(This post originally appeared at Coffee House Press’s In the Stacks Tumblr.)


PEN/FUSION Emerging Writers Prize finalist Victoria Blanco spent the spring as a resident artist at the East Side Freedom Library. She’ll share stories from her residency over the next several weeks. 

Glen shows me an index card he brings to work every morning, on which he keeps a running list of books he discovers as he’s cataloging them. “The only problem is, I have a lot of these,” he laughs. He’s waiting until the team finishes cataloging to get started on the reading–finish the work, then enjoy the fruits of the labor. But the work is fun, too. While the catalogers puzzle their way through this long task, they have coffee and hours of conversation. We’re settled into our work at East Side Freedom Library (ESFL), into these long mornings immersed in stacks of books still becoming a collection finished.  

I’m clicking away at my keyboard alongside catalogers passionate about preserving the written word. I’m doing my best to write vibrant essays; they’re meticulously organizing books, many of which are out of print and in dire need of the catalogers’ care. It’s a slow process, for both of us. They started working in January of 2015, six months after the ESFL first opened. I’ve been hashing out this particular essay for four years. “We think we’ll be done in a couple weeks,” Bruce, the director of cataloging, tells me. I know how he feels, or how he needs to feel, in order to keep doing this work: hopeful, but not impatient.

My husband and I are planning our summer garden now, and as we make a list of vegetables and map out the plots, it occurs to me that the care we’re taking to make sure our garden thrives is the same kind of care the catalogers bring to the library. “We want to make these books available to everyone,” says Glen, one of the volunteer catalogers. He arrives every morning around 10 AM and sits down at the cataloging table–two picnic tables pushed together, a bowl of green apples at the center. When I’m leaving, at about 12:30 PM, he’s in the middle of his work. Stacks of books surround him; his laptop is open in front of him. Like planting, there’s a repetitive rhythm to cataloguing. Open the book, find it in the World Cat system, enter the essential information in the electronic system, print out a slip with a call number, and shelve the book in the correct place. Do this for weeks, months, years, until the library is complete.

ESFL is lucky to have a group of dedicated volunteers to do the cataloguing. When ESFL was planning its opening, co-directors Peter and Beth began receiving entire collections from donors. Thousands of books, records, art, movies, instruments, and textiles arrived by the boxful. Putting everything in order and making it accessible to the public is a task for many generous people. When I ask the catalogers how they came to volunteer their time to ESFL, many of them say they’re here because they’re friends with Beth and Peter. But even if the volunteers started off doing this work as a favor, it’s clear they’ve developed a passion for cataloging. “It’s like a chase,” says Bruce. “Like putting together a puzzle.” It’s not always easy to know how to catalogue a book; sometimes the volunteers have to consult with each other on what category a book best fits. Opinions can differ; the volunteers take time to discuss. I’m going through this, too, in a different setting. Are we going to leave out eggplant, cucumbers, or tomatoes? We can’t fit them all.

Victoria Blanco received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota. Her research among the Rarámuris, indigenous peoples of Chihauhua, Mexico, has been funded by a Fulbright Award and fellowships from the University of Minnesota.

On July 28th at 7:00 p.m., she will read selections from her essays and discuss her time at the East Side Freedom Library, which ranged from research and writing to conversations with the library’s patrons, including a group of women weavers from the east side’s Karen community.

The event is free and open to the public. The East Side Freedom Library is located at 1105 Greenbrier Street, St. Paul, MN 55106.