“The Shadows Will Be Behind You If You Walk Into the Light”

The walls of our new library are intricate. I know this because I read the contracts and looked at the drawings and week by week by week over the last year have watched the steel, the insulation, the water barrier, the concrete blocks, the bricks, and the web of cables, wires, and ducts come together to be capped by drywall and paint. Each square foot of our library involved the work and thought of more people than I can count or name. And they’re still working, adding cabinets, shelves, wallpaper, tile–defining spaces, creating functionality and beauty.

All buildings come together this way, but until now I’ve spent my life existing in them with so little awareness. When I look around our new library as it approaches the end of construction, I see people in the things. Tim’s the sidewalk in front of the entrance; Jen’s the logo out front; Erin’s the display case; Sharon’s the fireplace. I see the day I walked in and the tiler excitedly showed me the floor tile that had just arrived. I see the day the construction manager gave me a brick I lugged back to my office and displayed like a trophy. The people, the moments, are everywhere I look.

The architect of our library loves light. I don’t know if Pete has always loved libraries, but I can see he loves them now. I see Pete in the windows and skylights and LED fixtures that say we see you, you are welcome, square your shoulders, look up.

This is what I love about libraries. Every book on our shelves contains multitudes–writers, editors, publishers, printers, readers. These people bring their hearts and minds together to create something more powerful than any of them could accomplish on their own, something with the power to make a life better. And a life that becomes better makes another life better. And another. And another. No one can say where that ends.

In a few months, we’ll be opening our beautiful new space. The public will arrive, and our library will live and breathe and evolve along with the rest of us, the way all libraries are meant to, and we’ll add more stories to those walls.

The Cost of a Book

We had a regular patron at the library who was for a long time living with her cats in her car. She was friendly and open about it, so we all knew. When staff members started bringing the situation up to me, asking if there was something we should do, I kept saying we should stay out of it. She hadn’t asked for our help, so we should leave her alone. She did want a library card, though–a stickier issue, since she didn’t have an address, and we aren’t supposed to issue cards to people who don’t have addresses. The woman was accepting, though, and got in the habit of coming in during the day and reading a book in the library. When she left, she’d ask us to set aside her book at the desk so she could pick it back up when she came in the next day. I guess she’d been doing this a couple weeks before I met her myself, when she asked me to set aside the novel she was reading. Instead of doing that, though, I checked the book out on my own card and gave it to her to take out overnight. I told her she could keep it as long as she needed to.

I am not proud of myself for doing this. After almost 20 years of librarianship, I had to take some time to consider whether a $20 book was worth more than this woman’s comfort. I have long nights sometimes here in my lovely apartment, where I am safe, secure, and comfortable. I can’t imagine the length of a night trying to sleep in your car when you have no idea when you might ever get to sleep somewhere else.

I know little of this woman’s life, but the facts I know were that for many months, she was a model citizen of the library. She came in every day, used our facilities well, was a pleasure to talk to, and did not cause trouble, other than her homelessness made people uncomfortable. However uncomfortable her situation might have made her, every time I talked to her, she was smiling and cheerful. Other staff members figured out how I’d checked a book out to this woman on my card, and so some of them were checking books out to her on our internal hold shelf card. I’d heard that someone brought in food for her pets, and I heard about it when she found out she had lung cancer.

One of my colleagues also came and let me know when she died. I’ve continued looking for her in the library since I got the news, like maybe this was a clerical error or I got confused about reality. I go straight to denial when someone dies.

Anyway, somehow this woman managed to get a surgery scheduled to deal with her cancer–whatever else was true of her, she had pluck–and she died of complications from the surgery. She was maybe in her 60s and probably not in the best shape for major surgery after months of living in her car. I am proud that our library was a source of comfort and safety to her in the last months of her life rather than a source of additional turmoil, but I remain troubled. We talk in libraries about this or that thing we need to do to remain relevant, but there is such power in the basic act of offering someone the stories and information they need. There is hope in that. People find comfort, understanding, and paths forward–and it is so important that they have the opportunity to find their own paths forward. I believe everyone deserves the basics–food, shelter, health care, respect–but I also know that people have to seek and struggle and work to feel okay about themselves and the world.

