Thursday, April 21, 2011

The library of memory

It was the kind of library you would find in the center of any town, I suppose. I want to say the facade was stucco but maybe it was just dull grey cement.  There were the hands of a clock on the front above the doors, and there were ashtrays in the foyer, just like in the children's book Mike's House. And the children's room was inviting, and had books such as The Sneetches, and Who's a Pest, and the Sign on Rosie's Door, especially the latter.  As I grew older, the library was renovated and it was harder to find things.  There was supposed to be more space and light and probably there was but I preferred the way things were before.  At one point I discovered the 796 section or thereabouts for books on baseball.  But I could never find the Glory of Their Times, for which there was a catalog card, but was never on the shelf.  I may have asked about it at one point and received a postcard in the mail saying it was out of print.  I knew nothing about interlibrary loan, no one had told me.  One time I held onto a record album several weeks after its due date, but the library staff caught up with me, sending me a photocopy of my library card and the checkout card as evidence of my sin.  It would not be the first time I would fall foul of a library establishment, and one might remark the irony that I would go on to pay copious library fines despite being a librarian, but maybe it's just kind of boring.

Struggling to find information for a school paper, an article maybe, using the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature.  We had to request the back issues of the magazines from someone at a desk.  She handed the request form back to me, saying " Now what the hell does that say?" My handwriting was and continues to be a source of merriment for those around me, even though I know it is good manners to write clearly.  In my youth and adolescence, I didn't care.  And there were books that took too long to read or were too much trouble to find.  Only years later (maybe ten, fifteen,) when I was on the front lines in library service, trying to help customers decipher the arcane listings in the online catalog or the index books, did it start to make sense.  When I applied for my first library job I had no idea what I was getting into, and the director was telling me that everything was headed in the direction of technology.  Even he probably had scant concept of networked information or even such a thing as an ebook, though it's not out of the question, since Vannevar Bush had written As We May Think in 1945 and hypertext had been invented sometime during the 1960s and ARPAnet was nothing new, but I had never heard of any of it and had only used a word processor under duress to finish my senior exercise in college, a sorry excuse for a paper that featured - you guessed it - little in the way of research. 

I got off topic.  My default as a teenager was to go to the library and grab a book and lie prone in the stacks.  I looked at Jazz Is by Nat Hentoff again and again but I don't know if I finished it, and looked at other books that mentioned John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.  Poetry books were a curiosity, especially the ones in French or in translation, but I don't remember which specifically, maybe I just liked glancing at them.  Drama too.  There were comfortable chairs, but mostly I sprawled in the stacks. 

My father is a mathematician. My mother is a reference librarian.  Ironically, I combined the two and became a science librarian.  "You really landed yourself, didn't you," someone remarked to me once.  I've seen changes but not as many as some.  I'm a consumer of technology rather than a developer or an innovator.  Not long ago I went back to the library of my youth.  It had changed dramatically.  Fine paneling.  Many computers.  Wide open spaces for people to gather.  And on the second floor, books, where there weren't offices, books, which had once occupied the lower level, books, in dignified rows, waiting to be discovered. Some that I might have read or touched back in the day were probably long gone, succeeded by fresher material.  Maybe there is a connection.  Maybe nothing is lost, and maybe it is all about loss.  I don't know.  I wasn't much of a reader actually then, struggled to finish a book then and that's true today.  Do a lot of reading online and more scanning, and a good thing about a book makes me stop and disconnect, and a library gives me pause by its solidity, by its having withstood time and change, though I live in a part of the country where municipal libraries are still relatively well supported, and even not that much if I look at the budgets (~ 1%.) 

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