This past Tuesday was National Library Workers’ Day, which I completely missed because I didn’t even know it was happening. It’s the first time I’ve actually been something when there was a holiday to celebrate it. Now I know.
I love my job. I love helping people get access to the information they need. I’m ill-equipped; I’m a part-time student worker, so I don’t have a degree in library science, and my research methods are choose-your-own-adventure more than anything else. “I don’t know; let’s find out,” is something I say an awful lot.
Here’s the only thing about my job which bothers me. It’s very simple. I never hear the words “borrow” and “lend” enough.
I work in the Media Services department of my university library. Our area involves mostly DVDs, some videotapes and CDs, a few cameras, iPads and Kindles. They are things which have a wider reputation of being available to rent, through stores, than to borrow, through libraries. So, the most frequent question I hear is,
“Hey, is this where I go to rent a DVD?”
This question is followed closely by, “Can I rent a camera/iPad/Kindle?”
I used to just say, “sure,” but the inner semantic police officer living in the spot between my neck and spine would shriek, “NOOO! You can BORROW it! We don’t RENT!”
I made it through four months at this job, hearing those questions several times a day, and stifling the urge to correct it. The odd thing was at the end of a lot of transactions, the borrower would say, “This is free?” And I would say, “Yes,” strangling an urge to go off on a rant about tuition dollars, state funding for education, and how there is no such thing as “free.” But these are kids born after 1993, after the Borders/Barnes & Noble/Blockbuster/Best Buy boom, when the thing to do on the weekends was to go to your local big-box store and buy things. They probably think libraries are for nerds, old ladies, and nobody else.
Finally, in the depths of Winter Break, I thought, I know what’s wrong. This isn’t a question of grammar being prescriptive or descriptive. This is a question of meaning, and a question of intention.
“Rent” has implications of money exchanged for a product. It’s like buying, but temporarily. When you rent something, you pay a certain amount of money to use something for a given period of time. If you need it for more time, you pay more money. If you never return it, or if you lose or ruin it, you pay for it. Essentially, the idea is that you pay to have the right to own something temporarily, and if something goes wrong, you just pay it off, or lose a deposit.
“Borrow” implies trust. The lender receives nothing in exchange for letting the borrower use the item. It comes down to a sense of one’s personal honor and pride. If I lend you my book, that means that I feel that you have earned the right to be trusted with that book, you will take good care of it while you have it, and you will return it at an agreed time in the same condition which I gave it to you. Or, you will show me that the object is okay, and we’ll agree on another time for you to return it.
I think “borrowing” in many ways makes people uncomfortable. While we have the object, we know that we have responsibility along with it. We have to make sure we know where the book is, we have to make sure it doesn’t get bent up or ripped, we can’t dog-ear the pages or write notes in the margins. In the case of a DVD, one probably has to be even more careful; you have to make sure it doesn’t get scratched or broken, you have to make sure the case is shut and locked before you throw it in your backpack, you have to put it someplace where it won’t get used as a drink coaster or get stepped on.
Much easier, then to rent something: if I behave irresponsibly, I’ll just buy my way out of trouble. People are used to having to pay library fines, so they probably link this in their mind with rental fees, in some way. But they aren’t the same thing. Use the product, enjoy it, and return it on time, and none of your hard-earned dollars need leave your hands. It’s a beautiful thing. Then someone else gets to use it for its intended purpose, instead of it cluttering up your home.
Some people feel that it’s a good idea for kids, when they’re young, to establish good credit by getting a credit card, using it for a very few purchases, paying the balance in full every month, and building good credit habits (as well as a solid credit rating). Libraries are much the same thing, except without those interest rates and profit schemes. With a library, you prove that you are who you say you are, and we will give you a card. That card allows you to borrow information, use it, and give it back. We’re trusting you to take care of it. You can get in the habit of doing things like making sure that DVD case really is locked before you toss it in your backpack, that you put your library materials somewhere that you can find them when you’re finished with them, and that your daily route involves stopping by to drop it off.
And then you’re part of a circle of knowledge and shared responsibility.
So, now when people come up to the desk and ask if they can rent a movie, “I say, “No, but you can borrow a movie.” This little flash of joy pops into their eyes, as they realize they’re being trusted to be a responsible person, and not a schmuck.
At least that’s what I tell myself. It’s so lonely in the basement of the library sometimes.