Consider the Little Free Library

Little Free Libraries aren’t exactly new to me, nor to Colorado.  Most days I’ll walk by one in my neighborhood.  The one at the History Colorado Center comes to mind.  I even photographed one when Kelly and I visited last July for our anniversary.  Look:

IMG_0327
i have no idea where this is.

That trip, incidentally, was the trip where we decided we were going to move to Denver.

It isn’t difficult to find a Little Free Library.  But most people aren’t going to littlefreelibrary.org’s map of registered Little Free Libraries to find them.  More often than not, your first encounter with a Little Free Library is going to be by chance – while you’re empty-handed, or anyway bookless (or anyway without a book you’re ready to trade away just now).  So if you want to use that LFL, you either have to acknowledge its location and plan to return with books to exchange at a later time, or you take something now and leave nothing in its place.

For this reason, it’s important that the LFL be located somewhere that is well-peopled – so that there are enough people that acknowledge it and return with materials to donate to even out the people that take something and leave nothing.  This, unfortunately, does not appear to be happening (at least with the LFLs I have personally encountered).

When I last checked History Colorado’s Little Free Library, it had one copy of a recent (!) New Yorker and one book that nobody is ever, ever going to read.  If anyone was ever going to read it, it would have already been taken by someone (say, a transient).  What I’m saying is, it was empty.  Sorry, History Colorado.  There is no incentive to regularly visit this LFL (unless you enjoy passively giving books away to transients).

Now, there’s no reason to condemn or criticize any Little Free Library.  It’s encouraging and inspiring to see anyone want to reach out to their community in the name of sharing and literacy, whether it is a suburban family who places one in their front yard or the Byers-Evans House (another History Colorado site), whose LFL is inaccessible when the museum is closed.  LFLs are nothing if not well-intentioned.  And maybe the LFLs in suburban neighborhoods are thriving.  But those are insular, used only by that neighborhood’s residents, if at all.  They are not well-peopled by anyone outside of that neighborhood.  The form is, well, everywhere, but the function (again, of the ones I have personally come across) leaves something to be desired.

I believe that we (we!) can optimize the utility and cultural impact of Little Free Libraries if we (we!) do two things.  First, we construct LFLs at the best locations.  Second, we fill (and build) them with materials with which people actually want to engage.

So, then, where are the best locations?  As mentioned above, well-peopled spaces are key.  Community gathering spaces.  I have a bit of experience in finding these types of spaces and establishing a library presence at them.  What I’d like to see done here is very much in the spirit of what we accomplished as The Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library – collaborating with local businesses, event organizers, and cultural institutions to take libraries out into the community.  But instead of a pop-up library inside of a 22′ truck, there’d be a series of permanent (albeit smaller) libraries located at well-peopled spaces throughout the community.

Two places immediately sprung to mind when I first began thinking on this: The Source and The Big Wonderful.  Little Free Libraries would work beautifully at both.  The Source is an indoor marketplace open daily; The Big Wonderful is a weekly (seasonal) outdoor market.  Both are local- and artisan-focused.  Both are planned destinations for thousands of people every week.  Both encourage you to look around and stay awhile.  Both encourage you to make repeated return trips.

These are the types of spaces at which Little Free Libraries should be built.  Natural community gathering spaces.  Event destinations.  At farmers markets like the ones on Old South Pearl Street and Highlands Square.  Other co-working and The Source-like spaces such as Industry, Avanti, and Taxi.  The Big Wonderful’s sister site that houses the Denargo Farm & Truck food park and the Friday Night Bazaar.  Public spaces like Cheesman Park or the Civic Center Cultural Complex.  This, obviously, is not an exhaustive list, nor should it be (and what do you want from me, I’ve only lived here for ten weeks), but you get the idea.

I do realize that The Denver Public Library is located within the Civic Center Cultural Complex (the 4C), but events like Civic Center Eats and the People’s Fair aren’t necessarily stimulating library attendance, and DPL isn’t really doing much in terms of outreach to get people at the 4C to go inside the library.  They did have their DPL Connect book trike set up at the Earth Day fair, but all they were doing was giving away withdrawn books.  I remember this well because, after taking Richard Ford’s Canada off their hands, I stood in front of their stand while I gawked at a shirtless dude (re: transient) dancing with middle fingers raised to New Radicals’ You Get What You Give in front of some radio station’s tent.  But if all you’re doing is giving away books for free, you don’t really need to put all those resources and personnel towards doing so.

In an ideal world, this Little Free Library project would be in collaboration with Denver Public Library.  LFLs would be a great place for DPL to redistribute their withdrawn books, and DPL would be a reliable resource for making sure LFLs are filled (perhaps with some library card applications and brochures alongside the books).

And with which types of materials are people more likely to engage?  That’s harder to gauge.  Ranganathan’s second and third laws of library science come in handy here: every reader his or her book, and every book its reader, respectively.  Every person who comes upon a Little Free Library should find something of interest, and every item in the LFL should be of interest to someone.  This means the LFL’s collection should be diverse, and that if you are donating materials to it, you should be proud of what you’re putting in there (i.e. you’ve either personally enjoyed it or you could see someone enjoying it).

I do think the Little Free Library “Take a Book, Return a Book” motto and Ranganathan’s laws of library science oversimplify what it means to be a library.  They are both too book-centric.  As The Billy Pilgrim Traveling Library, we touted ourselves as “purveyors of information and culture, of literacy and entertainment.”  And really, that applies to all libraries.  But information, culture, literacy, and entertainment are not limited to books.  If a LFL truly wishes to have something for everyone – to truly represent a library – then its collection should be expanded to include other sources of information, culture, literacy, and entertainment – CDs, DVDs, audiobooks, zines, magazines, small instruments, crafts, seeds, tools, works of art, etc.

