Thursday, December 29, 2011

Metaphorical Library Trials

The Bibliothèque Nationale is the biggest library in the Monteal area. It houses an impressive four floors of media, for research and entertainment purposes. Recently, they've even devoted an entire month to the mechanics of Manga. The amount of reading material is enough to fulfil the curiosity of anybody on the lookout for wisdom. Of course, the most common areas I traverse are the shelves that contain stuff that I’m interested in, which happen to be the comics section. It’s also one of the most heavily populated areas of the library, and there are numerous patrons taking advantage of the lounge chairs with a pile of reading material handy. There’s a whole wing devoted to French BDs, and a smaller area that houses some English comics. (That’s not even counting the children’s section which is on a different floor entirely) Still, there’s enough material available to ensure my multiple visits to this library. That, and I can only take out ten comics at a time, due to the restrictions of the loaning period. Although I can borrow a maximum of 15 items, only 10 of them can be about the same subject material, and I can only take out 3 DVDs at a time. (Pay attention to this part. You’ll be quizzed on this later) However, since I can borrow entire TV series for three weeks, without having to worry about marathoning the contents in a week, I can afford to take my time. Even so, I keep finding myself returning to the Bibliothèque Nationale at least twice a week so I can take read the other comics that I haven’t had a chance to before.

However, as much as I’ve been praising the merits of the system, that still hasn’t stopped me from running into certain problems there that I normally don’t encounter at other libraries.

The whole reason I bothered to study to be a librarian was so I wouldn’t feel embarassed at having to ask for help on where I wanted to look up certain books. (That, and I hoped that I might be able to find some children’s books I encountered as a child) Along my educational path, I learned about having to deal with unexpected disasters such as problem patrons. These are the kind of people that you won’t find on your final exams. They’re members of the public who react outside the boundaries of library settings, and dealing with them requires innovation and lateral thinking. One such example involved a flasher who would brazenly expose himself to anybody unfortunate enough to catch his attention. He would wantonly open his coat without discrimination. Upon facing the head librarian, he proudly displayed his natural bathing suit to the woman. She looked at the man, inspected him from head to toe and calmly said, “I’ve seen better”. The flasher glumly walked off the grounds and never came back.

I only bring this up because there are occasions where even the best programmed system can encounter situations that no amount of preparation can adequately prepare for. Outside the entrance of the Bibliothèque Nationale are two guards who monitor the comings and goings of the populace, to ensure that no valuable materials get taken and that everyone goes through the ‘enter’ and ‘exit’ doors properly. If the detector goes off, they stop whoever’s going through, and ask them to check their luggage to ensure that nothing important gets smuggled out.

Normally, I wouldn’t think too much of such a system, since I wouldn’t expect myself to get caught trying to sneak something out without registering it first. If I wanted to, I would read it in the library first. (That’s one less book I’d have to take out, leaving me room for more) However, due to a little glitch, I somehow managed to get stopped several times while trying to leave. At first, this confused me, since I’m normally a morally-abiding citizen (within reason) and would never think of trying to blatantly break the law. The cause of the detector going off? A book I took out of another library.

If you’re not aware of the typical library anti-theft system, I’ll give you the reader’s digest version. There are magnetic bar codes inserted inside library books that will go off if they aren’t deactivated. However, the library that I borrowed the offending book from was one that I was working part-time at, and hadn’t bothered to install their scanner. Because this library didn’t get much repeat business since they were under renovation, they saw no need to invest their funds for something that would have limited practical uses. As a result, every time I tried to move past the heavily guarded detectors at the Bibliothèque Nationale, their books would alert another library’s anti-theft system.

Even when I knew beforehand that these books would set off the alarm, I couldn’t convince the librarians to take the books beforehand and ‘legally smuggle’ it to the other side. I had to get ‘caught’ first, then prove that the rest of the stuff in my backpack was safe, then I could safely move out and catch the metro.

The second incident that happened was something that sounds very Kafkaesque. Normally, when I want to reserve a book or DVD at a library, I make an request to hold onto it, especially if the item’s recently available. Recently, I saw from the online database that a potentially interesting show, The 4400, a concept that sounded similar to Heroes (though not quite like Misfits) had two copies of the first season available that day. Naturally, I made an online request to reserve it for me, and expected to find it waiting for me when I came for my next visit.

However, upon arriving, I found that not only wasn’t my request not kept, it was outrightly declined. Why? Apparently, according to the library’s system, it can only reserve items that have already been taken out. Because one DVD was already borrowed by another patron, and the other DVD was still in the library, I wasn’t eligible. Okay, so I thought, “If the other DVD’s available, I should be able to find it first, before anybody else gets the wise idea of taking it out before me.” So I went to the section where their DVD section is a disorganized mess. While their movies are categorized by subject, you need to flip back the covers just to see the titles, and nothing’s in alphabetical order. It’s a wonder anybody manages to find anything there. Though that might be part of their strategy - forcing their patrons to check out the similar items on the shelves encourages them to see other shows they might’ve not considered otherwise.

