About Libraries

When I was growing up, if I wanted a book from the library, I went to the library, found the book I wanted, and took it to the librarian. I then wrote my name on the card in the back of the book and gave it to the librarian who stamped it and filed it. The librarian then rubber-stamped the date inside the back cover of the book and I took it home to read it. As the insurance commercial says, “even a cave man could do it.”

Times have changed. Lately I’ve been fighting a losing battle with the library system of a large and well-known university in this state. Part of the problem, I know, is that I have no status in that university. I am not a student, faculty member, or graduate and I am not accredited with any other university. I’m just a citizen with a thirst for knowledge. I guess that makes them suspicious.

I must also explain that this university maintains many libraries, each with its own system. I have made use of the resources of five different libraries in the same university and I know the idiosyncracies of each – or at least last weeks’ idiosyncracies. What worked last week won’t necessarily work this week. They try to keep me off balance by changing the rules as often as possible. Last year, at the largest of the five libraries, I could go to the desk, fill in a form, and the book would come in less than a half hour. Last month, I had to go to an office called “Privileges” and fill in a form. Last week, I had to go the same office and have my picture taken for a laminated card. Yesterday when I presented the laminated card, I was told it had expired and I would have to go the “Privileges” office to get it renewed. Last month I could ask for a book, fill in a form, and check back a little later to get it. Last week I was told I should fill in the form on a computer and they would send me an e-mail when the book came. I explained that my computer was 70 miles away. They said I could log on to one of their computers. I explained that that would require a knowledge of computers my grandson might have but I don’t. Sometimes you can pretend to be a cave man and they will let you skip some of the technology. Yesterday, at least, that worked.

Here’s a quick consumer report on the five libraries. I have not named the first three to protect the innocent.

Library A. Reminds me of a busy airport on a bad day. You stand in line until someone says “Next.” If there’s a reading area, I haven’t found it. You don’t have to be checked in; only out

Library B. This one was entirely underground and you had to find a secret staircase to get in, but once you found it, it had open stacks and a pleasant atmosphere. That must have worried them. They have now closed it down and moved all its books into Library A subject to the rules of Library A. They promise to reopen it next fall but they make no promises about open stacks.

Library C. By far the most pleasant: helpful staff and prompt service. However, you have to pass two security desks to get in and leave behind any bags. You have to stop at one security deak on the way out. You can use pencils or computers in the reading room, not pens. If it’s a warm day and you take your jacket off and put it on the back of your chair, you will be told that is forbidden. I asked the head of this library, a personal friend, why that is and he didn’t know.

Library D. This is the one time forgot. No one checks you in or out. It’s called “The Mudd Library.” When I was mentoring Divinity School students from this university, I had access privileges and could go into the Mudd Stacks. (I like that name!) They have motion activated lights; the elevator discharges you onto a dark floor and you have to walk into the dark to make the lights come on. Maybe that’s what they mean by a “faith based” system. There are narrow spaces and high shelves; sometimes you need to find a little rolling step stool to get to the top shelves. And sometimes your library code brings you to a box which, when opened, contains little packages of documents tied with a silk ribbon. It makes me feel like a Victorian scholar opening an unexpected gift. Once when I told them I couldn’t find a document, they consulted their records and said it should be there because no one had looked at it in 50 years.

Library E. The Divinity School Library. Is it surprising that my comfort level is highest here? Designed for theology students, it’s relatively low-tech. A total stranger can walk into it, find a book, read it, copy it. No one checks you in or out. But, as a theological school library, it’s quirky. The stacks are on rollers so they can fit lots of them in. You often have to roll three or four stacks to open up a space and ought to check to make sure no one is in the spaces you are closing. Once I nearly flattened a theological student who was browsing quietly in the next set of stacks. Yesterday I wanted a recent issue of a journal that was said to be in “The Rotunda.” I asked where that might be and was told it was just down the hall. I said I hadn’t seen anything rotund there. They said there used to be a rotunda there so they still call it that. That, I understand.

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