Friday, January 31, 2014

Tech Problems

I suppose every library department, maybe every department everywhere, has their moment in the sun (in the shade?) where they really hit their stride in sucking. For the past month or so our Computer Services department has been, um, struggling. It started off slowly enough. A printer or computer would go down, sometimes an important one. The automation people would arrive on the scene, mess about, and leave with the problem fixed. But there was something alarming in how they would say it was fixed "for now".  Fifteen minutes or an hour or two later we'd go through the same thing with the same piece of equipment. It all accelerated from there. We'd repeat the process half a dozen times. Response times slowed or responses merely disappeared. Makeshift post it note signs saying "Work order sent in" would be put onto more and more pieces of equipment. Essential workstations would sit abandoned. Once friendly and voluble tech staff would clam up suddenly when the issues of the broken things were brought up. The makeshift post it note signs would get so old and tired that they'd curl and fall off the abandoned machines. The head of automation would make rare, Reaganesque appearances where he would evince surprise that anything was broken, say they would be taken care of, and disappear into his reclusive basement lair for several days, presumably too busy to respond to increasingly strident emails.

I have taken it hard. I heartily dislike the layout and inconveniences of the alternate workstations we're forced to use. And because of this I have perhaps been a bit immoderate in my scathing commentary about Automation Services. But it all might be a little unfair. We all hit bad patches sometimes. Automation Services could at any moment turn dynamic and effective once again. And my turn in the shade could come soon. What if, for mysterious reasons, I start shelving every single book alphabetically by the first name of the author, or registering every new patron under the name "Wansu Reeds Morbuks"? What if I transfer every call we get at the library to the home of a confused elderly patron of ours named Ethel Winton? What if I just can't help doing all this no matter what polite correctives people suggest to me? I could become self conscious and highly insecure about my sudden rash of failings. I could get cagey, hide in the bathroom, and deny everything: "Why would I transfer people to Ethel Winton's number? That's absurd! I don't even know her phone number very well." If it does happen like this, I hope others are more understanding of me than I have been of our Automation Services. I hope they are as understanding as I shall now endeavor to be.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A sunny day at the library

There is no shortage of cynicisms here at the library I work at. My co-workers complain about the patrons regularly, and we're pretty free with the complaints about each other too. We have petty thefts here, bizarre personalities, and unpleasant encounters with bodily fluids. From the moment I started working here it has come up, in idle staff conversation, about how they should make a sitcom about this place, a zany library sitcom where crazy things happen to the crazy staff and their crazy patrons. While I imagine many a worker fancies their workplace would be rich fodder for a sitcom, I don't object to them or to any of my co-workers' sitcom contentions over the years. A sitcom is fine. But despite all my own personal crankiness, my disaffectedness, and all my jaded complaints, despite even my own penchant for screwball comedy, I don't, at heart, see my workplace, the library, in the guise of a sitcom. Nope.

Before I tell you what TV show my library is like, before I set up particular expectations or make you feel like surely I'm stretching the point, let me just tell you what it's like here at the library. Not what it's like all the time, or everyday, but enough, and deep down in its heart, if you let it in.

Tonight, for instance. I'm out at the front desk working with a perfectly pleasant and competent co-worker. Here come two paramedics. They're just here getting some movies, but they're our special guests and so we happily talk about life as a paramedic for a bit. It's interesting. Another patron comes to the desk. This one has music to take home that he is very excited about. He calls me by my name. We are very friendly with each other in a formal way. People talk about how cold it is outside, in simple terms, but with humor, and agreement. Sometime crabby people come, but they're funny. Differently abled people visit. Sometimes they're nice, sometimes they're troubled, but they're interesting for being different. There's Black people and White people and Asian people, Native Americans, Italians, Indians, Hmong, African, Central American, and on and on. It's a real picture of the world. Some people are just learning English and it is harder to communicate with them, so we use signs with each other and talk slower and are relieved when we understand one another. We smile. The people who think it's all a sitcom will tell you that a lot of the people are very rude, but I don't believe it. On the contrary I am amazed at how polite everyone can be. They wait in line patiently. They are not loud. They say please and thank you. They laugh at my jokes. I laugh at theirs. They say "Can I get a library card?" and "Do you have this book?" and "Can I pay my fine?" and "Can you help me with the computer?" and "Can you answer a question?"

And the answer is "Yes."  "Yes" is the answer.

It's a big library, like an outside space, but inside and safe. It's like a wonderful stage set, a playground, a store where everything is free. Even with all the people coming through such a big place I know probably a third of them at least a tiny bit. Everyone is kind of friendly and everyone's time feels like it's free time. We talk about how we are, happy goings on, trips to foreign places, books and movies and music we like. No one pretends it's perfect. There are problems. We discuss them civilly. People get sad. People are troubled, but it's warm in here, and almost everyone comes here simply because they want to be here.

