Posts Tagged ‘Susan Olding’

I asked a few weeks ago who would elegize the library card catalogue.  Nicholson Baker did, in an essay that was the beginning of his research for Double Fold, but after struggling to finish Double Fold, I can’t face it yet.

Thankfully, I found Susan Olding’s essay “Library Haunting” in the most recent issue of The New Quarterly, with which I curled up while my youngest refused to nap.  I would have had less patience with his antics if I hadn’t been tuning him out to the rhythm of Olding’s prose. 

Here she is on card catalogues:

The card catalogues are mostly gone now.  A few places keep them for their aesthetic value; in one Los Angeles library, a collection of typed and handwritten cards lines a glass-walled elevator, and Yale University still maintains its room of wooden cabinets.  Some librarians argue for the artifact; important information is lost, they claim, when those old cards are thrown away.  But most libraries have moved to online cataloguing systems, and before we get to the stacks, we have to shoulder past banks of computers.  People huddle at the screens, their faces bluish in the LED lights.  In my city’s main branch, circulation and returns are also fully automated.  I can enter and leave this library with less human contact than at a supermarket–which ought to be a good thing, since I go there to be alone with the books.  Why, then, do I go less often than I once did, to browse the shelves?  Why, with every change in the library’s floor plan to accommodate new equipment do I feel a little less welcome? 

I ought to get over myself, because for millennia, the capacity to change and adapt to new technologies has helped to keep libraries vital. 

I love that last sentence, its commonsensical, no-nonsense layering over her nostalgia.

Here is the description of the elevator catalogue concept from the LA Public Library website

David Bunn envisioned two passenger elevators in the Tom Bradley Wing as more than a way to get from one floor to another. The artist transformed them into “observation pods” traveling between subject divisions by using some of the Library’s seven million catalog cards rendered obsolete by the new state-of-the-art automation system. With these cards Bunn papered the inside of the elevator cabs and lined the shafts which are visible through a viewing window in the cabs. The elevators also display a digital readout of the Dewey Decimal numbers for each floor the elevator passes. “The elevators and the card catalog together form a kind of ‘core sample’ of the library,” explained Bunn. “As the catalog dutifully classifies and finds a place for every book, so the elevators travel deep through the center of the building, encompassing and accessing all the building’s holdings.”

Olding’s essay is full of wonderful insights about the place of the library in our lives.  My favourite is her linguistic riff on the etymology of the word library:

One librarian objected when, at age ten or eleven, I tried to withdraw adult books, but my mother must have spoken with her, for on my next visit no one challenged my choices.  I felt a freedom there, a freedom that makes perfect sense if you recall that while our “library” derives from the Latin “liber”, meaning the inner bark of a tree–an early form of paper–the primary meaning of the word is “free, independent, unrestrained.”  Books and liberty are born of the same parent.

What is so lovely about this passage is how it also speaks to other essays in the issue, particularly Theresa Kishkan’s essay “Arbutus menziesii” about the Arbutus tree, its distinctive peeling bark, peeling off clothes for moments of intimacy on canvas, on sand, on paper. 

image credit

And Kerry Clare’s essay about the frustrations of new motherhood and her desperate daydreamed bids for freedom.  Great reading, even with the soundtrack of a 2-year-old boy asking to be set free from his crib.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: