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Library Experiences in a COVID World

If you’ve read my blog for very long, follow me on Instagram, or know me in person, you know I believe that books can save your life. I believe in the power of the written word to help a reader find her way, of story to educate, console, and transform, of metaphor to enlighten. I believe libraries are an important part of our society; like museums, they feed our cultural heart.

But I also understand the reality of our current situation, the fact that we are living in a pandemic.

On Friday night I had a…conversation? not really an argument, per se, because I did not lose my temper, but it was definitely a discussion. Let’s call it a debate. On Friday night I had a debate with a library patron that brought these two concepts into conflict.

The library where I work was one of the first libraries to open in Utah, and so, since Utah seems to have opened earlier than many other states, perhaps one of the first to open in the nation. We started with highly modified procedures and have gradually, over the months, relaxed the constrictions. Two weeks ago, we moved to being open for our normal hours. But we still require masks; we ask patrons to limit their visit to an hour, and there isn’t any furniture set out. You can’t linger in comfortable chairs, reading the newspaper. We want patrons to use the library to access materials—books, printers, the internet—and then go home. The library as a social gathering place is a concept for a non-pandemic world.

This particular patron was not happy with me when I told him about the lack of furniture and the one-hour time limit. Specifically, he wanted to sit somewhere comfortable and use his laptop. When I told him we weren’t set up for that, he grumbled that the library was “ridiculously Draconian.” I smiled politely and he wandered off.

Two hours later, I switched desks to the basement floor, where our computer lab is. Said gentleman was sitting in front of one of the computers, using his laptop. Mind you, this was two hours after I’d told him about our one-hour time limit. The other librarian had reminded him of the hour limit, but he pushed back.

I waited for another half hour, and when he still had made no progress toward leaving—and when there were other patrons in the area—I calmly told him that we are limiting the time for being in the library to an hour, and as he had been there for almost three, he needed to wrap it up. He again grumbled and rolled his eyes, and he snapped at me that he was “almost done.”

I said “OK, thank you,” and went back to my desk.

Ten minutes later, this patron walked over to my desk. He said “can I ask you a question?” and I said, “that is what I am here for.” I knew that of course he wasn’t going to ask me for a book recommendation (I mean, why would you ask a librarian sitting in the fiction area for a book recommendation? Clearly what happened was even better), but I never imagined what would happen next.

Twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes of debating whether or not the library’s restrictions are necessary. He brought up so many Fox News talking points. I calmly refuted them, but inside I was fuming. Fuming. He insulted me several times, but more than that, I feel like he took a hammer to my belief in humanity. After my shift, when I’d closed up the library and was driving home, I felt the response in my body, as if all the negative emotions were objects bumping around in my circulatory system.

I’m aware that blogging about this incident doesn’t change it. It doesn’t change his opinions (talking about it face to face didn’t change his opinions). It also might stir things up at work that might otherwise remain unstirred. But writing and sharing has become a method for processing for me. Those feelings are still here, jostling around my body, and maybe writing about them will help. Here is a list of his objections and my responses:

“Why is the library being so Draconian?”
He must’ve said “Draconian” fifty times. He claimed other libraries in the county allow you to do whatever you want. (This is not true.) And he kept pushing that there was a secret reason for all our limitations, a secret that I knew because I’m in the “upper echelon of librarians.” (If he only knew how ridiculous that statement is.)

Finally I just said, “sir, I seriously do not know a secret reason. Why don’t you tell me what you mean?” and he said “the secret is that the library is afraid. They are basing all of their decisions on fear.”

Yes. We don’t want our patrons to get sick. We don’t want our coworkers to get sick either. If taking safety precautions as recommended by scientists, while simultaneously being the most accessible library in perhaps the whole state is making decisions out of fear, then, OK. That’s the secret.

(I did not say these thoughts. They are highly sarcastic and even with my iron-willed control of my emotions I could not have responded politely to that point.)

“Why does the library think it’s so special?”
His point here was that grocery stores, doctor’s offices, and schools are open during the pandemic. Why shouldn’t libraries also be open?

I love libraries. They have been my saving grace on many occasions.

