Our Neighbors: Behind the scenes at Brooks Memorial Library

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A book is a book, right? A front cover, a back cover, a spine. Some pages in the middle. Sometimes a flyleaf with a photograph of the author looking pensive and wry. A book is a book is a book.

Well, no.

Some books become library books. And you wouldn't think it, but that transformation takes a lot of thoughtful, detailed, often invisible work by careful hands and bright minds. A book is a library book because people make it so.

On the top floor of Brooks Memorial Library, behind a thick wooden door not far from the Children's Room, cataloging librarian Leslie Markey and her technical services colleagues touch and transform every single book -- every single item, actually -- that comes to the library.

"Jerry Carbone, the library director, does an order twice a month, so it's like Christmas every couple of weeks in the Tech Services," smiles Leslie. It's nearing 9 a.m., but she's been busy among the piles of books, reference materials, periodicals, and DVDs since 6 a.m., as she is every day.

The room, originally used as a law library for a group of lawyers who supported the building's construction, is crammed but orderly and calm. Several desks topped with computers line the shelf-clad walls, which hold materials in various stages of processing, plus book mending supplies and labeling supplies and forms and records. Tidy stalagmites of books dot the floor, particularly near Leslie's desk toward the back of the room.

"We do four jobs in here, basically," she explains. "We receive materials, process them, catalog them, and mend them."

She points out the order slips in duplicate with codes signifying this or that attribute, the barcode stickers, the safety tags, the pocket envelopes, the labels, all the tattoos, as it were, that mark a book as a library book.

It's the cataloging, though, that gives a book or DVD or reference tome its true and lasting library identity. How Leslie catalogs an item will determine where it lives in the world of the library. The clarity, specificity, and accuracy of that cataloging is what will help patrons find the information they seek, no matter if they are browsing the shelves or clicking through a library's database. The catalog is the map, and it's Leslie's job to make sure that map is a good and useful one.

She sits at her desk and scans the barcode on a new Young Adult novel, "Under Wildwood" by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis. A screen of indecipherable numbers and letters appears. It looks like a Klingon transliteration of the "Baghavad Gita," but Leslie speaks this language, which tells computers how to exchange, use, and interpret bibliographic information (to paraphrase and oversimplify the Library of Congress' explanation). This language naturally follows a set of rules, described in "Anglo American Cataloguing Rules," the essential grammar for cataloging librarians.

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"I very rarely create an original catalog entry for an item" she says. "It is more efficient for libraries to refer to existing systems, in this case the cataloging work done by the Library of Congress. They are the primary source for print items."

But it's not always so simple. A children's picture book may need to be cataloged in the children's biography section. The Library of Congress catalogs graphic novels as non-fiction, which isn't always appropriate. Some LOC information is based on pre-publication data that is out-of-date by the time Leslie sees the actual book. Sometimes a book that isn't moving off the shelves -- a biography about an important 18th century doctor, for example -- needs to be re-cataloged for the medical section so that patrons can find it more easily.

In addition to the intelligent, responsive cataloging, Leslie, and her tech services colleagues, are also responsible for the timely distribution of new materials into the library.

"I try to catalog 10 adult books, 10 children's books, two fiction non-print items and two non-fiction non-print items every day," she says. "That way we make sure there's an even flow of new things going out. And that makes patrons very happy."

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In between the receiving and processing and cataloging, Leslie also evaluates damaged books for their mending potential.

"Is it something people love? Is it an item that really ought to be in a public library's collection? Do we have the capacity to mend it here? She picks up a hardback in rough shape, "The Wives of Henry VIII" by Antonia Fraser. "This has a strong cover and big margins. Our menders can take this apart and reassemble it -- what with the clamps and presses it's a very physical process. We are able to mend almost all of the books here."

She picks up a picture book, "The Polar Bear's Son," and smiles. "Now this one, it's valuable in hardback, going for $100 online! But we can't do it in house, so we'll send it to the bindery in Agawam, Mass."

Leslie moves through the room lightly and quickly, a bit discomfited to be putting herself in the spotlight.

"Unless it's about something I love, like knitting," a huge smile lights up her face at the mention," or the house my husband and I built, I really don't like talking about myself. But it's important for folks to know some of the behind-the-scenes operations here."

She smooth the sleeve of her wool sweater. The yellow of autumn birch leaves, with delicate, unexpected green stripes at the cuffs, this sweater was the first she spun, dyed and knit herself. The color perfectly complements her eyes.

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"I've been here 27 years," she says. "I came after five years as a cataloger at Brown University in the 1980s. My husband, John, and I decided we wanted to move to Vermont, and this position at Brooks was the one that seemed like it would suit me."

She laughs. "And Jerry's always been my supervisor, all 27 years! It's been a good job. It's good to work for the town, for a public library. Honestly, there is never a dull moment."

This seems to be true of Leslie's life generally. The Wardsboro house she and John built was a five-plus-year labor of love that continues to be a source of work and joy. A passionate knitter ("Jerry always says to me, ‘Not another knitting book!' she says happily), she has been working on an impossibly complicated delicate shawl for her sister-in-law, completing two rows a day for the last six months.

"The pattern comes from a magazine called ‘Jane Austen Knits,''' she says, her face alight with this joy of this hobby and all the connections she's made through it.

And Leslie sets aside time every single day to read.

"People think I'm crazy, but, well, when I started in 1986, a branch librarian named Calista Kristensen told me that the only way to keep up my own reading was to set aside 20 minutes every day.

"So every day I get up at 3:33, make my coffee, sit down, and read for 45 minutes." She grins a little shyly. "It is the best time of the day."

In that pre-dawn stillness, and in the stillness of the new-dawn tech services room, Leslie Markey receives the bright complications of books and yarn and houses and computers and friends and discerns the natural order, making a life and library that, if you look for it, can be found and shared.

Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at reformer.ourneighbors@gmail.com.


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