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Rated: E · Non-fiction · Comedy · #1122775
A narrative essay about organizing a library at a teacher college in Paraguay
The Library
I sat quietly in the institute’s library, surrounded by paper-covered shelves held up by bricks, which I like to call “spider-condos.” Books were stacked high on tables, and a cabinet sagged with the weight of pretty folders. A tangle of pretty ribbon held the folders together. In the corner lay a box full of teaching materials made by students during the last volunteer workshop. They had never been used, so they were still very pretty.
I had worked many hours trying to finish registering the books and indexing them so they’d be ready by the following Monday. My hand was cramping from writing longhand (and in my “prettiest letters”) “Ministerio de Educación y Culto,” the source of the majority of the inventory. Each book was logged in the register and on an index card for the card catalog. I suggested to the librarian that we might want to photocopy several pages and cards with the words “Ministerio de Educación y Culto” already written on them. She would have none of that!
“Why do you Americans always insist on working fast and taking short-cuts?”
“We call it efficiency. We like to get done with projects so we can start the next one.” It’s why we are slightly ahead of Paraguay in, well, everything.
“What will we do when we’re all finished with registering the books?” she asked. The hand holding the nail polish paused in the air. She sounded worried.
“We can teach the students how to use the library. Then we can do what most librarians do—check books in and out, keep the materials organized, try to find other resources so we can get more books. There are lots of things we can do. By the way, how are we going to organize the cards? I think maybe we should just do a subject catalog.” My original idea was to merely color-code the books with a piece of tape to indicate the subject, but that idea was rejected after the librarian attended a three-month conference on the Dewey decimal system. The workshops were provided by the Japanese. Anything provided by the Japanese overrode anything I could offer. Besides, she’d earned a pretty certificate.
“We’re going to organize them by the date that we received or purchased them.”
“By date?" I have never heard of a catalog organized by date the book was received. "How will the students be able to find a specific book?”
“They’ll have to learn how to use the Dewey decimal system.”
“Do you think they will? Are you going to do a workshop for them?”
“No. They’ll figure it out.”
“So, we’re not going to do any workshops once the library is organized?”
“No.” No wonder she’s worried about what comes next.
“Well, you will have to inform each student, then, of how the library functions. How long do you think books should be checked out?”
“The student can decide. They can just tell us when they will be done with the books.”
“So, if someone wants to check out a book for the entire school year, that’s okay?”
“I guess. They won’t though. They only use them for a couple days.”
“Okay.” Whatever. “Well, you should at least have a workshop showing students and professors how to take care of the books and how to put them away. Maybe we should just tell them to leave books on the table when they’re done, and we can put them away. I’ve seen professors shove books behind the rows because they don’t know where they go and don’t want to admit it.”
“No, that would be too much work for us. They can put them back themselves.” So much for finding sufficient work to keep her employed.
The librarian left, excusing herself to go work on the upcoming Folklore Festival, a really big deal in Coronel Bogado. Although I enjoy this festival, I realize that I’m really not much help in the construction of temporary houses and brick ovens. I’m more of an observer. I really wanted to get as much as possible done in her absence.
I worked quickly, crossing out mistakes on the cards with a neat, but un-ruled line, hoping they would go unnoticed. It’s not like anyone was actually going to be using the card catalog. I silently fumed over the answers the librarian gave. Not only had I spent hours doing repetitive chores that could have been done much more efficiently, but now it seemed fairly meaningless. I raged over the countless cards that, because of one error, had to be discarded. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the librarian hadn’t insisted on using a ruler to cross off all of the information on the card before tossing it in the trash can “because the Japanese said it had to be done that way.” I doubted if she’d understood correctly. The Japanese could not possibly be that anal. It seemed like more of a Paraguayan trait, or maybe just a librarian trait, or just a “Monica” trait. It was all starting to piss me off. “Tranquilo, no más,” a multitude of Paraguayan voices whispered in my head. I was ready to smack the next person that said those words to me, even if it was just their voices in my head.
It was getting more difficult to maintain my “pretty letters.” It felt like I had to do something, but I couldn’t remember what. Then it came to me: biology! The biology books tormented my mind. Monica had insisted that Biología 1 belonged in physical science, Biología 2 in biology, and Biología 3 in general science. When I questioned the logic behind it, she said that the book was to be placed by the subject covered in the first chapter. I had tried to convince her that students would be able to find what they needed faster if we just put them all together, in order, under the biology number. She would have none of that, repeating her mantra, “The Japanese said it had to be done this way.” Of course. Would she even notice? I doubted it. I snatched the books off the shelves, checked the dates the books had been received by the institute, found their respective cards, and defiantly tossed the cards in the trash. (I would have to remember to bring the discards to the trash pile so Don Francisco could burn them before Monica returned.) I grabbed the forbidden bottle of white-out and revised the book labels, then placed them in numerical order under biology. Score one for the American.
I was nervous. The clock read 3:30. I had only a half hour to finish the job before Monica’s return. I realized that the library was a quite spooky place when everyone was gone. It was too quiet. I could hear the clock ticking. The sound of scratching came from a box in the corner. A cockroach? I snuck over. There was a mouse munching on the paper maché puppets I had made for the endangered animals workshop. My puppets weren’t as “pretty” as the ones you could buy at the store. Of course, those puppets were way too expensive to be handled by students (or afforded by teachers), but they were way prettier, and that’s what’s important. My puppets were being chewed to extinction by the ratoncito. I felt it was a fitting demise and went back to my work. Buen provecho, Mickey.
I finished with the cards and labeling of the books. It was time to put the books in order. I worked quickly, realizing that time was running out. The children’s books were a dilemma. Monica had labeled every one of them with the same number instead of putting them into a separate category of children’s fiction. I alphabetized them by author. The slow, steady clicking of the professors’ high heels was the timer, clicking off the last seconds of my efforts. I slumped in the wooden chair and kicked the trash can under the desk just as Monica burst through the door. I was anxious to see her expression.
“Wow!” she shouted. “It’s done! How pretty!”
I was pleased by her reaction, but held my breath as she scanned the shelves. Would she notice the three Biologías?
“It’s very pretty.”
“Very, very pretty.”
“But let’s make it prettier!”
Monica proceeded to pull books from each shelf. First, she grabbed all of the smaller books from each shelf. Shoving the others to the right, she placed them on the left. Then, she snatched all of the larger books. Shoving left, she placed them on the right. Now each bookshelf was organized by size.
“Look! It’s much prettier this way!” I stood in shocked silence, a tear rolling down my cheek. She wasn’t finished.
Next, she started pulling the majority of the children’s books off the shelves, depositing them on a pile on the top shelf with a stack of folders and magazines.
“What? Why?” was all I could manage.
“These are less than twenty pages, so they’re considered ‘magazines.’ Magazines go on the top shelf.”
“But they’re children’s books. Most children’s books are less than twenty pages. They won’t even be able to see them way up there!”
“They’re considered magazines,” she repeated. “The Japanese said it had to be done that way. Why are you crying?”
“It’s just that it’s so pretty.”
“Exactly. Let’s go. You should go see how the Folklore Festival is coming along. It’s very pretty.”
I’m sure it is.
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