Excuses, Excuses!

When I was a child, the Public Library was at Valletta. The librarian was a gentleman whose nickname had something to do with the way he snuck up on people, hoping to catch them whispering or chewing gum.

Be that as it may, I got into the habit of turning up almost every day to exchange my three books; I was (and still am) a voracious reader. This apparently set his teeth on edge.

One day, he challenged me. It was impossible, he said, that I was reading three books (mostly science fiction) a day. So, I struck a bargain with him. If I told him the stories of the books when I returned them, he would let me have three more; if not, not. So I did, and he did.

Inevitably, I let my imagination take over when I found the books boring – but since he would not have read the books, so he would not have been able to tell.

To me, it seemed more reasonable to fill in the blanks of the stories, than to have to make excuses as to why I did not read the book… at the back of my mind, there was the ever-present fear that he would not “allow” me to take out three more.

The Public Library was moved to what was then quaintly named Beltissebh – and trudging uphill (I went the Marsamxetto way) was too onerous and time-consuming for me, especially since it stole precious time from my reading.

I developed a more energy-efficient way of obtaining books, which I still practice today.

Charity shops, bazaars, and jumbles sales all yield a wealth of books for cents – the people in charge often reduce the prices further if you purchase a bagful, or when you reach “frequent shopper status”.

However, unless you have one of those walls that have shelving from top to bottom, you could not possibly keep all the books you purchase at home. You then have two options; give them away to people who will enjoy reading them or take them to the charity shop of your choice.

This is, of course, happens because although they may have names and dedications to someone else on them, the books are yours because you have bought them, and therefore you can do what you want wit them.

Bit what if the books are not yours? Have you returned the textbooks you borrowed for your kids, umpteen years before they got married? Have you returned the Teach Yourself Spanish you had borrowed the summer you fell in love with Juan? And don’t those books look suspiciously like the ones you took out of the public library six months ago?

I recently came upon a very interesting news item that, indeed mentioned long-overdue library books… of the San Francisco Public Library.

The library decided to waive the fines due for them – on condition that the borrowers returning them came up with a (not necessarily true) reason for their omission.

I caught up with Michelle Jeffers, the Librarian, and asked her what the campaign entailed.

We organized an Overdue Fine Amnesty for a two week period in May. Patrons could return overdue books and have their late fees rescinded. We received more than 29,000 items back – it was very successful.

“As part of the campaign, we had celebrity public service announcements featuring Capt. Chesley Sullenberger (the pilot who carried out the successful emergency ditching of US Airways Flight 1549); Josh Kornbluth (the comedic autobiographical monologuist); Marga Gomez, (the Puerto Rican/Cuban-American comedian, playwright, and humorist); Beth Lisick (newspaper columnist and writer) and W. Kamau Bell (San Francisco Weekly’s Best Comedian 2008).”

Both the celebrities and the patrons provided excuses – which had to be interesting and clever, albeit not necessarily true.

Michelle told me, moreover that “…The value of the books returned was estimated at $730,000; of that about $78,000 was for books more than 60 days overdue that were considered ‘lost’ to the system.”

A record 29,228 items were returned. The last time fines were waived in 2001, “only” 5,000 books had been returned.

I wonder…would the same campaign work in Malta? If I had any overdue books – which I do not – I could rehash the (true) excuse I had for when I turned up for P.E. at school in blue shorts rather than white….. Well, I spilled coffee on it, and I put it to dry on the windowsill. The hamster reached out his paw and grabbed a page and started gnawing… then another… and another….


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