Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Of all the Charlie Browns in the world . . .

This holiday season, I brought a shockingly lower level of motivation to my forced task of appropriately decorating the library's front window display than ever before. (I don't mean to turn this blog into "Days of Our Front Window Display," but there's little else of note to document around the library these days. The Annual Holiday Luncheon, for which I was the Chairperson of the Executive Planning Committee, went off without a hitch. No meat was shanghaied, no undercover barbecue-recovery missions were undertaken, and no high level Meat Study Group Task Force had to be convened to deliver a post-disaster policy review report to the administration. As co-Chairperson Bananappeal repeatedly blurted, this year's slogan, "Hell No, the Meat Won't Go!" held true.)

Once this triumph was complete, it was time to turn my attention to the dreaded front window. In recent weeks the rest of our library has undergone its annual transformation into a decorative showplace replete with Christmas trees, creepily animatronic Santa Clauses, and a sprawling miniature (and that is an utterly accurate contradiction in terms here) holiday village, with stacks of actual "books" only a seemingly distant backdrop. Due to my Rumsfeld-ian lack of pre-attack planning, when I finally got around to tackling the front window I was left to work with the mere scraps of decorations from decades past scattered throughout our storage attic.

After a few trips up and down the stairs of the Loft of Lost Decorations, I assembled a halfhearted display of papier mache reindeer and shabby fake boxes of presents in dusty, disintegrating Korean War-surplus wrapping. I was about to resort to the ultimate library display window cop-out--scattering themed books throughout the display simply to take up space and appear colorful . . . and, of course, promote reading--when I spotted a lonely, battered, little tree, just the right size for shoving in as a centerpiece. In the midst of this Charlie Browniest of moments, I was struck with true inspiration.

Like the looting Grinch swiping every last one of Cindy Lou Who's toys, I grabbed every sorry tree decoration feature I could find out of the attic's ample and quite decrepit supply. I was determined to make some sort of design statement at the epicenter of our library's ungodly explosion of Christmas decoration megalomania (or "mini-lomania," in the case of the tiny holiday village whose miniature inhabitants sing and play four different Christmas carols at a time in an approximation of the noise torture techniques practiced by the U.S. military blockade of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega's compound during the 1989 American incursion).

All afternoon, in between serving our library's relentless customers, I added more swag to this tiny tree which nearly buckled under the weight of all the Christmas crap. A sparkling string of twinkling, fire-hazardous lights; a leftover two-foot length of toxically-shedding tinsel; an assortment of battered, well-worn ornaments hung with thrift store elan by twisted paper clips--I shoved everything I could find on this poor tree until it could barely stand on its own. On a final trip to the attic I found the crowning piece, a garishly flashing star nearly half the size of the tree itself that would put the perfect brand of Vegas-flavored icing on this overcooked cake.

I had almost begun to doubt my artistic instincts by the time I ventured outside to take a peek at the results. Had I gone too far? Worse, had I not gone far enough, and would my attempt at a bold statement simply get lost amid the larger backdrop of almost equally overwrought decoration throughout the rest of the building? I knew I had ultimately triumphed, however, when I was joined outside the library by our new evening page who was curious about the display. She almost physically recoiled at the sight of it and twisted her face into a lemon-biting scowl. "What eees that?" she demanded in her distinct Peruvian accent. "Don't you think you've gone way too far? That tree ees so tiny, and there's just so much . . ."

Como se dice "crap" en espanol?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Library Tourism

Among the regular visitors to our small library is an extremely friendly elderly couple, probably no more than 130 to 140 years old each. The husband and wife both have the miniature, elfin appearance of incognito leprechauns, cleverly disguised in thrift store coats and ill-fitting overalls. They are just pudgy enough to pass for Mr. and Mrs. Claus on an off-season scouting mission for naughty kids to strike from their gift list (in which case they've no doubt found a quota-filling selection here).

In reality they fall into one of my favorite categories of library visitors: the Tourists. These particular ancient travelers are on a county-wide circuit, stopping in at each of our system's 17 branches every few days in their beat-to-hell, once luxurious, mid-70's, 8-cylinder road yacht, the backseat of which is no doubt littered with used bookmarks and yellowed, crumpled library receipts.