I also mentioned parenthetically that LFLs should be constructed with engaging materials.  There is no stagnant image of what a Little Free Library looks like, or should look like.

see?

This LFL at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral School in Downtown Manhattan created by the architectural firm Stereotank is pretty much flawlessly designed.  There is space to comfortably spend time inside of the library, as well as peepholes all around it so you can browse the collection from the outside to see if going inside is worth your time.  This inside-out type of design is extremely engaging and interactive, and is really the kind of Little Free Library I’d like to see built in these (particularly outdoor) spaces.

For instance, every time I walk past the empty red telephone box outside of Pint’s Pub, I think about how awesome it would be if it were transformed into a library.  And who knows.  Maybe we can make that happen.  I’m sure there are plenty of other spaces around town that are readymade for a rogue library – old newspaper boxes, for instance.  Or whatever this used to be:

I’d also like to approach this, at least in part, as a public art project, where a Little Free Library’s form is the main, or at least a complementary, draw.  This mean’s collaborating with Denver’s makers – street artists, painters, sculptors, woodworkers, welders, architects, other DIY folk – to put the aesthetic of the construction itself into focus.  Again, there is no good description of what these installations would look like, but this robolibrary is a pretty good example:

Another natural community partner with this project would be the Denver Tool Library, “a place where community members can share their resources, whether that means tools, time, space, skills, or ideas, so that everyone becomes more inspired, productive, and empowered.”  Sounds like a place to get stuff done, and where a project like this would be celebrated.

Obviously, this is just a thought experiment.  The last time I had this type of thought experiment, it slowly evolved into something big.  But it took time, and it required cooperation and support from my community.  An undertaking like this cannot be carried out by one person, but rather asks that local businesses, local artists, and local libraries work in concert with one another in the name of community and literacy.  It would require a big, collective effort.  But now that I’ve meditated on it for 1,600 words, I think I’m ready to get to work.

How about you?

a food truck & a bookmobile walk into a museum.

I’ll admit it.  When I left Austin for Houston last summer, I did not not have very high expectations, culturally speaking.  I figured that I was leaving this haven of music and free thinking for the hometown bubble of job security and family proximity, trading hipster- for suburban sprawl.  The Houston I knew before I left for college eight years ago led me to believe this, and rightfully so.

But then I got here.  Here here.  Montrose.  77006.  The Austin, Texas of Houston, Texas.  A little haven of the Greater Houston Area, amid all of its oil and sulfur and humidity and people, that somehow retains many of the things I loved (and love) about Austin.  It’s not at all the Houston I remember, simply because it is not the Houston to which I was exposed growing up.  Sure, there were those couple of times my folks took me to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston on Free Museum Day or whatever, but as a general rule, we stayed, at the very least, a good twelve miles north of the north side of 610.  Until very recently, I had never experienced what I consider the true Houston, Texas, and that’s why I had such low expectations of coming here.

At the same time, what appeals to me about where I live now is its Austin-ness.  One thing I loved (and, when driving, hated) about Austin was how pedestrian- and bike-friendly it was.  Montrose is very similar in this sense.  There are certainly fewer bike lanes (let alone vehicle-friendly roads), but basically everything you need is within walking or biking distance.  Montrose is also gastronomically similar to Austin, and perhaps this is in part due to the direct import of Austin’s food scene into the Montrose area.  Three examples that come immediately to mind are Torchy’s Tacos, Uchi, and the Coreanos food truck.

Since moving to Montrose, food truck food has become a staple of my diet, possibly to the point of excess.  Sure, I appreciate food trucks for their accessibility, economy, and expediency, but the main reason I keep going back to them is because their food tastes so damn good.  So far as I can tell, Houston food trucks make some of the best food in Houston (shoutout to Bernie’s Burger Bus, Bare Bowls Kitchen, Ladybird, Fork in the Road).

Food trucks also speak to our ever-increasingly mobile society.  Don’t let anyone tell you any differently:  the main purpose of Twitter is for food trucks to alert their followers as to where they will be located on a particular day at a particular time.  Similarly, the main purpose of lists on Twitter is to aggregate food truck tweets, so that you know all of your food truck options on a given day at a given time.  A good 90% of my time spent on Twitter is spent seeking out food trucks (this amounts to about four and one-half minutes per day).

When I, jobless and with a fresh Master’s degree in Information Studies, first moved back to the Greater Houston Area, I proposed a business venture to a couple of my friends.  The idea was essentially this: a library/bookstore.  A place (particularly a relatively cheap commercial rental space in a strip center) where a customer could buy, rent, donate, trade, and/or sell books, music (cassette, CD, vinyl), and movies (VHS, DVD).  We’d start with our own personal collections and work from there – pay a months rent, buy some shelves, et voila.  (I understand, logistically, that this isn’t nearly all we would have had to do, but this is the gist of the idea.  I even at one point checked a “How to Write a Business Plan” book out from the library.)  But then I found a job, and I’ve sort of just been sitting on the idea for the past nine months.

As time has passed, I’ve become increasingly fond of making this (still very hypothetical) business mobile (i.e. of putting the business inside of a bookmobile).  Why not?  I imagine that we’d function very similarly to food trucks in terms of locations (coffee shops, bars, festivals, &c.) and networking (Twitter, the fb, $17/year website).  I also believe our services would very much complement those of the food trucks.  It is very easy to eat and read at the same time (no offense, food).

