Check It Out: Finding Romance And Adventure in the Library

By Dawn Goldsmith
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 14, 2008

We in the library business have a peculiar sense of bookish humor.

As I return a copy of "Pudd'nhead Wilson" to the fiction shelf in the public library branch where I hold the delightfully appropriate title of "page," I give Mark Twain an extra pat to align his spine with the neighboring volumes. I visualize the author stroking his mustache, eyes twinkling, a happy man flanked by two bodice-rippers. A literary ménage à trois if ever there was one.

We are amused by such serendipitous juxtapositions. A co-worker points out that wedding planner books sit beside fairy tales. (This is the woman who gets heart palpitations whenever she enters the children's section. "Disorder does that to me," she says.) Here, among the biographies, the Bee Gees hobnob with Beethoven, the energetic Mother Teresa with electrifying inventor Nikola Tesla. On one nonfiction shelf, Iraq, Israel and Lebanon peacefully coexist.

We also find unexpected truths hidden in plain sight. Biographies are denoted by the letter B, followed by the subject's name. A colleague notes the label on a life of the late actor Christopher Reeve: B Reeve. Bereave.

I grew up next-door to the local library, and it was always the first place I thought to go when I wanted adventure or answers. I learned of the Holocaust while sitting on the floor of the library. I learned about human sexuality and humor, and lust and love and how to tell the difference. I learned of tragedy and melodrama and made friends with such amazing people, authors and characters alike: Louisa May Alcott and Meg; Herman Melville and Captain Ahab; Charles Dickens and Oliver Twist. I discovered Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney and the world of Gothic romance.

To spend my days with these old friends -- such a pleasure. But it wasn't until I began working in our local branch that I discovered library humor.

From the head librarian to the lowly page who reshelves books, we seek out these oddities and ironies. For many of them we give thanks -- particularly during this National Library Week -- to that pre-Google search engine, Dewey's Decimal Classification System.

Melvil Louis Kossuth Dewey published his scheme of sorting books by subject in 1876, taking library science from an avocation to a profession and himself from young library assistant to the Father of Modern Librarianship. So in tune was he with simplification and order, he dropped the extraneous "le" from his first name and for a time, the story goes, spelled his surname "Dui."

Dewey's hierarchical system begins with a broad classification and narrows to the specific. It starts with 000, which is Generalities in its most general terms. Each subsequent number is assigned to a related topic, from the grand Knowledge (001) through forgeries and hoaxes (098), until with 100 it opens a new subject, philosophy. The system continues out to the far reaches of the universe, the Extraterrestrial Worlds of 999.

Dewey's inspired addition of a decimal point makes it possible to create ever-expanding space within each numbered topic. Infinity, symbolized by a dot. Dewey's system also offers bookworms and bibliophiles an endless source of smiles, insight and puzzles.

Astrology shares an aisle with religion. Writing and fly-fishing -- both involving technique, solitude, meditation and a lot of luck -- share a shelf. True crime gives way to home schooling. I grin at the 000 section, where ghosts and UFOs sit cover to cover with the floppy how-to paperbacks filled with computer software directions. How appropriate that Dewey's system would place the ethereal and otherworldly on the fringes of cyberspace.

As I shelve books, I wonder about some of Dewey's choices. Books of baby names rest beside ancient history -- the cradles of civilization? -- and next to the pirate section, an array of travel books spans the seven seas.

With the responsibility to bring together books about our immense world, our small library strains at its bindings. Unlike true bibliophiles from Ptolemy to Julius Caesar to Dewey, the county budget committee sees libraries as social meeting places rather than repositories of civilization's building blocks. We squeeze books together so tightly, when we remove one, the whole shelf exhales and expands.

But our patrons make room for themselves. A favorite 80-year-old man lies spread-eagled on the floor, searching a bottom shelf for the latest Dean Koontz suspense thriller. A young mother kneels prayerfully before the books on child-raising. Out of her sight in an adjacent aisle, her toddler clears every book off the lower shelves. To reach their goals, our shorter patrons hop in place like Jack Russell terriers or do a rep of step aerobics using the library's stools. Groups of adolescent boys predictably gather books from the human sexuality section. They read them in the how-to and handicrafts aisle.

I make my silent way past them, stocking shelves and schlepping books, work as ancient as libraries themselves. Thankfully we pages no longer stack clay tablets or carry scrolls in wooden buckets, but in a way those were the good old days, when every leader lusted to build his own library and fill it with all the knowledge in the world.

Some of these bibliomaniacs didn't use the most ethical book collection methods. In 48 B.C., when Julius Caesar occupied Alexandria, Cleopatra urged him to check out the library. And check it out he did. He sent shiploads of books back to Rome, filling the shelves of his own dream library. Rumor has it that Mark Antony, his rival for the affections of the Egyptian queen, "borrowed" books from a Greek library to restock the shelves for Cleopatra.

How romantic.

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