I thought the trouble would come in the form of a bitchy post-it note stuck to the book I’d requested. Something along the lines of This is the second time we’ve had to pull this book for you, written in red biro, of course, with SECOND in block capitals and underlined twice.
Instead I got a phone call just as I was about to board a train into the city. You already had that book yesterday, the voice said.
I was quick to set the record straight. What happened was this: Yesterday I tried to request a book from the stacks but there was a system error and my online request didn’t go through. I asked a librarian for help. He clicked around with the mouse. “There we go. Your book will be ready in half an hour.”
“Oh, but I wanted it tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll just put another request in for tomorrow.” Click click click. “Done.”
I’m afraid you’ve been misled, the voice on the phone said. It’s not that simple. We’ve got millions of books, and get hundreds of requests a day. We took back the book you requested yesterday and haven’t been able to locate it today. I’ve had two members of staff looking for it.
I asked if I could request it again for sometime next week.
No, it won’t work, because we’ve got millions of books and hundreds of requests to deal with each day…
“But what happens if you’ve got someone doing long term research who needs to use the same book every day over a long period of time? Is that not possible?”
In that case you can reserve the book. If you like I can give you a tinkle when we locate it and put it on reserve for you.
“Ah, OK, I understand. That would be great, thanks.”
But I don’t really understand. I don’t mean that I’ve got no sympathy for the people who manage the library’s huge collection, or that I’m unforgiving about the situation. I mean that I cannot comprehend what it’s like to work with millions of books..
A million dollars. I know what that’s worth, but I don’t know how many suitcases it would fill in $10 dollar bills. 10 suitcases? 100? A room full of suitcases?
It’s the same with the books. Are we talking about kilometres of shelving here? Is my book on a long overnight journey in a robotic car through a canyon of shelves back to where it came from? But it can’t be, because it took half an hour to get from its shelf to the library reading room in the first place, so surely only it should have only taken half an hour to get back to where it started? It must be sitting there on the shelf right now, right under the noses of the two staff that have been looking for it; that phenomenon where the very thing you’re looking for becomes invisible the moment it comes into direct eye line.
It’s the physics of the situation that’s so difficult to get to grips with. There must be some kind of variation in the properties of time depending on whether a book is moving in or out of the stacks, or a change in the light reflecting properties of recently disturbed books. A book black hole, perhaps?
It’s a mystery, all right.