Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Abort, Return, Renew?

I'm all for technology. Really, I am. I run my own computer repair company. I take class notes on a laptop, not in a notebook. I check online dictionaries before using certain words. I organize my life on a digital calendar. I think cars should be driving themselves. I prefer self-checkout at CVS because I want to see how good the tech is.

But when I walk into my local library and check out my own books, without interacting with a librarian, something is wrong.

I could hardly believe what I was seeing. Sure, it had been a few years (ten? more?) since I had actually used my library card, but surely I would have heard about it if the library had gone ahead and replaced librarians. Well, not replaced, entirely. But sure enough, there it was. A nice big screen and a printed sign: Self Check-Out.

I took the card out of my wallet, turned it bar-code-side up, and let the dancing red laser examine it. "Scan Your First Book," read the screen. So, one by one, I scanned the books. Cutting for Stone, check. Pastwatch, check. I touched "Print Receipt" and was on my merry way, slip of paper in hand telling me that I had three weeks to return my selections.

Three weeks, or else... what? I mean, honestly, why not just take the books out of the building without scanning them? No one really seemed to be paying all that much attention. It was a strange sensation.

I know, I know; it's not a book about robbing libraries. But if it were...

Now, don't get me wrong; I'm all for technology. And I think it's awfully clever that the free public library is saving a few man-hours letting a machine (of unknown price-tag) take care of mundane scanning. But is a fancy book-scanning machine really where we need to be putting our money? (Don't get me started on "Smart Boards" in the schools. There's a big difference between getting technology because it's useful and getting technology because we can.) Just because it's shiny and new doesn't mean we need it. You can tweet that quote on your iPhone-4S later.

But really, people. Libraries are already facing an uphill battle. Kids these days can get most of the research they need online, and that's without leaving the comfort of their bedrooms (or, for us older kids, dorm rooms). Newspapers? Online. Books? eBooks. Articles? Digital archives. If you take the human interaction out of the library, what's left to distinguish it over the internet?

Three weeks later, I returned my books, swapping out for Fahrenheit 451 and Breakfast of Champions. This time, I was in luck; the scanner was broken.

"Oh, you know, he just died," noted the librarian while scanning Fahrenheit. She was talking about Ray Bradbury, the author, who had passed away a few days prior.

"Yes, yes; I heard that."

"There was an article, I think, in the Inquirer..."

"Oh, I didn't see it. I just read something online the other day."

"You should find it. The Inquirer. Could be useful for your research."


"On the book. There should be a lot to write about with all of the recent press."

"Oh, I - I'm not reading this for school."


"Just" The librarian looked up at me from behind a pair of glasses. She turned her attention back to the computer, pressed something, and busied herself placing my receipt in one of the books' covers.

I walked out of the library feeling quite pleased with myself. That's right, I thought, I read good literature for fun. Self-enrichment. Life-long learning, that kind of thing. Wouldn't want the brain to waste away between semesters. I must have been smiling quite ridiculously. No one else was around.

We need people taking a look at what we read. Otherwise, we could read dangerous books!

That is what a trip to the library should be like. A recommendation for further research. A misunderstanding. An interaction. It's a community building, not a McDonald's drive-through.

Besides, where would we be without libraries? Some kind of horrid, paperless dystopia plagued by instant access to humanity's vast collective knowledge and an ungodly organizational system distinct from the Dewey Decimal.

There might even be Kindles in this forsaken hell.

Brrr. Goosebumps.

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