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Monday, December 27, 2010

The Librarian's Snow Day

Like the Yeti, a snow day for a librarian is a very rare thing. Public libraries usually pride themselves on staying open no matter what. After a snowstorm last year, Mayor Bloomberg told NYCers to send their kids to libraries while the rest of the city was shut down. We're hardcore like that.

However, yesterday's unprecedented blizzard left libraries (and most other agencies) closed today and I found myself with an unexpected day off. Conveniently ignoring piles of laundry and a deadline for my as-yet-unsubmitted book reviews, I tried to figure out what to do with my morning. So, like every other jerk in NYC, I decided to take some pictures of the snow.

Image 1: Obligatory Exposition Shot

My street. Fascinating, right? (Whatever, I never claimed to be Ansel Adams.) In the background you can sort of see the water (the Narrows). It's a pretty view, and I thought it would look prettier in the snow, so I attempted to walk a bit closer.

Image 2: Action Shot

Because of the gale force winds blowing tiny daggers of snow into my eyes, this was about as close as I could get to the water. Failure. (However, you might be able to see how the wind was whipping the snow around and creating interesting peaks in the snow drifts. An example of winter's majestic, painful beauty.)

Image 3: Post-Apocalyptic Shot

The lone snow-shoveler steadfastly makes his way down a deserted road. What twisted, warped snow creatures will he meet on the way to his unknown destination? (Answer: me, in a wool hat and down parka, taking his picture in the middle of the street like a weirdo.)

Image 4: Cue-The-Sad-Music Shot

My poor car buried in a snowdrift. As far as I'm concerned, it's a lost cause. In 200 years, archaeologists will find it, dig it out, and study it. (My apologies to future generations for all the bird crap on the windshield.)

And that, my friends, is how you waste a snow day. Bring on the hot toddies.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Our Faceless Founding Father

Look, if anyone understands the difficult times we're facing in this city, it's me. I get it. There's a recession, baby, and everyone is cutting corners wherever possible. So I totally understand someone not wanting to spend the ten cents it costs to photocopy a page out of a library book.

But when book vandals took their safety scissors to a children's biography of our nation's first president, my patience wore thin. Honestly, is nothing sacred anymore? Just look at this:

I'm not sure if you can read the caption, but it says that George Washington's family considered this sculpture to be "the most accurate depiction of him." Do you understand the significance of this? The most accurate depiction. And now it's gone. Subsequently, students of history will never REALLY know what Washington's face looked like. All we can see now behind the sad crater that once was George's majestic visage is (somewhat coincidentally) a map of old New York. Shameful.

Later, in the same book, the de-facers ruthlessly de-faced once more. In the following picture, Washington appears to be in the middle of what was surely a great speech. Or maybe he was proofreading the Bill of Rights. It doesn't matter. What matters is that we can't see George's face. Was his expression thoughtful? Were his brows furrowed in concentration? Was he laughing? Was he shouting with raw, masculine, presidential fervor? We'll never know.

They say that George Washington could not tell a lie. Now we know the true reason for this: he had no mouth with which to tell one. (My apologies, Mr. President. I'd tape your face back on for you if it wasn't stuck to some kid's social studies project somewhere.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

How to Cheer Up a Grumpy Librarian

I got into work today - a beautiful, cold, sunny Saturday - prepared to be completely disgruntled and cranky. In fact, I was kind of looking forward to it. It's my seventh day of work in row and I had a very bad day yesterday (one of those days where everything went wrong, I had awful things to deal with, I felt run-down and frustrated, and on top of all that, I had bad hair). Also, I got very little sleep last night. When I don't get a lot of sleep, I usually have the disposition of Mike Tyson the next morning (you know, before he found God).

