Blue Parachute II

A postmortem of my career as a librarian, Part 2

Someone recently asked me why I was documenting all of these horrible memories. I’m hoping that doing so will help me put them into a lasting perspective, and perhaps even “get them out of my system.” Let’s see what time decides.

Continued from earlier.

The National Audio-Visual and Conversation Center was built from a re-purposed, cold war bunker designed to house survival supplies and hard currency to help maintain the eastern United States in the event of a nuclear strike. Clearly that contingency never came about, so after some negotiations the facility was sold to the Library of Congress. With the help of a private foundation, the facility was converted into a storage center for nitrate movie films, videotapes, audio recordings, photographs, and similar media that required climate controlled storage. Given that the building was largely underground, it was very well suited for this purpose.

When I started at NAVCC, it was still establishing standard operation procedures. All of the functions had been transplanted from offices in the Washington, DC area, facilities in the Dayton, Ohio region, and some storage facilities in Pennsylvania. When I first reported for work, my department was still being re-structured, and the Library was still searching for a department head. My primary project involved digital media files from video games and television commercials, which had been a large part of my focus back in Washington. My first year at NAVCC was fairly quiet, but some of my recurring concerns remained. The largest one being my tendency to get distracted. I told myself that I was getting adjusted to a new location and work routine, and that things would settle out in time. But even so I had a sinking feeling, deep in the back of my mind, that something wasn’t right.

I had been there for roughly a year when the moving images section got a department head. I’ll refer to her as Zelda. I didn’t have many dealings with Zelda for the first two or three years she was there, largely because she was dealing with larger, more urgent matters. But she and I had an awkward relationship from the very start. When we first met, I was in the first of what turned out to be the first of many deep depressive phases that made my existing problems increasingly worse. I think she picked up on this, and while she was busy elsewhere, she kept a watchful eye on me.

I wanted to do well at NAVCC. I was pretty sure that I had messed up my career on several fronts, so I had to make things work and get back in good standing. I tried to learn the new procedures and techniques for cataloging movies, but they never clicked for me. I initially approached moving images as just another media, and that the basic cataloging principles that I had been using all along still applied. I just needed to figure out the specifics.

That was not the case. When cataloging moving images, I eventually realized that one has to view the material from totally different angles, and that relying on techniques used for other media will ultimately mess you up! Again, I can only say this with the benefit of hindsight. I think moving image catalogers are born, not made. It requires a very different mindset. A good comparison may be when someone has an “eye for art” or an “ear for music.” Most people will watch a film, or look at a painting, and say “that was good!” But others will see layer upon layer of hidden meanings, and see significance in details that most other people would never notice in a month of Mondays. In the world of music, most people will listen to a symphonic masterwork and think “that was good!” But others will hear all kinds of subtle counter-melodies and harmonies deep within the score, that most people will never pick up. I will admit that I do have some of this skill with music, and when listening to symphonic music especially, I often find new elements that I hadn’t heard before.

I think a similar is needed for motion pictures. There are people who will always view movies things from a different perspective than most everyone else, and apparently that different perspective is a necessary and defining attribute. If my experience is anything to go by, those who do not have this magical “sixth sense” will never do well in that particular part of the library world. I may have an ear for music, but I do not have an eye for film.

Part of this unique perspective appears to be a way for viewing and processing details. Every little detail related to a moving image can completely re-define every other detail, and in order to truly understand and describe such materials, you need to instinctively notice each and every one of these details without effort. In the computer science world this type of thinking of often called “bottom up design.” Sometimes the most effective way to handle a project is to look at the individual details, at length, and come to conclusions based on the cumulative observation of them. The approach used by the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, deductive reasoning, is an example of this “bottom up” approach. Dozens of facts that do not appear to have any connection to one another, actually do connect and form a composite picture. But the composite picture can not be seen until all of the scattered details or examined at length, and put together in the correct way.

I do not think this way. I fall into a school of thought called “top down design.” This is a far more common, but less nuanced thought process. Basically someone looks at a problem or project, then breaks it into smaller pieces that can be examined and worked with. Some of these pieces can be further broken down if necessary, until eventually the entire project is complete. When I cataloged material in the past, like a book or sound recording, I had the item in front of me. I knew what I was working with at the very start, and could start extracting the relevant descriptive details.

This approach didn’t work with moving images. For starters I rarely had the physical item in front of me. What I had was a collection of documentation, and I had to glean the relevant information from these documents. The overall nature of an item sometimes wasn’t truly apparent until numerous details had been examined at length. The lack of a “top” to work “down” from often sent me into low level panic. I knew that details needed to be examined, but I found that without a “top” from which to reference from, I had no idea which details were relevant and which were not. Someone with that magical “eye for film” could apparently pick up on this without a second thought, but it was never clear or apparent to me. That Sherlock Holmes method of deductive reasoning never happened with me.

If you’re familiar with the exploits of Sherlock Holmes, then you probably know that he had absolutely no patience for people who couldn’t perform deductive reasoning at the same rate as he. I found that the people in the moving image cataloging arena had a similar contempt for people who lacked an affinity for film, like me. I was generally disliked by my co-workers, and had a reputation as someone who “doesn’t listen,” or “doesn’t learn.”

