Friday, March 30, 2012

Things I've Learned in the Library: An Education

At the library, I learn something new every day. Not only do I spend my days surrounded by the accumulated history and knowledge of mankind, but I get to meet the people who need that knowledge and hear all about their projects and ambitions.

While most people look no further than Google to satisfy their idle curiosities, my personal research projects always begin in the library. Last summer when I decided to learn everything science could teach me about the majestic and legendary giant squid, I started with a library book. I took copious notes from it, copied whole chapters, and quoted interesting passages to my long-suffering loved ones. When I finally returned the book to the library, after several renewals and considerable late fees, my husband drank a toast to the book’s eviction from our home.

Sometimes Google is all you need, and I do more Google searches at the library than I would in other jobs. Sometimes you think you’re going to have an ordinary day, and then you end up Googling lobsters. You see, I have a deep and abiding fear of crabs. Therefore my coworkers – darling, lovely people that they are – delight in showing me every crustacean that turns up in the news, such as the report of the newly discovered hairy lobster, complete with hideous and explicit photographs, which made the front page of the paper several months ago and has fueled my nightmares ever since. Or the rare blue lobster someone captured in one of the great lakes, which had me and Charlotte, a volunteer, rushing to the internet to see if it was fake. A simple Google image search for “lobster colors” not only verified the story but also enlightened us to the existence of rare yellow lobsters, white albino lobsters, and translucent yucky lobsters which I have not succeeded in forgetting since then no matter how hard I try.

Academic researches aside, I’ve learned many practical things working at the library. Early in my library career I learned that a fully cooked piece of bacon, when used as a bookmark, will ruin a perfectly good book. Shortly after that, I learned that charging a patron to replace a book - say, one ruined by bacon grease - is easier than actually extracting payment from the patron.

I’ve learned that there are two types of patrons at the library: those who handle hardship with grace and dignity, and those who don’t. I’ve learned that it takes a certain level of skill to handle the latter sort of patron with aplomb. We recently had a patron so angry over the passport application process that she stormed out of the library and stood in the parking lot, shaking her fists to the heavens and yelling obscenities so loudly that we could hear her through the closed doors. We did the only thing we could do: we laughed ourselves into the floor.

An angry patron once confronted me because she had received an official letter informing her that her books were overdue. “I don’t appreciate that,” she said, looking me directly in the eye. I could have told her that the surest way to avoid such sternly worded letters would be to return her books on time, but instead I had a total mental breakdown and failed to come up with any better response than to smile and say “Okay.” The woman, apparently satisfied with this acknowledgement, left without noticing that my coworker Janelle was paralyzed with laughter behind me. “Fat lot of help you were,” I said. “You seemed to handle it very well,” she said, which I suppose is true.

Because sarcasm is seldom the appropriate response. When someone from Andover, Massachusetts, calls, wanting directions to the library in Andover, Kansas, I always tell them, “First, you want to head west for several hours.” I’ve done this more than once and the sarcasm has never yet been appropriate.

But I keep trying because someone someday is bound to find it funny, like the time I informed a patron that he had a late book on his account and he declared, “Blasphemy!” immediately setting me on the defensive. “No, sir, you really do,” I said, pulling up his account, “and the name of the book is… Blasphemy… Oh, I see what you did there,” and we both had a good laugh over it.

I’m constantly amazed at the number of late books we see though, because at the circulation desk we always know what day it is. I've learned that most people are just not as aware of the date as librarians are. When you’re constantly quoting dates at people, you start to take the passage of time for granted. I told a man at the end of August that his book was due “on the 7th.” 
“Of August?” he asked me seriously. 
“No, of September,” I said, with a straight face, “When we figure out the whole time travel thing, we may reconsider that policy, but in the meantime, all of our books are due in the future.”

It’s not just due dates either. When my husband, who had a big project due at work, lamented in late February that it was almost March, I casually informed him that the library books checked out that day were due March 15th. “Therefore,” I told him, “March is already half over.” 

