Sunday, March 31, 2013

What's Going On At the Library Today!

There is nothing going on at the Library today. It is one of my regular days off, but also it is Easter which is a holiday about eggs and the Pope washing feet or something (it's not my religion so I get easily confused by the Internet!), so the Library is closed anyway. It doesn't count as a holiday for me or anything so I get no perks, instead I was just busier than usual at work yesterday and will be busier than usual tomorrow and Tuesday as the Patrons try to make up for their enforced Library separation with extra love, which, in my terms means more circulating items, more people, more phone calls, more jams on the machine. But am I complaining? Uh, yeah. Hello? I'm pretty sure it's part of my job description! My only co-workers who don't complain incessantly are the ones who are in a sort of deranged constant violation of their job description in ways they don't even understand, so it stands to reason. Nevertheless, because all this complaining is sort of awful I often vow that I will not complain for a bit. I might vow this on my way to work and feel full of clean and virtuous confidence, but then I get to work and my co-worker, y., launches in on tirade against people who cannot seem to put books in the transit boxes properly and, just to keep her company, I sort of lightly inveigh against the people who take the last transit slip and don't replace them. I try to see it from their perspective, but it leads to the people who don't put the dates on the bins and now I really mean it. This leads y. to how the circulation manager is the worst violator of inappropriate slip dispensing, which triggers a long tirade from me on Management in general, which is something, believe me, you don't want to get me started on or you will soon be looking desperately for an exit with a panicked expression in your eyes. I will see the panicked expression in your eyes but I wont be able to stop now as I am careening wildly downhill and I am pretty sure crashing to a halt will kill me.

So where were we? My co-worker and I eat the whole bag of potato chips is where. Woozy and nauseous I stumble to the front desk and there you are. And it is refreshing and grounding to see if we have a copy of that Exotic Marigold Hotel movie in for you.

Relenting (Fka Clerking 7)


You have spent an hour carefully collecting an appealing stack of books and movies. I cannot let you check them out because the last item you returned to us was coated in a sticky fluorescent green sugar glaze. At least, "sugar" is what the note on your record says. I am alarmed to think of my co-workers tasting of the returns, especially when they've returned from their journeys with new textures, smells and colors. Also, the pages appeared to have been lightly toasted, like a gently roasted marshmallow. As this book is unsuitable for circulation you now owe us $10.95.  This exceeds our allowable limits. No, we don't take credit cards. There is a cash machine down the street. I'm sorry about your unemployment situation. No, it is unlikely you checked the book out like that as your date due slip is actually affixed to the book by an over coating of the green glaze. Oh really? I am terribly sorry about your gangrenous leg.

We regard each other for a moment, me implacable, and you with dimming light. You try to accept it all, but it's just too big. There is something almost like a weight, misty, plowing inexorably down on you. I watch the slump of your posture under it. It seems to thin you, crush, leach and crack. The tight grip you have on your items slackens like a great ocean liner sinking. Life is futile and darkness falls.

What you do not know, slouching in your private misery, is that, barring your turning out to be a complete monster, I, at the very start, decided to let you check out for today, whether you could pay or not. Why then do I let you suffer like this? What kind of person am I? I am a clerk, and as such I am only sort of a person. I am also my job. I am the institution. I am a teacher. I am a performer. Yes, I am a performer, and this is my performance. Here I play the cold bureaucrat, the institutional wall, the end of your hopes and dreams. I have to sell that first. But hidden here is mercy, the light of my humanity, your second chance. It is my secret treat whose value I carefully cultivate to its apogee. Mercy must be delayed here so that you understand it is not yours by right. I hope to make an impression so that you will take us seriously, pay your debts, care for your materials. And when I relent and exclaim "Oh, I'll just go ahead and check your stuff out for today!" as if I can no longer hold the door back on my irrepressible humanity, it is indeed a small light to shine. But in my job I do not have much light to give, and in the deeper darkness even the dimmest of lights can be seen from far away. Of course, this is also a way of saying that if I, at little cost to myself, do a favor for you, I will spare no effort to make sure you see it. I like to be noticed.

Friday, March 29, 2013

On Shelving (with internet friendly list)

In olden days library work was structured in such a way that I did not shelve at all. When shelving one or two hours a day became a part of my duties I felt at first it was a bit of a comedown. What's a class A clerk like me doing being reduced to mere shelving! Then 4 things became clear to me that made it all okay.

1. The difference between a class A clerk and a class C clerk is not very big and often people invert the two based on confused and irrelevant standards anyway. I could be one of those people!

2. There is not actually anything to "Comedown" from.

3. While "Shelving time" certainly isn't "Free time" it nevertheless offers more latitude than almost any other job I do. When people come up to me at the front desk, I need to help them, now! but when a book is waiting to be shelved it will not glare impatiently at me if I want to stare into space and think about making potstickers or blogposts.

