Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Category: Library

Library lessons

Share

You get a sixth sense with some library customers. As I worked through the simple trouble-shooting steps, the woman beside me was becoming increasingly agitated. 

‘I have to scan these documents,’ she said.

‘Yes, we have to get you logged onto this PC first.’

‘Then I have send them.’ She shifted nervously, from foot to foot, her frame slight, her jaw tight.

‘Yes, we can do that too. Have you logged out of the other terminal?’

‘Oh, no, sorry.’

‘Right, let’s try the password again, shall we?’

We eventually got the woman logged onto the fifteen minute PC. At which point, I could have handed her over to my colleague. I was only meant to be on the library floor to cover tea relief. But my colleagues were busy and I’d taken longer to troubleshoot the problem than I’d have liked. I pulled up a chair and prepared to see the woman’s project through to the end. 

We placed the documents onto the flat-bed scanner and followed the simple step-by-step instructions. She had logged onto a fifteen minute terminal and the clock was ticking down. I asked how she wanted to save the documents. She chose to email them to herself. Though, from her nervous smile, I could tell wasn’t too confident about her ability to complete the task.

We logged onto Hotmail, attached the documents. ‘Write something in the subject line so you can find them,’ I suggested, imagining she simple, neutral words like: scanned documents, or library scanning. She typed the words: application compassionate grounds.

As I said, you get a sixth sense with some people.

We sat waiting for the email to arrive. By the time it hit the woman’s inbox, her fifteen minutes was almost up. We checked the attachment, deleted the file from the computer’s memory and logged out. 

‘Do you want to log you onto another terminal and send them now?’

She hesitated. ‘Maybe another day.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘It’s just well, I get anxious, you see.’

Yes, I saw, perhaps more than she realized. ‘They will be safe in your inbox until next time,’ I assured her. ‘You can do them whenever you are ready. We are always here to help.

‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘Thank you for understanding.’

*

At other times, you get the whole thing wrong. In this instance, I was serving a stooped, elderly woman wearing a yellow hand-knitted beanie. 

‘I can’t use your computers,’ she said. ‘Can you help me find a book?’

‘Yes, of course.’ I smiled benignly. Hers wasn’t an uncommon question, especially among the woman’s demographic many of whom missed the boat on the technology front and now find themselves needing help in certain circumstances. ‘What book are you after?’

‘I’d like something on Canadian totem poles.’

Right, I thought. That’s out of the box. I’d expected her to name a favorite author, or the latest family saga. 

‘I’m a lacemaker,’ she added. ‘My son and his family are living in Canada. I’d like to create a piece of lace based on the totem poles in their area.’

Right, I thought, technologically challenged and beanie wearing but no slouch in the arts and crafts department. I couldn’t make a piece of lace to save my life. But as it happened, if did know a little about Canadian totem poles. We used to have an amazing book about the artist Emily Carr. I typed in her name. Sadly, the book was no longer on our system. I widened my search, found some possibilities and and took her down to the relevant section. ‘If you don’t find anything come back to me,’ I said. ‘I can always do a Google search and print a picture out for you.’ 

‘Oh, I’ve already done a Google search,’ she said. ‘On my tablet. I didn’t find anything that took my fancy.’

Right, I thought, a culturally aware, lace-making, tablet-using old woman. I slunk back to the reference desk making a mental note not to make anymore foolish assumptions about stooped, senior citizens in hand-knitted beanies.

 

 

 

 

Share

Library lessons – or how to be a decent human being

Share

I am not a morning person. But Friday, I had to start work by eight o’clock. As I dressed in a fumble, main lined coffee, grabbed my make up bag and hair care products, and headed out into the half-light, I was surprised by an overwhelming I’m-living-in-Melbourne-and-lovin-it, sensation. It didn’t last. As soon as I saw the five lines of creeping of red tail lights on the freeway, I knew this would be no easy run. My foreboding was confirmed by the electronic sign:

Incident on the Bolte Bridge, expect delays. 

