Libraries have been called “museums of failed technologies.” After twenty years working in this one I realize that applies to me, too. A generation of digital natives have grown up since I filled out my first time sheet, which was an actual sheet of paper. Everything was on paper then. You could hold it in your hand. Life was graspable.

There used to be solid oak card catalogues filling this space where the four of us huddle behind a pair of vinyl-topped beige desks and generic pcs, one for each of us. Side by side and back to back, soldiers in a foxhole, making our daily last stand against the decline of western civilization in general and this building in particular. Madison and Julio monitoring the front door, Rusty and me keeping an eye on the nineteen remaining public pcs, and beyond them, our ever-diminishing core of books.

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Remember that scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the lone remaining astronaut turns off all life support systems and floats around inside the memory bank of HAL the computer? Row by row, methodically dis-assembling HAL’s brain, refusing to pause or acknowledge HAL’s voice, until HAL says: “I’m scared, Dave.” HAL’s higher functions and memories are erased. He’s reduced to mindlessly singing the first thing he ever learned:

“Daisy, Daisy, tell me your answer true / I’m half crazy all for the love of you…”

It was kind of like that last year, when we started emptying the building, beginning with everything upstairs. Echoey. The wide-open space seemingly twice as big and its clean, Mid-century Modern lines revealed in architectural purity. This building and that ultra-modern movie both date to 1968.

Then came the great weeding and shuffling as all the books in basement storage were evaluated. Whole ranges of legal case history, local, state, and federal.  A hundred years of bound periodicals. Duplicate copies of classic works. Decades of administrative records. Fully loaded cart by cart, wrapped in yards of plastic, trundled down the hall, through Admin., around the corner and out to the loading dock.  Like a train of railway cars they came, pushed by pairs of library staffers no worse or better than you or me, and just forget about it if you needed to get to the bathroom because momentum is everything with that kind of brute labor. Stand back and salute–a parade is passing by.

One frosty morning last winter I arrived at the staff entrance, squeezed my bike through the gap between the moving truck and the building and pulled open the door…to be greeted a cart coming right at me driven by Julio and a middle-aged lady who shall remain nameless but clearly she was over-matched. Taking hold of the front grab bar, I helped them lift it over the threshold, onto the truck’s tailgate, and up to the willing hands of Bartleby and James, manning the truck, their steaming breath, lighted by the transparent roof, appearing greenish-grey.

“Thanks for the lift,” said James.

“Don’t think you’re getting in that way today,” said Bartleby.

“Coming through!” said Eleanora, cheeks flushed, back-braced, work jeans and boots, pushing a cart with a full head of steam.

For six months the big yellow truck was parked outside as two thirds of the building’s content was shipped to other branches or put in temporary storage. With spring came the opening of our new HQ across town and over the freeway. Out there past the airport, next to what used to be Iomega, adjacent to a city park and a new elementary school. Admin. moved out and most of processing. Madelyn and that other lady who worked there–you know, what’s her name? Oh yeah, Moonie. Good ol’ moon-faced Moonie. She of the sharp Asian-American wit, fashionista outfits, and Sundance Film Festival puffy vest. They were the the last to leave and for them it really was scary. Darkened hallways. No windows. Cables dangling from the ceiling.And then there was that flood. The whole building shorted out and had to be evacuated. Staff and homeless people standing around in the chilly morning sun, grousing for hours. When I showed up for my shift at noon, Moonie said, “They just told us all to take our lunch break. I guess that means you can come back in an hour?”

Receiving and cataloging new items never ends in a forward-looking library so Madelyn and Moonie were the last to go. Then the staircase was sealed-off, upstairs and down. It’s been a year now but people still come in, looking around, disoriented.

“Didn’t there used to be stairs here?”

“Where’s the computer center?”

“Where’s the auditorium? I’ve got a concert coming up and I need to practice on the  grand piano.”

“I’m here for the MENSA meeting? Downstairs? What have you done with the stairs?” They give you that stressed-out, paranoid look, like we’re hiding something from them intentinally.

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It is a little eerie working in a building undergoing deconstruction. Strange pounding sounds overhead alternate with high-pitched drilling. You’re trying to focus on organizing a cart of 300s with call numbers extending to ten digits and the floor is vibrating. Like working in a dentist’s office where the patient is a 50,000 square foot cast-concrete building undergoing complete dental reconstruction and seismic stabilizing. There were a few weeks this summer when it sounded like Washington Irving’s little men bowling at nine-pins up there. Lately, it’s changed to a rhythmic car wash whooshing sound as floors and walls are scrubbed clean.

New power plant, HVAC, plumbing, and a new elevator three times as large as the original. A coffee shop and new doorway to an amphitheater in the park. Administration and Processing have decamped to our new HQ in Roy freeing up acres of space in the basement for a vastly enlarged Computer Center and literacy/job/housing community outreach dept. They’re going to need somebody with a Sociology degree to run the place. But why-oh-why can’t we put up a Help Wanted bulletin board?

“Help Wanted bulletin board?” I remember L. laughing when I brought it up again. Like that’s ever going to happen in a public library. But sure, we’ll let you use our pcs all day if that’s what it takes to get a job these days.

Martin Luther King was assassinated on the library’s dedication day. A few months later, Bobby Kennedy was killed while trying to avoid exposure by passing through the underground kitchen of a hotel. There were riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. “The whole world is watching,” was the chant forever associated with events of 1968. It was a new idea at the time—revolution on tv. Now it happens every day, but we can choose to watch an infinite amount of anything else. That’s progress, right?

This building has good bones—it’s everything else that has to go, starting with that asbestos fire-proofing sprayed on the ceiling. The surfaces around the air vents are grey with pollution but impossible to clean without releasing clouds of asbestos fiber. Fresh air fans are running all the time, creating positive air pressure on this floor and negative air pressure on the other floors…

All gone now, up & downstairs, that’s why the stairs were sealed and sheet-rocked.

All that remains is jammed together here on the main floor. A week from today this building closes. One year from now we’re scheduled to re-open “in phases,” and be re-dedicated for another half century of service in April, 2018. That’s the scary part one has trouble accepting–that this semi-sentient being can be knocked-out, taken apart and put back together. Re-vivified better than new. If only that were true for humans, though I’m sure it’s for the best that we all must pass away.

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A generation has passed on the earth since I started and here I am, still attending General Staff Meetings, an entire day locked inside, under fluorescent lights, dealing with Information Professionals. No, they weren’t instituted until a couple years later when the new manager positions were created and “continuous learning” became a thing. That’s when they decided to lose the “Librarian” tag and became Information Professionals.

Here’s the thing about HAL losing his mind and reverting to singing a song about Daisy…I remember that song, too. I was in a grade school gymnasium assembly when somebody came to talk about The Future. Instead of hardware, The Future was going to be all about “software.” And they had an IBM computer to demonstrate it, capable of answering simple questions, and singing: “Daisy, Daisy, tell me your answer true…”

(to be continued…)

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