Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Perry-Castaneda Library

I was just thinking about the people I worked with back at the Perry-Castaneda Library at UT-Austin. The jobs there were state jobs, and thus extremely undemanding and secure: pension plan, lots of days off, not a whole lot to do, although very low pay. There were LOTS of "lifers" there.

Almost universally, my co-workers were disgruntled slackers. Many had advanced degrees (in things like "art" and "music" and "philosophy" and "English"), but were too lazy to put them to use in a more competitive and rewarding (both intellectually and financially) environment. The slackers liked not having too much asked of them. But, to compensate for the mind-numbing deadness of the jobs, which these overeducated folk were all-too-aware of, they (OK, "WE") had to constantly try to make ourselves feel superior by belittling what we were doing, belittling the "system," taking naps at work, etc.

I was kind of a freak in this environment. While I participated in the constant bitching (and, near the end of my stay there, also took frequent naps in my office), I was also initially very much of a go-getter.

For instance: When books were turned in by patrons, they were sent to one of the 4 floors where they belonged. Once there, they were held in "distribution" until they could be shelved in their exact spots.

When I started as a floor supervisor (my first full-time job, when I was 21), the distribution area on my floor (the busiest) was constantly overflowing and sat for days and days, making it impossible for patrons to find their books on the regular shelves.

My first move was to get rid of the overflow sections, guessing that their very presence made the shelvers not worry about getting the books shelved, since they could always just dump them into overflow. (I was right, psychologically, about that.)

Then I tried to figure out why it was that my floor was always running into overflow, while 2 of the other 3 floors' distribution areas were usually empty. First I checked with my boss about the number of work hours for shelvers allotted to each floor. Almost identical. Despite the fact that my floor and the 4th floor were obviously more heavily used and had more books than the other two floors. When I asked my boss about this, he didn't believe me! He insisted that it was "fair" for all 4 floors to have the same number of hours.

So I figured out a way to PROVE to him that the busier floors should indeed have a bigger team of shelvers: Keep statistics. The shelvers always did "pick-ups" of books left on tables and in the copy room every day, but until then no one had thought to keep a count of each book picked up. Also, no one had thought to count the number of books that were shelved every day. I suggested to my boss that we do a test for one month: All floors would keep records of pick-ups and of books shelved. Shelvers would enter pick-up totals on a chart, which would be tallied at the end of the month. And when they or I put together a cart of books and shelved them, we would count the books and put the total on a card; I would tally all the cards at the end of the month.

My boss surprisingly agreed to the experiment. ("Surprisingly" because he was generally a lazy-ass and he disliked me!) At the end of the month: Voila! The counts showed that my floor had something like double the usage of the next busiest floor. And the two floors whose distribution areas had always been clean had the lowest usage stats of all. My boss had to admit that I was right. After that, keeping stats became mandatory for all floors and, more importantly, work hours were allocated appropriately.

Other changes I instituted (though just for my floor): Previously, there were no expectations on how many books a shelver should be able to shelve in an hour. Since I'd been a student shelver myself for 2 years before becoming the supervisor, I knew that it took about a half-hour to shelve a cart of books (roughly 100 books). I didn't ask this of my employees, but I did ask that they be able to shelve a cart in ONE hour. (On their sign-in sheets for work done, I added boxes where they'd write their totals.)

I liked the psychology of this. It lit a fire under the butts of the slackers, who'd been taking 3 hours to do one cart without anyone having any idea of how long they were taking (or what they were doing with all that extra time). And it also rewarded the swift and the diligent workers: Since a cart could be done in a half-hour, this plan gave those people some extra time to browse, etc., once they got their quota done without feeling guilty. (These were, after all, very low-paying jobs. The kids shelving needed SOME minor reward.) Productivity increased tremendously. The slackers were busted and were forced to pick up the pace. The "normal" kids got their reward. The "high achievers" (very few!) continued to go as fast as they had in the past, just for personal satisfaction.

Another change: My floor had areas of books that were completely jam-packed on the shelves, making it nearly impossible to shelve without shifting books around, laying them on top of other books, etc. While several rows down the aisle, there might be dozens of completely empty shelves.

In the worst areas (over 50% of my floor), I organized a massive shift of books, the goal being to have each individual shelf perhaps 2/3rds full, as opposed to some jam-packed and others empty.