I was also running late this morning, and an embarrassingly frivolous reason was partly to blame for this - I was trying to do something with my aforementioned bad hair. (Note to self: don't get your bangs trimmed when your hair stylist has three other clients impatiently waiting for him). I arrived at my desk, flustered, anxious, slightly out of breath. As I put down my bag and took off my coat, I noticed a piece of paper resting on my keyboard. I figured at first that it was a telephone message, a note from my boss asking me to change my schedule, or something equally mundane. I looked at the piece of paper more closely and saw that it was a note from two young girls (about nine years old) who regularly come into the library.

They had been hanging around the reference desk yesterday while I was on duty, being their silly cheerful selves, chatting with me and asking me endless questions, as they always do. They hugged me when my co-worker came to relieve me, and as I walked away, I could hear them start chatting enthusiastically with my co-worker (who must have been the one to place the note on my keyboard. She's a co-conspirator). I don't know what exactly prompted the girls to write it after I left, but maybe they somehow sensed that I had been having a bad day. Kids just seem to pick up on these things. And the note, with its playful Eric Carle-esque illustration, its random literary advice, and its “beyond-their-years” wisdom, made me smile this morning. Thank you, silly girls.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Not a Good Time to Lose One's Head

As I demonstrated in a previous post, the defacement of library books is a common occurrence. However, one patron took the concept of defacing to a fabulously literal level by removing (for reasons unknown) the protagonist's face from the cover of this romance novel:

As we all know, destroying a book cover is wrong. However, I think the real crime here is that we'll never know if this man was in fact "criminally" handsome.

Wait, what am I saying?? I'm a librarian. I know how to use Google!

Hmm. I'm going to let you judge for yourselves about the legality of his handsomeness. (Photo borrowed from Amazon.com.)

Now the fun part will be guessing what this purloining patron did with the poor guy's ripped-off visage. Did she tape his face over her ex-husband's in their wedding photo? Create a romance-novel-hero voodoo doll? Put on a puppet show? The possibilities are endless.

Godspeed, little criminal.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

If You Read Something, Say Something

I recently attended a lovely librarian preview at a well-renowned children’s publishing house. (Note: the preview itself was lovely; it wasn’t specifically for lovely librarians, although many of the librarians there were indeed lovely. But I digress.) I received the customary tote bag full of galleys, which I happily schlepped around with me for the rest of the day. After the morning preview, I had lunch with my fellow librarian and then helped him shop for new apartment stuff. After walking to Midtown from Greenwich Village, I met up with another friend at his office (which meant hanging out in the Fox News building – an interesting experience in itself) and we got some drinks after he finished work. Sufficed to say, I was completely exhausted by the time I headed home that evening. And, full disclosure, I had consumed two glasses of wine on a near-empty stomach. This is never a good idea, but hey, I’m not exactly known for my good ideas.

So, I sat on the subway, tired from the day, melancholy from the wine, and sharply aware of the soreness in my arms caused by my book-filled tote bag, which had gotten increasingly heavy with each passing hour. A few stops into the trip, a man boarded, pushing a stroller with one hand and leading his young (two years old? three?) son onto the subway car with the other hand. The child sat by himself on a seat while his dad stood next to him with the stroller. Watching this cute little kid - who was sitting quietly with his hands folded, looking around at everything with fascination - melted something in my cold librarian heart.

I rooted through the tote bag and searched for the most age-appropriate book I could find. After picking one out, I walked over to the boy and, without saying a word, handed him the book. He stared at me for a moment, wide-eyed, then smiled and opened the book to the first page. As I walked back to my seat, the dad thanked me. He leaned over, still gripping the stroller, to read the book to his son, using silly voices for the different characters. The kid was laughing and pointing to the pictures. The baby in the stroller was completely ignoring the two of them, yawning drowsily and beautifully. Me? I was a goner from the moment the kid smiled at me. I watched the family until my stop came up, stupidly smiling through tears, feeling like some eccentric book-giving weirdo. The dad thanked me again when I exited the subway. All I could manage to say was: “No problem.” Pure eloquence.

The moral of the story is: do not give away books to adorable children on the subway after a long day and two glasses of wine unless you have no problem crying in public. Because cry you will. (Full disclosure: in this case, I didn’t mind at all.)

