Story and Photos by Qiling Wang
Turning to the comics page, he begins his daily sudoku journey as he settles into his seat at the guard’s desk at the Perry-Castañeda Library.
Normally, Douglas Custard can solve the puzzles in couple of minutes, but there are times when the sudoku is harder than usual. In those cases, he will turn to his own notebook, which is full of hand-written sudoku strategies.
The one-hour shift from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the guard’s desk is a break for Douglas to take a rest. “It gets me off my feet. That’s the one time for an hour I am not on my feet,” he says.
For the rest of day, he walks around all six floors of the library to search for books requested by students and faculty. Custard has been a Library Technical Assistant at the PCL for 20 years.
On his desk, there is a certificate with a glass cover — it is an award the University of Texas at Austin gave him in May recognizing the two decades he has worked as a book searcher at the library. He enjoys working in the library and helping people find the books they need. Every time he finds a book, he can still feel the same satisfaction that he felt 20 years ago.
“My job is not stressful. I like looking for books. When I find a book, it makes me feel good, especially when the book has been missing for a long time. The longer the book’s been missing, the happier I am,” he says with a slight smile.
There are times when students deliberately hide a book required by their teacher. They will put it between the racks in order to keep fellow students from getting it. It is his duty to find it and report it to the circulation desk.
Yleana Santos, a colleague of Custard’s who has worked at the circulation desk for a year and a half, says Custard is a kind of wizard at his work; 20 years of experience have enabled him to remember all the letters, numbers and codes of all shelves inside the library. “He’s very knowledgeable. He’s a very kind guy. He’s always willing to help out,” Santos says. “If some of the student workers get lost, he’s always there to give them pointers. He’s the kind of the go-to guy for everything.”
Contrary to his stable life as a book searcher, Custard kept moving from one place to another during his childhood as a result of the nature of his father’s job as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. In the first seven years of his life, he moved from Charleston, S.C. to Meadville, Pa. and then to Ramstein Air Force base. His father was his hero. As a teenager, Custard wanted to follow his father’s path as a fighter pilot, but the military rejected him because he was on medication for a seizure disorder.
Instead, Custard applied for a job as a book searcher in the PCL in his late twenties. Now, the hallways in the library have become his runway, with his circulation cart as his fighter plane to explore the complicated code system of the library. And like pilots, he has seen many changes in technology. In the past two decades, the advent of the Internet and mobile devices has broadly changed the way many students and faculty members do their work. Despite technological changes, Custard says his world and his job have changed very little.
For his job, a book-searching list, a Longhorn hoodie and a digital music player are all the gear Custard needs. He had a mobile phone once, but did not bother to buy a new one after it stopped working several years ago. “I really do not have any use for it. People can call me at work by calling the circulation number and they go page me,” Custard says.
Since Custard stays away from mobile phones, he spends a lot of time reading paper books for his genealogy research. A graduate from Texas State University, Custard has always been interested in studying his family history and tracing his lineage. “It’s a hobby. It’s a big hobby. My history degree is a research degree. That’s how I learned various ways of doing research,” Custard says.
Douglas was able to track his family back to John Howland, one of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620, and he plans to spend several years writing a book about his family-tree. “I keep changing the book title. One of them is Curstead of Norfolk England,” he says, Curstead being the origin of Douglas’ last name.
For now, he plans to continue doing his book searcher job for another 15 years, because by then he will get full retirement at the age of 65. He still remembers the first book he was supposed to search in the PCL as that book was also the first book he checked out from the library as a student. “The decision was made for me,” Custard says.
Now it is 12 p.m., and Custard leaves the guard’s desk. As he walks through the history aisle, he finds a book with a green cover titled “Austin” that was requested by a student. Although he says Austin “is still weird,” the black and white pictures inside the book remind him how this city has changed over the years. “I want Austin to be small again like in the 1970s,” he says as he wanders off to search for more books.