The Librariansby Robert Radin
The young librarian's first priority is to attend to the residents of the town. They often can't remember the title of the thing they want, and sometimes they can't remember the format—book, DVD, CD. Then he must engage in a kind of mind reading based on what he knows about the person. He must be a detective of the soul.
And he has learned that conversations about popular culture can turn into much more, because as people search for something that will mirror the circumstances they find themselves in they invariably share other stories, about an illness they are struggling with, for example, or the breakup of their marriage. When this happens the young librarian must respond appropriately. He must show the true empathy he feels in his heart without getting so swept up in the person's emotions that he feels these feelings himself. Sometimes it happens in spite of his best efforts, and he blinks hard several times to fight back his tears.
The town sits on a bend in the river, which is a blessing for the farmers. The river used to flood every year, depositing mineral-rich silt across the basin, creating the most arable land in the region. But as more farmers moved to the town they pressed the board of selectmen to authorize funding for a levee system to stop the floods. They were getting tired of water backing up in their homes.
The levees never did anything for the library. Even now when the river rises the library floods. From his desk in the basement the young librarian can see water stains halfway up the walls.
When he's not helping the residents of the town he's down here, working at his computer, cataloging the collection. It requires an extreme attention to detail and a high tolerance for repetition, but it suits his character. Which is just to say that his encyclopedic knowledge of popular culture isn't coincidental—he is a completist by nature. It has never been enough for him to know a little bit about something—he has to know everything about it. Because he understands this about himself he has been careful about picking his passions, as they can be time-consuming and even exhausting. He's one of those people who likes to root around in the dark corners of a discipline, to connect the dots between the major and the minor, the famous and the obscure. From these connections he develops his theories about what he has come to call the aeris animata, or animating spirit, of our times.
For example: Imagine all the bands you've ever heard of but never actually heard. Then add hundreds—maybe thousands—of other bands to this list, bands you haven't heard of, bands that recorded for labels that went out of business after one release. Then and only then will you begin to get a sense of the breadth and depth of the young librarian's interests. It's impossible to know as much as he knows, though he is not arrogant about it. On the contrary, he wants to share his knowledge with as many people as possible. He assumes everyone will like the things he likes if they are just given the chance. He doesn't believe backwaters need to remain backwaters and he's not about to cede anything to the people who live in the neighboring college town. It's true they're better educated and have more sophisticated tastes, and this is reflected in their library's collection. But he has begun to build a collection to rival theirs. Soon he will be able to offer the residents of his town the very best popular culture has to offer—as long as the old librarian doesn't get in the way, that is.
The old librarian has a wealth of life experiences she brings to her job as director of the library. She came of age in the '60s and lived in Greenwich Village during the anti-war protests. She received her education in film at the Bleecker Street Cinema, where she saw the latest movies coming out of France and Italy and Japan. She dated one of the witnesses for the defense in the trial of the Chicago Seven and was in the courtroom when he took the stand tripping on acid. The left-wing press vilified him—rightly, she thought—for copping out, and she left him shortly thereafter and moved to Berkeley and became involved with a white man who ran guns for the Black Panthers. She had a baby with this man, a daughter she raised on her own when he left her.
She was the one who purchased the trilogy by the celebrated Indian director, not because she was trying to score points with the young librarian but because she remembered how these films affected her when she first saw them at the Bleecker Street. But they have circulated only once and she now regrets her decision.
The old librarian is concerned about the young librarian's approach to acquisitions. A case in point: He just purchased the collected works of the recently deceased Chilean writer. She knows she has to broach the subject with him, but she doesn't want to set him off.
I wanted to talk to you about those books, she says.
The young librarian looks at her over his horn-rimmed glasses. His expression communicates polite disdain.
He's one of the most important writers of the last century, he says.
I'm sure he's great, she says. But we don't need everything he ever wrote.
So you haven't read his work.
I can't say as I have.
The young librarian walks over to the new-arrival shelf. He brings back a book and gives it to her.
Start with this, he says.
On the cover is a black-and-white photograph of a man in a museum. The man is standing in front of a bust with an abraded nose. The man's mouth is opened wide. At first she thinks he is yelling at the bust, but when she looks more closely she can see he is yawning.
She feels like the young librarian isn't listening to her. She wishes she had never let him participate in collection development to begin with. She only did it because she wanted to reward him for all his efforts. Before he arrived they were still using a card catalogue. The town residents didn't seem to mind, but it was embarrassing to her. They couldn't even do interlibrary loans because all the other libraries in the region had gone digital.
She's looking forward to the day when she doesn't have to have these kinds of conversations. That's why she's so interested in patron-driven acquisition, or PDA: It promises to take the guesswork out of collection development altogether. It works like this: Your library has an agreement with a Web-based vendor that has a comprehensive catalogue of titles in electronic format. If there's a book you want and it's not already part of the library's collection it gets downloaded from the vendor. If you just browse the book there's no charge to your library. If you read some significant portion of the book your library is charged a rental fee. If you read the whole book your library buys it outright and it becomes a permanent part of the collection.
