This Library Girl’s Mental Marbles Are Definitely Missing

Retirement is a good thing. No….scratch that….Retirement is a great thing. Getting to sleep late, enjoying unhurried morning coffee, walking away from the stressors that legalized slavery (work) brings to life. are all good. However, not having a direction during this well-deserved play time can be kind of boring if one does not have hobbies or a large social circle. Not many hobbies, short on the social circle – I have a dog– So for me, staying active meaningfully is on the imperative list. Fortunately I have skills that are in demand – I’m a retired teacher, school librarian, have an associate degree in accounting, and can program a computer in COBOL – that do not necessarily require a long term commitment. So I volunteer in schools and occasionally substitute teach.

I like substituting. Usually the lesson plans are well laid out. The day is short. There is no commitment – not really – and the money isn’t bad….Nice pocket change. I only substitute in Catholic Schools because the paperwork and drama involved in substituting in a public school are just not worth the effort. And I prefer working with schools in blue collar neighborhoods because the families and children do not feel the sense of entitlement that is often found in well-heeled neighborhoods. Coming from a blue collar environment, I can totally relate to the culture.

One fine day, I accepted a substituting position at a Catholic School in a Latino community. While eating lunch in the faculty lounge, the usual conversation took place. Basically a friendly background check…During the course of the conversation, it became apparent that the school had lost their volunteer librarian a few years ago, and they were desperate to find someone to fill the gap.

Here’s the deal about libraries and librarians…most people don’t have a clue about the profession and are dealing with negative stereotypes that involve “bun-ladies” walking around shushing people. Many people see libraries as dinosaurs from past ages because print is dead. First of all print is not dead. Print is very much alive. Reading print is deep reading because it involves tactility. Tactility provides a direct pathway to the brain that digital does not provide. Besides there are so many e-books at a library – who needs Amazon if you have a library card? Really.

Finally librarianship is hard work. It takes a Masters degree. And it’s not just about circulation. It requires organization skills, selection, marketing, fund raising. communication skills, advocacy and passion. Librarians are the first to stand up and defend First Amendment rights. No passion, no library. Consequently, I wasn’t really thrilled with the idea of being the volunteer librarian because I knew if I got involved, I would want to completely fix whatever needed fixing. However, I also wanted more substituting gigs, and volunteering to run circulation one day a week would be one way to get my big toe in the door…..Hmmm…Lots to think about.

After some serious consideration, circulation one day a week….how bad could that be? As long as the teachers didn’t just dump their kids off and run, I can stamp books with the best of them. So, I emailed the principal and indicated that I would be willing to run circulation once a week – mind you — this is without stepping one big toe in the library– and he jumped on the opportunity. (Librarians are in high demand as long as we’re free, and just stamp books. When we start planning programs, suggesting research protocols, and actually instructing faculty and students, we get into trouble…Nobody wants to pay for that . Busy-body librarians!)

I met with the principal, and he took me down to the basement. This should have been my first clue to bolt and run. Libraries with book collections should not be in basements where mold grows. He opened the door, and asked me if I thought it needed life support. Stacked from floor to ceiling were old smelly books. There were books on shelves. Books on the floor. Books in boxes on tables. Books on window sills. The EPA needed to look into the air quality. And I thought privately that a bonfire in the parking lot would be more appropriate than life support…Put these poor books out of their misery now. This was not a library. This was a moldy disaster.

Just out of curiosity, I pulled a book off the shelf and opened it to the title page. It was a college textbook about philosophy that was published in 1944. In a children’s library? Really? Obviously, this was a fine example of a parish trying to start a library and accepting donations from anywhere. Without a clue. Without a mission statement or direction. At that point running away in the opposite direction was still an option. Yet, at the same time, the part of me that dives into impossible challenges itched to fix this mess. This library needed me, and I needed it. So, I told the principal exactly what I was thinking about identifying what would be appropriate reading material for elementary students and throwing out the rest…starting with the philosophy text book…then examining the cataloging situation. I later found out that there were over 13,000 poorly cataloged books in the room. He was completely in agreement, so I delved in. Watch out…here comes organization woman.

Step one:

Team Teacher and the Weeding Process (Oh no! you can’t really mean we are going to discard this book!)

Get the teachers involved. The more faculty involved in the process, the more likely they will understand the monumental task involved and become true stake-holders. They showed up, and I pointed them in the direction of the collection that they most suited their expertise. Social studies teachers – history, geography and culture. Science teachers – pure science and applied science (inventions to the rest of the world.) Math teachers – math. Primary teachers – picture books. Pretty simple.

Like a healthy garden, libraries require aggressive weeding in order to remain healthy. This library was weedy field – definitely not garden-like.. After the teachers got the hang of it, and got over their squeamishness of getting rid of books much weeding took place. Discover books – a company that takes books away for free, sells them, donates them or recycles them responsibly – showed up with a truck, and took the first truckload away. (Yes, first truckload…There would be two more, and I’m working on the fourth.)

Step Two:

Organize the mess.

Yes, I use the Dewey Decimal System. Why? It’s actually not that hard to understand. Many small libraries use it, and some long-suffering librarian somewhere along the line cataloged most of the 13,000 plus books using Dewey. Notice…I didn’t say anything about modern cataloging…that’s another story. But at least there was a starting point. So, using the existing spine labels, an intrepid hard-working mom volunteer and I started shelving the books in sort of order.

Delving into the project, glitches surfaced.. First of all, many of the books were not classified properly.. For example, I found a collection of Grimms Fairy tales in fiction. Fairy Tales has a Dewey number and actually belong in what is incorrectly called non-fiction. (More on classification later.) Biographies were a mess. Science books were classified as great literature. Did I say it was a mess? Yes, I did come to think of it.

