I work in one
This is what I write sometimes, over and over:
I didn’t notice it until the mid afternoon. They had done some work on our staff elevator at the library. There were new clocks. There was a clock above the elevator on the outside, and there was a big new clock inside the elevator. I wheeled in my cart of fiction to shelve and went to press the button for the second floor. But they had changed that too. Instead of floor numbers there was a digital display where all one could do is enter a time of day. When one entered a time of day a big green button next to the display lit up. On a hunch I entered a time an hour in the future, that is, three o’clock, and then I pressed the green button.
The elevator went up a floor. All the books on my cart disappeared and the door opened. Even though it had just been two o’clock, the clock outside the elevator now said 3:00. My watch said 3:00. I got back in the elevator and went back to 2:00. My cart filled. I memorized a few specific books on my cart and went up to 3:00 again. I went out of the elevator into the stacks and found my remembered books duly and properly shelved, presumably by me!
I went back to the elevator and set the clock for one in the morning. The elevator opened on a dark and empty library.
“Hmm.” I said quietly to myself.
I got into the elevator and immediately set the clock for 9:00 in the evening, the time I leave.
I love going home. That’s where my wife lives!
But then I remembered something I wrote many years ago. It was about being careful about wishing my life away, even the little bit more irritating parts, like being at work. Though I was keen to go home I made myself do a quick calculation: If I came to work every day and got in the elevator to advance time until the end of the day I would be effectively erasing as much as 20% of my life!
So I got back in the elevator and went to the start of my dinner break. I had good bread, a nice Camembert, some smoked salmon, arugula, and a marmalade shortbread cookie. I read a book. Then I did the exact same thing three more times, growing hungry again each time I traveled an hour back in the elevator, but not forgetting what I read. I shelved for a little while, writing as I went. I worked a steady hour at the front desk.
And then I went home.
I’ve been organizing my thousands of pictures which allowed me to run through a series of notable people at the desk of my library. So here’s a little picture show for you!
An old emblematic piece:
Occasionally it occurs to me that not everyone is inured to the detailed workings of libraries. There are people out there, even ones who read my missives, who have not spent 20 years deep in the minutiae of library life, philosophy, politics, and operations. Whereas Jason Bourne may size up hundreds of details of risk in just the moment of entering a room, so I can walk into a library and sum up its collection, staff, and procedural limitations in mere seconds. Even not in a library I can give a nearly instantaneous general accounting of the reading materials in any room I’m in or have recently have been in just as Bourne can tell you where a gun is most likely to be hidden.
Because of this it can at times be difficult for me to imagine the confusion that people face in their encounters with libraries. Culturally, we the people are most acquainted with commercial institutions. We know what it means to be lured and sold to. We understand the spaces related to that. We also have an acquaintance with mystifying, machine like bureaucracies that insist on our participation and resent us at the same time. We even have a fair amount of peculiar overlap between the two. But the library is an unfamiliar creature to us.
The library is a nearly imaginary glimpse of a reality in which we, collectively, as people, are not assholes.
Yes, that is a pungent way of putting it, but the collective endeavors of humanity, while presenting some amazing and much vaunted exceptions, are probably best described by the word “sick”. I don’t mean “sick” in the contemporary slang sense of “Wow, that nollie 360 heelflip was sick!”, but more in the conventional usage of “Wait, they were put to death for skateboarding? But that’s sick!” We the people hold within us the power to make a paradise, a wonderland, a garden. But unfortunately we have found thumbscrews irresistible and it’s all sort of run away with us.
But there stands the library, maybe a million of them in the world, like something from a really lovely passage in an Ursula K. LeGuin novel where you think “What a beautiful idea. If only something like that really existed in the world.” Well, this one does, but it is so sweet hearted and visionary and better than us that it can be a trifle difficult to navigate. Plus it is entirely run by people who mostly live in that culture of marketing and bureaucracy and so perches precariously on the edge of them, ever in danger, ever compromising, ever trying to hang on.
Your library is real so it looks like the world. It is just another building, another government entitlement, a hard coded symbol of human culture. It is just a place in your city. It is not so fancy, or beautiful, usually. A lot of these books smell. Some of the workers there are friendly. Some are not. The library may or may not have what you wanted today. It might be noisy. It might be closed. It might let you down.
So it may be hard for you to see what is at hand when you go to a library. But I am a student of them, and I am here to tell you.
When you walk into the library, any open, free library, anywhere on earth, on any day at all, you walk into a miracle.
