Tuesday, October 1, 2013

I coulda been a Mover. I coulda been a Shaker. Instead, I'm just a bum.

I first took notice when the phone rang. It was my brother Charley's voice. He said, Take the fall.

What? I said.

Tank it. Flub it. Do not answer that question correctly, he said. His voice a mix of anger and desperation. And the line cut off.

So I flubbed it.

A little girl was at the desk looking for a book on Bolivia. The catalog showed we had two on the shelf. But I looked at her innocent face and thought of Charley. Why would he call me at work, here in the library at that exact moment and tell me, beg me, to take a dive? It must be important.

So I sent that girl away with nothing. I didn't even ask her if she could use a book on Paraguay or Argentina. Hell, any librarian would have offered Argentina.

I flubbed it. I told her all the books were checked out. And I did it for Charley. Because he's my brother.

I learned later that the Mafia had moved into the library. Mobsters began taking book on the outcomes of reference queries: would she find the answer, or not? Laying odds based on Google pre-searches, catalog queries, the color of the librarian's cardigan, whether she wore contacts or glasses, many factors. And people were betting money. Big money. The odds in Macau on whether a certain Brooklyn librarian could find one tiny fact hidden within a terabyte of data fluctuates based on what she had for lunch: lo mein and spring rolls or a tuna hoagie.

At first I was surprised that gambling had come to the Reference desk. But then it began to make sense. Was that book on the shelf? 3 to 2 it wasn't. Is the document feeder on the copier going to jam on that folded sheet of paper? 17 to 5.

The library is all about numbers. Most people mistakenly believe the library is about words. But numbers rule. The words are just the decoration.

Item records are numbers. Statistics are numbers. Shelf locations are numbers. Many people have gone through library school after earning their liberal arts degrees in a bewildering cloud of unexpected numbers.

So it's no surprise that these numbers are going to make some people rich.

And that is how I got that call from Charley. He was helping to make his boss rich by taking the long odds against my finding that book and helping that girl. All it took was a threat to something Charley valued to make him make that call. Knowing Charley, it was probably the threat of someone cutting off his balls.

But for me, it was terrible timing because I'd just heard back from the awards committee at Library Journal that I made the short, the extremely short list to be named a Mover & Shaker. I wrote that Chrome browser extension where every instance of the word 'book' links in real time through IP or cell tower to the nearest library location when you touch or click the link. It works great and I was going to get some national recognition. But then Charley called. And, well, as you can guess, I didn't make the final cut.

He had "some guys" who wanted me to sabotage my algorithm to make it less accurate. And I said, Hell, No, and Charley said, But my balls! and I said, Okay. So I pushed the update with the weaker code and now 30% of the clicks direct users to the website for a Subway restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida.

But I almost made it. Almost counts for something, right? And maybe the next time Charley calls, it will be to say that some other schmuck librarian is going to take the dive and it will be my turn in the spotlight. Next time.

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