“Your library is your portrait.” – Holbrook Jackson

Apart from a cinema, a library is my one pre-requisite for that house I’ve had an architect in the back of my mind designing for at least the last 20yrs. Floor to ceiling shelves across every wall, and a spiral staircases leading to the upper level. That, or one of those ladders on wheels that you can pull along the shelves. There’ll be a desk where words are written with actual pen and paper, and I’ll also do my colouring here. I think perhaps mahogany, deep rich wood. It’s going to be oustanding.

For someone who has a reading pattern that waxes as much as it wanes I do think a library is the most important building in a community. I think to put that much knowledge under one roof and give people access to it for free is the greatest idea humankind has ever had. Imagine. You want to know something, so you go to a library, look it up, find the book, you get to take it home, and you learn. It costs you nothing and all you need to access it is the desire to know more than you already do. Brilliant. This kind of innovative thinking is what will save humanity.

The architecture alone in some libraries around the world is amazing. I love the British Library, and the reading room at the British Museum…you just feel like you’re absorbing knowledge just standing there. The first time I was in New York and I’d managed to escape yet another shopping expedition I went straight to the NY Public Library and fell in love. Every time since I make sure I steal at the very least an hour to myself to sit on those steps between Patience and Fortitude and just watch the world. On my next visit I will have to visit the Brooklyn Public Library, which I’m told – albeit by a Brooklynite, is even better.

I re-joined my local library last year after a very long absence. There was some trepidation over a book I’d borrowed when I was a kid and lent to someone else who failed to return it. I was scared that after all this time my fine would be bigger than a mortgage. However, turns out they didn’t do a background check and they just let me join after producing my licence and I’ve been happily borrowing ever since. Woo hoo!

Now my library doesn’t have the greatest stock in books, particularly the kind of books I read; but then I’m a selective reader so most of the books I do read are ones I know I’ll fall in love with so owning them becomes necessary. I’ve been internet savvy for a long time and Google is my best friend so I know how to find things online with ease. However, there will always be a part of me that believes sitting at a desk with a pile of books in front of you as you take notes is the only real way to do research. I believe those late night sessions in the library as you try to finish your homework is a rite of passage that everyone should have. The resources may not be great but my library allows me to remember a time when people learnt things from books. Today I had cause to learn.

My library’s been shut for a few weeks for refurbishment but I was walking home anyway so I thought I’d pop in to see if they were done. Walked up the steps, through the wooden doors where some kids were loitering as though they weren’t sure they were allowed to go in, and into my library. First thing I notice, the lending counter isn’t there. Instead there’s a seating area and these machines with people looking very confused stood next to them and someone trying to explain how to use it. Without too much thought I figure that the two relate to each other and that this new fangled technology must have something to do with the lending process. Unperturbed I go to the shelf I need to go to and I choose my books.

I’m not a technophobe. Far from it. So when I see a lady stood by one of the new machines unsure whether she’s supposed to stick her dinner in it or wait for her washing to come out I simply step up to the machine when she looks at me in total confusion and says I can go first. Like a seasoned pro I press the button on the touchscreen that says ‘Borrow books’. I take out my card, scan it like the instructions prompt me to. Okay. Now what?

It tells me to do something with my books. I’m thinking there must be a barcode or something I have to scan. Isn’t that how borrowing works? I used to do it all the time at Blockbuster. Scan the card. Scan the items being borrowed. Tell them when they’re due. Done. Only there doesn’t appear to be any scanning of the barcode. Or a stamp to tell me when the books are due. Hmm. There’s a place to put my books, at least that’s what it looks like but I’m not entirely sure but I put them all on there anyway. It looks like I’m weighing them. Is this how they know which books I’m taking out? This super computer is weighing my books and it knows that the exact weight of my books can only be made by the combination I have chosen?

I don’t know what’s going on under that UV light. Then all of a sudden the screen starts to populate with the titles of the books I’ve chosen. The whole process takes less than 20 seconds and there it is on screen. A list of my books and the date they’re due. A receipt is printed beneath where my books are still sat waiting confirming what I’ve borrowed and when I should bring them back. I’m baffled. At a guess I presume there’s some kind of chip in the books and it somehow scanned all of them – without my having to wave any of them in front of any kind of laser. Huh?

Not wanting to seem like a total novice I pick up my books and place them in my bag and make my way to the exit. There are theft detectors, but I walk through them without setting off the alarms. Okay that works too. I reach for the door, but I don’t even have to do that anymore because the doors just open! When the heck did that happen? They’re still the exact same doors from the good old manual days, only now they’re on some automatic door opening thing?!?! I mentally, if not literally, scratch my head at the technological leaps my nice little library has made in the last month as I walk home.

I know that things progress. Books are on paper now and not carved in stone. I get it. However, spending however much this new system costs on something that wasn’t broken feels like a misallocation of funds to me. I mean I’m not going to choose a library because I get to scan my own books out rather than having an actual person to scan my card and stamp my book for me. The stamp I particularly miss because I’ve already lost the receipt with the due date, although I know I’ll get an e-mail a few days before they’re due – which is incredibly helpful (see, I embrace progress!). They could have spent the money on new books or providing better computer facilities because I know that’s why most kids go into a library now – free internet, but the hard part is getting them in so you know, whatever works.

It all just feels very new, very alien, and very wrong to me. There should be a counter at a library, with an actual librarian stood behind it. One that you can ask questions to and who can check to see if the book you need has just been returned and is still on the trolley waiting to be put back on the shelf. There’ll be a generation of children who go to my library and there’s no librarian there to recommend them their first Roald Dahl book or see them move from the children’s library to the grown up lending selection. Okay so these aren’t my memories, but they’re someone’s, but they may not be anymore. That makes me sad.

I’ll get used to it. I will, because I have to. I don’t like it though. It lacks a personal touch that I think a place of knowledge should have. Who are the keepers of our books if the librarians have been replaced by machines? Progress sometimes takes funny turns.

“The zipper displaces the button and a man lacks just that much time to think while dressing at dawn, a philosophical hour, and thus a melancholy hour.”

~ Fahrenheit 451


Filed under Geekfest, Literary Speaking, Londontown

3 responses to ““Your library is your portrait.” – Holbrook Jackson

  1. Kat

    Wow. That new technology sounds like something alien technology from space that a library administrator just happened upon. That all just sounds so incredibly bizarre.

    Barcodes and scanners, that I can understand, but the librarian has to do the scanning, and tells you when your stuff is due back, even though it says so on the receipt. It is very disheartening to see the more human element, one that is very visible and was as seemingly unchanging as the books themselves, of the library get taken away by some fancy gadgetry.

    If that ever happened at the library in my hometown, I think I’d just fall over out of shock, but that may be because it’s smaller than most people’s houses and the only budget they have is for new paperback thriller novels.

    • Gem

      I’m still trying to come to terms with it. I think they’re doing it to the other libraries in my area. There seems to be a systematic closure and “refurbishment” and the removal of the human element :(.

  2. Kat

    Man, that truly does suck.

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