Monday, September 30, 2013

Musical Chairs and Occam's Razor

There are two seats out at our Service Desk, two seats for two staff members. One is up higher, one is down lower. When it is my time to go to the Service Desk I'll take whichever spot opens up first, but if you want that spot enough, ask nicely and you can have it. If we arrive together for a shift you can chose because I don't care, and if you don't want to choose I will pick one. It is very simple and I am incredibly mellow and easy going. Ob la di, ob la da. I am the Zen master. All chairs are good. I can find joy in both of these nearly equal spots. All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

So are we all sorted now? You have your spot? Yes. And I have my spot here. There is great, unbreakable, and magnificent harmony forever at the Service Desk. Om mani padme hum.

Now stay the hell out of my spot! Stay away from my computer! There is absolutely no reason for you to migrate. If I step away from the desk to solve one of our dear patron's problems, and I come back to the desk to find you helping someone at my computer I am going to look at you like you are a psychopath. Yes, a psychopath. That might sound like I am bringing a good deal of non Zen heat to the situation, but no, it is a simple issue of Occam's Razor.

Occam's Razor is a principle that gives greater weight to the simpler hypothesis in competing explanations. In short, the simplest explanation, with the fewest assumptions required, is the most likely one. Space aliens could have beamed into the Library, told you they have installed the secrets of cold fusion onto one of the three (yes, there are three!) Service Desk computers, but if it is not found in ten minutes it will self delete. This is a more complicated explanation for your abandoning the perfectly good and equal computer station you have chosen, and taking mine, than the explanation that says you are psychotic. Nevertheless this "aliens" explanation is, according to Occam's Razor, actually the second most likely. It is forced to go even stranger from there to explain the events.

This doesn't mean that some wildly complex explanation is not true. I'm all ears. Indeed I am eager to hear it. But until you present it, you can have both spots out there. You seem to want them. I'll be in the back, meditating. One does not obtain Zen mastery without practice, loads and loads of practice.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Reading comprehension is overrated

On the way to the elevators, sitting on the table for staff mailboxes, is an inscribed brick paver. I don't know what it's doing there, but we do have these same pavers, bought by patrons as money raisers for the Friends of the Library, out in the Children's Garden. They have little, usually Library appropriate, sayings on them, like:

Outside of a dog a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.
-Groucho Marx


Leroy, I have always despised you and leave a record of it here where you will never visit, a library.

The paver at the elevators, perhaps there awaiting its installation, said to me, over and over as I headed to the elevator:

It's not enough to be friendly. You have to be a friend from wonder.
-by R. J. Palacio

And every time I saw it I thought "How strange." And every elevator ride I would muse on what exactly is "A friend from wonder." And each time I mused on it it became more strangely lovely to me. I want to be a friend from wonder! I want to do everything from wonder! Eat, breathe, clerk, write, think from wonder. Let me be open to all the great magic of the world, and let it flow through my heart!

Then, today, wheeling my cart of books to the elevator I saw that the paver did not say:

It's not enough to be friendly. You have to be a friend from wonder.
-by R. J. Palacio

It said:

It's not enough to be friendly. You have to be a friend. 
From Wonder.
-by R. J. Palacio

And I thought "Oh blah blah blah."

addendum: This is a true story. I did think these things, so I leave it as is, but I would feel lousy if I didn't add that I actually have, it turns out, read Wonder by R. J. Palacio and quite liked it. In the end I suppose the quote is okay too, despite my "Blah blah blah" reaction. Still, I'd take Groucho's over it any day.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

You can't always trust a librarian's recommendation

I don't think of it as very much my nature to accord too much respect to others. I am by nature, wounds, experience, or some combination of the three, prone to a sometimes overly rich skepticism. At the ends of the fiction and genre fiction shelves, on what are called the end caps, are places to put featured books from our collection. I felt I was observing some of this skepticism by assuming whoever was in charge of putting those recommended books out there wasn't doing that good of a job, and that I should feel free to put an occasional book I love onto an open end cap space. Still, I never have replaced books out on the end caps. I always assumed they were there for a chosen reason, even if they sometimes seemed a bit random and not to my taste. And I always had a slight twinge of feeling like "Is this okay my putting my own choices out here? I don't want to mess anything up." Just a slight twinge.

Yesterday I was shelving in Science Fiction and the person either wholly or largely responsible for filling the end caps came back to show a patron something. The patron satisfied (hopefully), this librarian headed back to the desk, but on the way she randomly grabbed a book, without breaking stride, and placed it in an open end cap.

I was amazed. 

I am too innocent again. 

Here, I'll go find it.

Lawless Land
by Les Savage, Jr.

It's a western, in hardcover so a bit anomalous for the predominantly paperback western genre, not horribly greasy or worn. Sure, no one here at the Library has read it, but we at the Library thought you might especially like this one.

On the other hand there's this nice newish copy of The Eyre Affair that's just slightly more ideally sized for the spot...

Friday, September 27, 2013

Anoka County Library, Rainbow Rowell, and the road to censorship

It is a long story, well, too long for here. You can go here, to MPR, to see a sort of full story of this, but, almost briefly, I will try to outline it. A neighboring Library system to me, The Anoka County Library system, got together with their local public schools for a summer reading program. One of the books was "Eleanor and Park," a novel by Rainbow Rowell. A little parents group ended up complaining about it because there is swearing. I think they said "Oh my fucking god, there is so much fucking swearing in it!" No, they didn't really. Anyway, the School Board acted like these were reasonable, thinking people and apologized and took it very seriously, but we're not talking about them. We are talking about the Library system. Their big role was that they were bringing the author out for a talk with students. As this all sort of blew up, they withdrew the invitation. Or, here, this is how they put it:

 "The school district and the Anoka County Library system collaborated on the summer book program because we share the goal of encouraging young people to read. The district's media specialists selected the book and the library system agreed to fund the author visit. The county library was in the process of executing a contract with the author when we learned the book had been formally challenged by the parents of a student at one of our high schools. As a result of the challenge, leadership of the library concluded it would not be wise to finalize the contract and they chose to withdraw financial support for the visit. The author's visit would have occurred at the same time the school district was going through the challenge process. It may well have raised issues in the community that would have overshadowed and detracted from the purpose of the author visit, which was to give students the opportunity to talk with a writer about writing."

