Monday, August 8, 2011

In the Stacks

Early in the morning I’d let myself into the building, turn on the computer and then go in the elevator down to the stacks.  It was always a few degrees warmer down there with a faint and comforting ticking noise coming from the furnace.  I had the whole building to myself for two hours before I had to head to my full-time job.   The first floor room I worked in was a soft gray in the winter morning light, the desks, bookcases, trash cans and chairs still, immovable as mountains, frozen in their abandoned positions.  They could have been that way for centuries.  

Nobody was really certain as to what was down there in the basement, book-wise.  My job was to catalog what was, to dust off the old and forgotten and reunite them with their cataloged mates.
I’d turn lights on as I went along the stacks and since they were on timers, they’d eventually click off slowly one by one.  The ceiling was low and off at the edges of the room were darker rectangles, gaping doorways into areas I had no curiosity to explore.  I avoided as well looking up into the inky depths of the ceiling.  I’d load up a cart with about ten books, choosing from an area I’d cataloged the day before, working my way through decades of old city and county records and take the elevator back to the first floor.  Dull books, except sometimes for pictures which offered glimpses into the past.  The accomplishments of towns and cities: bridges built and tunnels dug; waterworks and welfare rolls, taxes collected.  Endless numbers and figures, maps, charts and graphs.  There’s something poignant about our diligence in keeping such records – only to see the once-relevant data end up in anonymous row upon row of mouldering books on shelves in a dark basement.

In most cases I am a person not afraid of letting go of material things.  Too much stuff makes me feel weighted down and anxious.  But I hold on to some things and I wonder about my tendency to keep old lists and journals filled with scribbled thoughts and ideas – the mostly dull facts and figures of my own existence.  Letters and numbers out of context, lacking detail, body or explanation.  Is it some need to leave a record of my intentions and accomplishments for after I’m gone, minor as they may be?  Do I feel a need to prove to future generations that I had goals, that getting things done was important to me?  Dry bread crumbs of personal data leading back to someone long gone from a world that is only about the present.

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