porcelainandporcupines

Archive for the ‘Libraries’ Category

I.

Now that I have the training and (some of) the experience of a librarian, I recognize that the decision to become a librarian was one that should have been researched quite a bit more thoroughly before committing. Certainly, it should not have taken becoming an information professional to realize that a program devoted to churning out librarians would present the prospects of the prospective librarian in the most positive light, but I suppose that it did only serves to underscore a point made many times over the course of my library school curriculum, which is that without libraries and properly trained librarians no one will ever learn how to do research.

Regrets aside, the bright side of this terribly deep hole that I seem to have dug for myself is that it provides a focus and scope for any future job search I might conduct; in library speak, the topic has been selected, leaving the only the task of identifying resources that might point me to a valuable conclusion. My last non-library job search had no such focus, and, consequently, I had to review just about every ad on Craigslist. Or, at least, all the job-related ads.

There’s a certain repetition that comes from reading ads on Craigslist, partly due to the fact that, in order to stay on the first page, some companies will place the same, or slightly edited, ads over and over again; another part of that is probably that some of those companies are just terrible places to work, and so are in a constant process of replacing departed employees.

I don’t know into which of these categories Circles falls, and, despite having read their company information at least once a week for several months, I don’t have any idea at all what it is that they do. I thought, vaguely, yet unshakeably, that they probably were some kind of cult.  Like an H.P. Lovecraft story, the language in these cryptic ads was entirely straightforward, yet something was being plainly obscured by their very everday-ness; no matter how many times I read them, the key to understanding that sense behind them remained elusive.

I really liked the idea of getting a job at Circles. That it might possibly have been a cult was part of the appeal, but what I mostly I wanted to find out what it was; I would plumb the depths of Circles and surface rich with knowledge, and if the secrets of Circles into which I would be initiated were worth keeping then I would keep them, and if not, then I would probably complain about them for a little while. My sister liked the idea, too, because if I got involved in a cult, then she could lead the effort to deprogram me. And vice versa. It was fun to think about, as long as you studiously ignored the fact that we both were somewhat seriously considering a cult as a viable alternative to our respective  employment situations.

II.

Every day when I left that respective employment situation, I would walk past the old Sears, Roebuck building on my way to the bus stop. The size of the building made clear, or possibly I read it on a plaque, that the building had been a major warehouse and distribution center for the Sears, Roebuck catalog, and that countless modern, time-saving marvels had been shipped out from that building to homes all over the country. Walking past that building in the early days of the internet, when the primary purpose of this new technology seemed, as I understood it, to be to allow people to shop for things without ever leaving their home, it was hard not to consider how little innovation this actually represented, and how much of progress is really just people moving in slightly widening circles, with families making things on their own being replaced by trading and purchasing from their neighbors, which is enhanced by being able to purchase things via catalog, which becomes mostly obsolete by department stores expanding into smaller neighborhoods so everyone can buy things immediately, which then gives way to the convenience of  staying home and avoiding crowds by using the internet, which is now home to an ever growing DIY community of people trading and selling handmade goods and homemade things, which walks hand-in-hand with the urban homesteading and localvore movements, which is undoubtedly already in process of pupating into something else that I likely won’t hear of until US Weekly reports that Gwyneth Paltrow is doing it.

Twitter strikes me, too, as a point on a large circle, as free verse and the beats exploded the rigid forms of writing and poetry, and in the face of such limitless freedom of expression, people rush to confine themselves to 140 characters or less. Only now, instead of the format forcing people to think carefully about what they want to say, now we can use it to say everything we think, without putting any thought into it at all. But Twitter didn’t exist back then, so I rarely thought about it while walking to the bus stop.

III.

The next job that I managed to get was not in a cult, but in Watertown, and to get there meant taking the 70 bus. I have hated that particular bus route since the ’90s, when it was one of the very few ways a car-less student could make her way from Waltham into the actual city. Rarity did not unfortunately make it a very good way to get into the city – the 70 is a really long bus route, that makes a lot of stops, many of which are very close together and could easily be eliminated. Riding that bus end to end is a good way to meet some interesting characters, one of whom told me how the Lotus Flower blooms and seeds at the same time. But it is also a powerful way to feel your life passing; the three stops at the mall are enough to make you abandon hope altogether. And while most people use “going places”  when speaking career-wise metaphorically, it seemed a particularly bad omen to me that, despite my new job, I was not, in fact, going any place I had not already gone before.

I may not have found the bus route to be particularly ominous had I not known from the outset that I wasn’t going to like that job. Yet I had similar trepidations, perhaps unwisely overlooked, when I made my (rash?) decision to attend library school and discovered that the school itself was in the very same neighborhood as the job I had just left, and, while I would no longer be walking past the Sears, Roebuck building, I would be riding that same bus, just a few stops farther than the one to which I had walked for so many years.

My very first library job, at The Smaller Institution of Which You Probably Have Not Heard, too, was in that same neighborhood, just two blocks or so away from the Library School. Which was in a sense convenient, particularly on Saturdays, when I had class in the morning and then worked in the afternoon. But, as much as I liked it there, it did more and more seem strange to me that, with all of the city before me, I just seemed to be caught in a circuit between two points.

IV.

The Illustrious Institute changed that. Of the many reasons I was excited to work there – I could walk to work! It was a full-time job! I have a Memento-like inability to remember problems that are not my own and so had completely forgotten how utterly unhappy Derbs had been there for almost all of the years that I’d known her! – one of the most important was that it was in a brand-new neighborhood, one I had never worked in before.

However.

While I will grant that the outdoor stations on the Blue Line are more picturesque, I firmly believe that the Red Line is the best of all of the MBTA lines. Yet, I have nothing but scorn for the people who ride the Red Line only one stop. I tell myself that I don’t know them, or their lives, they may have had a really long day, or walked really far to get to the station. And no one can argue that the train will get you from Porter to Harvard faster than any of the buses that go that way. And it’s not particularly crowded. And it’s going to stop at the station anyway, so why not?

Because I would never take the Red Line only 1 stop, not within Cambridge, anyway. So no one should. The distances for which it is acceptable to take public transportation have been very clearly defined, by me, making everything else within walking distance. Which is the reason I walk to work; it’s not because I enjoy walking, although I do. And it’s  not because there is no public transportation option conveniently available, because there is – it’s the bus that, eventually, goes to The Library School, The Smaller Institute of Which You Probably Have Not Heard, and to the stop just by the Sears, Roebuck building.