Last month, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) launched a program called Fine Arts + Food Trucks, where, quote, “A curated selection of Houston’s finest mobile food sources park in the lot adjacent to the main entrance of the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden every day from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., or until quantities are sold out.”  I chaperoned a bus trip from my library to MFAH last month, maybe a week after Fine Arts + Food Trucks had premiered, and the aforementioned Bernie’s Burger Bus was there, just, waiting for me.  The Menil Collection (if you haven’t gone, you must go) similarly invites food trucks to utilize their parking lot and tweets their support.  In both of these instances, food trucks and museums are complementing one another as sources of culture.  I think that the bookmobile would fit right in here, right beside a food truck, offering the public yet other facets of culture.

There is a neighborhood library of the Houston Public Library system right down the street from where I live, and the West University branch of my library system (not to mention several other branches of HPL) isn’t too far off.  It would make sense for either system to work with MFAH or the Menil Collection.  A bookmobile service would advance the services of either system (if people aren’t coming to the library, you go to where the people [with proof of mailing address] are) and encourage and strengthen their relationships with various cultural institutions.  And yet neither system has one, and I do not imagine that either will any time soon.  Unless…

I like to think of libraries as purveyors of culture.  Ultimately, I would like to use my (again very hypothetical) bookmobile  for the betterment of public library services, be it one particular library system (like HCPL or HPL [therefore, health care]) or for any library in continental North America (self-explanatory).

At my library, here in 2012, a not statistically insignificant number of persons have come in with inquiries about accessing our Digital Media Catalog and downloading eBooks for free onto their iPad or Kindle or Nook or Sony Reader or what have you.  Most of these questions can be very easily addressed by a knowledgeable person in a wi-fi-enabled environment.  In that sense, the bookmobile, filled with physical library books and audiobooks and CDs and DVDs, could also double as something of a digital bookmobile.  The bookmobile takes all of these services out into the community instead of waiting for the community to find its way to the library.

Librarian that I am (destined to be), I also see the appeal of a bookmobile-for-hire service to all public library systems (and college libraries, and museums, and Half-Price Books, and cetera) everywhere, where we would fill the bookmobile with their materials (including, in the case of public libraries, some library card registration forms, pens, library cards, a laptop with ILS software, etc.) and set up as a lending library (or exhibit, or pop-up shop) at a place of their choosing for whatever reason (within reason).    And I would personally find the experience of being a sort of Bookmobile Librarian freelancer extremely rewarding. (Brainstorming a name for this venture: Travels with Charley [where the bookmobile is named Charley]).

So, I guess the real question is, do I go to Seattle and buy this bookmobile?  Would it be worth it?  Would a twenty-seven year old bookmobile even be able to make it back to Houston?  Would everything go exactly according to plan?  A library/bookstore business (let’s call it a hobby) and libraries everywhere tweeting at me (@charleydabookmobile) for bookmobile gigs?  Should I crack open this Foundation Grants to Individuals tome I picked up at the library and give five or ten of those a shot?  Do you think I could qualify this as an Art project on Kickstarter?  What about you?  Are you feeling philanthropic?

Happy belated National Bookmobile Day, everybody!

the legend of the poo bandit (a tragedy)

Earlier this summer, I found occasion to take leave from my fairly strict Kurt Vonnegut and otherwise pretentious-leaning seasonal reading regiment to really embrace the library geek in me and read Marilyn Johnson’s gem of a book, the cleverly titledThis Book is Overdue!  How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All.

There are so many supposedly great works in the literary canon that I’ve yet to read that it is ordinarily difficult for me to, so to speak, get out of the eight-hundreds, and become so intrigued by a research-based work that I will take the time to finish it, particularly when I am reading it, quote-unquote, leisurely.  But this one was so relatable, and so informative, and gave me so many things to respond to, that I was able to pencil it in somewhere between Bluebeard and Deadeye Dick.

Yes, it was a pretty good summer for books.

Of the two-hundred and fifty-plus pages of Johnson’s complimentary words about the future and the culture of libraries, I would like to take the opportunity here to respond to one section I found particularly poignant to my personal experience: the five-page meditation at the end of Johnson’s fourth chapter, The Blog People, which she entitled The Real Poop.

She writes, “Did you ever?  I mean, did you ever think that being a librarian meant dealing with poop?”  I would like to respond to Marilyn Johnson by saying, “I suppose I should have.”

So far, I can relate to the experience of discovering poop inside of a library.  By the end of this, I’ll also be able to relate to the experience of blogging about discovering poop inside of a library.  And that’s key.  That’s what makes it real.

My contribution to The Real Poop, “The Legend of the Poo Bandit”, starts now.

It started out sort of like one of those guy walks into a bar jokes, where the punch line gets you right in the gut:  A family of four walks into the library, and my heart says, “Ouch.”

It was early April.  Ish.

A mom, a dad, a son, a daughter.  The mom’s pushing the daughter in the stroller.  The dad and the son, perhaps eleven years old, straggle in beside her.  It’s a large enough entrance for them to do so.

They all move to the beat of their own drums, but it’s like they’re playing a 78 at thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute.  They’re doing thirty in a sixty-five.  They look around, and they look nowhere.  They are oblivious and they are entirely self-aware. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum.

The mom and dad are perfect for one another, in a way.  Individually, they take the shape of their hardships – of poor genetics and poorer choices.  The dad, the clear head of the family, is husky and low to the ground, a dazed half-smile upon his face.  The mom has a gap tooth and hair in a poof, her face made up to the likeness of an albino.  They are soul mates that should never have mated.

It’s already showing on the son, in his speech patterns, in the way he walks, and in his overall oblivious demeanor.  The daughter is yet unaffected.  On a given day, she may very well be the cutest baby you see that day.  She is screaming her head off about nothing in particular, and it is adorable.

Who knows?  Maybe she’ll be okay.

