Conversations: The Desk Set

If Animal Farm were based on Animal House, this punk house in Madison would be the result: a group of ten or so mostly drunken University of Wisconsin students living and thriving in a communal environment, getting hammered, listening to Dillinger Four and chasing after various liberal arts degrees. I spent a night there while visiting an ex. She took me to a party where over the course of an evening I sampled snippets of conversations ranging from how to make the ultimate vegan quiche to the work of Guy Debord to why Colt 45 is better than Pabst. As I began to get a bit drunk, my penchant to wander overtook me and I found myself in a nook of the house with a huge couch and three large books shelves filled to the brim with everything from Brave New World to back issues of HeartattaCk zine. I thumbed through the well-organized shelves, picking out a copy of something or another then quickly put it back on another shelf. Suddenly I heard a voice sternly say to me, “That doesn’t belong there.”

I turned around to see a figure sitting in a chair. She stared at me for about a second then put her head back into her book. I apologized.

“It’s fine,” she told me, “but just because this is a punk house doesn’t mean the library has to be chaos.” Then she identified herself to me as Rachel, the house librarian. We began conversing on what it takes to be a librarian at a punk house which led us into discussions on our favorite books and Rachel’s pursuit of a degree in library science.

“So wait, you are going to become an actual librarian?” She seemed like she had been asked that a million times, but sitting there in a Milemarker t-shirt with her dyed black hair and her lip ring, she hardly fit the stereotype of what we commonly think of when the career librarian comes up in conversation. As we continued talking, I began to realize that this was really the first time I had ever engaged a librarian in talk of what they do, and she quickly broke every preconceived idea I had ever had about the folks who keep our flow of information in order.

In Brooklyn, Maria Falgoust and Sarah Murphy are hoping to have the same effect on others as Rachel had on me back in Madison. Together they are two of the founding members of The Desk Set, a “group of New York City area librarians, archivists, bibliophiles and other bookish types who meet informally to explore and enjoy literary resources, connect with like-minded folks, and raise money for institutions who promote literacy.”

“It’s not just us, but it’s a big group of people who will just be total strangers, but will just show up to our house to help us prepare for an event,” Murphy says. Her words seem to underestimate the bigger picture as to what the group are starting to accomplish through events like their annual “Biblioball” and their “Dance, Dance, Library Revolution” parties they raise money for non-profits such as Books Through Bars and Passages Academy, both organizations that get books to incarcerated adults as well as children in the prison system. It’s no easy chore, but Falgoust and Murphy have an army of bibliophiles at their disposal and are not looking to slow down anytime soon.

L Magazine’s description
of the folks behind The Desk Set as “the probable best people in New York” might be the definitive description of the collective as a whole.

On a night that was supposed to bring a snowstorm (that never came), the duo met up with me to answer a few questions at Huckleberry Bar in Williamsburg.

Why did you guys decide to start The Desk Set?

Maria: Sarah and I didn’t know each other before school, but we both lived in the same neighborhood, and we both asked the same person where to go to school, and we ended up in the same class. I was living in Greenpoint; it turned out that a friend of a friend who was getting their Master’s in Library Science happened to be living in Greenpoint; then there was another person. So there were all these Greenpointers who were librarians, or going to school to be, and both if us independently had the same response when we told people we were going to library school: “I have friends that are going to library school,” or, “My friend is a librarian and lives in Greenpoint.”

Sarah: Or Williamsburg and other parts of Brooklyn too. We were noticing that we kinda had a lot of neighbors who were librarians but didn’t really know them.

Maria: So we decided we were going to get people from the class we were in together maybe to meet outside of school.

Sarah: Our initial goal was to meet all these different librarians and introduce them to one another. Some of the people we were meeting were in school for their MLIS or considering going for it. So it was great to meet all these people. The initial idea was to get people talking about our experiences in school and work but I like to think of it as community building.
You can come to library school and become a law librarian and never have a single class with somebody who is going to become a school librarian, and then once you get into your chosen field, you only see your colleagues, not librarians in other fields. So getting to know what other librarians are doing in different kinds of libraries, you can apply that to your own experiences. We are all just learning what one another is doing.
Do you just wake up one day and decide you want to become a librarian, or was there something more?

Maria: For me, I was working as a preschool teacher, I felt exhausted because it consumed all of me, my mind, body, everything. When I got home I didn’t want to talk on the phone, listen to music, or go out. I wanted more to my life than just my job.

Sarah: I didn’t know what kind of library I wanted to work in when I started school, I just knew I wanted a job. [Laughs.] It had always been sort of a dream to be a librarian, but I never thought of it seriously until I was in my mid-to-late twenties when suddenly I started meeting people in the neighborhood who were librarians or were working in libraries, and I started to think, “This is a reality, this is something I can do.” So it seemed like the way to go. Right around the time I started to do that I read a couple of news pieces, and one was about a study on Americans and their reading habits, and it was pretty grim. The statistics made me really sad. Something like just over fifty percent of American adults have read even one book in the past year, and the more I get into this field, the more I think that may have been exaggerated. Another article I read was about about The Robin Hood Foundation, and one of their projects was to revamp and refurbish libraries. The article shared the children’s reaction to this new, safe, clean, beautiful space full of books and the way it really did change education for those students. So I considered becoming a school librarian.
Are you surprised that people have become so interested in what you do?

Sarah: I find it hilarious. It seems anything considered kinda geeky has become cool.

If you had to name one thing, what is the most common misconception people have about librarians?

Maria: People don’t understand why we have to go to school, and they also ask us if all we do is read books all day.
I assumed it was that going, “shhhh.”

Maria: I actually do shoosh.

Sarah: Everybody shooshes in school. We also get “Oh, you go to grad school so you can learn the Dewey Decimal System?” You have no idea. Presumably these are college-educated people, so they have have been using the Library of Congress system, which is not the same as the Dewey Decimal System, but sometime in seventh grade somebody told them about the Dewey Decimal System, and that’s all they can think about!

The Top five favorite books (in no particular order) of the Desk Set librarians:

1. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Ann Fadiman
2. You Can’t Win by Jack Black
3. King Dork by Frank Portman
4. Blankets by Craig Thompson
5. Gumbo Tales by Sara Roahen
and one extra (added via Facebook message)
6. State of Grace by Joy Williams

1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
2. Ada by Vladimir Nabkov
3. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
4. A Tree Grows Brooklyn by Betsy Smith
5. Summer by Edith Wharton

Other Librarian Resources:
Librarian and Information Science News

The Caffeinated Librarian

The Desk Set wish List to buy books for A.P. Tureaud Elementary School in New Orleans.