Showing posts with label librarian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label librarian. Show all posts

19 September 2018

Lost in the Stacks for 41 Years, Part 2

My published works.  Photo by Tamara Belts
by Robert Lopresti

This is my second column celebrating my retirement by reviewing high and lowlights of my career as a librarian.

My third professional job was at a university.  I was still a government documents librarian.  One day an older community member wandered into my department.

"So you get federal documents here."

"That's right."

"Do you have classified publications?"

I laughed.  "I can barely get them to send us tax forms."

But let's talk about something they did send us.  One day David, my assistant,  placed one newly-arrived publication on my desk, as opposed to the usual location.

I figured out why pretty quickly.  A the bottom of the cover it said: FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT USE ONLY.  There are certain kind of publications that are not supposed to be sent to depositories, and that is one of them.

What's disturbing is that we are thousands of miles from the GPO.  Many libraries must have received that publication before we did, but David was the first to spot the problem.  Hmm.

The publication was about an organization that does not approve of certain activities and allegedly had a habit of blowing up buildings in which those activities took place.  This publication explained to law enforcement officials the methods these people had allegedly been using.

This was before email so I called the GPO.  "You didn't mean to send us that publication."

"Why not?"

"Because it's full of diagrams of explosive devices.  It's basically a manual for bombmakers."

"We'll get back to you."

Later that day they did.  "You're right.  Destroy it."  Now, I should explain that any publication the federal government sends for free to a depository library remains federal property.  They can demand it back or tell us to shred it if they want.  (What they can't do, minus a court order, is ask who has read it. Librarians are fussy about that.)

So  I destroyed the publication.

A few days later I got a letter from GPO, addressed to all depository libraries.  It said that the publication was sent by mistake and we should return it immediately.

Back to the phone.  "You told me to destroy it.  How am I supposed to return it?"

"We'll get back to you."

They did.  "Send us a letter explaining how you destroyed it."

I was sorely tempted to say "I used the method shown on page seven."  But who needs that kind of trouble?


I have lost track of how many offices I had in this library.  At least eight.  At one point my desk was in an open area.  A fellow employee told me that as a supervisor I needed an enclosed office.  "In case you need to yell at someone."

The view from my last office.

And speaking of moving, I supervised the shifting of the 200,000 government publications at least five times.  On the day we finished one move we had the windows open and a squirrel hopped in.  He went straight to the A 13's: the publications of the Forest Service.  "Boy," I thought, "if only the students could find their way as easily as you!"

I wish like hell I could tell you the exact day this happened.  It was one of the most significant dates in my career.  I was at the reference desk and a man asked "Do you have the German railroad timetables?"

"Wow," I said.  "No.  The best I can do is give you the phone number for the German consulate in Seattle.  But wait!  There's something brand new called the World Wide Web and we can access it from this computer."

Google didn't exist yet.  I think I went to Altavista.  He typed in the words German railroad timetables, in German.

And boom, there they were, your choice of English and German.  Up-to-date and free.

"Okay," I said.  "Right now, this moment, my job just changed completely."

And it had.  For example, my library no longer has a reference desk because people don't come with easy questions anymore, the kind Google can answer.  Now we specialize in helping with longer research projects.  But students still need help.

A student had been asked to find out everything she could about someone - anyone - who lived in our county in 1880.  I took her to the microfilm reels for the 1880 census, showed her how to use them and went back to my desk.

Soon she reappeared with a question: "What's a demimonde?"

I knew the answer but, following the old rule,  I took her to a dictionary to check that it indeed meant prostitute.

She had found an entire building full of demimondes: a brothel.  She was thrilled.

I told this to another librarian who nodded gravely.  "In Seattle they called them seamstresses."

Most of the librarians served as liaisons for academic departments.  Among other things, that meant teaching sessions on library resources.  I had recently taken that role for a new subject when I was strolling across campus and a professor saw me.  His eyes lit up.  "Rob!  Looking forward to your teaching my class tomorrow!"

"Me too!" I assured him.  Then I rushed back to my office and checked my calendar.  No mention of a class.  Had I reserved a classroom?  No.

So who was this professor who was expecting me?  I knew some of the profs in that department by sight, but not all.  This was before the time when you could find a picture of everyone in the world by going to the Web.  (I especially like  I narrowed it down to about four.

I called the department secretary (if department secretaries ever went on strike at any university, the place would collapse within a day).  "You gotta help me," I begged.

Between us we figured out it had to be Professor X.  I sent him a grovelling apology.  Which class was I supposed to be teaching, and what did he want me to cover?

He wrote back with his own apology.  He had gotten me confused with a different Rob.


In my city we only get measurable snow in about half the winters.  1996 was one of them.  Woke up one December morning to well over a foot of white stuff. My city didn't own a snowplow.

I normally bike to work; that wasn't going to happen. Driving was out and the buses weren't running.  So I walked the three miles.

All the way I had my headphones on and the disk jockey kept listing an ever longer list of closures.  I should explain that back then the university seemed to take a perverse pleasure in staying open whatever the conditions were.  They always sent out po-faced statements urging personnel to decide for themselves if it was safe to come to work, but they wouldn't close (so workers who didn't show up wouldn't get paid).

So I am almost finished with my two-hour trudge and am starting up the hill to the campus proper when the DJ says: "Here are the closings."  Dramatic pause.  "The university is open.  That's it.  Everything else in town is closed.  When the world ends the school paper will be the only place that reports it because the university will refuse to close."

The boss bought pizza for everyone who showed up.  (And someone actually drove out to pick it up.)  The next day the university closed and the DJ bragged that he shamed them into it.


One day a young woman told me she was having trouble finding sources for a paper.  I had developed a quick technique for finding out how far a researcher had gotten and I applied it.

"Have you tried Database X?"


"Have you tried Database Y?"


"Have you tried Database Z?"

She burst into tears and ran out of the room.  I couldn't coax her back.

I never used that technique again.


One of our regular patrons was a Vietnam vet who was having trouble with the VA.  As he told the story he wanted to receive disability payments because his time over there drove him crazy.  The VA's defense was - again, according to him -- that he was already crazy when the army drafted him.  Not a great argument.

A member of the public is welcome to use our collection and anyone could borrow our federal publications, if they showed ID.  This veteran wanted to borrow some but he refused to show his ID because he thought the VA might be tracking what books he read.

I told him that didn't match my experience of reality but I respected his right to his own.  Nonetheless, he couldn't borrow the documents.

He used them, over several years.  I don't know how his case turned out but he started taking better care of himself and bringing in fellow vets whom he helped use the docs.  I counted that as a win.


The worst and the best: someone stole more than 600 pages out of our old Congressional Serial Set volumes.  After more than a year and a half of sleuthing by various people at our university we got the evidence that led to the thief's conviction.  You can read all about it here and here.

One day I picked up the book on Occupations from the 1920 Census and read about "Peculiar occupations for women."  The introduction explained that census takers had reported women in a lot of occupations that women obviously could not have been working in, like masons and plasterers.  And so, the census bosses explained solemnly,  the records were carefully examined and if they could figure out what the mistake was they corrected it.  Or should I say if they figured out what the "mistake" was they "corrected" it.  And how many female pioneers in their fields were erased from history?

Years later, that led to my first nonfiction book.

One night I took my family to the best ice cream parlor in town.  The young man behind the counter said: "Last year you helped me with a research paper.  Not only did I get an A but the teacher kept it to use as an example.  Your ice cream is on me."

The super chocolate tasted particularly sweet that night.

 Back in January I taught a workshop on library resources and, as usual, handed out a quick feedback form.  One student wrote: "You introduced me to subjects I didn't even know to ask about."

My pleasure, friend. 

I would like to end by saying something I have not said in forty-one years on the job: Shhhhh!

16 November 2011


by Robert Lopresti

I just read a very good mystery novel, which I don't  recommend you read.  This is not because of my natural perversity, but because I want to save you from the unnatural perversity of starting a series at the end.  Farewell, Miss Zukas is the  last volume in a series, and the reason for that is one reason I am bringing up the book at all.  It gives us a chance to discuss some of the trends in the publishing world.  I do hope I convince you to look up the early books in the series, which are available at least electronically.