The air is sweet. Everything's A-OK. There are friendly neighbors there. That's where we meet. In my heart of hearts I am pretty sure, aye, nearly positive, that I work on Sesame Street.

Yes, Sesame Street.

Sunny day.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Working hard

One of my favorite stories from behind the scenes at my library comes from a long past era. The account, as I heard it from one of the involved parties, concerned two library pages who were working in a small backroom where we used to process the book drop and transit materials. The two pages were working side by side on their two computers. One of the pages turned to the other and said "Hey, slow down. You'll make the rest of us look bad!"

I am, to some extent, a defender of the slacker elements in all jobs. Indeed, I believe that all jobs are full of unacknowledged shirking. Actually I believe any number of irascible, truthful, unconventional things about work. I am on the side of the downtrodden, the low paid and the powerless. I believe in the twenty hour workweek and the $25 minimum hourly wage. Nevertheless I do not see eye to eye with this page urging the work slowdown. It is in violation of the code that says: don't correct a co-worker unless they are doing something wrong (and unless you can do it nicely, and you're sure of it). And it misunderstands the following important slacker principle: there is only so much work to be done, one should avoid getting in the way of other people doing it.

We have, at my job these days, a few small areas of "too much working"  that people get upset about. This getting upset has a lot to do with flow, with things piling up, and with things being hard to find. But I am not one to get worked up about it. Let people throw themselves into the work. It's rare and beautiful enough that it should not be tampered with. If I encounter a place where a surge of work has piled up I can live with it. Somewhere along the grand flow there is going to be less to do. 

And I will be there to do it.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

How to judge any public library, a test

I had a somewhat negative reaction recently to a couple of studies that purported to measure the quality of libraries through statistics. I decided that surely there is a better way and devised the following test to determine how good any public library is.

It is point based. The more points, the better the library!

Though I haven't tested this test, I did a comprehensive study of this test that shows it will be entirely accurate.

You can run this test on your own library, though it will work a lot better if you wear a disguise.

The Five Part Test:

1.  Approach any service desk and say "Knock, knock."

If they say "There are only two known "good" knock knock jokes. I hope this is the third" they get 5 points!

If they say "Ohhh! A knock knock joke. I love knock knock jokes!" they get 3 points.

If they say "That's it. I quit!" and storm off they get just 1 point.

If they say "I don't understand." they don't get any points.

2. Collection:

 If the library has a copy of Beck's CD Midnite Vultures on the shelf they get 3 points. If a staff member mentions that Beck looks a lot like Harpo Marx they get 3 more points! If the name "Debra" is spoken in your hearing range over the course of the next week add 3 more points. If this seems inscrutable there's a link in red that should clarify things.

3. Pet points:

Cat: 7
Frog: 2
Giraffe: 6
Any rodent, Pygmy Jerboa through R.O.U.S.: 1 (must not be considered "pest" to qualify)
Bird: .25 per bird but 3 points for ravens
Tarantula: 1, mostly to prove I am not ruled by my arachnophobia but rather am mature master of my fears despite sort of screaming yesterday when the small spider sort of flung towards me off the curtains at my house.
Fish: 1 point per foot of length
Octopus: octopi should not be kept in captivity. If the library you are testing has an octopus, free it!

3a. If when freeing the library octopus:

It inspires a library worker to write a Caldecott winning children's book about it: 3 points
You are shushed by a librarian: 2 points
The octopus "Inks": 1 point. Ouch.

4. Bathrooms!

Theme bathrooms: 5 points
Smells like coffee: 3 points
Octopus "Ink" all over floor: 2 points
Popular!: 1 point
Toilet in stacks: Use your own judgement in awarding of points

5. Library cards:

Handcrafted by artisan: 6 points
A chatty process: 3 points
Byzantine: 1 point
Not for your type of people: no points

Please enter your library's point total in the comments section below for comparison's sake. Thank you.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Weather events

It snowed again last night and the wind is ripping around in fascinating spirals. The fine, light snow illustrates the fierce low swirling of the wind. At my view, from the front desk of the library, out past the rental books and the troughs of DVDs, through the windows onto a courtyard formed on one side by the coffee shop, on the other the teen room, I can see the snow streaming down off the roof at a ferocious speed. The ground drives the snow over in an elegant curve towards the teen room walls which drive it up, but the snow blowing off the roof pushes it back down to that space's exact center. Then suddenly all the wind and snow are out of places to go, and the whole lovely spiraling swirl comes apart into chaos.

It's windy.

There is another way for me to know it is windy out there. All the patrons tell me so. Well, maybe just half of them, but that's a lot of people. "It's really windy out there!" they say. There's a bit of variation on that quote, but not much.

