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Feb 16, 2015

How 20th Century: Going to the Library to Get a Book

The Library of Congress

Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me."

This morning, even though it was Presidents' Day, I walked to the library and checked out a book. As I walked home, I considered that this was a twentieth-century errand, an action already historic. Hence I shall record it here, for future historians to ponder.

            A friend of mine, the famed radical librarian Sanford Berman, had mailed me an article about Claudia Rankine, who had spoken recently in Minneapolis. Yes, Sandy mailed me the article, in the form of a "Xerox" or photocopy. Sandy does not "do" email. For that matter, Xerox no longer does photocopies much. Its website exhorts, "Go Beyond Print: Your Customers Communication Needs Are Evolving," and it is in charge of, inter alia, the Smart Passes that turnpikes use. So everything about this story smacks of the twentieth century.

            The article described Rankine's book, Citizen: An American Lyric, in ways that made me want to read it. In vain, I searched for it online at my friendly neighborhood library, the Library of Congress; either they don't have it or they have not yet processed it. Catholic University, even closer, did have it, so I put on my coat and walked over to Mullen Library. I shall share some of the experiences I had.

            First, it was cold out, 12°F. I had to dress for it. Dressing for the weather is another twentieth-century custom. Several years ago a time-and-motion study showed that Americans average less than two minutes outdoors in a typical work day (not including time in their cars, which is not outdoors). If you imagine for a minute the typical suburbanite, getting in her car, already at 60°F in its attached garage, poking the remote opener to her garage door, driving off to the underground garage attached to her office building, then retracing her way home, you realize that two minutes may be an overstatement.

            As I walked — the only pedestrian — along the sidewalk, I noted, and not for the first time, an accident waiting to happen. Pepco, DC's desultory public power company, has a pole near the curb, held upright by two naked guy wires that cross the sidewalk diagonally, en route to the ground. At the right edge of the sidewalk, the lower wire is less than seven feet from the ground; a foot to the right of the sidewalk, it is less than five feet.

            Probably this is illegal; certainly it is dangerous. At night, the wires disappear from view. It is only a matter of time before someone, walking or running at the right edge of the sidewalk, clips the lower wire and is injured. Even more problematic, cyclists use the sidewalk here, because Michigan is such a busy street and has no bike lane or even bike-sharing paint. A tall cyclist may be killed if his face or neck hits that guy wire. Other guy wires sport bright yellow plastic shields. I made a mental note to write Pepco about the matter, and after I returned, I did so. I sent a copy to the on-line discussion list serving my neighborhood.

            Also very twentieth-century, no? Actually performing a civic action!

            I crossed the railroad tracks and reached campus, where I saw more than a hundred students walking around in groups of fifteen, many carrying red folders. I asked two laggards if they were prospective students, and they said yes. Presidents' Day weekend is a big time for high school students to visit college campuses, it turns out. Thus I tallied another twentieth-century activity: engaging others — strangers! — in face-to-face conversation.

            Arriving at the library, I went directly to the stacks, another act that grows increasingly rare if not impossible as the twenty-first century progresses. I discovered that at least in poetry, the stacks were 4/5 empty of books. Evidently considerable de-accessioning has been going on. In the handful of books that remained, I could not find Citizen: An American Lyric.

            I went to the circulation desk, where a work-study student had actually heard of the book and even recalled checking it out and then back in recently. She asked her supervisor, who went off and found the book on the "to be shelved" cart. Again, twentieth-century processes: memory (human, not digital), face-to-face work associates, physical movement.

            Buoyed by my success, I returned home. As I walked back, now on the other side of the street, my way was nearly blocked by a limb from a junk tree growing in a parking lot separated from the sidewalk by a high chain-link fence. I knew that the staff at the bar, whose lot it was, would never notice the blockage; they never even pick up trash in the lot itself. So I pulled the limb all the way to the sidewalk side, then pitched it back over into the parking lot where it belonged. Another civic act, making for a better walk home for commuters from the metro. How twentieth-century!

            Arriving home, I realized that I had been gone for 40 minutes. I could have saved most of that time by simply downloading Citizen into my Kindle or Nook, if I had one, or perhaps onto my iPhone, which I do have. But then I would not have gotten any exercise. I had walked just over a mile and a half. Of course, I might have set up my iPhone or my Kindle in front of a treadmill in my basement and walked in place for 40 minutes while reading Citizen. Doing so would have enlarged America's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), because I would have spent $9.95 for the download plus electricity for my treadmill. Indeed, I would have made a major contribution to the GDP, since I would first have had to buy a treadmill. That would have been twenty-first century of me.

            The monetary nexus may explain why twenty-first century "folkways" are winning. It is in some people's material interest to persuade me to walk indoors rather than out, download a book rather than use the library, etc. I suspect it also just seems to be the right thing to do. Certainly it's the hip thing to do. Who wants to be twentieth-century, after all?

            Our grandchildren, having grown used to nature-deficit-disorder, having adjusted to a society without civic acts, having abandoned face-to-face interaction even when face to face, won't even know what this essay is about. Indeed, rereading it convinces me it's merely a fogey-rant.

            Nevertheless, I shall send it out in the world, to tell them what we did back in the distant past, in the late twentieth century.

Copyright James W. Loewen

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