Hang ups

13th September 1996 at 01:00
A few weeks ago I was on holiday when I wrote a column in which I argued that the hype merchants have got it about right - electronic texts are better than old fashioned books.

In the original draft of the article, I said something to the effect that those die-hards who stoically ignored the inexorable advance of new technology were like the boy who "stood upon the burning deck, whence all but he had fled".

But I wasn't sure that I had quoted the lines correctly. In fact, it dawned on me that I didn't even know what poem the lines were from, or who had written them. I had no idea why the deck was burning or what the boy was doing on it. I felt I ought to check. And as I tried to do so, I realised for the first time that it's not only the book that has had its day - so, too, has the public library service we all know and love.

If I'd been at home, I would have simply logged on to the Internet in the sure and certain knowledge that I'd be able to track the poem down. But on holiday I had no alternative but to visit the nearest library. That meant a half hour's journey, bumper to bumper with demented caravaners and the rest of the summer hordes. Doing all that with a deadline to meet, and you begin to appreciate that a mid-range modem (14.4 baud) suddenly doesn't seem nearly so slow.

I managed to get there ten minutes before closing time. But that's always been a problem with libraries - they are never open when you most need them. The service runs on the presumption that no one will ever want to borrow a book outside the usual business hours. They are shut on Sundays, Bank Holidays and, of course, in the evening - the only opportunity most of the working population have of visiting them.

I wasn't sure I was allowed to be in the library, since I wasn't a resident. I was also pretty certain I wouldn't be able to borrow a book without the usual rigmarole of form filling and suchlike.So all I wanted to do was read the poem and beat a hasty retreat.

However, that's easier said than done when you don't know the author or title. The computerised catalogue revealed there was one promising title - a collection of popular recitation pieces. But it was on loan. That is the other major shortcoming of the library system. It can't cope with the possibility that more than one person may want to read a particular book simultaneously.

The shelves of the Internet, on the other hand, remain permanently stocked. Here is a public library that is open for 24 hours a day, that has no restriction on membership, and where, in the unlikely event of them ever wanting to, every cyber-citizen can simultaneously read the same text. With the librarian nagging me to leave, I had no alternative but to abandon my search. But at home now, and reunited with my modem, I have been able to put the Internet to the test. Using Alta Vista, one of the World Wide Web's many powerful search engines, I typed in the key words "burning deck" and was offered "The boy stood on the burning deck eating Heinz baked beans" - a long and scatological parody. But I was also offered the Selected Works of Felicia Hemans (1793-1835).

One more click of the mouse, and the full text of the poem I wanted - it's called Casabianca, by the way - was on screen. As I suspected it's a poignant tale with a tragic ending. Despite the boy's courageous stand, the ship sinks without trace - a fitting metaphor, I'm afraid, for the dear old public library.

* arnoldevans@easynet.co.uk.

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