Reference librarians know a lot more than they let on. That's why I've never gotten a job in that position. You have to really know shit. And I don't mean like Google knows, that's easy peasy. I mean they know. Whatever you want to know, they know. But as for telling you...that's a different story.
I got lucky one winter and finally got a job as a library page. Part-time stuff, picking up after kids in the children's section and re-organizing the books. I figured it was a dead-end thing and I didn't pay it much mind. I just did my job and that was that.The library was huge and everyone in town loved it but I didn't care because they were only paying minimum wage. My fee for caring about an institution is eighteen dollars per hour. Anything below that and I'm dead-eyed and silent on my shift. Nobody knows me, nobody cares.
So I was a little surprised when a middle-aged man in the stacks tried to get my attention. It took me a few seconds to remember who he was -- one of the reference librarians from upstairs on the main floor. He had that Reference Librarian look on him, the kind of unfocused gaze that I usually have. I assumed that his job was as soul-grinding as mine. So I couldn't understand why his eyes were looking so eager now.
And he wasn't gonna tell me either. Just shushed me and beckoned me to him. And he whispered in my ear, "Do you know what Barry Goldwater discovered in the library?"
I almost gave him a look like I thought he was nuts, but then I remembered -- a vague memory of something about that guy and the Cleveland Public Library. Something I ran across years ago when I used to actually check books out of libraries. I used to be proud of learning everything I could. Not sure why I stopped.
So I told the guy, "All I remember is that he chucked a tube of something along the stack and he couldn't find it."
"Close enough," said the Reference Librarian, and he grabbed me by the hand without even asking and he dragged me forward and I'm pretty sure we spent a bit more time walking forward than there was actually space in the library because it doesn't take five minutes to reach the end of a stack unless you're in, like, the Library of Congress.
And we wound up in stacks that didn't look like anything I'd seen in my workplace. Then again I hadn't bothered to look through much of that place.
"Alright," I said, "Where are we?"
"The Library of Congress," said the Reference Librarian.
Alright, so either the guy was nuts and I was nuts, or the guy was right and everything was nuts. "Bullshit," I said, "That's nine hundred and thirty three miles away."
And he looks at me with this wicked grin and says "Oh, really. Nine hundred and thirty three miles. You remember this?"
"I like the Library of Congress."
"Interesting. And tell me, what did the Lakota call the large rock formation at Mount Rushmore before it was carved into its current shape?"
"And what family of plants do cabbage, lettuce, brocolli, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower all belong to?"
"Brassica. Why are you asking me all this?"
"Because, dear child, I see you pausing in the nonfiction section all the time. I see you filling your head with knowledge. I think that perhaps you have the aptitude to become...one of us. So, I'm just asking questions to see what you've retained. And so far you haven't missed a question yet. Tell me, what is the chief export of Bora Bora?"
I backed away from him and looked around. There wasn't any obvious exit to this place, just endless shelving. I was stuck with the eager creepy guy. Boy as if that was a new experience. Might as well play along this time and flatter him. "Bora Bora has no exports," I said. "Its economy is dependent on tourism. I suppose you could say its chief export is advertisements. I guess I do have a knack for remembering Trivia, sir. Perhaps I could be as knowledgeable as you someday."
"That remains to be seen," said the Reference Librarian, "but you do seem to hold great promise. As for the current situation -- my sincerest apologies for approaching the subject like this, but I wanted to be able to bring you in on the basics without the other librarians getting mad at me for bringing you into the fold too easily. I suppose you are wondering what the business is with Barry Goldwater?"
"I have been for the past ten minutes, my dear sir. Perhaps you would be so kind as to tell me."
"Ah. well." The Reference Librarian grabbed a random book off the shelf and flipped open to a middle page. "The story starts about like this, you see, in our very library. Mister Goldwater went into the stacks because he was quite the contrarian and wanted to select a book without listening to the librarian's recommendations. So he grabbed one and flipped it open, and -- look here." He pointed to the text and showed it to me. "This is a treatise on moles, correct?" He flipped a page and the text became a description of ultraviolet radiation. "You see there, the subject just changed. And if I flip back -- " he flipped the pages back. "Now it's a few poems. That's what happens to a book when you're this deep in the stacks. The sheer weight of information starts to interfere with itself. So much so, in fact -- and that's where the toothpaste comes in. Because Mister Goldwater is buried in his book, isn't looking where he's putting his feet, and someone left a tube of toothpaste on the floor, so he steps on it and slips, and the book goes flying out of his hands -- and vanishes.
"And he decides to go after it, because a man like Barry Goldwater isn't going to let a thing get away from him, no sir. So he marches forward and finds himself smack in the middle of an unfamiliar library. Not this one, Mind you. The way he described it to Mrs. Campbell, he was in the Bodleian Library. Now fortunately for him he was able to turn around and get back to us, but only after running through a few more unfamiliar locations. He came up to the reference desk and complained to Mrs. Campbell about the whole situation, and --
"And that was the moment where Reference Librarians became something more than we let on. Because Mrs. Campbell had all the knowledge she had in her head, and when Mister Goldwater told her about what happened, it all fell into place. And little by little this understanding came to the rest of our profession -- the true weight of knowledge, the nature of L-Space, the connections between each library. And it's why we don't let just anyone on to the profession now. Because the real thing about us, the real dangerous thing about the business, is that we know what was and what will be. Too much. It's much too easy to be jaded. But see, part of why I want to bring you on is that you're already jaded, so no harm done. I think you will be able to stand the trials of passage after all. You're a smart cookie."
"I can only hope to please you as much as you have please me," I said. "Perhaps we can be getting back to our usual library now?"
And he took me by the hand and led me back to where we had come from.
And I yanked my hand out of his. He turned around at me in offended surprise. "You are surprised," I said, "And that means you do not know everything. Only most things. And what I remember well is just how to travel the way you did. And I do not like you because you trapped me in a place I could not leave without your permission, and I have been mistreated by this library anyway. So I shall be going now." I turned around and dashed back the way I had come.
I will admit the method was not nearly as easy as I had let on, but I had to get out of there and away from that obnoxious fellow, so I was willing to put up with the sensation of electric shock. At least for a while.
And that's why I'm here, in your library, some five thousand and five hundred seventy six miles from where I began. I suppose the story would be a bit difficult to believe if you hadn't seen me appear before you, but then if you hadn't then I wouldn't be having to explain myself, would I?
As for the matter of rejecting the job offer, let's say that I would accept it if the position were advertised publically and multiple candidates were interviewed. I'm rather sick of the cynical way librarians are hired in my region.
Nor will I be a Reference Librarian for this either. Why bother with emloyment now? I've got a mode of free transporation and easy escape to take me all over the world. And now that I've told you all this, maybe you can come with me. If you wish.
Up to you.