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Dewey 451

Meet Frank Bowen. He is in his mid 40s, smells like cheap coffee, and comes in every Tuesday. For the next twenty minutes, he will scour the biography section for new books on Alexander Hamilton. If he finds any, he will take them out – all of them. None will ever return.

Frank is, you must understand, something of an ideologue – a genuine Aaron Burr fanatic. I know for a fact all of his lost books have become plant fertilizer. I would protest this, but Frank always pays his late fees. He could certainly do worse.

“I couldn’t find anything on that traitor.” It’s Frank. He’s at the circulation desk.

“Sorry Mr. Bowen, none this week.”

“Maybe the world has finally forgotten him…?”

I nod without agreeing. Frank waddles over to the new releases just in case.

All in all, I consider Frank’s obsession a healthy psychosis. It’s not much likely that Hamilton will disappear from history anytime soon, and it’s a nice, clean madness – nothing violent, nothing too expensive. Either way, Frank will be back next week. I intend to make sure he finds what he’s looking for.

Now, you might think that that I’m something of a therapist. Untrue. I am a businessman and Frank is, frankly, good business. You see, I buy up books on Alexander Hamilton – used titles, international versions, Spanish language editions. I get em on the shelf and at a discount. Sometime later, Frank inevitably swipes them. Six weeks later I charge him the full cost of a shiny new hardcover. Even better, I set this money aside in a special replacement treasury – a sort of joke – and use it to buy more popular titles. At the end of the day, Frank funds about 10% of my materials budget. Alexander Hamilton would be proud.

To the uninitiated, this might sound like a sophisticated con game, but consider for a moment the life of a modern librarian: slim budgets, endless meetings, revolving door staff. It is not my job to babysit lunatics with low morals.

If I’m going to have to face the Franks of the world then I’m going to do so on favorable terms. Otherwise I can’t justify the time. As a librarian, you might think I have plenty of that to spare. Highly untrue. Allow me to elaborate.

Next week is the first of the month. That means I’ll be meeting with my board of trustees – a cadre of twelve geriatrics with a keen interest in middle-management. To my great surprise, they all know how to run a library perfectly. Their only difficulty is in adequately imparting their collective nine centuries of knowledge to me in such a way that I can paint the children’s room, fix the boiler, and pay our electrical bill on a two figure budget.

Assuming I survive that, I’ve got a friends group run by the local Martha Stewart. Apparently she has ideas for fun pumpkin decorations that I might put up throughout the library. The cost is trivial, but this year’s bake sale only managed to bring in $200 rather eclipsing the cost of exotic fresh coriander and rustic truffle oil. As you can expect, my expectations are low.

Later, I will meet with the finance committee – four board members, three centuries collective knowledge – and the board policy committee – three members, four centuries collective knowledge. In the following days and weeks I will meet or visit the Wabash County Library Collective, the Wabash Regional Resource Council, the Wabash Valley Library System, the Wabash Library System Resource Sharing Committee, the Stokesville Village Council, the Stokesville Historical Society Digitalization Initiative, the Wabash Valley Literacy Club, the Elks Book Club, the Teen-Terror Book Club, the Stokesville Spanish Language Liaison and finally the ever-irate knitting club president. This precludes the non-official meetings: two appointments with my eternally off-kilter tech support consultant (2 centuries collective knowledge), a daylong engagement with the loopy brain-dead plumber (5 days of collective knowledge), and finally my mandatory meeting with the accountant (20 years professional experience). Sometime later, I might get a chance to update the website, buy new books, or assist my patrons with their assorted electronic gewgaws. Unfortunately, I won’t have much time for anything else.

In my absence, the Franks of the world will cause new and elaborate problems. That, of course, is all anyone really wants to hear about. These are the stories of a local library.

“How much of my taxes go to paying for those kiddie cartoon books?” When not rummaging through history in search of federalist traitors, Frank Bowen spends his time counting pennies.

“They’re called Manga. The teenagers find them quite popular.”

Frank grunts. “What’s the cost?”

“A few dollars a book. We get most of them used.”

“And a few thousand books. That’s quite a bit of money, Teach.” Frank insists on using a title I’ve never earned.

“Only thirty. The cost per checkout is something around two cents at this point. Non-fiction is really where the money gets eaten…”

“Those kiddie books really gotta go. We need more proper books.”

“To be frank, Frank (I do this frequently), the Manga have been quite successful. The next most viewed section is actually romance. If I was going to drop something, it’d probably have to be the biographies. They’re $30 a book and almost no one reads them.” These are targeted words. Frank knows what he steals.

“That’s absurd. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Frank is a defensive man.

“Always a good question, friend, but I’ve got a guy who looks in from time to time. He’s been pleased so far.” Appeal to omniscient male supervision – always a great success.

After a few more minutes of banter, Frank backs off. He eventually backs right out of the library presumably to burn Alexander Hamilton in effigy. Either way, I’ve successfully survived another encounter with the Piggy Frank of Stokesville. Today is practically a holiday.

Enter Jonathan Pryce Boijaeed: Executive Director of the Wabash Valley Library System. I see him once a month at the Director’s Association where all the local librarians get together to politely discuss their futile job prospects, substandard pay, and absurd reliance on outdated technology. First among equals at this meeting is Mr. Boijaeed, a ridiculous Canadian maniac, the sort of imbecile who says things like social networking, consensus building activity, and wires and tires without flinching. He’s a man who believes in the first amendment well beyond fire in a crowded theatre, has supported every social movement since Hoover, and thoroughly agrees that a one room library open three hours a week should have an actively maintained Flickr account. Worse of all – we’re almost friends.