V.

It was inevitable, I think, that excitement would wane over the course of years, but it was an enormous surprise, to no one more than myself, how suddenly, and violently, mine was crushed a few months ago. Certainly, there will be good days every now and again, but then I’ll remember how my new and internally promoted boss would refer to one of the library users as  Dirty ShitPig, and, when I stop wondering how I ever thought this job mattered, I realize that I have that same desperate urge to flee that I had 10 years ago, when I actually spent time pondering the merits and relative drawbacks of brainwashing and deprogramming. And now that I’m back where I started, I’m anxious to find something that holds the same intrigue that Circles did, the mystery, the promise of discovery, the secrets. Because I think that, what I’ve learned, is that the only way to beat the circles is to join a cult.

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(Warning : portions of this blog have appeared elsewhere. Like on Facebook. Yesterday.)

I had a weirdly aggressive encounter with a patron yesterday. Although a recent arrival, she has quickly become a frequent visitor to the library; while it’s difficult to make assumptions about people, I would guess, based on her behavior, that she is neither Illustrious student nor faculty nor staff, but instead is of the sort of person who eschews the public library despite being the sort of person one imagines when coming up with reasons to eschew the public library.

Or, I suppose the difficulty lies in accurately judging a person about whom you have already made assumptions. Whatever the case, my very first interaction with this particular woman resulted with her thinking that my answer to her very bizarre question about my bracelet (which I no longer remember, except that it was off-putting) was an invitation to grab said bracelet which, having an elastic band, she then snapped against my wrist. And, while we may go into detail on physical contact in the library another time, the short explanation is : No. Even the great Colonel Mustache, who stole my heart by being the answer to the question “What would Yosemite Sam look like if his great-grandparents on his mother’s side had been Norwegian alcoholics, and his paternal great-great-great-grandfather had been a Lorax, who spoke not for trees but for mustaches?” was invited to remove his hand from my arm as I demonstrated how to use the scanner; there are no exceptions to this rule.

Subsequent interactions with this woman – who so far has not exhibited enough personality to earn a nickname, although perhaps we should start working on something tissue-based – have, now that I think of it, been fairly limited. At least on my watch, her pattern seems to be to establish herself in front of one of the computers, do whatever it is that she needs to do, and then leave, without requesting assistance from the staff. However, before heading over to the computers, she likes to stop by the desk to stock up on tissues. And, to her credit, unlike many library users, she does seem to realize that the tissues are kept on the desk not because we want to be a part of your nose-blowing experience, but so that they’ll be easy to find.

However, unlike most – if not all – of our other library users, when she stopped by the desk yesterday she glared steadily at me as she pulled tissues singly out of the box, as though daring me to stop her. One after another, it seemed like her whole purpose in coming to the library was to prove that she could remove as many tissues from the box on the desk as she wanted. It seems weird to describe anything involving tissues as defiant, but there doesn’t seem to be any other word for it.

And I almost took up her challenge. When she got to 4 and showed no signs of stopping, I inhaled, preparing to say Ok, lady – that’s enough with the tissues. And then I exhaled, wondering if that was really the life I want for myself? Do I want to be a person who restricts access to tissues? Kind of, but under the guise of wanting to ensure adequate tissue availability for all of our library users at all times.

However, that’s not a realistic goal – no matter how many or how few tissues an individual person takes, it is inevitable that the library will one day run out of tissues. On the other hand, there is no shortage of tissues in the world. And as long as there *are* tissues, the library will get more.

It may be, though, that her aggression yesterday was a result to regain some face after the tissue-related ordeal of last weekend. The difficulty then was not because of the tissues themselves, but because she was attempting to take all of the tissues. At once. Using only one hand. I don’t know why she had set this unusual challenge for herself, but I worried for a bit that she was not quite up to the task. As she struggled, unable to get her hand fully inside the box, and then unable to get it out, I wondered whether I should intervene – should I try to help her? She was having difficulty, but then she was trying to take all of our tissues – I didn’t want to encourage that. On the other hand, what she was going through was so very fascinating that it didn’t seem right to try to stop her either.

Fortunately, my conundrum was easily solved by realizing that this very moment illustrated the guiding principle behind the Prime Directive, and since anything good enough for Jean-Luc Picard is good enough for me, I decided to let events unfold as they may. Eventually, as I watched with a rapt expression upon my face, she did manage successfully to extract all of the tissues from the box. It was quite a moment, and I quietly enjoyed her victory even though her face betrayed no recognition of her achievement.

This week, I had momentarily forgotten that Directive, but fortunately, I remembered it in time. Since I did, it is my hope that in the course of proving yesterday that she can take as many tissues as she wants, she noticed that I made no effort to stop her. Because it’s interesting for two weeks, but I am kind of hoping for an end to the tissue-related drama in my life. Unless it’s new life forms coming in to the library – I’m always ready for that.

One question I was asked over and over again the last time I was interviewing for a job was “What made you decide to become a librarian?” I did not at the time realize that the interviewers were likely looking to account for my sudden career shift as a way to buttress my limited library experience, but even if I had, I don’t think that would have altered by response in any way : that I was not happy with the direction my career was headed and, one day, on investigating the jobs on the B.U. website, the first 3 that popped up were in the library. And suddenly I realized “Oh, the library; I should be a librarian.” And then the interview would move on to my meagre library experience, the first part of my answer completely forgotten.

However, it cannot be overstated just how unhappy I was with where my career was headed : I hated the job that I had at the time. Although I very much enjoyed the way the lobby looked like The Movie Theater of the Future, as designed in 1950, I wanted to cry every day when I walked into the building. And, in addition to my job striking me as particularly useless – both in the sense of how it might benefit society in general (it wouldn’t, ever), as well as in a local sense of the value it presented to the company (none) – I was also incredibly bad at it. I’m sure the fact that I did not want to be good at it played a part, but, in fairness to myself, the skill set required of that position is completely outside the realm of things at which I am good : a Sweet Valley High reference would land just about as well as that plane Olivia’s flight instructor crashed, killing himself and paralyzing her and thus wrenching her plan to break up with Roger, who she no longer loved regardless of his newfound place in the Patman family, and the fact that I just mixed up plots and characters from several different books would have gone completely unnoticed.

