Suzan Still: My life in libraries

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When I was a very small child, I conceived my first real ambition: I would read every book in the county library. At that time, the library was comprised of a single room, about fifty feet on a side, with honey-colored oak shelving three rows deep on three walls, that reached all the way to the thirteen-foot ceiling. The fourth wall was all double-hung windows that looked out onto the main street and across to the block-square central park. Before this wall of light sat Mrs. D., the venerable librarian, with her ancient cocker spaniel, Corkie.

That this was one of my first destinations was confirmed by Mrs. D. when I was about ten. “Your mother brought you in here when you were first born,” she told me, her double chins wagging. “She plopped you down on that table over there, and went into the stacks to find books.” I, meanwhile, was petting Corkie, with my face averted from his bad breath. “Really?” I squeaked. I was a shy child, and it was much easier to talk to a cocker spaniel than to the formidable Mrs. D. “Yes,” she said. “Books on child-rearing.”

Whatever Dr. Spock had to say about my welfare, the real child-rearing occurred through my mother’s passion for books. She had been a librarian herself, and met my father in the college library where she worked, because he, too, had a lifelong fascination with books and learning. Every evening for the first thirteen years of my life, until television entered our home and spoiled everything, my mother read aloud to my father, my sister and me. Sometimes it was adult books, like Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd or Adele Davis’s Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit. Other times it was children’s classics like Dr. Doolittle, The Swiss Family Robinson or Wind in the Willows. I believe I owe my fascination with depth psychology to A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and its brilliant character sketches. I was able, from an early age, to discern an hysterical Piglet-type person from a depressive Eeyore, an understanding which has served me well, into adulthood.

I began to read independently by age five. I will never forget the look on Mrs. D’s face, when, at the age of eight, I brought God’s Little Acre to the check-out desk. Mainly I was attracted to it’s elegant, small and thin size, and it’s hard black cover that reminded me of leather. I was unaware that the 1933 novel dealt with a farming family in Georgia, dysfunctional in their obsession with wealth and sex. Nor did I know that it had caused the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice to censor it, and to sue its author, Erskine Caldwell, and his publisher, Viking. Nor could I have known that Caldwell was arrested on vice charges because of the book. Or that he was a Communist sympathizer during the Cold War. Or that his victory in court would be considered a major decision in the establishment of artists’ First Amendment rights to freedom of expression. To all of this I was oblivious—but it was clear from the look on Mrs. D’s face that she was not.

Why she allowed me to check that book out remains a mystery. I labored through it, on firm footing with Ty Ty Walden’s gold fever. As a child growing up in a Gold Rush community, gold fever was as normal an affliction as the common cold. My own father had been digging an ever-growing prospect hole in the oak woods behind our Swiss Family Robinson-inspired tree house, for years.The various murders recounted in God’s Little Acre were also understandable, as violence lay none too deeply buried beneath the calm face of our rural community, and lynchings were not so far in the past as to have ceased being fodder for local gossip. As to the real crux of the furor surrounding the novel, the explicit sexuality and voyeurism, and implied incest, it was completely lost on me. I recall not a single titillation.

Childhood passed on into adolescence,and still I was determined to read every single book in the county library. I carried stacks of books home, devoured them in a week, and then returned for more. Until one fateful day, when my ambition turned to dust.

I was in high school by then, and my sister was a student at UC Berkeley. One day she toured me around the Berkeley campus, making sure to show me the special, hidden room where all the vending machines congregated—invaluable knowledge I was to tap into later, when I became a Berkeley student myself. After supplying ourselves with Paydays from the vending machine, we proceeded to Bancroft Library, a huge gray block of a building in the middle of the campus. There, in an effort to help me understand its workings, she took me first to the room holding the card catalogue, computerized catalogues being still decades in the future.

I stepped into a room much larger than the entire county library back home. It was filled with blonde oak card files taller than my head. In one horrifying glance, I realized that those drawers with their neat, metal-framed labels and little curved metal pulls, held the titles of thousands and thousands of books. I would never, ever, be able to read all of them. My ambition collapsed like burned paper into ash. I would never be able to ingest the sum of human knowledge. It was a devastating and humbling moment.

Given the central place that books have held in the totality of my life, I suppose it was inevitable that eventually I would begin to write some, myself. My closets began to fill up with partially-finished manuscripts, some handwritten, some typed, all of them in raggedy, slovenly heaps tied with string, or held together with rubber bands that eventually rotted off, or stuffed into cardboard typing paper boxes. I went through one manual and two electric typewriters, destroying them utterly. Before the advent of the computer, I went off to Europe with a strange portable typewriter/printer hybrid that burned text onto special paper. These pages have now faded to illegibility, unless I hold them against a window to let light through the scorchings.

My first computer, a Macintosh with an 8-inch screen, revolutionized my writing. No longer must I cut and paste using literal scissors and Scotch tape. I cheerfully downloaded stories onto square diskettes that no present-day machine can either ingest or interpret. Then came an iMac, bright orange, and then a Macbook Pro, and then another. My present Macbook Pro, clad in titanium and deliciously svelte, cannot accommodate a CD, and so a choreography between the old laptop and the new, involving CDs and flash drives, has ensued. And through it all, the words have kept coming, and the manuscripts kept piling up.

