I used to work at the public library. When I told people this, they generally reacted with great enthusiasm, especially the readers, since I think there’s a tiny part of every reader’s soul that’s a librarian—“That would be so great, being surrounded by all those books!” When I explained that my job involved taking carts of books out, putting them back on the shelves, then returning for more carts, they became less enthusiastic. That part of my job was hard and sometimes unpleasant; there’s the problem of making room on the shelves that are already packed full, the problem of never having time to actually read the books you were putting away, the problem of constant sore feet and lower back pain. Having great co-workers was essential, because the job itself was often tedious.
As for the myth of the quiet, peaceful library, come around just before story time and see how quiet forty children are when they’re racing around the shelves while their parents ignore them. This happened ALL THE TIME. I saw moms with their heads bent down over their cell phones while their children were sobbing nearby, unattended. The only thing worse was the parents who told their kids to put books back after they’d yanked them off the shelves. As if three-year-olds remember where they got things or know the alphabet. (Fine. Some kids that age know the alphabet. I did. They still have no idea of shelving conventions.) Every one of the shelvers developed a cringe reaction to those words because the least pleasant job of all was going through the shelves looking for books that were out of place.
The real joy of working in a library is not having access to all those books, though that’s a bonus too. It’s seeing the sheer variety of human beings who come through its doors. No one is turned away. Even the grimy, unwashed man we all knew used the library as a shelter didn’t get worse treatment than being gently told he couldn’t sleep in the chairs. I saw people who came solely to use the Internet and others who bought piles of books from the book sale shelves and people who checked out fifty DVDs at a time as well as those who came for books.
And I got to know them. The young man with mental disabilities who came every Wednesday and checked out exactly five DVDs, then had us circle the date on the library calendar handout that they’d be due. The women who always came for story time on the same day and time with kids we knew were too young to appreciate it, just so they could spend time with other moms. The man in the wheelchair who couldn’t reach the floor outlet, who had the biggest power adapter for his computer I’d ever seen. The three boys who used the computers to play Minecraft together, two of whom tormented the third to tears and made me wish I was there as a mom rather than a library worker. The seventy-year-old man who hit on me as I showed him how to use the computer catalog. (That’s funny in hindsight, but at the time was just seriously awkward.)
But there’s one man I’m never going to forget. This encounter happened when I was putting away books in the middle grade section, which was near one bank of computers. I could clearly hear, but not see, a man having a conversation on his phone. (NOTE: Don’t have loud conversations on your phone in the library! Everyone can hear you! There’s a point at which it’s no longer eavesdropping and more a matter of pretending not to be interested in someone’s prostate problem.) He was talking to a potential employer and sounded enthusiastic and articulate. It became clear over the course of the conversation that this man really needed this job and was willing to put forth whatever effort was necessary to get it. Finally, he thanked the employer and hung up, but remained at the computer chair. I was really curious at this point to see who this guy was, so I hurried to finish my cart and then wheeled it out around the shelves so I’d pass him.
This is where I got a real shock. I’d built up this picture of a young man, not dressed up (the job was some kind of physical labor) but not a slob. And he pretty much matched that description. But he was also covered in tattoos. Both arms, down his neck into his shirt, and up into his scalp and under his hair. Intricate, colorful, beautiful tattoos. He looked like the cover of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. And I immediately felt ashamed of myself for being startled and for having that instant’s reaction that someone who looked like him could sound like the stupid picture I’d built up in my head. My second reaction was Is that employer going to think what I did when he sees him? Is he going to forget about the enthusiastic, genuine guy he spoke to? Because I couldn’t imagine I would be the only one who’d have that reaction. And it made me a little sick to think he might lose out on something important because of that.
I’m not sure there’s a moral to that story, except that it taught me to be a little more careful about what I assumed, and because I wished I could have found out what happened with the job. I saw him again about a month later, at the same computer. This time he was there with his wife. We talked for a bit about children, and they both said how nice it was to have some time away from their young kids. They had a babysitter for about an hour and they spent it at the library. For all libraries these days are shifting focus toward their media collections and free Internet access, the public library never stops being a haven, even for non-readers. I think that’s wonderful. (Except for being hit on by the seventy-year-old man. I am never taking my wedding ring off again.)