How dare you, not knowing what you want


The librarian doesn’t like my question. She seems very protective of the way in which people search the catalogue, and maybe a little too robust when she explains that unless I know exactly what I am looking for, I cannot search for it in the catalogue.

The fact is that I do not know what I am looking for, yet. I won’t know until I see it.

I shift uncomfortably on my feet as she tells me that there is not such a thing as “looking for audio in the catalogue”, that it’d be like “searching in the catalogue for books”.

It’s the edge in her voice that makes me sad. It reminds me of the librarian who screamed at me because the book that I returned had some grooves on the cover. Of course I was painfully aware and ashamed of the grooves on the cover of the book: I cried when I saw my mother using the book as a support to write her shopping list. I was nine, and after the librarian screamed at me that we were unworthy of having access to books, it took me over twenty years to reconcile myself with libraries and to set foot inside one again.

I look at the librarian. She is visibly annoyed at my inability to grasp the concept that she is trying to explain to me, personally offended by my insistence in wanting to know what kind of audio documents does the State Library of Victoria have in its collection.

I am not trying to offend her with my persistence. ‘Audio materials from the State Library of Victoria’ is as far as I thought this morning, after reading about the Library Fellowships. I thought, why not apply and propose to create an audio installation using the audio documents available at the State Library? And then, I wonder whether they would consider such a proposal, and then, I wonder what kind of audio material they have in their archives anyway, and then, why not call the person listed as contact for more information? “Of course, – I am told by the person, – the State Library would very much like to take in consideration proposals based on audio materials.” The person also tells me that the best thing to do is for me to go to the library and to talk with a librarian to explore the kind of audio material existing in the collections.

I try again to explain the nature of my query but my librarian is irremovable in her disapproval. Not such a thing as “just wanting to know what kind of audio you have”. I thank her and move towards the catalogues but instead of sitting at the computer, I keep on walking.

“How can I be of assistance?” asks the man behind the information desk further down the hall. I breathe in before launching into my story: audio artist, installation, not sure what am I looking for, audio catalogue. Before I manage to finish my last sentence, the man, who until then has been listening with genuine interest, looks behind my back and then tells me that unfortunately he cannot help me and that I have to talk with a librarian. A voice behind me: “Exactly what I told her, and she didn’t have to come here asking someone else! I told her that she cannot search for ‘generic audio’ in the catalogue!”

She is standing next to me. And if she was annoyed before, now she is angry. I shouldn’t have come here asking for a second opinion.

I look at the man with pleading eyes “The fact is that this process is proving to be…” she interjects triumphantly: “Haunting? I told her so! She cannot look for ‘generic audio’ in the catalogue, she cannot search unless she knows what is she looking for!”

No, my dear librarian, it is not haunting, it is sad.

I don’t reply. In my mind, I am silently crying for all the nine-year-old girls who will walk into a library moved by a generic and undefined desire to discover something that they cannot possibly enter as a search term in the electronic catalogue, because they don’t know that it exists, yet.

p.s. The man eventually directed me towards an angel who gave me all the information that I needed. Not only did the angel help me understand how to conduct my search and which terms to use to discover audio files (sound recording), but she also suggested to think about copyright and that I might also want to look under ‘video’, as videos can be another interesting source of audio. And the best thing is that she did all this with the most welcoming and encouraging smile, without showing any sign of annoyance at my lack of details.

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