Yet, despite my vast unhappiness, there were actually several positives to that job. For one thing, I made a lot of money; a lot. Upon receipt of the job offer, I may have exclaimed “Oh my god, I can buy everything I’ve ever wanted and a pony!” aloud, to an otherwise empty room, although several years having passed since the potential incident renders positive confirmation difficult.

In addition to elevating my lifestyle to an extravagance I can no longer afford, that job also provided a very interesting view into an organization that believes they can actually achieve a goal. Or, actually, that’s not entirely correct; most companies probably think that can achieve goals; otherwise, they wouldn’t exist. What was different about this place was that their goal was 100%.

And they took it seriously. There were reports about which I can provide absolutely no detail of systems running at 99.486% accuracy, and it was stunning not only that they would investigate into the decimals following the 99, which I think in and of itself would be enough of a measure for most organizations (at least the ones that are not Ivory soap), but also that that number, decimal and all, still represented room for improvement.

The most amazing thing about that was how quickly I got used to it. I mean, I was never going to be one of the people getting up at 2 o’clock in the morning for a software release, and I found it completely baffling that the people who were would follow up that release by coming in to work for a full 9+ hour day, a practice in which I also did not participate, despite the frequent urgings of my boss. Yet, however much I might have questioned their passion for a product that I thought ridiculous, I had come from an environment where we frequently set the bar at about 60 and were perfectly content to miss it most of the time. Working with these people was inspiring – their intensity, devotion and focus to their job was like watching Olympians. Of work, but still; it was impressive.

So, even though I was extremely happy to leave that job, yea the entire corporate world, behind, I did have within me a small glimmer of hope that, doing something I was devoted to, something I had actually chosen rather than happened into by default, I might one day be a finalist of some sort; perhaps even the winner of the work bronze.

Were I the sort of person who cottoned to things a bit faster, I might have noticed that this attitude did not especially pervade library school. Which : is strange. Librarians for the most part like to tout themselves as busy and engaged, up on what’s going on and passionate about connecting people and information. But the loudest voices in library school are the ones that stay with you, and so what rings in my ears is a refrain I heard from several instructors, who would follow up the description of any particular Librarian’s task with a put-upon “Which you’ll do in all of your free time”.

Of course, budget cuts have left libraries understaffed, and that is a very real issue, but this self-image of the Librarian who is just too busy to actually do her job bothers the hell out of me. For one thing, it often results in an Ur-Millenial need for praise whenever something gets done, which offends my latch-key Generation X sensibilities to such an extent that it might lead to a rumble if I weren’t so desperately in need of a nap.

More serious is the frequency with which this attitude affects users. Obviously, an underfunded library does not have the same resources to divert toward a problem as does a large multi-national profit-driven entity. However, the number of times I have received a response of “We know,” to a report of a problem is extremely discouraging. That’s a difficult message to pass on to a user who points out that our system is confusing – yes, it certainly is confusing. No, we’re not going to anything about it. Because we’ve gotten to a point where something works well enough; there’s no need to push it to actually working well.

Although I can’t quite put my finger on why, I’ve noticed that any patron interaction that begins with the patron exclaiming how long it’s been since last they visited the library tends not to end well. The very first of these instances that I can recall went south due in no way to the elderly alumnus who announced himself at the desk in a voice loud with age, one impervious to shushing as the gentleman in question was most likely unable to hear exactly how loud he was talking, “I graduated 40 years ago!”

I welcomed him back to campus and nodded politely as he described the things that had changed since his day, and then watched, pleased, as he shuffled further into the library to continue his trip down memory lane. A fine beginning to the morning it was, and a lovely memory it would have been had it not been followed by an irritating interaction with The Patron Who Takes Forever to Ask You What He Wants.

This is something you learn about in library school, the tendency of people to dance around the actual topic in which they are interested and to ask several questions, warm-up style, before getting to what they want to ask. There’s a good chance you yourself have done this, although perhaps not in the confines of a library – if you’ve ever responded to the answer to a question you’ve posed with “Well, the reason that I ask is…” before lengthily introducing a topic that is at best tangentially related to the topic about which you first inquired, then congratulations: you may also have tried the patience of someone who was already not having a very good day.

Of course, the first time TPWTFtAYWHW asked his question, he was, in fact, unrecognizable as A PWTFtAYWHW; he accepted my response with thanks, and then returned with his son to the public access machines. However, somewhere between this first question and his fourth, I had gotten into a disagreement with my manager of the day (the library I was in at the time is one, of a hopefully soon-to-be-increasing-number, in which I no longer work), who for some reason felt like she needed to insert herself into the opening procedure of the library even though she never actually opened the library, which threw off my opening routine, and who then felt it necessary to discuss with me the importance of opening the library on time, when what she’d done was attempt to open the library 3 minutes early. Thus, when TPWTFtAYWHW returned to the desk for his 4th go-round, despite my best efforts to get him to tell me what he wanted in an earlier encounter (“active listening” does not always work, take it from me), only to be rapidly followed by the older alumnus who heralded his return to the desk with a booming repeat “I graduated 40 years ago!” the most I could do was stifle my congratulations for having eluded death for so long, before quickly calculating that, assuming he was a typical early to mid-20s on graduating, these 40 years later would put him in his 60s, and making it to your 60s in this day and in this country is not really anything to crow about, so, clearly, he should just shut up already.

So, yes: my first interaction with an alumnus did not go so well, although I will readily admit that was in almost no way the fault of the alumnus. However, what is interesting (to me, and probably to you if you’re still reading [which, btw, if you’re wondering “Why the heck is this so long?”: blame Devin; he’s the one who said I was overdue for a longer entry <hi Devin!>]) is that subsequent interactions with alumni have required no such convoluted circumstances to go sour.

Sometimes, they go wrong right out of the gate, as was the case with a fellow who called the library (a different library than the one mentioned above), who wanted to know “if the maps are still on the 6th floor of the library?” a question illustrative of one of 2 major problems I have with the alumni. Because finding out if the maps are still on the 6th floor of the library is not the genuine reason anyone has ever called the library; if you’re interested in our map collection in and of itself, do you give even half of a tiny rat’s ass what floor it’s housed on? No; you do not. The purpose of this call, in my considerably cynical opinion, was so that I – or whoever answered the phone – could marvel at the profound memory of this alumnus, and perhaps feel a small swell of pride that the library was so very important a part of his educational experience there at The Illustrious Institute in Which I Work that he remembered not only that we have maps, but even a tiny detail like where they’re located.

