What do librarians think about? Every week I exchange words with them and every week I walk away wondering: do they ever read the books that put food on their tables? Where is the quirkiness that goes with bookishness? They have, instead, certain employer-imposed behaviours that can make or break my day in a two-minute encounter. National Library librarians are silent and serious, always well-dressed, sometimes helpful, seldom more knowledgeable than me about the book I seek. National University librarians are closer to retirement, slow to attend the counter and slower to answer my questions. Public library librarians are young and energetic, more of them male, more of them migrants, at once serving two customers and aiding three other librarians. But of all the librarians that fill my week, none can compare with the women in the little Catholic University on the corner, five minutes’ bike ride from my house.
The Catholic librarians are a special group. Quiet, controlled, suspicious, pale-skinned and small-smiled. Employed through a joy filter. Practical women who can explain the system without expression or superfluity, leaving me to wonder if they ever read more than the call number.
And yet! When I need to fire young imagination or teach literacy through literature, all I need is the Catholic library, the most excellent of all for tutors like me. If I need to teach perfect pronunciation to adults or social justice to children, there are posters listing the books I need. Shelves are loaded with children’s literature and mind-changing novels and histories, filled to the ceiling with up-to-date books by broad-minded authors, about family and culture and difference and music.
The women behind the counter, did they acquire these books? Surely they are mistresses, hunting out secret pleasures to please their book-lovers.
When they don a pious mask and slip behind the counter to take my book selection, scan it, swipe it and push it back to me with a small comment and a smaller smile, what are they thinking about?