After a fruitless search, I was wondering whether some nameless patron was walking around one of the other floors, holding my copy of the DVD that was rightfully mine, just taunting me with the knowledge that he could’ve taken it out anytime he wanted, but wanted to continue torturing me with the slim hope it was still in the library somewhere. That was when I found out the awful truth - no patron had it - it was still on the library returns shelf.

The Bibliothèque Nationale is so large that when an item is returned, it takes three days before it’s put back into circulation. That means that as long as it’s still in the reserve shelves, it counts as ‘being in the library’.

So, not only CAN'T I reserve a DVD if it’s available, I ALSO can’t take out said DVD if it’s available. My only hope at seeing this show is to reserve the DVD when BOTH discs are taken out and thus AREN’T available. (I also have to pray that the third DVD which is still being processed doesn’t happen to make itself available at the same time the other DVDs are taken out)

Now, I’ve saved the most recent event and best one for last, which was the inspiration for this post.

I just went to the library to pick up a reservation of the second season of Babylon 5, which I was only slightly interested in, since I understood it got better after the first season. That, and it was written by the same guy who wrote The Real Ghostbusters cartoon. I managed to find my reservation in the corner where they were kept. Unlike other libraries which kept their reservations behind the counter, our reservations were available for easy picking. Easy, that is, if you could find it, since they were colour-coded by the date they were set aside, and the number you were registered under. After looking through every shelf containing my identification number, I finally found my DVD under the last shelf, which naturally was the first available shelf. However, just before I went to the self check-out lane, I decided to access my account and see if I could slim down my reservations some. In addition to only taking out three DVDs, I could only reserve three DVDs at a time. (Remember the restrictions I mentioned earlier? This will become relevant soon enough) Naturally, I saw that my earlier reservation was still online. So I got the idea of removing my request for Babylon 5, since I already had the item I wanted in my hand, and submitted another DVD request. Satisfied, I went to the self check-out center to register my items and leave.

Then things got complicated when I was notified that my DVD was requested by somebody else, and could only be notified by the library clerk. No problem. I’d just have to stand in line and have them do the job for me. So I stood. And waited for my turn.

Below is a rough summary of the dialogue that ensued:

Librarian: You can’t take this out. This DVD is reserved for somebody else.
Me: Yes, but you don’t understand. I canceled my request before I could take it out. I had no idea that by doing so, I would be voiding my request. I’m simply asking for the simple courtesy of mending a little mistake I made.
Librarian: I’m sorry, but the next person is waiting for his reservation. You’ll have to wait your turn.
Me: I came all the way down here for this DVD! And now you’re telling me that you won’t even go to the effort of taking maybe thirty seconds to reverse my cancellation?!
Librarian: You’re holding up the line, sir.

I was exasperated. Naturally, I thought that since it took a few minutes for my requests to come through, it would take a similar amount of time for my redundant cancelations to register. After all, this was a system where it took three days just to put a book back on the shelves. The whole process of canceling my reservation happened much faster than I anticipated. I had no idea that there were other people ahead of me who wanted to see the same show that I did. In my mind, the number of interested people begins and ends with me. I pleaded with the guy behind the counter to reconsider his decision, maybe even hand over the DVD case so I could make a stronger argument, but he held fast to his convictions.

Exasperated but not quite defeated, I went to the Information desk to see if they could help change his mind. (I also wanted to change my notification of when my reservations came in from telephone calls to emails, since I’m deaf, but that was a complaint for later)

It took me an extraordinary amount of repeating my story several times before my complaint was fully understood. Part of the problem was that the library and its librarians were mostly French, and I wasn’t making things much clearer because I was quite upset. (Even the Bibliothèque Nationale website is dominantly French, and every time I try to convert it to English, it’ll revert back to its home language when I try to use one of its useful links) Eventually I managed to get across that I had unknowingly canceled my reservation five minutes before I took out the very item that I wanted to take out. Fortunately, the Information guys were sympathetic to my cause, but were mystified on where to find the DVD I wanted. In the time it took me to explain my dilemma and them to comprehend my complaint, Babylon 5 had already been swallowed up into the vast expanse that made up the Bibliothèque Nationale reserves. I offered to lend my eagle-eye expertise at finding the proverbial needle in their haystack of happy returns, but they declined on the grounds that they couldn’t let the public behind their nationally guarded secret revival procedure. Potential spies could steal their techniques, and some of the magic might be lost.

Sorry to disappoint everybody hoping for a happy outcome, but it is the nature of Kafkaesque stories that things never end well.

I later asked the guys behind the Information desk if this situation was a frequent occurrence in their line of work. They had to admit that they’d never encountered this kind of thing before. That’s the problem with fool-proof plans - inevitably, some idiot will find some fatal flaw in a system that no rational thinking human could possibly think up.

All people are idiots. I am a people, therefore I am an idiot.”
- Me

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