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Career Strategies for Librarians
Quiet in the Library: Working in a Work Zone
by Heather Harrington

Water shortages, sirens, building evacuations, ground shaking, poisonous gas, boarded-up windows.
Sounds like a war, doesn't it? Actually, these are the effects of a summer of construction outside our
library. Libraries are usually thought of as quiet, tranquil places for people to think, study, and learn. What
happens when the quiet is disturbed?  

Background

I started my job in the college's rare book library in May. The semester ended in June and took with it all
of the students. This meant the school could now start its summer construction projects without
disturbing the students. One of the projects was the area between our rare book library and the main
library: There were some underground pipes that needed attention. We were informed that this work
would not take all summer—perhaps only a month.

Blasting

As part of the construction, we were told there would be blasting of rock outside the building. To prepare
for this, the construction teams came in and photographed doors and walls for comparison after the
blast, in case damage occurred.  They also put bubble wrap around the grandfather clock in the hallway
to protect it, and boarded up windows in the rooms closest to the blast. All of these precautions made
me nervous. I started to wonder how big of a mess this would make.

We were told that we would first hear a warning blast of the air horn five minutes before the blast, and
then another air horn blast one minute before. After the blast, they would sound the all-clear sign.
Sounded good on paper, but I didn’t realize how the sirens would affect me. When the first air horn blast
went off, it scared me! I started worrying about the blast: Would I feel it? Would it do any damage to the
building? How loud would it be? After a couple of minutes of worry, I would settle down and get back to
work. Then, the second blast, the one minute warning. I would tense up and wait. Each time, it felt like a
very long time before the blast. Then, the blast. No matter how tense I was, or how much I tried to brace
myself, it surprised me each time. It felt like an earthquake. The floor and the walls rattled. The whole
blast took only about thirty seconds, but it felt like forever. When it was finally over, I’d take deep breaths
and calm myself down. Just as I would think, “Boy, I’m glad that's over!,” the air horn would sound again:
the all-clear sign. By this point, I would want to scream, but that wasn’t an option: It’s a library! The entire
process would then be repeated two or three more times each day.

Carbon monoxide

Among the drawbacks of having construction outside your building are the unexpected problems. One
day in August I was diligently cataloging rare books when the fire alarm went off. I dutifully exited the
building in a timely manner. It turned out someone in the basement had smelled a strange odor in the
ladies’ room and called campus security, who investigated and pulled the alarm. I didn't think it was
anything serious until the fire trucks showed up within five minutes of our evacuation. Oops! The
construction crew had accidentally leaked carbon monoxide into our building while using one their
machines. So, while they continued to work on their pipe project, we were all locked out of the building
for what was promised to be only an hour. Two hours later, we were allowed back in. A smaller-scale
leak occurred again the next month, with another evacuation. That's right, the next month was
September, when the students were back. This construction project, originally set for summer, dragged
out until the beginning of November.

No water

Another day we came in to work and discovered the water had been turned off for the day. Apparently it
was not a scheduled outage, just another one of those surprises. You can imagine how inconvenient it
was to go to the next building to wash hands or take a bathroom break. That day our water cooler went
through twice as much water as it usually does, since it was the only source of water in the building!

Jackhammering

Following the blasting, there came jackhammering. We were told through a mass email, "Good news!
No more blasting, as the rest of the rock is small enough to be removed with a jackhammer." I guess it
was good news in that there were no more sirens or earth shaking, but I still felt the need to scream.
Have you ever had to sit inside while there was a jackhammer going outside all day long? After the first
couple of hours, I hated that noise. By the end of the first day, I decided I liked the blasting better. At least
with the blasting, it was over in five minutes. The jackhammering was a constant jarring noise. It gave
me a headache, raised the noise level in building, and made me want to escape. I learned to cope with
the noise by volunteering to shelve books in our stacks located further away from the construction, where
the noise couldn't be heard. It was heaven!

Weather

That summer was the first where I would get up in the morning and hope it would rain all day. On rainy
days, there wasn’t much construction. Those were the peaceful days. Of course, the downside of the rain
was that I would worry about being stuck outside in it due to another long fire drill. Fortunately, we had
good timing with those: both times we evacuated the building, a beautiful day awaited us.

Coping

Throughout that summer, the jackhammering, the carbon monoxide, and the blasting did their best to
drive me crazy. Thankfully, I learned to cope with the problems. I found my wonderful escape in the
stacks, where it was nice and quiet. I also learned to time my midmorning break to the first blast of the
day. I felt better knowing I wasn't doing important work while the world around me was shaking. I also
found that drinking a glass of water after each blast helped calm me down. During the jackhammering
portion of the summer, I would take a little walk around campus to escape the noise for awhile. Most of
all, I kept telling myself it was only temporary.

Good points

Don't get me wrong: Working in the construction zone was trying, but there were some good points, too.
First, it certainly kept my job interesting. Each day I didn't know what would happen. It could be a routine
day of blasting and/or jackhammering, or it could be another carbon monoxide leak, or maybe they would
turn the water off again … or maybe it would rain and they would do nothing. Also, the day of the first
evacuation, our whole department went out for ice cream while we waited to get back in. How often do
you get paid to eat ice cream?

About the Author:

Heather Harrington received her Master of Information Science degree in archives and records
management from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany in 2004. She currently works at
Williams College.

Article published July 2007

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