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So you want to be a librarian…

“The World is Quiet Here”. Lemony Snicket

Recently, I had a high school student follow me around for the day. We had arranged this a few weeks before, but I didn’t remember until I got a scheduling reminder in my email a couple of days prior.

The day that Tom (let’s call him Tom) made first contact was not a good day. Our computers, both staff and public, had been down for a few hours, I had just called an ambulance for a customer who was having a seizure, and two people had called in sick.

I wasn’t feeling that great myself, and I probably wasn’t putting my best foot forward when Tom approached the desk.

When you work on the information desk, you are profiling all the time as someone approaches. It’s just a natural thing. Sometimes you’re dead wrong, but most of the time you know what you’re going to get, especially with the regulars. We know that when Mrs. F approaches, she’s got a list of Danny Kaye movies that she MUST GET on VHS. When Mr. B shuffles over, he’s looking for paperback Westerns. He calls them “Louies” after Louis L’Amour, but he’ll read anything that’s got a horse on it, apparently.

When Tom approached the desk, I saw this geeky looking, pimply faced kid. You know the kind. The kind that wears big snow boots even indoors, and who won’t think twice about picking his nose unashamedly in public and MAY OR MAY NOT eat it in front of you. He had glasses and uncombed hair. I had him pegged as a sci fi paperbacker, but I was wrong, sort of. (I’ll explain later.)

He seemed  shy and kind of stammered but I could get the gist of what he wanted. He wanted to do a six-hour placement here, as part of his requirements for high school graduation.

He told me he wanted to be a librarian.

I asked him why, and he said he liked to read. Damn. That’s one of the biggest misconceptions of this job. Contrary to popular belief, we DO NOT get any work time to read. I know, it sucks. Every other profession in the world has professional development components (and I’m not saying that we don’t have training and webinars and whatnot) but we don’t have regularly scheduled times where we can just kick back and read (aside from our own time at lunch). I can tell you which author has a new book coming out in April, and I have a working knowledge of the covers of 90% of the new books, but do I ever get a chance to crack the covers? Rarely.

I exhaled and said something like, “Okay, do you want to come in for an hour every week for six weeks or something?” but it turns out it would be better to do it all at once.

“Pull the bandaid off fast, eh? Good call.” And we picked a Saturday a few weeks down the line that worked for both of us. He wanted to know if he should wear anything in particular; if we had a dress code. I looked down at what I was wearing: brown cords that were a shade too short in the legs, a plaid L.L. Bean flannel shirt over a Blue Jays tshirt, hiking boots and grey wool socks (of course).

“Does it LOOK like we have a dress code?” was what I wanted to say. Instead, I said, “Just wear something you’ll be comfortable in, but no sweats or tank tops.” Considering this was February in Canada, it went without saying, really. “Oh, and you’ll want to wear lighter footwear. Those boots look pretty warm”.

That Saturday finally came.

A day or so before I put the word out on Twitter to see if there was anything that I could or should say to this boy that would be inspiring and/or helpful. The usually chatty librarian tweeters were disturbingly quiet that day.

I was on my own.

My plan was to have him get a sense of what working in a mid-sized public library was like, with everything from clearing the book chute to answering questions at the info desk, to helping out with a children’s story time. And also answer any questions he might have.

But six hours? Jesus.

Glenn Gould used to say that for every hour he spent around people, he needed two by himself. I don’t think I’m that bad, but I am aware of when I need to be “on” and when I can just relax and be “myself”. This felt like it was going to be a day where I was “on” the whole time. Give this kid a real show.

The day was here.

Tom showed up on time. We gave him the 25 cent tour and had him shadow the circulation desk for the first hour, and then we had him spend some time over at the information/reference desk. It was too bad that he was here on such a slow day: we didn’t have any children’s programs lined up, and traffic was slow. I asked him if he had any questions. He was concerned about how difficult it was to get into library school. I didn’t know what to tell him. I just applied to a school and I got in. I didn’t do a lot of research ahead of time. This coworker of mine did all the legwork, and decided on a school for himself, and I thought it might be fun to “do it” with someone else, since we were both going to be doing it through “distance ed”, so on a lark I applied and got in. I graduated two years later and a month after that I started working as branch head of the 2nd busiest branch in town. Sometimes life works out. And anyway, Tom is in Grade 12. I tried to give him a little Royal Tenenbaum style advice. “Look, Tom. Don’t take this the wrong way, but your life is just starting.  There’s a whole world out there. You need to get out there and experience it before you decide on your “career” or whatever. Travel, meet girls, do silly and stupid stuff that you will never EVER regret. There will always be time for school.” I don’t know if this was the type of advice he was looking for, but it had to be said.

He asked me what I liked best about my job, and I unexpectedly started to gush. I found myself saying stuff like, “Being a librarian is the best job in the WORLD!” and “I wouldn’t want to do anything else!”. Stuff like that. I went really positive,  and why not? It IS the best job in the world, for me anyway. It may not have the glamour and travel associated with other jobs, and Lord knows I’ll never retire wealthy, but for overall workplace satisfaction, stick me in a library any day of the week. Even if I won the lottery, I would probably volunteer in a library, and if I was ever destitute, I’d be one of those homeless guys shuffling off to the study tables. No matter where I end up on the financial spectrum, libraries will always have a special place in my heart. The library motto in Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” is “The World is Quiet Here”. At my last job, as a going-away present, my coworkers made up a poster with that saying on it. I still have it on my bulletin board in my office, right below my David Sedaris and John Hodgman posters, as a reminder that libraries are special, dare I say sacred places. At least to me they are.