She wasn't thinking of PDA when she wrote the library's mission statement, but she thinks it embodies it perfectly: We are committed to serving the recreational, educational, and professional needs of community residents by providing access to a wide range of materials in both traditional and emerging formats. The emphasis, for her, is on the words needs of community residents. It's not about what she likes or what she thinks people should be reading or watching or listening to in order to become better human beings—it's about what they're telling her they want. She doesn't have the luxury to do otherwise: The board of selectmen has told her she must show a minimum of a 20 percent improvement over last year's circulation numbers or else.
All I'm saying is you need to check with me before you make a purchase, she says.
I did check with you, the young librarian says.
She wonders whether he's doing it again, saying he said something he never said. He makes her feel like she's going crazy.
From now on send me an email, she says.
Fine, he says.
There is a patron who comes into the library every Friday afternoon. He is older than the young librarian but younger than the old librarian. He's the one who checked out the trilogy by the celebrated Indian director.
The patron represents the great compromise between highbrow and lowbrow culture. This is why the young librarian and the old librarian are courting him. They each believe that if they can sway him to their side their argument will carry the day. Then they will be able to move forward on their plans for developing the library's collection.
But the patron is cagey. He likes both of them. He shares the young librarian's tastes but is sympathetic to the old librarian's argument. He believes the library's charge is to serve the community, even if that means there will be fewer things in the collection he wants to check out. He can always use interlibrary loan, and if he really needs something right away he can go to the library in the neighboring college town. For him it comes down to that old maxim: I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. He can't remember who originally said this.
And though he would never admit it to the young librarian, the old librarian's graciousness has moved him. On more than one occasion she has waived his considerable late fees. And sometimes, when she sees him standing in front of the DVD wall, trying to pick something to watch for the weekend, she goes down to the basement to tell the young librarian he's arrived. The young librarian comes upstairs and the two of them talk for a while about books and movies and music and then they go back downstairs and talk some more and the old librarian never seems to mind, even though her employee is socializing when he's on the clock.
On his day off the young librarian goes to the library. The old librarian is sitting at the circulation desk.
I guess it's a busman's holiday, she says.
I don't follow you, he says.
It's before your time. On the busman's holiday he rides the bus.
The young librarian feels insulted. He wants the old librarian to know that he doesn't like her and that if it was up to him he would stay as far away from her on his day off as possible. But a box set has just come in for him through interlibrary loan—a collection of rare doo-wop recordings—and he knows the pleasure he will take in this music will more than offset the unpleasantness of seeing her.
He has every intention of going behind the circulation desk and getting the box set and checking it out to himself, but before he can do so she takes it off the hold shelf and checks it out to him, showing all the courtesy and deference she would show a town resident. It makes him uncomfortable. He doesn't want to be beholden to her.
By the way, she says, I think I've found a PDA vendor who will work with us.
I don't want to talk about it, he says.
You're right, she says. I'm sorry.
He's convinced PDA will turn the collection into a comic book store. He knows about the studies that show that, when given a choice, people don't choose lowbrow materials, but he doesn't buy it. He also doesn't buy the supposed increases in circulation. There are countless variables that can account for such increases, and he's willing to bet that none of them have been controlled for in the studies on PDA.
To make matters worse PDA stands for other things besides patron-driven acquisition. It stands for personal digital assistant, and he hates personal digital assistants. He hates what they've done to the way people interact with each other. He hates the way people are so distracted by them when they're driving that they get into accidents and kill other people.
PDA also stands for public displays of affection, and though no one has ever died from a public display of affection, in some ways this angers him even more. When he was in college a certain right-wing segment of the student population railed against public displays of affection, and as offensive as he found their politics he had to agree with them on this point: It was nauseating when people groped each other in public, and if it required a campus-wide code of conduct to prohibit it he was all for it.
He knows these other definitions of PDA play some part in his feelings about patron-driven acquisition, but he's not going to admit this to the old librarian.
I'm wondering if you've had a chance to read that book, he says.
I started to, she says. But then I got sidetracked.
Maybe you should check it back in, he says. I'd like to reread it.
Okay, she says.
He is irritated by how readily she acquiesces. He never should have given the book to her. She isn't worthy of it.
As he walks out of the library he presses the doo-wop box set to his chest. It's oversized, made to look like an LP collection, even though there are CDs inside. He wishes it were LPs. His interest in popular culture—not to mention archive preservation and library cataloging in general—began with LPs, with his mother's record collection. She was a folkie during the 1960s. She played coffeehouses in Austin when country music still ruled the day. She never made a record and he still feels some resentment about this, because she was as good or better than most of the people who made it big.