It didn’t seem to matter how often something was explained to me, or how long I worked at describing an item. I could never truly apply it, and most of it never made sense to me. Often I wasn’t able to retain the training I received. Within a day or so the copious notes I had taken during the training session had devolved into another set of gibberish babble! As time wore on, this grew continually worse.

It was after about four years that Zelda started hovering closer. My work often had errors, often of omission or misunderstanding, and she had to bring these to my attention. This happened with increasing frequency, which caused me more anxiety. That anxiety made more more nervous, which eventually let to more mistakes, which let to more pressure from Zelda, which let to more anxiety, which let to more mistakes… you get the idea. I was caught in a vicious cycle, with no idea how to break out.

My last two years at NAVCC were the worst. Zelda was now on frequently my case, and unfortunately for me she had good reason to be. I need to point out that one of her primary objectives was to restructure and redesign the department to be more in line with other large film libraries like the corporate ones in California, or at some of the academic centers that specialize in film studies, like New York University. That meant that one of her functions was that of hatchet-man: things that didn’t fit in with this new vision needed to be removed. That included people. I wasn’t the first one to be forced out, and I probably wasn’t the last. But I may have been the most difficult to deal with, at least for Zelda.

Every two weeks we would meet, officially for training and review. For me it was abject humiliation. She reminded me, at every possible opportunity, that as a GS-12 this material was supposed to be second nature to me, and that I should be handling larger and more complicated projects that just cataloging items. I wasn’t fulfilling what was expected of me. She also pointed out, often with a certain amount of contempt, that I seemed to work best at things that followed a pattern. I never argued that point, because it’s true. I figured that moving image cataloging followed a logical pattern like just about everything else, and that if I kept trying I would eventually find and master that pattern. I now think that when she pointed out that I worked best when following a pattern, she was trying to tell me that this type of cataloging does not follow a set pattern, that each and every item is unique, and that someone like me doesn’t belong. Zelda would tell me that I needed to un-learn what I had learned and use a different thought process. I tried, but never could. The “bottom up” approach was something my brain simply refused to do. The apparent absence of internal logic, a pattern, was not something I could work with.

I’m now convinced that she was trying to compel me to resign, because I wasn’t of any use. Why did I stick around? Because I had no where else to go, I had a family to support, and the prospect of searching for a new job terrified me so much that I was willing to endure anything Zelda dished out before facing the prospect of having to find a new job. I also knew, deep down, that finding a new job would be almost impossible for me. I knew I had totally lost my way and I couldn’t see any possible way of finding a path again. Sadly, I know myself well enough that the only way I was going to leave the job was if Zelda, or her immediate superior, had told me in straight no-nonsense words that can only be interpreted one way, that I needed to quit. But because of regulations and laws, I don’t think they were allowed to say that.

[Remember the guy at the public library who actually did say something like that to me? I’m pretty sure he got into some trouble, but nothing very serious. Perhaps the state of Maryland is more forgiving than the Federal government.]

Anyway, it was horrible. At least once a month I would come home and lock myself in a room somewhere and have a meltdown. No matter how hard I worked, and no matter how hard I tried, it wasn’t going to be enough for even the lowest of Zelda’s expectations. Things were also getting very bad at home. Zelda had become the single most important person in my life. She was more important than Lisa, Caitlin, or Michael. My every moment was spent trying to improve my job performance, in the hope that Zelda would accept me.

But the reality that I was forced to accept was that Zelda needed people with a certain set of skills, I did not have those skills, and she wanted to replace me with someone who did. The only thing she really wanted from me was a resignation. When my final evaluation came down, with the recommendation to remove me from federal service, my world collapsed. So much of my self-worth had been invested in my career that the knowledge that it was probably over and done for was more painful than anything I had experience up to that point. Even the death of my mother was easier for me to handle! I felt like a broken piece of trash that was being placed on the curb to be picked up and carried away to the dump. Forgotten, and of no further use to anyone, anywhere.

That was how I felt at the time. Empirically I knew it was untrue, but the mind of the mentally troubled doesn’t work logically. I had a full scale nervous breakdown.

My last fwo months at NAVCC were surreal. Since it had been firmly established that the best thing I could do for the collection was to never touch it again, I spent most of that time searching for a new job, and cleaning out my work space. I was ashamed beyond description. I did my best to not speak with anyone. Which was easy because everyone else seemed to be avoiding me. My professional guild (similar to a union) had been trying to help me salvage my career. What they did manage was to set me up for involuntary retirement, based on medical disability. Or at least try for it.

On my last day, I left the building using one of the service entrances, far away from where everyone else would be coming or going. I was so ashamed that I didn’t want anyone to know I had left until after I was long gone.

By this point it was clear that something was very wrong with my cognitive functions. I had been undergoing some testing and therapy to figure out exactly what was going on. But that process had a while to go yet, so it wasn’t going to change the immediate situation. I was lost in a state of frantic despair, with little or no hope that things would ever improve. I think the only reason I didn’t commit suicide was because of Lisa and the children. Even there I was filled with despair because of what I had put them through, was still putting them through, and would continue to put them through. I really didn’t want to live any more, but somehow I had to keep going.

This story will continue.