Unfortunately, this instance, Citylink, weren’t exaggerating. I arrived at work, tufty-haired, late and without my age-defying foundation in place. It didn’t help that I had to fit an extra home library delivery into the two hour set up time. Or that the cash reconciliation wasn’t straight forward. As I walked out onto the library floor at opening time, I saw one of our most everyday difficult customers pacing up and down outside the door.

‘She’s early,’ I said to my colleague.

‘My thoughts exactly.’

‘Let’s hope it isn’t a bad omen.’

The minute we logged the phones in, all three started ringing. It was story time, so there were lots of mum’s and crying babies. Added to which, every woman and her dog wanted to join the library. Not sure why, maybe it was announced on the radio?

<insert ABC News music>

We interrupt this bulletin to make and important announcement. That building in the High Street that you have walked past a thousand times, is a library. If you race down there today you will get a discount on your free membership.

Whatever the reasons, they didn’t stop coming. By mid-morning, my blood sugar levels were seriously low. Good Afternoon, I said to the woman standing at the desk. How can I help you? 

Silence. I realised my error. ‘Sorry it isn’t afternoon yet, it only feels like it.’

I went through the usual spiel about needing ID, with a current address to join the library. She passed me her drivers’ license. I handed her a piece of paper on which to write her email address and phone number and began typing details into the catalogue. She paused after jotting down her phone number, looking up at me.

‘Can I give you my husband’s email address?’

 ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘as long as he checks it.’

‘He does,’ every day. But I don’t use the computer.’

I froze. Though this wasn’t an uncommon admission, especially among the elderly or so socially disadvantaged. But this woman didn’t look old, or poor. Didn’t she realise the world has changed? I see this often among my home library clients. Women who never learned to use a CD player in the 1980’s are now old and infirm and beyond learning and we no longer have cassette tapes in the library. If you extrapolate this scenario out across all the other technologies that have emerged and how they have transformed the way society operates, this woman was setting herself up for social and emotional isolation in her old age. 

I didn’t say this, of course. My job is to meet specific information needs not to lecture people. I did however carry a waspish sense of sense of outrage over to my next enquiry. A significantly older woman with a list written in a spidery old lady hand. She wanted to know about a book called Dancing with Strangers. My colleague had punched the title into Google and come up with a number of possibilties. 

‘Do you know the author?’ I asked.

‘I think it might have been Glen Dinnen.’

I typed: Dinnen, Glen, into our catalogue. No result. I looked at the Google list again.

‘Do you remember what the book was about?’

‘It was about the early settlement of Australia and the first contact with the aborigines.’ 

‘Ah, I said. Clendinnen.’ But it had been a long morning, and I was due for morning tea and, as I read the book description out to her, I found myself thinking: if you’d learned to use a computer you could have worked this out for yourself. 

‘It’s for my book group,’ the old lady said. ‘I’m ninety two years of age. But I like to keep my mind active.’

Ouch, I thought. Retract earlier waspish sentiment. I found myself wondering whether I’d be discussing books and ideas in my ninety-third year. But that wasn’t the end of the lesson. Have you ever found that? When life sets out to teach you something, it is rarely gentle? As I worked through the woman’s book list, trying to ascertain how many copies of various titles we had in the collection, I started writing down, authors, titles and numbers for her.

‘Oh,’ she said, on seeing the list. Thank you… thank you so much.’ She stopped, swallowed, her voice wobbling with emotion. I kept my eyes trained on the computer screen. 

‘My husband, is a veteran.’ She said, when she found her voice again. ‘It’s hard looking after him. I come to the library every Friday, on the oldies bus. It is the highlight of my week.’

I swallowed, looking up her. At this point, she wasn’t the only one getting misty-eyed. 

‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.’

‘No.’ I shook my head. ‘Thank you, for making my job worthwhile.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Share

Library lessons – a true story

Share

It was ordinary Friday afternoon in the library service, mum’s and kids, retired couples, a full complement of the regular unfortunates, me busy reserving items, trouble shooting computer problems, helping people download eBooks, finding the latest travel guide. As I said, business as usual, until the lady with the green shopping bag sat down at my desk.

