Those little inky numbers have just about evaporated. Back in the day, the librarian would solemnly imprint the piece of paper stuck in the front of your library book with a date stamp when you borrowed that book. This stamp told you when you when you had to return the book to the library.
The date stamps used to tell a reader a personal history of the book: how often the book had been borrowed. A quick glance could tell you if the book had been out five times in the last month or had languished unloved and unborrowed — perhaps for good reason — on the shelves for the past two years.
Your own personal “library tickets” might have been several cardboard pockets, each with your name on. To borrow a book was a complicated process.
You gave the book with one of your tickets to the librarian. The librarian removed the small card from the pocket in the book and put it in the pocket of your ticket. The librarian stamped the return date on the sheet in the book and handed the book to you to take away. The librarian then filed your ticket, now holding the card with the book details on it, in a small drawer filed by return date. That way, the library staff kept physical tabs on the books out of their possession. When you brought the book back, the librarian would place the borrowing card back in the book and the book back on the bookshelves.
Paper? Bits of card? Librarians? That’s so last millennium. What you need now is a self-checkout machine. (You do the work, again, just as you do in supermarket self-checkouts and bank branches.) As a borrower and reader, you can just pop your bar-coded library card into a machine, followed by a book containing a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag, and the machine will register your borrowing and create a return date. You can do all this without any need for human interaction. No-one will raise an eyebrow at your Fifty Shades of Grey or Trainspotting for Beginners.
The major flaw with storing information in the library software, though, is that the book then doesn’t tell you, as a human, the one vital piece of information that you need to know about every library book: When is it due back? If you’re efficient enough, you can print yourself off a little paper receipt containing the return date (and use this like a bookmark while you’re reading the book). If you’re not efficient, you will have to remember to check into your online library account to discover the overdue books lurking on your record.
There are many advantages to this system. Librarians have better information about which books are where. It’s harder to steal the books. But, instead of one piece of paper used to record a due date hundreds of times over the lifetime of one library book, we now have hundreds of pieces of paper.
And we just lost a librarian in the process.
I’d like to think that automation has freed up trained library staff from routine and time-consuming tasks and they are all now better deployed elsewhere. They’re getting books back on the shelves and guiding readers to better books in a flurry of renewed social interaction. But no, we’re just cutting costs and looking for volunteers instead. Soon, you may never have to talk to another human being in your library life.