This winter is a fine one for weather events. There may be several ways by which to explain what a weather event is, but by far the simplest way, here, is to say that a weather event is any condition of the outside world that causes most patrons to comment on it to me. Tomorrow, during the time I am likely to be at the front desk, the temperature should be somewhere between minus 10 and minus 15. I will hear the phrase "Keep warm." 150 times. One hundred fifty times! That is a weather event.

The other indication of a weather event is that the library gets much more quiet than usual.  Suffering the scars of many years of working a library that was far busier than we could reasonably handle, I am always very keen on the library being more quiet than usual. I am so keen on it that I can feel cheated when terrible weather fails to stem the great tide of library patrons. Yes, sometimes these two indicators of a weather event do not match up and we get half a weather event. The people of my city get sick of being limited by relentlessly awful weather. They go about their business regardless of the foot of snow that fell. "Incredible all the snow out there!" they tell me, a lot of them tell me. Two hundred people say to me "Don't go out if you don't have to. It's terrible out there!" 

"Then what are you doing here?" I think, but I don't say it. It's their library, and welcome to it. I just help them as I can, and when they're leaving, I merely say "Keep warm."

Sunday, January 26, 2014


Have you ever read a book? It is traditional in a lot of books for the author to write a little bit about all the people who helped the author. Sometimes the author gets pretty effusive about all these fabulous readers and agents and publishers and editors. Then the author takes responsibility for all the errors and failures, whatever they may be, that are in the book, saying that these errors are the author's own. It's an okay tradition. I won't make fun of it here. It is part of how the world works. There are great things in how the world works, beautiful and grave, magical and fierce. But I just wanted to tell you, and me, because it is easy to forget, that we defy the world here. Hopelessly. This blog is in opposition. It is part of our mission. It is the only way to get at some truth that may be impossible to get at. But we try. And any failures here are not my fault. And all the successes establish my innocence, and are my own.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Last Harbor Library Blog 3: It's what we do!

This is the third post in the blog of The Last Harbor Library.

The first post concerned our blogger, Nate, being instructed to write a blog, for the library, by the imperious leader of The Last Harbor Library, Amelia Browning. The post can be found here.

The second post is too complicated to explain and is recapped a bit in today's post anyway. It is here.

Explanation for this blog within a blog can be found here.

Last Harbor's blog as a separate, but only barely fleshed out at this time, entity, can be found here

It's What We Do!

In my last post I collected a stray library patron to provide cover for me as I headed off to report on exactly what your Last Harbor Library staff was up to on a cold, midwinter, midweek afternoon. It is all part of my plan to differentiate our library blog from other library blogs by giving you a no holds barred look at the behind the scenes operation of our library. Other library blogs like to keep you appraised of exciting events at their library. We have no exciting events, thus my alternate approach.

To help us along on our tour I have pictures. I start with my hijacked patron, Kent Carlson:

I said all I could manage to say about Kent in my last post, so I'll move right along to the first co-worker I encountered, Beth Selly, a Library Page who I asked to cover the front desk:

Beth, when we found her, was in the back room with the only cart of unshelved books in the library. It wasn't full. There were about 18 books on it. She could have shelved them in five minutes, but was using them as a kind of cover, much like I was using Kent as cover to pursue my real agenda. Her real agenda was to read. She was reading The Face of Battle by John Keegan. I asked her to watch the desk for me and she agreed nicely enough. She brought her cart and book to the front desk. She said "Hey, Kent." And never, at any point during any of it, did she stop reading The Face of Battle by John Keegan, which, it turns out, is an esteemed book of military history.

Next up was Librarian Assistant Linda Howe. She was leaning against one of our massive pillars and sketched a distracted wave at Kent and I with her cell phone. Here she is:

She was on her phone giving detailed instructions about everything to her elderly father. Her elderly father seemed to be endeavoring mightily not to understand a single one of them.

In the staff offices we found our Computer person, Lila Twofeather animatedly recounting an episode of the TV show Louie to Programs Manager (not TV programs!), Jay Sobanski:

I think you may be starting to get the idea, so I will run through the rest of the list a bit more quickly.  

Vicki David, Librarian, listening to jazz, complicated jazz I am not sure I understand as music.

Clare Tompkins, Student Worker, eating a bag of pretzels very slowly and with great concentration.

Mike Dahlberg, Janitor, messing about with his phone.

That was most of our staff. Of course, there was one person working who I have not accounted for here, so Kent and I headed upstairs to check on her. Amelia Browning, Head Librarian, was at the librarian's desk, engaged mysteriously with massive ye olde library sorts of volumes, a pencil, several ledgers. She looked up at us.

"Kent here, and I, have toured the entire library" I said. "Other than myself, not a single staff member is doing a lick of work, though they all seem fairly contented."

"And what exactly is the work you are doing?" Asked Ms. Browning.

