The first job I ever held was assigned by the Luther College work study department. All freshman are placed either in food or custodial services. I opened the letter with anticipation. I had been assigned to Custodial Services. This was supposedly a better assignment, as the hours were more flexible. The only problem was that I had never cleaned anything.
Sure, I had tidied up my room from time to time. But I had never been responsible for using spray bottles and mops. This was foreign territory.
I was assigned to clean the Biology wing from 6-8 AM on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. This was a distinctly unpleasant task, as the halls were lined with taxidermied animals who stared at me and twitched at my custodial incompetence. I lasted two weeks before quitting.
Luckily, I had already put an application in at the library. I had been in the accelerated math track in high school, which afforded me the opportunity to take AP Calculus my senior year. I decided against it, but needed to fill the void it left in my schedule. I decided to do an internship in the school library instead.
The internship mainly consisted of drinking coffee with inordinate amounts of sugar and cream dumped in it, shelving books, checking books out to students, and tattle tape.
Tattle tape is the magnetic strip you hide in books that sets off the security device by the door if the item is not properly checked out and de magnetized. The strips are about an eighth of an inch in length and have green, floss-like strips on both sides. I would peel off one side, carefully bury it the book, then remove the other strip and carefully secure the length of the strip with my index finger on either side, through the neighboring pages.
I loved putting tattle tape inside books because it was a distinctly unacademic task. It had a distinct beginning, middle and end. It was not open to interpretation.
My two semesters at the high school library provided me with the bare bones of experience necessary to apply at the college library. They didn’t usually hire freshman, but by the end of October, I found myself interviewing for the Interlibrary Loan Department.
I always interviewed well, and this time was no exception. I was polite, intelligent and cheerful. The next week, I was working in the ILL department.
Interlibrary Loan is just what it sounds like: sometimes patrons want titles unavailable from their local library. So they put in a request, and within a week, the title is shipped to them from a partner library.
My position involved checking a couple of databases, pulling the titles from our library and packing them in bubble wrap and boxes to be shipped out. Also, notifying patrons at the college when their requests came in.
And now, I was going to be in charge of the department I started working in my freshman year.
Do we ever get over first-day jitters?
The night before, I auditioned outfits, finally setting on a grey pencil skirt and turquoise cardigan and camisole ensemble with black flats.
In the morning, I regarded my hair with great judgement. It look like a lengthy auburn traitor. If I left my hair down, I would look too much like a student. If I put it up, I would look like I was trying too hard to play the part of a librarian. Which is exactly what I am, now.
I compromised on pulling my hair half back. I applied natural-looking makeup and a nude lip gloss.
Coffee, shit! That’s what I had forgotten at the Co-op the night before. I booked it out the door and ran across Water street and up a few blocks to Magpie Coffeehouse.
A girl with a bright purple pixie cut slouches behind the counter.
I clear my throat.
“Excuse me, could I get a triple tall americano with room for cream, to go, please?”
She scowls at me.
“Paper cups kill the environment, you know.”
“Yes, yes, I know that, I just, it’s my first day of work, and I forgot to buy coffee for my coffeemaker last night and I don’t want to be late–I’ll order it for here next time, I promise.”
She slowly pounds the keys on the cash register.
“That’ll be 2.38.”
I give her four bucks and tell her to keep the change. The grinder growls, freshly pulled shots are added to hot water, a splash of cream, the application of the plastic lid that will end up in a landfill, and I am on my way.
I pull into the back lot at the library. 7:57. I gallop around the building, seconds from being late.
I catch my breath and hold my head up high as I enter the building.
The carpet of Preus Library is rust colored and probably from the seventies or eighties. The cool navy blue of the upholstered chairs is both calming and familiar. I navigate through computers, cords and co-eds to the office of the Library Director.
The director when I was a student was a round woman with white hair. She had kind eyes and would always ask me what books I was reading for pleasure.
The new director is tall and thin with a severe strawberry blonde bob that defies the basic principles of physics. Her name is Linda Birch. She looks to be about 50 and her presence makes me feel like a caged animal in a zoo.
