Essay

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.

Personal

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.

Lifeliner

A Book Signing Précis

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The food was yummy! I was very good while at Mela Café, noshing on only two breaded-eggplant mini-baguette sandwiches, and of course, having a cappuccino; but once home with the few left-over sandwiches in hand, I quickly plunked myself down in front of the Rick Mercer Report and polished off Roberto’s addictive creations, while trying not to choke when watching Mercer’s antics. Felt like a total pig, but they were such a heavenly mix of crunchy breaded eggplant, soft bread, mild mozzarella, sweet tomato, and the fresh snap of basil that I couldn’t resist. Roberto, the wonderfully kind and talented chef/owner of Mela, also made pizza with sweet, thin slices of zucchini for the book signing attendees.

We got there early, giving ourselves plenty of time to get there. thinking the inevitable Shireen-book-signing snow storm would slow traffic down, but surprisingly it didn’t. Two men, who had found my event information on Facebook I believe, showed up first. Very chatty, took a couple of bookmarks, and promised to buy my book at the World’s Biggest Bookstore. Here’s to hoping they will. As one man who came into the café to buy a cup of tea said, after all the time it took me to get Lifeliner finished, there should be glasses of champagne raised all around. Alas, no sale with him either, but a bookmark he did take. A friend of my parents showed up in support, which really touched me, and she helped me not to notice the clock so much as she, my parents, and I talked about errant radioactive mice and the obesity gene.

Two ladies who came in later were very interested, after my mother nudged me to be more bold and approach them, and bought a copy. Alright! You see, they too had come in for Roberto’s flavourful coffee, not for the book signing. But they left with stomachs happy and book in hand. I finished the late afternoon event enthusiastically chatting with Carmelina, a Tri Delta sister who came out to support me. In true Tri Delta fashion, we only stopped gabbing after we exited the warm café in to the chilly night and our shivering finally got us to say good night and part ways. That was a good end to the event.

Personal

Dr. Homi Feroze Jeejeebhoy, 5 July 1930 to 17 February 2008

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I lost my Uncle Homi yesterday. “How do you mean you lost me?” I can hear him asking, as he quickly picks up on the many meanings of that statement. He was always an admirer of the more formal English of India rather than the more casual and sloppy English of Canada and the US and would not be too impressed with that first sentence of mine. So I shall amend.

Yesterday, after several months of believing that his end was near and a month after he suffered his first stroke and was admitted to a Québec hospital and then transferred to the more competent Ottawa General, my Uncle Homi, more precisely my father’s older cousin on his father’s side, died.

A big man, like his father and his father’s father, my Uncle Homi had told me back in early January that at his age he feared catching pneumonia the most. Of all the ways to die, that scared him because he had seen his patients suffer terribly from that infection. I am amazed at how many people treat pneumonia as if it was the common cold — trundling out and about, shedding bacteria or virii willy nilly, putting more stress on their labouring lungs — rather than the deadly respiratory infection that it can be. Well, unfortunately his fears were realised, but he was stronger than the invading pathogens, and he won that battle. I wonder though if he was like my Grandma, who back in 1981 wasn’t too thrilled to discover that she had survived her quadruple operation when she awoke and who then went on to die of unknown causes (and presumably to join my Grandpa in the afterlife). Uncle Homi… (“Why do you still call me Uncle Homi? I told you to call me Homi!” I hear him averring.) As I was saying, Uncle Homi didn’t die mysteriously like she did, but like Grandma (and in a way, like Judy Taylor at the very end of her life) he was ready to pass on and was none too pleased to discover he was still here on earth.

Actually, he didn’t believe he would “pass on.” Let’s just say he didn’t believe “in all that nonsense.” He was eight when he told his mother and father that he would not wear the sudreh and kusti. Apparently, they didn’t say anything because they just didn’t. He stopped wearing the Zoroastrian ritual garments — except when it was expedient for him to do so, as for instance, when the Muslims and Hindus were warring in India in the 1940s or ’50s and he didn’t want to be caught in the middle and so found it useful to put on the visible protection of Zoroastrian ritual garments — because he literally couldn’t understand the prayers. He didn’t speak Gujrati, and I assume his mother, who did, taught him the prayers in that language. He found it all a bunch of mumbo jumbo anyway.

