Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Jolly Librarian Considers How To Live

Well, I’m not going to tell you how to live exactly, but I am going to recommend How to Live or A Life of Montaigne: In One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell.

Oh dear, I can see you now, shaking your head and muttering, “Jolly Librarian, I remember hearing the name in some world lit class years ago. Didn’t he live in the 16th century or something? And wasn’t he French? Why should I care?”

Of course, this is the paradox for all literary biographies. The plus side is that there is a built-in audience. I mean I’ve read three biographies of  Charles Dickens, but that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm when I heard another was coming out this year. But how does an author reach out beyond the groupies of a particular literary figure?

Well, besides having a great title, which How to Live surely is, there are two ways. One is to have a fascinating subject. The other is to be a sociable, engaging writer. Bakewell has both things going for her.

It’s hard not to like Montaigne (although both the Catholic Church and his own country managed it for a few centuries). He confessed to laziness. He stops writing to play with his cat. He is cheerful in a century when there’s not much to be cheerful about in France, but also realistic. He is a man who understands that happiness comes in small things. And, as Bakewell points out,  the Essays “is much more than a book. It is a centuries-long conversation between Montaigne and all those who have got to know him: a conversation which changes through history, while starting out afresh almost every time with that ‘How did he know all that about me?'”

Bakewell is as entertaining as her subject. She has that British dry wit and an eye for the humorous and incongruous and pokes gentle fun at some of the characters who show up in the history of  the Essays. She tells of the reaction of one Romantic poet to Montaigne: First he hero-worshipped him and kept the Essays handy at all times. But then he turned against him. “He explained to a correspondent that he had only been able to love the Essays when he was young–that is, about nine months earlier, when he first began to enthuse about the book in his letters. Now, at twenty-one, he had been weathered by pain, and found Montaigne too cool and measured . . . For now, the essayist’s sense of moderation made him feel positively ill.”

Okay, I’m going to stop rambling myself. Let me just assure spending a few hours with Montaigne, his readers through history, and Sarah Bakewell will be an instructive and entertaining use of your time. And, yes, you may get a few ideas on how to live.

Losing a Colleague

We all like to believe in the idea of a happy Christmas, especially those of us who grew up with cartoons where the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes, the Misfit Toys find a home, and Charlie Brown and his friends learn the real meaning of Christmas.

But, of course, sad things happen at Christmas just as they do at any other time of the year. Today, when I came to work, I was told that our former colleague, Deborah, had died suddenly yesterday. She had retired just over a year ago after battling several illnesses in the previous years. But she had fought so bravely and persevered so long that I suppose we all thought that she would just keep on keeping on. But yesterday, after returning home from dialysis, she complained of chest pains, took two aspirin, went to bed, and never awoke.

Deborah was an institution in our library. She loved hats and jewelry and was always dressed with a certain flair. I still don’t know her secret to finding necklaces and shoes that could exactly match the color of her dresses. 

During my years with her, she managed interlibrary loans. Deborah loved nothing better than hunting down a book for a patron. During my own dissertation, she rescued me enough times that I added her name to my acknowledgments page. She would fight to get an extension on a due date, but then she had no scruples about coming after you if the book did become overdue.

Being a lifelong Nashville resident, she stopped students she thought she recognized and would ask them if their mother went to a certain school or church or lived on a certain street. As often as not, she was right, and then the student would stop by to chat every so often.

But Deborah could be tough as well, especially with those who were noisy. Every so often, we were all startled to hear her voice over the microphone: “PLEASE PUT YOUR CELLPHONES AWAY. NO CELLPHONES IN THE LIBRARY.” 

But what most inspired us all about Deborah was her perseverance to keep working and to keep making a contribution during several chronic illnesses. She was on dialysis three times a week, fought cancer, and suffered through heart problems. During the nine years we worked together, she lost her sister and her grandson. But she never lost her ability to enjoy life. 

So we’re all just a little bit sadder today as we honor someone who never gave up. We miss you, Deborah.Image


Life Lessons from the Library: Make Use of the Quiet Times

I suppose all jobs have ‘down’ times when there there are fewer people around than usual. For our library, it is the time between semesters. Our students took final exams last week, and the campus will close for a week on Friday. For these five days in between, we are here, but students, for the most part, are not. In fact, right now, there are more staff members than students in the library.