I issue the dad a library card, while the person working beside me issues the mom one.  The dad has a lot of questions about the library’s policies and collection.  Each time I’ve finished answering a question, he responds by saying, “Oh, okay,” and shoves aside some room in the recesses of his brain, on the chance that he may never have to ask that question again.  I give him that musty spiel I give every new member but somehow still can’t get just right, about how his first check out will be limited to five items (“Oh, okay.”), that every check out after that will have a limit of fifteen items (“Oh, okay.”), and that there is a limit of five of each type with our media items (“Oh, okay.”).

“And where are the movies?” the dad asks me.

I point in his direction and say something like, “Right behind you.”

He says “Oh, okay,” and he thanks me, and the family meanders their way to the DVD section of the library.

And this is generally how it would work for the first month or so:  the family would walk, stroll, and straggle into the library, return the five DVDs they’d checked out on one of their cards, find five more, check them out, and leave.  The daughter would sit in her stroller and scream her little head off.  The son would roam about, a potential disaster waiting to happen, somehow managing leave the library unscathed.

That is, until he scathed the library.

It’s the same scene.  Mid-May.  Seven forty-five.  Ish.  There are three of us working that evening.  What is it, a Wednesday?  The son makes it perfectly clear that he’s had a couple of Red Bulls or something, and he doesn’t want to be at the library, and he’s going to entertain himself in the meantime to the best of his ability.

His first stop is at one of the public computers.  He doesn’t log onto it.  He doesn’t want to play games online or test out the youth computers’ filter.  No, he takes solace in simply banging on the keyboard, over and over again.  And that keeps him busy for a while, until my colleague asks him to kindly stop banging on the keyboard.  He gets up and searches for another source of entertainment.

Meanwhile, I’ve been scheduled to shelve for the last of the library’s operating hours, and when the time comes, I go about doing so.  As I’m shelving in the juvenile nonfiction section, in the darkest corner of the library, the son walks up to me, a handful of small pieces of paper in one hand, a book on the Titanic in the other.  And with his thick, I guess, Cajunaccent, he asks, “You got study rooms?”

And I say, “Yeah, we’ve got study rooms.”

He does not say, “Oh, okay.”  Instead, he appears to reflect a moment, and then he asks me, “Can you do anything in a study room?”

And I say, “Yeah – well, anything within reason.”

Then, because of the accent, I guess – or maybe because I was trying to give this kid the benefit of the doubt, trying to prove that I didn’t think he was some destructive, illiterate basket case, that maybe he was just a misunderstood creative type, weighing whether to read a book about the Titanic or do some makeshift arts & crafts – I think he asks me, “Can you color in a study room?”  What he really asked me was, “Can you cut in a study room?”

But no matter, because I answer by saying, “Not the books.”  He could do whatever he wanted with the small pieces of paper, for all I cared.  Well, anything within reason.

Once I have realized that he is saying cut, and I get it across that we can lend him neither colors nor scissors, and he asks, “Because of office supply?” one more time, and I say, “Right,” he disappears, and I continue shelving.

The closing announcement is made.  The family has checked out their DVDs and left.  Now, and only now, does the thirty-something guy who teaches chess for a living – exclusively, as far as I can tell, inside our library study rooms – and still lives with his parents, and has his father – whose breath always smells like catfood, and who insists on sharing a “musing” with me every time he sees me about how much he likes World War II books, or how much better his library etiquette is than people who talk on their cell phones or who don’t bring their items back on time or who don’t put things in the right place, or about Longhorn football because I must love Longhorn football – pick him up when the lessons are over, comes up to the desk and informs us that someone had been pretty rowdy in the study room next door, and that hethought that person had left a mess in the study room, but that we should go check it out ourselves to be sure.

(For privacy’s sake, and with all due respect, I will heretofore refer to my two colleagues that evening as Audrey and Erica, even though these are not their actual names.  Audrey will be playing the part of my fellow part-time colleague that evening, and Erica will play the part of that evening’s person-in-charge.  Action.)

Audrey goes and takes a look at the study room in question.  She reports to Erica that there is a bit of a situation. Apparently, whoever (and you know who it was!) was in that study room had thrown small pieces of paper all over the place, torn up a book, and —-wait for it—-wait for it—shat in the study room.

We also find some of the – as Erica will put it, loudly and filled with disgust, on numerous occasions in the next fifteen minutes or so – “human feces” (and I’m assuming this stool was from the original study room sitting) in the middle of the library, next to one of the floor outlets, whose cover had been completely removed and tossed aside.

Now, my theory is that this kid (innocent until proven guilty, of course), amid his preoccupation with shredding books and otherwise throwing paper confetti-style into the air (imagining mine), had begun to realize the repercussions of what he had done – that, hey, it smells like shit in here.

Consequently, he began transferring the poop out of the study room in hopes of hiding it inside the floor outlet.  Only, something kept him from making it all the way to the floor outlet, and from making more than one trip. Perhaps his parents had summoned him to leave mid-transfer.  Perhaps he exchanged glances with another patron, dropped it, and went and told his parents that it was time to go.

Did he use a vessel other than his hand to move it?  Did he use the floor outlet cover?

My larger concern is how he had managed to do this without anyone noticing – without catching wind of – any part of what he was doing.  Me – particularly because I was in the stacks, my colleagues, library patrons on their laptops in the middle of the library.  Nobody.

So we’re standing around, disgusted, deciding whether to leave it to the janitorial staff to deal with it in the morning, or whether to do the more humanist thing (after all, humans are descended from primates) and clean it up ourselves.  And Audrey says, out loud, mind you, “I mean, it looks like a brownie.  Maybe it’s just a brownie.”

Yeah.  It’s a brownie.  You go pick it up, then. Out loud, I say something like, “Feel free to go find out.”

