Updated: Oct 21, 2020
My aforementioned post about libraries was, I’m afraid, only a taster. You wouldn’t have thought that it could get worse, would you? But it does.
I am speaking now not about the institutions themselves, but their denizens - the Librarian.
The late Sir Terry Pratchett invented an amazing place called the Discworld and in many of his books the library of Unseen University played a central part. Inside this place, the books warped time and space around them leading to many pitfalls for the students of magic who dared enter. Modern day libraries are similarly hazardous places to be and although it is unlikely you will end up in the Nth dimension, you could sometimes be forgiven for thinking that you had.
The library of Unseen University only employs one member of staff, simply called 'The Librarian'. Formerly human, he was accidentally turned into an orangutan early in the series and has since made the endless stacks of bookshelves his home (literally).
The Librarian is affable, helpful, and clever and can easily locate any particular book a student desires - and this is from a primate whose only vice is the occasional beer.
So why can’t real librarians do the same thing (be helpful, I mean, not drink beer)? Because if you are intrepid enough to actually step foot inside one of these buildings, are lucky enough to find one open and have made it past the toddlers swinging from the shelves, you will inevitably end up having to deal with the human version of The Librarian.
Now, tread carefully and don’t make any sudden moves, just present your card to the unsmiling countenance and wait patiently. This is what happened to me recently:
ME: ‘Hello, could I use the library computer please?’
LIBRARIAN: ‘Yes, may I see your card?’
The librarian took my card, peered at my signature thereon and then back at me a few times, as if able to link my appearance to said signature. Apparently satisfied, she swiped it mercilessly into the computer and typed an apparently endless password (or something) into the keyboard. I continued to stand there, heart beating, perhaps waiting for the inevitable ‘Your papers are not in order !’ and then being frogmarched off to an uncertain fate via the notorious Clinkerhoffen jail.
The librarian scanned the screen. Her eyes narrowed as she looked at me.
LIBRARIAN: ‘A computer, is it?’ She asked.
ME: ‘Yes please – just for half an hour.’
LIBRARIAN: ‘I see.’ She tapped a few more keys, possibly summoning assistance.
LIBRARIAN: ‘Oh. Oh dear...’
ME: ‘Is something wrong?’ I looked around furtively, awaiting the sound of a Luger being cocked.
LIBRARIAN: ‘You have outstanding fines,’ she said loudly enough for the whole room to hear.
ME: ‘Oh, really? I’m sorry, I didn’t know...’
The librarian looked at me over the top of her glasses. I did know, of course. And she knew that I knew too, about my guilty late return one evening, popped through the library door, hoping they wouldn’t notice. Oh, yeah – she knew...
LIBRARIAN: ‘Do you want to know how much it is?’
ME: (No I didn’t) ‘Sure, yes please.’
The librarian tapped a few more keys and then turned slowly to me.
LIBRARIAN: ‘It’s 76 pence!’
ME: ‘Dear God, really?’
LIBRARIAN: ‘I’m afraid so. Will you be clearing this outstanding amount today?’
I patted my pockets theatrically.
ME: ‘Well, I don’t have anything on me just now...’
The librarian said nothing but idly tapped my card on the side of the computer then typed in a few notes, probably along the lines of ‘subject refused to pay outstanding fine’.
I said nothing and awaited her decision about whether my attempt at deception was going to deny me use of library facilities forthwith along with other useful things, like breathing.
ME: ‘I, I can pop it in tomorrow, if that helps’, I stammered.
The librarian looked at me as if I was something stuck to her shoe, clearly believing me capable of not only not returning to pay my 76 pence but to up sticks in the night, change my name and appearance and disappear to the forests of Borneo.
LIBRARIAN: ‘I can let you have computer number 5’, she said, indicating the one right next to her desk, presumably so she could keep an eye on my surfing behaviour.
But I was too traumatised to argue and gratefully accepted the little piece of paper with the logon details.
A little later on I wanted to find a particular article; more precisely it was a journal article. The library catalogue was of no help as it insisted that it was only available in a town some 80 miles away. With some trepidation I returned to the librarian’s desk and explained my need.
The librarian didn’t answer but typed onto her computer.
LIBRARIAN: ‘There’s only one copy and it’s in Youngstown.’
ME: ‘Yes, I know. That’s what I want help with, you see?’
LIBRARIAN: ‘You want a copy?’ she asked with some surprise.
ME: ‘Well, yes...’
LIBRARIAN: ‘You’ll have to ask for an inter-library loan. There is a charge for it and it will take about two weeks to arrive. They won’t get the request until Monday now, of course as they are closed for 5 days a week and’ she looked at me with some satisfaction, ‘it needs to be back here two days later as it’s already been requested by someone else. Do you still want it?’
ME: ‘Er, yes I do please.’
LIBRARIAN: ‘That will be £2 then.’
ME: ‘But I don’t actually have any money on me, sorry.’
The librarian looked at me sadly obviously concerned about the amount of debt I was racking up here, but nevertheless added £2 to my tally.
LIBRARIAN: ‘So you need to email the library here and make the request,’ she said.
ME: ‘Really, but I’m right here now. Can’t you just send it off?’
LIBRARIAN: ‘No, its library policy, I’m afraid.’
I sighed, borrowed another computer, allowed her to tell the assembled library users that I now had £2.76 outstanding, got my logon slip, opened up my email, sent the email, shut it down again and went back to the desk.
ME: ‘I’ve sent you the email request. Can you send it now?’
The librarian looked at me.
LIBRARIAN: ‘But we are closing in twenty minutes for lunch.’
ME: ‘But you’ve only been open for two hours!’
LIBRARIAN: ‘Our opening times are clearly displayed on the door.’
ME: ‘OK, can you send it after lunch, then?’
LIBRARIAN: ‘The system will be down for the rest of the day after lunch...’
I gave up, went home, found the article online (not without jumping through some academic computerised hoops) and was finally able to read it.
As I digitally leafed through the article I found myself wishing, really wishing, that we had more orangutans in our public libraries.