And that’s fine. Down times are important. They allow us for to prepare for the next semester. One person is checking the textbook list to make sure we have the right texts for January. Another is beginning to email overdue notices. I just evaluated a new staff member and wrote a recommendation for another. And I am determined to have fewer than 100 emails in my in-box when I leave for my holiday.

While many people take vacation time this week, I always like to be here because it gives me an opportunity I don’t always have during the semester: time to think. I have some uninterrupted minutes to consider what worked during the semester and what didn’t. I think of the changes I would make if I had unlimited resources and then narrow down to the ones that are actually feasible. I talk to staff about what they noticed and what they think would improve our library. 

If all goes well, I will return in January with an empty email in-box, a clear desk, and a thoughtful plan for the new semester.


Monday Motivator: Not Everything Broke Wants Fixing

Recently, I got myself so worked up, I thought I might actually scream. A friend of mine was all stressed out over an expensive endeavor of her brother’s. “I don’t think we can afford to participate,” she moaned. “I don’t know what we’ll do.”

It was all I could do to keep from grabbing her face in my hands and yelling, “You don’t have to do anything. The only reason that there is a problem is that your brother is being totally and completely selfish and has made totally unreasonable demands upon you.”

But I managed to keep my mouth shut. After all, although offended, my friend would not have been shocked at this. It wasn’t exactly news. And it wouldn’t be the first time that her brother had expected the entire family to jump through hoops for his convenience. It was a pattern, and nothing I said was going to change that–except to give the entire family a common enemy–me.

Especially this time of year when all sorts of odd groupings of relatives take place, we may find ourselves with the urge to fix those around us. Maybe we want to point out to Aunt Madge that her constant nagging of Uncle Rip is counterproductive. Or that Cousin Tommy really should lay off the potato chips. Or that Grammy Pam’s coming late to the holiday meal puts everyone out as they have to wait for her to show up.

This is a lesson that it took me many decades to learn: Pointing out people’s flaws usually does not help fix them. I can assure you that Cousin Tommy is quite aware that he eats too many potato chips. And unless Grammy Pam never learned to tell time, she knows she’s late. Even Aunt Madge, when confronted with her nagging, will give you a hundred good reasons why it’s the only way to deal with Uncle Rip.

So unless you’re going to be spending a lot of time with these people (You’re moving in with them because you lost all your money gambling.), then let it go. Unlike objects, most people can’t be fixed until they actually want to be.

Besides, sometimes those behaviors serve a purpose. For my friend, the selfish brother allows everyone else to feel mature and accommodating, and it gives them all something to talk about on the phone and at dinner.

Once there was an elderly man who had a nasty old car in his yard with no doors and no tires. His nephew stopped by to tell him how he needed to have it towed, so his property would look better. The man listened and then said, “Not everything broke wants fixing.” It turned out that he liked to use the car for an occasional beer since his wife wouldn’t let him drink in the house.

So have a happy holiday, and give the gift of not trying to fix anyone this holiday season.

The Jolly Librarian Lists the Things that Librarians Would Just as Soon Not Hear

And these are in no certain order:

  • If I had your job, I’d kill myself.
  • I wish I had the cushy job of sitting around all day and reading.
  • I like to think of you as my secretary!
  • So how long do you think you have until Google makes your job obsolete?
  • Could you go upstairs and ask the couple in the next study room to stop making out?
  • I need five sources for a paper that’s due in a hour. So they need to be really short and with lots of good information.
  • No, you can’t help me. I’m waiting for that cute librarian.
  • I need a book. I don’t remember the title or the author. Or really what’s it about. But my professor said it would be helpful. 

