August 2015

Overdue at the library

By David Feela

I packed the boxes tight, didn’t want anything getting crushed. The donations weren’t going to a soup kitchen, though their shelf life would be ten times that of any standard food stocks. These were staples to nourish the mind, books I’d gathered over the years and had finally decided to pass along. I hoped a few of them might be suitable for my local library’s collection. They were all in good condition, clean and intellectually consumable.

It should come as no surprise that public libraries are forced to sell many donated books just to pay for the services they provide. They are not often the financial beneficiaries of huge endowments or government bailouts. The books that patrons donate are sorted by personnel and those that can’t be used on the shelves are offered to the public in the library’s revolving book sale – carts of donated material either sold annually or year-round, by the pound, the best used book bargains in town.

Half a lifetime ago I worked at a public library. I’d landed the job after graduating from college with an English major, but literature was not my saving grace; rather, I could type. Not fast, but accurately. I remember being nervous at the skills trial after my initial interview. I’d never even enrolled in a typing class. I couldn’t type without watching my fingers on the keyboard. All my competitors finished well before my final keystroke, but the committee hired me anyway. A stroke of luck.

The library, a Carnegie, existed for a half century in a beautiful brown brick building with a circular staircase that took me to my desk in the upper level, overlooking the city. I loved that old place, the woodwork and history secured between those wise walls. For years I dutifully typed my card catalog index cards, book pockets, and spine labels, thinking I could happily grow elderly and musty in this job.

Then our systems were updated: a bond issue passed to build a larger and more modern library. My wooden desk was replaced with a padded cubicle in the new building’s basement, officially referred to as “the lower level.” The Carnegie was demolished. I lasted two more years before completing a teaching certification, then traded the comfort of books for the screech of chalk on a chalkboard.

Personally I have no regrets, but still love the dignity of such a revered institution, the public library, until a librarian recently explained the disheveled character of a once-grand establishment. Our libraries, she said, have turned into bus stations.

At first I hoped she was employing a clever metaphor about the power that books hold to transport their readers to distant places. But no, she felt she’d been presiding over the mayhem as our libraries disintegrate into hangouts for vagrants, shelters for hangover recovery. Vomit in the restrooms. Vandalism in shadowy corners. The refusal to obey rules and outright theft. Belligerence at the checkout desk. The hush I always appreciated falling like a velvet curtain as each person passed through the front doors is being replaced by a hubbub of self-indulgence.

Here’s an illustrated example: a woman sitting quietly near our library’s window that faces out upon the park is reading a magazine. She thinks she hears the pitter-patter of raindrops. She glances up but the sun is shining, so she looks to where the sound seems to be coming from and sees a man peeing on the metal shelving. The desk librarian ends up chasing him outside, all this going on while he grabs himself and tries to zip up, shouting, “It wasn’t me.” But of course it was.

Larger libraries across the country, including several in Denver, have a developing strategy to deal with their behaviorally challenged patrons by introducing social workers into their staffing – personnel with the training to deal with the kind of people who show up when the doors open and go away only at the time they close. Some of these souls need the services a county can provide – counseling for drugs and alcohol, housing, food, medication and psychiatric care – not reference assistance.

Perhaps the time has come to recognize that our libraries have a complicated mission, one that has changed over time. To expect personnel trained in research and book cataloging as well as information dissemination to confront these problems is not only unfair but dangerous to everyone.

These things called books, two boxes of them in my backseat, are tokens of a radical idea, that knowledge and the imagination do not belong to the privileged few. But that bus is leaving the station. Perhaps it’s time we get onboard, not just stand in the parking lot and wave goodbye.

David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist, and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See his works at www.feelasophy.weebly.com.