Wake up, Polly Parrot.


It's All Happening At The Library
by Brian Plante

I am a library rat. Whenever a new book I'm interested in comes out, I don't generally rush to the bookstore to buy it -- I usually go online and put in a library reserve for it. I buy and keep SF short-story retrospective and best-of-the-year anthologies, but I go through novels too quickly to make it worth the purchase price. I like libraries a lot, and usually stop by at least once a week. Alas, all is not peaches and cream in library-land, though. I've complained before in a few other places, but let' me collect them all together now and make a proper rant. Here's a bunch of my library peeves -- some big, some quibbles:

My local public library system spends too much money on non-library stuff. Computers, artwork, aquariums, videos, CDs, movie screenings, computer training, children's plays, etc. Call me crazy, but I believe libraries ought to be mostly about the books. Instead, libraries aspire to become your town's cultural center, not just a joint for reading material. That's because there's not enough people who read books, and the library wants to have lots of friends when that next bond issue comes up on the local ballot. More money for the library? Oh, sure -- that's where I get my free movies and use the bathroom when I'm shopping downtown.

They replace the catalog-lookup PCs every two years at my library, each time with better and better models. But the catalog-lookup is such a simple application that the old dumb green-letters-on-black terminals were just fine. Now the catalog PCs have wireless keyboards, flat panel LCD monitors and DVD players built in. Should I take that wireless keyboard, do you think, and walk around the stacks while typing? Why does a PC for catalog-lookups need a DVD player, anyway? And now a bunch of them are connected to the library's network by wireless. But these PCs are not mobile, and the hardwired network connection is still right there on the floor next to the terminal. Looks like some computer geek just wanted to say on his résumé that he installed a wireless network.

I always return library books on time, but the library staff is a bit less attentive about checking them back in, and they call me occasionally to tell me I have books overdue when I really returned them. I've had to go to the library and pick the book off the stacks to give to the librarian a few times, just to prove I had returned something they failed to check in.

Books are often shelved inconsistently at my library. I read lots of SF short stories. Some are filed in the non-fiction section under Dewey Decimal classification 808.83 and some are shelved on another floor in the SF section. In either place, Gardner Dozois' The Year's Best Science Fiction anthologies may turn up under D (for Dozois), or Y (for Year's), or S (for Science Fiction). Some SF turns up under the general fiction category instead of the SF ghetto they've created. Can we get a little consistency here, Librarians? Short stories should always be shelved under 808.83, or always in the proper fiction section for the genre, but whatever you do must be consistent. Books should always be alphabetized by the author or editor's name, never by title. This isn't rocket science, is it?

Besides the inconsistency in shelving, why are there so many different locations for fiction in the first place? I often have to look in several places to find a book: the SF section, main fiction collection, short-stories (808.83), paperback racks, oversize books, young adult section, "theme" display racks, and large-print collections, all in different locations. Wouldn't it make more sense to shelve books in as few locations as possible? If I want to browse for books by Robert A Heinlein, why do I need to run around the library in circles like little Billy in those lame Family Circus comic strips? Shouldn't all Heinlein's fiction be in one place? I think the novels and short stories, hardcover and paperbacks could all live peacefully side-by-side without confusing anybody.

Paperbacks aren't cataloged at all at my library and must be browsed to find anything, which is made more difficult by the fact that they aren't alphabetized at all. There's a bunch of spinner racks each for SF, mystery, romance, thrillers, etc. A catalog search for a specific title may come up empty when the paperback is sitting right there on the rack.

Libraries love to put their own classification label on the spine of each book. It's usually placed about three inches up from the bottom where it obscures the author's name or book title, but some librarians place it a bit higher or lower, so you can't easily read the labels straight across a row of books. Here's an idea, Librarians: place all such labels flush with the bottom of the book – now they'll all be lined up consistently and be less likely to obscure the printed matter on the spine.

Some books have maps or diagrams printed on the inside covers. Libraries usually paste flaps and dust jackets over these pages. Readers pull up the flaps and jackets so they can see what's to see. Stupid.

