Adding Machines and Libraries

I am old enough to remember when one could make a living selling something called an “adding machine.” It was fairly large but fit nicely on a desk and had numerical keys on its face (as one might expect). A roll of white paper sat on the top of it, the better to show the process by which one added, subtracted, multiplied and divided their way to the bottom line. Accountants, insurance agents, automobile salesmen, and other incredibly interesting people would punch numbers which would then with great noisy and crunchy fanfare be printed on a page to show how the potential victim on the other side of the desk how one arrived at this or that figure for this or that good or service. The father of a friend of mine, a quiet, somewhat bookish fellow (the father, not the friend) was employed by Honeywell or some such company and went around his region selling such items and supported his family by doing so until something called a “calculator” took over the world.  You can still buy adding machine paper rolls, and for a bit more than the price of the rolls, something called a “printing calculator” with a digital face and a fairly quiet printing process but nobody is making a living by selling the things. In prosperous times, actually, banks give them away to new customers. I felt badly for my friend’s father; it seemed to me — then and now — that he deserved better.

I remembered my friend, his dad, and adding machines (as well as telephone booths, hat stores in every major city, and a blacksmith or two in every town) when I came upon an article about a new library that doesn’t have books. The library is on the campus of Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, Florida. There are comfy chairs and nice lighting, and the like, and a resource desk with helpful…librarians?…but no books. I didn’t read about this in The Onion, unfortunately; it’s apparently a legitimate article from Yahoo! about a real place and you can read about it here. I probably should not have been surprised; my younger daughter went through her entire high school career without cracking open a textbook, since all of her study materials were online. That a college should take things a reverse step further, or backward, is not surprising, though interestingly enough the individual courses offered at the university in question generally require textbooks.

I get it, kind of. Research and reference books these days are of temporary value at best. The more we learn the less we know. Today’s conventional wisdom is all too often obsolete tomorrow. It makes no sense to replace a reference book every year or three (the Physician’s Desk Reference comes to mind) when it is available as a phone app that is updated more or less constantly. But. But. If we’re at the stage where a library doesn’t need books, why do we need a resource desk? Why do we need a librarian, when we can just pull our phones out and ask Siri?
This may be the first step in a trend, and there are advantages to it, but it doesn’t mean that it is good. I made one of my earliest contacts with an adult to whom I was not related) at a library. Mrs. Helen McBride, a librarian at the Lane Avenue Shopping Center branch of the Upper Arlington, Ohio Public Library, was one of the first grownups I can remember who was a friend to me in my somewhat lonely, very bookish early childhood. She actually took me seriously (which may or may not have been a good thing) and listened to me no matter how busy she was. I learned about an entire universe of books the day that she took me by the hand and led me in between some bookshelves and showed me row upon row upon row of mystery novels. My six year old self resolved to read every book on every shelf. I’m still working on it, even as I’ve contributed, here and there, to adding to the volumes on those shelves. Is that over, or close to being over now for kids and adults alike? I would hope not. I’d like to think that there is still a place in the world for the Helen McBrides who would take the time to open up new worlds to a bespeckled fat kid wandering into the library by accident or design. Alas, it may not be long before there is no “in” to wander into any more. It will reside in the same place that adding machine does.

Please read the article that was the saddle for my high horse (if you missed the link above, you can find it here) and tell me: do you think that this is where we are headed? Is this a good thing? Or not? Why? 

30 thoughts on “Adding Machines and Libraries

  1. My hometown library is a community center. People come not only for books (digital or paper) but to take a class that teaches English as a second language, to find someone to help them fill out forms for anything from renewing a green card to an application for senior housing, to take part in study sessions with other high school students . . . the list goes on and on, and our librarians always seem to have way too much to do, not too little. We need more of them–but, alas, there are budget restraints.

  2. Aaahhh…Miri, you don’t want to get me started on governmental priorities on spending money. I recommend that you find out where your tax dollars are going, dollar for dollar, and then advocate on behalf of your library. I was amazed at how little of my property tax benefited the local library system and how much went for utter nonsense. Good luck!

  3. Indeed, Joe. There was always a sense of wonder for me on a trip to the library. SEEING the books, shelf upon shelf. Being able to pick any one of them up and hold it (not even checking it out!) I wonder if love of books and reading can be inculcated any other way? Perhaps, but maybe not with the same sense of wonder.