But libraries are not literal health care. They can’t stop you from dying from a heart attack.

Books can feed your soul, but they are not literal food. They cannot give you calories you need to sustain your body.

Libraries and education work closely together. Students need access to a library. Currently, at our library, they have access. They can check out books and use a computer. Also, I think the way our society is treating teachers is downright shameful.

Finally, he doesn’t see the irony in standing in a library shouting at a librarian about “fair access”? You are in a library. You’ve been here for three hours. What more do you want?

“Why do you think you’re so special?”
“The grocery store employees are risking their lives and you’re sitting there behind your sneeze guard in a mask doing nothing. Why should they risk their lives but you don’t have to? Isn’t it a little bit cowardly?”

Seriously…this random dude called me a coward. He knows nothing about me. He doesn’t know what small and large courageous things I’ve done. Truth is: I don’t want to get sick. I don’t want the lingering effects that COVID can have. I don’t want two weeks of feeling horrible. I don’t want my family members to have it, either.

I’m not a coward. I am a rational person who listens to the people I know who have experienced the illness, as well as the reports of doctors and scientists.

I’m also a person who is out in public taking care of patrons. Taking care of that patron arguing with me. How am I making myself “special”?

“I mean, it’s not like you have any risk factors. You’re young, you’ll be fine.”
He doesn’t know I have restricted lung function after having whooping cough.

He doesn’t know I have a husband and a child with heart issues.

Also he clearly doesn’t know that sometimes people get sick and even die without risk factors.

(I told him this, very politely. He looked abashed. Then he got in my face about sending my kid to school if he has risk factors. WHAT.)

“Oh, so doctors can risk their lives, but you can’t?”
Well, I chose to not become a doctor. I’m not medically certified. I didn’t go to school for eight or ten years like doctors do. I also don’t make a doctor’s salary. Whilst standing by my “libraries are important” belief, I also believe that libraries are far less important than doctors.

When I told him this, he said “well, you’re far less educated than a doctor. You probably don’t even have a Bachelor’s degree.”

Actually, I have two, but thanks for making my point for me. Yes: I know I don’t matter to society as much as doctors. That is exactly my point. They deserve to make more money than I do. But that also comes with personal risk.

“Besides, it’s not like this is as scary as everyone thinks. More people die from the flu. It will all go away after the election.”
(Please imagine me sitting in my tall chair behind the library desk, in my orange cardigan. Please imagine how high my eyebrow shot up. Please imagine the internal swearing that was happening inside my head.)

Well, I guess the doctors, nurses, grocery store employees, and teachers aren’t putting their lives at risk then, are they?

The worst thing, somehow, is at the end of this debate, he thanked me. He actually thanked me for having “an intelligent conversation” with him. I don’t know why that felt awful, but it did. Maybe because as a library employee I have to walk a fine line: I have to defend myself, but I also can’t be blunt and say what I really think. Maybe because I found it fairly surreal to be supporting restrictions that, in all honesty, I find to be not restrictive enough.

Or maybe just because I know I didn’t change his thought process one bit.

But I do feel better, having written this. If nothing else, I can stop having imaginary conversations with this guy in my head. Having written, I can now move on.

One of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman, said “If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future." I much of this idea did that patron understand? He wasn't objecting to the library restrictions because he was worried about how it might impact anyone other than himself. He feels entitled to sit at the library for hours on end with his laptop, but it didn't matter at all to him that others actually have access to books; what mattered was that he couldn't have it exactly the way he wanted it.

And here's the irony in this whole situation. He didn't say this, but the conclusion I drew from his words is that he considers the library, and thus by association me and all other librarians, as being selfish. Thinking only about themselves instead of what their patrons might need, considering their own fears more important than his right to a comfortable place to sit.

And I, quite frankly, consider him to be selfish, thinking that his rights are more important than other people's health.

I didn't tell him that, of course. I did strive to remain professional during this interaction. But now that it is past and I am trying to process the experience, that is what I come back to. I don't want to believe that Americans have allowed our independent spirits to morph into selfishness. I want to believe in the good of humanity.