4. In an informal analysis conducted over the past few months I have determined that the average amount of books my co-workers shelve in one hour of scheduled shelving is slightly less than one full cart. I can shelve one full cart in 14 minutes!

Your Clerk (fka Clerking 6)

Clerking 6
Your Clerk

I will give you the benefit of the doubt, when you come to me instead of the self check out machines saying that you prefer the personal touch, or that you want to protect my job, you have the best intentions. You aren’t just avoiding doing the work yourself. You aren’t afraid of failing to manage a machine that 5-year olds and the developmentally disabled handle with aplomb. You just care. Thank you. I honor your kindly attentions. I do. I bristle only at that which you could not possibly have known: that machine is my colleague.

Just like me you are free to dislike certain of my colleagues, bemoan them, and be endlessly irritated by them. But also like me you are not free to reject them out of hand. When I look on the schedule and see that I am to work my shift with a colorless, inefficient and oblivious clerk, that is my lot. When you wander up to the desk and that same clerk is the person available to help, that, I’m afraid, is your lot too. There are conditions under which you can and, sometimes, should, with firm insistence, move on to another clerk. But let me warn you, these conditions are surprisingly rare. Of my hundreds of co-workers over thirteen years I have never heard one swear or even seriously raise their voice non-simultaneously with the patron. Also, I have never seen one threaten a patron. These would be times to move on and when you do I will be completely on your side. Indeed, it will likely be a fascinating and exciting event for me, but, like I said, I’ve yet to see a good incident of it. Likewise you can move on if you reach an impasse with your clerk and you are in the right. You must give it a fair shot- that is fully argue your case a couple of times, and, most importantly, you must be right. That done you are truly entitled to move on and I will be very kind, solicitous, and helpful to you, and very unbristly (except, perhaps, to the clerk who wronged you). But, as I said, you must be right, and this will be true in only about five or ten percent of these cases. This is not because clerks are smarter than you (some are, some aren’t), rather it comes down to two simple issues. One, we are vastly better informed as to policy, and, two, most importantly, we clerks are, except in very small ways, quite disinterested. I know in detail exactly what you need to get a library card and, except for either not wanting to do the work of getting you a library card or, as a decent person, wanting you to be able to get that card, I really, really don’t care. You, on the other hand, don’t know the policy other than you think it should be whatever it needs to be so that you get a card. This will seem the height of reasonable to you because you want a card, which is the most reasonable thing in the world. It is human nature and applies so strongly to things like fines that you will quite nearly be able to create false memories of dates and trips to the library.

Anyway, those are the conditions under which you may get yourself a new clerk (or, I suppose, if you must, a manager). Everything else, I’m afraid, is not just cause. Is your clerk too smiley or not smiley enough, deranged looking, is their head covered in scabs, are they sullen, slow, a chatterer, sporting a confusing accent, insisting on telling you about their spleen problems? Do you know they’re an ex-con, or see that they’re tattooed to look like maggots are crawling out of their flesh? Do they smell bad, or, perhaps, refreshingly of gin, are they completely armless, maybe devoid of personality? Are they a machine? I’m sorry, but they are your clerk until they fail you. I’m over here if you need me.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Emergencies (Fka Clerking 5)

Clerking 5


A clerk is perfectly situated for emergencies. We have enough authority to handle moderate and small events by ourselves if we like, but if things get heavy or ugly we have every right and even the responsibility to hand the problem off to a person in charge. And even then we get to, if we like, be a kind of emergency assistant, no longer responsible, but still involved in something important and unusual. This means everything from holding the door for the paramedics to, mostly, telling the story of what has happened and is happening over and over to a variety of very interested audiences, sometimes for days to come. What this really means to us and, to me in particular, is that attending to emergencies, if they are of the right sort, is a major treat outranked only by breaks, lunch and going home. It’s such a treat because even if I am doing what seems to be a hideous and ugly task; cleaning plops of excrement from a hallway or attempting to rouse a limp, not scrupulously clean man who seems to have stopped breathing, a deep part of my clerk brain, fooled by variety, is reveling in the idea that, at least, despite everything, I am not working. And that, after all, is all that a clerk ever wants.

Certainly there are emergencies that I would or do hate. I do not imagine I would fancy a gunman opening fire at my workplace. I would not enjoy seeing any but an extremely rare few of my colleagues coming to harm. But these are extraordinarily unusual events. And likewise I do tend to very much dislike emergencies I am involved in directly; a vomiting child can be a nice diversion, whereas a child vomiting on me, no matter how eventful, is distinctly unappealing. A few hundred dollars that has gone missing and that I had access to is quite uncomfortable whereas a few hundred dollars missing that I had no possible connection to is, frankly, of profound interest.