Erica puts it a little better.  “Let’s not be delusional,” she says.

So anyway, that was an ordeal.  We threw a lot of shit away.  There are more details, but what is this, a story about poop?

A few days later, call it Saturday, the family returns to the library.  They are good patrons.  At this point, we’re still lacking any real concrete evidence of who the, as he was later deemed, “poo bandit” was.  We hadn’t taken the stool to any poo labs or anything.

It’s the same three people working – Audrey and Erica and myself.  We have all taken special note of the son’s presence in the library.  A couple of minutes into their stay, Audrey decides it will ease her mind to take a lap, and to see if this kid’s up to any mischief.  Sure enough, Audrey finds him in the juvenile nonfiction section, standing on top of this floor rocking chair we (used to) have, just, peeing.

We call the cops, one of the cops asks the kid, “Are you aware that the library is not a bathroom?” yadda yadda yadda, he’s not welcome to the library anymore.

The rest of the family of four will still straggle in on occasion, though obviously, and necessarily, less frequently.  Most of the time it’s just the dad.  And he’s a good enough guy.  But I still feel sorry for him, and he knows it.  To make matters worse, he’ll have to suffer the humiliation of being the father of the kid who pooped and subsequently peed inside of a public library, for as long as he keeps coming to the library and someone who works there remembers that time that kid pooped in the library.

On their first library trip after the banishment, just a few days afterwards, the dad came inside while the mom, the daughter, and the son waited outside.  Through a window in the children’s section, I could see the son straggling around across the street in the church parking lot, throwing a frisbee as far up into the air as he possibly could, over and over again.  At one point, the dad walked over to the window, and looked out at him with his hands on his hips.  And he stayed that way for a good minute.  I wonder what he was thinking.

That poor kid.  And that poor baby.

It should go without saying that this incident has deeply affected me both psychologically and existentially.  For you, which would be easier on the mind:  to think of it as an isolated incident, thus tainting the library from that point forward, or to just think that there’s human feces on everything, and that it’s no big deal?  It’s not so easy to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.

But yeah.  Poop.

What I’m really trying to say is, give This Book is Overdue! a read, because Marilyn Johnson likes plays on words, and because she wrote a meaningful book about libraries that really makes you think.  But read Kurt Vonnegut, too.

(NOTE:  originally published 1st September 2010 for Indoor Sunglasses.)

take the world apart, figure out how it works (a modest proposal)

I am what one might call, if they liked the word as much as I do, a worrywart.

One of my favorite things to worry about of late – in between worrying when I’m going to get a job, or even an interview for a job, that is better than the one that I’ve had the last two years, and whether there is something seriously wrong with my digestive system (due to a deficiency of iron, or vitamin, or calcium, or potassium, or fiber, or genetics), and whether maybe I should just become a math teacher, and whether I have offended anyone, anywhere, in any situation, in my entire life – has been whether we Americans (disambiguation:  U.S.) are ever going to pull ourselves out of this god-forsaken recession, and, subsequently, what is going to happen to us if and when we don’t, and that Sarah Palin really has a chance of becoming president in two years, and that I won’t like living in Canada, either, because snow.

It makes sense to me why we’ll never get out of this recession.  In the post-war boom, we created a monster.  Today, we call it “consumer culture”.  We were so happy to be in peacetime and have money to spend that nobody stopped to worry about what would happen when we ran out of money to spend again.

And we made babies.  Lots of ‘em.  Cause why not?

Ten years into the boom, the government taught us to be afraid of the Communists, and we responded by becoming even bigger Capitalist pigs just to show those Commies who was boss, that we could have as large of properties as we wanted, wherever we damn well pleased, and that it was ours, all ours.

Shopping malls and chain stores sprung up, and we filled them with people who needed jobs, and they sold us crap we didn’t need.  And we built neighborhoods around these shopping malls and chain stores, and we surrounded ourselves with their crap, and we called it culture.

And we were scared, and we were sad, and we were bored, but we were happy.

I was born into one of those neighborhoods.  I only go back for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I used to have so many friends there.

People are born into these types of neighborhoods all of the time.  So are their future friends and spouses, and all kinds of people who will be content to live there for the rest of their lives, because they were popular in high school or whatever, and because Applebee’s isn’t that bad, and because Thanksgiving and Christmas aren’t that bad.  Here, as elsewhere, sixty-something years later, the consumer culture lives on.

The problem this country has, being what it is, and trying to recover from the state it is in, is that we have to spend our way out of the recession.  To paraphrase a proverb, money makes the United States of America go round.

At the individual level, it makes perfect sense, in an economic crunch, to become more frugal with your earnings, and to surround yourself with less crap.  Personally, I support this mode of living, no matter the income, no matter the economy. Maybe that’s because crap doesn’t make me happy (see also:  paragraph two).

The problem is, as a consumer culture increasingly practices frugality, the number of employees needed to sell us crap, and the number of stores needed to sell us crap, and the number of malls needed to sell us crap, becomes fewer. Enough people need to continue buying crap so that the people who are selling us crap can keep their jobs.

Crap.

Recently, my library’s Friends group implemented a full-time used bookstore into the library, comprising of books that had been donated to the library, but were not in good enough shape to be incorporated into circulation.  It is an experiment in fundraising with which I have very few arguments.  But here they are:

These books are sold completely on the honor system.  Presumably, patrons abide by a sign sitting atop a shelf that tells them each book type’s price, and they put the correct amount of money into a coin box sitting on a different shelf, and they go on their merry ways, and we don’t ask any questions.  The store sits in a blind spot of an alcove, immediately behind the circulation desk.

