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March 2009

Marvelous engineering.

It was always my secret dream to marry an engineer.

You'll notice I've always been a pragmatic girl; I recognized early on I wasn't going to have the brains to BE an engineer, so I tweaked my dream accordingly. It didn't come true, but the fact remains I've always been a big fan of engineers. My brother is an engineer. I used to be an engineering librarian, and students training to be engineers remain the nicest group of students and people I've ever worked for. (In fact, when I left the engineering library for the public library, the members of the public were so shockingly mean, when compared to engineering students, that I cried after work the whole first month.)

Narrows So the other day when I was browsing the library stacks and found the book Marvels of Engineering, I thought, hey, I miss engineering. So I brought it home and spent a very enjoyable Saturday evening perusing it. I know. I'm the biggest nerd ever. But did you know that "in 1824, Joseph Aspdin concocted 'Portland cement' by burning a mixture of clay and lime. He had rediscovered the art of making cement, which was known to the Romans"? I thought not. It covers a ton of subjects: waterways, bridges, railroads, tunnels, skyscrapers, sports arenas, pyramids, and gothic cathedrals (among many others).

It's a great book, worth it for the pictures alone, but also for the explanatory text. It is, in short, the type of book you should buy if you have kids, and just leave it laying around for them to discover and look at. I may have missed the boat on marrying an engineer. But maybe if we have kids I can keep the dream alive by hoping they'll become engineers?

Libraries as places.

Last week I went to a newly remodeled library in the city next to me. It made me very unhappy.

I know it wasn't designed to do that. I know lots of other people are happy with it and think it's beautiful. I know I should be less of a curmudgeon about library systems where all the money and attention is lavished on buildings (and only the new buildings, mind; basic maintenance didn't seem to be nearly as interesting to management) rather than on books or on staff. I grant you everything. But that doesn't change the fact that if I never go back to this library (except when I take my brother back with me to get his opinion*), that will be fine with me. And that's a terrible way to feel about any library.

I guess it wasn't a terrible library. I didn't mind the color scheme, or some of the exposed building elements, or anything like that, and it did seem to have a lot of nice windows. But immediately upon walking in you just find yourself in this kind of useless open space, with slots in the wall for a book return to your right and self check-out machines to the right. The reference desk was front and center, the next thing you hit as you walk in, and that was nice. I like it when you can easily find some kind of service desk.

Only when I got beyond the front part of the library and into the books did I start to feel out of place. (And I'm talking here about the adult book section; I don't have kids, and although they're nice, I've never been all that interested in kids, so I didn't really even look over the childrens' section.) The main stacks of fiction and nonfiction were fine, but the shelf with staff picks was all the way in a back out-of-the-way corner, which seemed like a sad place to put the books you wanted to showcase. The only sadder, darker corner, as a matter of fact, was the one on the other side of the stacks were the new nonfiction and fiction books were housed, in a lonely alcove that felt like where lightness of spirit goes to die.

I found some books anyway, even though the circumstances were not encouraging, and then went to check them out at a lousy little desk that, when I asked, "Is this the check-out desk?" I was told, "It can be...although we encourage self-check."

Well, at the risk of sounding old, and cranky, and profane (guilty, guilty, guilty), fuck that. I hate self-check. I hate it in grocery stores** and I hate it in libraries. And I hate the fact that it's being encouraged, because I know damn well that means the day is coming when it will not only be encouraged, it will be the only option.

I'll admit it. When I was a librarian I never really felt like a librarian; the only thing I've ever really been comfortable calling myself, in a professional sort of capacity, is a reader*** (although it doesn't pay very well). So I'm sure there's some sort of optimistic librarian-ish point I'm missing, but at the end of the day, this is what I think. Libraries should be about BOOKS, and they should be about PEOPLE. When I step into a library that is doing its damndest to hide both, then I'm going to step right back out. I'm probably the only person left on earth who feels that way. So be it.

*My brother and his wife and I went this past weekend. Although my sister-in-law liked some of the design elements and the colors, my brother was appalled at the misuse of space. He hated it more than I did. In fact, I asked him, "Are you acting shocked because you think that's the reaction I want?" And he said, "No, I could care less what you think. Except, if you DID like this mess, that would be the end of our siblinghood."

**If I wanted to do all the work of running groceries over a scanner, I'd get a job doing that. I'm tired after just putting the stuff in my cart. Plus, the other day I was in the grocery store and the guy in front of me had his credit card rejected. The checker (a teen boy) called for help but none came, and the customer said, "Wait, I've got cash." While I was checking out, then, the checker asked an older checker walking by, "What does it mean when I get a [blank] code on a credit card?" She replied, "Well, that's a serious code--could be a stolen card. You're supposed to take the card." My checker kind of laughed and shrugged his shoulders and said to the bagger, "Huh, that's probably why he got his cash out so fast." Come on. That's hilarious. I would miss stories like that.

***I was also proud to be called a barista (I could make good coffee drinks, and I worked quickly) although that didn't pay very well either.