Despite much planning, we kept running out of shelf space because – you guessed it – more weeding. A small library does not need six copies of every Little House on the Prairie book written. Besides, kids don’t read Little House on the Prairie books much anymore.. So the two of us continued bravely into the shelving/organizing and weeding step. Tear-shedding and discussions occurred. Eventually, a system emerged, and Discover Books came for the second truckload – which included five volumes of Little House on the Prairie. Someone will read them..

Mom-volunteer and I ran across possibly valuable old books. For example, a 1911 copy of A Visit From St. Nicholas – that’s The Night Before Christmas for those of you who aren’t familiar with the classic’s authentic title. A designated book shelf for possibly valuable books served nicely for books that might be available for future sale. Who wants to let an elementary student get their hands on a 100 year old book and destroy it? We found an entire book case of Spanish Language books purchased with Title I moneys. (Title I books belong in classrooms – not school libraries. It’s actually a federal law.) So the Spanish teacher got a whole book case of new material. Anything else stamped Title I went straight to the Reading Resource Teacher. Old encyclopedia sets marched out the door. Scholastic Book Fair paperbacks were sorted into dollar store bins. And still no cataloging had taken place. My intrepid volunteer-mom was chomping at the bit to begin that process. Little did she know what was ahead.

Step Three:


By spring we were ready for cataloging. The hardest class in library science is cataloging. Cataloging requires meticulous, detail-oriented, rule-ridden, picky. effort. Standard grammar rules do not apply. I am not a master cataloguer, and rely on decent library management systems that provide importable standardized records. An online catalog that volunteers created by volunteers using freeware existed, but it was….well, it was crap. Search for Cinderella, get dinosaurs. No lie. So scrap the existing crap, and start fresh.

Cataloging requires actually opening the book and looking at it. Opening old books has build-in dangers. Health dangers. Mold dangers. That old-book smell everyone loves? Mold. Book mold often lands librarians into ICU with major respiratory issues. I managed a sinus infection because I wasn’t wearing my mask.

Eventually, the school subscribed to a reasonably priced library management system and cataloging began. I took over the non-fiction section. Non-fiction is a pain. Non-fiction requires content pages, summaries, accurate subject headings and consistent application of Dewey numbers (that’s classification.) Using the new library management system, searches using the Library of Congress and consortia of large state public libraries like OHIOLINK provided much of the cataloging records. Next on the list – assigning classification, barcodes and recording ownership information in book gutters and on sticky notes. Non-fiction cataloging is beyond a volunteer’s efforts. There’s entirely too much tinkering needed with raw records. While struggling with non-fiction, more weeding occurred, and soon a third truckload of books emerged.

Time to tackle fiction. Fiction is pretty easy. Classification requires an FIC prefix, and the first three letters of the Author’s last name as a suffix. Enter teacher power! We were off and running with fifteen minutes of instruction, the use of the technology lab and a pizza party. (Teachers will do anything for pizza.) In four hours Team Teacher located records for half the fiction collection. Teacher power rocks!

Step Four:

Let it go and take time off

I needed a break. Summer break began, and despite the fact that 75% of the project was completed, I really needed a break…I was at the breaking point. I was on the brink of blithering idiot. So I took one. Volunteers get to set their own schedules..hee…hee..hee.

Mid-summer I met with the pastor and the principal, took them through the library and explained point by point what was accomplished, and what needed to be accomplished before the library was ready for children. Exposed screws needed to be ground down. Shelf height to accommodate taller books needed adjustment. New spine labels, mylar coverings – that plastic stuff over the dust jackets Picture Books, the Christmas collection and the pesky paperbacks still needed cataloging. Decisions were made, I returned to summer break and I didn’t come back until September. By that time, blithering idiot status was put to rest.

Step Five:

Looking back and looking forward

Where are we now?

Cataloging Status

Fiction is done. Non Fiction is done. Christmas is done. Picture books are about. 30% done.

The catalog itself is fairly decent…Search for Cinderella, find Cinderella. Search for dinosaurs, find dinosaurs. Probably needs more finessing…..but that will have to be another day.

Shelf Ready Status

That’s a completely different conversation. Supplies are coming. Hopefully they will arrive soon, and I can begin to prepare the Christmas Collection for circulation during November so that the teachers and students can use them during December this year.

There’s still tons to do. Print and apply new spine labels. Use label protectors to protect – you guessed it – spine labels and bar code labels. Mylar covering over dust jackets. I know this can happen. It just takes time.

Losing my marbles and finding them again….or out of chaos comes order?

Sometimes I really do think I’ve completely lost my mind. Many of my librarian colleagues think so too. But when I consider where this little library was year ago, and what it looks like now, I am convinced that by the end of the year, we’ll have a working library, and my mental marbles will return.

Think about it. Librarians are the superheroes of organization. The keepers of the information. We might not have all the answers, but we know where to find the answers! And we love finding answers. (Kind of scary when you think about it.) We promote new authors, point researchers in the right direction, organize, connect, and preserve. We verify, research, discover, and share. Where would the world be without librarians? Information would be in total chaos. Oh= kind of like it is today….Do you have any idea how underfunded libraries are? Hmmm could be a correlation between underfunding and the proliferation of “fake news.”

When you begin to think libraries and librarians are archaic dinosaurs, ask yourself this…”When was the last time I actually stepped foot in a library?” Maybe you should. Lots of stuff going on there. Stuff that you might actually find exciting Face it, people….You need us, and we are not going away..

One last thought…Bat Girl is a librarian by day and super-hero by night. Librarians are today’s unappreciated superheroes. Basically, we rock! You have no idea how much.