By the end of the day, we had Tom shelving materials, pulling holds, and even doing the end of day clean-up routines. I didn’t see him pick his nose once, and he wore sensible runners, (i.e. not winter boots). Tom kind of grew on me throughout the day, even when I kept losing track of where he was and finding him loitering down the science fiction/fantasy aisle on more than one instance. (I was right! He was a science fiction paperbacker! I totally called it on the first day!) I came clean with him and told him that we don’t ever get “reading” time on the job, but that we get to help connect readers with stuff they want to read, and sometimes that’s enough. I stopped short before I actually starting quoting Ranganathan’s five laws of library science. I didn’t want him to think I was some kind of library nerd.

"Every reader his book". Ranganathan

“Every reader his book”. Ranganathan

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Safety First

I’m sure it’s not unique to this organization, but we seem to have a fetish about safety around here. I suppose it’s only being responsible and law-abiding, but I sometimes think there must be a better way. I’m off to another safety seminar this afternoon and I’m dreading it. Provincial legislation requires that we attend so many hours of safety awareness training each year, and so we all make our way down to the main library and sit in a darkened theatre (that’s not very safe!) and listen to a safety officer talk about the correct way to do things. Sometimes you get really lucky and you get to watch a compilation video of bad stuff happening to people. It’s like a porn loop but with dudes falling off ladders and falling down stairs and getting electrocuted, if you’re into that kind of thing. My favourite is the infamous video of a woman gassing up at a service station and then going to sit in her car while the pump keeps pumping. Apparently that is a TERRIBLE THING TO DO, because you can get static electricity on your clothes and sure enough when she gets out to remove the nozzle a fireball erupts! It looks like the footage is from one of those security cameras, so it may even be real. The only thing is that it is so unlikely to happen, they might as well be showing footage of people getting attacked by sharks or getting hit by lightning too. The fact that we all work in libraries make some of these videos even more ridiculous. We don’t even have a ladder at our place, let alone gas pumps. At the end of the video, the instructor stands up and addresses us like children. “This is what can happen if you don’t put safety first.” It’s like I’m listening to the Dad from “Freaks and Geeks” up there. “I knew a guy who lifted a box the wrong way one time. You know where he is now? He’s DEAD!”

Sometimes you get to listen to/see a practical demonstration of how to sit properly, lift a box properly, push a cart properly. It’s all very proper and put on by a nurse. I was at one of these things a few years ago and the nurse kept picking on me because I was “slouching” in my chair. “Look at this man! Look at his poor posture! I bet he has sore feet and a sore back.” I assured her and everyone in the room that my feet did not hurt at all and I was quite comfortable. But she wouldn’t let it go. She made me sit up straight until my back really did start to hurt. Being Irish, I slumped over even more and glared at her, defying her to mention me again. But she apparently did not pick up on my non-verbal cues and before I knew it she had me in front of the room demonstrating the correct way to pick up a box, golfer style. I purposely did a half-assed job of it until she gave up and chose another model. I won!

The Golfer's Lift. Look at the technique on this son of a bitch!

In addition to these “safety gatherings’ for supervisors, every employee must also read a monthly “safety talk”. These come to me from one of the managers as an email and I am supposed to print it out and make sure everyone reads and signs it. It is to comply with provincial regulations more than anything else, but you would think they would at least try to make the safety talks relevant. I know they are supposed to cover every City department, but reading about “working outdoors in inclement weather” is just plain silly for library folk. My favourite one was one on “killer bees” (I’m not making this up). It tells you what to do if you’re attacked by a marauding swarm of the crazy buggers. “Remain calm”, apparently. Fuck that shit, I’m getting the hell away from those motherfuckers. Remain calm, my ass. Sometimes they are pretty philosophical, like “What does it mean to be safe?” That one provided me with some sleepless nights, let me tell you. Others are more practical like “What to do if you encounter blood or jizz in the workplace.” (I’m paraphrasing, obviously.) The most recent was pretty self-serving. It was called “Why your safety committee is so important.”

The funny thing is that when you actually get yourself into a bad situation, you forget the correct thing to do anyway. A few months ago, some shelving toppled over onto an employee and they had to be taken to the hospital. (Thankfully this was at another library, whew!) The employee ended up with a couple of bruised ribs, but the library staff went ahead and cleaned up the books and shelving (as you naturally would) before they even thought to call the safety officer. By the time he got there, everything was nice and tidy. This was apparently the wrong thing to do. Not coincidentally, the next safety talk was called “What to do if some shelving falls down and you get fucked up!” (paraphrased, again). I guess you’re supposed to leave the scene as it is unless the safety officer has a little lookie-loo. It’s all very CSI.

Remember to call the safety officer if a shelf falls. If you see books levitating mid-air, you're better off calling these guys.

So think of me this afternoon. Will it be the mishap video, box lifting demonstration, by-law review, or some fresh hell they’ve dreamed up for us? Do you know what I’d like the next safety talk topic to be? “How to survive a safety talk without falling asleep”. That’s just not safe, falling asleep in a chair, and you know what I always say: “Safety First!“.


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The Ghosts of Darlingford Manor

When you work at a busy library, you’re always dealing with the constant flow of donations.

I try not to dwell on them for very long. Usually they are easy to sort out. If it’s a shiny new bestseller that is in high demand, I’ll add the book to the collection without question. If it’s an old, irrelevant textbook, almanac, etc, or if its moldy, smelly, or tainted in some unusable way, I’ll throw it out. (I know the correct answer is recycle it, but practically speaking, a lot of the binding glue and materials used in books aren’t easily recyclable). Everything else in between goes into our book sale, along with materials we’ve withdrawn from the collection. The revenue raised from the book sale goes towards new materials. Stuff that doesn’t sell in the book sale after a reasonable time is boxed up and carted away by a mysterious shipping company. All we know is that every  couple of months a truck comes by and takes away what we ask them to take. We’ve heard rumours that they try to sell the books online and give us a cut of the profits, but know really knows?