Some branches have separate section for SF & horror. Some have a separate SF collection, but horror is rolled into the main fiction collection. One branch I visit shelves all fiction into one single section. I can see the pros and cons to doing it either way, but this should be consistent at all branches, not the local librarian's decision. When I pop into an unfamiliar branch, I shouldn't have to waste time figuring out how this branch did it differently from all the others.

The city I live in is spending big bucks building a new children's library clumsily called "ImaginOn: The Joe and Joan Martin Center" downtown. Two blocks away from this new building is the main library branch with a large children's section. I think libraries ought to be mostly about the books, but ImaginOn is going to have less than a quarter of it's space dedicated to books, judging by the floor plan on the website. When ImaginOn opens, the children's collection will move over from the main branch, but they'll probably fill up the freed space there with more non-book stuff. While ImaginOn looks impressive, I'm thinking it's a waste of library money. Kids don't live downtown in my city, they live in the burbs, so that's where money for kids' libraries ought to be spent. ImaginOn will become a class-trip destination, which is dumb. Libraries are for folks to use every day, not just as once-a-year special occasions, so I think this sends the wrong message to the kids and parents.

The main library recently installed security cameras in the restrooms, apparently due to some, um, sordid goings-on in there. See, it really is all happening at the library! The cameras aren't pointed at the stalls -- just at the sink area -- so whoever's watching the monitor can't see the fun and games, but a librarian can make sure you wash your hands now, I guess.

The library regularly disposes of important works to make room for the onslaught of newer, inferior books. Librarians don't know SF, so they don't know the important things to keep. The computer tells them what hasn't been checked out in awhile, so that's what goes on the scrap heap. It's a sad fact of library life that the old books that don't move get discarded.

In the old days (oh, a couple of years ago) they used to put a sticker on the back of library books and stamp it with the due date when you checked out. I guess that took too long for the librarians, because now they just print up a single little cash register receipt with the date on it for all your books. That's OK if you only take out one book at a time. But I take out multiple books from multiple branches, and their due dates overlap, making it harder for me to know which books are due when. Does the printed receipt save anybody significant time or money over stamping the books? It doesn't seem to solve any problems, incurs a cost for the printers and the paper, and causes a new headache for frequent readers like me.

CDs and DVDs borrowed from the library are always scratched up. Don't other people know they're not supposed to put their grimy fingerprints on the recorded surface or use the disk as a coaster under their beer glass? Then again, don't library readers know they're not supposed to drop pizza sauce, crush mosquitoes, or wipe their boogers on the pages of books? No, I guess not.

What's the deal with 808.83? This is the Dewey Decimal number for short story collections and anthologies. It's also the number for books that teach you how to write fiction. How can it be that two totally different subjects have the same call number? It's a decimal system for chrissakes, so there's an infinite amount of numbers available. Did some librarian decide that short stories are only of interest to people who are learning how to write?

Librarians can be funny folks. I know they do a necessary job, and they sometimes go begging for folks to come up and ask them questions, but most of the time they just sit there, reading. If you're a library rat like me, you already know your way around pretty well and don't generally have much use for them, but it's funny when you do pop them a question. I've gotten the deer-in-the-headlights look a few times when asking for info on inter-library loans and statistics for the library's operation. I guess most of the questions they answer are simple ones from library newbies, on the order of, "Where are the NASCAR books?"

My library jumped on the e-book thing awhile back. They bought a bunch of Rocketbook readers and licensed some e-text versions of books, and loaned them out, just like regular paper books. I'll bet libraries would love for this to catch on, so they don't need to reshelve all those dead-tree books, but the experiment was a miserable failure, and they don't do it anymore. Who could have guessed that people go to the library for real books? Apparently not the librarians.

I know all these things make it look like I'm an enemy of libraries, but I'm really not. I love the library. I just wish they would concentrate more on what matters, instead of squandering my tax dollars on other things. Have I mentioned that I believe libraries ought to be mostly about the books?

Copyright © 2004 Brian Plante Count= 5892

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