There is always this question: “What made you want to become a librarian?”
The answer is difficult and hardly linear.
In answering the question “How did you come to be a librarian?” for a 1982 Paris Review interview, poet-librarian Philip Larkin said, “Oh dear, this means a lot of autobiography” (Phillips).
I began work as a collection development librarian at the University of Wyoming one week after I turned 31. Had you told me at 18 that I’d end up a librarian in my home state—as my mother and maternal grandmother before me did—I would’ve told you that you were out of your mind. I was leaving Wyoming for college in Iowa. I was going to be a journalist. I was going to show you.
By the time I graduated college, journalism had become poetry. I was going to graduate school to study creative writing. I was moving to Seattle from Des Moines. I was trying to be brave about whatever future there was or wasn’t in this process of taking words apart and putting them back together, this concentrated listening, this attunement to possibility.
I was 22. I didn’t know where or how I fit.
There are so many things I’m leaving out.
One of the earliest meanings of the word ‘become’ is to agree with, be fitting.
In the essay “What We Do Not See If We Do Not See” from Agnes Martin: Writings/Schriften, Martin advises, “We have been very strenuously conditioned against solitude. To be alone is considered to be a grievous and dangerous condition. So I beg you to recall in detail any times when you were alone and discover your exact response at those times.”
This passage is repeated on the back cover of the book, bidding the reader farewell from the last possible place words could appear on a book’s body. To me, this little echo is one of the most loving departures a book could yield. Go and remember. Be quiet for a while.
On the first day of June 2014, I’d been a librarian for four months when I rounded a corner at the Denver Art Museum and there was Martin’s The Tree. Issued in 1965—the year that gave us A.R. Ammons’s Tape for the Turn of the Year, George Oppen’s This in Which, and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel—Martin’s painting is acrylic and graphite on canvas, a barely perceptible, intricate grid in which to be.
I remember knowing without having fully turned toward the painting that it was Martin’s. Her work is unmistakable. And here I was turning and planting myself as best I could to look at her painting amid a milling crowd.
More and more, I end up wondering how I’m alive to see whatever it is I think I’m seeing. How can I tell you that light, time, and patience were in front of me in that place, on that day in and with The Tree. How do I say I was happy and have it sound believable.
One of my favorite songs is “Karen” by The Go-Betweens. It’s a love song to a librarian. It sounds not unlike something The Modern Lovers or The Feelies might’ve come up with. There are only three chords in the progression to Robert Forster’s half-spoken, half-sung anthem. About writing the song, Forster said, “...there was kindness in the library, and then you walk out into the harsh real world.”
In the song’s seventh verse, Forster sings:
And she stands there in a library
Like a nun in a church does
Like a nun in a church does
She stands there all alone
I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t thought of myself as Karen while listening to the song.
Before returning to Wyoming, I lived in Seattle for nearly a decade. The last job I held there was in archives and reference in Special Collections at the University of Washington Libraries. The papers of the poet Theodore Roethke are one of the most well-known—and one of the most requested—of the department’s collections. It makes sense: Roethke was an English professor at Washington for 16 years. A writer can’t go long in Seattle without hearing Roethke’s name.
During one of my shifts at the reference desk, a man approached me and said, “I’m hoping you might be able to help me.” I replied, “I’ll give it my best shot.” Then I listened. The man proceeded to tell me that one of his father’s notebooks might be somewhere in one of the collections. His father had written poetry while he was in the Army. After the Army, he studied English at Washington, where one of his writing professors liked his work so much that the professor kept his notebook.
“What was the professor’s name?” I asked. And then: “Theodore Roethke.” After that, the man’s father’s name. The name appeared in the inventory for the papers. I went to the archives, to the Student Work section of Roethke’s papers, and pulled the box said to have the notebook in it.
At the desk, I undid the box and handed a folder to the man. His father’s notebook was there, as were Roethke’s annotations. It was the first time anybody had cried in front of me in a library. Awhile later, the man asked me, “Are you a writer? You seem like a writer.” I said, “Yes. How did you know?” He replied, “Your face changed when I said my father wrote poetry. You lit up.”
A 35-minute ferry ride from Seattle is Bainbridge Island. One of the places I loved to visit was The Bloedel Reserve, a public garden and forest preserve on Bainbridge. In his statement of philosophy and purpose, Prentice Bloedel wrote: “The Reserve is a place to experience the bond between people and nature. It is a place for people but not in clamorous crowds.” Bloedel intended that the trail through the Reserve be walked alone or with one other person. I was usually alone.
There were deer, ducks, swans; flowers whose names I didn’t know; gradations of green as much as the eye could register; and always nearby: water. Toward the end of the walk through the Reserve, there’s a Japanese sand and rock garden in what was once a swimming pool. Theodore Roethke drowned there while he was visiting the Bloedels in August 1963. The coroner said it was a heart attack. The story goes that there were mint juleps. No matter, Roethke’s name appears nowhere.
O my floating life
Do not save love
to the flood
by the flood
Leave the new unbought—
all one in the end—
Collection development: what does that mean? This is another question that’s always there now. When people ask me what I do for work, I answer “I’m a librarian.” For most, that’s enough. A few will make a half-hearted joke about Dewey Decimal Classification. The rest move on to talking about the weather or excusing themselves for another drink.
What I want to tell them is that it took me 30 years to understand how and why I’m wired for puzzles, that I’m not myself if I don’t spend a significant amount of time alone and thinking, that everything library-related I do is—in one way or another—my way of saying, “Look at this: I want you to have this. This means something.”
I see phrases in researching collection development—library as memory institution, digital objects, forms of information, a sorting out of the components of the universe—that seem to want to align themselves with poetry. I’m reminded here of lines from Wallace Stevens’s “Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit”—
If there must be a god in the house, let him be one
That will not hear us when we speak: a coolness,
A vermilioned nothingness, any stick of the mass
Of which we are too distantly a part.
Though there’s a physical separation where poetry and librarianship are concerned—I don’t work on both at the same time; I spend more time on one (librarianship) than I do on the other (poetry)—characteristics of the two practices have fused in my mind. As a librarian and poet, I’m constantly sifting through information and objects to get to what’s needed. I’m making decisions about what stays, what goes, and what to acquire. I’m rearranging. I’m gathering. I’m making order.
In his lecture “Poetry in Process and Book of Magazine Verse,” the poet Jack Spicer—who briefly worked in the Boston Public Library’s Rare Books Department—said, “…if a Martian comes into a room and sees a baby’s alphabet blocks, he’ll obviously use them to communicate. …He’ll simply rearrange them into an order which makes very good sense Martian-wise, and doesn’t too much Earthman-wise, and he’ll just use them.”
The next time I’m asked what I do for work, I’ll say, “I think Martian-wise. And I think Earthman-wise.”
Bloedel, Prentice. “Bloedel Reserve Philosophy & Purpose.” The Bloedel Reserve. Web. 30 June 2014.
Martin, Agnes. Writings/Schriften. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Publishers. 1998.
Niedecker, Lorine. Paean to Place. Milwaukee: Woodland Pattern; Kenosha: Light and Dust. 2003.
Phillips, Robert. “Philip Larkin, The Art of Poetry No. 30.” The Paris Review No. 84, 1982. Web. 27 June 2014.
Spicer, Jack. “Excerpt from Vancouver Lecture 3: Poetry in Process and Book of Magazine Verse.” Jacket 7, Apr. 1999. Web. 30 June 2014.
Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Knopf Doubleday. 1954.
---. “The Go-Betweens – Karen.” YouTube, LLC. 31 Aug 2009.