Tuesday, November 02, 2004

All about libraries

I am reading Nicholas A. Basbanes' Patience and Fortitude right now, and I feel like I need to share this passage with the world:

...As I was signing the books out at the front desk - the Athenaeum did not yet use a scanning device to record loans to its members, although that quaint practice was about to change as well - I confirmed by the blank cards tucked inside the rear pastedowns my assumption that they were, in fact, leaving the library fo the first time. "Eighty-one years," I said aloud, shaking my head with amused gratitude. "You wonder who they bought these books for anyway." James P. Feeney, the silver-haired circulation librarian who was checking me out, paused momentarily and fastened his unblinking eyes on mine. "We got them for you, Mr. Basbanes," he replied evenly, and resumed his work.

What Feeney did not say - what he did not have to say - was that the books had been set aside by his predecessors for the better part of a century on the off chance that one day somebody in need might want to see them. Fortunately, the fact that nobody had requested the titles before me was not considered sufficient grounds for discarding them, a practice employed by so many other libraries in these days of reduced shelf space, stretched operating budgets, and shifting paradigms. It was as if the collective hands of Aristophanes of Byzantium, Petrarch, Robert Cotton, Christina of Sweden, Thomas Jefferson, Arthur Alfonso Schomburg - every temporary custodian of the world's gathered wisdom - had reached out through the swirling eddy of the ages and placed in my hands the precious gift of a book. It was an act of faith fulfilled, and we, their heirs, owe no less a compact to the readers of the third millennium.

Unfortunately, the national library system here tends to go through books rather quickly - I've seen books from 2002 listed as being in 'RU' - 'Repository Used' - and I've even bought books at their annual sales, that nobody's ever checked out, that are about 2-3 years old. Kind of sad really. And to think a previous Chief Executive had the audacity to 'crow' that "We don't get people complaining about service quality or about our collections any more". Guess I'll have to start complaining! Just because you can always find books that you want to read that doesn't mean that you can find any book that you wanted to read a priori - i.e. I always fill up the slots on my library card without too much trouble, but on the other hand about 50% of the books I look for aren't in the national library system. I guess I tend to be too(?) understanding of the budget problems of libraries - after all, these libraries do have to cater to a certain common denominator, and I know my interests are pretty esoteric for Singapore. But then...knowing tax money has bought books that are being put into storage (to get them out costs S$1.50) or selling them away (OK, so I'm not that mad about this part - after all, means that I'll be able to buy them for S$2 or so) at the tender age of 2...sigh.

Had an interesting experience at the library today. For those of you who don't know, Singapore's library books are all RFID-tagged. This means that we check ourselves out - no standing in line waiting for a librarian, although occasionally you have to stand in line to wait for a machine - and books returned are returned instantly. No waiting around for 15 minutes for your books to clear the system. Anyway, I was trying to check out a book and after several swipes I gave up and took it to the counter (labelled 'Concierge' - interesting). While waiting for the librarian to laminate some library cards, I began reading the book and found it really interesting. And then finally the librarian took the book to see what was wrong with it and told me it was due for maintenance!!! This for a book that looked like it had never been touched. She mumbled something about the labelling being wrong or something. I didn't feel like arguing, so I just gave up on the book and left. I'm such a pushover.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you this posting. The selection from the Basbanes book is very interesting and has caused me to go check it out.

7:46 AM  

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