Self-Checkout Blues

Can a library be too modern?

When my family first moved to Novato from Ohio back in 1985, we delighted in the Novato library—so airy, pleasant and well-stocked, unlike our old library. Almost 30 years later, some exterior changes have been made to the library building where practicality has won out over aesthetics, but that is a small complaint.

However, over the past several years, I have had to visit the Marin County Civic Center so often that I began to frequent that library instead. I began to prefer it, even when it became less convenient. Visits to the Civic Center library still give me that childlike library joy. I find myself leaving with such a heavy, teetering pile of books that I begin to feel a pleasant embarrassment at my greed. In contrast, visits to the Novato library had become slightly depressing.

Finally, I realized what the Civic Center has that the Novato library no longer does: people. That is, the Civic Center library still uses the old-timey, “retro” method of patrons standing at the counter while an employee helps them check out books.

In contrast, self-service stations at the Novato library have replaced human employees. I was truly surprised that this would matter so much, but it does.

Perhaps cutting human interaction from our lives is the new “normal,” touted as convenient and faster, seen also in the rise of self-checkout lines at supermarkets and home-improvement stores. However, I believe that when we begin to subtract human interaction from our lives, we lessen our quality of life.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Luddite. Computers have become indispensable to libraries, and I wouldn’t go back. It is almost unfathomable to me now that I was ever able to research books using only a card catalogue. But computers shouldn’t replace all aspects of the library.

Therefore, I was dismayed to learn that the Civic Center library might also be replacing some employees with self-service stations. If that is true, I plan on driving to whatever library in Marin still employs people to check out books. And if those libraries also go the way of Novato? Well, I was thinking of moving anyway.

Kate James is an avid reader living in Novato.

Open Mic is a weekly op/ed feature in the Bohemian. We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 350 words considered for publication, write [email protected].