My turn-around time on a donated item is usually just a couple of days.

So it’s a bit of a surprise that I’ve been sitting on a donation here for almost two weeks, feeling a bit unsure as to how I should proceed with it.

I’ve come to think of this as the “Amy Donation”.

The Amy Donation

The Amy Donation arrived last week anonymously. That is, it was dropped off without a note or without a person telling us where it was from or what they wanted us to do with it. Normally if I get a customer in person, I’ll give them my criteria spiel: (We don’t take anything older than 5 years, we don’t take garage sale leftovers, etc). This donation was three large dusty boxes of old, well-worn books. Mostly hardcovers, some of which I recognized the author, most of which I did not. My first impression was “dumpster”, but then I started to look a little bit closer.

The interesting thing about this donation is that none of the books looked newer than about 1940. Most of them had inscriptions inside: either a person’s name, or a gift dedication. Most of the book’s owners had the last name “Amy”, and with the exception of one book marked “Morden”, all of them are from a place called Darlingford. A quick online search shows that Darlingford is a village about 20 km west of Morden, Manitoba, about 2 hours southwest of Winnipeg. The village was founded in 1899 by James Ephraim Law. I noticed that one of the books had “B.J. Law” inscribed in the front. Could this be one of the village founder’s children? There’s also a B.J. Bond. That seems like too many B.J.s to be a coincidence. That isn’t a sentence I thought I’d ever write. Another book has “Betty J. Law”, so that’s probably one of our B.J.s, yes? Another book is simply “Betty Amy”. Could Betty, daughter of the village forefather, have married into the Amy clan? Where does the “Bond” come in? Did she remarry down the road, after her husband was killed in WWI?

The more I looked at these books and inscriptions, I began to imagine the Amy family and tried to ascribe characteristics to each person based on their reading interests and condition of books. Norma Amy loved Thomas Costain novels; there are three with her name inside the front. She also seemed to take very good care of her books. She wasn’t a lender.

Pearl Amy, possibly her sister, owned a copy of “Twice Tried” by Annie Swan. It was inscribed “Christmas, 1906, Darlingford”. It wasn’t in as good a shape as her sister’s novels. I think Pearl was  the kind of reader who bent the spines back and let her books fall out of her school bag on the way to the one-room Darlingford school-house.

Myron Amy appears to be a bit of a Ralph Connor fan, and a petty thief to boot. Two Ralph Connor books had his name in the front, “The Sky Pilot in No Man’s Land” and “The Foreigner”. Only problem is these books belong to the Calvin United Church in Darlingford. One was checked out January 19, 1919 and due back Feb 2. The other one has the “Date Due” page partially ripped out and was being used as a bookmark! Cheeky. Looks like Myron’s got some ‘splaining to do.

Then there’s Mr. Cotton Amy, whom I imagine to be the patriarch of the Amy clan, keeping a firm hand on the moral compass of his family and community. He has sent two books to a James Amy, whom I reckon is a younger family member, perhaps nephew. One is a collection of sermons called “Old Wells dug out: Talmage’s Sermons Vol. 3” and “A Manual of Moral Instruction” by James Reid M.A. It seems Cotton may have well advised to send these books to his other nephew, Myron.

What about Billy Amy, who had a well-worn copy of “The Boy Scouts-Victory”, a novel extolling the virtues of “being prepared” and “helping those in need”? Billy, perhaps later in life, owned a formidable copy of “When a Man’s a Man” by Harold Bell Wright. It seems to be a tale full of ranch life, and men doing manly things. I picture Billy as outdoorsy and possibly a little bit sexually confused.

Another book is dedicated to “The Amy Brothers”. Could this be Billy and Myron, or Myron and James? Impossible to tell.

The youngest Amy in the group appears to be “Master Fred”. His Christmas 1905 book is “Blackie’s Boys Annual”. No copyright date, but I’d put it somewhere in the mid 1890’s.

Cedric Amy had a child’s book called “Leo and Dick”. Chapter 1, “Dick finds a friend” is all about Leo, a school boy and rugby star encountering “Dick”, a “gipsy”. Maybe I’m wrong on who’s in Darlingford’s  closet?

All Leo wanted was to get to know Dick. Is that so wrong?

And what about this mysterious Helen Martin of Morden? Why is there one of her books in here with the rest of the Amy family’s? What’s her role? What’s her game? Is she an interloper, a secret lover of one of the Amy boys? Sordid possibilities flood my mind. I’m beginning to see Darlingford in a lurid light; an early 20th century version of Twin Peaks, perhaps?

In the midst of all these clues lies the requisite well-worn King James Bible. I excitedly turned to the front and back covers to see if any family tree information was recorded, as some families did. Disappointment. No markings at all. Not even an inscription. The only thing in the Bible was an ancient fabric bookmark with the cross-stitched verse, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son”. Oh, and a creepy newsprint clipping with four bible verses all dealing with “hands”.

The key to the Amy collection? Nobody knows.

