Trigger warning for a subplot involving suicide.
I’ve worked in libraries for twenty-one years, more or less. For a few years, I worked at a public library. Mostly, I’ve been at academic libraries. I know that it’s a rarified world of citation information (sooooo much citation information), looking for copies of things, and thinking up ways to get databases to locate the sources that might help answer research questions. My work world is far from the one inhabited by Leisl Weiss, who has suddenly found herself as the interim director of a special library in Eva Jurczyk’s The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Where my library is highly digital, Leisl’s is still very much much paper, leather, and ink. My work is about connections between students and information. Leisl’s shares some of that, but she always has to keep the conservation of paper in mind where I’m handing out links, printing copies, and yanking books off the shelf to hand to students. Before you, gentle reader geek out too much about Leisl’s access to books that the rest of us can only dream of brushing our fingers across the covers of*, this book also reveals a lot of dirty secrets kept by people who only care about money and privilege.
In the wake of the previous director’s stroke, second-in-command Leisl is drafted to take his place. Her first duty is to make sure that the library’s most recent acquisition, a copy of the Plantin Polyglot Bible, is ready to mingle with the donors. When she finally manages to open the safe in the director’s office, Leisl is horrified to discover that the bible’s volumes are missing. Rare books, it turns out, are fantastic MacGuffins: they’re highly portable, wildly valuable, and easy to hide. The Plantin and other valuable books and manuscripts that feature in this book are described in such loving detail that I wanted to drool (metaphorically, of course, because that would be bad for the books). Those descriptions—plus the wonderful portraits of the library staff in this book—were so realistic that I wasn’t at all surprised to find out that the author is an academic librarian.
In fact, this book is so close to reality that it was uncomfortable for me to read at times, when Leisl and the staff sniped at each other or made nice with ignorant donors or sparred with the university president. So while the rare books got the plot moving, The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections was a lot more about people than it was about the books. Leisl ends up wrestling with whether or not to save or destroy reputations, how much sucking up she can handle without killing her soul, and which half of the work-life balance matters more in the long run.
This is one of the most accurate books I’ve read about library life I’ve ever read. And, after reading it, I realize that I want to stay far away from upper management so that I focus on doing the work of the library without having to deal with donors and or employee conflict or even upper management.
*One of the highlights of my time in library school was a trip to a university’s special collection department where I got to touch with my bare fingers** Charles Dickens’ signature on a bound collection of issues of All the Year Round, containing the parts of A Tale of Two Cities.
**The cotton gloves thing is mostly a myth, if you ask any librarian. It’s true that skin oils can damage things, but not as much as clumsy fingers that can’t feel what they’re touching.