So what emergencies am I talking about? The range is enormous. On a beginning level are things like a patron with a hand wound, fairly minor, but dripping some blood, a stray cat loose in the library, a small car crash in the parking lot, an outside ashtray on fire, all good for a few minutes and maybe even some fresh air. Somewhere towards the middle is water dripping from the ceiling, a computer system crash, a toilet bowl filled with rolls of toilet paper, or maybe a glass entrance door smeared with vomit. There are only a very small minority of clerks who so treasure emergencies that they would take all of these on, but, really, these are all good for ten to thirty minutes of not working, and think more towards the 30 minute mark. There is no one, clerk, management, or patron, who will begrudge you a careful thoroughness punctuated with idle chatting and storytelling when you’re in the process of cleaning vomit. Then, of course, there is the top level of emergencies where you have flashers and other seriously deranged patrons, tornado warnings with massive storms, full power failures (heaven on earth but never long enough!), and the previously mentioned odoriferous man who can’t be roused. These generally are good for half an hour to the rest of the night and it’s like an angel of god has come down from the heavens just for you.

In all of this unbridled joy I am aware there are sick kids, scared cats, victims, and people in mortal danger. I’m not a terrible person here, just a clerk, and part of being a clerk is being humane, it’s speaking calmly and reassuringly to a lost child until they are reunited with their parent, it’s commiserating with you on how you somehow managed to nearly sever your thumb on the dull plastic of a CD lid. It’s just that part of being a clerk too, in the very important limbic section of the clerk brain, is exulting in getting paid for a nice, safe, interesting seat at Calamities' Table. All too many are the seats at that awful table, but all too few are the really good, plush ones. The pleasures of clerking are fleeting and precious and I, for one, am ever anxious to grab a seat, put my feet up, and only get back to work when everything, and I mean everything, is one hundred and ten percent okay. And then I’m happy to tell you all about it.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Staff Day!

I was at a staff day recently. Staff day is a day where the Library closes, which is cruel to the community. What are they supposed to do, buy this stuff? Even as a lover of literature I am aware there are only about 15 things in our collection worth paying retail for. As for us, the staff, we get a decent breakfast and a very bad box lunch and theoretically learn new things at breakout sessions. The Staff Day before this was the worst in a long time because it was all about our mission, which meant we had to spend the whole day pretending we were talking about something. So I feared for this recent one, but it was okay. The featured part was about User Experience, which has to do mainly with thinking about what it's like for the people who use us, visit us, interact with us, to actually do so. Anyway, there was this one part where we broke into groups and did this mapping thing, where we imagined a Patron's visit from their perspective, mapping where they went and how it was for them. The interesting thing was every group imagined the patron having a largely miserable time. We didn't have the tax form they needed, they owed money, they couldn't get a library card, they didn't know where to go. I am dimly aware that most people who come to the Library have a pretty good time, they find some movies or books to check out or get a passable espresso and run into a neighbor to chat with, or play that game on the computer where you shoot colored balls up at other colored balls for 6 or 7 hours. So it made me wonder what was going on with us. Partly I think we were looking for problems. We were trying to be constructive. Mapping a hypothetical user efficiently getting a card and scoring a free copy of Argo doesn't give us anything to improve, and so imagining difficulties is about self-improvement. Partly I think the clerk's experience of difficulty looms larger to them. It is harder and takes longer. Add to this the fact that patrons generally come to us if they need something, can't find something or can't figure out something, and it makes the problems of their experience loom larger to us when we imagine it. But I think the main thing is that a large part of customer service involves the repression of anger and resentment. There is the part where management can tell us what to do and often we have to do it whether we want to or not, and there is the part where patrons can be rude or hostile to us, sometimes unjustifiably, sometimes in a way that borders on deranged, and we have to be reasonably polite about it. These feelings can't just be absorbed into the bloodstream and expiated through simple breathing. A clerk (I was going to say good clerk, but it is any clerk) has to find a way to offload, expiate, purge all this feeling. These things are volatile and will not go unattended. So when we were given the opportunity to drive, imagine, follow a sort of paper doll of a patron in a hypothetical journey through the library under our control, we immediately commenced to stick pins in the doll. It wasn't so much "What is a random users experience of our Library?" as "What unpleasant daily occurrence of our library can we have happen to our hypothetical patron now? Mu ha ha ha." I think people enjoyed it pretty well.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Live Blogging from Genre Fiction at the Library (see sidebar)

Live blogging from Genre Fiction commences:

11:35: I have 25 minutes to shelve in Genre Fiction before I need to be at the front desk. I have brought up a not totally full cart of books so that I can have a few extra moments to Live Blog!

11:36: I run into a very talky longtime volunteer I have not seen in awhile. I am very talky too! It is now

11:47: and I have to speed shelve to get my cart all shelved by noon! More exciting Live Blogging later!