As a boy he spent hours poring over her record collection, gazing at the photographs of the doe-eyed women with long, straight hair parted down the middle. He felt a paralyzing nostalgia, a heartache so great it was as if he had been a young man during this era. Sometimes, as he walked the narrow streets of the small Southern town where he grew up, or the broad avenues of the big Northern cities he migrated to when he got older, he imagined things the way they would have been in the 1960s—and for more than a moment he felt confused, out of time, and he had to stop and reorient himself by looking hard at something from the present, a car or a storefront.
You're an old soul . He's heard grownups say this to children. He thinks it's something a grownup sees in a child's eyes, a kind of sadness, a kind of precocious understanding of how hard life can be. When he was a boy no one ever told him he was an old soul, but they should have.
The young librarian has a small studio in the basement of his home. He has a drum kit, a bass, several guitars, and a keyboard. He uses these instruments to perform and record the songs he loves. Because most of these songs are obscure it would be easy for him to alter them, to improvise his own chord changes or transpose the key or rework the arrangement. After all, no one would be the wiser. But this would violate his whole approach to artistic production: He believes that breaking the rules has meaning and merit only if you know how to follow them to begin with. There are painters who can do abstract work but can't render the human figure—who can't, in a word, draw—and he has no respect for them because their experimentation isn't informed by control and technique, because they don't understand what they're rebelling against. He believes you have to earn your chops.
The patron is coming over today to perform and record with him. The patron is a drummer, but the young librarian has no idea how good or bad he is because they've never played together before. They've been talking about it for a long time, though, so long in fact that the young librarian's hopes are very high. He's trying not to get ahead of himself.
When the patron arrives they go down to the basement and set up. The song they have chosen is simple, a minor song with minor chords by a minor band from the British Invasion. It begins with A minor, goes to D minor, then D minor 7. Even though the young librarian has played the song many times he is having trouble with the fingering for the D minor 7. They start the song then stop, then start again and stop again.
You should lay off the kick drum a bit, he says.
But we need to fill out the bottom end, the patron says.
You're not being faithful to the original.
I think it sounds better.
Just lay off it a bit.
They start again and once again the young librarian messes up the D minor 7.
Maybe we should try a different song, the patron says.
I'm just distracted, the young librarian says. I ordered some DVDs last week and I know she's going to give me grief. She doesn't get it. You have to offer people an alternative. If you feed them pablum, they'll want pablum.
They start over and once again the young librarian messes up the D minor 7. This time the patron keeps playing, hoping the young librarian will follow his lead and play through his mistakes.
Stop, the young librarian says.
It doesn't have to be perfect, the patron says.
Yes it does, the young librarian says.
Maybe he's nervous, the patron thinks. He considers himself fortunate in this regard. When he was a young man he attended a Zen meditation workshop, and though he no longer practices he is still able to return to his breath in times like these, to still himself.
They never even charted, the young librarian says. They never even recorded an album. They can't even do a reunion tour because everyone from the original lineup is dead.
The patron has been resisting the young librarian's particular brand of nostalgia ever since they met and began their ongoing conversation about books and movies and music. But he feels trapped now, in this basement, behind the drum kit, and he can feel himself succumbing, falling fast into a kind of narcotic melancholy. He doesn't care about the fortunes of the forgotten British band whose song they are trying to play, but listening to the young librarian talk about them triggers his own long-standing sadness for the lead singer of a girl group from the same era, a woman he has been in love with since he was a little boy. For most of his life he remembered her the way she was, sweet but also sexy, and he knew that if he had been young when she was young they would have dated and fallen in love and she never would have married the famous man who abused her, but this wasn't possible, so when the world transitioned to a digital age and he had the opportunity to watch footage of her online he took it, and for the first time he saw everything that lay in store for her, the untimely deaths of the other two women in her group, the harrowing escape from her sadistic husband, the long middle years when she had to perform her old hits with back-up singers who couldn't stay in key because she couldn't afford to hire women who could sing proper harmonies, the later years when she became increasingly infirm and incoherent but her voice was still intact. His own parents died a long time ago, and he realizes now that she has been standing in for them, standing between him and death, and he is dreading the day she passes away, because then there will be nothing left.
Let's go back to the song, he says.
The people who live in the neighboring college town are unaware of the tensions between the young librarian and the old librarian. They have enough problems of their own. While it's true their library has most everything they want, it costs them a lot of money. Every year they are forced to put a property tax override on the ballot, and they wonder how much longer this can go on.
The two communities are so different. For example: The people in the college town don't support the kinds of agricultural practices the farmers in the other town engage in—monoculture, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides—though they would never say this. They think it's important to show solidarity with all farmers everywhere. They have bumper stickers on their cars that demonstrate this commitment. The stickers say Yes Farms, Yes Food, or No Farms, No Food.