Presumably the leadership of the Library is Marlene Moulton Janssen, director of the Anoka County Library ( Apparently the Library Board was involved in the decision as well. I do not know if Ms Janssen has experience as a librarian or is merely an administrator, but her and the board's appropriate simple response to this situation was to continue to do everything in their power to book Rainbow Rowell, and have her come to their Library system, say they have
no authority over what the School system chooses to do, and say all Librarians involved have acted impeccably and that they stand by all their choices and support the validity and importance of Rainbow Rowell's work. They should reiterate that they run a free Library. For extra credit they would have tied it into Banned book week, hosted additional speakers on this issue, and loudly announced the buying of more copies of the book to support the increased demand. It should have been an opportunity!

The simple termination of the contract process bitterly failed Libraries and librarians everywhere, and is hard not to see as an act of cowardice. It would not have "raised issues in the community that would have overshadowed and detracted from the purpose of the author visit, which was to give students the opportunity to talk with a writer about writing". It would have clarified and enriched them.  It is not enough for the public and librarians to bemoan censorship and put old books on their quaint "banned books week" shelves, but they need to speak out directly where and how these things happen in Library systems, with people like Director Janssen and the Anoka County Library system trying to play it real careful around the edges of censorship and so facilitating it by ascribing so much respect to it.

I know that a neighboring Library system invited Ms Rowell to speak, and I have heard she is "Shy" of Minnesota. I think the situation as far as Libraries are concerned can still be redeemed, but at this point would probably best be done by the greater twin cities Libraries consortium, called MELSA. They should be getting Rainbow Rowell up here for a week to talk in a variety of area Libraries and generally making a fuss of this as a learning opportunity and a watershed event, rather than waiting for it to go away, which means it will more likely play out the same way in the future.

The issue of censorship is, fortunately, not one that Librarians must contend with relentlessly in our culture, but, though smaller than some of their day to day issues, the line they draw against that censorship is possibly the most fundamentally important aspect of their job, and no amount of vigilant thoughtfulness on this matter is too much. Visibly and publicly standing ones ground on this line is not just the right thing for Librarians and Libraries to do, it is their job. Get to it.
author and thing that came with author picture when stolen from her website!
some Anoka Library, I have no idea why I am putting pictures in this post.
Marlene Moulton-Janssen
Marlene Moulton Janssen!
Is this book appropriate for 2 year olds? We just ask that Libraries keep it behind the desk or on one of the higher shelves.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Magic tricks of the clerks

I have discussed various coping mechanisms clerks use to navigate the despair strewn path of work life (examples here, here, and here), but today's list concerns itself with a more abstruse and amazing branch of clerk talents. For those non clerks among my readers I doubt you have ever before been swayed by my carnival musings on clerk life so as to give it all up and become a clerk. I don't blame you. But I am finally here to turn your head. Clerking, it turns out, is one of the very, very few paths out of muggledom that exists on the planet. Many people who have shown no indication whatsoever of supernatural talents find, after as little as three months of clerking, that they are now capable of strange feats that baffle those around them and cannot be explained by science.

Here is a short list of magical abilities I have personally witnessed and occasionally even performed at my Library:

1. Taking a cumulative half hour of break time, usually divided into two 15 minute segments, and instead dividing it into seven 15 minute segments.

2. The ability to work at the front desk for two hours with out ever actually going to the front desk.

3. The ability to complain about yourself by using another person's name.

4. The power to prove that the proverbial half full glass is actually only 47 percent full.

5.  The miraculous break room power to eat things that can normally not be eaten.

6. The ability to achieve religious-like transcendental ecstasies through things like a co-worker's sick day, free bagels and broken elevators.

7. The power to pass a year merely by blinking one's eyes.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Transit Processing

A patron walks into a Library (why don't more jokes start out like this, and, no, sorry, this isn't a joke). This person comes to me at the front desk because they want some item that's listed in the catalog with a curious, ambivalent status. Is it available? Can I procure this item for them?

The status is called Transit Processing and I am going to out it now. First I will say that there is incredibly little I will not out at the Library. I enjoy providing information, and it is part of our mission here, so I don't know why I'd withhold the truth even if the explanation involves describing a misguided Library policy and all its twisted and fascinating history, or perhaps having to describe a co-worker as "profoundly confused." The story of Transit Processing is barely a secret and not much of an outing, but here goes.

Technically Transit Processing simply means that the item has recently been returned and so is all caught up in one of the stages of our shelving process. This status was designed for the following reasons:

1. To keep patron expectations about immediately acquiring the item low.

2. To give staff easier plausibility in describing the item as "unavailable" as opposed to "a lot of hard work for me."

There have been an assortment of policy directives regarding this status since it was created, most or all of them saying that we are to tell patrons these items are unavailable and that we should not search for them. So, the only real official word that has come out on this status is that we should normally treat it as meaning unavailable.

But here is a thing I love about my Library. I don't know how many, but a lot of people working here will go look for that item for a patron because the general culture here is that doing right by a patron, if you can, trumps policy. It's not paradise here and this will not work out with the more jaded or lazy staff, but often enough it does win out. Even a person largely responsible for writing and emphasizing a rule like "We are not to search for the item" might, probably even will, when it comes down to an actual breathing patron who wants something, do the kind and human thing.

What about me? What do I do when a patron wants an item in Transit Processing?

I will try to find the thing. What else? We're a Library. If we are terribly busy I will make a very quick, concentrated stab at finding the thing and will generally look just a tiny bit longer than I should.  The hard part really is judging when to give up. Often enough these items are too deep in to be found in any reasonable amount of time. Unfortunately the longer I look the more painful it is to give up. If I can't find it I'll come out and put it on request for the person, offer sympathy, and reiterate what I would have told them before I started my search, that sometimes they just aren't findable amidst so much stuff.

But I am not perfect, and if I do find the elusive Transit Processing item I have to tell you that I generally force the patron to pay a price. The price they must pay is that if I find it they have to listen to the whole exciting story of my search.

"There were like seven bins full of DVDs and I was digging through them, but it seemed hopeless after awhile so I decided I had to give up, but as I was starting to walk away I saw this glint of a red letter against white brick, almost winking at me, way down in one of the bins I thought I had already searched pretty thoroughly. I almost kept going, but then some part of me thought 'you know, that's just the look of the cover of Notting Hill, starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, and so I reached down and there it was!"