Live blogging from Genre Fiction resumes:

2:09: I am back to shelving in Genre Fiction (Large Type, Mystery, Romance, SF, Graphics, and Westerns) after 2 hours at the service desk.

2:12: I am wondering about my plan to Live Blog from the genre shelves as practically nothing ever happens here.

2:14: I am in Large Type. For some reason we have 7 Large Type copies of "A Tale of Two Cities." I am thinking we might have more Large Type copies of "A Tale of Two Cities" than any other Library in the country! Curiously we have no Large Type copies of any other work by Charles Dickens.

2:17: I am thinking I'll crank out a spot of shelving. I will let you know if anything as interesting as the "A Tale of Two Cities" goldmine comes up.

2:29: A woman with a cane keeps getting in my way while I'm trying to shelve. Maybe she thinks I am replenishing the shelves with super high quality books. I'm not. I'm not sure if this is as interesting as the "A Tale of Two Cities" thing, but I am feeling a lot of pressure to update you.

2:35: In Mystery Fiction I am having a negative reaction to the plethora of hobby and craft themed mysteries with pun titles ("Sticks and Scones", "Latte Trouble") even though they've never done anything to me. It may be an early warning sign that I need a break.

2:40: The droning voice of one of our Librarians in the far distance is driving me mad. So is the guy coughing. I am clearly having my afternoon meltdown. I will speed shelve to break.

End of live blogging from Genre.

Teaching (fka Clerking 4)

I haven't exactly been introducing these clerking pieces, but reading this I am very aware of what a historical artifact it is and feel funny presenting it as something fresh. Much has changed at my library. There are no "sleeves" I get for DVDs, and RFID has replaced almost all the barcode scanning. I'll be working my way through these pieces on my blog here until we're caught up. Roughly there are 15 from over the course of about 5 years. Lately I have another one stirring around in my head, but they'll cease to be numbered and will filter naturally into my blog.

Clerking 4

I am teaching you, the patron, all the time, like you’re a puppy. It is a series of small gestures, educational, poised at the edge of your consciousness. I don’t really have any business teaching you and so my lessons must be untraceable. But I also must run my desk as smoothly as possible, with efficiency. Also, of course, I want to make things a little more how I like them, I’m there a lot, so, I teach you.

The DVD sleeves you hand me I put in numeric order, with a slight touch of drama, right before you. This says you could have, if you wanted to help, done this. I could have organized with less flare, but I never ever do because this is a reminder I feel you can always use, whatever you decide to do with it. This may be your only lesson, but for me it will just be one of many hundreds, perhaps thousands, I hand out in an average clerking day.

You’re a helpful person, or you like to be. You stack all of your videos open faced so I don’t have to open them to scan the barcode. Unfortunately, I have always felt a mostly irrational hatred for this. I take a half second to cleanse my soul and then, completely without rancor, I gently and swiftly restack the videos normally, but slow down ever so slightly to scan the one video with the barcode on the cover, the one you had stacked so I would have had to close the video first.

You wait in my line even though you have no holds or DVDs, so I tell you that you could have used, if you like, the self checkout machines and not had to wait. You tell me that you prefer the personal touch. I divest myself of all personality in order to complete the transaction.

Let’s look at the check in desk. We are, generally speaking, the busiest library in my state so it’s a long one, most often filled with books. You drop your returns haphazardly on one of our more crowded desks and I will drop anything I can to neaten them or prevent an avalanche. Depending on what you did and how I responded, even within this, I may be teaching any number of variations on a basic lesson. You may have been only slightly careless and the stack delicate already and the pile in need of my help just as it was. This is me saying, gently, only barely, take care, friend. It is also saying, aren’t we rather overworked here? Just look at those librarians over there on the internet doing nothing. Or you may have strewn your returns sloppily in a way that requires no real emergency attention, but creates a bad base for the people coming after you. My (partly unnecessary) rush is a more strongly worded lesson and a bit of an admonition as well. If you interrupted me from trying to read the inner flap of an appealing looking book I may look particularly terrified as I appear to clutch your stack of items back from possibly killing someone. Or, lastly, you may have hurled your unstable mass of materials on teetering towers of ill placed and crowded returns causing some havoc and a small avalanche. I rush to this in high drama. You can temper the deep lesson you’re about to receive here through swift and profound apology and numerous recognitions of our put upon state and how you’re making it so much worse. You could, but I am not sure I’ve ever seen that happen. What you do generally in this situation is speak in the passive case. “Wow, this is a mess!” You might even make feeble allusions to how there’s no room for any returns and how you couldn’t find a parking spot. Then you’ll make some attempts to stem the avalanche. Here is where my experience comes in. By straightening a few particular piles and moving a couple strategic items on my side of the desk I can gloriously amplify every spatial and balancing error you’re making until your children are knee deep in books and audio visual materials. At this point, because all the fallen items are at your feet on your side of the counter you are forced to admit, sort of, that you knocked them off the desk. I can afford to become magnanimous at this point, and I tell you how it’s really no problem, and how I’ll take care of it. You learn that the library really is very busy; that you don’t really know how to stack books, and that these harried people are quite kind really.