"Blogging." I replied. Kent snickered.

"Well, write it up." Ms. Browning said as she waved me away with a backhand gesture of her hand.

And so I have.


Friday, January 24, 2014

Your library ranking

Yesterday I  summarily dismissed a German University's study of the best libraries in the world. I felt there could be nothing fundamentally solid in analysis based on data without experience. It is not that they could not say something meaningful about their top U.S. library, Chicago, based on statistical information, but for them to make even the barest judgement of whether Chicago's library is terrible, mediocre, or brilliant in any actual sense, without walking into the place, is a lie. A big fat German University lie.

But I am forced to admit it is very easy for a person who grew up watching Hogan's Heroes reruns to call a bunch of Germans liars. When it has come to my own national library magazine carefully bestowing anywhere from zero to five stars to all the country's libraries I have figured they must at least sort of know what they're up to. Don't they?

Nope. They'd get on very well with the Germans.

Wait! I cry. But my library system got three stars! I thought almost for sure my extreme helpfulness with troubled old men who want Laurel and Hardy movies was made known to the Library Journal crew of analysts.


Their small handful of parameters appears mostly to do with per capita check outs, per capita visits, per capita program attendance, and per capita internet use. That's about it. In one minute I could think of ten vastly better parameters on which to judge a library. I could do it while making a tempeh and kale sandwich. Given a few days I could come up with thousands of better parameters. But let's just go with a random ten:

1. Are the bathrooms private?

2. How many Nero Wolfe books are there on the shelf?

3. What can the librarian who buys CDs tell you about Jack White off the top of his or her head?

4. How many procedural steps must one go through to get on an internet computer?

5. What is the total number of weird and extremely interesting things in the library?

6. If you ask a librarian a flippant informational question do you get a flippant answer or a detailed one.

7.  How many hours are they open?

8.  How much local, community event information is posted there?

9.  How does the place smell?

10.  How many places are there where you'd really like to sit for awhile?

11.  Do they have Ulysses by James Joyce?

Oh, right. I'll stop, but I could go on, and on, and on, and on. And I probably will, at the least provocation.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Best library!

In my ceaseless desert wanderings of the internet I have come upon word that the Chicago Public Library is the best library in the country. I saw this at a distance, my eyes stinging with sand, my judgement dessicated by thirst, and I stumbled toward it, thinking there might finally be something to drink there.

There wasn't. It was another mirage. Is it all mirages on the Internet? Are we just warming our brains up here to be strapped into goggled VR suits, flailing at phantoms? Maybe. All I know is that I thirstily rushed towards the Chicago Public Library being the best library in the country and found...


More sand.

There was a short, thin article I have no intention of directing you to here, referring with appalling generality to a German University Study that decided The Chicago Public Library is the very best library in all of our country. I needed at that point to look no further into it. Like Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe holding the essential clue, I had enough to know there was no merit there. Plus my mouth was full of sand.

Let's put it this way: What if my modestly esteemed local university, say, in The College of Liberal Arts, decided to fund and execute a study to determine the greatest novel ever written. Tirelessly they labor over this task, inputting parameters such as diversity of themes, social impact, clarity of grammatical construction, richness of humor, vocabulary, setting, and character. They devise elaborate computer programs, fabulous analyzing systems, and complex tabulations. They weigh citations, copies sold, even movies made. In the end, after millions and millions of pieces of information are correlated and compiled, they compute the winner.

And they do it all without reading a single book.

This, in the end, is how all these "best library" studies go, all attempts to judge by ingredients instead of taste. I do believe there is valuable information in the ingredients, but the taste is the soul, reading is the soul, walking into the library and using it is the soul. And to judge and use words like "best" in studies devoid of experience and soul is a fool's game. A folly that will leave you drinking sand, thinking that if it is damp enough it will quench your thirst.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

How to donate books to your library

 You have some old books from the 1970s festering in some corner of your house. You thought you'd like to give them where they might be wanted and/or you figure you better do something with them quick before they liquify. You have heard your local library might take these books, but assume the whole donation thing would be far too complicated to manage without some sort of guide. 

This is that guide!

Just follow these four simple rules:

1. Libraries vary. Call your library and see if they want your books. We libraries still have phone numbers and are elated when you call us. And most of us take book donations. At my library you can just bring them in any time we're open. We will at minimum pretend to be delighted to receive you and your old books.

2. Simply pack up your books in manageably sized bags and boxes that you don't need back. Over-stacking them in bags that are falling apart will give us a unique opportunity to suffer together. Alternatively, you can put your books in bags and boxes and tell the person who you're giving them to that you need these bags and boxes back. This latter method is good if you are sort of an awful person.

3. Don't get all precious about your books. Just toss them in the box. Though we're happy to have them, none of them are terribly valuable. Except, wait, is this The Big Sleep? Holy mother of god, it's the first edition! I can't believe I am touching this! Thank you very, very much! I will never forget you! What you have done today here, well, my god, I am speechless!