In all seriousness, I swear the Husband/Elf/Tourist literally has a twinkle in his eye each time he stops by the front desk to drop off a load of materials from the previous library on their tour. I always like to ask them where they're headed next before they give an obligatory, slightly sad mention of how nice our little library is. I'm well aware this is one of the more grim stops on the circuit, thanks to our cramped vintage 1950s shelves, depressingly peeling formica surfaces, and generally surly front desk staff.

Recently the Days of Our Library Executive Editorial, Writing and Marketing Staff took a brief but extremely welcome vacation of our own to the extreme southwestern corner of this state. This is a bleak, half-civilized destination on the prairie where it still appears that a buffalo stampede or Old West shootout could occur at any moment. Naturally, I was greatly looking forward to checking out the library situation in this isolated zone.

The one I wandered into was actually depressingly sweet. Somehow even the backwoods yokels of West Bumblefool have endowed their public library about ten times more nicely than the one in which I currently man the front desk. After a few minutes of checking out the facilities and trying to ramp down my professional jealousy, I talked to my Bizarro counterpart at their front desk to get the lowdown on the local situation. I love introducing myself as one of the Elite Brotherhood of Library Professionals and getting the insider treatment; it's like wielding a Masonic ring or giving the secret handshake at a Skull and Bonesy club. Except super-nerdy.

I learned that folks come from miles around, even from across the Texas state border dozens of miles away, to use this cool little library. For a mere ten bucks a year, anybody can get a card and reap the rewards of their very decent collection and speedy internet connection. As I was getting all idealistic and picturing this place as the total cultural oasis of the southwestern prairie and reflecting on how a good library really mirrors the values of its community, I also noticed one of the popular community programs this library offers its visitors, prominently advertised:

"For Women Only: Hands-On Firearm Safety Classes--Three Nights a Week"

So I figured they probably have their own issues with keeping the library quiet in the evenings, just like we do.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Meat Management

Recently at the library, the already thin veneer of civilization seems to be tearing away to reveal a wild, Lord-of-the-Flies-ish anarchism where any authority figures could easily find their torsos roasting on spits and a primitive religion based on the cargo-cult worship of Dora the Explorer paperbacks could overthrow our entire library hierarchy. Such has been the case the last several nights. A series of strange events that on their own would just seem mildly troubling is instead adding up to create an air of true, slightly threatening weirdness.

First, just a couple of weeks after our Computer Specialist had his pickup truck smashed into in front of the library, his beloved motorcycle was tipped over, keyed and otherwise vandalized. A series of false 911 calls from our lobby pay phone over the past few weeks has resulted in its being removed by the phone company (presumably for our own good?). On a rainy, windy evening when the sun went down just after 5:00 p.m. and the din inside the library was already reaching missile-testing-range levels, an outburst of loud, mysterious banging on our front windows occurred with no visible fury-fisted culprits anywhere nearby.

Taken by themselves, none of these events are noteworthy at the venue some of my fellow employees like to refer to in Serling-esque tones as "The Zone." The natives of this place just seem especially restless these days. The stinky homeless guy seems a little edgier; our mild-mannered, elderly security guard is engaging in shouting matches with only slightly less elderly women; the after-school mobs of pre-teens have a "Paris-on-the-verge-of-the-French-Revolution" tone to their anarchic gatherings. You'd swear someone had laced their Halloween candy with crystal meth after handing out "Come Visit Your Library!" bookmarks.

In perhaps the most troubling development of all, I have somehow been nominated by an electorate of my peers to serve as the Chairperson of the Annual Inter-Office Holiday Luncheon Committee.

I am interpreting this appointment as a mandate to overturn the corruption and embezzlement involved in the previous administration's handling of the signature social event of our library's year. In a scandal of almost Halliburton-ish proportions, last year's leftover meat supply, a mountain of enough barbecued goodness for the staff to pick over until well after New Year's, was somehow made to disappear faster than our library's monthly display copy of the GQ en Espanol quasi-porn magazine.

