And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

onsdag 17. august 2011

Jeremiad on the JBM

Want to hear a joke? What's small, cramped and thinks it's a library? The JBL.
- From a fellow Constantine's facebook status

So, on I went. I think I never saw
Such starved ignoble nature; nothing throve:
For flowers---as well expect a cedar grove!
But cockle, spurge, according to their law
Might propagate their kind, with none to awe,
You'd think; a burr had been a treasure-trove.
- Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, Robert Browning

There are many good things to be said about the University of York, who so kindly took me under its wings after I had paid for shelter, and one day I ought to write more about that particular topic. This time, however, my agenda is quite different. This is a rant on an aspect of recurrent frustration and anger, not only to me but to several of my fellow students. The matter in question? The John Bowes Morrell library on Heslington Campus, henceforth abbreviated the JBM. 
The John Bowes Morrell Library.

I do not know what sort of person he really was, John Bowes Morrell, aside from his title Lord Mayor of York and his crucial role in getting the University of York established in the 1960s. I'm quite convinced, however, that he deserved to have a university library named after him, I only wish his legacy would not be associated with such vitriolic reprehension as now is the case. But having started in medias res I should perhaps begin with a more explanatory beginning. 

During my stay in York I lived in Constantine House just outside the York city walls and my classes were all in King's Manor just within the city walls and it was in this vicinity I spent most of my time. King's Manor is the home of the Centre for Medieval Studies, a couple of other disciplines and a rather decent cafeteria, and altogeher I found it a rather pleasant venue. Occasionally, however, I had to go take the journey out to Heslington in order to borrow or return books at the JBM and it was a trial every single time. The reason for this is manifold. The key problem is that instead of purchasing their own curricular material, the students have to borrow whatever material they need save the occasional handout. Since there's not a copy for every student - which of course is economically understandable - the students are forced into a hunt for books where they have to rummage the libraries of York University hoping that no one has beaten them to it, and often they end up very disappointed. On my first trip to the university, where I actually missed the main campus and had to find a bus back to it, I quickly had the issue tossed at me when several of the numerous books I had planned to borrow turned out to be on loan. My option was to send in an order on them so that the loans could not be renewed, but since they already were unavailable the very week I needed them, I saw no point in doing so, especially since this would cause frustration for the students in question. I did of course manage to find some material, particularly since the King's Manor Library has a nice enough collection, at least they had for a short while, but often I felt a sense of despair creeping up on me because my reading was hostage to the planning and resolution of my fellow students who of course were by then already familiar with the system.
 Some abandoned alien starship now serving as...well, God knows.

Beside the University system the very venue itself was a difficult thing to endure. The JBM is, like the entire Heslington Campus, a monstrosity of modern architecture, designed largely in the '60s and looking like some refuse from a bad science fiction movie from that particular era. The contrast to the old-fashioned, stylish and highly charming architecture of the city was appalling, and when considering the beautiful campus of Oxford University, as seen in the tv series Inspector Morse and Lewis, I couldn't help feeling a bit disappointed whenever I gazed at the soulless cluster of shapes sprawling the landscape like a colony of dead arthropods from a bygone era. 
Since our longest Sunne sets at right descensions, and makes but winter arches, and therefore it cannot be long before we lie down in darknesse and have our light in ashes.
- Thomas Browne, Urne Buriall

Once inside the library building I would very often feel an intense desire to get the hell out of there as quick as possible, a very unnatural reaction for a man who considers libraries sacred ground and has devoted very much of his time to compile his own humble collection of books. The reasons for this idiosyncracy, however, were first of all the ridiculously high temperature which felt even higher when coming in on a crisp February afternoon, and which had me sweating even before I started the ascent of the staircase. Secondly it was very difficult to orientate oneself among the various sections of the library and to me it made no sense, and it still doesn't, that the section for history books is labelled "qt" rather than something intelligible like the obvious abbreviation "HIST". In addition to this you are required to take the book back home to your flat and read it there unless you have had the foresight to book a reading room one week in advance, despite the fact that several rooms were unoccupied. These mechanisms served to intensify the stress already inherent in the competitive booksearch, and the planning required such detail that I in the end decided against it and sought to weather the storm as best I could with what material it tossed in my way.

I do admit freely that much of this frustration and anger could have been avoided on my part had I put more effort into planning ahead and adapting to the requirements of the system. However, I soon discovered I was not the only one who felt a certain animosity towards this failed emulation of the sacred concept named the Library. I often encountered horror stories of failed quests and broken aspirations where the JBM played a crucial part, where it appeared as a temple of doom that sucked out the souls of devotees, chewed them up and returned them badly scathed upon departure. A prime example of this was the information meeting on the exam assignments which was followed by a session where the students were encouraged to voice their grievances and opinions, and to my petty delight it turned out to be a pleasantly long verbal harrying of the JBM and its numerous shortcomings, a harrying which the CMS representative agreed to and subscribed to completely and without reservations.

My final encounter with the JBM will hopefully serve as a practical example of how unhelpful the system itself is. This took place the last Saturday of March and I had to deliver a number of books since I was leaving York the next day. In addition to a number of books from the JBM - among them a short term loan book which I had had in possession two days longer than allowed - I brought with me a number of books from to the beautiful York Minster Library which also belongs to the University of York library system and which is closed on Saturdays. As I was returning my loot the man behind the counter told me I couldn't deliver the York Minster Library books anywhere but the York Minster Library. I should of course have foreseen this considering students are not allowed to order books to whatever library is closest, instead they are forced to conduct a tour of the realm to search - often in vain - for books throughout the scattered members of the hydra known as York University Library. Fortunately, however, the problem lies in the system, not its people, and when I had explained I was leaving the country in not long, he agreed very kindly to ship them to York Minster Library at the next delivery, because, you see, there is correspondence between the branches, it is just not open for students to take advantage of. However, after I had paid my fines to JBM and York Minster Library and left the country, I received e-mails for about two weeks from the latter asking me to return my books. In the second week, when the tone of the e-mails had hardened a little, I explained the case to them and received a reply saying the books had just arrived. 

As is evident I have had a bone to pick with JBM and I have had it for quite some time. This is meant as a warning to any readers who might be toying with the idea of studying in York. My message is not that you should avoid this, quite the contrary, I strongly encourage anyone to do so. However, it should be noted that despite the many good things about the University, such as a friendly staff, excellent courses and various perks like free admission at museums, the JBM library, the main campus library, is a disgrace to the very concept of a Library and it is the first library ever to have caused any resentment to surface in me. I pray that whenever Britain gets out of the financial mud it now stands waist deep in, some serious alterations of logistics will take place in the JBM.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
- La Belle Dame Sans Merci, John Keats

 The sun, which was burning red behind us,
Was interrupted in front by my shadow,
For its rays were stopped as I stood there.
- Purgatorio, Dante Alighieri (translated by Charles Sisson)

What in the midst lay but the Tower itself?
The round squat turret, blind as the fool’s heart,
Built of brown stone, without a counter-part
In the whole world. The tempest’s mocking elf
Points to the shipman thus the unseen shelf
He strikes on, only when the timbers start.
- Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, Robert Browning

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