4. Finally, always, always, make demands on us in inverse proportion to the quality and value of your donation. Donating a bunch of brand new books and movies we have long waiting lists for, maybe some beautiful art books to boot? Then you should insist that you need nothing, that we're the ones doing you a favor by putting them to good use. Donating mildewed and forgotten bestsellers of the 80s and 90s that appear to be infested with beetles? Insist that people come out to your car to carry them in. Demand a neat and thorough receipt. And be sure to complain later to the branch manager that we didn't seem thankful enough. 

We were thankful. We were merely afraid of losing control of our emotions.

Still confused? Call me at the library. You'd be surprised how long and at what level of detail I am willing to answer your questions. Especially if you're thinking of bringing us The Big Sleep. Wow.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

After holding its breath, the library opens

At a large and busy library like my own, there are occasionally great surges. Some of these surges are on the check out side. The summer reading program brings in large amounts of people on its momentous Saturday, and a forecasted weather event that is supposed to cripple the city sends a mighty throng in, desperate to swaddle themselves in dvds and reading material against the imminent disaster. On the return side of things the great surges are dominated by the effects of the rare days we are closed. My library closes for a whole day, like it did yesterday, only 10 or 15 times a year, and a closed day is like a bubble, pushing everything to the far side of it. The day after a closed day, like today, we get, roughly, twice as much stuff back than is usual for a day. Two days worth of check outs share one due date and one work day. Also, because it is the first day after the weekend we get three days worth of deliveries because we do not get deliveries on weekends.

It is a lot of stuff!

And while I have no great love for this vast intake of items, it always fascinates me. It sort of makes visible our great circulation digestive system. Normally stuff comes in and moves through, sometimes carts are full of books, or bins or boxes, but it is pretty well distributed. Put under the great stress, though, of an epic return day, all the elements of our system become visible in high relief, and I enjoy watching the great glut of material work its way through to the shelves. What it always reminds me of is a picture in The Little Prince. I will reproduce some vague version of it from memory:

If I recall the little prince asks people what this is a picture of. Of course, it is a picture of an elephant in a snake:

This is how I picture all our materials running through the system, as a big bulge. First there are bins and boxes and carts and piles all waiting to be fed into the machine. Then all the materials start to work into all our loader bins until we are out of empties and every bin is all swollen and full up and we are desperate. Then those bins start to get emptied into cart after cart until there is a sea of carts of books and everyone needs empty carts but no one can find them! Then they start to go out to the shelves, book by book, until the shelves are packed tight and we cannot find room for them. 

It all takes days and days, sometimes a whole week if we keep on being busy. And just like with a snake digesting an elephant you can see the whole huge swell of it moving through the back area of the library. But, of course, is is not an elephant in there. So I picture it like this:

If you were hoping I had something illuminating and profound to say about all this I am afraid I must disappoint you. It is not all epiphanies and fireworks here at the library. A lot of the time it's just, uh, a snake, er, digesting books. Well, I have pictured it that way for years. And I thought it was time to show you.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The library is closed

I have been in the library when it's closed. It is lovely, hushed, and smooth. You can look out the windows and see the people come. Even though it is a Famous Person Holiday they drive in to the parking lot. And even though the parking lot is eerie and nearly empty they get out of their cars. And even though there are big door signs that say "Closed for Holiday" they pull on the doors. And even though the glass doors are soundly locked they cup their hands and peer in. And even though it's mostly dark and vacant they knock. And even though no one comes they linger. It is one bitter pill.

I do not scoff. It is our nature to hope that what we wish to be true is true, even if all signs point otherwise. God watches over us all. People are basically good. I returned that book on time. I have a dream.

We might as well try.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


Due to some sudden impulses to make pictures for my blog, write lengthy posts, and pursue elaborate projects like The Last Harbor Library Blog, I have been running uncharacteristically close to my morning deadline. More than once this week I have been at work, late at night in my chilly basement, wrapped in my great faux sheepskin blanket like Honore Balzac (I upgraded from Victor Hugo), typing and drawing to get a post ready. So when I was thinking about this post, which needs to go up pretty soon, I had a sudden desire to sort of complain.

I like to complain. But I will not complain here. For one thing, complaining is one of those things that the less you do of it the more power it has. I would like to save up. For something really big. Also, why would I complain about needing to write my blog, which is optional, compelling, and interesting to do? I think it is a reaction to stress. I think the stress comes from thinking this has to be good. It does not have to be good. It just has to be fun. Fun fun fun! Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun!

