A library book’s long strange trip

When it comes to library books, I’m a borderline fascist. Woe be unto he who sells me a used book on Amazon and it turns out it’s a stolen library book. If there’s any doubt, I’ll hunt up the library and call to check. I don’t give a damn if it’s thirty years old. If it doesn’t say WITHDRAWN or DISCARD, or have some other official thrown-out stamp, I assume it’s still theirs. I’ve mailed them all the way across the country. I have also made more than one Amazon seller refund my money–in one case, presenting the alternative of charging him with trafficking in stolen property. It’s their job to inspect their merchandise before they market it. If it just turns up, and the library tells me it’s thrown out, I’ll write the date of the conversation inside.

My library is large enough to qualify as a very small, specialized bookstore, so at times I’ll find an old library book whose markings I never noticed. This happened as I was unpacking one of about thirty boxes of books here in our new home in Idaho. It was The Second Ring of Power by Carlos Castañeda. It had been in my religion/metaphysical section all this time. I saw the stamp on top of the dusty pageblock: BOISE STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY.

Well, how about that. I remembered this book. Back in the late 1980s, I was eking out my low-paid existence in a studio apartment on the third floor of a building at NE 50th St and the Ave (aka University Way NE) in Seattle, and I was sort of the apartment manager. That wasn’t fun and didn’t pay well; I was responsible for cleaning out storage lockers, running the trash compactor and kicking bums out of the stairwell. One abandoned storage contained a motherlode of interesting books, many of which were college texts on archaeology and ancient history, ancient drama, and some literature. Among them was Castañeda’s book, which I thought I might read someday, or maybe not. I’ve been carting it around for a quarter century, give or take.

By the time I got it, it was some eight years gone from its proper location, as I learned when I opened it up to check for information about discard status. Nothing. In back was an old school checkout card in its manila sleeve, with date stamps from the late 1970s, the last being in 1980. Students had signed with their student ID numbers. Children, this was before bar codes and scanners and databases ruled the library. Libraries had big batteries of drawers containing what was called the card catalog, enabling you to look up books by author or subject. Librarians would help you; they knew where to find stuff.

And any time some elder (the PC term is ‘senior citizen,’ but when I reach that age, I think I’ll prefer ‘old person’) tells you how much better the old days were, ask him or her about whether the old card catalog was more efficient than a search through a modern database. There was college before an Internet; everything just took a lot longer, with a lot more dead ends and lines for registration, checkout, and such. It was more tactile. By my college days (1981-86), some fortunate students had computers, and some went to a computer lab to do stuff, but the rest of us typed our papers on electric typewriters. Often three drafts. No. That was not better. Anyone who thinks it was, I assume, never had to write a college paper.

So here I am, just moved to Boise, and one of the first books I unpack is a BSU library book thirty-three years gone from its proper home. Every student who ever checked it out is now over fifty, as I soon will be. A few have probably passed on, too young. Anyone who cataloged that book is probably retired by now, if even still with us.

I sent it back with a nice young BSU student who lives in the house/room where Deb lived for six months before we made our relocation complete.

Wish I could see their faces when they pull it out of the return bin.

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