The Masked Librarian

February 4, 2010

Mild-mannered bibliophile and computer wizard in ordinary times, Tim Binga transforms—whenever darkness challenges—into super crusader for science and reason over the forces of ignorance and superstition. He becomes “The Masked Librarian,” defender of the investigative method and indefatigable pursuer of fact wherever enlightenment may be needed.

No book or other informational source is left unturned in his quest to help solve mysteries—as I can well attest. I remember when we visited the new shrine of Spiritualism at the former village of Hydesville, N.Y. There we studied the excavated foundation of the cottage where, in 1848, the Fox Sisters purportedly communicated with the spirit of a murdered peddler. Then we went on to nearby Newark, N.Y., looking into claims that a man’s bones had once been found in the cottage cellar, supposedly verifying the schoolgirls’ tale. At the library, I deadpanned that this work was so important I had “brought my own librarian.” In time, after much other research—including tracking down early newspapers and very rare pamphlets—we learned that the bones’ discovery had been a hoax, and the tale gave up its ghost. (See my “A Skeleton’s Tale: The Origins of Modern Spiritualism,” Skeptical Inquirer , July/August 2008.)

Then there was the time a Western New York archeological dig turned up a very old “catarrh remedy” bottle, and colleague Tom Flynn advised it be sent to me—a bottle scholar, among other personas. Of course I alerted the Masked Librarian, and soon we had subscribed to an online source of long-forgotten newspapers and perused volume after volume of city directories at the Buffalo Historical Society (where our hero, incidentally, serves on the library board). After we traced the “Dr. Sage” bottle to the infamous Dr. R.V. Pierce, “Prince of Quacks,” I wrote a report , while the Masked Librarian created an online catalog of my own Pierce collection and prepared to display it in the CFI Libraries’ reference room.

At one time or another, he has kept me posted on a developing story; has helped me brainstorm, strategize, and research such seemingly unlikely topics as otters (relating to the lake and sea monsters), the location of a fifteenth-century village (concerning a pious Italian folktale), the history of phosphorescent paint (regarding an antique “miracle” picture), and so on ad infinitem ; and on occasion has put me in touch with distant librarians who could better help with research in their areas. He has even gone so far as to participate in experiments (as in my demonstration of a Gypsy-curse effect for a Discovery Channel documentary).

Only recently, as I went off in search of the Holy Basin in Genoa, Italy, he prepared me with advance research materials on that fabled emerald bowl, a.k.a. the Holy Grail. Again, as I sought to translate several of the 16th-century seer Nostradamus’ murky quatrains, the Masked Librarian supplied an armload of volumes, including an antique French dictionary, and repeatedly helped search out—in atlases, encyclopedias, and online sources—such terms as Hister (or Ister, an old name for the lower Danube), des Montaignes Noriques (the Noric Alps), Saurome (a Slavic area, now Lithuania), and so on.

Of course his assistance to my investigations is only one aspect of his wide-ranging work as Director of Center for Inquiry Libraries that includes cataloguing books, purchasing rare volumes, acquiring private collections, maintaining archives, serving on various boards and committees, writing articles, attending to CFI’s computer network, and much more. But it is his role as the Masked Librarian—whose behind-the-scenes nature often keeps his identity from view—that I wanted to emphasize. I would have written about this earlier, but I was helping him get fitted for his cape.