ASSOCIATES (vol. 10, no. 2, November 2003) - associates.ucr.edu
It was a grand morning, filled with singing mockingbirds, blue rich skies and only a hint of gauzy clouds, light and fluffy on the far horizon toward the sea. My first day on the job in a large academic library was filled with the excitement only an eighteen year old can feel at being free from high school and starting a new path in college. But that would be later in the summer. Now, I was here in the Catalog department among some thirty people trying out something new. I was focused very tightly and ready for anything. It was 1963 and times were pretty quiet in the world. I had just completed a week as counselor at a Girl Scout Day Camp and enriched with the songs of hope and freedom we sang on the buses going back and forth to the day’s classes.
I was met by the department head, Ms. Hicks. She was older than my mother and knew Memie from church activities and library interactions. She talked to me about how important my work was to the department. She was nice, but so stern and forthright and just a little scary. I was assigned to Ms. Billy, a science cataloger, and Sarina, a support staffer who was the office manager and all ‘round fixer of problems. She was an ace typist and quick to show you the tasks necessary to do the jobs. Her feeling was ‘do your job and be quiet’ and you could last. I was the new kid on the block and sure to be watched for some time, as I tried to find my way in a new world.
Ms. Billy began showing me catalog cards and pointing out the essentials of the entries. At least that was familiar information, as my grandmother had already instructed me on the essentials. Slowly, she explained how I would be filing shelf list cards by the numbers and main catalog cards by the entries shown at the top of each card, some in red, others in black. So far, so good, as we progressed in the task. She gave me a box of cards and had me file them above the rod and then she proofed them. I did well and she was building a picture of my capabilities and stamina. Sarina came by and took me off to the stacks to show me what I was to do as a project. Bringing equipment, I was to renumber the inked on call numbers that were becoming faded. Didn’t sound too hard, but then they took me to processing, where I was shown a writing chart to match in style and shape for those numbers. I practiced on new books to be placed in the stacks and was then given approval to do the books in the stacks. I had learned that not only was I to use different colored inks (white, black, or gold), but the white lettering required a lacquer spray to be applied to those characters, so that they wouldn’t chip off later. I prepared a flat shelved truck with all the equipment and got ready to go to the stacks. Ms. Billy, making quiet conversation with me during this process, told me that she had just finished reading a book called "Murder in the Stacks." Her ramblings evaluated the plot and graphically represented the murder scene, while assuring me of the authenticity of the descriptions and the similarity to some current events in other libraries. I’m sure my eyes got as big as saucers and my mouth dropped open… just a little. Whoa, I was ready to jump ship, but I wanted to act cool, so just nodded my head and said I would try to be careful in my work.
The stacks were low ceilinged and only wide enough to let people walk down each aisle. If you were careful, you could push a cart down them, but you sure couldn’t turn it at an angle to allow access to the shelves. Each section required a bank of lights to be turned on, and the library always requested that you turn lights off as you left a section. I scanned the shelves for call number repairs and began pulling those books, doing the repairs, spraying the "whites", drying the work, then retuning them to the shelves. Hours passed before I began hearing noises, seeing other lights go on and off, hearing the shuffling of books and shoes against the concrete, and seeing movements out of the corner of my eye or at the shelves near the floor, because the shelving units went through all the levels for six flights. The floors, being suspended in some way, were beginning to give me bad vibes as they trembled and shook and sometimes felt like they were swaying. I wasn’t sure whether I was actually seeing hazy things moving in the aisles or the lacquers were clouding my vision and the fumes distorting my brain waves. Each minute brought another shiver along my spine and more uneasy feelings. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I packed up all the gear and drove my truck back to the department, where there were folks with grins on their faces. I smiled back and asked where the break room was. It was a timely event and caused them to pause and wonder whether I was scared or just back to do the next scheduled thing. Of course, I wasn’t sure that I had the last laugh, but it gave them pause to think about it. An initiation of major proportions, but I made it. I was honored, as it was a sign of acceptance. I never felt lost again in the library work world.
Each day brought new tasks, new projects and more knowledge in a new occupation. They seemed intent upon pulling me into the profession, even though I was majoring in something else far afield. Miss Mabel showed me all about rare books and I was excited to see a first edition Shakespeare among other old masterpieces. She gave me some knowledge of the rare book vocabulary and I found myself able to join in conversations about books in general. I was getting the excitement and passion for cataloging. My main tasks were in processing, where help was needed in labeling, marking and pamphlet binding. Judy and I were intently working on the latest trucks of books when the door behind us swung open and crashed against the wall. We practically jumped out of our chairs and were just on the verge of admonishing the perpetrator, when she started crying and screaming that the President had been shot in Texas. She was most certain that he couldn’t live and we were experiencing a terrible historical turn in our young political knowledge. I thought of the "Institutions" course that I was currently taking and knew that our class discussions would be changed to meet the current crisis. Many things swam through my mind that afternoon. We labored to keep our heads and proceed with work, as there would be no reaction from the library administration or interruption of duties. "Life must go on," was the motto, and so the routines were kept in place and we signed our cards as we left for the day, eager to find out all the facts at home. I could never understand if we were being sheltered, isolated, imprisoned or ignored in our needs. It was like an Edgar Allen Poe story with most uncertain endings, but I was to learn later of the imminent problems of management in crises and would be educated in the "good ‘ole boy system" for the rest of my library career. Each day brought new adventures in the confines of the library. Events and times changed, but as I remember, people kept their characters forever and ever…