Librarian, Distressed

May 23, 2012 | 1 book mentioned 3 7 min read

coverIf you’ve spent any time at all in a public library in the past couple of years — (in the last decade I’ve worked at four separate libraries, both public and academic) — you’ll notice that the focus is changing. Less hushed repose and reading and more shuffling through bins for DVD cards. Less space for ruminative research and writing and more space and room given to movie nights and pre-school playtime day-care. You’ll also observe rapt gazes hovering in a field of computer screens. This is not the place to rant on libraries and their supposed decline. Or even their proposed role. No. Besides, Stephen Akey delineates this landscape much better than I ever could.

When I read Stephen Akey’s piece on Philip Larkin recently in The Millions, I knew I’d found a fellow clerk. Akey, it turned out, had a thematic, albeit totally non-personal, connection with Larkin: they were both librarians. Further, they were distressed librarians; librarians that perhaps wished not to be anymore, but still found themselves drawn to the work anyhow.

Akey had written about his time working in the New York City library system in a slim monograph aptly titled Library. This book is not new. Nor is it newish. Go back to that mystical, hazy year of 2002. Terror alerts, Beltway sniper, and No Child Left Behind. Situated? Good, because that’s when it was released.

I’d bet a large, expensive case of microbrew that not many people took notice when the book came out. Orchises Press, out of George Mason University, is run by, from what I can tell, one brave soul: Roger Lathbury (Google him; he seems like a trip: a master of the limerick). In some ways, the non-event makes sense. Subject matter: libraries. Prose style: witty and erudite, but playful. (The jacket copy describes it as “coruscating,” which means to flash or sparkle.) That is to say, not the kind of work that flies off shelves. Library is dense and light at the same time: an off-putting combination. But it works well. Probably because Akey’s tone is one molded on self-defense and self-deprecation, then flung onto a potter’s wheel that’s running off the irksome yet fatigued energies of a harried cataloger in a dizzying bureaucracy of a major public library system. For comparison, read the letters of Philip Larkin. Shit, read anything by Larkin. Their outlooks aren’t exactly the same (Akey tends toward the optimistic at least once a page, while Larkin seemed almost content within his status as fussbudget), but they’re brothers-in-arms. It’s no surprise that Akey devotes his first chapter as a pseudo-encomium to the Bard of Hull’s primary profession.

It was drones like me who kept that library running.

This is no joke. Drones are essential. I was a drone. Once, I saw a particularly haggard patron clear a shelf of all books on Buddhism and stack them on a table as if he was going to read all of them… at five to ten at night… right as the library was closing. I had just finished cleaning the main floor of its remnants. Shelving is grunt work, but interesting. It’s armchair sociology and psychology. For example, you cover the windows and set me to shelving books, and if I found more than one Lonely Planet guide to a country south of the equator, I know it’s fall going into winter. Books speak better than humans sometimes. Why do we slyly inspect others’ reading choices when sitting on the bus, train, or waiting in an airport terminal? Checking out a stack of books on family disturbances or spousal negligence? ‘Nuff said. So we think.

From time to time library pundits write columns describing catalogers as glorified clerks whose arcane and terminally boring job duties could be better performed by nonlibrarians at lower cost and higher productivity. Furthermore, catalogers are unimaginative technicians, rule-bound reactionaries, and, probably, serial masturbators.

While Akey is mostly a cataloger in this narrative, the apparent message is that certain jobs are utterly necessary (i.e., catalogers) and that those jobs are also inherently shit upon. (Think: teachers, social workers, custodial staff.) Forever and always. And did you know that non-administrators within the World of the Library are treated like pawns in a massive political chess game? It’s true. Akey’s journey from one library and department to another is picaresque, and, in its own way, heartbreaking. Not the less so because Akey is telling — importuning, really — us in each short chapter to grasp why libraries are so damn important to a functioning society. The crew of characters that make up that semi-functioning society is almost from central casting. The gregarious and learned boss who is exceedingly opinionated, the sassy ethnic women, the prig female boss, the quiet shuffling, no-faced, no-named co-workers who never fail to get Akey a gift or food every time he packs up and leaves a job only to come crawling back years later. To call the book a comedy of errors is disingenuous, but not untrue. Nor is it mock epic or straight autobiography. Even memoir is a feeble descriptor. What Library attempts, I think, is to zoom in on this gift we’ve been given: the public library. Peter Best, an old hand in one of the libraries I’ve worked at, would every day mention how Benjamin Franklin was to thank for our jobs. But what is the library lending today? And what if the library doesn’t offer it? Libraries need numbers to earn funding. Thus…

Still, if the goal is simply to fill libraries with bodies, you have to wonder if it’s worth the effort.

covercoverAnd yet the library is brought down to a capitalistic level. Yes, down to that level. Akey both informs and then passes judgment on the role of libraries playing on and into the more whimsical passions of the average library patron. He himself has gotten into verbal scuffles with folks who ardently believe the library is only there to supplement public fancies. Should libraries buy scads of the hottest bestseller? Or should they break themselves upon the rocks of serious scholarship? Cheeseburger in Paradise or Paradise Lost? Perhaps, somewhere in between?

