Thursday, December 15, 2005
Tell Us Your Best Library Story, Win Actual Prize!
M.R. James wrote some good ‘uns. So did Borges, Bradbury, Cheever, Danilo Kis, Isaac Babel, Elias Canetti, A.S. Byatt, Umberto Eco, Murakami; everyone loves a good library anecdote. I have it on good authority that there is even a market, small but healthy, for industrial-strength p0rn set amongst the stacks: I guess if you find the Dewey Decimal classification system quiveringly erotic well that’s really nobody’s business but your own.
Everyone loves a good library story, and if you spend much time in libraries they’re not terribly hard to come by, or, dare I say, embroider up into something delightful. (Although I doubt that many of us - professional librarians and archivists aside - still hang out in physical libraries quite as much now as we did ten years ago.) So tell us your best (no more than mildly lurid) library anecdote, here in the comments thread, and you might win a lifetime membership to LibraryThing, worth $25. I have a membership to give away because I won it myself in an in-house contest and I have one of my own already.
LibraryThing is an online personal library cataloguing tool. (You may remember Miriam Burstein wrote about it back in September.) You enter your books via ISBN, title, or keywords, and voila! instant cross-referenced personal library catalogue. It is rather like Flickr or Delicious only for books. LibraryThing utilises user-created tags, so you can sort and group your books according to whatever system you prefer. It’s a social system, so users can see each others’ catalogues, you can see who’s got the same books as you, whose library is most like your own, how many people own a particular book & what they thought about it - or if you just want to know what books you have, you can make your catalogue private. Believe me, it’s frickin’ addictive.
So, the contest will run for a week - until next Thursday, 22 Dec, midnight by the comments box timestamp. Open to anyone and everyone except Valve authors, though their library tales are still welcome, naturally. You can enter as often as you like. I am the judge and I will choose the entry I like best. Correspondence will not be entered into.
PS if you just want to talk about somebody’s library anecdote or whatever but not enter the contest, by all means go ahead.
Um ... when I was about nine or ten I was at the local library with my mum. I loved it, and the fantastic librarian who had not changed one whit of her grooming routine since she was thought a top sort in 1969 - the beehive, the cat’s eye eyeliner, the works. She had not let the passing of time (or the spreading of waist) interfere with her look, and I think she’s probably propping up a zimmer frame somewhere looking exactly the same. (I wonder if she had one of those matching fellahs who still have the greasy ducktail do?)
Anyway, I had just graduated to the “young adult” section, having read most of the kid’s books. I was so excited that I couldn’t bear to leave. So I wet my pants.
Now you see why I had to go on about that poor lady so much. She was very kind about it all.
When I think of a library, the first thing that comes to mind is the library in my school days. The school where I studied in was a small one, a recently started one. The library was shelved in a small cupboard two feet wide and four feet high. Whenever we had a library period (Yes, we had a period set apart for reading and accessing the library), I used to volunteer for carrying the books from the shelf to the classroom. I felt great and proud in doing that small chore.
Years later, my mom works in the same school. And when I asked her if she can take a couple of books for me to read from the library, she said it is a huge room stacked with books. My mind immediately went back to the time when I carried the entire library of that school in my hands. It still reminds of those days when the library period was the most eagerly awaited part of my classes at school.
Is an anime series eligible? There’s one called “R.O/D. -The TV Series” and its how a group centered in the British Library—actually in secret spaces below the library—conspire to take over the world, and practically succeed. They’re foiled by team of four young women, who are paper masters—that is, their superpower is their ability to make paper do amazing things. Here’s a link to one of the volumes on Amazon.com:
There is an official website, but it’s in Japanese:
When I was young, I read a story in which the key plot point was that the Important Magical Book had been in the library for years, but no-one had noticed or read it. At the time, I was only familiar with small local libraries, so I thought that was impossible. How could a library book possibly go unnoticed and unread for long?
Now I’m an academic, and can get into really big libraries, with their wonderful (ahem) catalogue systems, I can quite imagine this happening.
For example, the Book of Soyga has recently turned up in the Bodleian. It had managed to remain undetected for so long because it was catalogued under its title in the artificial language in which it was written, rather than the name by which it is usually known. Not quite as good as finding the fabled Necronomicon, but not far off.
Other brave attempts by libarians to catalogue cipher material have given us catalogue entries like this: “Positive rotographs of a cipher MS” (Author? Title? Language? Provenance? In case you’re wondering, the rotographs are of the first half of the Voynich manuuscript )
(See Claire Fanger’s “Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Ritual Magic” for more examples of this kind of stuff just suddenly getting found...)
PS. The challenge phrase I needed to type in to post this was “death66”. I wonder if it’s a bad omen...)
Thanks for the pointer to the Book of Soyga, SusanC. I’m reading the paper now with great interest.
Back in my high school days, I had choir practice in town in the evenings, after which I’d go to the library to read until my bus came. Only, the bus came at 9:15, and the library closed at 9pm. So one day I was sitting among the beanbags of the Young Adults section, heard the buzzers go off at 8:50, and thought, “It’s cold out there: I’ll just keep reading until they throw me out.”
