Saturday, January 13, 2007

Books, Books, Books, and a Page

by Gina Sestak

The title of my first college job was "Page." That was fitting, because I worked in a library. While most of the pages were compressed between the covers of the books, I got to roam around.

Working in a library is a great resource for a writer. You are surrounded by so much information. I found all kinds of things, including books on the origin of swear words, spells to invoke demons, and a collection of letters home written by 16th Century colonists in Georgia, among others. I spent my time reshelving books, working the check-out/return desk, and -- when no one in authority was watching -- catching a few minutes to read whatever looked interesting.

I found most of these interesting reads while reschelving books. Hillman Library didn't trust students to return books to their proper places in the stacks. Instead, there were book return areas where books would pile up. I would collect these books on a small cart, arrange them in order, and return them to the shelves. Sometimes, I worked the front desk, checking out books and checking in the ones that had been returned.

It was an interesting time to work the check-out desk. In my two-semester tenure, the library converted from a manual to a computerized check out system. First, let me describe the manual system:

Every book had a little pocket inside the front cover in which there was a card. When the book was checked out, this card received a color-coded plastic sleeve and was placed in a large flat bin with thousands of similar cards, in order. The color of the plastic cover indicated when the book was due. Once the due date passed, the over-due book cards could be pulled and threatening letters sent to the borrowers.

When the library computerized, the little cards were replaced with longer cards of strong paper. Like most computer fodder in those pre-online days, the cards were standard IBM-card size and had been hole-punched to identify the book. To check out a book, the borrower would take it to the desk where a staff person would feed the punched card into a computer the size of a small refrigerator, along with the borrowers student ID. The computer would read the card and ID, then spit them back out. The staff person would put the card back into the pocket in the book and the computer would periodically issue print-outs listing all of the books, who had them, and when they were due. From there the work was still mostly manual.

One of my more fun duties was climbing out onto a balcony beside the staircase to water a few plants. This wasn't really very dangerous, but I pretended that it was. I led a dull and boring life.

What did I learn from this job?

I learned the Library of Congress cataloguing system. I learned to savor the smell and texture of old books. I learned the origin of the "f" word. And I had a lot of fun.


Nancy said...

Okay, what I want to know, Gina, is whether or not you *understood* Ulysses. (Yesterday's conversation, I know, but it sorta fits here, right?)

I'm also collecting anecdotes about crimes committed in libraries. (Mostly, it seems to be elderly white men finding ingenious ways of hiding racy video tapes and magazines.) Anything to add?

brenda roger said...

I, too, worked in the library during college. Everyone said that there wasn't any information in the library. After working there, I realized that the library contained amazing and wonderful things. Most of the student hadn't ever been taught HOW to use the library. I was a new book and video inspector for a while. That was really fun. I learned to appreciate the smell of a new book!

Tory said...

I want to know more about those spells to invoke demons, Gina. Did they work? Did any major political figures (I won't name names, but you know who I'm thinking of) appear?

Kristine said...

My favorite place to study or chill out during college was the library. I would have loved to have worked there. Instead I chose to work in a grocery store. Not a great job, but I did meet my husband there, so it did have its perks.

Gina said...

Nancy -
I'm not sure whether or not I "understood" Ulysses. I know I didn't like it. I thought it was a poorly tied together rambling exercise in setting down the stream of consciousness thoughts of a boring person about his boring life, but it's supposed to be great literature, so go figure. I guess I'm just an uneducated nincompoop.
On the topic of crimes in libraries, there was a pervert who would advertise modeling jobs, then meet young women in secluded study carrels to "measure" them for costumes. I think he ended up in prison. It was not unheard of for perverts to hide in the stacks and expose themselves. They tended to retreat when faced with disparaging remarks. On one occasion, a friend of mine (Jim) came upon a mutual acquaintance (Len) tearing pages out of a book in the men's room. Upon noticing that he was being observed, Len (who had the reputation of being a drug user/dealer) pulled a gun and pointed it at Jim who, fearing for his life, didn't report the incident to authorities.
I did set a short story in a library, but it only involves the destruction of the universe. Is that a crime? So far, nobody's wanted to publish it.

Brenda -
Are we leading parallel lives?

Tory -
I never tried any of the spells. They required ingredients that I didn't have handy -- like a freshly severed human head. Besides, I've already got plenty of demons. Why would I want more??

Joyce said...

I worked at the West End Branch of the Carnegie Library way back in 1977. I loved it. Nothing was computerized back then and we used to hand stamp the little cards with the due date when they were checked out.

I also used to help the children's library with programs. One of my favorites was doing a puppet show. Since I can actually draw, I also had to make any posters we needed to advertise events at the library.