Happy Canada Day

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Forty years, four months, and fourteen days ago, I landed at Toronto International Airport with my mother, my baby brother, and my teddy bear. My father was waiting to greet us, as he had been in the country for one month already, starting work, finding a place to live.

Thirty-five years, four months, and fourteen days ago, I marked the day that I had lived in Canada for as many years as I had lived in India. By that time, my parents had taken me, my brother, and my new sister on a Eastern Canada road trip, to the cottage, and west, almost to the Manitoba border. I had seen the strange round-topped mini-mountains of western Ontario and the dramatic thrusting granite rocks along the highway. I had seen a venus flytrap consume an errant fly in a quiet Ontario marsh. I had seen Quebec City and been enchanted by its age. I had watched the reversing falls of St. John’s and wondered how they did that, but missed seeing Fredericton (something I got to make up for years later). I had visited PEI, Canada’s pretty petite province, for the first of several times. And I had seen Nova Scotia and explored the wilds of Cape Breton Island.

That year, my fifth in Canada, my class had a substitute teacher unlike any teacher before her. She quieted us down, drew the black-out curtains across the windows nearest the blackboard, pulled down the flapping old map of Canada, and pointed out to us where we were on it. Then she traced her finger along a diagonal line up and to the left until she reached Dawson City. She told us how she had panned for gold up there, where rough men had carved out mines and a town years ago. Then she showed us her little, glittering vial of gold dust. We were enthralled, and I wanted to go.

Twelve years and one month ago, I fulfilled that dream. With the drive up that rock-spitting road between pristine white mountains to the snakes of gravel that bordered the last part of the highway to Dawson City, I saw my first Canadian territory. By that time, I had driven or flown to every province but Newfoundland and Saskatchewan, the wet and the flat. This country is my land, though I may be an immigrant; her Spirit spoke to me on that trip to the Yukon. The Spirit of the North whispered to me the beauty of Canada, both stark and pretty, her vastness that cannot be tamed and humbles us, and her potential to awe our collective spirits and show others a different, bloodless way to live. I am Canadian because my parents brought me here, but I chose to stay and became one. I cannot imagine a better place to live, and I’m glad we came.

Happy Canada Day to you all!


Authorship Down

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When you first go to writing school, that is, creative writing courses or workshops, they don’t tell you about the marketing side of the business. They don’t tell you that writing is only the beginning, that after the fun stuff comes the business stuff, that if you want to sell your books or stories or articles, you gotta flog flog flog that critter. So I was contemplating this sad sad truth the other day when out popped a poem:

Authorship Down

To be an author today
is to  join
the Chapters community
another community
and don’t forget

To be an author today
is to have
a website
a blog
a presence on the web
that is never ending

To be an author today
is to
your work
your web.

To be an author yesterday
was to

©2008 Shireen Anne Jeejeebhoy


The Toronto Public Library Rewires Human Brains

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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.


The Toronto Public Library Challenges Its Users

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I was looking through my old, very old, files to see if there’s anything worthwhile to republish on my website, and I came across a rant I wrote on the Toronto Public Library. I don’t remember writing on the TPL — I only remember writing on cocoa butter, to be honest — and I barely remember this issue I had with our beloved library. But it was interesting.

Before two drivers decided to alter my life, I was a regular at the local library. I tried to restrict my borrowings because (1) people were always complaining I was reading too much, (2) if I borrowed too often in one week I’d lose track of which book was due when, and (3) most importantly, if I read at my preferred rate I’d run out of books to borrow from my local library as, ahem, I had a habit of doing. I wasn’t too keen on going farther afield because farther afield was getting farther and farther. And I didn’t reread books pre-injury because as soon as I read the first paragraph, the entire book would come back into my head as if I’d just read it at Warp speed. So why bother?

Anyway, as I was saying, I found my rant on the TPL and decided to check out its website to see if anything had changed. I clicked on the big arrow at the top of its main page pointing to website redesign. That might be interesting, I thought, and besides it caught my eye amongst all that text. And so it was. Apparently, library users are being challenged by the brand-new catalogue system. (Click on screen captures below to see in full, readable size.) I shrugged, not caring too much about what those challenges could be and surfed off to the new catalogue. If it’s new, it must be snazzy, right? And easier to use than a decade ago, right? Um.

TPL News Page

The catalogue was easy to use. Just type in the author’s name. Hmmm…let’s try Agatha Christie first. I clicked Enter, and presto, it came up with maybe half-a-dozen search results for one library. That was quick. But pretty paltry if you ask me, and I noticed the one I randomly clicked on was on hold. A paperback on hold? That’s pretty bad.

I backed up to the search page and tried Rohinton Mistry. Ahhh, now I know what those challenges are. Absolutely hysterical if one was like me and just surfing for the heck of it. But if I was really looking for Mistry’s book, I’d be tearing my hair out in frustration. I did try twice, thinking I must have done my usual mini-not-noticing-what-I-was-doing thing and clicked on the wrong item and it not sinking in right away that any search result with Mistry in it should not pull up the page I was sent to. Nope, I had clicked on the one I thought I had, but the TPL’s computer is clearly one confused puppy. The kicker though, the really, truly weird part about this search result, the one that has me shaking my head in wow-isn’t-the-universe-strange, is that it brought up an anthology that was edited by my editor. And if it’s not him, it’s a guy with the same name and birth year!

TPL Search Result

And so it seems that some things don’t change in almost a decade of being out of touch with library doings. The TPL continues to use computer systems and methods that are as challenging as ever to the poor user (and they also can no longer spell, having misspelled the title of Mistry’s book). It’s a good thing I hadn’t tried to enter its portal only eight years post-head-injury. Maybe I’ll wait awhile longer, maybe a few years longer, before I attempt to pit my brain against its computer. Oh, and about that article I wrote in the 1990s, I’ll publish it in my next post, just for humour’s sake.