Monday, 15 June 2015

Confessions of a 'technically' well behaved library user

James Lythgoe looks back to darker times in the Library...

The Library phone, back in the day
Real Rotary Phone by Joe Monin
Used under a Creative Commons licence
Picture the scene: A peaceful Friday afternoon in the Library, the phone rings:

"University of York Library, how can I help?"

Silence on the line, a disgruntled sigh, then: "Oh damn, never mind, but hi anyway."

It transpired that a postgraduate friend of mine was calling in an attempt to blag their way out of some fines, but as soon as they heard my voice they knew it was hopeless. 1

"I can't help with this, but I can help you get out of lots of fines in the future"


"Yes: just remember to click the ‘renew’ button every couple of weeks!" 2

"Oh, great... thanks. You could have just cut me a break you know, anyway how many fines did you have when you were a student Mr just-click-the-button?"

"Er, one… in my first term. I misread the due time… and I was so embarrassed I think I was actually blushing when I paid the fine off."

"I should have known." *sigh*

At that point they, perhaps unsurprisingly, hung up, but it got me thinking (read: worrying neurotically) about whether I was a 'good' library user, fines or no fines. And I realised that although I always technically followed the rules that didn't stop me being a morally dubious library user.

The rules have changed since I was a student so that nobody will have to face the same kind of moral angst; but for the sake of my uneasy conscience here's a partial confession and a quick delve into the murky past of such unhappy library rules as *dah dah daaaaah*:

Postgraduate loans!

Prior to the glorious advent of flexible loans there was a bibliotechnical dark age when tyrannical academics and their postgraduate lackeys could loan books for whole terms at a time, with no recalls to offer succor or relief to undergraduates languishing under the yoke of inaccessible literature.

Angry Peasant Mob by Eldeem
Used under a Creative Commons licence
Before the researchers among you begin handing out the pitchforks and torches to demand a return to the old ways remember that with no recalls whatsoever this system only benefits the first person to get the book, creating a Hobbesian war of all against all.

Which is why, drunk with academic optimism, the thrill of new-found power and the certain knowledge that if I didn't get them right away I might have to wait a whole term for any book I might potentially want to consult I checked out my full allocation of twenty (3) on the first day of term... and returned quite a few of them at the end of my last term two years later. At least two were entirely unread, and I'd kept many of the ones I actually did use even when I didn't need them "just in case".

Admittedly they could still have been requested… but would you bother to request a book that you could only hope to borrow at the end of the term? It was the fear of being caught in that unhappy twilight which had driven me to such decadent excess in the first place.

But this pales in comparison to the beyond-the-pale of *shocked gasp*:

Key Texts desks!

*on cue dramatic thunder and lightning*

The part of the Library which is now home to the cafe and the light and adventurous sliding-door maze of the entrance, was not always such a happy region. It was once home to the Key Texts area, but a Key Texts area unlike any you could find today, except perhaps in your most febrile, before-deadline nightmares.

Key Texts Area of Yesteryear
Doré's illustration for Dante's Inferno - photo by Rutger Vos
Used under a Creative Commons licence
If the old borrowing rules evoke Hobbes, this was pure Dante; a long, gloom-ridden and low
ceilinged hall where narrow passages between imposing, skeletal shelves revealed terrifying glimpses of the tortured souls who dwelt there in seeming eternity.

And why? For the simple reason that it contained... study desks.

"That doesn't sound bad" you may think, "surely more desk space is a good thing?", you add without quite noticing that you're talking out loud. "Why did you take away our desks?" you demand, startling your loved ones, who are now beginning to worry.

Study desks in key texts mean that it was possible to use a high demand item indefinitely, without checking it out or booking it. This in turn meant that at all hours of the day (because the Library closed in the evenings all year round), especially in deadline season, the most stressed, sleep deprived and desperate would gather there and make it a living hell for themselves and each other. There was fierce competition for the desks, and acquiring one brought out the Cerberus in everyone: more than once I had my place poached and my work left in a messy pile in less time than it took to walk to the bathroom and back. Even when the territorial threat slackened one was left to make panicked sallies to scour the trolley in case that one set text one absolutely needed above all else had finally been returned and suspiciously eyeing anyone who approached in case they were waiting for an opportunity to snatch your books when you weren't looking - this actually happened a lot.

By far and away the worst thing was the guilt.

So you have your desk, and the only remaining copy of the book your whole group has to write about by Monday, everything is going well for you…

That's when they come; the people you recognise from your lectures, the ones who you only spoke to once but they were nice, the ones who made a clever observation that later found its way into that highly-marked essay of yours, the ones who always seemed to be energetic and happy...

Distraught and bedraggled they wander the shelves like wraiths, inevitably rounding on what you know to be the gap where the book you are feverishly gripping should be.

You watch them, you can't look away, this desk is the only desk free. They search in increasing bewilderment then finally slump to the floor, defeated and hopeless. You try to surreptitiously hide your treasure in a pile of papers and avoid eye contact at all costs.


Scenes like this are now nothing more than a dark chapter in Library history. These days this kind of disreputable behaviour is discouraged rather than brought about by Library rules, everyone has fair access to our resources, key texts is open, bright and has absolutely no desk space whatsoever, bells ring, there is dancing in the streets. Even my one fine would never have happened today: DVDs no longer have to be back by 10am the following day with fines per hour regardless of whether or not anyone else wants them.

So if I am disinclined to cut anyone a break, and can be a bit enthusiastic about Library policy; it's only because I know they are the the light of rationality keeping a host of gothic nightmares at bay.

1. I almost wish I could be a bit offended by this; I mean, I'm not exactly a draconian shusher, but it's a fair cop

2. Yes, I really do talk to my friends like this. No, I don't know why I still have friends.

3. Undergraduates and Masters students could only loan twenty items, rather than fifty - it was truly a savage time. 

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