The problem with this effort on his part is that, even if I wanted to, I cannot marvel at the length of his memory. Having worked there for just over a year and a half, all I can confirm is that the library has maps; I can’t compare the depth of our current map collection to that which he used, nor can I confirm that his memory of their 6th floor location is accurate, since, as long as I’ve known them, they’ve been on the 2nd floor. Have they ever been elsewhere? Perhaps. But even if they were, it does me no good to know that, since apart from this one particular alumnus who is perhaps a little too impressed with his own memory, no one who’s come to the library in search of maps has ever asked me where they were; what they always want to know is where they are.

And the alumni’s interest in the past does not stop at the location of certain collections; they want to verify the whereabouts of the staff they remember as well. One such staff member, Dr. Sharif, was particularly beloved by students, faculty, and staff;  I never had an opportunity to know him, as he died in an accident in the T station a few weeks before I started.

For some reason, this is unusually difficult to convey to the visiting alumni. “And Dr. Sharif,” they ask; “Is he still here?”

“No, I’m afraid he’s not.” I used to stop there, but they always press for more details, wondering if he quit and if so why because he was such an important of the library, so now I continue “Dr. Sharif passed away about a year and a half ago.”

Obviously, I adjust the time for accuracy depending on in which month the conversation is taking place.

“Oh my god! Was he sick?”

“No. Unfortunately, he was involved in an accident in the T station.”

“What? What happened?”

I have to tell you, I really hate this conversation about Dr. Sharif. To start with the most minor thing, that the graduates of this Illustrious Institute, those behind some of the most startling innovations in the history of mankind, are unable to intuit “was hit by a train,” from “accident in the T station” is absolutely astounding.

This directly results into the thing of medium minority, which is that, for reasons upon which I also cannot place my finger, I am constitutionally incapable of saying “He was hit by a train,” without sounding like I’m kidding. It’s terrible, actually, because I find nothing at all humorous in the death of Dr. Sharif, and yet regardless of the solemnity I try to imbue into the statement, it inevitably sounds like I’m delivering the punch line of a particularly tasteless joke.

The worst thing, though, is the  entire conversation; I especially hate that I cannot satisfy their curiosity without giving away personal details about the death of Dr. Sharif, which is, in my opinion, none of their business. That he was an integral part of their experience, both at the library and at the institute at large is touching; even without having met him, I am sure that he was immensely pleased at playing so vital a role in the education and lives of so many people. But his death was not part of his job; it belongs to his personal life, as it belongs to the personal lives of the friends and family who mourned him. That these alumni were not sufficiently in contact at the time of his death with either him or the university, which did react publicly to his death, would seem to indicate that, much as they may have valued Dr. Sharif as a part of the library’s collection, they were not a part of the man’s life; while they certainly are entitled to react to his death, they weren’t a part of that either; their interest in the whys and wherefores of his passing seem more like curiosity, along the same lines as wondering why the map collection was moved to the 2nd floor from the 6th.

Yet, even if their concern for Dr. Sharif is genuine, there’s little they can do about now, and that is the 2nd of two major issues I have the the alumni. While, in my experience, no one has come to the library explicitly to consider their own mortality, there’s always a wistfulness in an alumnus’ visit: they marvel at how much everything has changed, at how much everything is the same, but the real marvel is how everything has continued to exist even though they themselves are no longer stopping by on a daily basis. In the face of the ephemerality of their own existence; they dig in their heels and become just like any other outside user, but, whereas the super-users insist that what they’re working on is very important, what the alumni crave is an acknowledgement that it is they themselves who are important, just as much so as when they were a student, if not more.

Coincidentally, not long after I began writing this entry on Saturday (while at work! The scandal of it all) I had what is undoubtedly my most negative interaction with an alumnus yet. The gentleman in question entered the library while I was attending important business in the ladies room; if he made any introduction to the student covering the desk in my absence, I can’t say. What I can say is that as soon as I returned to the desk, I overheard someone speaking in a deep voice to a woman up on the 3rd floor who, from my vantage on the 2nd,  looked very much as though she were posing for a picture; although the library was mostly empty, violations of our photo policy, which stipulates among other things that no students may be photographed within the library, have been a bit of sticking point in the past, so I hurried upstairs to familiarize the photographer with the basic outline, as well as to ask him to be a little more quiet.

When I arrived on the 3rd floor I noticed immediately that no pictures were being taken, and so adjusted my approach to begin immediately with my standard speech to louder patrons, beginning “Hey guys, I’m going to have to ask you to keep it down a little bit.”

Generally, this is an effective opening, but then I made a mistake. I don’t know what happened; in retrospect, I imagine it was because of an unpleasant look cast at me by the man, but whatever it was, I continued “Your voice,” which was wrong. Not only was this a deviation from the standard script, it was unnecessarily accusatory; at the outset, there’s no need for recriminations – just a friendly word in your ear that sound carries pretty easily in this library. Later, if they continue being loud – that’s when you start pointing fingers.

I caught my error quickly, but was a little thrown when I began again “Sound carries really easily in here, due to the architecture, so conversations can carry between floors.”

Usually at this point there’s an “Oh, sorry!” from the patron, or at least a nod; rarely have I been met with a dead-eyed stare accompanied by silence, but it’s happened. For instance, it happened this past Saturday. Ever so slightly daunted, I chirped an “Ok!” that managed to be greater parts friendly than unnerved, I think, and then returned to the desk.

I don’t remember exactly what I was doing, but it was interrupted by the man, who paused on his way out of the library (the woman trailing behind him; she remained silent throughout both encounters) far enough from the desk that, if you’re feeling generous, you could say was an effort to be unthreatening, to ask “So was I bothering you or her?”

This was not said in a friendly way. It was clear that he was angry, although I could not at first figure out why. Certainly, I misspoke when I approached him earlier, but this level of anger seemed a disproportionate response.

“Excuse me?”

“You or her? [‘Her’ indicated a woman using the computer across from where I sat at the desk.] Which one of you was I bothering?”

Ungenerous as I am, I believe that he deliberately stationed himself far from the desk so that he would have an excuse to once again raise his voice in the library.

He continued: “It’s unbelievable that you would be so rude. The library is empty.”