Still, even knowing all that, it took me two weeks to really see this woman, internalize her situation, and make a choice that felt radical even though it should be exactly what we do, no question. I surround myself with books and podcasts. I love reading and listening to other people’s stories, but how many stories have I missed that were standing right in front of me? How many projects did I get so involved in that I failed to notice my opportunity to help a human being I could look in the eye? I am guilty of being too much in my head sometimes and not seeing the truth in front of me. Much as I am in this business to help people–and I am, wholeheartedly–sometimes I see people as problems to be solved when I should be slowing down and paying a lot more attention to what is actually happening.

Also, this woman was everything I am afraid of, which is part of why I had such trouble seeing her in the first place. I wonder how often this happens, too.

I don’t have a pithy uplifting conclusion here. This woman lived in her car for a long time, she got cancer, and she died. This world is full of terrible things. I give people stories.

Adventures in Radio

Earlier today, I was on WXXI’s Connections with Evan Dawson radio show talking with Stephen Cook from the U of R, Deb Ross from KidsOutAndAbout.com, and Tonia Burton from the Central Library about keeping kids’ minds and bodies healthy. You can listen to that conversation here. I really enjoyed the opportunity to do a radio show (a first for me!) and to hear such smart, passionate people talking about something that means a lot to me. I hope you enjoy it, too!

A Year of Library Directing, or The Value of Useful Things

“Grace means you’re in a different universe from where you had been stuck, when you had absolutely no way to get there on your own.”
-Anne Lamott in “Oh Noraht Noraht” in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

“So–well–I think I grew up questioning the contradictions, as we all do, but finally admiring the way we human beings always manage, however clumsily, to build a footing out of not much, and then dance on it.”
-Natalie Babbitt in “We’re All Mad Here,” Horn Book Magazine (September/October 2004)

Today I am celebrating one year of library directing.

I know, right? That went fast.

I was excited and afraid in equal measure when I took this job. I loved working at WPL and was not sure I could love my new job as much as I loved the old one, and I worried how that might affect me and the quality of my life–a thing I was then trying to improve. I was also unsure how I was supposed to go about all this. My only direction from the board was that I should start on July 10.

I arrived at HPL amid a swarm of flowers, cards, and gifts, which I didn’t expect and found deeply comforting. I spent a little time at the reference desk, since I knew how to do that, and I started to watch what was going on.

That first day, I looked at how very much I was going to have to learn and decided there was no use in pretending I knew it all. I started asking people questions, which they answered, even when I’ve asked the same ones over and over again. One of my favorite memories of my first days at HPL is Kristen teaching me how to issue a library card, something she seemed happy to do if also shocked that I her to teach me. Early on I also decided that I was going to need to focus part of my day every day on what I think of as useful things. I learned this from watching Terri at WPL, who is often to be found shelving new books or DVDs. This isn’t to say she doesn’t also take a lot of time for other activities–she is notably running one of the most successful libraries in the county–but she takes time every day to do things that directly and immediately benefit patrons and that help keep the library running smoothly.

And so I started a daily ritual of sharpening the pencils.

My repertoire of useful things has expanded through the year. I like to refill the scrap paper bins, wipe down tables, and clean the reference desk. I shelve new books, and sometimes I’ll shelve DVDs or shelf read. I spend a lot of time picking up stray books and trash. I help out at the reference and circulation desks. I answer the phones. Sometimes I dust. Lately I’ve gotten into pushing in chairs.

I do a lot of things to take care of the library when I’m working in my office. I believe writing policies, communicating, and planning are all critical to our success, and that’s a lot of what I do in there. I do a lot of training and attend a lot of meetings; those are important, too. But there’s also something vital in the useful things. Patrons often compliment me on my cleaning, and my colleagues seem amused by my activities–both worthy outcomes–but when I’m out and about is when I see, hear, and learn things. I have spontaneous conversations with patrons and staff. I find other opportunities to help. I experience people experiencing the library. As humans, our interest is piqued by things that are unusual and beautiful, but love, be it for places or people, is built by time and experience, countless interactions and small gestures of caring shared and received.

I’ve been growing and learning and changing along with the library. There’s nothing scary about my job most days, and there’s a lot to be excited about. This is the year I sold my house, moved into my new place, and crossed Death Valley on my own. It’s the year I learned how to run. I am slow, but no matter how awkwardly I stumble along or how many times I have to stop, I save some energy so I can run that last minute or two as fast as I can back toward the place where I started.