It's not really a classic anecdote, is it? Not a classic, no. But even then I can't resist adding, as I check out to them their well earned DVD  "I've seen this movie so many times I pretty much have it memorized."

"Really? It's good?" The patron replies. "I've never seen it. My friend said we have to watch this tonight."

And now they can.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Free Library, but limited resources within

Tension and expectation steals oxygen from the air and it feels hard to breathe. The Library opens in 30 seconds. The wall of people moves in tighter and tighter against the barricade doors. They adjust their packs and belongings tight to their bodies so as not to inhibit their movements. Eyes forward. No one wants to look at anyone else. Even that barest dash of human recognition, that possible grain of sympathy, could shave their competitive edge and soften their will to victory.

The space between people compresses, disappears. An eerie hush fall.

Please don't let there be another trampling today. That is all we ask.

The crowd as a whole breathes in like a single entity, both to allow the great Library doors to be rolled open, and to gather the last loose scraps of energy into itself.

The doors are rolled open.

Be strong of foot, but bear disappointment well. There can be but one victor today.

They seem to unwind in slow motion, but as they emerge into open space and arrange their free movement the race sorts out, and the speed quickly rises. Some unspoken code keeps them speed walking, but then someone hitches into a trot. The group tenses like it might burst into a run. And so they reach the stairs.

Run not in the Library. Keep your feet. Please, above all keep your feet!

The trotter subsides back to a walk as they hit the stairs. Pounding up them separates the strong from the weak. The belongings for a full day, strapped to bodies and in over sized packs work loose and drop down arms. Someone misses a step and touches down. They use their hands to propel themselves on. The race is not over yet!

The left turns are before you. Lean, lean your body. All you have worked for hangs in the balance now.

Three in the group have now bowed out, fallen behind on stairs and turns. All that is left is one straight run through the genre section. The group is so near that they surge. It is not running, it is surging. Arms and legs fly. There is a swirl of bodies, bags burst open and fly aside and then,

Quiet. Quiet. It is over.

One person, and one person alone, has claimed the comfy chair. The comfy chair is taken. The race is over. The winner will keep claim on the chair for all the 11 hours we are open. The losers filter off humbly, but not without hope. There are other chairs, for today, and for tomorrow? Who know, perhaps the comfy chair will be theirs!

Monday, September 23, 2013

It is not always the best joke that gets the biggest laugh

I was wandering out to the front desk to enter onto our waive sheet the 90 cents I had waived for someone while I was on the phone (that's 90 cents now that this Library will never see!). A patron was there and was handing a medicine bottle full of pills that she had found somewhere in the Library to one of my co-workers. That co-worker handed it to "C", who handles the lost and found. At that moment I said to C., casually, "Let's each take half and see what happens."

The patron erupted into raucous, genuine, long laughter. It was pretty gratifying. My two co-workers, who were in the midst of the usual polite, pale chuckles I'm oh so familiar with, caught the contagious laughter and so let loose some genuine laughter of their own.

I turned and headed to the back room while the laughter was still going. When you get lucky like that you don't want to push it.

As I emerged into the back room under the waning wails of laughter, many staff and volunteer eyes looked up to me enquiringly. I shrugged as if to say "Who knows."

Who knows indeed.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

What have we learned from famous people

We have now completed Famous People at the Library week, and what a week it was! Sally Brown! Prince! Garrison Keillor's nephew! But it was not just a series of dazzling, glittery thrills in which we fawned excitedly over the most miniscule utterances and encounters! No! It was a rich learning experience.

Hmm? What's that? What did we learn? You mean the blog post is not over yet?

Ha, of course the blog post is not over! Here is what we learned:

1. Famous people want to be treated just like regular people, except when regular people aren't treated so well, which is surprisingly often, at which point famous people are open to suggestions.

2. Any blog post about a famous person will increase traffic to your blog in direct proportion to how famous the person is: Post about furniture: 46 views, Post about author Elizabeth Berg: 57 views, Post about Prince: 1,367,485 views.

3. Famous people venture into libraries so infrequently (presumably because they are rich enough to afford color televisions for their entertainment) that it can take decades for a Library blogger to accumulate enough stories for famous people at the Library week, and even then they have to make up half of them.

4. No matter how boring, insignificant, trivial and stupid you find a famous people story to be, there will come a time when that famous person will come up in conversation and you will be telling that story.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Kerri Miller at the Library

Kerri Miller hosts the late morning show on our local public radio station. She used to come to my Library occasionally and so I've interacted with her several times. I haven't seen her for awhile. People's patterns change. She might frequent some more local library. Her radio show has a strong focus on books, reading and authors, so I suspect she gets glutted with complimentary copies from publishers. That might keep her away more too.

When she was coming around and I listened to her show (which I still do) I would often compose things to say to her in my head. I once heard Noam Chomsky said something like that NPR should pay him for all the stress they cause him when he listens. Not to go too deeply into it, but I think that, in our deranged culture, to maintain an image of political neutrality, or that you're sort of mainstream, or just roughly unbiased, you must not say a long string of blindingly obvious truths while also treating a long string of lies with consideration and neutrality and as if their status is yet to be determined. My comments, composed in my head, generally came from this territory. It was satisfying to think them up before I changed stations to music, in order to bring my blood pressure back into safe ranges, but I knew they were not really points of discussion. When Kerri Miller came to the Library what I generally said to her was "Hi." I think it was for the best.

She always said hi back, as if she sort of knew me, which, with famous people, makes you feel almost like you're famous yourself.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Sally Brown at the Library

I was all set to gently chide those of you who did not know the very famous Sally Brown. But then I remembered that each post in Famous People at the Library Week comes with a picture, and that fact sure did put the kibosh on the chiding! Though I suppose some few of you might not have gotten all the particulars from just the picture, I doubt there's anyone who would not have gotten the general idea. And so it is, Sally Brown, Charlie Brown's little sister, regularly comes to my Library.

What is a little kid like her doing at our Library? I never see her with any adult, and I'm pretty sure she lives at least a few miles away from here. My best guess is that she was kicked out of her local Library and possibly banned. She is one ferocious kid, and quite a yeller.

