Speaking Truth to Librarian Power

The mid-1980s were a time when, due to several unsettling changes in my life, I did not have much confidence in myself, personally or professionally.  My long-time girlfriend had moved out of our apartment and taken up with a guy who ran a bike shop, leaving me with a big rent check to write each month for our expensive Beacon Hill apartment.  I had just changed jobs, leaving a small, unpleasant firm for a much bigger one whose unpleasantness was more widely-dispersed and thus, in a way, more treacherous.  In a place with ten professionals you knew where the enemy was at all times; at my new job, danger lurked unseen, like those punji-stake traps the Viet Cong used to set for American soldiers in the jungle.

“Are you sure that’s a ‘U.S.’ cite?  Sounds more like a ‘Sup. Ct. Rptr.’ to me.”


And so I sailed into what appeared to be a congenial port in a storm.  I found in the firm librarian a smiling buoy in a sea of unknown hazards, if I may be allowed to extend my nautical conceit.  I liked books, she was surrounded by books!  I needed help with my research, she could provide it!  I favored the Dewey Decimal System while she was a firm devotee of Library of Congress Classification, but sometimes a little difference like that can be the spark that starts the fire that consumes two . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Is it just me . . . or is it hot in here?”


Over time, we became more than mere office acquaintances.  She’d invite–perhaps “direct” is the more accurate term–me to take a seat in her office to discuss knotty questions of citation, then subtly steer the conversation towards topics more social in nature.  Did I have plans for the weekend?  Was I dating anybody?  Did I know that my fly was open?  That sort of thing.

“Would you help me re-shelve ‘Chapman on Brain Injuries’?”


And so it developed that, into one of these little “chats,” she dropped a casual invitation.  “Would you like to go see The Sick Puppies with some of us this weekend?”

“Who are The Sick Puppies?” I asked, all wide-eyed innocence and wing-tip-shod boy with cheeks of tan.

“You don’t know who The Sick Puppies are?” she asked, with unaffected incredulity.  “They just signed a record contract, they’re about to hit the big time,” she said.  “This is your last chance to hear them before they become famous, playing before sold-out houses in gigantic mega-venues!”

With a bally-hoo like that, it was hard to say no, I had weekend plans to alphabetize my collection of Johnny “Guitar” Watson albums.

“Who else is going?” I asked, dipping my toe in the potentially dangerous waters of intra-office dating.

“Charlie and Sharon are coming, and Anne and Michael,” she said, naming two long-time couples of about our age.

“So it’s not a date, it’s more like the National Honor Society all going to see Simon & Garfunkel together?”

“Right,” she said, drawing on her cigarette and blowing out a little ring of desire.  You could smoke indoors back then, and those who did so were able to envelop themselves in an air of mystery, like a noir movie set–with file cabinets.

“We have a three-volume treatise titled ‘Couch on Insurance.’  Want to give it a try?”

“Okay, sure,” I said.  I didn’t want to become known as a joyless stick-in-the-mud of a wet blanket party pooper around the office.  It would seriously inhibit productivity if every time I passed a little group of colleagues they had to repeat that scornful mouthful of epithets.


And so I arrived at my librarian’s apartment punctually at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, ready for some fun with the gang, but I noticed as I entered her apartment that the gang was not all there.

“Where are Charlie and Sharon?”

“Something came up with Charlie’s family in Maine.  Somebody died or got married or something.”

“Oh.  Too bad.  How about Michael and Anne?”

“You know those two,” which I did–sorta.  Always squabbling at summer outings over badminton, or volleyball, or croquet.  Then, they’d withdraw from the group to work out their differences, and would end up leaving early to go have mad, passionate make-up sex.

“So–they had an argument?”

“Yeah.  By now they’re probably listening to Marvin Gaye and making the beast with two backs.”  You know how librarians are, always with the literary euphemisms for sex.

“Oh, okay,” I said, and so off we went to hear The Sick Puppies.  They were your typical Cambridge band of the era.  They couldn’t decide whether they wanted to be rock stars or novelists, and so instead of producing music people might actually want to dance to, they sang lyrics that my former neurotic girlfriend would underline on the cover if she ever bought one of their albums.  Which she wouldn’t.  She had better taste than that–why else would she dump me?

“Did you like them?” my librarian asked as we walked out.

“Like them?” I replied.  “If you ever ask me to see them again, I’ll be washing my hair.”

She put on a little pouty face and said “I’m sorry.  Would you like to come back to my place for a drink?”

“Sure,” I said, sorry that I’d been critical of her fav rad group, as Tiger Beat would say.

We had a drink or two at her tiny home down a cul-de-sac in a quiet little neighborhood, then I stood up and said I should probably be going.

“It’s a long walk back to Harvard Square,” she said.

“Yeah, but I want to get up early tomorrow.”

“It’s kind of late.  There are some rough characters who hang out in the T station.”

“I can handle myself,” I said.  “When I scream, it’s really loud.”

“We could do something else,” she said, as if she found the prospect of a dull Sunday ahead of her depressing.

“Like what?” I asked.

She was quiet for a moment.  “Like have sex.”

I was, to say the least, taken aback.  “But . . . we work together.”

“I’d like to break the Rule Against Perpetuities . . . with you.”


“That doesn’t stop anybody else,” she said, and began to tick off the names of co-workers who were sleeping with each other across several pay grades–administrative, exempt and non-exempt, summer associates, associates, equity, non-equity and contract partners, temps, etc.

I stopped her–I didn’t want to hear any more.  “You mean . . . there’s no rule against it?”

“That’s how Anne and Michael met,” she said, “and Ariel and Clark, and Bob and Marie–she was his secretary first, and Susan and Jeff, and . . .”

And so I succumbed (succame?) to her wiles.  What else could I do?  She held my entire future as a researcher in her hands.  Wanna know about the Rule in Dumpor’s Case?  The Noerr-Pennington Doctrine?  The holding in Hadley v. Baxendale?  The road to that knowledge ran right through her office, and there was no way around it.

It ended badly, as these things tend to do.  When she was done with me I still needed to use the library, and she knew it.  “I’ll be with you when I get through with these people,” she’d say, pointing to interns, senile partners, the maintenance guys changing the fluorescent light bulbs.  “You should check the card catalog before you come to me,” she’d say with haughty disdain.  I was cruelly cast aside, like an outdated paperback copy of the Internal Revenue Code.

Eventually, one of us had to go, and it was me.  I was forced to take a job for twice as much money at a place where–I kid you not–there was no librarian.  If you needed something, you looked it up yourself, and fetched it from the shelves.  I had had it with the nightmare of librarian harassment she’d put me through.  I wasn’t going to go down that road again–Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress.

As for her?  Well, I see her in the train station every now and then.  She got married and late in life had a daughter to whom she’s a devoted mother.  When she posted a picture of the young woman’s graduation from college on Facebook, I asked whether she’d be going on to get a Master of Library Science, like her mother.

“No,” she replied tersely.  “We’re trying to make an honest woman out of her.”

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