There are several theories regarding the Great Meat Disappearence. Some blamed the hungry poltergeists who also apparently tear books off the shelves of the children's section and rearrange the letters on the alphabetized spines of DVDs to spell words like "POOP" and "FART." Suspicion was also cast upon last year's apparently morally incorruptible Chairperson, who could well have fed her family for months on the smuggled leftover bounty of our employee feast. The ultimate conclusion of most of the amateur investigators in the building settled on the ample gut of a previous security guard as the ironic culprit. This ill-tempered, id-driven, underbite-having meat wrangler must have stuffed his jacket pockets with pounds of our smoky, delicious bounty and somehow gotten away clean, bearing only the telltale sauce-sticky fingers of a clumsy but ravenous buffet snatcher.

This year, I see my primary mission as Chairperson mostly involving making provisions for an extra layer of security when it comes to our precious meat products. I'll simply have to delegate the decorating and entertainment and other less-vital tasks to my able subordinates while I in turn figure out how to most appropriately fit the term "Meat Manager" into my next resume.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Rubber Bandwidth

Something wondrous happened yesterday, an event so fleeting and fantastic that I'm still not sure if I imagined it in an early morning sleep-deprivation-fueled fog or hypnogogic half-dream state. All of the computers in the library went down for two-and-a-half spectacular hours.

At first it was a lot like one of those boring PBS shows where they stick people in a house outfitted as if it was 1900 and force them to pretend there's no such thing as television or electric garage door openers. All of the sudden it was like "1970s Library" where everyone just sort of milled around, readjusting our bearings to a world where, among other things, books were checked out the old-fashioned way: by hand.

This sort of adjustment forced a necessary and oddly enjoyable slow-down. I meditatively copied the appropriate card and book numbers on the emergency "Computers Are Down!!!" clipboard and sent people on their way with a primitive handwritten note regarding the due date. The hyper-efficiency of the computerized checkout station screeched to a halt, and everyone was forced to wait just a few extra, somehow slightly more civilized seconds.

Things quieted down dramatically as well. There were no printers spitting out printouts with an electronic buzz and a burst of violent razor-blade "ZZZHHHHH" to tear off receipts. There was no computerized beeping or chirping or the disembodied female robot voice that instructs me on innumerable details throughout the day and later haunts my nightmares: "RESERVE READY," "FINE HAS BEEN DELETED," "SOUL-SUCKING COMPLETE." There were no rampaging hordes of jittery children crowding over the shoulders of a zombified compatriot playing a video game on the internet. There was no yelling by any staff members at these same kids whose idea of the library has sadly become focused far more on the video arcade aspect than as a repository of books.

I'm telling you, it was a really sweet morning.

I finished every task I could possibly complete without the aid of a computer in about 45 minutes, and then I had time to just look around and admire all the quiet reading going on. I had never really realized how much my work depends on my being chained near the computer. Once set free, I even had a chance to leisurely read a couple of really cool children's biographies of Marian Anderson and Gandhi. I really felt like one of those far calmer and gentler library employees I remember from my childhood who would subtly put down the book they were quietly reading in order to help out someone else.

Most welcome of all, though, was the opportunity to work on my world-record-challenging rubber band ball whose massive circumference is beginning to create its own gravitational pull and whose necessary assembly materials are forcing me to twist and bend my otherwise ironclad ethics regarding employee theft. (We keep and use hundreds of thousands of rubber bands each day for book-wrapping purposes. So far I've built my massive sphere only from rubber bands that happen to fall to the floor or are unfortunately the wrong size for our specific purposes. This is how I've avoided any hint of impropriety for when the inevitable internal library investigation comes down. The Great Computer Crash of Ought-Six also gave me a couple of hours to prepare my legal brief on this matter.)

Inevitably, the dreamlike state was interrupted by a far too efficient repairman who adjusted the correct vacuum tubes and reconnected us to the 21st century. By the early afternoon when the usual chirping and buzzing and robot-voicing and computer-gaming had resumed, it may as well have all been a lovely hallucination. On the other hand, the looming threat of my pulsating rubber band ball crashing off my desk and crushing everything in its bouncing path is becoming all too real. Even the damned computers won't be able to save us then . . . .

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Midterm Midtacular, Midwest Edition

My staggeringly unscientific poll results from the front counter of the library on Election Day reveal disturbing implications for the future of America. Most significantly, it appeared that a healthy percentage of eligible voters were able to somehow circumvent our state's ban on liquor sales while the polls were open for voting.

