February 28, 2004
Each year we entrust increasing portions of our lives into the care of mysterious technologies. As a computer tech-support person I am bound by secret oaths to uphold the view that computers are wonderful and life-enhancing tools. A part of me wonders, though, whether we aren’t putting too many of our eggs into the safe-keeping of computers (if I may mix metaphors). Our future elections are apparently to be in the hands of the computers. Traffic lights; the modern art of war. Even our library collections. To those who look forward to such developments with a quiver of pre-orgasmic anticipation, I offer this cautionary tale.
On Friday at noon I walked up to the main branch of the Vancouver public library, to return one item (a tape of Paul Bowles reading a couple of his short stories) and sign out another: something — it didn’t particularly matter what, as long as I hadn’t read it yet — by E. B. White. I’ve been dipping into E. B. White’s writing recently, prompted by an enthusiastic note in an Email from another blogger. My ear is fine-tuned for such notes (a certain fervor, almost evangelical in tone) since, despite my own lengthy list of books to read, I always seem to be in search for something else, something which will inspire me in like manner. Despite the huge horde of books available — a casual glance at any good library’s shelves is enough to quicken the heart of all but the most unimaginative of readers — the really satisfying ones seem to be as scarce as teeth on a geriatric hen.
My “Author Browse…” through the computerized library catalogue for “white, e b” revealed 43 titles among their holdings. I was puzzled, therefor, when the proffered list turned out to contain only four books by “White, E. B. (Elwyn Brooks), 1899-“. I think it only reasonable to expect 43 titles when 43 are offered, so the discrepancy between the promised 43 and the eventual 4 threw me, particularly in the temple of taxonomy and Linnaeustic order that is a library. A library without strict order is no better than the average church hall jumble sale, where the tops of folding tables display an heterogenous mélange of Harlequin romances cheek-by-jowl with ancient college accounting texts.
In junior high school I was a charter member of the Library Club, an exclusive clique of four-eyed misfits and outsiders who met after school on Fridays to reshelve books and fill our idle time transforming the library’s endless reserves of rubber cement into palm-sized spheres. I came to revere the work of Mr. Melvil Dewey and his Dewey Decimal System, and knew the Dewey system like a priest knows his liturgy. I still know certain categories by rote: biographies are coded 921; histories of France are 944. I hold a soft spot for old Dewey, despite four intensive years at University where they tried to drum the Library of Congress system into me. To this day, though, I root for Dewey, and am quietly pleased that our civic libraries still swear by Dewey too. The Library of Congress system seems a bit elitest for ordinary readers like myself.
In search of the missing 39 books by E. B. White (and for an explanation) I approached the library’s information desk with my dilemma. I summarized the situation to the bored attendent there. Her response to me was brisk, I thought. She seemed dismissive, and I felt a reflexive need to prove some kinship between the two of us. I feared she was lumping me in with those who visit the library solely to take advantage of the washrooms, the free daily newspapers, or to escape the rain. So I tried again, enunciating the word “discrepancy” more clearly in the hope that such casual use of multisyllabics would warm her heart. It did.
Together we leaned over the counter and peered closely at her computer’s display. Together we replicated the odd catalogue discrepancy. Her sympathy for me this time was both moving and sincere. Through secret means available only to initiates (pursed lips, a clatter of computer keys) she called up the full 43 books by E. B. White. I took note of one of them and bade her a fond farewell, making off for the far reaches of the third floor stacks. Dewey Decimal code 828 W583w. Literature; English Language; Miscellaneous writings. Order had been restored.