Saturday, November 05, 2005

Chapter 3 - The Library

"Excuse me."

Jeremy jumped, abruptly jarred out of his dream of the night before. He realized with a sudden onrush of guilt that while he'd been dazing off into the distance thinking about Liliana's lips, the young lady standing at the counter had said "Excuse me" at least one previous time, and was getting rather impatient.

"Sorry, sorry. I'm . . . a little under the weather today." That, actually was true. He hadn't had nearly enough sleep last night -- or rather, this morning.
She regarded him with suspicion and not a little hostility, then shrugged it off with a toss of her head. "Whatever. Do you have any books on the Constitution?"
He was seriously tempted to say, "Why yes, yes we do," and turn his back on her and walk away. Clueless high school students were the bane of his existence. This one, whose whole posture sneered with a contemptuous "I-don't-really-have-time-for-this" attitude, set his teeth on edge just looking at her.

Although looking at her wasn't exactly difficult. He realized that yesterday he'd have enjoyed looking at her quite a bit, even if she was far too young for him -- what was she, 16? 17? But one of those blonde, bronzed cheerleader types he used to worship from afar when he was in high school himself. Now, she barely registered as attractive. She paled beside Liliana.

He shook his head, realizing he was about to lapse back into a daydream.

"Well?" she demanded.

"I'm sorry, it's just . . . I mean, of course we have books about the Constitution. Lots and lots of books about the Constitution, and articles about the constitution in other books, from encyclopedias to history books to books about law. What aspect of the Constitution are you interested in?"

She shrugged. "Whatever. I need to write a 10-page paper on the Constitution using at least three sources other than the Internet. My teacher said we should go to the library and do research. When I asked at the front desk where I should go, they sent me here."

Fate is a strange thing. Ten years ago, Jeremy would have given his left arm (well, maybe his left leg -- hard to type with just one hand) to spend time helping a girl like Ashley -- that was her name, he discovered -- learn how to use a library, how to focus on a topic and even how to write a paper. Heck, at 17, he'd have been only too happy to write her paper for her in return for -- not even attention, really, just the tiniest display of something less than contempt for his existence. Even yesterday, he'd have enjoyed being able to have a job that not only allowed but required him to share the company of a good-looking girl, even if he found her vapid and boring.

Today, however, she was merely a nuisance. An interloper into his thoughts, and into his precious temple of knowledge which he suddenly felt himself the guardian of, like Horatio at the bridge fighting off the barbarian hordes, in the person of this bored teenager.

He walked over to his computer screen, tapped a few keys, and came back.
"There are 277 entries under 'Constitutional history - U.S.' alone, not even counting all the books on Constitutional law. Before I can help you, you need to figure out just what it is about the Constitution you're going to write about. The history? The separation of powers? One or more of the amendments? Do you have any idea at all?"

She shrugged. "I don't care. I don't know why I can't just do the research on the Internet like everybody else."

"Well, probably because your teacher doesn't trust you to discriminate between the wealth of knowledgeable and reliable sources on the Internet and the vast mass of unreliable garbage that's also out there."

Open hostility now. "You sound just like him."

Jeremy smiled. "Tell you what. Let's start with the encyclopedia." He came around from the desk and started leading her to the stacks that held the various encyclopedias. "How much time have you got?"

"It's not due until a week from Thursday."

Jeremy's estimation of her suddenly moved up several notches. His experience was that high school students with assignments like hers tended to come in a day or too before the assignment was due expecting miracles. Of course, she'd probably known about it for at least two weeks, if not since the beginning of the year, but a week and a half was an amazing amount of planning ahead for a 16-year-old cheerleader.

"Good, good. And how much time were you planning on spending here today?"

She shrugged with a look that plainly said "As little as I can get away with," but her mouth said "a few hours I guess. My mom said to call her on her cell. She's over at Union Station."

"OK. Tell you what. Let's start with the World Book."

He pulled the volume off the shelf, quickly paged to the "Constitution of the United States" entry.

"If you were in a hurry, I'd tell you to photocopy this, go home and read it, then come back when you've focused down a little. Instead, what I'd suggest is that you read this -- you don't have to read every word," he added quickly, looking at the dismay on her face as she paged through it, "for instance, they have the whole Constitution in there and that I think you should get off the Internet, from the U.S. Government. About as reliable as you can get. But skim through the article and see if there's something in there that interests you -- or at least something that you think you could spend a week reading and thinking about without hating it too much. Think about a question or two you'd like to know the answer to about that particular aspect of the Constitution, and then come back to the Reference Desk and I'll show you how to find books that will help you answer your question."

She rolled her eyes. "Can't you just, you know, give me some books and tell me what to look for?"

"You mean tell you what to write about? I suppose I could, but it wouldn't be fair. You may not believe it, but an assignment like this can actually be fun, if you do it the right way."

"Yeah, right. Fun." Shaking her head at the crazy man, she headed off for a table with the encyclopedia in her hands and a sullen look on her face. Jeremy doubted if he'd made a convert. But it did happen occasionally. Or at least that's what Mike said. Mike claimed he'd turned three kids on to the excitement of learning in just such situations, but Jeremy hadn't been so lucky yet. Still, he kept trying. The possibility that he might one day make a real difference in the life of just one teenage was one of the few things that made him think his job had any real purpose to it.


