Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Lifetime in Libraries

I stole this idea from John Scalzi.  I don’t think he’ll mind.


I have always been a library person.  It is bizarre to me to imagine someone who isn’t.  I’ve been this way my whole life, and I almost literally cannot conceive of how to live any other way.

The very first library I remember using was the Penn Wynne Library, part of the Lower Merion Township library system, just outside of Philadelphia.  It was the smallest library in the system – even as a child I knew it was small – but it was within walking distance of my house when I was little and my mother would walk there with me and my brother fairly often. 

You walked in just about at the midpoint of the place.  Right ahead of you was the main desk – a large wooden fortress behind which the librarians sat and checked out the books you brought them.  Each book had a card in it, and they’d slide the card into a small machine that would take a bite out of it with a satisfying KA-CHUNK and then print out the due date so you’d remember it.  I got my first library card at that desk – a credit-card-sized piece of pink cardstock with my name carefully typed at the top and with a metal ID number crimped just above the bottom corner.  It came in a manila envelope, and it was just the coolest thing in the world to have when I was a kid.

The kids’ books were over in the corner on the left, and I went through them fairly quickly.  The rest of the left-hand room was adult books, but most of the adult books were in the big room to the right of the desk.  I spent a lot of time reading books about shipwrecks there, for some reason, taking them down from the shelf, one after the other, and reading them on the six-foot white wooden tables set up for just that purpose.  Also, I read pretty much everything they had on birds by the time I hit fourth grade.  How these things meshed I will never know, nor will I care.  The whole point of libraries is that things don’t have to mesh – they just have to be interesting.

If you wanted something odd, sometimes they’d let you climb up the narrow stairs to what was, more or less, an attic, directly over the front desk.  It was hot and stuffy up there, and clearly not meant for anyone who wasn’t looking for something very specific.  Mostly they kept back issues of periodicals there, and if you were doing research for a school paper it was a fun place to hide.

The Penn Wynne Library opened my eyes to the concept that there was a world of books out there beyond my house – a fairly bizarre concept, since I couldn’t imagine that our book-laden house didn’t have them all – and I have never forgotten the joy of searching through all those books for something new to read.

I spent a lot of time at the library of the Penn Wynne Elementary School as well.  It was almost as big as the public library, which says more about how small the public library was than anything else.  I got to know the librarian there – Mrs. Okanski – and she’d find books for me now and then.  I must have checked out Daniel P. Mannix’s book, The Last Eagle, a hundred times.

In fifth grade, we used the library as a study space.  It was the Bicentennial, and we were studying the Constitution.  At one point all eight or ten of us, as if on cue, suddenly launched into the Preamble song from School House Rock.  Nobody complained.

By the time I was in high school I had memberships in two different library systems, which is what you can do when your house is maybe ten paces from the county line and your mailing address says you live in a different township than you actually do.  The nice thing about the Haverford Township library system is that they had just finished a new library not all that far from my house.  Part of it was an old bank – the bank where I had gotten my first glimpse of a Susan B. Anthony dollar coin when they were issued a couple of years earlier – and the rest was a new addition.  It was maybe four times the size of the Penn Wynne Library, and it had an upper floor that you could actually go to without asking permission first.  The Haverford library was where I checked out The Lord of the Rings for the first time, thus finding a comfortable home in a genre I still read intensively. 

I worked at the Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania when I was a student there.  It was huge, but only one of several libraries on campus.  It was a great place to explore when you were trying to find refuge from the stresses of everyday life and you never knew what you were going to find.   A good third of the books were in languages other than English – many in the loopy scripts of South Asia, which the library seemed to specialize in for some reason.  There was a whole world of knowledge out there, in other words, that remains even to this day a mystery to me.  That kind of knowing one’s limitations is important in life, I think.

Even when you could understand the books there was no guarantee that you could understand the books.  I remember in particular one by a guy named P.N. Oaks – a book that was so comically bizarre that it set me and my roommate to wondering just how the library selected its books or whether they had any real knowledge of what was on their shelves at all.  This, of course, led to a plan to have our own writings professionally bound and stamped with a call number.  We would then take them into the library and put them on the appropriate shelf.  Eventually someone would try to check them out and, finding no computer record, the books would be sent down to tech services and entered into the database for all the world to look up – after all, it must have just been an oversight not to have the books properly catalogued.  Look – they’ve got call numbers and everything.  Who would break into a library and leave things?  It was the only way we could think of to explain the presence of Mr. Oaks’ book, though, with its lurid and absolutely serious descriptions of nuclear wars occurring over a billion (yes, with a “b”) years ago, and it gave us a sense of how random cultural immortality was.  It’s been a quarter of a century and I still remember Mr. Oaks’ book.  If we had actually gone through with our plan there might be undergraduates even now citing us in their papers.

The year I spent working there I was a shelver.  There was a bookshelf right by the elevators on most of the floors, and my job was to go from floor to floor taking the checked-in books off that shelf and putting them back where they belonged.  By the time the year was over, I did in fact have a pretty good idea of what I was going to find when I was browsing, because I’d handled a good percentage of it.  You get to know a place well when you’re one of the minions who keep it running.  To this day I retain a healthy respect for the folks who make institutions run, even when they were not the ones people ever notice.

