Life in the Interrogative

Why do cats purr? When's the next No. 41 bus? Where are the books with magic spells that really work? What's a fractal? How do you spell Cartoon Network? What time is it in China?

I've worked for more than 10 years in the children's room of the Shaker Heights Public Library, but the confidence young patrons place in me is still humbling. Stepping up to our desk, they fire away, one question after another, sure we'll know the answers. Nothing beats finding what a child is looking for. When his face lights up, it's as good as being a rock star. Other times, it's more like being part of a vaudeville routine.

Child: Do you know where my father is?

Librarian: No, but your mother's right over there.

Child: She doesn't know where he is either.

The status of know-it-all may be the only aspect of the librarian's role that has remained constant over the years. The only one of us who wears a bun is the young guy over in
movies and music. The shushing finger to the lips? Don't make us laugh.

This isn't the library of our childhoods. These days, the questions that stump librarians, the ones that keep us lying awake, are usually the ones we ask ourselves.

Shaker Heights is an inner-ring suburb facing lots of challenges. A recent report says that in the last decade, poor suburban populations grew almost five times faster than their urban counterparts. That surprises no one sitting behind the children's room desk.

When East Cleveland's budget crisis briefly forced it to close the main library, parents demanded: "What are our kids supposed to do now? Where are they supposed to go?"

For many children, a library's primary purpose has become a place to hang. A place to feel safe, to get warm, to cool off, to wait untll parents get off work, to hide from parents who are out of work, to play computer games or eat or sleep or otherwise pass the long stretches of time when they have no place else to be.

Can't you make that boy quit bothering me? You got poster board and markers for my project? Where are the books about, you know ... somebody died? My stepfather got mad and I ran out of the house without my coat and now what should I do?

Questions — they're the heart of our job. No child disturbs a librarian as much as the one who never asks a thing, who passes through the building without ever making use of us.

One afternoon, a parent complained that the toddler bathroom had been locked for a long time. We knocked, and at last a teenage boy who should've been in school burst out and made for the exit. Inside, a teary girl with smeared mascara told us that if we called her mother, she'd get kicked out of the house.

Someone took her into the story-hour room, where the quilt was still on the floor and the flannel board still set up. It was only a heartbeat since she'd been young enough to count the yellow ducks and sing along with "Old MacDonald."

What went wrong for her? Could it still go right? What did she need and could we get it for her? Or was it arrogance or naiveté to think the library could make a difference?

As things get rougher for families, more teachers, librarians and other professional optimists ask, sometimes sadly, sometimes furiously, where the boundaries are. Where does our commitment to kids' lives end?

Who knows the answer to questions like these? Not me.

Someone tugged on my sleeve. Looking down, I found a boy the size of a fire hydrant, asking for that green book with T. rex on the cover. I sped straight to the shelf and whipped it out, a magician producing the card hidden deep in the deck. I threw in a story about a dinosaur who hates to go to bed. Riveted by his books, the boy barely acknowledged me. I was the library lady, after all. He expected no less of Ms. Know-It-All.

Back at the desk, I made a feeble attempt to tell myself I was doing an OK job. But that day, the questions I could answer were puny compared to those I couldn't.

The world has always come through the doors of the public library, but these days it doesn't lower its voice. More and more, the needs that librarians struggle to fill are immense.

But a librarian hates nothing — trust me, nothing! — so much as an unanswered question. So even as we fear not knowing the answer, or giving a pitifully inadequate one, we beam thought-rays at the kids coming through that door. Tell us what you need. If you don't know, let's figure it out together. Because we're here to learn, too.

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