Or you don’t learn it. Let’s go back to those DVD check outs. You have near your full check out limit of 20, many of them full seasons of TV shows, so you have well over one hundred hours of TV watching there. I think many hostile thoughts towards you and then begin, loudly, and with a strong initial hostility, to sort your copious DVD sleeves on the counter between us. I rather push the line of acceptable teaching, but I know I can, because I know you won’t be learning anything here anyway. I know because you come here pretty much every day. I know because you’re a teacher too. You have taught me that you’re very lonely and that you are not very bright and that you watch a lot of TV. And you have taught me that I am a clerk and my job is to check out your DVDs. So I do. And it’s a little tiresome, but it’s okay. And I talk with you about the weather, which is always pretty interesting around here.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Greatest clerk (fka clerking 3)

Clerking 3
Greatest Clerk

I am the greatest clerk in the world. I know this is an outlandish and profoundly egotistical thing to say so I’ll say it again in hopes you can adjust to it for a bit. I am the greatest clerk in the world. Now I’ll amplify it: do you know how many clerks there are? Neither do I. If I had the dedication, focus and ambition required to work that out for you I presume I’d have a better job than clerk. Still, it is a lot, a lot of clerks in the world. If I were the best clerk in the room, among ten or fifteen, that would be one thing, or the best essayist among thousands, the best baseball player or Doctor in their various thousands or hundreds of thousands, I think we can agree that would be impressive, but the best clerk? Surely that is among the millions of us, the tens of millions! That is a competition on an epic scale. That is an achievement of a colossal weight. I would be better here, I am better here than all of tens of millions of clerks!

Of course, we are talking about clerks. None of us are trying that hard. Still, tens of millions of clerks in the world and here I am the greatest of them all. Indeed it’s such a preposterous magnificence that I know you can’t actually believe me. I don’t blame you. I almost think I’m joking or misguided as well. Perhaps if I tell us both the catch you’ll begin to open up a little to my contention. I am the greatest clerk in the world for about fifteen minutes every few weeks. Better?

It’s usually after my quadruple espresso. I got enough sleep the night before. I’m almost always handling the check out line. It has to be modestly busy, not intense, just enough to apply a soft, full pressure so that I, at every moment, have something to reach for, to keep in the air. Just before it starts I’m already moving fairly well and have a nice sense of where everything is in the library and at my desk. Someone approaches, perhaps a semi-regular I’ve never really talked to. A joke lines up in me, partly funny, relevant, bittersweet, it curves. Light drifts into me and it begins. I am absorbed in pulling 9 DVDs as fast as I can, but loose too, aware of every molecule everywhere, detached. A patron compliments my speed while I solve a filing error through deductive reasoning and sleight of hand. It is choreographed to take no time within the pulling of DVDs. I respond to the speed compliment with a preposterous bit of buffoonery for benefit of the whole line. It includes them and lets them know I know they’re there. I read them by their laughter. Next in line prefers expediency to charm, second will enjoy ferocious and preposterous reviews of items they are checking out, gentle teasing. Third wants to be on the inside, a telling anecdote. But as I measure then I am moving, I am recording everything in their hands, all to give me the slightest edge when the time comes, the knowledge of how to lean.

And so it goes. Names strangely float up in my head to match occasionally seen faces in my line and somehow their requests are at hand when their turn arrives. They make self-deprecating jokes about using the library too much, but they feel famous. A crying three year old quiets and falls mesmerized as I speak confidentially and seriously to it in a mostly fake bastard Italian. There is no calculation in it. I do it for sheer joy of life. I am simultaneously resolving two ridiculous problems on the parent’s card, explaining the arcana of it and chiding the perfidy of our mutual enemies. I take theatrical and personal time with each patron but according to their deeper needs, and yet, my line moves with an uncanny speed. No one is restless because everything is laid bare and there isn’t an ounce of fat. A co-worker approaches with an odd, tough little problem and, sideways, with the warmest partnership and my high running luck, I turn the problem belly up and slit it with a single stroke, pull its heart out. No stride is broken. Every pointless rule, every institutional obstinacy or accumulated automata of a system sweeps into air before me like dust before a gale. Patron problems are brought down, small things, and shown the door of the universe. I am all over indulgence and mercy and speed and presence. But no con stands. Justice is still served and those who seek to manipulate in their convenience are gently and surely shown a higher calling. They respond and become better people. I find not just the lost items of a giant filing system, but I find souls. I love everyone. No light is too faint for me to see. My mind is sharp. I have seven hands and the world is beautiful.

