It's a Plot, I Tell You! Checking Out Books at the Library Will Never Be the Same.

Ahh . . . the good old days -- even during the afternoon rush -- when the desk supervisor at the Anacostia library hand-stamped due dates on books.
Ahh . . . the good old days -- even during the afternoon rush -- when the desk supervisor at the Anacostia library hand-stamped due dates on books. (The Washington Post)

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By John Kelly
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

There's an old cliche that librarians are dusty, spinsterish women in twin sets and granny glasses shushing patrons who turn their pages too loudly.

In fact, most librarians are liberal, forward- thinking public servants, always pondering ways to do their job better.

And for this, I hate them.

You see, by the end of June, all public libraries in Montgomery County will have done away with the date-due stamp, the familiar feature perfected by no less a figure than that Edison of bibliotechnology, Melvil Dewey. In its place you will get a printed receipt. You will also get a magnet so you can affix your receipt to the refrigerator. You are expected to have your own refrigerator.

"It enables us to get the books into the hands of customers faster," Carol Legarreta, the county's public services administrator for branch operations, said by way of explanation. Patrons will be encouraged to manage their accounts online, checking to see when their books are due, reading e-mail reminders sent by the library system.

I mentioned this to My Lovely Wife: No more due date stamps. I expected her to join me in my disgust. Instead, she said: "Good. I don't even want the receipt. I wish they would just put up a poster at the checkout telling you when books checked out that day were due."

Her sister's a librarian, so I fear she may have been co-opted by the library-industrial complex.

MoCo is just the latest area library system to deep-six the ink stamper. Fairfax County did it years ago. So did Howard. This week, Prince George's will start offering receipts, the first step toward eliminating the ink stamps totally. The District does both for now, though, to be honest, the problem is making sure there's enough paper in stock for the receipt printers.

The date-due ink stamp will soon disappear forever, sacrificed in the service of a supposed efficiency. This is yet another example of The Consumer having to do more work. Pump your own gas, scan your own groceries, remove your own gallbladder.

It used to be that if I wanted to know when a book was due, I looked at the book. Soon I'll have to get up and walk to the refrigerator. I'll have to push away the Chinese restaurant menus, school calendars, bus schedules, eyeglass coupons, dental appointment reminder postcards, family photos, dog heartworm medication prescriptions, "Student of the Week" certificates, Fauvist-style paintings rendered in poster paint on construction paper and archly humorous cartoons clipped from the pages of the New Yorker.

Of course, I will not find my receipt, so I'll have to walk to my computer and consult the book's sworn enemy: the Internet. Except I won't have registered for a PIN for my library card, so I won't be able to check my account online immediately. Or I will have gotten my PIN but I won't remember it, since I can't remember another freaking four-digit number!

My theory? This is a ploy to increase revenue from overdue-book fines. Most of us used to return our books on time. After all, we saw the reminders whenever we picked them up. But now we'll slip: a day here, two days there. Nickels and dimes, yes, but add them up and the librarians will be awash in cash. If you start to notice your local librarian wearing a slightly nicer cut of twin set and sporting expensive designer granny glasses, you'll know why.

I had hoped Larry Nix, a library history buff from Wisconsin, would be sympathetic, but he pointed out that public libraries have always evolved. They started in this country in the 1850s with a ledger system: The borrower's name was written in a book along with the title that was checked out. Then paper slips were used. Some of us can remember the next breakthrough: a dated index card inserted vertically into a little pocket on the inside cover.

Then there were those self-stamping stations. A failure, said Carol: "People would change the date on the stampers so they weren't accurate. And kids were stamping the tables and the chairs and the rug."

I checked with other librarians across the country. Several pointed out that stamping is dangerous -- it can cause repetitive stress injuries. Another wrote, "Messy and tiresome due-date stamps and stickers are a thing of the past at the Williamsburg [Va.] Regional Library."

Messy. Tiresome. It was as if he were describing the horrors of filling a two-stroke engine or pulling a tooth without anesthetic.

My blog: voices.washingtonpost.com/commons. My e-mail: kellyj@washpost.com.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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