Mar 102008
 

As promised, here is the essay I wrote on the Toronto Public Library way back in 1997. I’ve been informed that nothing has changed, except that the catalogue is now driving everyone nuts.

The future looks bleak for the Toronto Public Library (TPL). Its budget has been downsized, users continue to pour in, while it struggles to retain old-fashioned service and a good stock of books.

Keeping track of those books is a computer’s job. Several years ago, books got their own Social Insurance Numbers, so to speak, because a computer understands numbers better than words. Publishers made it easier for computers everywhere by imprinting their books with UPC codes. But the TPL preferred a different way. It printed its own UPC labels to stick on its books, thus saving money and covering up author names.

We worry about humans becoming just another number; well, now library books are just another number. This system works well for paperbacks, if not for the paperback patron. As one librarian explained to me, paperbacks don’t last long — three loans and they’re dead. Thus coding the excessive information of author name and title into the TPL’s own paperbacks’ UPC codes is expensive; of course, using publishers codes is too logical. And so it codes all paperbacks as “ADULT FICTION.” Now, if I misplace a book, the librarian tells me simply that I have overdue fines. Pressed, she says that I have one book still out. Asked for specifics, she recites “ADULT FICTION.”

But given the harsh times, the TPL needed to save smarter, particularly since more and more Torontonians insisted on traipsing into new or newly renovated libraries just to take books out.

More and more, librarians were stamping due dates on thin white strips stuck on hundreds and perhaps thousands of book covers over and over and over again. They stuck on white strip over white strip till author names and book titles were properly obscured. With all that stamping and sticking, they injured themselves and cost the TPL extra money. Suddenly it had an idea. It was a win-win solution — for itself. No more repetitive strain injuries, and lots more money flowing in from regular paperback patrons like me.

It bought gizmos that spit out books’ due dates on thermally printed paper. Now the librarian doesn’t stamp due dates on books; instead the computer prints out a list of the three “ADULT FICTION” paperbacks that I’ve just borrowed with their UPC codes and due dates. The librarian even provides a handy magnet to put that first slip of paper on the fridge among all the cartoon clippings.

Soon slips of paper littered my fridge and my tabletops, although some had wafted away into hidden corners, lost forever. I puzzled over how to match up the remaining ones with the right books. I tried rewiring my brain to think of Agatha Christie as “39100 . . . ,” but I just couldn’t do it. I tried writing down all the book titles on a chalk board with their due dates, but forgot to look at the board, and then they were overdue. I tried using the papers as bookmarks, but that only solved the problem for the first book I read — I couldn’t figure out which “bookmark” belonged to the other books.

My overdue fines were piling up. At this rate, I will be buying a new Star Trek collection, I thought. And then I realized: A confused populace of paperback readers means a windfall of overdue fines. The TPL’s financial woes were over.

I decided to be smarter. Now I write down the names of all the books I borrow in my DayTimer on the day before they are due. So far I have reduced my donations to its coffers. But I look forward to the day when the TPL, or perhaps the new amalgamated version, once again accords paperbacks respect and puts their real names beside their due dates on those teensy papers.

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