  4. Jim, I think you hit it when described seeing the books and being able to pick them up. We have books all over the house here, in literally every room. A family who comes over occasionally includes children who love to read. They come through the door and start picking up books and going through them. That is what they are there for. I am happy for my Kindle and use it daily, even hourly, but it’s just. not. the.same. I’m worried that we are on the threshold of losing something.

  5. My oldest son is a librarian in Berkeley. He got interested in it because he enjoyed doing research, and loves helping people find the information they need. Today, anyone can find anything, but finding what you really need takes some skill.

    But his real passion, which he gets to practice as “teen librarian,” is turning young people on to books and reading. He’s particularly expert in “graphic novels,” which we always called comic books when he was a kid, and uses them as an entre into the whole realm of YA literature and the world beyond.

  6. John, that’s noble calling, indeed. You make a great and important distinction between finding anything and finding what you need. And I still, after all these years, love graphic novels. Please thank your son for all he does.

    • Joe–I would add to finding anything and finding what you need, being young and wandering in the stacks of a library with really no direction or intention in mind–until a title, the shape of a spine or some other momentary attracter makes you pull out a book and start reading–only to discover you’ve been there half an hour when some sound breaks the spell.
      And when you’re very young, have no power or authority, no “muscle” in the world of adults, it really registers to be able to take out books–from a grown-up stranger behind a counter who authorizes you to take them away with you and hands them down. Remember the small black boy in Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, fascinated by a huge coffee-table art book? Race notwithstanding, I was that boy.
      It all counts, and is almost certain to go the way of the dodo bird. Fortunately, not in my lifetime. But it’s painful to think about my grandchildren’s children.

    • Barry, you really brought back the memories. I remember the first time I wandered into the “Adult” section and pulled out a mystery novel, took it to the counter, and checked it out. I kept waiting for the net to drop over me. It didn’t. Thanks!

    • My dad made such a deal of each of his eight kids, when we reached five, sitting down with him to learn to read (pphonetically) and then celebrating the accomplishment by going to the library and getting our very own library cards. How could we NOT have turned out to be a family of readers?

  7. As a university professor, I can see the advantage to having text books be digital. They get large and expensive and students will often buy them and then only use a fraction of it, especially with English classes, which I teach.

    But I got my degree from UC Riverside, which holds the Eaton Science Fiction collection, the largest collection of speculative fiction in the world. We have three libraries, towering with old books and magazines. It’s a sight to behold. I love wandering random stacks, caressing the old books and pulling random ones down for a good read. Libraries are literally magical.

    You can’t get that kind of physical magic with a straight elibrary.

    • Oh. Oh. Oh. I don’t read science fiction like I used to R. A., but in the 1950s and 1960s I lived for the paperbacks, belonged to the Science Fiction Book Club, etc. There was also a used book store I used to patronize that had shelves full of Amazing, Astounding, and other science fiction magazines from the 1940s. I would probably spend days — weeks — in a museum like that.

      I’m with you on text books being digital. My daughter’s books run on average $150.00 apiece. I’m not sure why. Maybe we are all writing for the wrong market!

    • I did my Master’s degree comparing three sci fi books. One of my research items was researching old Sci Fi magazines. That was a total blast.

      And yeah, textbooks are ridiculously expensive, but honestly, authors of those books don’t make much money, or so I’m told.

  8. Also, is anyone thinking of Doctor Who’s Silence in the Library? Imagine a library like that! We’d never get that if we all went digital.

    I suppose I also worry about putting all our faith in technology. What if we lost all those digital books one day? We wouldn’t have paper back ups!

    • The cloud makes me very nervous, R.A. I can envision some clowns letting a virus or something loose and wiping it all out, just to show that they can. Interestingly enough, I had a conversation yesterday with someone about digital music and the rumor that at some point in the foreseeable future the manufacture of mp3 players will end as everyone will be streaming music. My taste runs to old and rare regional soul music that you don’t find on streaming services…I have it all backed to hard drives, but what else should I do? Throw it all back onto CDs?

    • It’s why I keep everything I own on hard copies. Digital stuff on external drives. As many physical books as I can handle. That kind of thing. We rely way too much on technology sometimes.