What does all this mean? Nothing probably. But I couldn’t help think that somehow these books could be a time capsule of the past, and if I were a children’s fantasy writer, I could begin a story with the spirits of these people trapped inside each of their favourite books and how someone from present day, an unsuspecting librarian perhaps, would be tasked to write the wrongs of a hundred years ago. Sort of a John Bellairs meets M.R. James meets Garrison Keillor meets Ray Bradbury kind of thing. You know the kind. Maybe The Ghosts of Darlingford Manor would make a good title? If I were 12 again, I would TOTALLY read a book with that title. You would have had me at the mere mention of “ghosts”. Throw in an atmospheric mansion in a quaint rural town and you’ve all the ingredients you need to open a vein and let the story run through you. If any one of you want to take this idea and run with it, all I ask is a “special thanks to” mention in the front of your book. And a signed copy. “To Master Trevor, Christmas, 2014” would do nicely.

Darlingford United Church, Darlingford, MB

Oh, and we could present a copy to the United Church in Darlingford too. I hear they’re missing a couple of books.


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No late fees, but Jesus may love you a little less.

“I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world”. Mother Teresa of Calcutta

“No furniture so charming as books”. Sydney Smith

About a year ago, our dear old church librarian suddenly passed away. A few weeks later, our minister asked if I would “take over” her role. Being someone who can’t seem to say no very well, and thinking “How hard can it be?”, I mumbled something like “um okay” and then promptly forgot about it.

Until last week.

The church secretary emailed to say that all the “library stuff” was “clogging up” her office. I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about, until I suddenly remembered. “Jesus! Am I supposed to look after the church library?” Apparently so.

I went round the church office one morning and found about 15 books that were supposed to be added, along with the remnants of whatever Mary, the former church librarian, had around her house: Five or six yellowed and dusty pamphlets put out by “The Church and Synagogue Library Association“. I didn’t even know there was a “Church and Synagogue Library Association”! Half a box of catalog cards, a quarter box of book pockets.  Book pockets? We haven’t used book pockets in our public library in 20 years! In fact, we have an ongoing project of removing book pockets from older books and using them as scrap. Here I am supposed to be adding book pockets and cards to all new books. Another anachronism was the handwritten accession book: a simple blue binder with every item added to the library since 1988. Why 1988? 1988 was an auspicious year for the United Church of Canada. It was the year of the schism: the year that General Council voted to allow non-heterosexuals the possibility of ordination. Looking back on it, it seems almost quaint that this was even ever an issue, and I’m proud of the stand the church took back then. It wasn’t an easy decision at the time, and many congregations were divided. Many long time members packed up and become Anglicans, Presbyterians, or stopped going to church altogether. The joke’s on them though, because Anglicans and Presbyterians are struggling with the same issue now. The world’s moved on, as Stephen King would say. So maybe 1988 was a fresh start for the library too?

If I was chagrined by what was present in Mary’s library supplies, I was even more troubled by what was missing. No dust jackets, ( a must!) no spine labels (another must!) and no book stamp. What’s a library without a nice rubber stamp and stamp pad? But the biggest stumbling block was that Mary seemed to do all the processing with a typewriter, something that neither the church nor I have any access to. I suppose we could ask the congregation if anyone had one they would donate, but then you run into the trouble of finding ribbon, repairs, etc. Who needs the hassle?

I’m thinking that for labels, we’ll use a word template and find a suitable size that is printer friendly. I’ve done some investigating and Avery 8163 sized 4×2 labels would probably work for the catalogue cards, and something smaller for the spine labels.

Pick a card, any card!

Ultimately, I’d love to get away from the physical card catalogue altogether. For a one-time fee of $20 librarything.comwill let you create a library of unlimited size. The church library is hovering around 1000 items right now, and isn’t about to get much bigger. It would be fully searchable, we could update borrowing info with a laptop with an internet connection and we could link it to our church’s website. The future is friendly. Practically though, adding 1000 items to any catalogue, even one as easy as librarything, won’t be done overnight, and it may take a while for our users to adjust to not having a card catalogue on site.

How many gigabytes does this hard drive hold?

In my day job as a public librarian, I don’t really get my hands dirty doing alot of the actual cataloging and processing. I have people for that, dont’cha know? So it’s been kind of fun looking up titles and determining the most appropriate spot for them. I get to see the whole process through, not just my tiny part of it. The last time I actually got to do any real cataloging was in library school, and I quite literally phoned that course in, in my slippers.(distance education)

This led me to my next line of questioning: who actually uses the church library? I’ve been going to this church for about seven years, and I haven’t borrowed a damn thing, and I’m a librarian! There’s currently no real effective way of keeping stats on use. Do enough people still rely on a local church library to even bother revamping and modernizing the system? As in Sydney Smith’s quotation above, are the books in the church library nothing more than charming furniture? Our church is in the midst of a major multi-year renovation, and I haven’t bothered to check if there is any space dedicated to a library in the new plan. Maybe there is a spot for a library, but my indifference on this topic speaks volumes. Ideally, it would be great to see a little “lounge/library” area in the new layout, with a computer for searching the library catalogue as well as just a spot for quiet reflection and study. Book lined shelves, and a few comfy chairs and maybe a fern or two…But I’m getting ahead of myself. My request for the above-mentioned supplies (in the ballpark of $200-250) was turned down because there’s “no money” and that I’ll have to wait until next year to make sure its added to the adult education committee’s budget. The wheels of church council turn SLOWLY.

Artist's rendition of proposed new church library

In my travels, I found this really fun and totally useless website that allows you to customize old-timey catalogue cards with anything you want. I’ve had way too much fun playing with this. I made one for this blog. What do you think?

I need the darkness someone please cut the lights.

