So it Goes (at the Lilly)

Working at the Lilly Library provides a different experience each day.

From my vantage point of the front desk, I observe the amount of activity in the gallery ebb and flow. Staff swap out exhibits, carrying large glass cases back and forth. Patrons’ rubber-soled shoes squeak on the wood floor as they peer into cases. Somber white men (well, one woman; you guessed it, white) gaze stoically from their perches within glossy oil paintings, while muted light from the automobile-sized chandelier in the Lincoln Room gives everything a vaguely unnatural glow. The marble, the wood-paneled walls, the high ceilings: it’s all very patrician. And then there’s me, decked out in a floral print dress and cardigan more often than not, just trying to keep it all together.

My job is to watch people. Follow protocol. Use my best judgment. There are obvious things, and then there are the gray areas, just like real life. (Coats aren’t allowed in the gallery, but what about the thin jackets of early fall?) Often it is calm, allowing me time to read, but when chaos hits, it hits hard. Sudden peaks of activity are intense while they last, though they’re ultimately unsustainable. For instance: 

A pack of visitors with plenty of questions straggles in, while staff are either leaving for lunch (handing me their name badge) or coming back from lunch (requesting their name badge back). Students enrolled in the manuscripts or rare books class enter, trying to break through the pack of curious strangers; meanwhile, the phone rings. The caller has an ambiguous inquiry so you’re not sure who this person should be transferred to. You send it to a staff member who you think will know who should take it, hoping it won’t seem an egregious error on your part. Meanwhile, a member of the staff has shown up near the desk, probably to check if another staff member is in the building, but the visitors are midsentence and you’re trying to be attentive to them, since they were here first…

Out the corner of your eye you spot a student decked out in cap, jeans and boulder-sized backpack dart in through the door. He’s fast, and you know his type: kid who sees the word library and runs in to find a study space, not realizing that we aren’t exactly that sort of library. You know you’ve got to raise your voice a bit: “Excuse me, sir, can I help you?” He looks confused, then annoyed as he tears his earbuds out. “What?” he says, rooted to the spot in the middle of the gallery, unmoving. The crowd of staff and question-asking patrons all watch. You keep your voice pleasant. “We don’t have any study areas here. This is a rare books library, but you’re welcome to look at the exhibits if you put your bag in the free lockers around the corner.” He looks dumbfounded, turns and shuffles out. 

You turn back to your group, which has now grown bigger because a new patron has walked in and she wants to use the Reading Room; this will require you to get her name and fill out a pass for her, which you cannot do because you’re attending to the others, but you smile apologetically in her direction for this inconvenience. The staff member interrupts the group during a pause and asks their question; you check the roster and hope that the person working the desk before you marked it correctly–if not, the staff person will think you were the one who didn’t mark down a colleague’s reentry into the building, they’ll think you’re slacking at your job. The visitors begin chatting again, half directed toward you, half directed at their friends. The visitors’ eyes all stare expectantly at you. 

This is an extreme scenario, obviously, but you get the point: it can be hectic. The combination of managing a ringing phone, patrons who are ignorant of the rules, upkeep of the roster, lockers that fill up causing students to stack their belongings in precarious piles behind the desk, Reading Room passes and buzzer… it has its challenges, but it is doable and most of the time I feel completely capable. However, it’s easy to get tripped up. My point in writing about this? I felt very tripped up yesterday. I’ve been getting accustomed to my jobs at the Lilly: finally remembering to initial the many things that need to be initialed in the Reading Room (for the most part), finally remembering most Lilly staff names, getting better at answering common patron questions… so yesterday felt like a huge step backward. 

Yesterday there were multiple simultaneous classes going on in the morning, as well as a few medium-sized groups of Lilly newbies–i.e., folks who were walking by and saw a big gray building with no other description than “LILLY LIBRARY” and decided to come in since they have some down time. There were about 6 or 7 of them, middle-aged, just wanting to poke around. Women had small purses, no giant bags, so I let them know they could put their purses in the lockers if they wanted to but it wasn’t necessary. I smiled and let them know to ask me if they had any questions.

Most headed toward the Lincoln room, in the back of the gallery space but technically its own room. With a cursory glance and a mindset of there’s nothing to see here, I noticed many members of the small group break away, remaining in the main gallery. However, my eye then suddenly snagged on a man who had been toward the back of the cluster of incoming people, now visible to me as clutching a distinctive cup emblazoned with an ivory and emerald emblem: a Starbucks cup.

Needless to say, beverages are not allowed in the exhibition spaces. By the time I spotted the poor fellow and his (unbeknownst to him) contraband item, he was sliding out of my line of sight (I cannot see into the Lincoln room from the front desk, and I must remain planted at the desk). Just as I was about to raise my voice significantly and practically yell to get his attention–that’s what the amount of room between myself and the visitor would now require–a professor teaching a class intercepted him and let him know that beverages were not allowed in the galleries. I was immediately grateful, but after a moment of relief I felt a wave of embarrassment overtake me. It would appear that I couldn’t do my job, that I was lazy or inattentive or just didn’t realize the gravity of the situation. To make matters worse, I have a lot of respect for the professor in question. Though I’m not in any of his classes he often smiles at me and will stop to ask how my semester is going–unnecessary kindnesses from a busy and important man. 

I realize that I care, that I pay attention, that I do my job to the best of my ability at all times; if asked, I would have explained the complexities of the situation. But I felt ashamed to think that others might label me just another student worker. From the coffee incident on, my day just felt off. It didn’t help that in the afternoon I was chastised (lightly) by a librarian based on a decision another librarian had made and supported. That is definitely not fun, because it was a small enough issue that I didn’t want to be the tattle-tale. I felt every bit the incompetent, never-going-to-fit-in fool. I am not beating myself up over this and I wouldn’t even label my day a bad day, though it had plenty of unfortunate elements (a department accepting applications for a spring GAship stopping the process early and causing me to be absolutely crestfallen, waiting for several entities to respond to me via email who are WELL past the appropriate time to reply, having a backpack jam into my face on the bus when we hit a bumpy spot and someone wasn’t holding on–yes, it was that sort of a day). But I feel better today. So it goes.

Even though my time at the Lilly yesterday was a long five hours, there were the Australian and South African accents of two patrons, which was nice, and I did sit next to both the Oscar statuette that John Ford won for The Grapes of Wrath in 1940 and a brooch containing a lock of Edgar Allan Poe’s hair… I cannot complain too much; the Lilly always has its unexpected wonders.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *