Showing posts with label retirement. Show all posts
Showing posts with label retirement. 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 LudditeHermitGallery.com)  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.

Whew.





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?"

"No."

"Have you tried Database Y?"

"No."

"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!









05 September 2018

Lost in the Stacks for 41 Years


by Robert Lopresti

Gonna get a little off the main track here today.  I hope you forgive me.  You see, as of the first of September I am retired. I am going to tell you about some of my most memorable moments in forty-one years in the library mines.  Most have nothing to do with crime or writing.  So indulge me or go read something else.  I hear they have a lot of terrific stuff at MySpace.

                                                                         
When I was getting my Masters in Library Service degree the school urged us to call them as soon as we got our first jobs and tell them the salary.  So when I did I called them and gave them the big number: $10,300 a year.

"That's great," said the clerk.  "It will bring up the class average."



That first job was at a public library.   I was the government documents librarian but occasionally  I worked in the children's room.  I was at the desk there one day and two women walked in.  Obviously mother and grown daughter.  The mother marched up with a determined expression that said: I am going to get the answer if it takes all day.  Librarians love that look.

She fixed me with her steely gaze (why aren't gazes ever aluminumy?) and said "There's this book."

"Okay," I said.

"It's about a tree."  

 And that was clearly all she had.  No author, no title. Just a subject, a memory, and a burning desire to share it with her daughter.

I stood up.  "Follow me."  We marched to the Easy Readers.  I pulled out The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein.

Her eyes went wide.  "That's it!  How did you know?"

I shrugged.  "I'm a librarian."




My assistant was Sue.  Between us sat a file cabinet and by the time I left every drawer had been neatly labeled with a misspelling of my name she had clipped from an envelope received in the mail: Robert Lopreski, Roberta Lopresti, Robert LoPresti, Robert Loparesti...

When my first short story was published I brought the magazine in and plopped it down in front of her open to the right page and pointed to my name.  "That's by me."

She tossed it back on my desk.  "No, it isn't."

Oh ye of little faith.

                                           

One day at the reference desk I got a phone call from a woman who wanted to know if we had The Power of Positive Thinking by Phyllis Schaeffer.

Now, a librarian is supposed to rely on sources.  If you ask me to spell cat I am supposed to check the dictionary.  But in this case I said "The Power of Positive Thinking  is by Norman Vincent Peale."

"No," she said with complete confidence.  "Phyllis Schaeffer."

So I checked the card catalog.  (Yup, that's what we had back then.)  Peale, yes.  Schaeffer, no.

Then the penny dropped.  The Power of the Positive Woman, by Phyllis Schlafly.  Well, the woman had been positive, all right.

                                                     

One of the longest-running science fiction fan organizations in the country used to meet at that library.  They held a special event to celebrate an anniversary and I graciously volunteered to be the library's representative.  Possibly this was because the guest speaker was Isaac Asimov.

He was, naturally, great.  His subject was a recent editorial in the New York Times saying that setting up a system to watch out for asteroids was a waste of money because, as I recall, no huge meteor hit the earth for many thousands of years, and therefore another wouldn't hit for thousands more.  Follow that logic?

Asimov gleefully reported on past NYT editorials on science.  One was an announcement that rockets wouldn't work in outer space because there was a vacuum.

This library was the largest in our part of the county and when one of the small libraries had a reference question they couldn't answer they bounced it to us.  One of those smaller institutions had a director named Miss D.  Her main characteristic, as far as I could tell, was that she was terrified of the members of her library board.

One day she called up and asked for the government documents librarian.  It seemed one of her  board members was looking for some government statistics about drug abuse.

I wrote the questions down. "Some of these I can answer," I told her.  "Some of the data I don't think is available."

"Well, do what you can."

I did.  This was long before the Internet and I had to dig through a whole lot of books.  Finally, after several hours of toil I called her up.

"I was able to find most of your answers, but not all of them."

"Oh," she said.  "Then never mind."  And hung up.



One day a patron (that's what librarians call customers, by the way) wanted to know what the phrase "the beast with two backs" meant.  I knew but I damn well wasn't going to tell her off the top of my head.  Fortunately Shakespeare's Bawdy by the brilliant Eric Partridge was at hand.



