My boss gave me an 8/9 on every job rating for my performance review this year because, as he told me, “There’s always room for improvement!” The one item he gave me a 9/9 for was integrity. “You’re about as integral as they come,” he said.
Inwardly, I was squirming because I knew all the things I’ve done that would prove him wrong. The Friday afternoons I’ve snuck out 3:30. Or the time wasted on Facebook and blogs when I’m ostensibly working. And other stuff that I don’t even want to write here (stuff that is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but I’m excessively honest with at least myself). I’m not perfect. I certainly don’t deserve a 9/9 for integrity.
Last month, for example, I told the Chapel Hill librarian that I wasn’t sure what county I lived in, which was a bold-faced lie. I live in Chatham County, although I also live in Chapel Hill, which is mostly in Orange County. It’s a bizarre quirk of geography that one town can preside over two counties. To be fair, when I walked into the library, I really believed that since I was a resident of Chapel Hill that I would be welcomed into the Chapel Hill library, but I was wrong. It’s all about the county and I suppose that makes sense, since it’s your county taxes that support the library.
The librarian, rightfully, didn’t trust me. She pulled out a map and tables of addresses to figure out whether I lived in Orange or Chatham County. It was ambiguous because I almost live on the border itself. I stood there playing dumb. The library looked so nice. I really, really wanted a library card.
The building is modern with a faux-wood veneer on white wall construction that sort of works because there’s so much light, but more importantly, so many books. Stacks and stacks of books. And there was such a nice community feeling to the place. Families entering the building together and then dispersing in total comfort to their favorite sections. Kids quietly roaming, holding books to their chest, asking their parents to read to them. These were my people, my tribe.
The librarian eventually decided that I did indeed live in Orange County as I said, and issued me a library card. I tried to play it cool but I was feeling pretty relieved. I was in the system. There was nothing they could do to kick me out now. I picked out my next Patrick O’Brian book and checked out. I really thought it was all over, but clearly I underestimated the perseverance of county employees.
When I went to sign up for my new library card, the librarian handed me a form that was written in Spanish.
“I…don’t speak or read Spanish,” I told him. He apologized for the mix-up and got me one written in English. We had a good laugh. I made a joke about feeling inadequate for not speaking Spanish. He made a joke about the high standards for getting a library card, you know, since you have to be fluent in Spanish. Ha ha.
Even though I’m still working through my remaining books from the Chapel Hill library, I went ahead and chose a few more from Chatham just to complete the experience. I chose two books of short stories and a graphic novel.
I returned to the library two weeks later to exchange The H.M.S. Surprise for The Mauritius Command. I also picked out a few gardening books. I had zero fear when I went to check out. In fact, I felt really good, like I’d finally made a home of Chapel Hill. If nothing else, this whole experience has helped me realize that I crave a sense of community, which I get at libraries. Wherever we move next the very first thing I should do is get my library card instead of waiting years to do it. I suspect I’ll feel happier from start with where we live instead of the usual depression that establishes itself for a few months. I resist change.
But the librarian kind of paused when he scanned my card. He started to look uncomfortable. Then he asked again if there was any way I could prove I lived in Orange county. I stuttered through some story about having just moved, which was sort of true. We moved in October. He said my library account had essentially been frozen; that an employee had map-quested my house only the night before and raised a red flag when they still couldn’t confirm that I lived in Orange County. (As an aside, this level of scrutiny, kind of creeps me out. A stranger map-quested my house?)
The librarian at the counter apologized and said I could still check out my books that day, but next time I would have to bring in proof of residency. The jig was up. It was nice of him to let me check out those books anyway. I’m sure he really wasn’t supposed to. But I think he felt, as I do, that there’s just something kind of wrong and messed up about denying a person a library book. It seems undemocratic.
Sure, by the letter of the law, it’s wrong to get a library card in a county where you don’t technically live. But why do we even have county libraries? Why not state libraries? I mean, why can’t our state taxes support the library system? Then everyone could have equal access to quality books. As it stands now, libraries are like school systems. If you live in a rich county, then you get access to great schools and resources (paid for with higher taxes, of course). But if you live in a smaller or less populated county, you’re sort of screwed. I grew up that way. Our county, at the time, was fairly rural and low density compared to the other D.C. suburbs. Our libraries were under-stocked and under-resourced. I remember being so frustrated with the lack of references that I was expected to somehow magically find for schoolwork (this pre-internet ubiquity). Even my school had almost no library.
And now I was being asked to go back to Chatham County if I wanted to borrow a book. Chatham is beyond rural and assuredly poorer than Orange county. Yes, we pay less in taxes too. But I would gladly pay an extra fee to use the nicer, closer, and more convenient Chapel Hill library. But what other choice did I have?
So I went to the Chatham Community Library, today, which is located in Pittsboro. Pittsboro is the county seat of Chatham and has its own charms (one word – doughnuts). I was surprised to find that the library itself appears very modern and handsome, more so on the inside. It looks like a nice place to study or write. However, there are not many books, just a few stacks of each section. That’s ok, some books are better than no books, no matter what.
Hall of Small Mammals by Thomas Pierce
I recently read one of Pierce’s short stories that was published in The New Yorker, which was called, This is an Alert. I really liked it; absurd science fiction at its best. In summary, it’s about a family visiting their grandmother for Sunday lunch in the middle of all these constant alarms for a possible chemical weapon attack – an attack that never seems to happen, to the point where everyone isn’t sure whether to take these warnings seriously anymore. I’m sure most people read this as any allegory for today and how we deal with terrorism, but I don’t usually care for allegories so I didn’t read it that way on purpose. I mostly liked how it prepared you to read the story with a lot of irony and skepticism, but by the end, it was deadly serious. It was such a hard right-turn from where you thought the story was going. We get so cynical and feel like we know everything, it was fun to read a story about characters who exhibit those traits and then are terribly, terribly wrong about their perceived threat. I hope that doesn’t give anything away. It’s worth a read.
Philip K. Dick short stories
I’m actually reading Ubik right now and I just happened to see this anthology at the library. As usual, these little libraries have a maddening habit of choosing books from the middle of a series. So they had the collected short story anthology Volume 4, but no other volumes. I mostly wanted to read Minority Report, which was advertised on the cover. I’ve never read Minority Report. I saw the movie and remember almost nothing from it, but considering how much better I think Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is than its corresponding movie, Blade Runner (in some respects anyway), I thought maybe Minority Report, the short story, would similarly speak to me.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
I picked up this graphic novel because I had heard about it on another blog that I read. It sounded interesting, but nothing I would buy to own. It was surprising to see it at the Chatham library among their new books section, so I snatched it up. Perfect opportunity. The author is a regular cartoonist in the New Yorker and I like her work ok. I do love graphic novels and comic books, so I thought this could be interesting.
All right, such a long post, but I’ve been thinking about this issue for weeks. Why should I feel guilty about borrowing books? It bugs me. I’ve never lost a library book. I always return them on time. I just feel like I wouldn’t be doing any harm in Chapel Hill. What do you think? Should we change the way we support libraries? Am I the only one who cares? Possibly. I know it’s not a big deal, but it affects my reading and that’s something that matters to me.