There was nothing distinct about the woman, on first impressions. She was lower middle-aged, had honey brown hair, wore gold hoop earrings. She could have been any one of the women that access our library service. Though, I noticed, as she sat down, that she was a little dishevelled, breathless. As if approaching the information desk had taken some effort.

‘I’ve got these books.’

I nodded, summoning a smile, wondering, if I was about to assess another pile of not-so-useful donations.

‘I’ve had to move,’ she paused, tears welling. ‘A number of times.’

A tear spilled onto her cheek. She dashed it away with the back of her hand. Another followed. And another. She raised a hand to her face. I’m thinking someone has died. It has to be a death, surely? By now her shoulders were also quivering. With a sinking heart, I realised, I was going to have to take the donations, even if they were useless.

I waited. Not knowing how to respond. I mean, this situation wasn’t covered in library training. It wouldn’t be professional to grasp her hand. Or go round the desk and give her a hug. Infact, it would probably freak the poor woman out. Eventually, she drew a shaky breath. Upending the bag, she tipped a pile of children’s books onto my desk.

‘They’re overdue.’ She said. ‘And the fine…I can’t pay.’

A fine? Not what I expected. I’ve had people lie about library fines, make excuses, slip the books back on the shelf, the occasional flare of anger, hissed threats. But this was grief, and heartfelt, and something about it unnerved me. I searched the woman’s face. Seeing worry lines. Sorrow in her tear-glazed eyes. And something else. What was it? ‘Do you have a library card?’

‘Yes, my daughters.’ She handed it over.

I opened up her daughter’s membership record. The fines weren’t small. But I’ve seen worse. I returned the books – Hairy Maclary, Dogger, John Brown, Rose and the midnight cat, Where the wild things are, The Gruffalo, and others – a catalogue of innocence. They were all accounted for. I smiled, going into official librarian mode. ‘Let’s start by updating your address.’

‘No.’ A flicker of fear. ‘I can’t tell you where I live.’

Fear? That was the other emotion. What was going on here? I studied the membership record, looking for inspiration, knowing I should be going through the spiel about getting books back on time being the woman’s responsibility, that having a correct address was part of our process, reminding her that we’d explained all this when she signed up as her daughter’s guarantor. Guarantor? I flicked into the family details tab. Hang on a sec, woman wasn’t the guarantor. ‘There’s a man’s name on your daughter’s record.’

‘Her father.’

‘He joined her?’

‘He came, that day. Made me use his name. But we don’t see him anymore.’

Right, the woman had moved a number of times, she was scared to give me her address, her husband made her use his name. I’m starting to get a prickles-down-the-spine feeling. ‘Technically,’ I said, choosing my next words with care, ‘you are not responsible for these charges.’

‘He’d say it was my fault. I had to keep track of them.’

‘Your name isn’t on the record. Or your address. You have no legal obligation.’

Pressing her lips together, she shook her head. ‘He won’t pay. Ever.’

‘He’ll get a notice, if you leave the charges on his card. Asking him to clear them. But…that won’t be good for you, is that what you’re saying?

‘Yes.’ She said. ‘He would pursue me.’

*

I’m not going to tell you how the interview ended. That is between me, God and the library system. But, no-one – man, woman, or child – should have to live with that kind of fear. By the time the woman left the library, she wasn’t the only one fighting back tears.

 

Share

The dark side of creativity

Share

You wake before six, though somewhere in your manufacturer's instructions is a note saying you are not to be roused before eight o'clock in the morning. You cycle along the rain dark glistening Tarmac of Sydney Road, feeling renegade and daring. Only to find a whole sub-set of society at large in the early hours of the morning – waiting for trams, sweeping streets, sleeping in doorways, or hurtling down the all but empty side lanes, their tail lights bouncing off the walls of the surrounding buildings.

At the library, you are greeted with the news that the fire alarm has gone off for no particular reason. Before you even open, workmen are resetting alarms, switchboards and air conditioning systems. The fire brigade calls to report a malfunction in their access card. You check emails, sign cash sheets, and unpack crates but you can't seem settle to anything.

