what we do

A Meditation on Shell Games and Control

I’ve decided that being preservation librarian of a collection that gets a lot of use is like presiding over a shell game, leaving out the whole deception and swindling aspect.  I don’t mean that I’m perpetrating a confidence game.  I’m referring more to the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t-where-it-went-nobody-knows aspect of physical collection management.

Almost everyone involved in my organization has a key to the rare book room and other storage areas, and has the code.  People are excited about the stuff and like to show it to other people.  Sometimes they want to borrow it and bring it home to write about it, and I’m told there are quite a few folks who have done just that – with, of course, no record of who has what and why.  There’s very little oversight to curatorial rummaging, and things get moved, removed from their homes and sent off into space and whatnot.  The chain of registrarial information is made of faded construction paper and brittle kindergarten paste.

Bottom line is: I don’t know where everything is, and people keep moving it anyways.

One of the key rules of a shell game is that it’s impossible to win.  The grifter is in control.  Thinking that you’ve watched the game enough to see how it’s done – thinking you could win – is an illusion.  The only valid reason for playing is for the fun of it, to be part of the patter and clatter of some street-side entertainment.

For a control freak like me, there’s something to learn here.  First, I’ve got to accept that I’m not going to know where everything is all the time, at least in the short term, until we can implement some new systems.  If I think that my job means taking care of every single item in a collection of hundreds of thousands of items, oh am I gonna lose the game big time.  I can only play this game, do my job well, if I keep an eye on the game, know the players, and take care of the bigger picture.  Maybe I find a way to welcome the game – make the library a more welcoming place to play it, to look at the stuff, to talk to me about it, so that I can watch it come and go, and enjoy the interest people have, instead of acting the cop.  I’m hoping once we’ve got some rules and people see that the rules encourage access but reduce loss, that I’ll feel a bit more sense of natural control and a less panicked need to impose it.  The last key to the shell game is that nothing ever really disappears when it’s played (except the bettor’s money!)

And that’s enough of that metaphor, I think.