Life is a Fountain is not the first place I have obsessively employed a house analogy (Life is a Fountain is a mysterious, rambling old mansion on the edge of town, each page is a room in that house, and the excessive load times for each page represents the journey down the hallway, or back through the foyer to get to the next page/room). Indeed, my very favorite analogy at the library is a house analogy.
I just used it.
A library patron had some things stolen from her purse, she told me, including her card. So I got her a new library card. But she was concerned that with this new card important things from her other card would be lost. For instance, she had books on hold on the other card. What would happen to those?
I got very excited.
I said to her, waving my hands about, “This is my favorite analogy! I love making this analogy.” Then I took a breath.
“Your library record is like a house.” I said. “By changing the library card and library card number of your account we are merely changing the locks on your front door. The house itself remains exactly the same.”
I’ll admit I’m always a touch disappointed at how short and quick the analogy is. I wish I could spend more time with it.
It’s also a little sad that the library patron is never excited about the analogy. They just simply and perfectly understand.
Which I guess is the point.
8/12/21: Weird experiment day!
Today I am going through every page I have in Life is a Fountain and adding something hopefully relevant to it from the annals of Clerkmanifesto. It’s my desperate attempt to freshen up everything after being away for a couple weeks. So here you go:
A patron came up to front desk and she was singing the praises of one of our children’s librarians. She wanted to know where she could write a comment extolling her virtues to our manager. I showed her, but there weren’t any comment forms there so I got her some. She filled out the form for awhile and then praised the librarian some more to me. “She’s so great, isn’t she? I just want her to get credit for being so great. She’s always so helpful to me and has been for years.”
She finished filling out her form. Then she said “Thank you. You too have always been so kind and helpful to me here too. You’ve been here a long time, haven’t you?”
“Yes.” I said.
“I should fill out one of these forms for you too!” She exclaimed.
“Aww.” I replied humbly “You don’t need to do that.
So she didn’t.
Today is my last day working at the library for a week and a half, so, presumably, this will be my last little library story for a while.
I do have one of those stories though. It’s about my abiding belief in vaccines.
No, not that vaccine, not medical vaccines, though I am a huge believer in those.
It’s library vaccines.
Let me explain:
Library patrons regularly interact with the library in incorrect ways. Sometimes it’s a hundred percent not their fault, and there is no way they could know how to do something. That’s not part of this discussion. But sometimes library patrons do things in the wrong way because they didn’t think things through, or they didn’t bother to observe their environment, or they made strange assumptions, or even they simply wanted things to be a certain way and so refused to see all the clear indications that it wasn’t.
When that happens, when, say, a library patron has to walk around three large screens set up with check out pads and laser readers and giant glowing letters all proclaiming “CHECK OUT”, only to come to me and say “I’d like to check these books out.” I don’t want them to feel bad.
Wait. Let me correct that. I don’t want them to feel very bad.
Or, I don’t want them to feel bad for long.
I want them to be exposed to feeling stupid. I want their brains to be introduced to the idea of feeling bad so that they will remember and, next time they are exposed, they will instinctively reject it.
I want to vaccinate them against doing the wrong thing.
I say, feigning surprise, as if it is a strange and alarming event for them to come to me to check their books out. “Oh, Check out is over there.” Pointing to the three screens we can easily read at 15 feet away that say “Check Out”.
Then I wait for my vaccine to take effect.
The obvious is pointed out to them. If they are the least bit sensible they will at least feel a slightly ridiculous for missing something so patently clear. They say, “Oh, right. Sorry.”
But that’s all I want.
“Since you’re already over here I can check these out for you.” I add brightly. “I just need your library card.”
And all is well with the world. They did nothing wrong. And they’ll never do it again, 80 percent of the time, depending upon the effectiveness of my vaccine.
I saw one of our notorious patrons for the first time post pandemic closings the other day. It was a joyous reunion, sort of. I mean, it had the look of a joyous reunion, and I was happy to see him, albeit, as ever… alert.
Surely in my vast documentation of the history of every event in every library everywhere I have a musing short essay about this man.
One of our more complicated library patrons was in yesterday. I like him in the way one might like a dangerous, but not necessarily evil animal, admiring their energy and uniqueness. This is a person renowned throughout the State for his interest in… policy, for his monumental persistence and willingness to take things all the way, and for his surfer-like obsession in riding the waves and edges of what is allowed.
I do for him whatever he wants as long as it is not an egregious violation of rules- one that would have unfair repercussions on other library patrons. But he never really wants egregious violations of rules. What he is generally looking for is
a. the enforcement of pointless, contradictory and/or indefensible policies.
b. the enforcement of policies that aren’t actually explicit policies.
c. specious refusals.
