Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Adventures in a Spanish Library

This may seem completely irrelevant, considering all else that's going on in my world right now, but I woke up in the middle of the night the other night, and this is what came pouring out. Just thought I'd share...

I miss libraries. Really big University libraries in particular. This may seem like an odd thing to miss, but there is definitely something to be said about being able to wander among thousands and thousands of books, touching the spines, pulling something that catches your eye off the shelf, sitting down between the stacks and taking a peek to see if it’s something you really want.

There’s a peculiar smell about libraries – a little musty, dusty, forgotten and old. But it never ceases to make me feel like I’ve found some secret treasure – a little giddy just to be there. I can spend hours and hours and hours in big libraries. There’s so much to look at – a never ending supply of things to open your eyes and your mind. And it’s all free and accessible to anyone who wants to spend the time looking.

Finding a book is relatively easy in the States. You have computers with special programs to find a book by title, author, subject, keyword, publisher, you name it, you can search for it. And not only will it tell you where in the library to go find it, but if it’s been checked out, when it is due to be back in, and how many copies they have. It’s brilliant really. Which brings me to the point of all of this – the library experience at a European University.

Granted, my only experience with the European University library system was in Spain at a University that shall remain nameless. However, it was so horrible, that I have sworn off them since. Here in Kosovo, I'm just plain too chicken. They are still on a paper card catalog system - the shock and horror to discover that, PLUS, it's all in Albanian, which I don't speak at all, even after 6 months of living here. I can order coffee, but ordering a book is beyond my grasp of the tongue.

So back to Spain - When I first walked in I waited for that library smell to hit me – years of books that had gone undiscovered, just waiting for my wandering hands to draw a finger across their spines and ease them from the shelf. Instead, it smelled of antiseptic floor cleaner and furniture polish. I looked around me, but all I saw were rows and rows of study cubicles full of students diligently pouring over stacks of papers, and the occasional book. Where were the book stacks? Where were the volumes and volumes in great rows that needed step-ladders to get to the higher shelves? Dismayed, I walked to the information desk and in my broken Spanish asked innocently “Where are all the books?” The librarian looked at me as if I had three heads, and said “In the reserves of course. What book are you looking for?”

Now if that isn’t the greatest question of all time. Therein lies the problem with the European system. If I knew what I was looking for, I wouldn’t be doing research in the first place. I wanted to browse, see if anything caught my interest, find something new to pour over for the next week. Uh-uh. Not there.You had to have already done extensive research to find a title you were interested in, a specific journal, with article name, author and date of publication before you ever even considered speaking with a librarian.

Now, at this University, they did have sort of a catalog system, but the depth of the information was elementary. Say for example I was looking for a comparative grammar of English and Spanish – keywords English and Spanish grammar. Unless the book or article had those specific words in the TITLE, you would come up with a blank page asking you to broaden your search and try again. Poop. How does anyone do research like this??? If you got lucky and you actually came across something that may have a glimmer of something you’re interested in in it, you then had to fill out a tiny slip of paper with every ounce of personal information you have – birth date, professor, name of course the books are for, your bank account number and your mother’s mother’s maiden name. You then took this little slip of highly confidential information to the retrieval desk, where some 18-year-old smirky student studied it very carefully and finally granted you persmission to see the book. If you had expected to get this book anytime in the near future, you would have been sorely disappointed. She would then tell you (seriously smirking, of course) to come back in 20 minutes to 2 hours. Where was this book? Siberia?

Mind you, this is the procedure if you were even in the right library. You see, there wasn’t just one library, there were at least 10 – one for each faculty, and little to no crossover between the content of each. Many times I took my little slip of paper to the desk only to find out that the book actually was in the branch of the library in Siberia and that’s where I would have to go to request it. Then I could sit there and wait 20 minutes to 2 hours while they retrieved the book from South America. This is really fun, isn’t it?

So you wait and wait and wait. When the book finally arrives, you check the index quickly to see if your needed topic is covered, scan a few pages, decide it’s completely irrelevant and start the whole miserable process over again. You are also limited to viewing three books at a time. So if you do actually find something relevant, you have to give it back to look at more useless materials.

It gets better. The really fun part is requesting something that’s in a special collection. When Smirky Smirkerton takes your slip of paper, she will then cautiously peer at you over the top of her glasses with one eyebrow raised, and quietly whisper, “follow me”. She will then escort you through a maze of hallways and corridors to a room with shelves of books (yes, real books!) in locked glass cases (rats, you still can’t smell them). She will then whisper quietly to the attendant there who will again look you up and down, and when she has apparently deemed you worthy, puts on a pair of white cotton gloves, unlocks a case, and removes the book in question. She then will proceed to open the book and hold it out in front of you and ask you what you would like to see. Once, I made the sorry mistake of reaching out to flip through the index. The book was quickly yanked from my reach, and if she had been quicker, I’m sure she would have slapped my hand. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with all this. Let me get this right - so I could look at the book, but I couldn’t touch it? That was correct. I couldn’t even turn the page, she had to do it for me. For all of this precaution, you would think that I was looking at an original manuscript of the Bible. But honestly, it was just a book on linguistic theory. Who could possibly want to be so protective of linguistic theory?? I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I was sure that I wouldn’t find it with someone else holding the book. This system was obviously just not going to work with me. In utter exasperation I left the library and went home and read some trash novel in two hours instead. It was a book I could touch, dog-ear the pages, spill salsa on, and not get arrested for it. I sniffed at it just for fun, smelled like book. Good.

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