Also, approximately 36% of our library's visitors yesterday mistakenly believed they could cast their vote somewhere on our premises. A statistically significant subset of those seemed positive that they could simply get on the internet and zap their ballots to Election Headquarters. None of them, not one, was actually in current possession of a voter ID card; neither was anyone aware that said cards identified his or her actual precincts with clearly marked addresses. One or two appeared entirely incapable of identifying the current year or their own names.

While I was pondering the imminent doom of America's experiment in representative democracy, a fascinating row erupted at the front desk between the generally pacifist Aging Hippie and a horribly misguided would-be voter. I could tell the A.H. was trying with all his considerable reserves of mellowness to keep from throttling this woman to whom I was attempting to explain the basics of voting procedures. ("Do you have a voter registration card? Are you even registered to vote? How many fingers am I holding up?") She firmly believed she was entitled to alight at any vaguely public, semi-government facility and just yell loudly enough in order to make her electoral voice heard. She refused to believe there was any such thing as a polling place or a specific precinct to which she may have ever been assigned, despite the Aging Hippie's increasingly plaintive protestations to the contrary.

In between furiously shaking his head at her every oxygen-deprived comment, he must have somehow divined that her electoral choices matched his own. He was obviously determined to help this poor woman vote so his wishes of overthrowing the Republicans could come one ballot closer to fruition, but I could also tell he wanted to beat her senseless with a tire iron as soon as she emerged from the appropriate polling station.

In the wake of this and other deeply frustrating interactions with our uninformed electorate, I began pondering the pluses and minuses of benevolent dictatorship and/or the divine right of kings. Just for practical reasons, I'm not at all sure if many of the individuals I attempted to help yesterday would even be able to choose between more than one candidate on a ballot in any case. I began to see the wisdom of a North Korea-style electoral system until the final national results were tallied Wednesday evening. When Big Tom Jefferson said, "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government," he said a mouthful, and for a few minutes at a time at least it makes me proud to work in a public library.

Then again, Will Rogers wasn't kidding around at all when he said, "Oklahomans vote dry as long as they can stagger to the polls."

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Monday, November 06, 2006

The Passion of the Circ. Clerk

I'm currently maintaining a bustling fine art gallery in my library. Taped to the side of my desk and facing the front door are several art and design projects I've saved from various customers and employees. Most prominent among these are several coloring pages featuring Bob the Builder and the occasional Dora the Explorer piece. One budding young collage artist found a surgical glove, drew his impression of my face on it, and taped it to a piece of paper to get his work into this rather exclusive collection. A fellow employee tacked on a deeply haunting and disturbing image of Barry Manilow.

Lately, though, a different sort of art project has been occurring within the library. A relatively quiet, unassuming customer has been stealthily borrowing ball point pens and highlighters from the front desk and employing the paper towel dispenser in the bathroom to provide his canvasses. He sits at a table and spends hours hard at work on intricately detailed line drawings with a tasteful touch of occasional yellow highlighter.

It took me a few days to realize what he was really working on, as at first I just assumed he was just a studious fellow taking detailed notes on something or other. He usually grabs a few books from the stacks, and when I realized he was drawing I assumed he was using them for material or models. (Actually, as our security guard pointed out to me later, one day he mysteriously left behind one book on the history of guns and one book of portraits of roses. I quite often hum the opening bars of "Welcome to the Jungle" in my head when arriving to work, but this odd tableau was almost more creepy than amusing.)

I then assumed that he was drawing interesting scenes from the inside of the library. He always seemed to be studying something nearby as he drew, but the closer I studied him the more the term "thousand yard stare" came to mind to describe his manner. I became more and more curious about surreptitiously checking out his work. I sort of perversely hoped that I would find him creating caricatures of library staff and regular customers that I could somehow obtain and post on this blog, but I was actually way, way off.

It turns out he wasn't using any books for models or inspiration, he wasn't drawing breathtaking interior library-scapes with yellow highlighter twinkles a la Thomas Kinkade, and he wasn't caricaturing me with cartoonish amounts of armpit sweat and facial expressions revealing my occasionally crippling personal rage issues. Instead, he's been working on a series of fanatical devotional drawings of Jesus themes that are seriously starting to freak me out.

