Today I had the privilege of meeting a woman in her 80s that needed some help with her email account, which she could no longer access on her computer. She came with a stack of notes, and asked me to sit on her right because that was the hearing aid that was currently working. She explained in a heavy accent that she was almost 90, and had only been in the United States for the last 20 years, so please forgive her English and that she might not know technical things. I’ve taught senior computing courses, so none of this surprised me.
Then her first question was to explain the difference between a server and her ISP. Clearly this was not my average tech support tutorial.
We worked through her email issues, stopping to chat along the way. She explained her frustration about being in a place where no one spoke her language, that her entire day was often occupied with trying to figure out what she understood and didn’t understand in English. I told her about my stay in Belgium, and how even as a young woman learning French – so closely related to English – I had struggled to keep up and was frustrated with my lack of communication skills. We agreed that was easy compared to trying it as she had – a refugee from the former Soviet Union.
As the lesson went on, she told me stories about her life that had me completely enraptured. She had come here after an anti-Semitic death threat was written on her door, leaving a life as a physician with only 2 suitcases full of books and nothing else. “I wrote my memoirs. Only in Russian – it was too hard in English. Sometime, I will come back and show them to you.” She told me about her father, who had been imprisoned by Stalin. How she loved Russia more than she could say – the music, the culture, the literature (and she began to list the great Russian authors with such awe in her voice that it was catching).
She asked me about myself, how I had come to Pittsburgh, why I was here, where my parents were. She said she understood why I was in libraries – this was clearly where my passion was. She told me about her grandchildren – the only reason she has a Facebook account is to message them if it’s their birthday. She then invited me for dinner sometime.
I’ve met a lot of people in libraries. Some are delightful, and others fall into that more generic, more easily loathed term “the public.” (I love people – but the public has that other connotation of… meh. Am I alone in this?) This woman reminded me what I love about public service. That meeting someone at their need isn’t just a one way process. That at the end of the day, I am surrounded by so many awesome stories – and most of them aren’t in books yet.
(The comic at the top is from Unshelved by Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes and continues to be one of the best things on the internet.)