Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Pirates of the LC System

Recently Michele and I staged a library raid--a daring two-hour adventure in the stacks at the new Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library in beautiful downtown San Jose.*

We began our library adventure by finding on-street parking, always a good sign. There’s a vast parking garage across the street from the library, but it costs $2 or more an hour until 6PM. The library is open most nights until 10PM.

The library building itself is airy and elegant, rising from the intersection of 4th Street and San Fernando. The recently completed building houses the old central library plus the San Jose State University collection--the first such collaboration, and a wonderfully sensible idea.

As we approached the broad terrace in front of the library, we spotted the café on the right. Espresso inside, tables and chairs outside. Next time we may bring a picnic and eat at those tables while we browse through our catch of the day.

Inside we found a cool, lofty hallway with rooms branching off it: a permanent book-sale room, a browsers’ library, a children’s library, a vast information center, self-checkout scanners, a branch of the city workers’ credit union, and a number of computers with the online catalog. Very impressive, though I dearly miss the old wooden library card files.

On one wall hung a large LED display showing a fluctuating number in the mid - nine hundred thousands. No, it isn’t the median home price in Silicon Valley, though God knows it’s close. My guess is that it’s the population of San Jose.**

We picked up floor plans showing the library’s layout. The first three floors contain the city library, organized by the Dewey Decimal System. The mezzanine between the ground and second floors hosts the Children’s Exploration Center and the Education Resource Center. Fourth floor is “a novel café” plus current periodicals (the older ones and the microfilms are in the lower level, AKA down cellar). Fifth floor is special collections, and oh did I yearn after them. Everything from music CDs and bound orchestral scores to the Steinbeck Center, the California History Room, the Multicultural Center, the Beethoven Collection, and a beautiful rooftop terrace suitable for weddings. The sixth, seventh, and eighth floors are full of the university’s books, cataloged by the LC System, plus dissertations, Internet hookups, and study carrels. There’s also a Martin Luther King historical exhibit somewhere.

Almost every floor has adaptive technology stations, copiers, and plenty of comfortable seating, plus good light. Scattered throughout the library are public PCs so that even the homeless can use a computer.

But before we could explore all these treasures, we had to know what titles we were looking for and where to find them. Michele and I each took a catalog terminal and jotted down the call numbers and floors (conveniently listed for every volume). It took a little extra time, because we were both called on to help people who had never used an electronic catalog before. (I guess we both look like librarians.) My list was dismayingly long, so I decided to start at the top of the library and move downward.

As I rode the escalator upstairs, I laughed aloud: facing the escalator was an electronic Rosetta Stone that scrolls a dozen different messages at once. The whole library is filled with touches like that--public art by Mel Chin.***

The escalators go only to the first four floors, so I found my way to the elevator bank and rode up to the eighth floor. There, I must admit, I got emotional. Because here was what I had come for.

Books. Shelves and ranks and miles of books. New books brave in their mylar dust covers, old books bearing the brands of long-forgotten checkout systems. Books set, printed, and bound by hand; books typeset on Linotype and Merganthaler machines like grand old pipe organs; books set on home computers with a few codes added by a high-tech type house. Books fragrant with the exciting fresh scent of printer’s ink and fine paper, books redolent of long summer afternoons in wooden-floored libraries. Books filled with words in a number of different languages, books filled with wisdom, folly, information. Books to make you think or feel or ponder or rejoice or change your life. Books that can carry you into imaginary worlds or help you see this one up close.

Tears came to my eyes as I wandered the stacks on the eighth floor. The joy and reverence and eagerness I feel in a library is like what I experience in a redwood forest or in certain landscapes: a feeling of coming home, being exactly where I belong, self and surroundings in harmony.

But I had work to do. I found a table and dumped my notebook and bottle of Diet Coke (yes, refreshments are allowed). Next time I’ll take my laptop; they have outlets for my power cord. Then I went into the stacks to gather the books I wanted. This was a research trip, and I was, for the first time in years, getting my hands on an academic library with more than a million volumes.

An hour of sorting books, checking indexes, flipping through prefaces, all in search of the background material for the current novel. Then my cell phone rang. Michele, on the seventh floor, was reminding me that we had to go soon.

I had sorted my books into three great piles: yes, no, maybe. Even after a ruthless culling, I had forty-odd books. Thank God for my Diet Coke habit. I had brought the soda in a double plastic bag--flimsy but helpful. I stuffed as many as I could into the bags, looped them over one wrist, and scooped the rest of the ungainly stack into my arms. I staggered toward the elevator, cursing as one of the bags ripped, sending a cascade of books on religious persecution to the floor.

Eventually I made my way down to the seventh floor, where Michele took some of my hoard to add to her dozen volumes on C.S. Lewis. Then we rode the elevator down to checkout.

The self-scan checkout station was familiar from our local branch library. Checkout time is three weeks, and patrons can have as many as 100 items checked out at a time. That’s an improvement over the old limit of 28. Unfortunately, the old overdue fine of a nickel a day has also been upgraded to a quarter a day. We will be very careful to return or renew on time from now on. The printed tape listing our books and their due date was more than a yard long.

We wrestled the hoard outside, passing the library book sale with only a few anguished glances. With the books finally tumbled into Michele’s car, we sped off, blissfully looking forward to the next visit.

My library resolutions:
Next time I’ll get to see more than a couple of shelves.
Next time I’ll see the other floors and maybe a special collection or two.
Next time I’ll stay for three or five or ten hours.
Next time I’ll bring a shopping cart.

*There’s no sarcasm in that. I love downtown San Jose, which has lovely parks, fine old commercial buildings, and some imaginative new architecture (the Children’s Discovery Museum is painted purple--how could I resist?). The downtown residential neighborhoods consist of tree-lined streets featuring Italianate, Queen Anne, Spanish-style, and Craftsman houses. Yes, there are some buildings that look like bad 1950s motels, but there are many more solid and gracious ones.

**Not so close: The median price of a single-family home in Santa Clara County in July 2002 was $564,000, according to this article, entitled “Stunner: Home prices decline in Silicon Valley.” This year, despite the current depression out here, “There were 1,714 homes sold in the Bay area in the second quarter for a million dollars or more, a 3.5 percent decline from the same period a year ago.” Think of it--in 91 days, 1,714 insanely expensive homes were sold. That’s almost 19 a day, including Sundays and holidays.

*** The King Library has a lot of small delights to offer, some on its shelves, some on its websites. Clearly someone is a trivia buff. Did you know that the library collections if laid in a row would reach from the Library at the corner of 4th and San Fernando to the San Francisco Airport, 36.3 miles away? Or that it houses books and materials in 50 languages? Or that it’s one of the reasons I want to stay in Silicon Valley?

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