The surprising things I learned at the library

It was a great joy to tuck myself among the shelves, hidden from direct visual supervision.

'Gently, gently, gently," Miss Gay whispered as she stood at the light switch in the library's main reading room and slowly mimed off-on, off-on, off-on.

She was teaching me how to send a soft 15-minutes-to-closing signal to the feasting minds bowed over books like pigeons over peanuts.

Miss Gay hadthe spirit of a career librarian. She was devoted to the needs and comforts of her patrons at the Parkman Branch Library, named in honor of the American historian Francis Parkman, and located on elegant Oakman Boulevard in the upper-left ventricle of Detroit's heart.

I was there to spend the afternoons and weekends of my high school senior year doing the pageboy's work of shelving books, "reading shelves"to maintain accurate book placement, and fetching esoteric volumes from the stacks.

Reading shelveswas necessitated by patrons' removal and their mostly misguided - although well-intentioned - replacement of books.

Seated at a section of shelving, I'd thrust myself into Melvil Dewey's decimal system and set about putting three-foot runs of books back into their proper order.

To this day, I find it unforgettable, and somewhat mystifying, that in Dewey's hierarchical view of the world, No. 215, Science and Religion, is followed by No. 216, Good and Evil.

A great joy was to tuck myself on a low stool among the shelves of the Technology corner, where a waist-high ell of shelves hid me from Miss Gay's direct visual supervision.

Concealed, I'd turn the 30-minute shelf-reading task into a half-hour exploration of books fore and aft of, say, Dewey 620: mighty volumes, heavily illustrated, containing all the then-known truths about automobile engines, airplanes, bridge construction, radio, hydroelectric systems, and other knowledge vital to a 17-year-old's well-rounded life.

I learned that when assigned to shelve books in the stacks, the wise pageboy would contain his glee, heading for the broad marble stairway while evincing only resolve and responsibility.

Once there, alone in the attic of this grand, baronial structure - lacking only a moat to be a fantastic medieval castle - I was surrounded, it seemed, with every book ever read, every book never read, and many books seldom read.

There were books restricted because of their "naughty" content, as determined by the Naughtiness Police. There were issues of National Geographic stretching back to what seemed to be the beginning of geography. And there were the lead-glass windows, about two feet wide and four feet high, that cranked open sideways, permitting access to the fresh snowfall on the gable rooftops. Oh, what joy to digest new snow and an old magazine at the same time.

A curious assignment for a pageboy at Parkman was the nightly hiding of the cash box. How much could have been in it from a day of overdue book fines at a neighborhood branch library? Three dollars? Nine? If I were going to burglarize this place, I'd come with a reading list. Yet, it obviously was not loss of books that Miss Gay feared, but that daily collection of pennies and nickels.

So each evening at closing, one of the counter clerks would hand the cash box to a pageboy, who would place it into the dumbwaiter, which usually carried returned books up to the stacks.

Then he'd press a button to send the little elevator upward, and at the same time reach into a Rube Goldberg electrical-connection panel, with a wooden clothespin striking a revolving disk that short-circuited the system, leaving the dumbwaiter stranded and hidden between floors until morning. That's when a counter clerk would flip the snapped circuit breaker to bring down the dumbwaiter. I thought it was sophomoric, but I loved the sparks.

Miss Gay was filled with as many directions as a Rand McNally Atlas. But long-serving pageboys soon taught me their interpretations of her procedures, augmented with smart-aleck teen variations:

Miss Gay's "Gently, gently, gently" flashing of the 8:45 p.m. light signal was, in pageboy practice (and in her absence), harsh and rapid, more like a burst of machine-gun fire across a trench somewhere on the Western Front. While no blood was shed, the attack was notable for the occasional sight of a startled reader jumpingup from a chair.

However, I think that Miss Gay would have been pleased that her sense of order eventually seeped into me, as was spontaneously revealed recently during a visit to a suburban library.

I told a librarian there that the directional signs on the ends of the shelves were grammatically incorrect.

"How?" she asked.

"For example," I said, "they say '250's-320's.' Those are possessive forms of the numerals. You want plurals - no apostrophes."

Without hesitation, she said, "Is that important?"

"Only if you consider this institution a source of accurate information," I answered.

Visiting there again a week later, I saw that all the signs had been changed. "Good work," I could hear Miss Gay tell me, speaking gently, gently, gently.

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