Firestarting in the Library

One of my favorite things about libraries is the air-conditioning. The summer is the high-season for libraries. In St. Louis we get that special stew of humidity and heat that makes you wonder why humans would ever choose to settle down in a place like this. As a kid, I would get dropped off at the library in the summer a lot, and my mom would run errands while I soaked up the cold, the quiet, and books on art, craft, and science fiction.

I would never have been inspired by the art of Tony Roberts and others, as presented by the Terran Trade Authority, without those summers in the library. I love the library in a way that makes me wonder about its future, in a little way, every now and then.

Today I needed the library's most basic service: I wanted to rent a book, in its entirety and temporarily, for free. I could have bought the book on Amazon, but it's one of those tomes that I knew would cost upwards of $50, and I wasn't sure about it yet. As a man who has recently and voluntarily given up full-time employment, I wanted to date it for a little while before that kind of financial commitment, and not irritate my wife with another unauthorized package on the front porch.

The book is Cooper's "The Essentials of Interaction Design." I need to read it, I decided, because I'm teaching a course this fall about the same basic stuff, and although I've been doing it professionally for a while, I never really read the books or went to school. Shame on me.

Finding the book

When I walked into the Schlafly branch of the St. Louis Public Library today, my first stop was to check my citizenship. Turns out I did have a card, but I hadn't used it in a long time (genuine surprise raised by the lady behind the counter)- and that I owed a $2 fine. Because I wanted to know what my past self was up to, I asked if she could tell me what the books were. Teach Yourself Calculus and Voodoo Physics, she told meThat sounded plausible enough, so I paid my fines and went looking for the book.

The book wasn't there, but the catalog said it was at another branch down in South City, where I frequently get lost. The streets there have no right angles, just a tangle of asphalt populated by hipsters and criminals and families who are either winning or losing the battle, on any given day on any given block, on behalf of the civilized and lawful world. I did some quick math and decided that I needed to see it through to the end. I could have ordered it online then and there- but it was worth the drive and the time to explore.

When I got to the Carpenter Branch 20 minutes later, I found the book shelved in .005: Computer programmingprograms & data. Which is a completely different section from 600 – Technology and applied science.

I don't know anything about Melvil Dewey, or what the world of information was like to experience in 1876, when he copyrighted the Dewey Decimal System. My gut tells me that his top-down imposition of structure, category and division was a needed thing then, and that my (perhaps as flawed) bottom-up, connective preference would have led any meeting between us into an awkward and then unresolvable diagreement about abstractions.

Notes from section .005

I was facing the odd trove of material, section .005. I started doing what I expect most people do with shelves- hunting for what I'm looking for and alternately getting distracted by what I found.

James Gliek's The Information was there, less than a foot away from splashy spines on how to use Flash 5, Dreamweaver, and other now extinct things. There is apparently a very thick book on the Annoyances of Windows Vista; that totally exists. And how to do stuff with iPads; those were flourishing. 

I took two books off the shelf before I found the one I was looking for. One was "1001 Computer Words You Need to Know" which was endorsed on the cover as "Indispensable and Goofproof" and which I just wanted to check out for fun, and maybe ideas for the name of this blog. The other was the "The Atlas for New Librarianship" - a hardbound book that appealed by sticking out from the shelf 1", being understated in its spine, (dunno about the cover though) and having a summary of the book's ideas folded up into poster format in the back. I'm a sucker for atlases and posters.

Some glue had been applied to a strip of the poster to keep it attached to the book, but in a complex way that involved folding and an envelope. I remember saying to myself, and to the designer of this idiot-trap, quietly, "if you were less afraid of what would happen to this poster, I wouldn't be ripping it right now." Because I did. Just a little bit, and unintentionally. All at once I was angry at myself and at the person who decided to glue this thing in this way, because we both wanted the same thing, but had utterly failed to work it out.

Most everything about the poster and the ideas in the book resonated with me. Although it seemed more for the "literal" librarian, there's a lot of shared heritage and overlapping branches between the individuals who play in the spaces between information, knowledge, people and organizations, regardless of their professions. 

The ringing peace bowl for me was the book's notion that the job of the new librarian to facilitate the creation of knowledge, and that conversation is a powerful way to do that. Although the author puts a heavy semantic load into the word "facilitate" I felt akin to it. And then I had a painful doubt that any of what's in the book was becoming a reality, and I put it back, and found the book I was looking for and went to check out.