“Ms. Watson, come in,” she beckons when she catches my eye.
“Good morning, sorry I’m a little late. I’ll need to get used to budgeting time from my apartment instead of from one of the dorms on campus” I say, trying to make a half-hearted joke.
Her lips turn up in a hard, almost imperceptible thin-lipped smile.
“Please, call my Dorothy,” I manage to squeak out as I clasp onto my coffee for dear life.
“Dorothy. As you know, you are the youngest member of the library staff, and decorum is of the utmost importance to me. Our students will look up to you as a role model. And while I encourage your interaction with them, I will ask you to refrain from giving too much insight into you social life while here as a student.”
I swallow one of the last gulps of my americano.
“Of course, Ms. Birch.”
“Please, call me Linda,” sounding as if she’d like to retract the request, “Well, I’ll be giving you the tour, although I know you’re familiar with our facilities.”
She stands up efficiently. She is a tall, bland stick of Norwegian hostility.
“If you’ll follow me.”
I scramble to grab my things and keep up pace with her.
“As you know, this is where the Interlibrary Loan work study students you’ll be supervising work. When you need more mailing supplies, you can email Cindy, the office manager. The supplies usually take a week or so to come in.”
I scribble furiously in a legal pad.
“Right this way.”
We leave the office area and travel to the bay of librarian’s offices, directly behind the reference desk.
“You’ll be expected to take weekend shifts at the reference desk three days a month,” she chirps as we glide past.
“And this is your office.” She points to a small office with a new sign that reads:
Research Librarian, Norwegian Artifacts
Interlibrary Loan Coordinator
This is so surreal. I want more time to take this in, to digest and metabolize this little sign. More than my diplomas, this signifies that I’m a gainfully employed adult. I have arrived. I have arrived?
But there’s no time. Linda continues the warp speed tour. We descend the stairs.
“First floor: Subject areas A-J in the Library of Congress system, computer lab, technical support. Any questions?”
“No, thank you.” No thank you?!?!
“Very good. Let’s go back up.”
We quickly ascend. This woman is a tornado of tightly spun neuroses. And I’m not faring much better. Why is this so nerve-wracking?
“Second floor: main entry, periodicals, circulation, another computer lab, offices of all library staff.”
Anticipating my lack of questions, this time she just shoots me a look. I nod, and we’re off to the third floor.
“And floor number three: subject areas K through Z, quiet study areas and the Norwegian artifact collection.” When we reach this room, she produces a key from her pocket and unlocks the door.
“Appointments for viewing items in this room must be made at least two weeks in advance and must be supervised by the librarian in charge of Norwegian artifacts.”
“So…me. Supervised by me,” I pipe up.
“Yes. Mr. Hansen, your predecessor, became lax in supervising visits to this room. Consequently, a few items were…desecrated.”
“Oh? I didn’t know that.”
“Ms. Watson–Dorothy. It’s of utmost importance to me that this position be executed flawlessly. We have an incredible collection of valuable Norwegian artifacts and documents here. One of the reasons I hired you was that all your references described you as trustworthy and diligent. The value of this collection has been brought into question by the administration. They are considering selling it to various museums and cutting their losses, especially when it comes to the insurance. But I see in you a bit of a kindred spirit. I think you can take good care of this collection and restore their faith in its value. Can you do that?”
Looking at me with desperation and hope in her eyes, I can see a small chink in her armor. There is nothing I can say but
“Yes, Linda. Of course. I will take great pride in doing so.”
I say this confidently, surprising even myself.
“Good. I would expect nothing less.” She is relieved.
“Now, Dorothy, let’s go back downstairs and take you through the HR handbook and get you set up with direct deposit.” She almost smiles, but holds herself back.
I nod, and she locks up the room.
Before I turn to go, I look in the darkened room. I imagine vikings opening old books, their rough hands against the yellow pages, trying to find an answer, a respite for pillaging.