Yesterday I got a new library card. It wasn’t very exciting. I had to go there anyway, to return some books of Miss Hepburn’s sister’s. I need to start calling her something different, now that Miss Hepburn has been gone almost a year.
I parked behind the library, in the lot I always forget is there. I went in and there was a new cordon in front of the counter. “Line forms this way,” it pointed to the left. The line used to form to the right. Things have changed at the library.
After setting Hep’s books in a return bin, I went to the back of the line at the left. “Step up to 3, 3 is open,” said a disembodied voice. The man in front of me stepped up. There were small numbered placards above or beside each area of the counter, 1-2-3-4. It was sort of like being at Joanne Fabric and Craft, except that the numbers don’t light up. Also, because the library was built long before the cattle prod system, you can’t see the people behind the counter from the line, and they can’t see you. The counter is not so much a counter as a window. A wall comes down from the top and in from the sides, creating a vast cubby for the staff, and discrete windows through which people can check out books and museum passes. From the line forming on the left, you can see the librarians at station 1, but 2, 3, and 4 are hidden. There might be two librarians, or four, or none.
“Can I help you?” I got lucky, the librarian at Station 1 was free.
“Hi, I need a new library card,” I said, digging out my three forms of identification, including a utility bill.
She pointed to the right, past the return bin. “All the way around the corner.”
I went around the corner to a small desk that held forms for a library card. Things have really changed at the library. I filled out a form, and then got back in line. There was no one else in line, so the Station 1 librarian gave me a nod. She reviewed my form and began typing into the computer. “Have you had a library card before?”
“Yes, but not at this address,” I said. They used to be very concerned about your address at the library, wanting proof in multiple forms. Now all it took was a driver’s license. She typed some more and said, “So this is a replacement card. That will be one dollar.”
I handed her a ten. “Yeah, my wallet was stolen a couple years ago,” I said, “or lost really.” She didn’t look up from my new card, which she was filling out with a sharpie, copying my full name from my form. They used to type your name on a little label and then stick it on the card. I liked seeing my name handwritten; a low-tech, personal touch.
I went up to the fiction section and grabbed a couple of things. The Poe Shadow, by Matthew Pearl, which delivers new facts about Edgar Allen Poe in palatable mystery form, and an Agatha Christie, in case I can’t sleep.
When I returned to the line on the left, there were no other customers and no one at station 1. I couldn’t see if there was anyone at 2, 3, or 4. Should I step up and find out? That’s frowned upon at Joanne Fabric and Craft, where the number will blink when they’re ready for you. I didn’t want to diss the system at the library, but if you can’t see them and they can’t see you…
The librarian who had given me my card was back in the recesses of the cubby. She noticed me and returned to the counter. “Come on.” She said nothing as she checked out my books. She handed me my card. “Thank you.” Just like in the old days, there was no friendly banter at this counter. Not like at the reference desk upstairs.
It’s like the difference between the Montrose post office and the Lawrence one. I always expect the Montrose one to be cheery because it’s smaller, but usually it’s the other way around. At the Lawrence post office, where the line is always heartbreakingly long, snaking back through the cavernous space, the people behind the counter actually sing sometimes. “We’re all in this together,” said the woman to Dave last time he was there.