On the one hand I kind of wonder about the Brown parents. Their son, who I've only seen a couple of times, at a distance, seems very sad, and their daughter is unusually emotional, loud, and fierce. It is very hard to know what kind of house that is. I've never met their parents. I think they might have a dog.

Anyway, general concerns about parenting aside, and some amount of horror at her too-boisterous-for-the-Library behavior, I really like that Sally kid. It is hard not to enjoy and admire that much spirit in a small child. It also makes her a very funny kid. I have tons of hilarious stories about her. Unfortunately I am finding that every time I try and tell you one of these stories my speaking parts in the story all either come up blank, like:

So Sally said "I crushed it but it won't stay flat!"

And I said ""

Or, sometimes it comes out as: And I said "Bwah bwah bwah bwah."

But I finally figured out a way to tell a story of Sally Brown at my Library without me appearing.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Garrison Keillor at the Library

That is a terrible title for this blog post. I think the problem is that I have been lying so much this week, during Famous People at the Library week, that I'm probably losing all perspective. In my defense I gave out the key as to what stories would be true in my introductory Famous People at the Library post (here!). I am very friendly and devoted to regular readers, pretty warm to occasional readers, and, well, too baffled and bitter about the one time readers to do anything but try and make them dizzy.

But either way, Garrison Keillor has never visited me in the Library. Oh, I met him once. He held the door open for my wife and I once at his bookstore (he owns a bookstore!). As he held the door he had just the same polite, slightly pained and awkward smile I would have had doing the same thing. I grinned sympathetically and scooted in.

But this isn't about that story. This is about how a young man, tall and lugubrious, did once come to my Library. And he looked just like Garrison Keillor! But this person was way younger!

For whatever reason, maybe even because it was true, who knows, I think I was working with Jim at the time. Jim is in a line of people who have left me here at the Library and broken my heart an ever so teensy amount. Fortunately he didn't go far. We still have sushi every once in awhile. Maybe I shouldn't say his actual name though. Is it too late to call him Biff?

Anyway, Biff and I got caught up in registering the Garrison Keillor looking young man into our system. It's not a two person job, but there we were. And the kid gives us ID and his last name was Keillor! I like to think his first name was Harrison, but, though I can't remember his first name, I think it's safe to say it was not Harrison.

One of us cautiously asked, "Are you...?"

"Yes." He said. "I am his nephew."

Which brings us back around to the title, which I can now reveal should be:

Garrison Keillor's Nephew at the Library

And though it is a bit thin as far as famous people anecdotes go, in a full week of them I think its low key restfulness allows us to pause and reflect, which might be necessary before we plunge ahead.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Prince at the Library

Sure, this is titled Prince at the Library. It's for the sake of consistency. I'd like Famous People at the Library Week to have a kind of matching look. All the portraits, for instance, are done with clickable black sharpies on copy paper. And all the titles are "So and so at the Library" But the real title for this one should be:

How I Gave Prince His Secret Name at the Library

Our story begins quite a few years ago. Back then, instead of a front desk, we had a big Circulation Desk; check ins, check outs, registration, non reference help, fines, all in one, sort of an overcrowded, desperately behind, open kitchen. I was there. Typically doing seven things at once, some of them directly job related, when a small man walks in.

Now, a real advantage to famous people stories, especially ones with pictures at the top, is that one need not waste much time describing the person. Nevertheless it is traditional to include a descriptive observation or two represented in contrast to expectation. "His mustache was darker than I expected." or "She had really long fingers. I wonder if that's why she likes to wear gloves so much." These are nice. They add texture and authenticity. Unfortunately, with Prince, he looked pretty much like I would've thought. Here. Picture Prince. Okay. Then there you are. But I can at least say this: I made him as Prince very quickly, but partly this was because he was the sort of person you look at, famous or not. He drew your eye.

He needed to register his Minneapolis Library Card into our system. He had the card, picture ID with his current address, no problem. No problem at all. Well, one problem. This all was during the time when Prince had just changed his name to that symbol. Just as I have no good way to put the symbol in here, I had no good way to enter the symbol into our patron registration program.

"What do people call you?" I asked.

"Prince." he said "And when they do I refuse to answer. So mostly they just say 'hey' to me, or tap me on the shoulder."

"Hmm." I responded.

Several clerks gathered, a supervisor, but as a solution eluded us they all sort of drifted away.

"I have to get going." Prince said "Can you register my card or not?" He wasn't being petulant. It was just straight up and reasonable.

"How about if" I answered with dawning inspiration "I just put in 'The Artist Formerly Known as Prince'?"

Prince tilted his head a bit and looked earnestly at me for a bit. "That could be useful." He said "That could be very useful." And I suppose it was, just about everyone started using it for awhile. I should check our database sometime, and see if it's still in there.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Elizabeth Berg at the Library

"How famous is best selling author Elizabeth Berg?" some of you might want to know. 

Thirty-two out of 100 on the famous people scale.

Not helpful? I don't know what to do. Either you've heard of her or you haven't. At the Library I have told my Elizabeth Berg story, oh, ten times? Fifteen times? I'm pretty sure no one said "Who's Elizabeth Berg?" But then, it's a Library. A few bits of this post I wrote while shopping for furniture. In furniture stores they often put pretty random collections of old bestsellers, with the jackets removed, on shelves to give the furniture a bit more life and context. While sitting in a modestly comfy chair, writing the start of this paragraph, I happened to look up to a shelf and there was a book by her. I laughed. So, she is that famous. The rest of the day I saw no other books by her, though I looked. So she is that famous too.

One other note before I embark upon this magnificent beyond belief famous person at the Library story that it would pretty much kill you to miss. When I went looking for a picture of Bob Dylan to draw from for yesterday's famous person at the library story there were thousands of them, many photographed exactly the way I would have photographed it myself in order to draw from; scowly, and all half shrouded in shadow. Looking for a photo of Elizabeth Berg I found few, and in them she is always smiling. Now that I am an authority on these famous people you are probably dying to ask "How does Elizabeth Berg compare to Bob Dylan happiness wise?" It does not violate our Library's data privacy policy for me to answer: Oh, they seem about the same amount happy, roughly.  So I have drawn Elizabeth Berg using blurry YouTube footage of an author talk. No one really smiles all that much, besides, this is pretty much how she looked during our legendary interaction.

