The other day, on Wednesday, I had the most bizarrely difficult time I've ever had trying to, of all things, check out something from the library.
It had begun when my dad wanted to listen to a couple of music CDs, and I called the Glenview Public Library to find out before I drove over if they had them. They did have one on the shelves, but had to order the other from a sister-library in the same system. That's when all started to unwind.
First, to my surprise, they said it was going to be a problem that I would be coming in and not my dad, since it was his card. But if I was listed on my dad's account as having privileges, it would be okay. I'd never heard that one before (and it was especially odd since the library has self-service check-out machines...), but -- since I doubted I'd been listed on the account when it was set up, I asked if it would fine if my dad simply wrote a letter of approval and signed it. I was sure that would work -- after all, I was just trying to check out a music CD. But...no, that wasn't permissible. For some mythical reason. How about if I got him on the phone, he's just in the next room. No. Worse, though, as we were talking, the guy was checking his computer, and it turned out that my dad's card was expired.
Fine, okay, could I renew it? Sure, he said -- but my dad would have to come in. While I understood that policy (it's the same at the L.A. and Beverly Hills libraries), I said it really wan't possible. My dad's about to be 94, I explained, he rarely goes out, it's very difficult for him to get around, he's on dialysis, and it just wouldn't happen. "How about if you got him in the car, drove by our drive-up window, and we could deal with it there," the guy said. "Then he wouldn't have to come in the library." No, as I explained again, that wasn't going to happen. It's just too difficult for him to get out, and while he does it on occasion, mainly for doctor's appointments, I knew he wouldn't go to all the trouble, in order to renew his library card.
The guy asked me to wait while he checked with someone else. He eventually came back on the phone, and said that he didn't see any way around this. A person had to come in to renew their card. It's a policy set by the Board of Trustees, and that's the way it had to be, it's to protect people's privacy of information, and that was the requirement.
In my mind as I hear this, a multitude of words are bubbling over. I'm thinking, "Seriously, folks, this is about renewing a library card!! I'm not trying to get private financial data on Mitt Romney. This isn't a challenge to the Freedom of Information Act, or trying to follow in the footsteps of Edward Snowden. Privacy of information?? What on earth are you talking about?? I want to renew my dad's library card. Besides, a "policy" is hardly the same as a law set in the U.S. Constitution. It's a "policy." The first definition of "policy" on Dictionary.com is -- "A definite course of action adopted for the sake of expediency." Expediency. As in -- "My dad is almost 94 and it's very difficult for him to come in to renew his library card, it would be more expedient if I did it for him, and I'll bring a note." This can't be the first time a senior citizen wasn't able to get around to come in to renew their library card. (The library, to its credit, in fact has a great program where they actually go to the homes of homebound residents to bring books.) Moreover, there's a big independent-living residence just a mile away, where my dad lives, filled with seniors, many in their 90s and not especially mobile -- and an assisted living facility there, too, where there is no earthly way those people can come in. I really wanted to scream all this, about how insane this was -- a drivers license can be renewed online, so can an insurance policy, you can buy a refrigerator online or over the phone, you can renew your donation to a charity or magazine subscription -- but a library card can't be renewed?? Seriously? -- but I realized that we were in a situation where low-key, relentless politeness and patience was the way to fly.
And so, quiet politeness ruled the day. I kept saying pointedly that my dad couldn't come in, but there had to be a way to resolve this. Just had to be. He said he'd transfer me to the person in charge.
(As I was waiting, I wondered if it would just be easiest to call the elves back at the homestead who are expert in such things and have them try to break into Glenview system online, or perhaps have them organize a paramilitary assault, from the library card renewal division.)
I was at last transferred. When we spoke, the woman there in the Seat of Power mentioned that she was aware of the issue, and had been told that me dad had dialysis. I said, yes, but added I wasn't going to go into his whole medical history, just to get a library card. But I figured what she was getting at wasn't anything that intrusive, but rather that perhaps my dad could swing by the library after he returned from dialysis -- so I quickly noted that he had "home dialysis," and didn't go out to a hospital for the treatment.
She understood, but there really wasn't anything to do. After all, it was policy that the person had to come in. It was then that things got worse. Really.
Trying to figure out some resolution, she checked his account, and it turned out that he hadn't used the card in over three years -- so, not only was the card expired...but it was out of the system! So, there was really nothing she could do. (Seriously? Out of the system? Because the card hadn't been used in just three years? It's expunged? The CIA likely doesn't expunge records even when you die.)
Keep in mind, all this is to just renew a library card!
If the government had security this good, we still wouldn't know about the NSA and wiretapping of citizens. International spies would give up trying to crack U.S. secrets and just focus on other countries. If cyberspace was this protected, the world of hackers would totally collapse.
I did my best to remain low-key, patient...and unrelenting. Eventually, decency and common sense and basic good will kicked in. The very nice lady grudgingly, but most thoughtfully said that if I came in with the card and identification for my dad, she would do me a favor and update his card.
Yes, there is a God. Policy is not the final word. Midwest decency wins out. Huzzah!
Yet even still, the tale doesn't end there and gets funnier. I drove over to the library, had a very nice chat with her -- she was well-aware of the residence where my dad lives, in fact the Glenview Public Library has a wonderful program they run in conjunction with the place, where a library rep comes by every other month to lead a book group. And then she took my dad's card, scanned it, made a couple entries in the couple, handed me a form to double-check that the information was correct...and...That Was It! That was all it took to update his expired, expunged library card. About 40 seconds. Breaking all the rules against "policy." And the impossible, what couldn't be done -- was done..
To be clear, the Glenview Public Library is a very good facility. It's an extremely nice, new structure. Beautifully organized, a very good collection, many excellent community outreach programs, quite a few wonderful services for the elderly. But for some unknown, unearthly reason, they make it more difficult to renew a library card and check out an item than get a passport. Or a visa to visit North Korea. Those you can do by mail.
Reading may be fundamental. But getting the book is another matter entirely...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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