Sunday, January 29, 2006

Serving the public

I am the librarian at a small public library in a rural community. Our collection includes microfilm of 125 years or so of the local weekly newspaper. Until sometime in 2004, we had a microfilm viewer with no printing capabilities. If someone wanted to take away information from the newspaper archive, they either had to copy it by hand or request a copy from the state library, which also maintains newspaper archives.

In 2004, thanks to the generosity of a donor and ongoing improvements in technology, we were able to purchase a microfilm viewer/scanner. It uses TWAIN (Technology Without An Interesting Name) to feed a scanned image of what is on the microfilm to a computer where it can be manipulated and printed or sent out by e-mail.

This piece of technology has been a mixed blessing. Our prints tend to be low quality with some areas too dark to read and others too light and most everything a bit blurred. I’ve invested much time trying to find the key to legible copies. The most recent breakthrough was when I discovered that our color inkjet printer gives better results than the laser printer. Things still aren’t perfectly clear, but they’re better. Trying alternative image-processing software has also helped.

This week a couple came into the library wanting to do newspaper research and I set them up on the microfilm reader/scanner, letting them know that we could indeed produce prints using our circulation computer if desired, although we struggle with the quality of those prints. A while later, they informed my coworker that they had found a page they wanted printed and I left my office work to assist with the process.

Could we print the entire sheet? No, only what is in the viewing area of the reader – about half a page at a time. That was a disappointment but they positioned the top half of a page of ads in the viewer and asked for a print of it. I grabbed the computer between patrons checking out library materials and did the scan. This was the first time we’d ever tried to capture the entire screen. I was pleased by the on-screen quality of the scan. I sent it to the inkjet printer and stepped out of the way so that my coworker could process checkouts for the next patron.

We waited. And waited. And waited. I checked to see if the printer was on. It was. Finally, it came to life and picked up a sheet of paper and printed a fraction of an inch. Then stopped. Then printed another small portion. My coworker reported that the circulation software was bogged down. We were obviously taxing the capacity of the computer. Mrs. Researcher found the process annoyingly slow.

Finally, the finished product emerged. I was amazed. The entire half sheet of newsprint was landscaped on 8 ½ X 11 inch paper and was as sharp as if we had copied the print version of the paper on our copier. I was quite pleased as I handed it to Mrs. Researcher. She, too, was amazed. “It’s so small!” Well, yes, neither of our printers accept 11X17 paper. Placing half a sheet of newsprint on 8 ½ X 11 paper is going to reduce it substantially. Yet, it was legible!

She decided it would have to do and had her husband reposition the scanner to the bottom half of the page. I elbowed my way back into the ongoing circulation process and did a second slow scan while everyone in line waited. I sent that scan off to the printer and waited for the results to be slowly rendered in ink. Mrs. Researcher opined that we need to consider getting a faster printer. I obligingly suggested that we could use the very fast laser printer if she preferred but that we had discovered the quality was better with the inkjet. She grudgingly waited. Again, I was thrilled with the quality of the printout, the best I’d seen since we purchased the scanner. I need to investigate further to see if the secret is in scanning a larger area so that the software isn’t trying to enlarge the area selected for scanning.

Mr. and Mrs. Researcher paid their 20 cents for two copies and went on their way with little in the way of thanks for services provided. I suspect they find no end of low-quality service in their lives. Imagine having to invest two entire dimes plus 20 minutes or so to get a copy of a single page of newsprint split in half and substantially reduced. You’d think they’d have better service at a public library no matter how small. It might have helped if there had been a computer dedicated to their project rather than used for other tasks during the printing process. People just aren’t considerate of the needs of visitors in these backwoodsy areas.

I never cease to be amazed by the contrasts in attitude among various people when requesting services. Most of our visitors asking for prints of newspaper articles are considerate and patient and thrilled to get a copy of the information they came seeking.

