By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Librarian's Word Is Law In The Library!

So here's another vintage essay from my earliest published efforts as an articulate layman:  
---------- ----------

Sunday Magazine


BOOKS are his business, but I wonder if the librarian can ever enjoy reading them.  We all have a peculiar allergy to certain things connected with our profession, no matter how interesting or intriguing they might seem to others.  The glamorous actress is fed up with seeing films ;  the toast-weary diplomat sometimes can't stand the sight of a champagne bottle.  The librarian can be no exception.  It's difficult to imagine that he would want to read books just for the fun of it.

In fact, I should think that this tendency would be more pronounced in the librarian than in most others, for few things can be more disconcerting than the sight of a roomful of bookshelves.  Even the casual borrower, who's hardly aware of the true capacity of the shelves, often stands unnerved before them, quite unable to decide which books to take home with him.  He staggers into the reading room under the weight of a dozen volumes, fondly hoping to make his choice there ;  but even these may prove too many, and soon he's trying to drown his confusion in drowsiness.  


Not infrequently, he solves the problem simply by deciding to step out to the canteen first, and steady his reeling head with a cup of coffee.  Occasionally he succeeds in going back to the reading room, to make a manly decision ;  but more likely, he just remembers how late it's getting, and finds his way back home.  If that's the kind of effect the stack room produces on relatively uninformed borrowers, imagine the plight of the librarian, who understands only too perfectly what a job he has on hand when he tries to select something for himself!   Temptation and indecision must gnaw at his vitals till he's numbed into giving up the whole idea of borrowing.  Even if he survives the ordeal for the time being and manages to take a book home, he can't read it peacefully, because his mind keeps hovering around the thousands of other books he has left behind.

It's impossible to think of the librarian without thinking of the bookseller :  they're both in the same kind of fix.  But being a practical man, and probably not so intellectual, the latter is quicker in adjusting himself to the inevitable.  While his customers may gasp at his dazzling display -- and find every decision heart-breaking -- the bookseller seems by and large to be content with his book-keeping.  No doubt he's aided by the fact that his collection changes constantly, and doesn't grow and accumulate like the librarian's.  But sooner or later, knowingly or unknowingly, the librarian also learns to face facts ;  and thereafter the best of the bestsellers can't mean anything more to him than a number on a fly-leaf, a shadow in a dark shelf.

Scholarly statistician

And that's a pity, for the librarian is really a scholar at heart.  Even if he hadn't taken up his job with the idea of mastering the contents of the library, (as is sometimes the case), his education and his prolonged contact with books are bound to have given him  a thirst for exploring the treasure-house of knowledge and thought of which he's the custodian.  But, as I've said, the very vastness and diversity of the treasure leads to his defeat.  

However, if he's an abortive scholar, the librarian is a perfect statistician.   In his scheme of things literature is but a list, the classics just a classification.  Einstein is an index-card, Picasso a type-written ticket.    History and philosophy are cut down to size by him, and squeezed into the narrow space of his catalogue.  The past and the present are hemmed in by the framework of his pigeon-holes.  The librarian's supremacy is never in doubt, for his world is as tidy as it is statistical :  everything in it has to be in order, at least alphabetically.


It is probably this compulsory preoccupation of his with arrangement and tidiness which makes the librarian such a stern disciplinarian.  He likes to see things done according to rules and regulations.  He can never condone the slightest delaying the return of a borrowed book :  and, like Shylock, he will be after his pound of flesh if you lost a volume or seriously delayed returning it.  His discipline makes itself felt in many other ways too :  for instance, he can't tolerate anybody (except himself) smoking within the library walls.  The strictest silence has to obtain in the reading room.  Readers are at liberty to take out as many books as they like from the shelves, but they shall not replace any.  All these things one accepts quite cheerfully ;  but when the librarian starts dictating, as he sometimes does, that nobody can use a pen at the reference desk -- not even a ball-point -- well, one does feel a little aggrieved.  But protest is out of the question :  the librarian's word is law in the library, and no appeal lies against it.

So as to enforce his authority and ensure that proper decorum is maintained at all times, the librarian finds it necessary to keep his distance from the visitors, and not to mix too freely with them.  That's probably why one usually finds him so matter-of-fact and aloof, almost appearing to be sulking.  True, he's always ready to come out of his shell to answer your legitimate enquiries, and to help you find the material you want ;  but it's futile trying to draw him into a  friendly conversation about other things, for he will simply point an accusing finger at the overhead sign demanding silence, and wordlessly tell  you to move on. 

--------- ----------

PostScript, 2014 

Image and environment

Half a century has gone by after I composed the above essay, copying the classical style, mainly on the basis of the impressions I had gained in different schools and the prestigious Madras University in South India.   I knew it must have had worldwide  relevance so far as educational institutions were concerned, and I didn't  look beyond that environment.  To that extent, the essay wasn't comprehensive.  

What's really amazing, however, is that the character and attitude of the average librarian don't seem to have changed basically in academic circles even in the technologically transformed world of  today-- which does perhaps make this essay a classic in its own right!

Of course, I know I have an obligation now to extend my horizon and explore the image of the librarian in the realms of public libraries and children's libraries  --  better 50 years late than never, I suppose!

No comments:

Post a Comment