On learning to use libraries – part 1

One of the guys at school on Tuesday said they’d never been in a library before. (!!) Ever. Not as a little kid. Not in school. Not during his apprenticeship or Meister training. Not accompanying someone else. Never.

I can’t imagine a life without libraries, but I know DB doesn’t see the the benefit of them and I hadn’t been to a library for a couple of years (= until recently) either – since moving here. On a potentially related note, I haven’t been aware of as many bad spellers or semi-illiterate/dyslexic people en masse anywhere else I’ve lived.

Having said all that, I have to admit a lot of ignorance about libraries in Berlin…

The rest of this post was mostly written on the train while I was supposed to be reading reliable sources to use in my essay. I added to it gradually over the following weeks, and then pushed it to the back of my mind for a while. I’m dragging it out again because I need NaBloPoMo content and don’t have much time to write completely new posts.


I am (back in September) trying to write an essay. According to the lecturer, it is expected that these essays are not only of highest quality but are substantially grounded in facts, figures and quotes from clever people. We are expected(/=required) to use libraries and ‘proper’ sources, instead of relying on ‘people-on-the-internet’ to tell us the basics in easy to read articles.

A couple of weeks (= now months) ago, I would have sworn I knew how to use a library.

Now, I’m not so sure…


It started when I could barely find my way into the first library I tried to use since moving to Berlin. (I still can’t believe it took me almost 3 years). I’m not at all used to libraries being upstairs, above residential flats. After browsing the sale-table and waiting for the librarian to finish talking to the people before me in the queue, it turned out I couldn’t get a library card without not only proof of identity (which I had on me), but also proof of registering to live where you live (which I didn’t).

I went home with an application form and a couple of books I bought in the sale.


The second, steeper, learning curve presented itself in the second library – one on the way home from one of the places I work, in a building that would be better suited, from the outside, to a museum. This time I was better armed with all the paperwork I could think of.

I wasn’t armed with the knowledge that libraries sometimes have unattended back doors. I stood at the desk for the best part of 10 minutes before deciding to investigate. Three people-empty rooms later, I found a couple of incredibly helpful library-ladies.

I was issued a library card and a password and a card number and henceforth expected to scan my books in and out by myself. I don’t remember ever having to do that before. They do have a very cool machine to do it with though. It looks like the kind of scales you sometimes get in supermarkets – the kind with a stainless steel plate and a touch screen – but it must have some kind of scanning device hidden away somewhere because it knows what the books are as soon as they land on the plate (and displays their titles, authors and publishers on the screen). Also, the label it spits out when you poke the right buttons isn’t sticky… but having a list of the books is a very sensible idea!).

The library is part of a Berlin-wide collection* of libraries, but is very small, in a residential area, so books about obscure academic subjects don’t take up much room on the shelves. As the librarian said, “They’d be out of date before they’d been read twice”. She did find me a book about laws and a couple of ‘personal experiences’ books though.


The third curve was hideously steep, and I’m pretty sure I still haven’t reached the top yet. Probably not even half way.

There are at least 3 universities in Berlin. Each has a number of libraries. One company I work for has some kind of agreement that I can use them too. I say ‘can’, I probably mean ‘am allowed to’** – there was very little ability involved.

For starters, I had no idea the uni had so many individual libraries until I’d followed signs to one and been told I was in the wrong place for the kind of books I was trying to find. The second one I came to was appararently also wrong, and the third one was only approximately right because it was “cental” and had a bit of everything in.

I wandered round the foyer of a deserted-looking university building for a while, looking for the library. I would probably still be there if the man in the sentry box hadn’t taken pity on me and pointed me in the direction of an even more deserted-looking staircase, mostly hidden behind a dividing wall.

Luckily the sign on the door said Library, because the first thing that struck me when I finally arrived, was the severe lack of books. There were tables and fancy reading lights and sofa-chairs and computers and a help-desk, but no books. I decided to act even more helpless than I felt and plead innocence to the librarian-students behind the desk.

Trying to get a library card was a joke, although not nearly as funny as trying to take books out turned out to be. There are boxes to tick if you are a student or a professor or probably a travelling monkey, but not if you are me. I was stumped and the librarian was stumped and after a lot of discussion and a phonecall, it was agreed that I would be considered a student because that was easiest way to convince the computer to give me a library card number that wouldn’t give me the rights to all the forbidden books.

In the middle of all this, I phoned DB to tell him I might be some time and to eat without me. That was good, because I have never spent so long achieving so little in a library***.

I grew up with the Dewey system. For anyone who didn’t, it’s a system for arranging books by subject. Each subject is allocated a number from 0-9, with each specialisation (i.e. nature -> animals -> mammals -> dogs -> dog training) getting an additional digit. It is usefull and used, in varying degrees of complexity, by practically every library I’ve ever used, EXCEPT FOR THIS ONE! This one has decided, for whatever reason, to sort its books by date-of-purchase.

The only way to find (=look for) anything is to use the search function on the library computers. Once you find something, or in my case approximately 3000 somethings, you have to go through the list, clicking on individual entries to open the drop-down info box, trying to figure out which you want to borrow. This decision can be based on the title, occasionally a brief description or a chapter list and the author, although since I don’t know anyone famous for writing about unemployment the author was unimportant. Once you’ve decided it might possibly be interesting enough to look at, you have to click through to get the 12-digit-number and write it out on one of the many stacks of precut scraps of paper littering the tables.

Armed with a list of long numbers, you can ask the librarian for permission to go into the book, get sent back to the locker room to lock your bag away, go back to the desk and be shown to a corridor leading to a long, narrow room jam-packed with bookshelves – far closer together than in any ‘normal’ library. So close that two people couldn’t stand back to back and look at the books. Anyway. The shelves are arranged by year. Helpfully, the years are written in HUUGE lettering on the floor. The last couple of decades (from 2000, with space for the next few years ;)) were crammed into the top floor, all previous years were on lower floors.

The 12-digit-numbers are each stuck on the spine of the books, the way Dewey numbers often are, so at least that much was familiar. What wasn’t, was the way they started on the top shelf of the first bookcase and continued along the top of the next 4 bookcases before snaking back along the second shelf.

A long time later I emerged, fully phased, with a grand total of 3 books.

Sometimes, it seems, you shouldn’t judge a book by its contents page either.


To be continued…

* collective term for libraries, anyone?

** or ‘may’. However, despite the best efforts of multiple wanna-be-hilarious teachers, I have so far successfully refused to establish ‘may’ into my active vocabulary (except as a month), and I don’t plan on doing so any time soon…

*** not quite true 😉 I spent/d a lot of unproductive time in a lot of libraries. It just wasn’t as frustrating as in this one.

2 Replies to “On learning to use libraries – part 1”

  1. Libraries are great for kids who don’t have much money – it’s the freedom to learn freely that they offer. The net is the modern version, I suppose. But they need the incentive to go looking, which is where parents and teachers come in …

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