Not quite ten minutes later, everything went dark. I looked up in surprise: the lights had been turned off, the library was silent. I got the idea that perhaps I shouldn’t wait around to be thrown out after all. I stood up and walked tentatively out of the YA section (some light still shone in from the streetlights outside), somewhat apprehensive of being told off for not leaving on time.
No-one told me off, because no-one was there.
I hovered between the main entrance (closed and locked) and the main desk (dark and unstaffed) with visions running through my head: sleeping the whole night on the beanbags; worrying parents; setting off burglar alarms; getting surprised by Security… Maybe I should look for the phone behind the desk and ring… who? My parents wouldn’t be able to get into a locked library. The police?
As I pondered the dilemma, however, I heard a voice; saw a faint light glistening from behind a staff-only door. I hurried towards them, opened the door, and discovered a couple of very startled librarians on the verge of leaving the building.
All’s well that ends well, I thought, hurrying to my bus-stop in embarrassment. Maybe next time the librarians would actually check to make sure everyone had left before they locked up… But no: the very next Monday—well, cut a long story short, at least another reader was with me then to share the embarrassment.
(As a side note, the WikiHow guide for “How To Find a Gift for a Self-Proclaimed Geek or Nerd” includes If your friend is one of those people who seems to be reading a book per week, you could get them a gift certificate for the local bookstore; but also consider paying off their library fines, if they’re the disorganized type. )
When I was in fourth grade, we were given some time to wander around the school library and read. For reasons why I still do not know, I insisted on reading on my head: head against the floor, legs up on a table, book in hand (this came after my reading under the table phase.) I think it took the combined forces of my teacher and the librarian to convince me that this was neither good for my head or the table. As for my dignity, I think it did not suffer at the time.
A friend steered me over here, claiming that my “weirdest employment story ever” could just as easily be a “weirdest library story ever”:
At the beginning of my junior year, I checked a book out of my university library. Although the library had gone digital, this particular book was old enough to still have a catalogue card in an envelope pasted to the back cover. And on the card was a handwritten note that said “Need a job? Bring card and book’s citation (MLA format) to Memorial Special Collections.” I had never had reason to go to Special Collections, but the MLA bit intrigued me, so I took the card and the book down to the basement of the library and asked to see the SpeCol manager.
The manager took one look at the card, checked the citation, and offered me a job on ths spot. Turns out he was somehow related to the wealthy local family who had bankrolled the Collection, so he had a delightful sinecure. The only part of his job he disliked was having to employ work-study kids; he felt they lacked appreciation for the library and its holdings. So he decided to do some recruiting of his own--he wrote out his advertisements on old catalog cards and stuck them in random books. Anyone who found one and followed up on it was offered a job. The logic was that working in special collections required curiousity and meticulousness, and that anyone who would bother with the citation and the trip to the basement must have both. The inspiration for this plan was the immortal work of british literature, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (This guy’s idea of “equal opportunity employment” was putting the same number of cards in engineering library books as in the main library.)
I took the job and it turned out to be the best employment I’ve ever had: nice steady paycheck and all we did was sit around talking about books, go to book auctions, and try to spend the university’s endowment on...books! No one believes this story the first time I tell it, but it’s true: I found the golden ticket in the collected works of John Galsworthy.
I posted this poem in comments at Berube’s blog, but I suppose that it could go equally well as a library anecdote here. It’s based on “They brought the book with them, but did not leave it with the student":
It was near Christmas
The call came
“Go to New Bedford”
Borrow trouble, he laughed
Their eyes were white when I told them their son
The little book red
On the way back
It sat on the car seat
We’re red guards, I guess
At the return bin
You must take it back I said
Because it reveals
-- Rich Puchalsky, 2005
The stories about inappropriate behavior, we can never match the professionals for those; I just sit and listen.
The discoveries. In my Bible Belt high school, finding the un-checked-out paperback of Leonard Cohen’s attempts at erotic poetry. Or at Bryn Mawr, the first American edition of Yeats’s Red Hanrahan stories, pre-Lady-Gregory-fying. Or even two weeks ago, learning that some stoned drudge at the Library of Congress in 1974 classified Anne Stevenson’s poetic sequence about a (fictional) New England family not as English lit but as genealogy. There get to be a lot of those; I can’t remember them all.
Then there are the librarians. Back in that Belt, where I spent really so little time but keep returning, lode, touch, and kidney stone, my only two adult friends. Mocking the absurdities of the neo-KKK newspaper someone had subscribed the high school to, not picturing us as the only readers. Or at the nearest public library, thirty-some miles away at Chillecothe, the librarian who gave me magazines when she and her husband had read them, and, when I asked, confided that, although they kept the trashy ‘70s best sellers on the shelves, and Barth and Berger and Updike, the Bible thumpers still leaned on evil-books lists of half a century back, and so they dasn’t put any James Joyce out in public, but in the back there was a Finnegans Wake she would lend me....
