It was Christmas Eve. My last desk shift before going on annual leave. I had reservation lists spewing from the printer. People lined up waiting for assistance. One man who simply didn’t get the concept of a fifteen minute computer. Of course, It didn’t help that PC terminals two and three were out of order. Or that the air-conditioning simply wasn’t coping. People were hot and cranky and, to tell you the truth, folks, I was right there with them.
If one more person asked: ‘What’s a good book?’ There was a chance of murder being committed.
I checked the clock. An hour and a half and I’d be on holidays – devouring my own pile of reading materials. But not yet. I turned back to the waiting queue. Next up was an older man and, with my-public-library-honed senses, I guessed life had not been kind to him. I saw it in the St Vincent de Paul style of his nylon trousers, the thinning grey hair that needed cutting, and his eyes like an old dog’s cowering.
I smiled, trying to muster a professional attitude. ‘How can I help you?’
‘Please. I want to use Facebook.’ The man said.
I pulled up the booking screen. ‘Our computer bookings are pretty tight. But we’ve had a cancellation. Would now be alright?’
He leaned forward, resting a trembling hand on my desk. ‘Can you help me?’
‘I’ll do what I can.’ I waved my hand to indicate the line of people. ‘But we’re pretty busy. Perhaps you could come back after Christmas? We have an internet assist program.’
‘No, it’s fine. Now’s fine. My son’s there. On Facebook, I mean.’
Right, I thought. Tell me something new. Who’s son isn’t on Facebook? Or daughter for that matter. ‘Like I said we’re pretty busy.’
The man shook his head, glancing sideways. He leaned forward, lowering his voice. ‘It’s just…I haven’t seen him for fifteen years.’
My mouth fell open. No matter how long you serve the public. Or how comprehensive your reference training, there are some queries you will never be ready for.
‘I won’t try to contact him.’ The man added quickly. ‘I told my brother, I just want to look at him.’
Great, I thought. A possible pedophile. Why else would a man not see his son for fifteen years? Apart from abuse? Or family violence? Then again, maybe it wasn’t the case? Family breakdown happens for all sorts of reasons. Often due to mental illness. Or simply the vindictiveness of another party. The trouble is I had no way of knowing. And here this man was asking me to grant him access.
Fortunately, librarians are not the moral police. The man had an information need – in this case a request for technological assistance – and Facebook was a public site. I had a professional obligation to help him. But that didn’t stop my gut churn. Or the sudden sharp image of my own teenage sons. I found myself hoping this man’s son was over eighteen years of age. Or, if not, that someone had helped him with the privacy settings on the Facebook account.
‘I’ll book PC number five, I said. ‘But you’ve only got forty minutes.’
We walked over to the public computer terminals. Logged the man in. Pulled up the Facebook membership screen.
‘Do you have any email address?’
‘No.’ The man shook his head.
‘Have you ever used a computer?’
‘Once.’ He said.
Great. No email address. No information technology skills. Possible access restrictions and a deadline of forty minutes. At this rate the man would be lucky to see his son before the new year. ‘You’ll have to work fast,’ I said. ‘Can you type, at all?
‘Right then.’ I opened up a Gmail membership screen. Showed the man how to move between empty information fields. ‘I’m going to leave you to fill in these spaces. Once you’ve got an email address call me back and I’ll set you up on Facebook.’
I left the man to his own devices. Took a complaint about library fines. Helped a man find some books on dog obedience. Fielded a few more ‘what’s a good book questions?’
About fifteen minutes later, the man waved me back over to his PC. He’d done a good job. The fields were all filled in. If life had treated him hard, it wasn’t for want of intelligence. I jotted down his email address. Pulled up the Facebook screen. Asked him to fill in the details while I ducked back and took more enquiries. Finally, the man was ready. He had a Facebook membership and a basic profile. He’d used up a fair bit of his forty minutes by this stage. But there was nothing I could do about that. The library was too busy for me to sit and help him.
‘Right,’ I said, pulling up a chair. ‘Let’s see if we can find your son.’
The man gave a taut smile. His hands clasped tight in his nylon lap.
I typed in his son’s name. The search engines churned. A menu of names and profile pictures appeared. Silence. I glanced sideways. Saw the man’s eyes had filled with tears
‘That’s him.’ He said. ‘The one at the top there.’
I clicked on the image. Heard the sharp intake of the man’ breath. Felt my own eyes begin to blur.
His son was a handsome, dark-haired young man with laughing eyes and a swag of friends. In his face I could see traces of the beaten man sitting next to me.
‘He’s smart.’ I said, pulling up his son’s profile. ‘Doing bio-med at Victoria University.’
Beside me, the man took a shuddering breath.
I lowered my voice. ‘He looks like you too.’
‘Yes.’ The man said. ‘Yes, he does.’
‘I’m afraid, you’ve only got about five more minutes.’ I told him gently.
‘Yes.’ He nodded. ‘Thank you.’
I left the old man and walked back to the reference desk. Printed out the allocated item list. Searched for books with an Xmas Status. Circled the ones with a return date greater than two years. Passed over the current copy magazine reservations. Glanced back at the man on the computer. His eyes hadn’t left the computer screen. Not once, no matter how often I found my eyes straying in that direction. I knew his time was up by the change in his expression. He rose, stiff-legged and walked towards the information desk.
‘My pleasure.’ I said. ‘I’m glad you found him.’
‘I’ll tell my brother…tell him that I’ve seen him. He’ll know what to do.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘That’s a good idea.’
The man turned to leave. He looked so old and shrunken. And it was Christmas Eve. And all of a sudden, the ‘maybes’ didn’t matter. Or my initial waspish assumptions. Only the words fifteen years. And that man staring at the computer screen.
‘Hang on!’ I called out after him. ‘Hang on a sec!’ I raised my voice. ‘Please, don’t leave yet?
The man stopped, turning slowly. I gestured for him to take a seat. I pulled up the Facebook screen. Logged into my account. Typed in his son’s name. Enlarged the picture. Copied the image and dumped it into a word document. We were supposed to charge people for printing. But I didn’t care. I chose the colour option and sent the document to the staff printer.
‘Wait!’ I said, ‘I’ve got something for you.’
Dashing out to the workroom, I plucked the image from the printer. Checked it was clear. Saw the laughing face of this son staring back at me. I turned, fumbling with the door knob. Stepping back out into the library, I saw the man waiting. I stepped forward, my hand shaking and passed the the A4 sheet of paper to him.
‘Merry Christmas,’ I said, ‘from Facebook.’