There are two sins you can commit in Toronto: Knowing better and acting like it. And I do both

OH HAI again. I had another nice visit to Jones branch yesterday, as most of my visits there are. Actually, recently I’ve been telling myself, as if rehearsing for this posting, that as long as I am welcome at Jones I will be doing all right. Staff there occasionally have their off days, but I don’t hold back from visiting there.

But are you like me? Do you carefully weigh the cost/benefit ratio of visiting certain branches? Like the Reference Library, always difficult to get out of? Any branch with an RFID (not “are eff eye dee”) system that blows an alarm the minute you walk through the door? With staff hollering at you or following you up the stairs after that? Or staff you can’t find because there’s nowhere for them to sit behind the off-brown MDF desk that replaced the old marble one?

It’s one thing for TPL to cede territory to Islam in a public library branch, and don’t worry, I haven’t dropped that subject. That’s gonna keep coming back to haunt them. But it’s another thing entirely to embark on a ruinously expensive exercise that involves tagging every item in every branch save for the Merrill Collection and large parts of Reference, tearing out marble desks and replacing them with compressed sawdust, and installing a self-checkout system so user-hostile it takes up to five library staff to “help” you use it.

This is the Fans of Toronto Public Library blog. RFID is turning me into a Detractor of the Toronto Public Library.

RFID, you ho, this is all your fault

No part of this system is working as claimed.

  • It isn’t increasing throughput while decreasing staff time. One, two, three, or five people attempt to “help” me with my checkouts half the time.
  • The user interface for the system is complete shit, which TPL knew about since 2005, when I was called in to a meeting at St. James Town after writing a post about the then-new RFID system. (Library staff, who don’t know how to use E-mail [they all top-post], foolishly copied me on a message that accused me of being in the tank for the union.) Precisely nothing has been improved in the RFID user interface, and in fact the even-more-deficient St. James Town installation sits there unchanged.

But now that somebody other than me is complaining about it, in this case Louis St-Amour, suddenly TPL pretends to be taking the issue seriously. This is a complete sham, of course.

How about taking the system in both hands and hauling it out to the dump?

Here we have one of those cases where a large institution made a colossal mistake and will go to its death defending it. Under no circumstances whatsoever would, say, chief librarian Jane Pyper admit that the RFID rollout has been a disaster. The official ideology is that RFID is better, even when, as at Yorkville, it isn’t. Reality must be moulded to conform to the ideology. It’s quite Soviet, actually.

To continue with the Yorkville example, the ideology holds that RFID provides for “express checkout” and also “express checkin.” The latter means you absolutely must return your items by shoving them through a slot in the wall. The only place for that slot at Yorkville, mandated as it was by ideology, is around the corner from and behind the unstaffed desk and past a doorway. So you have to waste time hunting around for the “express checkin,” if you even know it exists. Staff confirmed they have to tell people where the slot is 20 times a day instead of just taking the fucking books themselves and checking them back in.

Which they can’t do! Because there’s nowhere to put them but back in that very same slot! There are no bins behind the desk in an RFID branch. They’re ideologically unnecessary!

Why is the Yorkville desk unstaffed? There’s nowhere to sit behind it. You’d have to sit on a stool, plus there’s no room for your legs – by “design.” So librarians sit at the desk around the corner, invisible and with nothing whatsoever to do. You will be yelled at by a librarian if you dare place any library item on the main desk while you try to explain that no, you are not having trouble with the ideologically perfect RFID system and need some other kind of help.

They’ll also yell at you for borrowing something the system says you can borrow but they say you can’t. You must place items on the desk because the lip of the desk is wide enough only for a purse, not a book or magazine or backpack. All of those can and will slip right onto the floor.

And of course the ideology cannot accommodate the possibility that you have items you haven’t checked out and some you want to return and also need to ask a question at the desk. First of all, staff don’t want to talk to you; all they have to say is “You can use that terminal over there” or “Do you need any help using that terminal over there?” Then various warnings go off on their screens because the antennæ detect all your materials. Then you try to ask your actual question. Then if you are allowed to return your books, they have to be walked around the corner (also true at Gladstone, as I witnessed last week).

Once more: Where did those marble desks go?

TPLFans worked great for about five minutes

But the issue here is the same one I face in every topic I learn enough about: I find all the problems. I have an editor’s eye. It’s a skill, one greeted with scorn and derision in Toronto, what with its unquenchable thirst for mediocrity. We’re a city that rebuilds Bloor/Gladstone into a palace but throws out a marble desk so a computer can check out our books for us.

I started out as a Fan of the Toronto Public Library and I still am. I am not a fan of its permitted Islamic incursion, and this RFID boondoggle is driving me fucking nuts. Please do quote me on that, though I know you won’t, because unlike mild, benign Catherine Raine, I dare to swear. That also makes me your enemy, doesn’t it? The bastion of free expression that is the public library dismisses you outright if you express any kind of disagreement, let alone curse while you’re doing it.

Over the last two years I have had many frontline staff in numerous branches take me aside and vent about what’s wrong with the library. But the higher up I go in the system, starting at the branch-head level, the more they act scared and paralyzed in my presence. TPL, I have discovered, is like any large organization: Its underlings feel ignored and its leaders demand to be insulated from anything but compliments and praise. Also rather Soviet.

TPL wants all the coverage it can get, as long as it’s exactly the coverage TPL would have written itself.

This is actually pretty simple

Toronto Public Library is a magnificent city asset that is being systematically despoiled by an ideological faith in a technology that is already a known failure.

TPL will never in a million years admit it made a mistake in undertaking this enterprise and will not rest till every venerable branch is gutted and a radio-emitting tag glued into every item.

Why am I the problem for saying so?