Of course fun is a strange word. I can be very orderly about fun. I have one room in me for fun, and everything is carefully placed in there. I am not terribly neat and organized, but boy, in that fun room everything is stacked, stored, and scrupulously labeled. Often I would rather organize the things in my fun room than actually romp around with them. I stand officiously at the door of the room, managing the traffic. "You can come in. You cannot. And what makes you think you belong in fun? You do not look like fun." I have even been inclined to turn away this blog when it comes knocking at the fun room door. "Oh no." I say "You are compelling, interesting, essential. Wouldn't you be happier over in the Super Important Room?" And the blog listens to me because I am in charge of the fun room.

But I have been thinking I do not know so much about fun. I am not well employed as the librarian of the fun room, its concierge, valet, maitre d', and bouncer. I am thinking I should throw open the doors of the fun room! Fling open the windows. If some of the stuff in there wants to go out it should go out. I don't want prisoners in the fun room! How can that be fun? And if something wants to wander in, well, why not let it in. It might be interesting to see what these strange things do in the fun room. It might be fun! But whatever it is, I am thinking fun is not a category, it does not herd well, it suffers under compulsion, it shies and quails at command, instruction, and over forceful direction.

And yet too, it bursts into flower in the strangest places.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Blog of the Last Harbor Library: The question of over staffing

This is the second post in the blog of The Last Harbor Library.

The first post concerned our blogger, Nate, being instructed to write a blog, for the library, by the imperious leader of The Last Harbor Library, Amelia Browning. The post also concerned Nate's speculation as to the reasons for this instruction. The post can be found here.

Explanation for this blog within a blog can be found here.

Last Harbor's blog as a separate, but only barely fleshed out at this time, entity, can be found here. 

The Question of Over Staffing

I have received two indications that people have found their way to this newly minted Last Harbor Library Blog. The first was an actual comment on the blog page itself. A patron, or a person who roams very widely and randomly across the Internet, wondered what the books were that are in the background of the picture of our ferocious leader, Amelia Browning (below).

  It would be easy for me to glibly say that whatever the books are behind her, they will definitely be Classics. Very Important Classics! However, I took that picture, in our library, and so can find exactly what those books are. It turns out the truth is much, much worse than their being mere classics, and I think will indicate to you how profoundly confused our library is about what anyone in our town, or who visits our town, would ever want to read. Ms. Browning, in that picture, is standing in front of a prodigious shelf of books of Greek Literature. Indeed, it is but a small part of what we have of Greek Literature. I have tried to match up where she is with what we can see over her shoulders. Mostly what we can see is the Godley translations of the Persian Wars books, by Herodotus, who, it turns out, lied like a rug. I think we can also see some books by Hesiod (widely considered to be the first blogger), there might be visible a book that's sort of by Heraclitus (it's largely of things other people said he said. Heraclitus is famous for "No man ever steps in the same river twice." and has been dining out on that quote for millennia), and finally there's a good bit of Hippocrates. I won't insult you by identifying who he is, but I cannot resist mentioning that not every library on the North Shore of Lake Superior carries 2,400 year old books on what to do about "Haemorrhoids". 

If you wish for more detail and to peruse specific volumes Ms. Browning will be quite keen to walk you through the collection there. I'm far too busy writing a blog (in the spirit of Hesiod) to help you further than I have already done here.

The second indication that someone found our new blog was more blunt. Kent Carlson, a regular, walked up to the front desk, leaned on it, and said, with a twinkle in his eye "I hear you're over staffed."

This sounded familiar, but it took me a moment to place it. I let that viewpoint of our staffing drop in my very first blog post. "I said that, didn't I? We're over staffed?"

Kent nodded.
" I guess I should see if it's actually true. Would you care to come with?"

Kent gestured in a rather grand manner for me to lead on, and I headed to a readily accessible staff area.

Anna Selly, Page

If you have ever worked with the public you probably have one question right now. "What are you doing taking a wild patron back into the private works of your institution?"

Bah! I say. It's good for you, builds character, lets you see things with a fresh eye. Plus, and here is the big boon: when one has an august patron in tow, one is suddenly on library business. If I wander the library while I'm supposed to be at the front desk I am liable to attract the piercing glares of my colleagues, or, worse, my employer, whose glare can leave scars. With Kent in tow I might get a question or two ("What's up?" or "Is there anything I can help you two with?" To which I could answer "Mr. Carlson was interested in some of our operations."), but I will attract no enmity.

Of course, to tow a patron around they have to be of the right stuff. Kent Carlson is. He is large, bald, older, quiet, wry, and has absolutely nothing to do. I know he has nothing to do because:

1. He spends almost as much time in the library as me.

2. He spends almost as much time in Kelsey's Pub as he does in the library.

3. He does not read.

4. He does not drink.

Kent Carlson, Patron

I know that I earlier referred to Mr. Carlson as "august".  I know that he may be seeming less so to you now. But our library is so under visited in the winter that mere voluntary presence lends even the most dissolute character gravity. Also, managing to spend your whole life in the town of Last Harbor, make no great enemies, and acquire no police record, puts you quite high on the august curve. And for human beings it all comes down to the curve. Kent Carlson would be nearly a pauper in New York City, and he would be nearly a King in Madagascar. He would be insignificance itself in Los Angeles, but in the Last Harbor Library, he is august.

