Night Thoughts


Snipets of dreams floated to theThe adds msurface but they were actual memory fragments intended to either shed light or stir up questions.

While in library school I worked full time for the college which included regular shifts at the Reference Desk. The undergraduate college was (and still is) a woman’s’ college but male students from a nearby engineering school like to spend their library study time in proximity to women their age so they often used our library to study in the evenings. While I was the Reference Desk person on one of those evenings, a young man approached the desk seeking help as he was unsure of how to research his topic for his first academic paper. He was an International student by accent and demeanor. I, literally, walked him through each step of the research process, using printed indices (this was a few years short of digitized information) and then on to the cabinets of microfilm, explaining how to use the readers for the microfilm reels, and then how to print out the articles he needed. Throughout this mini crash course on the academic research methods of the time, I repeatedly stressed to him that he must annotate every one of the sources he was about to use. Every printout was to carry the author, article title, journal title, place, full date of publication, and page numbers. He was bright and quick but his undoing, and mine as it turned out, was that he apparently decided that only some of parts of the process he was hearing were worth retaining. There was an underlying attitude which I interpreted as related to my being a woman. It wasn’t a stretch to “read” the situation or his attitude. He considered it his prerogative to measure the worth of my instruction, to decide for himself if what I was saying was important. He was free to ignore what did not suit him. On another evening days or weeks later he again appeared before me at the desk demanding that I produce the publishing information which, having been completely ignored by him, had not been recorded so therefore could not be included in either footnotes or bibliography, a cause (explained to him by his professor) for a failing grade for his paper. The manual nature of gathering the necessary research was straightforwardly smooth. However, reversing the process was like looking for needles in a haystack, time consuming and exceedingly difficult. Not once did he take any kind of responsibility for his failure to heed the initial instruction nor were thanks given as I helped him with his agonizing process of retrieval. Never mind that he was not a student at the college where I worked; I was a woman whose job was to fix his mess.

Years later at another college, now fully credentialed as a Reference Librarian, a professor sent me her young student from Afghanistan who was caught in the same belief system concerning the value of women. She had tried to instruct him in the necessary steps of writing an academic research paper but his resistance had worn her out. She called me and asked if I would work with him.This was at a time when the war in his nation was with Russia, long before the U.S quagmire there. Somehow this young man had gotten out of that country, alone. Later, and with help, his drive and intelligence earned him sponsors which enabled his enrollment in this expensive and academically challenging college. But once again having instructional help to aid him in the necessity of research techniques became difficult. He was admirable and likable, but his blinders preventing any recognition that a woman was worthy of intellectual, academic help nearly brought his professor and me to our knees.

During my years at that Reference Desk a routine part of my job was attaching barcodes to college IDs so the holders of these IDs could check out needed materials from the collections. There were a few outstanding moments, all performed within the boundaries of the American Library Association’s strict code of privacy. Holding to that principle I can still safely share some moments of profound respect, or shock, or awareness of a few memorable exchanges. Here are some standouts:

On an ordinary evening shift I asked the student standing at the desk with an ID with no barcode. I proceeded to ask for the necessary, routine information. Home city? “Srebrenica”. This was at the height of the war there, in 1995. My face remained impassive but my heart was fracturing withholding my unasked questions and concerns for that student. Just the name of that city brought images from nightly newscasts: murder, rape, sniper fire, and massacre. How did that student who was standing in this quiet, shared space ever get here? How could this young person be standing in front of me as a student at an American college, expected to be doing demanding work? I was humbled by her very presence. [For a reminder of those times see:

Over the years I changed quite a number of names on IDs necessitated by gender transitions by both students and faculty. I thought of each person as a brave and intrepid soul. For each newly altered ID I added an intangible, imaginary, “glue” to each barcode, a wish for strength and perseverance.

One evening I was approached by a new professor who also needed a barcode. Again there was the address question. He told me he was at the college for one semester having come from Tehran as a Visiting Professor. Such a soft and quiet voice. Such a humble demeanor. How I longed to buy him a cup of coffee or invite him to dinner so I could ask him how he had gotten to where he was now at a time our countries were at a standoff. For the next few months I’d see him in the library from time to time, always unacknowledged of course, the code of privacy remaining intact while my questions slowly died.

There were famous, and not the quite or not quite yet famous, writers who would appear suddenly, followed by rushing away with the needed code. Under determined anonymity many names and faces are gone from my memory banks. This was how I understood what was necessary to do my job professionally. I think that far more than once my face quickly became blank in an attempt to not show my surprise or delight.

I was certainly less human (and humane) than I wanted to be, but that was how I’d been trained. There were professional boundaries that were sacrosanct. Now so many years and so far away from that environment I now get to rethink other possibilities.

All of these thoughts came swirling in the night allowing me a form of specific self forgiveness for now I do not need to remember to read the “shoulds”, the nitty gritty recent scholarship times about slavery, genocide, and atrocity. In these, my late years, having even one person standing across from me whose history could have easily been a micro experience of similarly large tragedies did it’s job in opening my awareness. I learned, from one being at a time, even if we never exchanged specifics.

We humans have wrecked havoc and continue to do so at what now feels an alarming increase in scope and place. Is being in the presence of just one person whose life has been disrupted in such ways enough or do we need entire armies of them? I have answered my question for myself. I leave the larger histories to others.

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