My use of public libraries began to decline while I was in college, mainly because it was about this time that I discovered used book stores.  The fact that I could buy and keep the books I wanted and generally pay less for them than the overdue fines I normally accrued was an eye-opening thing, and I took full advantage of it.  Libraries became places I needed for professional reasons.

Graduate students live in libraries, often in carrels that are specifically reserved for them.  I had such carrels at the libraries at Pitt and Iowa when I was in graduate school there – small tables with shelves where you could store books you were working on.  If you had good carrel neighbors it could be festive, in a nerdy sort of way.  Community is where you find it.

The Iowa library was also where I found the internet for the first time.  They had computer labs on the second floor – Windows labs and Mac labs, since the difference was unbridgeable at the time – and it took me until well into my first year there to figure out how to hook my little Mac Plus up to the network from home.  So that was where I first used email on a regular basis.  And where I discovered this new thing called the world wide web – at the time you could still log into Yahoo and find out every new web page that it had catalogued in the previous 24 hours.  It was a list about two screens long, most days.

After I moved here to Our Little Town I continued to use the Iowa library, since that was where I was enrolled, but I also made good use of the library system at UW-Madison.  I spent much of my time there with the microfilm collection, scanning through things for my research, and I got to know the head librarian in that section pretty well.  You make friends in interesting places, in libraries.

I also spent a lot of time at the UW-Whitewater library because they had a microfilm reader/printer that nobody ever used so I didn’t have to wait in line like I did in Madison.  They also had a microcard reader that nobody had used in over a decade, and maybe two boxes of microcards – Nixon-era technology that has since been largely phased out – to go with it.  The librarian there – only a few months before retiring – decided I was not a threat and even if I were the consequences would be minimal, so she let me take the machine home.  I kept it for three years and became an expert at its mechanical needs (a month-long search eventually revealed that the highly specialized bulbs it needed were just tail-light bulbs that could be purchased at Auto-Zone for $3/pair, for example).  Eventually I gave it back, much to the confusion of the staff there who had no idea that such a machine had ever been theirs.  Generosity is a marvelous thing, and responsibility – taking care of what people give you, giving it back in better condition than when you received it – is an important part of life.

When my children were born I got more into our local public library, here in Our Little Town.  This had its good and bad points.

On the down side, I worked there as a check-in clerk and shelver for three years – a fact that does not appear on my resume anywhere because my supervisor for most of that period was so detached from reality that I wouldn’t trust anything in my personnel file even if it were positive.  Someday I will detail the nonsense that went on there, but not now.  If nothing else, I learned how not to manage an organization while I was there, and this lesson came in handy when I moved on to run the museum.

On the plus side, there were a lot of things.  For one thing, the folks who managed the collections were marvelous.  The books that are in that library are astonishingly varied and not just the usual collection of romance novels and best sellers.  This thoroughness was especially true in the children’s section, which – as first Tabitha and then Lauren came along – I got to know very well.  For another thing, the people who actually did the work – the folks who actually handled books, as opposed to those who handled personnel files – were uniformly conscientious, friendly, and good at what they did.  That library functioned (and still functions) at an incredibly high level, often in spite of its management, and it is a jewel here in this town.

Both of my children had library cards before they could talk.  Both of them learned as infants that books were fun – that even if they didn’t care about the story, when they turned the page something interesting appeared.  We’d zip through board book after board book, picture book after picture book, kid’s book after kid’s book, and now YA book after YA book, and something interesting always appears on the next page.

It is a world of interesting things.

Libraries are places where people learn, communicate, come together, fall apart, and grow into who they will become.  I like libraries. 

There should be more of them.


John the Scientist said...

A good third of the books were in languages other than English – many in the loopy scripts of South Asia, which the library seemed to specialize in for some reason. There was a whole world of knowledge out there, in other words, that remains even to this day a mystery to me. That kind of knowing one’s limitations is important in life, I think.

That's probably why they had the P.N. Oak book in English, too. I googled him, and damn was he strange.

To this day I get angry when I can't read something. There is just so much tome left in my life, and I can read 5 languages that are native to over have the world's population, but there it is. I'm upset when I come across Thai or Urdu.

Graduate students live in libraries, often in carrels that are specifically reserved for them.

No, graduate students live in laboratories. They run to libraries to get away from the smell when their labmate spills something nasty down the sink or they don't want to explain their lack of progress to their advisor. :p

David said...

PN Oak is phenomenally weird. My roommate and I checked out his book several times just to gawk at it. No doubt this skewed his circ stats a bit. :)

I don't worry about missing stuff in other languages when there is just so much I still don't know in English. I think it's nice, in a way, having limits.

John, I was in liberal arts - the library was my laboratory.

Plus, as my wife the chemist has often told me, "A few weeks in the lab can often save you a couple of hours in the library." ;)

Dr. Phil (Physics) said...

Great thing about computational physics and computational chemistry, is that our disasters don't smell. Not unless it's a hardware problem. (grin)

The time I spent working in the Northwestern University Library between my BA and grad school I consider my second university education. (double-grin)

Dr. Phil