Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Dear Library, Dear Library

I walked by the Palo Alto public library today and in the front window they have a hardware store-type sign that says: "Yes, We're Open!" in neon orange on black.

My first thought was that the sign was utterly inappropriate for an institution as grand as a library, albeit a local branch. I love everything that libraries seem to stand for: massive amounts of knowledge, the exaltation of all learning, the preservation of physically life-sized tomes that require the use of gloved hands and climate-controlled rooms. In fact, the biggest downside of Tim Berners-Lee's great contribution to the world is the obsolescence of microfilm and microfiche. I miss picking out a film reel of the 1979 Boston Globe, carefully winding it into the massive machine, placing my face in front of the viewfinder, and the subsequent feeling of swimming through the newspaper at whatever pace I felt appropriate. Spin the wheel on the microfilm and see what gem you land on...it puts Google's "I'm feeling lucky" to shame.

Coincidentally, this past Christmas eve I sat across the aisle from Tim Berners-Lee at church. Being a proper Unitarian celebration, we spent the entire time singing Christmas carols. I don't know him, but my mom knows his wife, which is generally the way of most connections and enough to sneak a few glances. I was struck by the vigor with which he sang the carols, full of gusto and facial expression. What a bizarre reality: the man that essentially enabled the internet sings an enthusiastic Noel in a church across the street from the library that taught me to love microfilm.

In any event, as I pondered what might make a better "Yes, We're Open!" sign for the library this morning, it occurred to me that maybe local libraries are now exactly like mom and pop hardware stores. They both have regular customers, many with wrinkles, that come in to browse regularly. They're safe places where you can ask for help from someone who couldn't want to help you more. They have specific smells. Finally, and sadly, they're usually overlooked for bigger, shinier, pricier, and often more incompetent versions.

I think if John Prine was sitting across the aisle from me right now he'd likely have a song about the graying of the local public library. It wouldn't go like this, but if it went like this, it'd go like this:

To the tune of Dear Abby

Dear Library, Dear Library,
You're not open late.
You have some free parking
and an RFID gate.
I love new book smell
but you don't have it there.
Won't you serve me a coffee, won't you blend me a pear.
Signed, Jamba-lover

Jamba-lover, Jamba-lover,
You have no complaint.
You drink what they tell you,
and you eat what they ate.
So forget about box stores,
forget cell phone calls.
Won't you come read a novel,
won't you bypass the mall?
Signed, Dear Library.

Dear library, Dear Library,
You are full of misfits.
People hang there for hours,
and no shower is legit.
I like to read books,
but you don't allow food.
Can't I just use the internet, can't I do it in the nude?
Signed, Naked Reader

Naked Reader, Naked Reader
You have no complaint.
You piss away hours
on Hulu for jaint.
My librarians all tell me
they're not used at all.
Won't you close online Boggle,
won't you help slow our fall?
Signed, Dear Library.

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