Saturday, December 14, 2013

Ways We Run the Library: A Speech

(This speech was delivered to the library staff and board of directors at the staff appreciation dinner 12/13/13. It's longer than my normal posts and may be boring to non-library people, but I wanted to put it here since I spent so much time on it.)

Some time ago, Eric asked if I’d be willing to speak to you all during the staff appreciation dinner tonight. “I’d like you to highlight what you and your coworkers have done to keep the library going while you’ve been between directors these last few months,” he said.

At least, I think that’s what he said. This was during the tailgate party at Greater Andover Days, and everything gets a bit hazy after the nice ladies with the book carts pushed that third margarita on me. At any rate, I hope that’s what he wanted, since that’s what I wrote about.

I’d like to take these next few minutes to talk about each of us individually, in no particular order.


First up is Cheri. In the absence of a director, Cheri, as Assistant Director, was required to attend all the director meetings. There were board meetings and boring meetings, friends meetings and other sorts of meetings, GAD meetings, hometown Christmas meetings, and city meetings. With so many meetings to keep track of, nobody questioned Cheri’s need for a vacation. Likewise, while she was gone, no one questioned Benjamin’s brilliant plan, sent to us by email, to disassemble Trixie, the mannequin, and hide her body parts all over the library along with a set of clues that would lead Cheri from piece to piece.

For three days, we each fought over the best hiding places and struggled to write clues that rhymed. We debated the merits of hiding things in the attic versus in the back of Cathy’s supply closet, then, undecided, hid an arm in each. We had a head in the freezer, a leg in the server room, a hand in the suggestion box, a torso in the oven, and a kind letter of apology for the janitor. We checked and double checked the clues to make sure we hadn’t skipped any pieces by accident.

Upon her return, Cheri laughed heartily at the jest, then cornered me and Tiffany at the desk and said, “Very funny, guys. Now just tell me where all the pieces are. I have a meeting to go to.”

So, for continuing the run the library even as every other librarian was literally playing with dolls, here’s to Cheri.


While Cheri was busy going to meetings, it fell to Karyn, as administrative director, to keep a firm hand on the tiller. All half-cocked questions and hair-brained ideas had to be run by Karyn before they could be acted upon (or, as was often the case, summarily vetoed). Likewise, Karyn is in charge of handling every … “issue”. Let me walk you through a typical day:

“Karyn!” we cry, “The light’s burned out again! There’s no more tape! Karyn, we’re out of neon green printer paper! My computer has a virus! Karyn, the roof’s leaking in the gallery, but only when no one’s looking at it! The doors are squeaky! There’s no change in the register! Karyn, the fire alarm is going off again! The toilet’s clogged! Karyn, you missed a call from Protection One, and one from Cybertron, and two from City Hall. Karyn! We have a passport question and the applicant only speaks Vietnamese! We don’t know any Vietnamese!”

We cry helplessly to her on evenings and weekends, calling her at home and saying “Karyn! The server is down! What do we do? Karyn, there’s a buzzing! Something’s buzzing! Help us, Karyn!!!”

As we have been short staffed, much of our staffing burden has fallen to Karyn. Every time one of us asks for a day off to attend our mother’s cousin’s sister-in-law’s elderly great aunt’s neighbor’s funeral – which happens every other week on a Saturday – Karyn juggles the schedule to make sure the library is adequately staffed, usually by staffing it herself. “I guess I’m working Saturday,” she says, in much the same voice that Eeyore says, “Thanks for noticing me.”  

For all these things and more, here’s to Karyn.


Through all of this, Kathy Pyles has been a pillar, a work horse, coming to work in the evenings after already working a full day at the elementary schools, putting in extra hours on the evenings and weekends when the ILLs are backed up, even coming in on days the library is closed to empty the return bin. Benjamin and I have often discussed the possibility that Kathy is actually a robot. Frankly, we’ve discussed it right in front of her, and she’s never denied it. We never see her eat or hear her complain.

In fact, I’ve only ever seen her flustered once. Kathy recently texted Benjamin on a Friday afternoon to ask how many ILLs the courier had delivered that morning. Benjamin counted, then said, “Wouldn’t it be fun if I doubled the amount just to mess with her? There’s 28 here.”

“Maybe if you said 48, so there’s still an 8 in it, then you could at least pretend it’s a typo,” I said.

“Or 58,” said Tiffany. “Heck, 68. Go big or go home.”

“82!” I said, as if I was bidding at an auction. “Switch the numbers around! It supports the typo claim.”