But that interaction left me much less able to hold on to my belief.

My History with Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women

She preferred imaginary heroes to real ones, because when tired of them, the former could be shut up in the tin kitchen till called for, and the latter were less manageable.

Fifth grade was a difficult year for me. It was the year that everyone’s alliances began to form, and here I was, shy and nerdy and, frankly, easily excluded because I didn’t go to church much. I lived in a little town, and we almost never had any new students, but that year, we had five: two sets of twins and a non-twin. Four girls, one boy.

I was sure I was in for an influx of new friends, but only kind of. I was still nerdy and shy and didn’t really know how to fit in, but some of the new kids were sort-of my friends. I remember feeling lonely a lot that year, except when I wasn’t, and maybe that was the time in my life when I learned not love reading not just because of loving stories, but because of its power to assuage loneliness.

A history of little womenThe March sisters were my constant friends.

I wish my mom had bought me my own copy, and that I still had it, but I checked out the library’s copy. It was a hardback, without a dust jacket, and the cover was a dirty pink linen. It had the Frank T. Merrill illustrations. I think I read Little Women five or six times that year; one time I read the whole thing over the weekend. (I know this because I put those 499 pages on my reading chart and my teacher, Mr. Strong, called my parents because he was concerned about me reading so much. Or maybe he thought I was lying, I don’t know.) I remember once being upset over friends, but not being able to cry about it, so I had my mom take me to the library. I checked out Little Women, went home, read the two chapters about Beth dying, and had a good cry.

I’m not really sure why or how I ended up picking it up in the first place…maybe it was just a lucky find, but Little Women came into my life, as some books do, at exactly the time I needed it. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy became people I trusted and relied on. They always did the same thing, every time I reread the book, and rereading made me feel like I was included somewhere. Marmee was such a different mother from my own, and sometimes I was baffled by the talks she had with her daughters, but I loved her. I could relate to Meg’s issues with her clothes not being quite right, as I always felt that, too (in particular one pair of melon-colored pants that I HATED and felt so uncomfortable in but my mom loved them and so sent me out in all the time anyway…I remember looking at how wide my hems were compared to Lori’s, who was wearing pegged jeans before pegged jeans were cool and literally blushing I felt so wrong and out of place in the world.) I loved that Meg’s daughter was named Daisy. I wanted to be able to draw like Amy (alas, still do). There was a bit of Beth in me—the shyness and the love of cats, and since we were both third daughters in a family of four girls, I felt a special attachment to her. I loved reading about their little domestic details and imagining their house, especially the attic where the plays were held. And since even then I loved babies, my heart was broken over the Hummel’s lost one.

But of course, as with so many other bookish girls, my favorite was Jo. It was her love of books, partly, and her desire to be a writer. (How many women who want to be writers found that spark as girls reading about Jo’s adventures?)  She was spunky and courageous and energetic and altogether herself. I know I didn’t have the words then to understand this, but what made me love Jo was her ability to push forward and be who she was, especially in such a society, with its narrow rules for women. I was drawn to the very fact that she did know herself, in some way, and then worked to be that person. I didn’t even know how to tell my mom what kind of pants I wanted to wear, but there was Jo, going to New York, writing her stories, rejecting Laurie. (Of course, that last broke my heart.) To my preteen brain, she seemed in control of her life in ways I would never be, and by reading her story I got to at least witness someone doing that.

Sometime during sixth grade, I reread Little Women for the last time. I can’t explain this, either: why did I stop rereading it? I had that brief stint in middle school when I was friends with the popular girls; it lasted until I had the audacity to rent the movie Cujo for my twelfth birthday party, and then I wasn’t anymore. But maybe those few months gave me another kind of courage, the start of the knowledge of how to be in the world. It would be years until I could be like Jo, until I could be unrepentantly myself (I am still learning to do that, honestly), but it started with her companionship during those years. I turned to other, darker books as company, but Jo and her sisters and Marmee and their genteel, quiet world always stayed with me.

