Hi everyone. Part of the introduction to The World’s Strongest Librarian is now available on a few websites, so I’m going to post it here as well for anyone on the fence about reading and/or buying it. enjoy!
Today the library was hot, humid, and smelly. It was like working inside a giant pair of glass underpants without any leg holes to escape through. The building moved. It breathed. It seethed with bodies and thoughts moving in and out of people’s heads. Mostly out.
“You tall bigot!”
I stopped and wondered if these two words had ever been put next to each other. The odds were astronomical; even someone with my primitive math skills knew this. I laughed, which didn’t help the situation, which was this: A guy wearing a jaunty red neckerchief had walked by the reference desk, yelling about the “motherfucking Jews and lesbians on the Supreme Court.” I had asked him to lower his voice and voilà! Now I was a tall bigot…the worst kind of all.
“What are you, some kind of Jew?” he sputtered. I’ve never seen someone so enraged. I wondered what he’d do if he knew I’d been raised Mormon.
Maybe he was mad because he couldn’t find the anti-Semitism section. The library has a robust collection of what I call non-cuddly hate lit. This is one of my favorite things about working here: If you believe censorship is poison, here lies paradise. We have sections on anti-Mormonism, anti-Semitism, anti-anti-Semitism, anti-atheism, anti-God, anti-feminism, pro-gay…there’s something to offend everyone.
Moshe Safdie, the architect who designed the Salt Lake City Public Library, won numerous awards for his vision and technical derring-do. He thought big, appropriately, because a building that can hold 500,000 books is enormous. The number of items circulating each hour is rivaled only by the number of people napping in the corners. But nothing is as impressive as the way the building looks. I work in a beautiful building made almost entirely of glass. Seen from the air, it looks like the Nike Swoosh if it got frightened and began to cower.
An older librarian—one of the few other males—once said to me, “Whatever we deal with, coming here is always a visual reward.” This statement is poetic, accurate, and maddening. Because most of the time it feels like people show up just to fight about something with total strangers like me. Which is fine. I’m not here for the good company.
One of the reasons I work here is because I have extreme Tourette Syndrome.* The kind with verbal tics, sometimes loud ones; the kind that draws warning looks. Working in this library is the ultimate test for someone who literally can’t sit still. Who can’t shush himself. A test of willpower, of patience, and occasionally, of the limits of human absurdity.
A patron recently took exception to a series of throat clearings I couldn’t suppress. As he approached, I put on my customer service smile and readied myself for one of those rare, mind-blowing reference transactions that I hear about from other librarians. Instead this man said, “If you’re going to walk around honking like a royal swan, you don’t belong in the library. I’m going to call security. Somebody needs to teach you a lesson.”
I stood up. I’m six feet seven inches tall, and I weigh 260 pounds. “Is it you?” I’m not confrontational, but I don’t lose many staring contests. I’m good at looming when it’s helpful. He walked away.
I also work here because I love books, because I’m inveterately curious, and because, like most librarians, I’m not well suited to anything else. As a breed, we’re the ultimate generalists. I’ll never know everything about anything, but I’ll know something about almost everything and that’s how I like to live.
Earlier today a young woman asked me to help her find a book about how to knit lingerie. This is the sort of question library school recruiters should feature in their dreary PowerPoint presentations, not claptrap about how we’re the “stewards of democracy.” They would definitely attract more males to the profession. When I arrived in my library department two years ago, the alpha male was a sixty-six-year-old woman.
On our way to the lingerie section—yes, the official subject heading is Lingerie, call number 646.42—I tripped over another young woman who was lying on the floor beneath a blanket, nestled between two rows of law books. I’m thirty-five years old and it both relieves and elates me to know I can still be surprised.
“I’m sleeping here!” she yelled.
I’m rarely at a loss for words outside the library. But within its walls I’m required to form sentences that no logical person should ever have to utter, for instance, “You can’t sleep on the floor at the library under your blanket.”