“That’s irrelevant.” I sounded exceptionally calm during this entire exchange, which was gratifying, but inside I had that same queasy feeling I get whenever someone starts unexpectedly flinging their feces at me.

“No, that is exactly the point.”

It isn’t. What I will tell you is that the guidelines for use of the library are in effect as long as the library is open; the reason to be quiet in the library is so that you don’t disturb other people who are working, yes, but the guideline itself is that you be quiet. Just like you are still prohibited from smoking in an empty library, being naked in an empty library, or pissing on the floor of an empty library, you are likewise encouraged not to speak loudly in an empty library. Similarly, the reason that we have people return books is so that other patrons can borrow them; however, if no one else ever  expresses an interest in that book, you will still be required to return it to us after a predetermined amount of time.

More to the point, the library was not actually empty. In indicating “her”, he acknowledged that there was someone else in the library; it wasn’t empty, and therefore he knew very well that he may have been disturbing someone. That it might have been only one person is also irrelevant; it is not up to the patron to decide what critical mass must be present before he lowers his voice; nor is it up to him to determine that his conversation is far more important than whatever work might be underway by the lone person in the library. It is not up to this guy to decide that some of the rules do not apply to him; if he wants to stay in the library, he will abide by all of them.

Furthermore, that there was only 1 other person visible in the library does not mean that there was only 1 other person working in the library; the library is 6 floors, and sound travels between all of them (well, not the first floor, but seriously – acoustically, this building should be anything that isn’t a library and that it’s an architecture library just makes the lack of harmony between function and form all the more hilarious). I don’t know if he walked through the entire building to verify that the only person in the library was the one woman whose work apparently didn’t matter at all (and the guy reading through the journals, and the guy sitting over by the window using his laptop), but there existed the possibility that people were up there; it was partly with them in mind that I approached him.

Finally, even if there were no other people working in the library, I was still in the library. Though an employee of the library, I do still come to the library believing that it will be a quiet work space; just like anyone working in the library could come and ask me to keep it down, I can ask them.

What I told him, however, was simply “No. It is not.”

This was not what he wanted to hear. “I have NEVER been treated so inappropriately in a library. When I used to use to this library,”

And that was how I learned he was an alumnus.

“, when I used to use to this library, I was never treated so inappropriately. You have no reason to behave like that.”

“I don’t think there’s anything inappropriate about asking you to keep your voice down in a library.”

He grimaced, and made a grasping motion with his fists, one that expressed his mounting frustration with my obstinate refusal to accept logic. I have made that same gesture a number of times over the years, but in this moment I merely stared at him with a placidity I didn’t feel, then exhaled shakily as he stalked out of the library, the silent woman following silently along behind him silently.

Although unpleasant, I did at least learn something from this encounter, and what I learned was this: while overall the issue with alumni is that they need reassurance that they’re still important, sometimes the issue is that they’re just dicks.

Aside

Posted on: May 7, 2012

Last summer there was a new position created at the Illustrious Institute, and since I, had all gone as originally designed, would have no occasion whatsoever to interact with the people hired to fill this position, I got to sit in on the interviews. As my own job hunt had been not so long concluded, I felt no small amount of relief to be sitting on the other side of the table, even if, at the same, I realized with no small amount of panic that the hiring of somones new meant that I would no longer be the new hire and that the novelty of Amy was about to wear off, had it not already done so. However, despite my insecurities I was intent on hiring not someone who would only make me continue to look good; I focused, instead, on listening carefully to the candidates answers to make sure the person hired would, in the long run, prove to be the most beneficial for the Institute at large.

I kid! Obviously, I continued to think mostly about myself throughout the interviews. At first I tried to imagine how I would respond to the questions we posed; however, once I realized that had I undergone this round of interviews – which were far more, well, let’s say involved than my own – I never would have been hired, and thoughts of continued or fresh unemployment were depressing, I decided to switch my focus to what was wrong with the questions.

The first question with which I took issue was one to which we, from the first few candidates, got terrible, confusing answers that nearly derailed the interviews as the puzzled interviewee, well aware that their initial answer didn’t quite hit the mark, went on and on in an attempt to answer a question they didn’t understand. The spirit of the question is probably one that gets asked in every customer service type interview – how do you handle interactions with difficult patrons? – but because of our rather specific use of “escalate”, it made it sound like we were asking people if they ever needed to start screaming at or get physical with problem patrons, rather than if they’ve ever had to call for back up. On this realization, I took charge of asking this question in subsequent interviews, avoiding the problematic vocabulary word, and generating much better responses from the interviewees because of it, I am sure.

The second question that bothered me was one pertaining to email, and the reason that it bothered me was because the answer was very clearly “email.” How to keep up to date on the day-to-day goings on in the library when you work evenings? Honestly, in 2012 (or, I suppose, it was 2011 at the time) is there anyone who’s not going to mention carefully reading their email? It’s the way information is conveyed, regardless of when you work; I suppose someone who didn’t mention email in their response would have been weeded out right away, but they probably wouldn’t have been considered for the position in the first place, what with their application having been pressed into clay tablets using a stylus and then delivered by pony express and all. Not that we have any objection to cuneiform, mind you, but with the strict new guidelines determining what qualifies as a service animal and what doesn’t, an equine-based delivery service could cause a real problem.

I did ask, after one particularly contentious interview (fun fact: one of my coworkers passed me a note in the middle of said interview, eloquently stating “I think I may hate her;”), if the desirable answer to the question was, in fact “email,” why were we bothering to pose it; there was not a satisfactory answer to that, or any answer at all that I recall, but it was enough to convince me not to ask about the third and final question that struck me as less than fully utile : how do you deal with problem coworkers?

Admittedly, there is a greater variety of acceptable answer to this question than there is to the email question; however, the unacceptable answers to this question are all known – no one is actually going to answer that they have a terrible temper and will start screaming at their coworkers at the drop of a hat (which rarely happens inside a library); that they’ll seek out other coworkers who also dislike the difficult person and gossip maliciously – but also truthfully – behind the difficult person’s back; or that they’ll silently fume in the presence of that coworker before taking to the internet and starting a blog where they can eloquently chronicle the details of their overwhelming and completely justified dislike for this person.

