April 22, 2006

A slightly belated work story.

Once in a while my supervisors at the library let me get up from the computer and shelve some books. It's the paper-writing time of the semester right now, so anyone caught looking familiar with the workings of the stacks can expect to get stopped about once an hour and asked for help finding a book. Maybe surprisingly given my general surliness, I kind of like that; there's the whole warm-fuzzy-helping-people thing, but also I love to know things and explain them. There's a separate post probably forthcoming about how that's responsible for my becoming less phobic about public speaking.

A couple of weeks ago I was peacefully shelving books when a boy came up to me and asked me apologetically if I could help him for a second. I said of course I could, and he showed me a call number that he'd written down and couldn't find. It was a few yards away from where we were standing, so I walked him over to the right shelf. People react differently at this point in the process; some glance at the range-finder cards on the shelves and can figure out where to go from there, so they say thanks and start moving the rolling shelves to the right spot. This boy still looked lost, so I rolled the other shelves out of the way, found the book he was looking for, and handed it to him. He looked simultaneously grateful and amazed. "You must find your books for your classes so easily," he said wistfully. I didn't want to sound like a dick by saying it was easy when he'd obviously been having some trouble, so I just told him that it helps to work in the library because they teach you the call number system really thoroughly. He nodded and wandered off in search of other books.

Ten minutes later he came back, looking even more apologetic than before, to ask if I could help him with one more thing. I got the feeling he'd come back to ask me instead of someone else because I hadn't bitten his head off the first time around. The book he was looking for this time was on another floor, so I gave him directions. He looked around apprehensively. I figured that I wasn't getting much shelving done anyway, so I parked my truck of books and led him up the stairs to show him where the shelf was. On the way, in a flurry of thanks and more apologizing, he told me how glad he was that he'd be graduating in a month. I was startled; he seemed so unfamiliar with the library that I had assumed he was a freshman or sophomore. "I'll just be happy to be out of school," he said, "It's so stressful, you know?" I didn't really know what to say to that, being mostly glad to be in school myself.

I found myself mulling this over later. This boy was a senior, and totally terrified and lost in the main campus library. Now, mind you, UC Berkeley libraries are not necessarily paragons of user-friendliness. In the anthropology library you have to circle around behind the circulation desk to get to the stairs that take you to the archaeology books. In the East Asian studies library there are bookshelves in a closet in the building attic. But the Main Stacks is a different bird. It's large, yes, but each floor has posted maps showing which call numbers are on which side of which floor. Every range of shelves has a big card announcing the call letters of the books in that range, and each shelf has a smaller card with the entire call numbers of the starting and ending books. I've never had much trouble using it myself. I've found it disappointingly comprehensible, actually, since my fetishized ideal library is like something out of The Name of the Rose (is this a reason to become a librarian, or a reason not to?). This boy, to get back to the boy for a second, was writing a paper on George Orwell. Do the English or Comp Lit departments at Berkeley even have subject libraries? I'm not sure, and if they did, the size of the literature collections in Main would probably make them redundant. It's probably safe to assume that the Main Stacks have been a major research destination for this boy for four years, and for what's probably his last paper at Berkeley he's totally unable to find what he's looking for in the library without help.

This is not a post about "omg he's so dumb". You don't get into nor graduate from Berkeley without being reasonably intelligent. But there's evidently some sort of talent or skill that's required for navigating libraries, which it's possible for a reasonably intelligent person to lack. Can you just imagine, you various students, ex-students and, um, other studenty things, how much harder your life would be if the library were arranged according to some convoluted, cryptic scheme which you simply couldn't understand? It's mind-boggling. I'd be glad to finish school too; in fact, if I couldn't figure out how the library worked, I don't think I would finish school. I hope the poor bastard finds a job that doesn't involve a lot of research.

Posted by dianna at April 22, 2006 04:13 PM

Is it possible he's dyslexic? That might explain the continued befuddlement when you showed him the alcove the book was in.

Posted by: Zach S. at April 22, 2006 05:41 PM

I wonder. He seemed equally lost by a) the alcove containing his book, b) the map of the floor, and c) the prospect of going upstairs to level C and to the end of the building. Then again, in the second case it turned out he had actually found where his book should have been, but got confused when it turned out to be not on the shelf. Perhaps it was a confidence issue: my book is not here, therefore I must be misunderstanding this shelving system.

Posted by: Dianna at April 22, 2006 06:13 PM

You know, I'm a reasonably intelligent person, but I can't follow road directions to save my life. And I can be in an area that I'm relatively familiar with, but if I'm used to coming in from the north and I'm coming in from the south, or even worse east or west, I have no idea where I am or how to navigate the area. If I turn around so that I'm going the direction I'm used to, though, then I'm fine.
I've also noticed at work that I can't take a blank display and set it up in an organized fashion. My boss has called this ability that I'm lacking "blank slate creativity." I can add to a display that is more or less set up; I can build upon someone else's scheme, but for the life of me, I cannot start from scratch.
Just strange ways people's brains work. I do feel for that guy, though. I don't understand why he couldn't navigate a library system, but I do understand the feeling of there being something in front of you that you know SHOULD make sense to you, but absolutely does not. It really sucks.

Posted by: Susan at April 23, 2006 12:37 AM

At first glance, things are a bit overwhelming, but, ultimately, things are shelved pretty much the same way they're shelved in any other library one will encounter.

I'm thinking that it's somewhat possible that he's just the sort of person who doesn't like to push his comfort boundaries. That...he figured out ways around his incomprehension of library shelving and that these workarounds were always more palatable than actually figuring things out.

I can sort of understand the viewpoint as, a few weeks ago, I decided not to go walk around the gym when I realized that I didn't really know how use my card to get in and didn't feel like standing around like a doofus in the middle of prime time.

Posted by: Chester at November 7, 2006 08:36 PM