Talking to a librarian

Checking out, i asked the woman behind the counter a simple question: if I had some books to donate, what would i do?

My motivation was easy: section .005 was missing things, and had way too much dead stuff, like the book on Flash 5. If it were a garden it would benefit from some weeding and fresh plantings. And I have a couple things to give, some extras at home that are relevant but just collecting dust on the bookshelf, where my kid could put his toys and puzzles instead.

I was surprised when she explained to me that there was a cost to them processing a book, and that they didn't take donations. But I should talk to that lady over there. I had my prize, and the other fun one, but I had to know more about this. So I went over curious, and we started talking.

I think I asked her if they take donations, because I was checking out this book (pointing to my prize in hand) and that there were some others about the field that they might want to carry, and I'd be happy to give them.

She seemed open but explained why they don't do donations, and why she most likely wasn't interested. She was very polite and conversational, and I felt like we were of more or less similar minds but in different worlds. I asked her more about it.

She described her process for listening to the community, and how she curates- she was drawing something like a circle in the air between herself, the rest of the library, the world out there, and the terminal in front of her. Her members might ask about certain things, like legal advice, and she might order more legal books. But ultimately she might point people to legal or academic libraries if they needed to know more. It was a public library, she insisted, so she had to do this. I took it wasn't an easy job.

Couple things crashed through my head: Something is wrong here. What's the difference between academic, legal, public and other types of libraries? And more importantly, if I'm just a person who wants to check out a book, why should these demarcations be important? And even if access to knowledge isn't denied outright, a difficult experience can make it reality- such as a book that is technically available to me at another library, but does not appear in the catalog I'm using.

Next thing crashed in- a library isn't an abstract concept, it's a dot on the map that exists in the real world, in a community with sidewalks and a base of people who use it. This is not rocket science, but as someone who hadn't been to the library in a long time, it was a mild revelation, because I think I had made the library into something else in my head. In her role as a curator of this library and these shelves, this woman has a hard and important job. She needs to manage the demand signal of that community, and then act on it. 

She asked about the book, and what all this Interaction Design was about. I said you could think of it as a new craft. Over there in .005, there's a lot of books about the tools, I said. At some point on the way to being a master in the craft, you need to know how to think about those tools. This is one of those books.

That did it for her: based on that, she said, she wouldn't carry the book. 

Because shelf space is at a premium, i offered, sort of wondering where this would go. This struck a real chord with her, and she just kept pointing at the terminal while she described how much that was a problem. She never looked or gestured at the stacks.

I asked, how do you manage that, drawing my own circle in the air. It's pretty simple: she listens to members, and she orders books or decommissions them based on that. She knows her members. Makes perfect sense.

As an experiment and an example, we walked over to the checkout desk, where she said she could see how many times the very same book I was looking for had been checked out. The date stamps in the back weren't reliable, she said, because the libraryhad upgraded to self-checkout a few years ago and no longer relied on the system.

Cooper's book had been checked out 9 times since it was purchased in 2007. Still staring at the screen, she frowned. That's not a lot of people reading this book. Frankly, it didn't impress me much either, but i don't know the relevant benchmarks. My guess is that 50 Shades of Grey did that in a week.

I thought she might be thinking about decommissioning the book, and was worried I had singled out a poor performer in her world. Since I had already checked it out, I suggested that i didn't know what she was going to do with it, but i would give her 5 bucks for it.

"That's not exactly how it works," she said, shaking her head, and resting her palms on the counter, abandoning the keyboard. I'm convinced she genuinely entertained the offer, though.

And I think at that point i felt as though we were getting to a closing point. 

I realized everything about the book, and this crazy guy who was me standing in front of this woman, was increasingly unactionable. At no point was she impolite; i just felt it was time. I'll be back to bother her when I've sorted out how to fix the library.

I decided that instead of reading the until-now prized book this afternoon, I would write this. Because I love the library. In the library, all are welcome. The walls there are made of books, they have comfortable chairs, and it's air-conditioned. The idea of the library is still a good and needed thing; it just needs some tweaks. 

Currently caching ideas on this. So far I've got this: 

Made in a Library

The Atlas of New Librarianship

and more to come.