Columns > Published on June 25th, 2019

The 3 Worst Duties I Performed As A Librarian

This week is my last week as a librarian. After fifteen years working in the same building, I’m moving onto pastures.

The usual phrase is “greener” pastures, but I’m not sure yet. Different pastures, for sure. But there’s some parts of my job that I’ll miss. For all the good that comes with change, I liked writing “librarian” in the Occupation field of my tax return every year. When someone cut my hair and asked, “So, what do you do?” I liked my answer.

I’m not sure I made the right decision in leaving the librarian life behind. So, what I decided to do was write little somethings about the librarian stuff I’ll miss LEAST.

There were some serious contenders. I won’t miss working with printers. I won’t miss walking folks through the terrible process of recovering a Google password (seriously, Google, what are you thinking?). But my writing mentor told me never to write about general, on-going stuff. He said it’s better to pick a few moments and to let those moments stand in for the whole.

Here are my moments.


The Wish Ape

In libraries you work with what you’ve got. Which sometimes feels a little like that part in Apollo 13 where the one dude with a buzzcut goes up to a table of a bunch of other dudes with buzzcuts, dumps a box full of stuff on the table, and says, “Okay, make this junk into a thing that’s actually useful.”

My then-boss dumped a concrete form tube on my desk. One of those cardboard cylinders you get at Home Depot and pour concrete into. I don’t know why she had it, I don’t know why we didn’t just throw it out, but she told me to do something with it, and I did. A little yellow paper, a stuffed gorilla in the top, and the result: Wish Ape.

Blood, shit, vomit. That’s my hierarchy.

Wish Ape was basically a wishing well. Tube, covered in yellow paper, ape sitting at the top. I cut a slot in the tube, and people could write their wishes on little pieces of paper, stuff them in the tube, and...here’s the problem. I didn’t think about the next part.

I have some advice for anyone applying for my job: If you’re going to make a wishing well, have people throw in money. Because A) Then you have money, and B) You don’t get your heart broken when you empty the Wish Ape tube and read the wishes.

Two folded pieces of paper still stand out in my mind.

One was a kid, or at least a kid’s handwriting, wishing her dad would come back.

The other wish looked like an adult’s. Who was wishing to find a stable man to love instead of people who made her feel terrible.

There were others, but I can’t remember them anymore. It’s been at least a decade. People have shared so many outrageous stories, sad stories, and outright bizarre stories that they all jumble in my brain. But those two still haunt me.

The Sink

Blood, shit, vomit. That’s my hierarchy.

Everyone who’s been responsible for a public bathroom has their own hierarchy of things they most hate cleaning, and I daresay those are the three items on everyone’s list.

You’ll notice urine didn’t make the cut. This isn’t because urine was never around (ha. HA!), it’s because urine is so far beneath the top three that it barely ranks. When I got a call to clean a bathroom, and when I opened the door in fear and found a simple puddle (spray, trail, etc.)? I was liable to bust out a party hat along with the mop.

My hierarchy, from least horrible to most:

Blood: Probably the worst in terms of contagion, but I’m not all that repulsed by blood. It stinks the least. It’s fairly easy to clean from hard surfaces. And usually it’s pretty contained (notable exception: a colleague once cleaned after a blood incident where it appeared someone with a bloody nose stood in the center of the bathroom, spun, and managed to sling blood on every surface). Plus, the volume is usually manageable.

Shit: Shit is pretty bad, and there’s a wide array of possible messes that fall under this banner. However, shit, 9 times out of 10, is in or near a toilet, which helps. It tends to give people a little more warning than blood and vomit. Lots of times we’re talking about a toilet stew, and I was lucky enough to work somewhere that had industrial, well-piped toilets that could choke down just about anything. Worse than blood, but still do-able.

Vomit: The stink. The real thing is the stink. When I smell blood, I’m not likely to bleed. When I smell shit, I’m not going to suddenly need to shit. But with vomit, there’s a sympathetic effect. My stomach is strong, but even I have my limits. Vomit tends to strike when people least expect it, which means it’ll end up anywhere. In the doorway, in the lobby, on the carpet. Just wherever.

My second worst duty was cleaning a sink full of vomit.

