BackTalk: When Wooden Stakes Aren't Enough

By Terry Pickens

A blood-curdling scream echoed through the small meeting room. Then silence. I looked around at the library's managers. Horrified eyes met mine. Apparently, I was the screamer. Dang. But I summoned from my deep and hard-won trove of professional behavior. Straightening up, I called for a hammer and stake.

Yes, once again, a problem that I believed had been solved and laid to rest with a wooden stake through its heart had risen to haunt the library.

Quick action was called for, and I asked that everyone concentrate on finding a new way to establish "official library time." After all, official time is critical to such services as opening and closing the doors to the public. Not to mention making sure Internet users get their fair share online.

Hastily, I summarized various solutions that had been tried before. There was the expensive chiming clock purchased and placed at the checkout desk. It chimed authoritatively on the hour. Patrons, who had been waiting at the locked door, surged in even as the clock was tolling out its nine bells. It didn't matter to the early birds what our clock said. They informed us that their inexpensive Timexes were more accurate and that we were two minutes late.

Other stabs at the problem included setting all library clocks every morning in accordance with the telephone company. This was short-lived, however. The sight of librarians perched on chairs and desks to reach wall clocks raised another specter altogether: Worker's Compensation.

Hickory, dickory...

There were a few more futile tries to keep all clocks synchronized, but we finally decided to do the best we could with the junior Big Ben as the final arbiter of when to open and close. But then came public Internet access.

Oh, my, the language we heard when our scheduling software automatically kicked people off according to computer time, not wall clock time. The final straw came when an especially vocal newspaper stringer demanded that a librarian reimburse her for a missed deadline: "You've just cost me $200!" she screamed at our hapless employee. "Look at the clock on the wall. I still have two minutes left, and yet, without warning, you shut me down, and now my story is lost!"

Truth, like time, seems to be elusive. Of course the software gives multiple warnings before closing out.

And this is what had us back in the management huddle. What to do? Remove all wall clocks? That didn't seem practical. Then a librarian suggested a cheap fix. Buy $12 atomic clocks to put in the public areas. Now, twice a day the computers and the public clocks are automatically synchronized with Greenwich Mean Time. Is this the final stake through the heart of the time problem? Has the monster really been slain for eternity? As Samuel Johnson once said, it is "the triumph of hope over experience."

Encounters with the undead

In my 30-plus years as a librarian I have seen many of these sorts of problems come and go and come and go again. I remember my first staff meeting as a newly minted librarian. The topic was how to gain cooperation from schools. Why couldn't teachers give us a call when a major class assignment was approaching? The particular assignment we were discussing had stripped the library of every book it owned with a diagram of the anatomy of a frog.

A seasoned librarian at that meeting told me she had attended so many meetings with school personnel to try to work something out that she was often mistaken for a school librarian. Surely that was an exaggeration, I thought. I was wrong. Cooperation between schools and the public library went down in my personal log as wooden stake issue number one.

Comedy tonight?

The issue was resurrected just last week when busloads of private school kids turned up unannounced for a day of research in the library. Trust me, we would have staffed differently had we but known.

Every organization has its own wooden stake issues. I am willing to bet that you have tales of your own encounters with the undead. I can imagine a sharing session at an American Library Association conference.

Librarians would be encouraged to get their own particular peeves off their chests. Soon we would all be crying tears of laughter, not frustration. With the right performers, in fact, an entire comedy routine could be built around public libraries alone that would play to packed audiences at every conference.

In fact, now that I think about it, maybe it is not a wooden stake that will slay these monsters. Maybe it is a good sense of humor. That and a silver bullet.

Terry Pickens is Director, Mesa County Public Library District, Grand Junction, CO.

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