Pioneers heading west by wagon train used to say they were "going to see the elephant," meaning they were headed off on a new adventure and didn't know exactly what they would experience around the next bend, through the next forest, or beyond the next hill.
Over time the phrase has acquired other meanings. Veterans of certain battles, as well as survivors of disasters, claim that only others who have been through these events -- those who have also "seen the elephant" -- can truly understand their shared experience.
For me, the phrase has a different meaning. Every work day for nearly eighteen years, I have -- quite literally -- gone to see the elephant. Her name is Iki and she resides on the main floor of the library where I work. (Note: you can click on each photograph to see a larger image.)
Born in Sri Lanka, Iki was an elephant who performed with the Ringling Brothers Circus. When she died, her remains were given to the science department at this university. Students spent eight years studying the creature, then re-assembled Iki's skeleton for display in the Science and Engineering Library. By the way, Iki's name is pronounced "Icky." (After seeing her desiccated trunk displayed in the plastic case below her head, I understood why.)
Every morning I give a little nod to Iki as I enter the building, then stand in her shadow as I wait for the elevator. Sometimes one or two of the library employees who work on the first floor will greet me with a cheerful, "Hi Mike!" Which would be very nice except for the fact that my name is Peter...and I've worked there for, you know, nearly EIGHTEEN YEARS!
Up on the seventh floor, I sit in the same cubicle where I've sat for all those eighteen years, cataloging books. If I need a break, I can go look down on the campus from the window facing north.
Or I can go to the south windows and view an entirely different country -- Canada. That's right, when you live in Detroit, Canada is SOUTH of the United States. If you read Christopher Paul Curtis' recent Newbery Honor Book, ELIJAH OF BUXTON, you may recall that Elijah traveled north to Michigan and went south when he returned to Canada.
I guess I'm feeling nostalgic about my workplace because today is the last day I'll be working in that library on a regular basis. Starting next week, I'm moving to a new office in a different library.
I'll be working in the Ramsey Room -- which houses a closed collection of rare children's books.
It is named after Eloise Ramsey (1886-1964) a former associate professor of education who was considered an authority on children's literature. She seeded the collection with four hundred volumes from her own personal library. Now the "Eloise Ramsey Collection of Literature for Young People" contains over 15,600 special books.
I'm going to be working on various projects, including cataloging books into the collection and digitizing others on a fancy new scanner. I won't lack for work. In fact, I already have a backlog:
My only concern is that, after eighteen years of working with a fairly large staff, I am now assigned to the Ramsey Room all by myself. I'll be there all day every day without a single soul in sight. Unless you count A.A. Milne, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Edward Lear, Hans Christian Andersen, and Beatrix Potter:
Unless you count Howard Pyle and Laura Ingalls Wilder:
The Brother Grimm, looking grim:
L. Frank Baum and Mary Mapes Dodge:
Or Robert Louis Stevenson and Leon Sphinx:
Now I have to admit, I'm a loner by nature. I'm not what you call a social person by any stretch of the imagination. But I may start going stir-crazy without having a single person to talk to. I think it will just be a matter of time before I start talking to all these statues and busts on a daily basis:
"Hi, Mr. Milne. Hello, Grimms. What's happening, Trixie? How you doin' today, Mark? (Or should I call you Sam?)"
Someone told me that talking to these inanimate objects is not a cause for concern. I should only start to worry when they begin talking back to me!
The other day, as I moved my books and belongings into the Ramsey Room, I began to feel particularly despondent, despairing over how lonely the coming months and years will be.
Then a wise woman spoke up.
"Do you know how lucky you are to work in a room filled with nothing but rare children's books? Hasn't that always been your main interest? You are going to learn some amazing things about the history of children's books here. And just think how much you'll have to BLOG about!" she said, adding, "Don't think of it as losing ten or twelve friends in your old office. Think of it as making over 15600 NEW friends in the Ramsey Room!"
I said, "You're right! That's a great way to think about it. Thank you, Louisa May."
She said, "You're welcome, Mike. I mean Peter."