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Some things they don’t teach you in Library School

The other night I had supper with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. He asked me if I had any new good “library stories”. His question triggered a memory of an event that happened a few months ago that up to that moment I had completely put out of my mind. “I had to stop two people from having sex in the men’s room”, I told him.  A customer came up to me one Friday afternoon last winter and told me that “a couple of people were having sex in there”. Now, as branch head, I guess I had a choice to do nothing and let them finish up, but that didn’t really sit well with me. A part of me wanted to check it out to see exactly what was going on, but I didn’t really have a plan in place. Our men’s room has two sinks, two urinals, two bathroom stalls and a baby change table. I opened the door to the washroom without really knowing what I was going to see. As it turns out, I spotted two sets of legs in the handicapped stall. Without thinking, I just shouted ‘This is a library, you can’t do that in here” and then briskly high-tailed it out of there. A couple of minutes later a couple of teenaged kids, a guy and a girl slipped out and left immediately through the front doors. Now I don’t know for sure they were having sex, I only have the customer’s report on that. Maybe they were just goofing off, smoking pot, whatever. I didn’t recognize the kids as being regular library users, and my parting thought was “How randy do you have to be to think that a public washroom anywhere is a good spot to get it on?” And in the handicapped stall? That’s just inconsiderate.

It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed or dealt with things in the library that I’ve had absolutely no training or experience with handling.

I remember my first day ever working in a library. I was 16 years old, my Dad had died a couple of months before and I felt like it was time I got a part-time job to help my Mom out. I got hired on at the main library downtown. My job was to shelve books and to make sure the books that were on the shelves were in the correct order. It’s called being a library page. I remember my supervisor asking me if I knew the Dewey Decimal System. “Sort of”, I lied. I remember hearing something about the DDC in grade 4 or something, but that was about it. “Jesus, well you look pretty bright. As long as you can count to 10 and know your alphabet you should figure it out. Oh and another thing: never, ever sit in the chairs in the public area. We have to get them de-loused every month”. That was it. That was my entire training. Up to the point of when I began my Master of Library Science degree 13 years later, the only qualifications I was ever graded on was whether I knew the alphabet and if I could count from 1 to 10.

A few days after that, I was shelving in a quiet corner of the 900s (geography and history), when I quite literally stumbled over a midget (sorry, little person) masturbating in a study carrell. It took a second or two for my eyes to actually deliver the image to my brain and for my brain to actually process what it was being shown by my eyes. I immediately registered some peripheral details. He was a ginger, he was wearing green sweat-pants and it seemed his  masturbatory inspiration of choice was a Chilton Car Repair Manual, oddly enough. I believe it may have been for a Chevy Cavalier. Okay, wait. If you’ve decided that wanking in public is acceptable, in my opinion you’ve just lost the courtesy of having a politically correct designation. This was a masturbating midget.

Luckily the main library had security guards at the time, so I didn’t have to confront him myself. I turned it over to “Mitch the guard” and tried to gather my thoughts. I was pretty upset, but I don’t think I even told my supervisor or any of my coworkers about it. I just tried to forget about it, but I never could look at that particular study carrell the same way again.

Sometimes, security isn’t always the best solution. A few years later, I was working at a branch in a tougher end of town. They were having problems with vandalism, theft and gang activity. It got so bad that the City decided to hire a security guard. This seemed like an okay idea until it was discovered that the security guard would sneak into our lunchroom during his shift and eat all our lunches! At least with the gangs, they had the decency to hang out at the A&W next door.

The longest and weirdest situation that I’ve had to deal with so far began in the summer of 2007, just a few months after I graduated from library school and was lucky enough to get hired right away as a branch head at a newish library in the south end of town. I had just got back from a couple week’s vacation when one of my staff came into my office and said that we had a problem.

One of our pages, (let’s call her Jenny) usually got dropped off at work by her husband (let’s call him Albert). Jenny was in her mid forties, and her husband was in his late 80s. They had been married for less than a year. Without turning this into an episode of Oprah, let’s just say Jenny wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, and that her marriage to “one of her grandma’s friends” was creepiness personified, but whatever.  To each their own, right? Jenny was a good page, and although most people consider paging an entry-level position to be endured until something better came along, Jackie was proud of the face that “she was the oldest and longest-serving page” in the entire city, serving over 25 years. Although she was a little slow mentally, she could put the books away in correct order in a timely manner. She could count to 10 and she knew the alphabet. What more could you ask?

Her husband, Albert, was another story altogether. I had already had to talk to him once about something.  Jenny would typically work 4 hours each morning, and rather than go home, Albert would just sit out in the parking lot the entire time. You’d think most people would go home, or go out for coffee with friends, or at the very least go for a walk or even come into the library and read the paper, but no, not Albert. He would just sit out there and watch people. He began to park in the fire-lane at the front the library, so I had to talk to him about this. I told him if we wanted to sit in the parking lot, he’d have to go park away from the front doors. Common sense, right? But I soon learned that nothing made sense about this guy.

It turns out we had several customers complain that a man in a mini-van in the parking lot was making all kinds of sexually aggressive comments at them as they entered or left the library. These complaints were coming mostly from mothers with young children. It was worse when you realize that our library lies between a high school and a community centre with a day care across the street. It’s a virtual Grand Banks of pederasty. Each customer pointed to Albert’s van. “Oh SHIT!, Poor Jenny!” was my first thought. Again, I had no training in how to deal with this situation. I knew enough that I should take another staff person with me so that I would have a witness as to what was said. We both went out to his van and I told him that we had a problem. To look at him directly, he looked like a mean insect. He had cruel looking eyes and was sunburned. He looked like the photo circulated by police when they wanted to warn of a pervert in the neighbourhood. I told him that we’ve had several complaints from our customers in the past two weeks about someone making inappropriate comments as they entered or left the library. He denied doing anything wrong, but I felt good about dealing with it directly.

