I love our local library.
Granted, it’s not the most attractive of buildings, but it is light and bright inside, has a great children’s section with a magnificent elephant rug, and smells glorious. You know, that smell of old books. A bit like petrol flavoured sawdust – that smell.
So, anyway, I have visited this same monument to papery loveliness since I was born, and I adore the fact that absolutely nothing has changed. Nothing. Except I think they have got a new computer, and perhaps a new easy chair, and there is now a carpet covering the crazy mosiac tiles in the entrance lobby…but otherwise time has stood still, and that is just how I like it. I like that there is a ritual to doing things, I like that that children are still made to ‘shhhh’, and that Kate reinforces this if I speak too loudly. I really like the staff at the library, that you can chat about the books you are taking back, or discuss where you have got to in the books you renew. I love the ‘stampy-stamp’ sound of the stamper, and weirdly feel a real honour when they have to glue in a new stampy page at the front of the book because the other one is full up, and you are the first person to have a stamp on this fresh white beauty.
But then ‘The Machine’ arrived.
It’s a self-service machine. You pile your books up in a little box, and it scans them, and checks them in or out, or renews them, and there is a credit card and coin slot in case you have accrued a fine, and then it prints you out a receipt to confirm all or any of the above. But there is no stampy-stamp sound, no discussion of what is a ‘great read’ if you like ‘such and such’ as an author, Kate doesn’t get a star on her children’s book card. You don’t have to interact with any human being at all now to visit the library.
And that made me sad.
Thinking about it in a greater context made me even sadder. Modern technology allows us to save money, and undoubtedly increases convenience, but it is doing away with human interaction in so many ways.
There was a tale I heard recently of an elderly person who used to visit her local supermarket every day to buy some essentials. She would wait patiently until all other customers had been served so she could then stop and have a chat with the staff with whom, over this time, she had struck up a relationship with. It was only when she died, did a relative pop in to thank the staff at the supermarket for preventing this lady from becoming isolated and lonely. They were the only human interaction she would often get in a day. Great then, that there was another option to the ‘self-checkout’ (a term which now sort of lends itself a alternative meaning).
This, and ‘that Machine’ at the library has made me reappraise how I interact with people, particularly those closest to me. I am now aware of how long I spend looking down at a screen, how I ‘follow’ people I barely know, spend a healthy amount of time looking at the pictures of their new kitchen, when I could use that time to actually talk to someone I know instead. I interact with my friends over instant messenger, which is convenient, but I can’t see their face, hear their voice, and I’m sure on many an occasion I haven’t interpreted what they are saying correctly, because we are missing inflection. I’m sure there is also a delay in actually meeting up with friends sometimes, because the assumption is that we have already ‘caught up’ via ‘Whatsapp’. But there is only so much you want to type, to relay on a daily basis, to ‘bother’ people with often. Sometimes you need to be in the company of someone, put the world to right without substantive gaps in conversation (when things could have moved on anyway), and not measure how much someone cares about you by how recent their ‘last seen’ time stamp was. When you need a hug, a yellow smiling face just doesn’t cut it.
So here I am, trying to kick (in my view) my quite unhealthy habits of creating and maintaining relationships, whilst also hopefully setting an example to my daughter that a relationship with a person is far better than a screen.
Here’s hoping that will be the way of all things, that convenience and cost savings (at what cost?) won’t keep removing actual humans from our lives, and that, one day, ‘that Machine’ at the library can go back in the box where it came from, and where it belongs.