Books are Often Made of Paper

There are certain types of questions all librarians are familiar with. Where do I find the bathroom. Where can I find this book? Can you help me with the computers? These are normal, run of the mill, yes we’re happy to help questions. Something else that librarians are generally familiar with are questions that start something like this:

“So, I know this is a stupid question, but . . .”

“This is probably the weirdest question, but . . .”

“You’re gonna laugh when I ask you this question, but . . .”

I hear these opening sentences at least once a day. I tend to smile and assure patrons have definitely heard worse. And usually I have. Or that there are no stupid questions–because really, there aren’t. We have to learn somehow. So, normally I’m not too thrown off by questions that start out this way . . . except for the day that someone asked me if it was okay to “light up” in the library. That one surprised me.

I was sitting at my desk, reading a book and avoiding my homework (graduate student life) when I noticed a patron heading over. He wasn’t anything particularly stand-out-ish as far as patrons go. T shirt, jeans, a vaguely harassed expression, too many papers falling out of his bag. Normal. And he started with a similar line to those above.

“Hey, so, I have a kinda weird question.”

Normal, like I said. It was the next part that confused me. He proceeded to ask, and I quote,

“Is it chill if I light up in here?”

It was good that I had already finished my coffee, because had I been drinking it, I might have choked. My first reaction was to  blink in astonishment, after which I asked if he was asking whether or not he could smoke in a library. Just for clarification–always clarify if you aren’t sure about the question. And honestly, I was really thinking that I had misheard or was, as usual, late to learn about some hip new term the college kids are using these days. Much to my dismay, yes, ma’am, that was his question. He wanted to know if he could smoke in a public library. With giant no smoking signs posted conveniently in lots of places.

I blinked again, and through librarian-ly powers of customer service, said apologetically that smoking was not permitted in the library. He thanked me and went on about his day. I then proceeded to collapse behind the desk in a pile of pink-lipsticked, over caffeinated shock. My thoughts were something like this:

  1. Libraries are buildings full of books.
  2. A lot of books and other awesome stuff in libraries are made of paper.
  3. Paper (and many other materials you can find in libraries) is, at least the last time I checked, flammable.
  4. Smoking requires fire to light whatever one is smoking.
  5. If a fire started in a library that might make me late for lunch. This is a problem.
  6. So how on earth does smoking in a library even vaguely make sense? My leftover birthday cake lunch is waiting, and I don’t have time for fires.

This is what I asked myself, as I went about turning back into a mostly normal looking human from the pile of librarian shock. I think I managed, since no patrons or coworkers ran screaming. Granted, one did collapse into laughter upon hearing this particular story. Maybe you will too. Laugh, I mean, not collapse. Don’t collapse. You might be late for lunch.

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The Adventures of Ghost Girl and the Haunted Restroom

Sometimes I work the late shift in the library. I’m here till midnight or so. A lot of people don’t like working so late, but I don’t mind. I settle in with my coffee and my homework, and my other homework, and the homework that was probably due last week. The night shift generally isn’t too busy, so I have time to get a lot of the work I’ve been procrastinating about finished. Or to just procrastinate further. Both are valid options. Some nights, though, are busier than others. I prefer busy, most of the time, but sometimes it’s nice to have the hours mostly to myself without actual human interaction. I’m an extrovert by nature, but even extroverts don’t always want to talk to people. Sometimes just being around those people and feeling their energy is enough. It was one of those nights when the patron I lovingly refer to as Ghost Girl in my head showed up.

It was around 11:15 pm, which meant two things. One, that I got to go home soon and, Two, that I had gotten very invested in the book I was reading instead of doing my research. It had been a quiet night and the hum of patrons had lulled me into a sort of ambivert heaven with my book. I was reading Outlander but, ever in librarian mode, I was also scanning the area in front of my desk every so often to make sure no stray patrons needed my help. That was when I noticed her.

