The agreeable eye

an eudæmonistarchives

March 2011

the local library

11 March 2011, around 17.39.

NB: This entry was initially published as a page to solicit donations to fund a project supporting the library; the campaign was successful.

Goris is a small town located in the rugged mountains of Syuniq marz, which is the southernmost region in Armenia. Once the cultural center of the region, its situation on the road from Yerevan to both Stepanakert and Iran ensures its importance, although the main administration of the region has moved south to Kapan.

I have been living in Goris for the past two and a half years as a volunteer with the US Peace Corps. Last summer (2010), I was happy to see that a group of local Armenian volunteers were planning to help out at the library, repairing books and adding shelf-markers to the stacks. I noticed, though, that the volunteers were using scotch-tape and ordinary glue to repair the books, neither of which is acid-free and thus liable to do more damage than they repaired. In talking to the librarian about the matter, she pointed out that the library had bigger problems than damaged books. We were in the main room of the library – not the most welcoming of places:

main room display area

The green drawers on the left are the card catalog, and the shelves are meant to be a display of new or interesting material – except the library has not received any new materials since 1994, nor is there any planned funding for future acquisitions. Of more concern is the card catalog, the metal rods and drawer pulls from which were ‘salvaged’ during the Karabagh war, when there was no gas, no electricity, and no jobs to put food on the table – and scrap metal was more valuable than the library it was in:

lacking drawer pulls

As a result, the catalog has gotten a bit disorganized:

messy card catalog

… and some cards have been lost entirely, making it difficult for the library staff to keep track of the more than 100,000 volumes in their collection – which were hard enough to keep track of, even without the difficulty of an incomplete catalog:

book storage, water damage

Borrowing records for the more than 6,000 patrons (including around 2,000 juvenile borrowers) are tracked on paper as well, making them susceptible to loss and tampering:

Alvard flipping through the patron records

The catalog was the problem that bothered Zoya, the head librarian, the most. There are other difficulties as well. The Goris public library occupies the entire second floor of the culture house, a large Soviet-era building with a center courtyard and numerous windows. Stacks take up half the area, while the remaining half houses two reading rooms and offices for the staff. Although radiators are in place, the building is not currently heated during the winter, so the staff spend much of their time around a woodstove in a small room near the stairs (so they can hear patrons coming to the library):


Water is only available in the building for a few hours every day, so the staff have to store it in plastic bottles if they want to have tea or coffee or to wash their hands:

stored water for the day

aydqan mard es

22 March 2011, around 21.10.

Student repairing a book, July 2010

Ինչքան լեզու գիտես, այդքան մարդ ես:1
How many languages you know is how human you are.

One of the first things we did when we came to Goris was go to the library – being bookish people, a library was just the thing, we thought, to help us learn more of the language and learn more about the community. It was a few weeks before school started, and the library didn’t have a lot of visitors. Even in August, the reception room seemed cold, and with our partial Armenian we could not communicate more to the staff than our desire to borrow some books. The woman on duty – it must have been Alvard, but I really cannot remember clearly – assured us we could, but we would have to leave our passports at the library for as long as we had the book checked out: one passport per book. We left the library and I remember the sky being suddenly gray. We didn’t go to the library again for almost two years.

When we went again, though, it was to see a community volunteer project.2 A group of students from the local university had decided the state of the library was one the main things in community that needed some volunteer help, and they organized a group of high school students to come in and create shelf markers and repair books. There were more people in that reception room than I would have imagined possible and it was warm and bright and full of life. We got to talking to the head librarian about the students’ work, and she mentioned that what the library really needed was a reliable catalog, and so, just when we were trying to wind down our work, we found a new project. We should be receiving the funds that were donated within the next few weeks.3

Zoya and Alvard

One of the library workers was not enthusiastic about having her photo taken. Or rather she was, but pretending not to be.

What does this story about the library have to do with the quotation above? First off, the lovely lady in green in the photograph above is the person I heard that quotation from most recently: that is the primary connection. Secondly, I’ve been thinking about my interactions with the library lately4 and I’m struck by the peevishness of our reaction to the first trip to the library. That was, partially, a result of the exhaustion that comes along with trying to navigate a new way of life; it was also, partially a result of our limited language skills. Without knowing how to say that we couldn’t leave our passports, but still wanted to borrow books and ask whether there was any way for us to work around the library’s policy, we were satisfied – if that is the correct way of thinking about – with leaving the library powerless in the face of its administration, powerless in the face of its language. So it’s not so much a matter of how many languages you know, as how much of a language you know that determines the limits of your humanity.

  1. This is one of those Armenian proverbs one hears a lot, especially as a foreigner who speaks a smattering of Armenian. I’ve also heard it with քանի or որքան in place of ինչքան, or as: Քանի լեզու իմանաս, այնքան մարդ ես: The meaning remains more or less the same, however you want to pussyfoot around the translation of մարդ. Edited (some ten years later) to add that I saw someone Twitter translating this more literally – ‘How many languages you know is how many people you are’, which is a bit different. That is not what it seemed to mean in the context in which I encountered it, but it is very possible (indeed probable) that I misunderstood. []
  2. Part of the US Peace Corps’s ‘V2’ (volunteerism) initiative to encourage volunteerism in the community. []
  3. If you donated: thank you! []
  4. Part of saying good-bye to the community has involved this kind of navel-gazing. []

dining out

24 March 2011, around 7.36.

I like the restaurant because it serves a leafy green salad innocent of mayonnaise. I’m not quite sure how it manages to stay in business, as it is usually empty whenever I am there, the cool white walls and dark furniture reflecting a deep calm throughout the building. Of course I’m usually reading some sort of book whenever I have a meal there, and one time the waitress commented on that. We talked about our background, our living situations (I am in Goris, she is living with her mother while attending one of the universities in Yerevan as a master’s student), and pleasures of reading. I mentioned that it was difficult to find convenient books to read in Armenian – that I would like a collection of short stories, perhaps from different authors. She thought about this for a minute.

No, she said, you are quite wrong. You must read a big book, just from one author. You get used to the author in that time, learn his vocabulary, learn his way of looking at the world, and by the end the book reads itself. This is how you read in a foreign language. This is how you learn.

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