Next month I take off on a research trip to the U.K. Because my purse was stolen the last time I was in London, I'll have to get new ID cards for the libraries I'll be using (supposedly the BL will replace theirs for free if I bring the police report), and thinking about that and the paperwork and supplies I'll need has got me thinking about how uncomfortably fishbowly so many rare books libraries are.
We all know that we're being studied and indeed video recorded, lest we whip out a pen instead of a pencil or use our book rests improperly or take an X-acto knife to a frontispiece. Those are sensible precautions, and I don't imagine most researchers have a problem being monitored to that degree. Surely, we think, the library staff are only keeping an eye out for policy violators or thieves; surely they don't wonder why I'm taking notes on a Hello Kitty legal pad, or notice that I've worn the same outfit for a week running, or have an opinion about my new hairstyle.
To which I'd say, don't be so sure.
Let me tell you about the summer I spent at a rare books library more fishbowly than most, with a long front desk facing an entirely glassed-in reading room. For the first week or so I was a little self-conscious whenever I'd slip my shoes off, say, or use the opposite chair as a footrest, but then I relaxed. No one seemed to mind or even notice.
Then one day I was out and about town when a grandfatherly fellow hailed me: "Ah, signorina Fescue! Como stai?" I had no idea who he was (or why he was addressing me in Italian), but I said hello and added, apologetically, "I'm sorry. . . but I've forgotten how I know you."
"Oh, we haven't met," he said, cheerfully. "I work in the back of [library]. I've seen your request slips come through."
* * * * *
So that was odd. But then, in the course of the same week or two, all of the following also happened:
I went to the front desk to return some books, and the security guard asked me what I'd been reading that had been so funny: "I saw you laughing--you looked like you were really having a good time in there!"
Another day, when I was outside eating lunch, some fifty-something dude from the photoduplication department (who also already knew my name) introduced himself and then invited me to go sailing with him sometime. After I gave an embarrassed and noncommittal answer, he later SHOWED UP IN THE READING ROOM (which was otherwise entirely silent) and tried to schedule a date.
And then there's the episode that I've really never gotten my mind around: one afternoon I was returning my materials before leaving for the day, when suddenly the security guard said, "Would you say that your hair is. . . auburn?"
"What?" I said, pretty sure that he wasn't talking to me.
"Your hair. Is that auburn? Like, reddish?"
"Um," I said. "I don't think so. I call it brown."
"But it's not blond?"
"No. . . "
He indicated the female library staffer who was taking my books from me. "She said it was blond." He made a face at her. "I told you it wasn't!"
* * * * *
Yeah. That's what happens. The people behind the desk are bored, and they watch you and they talk about you. So sit up straight. Keep your shoes on. And never, ever laugh.