Monday, November 1, 2010

All the Single Librarians (Put Your Hands Up!)

From time to time, and with various motivations, patrons question me about the status of my romantic life. Perhaps they are simply trying to make conversation. Perhaps they themselves are interested in dating me. Or perhaps they want to know which Hollywood librarian stereotype is more realistic: the lonely spinster librarian as perpetuated by Donna Reed in "It's a Wonderful Life," or the free-spirited, free-loving librarian as perpetuated by Parker Posey in "Party Girl." (I'm not sure where I fall on this spectrum, and quite frankly, I don't want to examine it).

As a general rule, I avoid discussing my personal life with library patrons. This is to maintain a sense of security, privacy, and professionalism. Also, it's nobody's daaaaaamn business. When I'm faced with questions related to romance, love, and boyfriends, I try to give vague, non-committal answers and move on to the next topic. (Incidentally, this tactic also applies to questions about politics, religion, or sports - that last one is because I know absolutely nothing about sports. Maybe that's why I'm not married?) Depending on how uncomfortable I am in a situation, I might just smile sadly and say: "I'm sorry, but I don't talk about this at work."

However, since I am a horrendous liar, there are times when I cave and answer honestly when I'm directly asked: "Are you married?" There's really no wiggle room with this question, so I am pretty much forced to reluctantly say that, no, I am NOT married. The reactions that I get are diverse - most comments are innocuous; many are inappropriate; some are downright offensive. For example, one older gentleman asked if I was "scared" to be unmarried at my age. He wondered aloud if my time was running out. The term "biological clock" was thrown around with gusto. (If memory serves, in order to get out of this particular conversation, I pretended that a co-worker was calling to me from another room).

A few misguided patrons have said that I'm "too nice" to not have a husband - because nice people are never mistreated by their spouses. Nice people are never unhappy in their marriages. I have even received a marriage proposal or two from overzealous patrons. (Sadly, I turned down these Reference Desk Romeos. I guess I'll always wonder about what could have been).

However, the most memorable marriage-oriented conversation I had at the library was with a sweet, well-meaning nine-year-old girl. She likes to hang out with me at the reference desk for extended periods of time when she comes in after school. One day, she grabbed my left hand and examined it, critically. Noticing how conspicuously bare my ring finger was, she gave me a puzzled look.

Her: "You're not married?"

Me (cheerfully): "Nope."

Her (skeptically): "Why not?"

Me (struggling to find the right response): "It...just hasn't happened yet."

Her (concerned): "I wish you were married."

Me (amused): "Why?"

Her (resolutely) : "So you can be happy. And have a baby."

Me: *headdesk*

Where is Gloria Steinem when you need her? (Oh, that's right - she got married. I guess I'm left to fend for myself).

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Book Vandals

Everyone knows that you're not supposed to write in library books. (If that rule isn't yet in the Constitution, it should be). Books are expensive to replace, it's not fair to the other patrons to ruin them, blah blah blah. Children's books are especially targeted for defacement since kids seem to prefer writing on any surface that's not actual notebook paper or their homework.

As a librarian, I don't normally condone vandalizing library books. I admit, though, that it can be endearing at times.

Exhibit A: "Save Time - Write Book Reviews IN the Book"

It's hard to tell if this was the work of a single vandal or two offenders (results from the handwriting analysis are still pending). I also have to wonder why the kid didn't join a book club or write a blog or tell a librarian about loving this book. However, his/her literary enthusiasm is still appreciated.

Exhibit B: "Gettin' Territorial"

'Nuff said. This kid knows what's up. (Bonus points for writing in pencil).

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Wining, Dining, Overdue Fining

We all know of the fun that can be had inside a library. But occasionally the fun happens right outside, as illustrated by something I found as I walked into work recently. Behold:

This scene brought to mind several questions:

1) Who drinks outside a library in the middle of the night?
a. College kids?
b. The homeless?
c. Patrons who REALLY want to get a good seat in the morning?

