the library... a look back in time

The other day I was thinking back to this report I did in middle school on the inventor of the vacuum cleaner - and one of my childhood heroes - Mr. Hubert Cecil Booth. Back in the 8th grade, I liked to consider myself the nation's leading expert on vacuum history. After all I had spent at least 4 hours researching Hubert Cecil Booth. In childhood time, that was equivalent to a Master's. My sister did a report on the great state of Hawaii in 6th grade, which basically made her New York State's youngest Turkish travel agent. Thinking of that glorious, groundbreaking report (I'm pretty sure we all looked at Dirt Devils differently after that), got me thinking about the way people researched school projects in the 90's. Using the Internet to conduct research was pretty unusual. Sometimes you could ask your dad to print you some pages on your research topic from his IBM work computer. But that was controversial. The pages could get creased in his briefcase and then what? Complete and utter humiliation?! So, instead, going to the library and pulling out huge books from those exclusive research shelves became the norm.

And it was terrible.

For one thing, you had to actually ask a librarian to help you, which was a big deal if you were an unsure, awkward 13-year-old with a unibrow that just wouldn't quit (not that I know anything about that!). As if that wasn't bad enough, the librarian's instructions were in some kind of strange numeric language. A sophisticated code of sorts. You'd get a mysterious note written on already-used printer paper with a message that said "AB 103.2." Then for the next half hour you'd 1) try to figure out what AB meant (abdominals?) and 2) try to find 103.2. It didn't sound hard, but it was really just like thermodynamics. You'd locate 101 and 102, but 103 was a completely different shelf that rolled out thanks to some high-tech wheels at the bottom. And there were no decimals anywhere on the shelf, just a number of Marilyn Monroe biographies and some old copies of Good Housekeeping. At some point - after getting distracted by a "Will they get divorced?" story in Good Housekeeping - you'd give in and ask a middle-aged man wearing jeans and a matching jean jacket (every good library has one of those guys) what the numbers meant.

Thanks to some delicately whispered instructions from the jean jacket man, you'd locate the book. But it would be so far up on the shelf that you'd have to find one of those old library stools to reach it. This presented another obstacle. Those stools were coveted seats (I guess in those days libraries were pretty bumpin' and good seating was limited). It would be bad manners to ask someone to get up from their stool, so you'd have to use the one being used to prop open the bathroom door. Very suspicious.

After wheeling the stool to the shelf, you'd once again try to find the book's location. It was almost like the numbers changed the minute you left (possibly a sophisticated security measure to ensure no one ever found that book on cleaning inventions of the 20th century).  Then you'd spot it. There at the very top, hidden by a giant volume on war weaponry from the Industrial Age. And finally you'd have the book in your hands. Just you and a 700-page book on vacuums. You'd eagerly flip to the page on Hubert Cecil Booth only to discover that the book contained only one line on his contribution to cleaning history. Disgrace!

And so, you'd repeat the process until 3 hours later you found 8 books that had a combined 2 paragraphs of the great Hubert Cecil Booth. It would have to do. Triumphantly, you'd call your mom from the pay phone in the library lobby. "I'm done!" you'd say happily, as if you'd just informed her you finally conquered your bedwetting problem (again I know nothing about that! Geez, stop asking about it! It was only a few times!). Then you'd wait outside on the library steps, examining the scribbled pencil note someone left on the inside cover of your book - "ribbon." What did it mean? Lace ribbon or satin? And was the jean jacket man involved? Before you could come to any conclusions, your mom arrived and you were whisked away from that magical place of  plastic-covered books.

Yes, those were the complicated ways of the library. And it's one of the reasons I'll never forget the history of the vacuum or my gripping report on Kenya or my term paper on John Grisham's "The Firm." I worked hard to find that info. I investigated. I highlighted printouts. I drank from the library's water fountain. It was hard work. You might say, it was just like vacuuming (Hubert Cecil Booth you never cease to amaze me!).