The Scent of Musty Old Thoughts and Fresh New Ideas

You wonder if there’s an old library like yours somewhere else in the country still clinging to the old style of indexing its inventory of books. A library that time has forgotten and where there’s an aging hardwood cabinet – tall, deep, warm and heavy – next to the main desk, which, by comparison is made of cold gray metal and an even darker gray of rubber edging around its table top, protecting it from wayward book carts. The dark-green vinyl-upholstered chair behind the desk is vacant, revealing a center split sprouting tufts of white fluff, while its squeaky wheels rest quietly, as the elderly librarian is off teetering high atop a ladder in search of a book requested by a telephone call.

The cabinet is filled with long, narrow drawers, each of which is filled with index cards. And when you open one, there’s a strong scent of wood and heavy paper stock that’s a cross between musty old thoughts and fresh new ideas, all waiting to be referenced by minds of all ages, like yours, in search of knowledge. Most of the cards are off-white, aging with antiquity just like all those books hiding in the deep, dark corridors near the back of the library. The odd card here and there is of brand-new white suggesting either a new book has arrived or the old card was torn and in need of a replacement.

You fumble through the alphabetized cards, searching for any books on battleships from the Pacific Theatre. The drawer needs to come out more and more, while flipping through the back end of the A’s, until finally it needs to be pulled out entirely and rested, precariously, upon stacks of books sitting on the librarian’s desk, and near the rotary telephone where the receiver sits, and the caller’s still waiting patiently for the librarian’s response. No need to worry about spilling the contents of the drawer as there’s a long, thin rod that runs through a hole in each card. It’s more secure than a bundle of the Sunday morning edition. And much more so than a pocket full of marbles where a hole is slowly replacing thread.

It’s toward the back of the drawer, once the B’s begin, where you begin to use both your index and middle fingers to move forward through the cards and your thumb to go back. A sort of triple duty when compared to today’s use of only the one finger to surf the web. A muffled flipping sound versus click…click…click. The threat of a temporary paper cut versus the long-term effects of carpal tunnel.

“Excuse me,” says the part-time library assistant with a smile as plain as she is dressed. Her brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail, which swishes when she tilts her head, seemingly gauging your thoughts. “I need to put those stacks of books away.”

With barely a word, you lift the drawer off from the stacks. One stack threatens to spill as she quickly reaches, resettling and reconstructing it as though she were an artisan gifted in the molding of clay. Once filled, she then pushes the cart full of books away in the opposite direction. Even though she is around your age, her movements are both that of ease and elegance. The tall shelves filled with history, and even the warm catalogue cabinet, now appear stiff and lifeless.

You slide the drawer back into the cabinet. Your thoughts are elsewhere now.

How easily distracted you are, both in reality and memories.


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