The very first article I ever had published in my local newspaper was the piece you’re about to read. It was the spring of 2001. For the first time in my life, I had a healthy bank account thanks to a six-month stint working for an insurance adjuster. Now free to pursue what I really wanted to do, writing became the focal point of my creative life.
While a student at A.M. Cunningham in the early 1980s, my homeroom class would go on these trips to the public library on Kenilworth Ave. How many actual journeys we made back then is forgotten. But what hasn’t been forgotten is the fact that despite always remembering to bring my library card with me to school, it was almost never at the ready when I placed my selections (always books) on the checkout counter. It was embarrassing. Why did I bother picking anything off the shelf when I couldn’t check it out? To this day, the reason why that card almost always rested comfortably in the confines of my desk instead of inside my corduroy pocket remains stubbornly elusive. It’s been a while since I’ve thought about this but there must’ve been at least one time (maybe more) when I did have it with me. I remember having titles in the house from that branch which were always overdue because I had to depend on my mom to make the journey with me to return them which, unfortunately, happened either a day or more past the due date. (She refused to let me venture too far from home on my own which was annoying but understandable.)
Despite my chronic absentmindedness about that damn library card, reading voraciously was a childhood passion which, thankfully, has carried over to adulthood. As the 1980s transitioned into the 1990s, class trips for leisure turned into solo jaunts for important high school assignments. The Central Library downtown proved to be more useful during this period than Kenilworth. Then, in 1995, two years after receiving my first CD player, the library’s music collection suddenly came into focus. (Almost fifteen years later, I’m still going through it.) And by the new decade, after a few years of mental fogginess and frustration, I raided their VHS collection to attempt to get caught up with as many movies I missed in the theatre as I could handle, when I wasn’t renting other titles. There were hundreds of these mostly private screenings.
But back to my piece. After quitting my job in April 2001 due to excessive stress and severe mental and physical health problems, I saw my doctor. One of her recommendations was to go see a dietician who would help me improve my eating habits and help restore the weight I was losing. (I was just under 110 pounds at the time, if my memory is good. I’m about 130 these days.) One day, while arriving for an appointment, I realized I was way too early. So, I walked around using the time to think about some writing ideas.
The Hamilton Spectator has a Forum page for writers to submit commentaries. There’s no money, unless you’re a paid pundit, but there’s always the promise of exposure. Around that time in 2001, I had been racking my brain trying to come up with a workable concept for that section of the newspaper. Anyway, while killing time walking around on a beautiful, warm, sunny day, before meeting with my new dietician, the idea of doing a piece about improving the Hamilton Public Library popped into my head. After my meeting, I went home and started working on it.
When it was finished, it was submitted via email. If your piece gets selected, you’re supposed to get a phone call from an editor who will make your day. There was no phone call, so imagine my surprise when I flipped through the first section of the June 27th issue and spotted my byline. What a thrill! After about two weeks of silence, there it was. It was a jolting way of getting published.
Although the headline was somewhat different from my proposed original (I don’t remember the exact wording but it was close to "How To Improve The Hamilton Public Library"), the phrase "seven months later" accidentally read "seven months late" and the word "hell" was bizarrely changed to "heck" (the original words are now restored here), the vast majority of my column remained unchanged. It was glorious and a big ego boost. I was finally a published writer. Not too long after it surfaced, I was at Kenilworth when one of the very nice employees there commended me on the article.
Over the next two years, I would submit more Forum pieces, none of which were accepted. After successfully seeing eight entertainment-based articles in the paper, I haven’t been able to have a tenth breakthrough.
In the article, I offer five ways to make the library better. Almost three years after it surfaced, the first proposal became a reality. Well, sort of. On March 1, 2004, The Hamilton Public Library finally made DVDs available for borrowing. It was exhilarating to be able to get so many titles in such a short period. (I had nearly 30 titles on reserve before the first titles started circulating. I could only take out 10 at a time. Yes, I got too nuts.) Unfortunately, instead of allowing patrons to borrow DVDs two weeks at a time like I proposed in the article, the library just gives you one week. Recently, they’ve introduced Express titles. These are brand new releases that you can get for three days at a time. That’s a great way to burn through the literally hundreds of holds these high profile releases inevitably generate.