Right. Our legendary interaction. There I am at the front desk of my Library. What am I doing? Waiting attentively for the next patron or something technically similar to that. Up comes a woman looking just tons like the person pictured at the top of this post. At the time this means nothing to me. She's in town for a bit and wants a library card. We go through all the song and dance bits therein and soon I'm entering her information. Somehow we are talking about her last name. Was I fishing ever so slightly, or was it completely innocent? I can't remember, but whatever I said made her say "Berg isn't that common a last name."

I disagree, and I state my case. "I know a Berg, and then, there's the author, Elizabeth Berg."

To which she replies "I am the author Elizabeth Berg."

I nod, my eyes opening a bit and I say "I've shelved a lot of your books."

"I bet you have." She calmly retorts.

That's about it. I can be very quick at my job when no one is looking. And she is in no mood to linger.

I have thought a bit about this interaction. Up until recently I rather questioned my comment, and figured it could be better:

"We are unbelievably honored to have you in our humble Library."

Or how about "Wow, you're big time. Have you met Jane Austen?"

Or "If you'll pop upstairs and sign every one of your books I can get you walking out of here with any one book, CD, DVD or video game you want."

On second thought I might not have been able to do that much better. Only recently did it come to my attention that she needn't have savaged an innocent Library clerk. She too could have done better. How about:

"Try reading one. You might like it."

And I would have.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Bob Dylan at the Library

In earlier years I often frequented Zuma Beach. Near there, looking up to the bluffs, was a big house that looked just a little like a castle. For reasons I've long forgotten I imagined that that was Bob Dylan's house. I don't think it was, but his house was up on those bluffs somewhere. Still is. And when he's not touring I suppose he's out there. Just another elderly Jewish guy from the entertainment industry enjoying the mellow coastal climate of Southern California. There's several of those older Jewish guys out there, the ones who did unusually well having nice views of the ocean.

And yet, this one is a little different, even while being the same. Bob Dylan. I know his music. I know his music very well. To me he is a figure of the arts for the ages, a maker of our world, all majesty; Caravaggio, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Bob Dylan. A wonder. But I also know that scowl. I can do that scowl. I can see my brothers in that face. The dark eyes are my dark eyes, the twinkle my grandfather's, I'm sure my cousin has had that hat, worn in the same way, and I have had the same look of irritation in that face leveled at me from a different face. It is all familiar. Myself, family, men I have known, all swirling in that face. Once upon a time I did a show of portrait paintings of Jewish people 85 years old and older. Drawing Dylan here, the first time I ever had cause to do so, I see him in that group, maybe only 10 years or a bit more away, ready to join them if he can. Another person echoing everything I have known, good or ill.

Vastly many are the elegies written of Bob Dylan the artist, many far better than any I might write. But this is not that lesser elegy. Here is the thing I know, but most of the time fail to understand under all my wounds and the bedazzlements of my culture, but it is true: Our art, our work, does not exactly belong to us. Or perhaps I should put it this way. Bob Dylan the artist is only that Bob Dylan when he is doing his work, writing It's All Over Now, Baby Blue, or playing the harmonica, or whatever it is. When it's over he gets the credit, he can speak for it, maybe he gets a bunch of money, it is his. The pride is his if he wants it, and he did it, but the second he steps away, he is just whatever man he is. Another guy out on the cliffs near Zuma Beach. My 42nd cousin. He looks a little like my Grandma Bernice.

And so me too, on my infinitely smaller (artistic) and exactly the same size (human) scale, am who I am. At this moment I am the blogger. At the top of the post I was the artist. It was a one way street, it is a one way street doing those things. The umbilical cord runs to however much light my soul can shine. This conversation we are having is an illusion. If we talk for real, it is different. When I log out here I become a person walking, a clerk at work, whatever I am doing and feeling and thinking, one person, equal in size to all others. There is no way that I know of to make that larger, no song, no masterpiece, no blog post. When I say I know, but most of the time I fail to understand, it is that that is so, and a thing to be loved. Everyone lives on the ground. No money, no glory, no fawning retinue, changes going to the bathroom, or lying in bed or breathing air or thinking about the world, one thought at a time, one breath, one stream of pee, alone under our sky.

When Bob Dylan tours, when he comes by my area to visit some remnants of family, he does what any older guy with free time and a penchant for wandering about does, he comes to my library. A senior citizen, low key, halfway between dapper and seedy. Before you know him, from your perch at the front desk, you toss him into some random patron categories that you do inadvertently for everyone; trouble, funny, impaired, interesting, work, needy. I don't know what category I put him in. I kind of like them all in a way anyway, even as I dread some. For him maybe it's old guy, ready for a brief, appreciative exchange of observations, a couple light, situational jokes. It doesn't matter. And when I make him, when he becomes Bob Dylan, it doesn't matter either. Oh, it does, it's the most dazzling amazing spectacle in the world, but he is not singing, or writing, and he is just there. A library patron, one of 2500 for the day. To be helped, if I can.

What does the magnificent and massive Bob Dylan check out from the local Library? Ha! I knew you'd ask. I would've. But I can't tell you. His browsing habits are protected by our Data Privacy policies. I can give you a hint though. I keep trying to get him into the Gerald and Piggie books. I think he'd like them, and I have totally sold him on Anthony Browne, particularly Zoo and One Gorilla. Bob Dylan is practically obsessed with Anthony Browne's One Gorilla! But I probably shouldn't have told you that. Could you please sort of keep it to yourself? It's not much of a story anyway. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Famous people at the Library

I have written about my own famousness (link here, go ahead, I can wait. I won't type a word until you come back). But what about real live, mind bogglingly famous people?

"You must get loads of fascinatingly famous people pouring through your near urban, super busy Library, and you must have tons of hilarious, pseudo illuminating anecdotes about those famous people!"

Well of course I do! Don't think that because I'm in Minnesota we don't get the big stars, the cultural giants. Prince and Dylan are from here, and are naturally heavy Library users. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Garrison Keillor, um, er, ah, um, the Dalai Lama, Jane Austen, Muhammad Ali, Lady Gaga, Hillary Clinton, Winona Ryder, Rasputin, Linus Van Pelt, Miguel Cervantes, all native Minnesotans. And though most of them have moved on, there's always some adored Aunt or something that brings them back for a visit, and when they come, and need an only slightly greasy book, this is the place to get it!

