Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Best of 2010: Aurora Nibley - Spine vs. Spine - Espionage in the Stacks

I don't know her name. No one knows her name; none of us can even remember whether she ever told us. All we know is that she comes in to the public library twice a week, with her ill-fitting jeans and her overbite, and she's nothing but trouble.

She's not the only incompetent volunteer the library's ever seen, she's just the most consistent. Usually the ones who don't know what they're doing are kids who need school credit. They come in once or twice and don't have the opportunity to do a lot of damage. Alternatively, our “regulars” tend to be older, and have a firm grasp of alphabetical organization.

This woman appears to be in her early fifties, although it's difficult to tell. She obviously immigrated to the US from a Central Asian country, India or Pakistan, but exactly which one is also mysterious. She wears her hair in one long braid down her back, as most women from that part of the world seem to do (her hair is black but her roots are gray—I see that a lot in Asian women, do they dye their hair or does it grow out that way when they get older?), but her clothes are western, obviously cheap and badly sized; she has neither the Hindu forehead dot nor the Muslim head covering, so there are no clues about her life there, either. We literally know nothing about her except that she's a walking apologetic smile of incompetence.

When she first came in over a year ago, we started her off with audio/visual materials. We keep these only loosely alphabetized and most people find them to be the simplest items to shelve. But we soon noticed that she couldn't tell the difference between regular audio books and teen audio books (the teen audio books are marked with a large blue dot on the spine—even if you're colorblind, you can see the giant dots) and would consistently put the teen materials in with the adult materials. When we tried to gently correct her, she switched to putting the adult stuff in with the teen stuff, which was worse. She does not take well to instruction, either; if you repeat an instruction (and she realizes it's something she's been told before), she gets huffy, declares that she has a college education, and sulks. But she never leaves.

What we can't figure out about her, aside from everything, is why she wants to volunteer at the library at all. One of our clerks told me that her family just brings her and leaves her here twice a week, to force her to get out of the house (For her sake? Or theirs? Again, unclear). But if that was all it is, she could sit with a magazine for a couple of hours, or use the public internet. Instead, for reasons known maybe only to herself, she wants to be helpful. My theory is that she somehow got the idea that shelving books at the library would help her to improve her English language skills. This might be the case, if she were reading the English books or conversing with English-speaking people. Instead, she is bringing me books marked with the letter F, because they were written by, say, Jonathan Franzen, or Ford Madox Ford, and asking me where she should put them because she doesn't know where the books go that are written in French—which, admittedly, also begins with F.

My personal relationship with her has evolved since we've known each other. At first, I was happy to show her around and explain where everything was supposed to go. I didn't mind answering her questions. Asking questions is how you learn, after all. But after the third or fourth time she would ask me the same question and then get offended at the phrase, “Remember when I told you...”, she gave up asking me. And shortly afterward, when I realized she would just ignore me if I came to help her unsolicited, we basically reached a silent agreement to ignore each other. Except that she hasn't figured out how to walk around a bookshelf if someone is in her way, so if we're working in the same area at the same time, I end up getting squeezed past far more often than is comfortable for me. Which is to say, at all.

Now she and I are at a stalemate. The librarians refuse to ask her not to come back (their philosophy being that any volunteers are better than none, which would make sense of we didn't have a couple of dozen others to choose from), so they keep just trying to think of different new tasks that she might not fuck up. But she always finds a way. She's wily. She kept putting books in the wrong place, so they asked her to put the books on the shelf with the spines facing up instead of out so that we can check them when she's done. But after about one day, she learned to only face the spines upward when she knows the book is in the right place—if she's not sure, she puts it in normally. She thinks that by doing this we won't be able to figure out that she's the one making all the mistakes. But we did. We thought that maybe she was getting things wrong because English is not her first language (although no one knows what is), and so maybe she's just having trouble with the alphabet. I wouldn't trust myself to alphabetize correctly in Greek, or Chinese. So we asked her to put the non-fiction books in order, because they are arranged numerically. For some reason she's not into that, though, so she does about a third to half of the numerical arranging (usually poorly), and then goes back to fucking up the alphabet again.

I myself have been reduced to following her from a distance while she's in the library, like some kind of crazy detective. If I try to do my own work, she'll take the books I'm working with and put them out of order, or she'll trip over me trying to walk through a narrow passage instead of going around. If I get too close to what she's doing, she gets super defensive and offended. All I can do is trail far enough behind her to hope she doesn't notice, and repair the damage.

I wonder how I could suggest that she'd rather volunteer at the UCLA library?

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