Later that afternoon, he was immersed in the part of the job that had no redeeming features or higher purpose whatsoever, except that it was absolutely essential gruntwork without which the library could not function. In other words, he was re-shelving books.

Jeremy hated shelving books. It was pure drudgery, yet it took just enough of your mind that you couldn't let it drift off into other things, the way you could while, say, chopping wood, which Jeremy hadn't done in many years but still remembered fondly, even though at the time he had in fact hated every bit as thoroughly as he now hated shelving books.

To keep himself from being completely bored, Jeremy would sometimes try to look at the cover of the book and guess the exact Dewey Decimal Number from the title and author.

Even before he got a job in the library, Jeremy knew the basic 10 "centuries" of the Dewey Decimal system, and even knew some of the decades. Jeremy had been a nerd in high school and he was, let's face, pretty much a nerd today. That's partly why he gravitated toward library work in the first place.

Today, he was in the 500s, which was the natural sciences and mathematics. He picked up a book called "Shark Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance," by Thomas B. Allen, it was easy to guess that it would be in the 590s, under animals.

"Let's see," thought Jeremy. "Sharks are fish. Fish and reptiles are near the end, because it works its way up from the protozoans to the mammals. Mammals, and before that birds, and before that fish and reptiles and amphibians, so 597. Sharks. Sharks are . . . 597.3?"

(Again, Jeremy wasn't actually saying this out loud, although if someone had walked by and saw him holding the book and squinting at it, deep in thought, they may have thought him odd anyway.)

He mentally patted himself on the back when he turned to see the spine and saw "597.31566" -- close enough to count as a hit. He didn't expect himself to be able to go further than one digit past the decimal point. Things got crazy after that.
Shelving books was both mentally taxing and yet almost mindless and terribly monotonous. You had to find the exact place where the book went, in this case right between 597.31 and 497.3157. You had to get it exactly right, every time. No mistakes were allowed, because if a book was misshelved, it might never be found. Although part of the job was also keeping your eye out for misshelved books and either re-shelving them or, if they were really badly out of place (a 300 in the 500s, for instance), taking them up front to add to the re-shelf pile for later. And you were expected to do an entire cart in under an hour.

Jeremy hated re-shelving.

"Excuse me?"

He looked up, and was astonished to see the girl from earlier that day. She had come back wanting help with finding information on how the Contstitution came to be written. "It's a history class, and we just did the revolutionary war, so I think that's what he wants us to do." He pointed her to the Collier Brothers "Decision in Philadelphia" and the Federalist Papers, and showed her how to use the library catalog online, including how to print out a request to take to the counter for books in the closed stacks.

He had also pointed out to her that if she lived closer to another branch she could order books online and pick them up at her local branch in a day or two. "Probably not for this project, but maybe in the future." Then he showed her some online resources the library maintains, reachable from her home computer, that were based on print sources that would probably be acceptable to her teacher -- "I'd ask your teacher first, to make sure, though."

She did seem less sullen by the time he left her at the computer with the catalog, but he hadn't thought of her as his first Mike-style success or anything. But here she was, two hours or so later, interrupting his filing.

"Did you need something, Miss?" he asked.

"Um, well. . . Do you know how to find someone online? Like, find out where they live and their phone number and stuff? If they're not in the phone book, I mean?"
He was thunderstruck. He did, indeed, know a few ways to do that. And it had never even occurred to him to try to look up Liliana.

By the time he explained to her where she needed to go to get help he could just help her himself, he figured, so he left his cart and took her to a free terminal. They started with Yahoo, even though they generally only had listed phone numbers, and he showed her how to find some more. Most of the ones that might be of some real use to her were, unfortunately, hugely expensive -- $25 was the cheapest, and they went up to $150, and none of them promised results so it could just be money down the drain. He wasn't able to help her, and then he had to really rush to try to get his books re-shelved on time, and in fact didn't make it.

"Sorry, I was helping a patron," he started to explain to Cecelia, his supervisor, but she waved him off tolerantly and gave him a wry smile. He guessed she'd seen him with Ashley.

Sure enough. "Cute girl," she said.

"Was she?" he said," I didn't notice. Just trying to help a library patron. Customer service is what we're all about, right?"

She laughed.

As soon as he could get a free minute, he sat down at his own computer and went to Yahoo People.

That was no good. You needed a last name. He didn't know her last name. He mentally kicked himself for not finding out her last name. He couldn't even look her up in the phone book, even if she was listed!

He tried half a dozen people search sites. They all required a last name. He figured "Liliana" would be uncommon enough that he wouldn't have to have a last name, not like "John" or "Ashley," but they wouldn't even let him try.

Until he came to Intelius. Intelius didn't care that he didn't have a last name. They'll let you search with whatever you've got.

Unfortunately, they turned up no Lilianas in the state of Missouri.

He didn't know if Intelius included unlisted phone numbers or not. He suspected not. Most of the free search sites didn't. He knew there were services that tracked people by aggregating a variety of public and private databases, everything from drivers license and voter registration to those sweepstakes things you fill out to win a car at a baseball game. But the St. Louis Public Library didn't subscribe to any of them, so he didn't have access.

He had been so intoxicated by her that he'd never gotten her name, her phone number, any way to get in touch with her. She said she would see him again soon, but she left without saying where or when. He had no way to get in touch with her, no way to find her. All he could do was go back to the ruins at the fountain pond and hope she showed up again. And what would he do if she didn't?

He shook his head, sadly. He didn't know what he was going to do.