He leveled his grey-green eyes at me and said “Working at the library gives you a skewed sense of time.”
“Space too,” I responded. “Or else I would quit trying to fit more books in the Young Adult section.” I’ve learned that there are always more books in the return bin than can possibly fit in the return bin, so why not the shelves too?

I’ve learned that, as a librarian, not only can I warp time and space, but I have telepathy too. Why else do so many people expect me to read their minds? The first time someone came up to the desk and asked about “you know, the book with the red cover,” I thought they were crazy. They said things like, “I don’t know the title or the author but it was written by a woman and there was a dog on the cover,” and I thought they were barking mad, but after a few months, their feeble mutterings started to make sense. One day I looked up and said, “You’re talking about Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo,” and they said, “That’s the one. Thank you.”

Telepathy, because people come to the library with no idea what they want and suddenly I know EXACTLY WHAT THEY NEED. I know where all the travel books are, the books about pirates, or woodworking, or outer space. I know where the diabetic cookbooks and auto repair manuals and Spanish-to-English dictionaries are. I’ve learned where to find the information you want to know before you even know you want to know it.

Working the circulation desk one Friday afternoon, Benjamin didn’t know that he wanted to learn more about giant squid, until I started explaining to him how wonderful they are. “Did you know,” I told him, “that some squid can survive at extremely low oxygen levels? We’re talking ten percent or less. It’s something to do with their blood. It’s copper-based, rather than iron-based like ours is. That’s why their blood is blue.”

“That’s awesome!” Benjamin said. “But wait… What about llamas?”

“What about llamas?” I said.

“Llamas can survive at extremely low oxygen levels too. Is that for the same reason?” he said.

“I have no idea,” I said. “Let’s look it up,” because sometimes you think you’re going to have an ordinary day, and then you end up Googling llamas.

And I’ve learned that the best thing you can do is just go with it.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Answering the Reference Question

I get a lot of calls at the library.

Most are fairly vanilla. In a typical day, I will answer every question on the library website’s FAQs page at least once. “Can you renew my books?” “How late are you open?” “Where are you located?”

Sometimes patrons call with book questions. “When does the new James Patterson come out?” “Can you tell me the next book in this series?” These, too, are well within the normal parameters and we, as librarians, have a number of tools at our disposal to efficiently locate this information for you.

Other calls take more time. In library school, they call it “Answering the Reference Question.” In the Pre-Internet Era, librarians were the only search engines. Many elderly people, technophobes, and elderly technophobes still call the library when they need to know the capital of Montana or the phone number of the quaint delicatessen on the south end of Main street (on a good day, the patron is referring to the Main street of the city you are actually in). We expect these calls. We are used to these calls.

Still other calls shall live in infamy forever.

“Library. This is Tori. How can I help you?”

“Yes, hello,” a man said in a Rhett Butler accent. “I am calling for information on several of the buildings there in town. Specifically their history, from when they were built to present day.”

I immediately kicked into “Answering the Reference Question” mode. “Certainly, sir. I’m sure someone at the city historical museum can help you. I can give you their phone number off the city’s webpage,” I said, because when I’m giving someone information they could easily find for themselves, I like to spell out exactly where I found it.

“Much obliged,” he said, oozing southern charm.

I gave him the number. “Will that be all, sir?”

“Do you think they’d have information on who owned various buildings over the years?” he said.

I couldn’t silence the little voice in my brain ticking off all the creepy, serial-killer reasons he might have had for wanting information on who owned what. “I’m not sure, sir. Was there a specific building you wanted to know about?”

“Well, young lady,” he said, “as it happens, I am a ghost hunter, and I am investigating the haunting of a house on Central Avenue. Would you know anything about strange goings on in that vicinity?”

That. That right there is when the conversation went so-not-the-way I thought it was going to go. I stared out the front door, twirling my pen, then remembered I needed to answer the man. “No, sir,” I said. “You’re probably better off with the historical museum.”

“Thank you kindly,” he said, hanging up.

And after a minute or two of stunned contemplation, I hung up as well.