I’m not sure when the library stopped issuing those silly notifications regarding the availability or cancellation of your holds (completely unnecessary, thanks to computers and automated phone messages) but I was personally gratified that they finally cancelled the policy outright. I’m sure they saved quite a bit of dough because of that wise decision.
Without question, the library has been very good about anticipating new DVD and CD releases. There’s still room for further improvement here but the fact that you can start placing holds on stuff weeks or months before it officially arrives in the system is a positive development. As for the rest of my ideas, I don’t know if they were ever taken seriously. I would love to find out, though.
"My proposals for improving the library" appeared on page A13 of The Hamiton Spectator on June 27, 2001. On July 4th, a critical letter appeared on page A10 from a former male school teacher in Dunnville, Ontario. The writer argued numerous ideas including one that DVDs are "easily damaged" and don’t belong in the library. As he put it in his opening paragraph:
"Libraries should not be used to subsidize popular culture, especially Hollywood trash such as Gladiator. Surely, those who can afford DVD players can afford to rent their own trash."
I agree that Gladiator isn’t a good movie but to dismiss Hollywood films in general like that is miguided and deeply unfair. The same place that produced that overrated Russell Crowe movie and other poorly made features also gave us Malcolm X, Schindler’s List, Apocalypse Now and a whole slew of pictures that are not only immensely entertaining but highly educational, too. They belong in the same place that houses Danielle Steele novels and Britney Spears CDs, the types of material the letter writer could’ve also complained about but never mentioned. (I guess DVDs are more offensive to him.) At any rate, the library should continue to circulate a wide selection of items as long as there is a demand for them, regardless of what one cranky letter writer thinks. It’s as simple as that.
As for DVDs being "easily damaged", they’re actually quite durable. One can have quite a few scratches on it and still play perfectly. Very rarely have I played a title that freezes or skips, although it has happened. Would I like to see almost no scratches on public library DVDs or even video store rentals, for that matter? Who wouldn’t? As long as people are gently notified to take care of the discs as if they were their own, this shouldn’t be too big of a deal.
On July 6, another letter to the editor was published regarding my article. This writer was in favour of having DVDs in the library but not Hollywood films which still doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. In response to the guy from Dunville, this person wrote:
"I live across the street from subsidized housing where many people are on low income or social assistance. A lot of these people have added a $100 DVD drive to their computer[s] but can’t afford to rent movies regularly…A DVD section in the library would be a welcome addition for people in their situation."
As of this writing, there are almost 17000 DVD titles in the Hamilton Public Library, including Gladiator. There are five copies on widescreen DVD plus three more on full-screen videotape. (Hey, Dunnville crank! Suck on that!)
One last thing. The untitled book about music mentioned at the very end remains unfinished. Several months ago, I gave up on the idea of seeing it through to the end. The topic I chose has turned out to be exceedingly challenging, so much, in fact, that there was never a reasonable way to make it work. Instead, I’ve been thinking about sifting through the endless notes and rough drafts in order to possibly offer selected pieces on this website. Maybe in the future I’ll follow through on that idea. We shall see.
In the meantime, enjoy this piece from my published archives.
My proposals for improving the library
By Dennis Earl
Whether you’re a writer, a casual reader or a cheapskate, chances are a branch of the Hamilton Public Library is where you head first for your information and entertainment needs. Last year, the library amalgamated with several smaller municipal branches to become one mega-library system, saving the city more than half a million dollars in the process.
The vast catalogue of items at 26 branches (plus the Bookmobile) is now 1.5 million and growing. Users from as far north as Freelton and as far south as Binbrook can use the system.
You don’t even have to travel to find what you’re looking for. Just reserve a title on the library’s computer catalogue and it will be waiting for you at your local branch in a short time, depending on the availability and popularity of the title.