And that is the story of how Kent Carlson and myself went on a survey of the staff of the Last Harbor Library. Because it was mid afternoon we saw most of them, and we saw what they were doing. I look forward to telling you who and what that all was, and to answering the question of whether we are over staffed, but it will have to wait until my next post. A blog post should never be too terribly long, and this one is already half way to being so.


Friday, January 17, 2014

A book moves somewhere and I know it

I have not been getting enough sleep lately. Late at night I go downstairs into my bitterly cold basement, turn on a small electric heater, and wrap a giant faux sheepskin blanket around me. For some reason this makes me feel like Victor Hugo, so, naturally, I write. Blog posts, yes, but I try to make them as good as his poem The Ocean's Song, which is not as high a bar as one might think. And then I go to bed and get six hours of sleep. It is a well known scientific fact that I require 11 hours of sleep each night to function properly. So I am spending a lot of time in a strange hallucinatory daze at the library. This daze makes me a less efficient worker, but it also gives me access to strange and heightened clerking abilities. So, though most of what I am capable of at work in this sleep deprived state is, 1. reading books, 2. leaning on things, and 3. staring into space, I am also at my peak of what I'll call Heightened Library Awareness, or HLA. This is a skill that leads to feats that, from the outside, can look a bit like magic, or ESP, but really just has to do with the power of the human mind.

I'll explain.

There was a book that I loved when I was younger called The Tracker. It is Tom Brown's story of growing up spending a lot of time in the Pine Barrens, in the woods, and it is about learning about tracking, and the wilderness, from an older Native American teacher. I'll add it to my list of beloved books (here). But what I am thinking of now is the quote on the back. Tom Brown says:

When somebody moves something in your house, you notice it. When somebody moves something in the woods, I notice it.

Well, when somebody moves something in the library, I notice it.

Tom Brown, in this entertaining book, recounts some amazing abilities, say, being able to observe a few scuffs in the dirt, a mark on a tree, a bit of grass out of place, and construct an account of the travels of a small bird that ends in finding it on, yes, over on that branch there. And there is the bird.

It is not only what he has learned, but his deep presence and familiarity with the woods.

I am very familiar with this library. I am interested, and I am here a lot. Sometimes I'll be listening to the radio, or hear people discussing books, and a book will come up that I've never read, but invariably the cover will appear vividly in my mind, perhaps a blurb from the back, and its precise location on the shelves. Sometimes a patron will come to the front desk and say "I just have a quick question." and I will know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what the question is.

But it is only when I am exhausted, with my conscious mind too bleary to put up a fight, that my strongest HLA, heightened library awareness, comes through.

A woman comes to the desk.

"It's in the Board Room." I say. "Go upstairs. Left, and left again."

Not believing I can know the answer to her question before she asks, she asks. "Where is the PACA meeting?"

"It's in the Board Room." I say. "Go upstairs. Left, and left again."

I am walking through the library in a daze, perhaps on some vague mission to get some Mo Willems books from the kids' room, when a man at a computer waves an arm to flag me down. I don't even look. "After you hit print, select "shrink to fit page" on the lower right." I say it not even breaking my shambling stride.

"How did you know that?" The man calls after me. "How did you know that!"

I'm in the back tending the machine, or leaning on the machine, or whatever. A couple co-workers come back because a book that a patron had on a table got "cleaned up" and put onto the machine. No one remembers what the book was. It could be anything in 25 bins. I walk to one bin and pull out a paperback. "What about this one?" They laugh. I am being silly again. "No, no, try this one." I say. Me and my comedy routines. One co-worker heads back to the patron for more information. I stand there in my stupor saying "This one. This one." 

It ends up being that one indeed.

Even writing this Dave asks to use the computer for a minute. He needs to put something to mending.

"It's stained." I say. And though you cannot see that until you open the book, it is.

So how do I do this? How do I know all this?

I've seen it all. Over and over. And I am so tired. Too tired to pretend I don't know exactly what's going on in this place just to be polite. I will tell you this though. All of these magic tricks put together are probably not worth being able to get a whole cart of books shelved without staring into space drooling for 45 minutes.

I have got to get some sleep.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Highlights from an hour at the library front desk

1. Waived $24 in fines from a patron's record due to their medical emergency involving a detached retina. Did not ask for proof, but as a reward, apparently, for my waiving the fine, I did get to see a picture of the bloody eyeball.

