Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Why you can't find what you want at the library: PART 2

For those who have already read this post, please note:
As I said, returned and loaned books DO remain in the BRANCH they end up in;
However, books belonging to the MAIN library on 42nd St. ALWAYS GO BACK.

(above: Aug 11, 2010):

awe of a child
It's exciting to walk into a library, it gives me that thrill I felt as a child discovering reading. As a child I didn't know what was good, what was bad. I was on my own. It was always a risk, an adventure. That's the thrill I get at the Battery Park branch.

If I go to the main library branch downtown, I am confronted with walls upon walls of books, that's a good thing. But I have never heard of most of them, I am lost in the wilderness. 

LOST: Shira Golding flickr link "Harry Potter Library"

In the neat little Battery Park branch, I’m only confronted with a few walls. But I know that almost every book I pull out is going to be a good one. Things seem almost hand-picked for me already. My job is easy.

I can dash in there running half an hour late and know that in five minutes I will find two spectacular books that I have never heard of. On the phone to my friend who has been waiting that half hour: “I’m in the library. I’ll be there in ten minutes!”

the fabulous Joan and Jackie, 1950s
Rex Features link

Just last week I carelessly pulled a book from the shelf, to discover to my horror that it was Jacqueline Collins. Well I marched right away to the front desk. “Who is the head librarian here?” I demanded.

I was waved to the back. His desk in the middle of the children’s section (I presume to keep law and order there), sat a bookish young man. I told him my tale of woe. He smiled and shook his head sympathetically, “I know!”

Don't get me wrong. I say without irony, I do think the Collins sisters are fabulous, just as I write in the caption. That has nothing to do with her books. (Although perhaps I owe it to Ms. Collins to take a look- in fact I did, and will write a review soon)*

The librarian explained what happens in a library, that I did not know.

As a new library, they were filled with a certain collection of books. As a scholarly young man, the collection satisfied him.

He was- and is- very proud of his branch.

But collections are not static. Let’s say I check out a book by Cynthia Ozick from Battery Park. When I am finished, I find myself uptown and return it to some other branch, one that I do not like as well.


I have visions of library clerks sorting out which returned
book came from which branch, dutifully sending back the Battery Park books in a Battery Park Book Truck. But there is no Battery Park Book Truck. What happens in vegas STAYS in vegas.
NYPL bookmobile, early 1900s
The other branch now has a new Cynthia Ozick book, and Battery Park has none (well actually they still have one). Little by little, the books migrate.

Let’s say I go to some other branch that has an abysmal selection, so I am forced to request that they get good books for me from other branches. The good book comes in on a Truck all right- taken from the Battery Park branch—but it does not go BACK on the truck! It remains in the other branch, while Battery Park is now out of that title.
Here's what they looked like in 1954
Nomotta California Collection 


And it works the other way. Apparently the ladies from the nursing home down the street have discovered that the Battery Park branch does not have enough books on knitting. So they place them on hold. The books come in, and they do not go back. Thus Battery Park is now building its knitting collection.

Books that get ordered by a branch remain in that branch. In other words, over the years, each branch settles out to mirror the tastes of its own particular patrons. it’s quite out of the hands of the librarian.

Which explains why at my particular Brooklyn branch, a couple of books by Dickens and Jane Austen have managed to survive only by being labeled “Young Adult” and placed on the “School Assignments” shelf.

They are almost literally the only real literature that branch has. Unless you prefer romance, mystery, thriller, best sellers, chicklit etc.

The only exception are books from the Main location, which always go back there.
I believe the books from elsewhere are called “floaters.” And it gets more complicated than that. Some books get pulled by the librarians to be sent to “fill holes” in other branches.

As noted above, whereas returned and loaned books DO remain in the BRANCH they end up in, it works differently for books from the NYPL MAIN library on 42nd St: These books always go back.

