Shelving books is actually the best part of my job. (No, you protest, being able to surf the web, write email, read and write journal entries is the best part of your job.) I can’t deny those are all Very Good Perks, but they’re not technically part of my job. So much of “what I do” at work is intangible, so it’s quite nice to have a task that can be completed. An empty book-truck is a friendly sight. All done, all put away, the books tucked neatly in their beds, waiting to be picked up again, someday, maybe not for years or maybe tomorrow.
I love the call numbers, too; a tiny language that librarians and library assistants around the world speak. WO is surgery. WY is nursing. WK is endocrinology. Letters, then numbers, repeated until the proper place is found, like WO 540 G53k 1998. Ever the linguist, I pride myself on my fluency, test myself when I can, and get frustrated when I forget where exactly the books on environmental health and sanitation are.
They are spellbooks, to me. The last time I tried to read one, I opened the cover and was immediately lost. Only mages who have acheived a certain level of wizardry can translate these tomes. Instead, I am content to be a small, unassuming creature of indeterminate origin, shelving the spellbooks for apprentices and masters alike.
Medicine is still magic, to me, lost somewhere in between a very basic grasp of human anatomy and a desire to understand that which science cannot explain. And so I spend these minutes alone, shelving and reshelving, mouthing the call numbers to myself, weaving in and out of rows, and smiling at familiar books.
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And then I have to go back downstairs. And deal with the patrons.
To their credit, most of them are not blatantly rude. But I am a drone, treated as a drone, sometimes as a scapegoat if I do not deliver immediately what exactly they need. Again, my thoughts wander back to magic; I am expected to suddenly produce whatever it is they want, turning aside a fold in my dark robes and with a flick of the wrist, setting a copy of Gastrointestinal Disorders on the counter between us.
But books get lost, no matter how many shelvers, no matter how many hours spent, or how much care taken. Books leave, disappear, are stolen, get worn and retire to the bindery or perhaps for good. I don’t want to think that any are ever thrown away, but maybe they are. Old library books have to go somewhere, don’t they?
Or maybe, after hours, they just wink out of existence in a flash and a thwock, off to another dimension, or to be reincarnated as a cloud of words in a younger world, waiting to be collected and written down again.
You try explaining that theory to a surly third-year med student who’s gotten about three hours of sleep in the past three days.
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The books themselves have less than fanciful titles: Manson’s Tropical Diseases ,Hemostasis and Thrombosis ,Atlas of Diseases of the Eye . I haven’t found What to do When Someone’s Bleeding All Over the Place and You’ve Only Got Three Paperclips and a Half-Pound of Thinly-Sliced Smoked Turkey , but when I do, MacGyver’s had a hold on that one for three years now.
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Mr. Personality is my favourite patron, by far. I am convinced he is an alien being. He displays no outward emotion outside from a small curling of his upper lip, Elvis-like, when he is tired and Needs Stuff Now. The best physical description I can come up with is Ben Cross in android form.
Mr. Personality got his name just around three years ago now, when I first encountered him as a student assistant. His tone of voice ó although pleasant, even soothing ó does not change levels; he has said the phrase “I need $5 on my copy card” maybe a hundred times to me, and I have never noticed any change in tone or enunciation. Our first meeting was dramatic: he handed me his copy card and asked for 50 copies. I put 50 copies on his card, and handed it back to him. He handed me a starched ten-dollar bill ó I swear, he must iron them ó and I gave him back his change. “Thanks,” he said, in the most thankless, empty tone of voice I’ve ever heard. And then he left.
“God, he’s just Mr. Personality, isn’t he,” I remarked to a coworker, who promptly laughed, said he was always like that, he’s always been like that. And so he was named.
Mr. Personality is my exact emotional opposite. Whereas I feel everything, and so acutely, Mr. Personality seems to feel nothing at all. He does not dawdle, or daydream; watching him make copies, one would think his muscles had computed the most precise movements that arms and upper body could make while efficiently and consistently expending energy. His money is always crisp, smells brightly of the bank, and payday, and sometimes I catch myself plucking out the less-withered bills from the register for his change.
Here exists a person I have almost daily, face-to-face contact with, whom I know nothing about, who knows nothing about me, and it fascinates me to no end that I have left not one impression on him in the past three years. Not a tendency to nod to me, give a curt wave, an extra “thanks,” nothing. I wonder if anyone has ever left an impression on him at all.
And here I am, all impressions, all indentations, like gull prints in wet sand.
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The soft schunk of the lobby door, or the tung of the metal entrance gate smacking against itself usually tug me back to the present. Glancing over at the circulation desk’s book-truck, I see there are books to be shelved. And I’m not one to pass up the chance of twenty minutes of tangible completion.