2. Was able to accurately answer, in one try, the patron's question of "Oh, what's the name of that woman author who's so funny?"  with "Janet Evanovich."

3. Man had a cell phone conversation while I was helping him so I decided to hold him up to public ridicule by publishing his name shamingly on my widely influential blog. I privately recanted of my plans when he nicely apologized, but I'm keeping a bloody eyeball on him.

4. Checked out BY HAND (sort of like in the old days) 42 books to a family that forgot its library cards. I told them that it would help facilitate the check in process if, when they returned them, they included a synopsis of each book.

That concludes the highlights. Thankfully there were no lowlights.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Wabi Sabi Library

Wabi Sabi is a Japanese aesthetic valuing the imperfection in things, the imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. The slow, the weathered, the authentic and the unfinished. I am very enthusiastic about Wabi Sabi and seek at all times to bring the principles and beauty of Wabi Sabi to my Library. This is why when someone comes to my desk and says "I would like to renew this book." I say "I would like for this to happen too. Perhaps if we both concentrate."

Am I being a smart aleck? No indeed. I am merely bringing a curve to our interaction, weathering it, aging it. I am saying "You have come to no slick, plastic, technologically clean library. I am not a figure of precise efficiency. We just both happen to be here. Let me see if I can help you out. I am not slow, but we must respect time."

I work in a white library, high ceilings, more white, and glass. It strives for a clean look, sometimes minimal, sometimes plastic, sometimes simple, and sometimes dreaming it is an expression of technology itself. There is little to recognize in it of the natural world, and yet ever it spills in. Real light falls through the windows. Weathered people walk through in their thousands, all snowflakes, not a single one here for the same thing. Our general plans for what we do in the library always crack. Every person in the library uses it ever so slightly to the left or right, above or below, before or after, of its intended purposes.

The books themselves start as a replicative technology. We get our small share of a thousand print run, or our few of ten thousand identical copies. But our library wears them into unique, battered, smoothed, and decaying objects. What library user who gets to choose from three copies on the shelf of the same old book doesn't know this? The cover of one is grubby and beaten. Another seems swollen and loose. A last one is stained but pleasantly squared. Our beating heart is all these books, shaped by hands into their own fingerprints, or, like the toe of a beloved marble statue, kissed away.

My library, a modern institution, is ever striving for currency, perfection, stasis, vacuum sealed freshness. It is eager to be slick and vital and rich and fresh. But it will never happen. The paint will keep cracking. I will keep letting the wind in. I will be bending the books. For good or ill we will all touch everything here, aye, the world will touch everything, and if we let it, make it better.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The six joys of training people

Just a few days ago I was telling you about our five new clerk trainees. This led to a discussion of our hiring processes, which caused the post to get so long that the only way I could figure out how to end it quickly was to employ the plot and characters of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Oddly, though, none of that was what I meant to write. You'd be surprised how little control I have over what I write here. There's a steering committee in my brain. AAAHHH! THERE'S A STEERING COMMITTEE, IN MY BRAIN! They're nice though. Sometimes I think they're even nicer than me, so, it's okay.

Anyway, lately we have all these new people we're training. In the old days, when my job was really brutal and awful, I used to love training people. Somehow it was way better just telling a person what to do in detail than actually doing it. Now that my work level is tolerable, and with the cold it has been exceptionally quiet and so very tolerable, it has been a little sad not to be able to disappear into my own little private tasks and routines. But as I took my turns training various people along, I did find things to appreciate about it all. Indeed, I found six things to appreciate:

1. The stretching of the old prognostication muscles. How fast can I spot just what sort of weakness the trainee will ultimately have? The answer is, pretty darn fast. Trainee number one is aloof and will end in resenting everything and everyone. Trainee number two will be forever unable to learn a third gear to shift into. Trainee number three will never know how to stop and breathe and direct her energy properly and thus will soon drive all her co-workers mad.

2. I get in on the ground floor of forming their habits and philosophy. "This isn't an official rule. You are technically allowed to do this, but if you do so you will be widely resented."  I'm pretty sure I said something just like that this week. Sometimes I frighten myself!

3. I get the feeling of great skill, speed and mastery, by comparison. Watching a trainee empty a bin into boxes knowing that they are taking 12 times as long as I take can be a little frustrating, but it also makes me feel almost supernaturally fast.

4. I get to talk and talk about clerking. Yes, I get to muse, philosophize, lecture and instruct all about clerking, about the history of clerking and about the history of clerking at the library. You may well wonder why anyone would want to do that. My only answer, for good or ill, is 300 exhaustive blog posts. I hope you have read them all.

5. Training these people is my only hope of learning their names. Actually, I'm a bit embarrassed to say that I still don't really know them, mostly.

6. When they are my deeply embittered co workers I will be able to remember their sunny innocence. They won't believe me, but I'll know.