2) Was my library the party destination? Or was this just one stop of many on a late-night library wine tour?

3) Why is there wine in the water bottle?
a. Was the wine-drinker saving some for later?
b. Were two people sharing the wine? And if so, why didn't they
just split the bottle? Germs?
c. If you drink wine outside of a library at night, are you really the type
of person who cares about germs?

4) Why didn't the wine drinker(s) place the bottles in the garbage can a few feet away? (Never mind about recycling; we're way past that issue here).

5) Why wasn't I invited?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Library Thuggin' Ain't Easy

Some guy posted an anti-union, anti-library rant here:


He's just plain wrong (and he insulted my friend Ingrid in the comments). Subsequently, I couldn't keep my mouth shut. Here is part of my response to him (he called me a "liar," a "demagogue," and a "union thug" in return. Awesome!)

It’s clear you don’t understand why librarians require higher education and specific training. You also don’t seem to think that libraries are really all that important in general. Honestly, I’m not going to try to change your mind, although I do wish you would educate yourself about the subject a bit more. (And you can call my comments “idiocy” or use whatever other kind of ad hominem argument you’d like while evading/ignoring my actual points. That’s fine).

I do want to say to anyone else out there who might be reading this (librarians in particular): this is exactly why we need to keep advocating. Educated, informed, and rational people know how hard we work and what we contribute to society. I see it in the grateful faces of the adults, teens, and children who visit my library every day. However, there is still a staggering amount of ignorance and misinformation out there. We need to continue to fight it – through our work, through discussion, through organized advocacy efforts – on a daily basis.

Being a librarian is not something that everyone could or should do. We all worked extremely hard to get that graduate degree, but there is also a certain fanatical devotion that comes with being a librarian. For the majority of us, it is not just a job, but a passion. I will continue to advocate for libraries and librarians as long as it is necessary.

Thank you.


Work Perks

As part of my job as children's librarian, (and as a perk of being on a children’s new book review committee at the library), I often have the chance to meet/listen to/speak with authors and illustrators in the field of children’s literature at publishing previews, library programs, etc. These are almost always fun, informative and a good networking opportunity. Plus, they usually give out free stuff. Librarians love free stuff. (Okay, I love free stuff).

Recently, the library had a breakfast for John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury, (children’s book author/illustrator, respectively), who were in from the UK to attend the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards ceremony and to talk about their new picture book, There’s Going to Be a Baby (Candlewick Press, 2010).

It’s a lovely book. Burningham and Oxenbury are picture book royalty for a reason.

After the general conversation between John, Helen, and a well-renowned children’s book editor, I had a chance to personally speak with Helen. As we chatted, I told her that I frequently use the books that she’s illustrated in my storytimes and they get wonderful response. She thanked me, and said that her books don’t always hold the interest of children. She said that while doing a reading of Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes at her young grandson’s school, the children slowly began to lost interest in the book. One by one, they got up from the reading rug and went to explore other areas of the classroom. The only child who remained seated to hear the entire book was Helen’s dear grandson. This anecdote made me feel immediately better about any unsuccessful storytimes I’ve had.

Here’s a picture of me with Helen, who was delightful. (I had way too much coffee that morning, which accounts for my slightly manic expression):

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Too Much Info for this Info Professional

A librarian at a reference desk is a beacon of knowledge in a world full of ignorance. A living, breathing repository of information. A helping hand, a warm smile, a direct conduit for the bathroom key. Let's be honest, here: a librarian at a reference desk is a sitting duck. A magnet for the friendly, the irrationally angry, the incontinent. That is the nature of the job, and most librarians accept and embrace it (some even love it, like I do. Did I mention that I’m a bit of a masochist?)

There are some patrons who feel that the librarian is there not only to provide information/book advice/computer help, but to listen to their problems, learn their secrets, give personal (or medical, or legal, or financial) advice, or just to act as a sympathetic, impartial shoulder on which to cry. In some cases, this might be true. Librarians often form close bonds with patrons, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing for a patron to feel comfortable enough to trust librarians with information about their lives. Ultimately, the librarian must be professional and set the boundaries about how far is too far.