However, despite the suspect quality of the answer, the question is not entirely without merit, it just needs a bit of polish; how you deal with difficult coworkers is less important, I think, than finding out who are the people you find difficult to work with. And, even though I am no longer the candidate being interviewed, I do know how I would answer that question:

1. People who think they’re the only ones who do anything – I haven’t had an especially varied job history, but I have worked with a lot of different people over the years, and through those people I have come to realize that the people who go on about how they’re the only people who do anything around here tend to have three very important things in common:

  1. They have a limited understanding of the overall functioning and goals of the organization;
  2. their position within that organization tends to be entry-level;
  3. they are, otherwise, almost completely full of shit.

Seriously : there is no way an organization of any size at all can flourish on the strength of only one person. There is a store in my neighborhood that all they do is sell pickles. That’s really it – pickles. And I guarantee you that, despite the serious hedgehog-like concentration on doing one thing and doing it well, there are a number of people involved in the success of that venture, and that if the person sitting behind the counter starting bitching about how he’s the only one doing any work, the Pickle Master (which is not a title I have verified but one I ardently hope is printed on a business card somewhere) would storm into the tiny storefront and hurl some raw asparagus in that guy’s face and yell “Oh yeah? Pickle that, asshole!” Because the Pickle Master is salty and has no time for your vanity and tomfoolery. And also because if you really think that the entire business is running on you, you’re kind of a self-involved little dink.

2. People who do nothing – despite the undeniable truth of point #1, the larger an organization is, the more likely it is to have acquired a little dead weight over the years, in the form of people who do nothing at all. My problem with these people is not entirely on principle; if you work for a large enough corporation that it doesn’t notice you’re taking them for a ride, good for you, I suppose. And the fact that you feel no pressing need to do something more worthwhile with your time than nothing means all the more for me to do, which can work to my advantage in terms retention and promotion, as well as life-long learning and other assorted goals.

What I do take issue with is that people who do nothing are generally not honest about it, and while I suppose you want to keep it under wraps from higher ups that  you’ve spent the entire day checking the weather and reading articles on Slate because it’s still 1998 and you spend all of your time indoors, I am not going to play along with the charade that you’re too busy to do something. Especially because, often, what you’re too busy to do is help patrons achieve their library-related goals, and you sitting around like a lazy lump of bog mud can give the rest of the library staff, most of whom really do want to be helpful, a bad name to the very people we’re hoping to help. So, to sum up, if you want to do nothing, that’s fine, but don’t get any of it on me.

Of course, those are not the only two types of coworkers I find difficult, but one thing I learned on the job hunt is that you don’t want to come across as too negative, so it would probably be good to follow-up with a word or two about the kind of co-workers that I do enjoy. The next time we have a round of interviews, I’ll put a little thought into that.

I’m sure speaking in generalities will be fine

One peculiar thing about the Illustrious Institute In Which I Work is that, despite the titular illustrioiusness and an undergraduate acceptance rate of less than 10%, the libraries of the institute, as well as most of its buildings, are open to the general public. Whether or not this spirit of openness is common among the Illustrious Institutes of the world, I can not say; having worked for only two of them, I can report only that, in my experience, about half of them share this spirit, while the other half do not. And while I am certain that this open-door policy originated for the betterment of all mankind, to help technology flourish and to serve progress in as democratic a fashion as possible and all of that, I am equally certain that the only tangible consequence of this policy that I’ve witnessed so far is an influx to the university library of people who would otherwise be confined to a public library.

We have a name for these outside users; as a group, they’re called Super Users (one of my very charming coworkers, a young person who just knows everything, lovingly refers to them as “bums;” delightful, that one) although, of course, each one has his or her own unique identity, which I recognize with a nickname hastily conjured up from the most obvious thing about them; thus, Larry David looks an awful lot like Larry David, while Crazy Cat Lady looks eerily like the Crazy Cat Lady from The Simpsons.

My favorite Super User, who has since moved on from both the library and the entire state of Massachusetts, was The Little Dumpling, so called because she’s small and round and soft-looking, and because I could easily picture her floating in soup. I did not take an immediate shine to The Little Dumpling; when she first appeared in the library last winter (coincident with my first appearance in the library), she had a terrible, hacking cough, which I am still mostly convinced will one day prove to have been the source of my eventual diagnosis of tuberculosis. Also she would take her shoes right off and just sit for hours, barefoot and cross-legged and staring at the computer. Although I did pity her poor haircut, which looked as though she were unsure where to stop trimming her bangs and so ended up with an accidental mullet.

After a few months, I began to notice that, while her cough was clearing up, the tragedy of her hair remained unchanged; though I want to be generous and believe that it at least began as an accident, the undeniable truth is that it has evolved and is now a purposeful mullet, a mullet of great deliberation. Yet, however bad her hair, or habitually bare her feet – which, it should be noted, were always immediately shod the moment she stood up – what really stood out about my Little Dumpling, what made me come to love her, was that she kept to herself. Because this is the thing about Super Users : they are, on the whole, a terrible pain in the ass.

The problem with the Super Users is a basic, and utterly misplaced, sense of entitlement : because they are allowed in the library, they believe, and behave, as though they  are the rightful users of the library. However, for all its openness, The Illustrious Institute In Which I Work (hereinafter referred to as the IIIWIW) is a private university, and the libraries exist to serve the research needs of the students and staff of the university. They do not exist so that otherwise unoccupied people have a comfortable place to access free porn on the internet.

Most of the Super Users do not, of course, spend their time watching porn. Most of them have projects on which they are working, projects which, to them, are of the utmost importance, and projects about which I, professionally speaking, could not give less of a shit. That may sound harsh, but remember : private university. If I worked in a public library, I would be delighted to hear any library user ramble on about the intricacies of an organizational system wherein everything is stored in clear plastic bags, but I don’t work in a public library; I work in a private library, and if you are not a student or staff, or your organizational system does not benefit student or staff, then, as I stood listening to you, tens of dollars would be wasted that could be put to use discovering organizational systems that do actually benefit student and staff, or explaining to them how to use the scanner.

Because the scanner, I have come to discover, is a perpetual source of difficulty for our Super Users, especially Larry David. What he scans is a mystery to me; other Super Users will scan sections of books or journals, since they’re not allowed to check them out. Larry, on the other hand, is scanning material he’s brought in to the library. Which, then, means that he could, in fact, take this material to a public library, and use a scanner that he is 100% entitled to use. However, as mentioned above, another quality inherent to the Super User is the belief that what they’re working on is of the utmost importance : they after all, can not be limited by what’s available in the public library (which, if you’ve ever investigated, is actually a very good selection of stuff); no, they require the Illustrious surroundings to do their work, possibly to effect their own Good Will Hunting or Lana Turner type discovery into superstardom, or possibly for other reasons that I can not fathom but will still chalk up to arrogance.

