Behind the Counter: Student Librarian For A Day (Part 1)

By Ng Ziqin (20S03H)

What does a librarian’s job entail? Is it really just about shelving books and collecting fines?

Three months ago, I interviewed RI’s head librarian, Mrs Joanna Chow, but I still have many questions about what goes on in a librarian’s day. Mrs Chow invites me to drop by the Shaw Foundation Library for a full day to get a taste of what she calls “librarian operations training”. 

We arrange a date for 7 November. 

Did I feel intimidated? Well, slightly!

7.30 am: I’m sitting on the floor outside the glass doors, waiting to be let in. 

The lift doors open. Out steps Mrs Parvathi Kumar, right on time, although her official working hours only begin at 7.45 am.  She’s just arrived from having her breakfast at the school canteen.

She opens the staff door and invites me in. But before stepping further into the library, we stop for a while outside Mrs Chow’s office.

“The lights first,” Mrs Kumar says, flipping some switches. Then, we proceed into the library.

It’s so empty and peaceful without any other students around.

Mrs Kumar assigns me a desk and hands me a checklist. “Would you like to learn the opening first?”

The daily checklist for opening/closing, which we have to get through before opening at 8 am.

I look around the library while I wait. This is the SFL as I’ve never seen it before. While it would be far from the truth to say that the SFL is usually ‘noisy’, this feels like a different sort of quiet—with the lack of students, the rolling of chairs, or even the clicking of pens.

The first thing Mrs Kumar does is to turn on all the staff computers at the counter, before we head back to the staff entrance to collect three sets of keys: the staff workroom key, the photocopier room key, and the Think Tank Room keys.

The Keeper of the Keys.

Mrs Kumar starts off by stapling the day’s newspapers, which she’s already collected before coming up to the library. Then, newspapers still in hand, we proceed inside the staff workroom to turn on the photocopier.

The staff workroom (the librarians don’t spend much time here, because they’re usually at the counter).

Once that’s done, our next stop is the magazines section, to drop off the newspapers.

The library orders The Straits Times, Lianhe Zaobao, Berita Harian, and Tamil Murasu daily. 

We turn on the printers and the printing monitors next to the Quiet Study Areas. We turn on the self-check machine. We unlock the photocopying room and turn on the photocopiers there. We unlock the main door of the Think Tank Room and lock all the individual rooms’ doors, which the librarians usually leave open overnight for ventilation.

The ground floor completed, we head up the stairs to 1M and 2M, where Mrs Kumar checks that all the exits are locked. Along the way, she shows me the dumbwaiter, a tiny ‘lift’ which the librarians use to transport books up from the ground floor for shelving.

The dumbwaiter. You didn’t really think the librarians carted the books up the stairs to shelve, did you?

She also points out the now-defunct Library Soc’s former club room. 

The former Student Librarian Workspace.

We fly through the checklist so quickly that I don’t have time to tick off all the boxes. Mrs Kumar doesn’t even need to refer to the checklist once. I figure that her clockwork efficiency is the product of many years of practice, and ask if she’s always in charge of opening the library. She tells me that the librarians take it in turns. But even though she doesn’t open the library every day, Mrs Kumar has been here since 2004. She has had many years to hone her craft.

“I like to come in before eight so that any unexpected issues, like power trips, can be resolved before the students come in. These are all the normal things to do in the morning before the students come in. They must be done!”

When we’re back on the ground floor, Mrs Kumar inspects the ‘New Arrivals’ display for spaces where students have taken books off the display to borrow. We fill the gaps with other books from the ‘New Arrivals’ trolley.

Don’t mistake this for the browsing trolley!

The last thing we do is to unlock the glass doors. 

The time is 8 am. The library is now open.

8.10 am: It’s still early, and the library is fairly empty. After we’ve returned the two books in the bookdrop, Mrs Kumar gives me my first task of the day: arrange all the books on the browsing trolley which have call numbers between 900 and 999. According to the Dewey Decimal System, that’s the History and Geography collection.

She glances at the full trolley, and then at my scrawny physique.