My doubt of uniform bookstore patron honesty notwithstanding (which isn’t too far removed from my doubt of uniformlibrary patron honesty), I think it is a good idea, and that it will prove successful in the long run.  It’s a good way to utilize donations.  Prior to the bookstore, the donated books that did not make it into circulation were sorted, boxed up, and put into storage, and weren’t thought about again until the semiannual book sale.  While the book sales were, and are, a hit, they were still only semiannual.  A perpetual book sale means a perpetual, albeit modest, source of funds being raised solely towards the well being of the library.  If this hurts the semiannual book sales, it will be but marginally, and the difference should be more than made up for by the funds from the perpetual sale.

So, how does this get us out of the recession?  It doesn’t.  Despite the notion that libraries may very well be the new cupcake, and despite my own personal awareness, as an aspiring librarian, of both the shifting dynamic and immense staying power of libraries, there will always be folks who question their importance, who think city governments are just wasting their tax dollars.  And anyway, an increased dependency on libraries amid an economic crisis causes the same dilemma as before:  the more people utilize the resources of a library – which, by the way, is often chock-full of music and movies, new releases and classics – the fewer people we will need to sell us those resources at retail price.

So how do we practice frugality without further hurting a hurt economy?  I would like to propose the following:  Instead of bringing consumer culture to libraries, what if we brought libraries to consumer culture?

Take, for instance, a store like, oh I don’t know, Barnes & Noble.  What if Barnes & Noble, while still primarily, and even overwhelmingly, a bookstore, introduced a member-based rental system and, subsequently, a used bookstore within that bookstore?

Barnes & Noble already offers a membership service, where people who become members are offered incentives for using a Barnes & Noble-exclusive credit card.  What if material rental was one of those incentives?  What if that credit card doubled as a library card?

Think about it.  Its implementation wouldn’t be all that difficult.

To begin, you would have a bookstore, like Barnes & Noble, filled with nothing but new books.  You put up some signs, send out some emails, set up some Facebook events, get folks to fill out some sort of application, yadda yadda yadda, you have members who begin to have the option of using the facility as a library.

By having a two-in-one library/credit card, there is a guarantee that the material will either be paid for or returned.  If an item that’s been rented out hasn’t been returned in an acceptable condition after the allotted amount of rental time, a late fee could begin to accumulate until it is returned, again, in an acceptable condition, wherein that fee would be charged to the credit card, and billed at the end of the month.  Once the item is a certain number of days late, the patron could automatically be charged for the retail price of the material on the credit card, and billed at the end of the month.  (Why don’t libraries do this?  Do libraries do this?)

Assuming at least some members utilize the rental privilege appropriately, there will be items coming back that are used. Slap a used price tag on those babies and return them to the collection, where they too can either be rented or bought. Hey, presto, you’ve got yourself a bookstore/library on your hands.

Some folks may prefer to rent used items because there would be less money at stake should they decide to keep them.  Incidentally, a used bookstore like Half-Price Books could easily introduce a similar service, and it would be awesome.  But Half-Price Books isn’t the problem.  They get it.  It’s the folks who insist on selling us shiny new things that are the problem.

I’m no computer scientist or anything, but it seems like an automation system that can differentiate rentals from purchases isn’t that tough of a program to write.  Anyone remember Blockbuster Video?

I’ll leave it to the store to write this, as well as to decide how many items a member may rent at a time, how long and which items are allowed to be rented, whether there is a rental fee, and how much the per item daily late fee will be.  But may my made up answers for my imaginary bookstore/library (called Barnes & Noble & Grawlsy) serve as suggestions: four; everything uniformly checks out for seventeen days; no; eighty-four cents.  Why not?

Obviously, a number of hoops would need to be jumped through to get there – namely, convincing a successful pan-American conglomerate to reconstruct their business plan for no particular reason other than that it might help save the American economy in the long run.  And I can see why publishing companies may want to protest.  But I think it’s a possibility, and that it isn’t unreasonable to believe that it may even help both sides net even more of a profit.

By putting materials in members’ homes before actually having to buy them, it offers choice, and in turn what one may call, if they liked the phrase as much as I do, the illusion of frugality.  At the same time, it offers a greater range of people an incentive to become members, and a greater rationale for returning, and with greater frequency.

This type of rental system, that uses the library (and the used bookstore within the library) as a prototype, and that introduces thrift and frugality into mainstream consumer culture, could hypothetically be implemented into all kinds of retail stores.  The line from library to bookstore was simply the easiest line to draw.

It’s too bad ideas don’t pay the rent, because I think this one is worth well over five hundred and eighty American dollars. So I’ll sit around in the dark, with the thermostat hovering around eighty, because, really, who needs to wear clothes in their own apartment, and worry about how this is received on the Internet, which will inevitably be, “Hardly at all,” and whether this was even a decent idea in the first place, and why I wasted so much time thinking about it when I could have been applying for jobs that I won’t get, and whether maybe I should just become a math teacher.

Cheers.

(Epilogue:)

The day after I had initially finished writing this essay, I found this article about the fall and subsequent sale of Barnes & Noble, glaring at me from the Yahoo! homepage.  On numerous occasions in the last couple of weeks – and partially due, I’m sure, to the sizeable amount of LOST re-watching that has occurred in my private life of late – I have considered that Eko/Lockean debate over whether I am mistaking coincidence for fate, or whether I am mistaking fate for coincidence. Either way, I’ve decided that this is about as much effort as I am going to put into it.  I’ve got better stuff to do than save Barnes & Noble.

(NOTE:  originally published 1st September 2010 for Indoor Sunglasses.)

For Esmé

I remember my first day at the law library somewhat fondly.

