Saturday, February 04, 2006

Crowds in the Library

The Národní knihovna has been a hive of activity for some time now. One walks in and worries whether there will be a place to sit, or at least a place near an electrical outlet. This library crowding began in December, ceased utterly before Christmas, and then began again sometime in January.
Why is this? Do scholars need a warm place to live in the winter? Have the homeless acquired library cards?
The answer is, not exactly. The Národní knihovna also functions as the library to the Charles University, and consequently always houses a certain number of students who are working on their mathematics or ear-nose-and-throat homework. Or, for that matter, who are simply sleeping on their notebooks. Semester exams are in January, so in December the multitudes arrive, and in January they come back from visiting their parents. One enters the library with laptop and great trepidation about seating. (I'm not sure why this is continuing in February.)
It is true that when there are absolutely no seats to be found (and students will claim study spots, marking them with books and then disappearing for hours), the library staff puts a sign on the door. I’ve only seen that once.
There is, however, a shortage of electrical outlets for laptops. Kristen will laugh sarcastically at this since her library in Moscow is far less well equipped, but I can see that in the very near future the Národní knihovna will need to revamp the wiring in the main reading room. Currently it appears that each of the short tables by the windows has one outlet (these tables accommodate two people, so one person gets to use a laptop because the other half of the outlet supplies the table’s lamps). The long tables are less well provided; perhaps half of them have no free outlet while the other half has one. These tables seat about six people each, maybe more.
When I worked here in the summer of 2004, this was not yet a real problem. Even before school let out, it seemed that few people had laptops, so the main issue was to find an empty seat near an outlet, not that the outlets were all in use.
Since laptops are much more expensive here than in the US (or at least represent a much bigger chunk of someone’s income), they are not yet ubiquitous. On the other hand, more and more students are finding ways to get them. There are quite a few laptops in the main reading room these days. And the library has already found it necessary to post a sign warning patrons to use only the empty outlets, which is to say we mustn’t unplug the lamps for the entire table just to get one more laptop plugged in.
Meanwhile, the library staff continues to fling open the reading room windows in sub-freezing weather. As each window opened is about 3x4 feet, this produces an immediate arctic draft. Perhaps the real idea is to drive out the current group of readers to make room for new ones.

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