31 May 2004

The shelf life of academics

The library has empty shelving and is contemplating expanding its resources. However, we're looking for idiosyncratic material; not your blasé, run-of-the-mill books and journals. We're considering a resource that's alive and breathing, something to put the zest back into information searching.

Hence our idea of housing real live academics. Instead of shelving publications, why not shelve their creators? Library users can then consult information from the source. This will also dispense with book cataloguing costs. We'll stash one academic on a shelf, a representative from each discipline. It may be a tight fit for a tall one, but we'll remove the end piece of the shelf for him to dangle his feet. He will, however, have to dispense with creature comforts like three meals a day and hot showers.

However, he can still continue his research. Obviously he can't work from a laptop as shelf space is limited but he can from a Palmtop, which is all the rage these days. Should he need to consult actual books and journals he can just climb down, getting a much-needed leg stretch at the same time.

However, should a library user need to consult him, he'd have to clamber back onto the shelf so that he can be found in his discipline area. Otherwise it will be like trying to find a badly-misshelved book; where do you start? The user can then extract information from the academic directly without laboriously searching obscure, hard-to-use databases. This will revolutionise and simplify the way we search for information.

The academic who's housed on a top shelf (normally a professor) will have the privilege of dispensing information from on high (like a guru). The user can thank the academic with peanuts, but preferably the unsalted variety. Otherwise the academic has to get off his shelf for water to slake his thirst, an unnecessary complication. Eating in the library is usually forbidden but as this is a case of remuneration by kind we're prepared to look the other way.

The proximity of so many academics will also ensure cross-fertilisation of ideas, which can go long into the night after the library closes. By contrast, journals sitting on the shelf cannot generate anything this way. When the librarian has a reference query they need no longer traipse down the shelves. They can merely shout the query in the direction of the shelves and the answer will be shouted back. This creates a much more vibrant library atmosphere.

For this system to work we'll need volunteers, a representative for each discipline. We'll care for you. We'll pamper you in an enamel bath and feed you, albeit after hours (because of the library eating restriction). In fact, we can feed you while you recline on your shelf, and it need not all be Purity foods. Should you need privacy we can install a shutter on the shelf, like a bread bin. So when someone consults you, they can knock first. However, they'll approach with trepidation as this will be their first time conducting a search of this nature. But be brave and flash them a smile even though it be somewhat bashful. After all, it's your first time too. However, there's not enough space on the shelf for a tête-a-tête so you'll have to conduct your business with you reclining and them standing; the minor travails of academia.

However, even academics have a shelf life. Once one has outlived his tenure, we remove him with the minimum of fuss. But some get rebellious and cling on for dear life. It's not a pretty sight. They thrash about and it takes two of us to prise them from the shelf. But we're not hard-hearted. We don't send them for pulping the way we do our books. We box them up and transfer them to our stores where they reside permanently. Old academics never die; we just put them out to dry. There's ample space there and they all get together and reminisce about old days and the dire state of research today. When they are occasionally consulted they just need to dust off and make themselves presentable. We also do a regular clean-up of the stores. Many a time we'll find a mummified academic who bit the dust, his hand wistfully clutching his malfunctioned Palmtop. These we box up once more and bury in the back garden to enable them to meet their peers in the great university-cum-library in the sky.

Sadiq Keraan
Institute of Child Health Library

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