I think that’s how it’s always going to be.

Reunited with My Laptop

I was sick and missed a couple days of work before I left on my trip to Chicago, and I really got to missing HPL while I was gone. So even though I got home at 1:00 in the morning, I got myself up mid-morning, did a few chores, and got to work by 1:00pm.

The library was lively and busy, and it was good to be back amid the beautiful chaos.

Then about 5:00, a storm came in. I heard the first rumble of thunder, and I knew it was foreshadowing trouble. Ten minutes later, the lightning and thunder were over us, and the rain was pouring down. I was working the reference desk at the time, and I paused for a moment to look up and ponder how long it was going to be before the ceiling started leaking.

Which is when the lights went out.

The electricity wasn’t out 20 seconds, but if you work in a public building, you know that this is all it takes to shoot everything to hell. A kid in the children’s area started crying, the air conditioning went perfectly still, and the computers all started beeping, since that little blip was enough to make them restart. Patrons whose sessions were just tanked got up and started wandering around, lost without whatever it was they’d been doing. The staff started relogging on machines. The parent comforted the crying child.

The air conditioner remained quiet.

Kristen said, “Adrienne, I don’t think the phones are right.”

I said, “We have to unplug them and plug them back in.”

Kristen said, “Already done. They still don’t work.”

I said, “Is Lynn still here?”

Of course, Lynn wasn’t still there.

This is when the ceiling started leaking.

Kristen took care of the phone situation, as much as she was able on the evening before a holiday–which is to say that we didn’t have functioning phones for the rest of the night but should by Friday. I put a trash can under one of the leaks, and Kristen and Vicki wound up taking care of a couple other ones that sprang up. I had to keep helping patrons find things, and eventually I took a few minutes to climb up into the tower and have a showdown with the air conditioning. I know how to fix basic problems with the heat, but the air conditioning is a whole other set of machines, ones that look like they have been there since the dawn of time. They were making noise, so something was happening, and the staff room and front of the library were the right temperature through the rest of the evening. Not so much in the children’s area, though. Anne may find that Friday is going to make up for all those times this winter when she was freezing back there.

It’s like the building wanted to give me a great big hug and let me know how glad it was that I came home.

As the evening wore on, I got to be more focused on our actual work, and at one point, I was helping at the circulation desk. When I was done checking out one man’s DVDs, I said, “Have a good holiday!”

This man is not a native English speaker and has an extremely thick accent, and so I really had to pay attention to hear him say, “I will! I am going to be back here on Friday, because I have Friday off, too! I have a job now. Remember how you helped me with my resume on the computer a few months ago? I have a job now because you helped me, and I have these holidays when I get paid.”

And then I did remember this man. He is an immigrant from Laos who works in machine shops and had been trying to figure out how to put his resume on various job sites. I have told the story of helping him many times, as it was memorable. He was polite and kind, for one thing, but also he was so self-conscious that he was doing everything all wrong, even though he barely needed my help. The extent of my assistance was periodically swooping in to tell him what button to click and then cheer him on while he did exactly what he needed to do.

“I remember you!” I said. “Do you like your job?”

“Oh yes,” he said. “I love my job.”

“That is wonderful,” I said. “Good news.”

At the end of the night, it was downpouring again. It’s been raining a lot here this last several weeks, and the parking lot was flooding, the water up past my ankles even while I was still wearing my platform sandals.

And all I could think was that it’s good to be home.

“All Things Merge Into One”

“My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things–trout as well as eternal salvation–come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”
A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean

Today I think I discovered the meaning of life.

I was sick earlier in the week. I lost Monday and Tuesday entirely to a fever, and then I muddled through the rest of the week. Friday I felt as well as I had since before this all began, but I also lost my voice for no reason I could discern. So I went to work, croaking and squeaking. Every time I talked, whoever was nearby would all stare at me, then there would be a pause, then someone would say “I know what she said!” and repeat it for the rest of the group.

You know, when they weren’t laughing at me, which also happened.

I think this is why I decided it was aok to start eating ice cream every day. That and the amazing 90 degree weather we are suddenly having. Friday night, I had homemade vanilla ice cream with fresh strawberries at Jason and Amy’s house, which was delicious, though I did have to endure Jason periodically covering his face in an ineffective attempt to hide his laughter when I tried to talk. He’d say, “Sorry! Sorry! You just sound so cute!”