What's that? The Dalai Lama is not from Minnesota? Well, we'll just have to agree to disagree. Still, I can immediately sight my source (here). I hope you can do the same.

So, hilarious anecdotes about some of these famous visits? Hmm, they're not exactly hilarious. They're more libraryish and mildly interesting, which, when dealing with famous people, is plenty! Like:

"I saw Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck once."

"Really? What were they doing?"

"Checking out the DVD When In Rome."


No one will ever get tired of hearing that story. They will actually seek out even more mundane details. "Did they wear hats?" "Were you able to save any of their garbage?"

Anyway, I don't know where you got the impression that these stories would be hilarious.

Oh. I did say that? Hilarious? Well, I'll take your word for it, and I take your point. There are parts of this post, up near the top, that weren't a hundred percent accurate, but I feel we've worked through to a much better place now and it would be great if I could continue on in a more uninterrupted way, as much as I've appreciated all the attempts to set the record straight. Thank you.

Oh! I just had a thought. What if instead of trying to cram all these fascinating, er, vaguely interesting, famous people in the Library stories into the puny remains of this blog post, what if we had a famous people at the Library week? Then each anecdote could feel free to fully flower and instead of one Hollywood Squares episode, we could have like five or six episodes of This Is Your Life, except all with puny anecdotes instead of people. Remember how much fun we had during "Short Post Week"? To paraphrase one of my most esteemed readers "You kind of lost me with that short post week thing, but I started reading your blog again recently." So, yes, this could be great like that.

Okay, we're on then. Famous people at the Library week has now begun.

"But wait!" You cry out, before I leave. "How will I be able to tell the fake pointless famous people stories from the real pointless famous people stories?"

Alright, a hint. Real famous people don't really visit near urban public Libraries unless they're mid list authors, or half famous locally, or just famous by association, or, possibly someone like Keanu Reeves. But don't worry, there will be no stories about Keanu Reeves visiting. I hope that helps.

"But wait!" You cry, before I can leave. "When will you return to trenchant, clear eyed views of the world, all hard hitting and visionary and renowned throughout the blogosphere?"

As soon as famous people at the Library week is over. I must follow my bleary hallucinatory visions as they come. Read as you will.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Clerks, Beatles, beetles


Just the other day I was comparing clerks to beatles. I have always fancied myself to be most like John, but with some of Paul's boyish charm, and George's spirituality. Also with some of Ringo's drumming ability.


Oh, right, I was comparing clerks to beetles. The little bugs! Ha ha ha. 

I've always fancied myself to be a lot like Trigonopterus Viridescens, but with the sparkiness of a Big Dipper Firefly, and the industriousness of a Hercules Beetle.

Weirdly that's about all I have to say today. I had a whole bunch more on little yellow notes I carry around in my pocket. It really dug deep on how clerks are just like Beetles in many ways. I absentmindedly chewed all my notes up. I can't imagine why I would chew these notes up. That kind of behavior would be more normal for a Carpet Beetle, or a Cigarette Beetle, not a clerk. 

Well, I guess this kind of proves my point.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Tis the season

Because we live in a hyper Candid Camera era, where some kind of oddball public prank or flash event may take place at any moment, I go into a state of alert when something eye opening starts unfolding in my Library as if it is just happening "naturally." 

And yet all these strange, carnival weirdnesses that take place here actually do seem to be natural, they don't show up on youtube, and they aren't stunts designed to blow our minds. They are just the everyday magical confluences of a varied world.

And what is it today? You ask.

Santa Clauses.

Upstairs today, less than an hour ago, I was able to count six, yes six full on Santa Clauses! No, not guys in costumes. That kind of thing is small time. There's always some reason for that. These are the real deal, just regular men, going about their business, who happen to fit, in every basic, out of costume particular, the required parameters of Santa. Rotund? Check. Late middle age or older? Check. Full white beard and white hair. Check. Rosy cheeks. Yeah, pretty much. It's a warm day, they had to climb the stairs. Did they all have a twinkle in their eye? Well, no, let's not get carried away, it's a Library here, not a charming story about the North Pole. But the best one had maybe a little twinkle. I don't know. Give them all the suit, a pipe, a few gifted reindeer, and they all would have been perfect enough. As they actually were attired it was more like they were of the funny Santa genre. Santa on vacation in bermuda shorts. Yes, he's up there. Biker Santa. Yes, but he comes here all the time. There was a kind of techno Santa too. Santa nerd I guess, all wired up, packing screens. He seemed to have an antenna coming out of his head. So no classic Santas, but more like they'd all come from magazine advertisement photo shoots as companies put together their Christmas print campaigns. A hip, modern Santa selling Christmas computers, that sort of thing. Of course they were a bit too real to really be that. One guy had water bottles and ziplocked sandwiches strapped to his body, another sported mysterious, overstuffed briefcases. Many had tangled or frayed or unkempt beards. I literally can see one more across the library coming down the stairs. He has suspenders, which is very Santaish, and an army camoflauge shirt, which isn't, and a tan golf hat. Very white hair, long enough, but beard a bit thinner than ideal, and his cheeks could be rosier. I'm gonna throw him back. I can afford to be picky. I've got so many to choose from.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

My fiction mood

My reaction to the fiction section is a very good barometer of my mood. If I am dazzled by the bewildering and sophisticated magic of the literature on display, the testaments to art at a profound level far surpassing our thin notions of God, then I should be okay. But when I am shelving my way through fiction and become convinced, in reading jacket quotes, synopsis, bios, epigraphs, dedications, and stray passages, that though I am encountering hundreds of different authors, hundreds of different books, it is all, in reality, one book, over and over, with a few unimportant changes between each of them, then I know I am in trouble for the day. I should seek out quiet places as often as possible and just...

sit there.