So it was with great relief that I finally published. At last, I could root out every last vestige of Commune of Women, Fiesta of Smoke and Well In Time from their hidey-holes in closets, cupboards and desk drawers, and dispose of them. Our son had dug a mammoth hole on the property—shades of Ty Ty Walden—and into it I gleefully flung about forty reams of paper, and replaced them with printed copies of my books. What used to occupy the space of a small Dumpster now takes up a few inches on the living room shelf.

My technical troubles with books were not over, however, as I was to learn only recently, when I received an email from a friend who is a librarian at our local college: “Suzan, I’m cataloging your book and the record that is now in OCLC and Library of Congress if very limited. Basically, there are no subject headings at all that would allow people to type a subject in, in a library, and get a hit on your book.” Alarmed, I promised to contact my publisher.

His response was immediate: “The way this information is conveyed is through BISAC codes. The codes for Well in Time are: FICTION / Literary; FICTION / Contemporary Women; FICTION / Visionary & Metaphysical.” Relieved that my book did, indeed, have a designation, I conveyed this information back to my librarian friend. Her response, however, was daunting.

“Yes, I got these . But these headings don’t follow AARC2 convention (which is what most libraries use) so I couldn’t add them to the master record,” she wrote. To which I responded, “Wouldn’t you think there’d be some kind of congruence in all of this?!” Yes, she agreed, you would.

“So if I understand you correctly,” I wrote her, still not understanding in the least, “Well In Time is NOT under these headings in whatever catalogue is used nationally? Is the catalogue called Worldcat? And what is AARC2?” I had run up against jargon that, while pertaining to my books, still did not pertain to me and my skill set. Her answer attempted to get me up to road speed.

“Yes, I added them, so what you see in the record I sent you is what is represented worldwide in library catalogs. Worldcat is an OCLC database program that many libraries are implementing as their automated information delivery system. OCLC is a worldwide cooperative that stores the bib records on all book, audio, video, print media, magazines, newspapers etc. Catalogers from all over the world use OCLC as their source for information, to add information, edit information etc. Unless by some fluke or if someone is only doing ‘local cataloging’, all records for every book will be in this system.

“So–the record I created for your book will be accessible worldwide. It doesn’t matter what operating system, Worldcat or otherwise, they use, the same record will come up. That’s not to say that someone else somewhere can’t modify or add to the record, though. It could change. So say you were at Stan State or UoP or Berkeley or a library in Europe somewhere. Right now, if you are at one of those libraries and look up Well in Time, the record I added, those subject headings too, will come up. So you are in good shape.

“AARC2 is the ‘standard’ by which catalogers add data to the record. There are strict rules that must be followed or bibliographic records for books would be all over the place. This is why I couldn’t add the headings that came from the publisher. Those did not fit the criteria for AACR2. They could be added extraneously, in a subject field other than 650, which is the correct one to use under the circumstances, but chances are, as Columbia College does, those off-standard fields will be tagged as junk and eliminated from the bib record when it displays in a local catalog. This is how we keep some control on the quality of our records.”

This brief course in librarianship, provided by my friend, opened a chasm of wonder and worry for me. I had three novels out in the world, but were they properly catalogued? Would their very mention be “tagged and eliminated from the bib record”? This lacked the finality of throwing old manuscripts into a hole in the ground. While my librarian friend assures me that all is well in the catalogue, and that my books are now accessible by standards used worldwide, still I feel the earth shifting under my feet. This new body of knowledge is bigger than the county library, bigger than the card file room in Bancroft Library. It is a vast network of digital information into which one’s intellectual property might fall as into a quagmire of quicksand, never to be seen again.

Just as in that moment, so long ago, when I realized I could not encompass the universe of books in my reading lifetime, so I now perceive that my books, which clearly have lives of their own, must sink or swim in a digital world that I cannot even understand, much less control. I feel like a doting mother sending her children off to college, knowing the advantages, intuiting the perils. I wring my hands and I thank my friend the librarian, and librarians the world over, for shepherding them along, and steering them on a straight course into the hands of readers who will love them and treat them kindly.

I can account for large portions of my life by libraries alone. I have worked as a children’s librarian in both the county library and a grammar school, and in the library of the university where I received my BA. My library card has been a passport to worlds I will never explore in person. Now libraries, including the Library of Congress, shelter my own creations. I am about to donate a truckload of books that have been proliferating in my personal library to the book sale that supports our local library, which is now housed in an airy, sunlit building of its own. It’s the least I can do, to support an institution that has been so formative in my life. It’s critical to our culture that children always have access to this amazing resource, so that they too can live their lives in libraries.

susan still

Suzan Still is the author of Commune of WomenFiesta of Smoke, and Well in Time.

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On March 8, 2015
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