For our library’s city-wide read this year, we are doing Little Women. (If you live in Orem, you can come in and get a free copy for your family.) I was set to host the book club meeting for September, so I went ahead and did Little Women so as to participate more in the other programs. Which means that for the first time since sixth grade, I reread Little Women. My impression of it as an adult is so deeply tied to my relationship as a child that I can’t write about it without writing this history first. So, my next blog post will be about my rereading of the book, but I felt like this history needed to be told for the next part to make any sense.

Book Review: The Feminist Agenda of Jemima Kincaid by Kate Hattemer

“Of course she does. This is Jemima Kincaid we’re talking about.”

“The girl who never forgets anything,” said Tyler.

…I thought, Is that what my name means? … You walk around with a hazy idea, but you don’t often get an unfiltered glimpse into the truth of how others see you, how they hear your name. Did they hear Jemima Kincaid and groan? Or did they hear it with respect? What did they think? What did I mean?

Feminist agenda of jemima kincaidThe Feminist Agenda of Jemima Kincaid, a new adult novel by Kate Hattemer, is set in a private school during the last term of senior year. The main character, Jemima, is part of the school’s Triumvirate, which is like student council only fancier (because, private school). Pretty much all of the Triumvirate’s activities so far have been kind of a bust, so Jemima—who is deeply committed to her feminist streak—comes up with an idea for prom: instead of the usual boys-as-girls promposal routine, people will be matched with the people they secretly have a crush on, using a computer program her friend designs.

This is the framework, but the story is bigger than that. It explores Jemima’s first sexual experiences (these are fairly detailed, which is why I consider this to be a new adult novel rather than a young adult), her relationship with her best friend, Jiyoon, a little bit of socioeconomic consideration (but really: not enough on this topic), and what feminism really is.

As a person who is also deeply committed to feminism, I read this with curiosity. How would the author explore the topic? I think she did a pretty good job of it. One of my favorite scenes is when Jemima is making out with a boy (I’ll let you read it to see who) and she thinks “the idea of one turning point seemed stupid, simplistic. Sex had to be a spectrum.” She is allowed to explore her sexual side without it being smarmy or tittilating. It is human and messy and surprising, a significant part of our lives, and the author let it be that for Jemima.

Other things annoyed me a bit, like when she and Jiyoon die their armpit hair blue. Seriously: You can be a feminist and still shave your armpits. If you want.

At any rate, one thing that resonated with me was that quote I started with. While this is less important when you leave high school, it is still something you have in your life as an adult: how do other people see me? Who am I in their eyes? Jemima thinks she is just the “Mildred”—the person on the Triumvirate who is there because of their grades, while the other positions are based on votes and, thus, popularity. But as the story progresses, she learns that people see her in other lights. Which made me think about how people see me…in my head I’m the weird, quiet lady who is mostly invisible and unnecessary. But maybe other people who know me—co-workers, neighbors, friends even—see me in a different way? I don’t know. Life isn’t a novel, after all.

While this wasn’t a life-changing book for me, it was compelling and thoughtful and I am glad I picked it up on a whim from the New Book display.

Deep Thoughts about Scrapbooking

A few weeks ago, on a Sunday, Kendell and Jake went hiking on a Sunday morning. Because of my injured toe I haven’t been able to hike, and as Kendell was dying for a good mountain wander, Jake went with him.

That morning, Kaleb slept in.

Which means that for a few hours, I was alone in my house. Solitude is a rare commodity these days, with everyone working from home, and as the door shut behind my two boys, I did a little swirly dance in the kitchen. A dance no one saw because no one was home.

In that quietness, my excitement over scrapbooking came rushing back, so I went into my crafty room, piled up all of my sewing projects into a corner, and made a layout.

I turned my music on, shuffled through pictures, wrote journaling, found some patterned paper and embellishments I wanted to use. An hour in, the timer for the washer went off, so I paused in my happiness to rotate the laundry. What was this feeling in me, this lightness? This sparkle?

I just love this combination so much: an empty house and working on memory keeping.


In the silence and solitude, I thought about this hobby of mine. About why I love it, about why I haven’t been doing it much for the past two years.