The one book? How is it described? This is it:

Fusing tragedy and hope in this heart wrenching masterpiece is only part of so and so's brilliance. This (Pulitzer, Booker, National Book Award, PEN/Faulkner award) winning author has crafted a narrative that explores the deepest meanings of what it is to be human. So and so takes us on a journey down to the souls of characters that are beyond our love and hate while evoking both. This book and it's small/large fictional town/city of Whatsit will stand testament to the power of evocation and to the mastery of one of our greatest living authors. This book and the characters of Whatsit, will live forever in the shattered remains of your heart.

No, really, some days they're all like this, and I either want to read them, or hide under the stairs. It's under the stairs today for me.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Furniture store

I have been doing a lot of furniture shopping lately. My wife and I venture off into one furniture store after another. My focus is only partly on the furniture. I like the air conditioning. I like the sitting. I am keenly interested in the music. Often the music is jazz. Sometimes it is very good. Hip places these days are intensely focused on mid modern, which covers, in practice if not by definition, furniture and design and suchlike from the late 50s to maybe the mid seventies. I know some of this stuff from childhood. Time and memory has made it hideous and charming. For music in these places it is Big band, rat pack sixties, and the non-rock pop of the era. It's all pretty entertaining.

The workers too at furniture stores interest me. They are not clerks. Indeed, they belong to a different genus than clerks. They are sales people.  Clerks tend to be in complicated tension with Capitalism. Sales people are an ultimate expression of Capitalism. These furniture folk seem to mostly be commissioned sales people. Their very livelihood mainly depends upon you actually buying stuff as they attend upon you. A clerk's livelihood mainly depends upon you not shooting them, that and upon their ability to live on a modest budget. But what I really think of for an analogy is from the animal kingdom. Clerks are like, um, maybe beetles. You know, like, look at that little beetle! It's so cute and industrious rolling that dung around! Or, look at that little beetle, it's so shiny! Why is it just sitting there? Is it dead? Poke it.

Furniture sales people are like spiders. 

You walk in the store, maybe you touch a fabric. A reverberation sounds out through all the fabrics and deep into the store. Suddenly a sales person appears right before you to ask if you need help. You never see them move fast, but they can be right up close at a moments notice, instantly at your right hand, attendant, ready, with a claim and possession. A gruff "Just looking" sends them back deep into a quiet heart of the store. Where is it, that quiet heart? I don't know, but start to like something, have a question, or just remain in the store long enough, and there, instantly, they are again.

Yes, yes, I know they are not spiders. They do not want to wrap you in a cocoon of death and suck the life juices out of you. They do not want to eat you. While a couple of these sales people were alarmingly offensive, I found most of the sales people to be nice and, on the surface, not so dissimilar from clerks, good clerks that is. They could be caring, helpful, and at our service. But these sales people do care just a little bit more, and though, in the best of them, you will never see it, there is a gleam in their eye, an avid, hungry gleam. Of course they want to eat you. Everyone's gotta eat. It's not personal.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Our brutal return instructions

If you want to return items to our exterior, drive-up, automated return book drop you drive up to a little door, in the middle of a brick wall,  just maybe about five inches high, that raises up very smoothly and slowly when approached.  And just as you activate it by approaching, a deep voiced recording says nicely "Please return your materials one at a time." At this point you put a stack of six children's books into the slot, then a stack of three dvds, and finally two fat novels that you have to sort of squeeze and shove to get through the slot together.

Just kidding. You don't do this. Some people do, but not very many and not you. But, alas, some people really do. I have tried to listen in my heart for who these people are, but it's a lot of work. The best I could get to is that they are so wildly distracted by the cure for cancer they are working on in their head that they don't hear the voice.  Or, maybe, if the belt is moving super slow, because the machine is under heavy return load, they are making the executive decision to defy the return process request of "One at a time" because they are dropping off their items while on the way to the hospital to have a finger reattached, or they could be firemen on the way to a fire. They could be deaf. They could be rocking out too intensely to the most awesome, blistering guitar solo ever recorded, they could know that "One at a time" guy from somewhere and have a really ugly history.

Whatever they are up to that causes them to return items in a stack, in defiance of deep voiced instructive guy, it should be a very very powerful thing, such a divine emergency, or so understandable a mistake. And the reason it should be such a strong thing is because on our side of the wall, when all the little items come in, and, suddenly, unexpectedly they are in stacks, each stack feels like a little slap in the face, or like someone put a gob of phlegm in there,  or maybe, instead of three books, like they put in three sheets of paper, one after the other, and the first one says "I", and the second says "HATE" and the third says "YOU."

Maybe the fact that these stacks feel like hate mail, or spit, seems silly to you. But you would be no different working this machine. I have seen even the mildest mannered of us all, the least confrontational, yelling "One at a time!" at the slot even though it is unlikely they can be heard. They try to sound reasonable, but you can hear them coming unhinged.  No one is immune. Some leave notes on the patron record. Some take it out on the books. I personally like to pick up one of the offending books like maybe I'm going to throw it in the garbage. I think I even mean to for a second. An unrealistic scenario plays out in my head. The patron saying "I know I returned it in the book drop."

"Did you return it in a stack?" I ask "The machine will easily lose items returned in a stack, destroys them, we have to charge the patron. We have no choice."

It all passes. I don't throw good books in the garbage, or yell through the slot. I unstack the books. It is a small indignity. Small is too big. It is a tiny indignity, and it is just part of the job. I can handle a few stacks a day, I can shoulder these little indignities. What do I expect anyway, what with all our confusing rules?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Bad news

It is always a moment that sticks in my throat, a momentary touch of toil in my job unlike any of the other toils. and it is worse when my dealings with the patron are warm. We are chatting maybe about their Portugal guidebooks, the ones they are bringing to check out. They tell me excitedly about their plans, and I tell them about that nice gelato place in Lisbon, or about the fabulous cafe' Pois (pronounced, I think, poysh). They want to know more. And while we're talking they give me their Library card. I bring up their record and everything stops. I have some bad news.

Oh how I pity a Doctor. My burden and bad news is but a trifle next to someone having to tell someone that they have some terrible cancer or something, but, nevertheless, I find no joy in it.

"You have $150 in late fines." I say in the gentle tones of an undertaker. "And these four DVDs are still out and overdue." I add, turning the screen towards them.

Our warm chat is over.

