BackTalk: Out from Behind the Screen

By Thomas Washington

It's taken me 20 years to find a post where I can read on the job, and I don't mean reading tied to a production schedule, copyediting, or consulting reports. I'm talking about lumps of time where I can lose myself in A.J. Liebling's Paris or Cormac McCarthy's scorched earth.

Of course, this occupation is not all about me. Since I am in the service of the teen set, logic has it that my primary allegiance goes to their well-being, and it does. But sometimes actions literally have to speak louder than words. A librarian needs to be a reader. Sitting with a book in my lap, I want to believe, can be a subtle, heroic measure, a sort of Custer's last stand on the shoulder of the information highway.

Get to work!

When I'm reading on the job, I like to see myself as a model for the book, posing for the reading cause. My library post feels like a purgatory where the fates have allowed me to revisit the scores of great works by authors I scoffed at in youth: Twain, Shakespeare, Austen, and Frost. I'm not sure how the picture of me sitting at the reference desk with a 600-pager is going over with administrators or colleagues, but how bad can it really look? These days we can be launching emails to friends and family members, or booking an airline flight, all courtesy of the employer's time clock. Whatever we are up to behind the screen, no one appears to care. We assume everyone on a computer at work is busy.

Instinctively, I put my book away immediately when a colleague or administrator is on the approach. Or, if I'm stationed on the front line—the reference desk—I read with a pen in my hand and a pad of paper alongside the book. This ruse, I convince myself, says that I'm in collaboration mode, taking notes or preparing a report for an upcoming group session, steering committee, upper-school faculty meeting, or advisory.

Sitting still

Reading a book on the job shouldn't fly in the face of collegiality. If we readily accept gazing at the computer monitor and inputting data between 7:50 a.m. and 3:10 p.m., why should a book in the hand send a different message?

Maybe this is my own insecurity with regard to larking about on the job, baggage from previous occupations where the bosses insisted on looking busy behind the retail counter or the busboy cubby, even when there was nothing to do but watch the clock wind down and fantasize what you were going to do as soon as you were unleashed from the cummerbund and clip-on tie.

Not only has technology invaded our brains like some airborne virus rewiring our synapses, it also has created a secondary Trojan flank that is corralling us into teams, while reading a book remains a solitary act. It seems that we've lost faith in the idea that sitting alone with a book can still rouse insight and wisdom. It seems we've lost faith in sitting alone, period.

Refuge in the stacks

This electronic hum—the email transom or the next enticing Internet nibble—needs to be shut out at some point each day. I retreat to the main stacks for grounding. Sometimes I even spot kids back there, sprawled on the floor, heads propped against the 900 section with a book. We look at each other for a moment. They think I'm going to scold them (for having the wisdom to hide, no less) until I smile, and we both understand, however briefly, that we're here for the same reason.

Of course, the main stack collection has been heavily weeded over the past two summers, so there is less to hide behind.

I choose the main stacks because there is something to be said for going to the source each day to escape. I'm usually sated enough with a 30-minute session in this location. Of course, I could double this return from the reference chair or the back office and also lessen the chances of getting found out reading a book hidden behind the biography section. At the very least, I imagine I would have to come up with some excuse as to why I was there and not up front, managing another troubleshoot.


As much as I like to think my library is a sanctuary, I know it really isn't. Sometimes, I just have to disappear altogether. I exit through the back door at lunchtime with a book and drive to the far end of campus and park underneath a patch of pine trees. When the wind is right, you can catch their scent and the always pleasant sound of brushing needles.

Near the end of the last school year, I started Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. The last time I read this book I was 20 years old, working as a bellman in Yellowstone National Park. That reading spot was also under pine trees, a nest of lodge poles. Today, I'm savoring this novel in the same fashion I did a quarter-century ago. The only difference is that now I feel like I'm stealing time rather than seizing it.

Author Information
Thomas Washington is Upper School Head Librarian, the Potomac School, McLean, VA.
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