All day I am surrounded by books. This is something that would have sounded appealing to me if I was not simultaneously working with books, by which I mean that I currently work as a page at two very different libraries while I pursue my master’s degree in Library and Information Science. Don’t get me wrong by the above sentence – I love books. I love holding them in my hand, I love thinking about the work that went into them, and I love how just the sight of them – looking at their covers, say – makes me excited, and sparks inside of me a feeling of significance. Yet I’ve noticed that working with books daily as a page tends to leaven off some of that enchantment, so that at times – times when my meaning radar is not being used – books are just objects that I am moving around, clumsy things that fall off carts when I am pushing them up a ramp. At those times, I forget the significance of being surrounded by books. That sense or feeling recedes, and I am left just feeling ordinary, at work, with a lot of books to find or shelve or sort or pull. That’s basically what I do – find books, shelve books, sort books, or (part of finding books) pull books, (though I also do the same things with DVD’s and cd’s). Yet these tasks diverge pretty dramatically based on the library where I’m working.
At the first library, a small local public library, there are not as many books as the second library. The lists aren’t as long at the first library because there are less items, and the tasks aren’t as compartmentalized because there is not the need for it (at the larger library, the divisions of the staff seem more absolute, perhaps because there are more items to work with). I start the day at the first library by vacuuming the computer keyboards, or cleaning the computer screens, before I walk downstairs, enter into a backroom full of supplies, and pull out a large cart. I take this cart outside, no matter the weather, pulling it over bumps in the sidewalk, towards the book drop, which holds all the books and cd’s and DVD’s that patrons have consumed over a day. I unlock the book drop, pull out the other cart full of materials, and replace it with the cart I brought outside. Then I lock the book drop again, and bring in all the materials back inside the library. The whole process is not difficult, but I like the ritualistic quality of doing this, how it signals the start of a shift for me, almost like a cup of coffee or another morning ritual. I like knowing that the circulation clerks are waiting for me to return with my cart full of interesting materials, and that their day is also similarly started when those materials come inside. And the materials are extraordinarily diverse: movies that people loved or hated, children’s books that immersed a child for a moment into a different world, cd’s that people sought out and found and listened to in their cars or homes or somewhere else, and had an interesting or blah experience, and books, about everything and anything. There are cookbooks and travel books and new books and local books, books about politics and economics and racism and discrimination, books about the occult, books about religion and history and education, biographies, mysteries, science fiction, fiction, books in different languages, everything. And that’s the thing – when I am not turned into to just another person working because of the sheer occasional tediousness of shelving and sorting and pulling, I remember that working in a library is a privilege, because even as a page you are a type of knowledge custodian, as the wares that you are peddling touch upon the entire universe of knowledge we have gathered and cultivated over millennia. It’s overwhelming. I used to want to be a literature teacher, because literature was the main and most intense way that I connected with the world, but working as a page is another way that I connect, because I am able to serve in a different way, by playing my small part to help others connect to the knowledge and meaning they need.
As I mentioned, the second library I work at is also a public library, but it is enormous. I don’t have a morning ritual there just yet, because there always seems to be many things to do all at once, but I have started volunteering in the morning to pull books in the social science or fine arts section. There’s always a long list for the social science section, (the fine arts section, which holds beautiful books about music and visual art, is usually shorter), because that section contains everything from religion to philosophy to politics to law to education and much more. So while I thought initially that I would mind pulling so many books off such a long list, I’ve found that the mornings where I pull books from the social science section are strangely meditative. I like seeing and finding the books, because I always discover new topics, new approaches, new authors, and I also like learning what these anonymous people are interested in learning about. Literary critics have posited that we enjoy reading literature because we enjoy learning about others, especially since our access to the inner lives of people in the real world is so limited. I think I’ve found that pulling books is another type of access to the inner worlds of people. I’ve never been very good at small talk, but when someone is discussing a book, my ears always perk up, and I find that I am preternaturally interested in what they thought about it. Pulling books in this way is almost a kind of dialogue that goes on with me and the anonymous person.
The task of pulling books, though – like the task of emptying the book drop – is simple and basic: I have a table of data, which includes the book titles, the item id’s, the call numbers, and the time they were last checked out, and I go through the list, finding books with the right call numbers on their spines, making sure the item id matches the id on the list, and making a check when I find the book, and a circle when I don’t. I crouch down a lot to find a book lower on the shelf, and I quietly mumble call numbers to myself as I scan the shelf, using a whole lot of my short-term memory to hold the call number in my mind just long enough to find the corresponding spine. The list in the social science section can be as long as seven or eight pages, so it usually takes about one or two hours. I fill a cart with the books I find, which I will ultimately take to the social science section. But I like that feeling, of being awake in the morning, usually alone, in these huge stacks, walking down aisles of patiently waiting books, finding the right one, and making the check mark. The book for me is pretty much always interesting, and I usually want to stop and open it up and read a little, but I don’t because I don’t have time. At this second library, the amount of books they have is staggering. Each book contains one human being’s life’s work, or part of a human being’s life’s work, that thing they thought about and researched and wrote about for years, the subject that moved them to become a different person, the topic that changed the way they thought. When I am not tired and just at work, I feel close to this world of thought and life and passion, and I sometimes feel the desire to find something that will equally obsess me, compel me to work on for years. I push my cart down the book aisles, and the proximity I feel to the lifework of other human beings is intimate and close, despite the fact that my task is extraordinarily banal and mundane.