“I think you’ll need to arrange them on a separate trolley. This one is too heavy for you.” 

She fetches me a smaller cart from behind the counter. I get to work, first pulling out the 900s from the main browsing trolley and then arranging them in ascending numerical order on the cart.

Arranging the ‘900’ books. My first thought as a non-History student: why so many Cold War books?

8.33 am: I finish arranging the 900s. Mrs Kumar comes over to inspect my work.

“Not bad,” she says. “Now you go and shelve them.”

“Shelve the 900s?”

“Yes. You know where they are, right? Behind the staircase.”

From my blank expression, Mrs Kumar gathers that I have no idea what she is talking about. She walks me over to the shelves where the 900s are, handling the cart with ease. Along the way, she sets fallen books upright and collects those which have been left on the wrong shelves to be reshelved.

“If you see any books like this on the wrong shelf, just help to reshelve them also, okay?”

Shelving the 900s is an arduous task which takes several rounds of singing through the ABC Song to figure out where each book in my cart should go—before or after the one already on the shelf?

Thanks to the positively frigid composition of my cart, I spend a ridiculous amount of time at the Cold War shelf before moving on to the Cultural Revolution, the Vietnam War, and some politicians’ biographies. I also have to shelve a couple of Geography textbooks which are located on a high shelf.

9.10 am: Having finally finished shelving all the 900s on my cart, plus a few other books which I found lying on the shelves along the way, I report back to the counter to receive my next instructions from Mrs Kumar.

“You remember the trolley full of books we saw on 1M just now?” 

I don’t.

“It’s the trolley next to the dumbwaiter. Those books are from the Singapore collection. Don’t carry the books to the shelves and walk one by one, it’s too heavy. Push the trolley one round to the other end of the floor where the Singapore collection shelves are, and shelve from there instead.”

One of the trolley wheels appears to be stuck. The trolley rattles loudly, and I suddenly feel self-conscious about the amount of noise I am making.

Upon arriving at the Singapore collection shelves, I face my first crisis of the day.

The first book on the trolley is a bulky textbook titled A General History of the Chinese In Singapore (call number: 305.89105957 GEN). However, the 305 AAA shelf is already packed to breaking point. Even after several minutes of squeezing and pushing and pulling, all I am able to produce is a tiny gap between The Babas and Chinese which is way too small to slot the book into.

At this point, it really isn’t so much a ‘gap’ as it is a ‘crack’ .

I decide to adopt the strategy I use for questions which leave me stumped during exams: skip first, return later. But the next book, albeit much thinner (This Is What Inequality Looks Like by Teo You Yenn, call number 305.95957 TEO), presents the same problem. While there were helpful gaps here and there on the 900s shelves to slot books into, there is simply not enough space on the crammed shelves of the Singapore collection to squeeze another book in.

Feeling frustrated and helpless, I call Mrs Kumar for help on the library landline using my phone, and minutes later, she turns up like a fairy godmother to assess the situation. Unfortunately, she has some bad news to deliver.

“There’s no more space on the shelf. So you have to make space by moving all the books down one shelf. I think that would be a good place to start,” she says, pointing at a layer on a separate bookshelf, labelled in the 500s range, which is fairly empty. 

Because preserving the numerical order of the books is important so that the books are easy for library users to find, I can’t just simply stick the thick textbook in the empty space. No, in order to make space on the 305 AAA shelf where A General History belongs, I need to shift every book in between the 305 AAA shelf and the shelf which Mrs Kumar has identified, the 595 AAA shelf.

With a mounting sense of horror, I desperately ask Mrs Kumar if there’s any other way around it. 

There isn’t.

And that is how a fairly simple task of putting about twenty books back on shelves turns into a day-long assignment to shift the entire Singapore collection one shelf down.

I have never hated the General History of the Chinese in Singapore more.

How will I get through the rest of the day? Will I quit before the day is up? Find out in Behind the Counter: Student Librarian For A Day (Part 2), coming soon to Word of Mouth.

To be continued…

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