The next part was harder.

I had to call Jenny into my office and tell her about these complaints about her husband. She defended her husband, saying that he would never do such a thing and was quite embarrassed and offended. I naively thought this would be the end of it, but of course it never is.

Things were quiet for the next couple of weeks, but it wasn’t long before we received another complaint, this time from a mother with a teenaged daughter. Now I was furious. “God damnit this asshole has nerve,” I thought. I went out again, this time in a much more aggressive, determined mood. I told him we had another complaint, and if it ever happens again, I’m calling the police. He actually had the nerve to deny it again, and I yelled “Do you see any other minivans out here with guys sitting in them?” I stormed off, and told Jenny we had another complaint. This time she just looked sad and said, “He says things sometimes, he doesn’t mean anything by it”. It was heartbreaking to see Jenny admit that she basically knows her asshole of a husband is an asshole.

Things escalated the following day when Albert actually came into the library and came up to the service desk where I was working. ” I don’t like you accusing me of stuff. You think you’re so tough? You don’t want to get me mad, you wouldn’t like it” he sputtered at me. You’re kidding right? I said “Are you threatening me? Because I have two witnesses sitting next to me here who have heard everything  you just said. You’re not welcome in here, you’re not welcome in the parking lot, so you better leave now before I call the cops.”

I had enough of this asshole. I thought things had gotten beyond my ability to deal with it, so I started documenting everything and called my bosses. I could tell they had never dealt with a situation quite like this before either. If it were an employee, they could dismiss them, but it was an employee’s spouse. If someone was being disruptive in the library, we could have him banned, but does our jurisdiction extend to the parking lot? I could tell no one wanted to take any decisive action. I was being left to deal with this myself. Every day became a vigil to see if Albert was outside in his van. My staff were beginning to become upset themselves when they saw it, and he became so aggressive with one staff person that she spilled her coffee on herself as she tried to run past him. This was getting ridiculous. I was beginning to lose any authority I ever had to begin with. I felt like I was under siege, and by who? Some creepy-as-fuck 90-year-old. I wasn’t afraid of this guy, but then I did begin to have dreams of him coming into the library with a knife or a gun. You hear of these things happening from time to time, and there wasn’t anything normal or rational about this guy. And then I stopped having those bad dreams because I stopped sleeping altogether. My wife was worried on two fronts: she could tell this whole “Albert” business was taking its toll on me, and she was genuinely worried that if he threatened me once, he could easily escalate it into something worse.

Finally, I made the decision to call the police, and I had the worst response I could have imagined. The person with whom I talked took my name and filed a report, but refused to send a car around. The officer said, “He hasn’t really done anything, has he? I mean, it’s not against the law to sit in your vehicle in a parking lot, is it?” This is the response I was getting. I explained to the person on the phone that we were between a school, a community-club and a daycare and that we now had at least six different complaints from customers. I told him we’ve had some customers tell us they will stop coming to the library because of him. I felt so defeated. “You mean I have to wait until he attacks somebody before you do anything?” I virtually cried into the phone. “Tell him he’s not wanted,” was the only response I got.

I called Jenny into the office again and told her that her husband could not longer wait for her during her shift. He could drop her off and pick her up, but not on library property. She agreed to this and didn’t put up any resistance. She started to cry and said that I didn’t know what it was like to live with him. I really felt badly for her, and I was beginning to worry about her safety and well being too.

This system went into effect immediately, and we got through the rest of the summer without incident.

But it wasn’t over.

The next spring, on the first nice day, a woman came into the library with her toddler and was visibly shaken. Things with Albert had been settled for so long that I didn’t immediate suspect that he was the cause of her distress. But I was wrong. He had not only said things from his van this time, but he had actually gotten out of his van an approached this woman and her child. She fled and came and I had an idea. I asked her if she’d be willing to talk to the police and she said she would. Luckily, I had someone different on the phone this time, and even though I gave this person my police incident numbers from the summer before, none of them turned up any reports. I began to wonder whether my previous call was even recorded. I used the opportunity of having this woman in my office to explain the whole sad story over the phone and have the woman give her details directly to the officer. When the phone was handed back to me and the officer said “We’ll have a car there in 30 minutes”. I could have leapt up and hugged this woman, but I’m glad I didn’t. Under the circumstances, it would not have been the right thing to do.

The only thing was that Jenny’s shift was almost over and there was no guarantee that Albert would still be out there. Sure enough, the police didn’t arrive until after Jenny and Albert left for the day, but I took the opportunity to tell the whole story to these officers. These two guys really looked the part. They both had mirrored sunglasses and they both had moustaches. One of them inexplicably was wearing a motorcycle helmet, even though they both pulled up in one cruiser. They both had notebooks. The three of us stood outside the library and when I was done my story, the one with the motorcycle helmet just shook his head slightly and said “Fuckin’ PERV”. I just nodded my head and said “Yeah.” The other cop said, “I don’t want you to worry. You’ve done the right thing calling us. We’ll take it from here.” They told me they were going to pay Albert “a little visit” that very afternoon.

The next day, when I came in, there was a resignation letter from Jenny on my desk. Apparently the police did drop by their apartment, and put the fear of God into the both of them. I won’t ever know exactly what went down that afternoon, but I do know that in finally getting rid of the parking lot pervert, I also lost the best page I would ever have.

They don’t teach you these things in Library School.

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Time for Twos (Part 1)

“Tony Chestnut knows I love you.

Tony knows. Tony knows.

Tony Chestnut knows I love you.