An even greater mystery than what Larry David might be scanning is why he has so much trouble scanning it. Considering the amount of time he’s spent in front of scanners, which stretches far, far back into the mists of time, you’d think he’d have it down by now, but no : always he encounters some kind of issue, and this issue he feels compelled to bring to the attention of the desk staff.

Only one time did Larry David ever come to the library while I was on the desk. No, technically, I guess it was twice; he was there late on a Friday evening, scanning away as I began the routine for closing the library. I’d never seen him before, and as far as I knew was a staff member (he does have a slightly professorial air about him; plus, he looks like a famous person, which automatically gives him authority), but still our first conversation went like this:

“What time are you closing tonight?”
“The Library closes tonight at 6.”
“[inaudible mumbling to himself]And what time are you working until?”

This last was asked in the hopeful way that indicated he thought, if I were going to be staying late anyway, I would probably just let him stay and continue scanning after hours. Oh, Larry David : you foolish optimist.

“Well, the library closes at 6; if you’re not done scanning by then, you can come back tomorrow to finish. We open at 1.”

In the spirit of customer service, and the mistaken impression that he was faculty, I did agree to let Larry David leave his flash drive in the scanner overnight so that the enormous document he’d scanned would be fully saved; after all, I was the staff member opening the following day, so I could ensure that it was only retrieved by its rightful owner.

The next day, before he came by to claim his flash drive, I learned that Larry David was not actually a faculty member; instead, he was a Super User previously known as Microfiche Guy, based on his tendency to use – and have trouble with – the microfiche; presumably he still resembled Larry David then, so why he was dubbed otherwise initially is beyond me, but it only took a little while to figure out that Larry David and Microfiche Guy were one and the same. Knowing his true identity changed very little for me; I may not have let him leave the flash drive, but that was a minor issue; if he didn’t come to pick it up, I’d drop it in the lost & found and consider the matter closed.

Of course, he did not forget to pick up his flash drive; he was there, right when the library opened, not just to retrieve the drive, but to scan more stuff. And this is when the trouble began. Because Larry David was on that scanner for the entire afternoon. He took a small break at one point to greet Colonel Mustache (about whom, fear not, much will be said in the future), but apart from that break, he did not move from his position in front of the scanner for 3 hours. Three hours in which he likely violated fair use guidelines, but more importantly, 3 hours in which a few students formed a line, waiting to use the scanner.

Even had it been only 1 student waiting, this would have been a problem. Because, as referenced above : private university. Students pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $55,000 per year to attend the Illustrious Institute, and while a portion of that is earmarked for food and board and, you know, classes and stuff, I’m pretty sure it’s mostly used to guarantee them immediate access to the scanner in the library. Or, if not immediate, then only waiting for other people who have also paid $55,000 to finish up with it. Waiting for Larry David, on the other hand, is not a line-item in the tuition, so I approached him and explained the situation to him thusly : “Students are waiting to use the scanner; you need to finish up.”

Despite my very clear statement, Larry was under the impression that an explanation of his extended use of the scanner was in order. His first scan, it turns out, hadn’t saved, despite the hour and a half he’d spent working on it, which he found extremely frustrating. Not frustrating enough to report to the desk immediately; just frustrating enough to try doing it again in exactly the same way but hoping for better results. Like Wile E. Coyote.

I, however, would not be swayed : “That is unfortunate that it didn’t work, but you have been on the scanner for 3 hours. Students are waiting; you need to get off.”

He expressed concern that I wasn’t taking his problem with the scanner seriously. Which, to be fair, I wasn’t. For one thing, he hadn’t reported the issue to me until I told him to finish up; had he really been concerned that the problem was with the scanner, rather than himself, he should have come to the desk an hour and a half ago when it first occurred; were it a legitimate issue with the scanner, I would have been very glad to hear about it.

For another, the pressing issue, to me, was that he was still on the scanner : “I will report the problem you experienced to the IT department, and if anyone else [gesturing toward assembled students] experiences the same issue, I will report that as well, but right now, what needs to happen, is that you need to get off the scanner.”

Do you think it’s self-absorbed that I only remember my side of the conversation? I worry about that sometimes. Although maybe in this case it’s because I had to say essentially the same exact thing 6 times before it finally registered with Larry David that my unsympathetic stance was not going to change, and that the only acceptable resolution to this stand-off he and I were having was for him to get the hell off the scanner already.

Which he did. He left the library quickly thereafter, and I am pleased to report that he has not reappeared in that particular library since then. He has, however, shown up in other of the IIIWIW’s libraries and, when difficulties with their scanners have lead some staff members to direct him back toward my library, his response has been “No, I prefer not to go there.” I take full credit for that.

One sunny Friday in 1998, I chose not to got work. Not because of any illness, despair, or other demotivational factor, but because my former friend Naopi was in town visiting for the weekend. And, though the trip had been planned well enough in advance that I could easily have scheduled the day off, I chose, for reasons that I don’t quite recall but probably have something to do with my tendency to hoard vacation time, to call out sick that Friday morning.

Had my fake “I’m sick, cough-cough” voice been strong enough actually to be recorded by the company’s voicemail system, that day would have been relatively unchanged. As it was – or wasn’t, in this case – my co-workers grew concerned that I, normally so responsible and reliable, was not present and could not be accounted for, a concern they expressed by repeatedly calling me throughout the day.

In 1998, you must recall, cell phones were uncommon; my house phone – which was shared with my 4 roommates – did not have Caller ID. As Naopi and I sat in the house, deciding what to do with the day (we ended up going to the  Carberry’s on Prospect Street,) I was perfectly at ease with the phone constantly ringing in the background. After all, from my perspective, there was no reason anyone would be calling me : work knew I was “sick,” and Naopi had arrived safely, so my bases, such as they were, were covered. Naopi, on the other hand, was not comfortable at that point just letting a phone ring and ring, and so it was that we had the following conversation:

Naopi: Don’t you think you should answer that?

Me: No. Why would I?

Naopi: What if it’s an emergency?

Me: Why would anyone call me in an emergency?