And then, there is a break in the line. I see the clock and it is only 1:55. The magic sun crashes and it’s over. I’m tired and wish I was home. I lay my head on the bare, fake marble counter and sigh elaborately. A particularly smelly patron, with sixteen crappy DVDs approaches and says “Quiet day? I have some work for you.” I think, unbidden, but with real vehemence, “You pig, get a life!” I’m still tolerably nice to the poor bastard. For one thing, I know it’s not all their fault; partly it’s just a kind of backlash, the universe correcting itself, partly it’s that my job, in its way, sucks, and partly it’s, well, in the great clerk rankings in my head, I’d hate to drop out of the top ten million altogether. I have my pride.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Live! blogging at the Library!

Since my blog has started I have mainly been at home posting historical and reflective pieces, but now I am attempting to live blog! I think my 4 followers are probably getting pretty excited now! It is Sunday and I can see 50 people from where I am sitting at the front desk. They will be interrupting me frequently to help them. I kind of like helping them, but it means that this up to the minute live blog is being written 3 words at a time and is taking ages to write already. Plus "live blogging" is kind of a misnomer as I'm really just typing this into my staff email account for transfer later. This is partly because my email account is much less inconspicuous to be working on in public and also because I am the sort of person who pours over everything so that my blog retains an exquisite high buff polish. And now live blogging commences, the times are mainly fictional, but look authentic:

12:17: Accepting 5 large bags full of donations. The bags largely consist of books weeded from our collection that have been sold and are now being given back to us. In addition to our old unwanted books there is a smattering of books written in what I believe to be Korean.

12:19: While accepting donations I listen to my co worker to my right enthusiastically tell a patron about how she can help her find some books on herbal medicine. She then commenced to give a long, florid description of how to go to the reference desk where the people there will tell her where to find said books. I timed how long it would take to find the Dewey number on Herbal medicine and thus an easy way for the patron to immediately be able to browse through what looks to be dozens of appropriate books that are on the shelf. 11 seconds. It takes 11 seconds to look it up, 192 seconds less than it took her to redirect the patron, but she was super friendly and positive while she did it.

12:37: Patron asked for change for a dollar. I asked 'just quarters, or do you need dimes and nickles?" patron responded "I need it for the printer."

12:42: Patron with bags of books now wants a tax receipt. I have to count all the items to put that on the receipt. I confess I did a bit of guessing. I secretly wished I could put estimated value of books on receipt: $0.85.

1:07: Patron told me it was his first time here. I said I've been here lots and lots of times. Oh how we laughed!

1:11: Experiencing a quiet lull, using it to scan public out by DVD section to make sure everyone is very happy.

1:20: Directed patron to bathroom. Patron walked the other direction and looked at our talking book collection, but now she knows.

That's all for today folks. Tune in later for more excitement.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Library Talk Show Host

At the Library I sometimes find myself wrapped up in self invented extracurricular activities that seem like jokes or start as jokes, but that I start to take seriously, and talk about a lot with, well, anyone who walks by: my co workers, patrons, myself. I sometimes throw a lot of things at my workday to keep it interesting, and this would be in that category. My current obsession involves creating an internet talk show hosted by a very long time co worker of mine, the sort of person I cannot imagine being able to describe in any remotely accurate way so will merely say is a cross between a "Ward of the State" and Lyndon B. Johnson. He (let's call him "v") asks persistent, obsessive questions of his co-workers that they couldn't possibly know the answer to and that generally lies outside the area of interest of, well, anyone in the known universe. It can be difficult to come up with an example of one these strangely mundane dialogues that is so much a part of my working life, but I think I had better. 

v: "Do you think they'll serve hot dogs at this year's staff day?"
me: "No, I don't think so."
v: "Why not."
me: "They just don't usually serve hot dogs at staff day."
v: "Do they have something against hot dogs?"
me: "Not that I know of."
v: "Then why don't they serve hot dogs?"
me: "I don't know. They serve other things."
v: "You should get them to serve hot dogs."
me: "I haven't had anything to do with staff day planning for 8 years."
v: "You should talk to them."

I'll stop here. I actually meant to stop after just a line or two but it all came flooding back and a conversation with v can continue indefinitely if you don't pointedly extricate yourself from it, which is harder than it seems. Anyway v was interviewing a co worker a few weeks ago about Michelle Obama and it suddenly occurred to me that in addition to being banal and irritating there was something sort of fascinating about it, thus the talk show idea. I am not at all sure it would be fascinating, but I like the idea of it being fascinating. If I manage to make one you'll be the first to know.

Clerking 2

Clerking 2
Kinds of Clerks
There are as many kinds of clerks as there are stars in the sky, or, perhaps, species of beetles would be a better metaphor. Either way our multi-variousness does fall into a more limited number of types. All of these types are at least a little important in creating a well functioning group or desk, and though some kinds of clerks are more important than others, some more rare, and some painful to everyone involved, all recur regardless of hiring practices. A management can crush or flatten these archetypes, but all they might ever achieve is a kind of warping, for these styles of clerking are tenacious and the community of all clerks significantly thrives according to its own interior, unconscious rule.

