REGRETS DEPT., Nov 22 - A lot of businesses and organizations have had the honor of firing me over the years, but the Albany, NY public library system got there first. This was at their Delaware Street annex, in 1985. The APLDSA was a tiny branch - about the size of a large suburban living room - and not known for difficult customers. It was the perfect job for a 16 year old who fancied himself a budding smartfellow.
In hindsight, I should have paid more attention to office politics. On the second Friday in November, I reported to work as usual, shelved some books and greeted some customers. My friends Bob and Eddie arrived at closing time. High school juniors, we were all too young to drive, and my boss, a Mrs. Lorraine Smi, had agreed to chauffer us to the Corrosion Of Conformity gig across town. I was closing up shop when Mrs. Smi beckoned me into a thinly partitioned back office. There was a problem - she said in a tone both soft and final - with my shelving. Then she read me a poem;
While you are trying your best
you are unable to perform
your paging duties
to my satisfaction
and I feel
at this time
it is necessary for me
to terminate your employment.
I accepted the letter in shock. I was barely a man and already unable to perform my duties. I knew my friends had heard everything through the meager wall. It was a library; what else was there to hear?
“Can we,” I asked quietly, “still get a ride to the show?” Ms. Smi nodded without smiling and drove the three of us to the Washington Street VFW in a difficult silence. Bob and Eddie are big shots now - a TV journalist and a doctor - and I thank them for not laughing out loud until Ms. Smi left us on the sidewalk and drove off into history.
Her face has faded with time, even if her insult has not. I was a good god-damned shelver. I shelved the shit out of that place. I’ve always felt I was unjustly dismissed, collateral damage in Albany budget battles, a pawn in a much larger game. I can accept that. Or maybe some mentally insane hobos came in and rearranged my careful shelving. I can accept that as well. Stranger things have happened. But I don’t know if I can accept that I was a bad librarian.
Here's the thing: was I a bad librarian? Subsequent years haven’t given me any chances to disprove this negative. I’ve frequented a lot of libraries since, but almost never fetched a book on my own. At the famous NYC 5th Ave branch – in the ornate, vast reading room that strangely reeked of old gym socks and whose windows were still blacked out from WW2 – I wrote my book requests on slips of paper and handed these to employees, who then lowered these requests, by hydraulics or rope pulley, into the catacombs below. Downtown, at the giant cube library NYU graciously let my college use, I only studied, or wrote terrible fanzines. In Richmond, VA, I spent many hours in the main branch on Franklin street, a fake airport terminal that seemed to mirror the Cancelled Flight inertia my life had taken on. But I almost never checked out books. The charming Providence, RI library had a good VHS selection. I use the local Claremont, CA library now only when I need graphics of cowboys or body parts, and I know what aisles to browse.
At the time of my firing, I had no way of knowing that I'd participated in the final days of the traditional, multi-millennia-old library system. A year later, arson destroyed 400,000 books at the central Los Angeles library. Six years after that, the National & University Library of Bosnia & Herzegovina was destroyed by war, a 1.5 million book hit to humanity's archives. Up until the 21st century, libraries - and books themselves - were lousy, lossy mediums for storing data. The minor uproar over digitizing card catalogs in the 1990's has given way to the wonderland of digital library information available from any computer in the 2010's. Soon it won't be possible to lose any books. "misshelving" will cease to exist, as a fireable offense or otherwise.
Here's what else isn't going away: the ding to my honor. If you've Googled yourself, Mrs. Lorraine Smi of upstate New York, and found this page, know that this indignity remains an open account. You may have won this round, but the battle is far from over.