On desk, you have three inter-library loan requests from elderly people who were trying to get their heads around the idea of national and global online book databases, the possibility that their particular request may be out of print, the notion of joining a neighbouring library service online, and the concept of an eBook being a viable alternative. Despite your best efforts, you fall under the mesmerising spell of a woman who has made it her mission to continue the practice of paper notices on community notice boards in the face of digital advancement. You field her questions, trying to explain the situation, though you know she isn't listening. You try to reassure a young girl who is fretting about an overdue notice. You wonder at the depth of her anxiety. You explain the library's policies to her brave, blind, dignified father. You realise some young people are forced to grow up before their time.

At lunch time, one of your workmates lays a slab of chocolate on the table. 'It has been a long morning,' she says. 'We deserve this.' You think probably you do deserve it but…Thursday is a protein only day. You stand as if on the brink of a precipice. The slope below looks mighty slippery. But you didn't lose fourteen kilos by being a sissy. You walk away before you can start cramming hunks of chocolate in your mouth.

On your lunch break you realise you are tired – bone deep, dead dog, thirsty creek tried. And it has nothing to do with your six o'clock start. Or your busy desk shift. You think, perhaps, it's because you've put your manuscript in the post. After the flushed, new born, skin prickling elation of yesterday, adrenaline is leaking out of you like a sieve. You drink multiple cups of coffee. Eat bucket loads of protein. Ensure you are properly hydrated.

It doesn't help

Riding home through the evening streets, you feel rhino heavy as Melbourne tram. As freshly slaughtered as a carcass. You think perhaps you should hold onto your day job at the library. That you were a fool to ever start writing. You wonder whether it is too late to take up knitting. Or felting. Whether all your writing friends are secretly laughing. You realise this is the dark side of being creative.

 

Share

Ten things I learned in the library service

Share

1) People don't read signs. Our reservation shelves are right near the reference desk. If I had a dollar for every time I've had to point them out I'd be a rich woman.

2) Recently returned items are always the hardest to find. Personally, I believe it is the spirit of the books in rebellion. All that freedom. All that silent communication. Now they are being put back on the shelf. Call me fanciful but I would hide too.

3) If you want good customer service you need to be a nice customer. I had one swearing and abusive borrower who used to ring up in an effort to get extra Home Library Service deliveries. I never complied. Yet, for a grateful quavery voiced old lady, I've been known to bend over backwards.

4) If you want to get out of paying a lost book fine don't say you lost the book while you were on holiday in Paris. I've never been to Paris I'm, therefore, unlikely to wave your charges on compassionate grounds.

5) It is never appropriate to discuss your ear wax with strangers (or possibly even your best friend). One elderly gentleman on realising I wore hearing aids decided I that I would sympathise with his ear wax problems, given in weekly installments. I took to hiding in the stacks when he was around.

6) You are never too old to let your tummy muscles go. One old woman in her eighty sixth year came in for a book on stomach crunches. 'I've started getting a pot belly,' she confided in a whisper. I thought, if she can do crunches, then maybe I should be working on my abs too.

7) Follow your convictions to the end. An elderly Christian Science borrower moved interstate so that she could be in a nursing home that complied with a Christian Science medical practices. I may not share her convictions but I found her faithfulness inspiring.

8) Live life in a blaze of colour. One of our borrowers was a lifelong polio sufferer used to ride to the library on an electric scooter. After a nasty accident, she became housebound. One day, I had to deliver her books. When I stepped over the threshold of her council subsidised home I could only gasp. 'Oh what a beautiful room.' It wasn't beautiful in a 'Vogue Living' sense. She'd packed that room with all manner of gaudy, glittery and garish objects. The effect was stunning, like walking into a fairy grotto. It woke the inner child in me.

9) Some parents have too much time on their hands. Do I need to say anymore?

10) Some people have difficult lives. Every time I see people talking to their phantom selves, or cleaning the library tables with their socks, or putting a cardigan over their head so that the enemy can't read their emails, I'm reminded, some people have difficult lives.