  9. Joe, you said, “I was amazed at how little of my property tax benefited the local library system and how much went for utter nonsense.” In Buffalo, New York, we have a separate assessment that we pay along with our property tax, that is just for libraries and nothing else. It’s $7 and change.

    I’m not that big a fan of libraries, but that Eaton Science Fiction collection at UC Riverside sounds fantastic. I don’t really like ebooks, although I’ve published a few myself … I like paper + ink.

    • That’s an interesting concept, Elizabeth. Are they able to run adequately on that funding? It’s certainly inexpensive; I think most folks, if they looked, would find that much in change on the floor of their cars. Thanks for sharing that.

  10. I grew up in Monterey, CA and I have been in shock ever since I read that a few years ago, nearby Salinas, CA had to close its library due to lack of funding. Salinas, as you may know, is the birthplace and home of John Steinbeck, one of the greatest American writers of all time. There is something so telling and utter sadness in this situation. I don’t fetishize paper books for the paper itself, but I do treasure the lovely serendipity of spending hours browsing through the stacks at at a library and finding books I’d never find if I was browsing my Kindle “Recommended for you” list. I do think that it’s a loss for our communities, schools, and our inner sense of curiosity to lose libraries and bookstores. Also, if libraries leave or go all digital, there is no way for folks who have no money to read books. Because even though you can borrow a digital book from the library, you can’t read it unless you have an e-reader.

  11. I don’t like the idea, but then again I grew up in the age of adding machines and manual typewriters. I noticed at least one millennial commented they didn’t like it either and enjoyed browsing through the shelves of Barnes and Nobel.

    • Joan, I think the desire to hold a physical book is something that transcends age. My granddaughter, who is seven, loves physical books. She likes tablets for homework but for reading she wants a book.

  12. Jeanne, I felt the same way that you did when I read that initially. I just checked and apparently the library — all three branches — has reopened. Ironically, the John Steinbeck branch had to close for one week this month due to…fleas. That’s another issue for another time and place.

    As far as borrowing books digitally, you can download free Kindle software to your computer and then borrow Kindle books from your library. Same with PDF format. Folks too poor to afford a computer could access one at a library. That, however, limits reading mobility, which is supposed to be the whole point of digital. Digital is great, but not to the exclusion of physical books. We still need the latter.

    • Joe: Oh, that is so good to hear! I’m so glad they reopened (although the flea thing is kind of weird). And yes I agree completely: digital is great but not to the exclusion of physical books.

  13. The jury is still out on this issue, but some studies have indicated that there is a loss of comprehension between “tactile memory” (reading a printed book), and comprehension during screen reading. There may also be some books which aren’t available in digital format. Not sure I’m ready for an all-digital library.

    • Kathryn, there are quite a number of books that aren’t available in digital format for one reason or another. I’m constantly surprised on a regular basis to find that this or that book isn’t available. Of course, my tastes in some matters run to the obscure — 1950s mysteries issued by off brand publishers — but still. And there’s nothing — nothing — like stumbling across one of those books in its physical form.

  14. Although different librarians have different sets of skills, there at least is the opportunity for some kind of curation and guiding that we’ve lost on the Internet. The misinformation available via the Internet is scary, and social media is no better, of course. The blind leading the blind.

    I don’t think digital searches can ever replace the wonder of finding a book beside the one you were looking for, and finding a gem, but I do fear that we’re heading there, fast and furiously.

  15. Great post, Joe. First of all, we had two adding machines in my father’s store. One of them was the exact model in your picture. The cash register was lever operated. The typewriter was an Underwood manual, which I still have.

    Mrs. Edna Liggin was the librarian on the bookmobile that came to our school every two weeks and to our community in summer. An oasis of books and air conditioning in the hot Louisiana summers. She took an interest in the books I read, science fiction, and added a few every trip just for me. Can’t imagine not having a library with real books. Thanks for a great discussion.

    • Lance, thanks so much for your kind words. But most of all, thank you for the reminder about BOOKMOBILES! I had totally forgotten about those. I just did a quick check and they apparently can be found in 49 states (Maine, apparently, no longer has bookmobiles. Can that possibly be right?). There were a couple of summers where I would have been lost without those. Thanks again for the stories and the reminder.

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