2010/10/15

The Professor Returns

I spent the afternoon in the fiction stacks, moving excess copies of bestsellers to a storage area on top of the periodicals shelves to free up precious shelf space..  I was working with the notorious "K's" today, a problem area:  Kellerman, King, Koontz, Krentz.

Rounding a corner with a cart of books, I saw him, sitting at a small table by a window near the typewriters, his old-fashioned leather briefcase on the carpet by his chair.  He had several books on the table, and he was reading one of them with great attention.  Was it really him?  He wasn't wearing glasses.  Passing again, I saw that his glasses were on the table.  Yes, it was him!  My heart was glad.  It really made my day.

The Professor appeared a couple of years ago, and came to my notice by requesting regularly,  through interlibrary loan, scholarly books about the Jewish Holocaust, using a library card belonging to a woman, (a sister, perhaps, or other family relation).  He mentioned to me his use of the library at UC Berkeley, and I gathered that he was newly arrived here, and a guest in someone's home.

He looked to be in his fifties or sixties, graying, with glasses, typically wearing slacks and a buttoned short-sleeved shirt.  I would often see him in non-fiction, really using our collection in a way that gave me satisfaction: selecting several books and sitting at a table for an afternoon to read.

One day last spring I happened to be looking for a book on the unshelved carts in fiction, when I saw some thoughtless after-school boys sit down to talk at a large table he was using, as though he wasn't even there.  He picked up his things and left.  He evidently complained, because I saw a supervisor trying to mollify him, but he didn't come back.  I felt guilty for not having reacted, defending his right to use the table and scolding the boys.

I had a bad feeling about it.  The Professor was to me like the canary in the coal mine.  His absence was a judgment on the library.  I brought the incident up in a meeting, and our director winced when she heard it.

The trend in libraries, out of a desire to build attendance, has been to market the library as a community center, where activities like tutoring, group meetings, and after-school hanging out are welcomed.  But what about people who expect to find a peaceful sanctuary in which to read and study?  We must not let them turn away and give up on us.  Where do you draw the line?

We've been making an effort to restore that "sanctuary" atmosphere, and seeing the Professor today was a good sign, like seeing a rare bird reappear in a habitat from which you'd thought it had vanished forever.

2 comments:

Martin H. said...

Sounds as though your Prof had been the victim of what often goes under the banner of 'broader inclusion'.

I'm all for change, if it means change for the better. There are changes going on in my former place of work, and I'm not convinced. See here

Brett said...

Interesting link, Martin. We experimented with a drink and snack stand and loosened our food policy, with the idea of competing with the bookstores and their wifi-enhanced coffee shops. But our vendor couldn't make it pay.

So we've been there. Now the pendulum is swinging in the other direction. Eating your Popeye's chicken dinner in the library does not anymore count as "using" the library. The truth is, we don't need to enlist picnickers to boost our numbers anymore.