The Jolly Librarian Lists Lessons Learned in the Library for Fall 2011

  • Students like candy, although, strangely, NSCC students do not particularly like Hershey Kisses. This is incomprehensible to the Jolly Librarian and merits further study.
  • More NSCC students like chess than the Jolly Librarian would have predicted. This popularity has not moved her to learn the game.
  • Students like the library book tree and when their librarians dress up for Halloween.
  • Students do not like when the librarians make silly jokes about the titles of textbooks.
  • Students like to make out in the library. This should not be so surprising except that the NSCC Library was not built for privacy.
  • Students, like most people, want to be reassured that they’re not a bother. Once they have a quality experience with a librarian, they will ask for that same person over and over again.
  • On live chat, students will not wait more than 20 seconds for an answer.
  • And, as she realizes every semester, the Jolly Librarian has the best job in the world.

The Jolly Librarian and her Jolly Crew wish all students and faculty everywhere a restful break between semesters!

The Jolly Librarian Ponders Deadlines

Each day during finals week, there seem to be fewer students in the library needing help. However, those who come to the desk are quite desperate. As I type this, two library folks have been tag-teaming a young man who came in about two o’clock. He had already been given one extension on his research paper, which was now due at five today. And he had no sources, no idea how to put sources in the paper, and was clueless about citation as well.

As writers are prone to do, I am going to divide the world into two groups: those who believe in deadlines and those who think they are, at best, suggestions. The distinction is not as clear as you may think. You might imagine the serious deadline people as excellent time managers, writing down due dates in the calendar or putting them in their smart-phones, coming up with a plan, and getting a little work done each week. They then turn in their assignments with ease and grace, feeling quite confident in the result.

This is not the case with most of my deadline-oriented friends. People who adhere to deadlines are just as likely to procrastinate as their deadline-ignoring counterparts. They are just as likely to spend sleepless nights and stressful hours making up for lost time as the deadline comes rushing closer and closer.

The real difference between the two is that they believe, for whatever reason, the deadline is sacred. And while they behave like the lackadaisical grasshopper for most of the project, they turn into industrious ants at the end and things get turned in. They simply can’t imagine themselves as someone who doesn’t meet deadlines. It’s part of their identity to do so.

The deadline-as-suggestion folks, on the other hand, have no such issues. It’s not that they have no identities, but often those identities are tied up in being so super busy that a deadline simply can’t be met. Many times, I’ve listened to excuses about how jobs, cars, children, parents, husbands, wives,etc. prevented them from finishing a project on time. I don’t doubt the sincerity of those excuses; I’m just pointing out, to a deadline believer, those things would usually not make a difference except in the most extreme of circumstances, and then only once. 

Of course, in either case, for the deadline believer or deadline-as-suggestion person, there have to be some prerequisite skills to be successful. I have often procrastinated until the last hour before a deadline to turn in a report. But when I sit down to write, I have done all the necessary reading and research. I know the style I’m supposed to use. And I know the basic structure of the assignment. Those things go a long way towards making a deadline.

As sorry as I feel for the young man in the lab next door, I have to believe that there are valuable lessons to be learned: Even extension deadlines come due. Some prep work can make last minute cramming less painful. And the best intentions can’t make up for lack of work. And if he learns from this experience,just maybe he will have a better spring semester.


Life Lessons from the Library: Failure Is an Option

As hard as we try in the library to provide our students with the assistance they need to pass their courses, sometimes they fail. They are obviously devastated, and we’re pretty sad about it as well. It’s hard to see someone you’ve gotten to know as a person over fourteen weeks so desolate. 

Still, in many cases, we suspected trouble in the course, even when the students were still optimistic. Why?

  • Students weren’t asking their instructors for help when they didn’t understand something.
  • They were missing classes or not doing assignments.
  • They were procrastinating.
  • Family and job responsibilities interfered with their academic progress.

But many of these are simply symptoms, not the underlying problem. I think a main cause of failure is simply not learning from mistakes and, instead,doing the same thing over and over, maybe just more of it.

Recently, I talked with a student who had made a poor grade on a paper. She was lamenting the  amount of time spent on it: “weeks and weeks of effort when I could have been working on something else.” I took a glance at the instructor’s comments: Poor organization, lack of statement of main ideas, and no transitions. Ironically, I had looked at an essay for this same student earlier in the semester. My comments: poor organization, no statement of main ideas, and no transitions. 