And when I say law library, I don’t mean in an academic setting where law students frequently go to help them, you know, become lawyers.  I mean a library smack dab in the middle of a law firm where lawyers go on occasion to help them, you know, win cases; where I am but a blip in their radar, approached only when absolutely necessary, outside of their culture, an underling.  It’s not so bad.  My fellow underlings and I get along pretty well, and enough of the attorneys are themselves fairly decent human beings.

I don’t remember exactly what I wore that day, but I do know that I was dressed to impress – long-sleeve button-up tucked into slacks, loafers, white tube socks.  I remember that it was a long-sleeve shirt for this reason:

The weekend before my first day, I had embarked upon one of my bi-monthly weekend trips home to rock the Houston suburbs.  And in the fervor and excitement of discussing the commencement of this new job with my parents, my father, who himself is an attorney, gave me this advice:  “And wear a long-sleeve shirt.”  And this probably sounds strange to you, but it made perfect sense to me.  Here’s why:

Two bi-monthly weekend trips prior to this occasion, I had decided that the weather had simply become much too warm to continue to wear long-sleeve shirts around my folks in order to conceal the tattoo on my left forearm that, for the previous five months or so, I had been, let’s say, reluctant to reveal to them.  Now, there are a number of things about myself that my father takes pride in, and then there are things about myself that he accepts as fact and/or doesn’t want to think about.  And this tattoo, then and two bi-monthly weekend trips later, happened to fall in the latter category.

So I know he was holding back a little with that advice.  I know on the inside he was saying, “And, for God’s sake, Chris, please, please, please wear a long-sleeve shirt.”  Regardless of what he really said, I heeded his advice, and I wore long-sleeve button-up shirts to the law library every day for the first seven months that I worked there.  I made the switch about the time this record Austin summer heat wave began, and I haven’t looked back since.

Anyhow, my first day was something of an orientation.  My immediate boss, the law librarian, walked me through the place and showed me the locations of the volumes in the collection on all three floors of the firm.  On one of the floors she was less familiar with, she was struggling to remember the precise location of one particular section.  Amid this, one of the attorneys walking by stops and jovially inquires as to what we’re doing.  My new boss says something about trying to remember where this particular section is, to which the attorney says incredulously, “You’re the librarian!” and proceeds to slap her on the back.  Now, this was a resounding, echo-locatable, pink-handprint-inducing, yet somehow Texas-friendly type of slap.  I suddenly became terrified for my back’s future.  She grinned and bore it, but you could tell she didn’t much care for it.

And that’s what I remember about my first day.  That was my introduction to the job and to the firm.  Well, that and taking the wrong stairwell that, void of my helplessly banging on each successive door in hopes that someone was by chance near enough to hear, resulted in a twenty-four story, sweat-inducing descent to an unlocked door.  But enough about that.

Here, I would like to switch gears and fast-forward eight months to PF Chang’s Day.

My mother, who is an elementary school principal, was in town for an elementary school principals’ conference, which, for those of you who are familiar with the city of Austin, was held in the Arboretum area.  This was also the weekend of the Rot Rally, an annual event where, for some reason, the city of Austin opens up its eccentric arms to lovingly welcome every single biker in the entire country.

Before she took back off to Houston, where, as I previously mentioned, I only make bi-monthly weekend trips, we had agreed that she should at least treat me to lunch while she was in town.  We had agreed on the PF Chang’s which, too, is located in the Arboretum area, a good twenty-minute drive from the downtown building that holds the law library.  And this was a Friday – the day I work nine hours at the law library, the first day of the Rot Rally.

So I took an early lunch.  I didn’t explicitly tell my boss that I was doing so, but I think it was obvious enough.  At this point in time, just as it had been pretty much from the get-go, we didn’t really speak to one another unless it was absolutely necessary.

All said and done, and thanks in part to some poor navigational decisions on my behalf, I took about a two hour lunch break.  Off the clock, mind you, but two hours nonetheless.  When I returned, my boss was still at lunch.  Fifty or so minutes later, she was still still at lunch.  I here decide to use the restroom, a period during which she coincidentally returns.  So, presumably, as I took my post-lavatory seat at my desk, it looked to her like I had taken something like a three hour lunch break, which was only really two-thirds true.  And we only really speak to one another when it’s absolutely necessary.

To make matters worse, and I am probably fully to blame here, ten minutes or so after she had returned, a co-underling and friend of mine asked me if I wanted go out for a cigarette.  I had nothing better to do, really, so I complied.  (I know. Tell me about it.)

Upon returning ten, fifteen minutes later, I had the following email waiting for me in my inbox:

When you are away from your desk, you need to tell me where/when you are leaving and for how long. You cannot be on “the clock” for the hours that you are away from your desk.

Now, let me acquaint you with the architecture of the law library, or at least the part that’s critical to the telling of this story.  I have a desk – a cubicle, really – out in the open; I am a spectacle for everybody who walks by, and there are frequent walkers-by.  Fifteen feet behind my desk, behind my cubicle’s back, fifty-four inch high wall, is my boss’ office. Fifteen feet.

In order for my boss to express her displeasure with the way I was going about my business, she had to – had to – write this two-sentence, passive-aggressive email.  She couldn’t have waited until I got back and said (from her office, even), “Chris, can I have thirty-seven words with you in my office?”  Couldn’t.  And I’m being serious:  it is physically impossible for her, as a library director, to direct me.  She just doesn’t have it in her.  It’s a shame.

So I’m sitting there at my desk reading this email while my friend is hanging around trying to chat it up with me, completely oblivious to the fact that any of this is going on.  Once he leaves, I make a beeline for her office and try to explain by saying, you know what, my mom’s in town, I went and had lunch with her, I got caught in traffic, et cetera. And she responds with pretty much verbatim what she had written in the email.