As a kid, I rarely frequented my local branch. But, now, as an aspiring writer, I’m there up to four times a week, signing out books, videos, magazines, CDs and, until a few weeks ago, surfing the Internet. Since 1995, I’ve borrowed hundreds of items. And now, my choices have gotten better.
But I still have problems with the system. I have some suggestions to solve some of the system’s problems:
1. Bring on the DVDs.
When the original 12-inch laserdiscs invaded the North American marketplace in the late 1980s, it looked as if the videotape’s days were numbered. It didn’t happen. Video sales and rentals got stronger. But now with the emergence of digital video discs, things are quickly changing. They’ve only been around since 1996, but with 9000 films and counting already available on the new format, it’s safe to say they’re here to stay. New titles are released simultaneously on videotape and DVD every week. And yet the public library doesn’t have a single one. Why not? They’re cheaper to buy in some cases than video, they last longer and the demand is growing. The library should hang on to its video collections (from which many people still borrow) and move into the new millennium with the new format. DVDs can be quite expensive to rent, they’re not yet available at most local variety stores and not everyone wants to own titles. Most people, I think, would like to watch a film once and maybe see some behind-the-scenes extras that most titles offer. Now is the time for the library to spare some funds for this great new format and allow patrons two free weeks to borrow each title.
2. Stop mailing notices of arrived items or cancelled holds.
Even though the library has entered the digital age reasonably well, it still relies on paper. When online or automated phone servies already notify users that held items have arrived or have been cancelled, why mail notices telling them the same information? A complete waste of time, energy and money. The only notices that should be mailed are overdue notices.
Which brings me to my next complaint:
3. Be more diligent in collecting overdue fines and lost items.
There’s nothing more frustrating for a library user than finally finding an item in the library system, only discover it’s "missing" or "lost" or there’s been a "material mix-up". Why isn’t the library collecting all the fines for overdue items that haven’t been returned? Granted, you won’t get every item back, but surely, a sub-committee responsible for retrieving lost items and collecting overdue fines is a possibility?
Persistence seems to be the key here.
Unfortunately, the library isn’t tough enough in collecting money it has every right to collect.
Is it time to hire some goons or is there a more diplomatic way to get those fines collected?
Perhaps a collection agency might be of use here. Either way, more money in the library’s coffers would help silence my next complaint.
4. Anticipate demand of new titles and order them faster.
Sometimes the library is very good at ordering popular new book titles and CDs not long after they arrive in stores or, in some cases, even beforehand.
Whether they show up in the system at the same time is a different matter altogether. (It can sometimes take as long as a year.)
But usually, as is the case with videos, they can drag their heels.
I’m well aware of tight budgets and the reality of cutbacks from the government and reduced hours and staff, but couldn’t the library spare some money for items in order to get them into the system around the same time as they arrive in the marketplace?
Gladiator has been on video since last fall and it’s just coming in to the system now – seven months later. That movie won Best Picture.
Why the delay?
With more money gathered from overdue fines, perhaps this could be remedied.
5. Lobby for more donations.
There’s a non-profit organization called Friends of the Library, which is devoted to raising money for all the branches.
They do very well during their booksales. (The last one netted $28,000.) They need to promote themselves better with TV ads, radio ads, newspaper ads, anything to get people to donate money to a worthwhile cause such as our library.
Every once in a while, when a longtime patron dies, they leave a consideralbe amount of money to the Hamilton Public LIbrary.
It would be nice if living patrons, especially the rich, retired ones, would help the library improve by donating large sums of money.
If I ever get rich, I won’t forget this place. I will definitely give back something. But I’m broke right now, so it will have to wait. (Hell, maybe I should lobby for more donations to my cause.) The more money the library receives, the greater the collection of items and services.
Will these suggestions work? It’s all up to the men and women who run our public libraries to give them a chance. Either way, I’ll be continuing to find pleasure, information and inspiration within the walls of one of our great local institutions.
Dennis Earl is a freelance writer from Hamilton. He is working on his first book about music.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, March 2, 2009