Friday, September 18, 2009

Bartleby, the Scrivener & Party Girl

When Ida wasn’t calling me Pester Prynne, she was calling me in the Scrivener. Because when I wasn’t telling stories and bouncing off the walls of our dis-functional and crowded office in Carrboro, NC, I was actually working really hard. And when I worked I took on the demeanor of a scrivener, at least in Ida’s observations of me. It was the nature of my work - I was a database manager, first for the fundraiser folk and then for the scientists. I made maps too -- I taught myself to work with Geographical Information Systems...which is nothing more than a huge database of geographical points...its just that in addition to producing spreadsheets and statistical reports, GIS can produce maps.

Beautiful maps! In those early days of making maps for the scientists at my big international conservation organization, I could sit for hours, I mean hours digitizing county property maps...there I would be hunched over a digitizing tablet in my dark little office with one lamp on, and all you could hear from me was beep, beep, beep, beep...digitizing maps was like knitting to me. I don’t knit, never have knitted, but I used to watch my grandmother knit -- and she would make the same little motions over and over and over and out of it would come this thing....a hat, a scarf, a sweater!

For me, to meditate upon the lines of tract of land, or to construct the banks and meanders of a river, to note the outline of a pond or to follow a country road with a a digitizing pen was about as zen as it got -- and at the end of the day I had a real treasure...something the scientists could use for land planning and land stewardship and something the fundraising folk could use to educate our donors. It was the ultimate knitting project. And at the end of the day I was calmer than when I had come into the office in the morning.

I am no longer a database manager -- I burned out, surprisingly, about six years ago. If I could have just remained in the little digitizing room, I would still be there, probably. But, things changed, technology changed. And the organization I worked for became unrecognizable to me. It outgrew me and overwhelmed me. I should clarify all this by saying, I was an English major - not a math major, or a computer science major or an environmental sciences major. I was a good old fashioned English major with aspirations to be a writer. But when I graduated college, yikes, I had to find a real job. And where better to work than right in the heart of the university I had been attending for several years! I went to work for the library -- in the circulation department. I shelved books and managed 50 students who shelved books -- I trained them in the Library of Congress system. And this was so long ago, so long ago, that we didn’t have barcodes on the books to check them out to patrons, each book had a PUNCH CARD...those manilla colored cards that had a series of punched holes that when fed through a reader relayed information into a, you guessed it, a database!

All of this was courtesy of IBM -- our library had the oldest IBM card punch machine on the East Coast and I was in charge of that dinosaur. I loved that machine! It was like using the first printing press - it was like sitting at a loom -- it was slightly dangerous too, you could hurt yourself with it if you weren’t careful. And it broke down quite often, being that it knew that it was obsolete. It was like an old horse waiting to be put out of its misery. There was a faded IBM business card taped to the card punch machine, with the number and name of the last remaining man at IBM who knew how to fix the blasted thing. I don’t remember his name, I only remember that he worked and lived somewhere far from Greensboro, NC and it was a monumental pain for him to come and fix the machine, so frequently he would tell me over the phone how to fix it.

There I would be, lying on the floor, under the card punch machine with a screw driver or a pair of pliers, desperately trying to follow the IBM man’s instructions. Worried and stunned librarians gathered round, they prayed that the card punch machine would continue to live...because we knew that the day it finally died, was the day that planning would have to begin, to convert our one-point-five million volumes to bar codes! Once a year, the IBM man would come to inspect the machine -- he must have been the oldest IBM employee in the world -- and as much as we wanted the punch card machine to live, he wanted it to die, because that meant Retirement! We were keeping him from retiring! He told me this one afternoon, as the sun poured in through the circulation department windows. All my student workers were organizing books and filing them onto trucks to take up into the stacks. I felt badly for holding up the old man’s retirement, but couldn’t he see that we were a well-oiled machine? The library needed those punch cards, bar codes be damned!

Working in the library back then was like existing inside a living database...the books were the data, the stacks were the tiers that the data was stored in, the Library of Congress system was our way of organizing and retrieving the data. Have you seen the movie Party Girl? WIth my all time favorite girl Parker Posey? I was like Parker Posey in Party Girl...I had no discipline and no mind for organizing things and then I met the library and the LIbrary of Congress system (Parker met the Dewey Decimal system...a system I detest, but that’s not the point here). The punch cards, the books, and the stacks changed the way my brain worked. Punch cards made me understand how computers work at their most basic level. Teaching students to shelve books and working with librarians made me desire ORDER!

Here’s how sick you can become -- you walk down an aisle in the stacks and you see a shelf of books that has been rifled through by a student...the books are every which way. You cannot help yourself, you must re-order all the books on that shelf, which leads you to think that this person must have screwed with the order of the books on the previous shelf and the following shelf, so you have to “shelf read“ and confirm that all is in order. And once you are done ”shelf reading“ you smooth the books with your hand...a move I learned from a most wonderful librarian and artist named George K. - you run your hand along the shelf, to line up the spines. Then there is this lovely sight in front of you...pure order.

So working in the library puts you not only in a living physical database, but it also instills a most zen way of being -- because no matter how hard you work to put the books in order, students and professors come and mess it all up, so you have to do it again! Over and over and over, just like Sisyphus...Party Girl’s beautiful Lebanese vendor boyfriend tells her the story of Sisyphus, rolling that damn rock up the mountain, only to have it roll down again, and Sisyphus rolls it back up again and again and again. That is library work -- you shelve the books, patrons take them out, you shelve the books, patrons take them out. The patrons are the gravity that you are constantly working against.

What’s my point? My point is that a little blonde liberal arts student like me, became the thing that all the teachers back in high school said I could never become -- a highly organized mathematically inclined worker! I was an atrocious math student and I damn near failed chemistry because of all that math...but nobody told me that math was about organization, if somebody had said that, I might have gotten it. But the librarians boiled it down to this, ”If you can say your ABC’s and your 123’s, you can learn the Library of Congress System and you can shelve books.“ and for me that meant I could then go on to manage large relational databases and make maps with the early geographical information systems.

But then, the 21st century arrived and with it arrived this wave of computer science and engineering grads who needed much larger computers and had much more data than I had ever worked with before...the demands of my job, to analyze land protection on these grand scales became exhausting...people were drunk on data and they came to me wanting more and more and more. I began to burn out, so I downsized myself into working with a relational database that still relied on the principle of land protection...I thought I was safe, but nope, the authorities caught up with me. My overly large international conservation organization got so good at what they were doing that we caught the attention of the U.S. Senate and suddenly we were being investigated. I was now working for two Senators - Baucus and Grassley and daily, I would receive orders to produce this report and that report from my huge database of southern lands and acres, money and acres, money and acres....they broke me. I walked away.

Now I am the simplest of data managers -- the old fashioned kind -- I have returned to my roots, I am a bookkeeper. I am Bartleby in her truest form.


mutt pretty said...

My very soul blanches at the idea of organizing so many things - when I was working at Barnes and Noble and it was late and we had to straighten the stacks before we could leave, I'd just cram 'em in there and make them look straight. I was a failure.

wolfy said...

i no longer organize things...i have allowed myself to forget and i am a better person for it, really...