Friday, 27 October 2017

Reveries of libraries, the twenty-first : MIDNIGHT MAPS

The last half hour of the week has its routines: empty the paper bin into the paper recycler, ensure emails have all been sent, check the doors are all locked inside and outside the building. A young student, maybe 20, enters the Library. She is checking for work spaces and asks if she can work at the desk near the window. Yes, I reply, but the Library will be closing in quarter of an hour. This surprises her, as she believes the Library closes at midnight. No, I respond startled, we never close at midnight. Why do you think that? Because, she says, it says ‘Closes Midnight’ on Google Maps.

I did not immediately think, is any library in Melbourne open till midnight on Friday? I didn’t ask her, is any library open until midnight? I was polite. This is a sort of reference question. No, I informed her, we are open Tuesday to Friday, on Tuesday we close at 8 and the other days normal, 5 o’clock. She was not taken aback, just mildly confused. How could Google Maps be wrong? I was thinking the same thing, but not because my evening plans had been ruined by Google Maps. She showed me her screen, filled with a spiffing picture of the Carmelite Library’s exterior, a red pin stuck into 214 Richardson Street Middle Park, and ‘Closes Midnight’. I handed her the Library brochure, inviting her to visit another time when the hours stretched ahead.

Our dreams about staying late in the library are of a special nature. We imagine ourselves safely surrounded by all of that history of thinking and writing. Stillness and silence are desired. Midnight in the library is somewhere that is all our own, even as we continue our reading under the lamp of anyone off the shelves, whom we can listen to on our terms, there in that silence the mind rests into and enjoys uninterrupted. ‘The Midnight Library’ is a series of children’s books by Damien Graves, if you live in the United States, or Nick Shadow, if you live in the United Kingdom. The author’s names add a touch of mystery and imagination. ‘The Library at Night’ is not only one of Alberto Manguel’s most achieved works, it’s one of the best and most enjoyable books ever written about the places. That he used night in the title, when libraries are as much daytime as night time residences, conjures our secret interest in libraries as locales where mysteries are kept safe until their time arrives to be (once more, or at last) opened up to new eyes, new possibilities.

If that impolite phonecall from that Google person had not put me off, if I had given them five minutes, would Google Maps now have the correct times of opening and closing? If the caller had given me their name, would I have been more patient? If they asked for my name would it have made a difference? Is Google the lord of time and space? Of course not. Then I have to think about the student’s query. In the absence of more accurate information, is midnight the default setting for closing time on Google Maps? Why can’t Google’s nameless caller lift the Library times off our website? Is everywhere in the world closing at midnight that did not answer the call from Google?        

In a century where everything turns into information, the invisible networks of Google and similar parallel universes cover our world with their satellite infinity. If everywhere is 24/7 then even ‘Closing Midnight’ sounds quaint and outdated, as nothing ever closes. That Google Maps is fallible is, nevertheless, a daily call out, even as our Global Positioning System (GPS), that directs our car to the front of the Town Hall, has us instead driving into a lake. At 5 o’clock I close the Library, hop on the tram, and think about what to prepare for dinner. I hope she found somewhere hospitable to do her homework on Friday night. 

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