Of Theatre and Libraries

I have been watching the 1974 TV serial of I, Claudius and I think my new favourite theatrical scene is of Emperor Gaius (Caligula) dressed as a dancing girl and prancing around whilst he forces people to watch this bizarre performance in abject horror.

I Claudius

Oh. Oh. Wait.  He’s just made his horse a senator.

A senator.

Before now, everyone was kind of prepared to put up with him offing people arbitrarily (it appears to be a Roman pastime) but the horse is what breaks them and now they just want to kill him.

Although I suspect the myth is greater than the man, it is comforting to know that workplaces have been crazy since Roman times.  In fact, they have improved, as no-one was beheaded for their hammed-up acting in last week’s library help video.

In my previous post, it must have sounded as though I do not like my job.  Nothing is so far from the truth.  It is true that on occasion, I wish things to be a little more efficient, or functional, or professional.  Yet, I love the quirks of this place and the people I get to share them with.  I would be saddened if the library ever started making sense for too long.

I feel like the library profession is this well-kept secret; on the outside it appears as a dowdy old house, but inside it’s like being in a Shakespearean play or three-ring circus.  One of the current fads here is to cast staff as characters in epic movies or books.  I would like to think I could be King Claudius, having deposed the current king and now banging my head as his natural heir goes through a self-indulgent existential crises.

(Incidentally, this is who I actually get when I take an online quiz – I disagree, but there you have it.)


A privileged few, who have witnessed a few acts of this daily play, have described ours as “a rather disabled kind of place.”

“No!”  One of my colleagues protests indignantly.  “It is… ‘differently-abled’.”

To be fair, from our patrons’ point of view, our library is progressive and highly efficient, as well as being friendly and helpful.  And that is what counts above all else.

For another analogy, as I attempt to build up a picture, I could liken the library to a steampunk-style ship.  Fairly regular-looking until you enter the engine room, where there are bells and whistles, and squirrelly things and a music box, and some old guy riding a stationary bike that powers the hands of a large clock.

And if you’d just walked into a job on this ship, you’d be like, “Ok, I thought I was here to shovel coal and clean the engine, but it looks like they just want me to sit in this chair most of the time and watch the canaries dance a conga.”

As cool as that is, after a while one just wants to learn something and be a bit more useful around the place – because it can be so dynamic and exciting.

I should be quicker to add a disclaimer that not all libraries are like my current one.  I once worked in a public library and loved the nature of the work in a more usual way.  It was a bright, forward-thinking and beautiful library.

What I miss most is being able to really talk to people about books.  Gosh, how I miss that.  Although people visit public libraries for leisure purposes, they are also often being autodidactic and studying out of interest rather than necessity.

A tertiary library – well, it’s a different kettle of fish.  Patrons are stressed.  They are also friendly, polite, and grateful for help most of the time – and I feel a genuine sense of achievement in being able to provide that help.

But they’re also more likely to get impatient, be demanding, or swear when they can’t have a book from a library located on the other side of the country within the hour.  I do empathise, and seldom get seriously annoyed.  How can I really, when I can see how close to falling apart they are?

I am sorry that, by appearance at least, so few people seem as enthused about learning a subject they must once have been interested in.  There’s little opportunity for me to strike up a conversation about any of it either.  I swear, most of the time I can only understand two words in the title of a book anyone is issuing – and they are both conjunctions.

Exhibit A:

Block Copolymers

That example isn’t even so bad, comparatively speaking.

It was a few weeks ago that I first began mulling over this loss of shared joy for books between librarian and library patron.  One of our friendly, regular clients was issuing a book on the history of latitude and longitude.  I recognised it and went – “oh!” – then we started talking and she said how well-written it was, as it made the subject matter interesting and accessible to people not well-versed in navigation and its history.

In turn I told her about my own enthusiasm for a book on the history of physics: Leonard Mlodinow’s Euclid’s Window, and wrote down the details when she expressed interest.

It was after this exchange that I realised how ridiculously excited I had been to “talk books”, and how I missed that aspect of being a librarian.

Next time, I shall write about a less heart-warming, but highly entertaining dialogue with a lady who was incensed to find somebody had pencilled annotations throughout the book she wished to issue.

It is her reason for being so indignant that is the punch line for most people who hear the story.


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