Loud Voices in Quiet Spaces

Today, I was randomly reminded of an old job I had back in college – working as a library page at the Herman B. Wells Library at Indiana University. A job which entailed, on occasion, using a bullhorn inside the normally quiet library.

What triggered this was seeing a janitorial light switch on the wall – something that I learned is considered a “locked” or “tamper-resistant” switch. These switches were near the main elevators on each floor of the library, and the last time I had actually “used” one of them was for this job as an undergrad.

Interesting random fact from the job: we were not allowed to wear headphones of any kind, while working. The “stacks” were, at times, rather isolated, and pages had been assaulted before while wearing headphones (and couldn’t hear someone creeping up on them). So headphones weren’t allowed.

This was all before iPods and earbuds, so headphones in this context implies foam of some kind. And the music you were listening to would likely be coming from a cassette or CD.

Another random fact: one of the jobs of a page was to “shelf read.” Putting a book back in its proper place is called “shelving” a book. Examining a group of books in a certain area, making sure each one is in the proper order/sequence, is called “shelf-reading.”

Each page would get assigned certain areas to shelf-read. And the way that the managers could tell whether someone actually did this work or not was… they planted books that didn’t belong.

I’m not sure this was the most efficient way to go about measuring the task, but that’s how they did it. For each section, they intentionally added a few books that didn’t belong – and if you did a good job, you found all the plants (they kept a running tally of how many each page had found).

My boss at the time started himself as a page, and his name was still on this chart (and he had an astronomical number next his name).

So – anyhow. Bullhorn.

A little before closing time, one page would get a key to the lights and the bullhorn. They’d then go up to the top floor of the library, and on each level they’d flick the lights off and on, off and on. And then hop on the bullhorn, shouting out “The Library will be closing in 10 minutes!”

This would happen on each floor. You never really knew who all might still be on the floor, way back in the stacks. Some people might have fallen asleep, some grad students might still be working in their carousels. But the bullhorn was this booming voice, in a space largely intended to honor silence. You definintely woke people up.

By the time you got through all the floors, it was time to go up to the top again and start the process over. This time, the message would be “The Library is now closed!” And you’d kill the majority of the lights.

Remembering the job led me to think about the juxtaposition of noise and silence, with me being tasked to essentially shout while inside a library. There’s also an irony of being called a “page” inside a building that houses volumes of books, but maybe that’s for another day.

I have fond memories of my time as a page there. I came across Marc Scott Zicree’s Twilight Zone Companion while shelving, and ended up hiding that book so I could keep reading it on subsequent shifts.

The IU Library is also where I first came across the work of Charles Bukowski – and ended up reading a lot of his novels while eating my lunch in the stacks, sitting on the floor. Which then led me to the novels of John Fante, and more lunches on the floor.

I like libraries and books very much. So much so that I briefly considered going to graduate school to become a library (but ended up pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing instead).

I miss my books. They’re all still boxed up from the move, as we’re still waiting on working on the house… and getting the second floor into shape. Looking forward to the day where I can pull them out of boxes, and put them on an actual shelf.

In the proper, alphabetical order, of course.

[CC photo via Natasha Friis Saxberg]

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