I'm glad the public library service is there for them.

 

Share

The battle for the eBook: why publishers need libraries

Share

Imagine this scenario:

A busy public library service. Smiling librarian. A middle aged woman woman holding a swag of newspaper clippings. She approaches the information desk: I would like to reserve some books please.'

'Yes, certainly. What shall we start with?'

The woman purses her lips, flicking through her wad of clippings. 'Tim Winton's Eyrie, please?'

The librarian types 'winton' and 'eyrie' into the system. Waits. Scans the screen. 'There are a hundred and thirty five reservations on that title.'

Yes, I thought it would be popular.'

'We've got twenty eight copies. So, it's not as bleak as it sounds.'

What about the eBook? I've just bought an iPad.'

The librarian pauses. Her smile falters. 'We have an eBook collection. But, unfortunately, we aren't allowed to purchase Winton's eBooks for our collection.

Why ever not? He's an Australian author.'

'Yes, but his publisher won't cooperate with libraries.'

Oh, that's a shame. Well put me down on the list please.'

The librarian completes the reservation. The woman makes her next request. She has four or five, on any given week. Sometimes, she comes in with her book club list. After making reservations, she browses the shelves, choosing from an eclectic mix of literary fiction and popular best sellers. She is the fiction writer's bread and butter. The educated, middle aged female reader. She is poised, ready to take on the new eBook frontier but as the librarian correctly pointed out, some publishers will not give libraries access to their eBooks titles – despite their willingness to pay, protect the author's digital rights, and loan the eBooks out to one member at a time.

This is not a new battle. It's as old as public lending. Yet in the rapidly shifting digital environment publishers are floundering and, for some reason, many have a bee in their bonnets about libraries. This is not critical to authors at the moment. As with cassettes, CDs and now downloadable audio books, libraries will continue to buy in a range of formats. But in the foreseeable future authors will begin to suffer. Indeed, even now, I know some authors who have been published exclusively in a digital format. Without their publisher's permission libraries cannot include their eBooks in their collections.

Maybe that's fair? I hear some of you say. Authors deserve to get paid for their work. If people can borrow books, they won't buy them.

That's true to a point. But I'm here to tell you a different side of the story. As a librarian and an author who has publication aspirations, I'm going to tell you why I would want my eBook available in every public library collection in Australia.

  • Libraries buy books. Take the twenty eight copies of Eyrie in the middle aged woman's library service, add in other popular, and not so popular, titles, multiply this by every public library service in Australia and you are talking about some solid buying power.
  • Libraries promote new authors. It is the librarian's job to read new books and promote the works of new and emerging authors – especially local ones.
  • Libraries hold reader related events. This includes author talks (which authors get paid for) along with in-house book talks in which library staff review and make reader recommendations. This is called free publicity.
  • Libraries produce book blogs and write reviews. Most librarians are bookophiles in their private lives. A browser reading a review on Goodreads does not care whether the reviewer borrowed or purchased the title, only how many stars it has been awarded.
  • Librarians often get asked 'what's a good book.' It is therir job to match readers with titles. To this end they read reviews, searching for hidden jewels, and also to keep abreast of what is trending. If a new author can't be in their collection they can't recommend their works to readers.
  • Libraries sell books. Not literally, granted. But book lovers do buy books. What do you think they buy their friends for gifts? And how do they become book lovers in the first place? Or try out new authors? If not at their local library service?
  • Libraries believe in equity of access. This means anyone in Australia should be able to access digital information. This includes the works of popular Australian authors – including those published exclusively in a digital format. To undermine equity of access is to undermine the foundations of our democracy.

So, those are a my reasons. Maybe you can think of others? Connor Tomas O'Brien makes some interesting observations in his article: A very quiet battle: librarians, publishers and the pirate bay. For if the middle-aged, educated female reader is the publisher's dream buyer her children are their nightmare. As the battle is waged over digital rights and equity of access, the kids are picking up their titles free on Pirate Bay. And that's a disaster for libraries, publishers and writers.

 

Share

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén