I have just returned from a trip to my local branch of the Nashville Library and let me tell you, it was a humbling experience.
My mission was simple, I wanted to check out the book "Fingersmith" by Sarah Waters at the recommendation of one of my literary friends. I had my library card (that I got when I first moved here and haven't used once), the title of the book I wanted, and even the author's name...I felt prepared to waltz through the doors, confident in my abilities to procure the morsel of highly acclaimed contemporary fiction I was seeking.
Let it be known that despite my nearly obssessive relationship with books, it has been a long time since I have graced the threshold of any library. I know...it seems odd to me too, but I tend to associate libraries with research and study activities (too many years spent in higher education I guess) instead of leisure reading. For that, I am known to haunt local used book stores or yard sales or (my current favorite method of acquiring reading material) Amazon.com.
So, why, you ask, didn't I just go buy the book I was looking for and stick to my usual modis operandi? Well, I was making an effort to be financially responsible... something at which I am not gifted and besides, my bookshelves are overcrowded as it is. Thus, the whole library scheme seemed like a good idea.
Seemed like a good idea until I walked in on what must have been the post-party for Saturday Storytime. There were about a hundred and ten small children scurrying through the aisles, around the computer terminals, through legs - yes, by god, scurrying through legs! As I'm wandering around looking for the fiction section and trying not to step on (or be tripped by) the energetic munchkins, I notice a weird-looking guy in a black trenchcoat skulking through the maze of books. Of course, I looked away (you never make eye contact with anyone in a black trenchcoat) and hurried on to the W's.
"W...W...W....ah! here we are...W's...okay...Wh...We...ummm...oh yeah...A comes before E...duh. aha! Wa...but where...no, that's not Sarah Waters"
This rather eloquent inner monologue was followed by my disappointing realization that not only did this branch not have "Fingersmith" but apparently did not carry ANY of the works of Ms. Waters. Sighing a deep sigh of annoyance but secretly holding out hope that maybe the book I wanted simply hadn't been restocked yet, I made my way to the front and the rows of occupied computer terminals with the intention of looking up the book in the directories to see if any copies were in circulation.
This is where my lesson in humility begins... maybe it's payback for thinking mean thoughts at the person in front of me in the self-service line at the Kroger, who clearly has no idea what they're doing. Karma or not, I stare at the few empty terminals trying to decide which one looks the most innocuous. I pick one, hit a button or two and when nothing happens, read the note to my left, "insert card". So I dig out my library card and insert it into the indicated slot. The repercussion of my hasty action is a very loud beeping noise followed by a dozen pairs of eyes turned to me and my uncooperating computer. I immediately remove myself from the evil terminal and look around for another one...a kinder one.
Again I sit down at a screen and it instructs me to enter my bar code and my pin number. There is a mile-long bar code number on the back of my library card which I assume is the number being referred to, but I have no idea what my pin number is, or if such a number even exists. So, again, I extricate myself from the computer terminal and look around for someone helpful...preferably a person of the library staff.
I find one. I say "all I want to do is look up a book - can you help me?". I am courteously directed to a different section of computer terminals altogether (yes, apparently not all the computers serve the same functions at the library) and at these ones there is no need for any kind of number inputting at all, much to my relief. I search for my book, find that it is available at other branches and am asked if I want to request it. Well sure...okay...I'll request it. However, the request form requires the hateful bar-code and pin numbers, so in a fit of exasperation I give up on the computers and return to the fiction crypt.
If I can't have Sarah Waters, then I'll just find something else! After some careful perusing I choose "The Ground Beneath Her Feet" by Salman Rushdie and "The Historian" by Elizabeth Kostova, and head to the check-out counter.
I get in line and wait. After waiting, it's my turn, so I place my books on the counter and look expectantly at the librarian. It is the same librarian who helped me with the directory earlier. He says patiently, "Are you ready to check out?" I nod. He replies, "I can't check you out here, you have to use the self-check-out". He points to another line and a little checker-outer machine on the counter. I give him my best "you've-got-to-be-kidding" look and move myself and my books to the other line.
Finally, it's my turn again and there is a computer screen to my left along with a card slot thingy. To my right is what looks like an infrared detector thingy. There are no instructions anywhere. So, instinctively I try pushing my library card into the card slot thingy. Of course, nothing happens. So I push it in again and this time flick the little black button next to the card. Again, nothing happens. A voice behind me says, "just scan your card there". I turn around and black-trenchcoat-guy is pointing to the infrared device. I laugh nervously and quickly scan my card. Immediately my name pops up on the screen and it tells me to scan my books. So I flip them over and scan.
Again, a loud beep (what's with all the beeps in the library?! - it's supposed to be a place of quiet!) A bright red message comes on the screen instructing me to scan again or get assistance from someone. I look apologetically at the line behind me. Black-trenchcoat-guy sweeps up beside me and says, "don't worry, it's just a finicky machine and if you happen to scan the wrong code it'll give you that bogus message" He smiles and scans my books for me, tears off my receipt and hands it to me. I thank him, grateful for his kind assistance and quickly walk to the exit. Next time I see a person in a black trenchcoat, I will look him in the eyes and smile warmly. I will also be much more patient with the person in front of me at the Kroger check-out!