The Important Clerk.
This Clerk rarely idles. They can be engaged in any number of tasks, often 2 or 3 at once. They are almost managerial in that they have so many things in their charge. They do tend to get a lot done although about half of it is completely pointless. This is often expressed as obsessive attention to detail. Nevertheless they can be an ideal person to go to in order to find out where something is or how something is done. They may take the matter entirely off of your hands, or, if not, you can count on them as a firm friend and partner until the matter is resolved. I say that as a Clerk though. You, the Patron, with your problems and needs, are a speed bump to both them and their mission and must be taken as quickly as it is possible to do without ruining their suspension. You will know this when their wheels hit you.
The Bureaucratic Clerk.
Walking slowly, speaking in a monotone, slavishly devoted to the pettiest of rules, unwinnable and relentless, this, historically, is the classic clerk. This clerk is neither a threat nor a punishment. This clerk is a point of reference, the darkness into which all light can shine. This is the clerk that exists as a creature of higher powers; the expression of the most powerless institutional cog expressing their crudest power. This is the face of rules unadorned by whimsy, idiosyncrasy and humanity. This is the backdrop of all clerking. Understand this clerk in all your dealings with clerkdom and then you will be able to appreciate clerkdom's subtle, magical colors, the ones that tend to look like a variety of muddied grays otherwise.

The Smiling Clerk
At first you will think you have struck gold. And you have, unless the complexity of your transaction goes beyond what a simple machine could do. The slightest glitch will bog this clerk down as if they have been suddenly confronted with someone speaking in Acadian. Finding something a foot to their right will overmaster them if that is not exactly where it normally goes, and often if it is. They will need assistance. They will blithely pass through and on grave and deep reaching mistakes. Their line will move with an untraceable slowness. They may easily, without their knowledge or your own, involve you in a future multi-transaction clerical nightmare. But, as well, they really will never mean any harm to you. Indeed they will be devoted to serving you. Their pleasantries will be as bright, clear and pitch perfect as a fine summer pop song. They will be prompt, well-dressed, and kind spoken. Adored by Management, they will be the shining, glorious embodiment of professional courtesy.

The Entertaining Clerk
Loquacious, funny, and occasionally wise, this clerk is inclined to include even you, a patron, in their traveling show. Helping to create an identity for a place this clerk might make you feel like you’re part of an actual community, like Cheers, or MASH. You might even find yourself saying a witty thing or two around this bon vivant. The entertaining clerk is highly visible, going from conversation to conversation, and seems to be on some strange kind of break nearly all of the time.

The Industrious Clerk
Working without fuss or bother the industrious clerk takes on the endless, mundane work of clerking with a steady will. This clerk sees voluntary tasks as part of their job as well. They are generally fair minded and pleasant with the patrons (though naturally somewhat irritated as well), and they get along peaceably with their co-workers. Their phlegmatic view, however, does not extend to their intense bitterness in the face of the perfidy of management. That bitterness inexorably grows until they move on or can retire.

The Rogue Clerk
This clerk starts out congenial enough. They are also a bit of a reformer from the start. Their reforms are no better than anyone else's and sometimes a little worse. A couple small reforms may be indulged by managerial powers because the rogue clerk is well dressed, pleasant, industrious and sensible. But as their uninspired reforms begin to flounder against the ceiling of their lowly station, and as their misguided zeal kicks in, they usually suffer an emotional breakdown. They may or may not be hospitalized. We don't know, they're just gone for anywhere from 2 weeks to 4 months. The disappearance is shrouded in secrecy and vague rumors and spottings. When they return they are calm, faultlessly polite and kind to patrons, and no longer speak to their co-workers unless it is absolutely necessary, sometimes not even then. The rogue clerk is rare, but comes along like clockwork when staff unification is needed.

The Clerk as Hero
Every good clerk will glide beautifully, at least once in a while, into this archetype. The clerk hero may be seen leaning over the shoulder of a colleague in tense negotiations with a patron and gently, sensibly and swiftly resolving the issue to everyone’s satisfaction. They may appear out of nowhere with a book 3 staff members have given up on finding, and present it in a way that indicates no one was at fault for not finding it before. You will know them best, perhaps, as the fifth or sixth person you have talked to, the one who recognizes the justice of your cause, and who cuts a swath through every rule and everything you have been told before, to bring you peace, justice, and resolution. You may say that this is merely a clerk doing their job, and you would be right. And so is a Fireman, running into a burning building, for your cat.

