Monday, 3 December 2012

Mr Angry goes to the Library

I've used Luton's Central Library once or twice in the past, and come away feeling frustrated each time. This week I decided to pop in again, to see whether they had anything that would help me research my novel. I was braced for the worst, but thought to myself how bad can it be?

When I arrived, I got into the lift and pressed the appropriate button. Nothing happened. I pressed the button again, and again nothing happened. An elderly gentleman approached the lift, at which point the doors tried to slide shut. I gave the door sensor a thump, to save the newcomer a squishing, then returned to the business of piloting the lift. After a couple more button presses, the doors closed properly, and the floor gave a lurch. A few seconds later, the doors opened, and we stepped out... into the foyer. We scrambled back into the lift, playing Indiana Jones with the doors, and tried again. Eventually we reached the first floor. As I disembarked, I glanced behind me to see the doors closing with the elderly gentleman still inside. There was a silent pleading in his eyes as they met mine. But I was already too far away to save him, so I just gave him the kind of smile you give a relative on their deathbed. I don't know what became of the elderly gentleman. Perhaps he's still riding the library elevator, wearily trying different combinations of buttons, and suspicious of the doors' intentions if they happen to open occasionally.

And so I arrived at the adult library. It's a big, open space - 500 square-metres at a guess. The floor where I stood holds a computer area, the fiction section, and whatever they call the library equivalent of a nurses' station. It's not a checking-out desk (that's all done by machines on the ground floor) but more a kind of display case of what I shall indulgently call librarians. Steps lead up to a mezzanine, where the non-fiction section is. Make a note of that, in case you're ever in Luton and find yourself in need of a non-fiction book. You need to make a note for two reasons. The first reason is that I've already told you far more about its location than any sign that's visible as you enter the space from the direction of the stairwell and lifts. It's true: There is no sign to indicate where fiction and non-fiction books may be found. The second reason is that Waterstones closed their Luton branch a while back, leaving a parting "F*** you!" in the window, saying "We hope to see our loyal customers in our nearest alternative branch (Hemel Hemstead)." Tossers.

But I was one step ahead of the malevolent force responsible for making sure visiting Luton Central Library is as unproductive and time-consuming as possible, because I already knew where the non-fiction books are hidden. I can't remember whether I originally found out by wandering about searching, by getting fed up and asking a member of staff, or by following a sign which someone later saw fit to remove.

The other key piece of insider info I can give you is the location of the "card index" - or, more properly, its modern, microprocessor-controlled descendant. There's a computer on a small table, just to the left of the mezzanine steps. Don't be discouraged by the fact that the screen is off - that's just someone's idea of a joke (or a screensaver. If you must have a screensaver, why not have one that indicates the machine is in working order and powered-up?)

So, I approached the computer and gave its greasy mouse a wiggle.

I won't give a detailed account of using the library's computer catalogue.  For one thing, the episode has been repressed by whichever part of my mind Freud claimed takes care of self-preservation, so I don't recall much. For another thing, I'm aware that my lust for user-friendly interfaces with computers puts me in a minority in these times of Bigger, Better, Faster, More, when whether a system can do something is considered important, but how much hair one must tear out accomplishing it is not.

I'll just skip straight to the part where I was climbing the mezzanine steps clutching a piece of paper with a Dewey number written on it.

And here is where the problems began. Yes, you did read that right. Up till then there had been only minor irritations. You see, once you reach the mezzanine, you're on your own, me old mucker! You have, understandably, arrived armed with a Dewey number. You cast your eyes over the shelves, to see which general area your number might be found in. Problem: They do not mark the shelves with the Dewey numbers. Not even a little bit*.


This is just the tip (albeit a bloody annoying and time-consuming tip) of the iceberg. Because, if you happen to be looking for a 900+ Dewey number, like I was, you have to do this close-up check all the way around the room before you get the creeping suspicion that you're on a wild goose chase. (On that particular day the task was made more interesting by the fact that there was Men At Work barrier halfway round. This didn't prevent access to any shelves, but did mean that I had to retrace my steps to the stairs and approach from the opposite direction.)

I actually went round twice, to be sure - to work up enough crossness for when I asked a staff member WTF was going on. I traipsed back down the steps, approached the exhibition of "librarians", waited while three of them finished contemplating a fourth's navel, then asked "If I have a Dewey number, how can I tell where to start looking for the book?"
"What's the number?" the chap asked brightly.
"Ohhh no!" I waggled a finger at him. "No clues! I want to learn how to navigate here. How to find the next number on my list, should I still have the will to live by the time I get that far."

He seemed disappointed that I wished to break the endless stream of confused visitors needing his assistance on a book-by-book basis, but eventually waved an arm at the mezzanine, saying "Well, the numbers start in that corner and go around the room in that direction [clockwise, from above, which we weren't of course]."
I was a bit sceptical, and he seemed to sense it, adding "But you can't get past that bit there, because we have a visiting team of Obscurifators in that section. They Tipp-Ex out the Dewey numbers, ensuring me a job for life."
Actually, he didn't say that. I think it was more along the lines of carpet-fitting.

So I took my scepticism and reascended the steps, and made my way to the shelves at the opposite end from the starting-point the librarian had indicated. I peered at a book. Then I peered at another one. Sighing, I went to the other side of the shelf and did some more peering. Out of desperation, I sank to my knees and had a good peer at the books on the bottom shelf.

Two minutes later I was back downstairs, saying through clenched teeth, "The numbers only go up to 899!"
My new friend gave a smile of the sort that makes you want to grab someone by the ears and drive their face onto your knee.
"That's because the 900's are down here, next to the Westerns."
I blinked.
"Not enough room up there" he offered. To his credit, I think he sensed he was courting physical danger at this point.
Resigned to an afternoon in a library made of poo and staffed by arseholes, I decided that chumminess was my only option.
"I'll bet you get fed up with having to explain that to daft customers all day long." I smiled, trying not to look like Hannibal Lecter. "I'll bet you wish your managers would put up some signs explaining all this. Or, God forbid, label the shelves with the one piece of information your catalogue gives."
But it was like trying to explain Heaven to a bear. Not only does their cockamamie setup ensure the staff are never short of depressed people to keep waiting, the sheer joy of explaining it all twenty or thirty times a day was evidently high on this man's list of reasons to go to work every morning, rather than, say, sticking his toothbrush up his nose and doing that brain-liquidising trick the embalmers used to do on dead pharaohs.

The ironic thing (or one of the ironic things, for there were many that day) was that when I eventually found the shelf containing books about Victorian England, I discovered one of the best on the subject I've yet seen.

Needless to say, I made my escape quickly and ordered it from Amazon.

Luton Central Library. Even the photo from their website sucks.
In real life the building has a flat facade! WTF!

* They do occasionally mark them - in letters too small to read from the other side of the room - with subject headings. But, assuming most visitors haven't committed the Dewey system to memory, where's the help in seeing a sign saying "Computers" if you're looking for one that says "Gardening"? While I'm digressing, let me give a brief mention to Luton Central Library's fiction section. Last time he secured day release from whichever institution he rents a rubber room in, the library manager decided that sorting fiction books by author surname is for wimps. So he created a largely arbitrary set  of categories, then set his minions loose deciding which books belong in which category. So, if you're looking for a book which doesn't very clearly fall within one genre and one genre alone, you should expect to try several of these categories before locating it. And here's the thing: Each category is, in itself, sorted by author surname. Needless to say, the categories are arranged in a completely random order, just to add spice to proceedings. HMV used to carry on like this. Just sayin'. )