First of all, full disclosure.  The author, Jo  Dereske, is a friend of mine and a fellow librarian. (In fact, this book contains a brief mention of "Rob, the mystery writer."  He sounds like a fascinating character and I wish we had heard more about him.)

The heroine of these books is Wilhelmina Zukas, a librarian who works at the public library in Bellehaven, Washington.  And here we get into an endless series of inside jokes;  Jo and I both live in Bellingham, Washington, which Bellehaven resembles to a remarkable degree.  (She has pointed out the many benefits of fictionalizing her setting; for example, eliminating a mall she doesn't like.)

So what is Helma Zukas like?  Smart, introverted, private, small, neat...the word repressed comes to mind.  Clearly Dereske was playing with the stereotype of the librarian. (Most people in the field love Miss Zukas.)   
You see, Helma is far too complex and interesting to see as a mere stereotype.  Quiet and introverted, yes.  But meek?  Never.  In almost every book she stuns quarrelers into silence with her “silver dime voice.”  In one novel she destroys library records so that the police can’t violate the privacy of a book borrower.  (And if that seems a far-fetched series of events consider this  which happened in the same county that contains Bellingham.)  

So Helma is a force to be reckoned with.  Now, consider her best friend since fifth grade, Ruth Winthrop.  Ruth is an artist.  She is tall (and wears heels to emphasize it).  She is also loud, brassy, dresses in wild colors and is as easy with men as Helma is not.  Although these two opposites would gladly take a bullet for each other, they can't stand to be iin the same room for more than an hour.  Dereske has received many emails from women asking "How do you know about me and my best friend?"

The author’s ability to connect to her audience is relevant to my point and we will get back to it, but here is an example: I once heard Dereske read a portion in which Miss Zukas filing some cards in alphabetical order and Dereske got quite rapturous about the meditation-like peace that comes with  alphabetizing.  I don’t know how many of the audience were librarians but I heard any number of guilty giggles from people who had experienced that same pleasure.

Helma is supported (or more usually, hindered) by a large collection of associates, like the  young children’s librarian Glory Shandy,  who is always ready with constructive criticism  about Helma’s appearance.  (When someone gives Helma an unwanted  free visit to a beauty consultant Glory enthuses "He's probably very good at disguising mature skin.")  

But the two most important supporting characters are what you might call a couple of soulmates of Miss Z.  Police Chief Wayne Gallant came to town just after a nasty divorce, which means Helma has a crush on the only person around as nervous about relationships as herself.  And Helma reluctantly takes in (but never talks to or touches) a stray animal who becomes known as Boy Cat Zukas, because that’s what the vet calls him.  Boy Cat is as standoffish as his owner and they seem made for each other.

The first eleven books were published by Avon, which then chose not to renew the contract.  Dereske has no complaints; she understands that the economy forced the decision, and she was willing to call the series over.

But remember what I said about Jo's relationship with her readers?  They were insistent that  the saga needed an ending.  After holding discussions with  some mainstream publishers, she decided to self-publish.  And that brings us to Farewell, Miss Zukas,  which winds up most of the strings of the story and brings our heroine to a happy ending.

And speaking of happy endings, you can see this story as depressing  (good authors are losing publishers left and right) or positive (authors are taking control of their destiny).  But in the spirit of natural perversity I am going to end with a favorite passage from the very beginning of Miss Zukas And The Island Murders
On [Miss Zukas'] desk blotter lay a week-old newspaper article listing ten books a local group, calling themselves Save Your Kids, demanded be withdrawn from the library collection.  Two of the books, including Madonna's SEX, weren't even owned by the library, although twenty-three patrons had requested them since the article appeared....

Eve pointed to the Save Your Kids article on Helma's desk and stuck out her lower lip.  "Why ban Little Red Riding Hood?  What did SHE ever do?"

"I believe it was the wolf who did it," Helma said.  "But don't worry, she's safe.  Fortunately, the Constitution's still in effect."

If you like funny mysteries with quirky characters, you can't do much better than to take a trip to Bellehaven.