The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

I'm an inveterate re-arranger of library shelves.

I come from an area where the concept of libraries has been radically overhauled - the local library looks more like a Tower Record Store - comfy chairs in funky bright colours, cake and cappucino shops, check books in and out yourself on your computerised card, huge web access areas, separate partitioned off youth areas, free papers and periodicals. Late return fines have been slashed till almost non-existent, ensuring, oddly, more books actually get returned. It's sited deliberately next door to a street market and a supermarket, with the result that many folk actually drop in just to laze and relax in the cafe area, or browse the papers without charge.
Security guards replace the need for dull library staff to patrol the shelves, and allows them to get on with the actual tasks of librarians.
Indeed, you have to delve quite deeply into the library to find the books.

The area I teach in is vastly more impoverished in its vision of what a library should offer its community. They still invite an author in once a year to speak to eleven year olds, but children over thirteen gain the distinct impression that their custom is not wanted. The librarians run to the classic white fifty something spinster or bachelor hippy, who become flustered by their own very simple systems, and take thirty minutes and much discussion to come up with the (incorrect) name of a book that may possibly have won the Booker prize this year.
The dusty books line the shelves in a labyrinth which forces an adult fiction reader to go to the furthest corner to find material. Top shelves are empty for displayed books - usually empty or containing what I'd term a battered, dog eared pensioner romance.

This is where I can't resist embarking upon my busybody project. The actual collection of books is quite forward thinking - a fine mixture of trendy, movie influenced, forward thinking, esoteric, generic and classical literature, showing that somewhere in this mausoleum is a decent librarian, whose decisions at least as regards stock are brave and effective. So does one copy of a Jean M Auel bilge filled tome appear as the only text on display?
I set to, sneaking the better looking books onto display. I pick books from this year's prize lists. European literature, writers experimenting with form. I make sure the funnies about single mums or harrassed weekend dads are placed up there next to brightly coloured attractive covers, not caring what's inside. Next to those, a few genre novels - Iain Banks, Pat Barker. On the graphic novel shelf, a copy of Watchmen replaces Buffy. Trollope, Austen, Tolkien - these are all in the movies at the moment, so they must be out on display, reminding people that all the best movies start out as books.
It's a laughable sight - Local English Teacher Caught Sneaking Books Out Of Alpha Order. I do every single fiction shelf, and that's a lot of fake quizzical looks at a Stephen King with a nice cover while a librarian in grey flannel and navy jeans bumbles past.

A third of the library's space is taken up by free web access areas – yet this is near the door, uncomfortable and clunky looking, with no actual interaction between the computer users and the book areas of the library itself. The need for milk bottle lensed biddies to watch over the mouse balls to prevent theft surely isn't so acute that the public be actually discouraged from walking past a book on their way in to surf for low grade porn?

While waiting an age for the one biddy with computer access to finish dealing with an enquiry (necessitates human interaction) to check out my book (doesn't), I stare at the Surfer's Lounge, and wonder why it looks so municipal, cold as a hospital waiting room, somehow. I visualise myself sat at one of those uncomfortable office chairs, not more than five inches away from the next user, and know full well I'd rather pay internet cafe rates.
Still visualising, I turn around, and peer about the library from my imaginary seat. All I see are word processed posters, telling me off, repeatedly warning me about printing charges.
One thing teachers eventually learn is that if one bright poster doesn't get the message across, seventeen dull ones won't help transmit it further. It becomes visual debris. Cluttering up your ability to space yourself somewhere inside your mind to think.

I hide behind the music and self help stacks to see how my displays are working. Of four adults who make it over to the labyrinthine fiction section, all pick up and leaf through at least two of the books on top shelf display. Result.

Why on earth aren't there book display racks by the computers? Surfing the web involves hours of idle waiting for a page to load. There are by now plenty of fiction books involving technological conspiracies that could be stood on end by the mouse mat for the stymied surfer to flick through. The 'for dummies' series of PC self help books is far more likely to be worked through than the posters advertising 'learn to use Word for £3.50' at some improbable hour of the day. If not one text is borrowed, it still at least establishes the library as a home for books.
Books. Not posters about how you press the wrong button and you'll be held responsible.