Sunday, January 13, 2019

Ancient libraries and their cruel methods

I work in what I like to call a near urban library. There are advantages and disadvantages to not working in an urban, downtown library. 

An advantage, for instance, is that someone peeing all over a section of our shelving is more of a special occasion than just a routine issue.

A disadvantage is our lack of history. Oh, we have a little history, like the pub that once preceded our library and sent ghost fumes of beer into the stacks in the seventies and eighties, but nothing to get really excited about.

This morning a library return came through us and it was not the kind of material we get to see very often. It was a book belonging to the Minneapolis Athenaeum, which in itself is a strange historical library artifact from the mid 1800s that now exists as a partner in the Minneapolis/Hennepin Library system. The book we got wasn't that old, but it was certainly far older than our library system. The first checkout stamp on it was from 1938, but the pocket that held the due date card was where the real fascination lay. It included all the library's rules and threats:

"Any person who shall mark, mutilate or otherwise injure this book, is liable by law to a heavy fine, or to a term of imprisonment, and in addition is liable to the Library for its full retail value"

I love that. A little underlining and bam, you get a couple weeks in prison, or a hundred dollar fine, and you still have to replace the book, which back then could run you, oh, maybe $2.50, which was a lot! It was still the depression.

Nowadays we have downtown libraries going as soft as possible. One near here is giving up late fees altogether. They don't want to scare anyone off from reading for fear there will be no one left. I have heard that the Seattle downtown library was designed with homeless people as a major constituency. And don't get me wrong, I'm all for it. I love a kind of casualness and humanity in our institutions. I'm delighted we're all circuses and carnivals in the library these days. It's a relief that our library materials have, through the changes in the market and in the ubiquity of media, come down from a status near to being holy relics all the way to one where they're, at best, faintly desirable under particular conditions, mainly if they're brand new.

But sometimes I see a family messily breaking out a picnic in the kids room, or some guy bodily seizing control of the copy machine for the rest of the day, or a couple of teens raging a pitched battle across the library, or a patron loudly conducting business on their cell phone, or a shelf is reported to smell of pee, and a faint feeling of yearning comes over me. Sometimes a book comes back and it has, yes, underlining, underlining!, and I get a little wistful for the olden days, brutal as they were.


  1. What an interesting post! Did you show other people the 1938 book? I think it should be in the local paper as well!

    I have been thinking about libraries a bit more than usual for two reasons: My son has expressed interest in being a librarian; what attracted him was his local library in Conway, Arkansas, and how much of a community center it is, with a stage and a whole comic book section and a wonderful tree.

    Also, I heard a cool radio piece about the renaissance going on in Moscow's libraries. Apparently they're hubs of all sorts of culture now where before they were getting increasingly stale.

    Our libraries here in Ventura County still have fines, but every time the librarian says, "Hey, you have a fine. Do you want to pay it now or wait?"

    1. I'm glad you liked it! Yes, the 1938 book was widely examined by the staff who were there, especially the rules I quoted. I am the local paper so... it's in it!

      Sure, librarian is a tougher gig to break into these days than it used to be, but if that's what he was attracted to today's libraries are a good fit for him as that community center quality he enjoyed is increasingly the rule.

      Secret cynic's insight: When they say "Do you want to pay it now or wait?" they're not being super nice really, you're just under the allowable fine limit and they don't want the bother of the tiny bit of extra work.

  2. Dang it! Well...maybe, let's say I have a $1.25 fine, I could, well, I could say, "I'd like to pay 95 cents of it today" to measure the person's mood or dedication to the job!

    1. You've opened up an interesting line of inquiry. They will be forced to accept your 95 cents. Pay it in small change including many pennies mixed with pocket lint. If they can appear to remain cheerful they have fully mastered their profession.


If you were wondering, yes, you should comment. Not only does it remind me that I must write in intelligible English because someone is actually reading what I write, but it is also a pleasure for me since I am interested in anything you have to say.

I respond to pretty much every comment. It's like a free personalized blog post!

One last detail: If you are commenting on a post more than two weeks old I have to go in and approve it. It's sort of a spam protection device. Also, rarely, a comment will go to spam on its own. Give either of those a day or two and your comment will show up on the blog.