The question stumped Naopi; one of my roommates, sitting in the adjacent living room and conspicuously not eavesdropping on our conversation, covered his mouth in an attempt not laugh. Which is, of course, why I remember this incident at all; I always try to remember what works with an audience, in the hopes of recapturing that magic in other settings. But the question had been asked in earnest : at that moment, I honestly could not think of any emergency situation that would benefit in the slightest from my presence.

Many things have changed since that Friday afternoon 14 years ago : cell phones have succeeded house phones in the battle of telephonic supremacy; Caller ID is no longer optional; Carberrys has been replaced by Lyndell’s bakery; and, most importantly, you can now call out sick to work via email, sparing you the effort of trying to sound sick early in the morning.

I, of course, have also changed in that time. I have grown older, and, in recent years, have become very vocal about how comfortable I am with my advancing years. While I would like to be able to claim this is due to some kind of yogic tranquility or a sense of accomplishment, the truth is, to me, age is the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card. I don’t have my whole life ahead of me anymore; barring unexpected accident or illness, my life is probably about half over. Which means, with only half of my life left, I don’t have a lot of time to waste : if you’re boring, a bad kisser, an adult wearing a hat that looks like an animal, growing ironic facial hair, doing anything that lacks sincerity, or wearing any garment that could be referred to as a cloak, I no longer have the time to put up with your nonsense. For me, age has come with a grand sense of entitlement, rather than wisdom; as a result, unless the resolution involves sarcasm or fabulous shoes, I am no more equipped to handle an emergency than I was 14 years ago. Which makes it all the more incomprehensible not just that, at work, people look to me to handle emergency situations, but I am actually supposed to know how to handle them.

It may seem like a library emergency would be somewhat low stakes, particularly since the day-to-day irritations are so; a consistently late coworker, a super-user who doesn’t know how to use the scanner, an astoundingly rude professor  who never says even says “Hello,” much less “Thank you,” : these are unpleasant realities of working, but they would hardly qualify as emergencies. Broken glass falling from the ceiling onto the heads of my student workers, on the other hand? That feels like an urgent situation.

To understand how the glass fell inside the library, you must be familiar with certain architectural features of the library that I can not provide much detail about here for reasons I’ll explain later, but I can say this: there are windows that open into the library from inside another building. So the falling glass, as we discovered, was not from the wreckage of anything library-related, but because workers on the 3rd floor of that other building knocked a piece of art against one of the library-facing windows, thus causing that window to shatter.

As I said, this knowledge came later. At the time, I knew this : an extremely loud noise came from the upper levels of the library just as Nia, a student worker who was just finishing her very first training shift in the library, returned to the desk area. I looked over to her in time to see tiny shards of glass falling all around her, while she hunched up her shoulders as one does in defense against inclement weather when one does not have an umbrella. Although this offers no actual defense whatsoever, against either shards of glass or snowflakes or little drops of rain, Nia remained fortunately unharmed, while the glass continued to fall as I stood staring.

More quickly than it seemed, the tinkling sound of glass hitting the floor came to an end, and as there was no follow-up loud noise, I, along with my colleague Devin rushed over to where Nia still stood. Instinctively, the three of us turned our eyes ceiling-ward in an effort to discover the source of whatever had just happened. A long moment passed as we stood staring, until suddenly I realized the following things:

  1. Glass had just fallen from the sky;
  2. Instead of gawping like turkeys amazed by the rain,  perhaps we should move our delicate faces and eyes to a protected area within the library;
  3. Nia might possibly be injured;
  4. Someone needed to do something about this;
  5. Despite Devin’s presence, this was my shift, in my library, with my student workers; ergo :
  6. I was the someone who needed to do something.
  7. Uh-oh.

Really, though : me? This situation was never covered in library school; I was not prepared.

However, wondering how did I get here? did not help in any way to resolve points #1, 3 and 4. 3 seemed like the most pressing point, and could, in its resolution, address point #2, so I suggested we all move back over to the relative safety of the circulation desk; I may not have physically dragged Nia over that way, but I do know that, noticing that she was trembling even though she said she was unharmed, I did force her into a chair with a commanding “SIT”. Partially this was so that she would not have to waste any energy standing, but it was mostly so that I could know that she was safe from the threat of further injury, which allowed me to turn my attention elsewhere.

What was most interesting about the rest of the evening (to me, anyway) was not the resolution of the situation, which actually turned out to be surprisingly simple : the fellow who broke the window appeared in the library and explained what happened, which I then reported to facilities (although it did take 2 calls to impress upon them the immediacy with which the repairs & cleanup needed to be undertaken); Devin excused Nia, about whom I had almost entirely forgotten, for the remainder of her shift; I warned the other student workers about the glass in the area behind the desk, and then swept up the little bit of glass that was in a public part of the library.

What was interesting was that, despite the simple solution, I was completely terrified the entire time. As I went about the minor tasks of notifying facilities and sweeping up glass, I had the same quasi-nauseated feeling in the bottom of my stomach that I got in the Market Basket when Jordan Baker rammed me with her Rascal. The startlingly uncomfortable awareness of my lower abdomen was in this case accompanied by a strange sensation in my ears, not quite a ringing, but an effect that made it sound as though everything were very far away. I believe I attempted to bridge that distance by speaking more loudly than necessary; I know for certain that I spoke far more slowly than normal, as I was expending a great deal of effort to come up with each word, then pronounce it without my voice cracking.

And all of this terror was due not to any physical threat to my well-being, but to being in charge, and of what had apparently been a relatively minor happening; although I sent out an email to the rest of the full-time library staff to alert them to the situation, not one person gave any indication that anyone beside me considered it a big deal. It’s possible that I attempted to downplay the gravity of what happened in the email, but I know for sure that I mentioned the part about broken glass falling all around the circulation desk and still : zip.

You might think that the moral of this story should be that, since I single-handedly capably, uh, handled what turned out to be a relatively minor occurrence in the life cycle of the library, I’d be more confident about whatever challenges might come my way. Such thoughts would be incorrect. Because the next emergency that arises in the library, be it an actual emergency or one that is perceived as such only by me, is not going to be glass falling from the ceiling. That very specific situation is something that I do know how to defuse, which means that, should it ever arise again, it won’t be an emergency. The next emergency will be something else, something new, and what will make it an emergency is that decisive action will be required on my part, and I will have no idea what that action should be.


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