We cackled like the witches in Macbeth as he texted “82” and hit send. “Oh, she’ll be so surprised when she arrives in the morning and there are only 28! Bwahahaha!”

Imagine our surprise when Kathy showed up in a panic five minutes later. “Oh thank God!” she said. “I was afraid I’d have to start on them this evening! I was ready to work through the night and cancel all my plans for the weekend!”

Yeah, she’s a machine. But she’s our machine! So here’s to Kathy!


Cathy Catt has been handling things very well without a director. At least, I assume she has been, since she spends most of her time in the children’s section and I never go there. Even when there are horrible noises from that direction – no, especially when there are horrible noises from that direction – we let Cathy handle it. “Shouldn’t you check on that?” a patron once asked me after a loud crash that I knew from experience was the sound of a child knocking all the DVDs off one of the spinning racks.

“I don’t think so. No one’s screaming so it’s probably okay,” I said. “Unless they died.” In which case, I was pretty sure Cathy could handle that too.

At the best of times, the children’s section is a little overwhelming. The shelves need constant attention – for one such as myself, who can’t even keep a basil plant alive on the kitchen counter, this level of commitment is daunting to say the least – but at the worst of times, it’s like the non-Euclidean cities described in the works of Lovecraft. The books are not confined to the shelves – they lie up, down, sideways, and between dimensions. Everywhere puzzle pieces and bits of building block form the jumbled huts where plastic dinosaurs live, and Cathy is their queen, reigning over her crooked kingdom with the saintly patience of one who chooses to make her living working with children.

We can only assume that her work with said children instills in them a lifelong love of reading and not that she is secretly training up an army to enforce her rule because, as I said, we never actually go over there and check.

Here’s to you, Cathy.


I really think Benjamin in particular has thrived in this director-less environment. “Wait!” he said once. “We don’t have a director! We can get away with this!” There is a running joke among the library staff that someday Benjamin will be president, and we debate about whether or not we’ll vote for him. I, for one, may not “vote” for him, but I’ll definitely support his hostile takeover and won’t argue with him much about national policy. Last year he regaled me with tales of his role-playing history class: “It was regrettable,” he said, “but I had to declare war on Pakistan.” Later he outlined his career plans as, I quote here: “Taking over the world! On a budget! Because if taking over the world wasn’t hard enough, we decided to do it by the third quarter and for less than a hundred million!”

My time at the desk definitely passes more quickly with Benjamin around. Wednesday and Friday afternoons, when our shifts overlap, are my favorite days, no matter how much our coworkers may dread them. Discussions of time travel are not uncommon, along with random google searches for bizarre wildlife, serious conversations about dinosaurs, and elaborate (though as yet unacted-upon) plans to buy to a llama for the library.

But lest you think his time with us is all whimsy and no substance, let me remind you of how helpful  Benjamin is and has always been around the library. His mercenary attitude towards working more hours whenever we need him has been a godsend. He’s up for anything: shelving, emptying the return bin, helping Kathy with ILLs, putting up holiday decorations, moving heavy things, climbing on ladders – basically, all the things that need doing that no one else particularly wants to do.

So here’s to Benjamin.


I had a little trouble finding anything to say about Kristina. Since she and I are friends outside of work but rarely work the same shift at the library, I don’t personally have any bizarre library stories about her. I asked all my coworkers what they thought I should write. “Well, she’s just the cutest thing,” they said. “With the best fashion sense ever.”

Tiffany said, “Whenever I ask her where she gets her cute clothes, she always tells me she borrowed it from her sister. Like everything is borrowed from her sister. I don’t know if she actually owns any clothing.”

What I do know about Kristina is that she’s the quiet one. Every comedy troupe needs a straight-man, and Kristina is ours. If you don’t know Kristina, I’ll tell you now that you have never met a more easy-going individual. With a heart of gold, vintage fashions, and a soul minted in the Jazz-Age, Kristina classes up the circulation desk just by being there. When Benjamin throws out obscure scientific ideas, you can count on me to banter with him, Tiffany to ridicule him, and Kristina to smile and agree. Later, she’ll quietly look up whatever it is on the internet and slyly ask me clarifying questions about the topic.

“I never know if she’s being serious or sarcastic,” Benjamin says. “She’s so straight-faced the whole time.”

Naturally, she’s also straight-faced with the patrons. She greets them all equally with a glowing smile, answers their questions – no matter how peculiar – to the best of her ability, then waits for them to leave before turning to her desk mates and saying, ever so quietly, “That guy was weird.”

So here’s to Kristina!