That’s what Tony knows”. Anonymous

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to lead a children’s programme at my library. It all started when my children’s staff person was called away for a month to deal with her father’s death in India. This was a week before the Spring sessions of children’s programming was to begin. We offer 4 weekly programmes at our branch, and I was able to get existing staff to  cover 3 of them. Budget tightness prevented me from bringing in extra staff to cover the fourth programme, so I quickly realized that if we were going to go ahead with it, I would be the one leading it. Although I’ve been a librarian for 4 years, and have worked in libraries for 20, I had up to this point avoided any substantial children’s work. It’s not that I have an aversion to it, it’s just that I always seemed to be busy doing other things.

Children’s programming has been a blind spot in my professional career development up til now, but I could no longer look the other way. I completed my M.L.I.S. degree part-time as I worked full-time in our library’s Outreach Services department. By day I would drive a van to various retirement homes throughout the city to provide books and services to a community that had difficulty getting to a library, and by night I would become a library grad student. Our guest room would magically transform into a tutorial room at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, one of the few schools at the time that offered a 100% distance education program online. My only professional training in children’s work came from one course on children’s literature. It was taught by a borderline depressive woman who spent most of the lecture time using us students as a sounding board for her grief issues over the recent death of her mother. I don’t remember reading any children’s literature, actually, and the only highlight was when she was too ill to come to class one day, and we had a guest lecturer who was actually a children’s librarian from a local public library in Milwaukee. Her enthusiasm and excitement for the field brought more energy to the class than anything our regular professor was able to offer. Unfortunately, it lasted only one week, and then our regular prof was back at it, dealing with death metaphors in “Bridge to Terabithia” while sobbing into a hanky or some damn thing.

Practically, over the years I had helped cut out craft supplies, nametags, and even painted a mural one summer when I was a part-time employee, but I never had to plan anything. I never really gave children’s programming much thought, or much credit if I was perfectly honest.

Even though my experience was limited, I did have two advantages. The first one is that my wife leads the identical programme (Time for Twos, aimed at ages 2-3 and a caregiver) at another library in the city. The second one is that we actually have a 2-year-old ourselves at home. So even though I had less than a week to pull together two half hour sessions, I knew I had resources on which I could draw. There was an extra spot, so my wife offered to bring my daughter to the sessions for support. I initially thought I would be too nervous with them there, but soon changed my mind. It may actually be fun!

“Time for Twos” is aimed at 2-3 year olds and a caregiver. I soon realized that I wasn’t going to be sitting down and reading 5-6 stories straight through and then leaving. Our daughter Audrey can barely sit through one reading of “Goodnight Moon” before she’s up and on to something else, even if she’s getting really good at spotting the mouse.

Hint: He is by the mittens.

For these sessions to be successful, I would need to become an entertainer. “You can’t worry about inhibitions” my wife told me. “You’re going to have to push yourself out of your comfort zone”. She produced a template for what she does in her programmes, and I couldn’t believe the prep work that goes into one of these things. I remember seeing Bono in an interview circa. ZOO TV tour era and his cheeky quote “The trick is making it look spontaneous.” The same rules apply here, apparently. I’ve got a set script, but if I sense I’m losing the crowd, then I can ramp it up with an impromptu song or rhyme. The first one I learned was “Tony Chestnut” where you touch the part of your body that corresponds with the rhyme (toes, knees, chests, eyes, noses, and your “head” for “nut”). Some of the descriptors on the template were “Naming song”, “Warm up song” “Hand Game” “Finger Play” “Tickles rhyme” “Movement Transition” “Circles” “Wind-Down Transition” “Quiet Song” and “Goodbye Song” with slots for just two books.

Two things immediately struck me: I was going to be doing a lot of singing, and these descriptors sound like something you may ask for in a seedy massage parlour and/or day-spa.

So I got to work on it, selecting songs, rhymes and books and before I knew it, it was time for my first programme.

I can’t tell you how nervous I was. I’ve defended a Master’s Thesis on water resources in front of room full of crusty geographers, I’ve sung in a 200 voice choir with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in front of a sold out concert hall, and yet a room of 13 two-year olds and their parents suddenly frightened me beyond measure. I was terrified to deviate from the script, a script that I must admit was shaped and built with much input from my wife, to whom I deferred on every decision. I did have one back up: I made a playlist of all the songs that I was going to use and brought it with me on my iPod, just in case I totally blanked and couldn’t remember the tunes.

As the children began to file into the library with their parents, I began to size them up. “This one looks like he may have a tantrum, that one looks like she’s going to be a talker” etc. At the last minute, I had a revelation as to something that was bothering me all week: all the great children’s performers had a side-kick (or two). Mr. Dressup had Casey and Finnigan, the Friendly Giant had Jerome the Giraffe and Rusty the Rooster. Hell, Mr. Rogers had an entire fantasy world he would slip into routinely to escape the monotony of feeding his fish and changing his sweaters. What did I have? Nothing. I scrambled into the boxes of puppets in the supply room. My children’s person left me with nothing except a set of “themes” for each week. “Never use themes” my wife told me. “Themes will paint you into a corner every time. I never use themes”, she said a couple of days before. Too late for me: the pamphlets were already printed and distributed. The first session’s theme was “Ducks and Geese”. I could not for the life of me find a duck or a goose puppet, but I did find a bird. He had a long rainbow beak, so I think he may have been trying to be a toucan. I decided to call him “Louie” after the name of the library. Obvious and boring, I know, but what choice did I have?