My next job was at a college library.  It was there that I found a report from the government of New Jersey that mentioned that the name of a small community in the southern part of the state, Mauricetown, was pronounced the same as a larger city in the northern half, Morristown.

Hmm...  That's the sort of thing my Atlantic City private eye Marty Crow would definitely know.  The result was "The Federal Case," Marty's first appearance in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

                                                           

Each librarian worked as a liaison for an academic department.  The acquisitions librarian told me there were several openings.  Naturally I chose English.  An hour later she was back with a file the size of a phone book.  "Read it and tell me if you still want the English Department."

Turned out two professors had come almost to the point of suing each other over an argument that involved the library.  One had written to the school paper complaining about the library and his colleague had written back, as I recall:  "Pay no attention to him.  We in the department have all had to hear him banging his spoon on his high chair before."  They eventually signed a joint statement agreeing that academic disagreements should be settled out of court.

I did take on the responsibilities for the English Department.  Didn't get sued.


                                                   
One night a college student came up to the reference desk and asked: "Is Nicaragua in Europe?"  This was during the Reagan administration when it looked like we might be invading that country any day.

I think I kept a straight face.  "No, Nicaragua is in Central America."

"Oh," she said.  "Is Central America in Europe?"

                                            
It was my Sunday to work at the reference desk.  It was snowing like crazy.

I was thinking about the next day.  I was the head of the search committee and we had a candidate coming in for a job interview.  In fact she should be flying in around now.  I hoped that the driver sent to pick her up got to the airport on time.

Then I remembered who had been given the job of arranging her transport.  Uh oh.
 
                                           
Speaking of search committees, I once went to lunch with a candidate.  He asked who was paying for the meal.  When I told him it was the college he ordered the most expensive thing on the menu.

I told the search committee: "Don't offer him the job.  He won't take it."

They did.  He turned it down.  We lost the position.

Nobody likes Cassandra.



One day the boss called me and another librarian into his office.  "I've been thinking about that meeting we had on Monday," he said.  "I want you two to run the project."  And then he spoke for several minutes about what he wanted, while we nodded solemnly.

Outside his office I turned to my colleague.  "Boy, I hope you were at that meeting on Monday, because I have no idea what he was talking about."

She said: "I was hoping you knew."

We went to the assistant boss who was outraged.  We soon got an apology for the confusion.  I never did find out what the project was about. 
                                                          

This was the time when computerized databases were first trickling into libraries.  One of the first we got (on a free-standing computer) was a list of all doctorate dissertations.  Another librarian, Barbara, and I both wanted to check out our father's PhDs.

"My father always insisted on people calling him 'doctor,'" I said.

Barbara is African-American.  "My father never cared whether people called him 'doctor' as long as they called him 'mister.'"

Which rather  put things in perspective.

                                                          


Most computer databases were expensive and you paid by the search.  Therefore only librarians were allowed to do the searches.  I remember one student asking me to search PsycInfo for peer-reviewed research articles that tested the theory that mental illness was caused by demonic possession.

I didn't have much luck.                            

One day I was at the reference desk and the president of the college walked in.  I had never seen him in the library.  He looked around, spotted me at the desk, and walked over.

I sat up straight, ready for action.

"Do you have a waste basket?"  By gosh, I knew the answer to that one.


The first computerized databases (i.e. periodical indexes) we got came from a company called Silver Platter and were literally on shiny discs, larger than LP records.  One day I was showing them to a group of adults (i.e. not college students) who seemed quite awed by the new technology.

The database froze.  I knew what that meant; a static electricity build up.  I also knew how to fix it.

While they watched I opened the case, took out the disc (by the edges!) and shook it vigorously.

"Do you know why I am doing this?"  Head shakes.

"I'm chasing off the evil spirits."  Nods.




The director of that library was Dr. Robert L. Goldberg.  He could be insanely frustrating but I learned more from him than any other boss.  For example, he told me approximately this:

"A good manager shares credit and hoards blame.  If the college president tells me he likes something in the library I always tell him who  did it, because it's important he doesn't think  this is a one-man operation.  But if he hates something and wants to know who is responsible, the only answer he gets is: me.  Because whoever did it, I am responsible."
                   

And that was the first ten years of my career. Tune in on September 19th when we will cover the remaining thirty-one years.

In the mean time, please save your files as the computers turn off automatically.  Please bring material to the circulation desk to borrow.  Safe travels.