That said, they definitely prefer local food economies and sustainable agriculture. They border their gardens with marigolds to keep the pests out and grow all their vegetables according to organic principles and practices. During the summer months they like to go outside and pick what they want to eat for dinner that night. If they have a surplus they sell it at the farmers' market.
Most of them are professors at the college. They make a comfortable living, though they are somewhat sensitive about it: They know it's a lot easier to be progressive when you're well-off. Still, they wonder what their critics would have them do. So many rich people are only concerned with protecting and increasing their wealth; at least they're willing to part with their money for the sake of the greater social good.
And it's not as if they don't have a sense of humor. When the head of the chamber of commerce made a bumper sticker that said Yes Farms, Yes Farmers' Daughters they all laughed. They appreciated the fact that he had the nerve to poke fun at them, even though they found farmer's daughter jokes offensive. They talked about it over cups of coffee, teasing out the connections between courtship rituals in Colonial America, the sirens of Greek mythology, and the farmer's daughter, who lures unsuspecting traveling salesmen to, if not their death, then some form of perverse torture at the hands of the farmer.
The old librarian has reviewed the data from the state's bureau of library statistics. She is looking for numbers she can put in her annual report, anything that will make a favorable impression on the board of selectmen. There are certainly some striking figures; the problem is they remain open to interpretation. For example: Last year she received 2,000 titles through interlibrary loan, which means there were 2,000 titles that community residents wanted that she didn't have in her collection. By contrast, she sent out 7,000 titles to other libraries. At first blush this would suggest that town residents are generally satisfied with the choices available to them, but it could also be an indication that they simply aren't using the library that much. The state's per capita borrowing figures support this interpretation: The state average is twelve titles per person per year; the town average is six.
The only thing she can conclude with any degree of certainty is that her collection has been circulating more outside the town than inside it. This is what she had been telling the young librarian all along, though this hardly makes her feel vindicated. She would gladly have been proved wrong if it meant she could have kept him on staff.
It seems unavoidable to her now. He had purchased a 12-DVD introduction to East German cinema without her permission. It arrived on his day off and she had to sign for it. She wondered then how many other titles he had purchased without her knowledge. She imagined a second, subterranean collection within the official collection and she got a sinking feeling.
When she confronted him about the DVDs he told her she was running the library into the ground. Then he went off on her about the book by the recently deceased Chilean writer. He said he should have known she couldn't handle a book like that. He said it was another indication of how out of touch she was with the community. Give me a tenth-generation townie, he said, born to the plow, and I'll turn him on to that book.
She didn't say anything. She already knew she had to fire him so she figured it was better to just let him vent. He reminded her of all her old boyfriends from the '60s: She could never do right by any of them.
And she didn't want to hurt his feelings. She knew how much it meant to give a book to someone. It was one of the most intimate things you could do, because when you gave a book to someone you were hoping it would elicit the same feelings in them that it elicited in you. When you gave a book to someone you were making yourself vulnerable.
If things had been different she would have told him it wasn't personal; it just wasn't her kind of book. She liked books with complicated plots. She liked books that slowed time down, or sped it up, or rearranged it, so that the beginning was at the end, or the end was in the middle, because in her opinion this was what books were uniquely positioned to do: shatter time.
She didn't like books that required knowledge of other books to be appreciated. She believed a book should be an invitation. She believed a book that broke with convention should teach the reader how to read it, rather than expecting him or her to know in advance. This was what bothered her about the recently deceased Chilean writer: He relied too much on allusion and innuendo. And puns. He punned constantly. Every time she started to read the book she felt like she was going to throw up.
Whatever happens to her budget she wants the board of selectmen to appreciate everything the young librarian did for the town. This is what she writes in her report:
We lost the services of a valued staff member this year. It would not be an overstatement to say that he single-handedly brought us into the 21st century: His tremendous facility for cataloguing enabled us to move to electronic circulation and join the regional lending network. His dedication to collection development expanded the range of materials available to town residents. His curiosity and compassion made everyone feel welcome and helped turn our library into a true community gathering space. He left us to pursue another opportunity, and though we are excited for him, we are also sad to lose him.
The patron still comes in every Friday afternoon. They don't talk about the young librarian, but she knows he's thinking about him. He has to, because the entire library is a shrine to the young librarian's good taste. He built a monument to himself. Maybe that was what he was after all along.
She doesn't tell the patron about the tribulations she's faced since she fired the young librarian: how he put sugar in her gas tank; how he pissed on the azaleas that border the front walk; how he took a dump in a videocassette cover and dropped it into the return box. She feels like the patron has already been too involved, like she has violated the boundary between the professional and the personal in relation to him and needs to bring things back to a more appropriate state of affairs. But there are times, as she watches him contemplate the wall of DVDs, unable to choose because there are so many good choices, when she wants to pour her heart out to him.