“Showtime!” I whispered to Louie and opened the door to the children’s program room.

to be continued

Mr. Dressup with Casey and Finnigan


The Friendly Giant with Jerome (Giraffe) and Rusty (Rooster)

Mr. Rogers slipping into one of his trademark sweaters after visiting the Land of Make Believe

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I’ve got 26 problems but a book ain’t one.

Last week, Harper Collins sent a letter out to Overdrive, a company that acts as a vendor of ebooks for libraries. The letter stated that starting in March, any ebook purchased from Harper Collins will be set up so that it will only work 26 times. After 26 checkouts, the file is no longer active and a new “copy” of the title must be purchased to replace the old one. Harper Collins’ reasoning is that since ebooks never ever wear out, once a library buys a title, it never has to buy that title again. This differs from paper copies that libraries have traditionally purchased. Paper copies are physical objects that get stolen, go missing, get dropped in bathtubs, get eaten by pets and just plain wear out after a while. Libraries order replacement copies of popular and classic titles all the time, goes the Harper Collins’ argument, and assures a constant reliable customer that is self-perpetuating. Harper Collins’ further argues that since many smaller libraries join up with other smaller libraries, pool their resources and “go in together” to share ebook collections, publishers are further missing out on an increasingly smaller and smaller revenue stream.

Does this sound reasonable to you?

Before I give my thoughts on this issue, I must preface my remarks by saying that my views are not necessarily the views of my employer, nor are they the views of a particularly well-informed or connected mind. I’m just a dude temporarily entrusted with a medium-sized public library working under the impending threat of a potential strike.

A week ago Friday, news of the Harper Collins decision spread like wildfire throughout the world-wide library community. My twitter feed lit up with the hashtag #hcod (harpercollinsoverdrive, I’m assuming), and if you want to get more informed commentary on the issue, I encourage you to click on this hashtag and read for yourselves. Opinions ranged from supporting the publishers from the sneaky librarians, to an overall boycott of Harper Collins ebooks. My feeling from the informal number of tweets and blogs that I read, the overwhelming majority of authors, readers and librarians feel that this is not the way to go.

A quick aside: what is the proper way to write “ebooks”? Its one of those newly minted english words that takes a traditional word “book” and sticks an “e” in front of it to represent “electronic”. This site has a good discussion on the differing usages. It seems “e-book” is becoming the most accepted, but I’m lazy and stubborn and Irish and I find ebook quicker to write so I’m sticking with that until told I can’t.

Right, let’s crack on with the blog, shall we?

The most obvious result of the Harper Collins decision is that libraries will have to designate a larger % of their collection development budget to ebooks, at the detriment of other formats, primarily paper. At a time when library budgets are shrinking and we must justify every purchase, the end-user (i.e. all of us) ultimately loses out.

It will be interesting to see if an organized boycott of Harper Collins’ ebooks bears fruit. To Overdrive’s credit, they are making it easy for libraries to decide for themselves. They have separated out all the Harper Collins’ titles from all the other ones, so that when you go to purchase ebooks, you consciously have to go to the Harper Collins’ pool to get Harper Collins’ books. I know many library systems, including my own, have decided to NOT order any Harper Collins ebooks until the policy get changed.

This whole thing raises a wider fundamental issue: ebooks are not paper books. They really are different creatures and have to be thought of in a different way. When you buy a paper book, you OWN that book. The first sale doctrine says that once you own a book, you can do whatever the hell you want with it. You can sell it, loan it, burn it, eat it. This idea allows used bookstores and libraries to exist. When you buy an ebook, you don’t actually OWN anything. You’re renting access to a digital file. Not many people realize this, and would be surprised to find out that their Kindle downloads are exactly that: downloads. This site goes into way more detail about Digital Rights Management than I am qualified or prepared to talk about today.

Which brings us all back to Harper Collins’ decision to limit the number of checkouts on library ebooks. It got me thinking about the life cycle of an ebook vs. a paper book. In my library, we have a collection of approximately 70,000 physical items. I say “approximately” because unless I run a report, I have no idea how many items are here. First of all, as a rule of thumb, a third of our collection is always checked out, leaving two-thirds on the shelves at any one time. Also, we have a finite number of shelves to store things, and we get thousands of items added every year. This means its essential to get rid of older material to make way for the newer stuff. In library jargon, we call this “weeding”. Everyone learns in library school the CREW method of weeding. I’ve taken up enough time today for me to go into much detail about the CREW method, but when done properly, it revitalizes a library collection by removing material based on a comprehensive set of criteria. (Known as MUSTIE: librarians love acronyms like everyone else, apparently).

When a physical item is in need of withdrawing, we make a decision. Is it worth repairing? If the answer is no, then it is withdrawn and put into booksale, or if it’s in really rough shape, recycled. If it is worth repairing, we must ask “Is it repairable?” Will it cost more in staff time to repair it than to buy a replacement copy?

When space is an issue, we use different criteria. When a bestseller comes out, libraries order multiple copies to meet the huge initial demand. As little as a year later, when interest has waned, libraries are stuck with 5 or 6 copies of a formerly popular title. We need to weed all but one of these to make room. Often you can get wonderful deals on newish material in library booksales for this very reason.

My point with these two small weeding examples is that a lot of thought goes into managing a paper collection, but how much thought goes into managing a digital collection? Space is not an issue, except for maybe server space. Condition is not an issue: digital copies don’t get lost, stolen or wear out. This leaves only content as a relevant weeding criteria, and I honestly don’t know how much this is done. I have a feeling that digital ebooks are purchased, added to the database and then forgotten about. Perhaps the only upside of Harper Collins’ policy is that it will force public libraries to think about their digital collections as intelligently as they do with their paper collections. I suppose time will tell.

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