We aren’t really friends, of course, but the library world is a demographic nightmare. Half of us are ancient and the other half are senile by choice. The few of us that cling to youth are driven equally by our love of public service as by our inability find work elsewhere. We are the discarded remnants of an expensive liberal arts education merged with impoverished rural tradition. Johnny Boijaeed is our messiah. I am his appointed disciple.

As a leader, Johnny walks, talks, and emails our state senators. The man was once on a podium with the director of the largest library in north-central Saskatchewan. If he wasn’t so intent on upgrading our ‘social quotient’ and ‘value-added metric analysis’, I’d almost call him a good man. Instead, he’s here at my library trying to convince me to support a new initiative he calls ‘libraries at home’. Turns out he’s found some sort of free service that will allow people to text me research questions from anywhere in the world. When I insist that 90% of these text messages will technically constitute phone sex, he assures me that the service was rolled out to great fanfare by no less than three top library marketing consultants in rural North American test regions.

“I’d like you to be the first in our system.”

“Why me?”

“You’re young, technically savvy, good with staffing and budgets.” John smiles with his white wicker teeth. “You’re a good librarian, a good manager, and a system leader.” Such a flirt, our System Director.

“I don’t know, John. Our library already offers reference assistance and almost no one uses it. Our patrons want free books, a place to meet, and occasional classes. I’ve yet to find a strong research vibe from this community.”

“That’s because it’s too hard to use. Libraries at Home will push the library paradigm beyond the town and into the living room. It’s social logistics, tradition-free-marketing, viral servicing…”

I smile politely. John has got so many buzzwords he’s started making up his own – and they almost sound good. Still, this project sucks – that’s my buzzword.

“I’m potentially enthusiastic. Problem is, my board is a stickler for policy. They’ll want to review it before I can agree to anything.”

John nods. He understands that a good manager follows procedure. He assures me that he’ll make himself available to answer any questions the board might have. I thank him for all his assistance and we part ways full of goodwill and professional respect. Neither of us realize just how far I’m willing to go to get this batty Canuck shipped out of state. I wave as he leaves the library hopefully to never return. That ends my weekly interaction with Mr. Boijaeed.

Whack! The desk cracks under the weight of a steel-lined cane. Mildred Kay has now arrived.

Sadly, the Executive Director has just left. Had he been here he probably would have challenged her to a youtube inspired dance off or some sort of Reddit article condemnation. Instead, I’m left alone with the Mildy-Witch.

I should be more complimentary but the simple reality is that Ms. Kay wants me fired and has for some time. She first wanted me fired when the board foisted retirement on my 97-year-old predecessor. Then she wanted me fired after I replaced the community spice-rack with a shelf of Blue-Ray DVDs. She especially wanted me fired after I discontinued our third knitting club in favor of a teen study program. I’ve done nothing to repair my reputation since.

“Where are my books?” Ms. Kay demands in a shrill, toothless cackle.

“Let me pull up your record. Do you have your library card?”

Ms. Kay glowers. The previous librarian never requested her card. I don’t need it myself – I could grab her record by name, which I know, or by her patron number, which I’ve memorized. Even though I could, I don’t. It might make Ms. Kay go about her life a little bit faster, but I take petty joy in forcing this half-rabid crone to follow the rules.

Reluctantly, perhaps angrily, Ms. Kay offers me her library card. I swipe it across the barcode scanner. This piece of technology is new. Ms. Kay regards it distrustfully. She has mentioned before that it likely causes cancer. Almost definitely not, but Ms. Kay already had cancer and beat it thrice. I told her she didn’t have much to worry about. The thought that I might get cancer was never her concern.

Ms. Kay’s record comes up. Two overdue books. No requests on file.

“There don’t appear to be any holds under your name. Have you requested any titles recently?”

Ms. Kay smiles with glee. “I called your desk last week and you apparently did nothing. I intend to inform the board.”

I shrug. “Which books did you request?”

Ms. Kay glares stiffly. “I want Don Quixote and The Great Gatsby.”

I think for a moment. “There aren’t any holds because there’s no reason to request those books from other libraries. We have plenty of copies right here.”

“How should I have known that? Maybe you should…”

I might have said that she has taken these same two books out four times a year for the last thirty years. Instead I point to the nearest display. There stand two pristine titles: Don Quixote and The Great Gatsby. It was something of a guess, but I rather figured Ms. Kay might come in this week. I took the time, more than I should have, to make sure that these titles were available.

Instead of thanking me, Ms. Kay snarls. For a time we are locked in the barest pleasantries of spiteful interaction. Finally she grabs the books – or attempts to. I’ve placed them just a little bit out of her reach. With a gentle smile, I grab the books, scan them through my cancer scanner, and hand them to her. “There you go, Ms…”

“Ms. Kay.”

“Right. Due in six weeks. Have a good day.” That ends my interaction. I turn away and bustle about with something technical looking. Ms. Kay glowers in her witchy, stupid way. Finally, she hobbles out – not to be seen for another month. Relief, at last.

Or maybe not? Here comes a young woman pulling her baby in a half-opened suitcase. I’ve never seen her before.

I’m always somewhat startled when I meet a new patron. I’ve been here long enough to have memorized most of the regulars, the eccentric ones anyways. With my luck, Johnny Boijaeed sent her to me personally, or Frank hired a plant to request books for him, or she’s Mildred’s caretaker here for advice. More than likely, she’s just a reasonable, courteous, and pleasant local, albeit strange. I’ll know soon enough, and when I do I’ll help her as best as I can…though I might snicker a bit as she leaves.


Robert Drake Robert Drake lives in New Paltz, New York and spends as much time hiking as possible.


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