Sunday, March 15, 2009

When is a library not a library?

As homeschoolers, the library was practically our second home, back home. We were there many times a week and checked out mountains of books. We were on a first name basis with just about all of the librarians and clerks. We attended lots of librabry programs - the usual preschool story times but also knitting circles and chess club and duct tape days too. We loved the library and it seemed like the library was pretty darn fond of us too.

Fast forward through the dark empty months of no library at all whatsoever in Varanasi and we arrive in Pune, and find ourselves living quite close to a British Library. Sound the celestial trumpets, right?

Um, wrong. Now I'm ready to admit that I've got some cultural biases when it comes to libraries. I realize that I grew up with and was raising my children with the most popular branch library in one of the greatest public library systems in the US. My expectations are high. Probably too high I realized when I tried to use the British Library.

Full of hope we set out on a Monday afternoon to start our relationship with the British Library. But it was closed. On a Monday. Why? This is India... or, to quote my favorite brother in law, "Hey, what do you want from me? I wasn't born in this country."

Take two, next day. Library was open and a kindly man walked me through the application process. I paid just over $60 for the "classic family" membership which grants us the opportunity of checking out a whopping 10 items at a time. (Back home the membership was free and I think the limit was 100). Undaunted we hit the "Family Corner" and started looking for books.

Now I'm ready to work with a bit of disorganization in a library, especially the children's area. Books out of order tells me that people are picking them up and looking at them - reading them even. But in the British Library Family Corner there is absolutely no indication that the books have been put in any sort of order, ever. Any given shelf yields fiction and non-fiction, young adult novels thrown in with early readers. Reference books mixed up with books available for checkout. The only thing you're not likely to find in the Family Corner is a picture book.

The Family Corner occupies a small corner of the ground floor, the rest of which is given over to administrative offices and a large area filled with resources for people interested in pursuing higher education in England. The two upper floors house adult books, both fiction and non-fiction, but heavily weighted toward Brit Lit classics and business/personal self-help books.

Also upstairs is the computer area. 7 or so workstations available on a reserve basis, for library members. Patrons are limited to 1 hour per day, per card. Our first attempt to use the computers was met with so much resistance that we decided we might just rather stick to Mocha, or better yet, the happy DSL now available in my bedroom. Turns out that even if you do reserve a computer someone else will still be using it (without a reservation) and will be rather nasty when you ask them to please give you your turn. Also, we learned the hard way that if you start your hour of usage at any time other than the top of the hour, you will be short changed and booted off at the begining of the next clock hour. Lovely.

Finally, I figured the best way to ensure a happy association with the library was to get involved - give something back to what I hoped would be a much used resource for our family. So I offered to volunteer, both reshelving books in the Family Corner and hosting a Story Time every week or so. My offer was met with undisguised shock and perhaps even disgust. The librarian I spoke to laughed off my willingness to reshelve books and pooh-poohed my assessment that they were in great need of organization. And as to story time, she assured me no one would come at all unless I held it after exams. Which happen in June. When I'll be in Ladahk. I tried to explain that I didn't mind if attendance was low, and that I'd be willing to do my own publicity (fliers in the park? at the pool?) and that I would be long gone by the time exams happened. But that all seemed to fall on deaf ears. She gave me her card and then told me she'd be sure to call me if anything came up that they'd like me to do. Maybe I'm a bit wacky, but if I ran a library and someone turned up and offered to do the sorts of things I offered, I think I'd jump at the chance, especially since those things seem to be going quite undone as of now.

We cherish our 10 items and still really look forward to hitting the library as often as possible. But somehow, I'm just not feelin' the love... Sequoya, we miss you!

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