Thursday, May 13, 2010

On being a Librarian, not just about books

JAN: April Cushing, a reference librarian for 22 years, is my favorite librarian. This has a lot to do with the fact that she's also the unofficial head of my book group and not only offers us terrific recommendations (The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips, I'm reading it now, it's terrific), but also procures the books for us. She also used to write the funniest Christmas letter, ever, spoofing the form to a degree that my daughter and I would rip through the Christmas mail every year waiting for it. But now she's turned her wit to column writing called "Nothing Personal" for the DAILY TRANSCRIPT. And here, she agreed to make fun of her library patrons for me.

APRIL:When Jan asked me to write a short blog for her writer’s group, the only blog I could think of was Julie Powell’s. I actually met her before she became a big cheese at an event arranged by Porter Square Books. We had a three-course French dinner at Chez Henri in Cambridge, met the author and got an autographed copy of Julie & Julia. But back to the blog. Hers just happened to turn into a book and a movie and made her a millionaire so naturally my first reaction was, do I have to? But when Jan threatened to interview me instead, suddenly the blog thing didn’t seem so bad. She said to just write something light and funny about the library.” Does the word oxymoron come to mind?

Library patrons, on the other hand, are another story. I could write at length about them but I don’t want to cross the line. OK, I really don’t care about crossing the line; I just don’t want to lose my job. It goes back to that fear of being sent to the principal’s office. I know the correct spelling because I was taught “the principal is my pal” although we all know he’s anything but, and when you’re summoned to see the principal you can be sure he’s not thinking pal-sy thoughts of you either. But I like working with the public, mostly, and it’s fun to talk books with other readers. I recommend stuff, they tell me what they liked, and I get good suggestions for my book group.

The part of the job I like least is teaching the Dreaded Computer Classes. We all hate this because the patrons we attempt to teach are generally not your model students. Take John, the guy I had last week for the hour-long Basic Computer class. Mid-seventies, affable in a too-loud sort of way, and completely untainted by prior computer experience. The supposedly self-guided Palm Beach, FL “mousing around” tutorial (you can Google it) takes the tyro through the fundamentals like holding the mouse, clicking, scrolling, dragging, double clicking (now we’re getting into advanced territory) and right clicking. Intentional right clicking, I mean. Tedious, but not what you’d call taxing.

Boy, was I wrong. I could not get John to successfully click on a link, any link, to save my life. I adjusted his hand, demonstrated how to hold the mouse gently but firmly, described the motion in excruciating detail and tried every trick in my admittedly modest arsenal of teaching weapons. I could not get the guy to click. “I don’t know what else to say,” I told him, practically in tears. “I don’t know why it’s not working.”

What I somehow managed not to say was, “how can you not know how to click, for Christ’s sake? This isn’t rocket surgery,” as my friend would say.

The one remotely amusing moment was picturing my daughters as flies on the wall watching my near meltdown. I could hear them say, “Are you serious, Mom? You got a master’s degree for this?” The other thing that kept me from totally losing it was the arrival of 25-year-old Jenna, fresh from URI library school and a whiz at computer training. Sensing my desperation, or maybe it was the way I grabbed her arm, Jenna, with infinite patience, taught John to click. Kind of. When I asked how she did it she said, “I could tell right away he wasn’t an auditory learner but a visual one, so I just showed him how I did it.” Right.

After almost two hours the tutorial was mercifully over. I was back at the reference desk grateful that John was finally gone and no one had gotten hurt when I heard a familiar voice bellow, “I want to sign up for the Internet class next.”

Then he proceeded to walk out the emergency exit door and set off the alarm.

JAN: I feel very lucky, not only do I get to hear some of April's war stories first hand, I get to drink wine with her at book group!!

If you want to read more of April's unique take on the reading world, check out some of her columns. Scrabble lovers, especially, should follow the below link.

Are there any other librarians out there with some good war stories?? Anyone else want to tell us about their least favorite jobs or cute Luddite patrons??


  1. April, you are hysterical! Jan, how lucky you are to have her as head of your book club!

    I love the story about mousing. I'm sure this guy is not the only dunce. I can remember very clearly seven or eight years ago, I went to visit my dad and stepmother. They'd just come back from a class similar to yours.

    "He doesn't understand the mouse," my stepmother reported.

    Of course he was in the early stages of Alzheimer's and so could be excused!

    What other books are you recommending April? My group just read CUTTING FOR STONE, which I loved in spite of myself. I get to choose next month and I've selected THE LIAR'S CLUB by Mary Karr. Never did read that one, but I adored LIT.

  2. April - are you SURE you're not a writer? Your stories had me laughing out loud. I love that your star pupile set off the alarm on his way out.

    Roberta, you'll love Liar's Club. And it's about sisters.

  3. What a fun essay. I will send a link to this to my son who did some computer teaching at the Dallas Public Library a number of years ago. He had some similar war stories, and one of them was about his mother. LOL

  4. HI Maryann,
    I bet every librarian and all teachers could tell great stories about their patrons/students!!

    I hope your son enjoys this!


  5. Thanks for all your kind comments and funny anecdotes. Blogging wasn't actually as painful as I thought it would be; I should have known Jan wouldn't steer me wrong. I asked a couple of my daughters to read it first and Lizzie, my 26-yr-old who teaches special ed, made me strike a comment about John that was definitely not politically correct. She was right. As for a book recommendation, my friend Carol who introduced me to The Help, which I loved, said this was also terrific: Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. "A rich vision of the pain, loveliness, mystery and promise of NYC in the 1970s. A radical young Irish monk struggles with his own demons as he lives among the prostitutes in the middle of the burning Bronx." Sounds like a must-read to me. Carol hasn't let me down yet, so I'm going to take her word for it.

  6. Hi April and readers, I was laughing right along with you when I realized how fortunate you are that you have seniors willing to learn.

    Here in Southwest Florida we are on a push to get folks to be more self-directed. Many of our clients are very well off and having to do something for themselves is just not in their vocabulary. When we offer to show them how to search for a book or place a hold we often get "that's what you're paid to do." Hmmmmm I suppose, but....