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ILLUSTRATION BY DREW SHANNON

Not long after I had left work behind for good, I found myself drifting through my days half-asleep. I searched for something – anything – to do. Visiting a local volunteer fair, I impulsively added my name to a list of prospective library volunteers.

I was walking the dogs when I got the call. Would I like to come in and chat? Lunging for a poop bag, I said that I certainly would.

I learned that volunteering meant shelving books. Fine with me; how hard could it be? Grab a book, stick it in its proper place. Perhaps unaware of my latent skills, the reference librarian offered a few cautions: Dewey Decimal System pitfalls, alphabetizing quirks and a host of other potential missteps. Difficult for some, I thought, but not for this volunteer.

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That first day, like all novices, I manoeuvred a trial book-cart around the aisles and left yellow cards to indicate where I had shelved my books. This was my probationary period. I nonchalantly filed books and congratulated myself on my aptitude. The next day, my kindly librarian broke the news: a few books accurately filed, some stowed in the general vicinity, others deposited far, far distant from their rightful spots.

I quickly realized that the Dewey Decimal System is an unforgiving beast, divided into classes and divisions and sections, and split still further into a myriad of sub-classifications, most with a number attached. Those numbers can stretch up to eight digits after the decimal point. For instance, in biographies, B 364.15230973 comes before B 364.15230978. If those numbers happen to be identical, alphabetized surnames kick in.

And that’s just non-fiction. The same thing, to a lesser extent, happens in fiction, where authors like Meg Gardiner and Lisa Gardner and Lina Gardiner (all FIC GAR) need to also be placed in their proper alphabetical order (in case you’re wondering, the order is Lina, Meg, Lisa – Lina before Meg, Gardiner before Gardner). Oh, yes, the titles within each author’s oeuvre need to be alphabetized, too.

My head swam with details. I grew paranoid. At more than one point, I fully expected to be rejected as a volunteer. Not only had I not expected a probationary period, I hadn’t dreamed that I might be deemed unworthy. It was a glorious day when I was told to ditch the yellow cards and forge ahead. I had graduated to full-fledged library volunteer.

My brain began to slowly adapt to new challenges. When I arrived, I did a quick check of the workload. Eight carts chock-full of returned books. That’s a lot of titles for a Monday. A bit ominous, but comforting, too. Still plenty of readers out there. I check out the day’s offerings: a young adult (YA) cart, fiction carts, non-fiction carts, and a hodgepodge cart – a mixed bag of graphic fiction, large print (LP) fiction, foreign language titles, oversize tomes and a smattering of periodicals.

What to pick? I’ve been shelving a lot of non-fiction recently. Maybe fiction? Let’s think: A to L? That area is almost windowless. M to Z is closer to the picture windows, which means natural light. That’s good. I tend to gravitate to fiction. However, as I’ve come to realize, non-fiction is way more interesting, at least from a shelving point-of-view. Especially the bios. One example: The Stranger In The Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, by Michael Finkel. The day I shelved that, I hadn’t known it existed. It’s now on my ever-lengthening future reading list.

Of course, in non-fiction, I could run into the dreaded knitting/crochet/embroidery shelves, which are library perdition – rejected choices strewn and misshelved, and a lot of action on the bottom shelves, four inches from the floor. That means crawling on the carpet or straddling a step stool. Almost as bad as cookbooks, which can get messy, too. For some inexplicable reason, anything between 640 and 649 (“Home and Family Management”) is notoriously sketchy. Way worse, for instance, than the YA shelves, which get heavy traffic on a clutch of authors: Nicola Yoon, Cassandra Clare, John Green, Jenny Han and a rotating cast of up-and-comers. YA also attracts a totally different and largely female reading demographic. It’s tidy, close to the windows, open and airy. I opt for Young Adult.

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When you’re a volunteer, selecting a cart is just the first uncertain step toward a minefield of moral dilemmas. Let’s see: do I alphabetize (as I should) those five shelves of Nora Roberts (FIC ROB) or shove the two Nora Roberts on my cart into the middle and move on? Do I keep reading the first few pages of this Martin Amis novel (FIC AM) or (as I should) shelve the remaining 98 per cent of my fiction cart? Do I resist the urge to gawk at a few pages of The Complete Kama Sutra (306.7 VAT) or peruse The ABCs of Handwriting Analysis (152.282 SAN)? Do I pretend that I haven’t seen that stack of books left askew on the shelf or (as I should) return each one to its appropriate spot? Guilt (as it should) usually won out.

Time at the library passed pleasantly. One day, deep in an alphabetic trance, I was shelving fiction somewhere between G and H. A gregarious four-year-old screeched to a halt in front of me. She had been playing hide-and-seek with her sister. Looking upward, she asked, “What are you doing?” “I’m putting books back on the shelves,” I answered. She gave me a long, perplexed look. “Why?” she said. I was totally at a loss, and she immediately deserted me for her game.

That “Why?” stayed with me. I thought about all the books that had passed through my hands. I thought about all the people that I had met. I didn’t know why I had written my name on that volunteer list. I didn’t know why I was getting such a big kick out of shelving books. I didn’t know why I felt more confident, or why I suddenly had more spring in my step. Things had just happened.

I’ve moved on to other things now, but not because I grew tired of the library. I left because I felt better and because other experiences beckoned. They beckoned because the library – in some mysterious way – woke me up.

Doug Watling lives in Kentville, N.S.

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines here.

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