It goes on back and forth like this for a while, and then she makes the allusion that she finds my (extremely limited) interoffice social tendencies disagreeable, concluding, and I cannot make this up, that “it’s annoying.”

I sort of just gave up after this, and accepted that you just cannot please everyone all the time.  It’s just unfortunate in my case that the only person (to my knowledge, anyway) that has any real negative sentiments towards me in the entire firm is my boss.  But, until she sends me that email that says I’m fired, I still have a fairly comfortable job there.  And I’ve never been slapped on the back, or anywhere else, for that matter.

To conclude this conversation, I did what any underling would do:  I apologized.  But I said it like this:  “I’m…sorry?”

She responded, I kid you not, in a near shout, “It’s okay!”

I retreated to my desk, back out in the open, and just sat there awhile, laughing out loud intermittently, thinking about letting her know every time I used the restroom, or got a refill of water, of clocking out for 0.0 hours.  I then used the rest of the afternoon to apply for an internship at the academic library at my alma mater, so that, upon getting it, I could promptly, if in email form, put in my two weeks’ notice at the law library.  This, I suppose, is why I needed to be at my desk.

Needless, perhaps, to say, I did not get that internship, and, for all the obvious reasons, I remain stuck at the law library. I recently applied for a GRA position at UT, but they’re still taking applications, and that position wouldn’t start until the Fall semester.

What I am more primarily, and extremely patiently, awaiting is the opportunity to rise in stature at the community library. I am stuck in a part-time position there as well, because the city’s budget is barren or focused elsewhere, and because all of these job freezes aren’t allowing any upward mobility for the persons who currently hold the jobs I desire, thus also giving me nowhere upward to move.  Again, I say, it’s a shame.  For everyone, really.

The larger point I intended to raise in writing this is concerning the direction and focus – the point – of this blahg.  And what precedes and what follows this sentence may seem paradoxical, or counterintuitive, or even hypocritical, but I will attempt to justify it.

Under no circumstance do I intend to utilize this blahg as a method to dispel, to come to terms with, or to solicit empathy for my dirty laundry.  I both despise and have fallen victim to this form of utilization of the internet before, and I just want nothing to do with it.  I don’t want this to become a gossip column, or a place to rag or take out my frustration. I don’t want my anecdotes to be a bunch of “you wouldn’t believe the asshole I had to deal with today” stories.

Yes, I deal with assholes.  So do you.  They’re everywhere.  But writing about them, at least in a non-constructivemanner – writing about them to get it off my chest – that’s just not something I want to do, and, hopefully, that’s something neither this blahg nor the forum attached to it will turn into.  I fear that it could become that, and, if it ever does, I will personally pull the plug on this entire endeavor, no regrets.

That being said, I don’t suspect many of my anecdotes will hail from my experience at the law library, or at least from my encounters with my boss there.  Clearly, I have my reasons for staying on board – mostly economic, but having unlimited access to a parking garage in the center of downtown Austin, not to mention the twenty-sixth floor balcony that overlooks it, is pretty awesome as well.  But my duties there barely resemble anything I’ve ever done while working in academic and public libraries, so I don’t think that experience is really worth mentioning.  For all of these reasons, this isn’t a job that I particularly enjoy having.

So why write about it as my first anecdote on my blahg dedicated to my personal experience as an aspiring librarian? Well, I think I’ve done so in order to contrast this, a fundamentally bad work experience, with all of my other library work experience, and to explain, perhaps solely to myself, why I shouldn’t badmouth anyone involved in those good experiences.  Does that make sense?  I’ll try to make this clearer:

I love the community library.  I love that entire families of females, aged two to seventy-two, have very outwardly obvious crushes on me.  I love that people value my opinions on the books and movies and music they’re checking out.  I love seeing how excited little kids get when I check books out to them as they watch me intently from their parent’s shoulder, and I love that they try to talk to me, even when they have a vocabulary of fewer than fifteen words.  I love how much I learn about people just by sitting behind a circulation desk and talking.  I love the diversity of the people with whom I interact.  I love the people with whom I work and the sort of dysfunctional family we have formed.  I love being told that I remind someone of somebody, and that it’s not just a good but a great thing.  And so on.  It has done wonders for my self-esteem, helped remedy my social anxiety, developed in me a genuine care for, and desire to help, this, mycommunity.  And so on.

I loved working in the library during my undergrad, and I love the community library, and it would be deceiving to suggest otherwise.  Even with one tiny blurb.  Giving the impression that my work at that library is stressful, or makes me feel negative in any way, would be doing that institution and the people it serves an injustice.  That library has made me a better person, and I love it for that.  There’s no need to focus on instances there that were disagreeable when my overall outlook is completely positive, when I’m happy to be there every single day.  That’s just petty, and unnecessary.  Difficult people come with the territory, and that’s that.  In a more perfect world, though, they wouldn’t be the territory.

I think that it is out of respect for these sentiments, as well as to stay in line with the confidentiality of libraries in general, that I have decided to keep as many aspects as I see fit anonymous, or at least ambiguous.  I have probably given you enough information that if you researched hard enough (and if you didn’t already know from my telling you firsthand), you could come up with the proper names of the law firm and community library for which I work, then show up to where I work and be able to point out some of the people I’m describing, and perhaps my full name, and where I went for my undergrad.  But I’m not making these things explicit, and, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t think they really matter. I’m not trying to document a single example of a particular institution; rather, I mean to approach this more holistically, and to make my personal experience within the greater library system identifiable and relatable without singling out any particular institution.

I’m not speaking for all libraries, but perhaps, collectively, we all can.  Until next time,

With love & squalor,

(NOTE:  originally published 9th August 2009 for Indoor Sunglasses.)