If there is any saving grace it is that people rarely take the news as hard as I think they will. I can't think of anyone ever breaking down in tears, and hostile belligerence is very rare. To tell you the truth I think the sort of people whose Library borrowing can go so completely pear-shaped tend to be, at least generally, the sort of people who are used to it, and the sort of people who take it with aplomb.

"A hundred fifty dollars?" They might say. "I'll write you a check."

No worries, huh?

I just hope it doesn't bounce.

Sunday, September 8, 2013


I have spent much of my day today writing.

"What have you been writing?" You ask. 

Why, blog posts of course. Did you think I was working on a novel or something? I may be old school, but not that old school. More 2007 than 1886.

And so writing all day I have said pretty much all the important things I wanted to say. This is always a good time to come write my Sunday post, the fallow post. There is not overmuch order to it, really what comes up can just come up. Today is a field of weeds for you. If you are fortunate enough to find some wildflowers pick them freely. Tonight we plow this all under and tomorrow we get a richer and fresher soil.

Today it is quiet here and songbirds and flocks of blackbirds poke around under a gray sky. Tomorrow I will be eager to tell you things once again.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Like other things

A few days ago my colleague, Dave, who, for some reason I'm not clear on, is my only colleague I freely name on this blog, brought to my attention the tagline of a book or DVD he came across while emptying a bin: "Like Downton Abbey, but with magic!"  We thought this was pretty amusing. It had been a very long day and we were very eager to be amused. Perhaps what seemed amusing is that "magic" seemed so antithetical to the essential nature of Downton Abbey, and so made its eagerness of association especially desperate and silly seeming. But who knows, there are only so many kinds of things around, and much is like much else. Perhaps it pretty much is Downton Abbey, but with magic. I myself have always fancied that this blog is a lot like Don Quixote, only in English, and Non-fiction, and in blog form. For the record though, I'm not saying Dave is anything like Sancho Panza. You can draw your own analogies here. Since I'm not selling this with taglines, you'll have to.

Friday, September 6, 2013

She is leaving

I try to be circumspect in how I discuss my co-workers, not so much generally, but in the specific. The foibles of a basically decent co-worker are certainly fodder for this blog, but not if they can't be separated some from the actual person, and tempered by that person's virtues even as that person is disguised. Curiously, it is always a delight and surprise to me, but some of my co-workers read this blog, and I have no wish to wound or to expose them.

But some don't read this blog. And some are not quite in that "basically decent" category.

While I suspect it is an immutable law of humanity that all people have some virtues, some people have cut wrecking paths through life. Occasionally those wrecking paths are run right through my work world. They have burned and scarred ground in the history of my library. And while these people are great for stories and staff unity, for the bizarre carnival colorings of our world, we should not lose sight that they are destroyers, and by their very nature have eschewed our protection. On the contrary, if we have any job it is to watch these people, keep them in check, and speak truth to them. Patching the wounds people like this inflict on the public and sometimes on my colleagues, for instance, is as much my job as is registering library cards. And speaking about a person like this with more clarity and lack of forgiveness than of a co-worker who is trying, is, to my mind, not just fair, but right.

And so I come to report today that one of these people is leaving us, retiring. I can see her now through the window I am sitting near, as I am typing, on my dinner break. My association with her is long and I still feel a certain kind of affection for her, a slight touch of sympathy. I am surprised it has survived, though there have been many times in our history where it has gone dark altogether. Like I said, small virtues, a sense of humor, playfulness even, can be readily apparent in her. Also like I said, all have some virtues, but a few flowers poking up through burnt and ruined ground makes for some heartbreaking poignancy while still remaining a long way from healing that ground. She has committed no great or singular crimes that I know of. Whatever evil is there is truly mundane and almost easy to forget, especially in these quieter days, when her fangs have dulled and her effect has been quieted by poor health, a mellowing of age and a diffusion of her personality in a changed Library dynamic. It would not be so hard to take the small virtues, the sins made comical by softening time, and the fact that it is over, that in a way it has been over for awhile, to say an almost nostalgic goodbye. There goes one of our own. There goes someone who has been part of what defined this place for thirty years. There goes someone around whom so much spent drama was once spun. There goes someone who we will never really be able to explain to the workers to come. There is no way to convey that persecuted, Eeyore gruffness of hers, that intensely unwelcoming approach to the patrons, that profound unhelpfulness. Who would believe it? The newer people already don't really understand who she is, not now that there are worse people, worse in a modern way, failing all of us and this place in a way that is contemporary. She is history. Couldn't we just wave as she drifts off into the horizon, shed a (metaphorical) tear for lost youth, different times, and long faded grievance?


She hurt a lot of people. She hurt a lot of people. Maybe none so much that anyone carries so much of a wound anymore. There is that. But. People cried in the bathroom after encounters with her. They were locked in months long pitched battles about nothing, that they could not choose not to fight. She alone in her time filed more grievances than all the other people in my library system put together over that same time period. Thousands of patrons had their days ruined by that needlessly grudging, antagonistic, unhelpful woman. Some feared her. And none of it, not for a second, was for something constructive. It was always to serve some unresolved horror in herself, to protect her from any change, any self examination, and any reckoning.

Do I want her to read this? No. Do I want to hurt her? No. Would I be delighted at her self reflection, apology, and pursuit of redemption? I would be amazed and dazzled. But I do not believe it is coming. And to you great cultural purveyors of forgiveness I say this:

I sit here of sound mind and heart. My spirit is calm and without rancor and whole. Forgiveness is beautiful and powerful and profound, but forgiveness is only disrespected when bestowed unsought and unasked. And contrary to all you may have heard, wrongly given, it does not ennoble and heal the heart from which it issues, rather it degrades it because it plays too light with truth, and no heart can be sound without truth. The uncountable, dazzling thousands of stabs of pain my co-worker has inflicted stand in the small fabrics of history forever, and though I suppose it is possible for every one of them to heal in their victim's hearts, there is no chance of absolution without her, and the book of these deeds belongs open, forever.

My co-worker is leaving. The time when that would have engendered a profound relief and joy is passed. Now the newer people can merely see it is a good thing, and the veterans are merely... amazed. I don't believe I have ever had a colleague leave the Library without my feeling at least some touch of sadness. I have traveled a long way with this one and that touch is not so small here. But as long as there is a single star in the sky it will stand testament to the grief you have sown in this world, just as it will stand testament to the joy.