I am constantly and consistently amazed at the degree to which people will share personal information. I suppose some of it stems from loneliness – the librarian is there to listen, and often, people just don’t have that luxury in all facets of their lives. Some patrons need actual help and don’t know where to get it (and the librarian can point them in the right direction, like to a hospital, social worker, or exorcist). At other times, the patron just plain doesn’t realize that he or she is secretly horrifying the person behind the desk. It's often an interesting sociological study.

Some examples:

- A female patron, who had just left the public restroom, gave me a detailed account of her digestive health (while I sat there, trapped, trying to keep an expression of abject terror off my face and my breakfast in my stomach).

- I had a telephone reference call with an extremely angry and high-strung man who was upset about being unemployed and broke (understandable). He kept dropping racial slurs (not understandable) and talking about his diabetes, all while calling me "girlie." Luckily, I was able to stop his diatribe and get to the question, which, incidentally, had nothing to do with any of the aforementioned.

- A man told me about his mother who had recently passed away (sad) and how she was buried next to his deceased father in the cemetery (sad, but sweet) and how they weren't buried six feet under the ground, but only 18 inches under (sad, sweet, and disturbing). He was definitely one of the lonely ones, and I could tell he wanted to talk more, but it was very busy in the library at the time, so he eventually shuffled away.

Then there's the type of personal information that the patron doesn't mean to share, like the time I accidentally discovered a guy's "Porn" folder when helping him save files on his laptop. But hey, I don't judge. I'm only here to help.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Advocacy in Odd Places

Do you know who John Waters is? He's this guy:

Yeahhh, that guy. In a nutshell, John is an American film maker, (with a huge cult following), actor, and writer. About a month ago, WORD Brooklyn sponsored an event during which Mr. Waters talked about his most recent book Role Models. Admittedly, I’m not the world’s biggest John Waters fan, (nothing against him, I just wasn’t into his stuff), but my friend had a ticket and couldn't attend, so I went in her place, thinking "What the hell?" During the talk, I felt like a bit of an imposter standing there in this crowded hipster bar with people around me crying because they were in the presence of John Waters (who, by the way, was absolutely gracious and wholly entertaining). When it was my turn to get a book signed, I felt a bit panicked because I had absolutely nothing to say to Mr. Waters. I hadn’t seen many of his movies, so I couldn’t connect with him on that level, and I was only a few chapters into his most recent book (and hadn't read any of the others). Subsequently, I did the most natural thing I could think to do: I talked about libraries.

John Waters, pen poised: “Hi, what’s your name?”

Me: “It’s Rita. Thank you so much for signing my book.”

John Waters: “Okay, great.” (There’s an awkward silence as he signs).

Me: “You know…I’m a librarian, and…we can hardly keep your book on the shelf!”

(That was true. When I initially tried to put a hold on Role Models at the library, all copies were out).

John Waters: "That's great! You know, there was a time when my book wouldn't have even been allowed on the shelf."

Hey! He gets it! We engaged for a moment! We connected! I walked away feeling satisfied that I had done some kind of roundabout library advocacy, and I mentally promised to make finishing Role Models a priority. (I still haven’t finished it. It’s in the to-read pile. On top).

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Regulars

A man snores at one of our tables, today’s newspaper still clutched in his hands. At another table, a woman attempts to take a standardized test that we are proctoring for her. She is visibly uncomfortable, but politely ignores the sounds of snoring. It is my job to hold the test materials if she needs to use the ladies room. It is NOT my job to wake the sleeping man, but I do it anyway by gently (yet pointedly) pushing in a chair at his table. He has been here before, and this strategy usually works. He startles, and smiles at me. The snoring stops, and the woman gives me a grateful smile. As I walk away to help another patron find a book, however, the snoring starts up again. Not a good day for test takers.

