was buried next to a dog named Bear beneath a sapling oak and purple sage.

The relationship between cats and libraries goes back centuries, says Phyllis Lahti, founder and director of the Library Cat Society. It was likely the result of another, less accepted relationship, that of libraries and mice.

The society has a threefold mission: "To encourage the establishment of a cat or cats in a library environment; to improve the well-being and image of the library cat; and to promote camaraderie among library staffs who have cats, or hope to, and with those persons not in libraries who advocate library cats."

"They're especially attractive to older people who visit libraries, and they're amenable to petting," says Lahti. "Books, cats and libraries go together."

Some, like Richard Espinosa of San Marcos, would disagree. Espinosa has filed a $1.5-million lawsuit against the Escondido Public Library. In it, he claims a cat named L.C. (Library Cat) attacked his assistance dog, Kimba, who he says is trained to help him deal with, among other things, anxiety attacks.

L.C. has been given a change of venue and now stays with a library employee pending a resolution of the case.

There have been other lawsuits filed on behalf of those who fear cats or are allergic to them and oppose their presence in public places. It has become an emotional issue at some libraries.

In 1997, filmmaker-comedian Gary Roma of Boston produced a documentary about library cats titled "Puss in Books: Adventures of the Library Cat." It was a departure from his previous work, an examination of doorstops.

While researching the film, Roma heard about a cat named Muffin, who was removed from a library in Putnam Valley, N.Y., when a library trustee developed an allergy to cats. Upon the cat's eviction, two members of the community became so upset they removed the library from their wills. It was an $80,000 loss in future revenue.

Roma has developed a Web site about library cats at www.ironfrog.com that includes a map listing almost 400 current and past library cats.

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