Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Why I work in the library …

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He was small boy and it had been a big afternoon, one of those afternoons when everyone decides to join the library. I’d had my quota of patrons who are unable to use the library catalogue. Added to which, in between signing up new members, the phone had not stopped ringing. In short, I was ready for my desk shift to end.

But, I still had half an hour to go.

He stood head and shoulder above the Reference Desk. He had a little black, basin haircut and skin the colour of honey. He had been waiting patiently. Here we go, I thought, imagining how the script might run.

Now before I continue, I would like to point out that I don’t generally think, oh no, when I see children at the reference desk. But do bear in mind it had been a long afternoon. And sometimes children, well, here is how it can be:

‘How can I help you? (That’s me by the way with a very big smile)

‘Have you got any Garfield books?’

‘Let’s see.’ (I rise from my chair and walk out from behind the desk). Do you know where to look on the shelves?’

‘Yes (earnest nod, wide eyes). ‘But there aren’t any.’

He’s right. There aren’t any. ‘Come back to the desk,’ I say. ‘We’ll have a look on the catalogue.’

After careful searching, I am able to confirm what the empty shelf has already told me. There are no Garfield Books (mental note – buy more Garfield books). ‘There are none at this branch,’ I say. ‘But I can get you one over from another branch.’

‘No, it’s ok.’

‘It doesn’t cost anything.’

‘No, doesn’t matter.’

Child goes in search of his second favourite book. It isn’t there because he likes the most popular books and ours is the busiest (but not the biggest) branch in the region. Child comes back to desk:

‘How can I help you? (Smile still wide).

‘Have you got any Master Q comics?’

‘Let’s see.’ (I rise from my chair and walk out from behind the desk). ‘Do you know how to find a book on the shelves?’ (I can’t miss this opportunity for a quick library lesson).

‘Yes (earnest nod, wide eyes). But there aren’t any.’

He’s right of course there aren’t any Master Q comics. ‘Come back to the desk,’ I say. ‘We’ll have a look on the catalogue.’

After careful searching, I am able to confirm what the empty shelf has already told me. There are no Master Q Comics (I make a mental note to ask for an extension of youth book budget). ‘There are none at this branch,’ I say. ‘But I can get you one over from another branch.’

‘No, it’s ok.’

‘It doesn’t cost anything.’

‘No, doesn’t matter.’

‘What about Tintin? I saw some of those on the shelf.’

‘It’s okay, I’ll keep looking.’

‘Or Asterix? (I just bought loads of Asterix).

No, thanks. I’ll be fine.’

Child goes in search of his third favourite book. It isn’t there. Child comes back to desk …

Do you get the picture? The only variable in this, oft repeated, after school enquiry is the name of the book and the size of my smile. Sometimes I am able to scrounge around and find a recently returned book, or, introduce them to our free reservation system, or find a new item to capture their interest.

But sometimes they only want their favourite … and it simply isn’t there and, if they can’t have their favourite, they don’t want anything else. Sometimes they are only at the library because their Mum doesn’t want to pay for after-school care. Other times, it is because Mum has been told they should be reading more. Quite often, Mum is simply using the internet and they have been told to: ‘Go and find a book.’

They are lonely and tired and a little bit bored and, unfortunately, I can’t help them.

Anyway, I still had half and hour to go – and he was a very small child.

‘How can I help you?’ I asked, cheerfully.

‘Where are the books on origami?’

‘Origami, hmm, let’s have a look.’

I do a quick keyword search because (and this may surprise you). I don’t know the Dewey Decimal System off by heart. My tiredness has evaporated, at this point because I might be able to help this kid. He has been waiting patiently, after all, and he appears to have a genuine information need (that’s library speak by the way) and just in case haven’t realised, we take information needs very seriously. They are sacred.

What? I hear you say, how can a request for origami books be sacred? You have a point. But do bear in mind that I work in a public library. An information need is a human need. It requires the patron to share something of themself with me: a burgeoning interest, an illness or struggle, a recent bereavement.

If you still don’t believe me, search the NSW white pages with me for a son who hasn’t been heard from in seven years. Look into the eyes of a man whose wife has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, feel the enthusiasm of a recently retired woman for ribbon embroidery. Respond to the desperation of a student who has lost his copy of the play he is studying. An information need is sacred, a soul thing, and so is an interest in origami.

My hasty scan of the catalogue establishes the call number. It is 736.982 by the way. But rather than look through the many records, trying to establish exactly what we do and don’t have, I headed straight for the shelves. I like to do this with kids. They don’t want lists of titles and locations. They don’t want a scrap of paper with a Dewey number or a finger pointed in the general direction. They want a book in their hand.

I had noted that there were a number of items in the on the shelf, but none of them are junior books. This didn’t worry me unduly. I had not viewed every record. Added to which I had noticed there was a recently returned junior item on the trolley.

There were a number of books in the Folio section and more in the Non Fiction. More than his small hands could carry. He squatted down to look over the illustrations. I hovered anxiously over him. The diagrams looked pretty complex but, then again, you are talking to someone that after raising four children, can barely manage to fold a cloth nappy.

‘They look a bit difficult,’ I said.

No answer: he was too busy flicking through an array of mythological figures, animals, fruit, trees and flowers, all done in origami.

‘There’s a kids’ book on the trolley,’ I said, to the back of his head. ‘I’ll go and get it.’

The kids’ book was perfect. Easy to follow diagrams, age appropriate language and step by step instructions. Even I could have made some of its simpler models. I smiled as I held it out to him, feeling absurdly like a fairy-god librarian in sensible T-bar shoes.

‘Thanks,’ he said, falling on it with a grin.

He was only a small boy with a black basin haircut and skin the colour of honey and an interest in origami. But when I finished my desk shift, twenty-five minutes later, he was still there, on the floor in the middle of the aisle with the books spread out around him. For a moment, I stood there and watched. He didn’t look up. He didn’t notice me. But I went to my tea break light of step and with a glow like halogen within.

That’s why I work in the library.

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1 Comment

  1. Great story! All of us who work or have worked in libraries could tell so many similar stories, though probably not written as well ;>). Libraries change people’s lives! We change people’s lives!

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