The Dark Side of the Dewey Decimal System

By | March 19, 2014

I worked at a public library in Christiansburg, Virginia between 1990 and 1993 — not full time, by any means, since I was also in graduate school at that time. Working at the circulation desk gave me an excellent, but mildly disturbing, view of the habits and tendencies of my fellow Virginians.

Yes, there were kids from high school who came in with a reading list and expected us to go get all the books for them. Yes, there were kids who came in with an essay assignment and expected us to write the essay for them. But I imagine you get those everywhere.

We had people who came in to reserve our public meeting room for meetings advocating the immediate closure of all public libraries. This was before the Tea Party existed under that name, but the don’t-waste-my-tax-dollars-on-intellectual-crap people were thick on the ground even then.

We had people who had apparently lived in areas where libraries also carried a lot of videotapes and just couldn’t believe that our library had chosen to spend its budget on, well, books. Because after all, who reads books or expects to find books at a public library? I once spent the better part of ten minutes carefully explaining to a patron that no, really, we didn’t have any videos. No, not any non-fiction videos. No, no how-to videos. No, no recent Hollywood releases. No, really, no videos at all. The patron eventually left, still looking around suspiciously as though to spot the dark corner of the library where we had the videos stashed away.

Card catalog

While some libraries already had computerized their card catalogs, ours had not. We were just beginning the process, but at that point, everything was still on paper cards in wooden drawers. You know, just like Fred Flintstone used. The woman in charge of our branch of the library system told me that she saw no point computerizing the card catalog and circulation system because the End Times were just around the corner and would surely arrive before the project could be completed.

The RaptureBut the oddest thing about working at a public library in southwestern Virginia was which books the patrons kept in heavy circulation. There were a few call numbers every librarian knew by heart from dint of repetition to inquiring patrons. Chief among them was 364.14.

True Crime.

If it documented the sordid murder and dismemberment of a busload of cheerleaders, it was guaranteed to spend little, if any, time sitting calmly on the shelf. If it had a picture of Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, or Ed Gein on the front cover, it probably wouldn’t even hit the shelves; patrons would search the reshelving cart and snatch the books before our library pages could even get to them. I lost count of how many books we had that had “Fatal” or “Dark” in their titles. Joe McGinnis, chronicler of the Jeffrey MacDonald murders, would have had lines out the door if he’d showed up for a book signing.

Axe murderer

One idly wondered if my neighbors were sitting up nights plotting the perfect crime. Making charts and diagrams and going “See, Mabel, here’s where Son of Sam screwed up.”

Of course, this led to the occasional dissatisfied patron. Our locals expected quality when they checked out true crime books. If a book wasn’t grisly enough, we’d hear about it. One guy came up to me one evening and slammed down a book by Joe McGinnis titled “Going to Extremes“. He was upset, he said — the title had showed such promise.

“What was the problem?” I asked curiously.

“It’s about LIFE IN ALASKA!”

And it was. It hadn’t been shelved with true crime, but my friend the patron had automatically assumed that if it was by McGinnis and had a title with words like “EXTREMES” in it, it had to be good.

I apologized profusely and suggested to the library director that we put a warning label on the outside of the book: “NOTICE: CONTENT OF THIS BOOK IS NOT LURID, GRAPHIC, OR UPSETTING.”

That was me, always looking out for our patrons.


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