on stamps and due dates
Shavuot is a time to be awash in words. So, to oblige this tradition, and to be well tucked in for the holiday with a riotous companionship of words, I paid a visit to the Johns Hopkins University Eisenhower library.
One of the things I like most about the place, besides their enormous collection, is the way they check out books. They have a hand-held dispenser that adheres a tiny tag with the due date right on the back of the book. The most obvious advantage to this triviality is that you know when the book is due at a glance. Once upon a time, this piece of knowledge was available on any library book. You could look inside - or more recently outside - any borrowed book and know when it was due. It was stamped right there with the date. The convenience of this no doubt was unheralded but nonetheless welcome. I dare say it may also have aided the timely return of borrowed books. Unlike today, when even a thorough inspection of most public library books will not reveal the secrets to avoid overdue fines. Instead, the due date is most likely crumbled up somewhere on that little tasteless receipt that substitutes for the satisfying plunk of a stamp. At best the receipt is lost in a sea of papers at home or more likely lying wounded and discarded in the landfill with other tossed receipts for cold medicine and gum. How ignoble a fate for a badge of borrowed wisdom, a prod to keep one's promise, and a symbol of communal trust and belonging.
For that is what libraries and their stock in trade, books, represent. To borrow a book is to temporarily be entrusted with a piece of communal wealth, whose use we are granted, serially and individually, just for the moment. When we are done, we are return the book, no worse for the wear, indeed perhaps better infused as it is with our spiritual patina, so it may be sent on to the next member of society. Libraries are symbols of this bonding we have, one with the other, a shared ownership that reveals - or at least hints at - shared interests, with at least a few others in the neighborhood.
The record of due dates could tell us that. We could see how popular the book was, how often it was taken out and how frequently. We could imagine this book in other hands, on other laps, playing in the imagination of other minds. We would know that this book had a life before we handled it, that someone read and took care of it, and then passed it back so we could enjoy it too. And we would know that we too are not the last to lay claim to this book but that we must tend well to it and send it back so that others after us may take it home for a while. We would be reminded of this all because of the quiet cascade of dates on the cover.
Today, we check out a book with the same heartless routine with which we purchase a consumable: scan the UPC and get a receipt. A transaction solely between consumer and machine.
JHU library, on the other hand, still affords that bit of humanity in checking out their books. Past due dates are visible on the back of the boks. These bits of seemingly disembodied information place us not only in physical communion with our neighbors and their appetites, even if only in our imagination, but they also remind us of the value of communal structures. No one of us could readily possess all those bounded volumes of words and graphics. And even if they did, what good would it be to hoard them?
I learn five lessons of life and sustainability from this quaint tradition of stamping due dates on books.
(1) It reminds us that we are all in this together. That all property is in some sense common property, that it all comes from a common source and will return to the common source, no matter how long we ardently profess to exclusively possess it. We therefore have the obligation to treat it well, not to degrade the principal, so that others after us will find stocked shelves just as we did.
(2) We may not always know when the due date is, but there is always a due date. We must always ultimately relinquish our "books" back to the source.
(3) That just as the wisdom and generosity of others built the library, so we must continue to add and build for others.
(4) That hoarding - be it knowledge, wisdom, possessions, wealth of any nature - is not only unkind, it is wasteful. What good are all those books if they are locked on the shelves? What value has knowledge or wealth if it is not used for the benefit of others?
(5) There must be some commonly-agreed upon, artful mechanism for sharing, returning, borrowing and organizing, else all would be chaos, fighting ensue, and great potential would be squandered. Though not everyone can have everything all the time, neither do we all need everything all the time. Therefore, we would not feel compelled to personally possess, and hoard, so much if we knew there were good stewards, whom we supported and guided, who were taking care of these precious, shared resources. Both for our generation's use, and for those who come after us.
All this from a silent witness to our shared source of plenty, if we but keep its trust: a running list of dates of when this book is due.