She had curly red hair, bright pink, plastic glasses, and a lime green, pleated mini skirt. She was fantastically impossible to miss. Her backpack was Hello Kitty with some kind of fluffy, vaguely popsicle shaped, rainbow charm hanging from a zipper. It had a smiley face and I approved of the entire aesthetic. I tend to approve of people who are so wholly and unapologetically themselves.  She walked back and forth in front of my desk several times in a span of 10 minutes or so, which is why I have the details of her outfit down to an art. I could practically smell the social anxiety oozing from her because I can be the same way. Finally, though, she stopped and came to hover in front of my desk. She needed directions to the restroom. I complied, complimented her glasses, and went back to my book. Problem solved. You rock that mini skirt, girl. 

A few minutes later, probably 15 or 20, Ghost girl came back. But I wasn’t calling her Ghost Girl yet. She headed straight for my desk this time, and I asked what I could help with. She just looked at me and walked off again. Okay, sure, I went back to my book. Definitely not the strangest encounter I’ve had in a library. But then she came back again and hovered expectantly in front of my desk. Turns out, she did need some help because she’d had a very unsettling experience in our restroom. I wasn’t too excited about where this conversation was going because, to be frank, patrons tell librarians a lot of things that we just don’t need to know. This time, it turns out she was concerned because she was pretty sure our bathroom was haunted.

And she wasn’t joking. This girl with the amazing fashion sense was serious, and she was scared. She kept glancing back in the direction of said restroom while she explained to me that she’d been sure the light was going to explode. It was flickering, apparently, and making a buzzing noise. Probably just that the light bulb was going out, which I suggested. But she wasn’t having any of it. There was a ghost, and we needed to do something about it. And also, could I tell her where another restroom was? She’d gotten too scared to actually use that one. 

Now, I am not a skeptic. I’m very sure the paranormal exists and that unexplained things happen all the time. But I can almost promise you, there is nothing even vaguely interesting about that bathroom. It’s even an awful, dull yellow color. And maybe a little creepy. But that’s really it. What ghost would want to hang out there when we have so many other cool spots? Like in the archives. Or the weird room in the basement that’s hidden by two doors and a snack machine. (Don’t ask.) Of course, I could be wrong. And that’s okay. I think its kind of cool that we might have a haunted restroom.

More power to any ghost brave enough to live there. Let’s be friends!

Happily Ever After . . . Next Week

Sitting at my desk watching library patrons wander in and out, or sometimes just run through the common area on various clearly important missions, never gets old. I get to see so much of their lives, and so little, from my view at my desk. Slices of lives, that I wonder about, play with, use to amuse myself for the rest of the day. Like the girl who just turned down her boyfriend’s proposal. Why he did it in the library, I will never know. Maybe they met here. Maybe he was her tutor, or she was his, and they met here and somehow conversations about biochemistry or physics or Flannery O’Connor’s short stories blossomed into grabbing Starbucks afterward, or maybe going to that little, offbeat bookstore down the street. The one with the cats.Sanitary? Probably not. But petting cats makes everything better.  And maybe they fell in love. Or something like love. But it looks like he fell just a little bit more.

Whatever their story, it led to today, when he proposed to her right in front of my desk–got down on one knee, pulled out that ring–and she said no.

Not quite the happy ending that I would have hoped for–especially when she told him that if he’d waited until next week, on her birthday, she might have said yes. You can’t make this stuff up, you really cannot. I promise, this happened. I saw it. And tried not to choke on my coffee and tried not to call her out for being the bitch that she was. Because anyone who tells their proposing boyfriend that he should have waited a week is a bitch in my book.  And I’m not sorry. But I’m a professional, and it isn’t my job to get involved–unless maybe one of them wants a self-help book. Then I can help. But, unfortunately, they didn’t. He apologized, if you can believe it–apologized. God, I wanted to smack him and hug him at the same time, but I didn’t have either of those options. She left. He left. And now I can’t help but wonder what happened to them. I will probably never know. But that’s what it’s like to be the person behind the desk at the library.