Shaffer

Reams of stories, but untouched books

STAFF WRITERJune 20, 2011 

— For three years, Katie Knight patiently accepted the daily indignities of a librarian serving on the front lines of literacy: the dental floss someone used as a bookmark, the condom deposited in the book-return slot, the patron she referred to only as "itchy scalp guy."

Her billet was Fayetteville Street Express Library, the Fotomat-size temple of learning that served, among other book enthusiasts, Raleigh's homeless population.

Once, Knight assisted a reader having a spirited conversation with his own shoes. He proceeded to read the dictionary for hours, opening it sideways in front of himself like a centerfold.

"The Velvet Hat," she said fondly, recalling the nickname for this patron, who wore such a chapeau. "He always wanted Scotch tape. He was always taping things. One time, he made a photocopy of his hand."

Knight became my favorite librarian in December when she held a moustache contest in the Fayetteville Street branch, granting the title to a bushy brown handlebar.

But on June 30, she will let down her bun and shush her last shush. Parting is painful, but she does have a master's degree, and her itch to research just isn't getting scratched showing people how to play Mafia Wars on Facebook and giving directions to the bathroom.

On most days, she feels more like a social policeman than a librarian. On the counter she sits behind, you can see the selections she has chosen as Katie's Favorites: the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, essays from Baruch Spinoza.

But on Fayetteville Street, you don't get much of a chance to suggest these titles. You're too busy trying to calm down the guy who's hissing like Hannibal Lecter and hinting that he just might kidnap somebody, all the while ranting about the "Guggenheim Bible."

A librarian needs some peace.

"I'm looking forward to reading more," said Knight, 31.

Posts on patrons

Don't get her wrong. Rewards at the express library were plentiful. Two weeks ago, a man walked in explaining that he'd been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and Knight directed him to his first pages of information. A homeless man was obsessed with learning factoids about his home state of Illinois, so she provided them while helping his homeless wife learn how to become a nurse.

Now that she's leaving, her minions in the shelters ask, "Now what am I going to do?"

But Knight kept a blog, an anonymous and hilarious account of her daily dealings with library-attenders, and those posts describe a far less literary and humanitarian routine. In it, you meet the suntanned man who demanded to know why Billy Graham wasn't answering his email messages then proceeded to check out four steamy romance novels, one of them, "From Playboy to Papa."

A sample :

Me: Hello, Library.

Caller: Can you tell me if there's a warrant out for my arrest?

Another sample :

Grizzled Old Man: Hi, I need you to give me some information.

Me: OK. What can I help you find?

GOM: I need you to look up sea salt.

Me: What would you like to know about sea salt?

GOM: Anything.

Yet another sample :

Me: OK, now you need to pick a unique name for your email login address.

Dude: Shorty.

Me: Nope. Try another one.

Dude: Skeety?

Me: Sigh. No.

Dude: How about, Shortyrock?

Me: Nope.

Dude: Rudolph?

(This is not his name.)

I like to think of Knight being rotated out from the trenches back to the support troops of higher learning, a battle-scarred bookworm who needs a break from the shelling.

I hope she'll find a place in an ornate marble library, where she can care for dusty and precious volumes, where the strangest requests - Icelandic literature? Lumberjack terminology? History of scrimshaw? - will be delightful to fulfill.

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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