“φιλια” and why I love working in a library.

I am straightening the YA graphic novels, when an elderly woman asks, “Can you help me?”

“Certainly,” I say.

“Do you have any Greek books in the YA section?”

“Are you looking for fiction? There are lots of YA novels inspired by Greek myths. If your looking for nonfiction, I’d actually recommend the children’s collection…”

“I just need to know what the translation for this Greek word is…” she explains. She already checked the catalog and we do have Greek dictionaries, but they are in the annex.We are undergoing renovation and have some materials stored off site while we are in a smaller space. They are available for check out, it just takes a day or two for us to get them once they’ve been requested, and the woman admits her impatience and explains she is keen to find her answer immediately.

I assure her we can easily find what she is looking for online. As we walk to the desk, I ask her what sparked her research.

She flips through this philosophy book and finds the passage that she needs help with. Indeed, the author uses this Greek word, untranslated, several times.


She is asking me for help locating the translation of this word.

While I unlock my computer, she tells me about how she was reading The Watch by Joydeep Roy-BhattacharyaIt’s a modern retelling of Antigone set in Afghanistan. A young woman approaches US soldiers to beg for the corpse of her brother, and they argue about how to respond. “This significant, eloquent novel recreates the chaos, intensity, and immediacy of war, and conveys the inevitable repercussions felt by the soldiers, their families, and by one sister.” 

the watch

She shows me the book with its bright orange cover, and I desperately want to read it. It’s one I haven’t heard of, though it was featured on NPR last July and is exactly the kind of adult fiction that would appeal to me. I ask her what she thought of the book.

She loved it, and it sparked her to want to read the original story by Sophocles. While she was familiar with premise of the story, she hadn’t ever read the text.

But she wasn’t just reading it, though she showed me two translations she was consulting. She was also interested in criticism. She consulted Antigones:How the Antigone Legend Has Endured in Western Literature, Art, and Thought by George Steiner, and the passages she’s reading about the perfect love that exist between siblings in the context of Hegel repeatedly use the work “φιλια.”

She doesn’t want to bother me to help her further since the dictionaries aren’t available, but I insist that I’m intrigued and want to help her find the answer and that it should only take a few minutes.

First, I read the page in question, and notice that while the translations for many other Greek words are included, this one is not. “I bet it’s one of those that is difficult to render in English. It must not translate well,” I say.

“I know…it’s sort of something to do with a bond, from the context, but it is used so frequently in the section I wanted to be sure I understood.”

There don’t appear to be any annotations that indicate the translation, so I turn to Google translate, which does indeed include Greek. Except to go from Greek to English, I need the characters, which my keyboard won’t type—at least if, there is a way for me to get it to, I don’t know what that is.

The woman is ready to give up and says “it’s not that big of a deal; I get the general idea.” But I assure her I know how we can get the answer. I pull up the Wikipedia page for the Greek alphabet and copy and past the characters into Google translate, joking about how I was never in a sorority so I don’t know the Greek alphabet and it takes me a few moments to find the letters.

The older woman is amazed at my resourcefulness. While I love reader’s advisory and have plenty of opportunity to assist patrons with finding the types of books they want, I don’t get a lot of reference questions in the Teen Zone, and this is just the story of romantic inquiry that I long for, so I am caught off guard by how touched she is that I found the answer for her.

For me, this incident illustrates how different her life experiences with technology and access to information have been when compared to mine. Even though the internet has put so much information at our fingertips daily, it still takes skill and knowledge to find and access it and then put it to use. Something that was second nature to me was ingenious to her.

This is why people still need librarians in the digital age. You have to know how to use the systems and what questions to ask to find what you seek.

Turns out, “φιλια” means “friendship” or “amity”—at least according to Google translate.

We talk for a while about the myth and how this word relates to the text and she shows me one of the books she found while investigating Antigone.

Antigonick is one she is not going to check out herself, though she thought it was interesting. “The chorus is like a bunch of lawyers,” she says. “It’s funny and different.” She takes the two more traditional translations, and I flip through Antigonick and decide to check it out for myself.

It’s a translation of the same play I read in Western Civ in college, but instead of a slim Dover thrift edition, this one is hand lettered and mixed with drawings and paintings on translucent paper super-imposed on the text. The classic drama takes on a modern tone in the hands of poet Anne Carson. It was incisively funny and beautifully illustrated.

After she’d thanks me for my help, the woman shows me the other book she had in her stack to check out—a book on finding a job. She’s looking for one.

Whether it’s exploring ancient myths or career assistance, you can find it at the library. 

Antigonick is more than a book, it’s an object of art, and I’ve spent the last couple hours pouring over it, taking in Anne Carson’s haunting humor and Bianca Stone’s startling images of girls with cinderblock heads and drowning horses.

I love helping people learn as much as I love learning myself. I certainly love discovering beautiful new books.

This is why I love working in a library. 

6 thoughts on ““φιλια” and why I love working in a library.

  1. Man! How fun and interesting. I do wish I worked in a library, especially when my three kids are thundering around and I just want to dive into a book. Haha, great post!

  2. This is such a great post and I completely agree with you! Even today when most of us have access to the internet and computers, libraries are extremely helpful resources still.

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