Stacks Shelver

finding meaning in a summer job at the Rock

When you apply for a job, one of the most important things to do is to sound as excited as possible. Some effective phrases may include:

“I’ve always wanted to work in an environment like this!”

“The opportunity would be life-changing!”

or “This is a way for me to really challenge myself!”

However, when I thought of applying any of these statements to a book-shelving job, it just seemed condescending and vaguely inappropriate. No one would believe me if I said that handling dusty books for seven hours a day was my childhood dream. Any attempt at passion came off as sarcastic and even offensive. But I really did want that job— it was summer, I was deathly bored at home, and the thought of having some extra money was very appealing. So I had to find some other way to look enticing.

Eventually, under relevant skills, I put that I liked to read. In the additional comments section, I also added: “I do not go to the gym, but I am a capable, able-bodied youth.”

Two weeks later, I arrived at the Rock at 9AM, pushed through its revolving doors, and for the first time, swiped in not as a student, but as an employee.

My one-and-a-half months at the Rock taught me many things. The first was that people really never grow out of drawing on desks, at least not by the time they get to college. It would seem that the allure of a clean, wooden surface reverts even the most diligent of students to their angsty, thirteen-year-old selves. After eating at several different desks during my lunch breaks, I collected a plethora of evidence of this phenomenon. After my library job, I wouldn’t be surprised if office cubicles at JP Morgan are also graffitied with penises, superman signs, and quotes about how life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, but learning to dance in the rain.

I also learned how to use the Library of Congress system, which organizes books by subject, then author, year, and copy. The system is much more expansive than anything Dewey could have come up with, making shelving quite slow at times. Nonetheless, like any language, fluency came with practice. After a few weeks, I was confident that I could be hired by the actual Library of Congress, should all other plans fall through. Furthermore, my newfound fluency made shelving a relaxing activity during which I could think about other more  important things, such as the meaning of life and what I was going to eat for lunch.

Of course, that’s not to say that I didn’t still get tired of it. After scanning through hundreds of tiny labels to sort “HJ115 .P781 1999 cop. 2” only to find that there was no more room between “HJ115 .P78 2002” and “HJ115 .P8x” at the very top of a bookshelf for which I had already pulled over a ladder, I often wondered how bad it would be to just shove books wherever they fit and let visitors fend for themselves.

Besides the squeaky wheels of my cart and the occasional book I dropped on the floor by accident, the library was incredibly silent. Sometimes, flanked by row after row of books, I pulled out my earbuds, reminding myself of what the world sounded like when it made no sound. It felt rare. Very seldom do we find ourselves in such places where the quiet is accepted, embraced, and preserved. I was shelving thousands of books and walking through every hall, but by the end of each shift, my presence seemed to be erased by all the history that preceded me. I pulled out books, read them, and returned them as if they had never disappeared.

Being alone in a normally crowded, public place also made me feel sparingly rebellious. I longed to misplace a book on purpose, write a note on a shelf’s place card, or leave a love letter in the 1997 Spring Edition of the Yale Law and Policy Review. But in the end, I followed the rules as usual (except for when I extended my break time by an extra fifteen minutes), and wondered what it would be like to resist authority.

Sometimes, as I pushed yet another full cart of books past a student burrowed in a book, I found myself in a complex state of jealousy.

I thought of myself last year, complaining about my reading, sitting mournfully at those same desks, joking about a wasted youth. Now, when a few high schoolers glanced my way, sporting colorful backpacks and temporary Brown IDs, I felt a strange need to vindicate myself.

“What are you looking at?”  I wanted to say. “Those lanyards are nice. You know what I have? A real Brown ID.”

And soon after, a wave of shame would flow over me. I thought about the people who work jobs like these for their whole lives— not for pocket change during a free summer, and not in their elite school’s air-conditioned library, but in far, far worse places, because such a job is their only means of subsistence.

I was usually roused from such thoughts by my phone vibrating. People from the outside were always reminding me that life and time still flowed beyond these shelves and walls. But sometimes, things inside the library seemed to shift my reality. Before, my phone’s notifications were just background noises in the soundtrack of my life. Now, they blared like embarrassing alarms, constantly alerting me of my privilege.

It was a painful new line of vision. When I looked down at the screen, I inevitably also saw my new, name-brand running shoes, bought not because I was a runner, but because I complained about my feet hurting after my first week on the job. From the top of the phone, my over-priced, tangle-free headphones formed a line back up to my ears. There, music pulsed from a customized playlist on my Spotify Student Premium account. Finally, looking up meant seeing my fifteen-dollar water bottle on top of the cart, it’s sippy straw sticking upright and childish.

When this happened, I felt unable to respond to my messages as quickly as usual, and pushed the cart a little harder.

Besides my temporarily jacked quads and an increased knowledge of which books Brown students check out the most often (surprise: gender studies and econ), I think my month at the Rock really did teach me a lot of things. They’re things that will never look good on a resume, so they probably won’t land me a cool internship this summer (which I’m still hoping to get, instead of shelving books again). But just for a moment, minimum wage was something more than a concept to me. For a moment, I imagined working in the library not for one summer, but for life. I imagined an alternative to education, a shortage of options, the weight of a future that holds no surprises, only repetitions.

As I stepped out of the Rock for the last time as an employee, I reminded myself that the next time I came back in, I would probably carry with me heavy books, a sleepless conscience, and unimaginable amounts of stress.

For the first time, I did not mind.