The student had spent little time analyzing her mistakes and finding ways to improve her paper. Instead, she simply increased the time spent on each one. The problem with that is spending more time doing the wrong thing only results in more of the wrong thing. Sadly, she was now angry at her instructor for not respecting the amount of time she put in on the paper, and was not amenable to any direction on actually improving her work.

Of course, this is not a problem simply for students. We see it in our colleagues, our friends, and, if we’re honest, ourselves. Correcting a colleague doesn’t get the results we want,so we correct more. A fad diet doesn’t help us lose weight, so we find another fad diet. A relationship fails because we can’t accept our partner’s eccentricities, so we start criticizing those eccentricities earlier in the next one.

Looking for and correcting weaknesses is a basic step in most problem-solving techniques taught in classes. Then why is it so hard for us to apply that step to our own lives? 

It’s a question I don’t have the answer to. But I realize that if we stopped denying our fallibility and instead concentrated on fixing mistakes, we’d be much more effective. And I think much happier as well.


Monday Motivator: Step Away from the Crazy Person

If you’re like me, you’ve noticed an exponential increase in crazy these past few weeks. The combination of the end of the semester and the holiday season seems to take its toll on everyone, resulting in some irrational behavior. Perhaps you can’t expect much else when the top news story following Thanksgiving was about a woman who pepper-sprayed her competitors at a Black Friday sale.

But there’s crazy closer to home as well. Today, at least two Facebook friends reported being yelled at by angry students. One friend is in the middle of a family drama that, if you supplied a laugh track, could be on television, except no one in the family is laughing. Hurt feelings seem to abound everywhere. And don’t even get me started on the downright maniacal driving habits of shoppers in Green Hills.

So here’s my advice: There is some crazy that you have no choice but to deal with (family, bosses, your parole officer). But for others, you do have a choice. Simply, don’t indulge it. As Snoop Dog might say, “Drop it like it’s hot.”

Sure, this season, you might not be able to literally avoid all the craziness. Because let’s face it, the crazies are out there like the flu bug ready to pop up at any moment. But unlike, the flu, they can’t infect you unless you let them.

So if someone grabs your parking place, don’t go mulling over the unfairness of life for the rest of the day. Think instead: Whoa! That was a crazy person. Glad that encounter’s over. Time to move on.

A colleague starts getting all over you because you didn’t sign the holiday card at the right spot. Instead of getting into of an argument about all the things she does that drive you crazy, simply reflect that the poor woman has been infected by a case of the holiday crazies and mentally step away.

Once you realize how much of the craziness you can actually disengage from, you’ll find some stress slipping right off your shoulders. Well, at least, until you have to drive to Green Hills again.



The Mayfield Library Monthly Challenge: There’s a Reason There’s No Such Thing as November Resolutions

Last week, the Jolly Librarian was home sick, and the staff breathed a sigh of relief that they would not have to report on their November resolutions. They also prayed that I would forget the whole thing since December arrived before the next report. But I recovered and remembered.

So here are our final reports:

The Novel Person: While the novel is not finished, 2 solid pages were written each day, and there is great hope that the first draft will be finished by the end of the year.

The Grandparent Person: The intentions were good and efforts were made, but as November got busier, it became harder to do. However, it was a worthy goal and will stay on the radar.

The Indecisive Person: Perhaps this person’s shrug when I asked if she had become more decisive this month says it all.

The Exercise Person:  “Complete failure.”

The Cubicle Person: No progress.

The Vending Machine Person; “I never meant to try everything in the vending machine. It was a joke.”

The Be-Healthy Person: The less said the better.

Still, we learned many things this month:

  • If you’ve dropped a resolution during the year, November is not the time to pick it back up.
  • November is an extraordinarily busy month.
  • The Jolly Librarian may be the least effective motivator in history.
  • The staff participants prefer to take a crooked path rather than a straight road to goal achievement.
  • The participants’ weaknesses stem not from laziness but from cockeyed optimism that one more thing can keep getting added to already full schedules.

The December Challenge: We challenge ourselves and you all to enjoy each other’s company and to be thankful for what we have.