I’m okay with this.
But he has a lot of special requests, so I was busy with him for awhile.
Seeing as I was at the front desk with one of my younger colleagues, and not one entirely averse to guidance, I decided to explain and instruct.
“You know Mr. X.” I said, referring to the notorious patron. “I find it easier to just give him anything he wants, as long as it’s not egregious or unfair.”
She nodded knowingly and then I went in for the lesson/punchline:
“Just like I do for anyone.”
And then here’s a kind of compliment to the above piece:
A less experienced colleague of mine comes from the front desk of the library to consult with me in the back room. “There’s no way to give a receipt to someone for returning books, is there?” He asks.
Actually there is! People don’t ask for them often, which is why only old timers like myself are keepers of this ancient technique. It doesn’t work well, but we can do it. However, because in every case I have encountered, it is a wildly obnoxious request, and one that if even five percent of our patrons made would grind our circulation to a crawl, I always seek to make it as miserable as possible for the patron making the request. I am not cold or mean. Patrons are prepared for that. I am friendly. I gather together as many staff as possible at the computer. We discuss and instruct how the check in receipt is generated. We experiment with futile attempts to find a better check in receipt option. We must make sure to clearly demonstrate that this is a special occasion, a freak occurrence to be used as a wonderful teaching tool for the obscure processes of circulation. No time or effort is spared. We strategize over new ideas, how to communicate the process throughout the system, and what really is the best procedure.
But of course we’re delighted to do it for the patron. It’s just, naturally, with something so bizarre and particular, going to take a long, long, long time.
So after an extended trial we get this patron the check in receipt that really doesn’t show much anyway. I am free to return to my backed up work on the automated check in machine.
My colleague comes back a little later. The same patron doesn’t have card or I.D. and wants to do some small thing on their record. Can we?
No no no! Of course not! Never!
You don’t trust us, how can we trust you?
A woman called this morning. She was being charged for multiple books that she had returned during the Pandemic High Times, through our home delivery service. She thought it was all taken care of and was now getting a bill.
I won’t go into what happened and might have happened, but I cleared it all up and got the charges and books all off of her account. Nevertheless she was still worried. “Is there some way you can send me a receipt or something?” She asked.
I told her “No.” But I gave her my name. “If anything goes wrong you can tell them my name and there won’t be any problems.” I said. “I’m World Famous.”
She was okay with that solution, but now she was real curious about me being World Famous.
“I was just kidding.” I said, to her very mild disappointment. Being kidded with was second best to my being World Famous.
Although you know me.
And I know me.
And she knows me.
So who knows?
An Amazing True Life Library Story!
So there I am at the front desk of the library. A woman comes up to the desk with 11 or 12 DVDs she pulls messily from a bag. She wants to check them out. Or, more accurately, in a world full of self check out machines, she wants me to check them out. I don’t mind. I start checking them out. It’s very easy. At around DVD number eight I come, surprisingly, to a duplicate. This woman has two copies of a movie called Last Vegas. That’s okay. At my library you can check out as many of the same copy of something as we have on the shelf. For instance, people sometimes do this with books for book clubs. We even have “book clubs in a bag” that include ten of the same book.
But people don’t usually do this with movies, so I figure I’ll just check.
“Do you want both of these?” I ask, holding up the identical DVDs.
A look that I would describe as “faint surprise” fleetingly crosses her face. “No.” She says flatly. “I don’t want either of them.”
Real Library Transactions
A true story:
A longtime patron approaches me at the front desk of the library. He ruefully tells me he has $4.50 in fines to pay and hands me a twenty.
“We will wax fat off of your suffering.” I say as I collect his bill.
I give him change and a receipt of the transaction. “Thank you.” I say.
“Thank you.” He says. “I guess.”
Well. How rude!
Long Story, Quick Read
I hope you’ll bear with me, I’ve been through a traumatic experience. Someone just read me their library card, over the phone!
I’m still shaking.
It seemed like it would be okay at first. They didn’t remember their pin, couldn’t renew in an automated way, and wanted to know if could I help them?
Sure, sure, I just need that library barcode number.
They make some self deprecating remark about how they should have had that ready. I don’t see it as my role to argue with that. But it doesn’t take them an especially long time to find it.
And then the recitation begins.
“You can read it much faster.” I say, interrupting.
“I’ll start over.” They say, ever cautious.