Which would make me shout, “I do not sound cute!”

Which would come out as a squeak and did not help matters.

Yesterday, my voice was still not right, and I was weary. I finally took a shower so I could drive out to Partyka’s to pick up strawberries and cherries–because even when I’m ill I have priorities–and while I was there, I got a chocolate milkshake, because you basically have to.

Today, I was still tired but also restless. I didn’t particularly want to deal with my messy apartment, and the sun and heat were calling to me, so I drove out and hiked at Chimney Bluffs. That was nice. It’s beautiful there, and I didn’t have to talk to anyone. I wrote an essay in my head while I was hiking and climbing around that I suppose will take me weeks or months to get right on paper, but I started work on it after I discovered the meaning of life, which I found on the way home when I stopped by Hedonist. I used to think that Hedonist’s Salted Caramel ice cream was the best ice cream I was ever going to have in my life, but that was before I had their Malted Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream today, which they should rename something like Everything You Were Ever Looking For. Once I had it, I took my waffle cone full of the reason for being, sat on a bench in the shade, and concentrated on eating. A spectacularly drunk woman ambled by and said, “That looks good!”

“It is!” I said.

“I know it is!” she said, and then she did a little fist pump.

And I did one back.

I came home, and I’ve been writing in an attempt to capture that essay and reading my Game of Thrones book, entirely ignoring the dirty laundry and my dirty apartment, which I suppose I’ll be regretting when I have to pack for ALA Tuesday night, but that’s two whole days away.

Like I said, I have priorities.


Not so long after I started working at HPL, I was talking to a potential vendor about some work I wanted done and how it fit into some of my long-term goals for the library, and he said, “You’re really ambitious.”

I said, “I think we’re understanding each other.”

I didn’t wind up hiring that guy for that job, but being understood every once in a while balances out the times I have to convince salesmen that I really am the person in charge even though I don’t fit their stereotype of librarian or person in charge. Sometimes I attempt to reassure these lost souls that I find our conversation as disappointing as they seem to, but they never know how to respond to my honesty.

Last month, I started working the closing shift on Wednesday nights to fill in for a colleague who’s out on maternity leave. I work reference at HPL here and there, but my schedule as a whole is irregular. I’m learning a lot working these Wednesday nights, though, and my job is entirely about learning. I am, for instance, at long last memorizing our closing procedure, which involves, among other oddities, a mystifying opening and closing of doors that follows no logical line I can discern. One slow night, I spent some time cleaning the shelf under the reference desk and learned about some things we no longer use. Another night, a man called and asked me to read him two Bible verses.

“My eyes are bad,” he said.

This is old-fashioned reference, the kind of question that used to come in all the time when I was a new librarian that doesn’t happen as often anymore. Sometimes when people tell you their eyes are bad, it’s because their eyes are bad, and sometimes it’s because they never learned how to read. I suspect this man was the second case because I read each verse to him once, and he repeated them back to me without writing them down. Most people who know how to read and write don’t have that kind of immediate recall because the successful navigation of their lives doesn’t depend on it. (Jama recently shared a lovely post about working with an adult new reader that talks about this.)

After I read this man the second verse and he repeated it back to me, he said, “I don’t understand that one.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Me either. It’s kind of a doozy.”

He laughed and said, “Thank you kindly for your time. God bless you.”

“Thanks for calling,” I said, “and God bless you, too.”

That’s one of those things I shouldn’t have said for any number of reasons–my conflicted agnosticism, our religiously neutral institutional stance–but I was caught up in the moment, the rarity of strangers confessing to each other: I don’t understand.

It didn’t matter that I run the library just then, or maybe it did. My job involves writing policies and supervising and creating a strategic plan, but, really, I’m there for that guy.

Maybe he’ll call again.

I Still Don’t Know What One of the Keys on My Work Key Ring Opens

I’m hoping it opens the hidden Door of Power, which, once we find it, will lead to three trials that, if we are able to successfully complete them, will lead to the Magic Money Tree that only blooms under the light of the gibbous moon when you say the exact right words in Elvish, which, thank J.R.R. Tolkien, is completely in my skill set.

I have to remember to add “Quest for hidden Door of Power” to our strategic plan. Just in case.