In the late 1990s automation became a reality in libraries of British Council in India. A lot of planning went into it before the actual implementation and it paid dividends in the end. It was a marvel at that time and for us, to be working in such an organisation, a matter of great pride.
We were thrilled beyond words. Employees in the British Council libraries felt really blessed. All the theories taught in library schools were practised in these libraries. Library management, customer care, service, ISO, quality standards — you name them, we had them all. Customers (they were never mere members) were treated as kings and their wish was our command.
With the automation we hoped all routine tasks at the library would become easier and they were real time savers. Issuing and returning library materials (mainly books) became less cumbersome; we no longer had to search the heaps of cards arranged behind the due dates. All one had to do was scan the barcodes and it would be done. The same was the case with book cards — there was no need to take out the cards of each book issued, put it inside the pocket of membership card, or stamp the due date on the card or arrange the issued cards according to their call numbers. Thanks to technology for saving valuable time so that we could focus on the customer and improve the quality of the service.
As months passed by, a stark realisation also sank in: most of us were not that happy.
All I could feel was a sort of disconnect — from the members, from colleagues, from books and even from the library. We were all the time busy scanning the barcodes that we failed to look up and smile at the person standing before us. Gradually the individuals started disappearing. Everyone was a number now, beginning with MTR. All the books were also numbers, beginning with TR. Books, their covers, authors, the peculiarity of some of the typed cards — we could visualise all the bibliographic details just by looking at these cards — everything faded from memory. The same thing happened to our members as well. Their handwriting, use of ink and pen (there were some who particularly used only green-inked pens!), their names — before technology happened, the very card used to conjure the person who owned it. Now I could recognise none from their plastic IDs.
Everything is blank now. All we have before us is a machine and some numbers. With the passage of time, the books also dwindled. Instead, we have specially designed Knowledge Learning Centres now. Databases, digitised resources, so much being offered at your fingertips, accessible even by sitting at home. But the faces have gone now.
This is not the lone case of an automated library. Ask those people working in any automated environment. Even the recent merger of all the state banks with State Bank of India — a friend of mine, previously from SBT, confessed that she felt like a fish out of water in the present set-up. “I had people around me then; the customers were like my own family. Now I don’t know. They want us to exhibit professionalism, but I miss the people-connect. I have 3 more years to go. Maybe things will improve.” I doubt. Technology is winning, but human beings — are they? As somebody said, “Teacher took you from thumb impression to signature. Technology has taken you from signature to thumb impression!’
(The author is a former librarian at The British Library)
Thiruvananthapuram, and SCERT, Kerala)...