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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Cause of death: Library shelf

Ten points Megs! ;)

Earlier this week I was diligently writing away at my dissertation. I have really been struggling to get myself to even open the file on my computer lately because I'm so terrified about the idea of having to write it all up and finish my masters degree. But somehow, I plucked up the courage to open it and had actually started writing, when I discovered that I needed a reference. So I did what all lazy post-grad students do: I searched the net for one.

I tend to use a site called science-direct, because the papers that it turns up are the best quality in my field and are generally up to date. So while searching through this site, I came across a paper that I thought could be very useful. There was only one problem. The university doesn't subscribe to that journal.

So, being overly dramatic, I threw my arms up in horror and wailed to my lab-mates about how my life was ruined and that I might as well just give up and open a hot-dog stand because that was my only hope of succeeding at anything in life. Or something to that effect...When Megan, being the voice of sanity and in the process totally killing all the fun of wailing about the meaninglessness of my existence, suggested that I just look on Google Scholar.

I did that and discovered, to partial relief that there was no such article on the web. So I turned to the solution of the non-lazy post-grad: The library.

Our university has a library web site that allows one to search for items based with relative ease. Occasionally you wonder whether the site was actually designed by a pot-plant, given the ridiculous answers it can produce to your queries, but overall, it's really not bad. I searched for the article and discovered that it was located in one of the universities 7 libraries. Which one? I had no idea. It was in a journal called 'The Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology', which as it turned out was discontinued. The reason being that the journal had actually split into several other journals.

Now, the way the library system works here, you are directed through the all-knowing site to a particular library and given the shelf number for what you are looking for. In this case, neither the library, nor the shelf number were evident. So, I assumed that it would most likely be located at the same library where all the psychology journals live and headed there.

I arrived at the library and asked one of the librarians at the front desk if they could help me. After explaining my woes, the librarian looked up at me and, in a sweet but obviously couldn't-give-a-rats-ass tone, asked 'Have you tried looking on the Internet?'. A little annoyed at the patronisation, I told them that I had and had found nothing. They smiled and proceeded to look on the Internet and then tell me all about how they had found nothing.

Defeated, the librarian passed me onto another of her kind. This one repeated the condescending procedure, complete with couldn't-give-a-rats-ass tone and the Internet search. Eventually, having given up, and leaving me feeling a little frustrated, he suggested I go speak to the woman upstairs who was in charge of journals.

We climbed the stairs and approached her desk. After making a half-hearted attempt to explain my saga to her (I'm not kidding! He started speaking to her in another language and, with apparent frustration turned to me and said, 'Tell her your problem...'), she began to try and help me. Her first response: 'Have you looked on the Internet?'

In all fairness, she was much more helpful than the last two had been. She managed to decipher the search results on the library site and discovered that the journal was indeed held in that library. She also managed to find the shelf number for me. So, having found the info we needed, this unlikely couple, a skinny white boy and a rather rotund black librarian, plodded off to the basement of the library where the journals reside.

Once in the basement, a sanctuary for the socially inept and dust mites, we began to check the shelf numbers on the rolling shelves for the section that I sought. For those who have never encountered rolling shelves, they are a fantastic invention, essentially a set of normal library shelves set on railway-like tracks which can be pushed back and forth on the tracks. This allows the library to have many more shelves and books for the same amount of space. The only real down side is that if you move the shelves, you can only really access one section of books at a time. And, any normal person who uses them cannot help but imagine that some unsuspecting student may move the shelves when you are in one of the temporary aisles, crushing you in the process.

The pair of us eventually found the section we were looking for and started to push the shelves back so that we could access the books held within. As we were doing this, we discovered that one of the shelves was stuck! This meant that the maximum space that was available for me to access the journals was an aisle about 40cm wide. Immediately, the librarian decided that she would go seek help and left me at the mercy of the dust mites (the socially inept aren't all that likely to attack, you know, the whole 'they're more afraid of you than you are of them' saga, so you're fairly safe around them...)

Up until then, the whole book-hunting ordeal had taken up about 30min of my time and so I decided to risk becoming human paper and entered the 40cm chasm that we had created in the wall of books. I frantically scanned the book spines on the shelves before me, all the while images of some mildly surprised individual 40 years down the line opening up the shelf as a crispy, paper-thin Luke floated down from the recently separated shelves. To my horror, I realised that the book I sought was located on the very bottom shelf at the end of the aisle. I could never get to it in this scenario as that would require that I be able to kneel down, a feat impossible with only 40cm of space in which to move. Reluctantly I retreated to the outside, resolved to wait for help to arrive.

As I exited the aisle, both the librarian and I, completely unaware of one another's presence there gasped as the two of us nearly collided. She had returned with one of the other librarians and was looking to see if I'd been foolish enough to enter the aisle just as I had been exiting. After some embarrassed apologies, we turned to the second librarian for an education in moving rolling shelves. As it turned out, all we had to do was pull the shelf along with the shelf before it. So we did this and it worked! Thanking the man sheepishly, I returned to the now decently sized space that had been created in search of my book. I managed to grab it and with my librarian assistant, headed back up to the main checkout desk to take the book out.

We arrived at the desk and we discovered, to my horror, that I was actually the first person, since the libraries on campus had gone digital to even look for the book, never mind take it out. So this meant that it wasn't even catalogued in the library system. Screaming on the inside, I graciously passed the book over to my assistant librarian who, with a jolly looking smile, waddled over to the lift to take the book up for cataloguing on the forth floor.

She returned about 10 min later, after I had been asked several times by clueless undergraduates whether I would let them print documents from the computer at the desk behind me, with the tome in tow. She had managed to get it catalogued and it was ready for me to take out! Jumping for joy on the inside I thanked her profusely and had the book checked out. The whole thing had taken 45 min but I finally had what I was looking for!

I got back to my lab and scanned the article, using our school's Bizhub (I am in love with a machine...). Once I was at the safety of my desk, I read through the paper. It was only then that I realised, as I read, that the article was almost completely useless to me...


  1. Wow. I thought that I was the only person who had had to brave the journal shelves, but clearly I'm not alone! And lo and behold, the shelf I needed also wouldn't move, so I squeezed into the 30cm gap and retrieved the journal, which also proved to be useless! I never even thought about the possibility of getting squished by the shelf - I was more worried about hardcover journals falling on my head!

    Isn't academia fun? ;)

  2. ahahahaa it makes me so nostalgic!!! ah - having to use a whole day being flung through wits admin to try get one simple thing done

  3. Sorry that I killed your "I'm going to die a hot-dog salesman mood"! However, I am glad that it moved you from the comfort of your desk....

  4. Those shelves scare me! I wish you could press a button and stop them from moving until you're back in the real aisle, safe from being squished (but not from the dust-mites)

  5. You see i would have just given up after not finding the article on the internet...

    I havn't been in a library for a very long time as a result.

    (yes i'm fat and lazy. it works though)

  6. He He, those journal shelves are seriously something else! I go there so often, and can never decide whether it is better having them there, or in the second basement of the William Cullen library where they used to be - the 2nd basement is super scary, especially when there is a power failure!

    I love Helen's idea, and think we should petition the library :)

  7. i really found your experience very funny.. really nice post.. best regards!