06 October 2006

Public Library, Ch-Ch-Changes

The first library card I got was from the Francis Martin Branch of the NYPL, in the Bronx. It was 1980 and there were already many Vietnamese in the area so the library's response was to stock up a decent number of Vietnamese books. That's some 26 years ago and I cannot recall what kind of books I borrowed from the library, whether it was Vietnamese or English. Or if I borrowed many books at all. What I do recall is that way back then, the library card was a piece of paper. There was no bar code assigned to each book. Instead, each time an item was taken out, it was photographed and put on microfiche or something like that. I kid you not. There was this device that had an orange light, the librarian put the book under the light and pressed some button, zapped! the item was photographed. On the last page of each book there would be a pocket to hold the card that would tell you when the item would due back. Librarians would stamp the cards after photographing your books.

I lived in the Bronx for only about five months and then spent many years in Queens. For checking out, the public libraries in Queens used digitizer to read bar codes on the books. All was well except when the computer was down. When that happened, there would be long lines as librarians meticulously jotted down, by hand, with pens, each of the lengthy numbers corresponding to the bar codes. Eventually, we have the scanner gun of the current systems. Perhaps with better backup systems, the library checkout computers seem to never be down nowadays.

When videos became popular, the Queens Library offered them for borrowing, but in the beginning, only the Central Library in Jamaica had the videos. I did go there once in a while, probably to borrow text books to supplement my college study, and one time even registered my existing library card for video-borrowing. The process involved filling out some additional form and a notch was cut into the plastic library card. The line was always long and I think videos were allowed for only one week. I never borrowed any videos from the Central Library. It was just too much of a hassle to travel all the way to Jamaica two weeks consecutively. Yes, back then, videos had to be returned to the same library where they were taken out of.

One year I volunteered for the Jackson Heights Branch of the Queens Library system. I helped stack books and so on. I was also a frequent borrower of music audiotapes. Many of the tapes' liners were not returned and I found it very frustrating. Some tapes had the song titles printed on the tapes themselves while others didn't, so without the liners you wouldn't know the names of the songs. This was the early 1980s, before the World Wide Web and GracenoteCDDB so there was no convenient way to find the song names. Also, because the tapes were locked in clear rotating cases, without the liners' spines, where one would know the names of the artists and albums, tapes without spines could be something I like but wouldn't take out because I didn't know what they were. I took the initiative of making replacement liners for the tapes using trimmed down index cards. I wrote clearly on the spines and decorated the front of the liners with album and artist names in fancy, handwritten fonts. I cannot recall whether I made any drawings. I did it all on my own time, at home, not while volunteering at the library. I would purposely borrow the tapes without the liners and based on whatever info still available on the tapes themselves, made the replacement liners, then returned them. At some point, one librarian noticed my handiwork and notified the head librarian. Get this, he had a talk with me and suspected that I stole all those liners in the first place! Some appreciation! I told him the truth and stopped my vigilante work with the missing liners. The library implemented a system to detect unreturned liners. When a tape loses its liner, a small piece of round, black paper would be affixed to the cassette holder. Supposedly, if someone returned a tape without the liner and the cassette holder didn't have a black dot, the person could be charged some fine for losing the liner. I never knew if the new system ever worked. For separate reason my volunteer work ended. Despite the ugly little accusation, the library gave me an award certificate at the end of the year, but the whole incident left me with a bad experience.

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