Coming in during the last week of summer reading this year, Tiffany responded like one thrown into a war zone: a panicked flurry of motion, trying to get us all caught up on everything. Never believing our tales of the life of leisure we led when we were fully staffed, she’d shelve a cart every morning, spend all day processing and spine labeling books as fast as Cheri could catalog them, then shelve another cart in the afternoons.

Within a few short weeks of working here, Tiffany had established a rhythm for herself, a fast, dance-hall-techno rhythm. She can process whole stacks of books in the time it takes me to make a cup of tea. I would suspect her of cutting corners, except that every few days Cheri says “I just want you two to know how NICE the processing has looked lately.”

“Oh thanks,” I say. “We, the two of us together, have sure worked hard on that.”

But this steady rhythm did get Tiffany in a little trouble recently. While “in the zone” as it were, doing all the processing in a Zen-like trance, Tiffany carelessly tossed aside the post-it note on the front of a new audiobook indicating that Karyn wanted to be the first person to check it out. When Karyn discovered the processed item on Cheri’s cataloging shelf, sans post-it note, Tiffany got a lecture, complete with the post-it note fished out of the trash can and labeled “Exhibit A”. “Someday, you’re going to want something,” Karyn told her, “and that post-it note is going to mysteriously disappear. You will not know when.”

So here’s to Tiffany, who still lives in perpetual fear of Karyn’s revenge.


Eric told me I had to talk about myself as well, so here it is.

You may recall that early on I said I was going to talk about what I’ve done to keep the library running while we’ve been without a director, but the truth is, I couldn’t think of anything, except that I kept coming to work. The fact is I love this library. Sure, all libraries, libraries in general, bookstores even, but mostly, on top of it all, or running underneath it all, THIS library – and of course my personal life occasionally suffers from my prideful and biased belief that the whole thing will collapse into kindling if I’m not sitting at that circulation desk every day.

When I’m not feeling well, “Take a sick day,” my husband tells me.

“Are you crazy? I can’t do that! I have to be there!”

“I have a vacation day I should use,” he says.

“I’m pretty sure I don’t,” I say.

“Take a long lunch and have a lunch date with me sometime,” he says.

“Can’t do it,” I say.

But for a year now, I’ve been struggling with a minor medical problem that culminated in the need for surgery – two surgeries, to be precise: one to find the problem and one to fix it. Both resulted in a lot of sick days, and I had to learn to let go. “Don’t even try to come back before you’re ready,” Cheri said, and when I did anyway, Cathy didn’t hesitate to send me home.

“Don’t overdo it!” everyone said. “Because we need you!”

It’s nice to feel needed, even if what I’m needed for is just to sit at the desk.

So here’s to me.


And now for the newcomer, Tom.

The first time I met Tom was when the board brought him in for a tour of the library followed by a job interview. Each of us was supposed to tell him what we do, and I was told that I needed to show him my work with the website. “Do you have any questions for him?” Jennifer said when he was standing in front of me. Now, I thought about asking something serious or professional, but I figured the board had that buttoned up already. No, this was my chance to get to really know what kind of person Tom was, so I asked the most important question I could think of: “Star Wars or Star Trek?”

Tom’s response, Doctor Who, told me everything I needed to know. The other candidate, whose answer was “I really don’t do science fiction,” seemed nice enough and I could have worked FOR her, but I knew I could work WITH Tom.

So far, I have not been disappointed. Tom hasn’t even blinked at our antics. In fact, he seems rather like a grown-up version of Benjamin. I get the feeling not that he doesn’t HAVE Benjamin’s crazy ideas but that he’s probably already tried them and is viewing our shenanigans through the wisdom of experience. “Oh, foolish youths,” I imagine he says. “Soon you will learn the folly of this plan… and I will watch.”

We hope you enjoy watching this show for a number of years, Tom. Here’s to you!


In closing, I’d like to say that since this summer, we’ve all had to curb our expectations and change up our routines in order to keep the old girl going. If there’s one thing we all learn early and well working at the library, it’s how to buckle down and get things done. Those who can’t are quickly lost beneath the ever-growing piles of books.  (We lose more shelvers that way and we’ll never find the bodies.)

But the Andover Public Library is unique among other places of employment – even among other libraries. Unlike other efficient, well-oiled machines of business, we still manage to have fun while we buckle down and get it done. As it happens, we all share the same deplorable sense of humor and we all (more or less) enjoy each other’s company.  We know how to laugh with each other, at each other, and at ourselves.

So here’s to us and the fun we’ve had, but mostly, here’s to us!

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