Sunday, June 19, 2011

Library stamps

The other day I went down to the local library and wandered around looking for a book. I eventually settled on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I’d read it once before, at least six or seven years ago, and I thought I might take another trip through Hugo’s epic tome.

As with all libraries these days, the book has a barcode and is scanned, and a slip printed with the due date. After I took the book home, I noticed that someone had left their slip in the middle of the book. They’d borrowed it two years before, at the same time as an issue of GC magazine. What kind of person was this?

During the 90s libraries changed over from the old system of having a slip of paper to stamp the return date to the barcode system, and I’ve always felt that something was lost in the reading experience. Not a big thing, of course, the book is still the same, and from the library’s point of view it is no doubt better, as they can keep better records on which books are popular, how often they are borrowed, and so on.

The books that are consistently popular were not so interesting, they just had an endless series of date stamps as one person after another borrowed them. But I was always more interested in the books more rarely borrowed.

Who borrowed this book three times in a row ten years ago? Was it the same person? Why had no one else borrowed it? What type of person were they like? Were they like me? Would we have anything in common?

With the switch to digitization, this little part of the library reading experience has gone, and apart from judging by wear and tear on the books, it is hard to tell if a book has been borrowed all the time, or never left the shelf since the library bought it.

But looking at the print-out slip left behind in the middle of Les Mis, I wondered about the person who had left it. Had they been using the slip as a bookmark, and did they give up reading Les Mis half way through? Or did they just absent-mindedly pop it in there after they finished reading? Were they a deep thinker who borrowed GC in a futile attempt to become more fashionable, or a metrosexual who borrowed Les Mis in a futile attempt to become better read? Or were they just like me, someone who picks up different reading material on a whim?

I guess I will never know. But I'm glad that I stumbled on the slip that made me wonder this. It almost tempts me to get out unusual combinations of books together, then leave the slip in one of the book for future borrowers to find.


  1. Reading this made me think of the movie "Whisper of the heart" By Hayao Miyazaki, the girl in the story finds that every library book she reads was previously read by a boy she never met. She later finds out that this boy goes to her school and he did this to get her attention. Apparently Miyazaki met his wife that way, I'm not sure if that is true. Do they actually have english libraries in Japan?

  2. Hi Stephi,
    I've seen that film, and thought of mentioning it in the blog post, but I doubted that anyone would have seen it, so I left it out. I guess I was wrong. I didn't know that Miyazaki met his wife that way though, that is interesting.

    Japan doesn't have dedicated English libraries, but the few libraries that I've been to here all had some English books.

  3. +1 for being reminded of "Whisper of the hearth", what a great film!

    I feel the same way about library books. My university library has some wonderfully old books from the early 20th century, and I love looking back at the old library slips. It also may sound a bit weird, but I love the smell of musky old books as you open them up, it's such a unique smell!

    I used to volunteer in a charity shop (place where people dump unwanted goods, which are then sold on for charity), and spent my saturday sorting through books people brought in. People used to dump their books in plastic bags, and somehow looking through the bag told me so much about the person who donated them - were they religious, what were their hobbies, which authors inspired them, etc. Sometimes I'd get a donation of older books, and somehow I'd feel sure that the previous owner had just passed away - now just a collection of books to stand as a testament to their character.

    Good post!

  4. Hi Nick,
    I know what you mean about the smell of books. I especially like the smell of new books. It is not quite up there with fresh-baked bread, but it is a good smell.

    We all have a tendency to scope out the books on someone's shelf when we are at their place, and I guess receiving the collection of someone who has passed away is a little similar. With the person we know, of course, we are using the books to fill out what we already know about them. With your experience, we have nothing but the books with which to get a glimpse of someone we will never know, but maybe would have liked to.

  5. I loved that movie for it's innocence. It's mine and Little B's favorite and it actually inspired her to join her local library!

  6. That is good to know. I wish that "Whisper of the Heart" was a little bit better known, it is a very special film.