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.