I got the call that there was a bathroom issue, and when I opened the door the stink hit me first. The stink that could only come from a sink brimming with pink vomit.

Vomit is quite often pink or orange. I might suggest people stay away from pink and orange foods because those seem to get people sick. I don’t have evidence of cause versus correlation, but we can all play it safe here.

The vomit was chunky enough that the sink was completely stopped up. The only thing to do was glove up, reach in and scoop out enough that the liquid could drain.

My gloved hand disappeared into the pool of opaque pink. I reached down with my fingertips and started scooping, careful to make sure my hand didn’t get deep enough that the vomit reached up and over the wrist end of my glove.

Something nobody warns you about when it comes to gloves, you can still sense temperature. When you reach into a pool of vomit, you feel the warm.

It took a bit of scooping before the sink started to slurp down what it could.

If you’re applying for my job, get some Vick’s Vaporub or similar substance. Trust me. A little under the nose does wonders.

The Culling

This last spring the library got an incubator and a dozen chicken eggs.

He spent a couple days with the others. But his last day, he was too weak to lift his head or move around much.

Staff named the unhatched eggs. Things like Omelette, Colonel Sanders. I named one Egg Shen. After Big Trouble In Little China. Which almost no one else knew. I’m right in that awkward age where I’m a bit older than some of the staff, a bit younger than the rest.

The eggs were candled, and almost all of them had chicks growing inside, including Egg Shen.

They started hatching about a week later. It’s pretty cool, if you’ve never seen it. The eggs wobble around. Then flashes of beak poke through. Then the egg cracks enough, the chick sort of tumbles out, all wet and disgusting, and they almost immediately stand up and start walking around.

Egg Shen was the last to hatch. Way behind the rest. And he didn’t look so hot. He mostly sat with his face on the ground. He had an open wound on his stomach. While the rest of the chicks turned into poof balls of fluff, Egg Shen stayed sort of scrawny and sad.

He spent a couple days with the others. But his last day, he was too weak to lift his head or move around much. We moved him to his own habitat, just in case he had an infection.

I talked to my boss.

I’d say I was raised practical. And when it comes to animals, pets or livestock, it’s our responsibility to take care of them. On every level. And seeing an animal suffer like that, an animal who’s obviously not going to make it...the right thing to do was help little Egg Shen along.

On my lunch break I took a Tupperware from my desk. I cut some soft pink fabric and laid it out on the bottom. Then I put a smaller container inside, and I got some baking soda and vinegar. I took Egg Shen outside and laid him in the container. He didn’t struggle, fight, or open his eyes when I carried him through the back hallways in the library.

Supposedly sticking a chick in a container like this along with baking soda and vinegar, like your science project volcano, is a fairly quick, humane way to cull a chick. This is not something I learned in library school. Nobody even hinted that this MIGHT be something I’d do. They told me about information storage, about management, about collection development. Nobody told me I’d put down a baby chick just a couple days after it was born. Nobody debated methods.

It’s the nature of the library. Stuff just happens sometimes.

I combined the ingredients and snapped down the lid.

Egg Shen kicked hard once. Then his beak opened and closed. Slow.

I sat with him on the cement, out back in the sun.

I waited a few minutes, opened the container, and did a second dose. Just to make sure.

My boss came out and we talked about pets for awhile. Watching Egg Shen go reminded me of letting my cat go last year. Which I didn’t expect. My boss told me about a family dog who’s getting on in years, and how she likes having him around on holidays. She told me to take a nice long lunch break and come back when I was ready.

The next week when I came into work, my boss replaced my Tupperware container and gave me a gift card as a thanks. It came with a note: For service above and beyond the call of duty. 


I’m typing this last part a few minutes after the end of my last shift. Ever. 

For those bad three moments, there are so many great ones. The toilet we moved into someone’s office. The pranks that came standard when someone was on vacation (until glitter took things too far).

I wish I could time travel and tell myself that even though I'd lock up the library way over 500 times, I wouldn't ever lock someone inside for the night. That might sound like a weird use of time travel, but someone else will tend to Baby Hitler, right?

To everybody I’ve worked with, worked for, and had a relationship with at the library: Thanks. If I had to take another round of those three worst moments in exchange for another 15 years? In a heartbeat.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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