I must double-check all these terms with my Battery Park librarian. Because yes I now have my own librarian. I took his recommendation and checked out Marisha Pessl, and he told me to tell him how I like it. And I did- I wrote a book-review in fact.

The moral of the story is—when you return a book, make sure you return it to the library you like the best!

Or if you’re feeling generous, return it to the branch you like the least, and let them rebuild themselves from the wealth of other branches!

*I finally read a Collins book, "Lucky," and found her to be a quite solid writer, but firmly high-end romance, but with a lot of emphasis on her plots and subplots having to do with business, crime etc.



Jim said...

Horrible thing for a scholar to say, but I can't remember the last time I was in a library on business..All the journals/reports are on line, and nobody I read writes books except the historians--Copyright holders are limiting access to books on line,but that's slowly changing-Some schools are even trying out textbooks on Kindle--imagine, no heavy textbooks to lug around
Bottom line is that libraries are turning into servers--The Beinecke library at Yale is an impressive edifice, but something of a dinosaur--It's all out there in the cloud

Eve Scherr said...

Yes they keep trimming library hours year by year, and sometimes I think the only reason they keep them open at all is to serve as the city's babysitting service when the jr hi/hi school kids get out before their parents come home.

The people who libraries are meant to serve- ie people who otherwise wouldn't get to read, are themselves the ones responsible for making branch libraries full of the lowest common denominator, as I relate in my post.

Us old-fashioned folks remember the thrilling childhood ritual of going to the library once a week, or waiting for the bookmobile to come around once a week (as I did!)---

We are the ones, I guess, most likely to simply prefer that feeling of being in the stacks surrounded by books, with the feeling of the unlimited possibility, and the feel and smell of the books as we take them down. Walking into a library still gives me that childhood thrill.

Hmm maybe I'll use all this in a new post. . .! Thanks, Jim!

Jim said...

The physical experience of books and the library is really an aesthetic one rather than an intellectual one--For me, it would be like standing in front of an Egyptian tomb painting or a cave painting somewhere in France, trying to reach back through the centuries and touch the mind of the guy who painted it--Can I ever get a sense of what he was thinking?
The down side of this, though, is that some people want to monopolize what these old things can tell us--they finally digitized the Dead Sea Scrolls, so that people beyond this little circle of scholars can get in on the questions--that's gotta be a good thing

Eve Scherr said...

I know what you mean, when I'm surrounded by all those books on all those shelves, I am reminded that each volume is a writer, and I am surrounded by writers, be they dead or alive.

It can be a little depressing too, though- all these books, and yet how many people have read them? How many people have written books! And whatever came of it? Did the author expect to just sit on a shelf?
Or what about the writer who was wildly famous at one time- and now no one might read him at all. Fallen into oblivion.
Seeing all those books can feel rather humbling.

I agree that the internet does make available things that before you had to get on an airplane to read. It's real democracy.

Jim said...

Hard to predict who's going to crash and burn and who's going to stay around--piece in the Times last month about William Golding-- people still read and know Lord of the Flies (my son read it in high school English class), which was his first novel, but nobody could name even one of the dozen or so novels he wrote later in life-- I don't write novels and have a much smaller audience composed of my fellow geeks, but you can't predict what's going to get attention and what isn't--Just throw it out there and see what happens

Jim said...

Yet another reason not to go to the library--just got a survey from journal I read inquiring about the virtue of "on-line-only" articles in addition to what's in print--saves lots of printing and mailing and creates more opportunities to publish, which is a good thing for us promotion-hungry profs...

Jim said...

The electronic cloud actually makes it easier to keep up to speed with what's new and exciting--If I read a review of an author I've never heard of and it sounds interesting, I can download it onto a Kindle in five minutes (Cost--$10)or order it one-click from Amazon (my particular nemesis), complete with a variety of other reviews of who liked it and who didn't--No special trip to the library or my favorite bookstore required--It costs, but the time saving is considerable

Faith said...

good radical idea to build collections.