I went to the Thomas Cooper library today – in Columbia at the University of South Carolina (USC) – to return an interlibrary loan book that was due tomorrow. I belong to the Thomas Cooper Society, which entitles me to check books out and use interlibrary loan (ILL). At $35 per year, it’s a great deal for an independent scholar like me. I find that ILL is essential to me in my studies. When we lived in Nebraska, I used the University of Nebraska–Lincoln library, and it allowed state residents to use ILL at a cost of $3 per item. But in most states there is no provision for residents (who are not students) to use ILL, and if programs like the Thomas Cooper Society exist, they usually don’t include access to ILL either.
The only thing I don’t have, that I wish I did, is a USC library account that would allow me to access online journals and research tools from home. But here, as I suppose is the case just about everywhere, you have to be a student or faculty member to have that kind of library account – I can only access online journals when I’m physically at the library. Thus, I usually “save up” journal cites that are of interest to me, for whenever I make my next trip to the library. Today was no different in this respect.
After I returned my ILL book to the circulation desk, I asked the reference librarian to log me in to one of the computer workstations. I can’t log myself in. For some reason, here at USC, the general public can’t just walk in and start using the workstations. Well, they can, but they always have to ask the reference librarian to log them in first. I suppose the library has this policy so that it can police how many non-students there are, so that it can ensure that students are never denied access because of non-students. But there are lots and lots of workstations, and somehow it’s hard for me to believe that hordes of South Carolina residents will suddenly be seized with a thirst for knowledge. I’d love to see such a thing, actually, but I won’t hold my breath. (At the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, on the other hand, they’ve chosen to accept the risk of marauding Nebraska citizens thirsting for knowledge; any Joe Blow off the street can just walk in and start using a workstation, all by himself – no log-in is required.)
Okay, so I sit down at the computer workstation in the library (after the reference librarian has dutifully logged me in). Almost as soon as I do, I’m wishing I had picked a different workstation, because the woman next to me starts conversing – not loudly, but not quietly either – on her cell phone. But to change workstations would mean going back to the reference librarian, for another log-in somewhere else. I decide it isn’t worth it. Besides, I only have three journal cites to look up this trip. I won’t be here for long anyway.
I quickly find the first journal cite, but then I realize that it is just one article in a “theme” issue of the journal. What about the other articles? Do I want some of them too – all of them? I make a quick decision. The dogs are waiting at home alone, which is an hour’s drive away. It’s going to be past their “dinner” time. Heck, it already is. Besides that, I’m getting hungry too. There’s no time to pick and choose articles: grab them all (i.e. send them by email to my gmail account) and sort ’em out later, at home. So I start doing that.
All the while, I’m half-listening to this woman on the cell phone in the workstation cubicle next to me. I know it’s none of my business, but it’s impossible not to listen. I steal a quick glance at her. She’s African-American, but she’s clearly older than a typical student – I would guess thirty to thirty-five years old. It also becomes clear that another African-American woman, on the other side of her from me, is a friend who is there with her. They are both typing away at their workstations, but the woman next to me is both typing and talking on her phone (and occasionally talking to her friend in the next workstation cubicle). It develops that they are both in the process of taking a test for one of their classes – an “online test,” if you will (and also an “open book” test, as we used to say when I was a college student some thirty years ago). That’s what all their typing is about. (I finish emailing myself the thirteen articles from the “theme” issue and move on to my second journal cite.)
But the cell phone conversation that my next-door neighbor is having is not about the test-in-progress. Multitasking effortlessly, she is describing, to whomever is on the other end of the line, and to me, how the class paper she thought she had successfully submitted yesterday, electronically, just before the deadline, is now showing up in the system as some sort of “upload failure.” Apparently, the system shows that she did submit the paper on-time, but because of the upload failure, it isn’t actually there now for the professor to retrieve. My cubicle-mate is discussing with her friend on the phone what to do about it.
Okay, so if I was irritated before, by the distraction, that initial feeling is entirely gone now. A) I work with computers and computer software for a living, and I know all too well the problems that can and do occur with these things – this situation sounds perfectly plausible and sadly typical to me. B) This woman’s obvious maturity and intelligence is a breath of fresh air compared to what I’d probably be hearing from a typical, and younger, USC student in the same situation – I’d probably have heard a few expletives by now in the latter case. I’m totally on her side now.
She wraps up her cell phone call. She tells her friend sitting next to her that she’s supposed to be at church in fifteen minutes (tomorrow is Easter Sunday, of course), but that now she guesses they’ll have to get along without her, at least for awhile. She makes a quick call to someone that I’d guess to be her husband. Then she makes a new call and starts to succinctly explain the situation with her class paper, the “upload failure,” etc. I can tell that she’s leaving a message on her professor’s phone. And there’s something about the tone of her voice that gives me a sinking feeling. She is by no means groveling to her prof – it’s not that at all – but there’s a sense in her voice of. . . I don’t quite know what to call it. . . subservience? I suppose that’s the right word for it.
And I don’t like it. I don’t like that this mature, responsible, totally on-the-ball adult, who I’m prepared to guess is juggling more adult responsibilities than her professor is, is having to adopt this tone of voice with him or her. In fact, I would bet you that the professor is a life-long academic, who doesn’t have half the life-experience that this woman has. Her message for the prof completed, she hangs up the phone. She continues taking her online test, or maybe she switches to a new upload attempt of her class paper – it’s not clear which. I want to say something to her. To encourage her. To say how impressed I am with how she handled the situation. But my shyness prevents me, and anyway, despite the fact that I couldn’t help but hear, I’ve still been eavesdropping. I finish my third and last journal cite, pick up my notebook, and quietly leave the library.