And who am I, your humble scribe? What kind of clerk pulls back the curtain? I will do you the favor of not lying to you. I certainly lean towards one or the other. And some of my more indelicate colleagues, indeed possibly even you, might point cackling at the entertaining clerk, and say that is me. But those who see, and those who know me better, know that I am more and less than that; for I am a clerk, and I am all of these.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Fun blog rules you don't have to worry about

Here are my rules for me and my blog. You don't have any rules. Lucky you! Enjoy your mad, anarchic surfing! This blog is about clerking, so mainly I'll post in regards to (me) clerking. But it's about clerking at a Library, so a bit about books is fair game as I am in the line of fire vis-a-vis the publishing/entertainment/information industry. Plus I read, a lot, and not least while working, which is one of those odd things that's fairly illicit at my job and yet makes me much better at my job too. Also, because I clerk at a Library talking about Libraries is fair game too. Thirdly, because it is more interesting, challenging and daredevil like to try to tell the truth, I will, but because institutions, even half-decent ones, have a reaction to truth that runs on a continuum from squeamish to psychotically violent I will be covering over names and identities with a thin veneer of anonymity. Finally, I will endeavor not to write too too many posts like this one where I talk about what I'm talking about.

Now I think I'll go wander the internet alerting it to my blog because it doesn't know about it yet, and it wants to.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Sort of an introduction

Today is my day off and so after a stillborn beginning I am pursuing my blog once again. I have posted the first Clerk's Manifesto, which is already some years old, and rather dense (um, not stupid dense, dense dense), but these ease up on that score as they go on. I remember sharing one of the manifestos with co-worker w. and she said she couldn't read it and didn't understand a lot of the words. She's not dumb either. I actually take the criticism to heart. I'm terribly ornate in my way. I'll post the next CM soon. The philosophy doesn't need to drive so hard. It's more a list! Eventually the internet may consist entirely of lists!

The Clerk's Manifesto

Clerking 1
The Clerking Manifesto

Where I work you are called “Patrons”. Around the world you are variously known as    
“Customers”, “Clients”, “Guests”, and even “Visitors”. Indeed many names for you are spoken, but never your true and secret name. You are “Suspects”.  You are wild animals. You are capable of any of a thousand petty crimes and must be watched with caution. You have probably already done something wrong. I can choose to forgive you, be beneficent, reward you, or I can punish you. I am a clerk.

Ha! You think I am cruel. Is a Judge cruel who gives 7 years to one person and probation to another for the same crime? Is Santa cruel? Well, maybe, but not the right, twinkly sort of Santa, not a good Judge. Yes, a clerk can be cruel, but not a good clerk. A good clerk is an instrument of justice, the edge of the blade, instant karma. You may just want to check out a DVD from the Library I work at. You may not want Judgement. I don’t blame you. The world is a hard place. I myself would rather surf the internet, stretch, get this filing done, think my own thoughts, but I can’t. I have to help you. It’s my job. I’m a clerk.

Or perhaps you think me mad with my talk of rewards and punishments. Who am I with my lack of ambition, my all too modestly paying job, and my nearly geologic layers of hierarchy ascending almost entirely over me? I do not make the rules, my authority is small, and I have to obey a thousand little laws. And if I am not talking about putting invented fines on your record nor slipping you a five from the drawer, and I am not talking about that at all, if I can’t refuse you a card you are entitled to nor take you ahead of your turn in line, what could I possibly have? I have clerking. I have the rules that are barely or loosely enforced because they sound good but are unreasonable in most actual circumstances. I can shut you down with one of those. I have the industrialization of service to work with. You check out here, but update your address there, pay your fines there, and see if a book is in or find out the answer to your question way the hell over there. I have two or three speeds, all perfectly legitimate. I have clearing up the problem here or letting it go to its assigned place and to a person I know is not very pleasant to deal with. Did I detect a sliver of impatience with me, am I pulling 17 DVDs off the shelf for you, did you just say something mean to your small child, were you ever so slightly rude or presumptuous or obtuse to me, are you on a cell phone? Well, you need to update your address over there and I am sorry, but I can’t check out to you without a current address. Did you say something friendly, smile patiently, have your card ready, really just behave yourself? I’ll update your address here, and you wanted to know the state song of Nebraska? Well, let’s look it up. I’ll turn my screen so you can see.

Did you spend 15 minutes and two dollars in three lines to get 4 books for your kid’s assignment checked out or did it take one minute because of a couple of very small, kind favors you did not ask for?  If the former, and if I did my job right, and if you haven’t completely lost it (believe me, not at all guaranteed), you will think I more or less did my best for you but was constrained by an annoying bureaucracy (it is, but often not the way you think), all while some deeper, more developed part of your brain suspects that you threw yourself on the rocks. If the latter happened to you, and you stop to think about it, you will understand you met a good clerk, which happens to you from time to time because there are still a few of us out there.  And you’re alright yourself.