To speak of “classics” or “serious” books is, of course, to invite the inevitable charges of elitism and snobbery. I believe that we call some books classics for reasons other than ideological and that we can save a lot of time by not pretending that we don’t know, more or less, what the word “serious” means. Fortunately, the people who run public libraries are not being asked to deliver a verdict on the legacy of Western culture and the validity of the literary canon. What they ought to be doing, and increasingly are not, is building and maintaining collections that make information available on such questions. I’ve listened to enough complaints on the reference desk to know that there are people interested in such matters and they’re not all on the faculty at Stanford. The public library is all they’ve got.

Library ends up not as a tract of pure populism, but as a pamphlet for common sense — that more contentiously charged phrase of late. What I like about this excerpt — which was from a small essay Akey had previously published and inserted into the book — is how he courts small controversy and shies away at the same time. “[W]e can save a lot of time by not pretending that we don’t know, more or less, what the word ‘serious’ means.” Pretty much saying that we all know what’s schlock and what’s bound to live on the shelves for decades. But this argument of highbrow and lowbrow is such a verboten subject for many. Why? Why can’t a library say that its job is to house the best of what’s existed and what’s being published, so the patrons can come and use this information at their disposal? Because, as Akey mentions, it’s not the job of the library to decide tastes and “deliver a verdict” on the canon.

When I worked at the University City Library in St. Louis, I saw the scaffolding of a society come together. Poor, rich, middle-class. Black, white, Asian, Indian, Russian, Orthodox Jews. All in one place, all doing  the same thing: consuming culture in one form or another. And, I think, yes, the public library is the last bulwark against a totally ignorant and lackadaisical society. If the opportunity is there for patrons to access the material, then there’s hope. We can’t make people read Paradise Lost, but at least it’s there. That’s grand talk. I’m already assuming that friends and readers would offer the internet as an alternative to this democratic bastion of knowledge, but you don’t physically mingle with other people on the internet, and you don’t get to see real lived society in action on the internet. That’s the beauty of libraries, and that’s what I think Akey shows in his book. The best scenes are the ones where he’s dealing with the less poetic uses of a library: as a haven for those in rough neighborhoods. There’s a section toward the end where he’s sent to Red Hook to help manage a branch library. There he encounters stark racial and class differences and understands how a library can be more than just a place that houses books to be read. In a way, the books become the symbolic bulwark mention before.

I appreciate a man who finds fascination in the seemingly banal, and Akey mystifies the banal, like Borges.

What makes formulating Dewey numbers so much fun is moving point by point along a narrowing spectrum of subcategories. Thus, the call number for a book about snow (551.5784) is subsumed by the call number for frozen precipitation (551.578), which is subsumed by the call number for hydrometeorology (551.57), which is subsumed by the call number for meteorology (551.5), which is subsumed by the call number for earth sciences (550), which is subsumed by the call number for natural sciences (500). Rather elegant, don’t you think?

As I’m a devotee of the Library of Congress catalog system, I’ll say this was the first time I’ve found a more grounded respect for the Dewey numbers.

Lastly, I don’t want people to think that the book is some stalwart stand on how amazing libraries are, because Akey doesn’t hesitate to show the seedier side of them. Also, I want to say this book is laugh out loud funny. Akey reminds the reader that, as a reference librarian, you’re sort of duty-bound to answer everything to the best of your ability, no matter how foolish or queer. I’ll end with one of my favorite bits in the book:

Among reference librarians it is axiomatic that people frequently do not ask the question they really intend: What was the date of the Challenger explosion? rather than, What was the name of the black astronaut who died in the Challenger explosion? Furthermore, at least in Telephone Reference, the helpful hints provided by patrons were not to be taken on faith. “I read an article in the New York Times two years ago” might mean “I read an article in the New York Post six years ago,” and”‘Don’t bother with Bartlett’s Quotations, I’ve already checked,” meant that Bartlett’s should very much be bothered with.

has writing in The Collagist, Conjunctions, Annalemma, and elsewhere. He lives in Pittsburgh and can be followed at Kyle Winkler Loves Monsters Loving Melville and on Twitter at @bleakhousing.


  1. _Library_ sold and sells very well. Anyone who can write prose as coruscating, brilliant, nay, scintillating, as Stephen Akey does will always have a reader. Me, for one. And, I believe, companionable cognoscenti. Delighted to read this from Kyle Winker and to hear anything about the great librarian of Hull—whose poetic oeuvre has just been re-edited and annotated by Archie Burnett (who did such a good job on A. E. Houseman for the Oxford University Press) for Farrar, Straus ($40). As a fellow _Moby-Dick_ aficionado and a lover of sub-sub librarians, thanks to all.


    Roger Lathbury

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