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Terror in the Stacks!

Sean, Standley Lake Library

I started working in libraries in the late 90s, but made it a career after getting laid off as a financial news editor in 2001. I’m one of the few people you’ll meet whose work was outsourced to England rather than India or China. Not that it matters.

Being jobless is scary and therefore a good Halloween topic. I know unemployment gave me many weird and intense nightmares.

One in particular stands out to me even years later. I walk into the Belmar library for an interview. A man and a woman greet me in the lobby. The woman holds a slim, red book called Auto Mechanics Fundamentals.

I know nothing about auto repair, either in real life or in my dreams. Oh my God, I think. What does reference librarianship have to do with knowing the wiring diagrams of a 1978 Mercury Zephyr?

Grinning, my tormentors lead me into the building. Now, the Belmar library can accommodate around 200,000 books. Fiction is shelved alphabetically by the author’s last name; non-fiction is shelved according to the Dewey Decimal system. (The auto repair topic happens to be around 629.2). The shelves have end-panel signs indicating the number range they contain, so even with 200,000 books the system usually lets you find what you want just by looking at the spine labels on the surrounding items.

But what if there were no end-panel signs—and no surrounding materials?

Here is where the nightmare begins. My mouth gapes when I discover every single book is gone. Hundreds of empty shelves confront me.

Cackling, the woman thrusts Auto Mechanics Fundamentals into my hand. “So you want a library job, fat boy?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Well then! Taking into account 200,000 books, with an average dimension of 25x20 centimeters and shelf lengths of 120 centimeters, with 6 shelves per segment and 5 segments per row, adding up to 70 rows in all; and keeping in mind that we don't put any books on the top and bottom shelves; and remembering that auto repair makes up 1.4% of our non-fiction holdings—with ALL THIS in mind, place the book in the exact spot it would be if all of these shelves were full.”

Her mocking laughter booms behind me as I take the book and meander through aisle after barren aisle, my mind reeling with trigonometry formulas while trying to imagine each shelf filled with books of different sizes, shapes and colors. This futility goes on for two hours before the man and woman turn into stalking werewolves. Crouching behind empty shelves, I'm pretty easy to find.

At least it was a quick death.

Reality proved to be much better. I actually got an interview with Belmar—a completely rational one—and was hired two weeks later in February 2002.

The manager did end up being a werewolf, though.

And her hair was perfect.