Sunday, May 20, 2007

In the fishbowl

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.


DrOtter said...

"I'm sorry. . . but I've forgotten how I know you."

That is the line I've been looking for all my life. I forget people so easily and can never find a polite way to say 'who the hell are you dude' so there it is. Thanks! (and I always suspected librarians were a little voyeuristic).

Kait W. said...

Oooh! If Oxford is in your travels, do let me know. :)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Perhaps we will see each other at the BL?

Dr. Virago said...

OK, now I'm a little creeped out about my impending research trip because surely, if the major library staff people are that bored, the folks at the Goldsmiths' and Drapers' archives will be *mega* bored. Commencing sitting-up-straight practice NOW!

anthony grafton said...

Dear Flavia,

Just read that very evocative post in the BL Rare Book room, where I have spent a busy day sitting up straight and not laughing--hard because my daughter, who is doing her MA at London, was sitting next to me and her friend across from her, and they communicate with very expressive sign language.

In my own experience the reading room that seems most given to weird encounters is the manuscript room at the Vatican--one friend of mine was asked out in many languages, including Latin, in the course of a year there. It's also the only room I know where, when I take out my MSS, the impiegati who provide them tell me how hard my students have been working, how early they always arrive and how intelligent they are.

Gotta hop--time to sit up straighter and take some more notes before closing time.

squadratomagico said...

Wow, Falvia, you must have some hella charisma! That's a lot of attention!

RageyOne said...

that is funny, yet creepy at the same time.

Flavia said...

So many things to respond to!

Kait: kinda/sorta--feel free to drop me an email.

ADM: I'll probably be there at the end of the month. You?

Anthony: Now I have to ask: do the good folk at the Vatican ever tell you that your students are showing up late and knocking off early?

And finally, Squadrato: I only wish! I think that I do have a charismatic classroom presence, but out in public I'm not someone with an especially open or approachable demeanor--strangers usually don't strike up conversations with me. So we're forced to return to the extreme boredom theory.

anthony grafton said...

the folks at the Vat have only ever told me my students were wonderful--which is, of course, objectively correct.

Anonymous said...

My only experience like this was working in a special collections room where the librarian got really disgusted with my speed at going through some files. Apparently I worked my way through the couple of file boxes too quickly (I was looking for something very particular, which I did find, and then just wanted to see what else was there), and she made it quite clear to me that she thought I was an inferior scholar because of that. I didn't know that librarians sometimes timed people using the archives!

My experience at teensy-weensy archive last week was reassuringly different; it was so small -- I was working at the desk right next to the two volunteer archivists! -- that it was perfectly obvious that there was no privacy, and we actually chatted quite a bit (mostly but not entirely on topic).

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I shall be there between 22 June and 16 July, but that first week is the only time I can arrange with LDW, so I'll be there, but probably with him. E-mail me, though, 'cos I'd love to try to meet up!

Anonymous said...

Eh, they're bored. It's a slow, quiet, job. I think we should feel good if we give them a chuckle and let them identify "the woman who always takes her shoes off" and "the woman reading her way through all of TO 2" and "the woman with the funky-colored hair." I'd be doing the same, without even trying, if I had that job, and I bet most of you would too.

The guy who asked Flavia out--even that's okay--until he disturbed the sacrosanct silence of the reading room to do it.

London in July!

medieval woman said...

Those are funny anecdotes - and kind of 1984 creepy, too! I was once stalked by an old librarian at the Bodleian Duke Humphrey's reading room about a mechanical pencil he thought looked like a pen. The first time, I totally understood and showed him the pencil lead. But the 4th(!) time he disturbed me and wanted to make very sure I wasn't using contraband writing utensils, I tartly told him that I actually did have legitimate work to be doing here, that I knew how to work with manuscripts properly, that I had a valid reader's card, and that, despite what he may think, I wasn't some random person who wandered in off the street.


The History Enthusiast said...

The archives where I do most of my work is like that too, but less creepy. And, now that I am actually employed by that archives for the summer, it is funny to be "in the know." Now I know who Frizzy Lady is, and why they call this one young researcher Crazy Jennifer.

Anonymous said...

You don't want to know what the people at the phone companies do when they're bored. At least they don't (usually) know your face, but oh the things they hear!