Let me just stop this fascinating and very realistic recounting to explain how to read a library card, or for that matter, a credit card number over the phone.
1. Assume that the person who is helping you is able to type numbers in really fast and doesn’t need time to hunt out where each number is on their keyboard. It’s a skill that comes with repetition.
2. Spaces are always irrelevant.
3. Enunciate 10% more and speak 10% slower. Thus you should be speaking just a tiny bit slower than you usually do and a tiny bit more clearly. That’s it!
Now, let us continue:
And here’s the worst thing, if you’re still with me down here. I’m a little ashamed to admit it has happened to me more than once. When people read numbers this slowly, sometimes my mind wanders! I forget to type or listen. I get involved in simultaneously writing a blog post and listening to music, chatting with a co-worker and checking in requests. It is too boring and unproductive to just sit there waiting for the next number, and so, like the hare in Tortoise and the Hare, over-confident, I miss a number!
“Oh!” I say, horrified. “I lost that last number. What was it?”
“The last one?” They say. “Er. I’ll start over.”
And then they go extra slow, because, obviously, I wasn’t able to keep up.
How to get a Library Card
I know that the thought of getting a library card is almost overwhelming to most people. I too would be profoundly intimidated by it if I didn’t actually live in a library. But using my empathy, along with my deep knowledge of library processes and culture, I am here to guide you through this difficult life passage.
Let us begin with:
1. Do you need a library card?
Why go through the exacting and painful procedure of library card acquisition if you don’t even need a library card? Please answer the following questions:
A. Do you have 50 million dollars and a squeamishness about the hoi polloi?
B. Can you read?
If you answered yes to A. I suggest using Amazon et al for your library related needs, but it would be nice if you dashed off a check for a hundred thousand dollars to your local Friends of the Library just to show you’re not a small person.
If you answered no to B. I am wondering… how?
Other than these, yes, you need a library card. Why? A properly used library card has an estimated annual retail value of $473.89. And yet it costs nothing. Nothing! You are willing to drive across town to save eleven cents on a can of artichoke hearts. You are willing to virtually enslave third world workers for a t-shirt that costs a dollar less. Get the library card.
2. The equipment you need to bring to get your library card.
Don’t panic. I am going to break down the required equipment into its most basic elements. You need bring with you merely the few items on this small, very clear list, and you are almost home free.
A. Pants or skirt or dress or shorts. Any one of these will do. But, and here perhaps is the tricky part, you need to be wearing them.
B. A top. See above. Men can if necessary omit item B., but that seems unfair.
Please note that I have yet to see a library with the posted sign: “No shoes, no shirt, no service.”
C. Picture I.D. The rules on this one are loose. You are not entering a foreign country. A seven year old High School I.D. will work. A group picture of your recreational softball team with the players labeled will work. A driver’s license will work. A good tattoo of yourself will probably work, but it must include your full name.
Please note that if your picture I.D. includes your current address you are done here. Done. That is all you need! If you are going “Damn, I missed it. I just have the softball team thing”, do not yet despair. You need only come up with one more item.
D. A verification of your current address. Yes, this will have to be on some kind of paper. It will have your name and the address of where you sleep at least most nights. That’s all we mean! Do you get mail? Bring a piece of mail. No mail? Send yourself a postcard. Write “Dear Self, I sure wish I had a library card! Love, me.” Bring it in with your pants and stuff and we’re almost done here.
Yes. We are talking about just four items. If you are homeless it can be a bit dodgy, and we can discuss that elsewhere. If there is no human way for you to get mail take any discarded piece of mail from anywhere, write your name and address on a bit of paper, and glue it over whatever name and address was on there. Worried about the ethics on that? Is it your real address? Then we are done. Good enough. No questions asked.
3. You have all the stuff. Now what?
You are almost home free.
A. Go to whatever service desk you see in the library. Say “I would like a library card.” Answer their questions and give them the stuff they ask for. You have fulfilled your responsibilities and now they must come through. They will.
If you are panicking about these “questions” let me reassure you the questions are not like:
1. When was Tolstoy’s first novel published?
2. Who won the Nobel Prize in 1962?
3. Can you generally describe what is meant by “Symbolist Poetry”? Please include five notable symbolist poets in your explanation?
No. The questions you are likely to be asked include things like the following:
1. What is your birth date?
2. What is your phone number?
3. How are you doing today?
Please note that it is okay to say “Fine.” to question three even if it is not true.
4. Sign your library card. That’s it.
You mean, that’s it?
Yep. You will have a library card to do with as you will. That’s it.