Thursday, April 29, 2010

Library Loot: The Secret Straightener


I didn't mean to go back to the library so soon, but I had to give a 2-hour presentation about how to give an effective presentation, and I was stressed out about it. With an hour to kill before the dreaded event, what was the best place to chill out? I dismissed my Intermediate English Conversation students a trifle early and made a beeline for the Bybee-ary.

Once I was safely in the narrow aisles of the fiction section, I still couldn't relax. I couldn't concentrate on the titles before me. My eyes scanned the Ds. There were three volumes of Bleak House and two of them were pushed way back. The middle one protruded like an orthodonist's dream. All the volumes on the shelves seemed to be either leaning left or right like tipsy-going-on-drunk or shelved too tight as if the bookends were girdles. Some books had slipped behind other books.

What would Mrs. Freeman think of this mess? I wondered. Mrs. Andrea Freeman was the Head of Circulation when I was a 20-year-old circulation clerk/shelf jockey for Nye Library at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. She was in her late 30s -- tall, stunning, terrifying. Think Clair Huxtable and you'll have a perfect picture of Mrs. Freeman. She stood for no nonsense. Her library was a thing of joy and beauty forever. Every Saturday, we clerks had to go out and "read" the shelves. That meant pulling each book to the exact edge of the shelf -- not too far over or too far in -- and making sure that the titles were in perfect alphabetical/Dewey Decimal order. We also had to take care that the books were shelved neither too loosely nor too tightly.
Mrs. Freeman stalked out to check on us at well-timed intervals, running her finger across the spines to make sure we'd dusted as well. Her sharp eyes could spot the slightest misplacement of a book. Those books stood as straight and as uniformly as soldiers. The odd-sized and oversized books had their own special section. Because of their ungainliness, they were a bitch to put in order and had to be neatened up constantly. Nothing was going to stand in the way of Mrs. Freeman's vision of precision.

I wanted to be a model employee for Mrs. Freeman, but too often she caught me sneaking and reading when I was supposed to just be reading shelves. How could my eye ignore those titles fairly screaming at me to give them a chance? I defended myself by saying that I thought I should be familiar with the books in case a patron asked me for a recommendation. Mrs. Freeman couldn't see it my way. "No one is going to ask you for a recommendation."

I also disturbed her sense of efficiency. Before the clerks took the books out to be shelved, we were to arrange them on the book cart in order. One day, I decided to spice things up by not arranging beforehand. I wanted to see how fast I could shelve with the books out of order. Mrs. Freeman caught sight of my cart as I wheeled past and made me put it right. I protested that I wanted to test myself. Mrs. Freeman shook her head. "What you want to do," she said, "is waste your energy and my time." Even though she found me deluded and disorganized, I think she liked me a little. To me, she was a goddess with the most perfect job in the world. I really didn't find her overly rigid -- she took great pleasure in seeing the yards and yards of books lined up to perfection and so did I.

She would have recoiled in disgust at the mess in the Bybee-ary, though -- not that she would have ever allowed such a travesty to occur. Mrs. Freeman would have swooped down on Douchebag and had him in a headlock on his first day or at least the very first time he did his sighing routine.

Remembering Mrs. Freeman, I found myself reaching out to fix the copies of Bleak House, then I straightened the whole shelf. After that, I moved on to the shelf below and soon, the complete section was straight. Already things were looking better. As I pulled each book out to the edge of the shelf, I thought about what Mrs. Freeman had said about not hooking your finger at the top of the spine and pulling the book out. "You don't want to do anything to weaken or damage the spine."

Not only were the shelves starting to look spiffy, I was beginning to feel a distinct lessening of my jitters. My heartbeat had slowed, my stomach had settled down and my mind was clear. Too uptight to look at titles before, they were now starting to jump out at me in that old familiar way and as I straightened, I grabbed these three:

Laura Ingalls Wilder and The American Frontier: Five Perspectives - Dwight M. Miller, editor. The scholarly papers in this slim volume were originally presented at a Laura Ingalls Wilder literary conference that took place at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library back in September, 1998.

Literary Masterpieces 3: The Maltese Falcon - Richard Layman, editor. I'll probably never find out who, but someone in my library or somewhere on campus has got a mad-on for The Maltese Falcon.

James Bond and Philosophy: Questions Are Forever - Jacob M. Held and James B. South, editors. Simply irresistable! The acknowledgements section is entitled "Oh, Spare Me This Sentimental Rubbish" and the footnotes are freshest and zingiest this side of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

I didn't really want to stop straightening shelves, but it was now almost time to go do the presentation. I was calm and ready for anything. Did this count as therapy? Had I stumbled onto something equally old and new and wonderful? If so, I'm all for it, I thought, making my way up to the self-checkout machine.


Kathy said...

I'm a straightener, too. I think the Borders brothers must have known Mrs. Freeman, because that is how we were trained to shelve in the older days. I still straighten stacks, alphabetize and clean up face-outs whenever I'm in a bookstore or library. And my books at home are all lined up with the edge of the shelves.

Lynn Gardner said...

I'm glad to know I'm not alone! Whether I be at the library, bookstore, grocery store, or pharmacy I cannot help myself -- I must straighten :)

Jeane said...

I regularly go through my own shelves to straighten the books out. Once I was absent-mindedly straightening books while browsing at the public library and another patron through I worked there and began asking me for help to find a book!

Jenny said...

I am always getting mistaken for a bookshop clerk because I can't stop myself from straightening books on tables. It's compulsive, I can't stop myself.

Cat said...

This did make me laugh! I'm a compulsive shelf tidier too - I used to be a librarian and I simply can't bear seeing the books in the library falling all over the place.

Enjoy your loot!

Anonymous said...

My libraryis pretty good on straightness but bad on alphabetical order. And that I have to put right.

Anonymous said...

Hehe, I do the straightening thing as well. Especially if works of my favorite authors are two shelves apart. It makes for finds in surprising places though :)

Your loot is really interesting, I want to read the James Bond and philosophy one immediately. Happy reading!

Nine Mile said...

This passage speaks to my heart; I have been thinking that once my children are in school I might find part time work in a library.

Unruly Reader said...

I was doing this very same thing today -- a couple of items were out of order on the shelves, and I Had To Fix Them -- else I'd've started twitching.

Bybee said...

I'm so glad to know that I'm not alone!