The first one I spied was a spooky picture of Christ's eye done in the manner of the Disney World Haunted House portraits where the eyes follow you around the room everywhere you go. The next day I caught him at work on a Last Supper-style scene across which he'd written (and brutally mis-spelled) something in a really nice Old Testament-looking script about "Thanksgvng" (sic). Today I was finally able to successfully capture one piece for myself after he left it--a dense collage of crown-of-thorns images with a yellow highlighted banner that reads, "Christ is For Real."

Since this artist always leaves his creations behind presumably for evangelical purposes upon their completion, I'm considering adding a sort of religious folk art wing to my library gallery. While his muscle-bound Jesus imagery is of the decidedly Mel Gibson-esque school, and I'm not exactly sure how to best matte and frame paper towel art, I continue to be impressed by his dedication to his craft.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Murder in the Stacks

I actually once worked in a library with gargoyles.

On my very first day of employment in this sprawling, seven-level gothic building, I was given an orientation by my boss that stressed the particular importance of one special bit of instruction. "Make sure," she insisted, "you do the 'Murder in the Stacks' training as soon as possible." As I toured the facilities, I was pretty sure I knew exactly why she felt this was so critical.

Like many of your creepier libraries, this building featured long, lonely stacks of books on quiet, isolated floors, not at all unlike The Overlook Hotel. Since a significant part of my job involved hunting through rarely-traversed corners for mis-cataloged books that had been lost to mankind for decades, I quickly became familiar with many of its cranniest nooks.

For whatever reason, the zombified human resources department was dragging its feet when it came to the critical culmination of my training. "You haven't done 'Murder in the Stacks' yet?" several of my co-workers anxiously asked. No, not yet, and I was out there every day in those murderous stacks trying my best to not do an impersonation of a scantily clad cheerleader in a slasher movie.

Aside from the general creepiness of the echoing stacks full of dusty volumes, I began to imagine the dangers lurking around every corner of the library. "If I were a crazed serial murderer," I thought, "what better venue could I find for nubile young victims than a massive, quiet library full of sleepy students and not a conscious security guard in sight?" Each day that passed without the invaluable, potentially life-saving training made me want to solidify the contents of my last will and testament and wrap up all my unfinished business on this mortal coil.

I then began to consider the building's own potential for creating homicidal madness. I had gotten myself lost in this labrynth of books plenty of times already, and I could well imagine a young college student's psychotic break under the awful pressures of undergraduate academia. What better place to stow away a body for several months than the Chinese-Japanese-Korean archives whose catalog I maintained and whose stacks were never, ever, ever visited?

Then there were the potential horrors of the space-saver stacks. Plenty of the books for which I hunted zealously were quite possibly hidden within these mechanically shifting shelves, perfect for trapping and smashing a human victim in a sadistic replay of the Star Wars garbage compactor scene. Without the "Murder in the Stacks" training, I was clearly living on borrowed time.

When the appointed day finally came, I was shuffled into a spare broom closet of the humble human resources headquarters. I inserted an ancient VHS tape with a yellowed label on which the faded legend "Murder in the Stacks" was faintly visible. I thought admiringly of my many brave co-workers for whom this vital piece of almost-martial arts training must have proved invaluable on their own forays into the harrowing stacks of horror.

As the videotape crackled to life, I began to ask myself why such a critical vessel of life-saving information was being narrated by poorly-outfitted second-year drama school geeks? One was dressed in a moth-eaten approximation of a Sherlock Holmes costume while the other's thrift store polyester suit was apparently meant to portray the dear Mr. Watson. Through the appallingly amateurish British accents of these literal sophomores, I puzzled out the true meaning of "Murder in the Stacks." What they illustrated for me, in excrutiatingly repetitive detail, was the proper method for handling the many old and fragile volumes the gargoyle-ridden library held. What it all boiled down to, in a crystal of information I could have absorbed in an eight-second demonstration, was, "Don't pull the books off the shelves by the top of their spines! Handle them very, very carefully! Don't commit book murder in the stacks!"


I still never liked the looks of those college students.

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