Christopher Hellstrom 20 December 2005
We charge up the steps of the New York Public Library, noticing the snow and ice has not been shaken completely from each of Patience and Fortitude’s stone manes. We’ve got roughly an hour. No time to waste. Matching silver Movados from Zales are in synch and it’s now five PM. She’s here to look up liver disease and toddler tantrums and I’m just going to just browse and wait around. An hour is not enough for me to even get warmed up reading-wise. The transit strike has made it impossible to get downtown to get back to Staten Island anyway. I don’t mind killing an hour.
She is heading to the librarian (no use fooling around) and runs off with him into the corner, waving her hand, summoning me to start occupying myself. Okay. All right. I pace the floor leisurely, looking for a magazine. Wired is on my mind. I wonder what’s going on in Wired these days. Where’s the magazines? Are they on this floor? I feel like a mite, a speck, in this cavernous place. I love books but I hate the public library merely for medical reasons. My throat is beginning to constrict because the stacks of journals that I’m browsing through are too musty and dusty. I prefer my own little library. Everything’s new and the newness of the clean shelves somehow has a purifying effect over the vintage books that I occasionally buy. Dust mites and other allergens don’t stand a chance in my house.
I’m lost in the library until I see a well-lit room, empty, and quiet. It’s cozy and feels like home. A single unit of books, maybe three to four hundred. I glance lazily at the first book that I see on the top shelf and I grab it. It’s Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson, which happily enough I’m reading now. The paperback is home, waiting for me on my nightstand. I may be able to polish it off and finally start something new when I get home tonight. This is so perfect. I plow through the last ninety pages, and notice, oddly enough, my watch has barely moved. In fact, it has not moved at all. The clock on the wall, frozen. Five O Five still.
I leave Snow Crash on the table and go back to the stack. I don’t attempt to put it back myself. I know the rules. I look at the next book and it’s The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore. The next one is Great Jones Street by Don Delillo followed by more Stepehnson followed by A Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory by Jonathan Culler. These are my books! These are the books I’m going to read. I scan the titles on the third shelf. Philip Roth’s Library of America editions are complete. Portnoy. American Pastoral. The Plot Against America. Everyman?
I look at the formidable shelves and at the petrified clock and, without hesitation, tear into the books. I devour them, page by page, six ways till Sunday, one by one. Three thousand pages of Proust swallowed whole as I panther pace on the floor of the small room, face buried in the thick volumes. Gravity’s Rainbow is read slowly and efficiently in a quiet corner of the timeless room. Dante under the table. Dostoevsky by the windowsill, looking up every few hundred pages at the frozen cityscape. I read with gusto the whole of the Bard, in the middle of the room, on my back on the floor. Same sitting: my legs above my head, feet up on top of NYPL property chair and I plow effortlessly through Heidegger. Then Plato. Finnegan’s wake is done. Aristotle. Done. The Bible. Check. Done. Done. Done. I look at the wall, unexhausted and mad and wanting more. I marvel how the distillation of minds and skeleton keys to souls were in my possession. I’ve collected life. I’m in possession of life. I’m insatiable and bloated at the same time. I have it all, finally. Please indulge this mere enthusiastic mediocrity, this trick-less pony, in his momentary pride. Understand how it feels to absorb, intravenously, a civilization. You’d be full of yourself too.
I glance at the bottom shelf, at the final volume, and smile. I caress the cloth board cover and look and the simple but brilliant title. It crackles as it opens for the first time to reveal the dark stamp of font on snow-white pages. I smell the pages, hold it to my heart for a moment, and settle it back in its place on the end of the shelf. I walk away from twenty years of reading, through the doorway of the quiet room, and into the hushed noise of the library. I watch the leering tourists and data hounds patrol the stacks as I turn around and look back. The room, with only a tall shelf of read books and desk and a small window, is empty still and perpetually inviting.
My wife found what she needed. Two thin volumes are tucked under her arm.
“You ready?” She asks. “Yes,” I smile calmly, “I am now.”
In graduate school, Modern European Intellectual History was taught by a professor who fit the billing of a vaguely distracted intellectual. In the midst of a lecture, he muttered something about the perils of scholarship. He was lost in research and writing about some 19th century German subject, it seems, when a bound volume of the London Times fell from the shelf onto his head. If you’ve ever seen a bound volume of the London Times, you can imagine that it would make a substantial impression.
Okay! comp closed.
Thank you very much to all the people who took the time to contribute their stories. It was tough to choose a winner; I narrowed it down to three then tossed coins.
Chris Hellstrom emerged victorious - I hope he’ll enjoy the LibraryThing membership!
Thank you so much for this contest. I did not know about Library Thing and I agree with you that it is addictive. I’ve filled the maximum 200 with the free account so I appreciate the lifetime membership. I’ll e-mail you directly for details
I’m also a newcomer to the valve. I had Matt Greenfield as a Professor in the past and he has mentioned it. Now it is a place I visit often because there is always something interesting going on. I learn a great deal reading The Valve.
Best of luck in the New Year and thanks again.
It’s a good thing the poem didn’t win—considering that the story it was based on turned out to be a hoax. It’s too bad that the Bush administration has conducted a systematic campaign against the ability to disbelieve in any reports of their misdeeds.