Then there are the others. We try to give them the same friendly service we give the congenial ones, but now I’m using my blog to inform the whole world of one couple's insensitivity to their surroundings. If you know someone with a reduced copy of a page of ads from the Odon newspaper, don’t tell them you read this here, OK? Or if you do, tell them only how grateful the librarian is for the renewed hope of being able to produce good prints from the microfilm scanner. Which is the honest truth.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


Yesterday was my 48th birthday. 48! How can I have lived almost half a century in so little time? I think I've run into some kind of time warp. This awareness is particularly acute when I have to choose my birth year from a drop-down menu. Scroll, scroll, scroll ... Past the 80s (my children and their peers), past the 70s (all those young parents), past the 60s (my younger brothers), and finally back to 1958. Can it be that I was born in the 1950s, that time of slicked-back hair and leather jackets? I have no sense of connection to the characters from "Grease". Yet, I learned to walk and talk before the 60s arrived. Can it be that I am a contemporary of flower children and Jesus Freaks and draft dodgers? Though I was only a child during those tumultuous years of the 1960s and don't consider myself a part of that era, I have to reach back beyond the 1960s to find my birth year. Ridiculous. Just ridiculous.

One problem with piling up 48 years of living is how the accumulated list of regrettable acts has grown so long and bothersome. I suppose everyone has done some regrettable things and said regrettable words by the time they are 20. If they listed the ten most regrettable memories, they might come up with maybe a few doozies and then some not hardly worth listing. By the time they're 30, they've added a couple more doozies toward the top of the list and dropped off some of those less memorable regrets from the bottom. At 48, the number of memories that still make me cringe long after the actual event has expanded to push those weak entries from my first 20 years way down on the list. I've had time to accumulate quite a number of regrets that, even with years to gain perspective and find healing, make me cry if I look too closely at them. The price I would pay to be able to rectify the most painful and humiliating parts of that portion of my personal history for which I bear responsibility has grown.

I remember a high school teacher once commenting that we remain the same person no matter how old we become, that he or she (fading memory has robbed me of that detail) was still the child s/he had once been within. Now that I'm at a point to better evaluate the truth of that statement, I'm not sure. Am I the same person I was at 11, that fateful year when my best friend moved away and left me to the mercy of girl bullies who declared me a social outcast? the year I discovered that I might find better friends among my fellow outcasts than among the popular crowd? the year my teacher smiled at me personally after years of feeling unattractive and/or somehow invisible to most of the adults in my life?

Am I the same person I was when I turned 20 and was planning my wedding and future? Am I the same person I was at 25 when I traveled alone as a woman engineer working for the US Navy in civil service through the Montreal airport and Canadian customs and drove to a company in Ontario? Am I the same person I was when I turned 30 and was a full-time mother to three preschoolers and took on the responsibility of keeping the financial records for my church? Am I the same person I was at 40 when those preschoolers hit adolescence and one of them closed the windows of his soul to me?

I'm not sure. I'd like to think that the forces that have shaped me over the years, including those regrettable moments I mentioned earlier, have changed me for the better as I've learned lessons and made choices in response to those forces. Although I am the keeper of the memories, both painful and wonderful of that little girl and young woman I once was, I don't think I would tell a classroom of impressionable teenagers that I am still the person I was when I sat in that high school classroom so many years ago. Experience, maturity, perspective, and my spiritual journey have changed me to the point that the people from those earlier times in my life no longer know me.

Yesterday I spoke to a peer whom I had not seen for years. We were once part of an informal college music group and traveled together on weekends. As we chatted about old times, I sensed a barrier between us. It may have been simply the years of distance from when we knew each other, but I couldn’t help but wonder if her memories of our times together made her less than enthused about renewed acquaintance with me. Interestingly enough, I sensed the same thing when chatting with another member of that same group whose path crossed mine a couple of years ago. Was I so obnoxious at 19? Would they like me better at 48 if they knew me? I suspect I’ll never know the answer to that question, although I think the reason I noticed the reticence was because people of similar backgrounds and circumstances don’t generally respond to my overtures of friendliness in such a manner at this point in my life. (Maybe they would if they tried to live with me for a few weekends.)

48 years old. I don’t know how old I consider myself, but not that old. There has to be a mistake somewhere. Right?