When shelvers had free time, or maybe an odd 20 minutes left over at the end of their shift, I'd have them move books. I created a chart where they would write their starting and stopping points. (Where one stopped, the next could easily see where to take up again.) Slowly but surely, the entire floor got shifted, making it much easier for patrons to find their books and for the students to shelve them.

I must add that I also once made the highly tedious effort of walking around the whole floor and writing down where the light-bulbs needed to be replaced! The floor had been seeming dark and dingy to me. Was it psychological?? No... It really was the lights, and not me, that were (literally) burnt out! :) Over a quarter of all the lights had been out! No one believed me when I presented my exact locations of all the burnt-out bulbs, and it of course took forever for maintenance to get up there and fix things, but once they did... it made a huge difference.

I look back on my first job with mixed feelings. As I mentioned, my boss was a total slacker. He was just there for the security and didn't give a shit about how things were run. I never got rewarded either verbally or financially for all the work that I did or the improvements that I made, both to the floor physically and to the system as a whole. And when a new position was created -- floor coordinator -- I applied for it and clearly deserved it and was the best qualified. But the guy gave the job to someone who, like him, had been hanging around the library system for 20 years. And who was notoriously ineffectual and a slacker herself. That's when I quit in disgust. Such wasted energy! And such anger on my part at being unappreciated and passed over.

But when I look back on the whole experience now: Writing just now about all the positive and sane changes I single-handedly put in place (when I was just a kid of 21!) makes me feel good. Screw the deadbeat boss and his not liking me (and thus fucking up my life for the time being because I was too proud to stay on where I'd been dissed).

I was a darn good floor supervisor. And I did things, not to garner favor with the boss but rather because they were the best, and most intelligent, things to do regarding the running of the floor, DESPITE what the incompetent boss thought or wanted, despite my dead end there after he black-balled me.

Right now, reading over the above, I keep thinking with disbelief: "Such mental battles when I was only 21! Shouldn't a 21-year-old girl have been more concerned with her nails?" Weirdly, this 21-year-old just wanted to see the books shelved efficiently...


Aside from work experiences, the PCL was also an interesting, sometimes bizarre, universe personally.

When I was a freshman, I saw a guy jacking off there, which scared the hell out of me.

I met my best friend and her sister there. (When smoking was still legal in buildings, we all used to gather in my office and eat McDonald's and smoke and smoke and talk and talk...)

I met my to-this-day good friend Jerry, a fellow floor supervisor, there.

I fell in love as a freshman, from afar, with a David Bowie-lookalike who studied at the same time and in the same area as me each evening.

Some boys in the library fell in love with me: One got carried away and slapped me on my ass on day. One drew me pictures. One patron slipped a note into a book: "I'd like to meet a sexy librarian."

One co-worker, a night-time desk supervisor with whom I talked frequently, once called me down to the desk to do a search for a book; when I found the book, there was a set of expensive silver earrings -- a gift from him -- waiting there also!

I met and got along wonderfully with some "Leo-boy" co-workers there, and we had a few "Leo Nights Out" at strip clubs.

In the pre-Internet days, I would spend hours in the stacks researching my current celebrity favorite from old bound issues of magazines. (Where I first discovered and learned to love Joan Crawford.)

One day, coming in to work late with a hangover, I dropped a slice of pizza face-down on the pavement. And then picked it up and ate it, I was so hungry and oblivious.

And: When I was in the middle of my profound first poetry writing class, I would gather up poetry books and sit by a window for hours and read and think and think and stare at the pigeons mating on the sills. Here's a poem I wrote back in '86 or something, about the pigeons, as seen from the window of the PCL:


The pigeons are mating
and he jumps on her with a solid
or whatever crazy sound
horny pigeons make...
and then they are flying --
to a more private window sill or perhaps
just to spite the voyeur

They have pride
and will not be subjects
born of a moment's boredom

Five minutes later they return
masking annoyance
nodding cool forgiveness through the glass

They are gentle now
beaks and breasts touch
heads form a silent heart-shaped arc
and she crouches, murmuring softly
then crouches lower still
until he jumps again, this time
with a noble ease that flattens her

The two sway with the wind

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