It seems that the deterioration of the American public library is worse than I had at first feared. At least if I am to use the Beverly Hills Public Library as an example. (Beverly Hills isn’t exactly the best example of any trend in North America, being a bizarre entity that I think J. G. Ballard invented for one of his novels, but in terms of civic decline I think I’m on safe ground using it.)
I recently posted about my discovery that a coffee shop—with fudge included, for some reason known only to “Kelly”—had mysteriously arisen inside the BHPL. I tried to satisfy myself with the knowledge that the library would at least strive to keep the coffee and fudge behind the glass doors of Kelly’s Staining Bean Juice and Contaminating Sugar Sludge, away from the precious volumes of books and helping to keep at bay the armies of paper-munching insects that might like to snack on old copies of Gormenghast.
However, on my last visit to the library, I made some disturbing discoveries. I hadn’t received the full story about the Kelly’s invasion.
The disturbing day started soon after I had sat down in the main reading room of the library, a beautiful room with large windows and classic banker’s lamps. I noticed a few desks away an object that didn’t belong: an empty paper coffee cup. “By Athena!” I thought. “Someone really brought coffee into the library and openly sat there and drank it—and didn’t even throw away the cup!”
But then, from the corner of my vision, I noticed a library patron with a paper cup of coffee sitting beside him on the wood table. It was perched right next to his notebook, in plain sight. A man was violating one of the greatest library taboos in front of everybody. I’m not the sort of person who would get up and ask him to please dispose of the drink, but I certainly wished I were right then. I hoped a librarian would swoop down soon and inform him that food and drink were not allowed in the library. Maybe the librarian would shame him a bit too—quietly, of course.
But then, another man sat down across the table from me… with a transparent plastic glass of iced coffee in his hand!
To paraphrase Goldfinger (the novel, not the film): The first time is happenstance. The second time is coincidence. The third time… the policy must have changed.
When I went to the circulation desk to check out my books, I had to ask the librarian: “Uhm, library policy hasn’t changed, has it? You still can’t bring food or drink inside, right?” Note the negative phrasing—there’s no way this is permitted. Right? “Because I saw a lot of people today with cups of coffee.” A not so subtle hint to enforce the previously mentioned policy which must still be in force.
The librarian shook his head. “No, the policy now is that as long as the liquid is in a covered container of some kind, it’s allowed.” I could hear in his voice that he wasn’t thrilled about this change either. I asked him if he knew why the policy had changed. He answered: “The city told us that we had to be revenue-producing.” Again, I felt his unhappiness; it matched mine. When I asked further about it, he indicated that many of the librarians were displeased—okay, angry is term he actually used—about the change. And then he said the library was also considering lifting the cell phone ban.
The idea that a public library—a free place for information to serve the community—must be “revenue producing” is disturbing enough. That the City of Beverly Hills would choose to produce revenue using an item that destroys books and dirties the library is… well… Dante is going to having to add another circle to his Inferno.
So, what other great taboos of the library will the City of Beverly Hill now think of demolishing? Here are some ideas:
- Patrons may check out books and not return them, provided they tell the circulation desk at check-out that this is what they plan to do.
- A checked-out book may be written in, as long as it isn’t with a felt-tip pen.
- Patrons are to avoid using excessive profanity in their loud conversations.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have brought those up. Somebody may actually institute them.
Our libraries need our help (donate books, donate money) and our patronage more than ever—and this is the best way to keep them from allowing themselves to be destroyed one cup of café mocha and one obnoxious cell phone call at a time.