Wandering around the stacks is a man I've mentally named “The Vet.” He wears the same green fatigue jacket every day, has a white crew cut, and always appears sun or wind burned, no matter what the season. There is an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth, like a broken arm – he stares at me as he walks by the reference desk as if daring me to say something. On good days, he mumbles to himself continuously and takes random political books off of the shelf, carefully arranging them on a table in an artfully random display. On bad days, he begins to yell incoherently, sometimes slamming his fist on the table, raging against whatever demon soldiers are still fighting in his head.

And then there is the infamous Frenchie (called such - to his face, he likes it - due to his exaggerated French accent a la Pepe Le Pew). Frenchie is notorious for harassing anyone female who is under 60 years old. When I first started at this branch, he wouldn’t leave the side of the reference desk, regaling me with tales of his sick ex-wife and telling me how beautiful my eyes were. It was not flattering, nor was it welcome. It got to the point that the security guard banned Frenchie from the library, and he subsequently visited nearby branches (and was banned from them as well). A year and a half later, he started coming into our branch again. When he first tried to talk to me, I nipped it in the bud real quick, telling him that he could ask me library-related questions and that was it. However, the young part-time girls who work here are not so assertive, so he preys on their naive politeness. I once rescued one of the girls from a conversation with Frenchie, and he later called me "crazy."

This is the current scene. These are the regulars. It's the moment before the pot boils - calm, but simmering just below the surface. We'll see where the day takes us.

Monday, October 4, 2010

I'm Bringing Reference Back

Although there are many aspects to public library service, the crux is reference work. Most queries besides "Where's the bathroom?" can be considered reference questions, and I personally love a challenge: no question is too weird, random, or involved. Some questions are straightforward, while others take a little more time and effort. Librarians are trained to know that what people request usually differs vastly from what they actually want. For example, a patron will ask, "Where are the books on love and relationships?" when what she really means is: "My husband gave me chlamydia and I need to know how to kill him." It's labor-intensive to get to the root of a reference question, requiring extreme patience and the keen ability to read between the lines.

From time to time, I will be posting questions that are beyond the call of what I consider "normal" reference work. I like to call this Random Reference. Some questions are funny, others are disturbing, and others still are just plain inappropriate. All of them, however, are part of the job and must be handled with tact and poise.

Some quick examples of Random Reference questions (without the answers. Those come later, but you can use your imagination):

"Uh, you got a cigarette?"

"Would you like to buy some of my special homemade soap?"

"So, are you married?"

"Do you have a copy of the Kama Sutra?" Same patron, a few minutes later: "Do you have a microwave I could warm my baby's bottle in?"

And one of my favorites: upon learning of our drug prevention program at the library one night, a patron asked, "Are they serving any?"

All in a day's work.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

She Blinded Me With Library Science

I am a public librarian working in one of the greatest cities in the world. I love my job immensely and feel grateful that I essentially get paid to help people, read books, and talk about helping people and reading books. Like all professions, there are good days and bad days. Then there are the days that make me wonder how there can be so many endearingly eccentric people in the world and why they seem to flock to libraries (mine in particular). I've heard many times from family members and friends: "You should really start writing down your library stories." I actually started documenting my experiences in a notebook when I got the job over 2 1/2 years ago, but only to keep a record for myself that these things actually happened.

I've finally decided to sit down and and type out my stories so that I can give concrete examples when people ask me, with dripping skepticism, "What does a librarian actually DO?" Subsequently, this blog is born: a compilation of my experiences, thoughts, musings, and observations as a public librarian. The secondary objective of forming this online "diary" is that I hope to promote, in some small way, the importance of libraries. In real life, I am a hardworking advocate for my library system and library services in general. This stems from my belief that public libraries serve essential roles as community centers and repositories of information (or whatever other buzzphrase you'd like to insert). To put it simply, people need libraries and my interactions with these people only solidify this belief in me.

So...come check out (see what I did there?) my world of crazy.