By Ben |

By the end of 2002 I had resigned from my job at World Population Balance, and my work for Theodore was not enough to pay the bills. Defining my career as nonprofit management, I took a position as assistant volunteer coordinator for the Friends of the Minneapolis Public Library. It was a huge step down in responsibility from being general manager of Twin Cities Free-Net, but it was better than nothing.

After four years of working more or less from home, it was great to commute to an office full of amiable and capable people. The Friends were an independent nonprofit supporting the work of the Minneapolis library system, which at the time was independent from the surrounding Hennepin County system. My direct supervisor, the volunteer coordinator, was a sweet motherly lady named Janet who was unfailingly diplomatic and wise. She helped me navigate a number of thorny interpersonal issues as I got to know the volunteer corps.

When I was hired, the Minneapolis central library had just moved into temporary quarters across the street while its old building was torn down and a new one built on the spot. The temporary location, Marquette Plaza, had been built for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and was an intimidating fortress, especially the underground workrooms where a row of vacant gun turrets looked down onto the stalls where armored cars had formerly parked, and where volunteers now sorted books.

The library had its own corps of volunteers whose jobs were kept scrupulously separate from those of the unionized library employees, and in turn the Friends' volunteers' jobs were not permitted to overlap with those of the library volunteers. I was helping to manage people who operated the used bookstore, taught English and computer classes, and sent out mass mailings, among other things.

I quickly found that the tools my predecessor had used for this job -- a dozen or more Excel spreadsheets paired with Word mail merges -- were in need of an overhaul. My work at WPB had whetted my interest in relational databases, and since I had Microsoft Access at my disposal, I taught myself Access while building a comprehensive volunteer management solution. It wound up freeing up so much of my time that I taught myself Embedded Perl and MySQL and built my first database-driven Web sites while sitting at my office desks waiting for something to happen.

When the job of assistant bookstore manager became available, I took that on as well. With two part-time jobs and two direct supervisors, people tended to assume that if I wasn't working for one I must be working for the other. This gave me the opportunity to take walks through the skyway system or outdoors to wake myself up instead of drinking cup after cup of coffee to stay awake. The coffee, plus an undiagnosed food intolerance, had kept me running to the restroom dozens of times a day, which some of the library employees scowled upon.

The MPL employees were unionized, and it was a a sore point that we un-unionized Friends employees were sharing a workplace with them, especially since the MPL was in the process of merging with the un-unionized Hennepin County library system. There were lots of angry meetings that I was not invited to. One benefit we got from the arrangement was that when the MPL was furloughed for a week in August 2003, the Friends also had to take a week off because the building was closed, but we got the time off with pay. I used it to hike Grand Canyon.

In the end I left the Friends to bike around the continent for a year. I was able to train my replacement, and when I returned to Minneapolis in 2005 I caught up with her in the new building. The MPL/HCL merger was imminent, Janet was retiring, and the Friends of MPL were in the process of merging with the Hennepin County equivalent. I felt like I'd been witness to a sort of golden age.