As a reader, writer and former English teacher, I'm more a buyer than a borrower of books. However, considering what I must have paid as my share of the monument to literature and the information age built in my Mitchell Park neighborhood, I decided to opt for my return of investment via an updated library card.
Andrew Carnegie would have been amazed at this 21st-century-efficient glass edifice honoring the written word -- it probably cost more than one of his steel mills. Of course, there were few cost overruns, change orders or union shops in his day; he could well afford the "free" in his gifts to American literacy.
Low-tech life also smoothed past experience. No bar codes or laser beams to complicate the two-week loan -- only an inked date stamped on a small card inside a book's front cover. Overdue fines were levied by a grim librarian, enforcer of the rules, regs and the quasi-religious library experience.
Times have changed. Palo Alto library patrons enjoy high-tech amenities in the luxury of a modern launch pad to the information age. The wide, inviting staircase led me aloft to scour the fiction shelves. Fabulous features on both floors carry on our city's love affair with lit-at-all-levels and connect users to the wonders of the entire world -- all in cozy comfort. Want to meet, read, browse, search, research and more? Options abound. Also, the staff's "helping hands" show, tell, instruct and explain. As my mother would have said, "A place for everything and everything in its place!"
After I chose a few books, a librarian activated my card and checked me out with electronic efficiency. The library and I had both come of age.
A few weeks later, I retraced my steps anticipating a state-of-the-art book return. Surprised that there was no drive-through drop-off, I parked on the skinny strip near the entrance, ducked across the two lanes of steady traffic and planned to enjoy my second Sunday-in-the-park-with-Mitchell Library.
In Palo Alto, I expect the unexpected -- but not a dark, closed library the day before the MLK holiday, and a Sunday, the one day I'd thought was the open sesame among varying weekly options. Disappointed, I could only leave my books and head home.
I pressed the green button at one of the two electronic return slots, ready to quickly slide in the book, bar-code up as a sign instructed, and ... nothing, not even a hopeful mechanical whirr. But didn't green signal "go" or "enter" or "open" throughout the known world? Yet the small steel door remained shut, like a maddening, out-of-order vending machine but without anything to rattle, tilt or shake.
I clutched my book and took a giant side-step to the twin two-button shelf next to the first stuck slot. I again pushed its green and beckoning disk. No luck -- no anything for either opening at the now non-automatic returns.
I looked around at the few souls sadly circling the area; their library foray also DOA. No help there. As my frustration and blood pressure started climbing, I spied a large, pull-the-handle-down-toss-in-the-book bin at the edge of the building. Low tech beckoned, the old fashioned, easy access return I'd relied on forever.
Already there was a teen-aged girl gamely shoving and wiggling a book into its... . Ahhh, I just glimpsed the bin's crammed-to-the-top maw. Sisters, no matter our age difference, we bonded instantly over the insane intricacies of late-stage electronics; we wordlessly shared the same resolve, to do battle with this mega-million-dollar dis-function-construction. We pushed together, shoved harder; still jammed. No room in the bin, nor anyone inside to breech the dammed collection.
And then, as with many happy endings, a Good Samaritan appeared -- an older, stronger, corduroy-clad action hero who came to the rescue. He flexed his fingers like a safe cracker, raised his arms with the flourish of a symphony conductor, then lunged forward to snake his left arm deep into a hidden space. He deftly managed to dislodge the frozen stack from beneath. As some books at the top shifted and slid over several squished volumes, his right hand nudged the girl's return into a suddenly empty crevice that even left room to lower the door.
As she smiled her thanks and they turned to go, I brazenly barred his path. I held out my returns with begging eyes and an appreciative bow. I watched, fingers crossed, while our neighborhood knight performed a second act and squeaked my books into the once again closely choked bin.
I will frequent this treasury of tomes -- warts and all -- that I helped finance. However, I'm reminded of the old adage of a stitch in time that saves ... what? Perhaps many an unforeseen glitch, like a non-drive-through book return, the awkward entrance road and an occasional mechanical meltdown. Not a complaint, merely a personal take on the few dropped stitches in the fancy fabric of the shiny new and mostly marvelous Mitchell Park Library.
Evie Preston is a longtime Palo Alto resident and former teacher. Now retired, she's returned to her first love, writing, as a columnist for Active Over 50 magazine.