21 November 2010

Day 239: Behemoth

Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld.  ISBN: 9781416971757.

You know what makes me a happy person?  When authors write about libraries.  Especially when those authors depict them in a positive light; brownie points when they make them cool.  Well, what would be cooler than a steampunk library?  And I am not talking about a collection of books on steampunk or of the genre...  I am talking about a library that runs on steam/mechanics.  I've got to say, I love the imagination that Westerfeld put into this one, because libraries do tend to be a little slow on the technological uptake (those of you who have public libraries that don't have their own Facebook page yet will know what I'm talking about).  This is starting to change as younger librarians are entering the field and it's becoming cool to not only be nerdy, but well read and into books.  Trust me, it is, I would much rather talk to a person holding a paperback than a cigarette.  True story.

So what does Westerfeld's library look like?  Well, it has closed stacks for one.  This means that you have to approach a librarian and ask for the books you're looking for, and they retrieve them for you.  This has a lot of benefit for both librarian and patron, though it also has a lot of downsides.  Benefits include the books being in the right place all of the time, so they are more easily and quickly found.  Said books are less likely to be damaged, because if you have to turn it back in to the librarian by hand, they will give you a disapproving look if it is soiled or has a cracked spine.*  The downsides include a lack of privacy; someone will know that you're looking up information about STDs, adoption, or that weird toe fungus you can't get rid of.  And Westerfeld actually pointed out the biggie of the closed stack problem, which I give him major bonus points for: browsing.

You can't browse a closed stack, although that's gotten easier with online catalogs since you can now do call number searches/browsing in the catalog.  But retrieving your own books has the benefit of calling up materials that didn't sound relevant in the catalog, or didn't sound relevant to the librarian when you were describing your project, but that you just know are going to be useful.  I cannot tell you the number of times I have found research gems I hadn't planned for while looking for something almost completely different.  Sometimes it gave me a means of broadening my topic when I realized there wasn't enough research to write that 30 page paper on opium use in Irish communities during the 1920's in rural Ohio, or sometimes it let me know that I needed to narrow my topic when I found too many resources on women in the military during World War II. This also applies to pleasure reading, of course, but closed stacks are most likely to be present in academic libraries, with the exception of more prudish communities that might keep the "naughty" books away from the general public.

Uh... enough with the boring library rant.  Okay, so!  Gadgets!  There are gadgets that get your books for you from the closed stacks so you don't have to get your grubby hands all over the books!  The drawing of the clockwork mechanism looks somewhat like a cross between a grasshopper and a heavy duty stapler with a clamp on its back that holds the books in place after retrieval.**  Apparently you insert a punched card into a machine and it gives instructions to the retrieval unit, you go sit your butt down at an assigned carrel and it brings you the books!  I'm sorry, I think this is cool, I can imagine a whole library full of tiny crawling metal grasshoppers.  I bet it would be pretty noisy though with all the tinkling and whirring of spinning gears and metal.  But think of the room you could save if people didn't actually have to go into the stacks!  You could have bookcases less than a foot away from each other and the clockworks wouldn't care!

Actually, we have libraries that are set up like this in some ways.  You won't see this in a regular library, but there are book depositories for large university libraries and/or library consortia.  Books are actually stored by size, because it makes more sense in a non-browsing collection.  The boxes are tagged and in the catalog or computer software, it marks which box a specific book is in.  Then they're put on shelves and retrieved and replaced by giant metal robot arms that know where said book is and go fetch it.  Of course, then a human worker has to go into the box and pick out the exact book, but it's still pretty neat.  Here's more info on a local to me book depository.

I was going to get into the future of libraries/librarians (the next person who says they won't be necessary will be chained to a desk and forced to wade through the results of a crappy search string on Google), but um, this has gone on long enough don't you think?

*You don't have to crack the book open, if you do open it and hear that sound, congratulations, you've just ruined your book and it will start falling apart shortly.  
**The illustrations in this novel are borderline necessary, and definitely enrich the reading experience in an impressive way.  The illustrator and author came up with some very nice moments to illustrate instead of just slapping them in where they were most convenient.  

This was a pretty apt review from One Librarian's Book Reviews, and I agree with the statement about the cover switcheroo from A Dribble of Ink.  If I had plans for collecting these books, I would be beyond pissed off, because the original Leviathan cover was freaking awesome.

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