Welcome back to stories from work! If you missed part one – where I nerded about Dickens with a library director and was promptly hired – you can catch up here.
You need to understand a few things about my library.
I lived in Washington D.C./ Baltimore suburbia for most of my childhood, which meant our libraries were the size of the state of Oregon. My experience with these libraries was twofold: they smelled like chlorine, and the librarians would’ve liked to scratch out the meaning of your existence with only their eyes. Don’t check books out from these libraries. You will leave with a week’s worth of reading material and a lifetime of crushing guilt for wasting humanity’s time with your sentience.
Fast-forward to 2018, when my family moved to a rural farming community lost in the sticks of Michigan, and I experienced culture shock because people actually Liked Each Other. The head librarian gave me a stack of free books on my very first trip through the doors. She learned my name. We would chat about my job at the bulk food store like I was a visiting celebrity from an exotic land.
With these conflicting experiences banging around in my head, I arrived for my first day of work. The director started my training by showing me the computer systems and how to check books out. From there, we moved on to the subject of fines.
I chuckled inwardly. This, I knew about. Librarians have their own private network of bounty hunters they task with threatening and manipulating until a terrified patron returns their wayward copy of Pete the Cat. I cracked my knuckles, ready to throw myself into a tutorial on how to look vaguely ominous.
The director scratched his head. “Fines are annoying and make people upset, so if they only owe a small amount, just ignore it.”
No glaring? No guilt-tripping? No gaslighting? No threatening to break their knees?
I stared, slightly starstruck, at my new hero.
That was only the beginning. As I came to understand throughout the course of the day, small-town libraries follow their own code of ethics. Was I trained to shelve books? No, I was asked if I knew my ABCs and then set loose with a book cart to wander through the aisles figuring out shelving on my own. Was I given a name tag? No, I was shown a drawer of past employees’ name tags and told I could pick a secret identity until a proper tag was made for me.
(And have I worn a different name every day since for the purpose of confusing patrons?)
At the end of the day, one of the librarians plunked a key down in front of me.
“What’s this for?” I asked, wondering what back room I was being sent to.
“It’s for the front door,” she said. “It’s yours. Don’t lose it.”
A key. She’d just given me a key. To the entire library. I stared numbly, and not for the first time, wondered what glorious fanfiction I’d strayed into.
My exultation was short-lived, however, as she revealed the newest detail of my training regimen. The woman who handled the inter-loan department (books being sent to and from other libraries – it’s called MelCat, don’t ask me why) was leaving, and I would be taking over for her. The only downside to this otherwise fabulous proposition? Due to an unscheduled twist of fate, she was leaving in two days.
“Normally, her job takes 3-4 weeks to learn,” they told me. “But you seem moderately intelligent. We think you can learn in two days.”
I was given a notebook, a pencil, and the instruction to take obsessively detailed notes.
Only two days.
And then she left me.
Another fun thing to note here – she was the only one in the entire library who knew how to do that specific job.
And then she left me.
I’d love to say I was as moderately intelligent as they assumed, but alas. I was not. The first day without her, I sat in my creaky little swivel chair and had a freak-out session even the power of the Front Door Key could not soothe.
“You’re not really alone,” the head librarian said in a desperate bid for comfort. “You can always call the MelCat helpline if you’re stuck!”
…yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.
What followed was an intense two week journey of studying every scrap of information I could get my hands on. I rooted through the back room and found a binder on inter-loan protocol, which I took home and devoured. I discovered a secret wiki page for MelCat users, which I requested a password for and then read every article six times. I took notes religiously. I fumbled my way through procedures. For two nightmarish weeks, I felt like I was in school again.
It didn’t help that the light reading material was filled with specimens such as this:
Does anyone have any clue what this means? Because I still don’t.
The biggest challenge was having no one to answer my questions. Every time I ran into an unexpected problem (of which there were many), I had to cross my fingers and hope the Mel wiki had an article about it. Nine times out of ten, it didn’t. This left me with two options:
1.) Look the other way and pretend the problem doesn’t exist, which is a great way to get fired, or 2.) call the MelCat helpline.
Getting fired was the better option.
Unfortunately, I’m a Christian and I have scruples about doing a bad job. I called the MelCat helpline. It was as terrible as I’d assumed it would be.
(Did it also help me fix my problem?)
Another fun thing I’m in charge of is the email account. If another library contacts us, it goes through me first, which is, admittedly, pretty cool. The coolness wore off a little when the first email I received was hate mail about how I’d shipped a book, but, y’know. Apparently, putting a tiny piece of scotch tape on a book cover is a highly controversial topic in the field of librarianism.
After this incident, I noticed that every time this specific library returned one of our books, the shipping label was attached to the cover with an exorbitant amount of scotch tape, far more than necessary. This was my first exposure to the pettiness of librarians. The library in question has the stunning name of “Butman-Fish,” and the next time I had to ship a book to them, I… may or may not have accidentally-on-purpose misspelled their name as the “Buttman-Fish” library. Because… just because.
I too am a petty librarian.
Finally, as the weeks wore on and I got a firmer grasp of what I was doing, making subtle changes to my domain became more and more of a necessity. The other librarians have all been here for at least ten years, and as such, forgotten the novelty of replacing office supplies. For example, this folder:
When I picked it up, its contents immediately fell out in a pile in my lap. Upon closer inspection, I realized this happened because the folder no longer had a bottom. Upon even closer inspection, I discovered a date written in the corner – 1992.
I threw the folder out.
(And was later reprimanded for this hasty and wasteful action, though when pressed, the librarians admitted they had no good reason to desire the folder other than sentimental reasons.)
One of my final learning experiences was processing new books. Essentially, destroying them. Gluing all the annoying stickers to the cover so you can’t see the title anymore, writing prices on the inside cover and entombing everything in a layer of plastic destined to be wrinkled and dirty for the rest of its life. All of these things – though distasteful – I can handle, but what really murders my soul is the bright red ink pad. We have to stamp multiple pages with the massive words “do not damage,” a somewhat redundant message, given the mode of expressing it.
I’m the kind of person who cares for my books like a sacred shrine. Inflicting any kind of damage is painful; permanent ink is of the devil.
This bothered me for a long time, until I finally realized an important detail: all the books I was stamping were garbage anyway. The scarlet ink pad wasn’t a curse – in fact, it was the kind of vengeance I’d been dreaming of.
Armed with my Stamp of Doom, I proceeded to stamp the entire stack of smutty vampire novels as much as I could and in the most annoying places possible, finding a morbid sense of glee in the fact that some unsuspecting soul would have their steamy romance scene interrupted by the glaring presence of “DO NOT DAMAGE” covering half the page.
Library vigilantism, 101.
Aaaand that wraps it up for today, folks! Come back next week for Part Three, when I finally yell at some children!