be a better human, books, bookstores, kindness, librarians, reading, strangers, talking

Prying book eyes

On a recent library book binge, I brought home a hefty stack of books. My lovely housemate saw the stack, and asked me about one title: Being Peace by Thich Naht Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. She collects quotations and happened to have a few from his writings. She shared this one with me:

“Though we all have the fear and the seeds of anger within us, we must learn not to water those seeds and instead nourish our positive qualities – those of compassion, understanding, and loving kindness.”

Since I’m the Angry Librarian, this interested me, and we had a thoughtful conversation about how life and the workplace may bring out some of these very seeds and how we need to smile and shake it off.

In yet another library, last week I needed to print something before I went to the printer-haven of work, and popped into a public library I’d never visited. In order to use one of the computers, I was asked to provide a photo ID. I watched as the librarian wrote my name and guest pass number on a piece of paper, and brainstormed the many reasons they might wish to monitor who is visiting what sites within their walls. (I could only come up with potential issues arising from illegal activity.)

In my experience through library school and in the public library where I work, though, there is a current, obsessive trend with library privacy. My own library just switched to a different hold pick-up system, where customers can retrieve their items from a shelf and use self-check machines (grab-and-go style). Before this new process could begin, there were evidently many lengthy meetings about where on the book to put a sticker containing what identifying information. Should the sticker display the customer’s full name? Should the title of the book show?

As for myself, I fail to see how this conversation could last more than 15 minutes. And yet, it lasted. (The end result that was decided is the sticker will be arranged alphabetically by full last name and cover the title of the book. I know you were dying to know.)

Let me address, I did not like being asked for my identification in order to use a public computer. The implications did not jive with my knowledge of privacy. I fully recognize the importance of protecting online privacy–our and all libraries use some form of a program called Deep Freeze, which wipes all data from each customer login after they sign out. (Even still, sometimes that doesn’t work, so if anyone out there is worried about their digital footprint and who is looking at it, always manually sign out of your accounts, and under no circumstances store passwords on a public computer, as a principle.)

However, I just don’t think that people in public spaces can expect (nor can those public spaces guarantee) complete and total privacy. This is absurd and paranoid to me, as it seems counterintuitive to expect that no one will see (or that anyone would care) what books people are holding in their hands. And, not to mention, this extreme privacy doesn’t allow for every romance or friendship that started because someone was curious enough to look at what book the other was holding, and then take the bold and vulnerable (and sometimes well-received) gesture to start a conversation about it.

The frenzied desire to block all others out irritates me. I can’t help but feel that anyone in a public library is freely forfeiting at least a tiny bit of their privacy just by stepping into  a public space. How is carrying a book around any building not placing someone “at risk” of revealing its title? And, if someone is truly ashamed of their reading material, why would they request it to be held for them instead of venturing in and selecting it, by hand, by themselves?

I think back to a woman I had in my line at the bookstore when I was 19. This glamorous 30-something placed a small pile of books on the counter, barely raising her lips in greeting when I smiled and said hello. I, observing her gorgeous diamond ring, turned my eyes to the books. All three were about surviving the death of a spouse. I was shocked that such a horrible event could happen to someone so young and pretty, and I hoped I didn’t offend her or make her sadder during this, the symbolic purchase. Unsure how she would want me to act in this minor exchange, I tried not to widen my eyes and tried harder to eliminate any pity from my voice. More than anything, I was proud of her. Here was this young woman, whose own eyes (once I looked up from the ring) I could see were red and puffy. She was obviously not shopping for a gift. She was in mourning.

And she bought these books to help herself heal.

She did not buy them online, preserving her privacy as she sobbed in her pajamas. She very easily could have, and would have, if she were embarrassed of her emotionally vulnerable state, or concerned with how the young, desperate for adult life and love cashier or other browsing strangers would treat her.

Instead, she braved the world. She drove to us, got out of her car, located the section she needed, and from the shelf, handpicked not just one, but three books, in what I interpreted as her sadness and desperation morphing into resolve: a series of clear actions she took towards helping herself. I hope those books and all this time gave her what she needed.

And I am grateful for the spontaneous human connection that books, bookstores and libraries can provide. The fleeting moments with strangers where we mutually reveal something of ourselves.

We deserve to relinquish privacy on occasion. We need to leave room for vulnerability.

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