Messy scrapbook desk
(the stuff I need to clean off my desk this morning)

I know not everyone understands it, and on the top of that list is my husband. He was raised on a family farm, where work was never, ever finished, with an ethic illustrated by both his parents that if you aren’t working on something, you’re being lazy.

I sat on my tall stool next to my open window and thought about this—about how Kendell feels about hobbies and leisure time and relaxing influences how I feel about it.

If you’ve read the book A Man Called Ove, you might understand better. Remember how Ove could not comprehend people reading for pleasure? His opinion was that books were for information-gathering and learning, and everything else was a waste of time. And yet, he loved his wife, who loved reading for pleasure, and so he built her bookshelves.

That is how it is with Kendell and scrapbooking. (Quilting too, although I feel far less guilt over quilting.) (Also, for that matter, reading.) (And blogging.) He wants to be supportive because he loves me, so he builds bookshelves (both literal bookshelves and metaphorical ones), but he doesn’t understand it, and sometimes that lack of understanding comes across as criticism.

And since I have a personality that automatically feels guilt for everything, this doesn’t sit well. (I wish I were more like Ove’s wife and could just laugh away the criticism…but I don’t know how to do that.) It festers, mixing as it bubbles with my own ethic, which is to make something productive with my life. Sometimes I’m not sure if scrapbooking is really productive. (Maybe that is why I feel less guilty about quilting: when I am finished, I have made something useful. Family history is useful, but it won’t keep you warm.)

When I am alone at home, it is easier for me to not feel guilty. To block out all the other things calling for my attention—the laundry, the kitchen, the yard. I could be prepping meals or scrubbing corners or dusting the ceiling fans. Why do I think I can ignore all of those and indulge in my hobby? I can’t quite quiet those voices when Kendell is home, even if he says nothing at all. But when he is gone…I can. It is like a sort of meditation, almost. My heart and mind enter a quiet space, which is influenced by pretty, colorful things and by looking at pictures of the people I love and by remembering the past. For me, it is like the feeling when you have hiked a long, dusty, steep trail, and you get to a stream, and you get to set your pack down, take off your boots, and put your feet in the water. Cool, refreshing, quiet, peaceful. I love the trail, just like I love my husband, but that time at the stream gives me what I need to keep going in the heat and the dust and the vert.


So here I am. It’s a Sunday, and Kendell is hiking. By himself, as neither Jake nor Kaleb wanted to go. But they are occupied, and the laundry is going, and it is quiet. I am sitting at my tall table with my high stool, and I am looking at pictures.

My thoughts go like this: I could scrapbook those pictures of Haley on the day we went to the wild animal preserve in Colorado. But the last layout I made was about Haley. So maybe I could scrapbook these pictures I just found from Ragnar 2013. But am I scrapbooking about myself too much? Is that conceited? But I really want to scrapbook about Jake, but I have so few photos of him. But…have I told all the wrong stories? Have I told the big stories? If I died tomorrow would this be enough? But…

Since that last Sunday of solitude, I have gotten myself organized. I’ve gotten rid of some things, and gone through the piles (and piles and piles, I confess) of new things I’ve purchased this year, organizing them into my way of using them. I gathered all of the photos I’ve printed but not scrapbooked and put them in a binder with notes and supplies. I’ve even made a few layouts.

I’m looking through my photos, and I’m thinking about the layouts I’ve already made. Not just this year, but since I started scrapbooking in 1996. I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life in this hobby. More than 1000 layouts. A lot of stories told and pictures preserved. But does any of it mean anything, in the end?

I am realizing that I need to separate how Kendell feels about my hobby from how I do.

Because, yes: I love it. It is quiet and restorative and fun. But do all of these layouts I’ve made connect with my life’s ethic? Am I making these because they are pleasant to make, and in doing so avoiding the harder—but perhaps more impactful—other work I might be doing? Am I emotionally invested in my crafts because they are an easy way to delve into creativity, without requiring judgement from anyone other than myself and my husband?

Am I, in other words, scrapbooking (and quilting) to avoid the hard work of writing?

I know: deep thoughts about a silly hobby. Making things and overthinking: it’s what I do. But time is so short and I feel a pressing need to finally take this step. To do the hard work.