Battle won but library always wins the war

I wish the moaners would stop giving the Dunedin City Council a hard time. Those hard-core whingers are knocking some great achievements - the grand stadium; the John Wilson Ocean Dr soap opera; the cheerful parking wardens and the hugely popular Chinese Garden. How petty the criticisms have been, haven't they?

We should acknowledge the dedication of the DCC staff. Some of those poor devils have little to brighten their days apart from the odd coffee break and the prospect of a payout of $214,845 if they are lucky enough to get the chop when the next re-organisation rolls around.

It's time credit was given where it's due - or, more precisely, overdue.

I speak in praise of our public library (They call them ''libraries'' but I use only one at a time). The library service shines through the civic shambles like a beacon of hope.

For more than 40 years I've used the top-rate research facilities of the McNab New Zealand Collection where the staff remain cheerful and obliging in spite of having to deal daily with writers and other eccentrics.

But there's one aspect of the library's operation which could do with a bit of friendly advice. That's the ''policing'' role - handling those desperate characters who not only keep books long past the due date but have been known to lose them or even pinch them!I've avoided being part of that criminal fraternity, but recently I was sent a letter telling me, ''Your borrowing privileges are currently suspended.''

(Like all bureaucrats, the library uses ''currently'' on all possible occasions, including those when it is not required). The unsigned letter which announced this tragic news had a list of offences: Overdue (4), Hold (1) Process Fee (I wonder what that is?) $5!! (1), LOST (1). I felt like the felon who asks the court for 324 other offences to be taken into consideration. I realised that my self-congratulation on returning books within a day or two of the reminder notices the library computer sends me had been misplaced. Overdue penalties like 30c and 90c on my charge sheet indicated that perhaps the machine was fining me by the minute. The lost item was a copy of The Oldie for which I was being charged $10. (In the shops they are about $16 so I suppose I'm ahead).

It reminded me of the only other time I'd been hauled before the library tribunal.

I was accused of losing a copy of An Illustrated History of the Nude in Western Art. I told the lady at the counter that I had returned the book (well-thumbed and broken-spined) and it was on its shelf on the second floor.

''Oh, no! Our records show it is still out.''

She couldn't leave the desk (maybe someone would steal it?) so I traipsed upstairs and brought the blasted book down to her. A whispered crisis conference was held and a grudging voice said, ''Very well, your privileges are returned.''

But this latest incident was a fair cop and I owed the library $22.60.

But then, inspiration! The day before, I had donated to the library a copy of my latest book which retails at $34.95.

I dashed off a note suggesting the donation be offset against the fines and the whole matter could be forgotten. Within the prescribed 10 days back came a reply from the Head of Customer Services: ''As your book is one which the library would have purchased we are prepared to take your donation into account and cancel your overdue fines in this instance.''

Happy ending? Well, maybe. But it's not a good letter, is it? It smacks of some poor devil being let off a dangerous driving charge. The letter also raises the faint possibility that the Dunedin library might not have bought my book, a purchase any local writer would take for granted, surely? Especially from a library which has bought 37 copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, a book being widely slated as ''the most poorly-written pornography of all time''.

And the phrase ''cancel your overdue fines in this instance'' is a chilling one, reminding the culprit that the library still holds the upper hand, so ''watch it!'

'But, let's be helpful rather than join the whingers. Here's the kind of letter I was hoping for and it might serve as a matrix for the busy Head of Customer Services:

Dear Jim,

Many thanks for the copy of your latest book. A great read. Had us all in stitches. Don't know how you do it, you clever bastard! And forget that rubbish about being suspended. Borrow a book any time. I've put Fifty Shades of Grey on Hold for you (For you, my friend, no $1 Hold charge).

Best wishes and good reading!

- Jim Sullivan is a Dunedin writer and broadcaster.



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