He told me some time ago that he had made funeral arrangements with a local funeral home in Ottawa both for himself and his wife Addi. He didn’t want a lot of fuss or any of that nonsense, referring to the Zoroastrian prayers. Like most religions, Zoroastrianism has funeral rituals. They are designed to assist the soul in its journey to heaven, and I think, to help the living accept the fact of the death. Priests come to conduct the prayers for three days (Zoroastrian priests are volunteers), at the end of which time the body is buried. It’s important for the body to be buried as Zoroastrians believe in the resurrection of the body. That’s why traditionally, vultures pick the bones clean on the Tower of Silence in Bombay. God then uses the bones to knit together the body in the resurrection. Of course, that was a surefire reason why Uncle Homi told the funeral home that he and Addi were to be cremated. His soul didn’t need assisting — was there even a soul? Nope, none of this resurrection nonsense for him, no matter what his parents had taught him. Rebellious to the end, he further instructed no funeral, no memorial, not even an obit. He was to pass into oblivion unobserved. Sigh. Stronger creatures than I am could not have budged him on this decision of his, no matter how much they would have argued for the needs of the living.

But having that same rebellious streak, in smaller measure, I am writing this remembrance to Uncle Homi (“Homi! Not Uncle Homi!” Yet he smiles broadly as he remonstrates me, again), writing out my feelings of loss, writing my way to coping with an earthly life without him. I may not have been able to say good-bye in the traditional, time-honoured way that tells the heart “he is gone,” but I can say good-bye in this way, in a way that lets me know with finality that he is gone, for at the end of this post is a gallery of his photos. I would not be posting these — I would not even have possession of his photos — if Homi was still alive. If he was still alive, I’d still be looking forward to receiving one of his autographed photos for my birthday or Christmas. But I’m not.

Homi was a passionate amateur photographer. He was first and foremost a physician, and being easily bored, he switched specialties and homes a few times, finally settling down to the community life of a well-loved GP in Ottawa. (Apocryphal but true: He had to take an IQ test for medical school. As he couldn’t believe anyone wanted this as a measure of his competence, he doodled along in his boredom until test time was up. His mark was so low, it was, as he told me, at the “level of a moron.” That was technically an IQ of 51-70 at that time. The “moron” relied on his excellent memory to always come first in medical school.) But he also loved photography. I saw his cameras today: Comtrax and Zeiss Ikon. Three. With very different lenses. And very heavy too, for they were of a well-constructed vintage I haven’t seen since I was a child. These three were his current cameras; I didn’t see his other ones.

A few years ago, he closed up his dark room, metaphorically speaking, and moved it onto the computer. Now being Homi, he held no truck for these new-fangled computers. He liked the original Corel Ventura just fine, the version that Corel produced after buying Ventura and its utilities from Xerox. I liked it too, but being the computer geek that I was before Y2K, I really, really liked buying a new computer built to my specs every couple of years or so. That meant, of course, new software. Not always, but sometimes. All that newness and challenge of learning kept me happy for awhile. But the very idea of upgrading horrified Homi. Win98 suited him just fine. Dial-up was good enough. And the old Corel Photo-Paint gave him the control of fixing his photographs bit by bit, or occasionally pixel by pixel. I used to work on graphics with Corel Photo-Paint at the pixel level in my old pre-injury days, and I know what concentrated and skilled work that is. Retirement a couple of years ago meant he could devote more hours to that sort of work…when he wasn’t writing his newest book, that is. He was writing about water. I wonder now what will happen to all his research… But I shall not mull on that, instead I present to you my favourite flowers of Homi’s and a farewell nod to his three beloveds in life.

Two Daisies Gerbera Sunflower Lilies Orchids Three Icelandic Poppy Three Autumn Leaves Babe Cottage Addi at School Yard