“I don’t snore!” she said, gripping her blanket with both hands, as if I might snatch it away.
“I’m sure you don’t,” I said. “That’s not the point.”
“Well, there’s no other point!”
This was an occasion when my need to be right didn’t feel that important. I made a phone call. Security interrupted her derailed slumber and led her out of the building. And stay out, I pictured them yelling, tossing the blanket after her, where it would be swept into traffic by a sudden gust of wind.
I felt a twinge of envy. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d taken a nap. I’ll admit to often feeling sleepy in the library. Most of the time, in fact. The building was constructed with the ability to save power and warm itself, so the glass walls make it difficult to find an area that isn’t bathed by soporific sunbeams. I briefly considered lying down on the floor between Black’s Law Dictionary and the Morningstar investment guides. Someone would probably report me, but I might be imposing enough to buy myself a power nap. Then someone came to the desk for help and the plan ended before it began.
I really want someone to ask me a question that is not “How many times can I fall asleep in here before I get kicked out?” I really want this building to serve the purpose for which it was intended—as a breeding ground for curiosity.
I work on Level 3. If you’re on my floor you’re probably looking for information about Bigfoot; the healing powers of crystals, self-help, or psychology; you’re trying to expunge something from your record and need the law section; you need to lose weight; you heard that people make money on the Internet; you need to summon some pixies; you want to get into hat-making; you can’t sight your rifle; you’re sick of the Jews; you’re sick of the people who won’t shut up about being sick of the Jews; you’re looking for a Bible; or you’re cramming for the SAT. Unless you’re just looking for a place to sleep, in which case I’d direct you to any of the comfortable chairs laid out around the perimeter, out of my direct line of sight. And if you’re hooking up with your drug dealer, that’s usually conducted in the restrooms.
Later this morning, something actually happened that didn’t require me to wake someone up or tell him to watch porn at home. An African American man asked me if the Hutu tribe in Rwanda had any Jewish ancestry. What a fascinating question. We started hunting through the library’s incredibly expensive, underpromoted, and underused research databases. After an hour we realized that the question was bigger than we could complete during one session, but he had enough leads to pursue on his own. We’d forgotten that the rest of the world existed as we leaned over my computer and hurried to and fro in the stacks grabbing books.
As always, many patrons wanted to research their genealogy. I always wonder why. Were they trying to discover whether they might have an inheritance coming to them? Being kept from them? Researching the people who led to their own genetic impairments? I have Tourette Syndrome because of some combination of my parents’ crazy innards. His genes met hers and said, “Hey, let’s get stupid!” I can’t blame them for not knowing any better. If there’s a memo out there that says Never cross a Navajo and a Mormon or you’ll create a twitchy baby who will be a burden forever, they never got it.
At lunch, many of the librarians lurched up to the staff room and fell onto chairs and couches with their books and magazines. Librarians as a rule move about as well as the Tin Man did before Dorothy brought him the oilcan. Their heads often sit so far forward on their necks that they look like woodpeckers frozen in mid-peck. Their shoulders are rounded from answering the phone, typing, eating, and reading. Their hands at rest inevitably rotate into the typing position. They spend so much time looking down at computers and into books and talking down to people from their tall desks that it’s become an unnatural effort to raise their eyes to make eye contact during conversation.
I move quite well, partly because during my lunch break, I go downstairs to the library’s diminutive fitness room, wrap my hands in thin, well-seasoned leather strips to protect them, and bend horseshoes. I’m also working on the goal of deadlifting six hundred pounds, but I do that outside the library walls. The sound of six hundred pounds hitting the ground is serious. Dropping that much weight in the basement of the library would echo up to the top floor and wake everyone up. When I hit a snag, I call my coach, a man named Adam.
Adam is a former air force tech sergeant, an expert in hand-to-hand combat, and the sort of hard-ass who describes poor haircuts as “…