The Talbot County Free Cogitarium

by Bill Peak

The word “library” comes, aptly enough, from the Latin “libri,” meaning books. But if one were to pick a word from Virgil's tongue to describe the institution today, one might choose instead “cogitare,” to turn over in one's mind, think, consider, for a modern library now offers so many ways, in addition to books, to reflect upon the world we live in.

Consider, for instance, computers.

There are fifteen public access computers in the library's Easton branch alone, all of which offer high-speed internet access. In front of most of these (and often all of these), from the time we open in the morning till we close again at night, you will find patrons hunched over, intent upon their screens ... a Marine, perhaps, reëstablishing contact with his buddies back in Iraq, a student being tutored free-of-charge in real time by, a bird-watcher tracking the fall migration on MDOsprey, a first-time home-buyer surveying new listings on a realty company's website ... but all of these, in point of fact, represent only the tip of the library's computer-use iceberg. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, patrons working on-line at home can and do mine the library's myriad databases for everything from the latest Hollywood gossip to up-to-the-minute reports from South Ossetia. When we lie in bed at night reading T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom (non-fiction, 940.415 L), ride with the man on camelback toward Akaba as part of the great Arab Revolt of 1917, who's to say where the library's reach ends? Why even time travel seems within our grasp! And now we add to that reach this vast unseen base of computer-using patrons accessing the library's resources from the comfort of their own homes.

Which is not to say that all of Talbot County has safely navigated the technological shoals of the twenty-first century. Set me down in front of the fanciest computer NASA ever built and all I'd want to know is, “Yeah, but can it play Minesweeper?”

Still, even a dinosaur like me likes to raise his head from time to time above the lily pads, catch a glimpse of what the future's going to look like after he's become little more than swamp gas.

The other day I was working back in the children's section when I noticed a pretty little black girl sitting in front of the catalogue computer, frowning at its screen. Thinking she'd mistaken the thing for one of the children's computers and didn't understand why it wouldn't play a game for her, I walked over to direct her to a machine more appropriate to her age. Fortunately though, before I spoke, I glanced at her monitor and was astonished to see she was performing advanced searches, something I've never been able to figure out how to get a computer to do.

Quietly, hoping she hadn't noticed the mustachioed Brachiosaurus standing behind her, I crept back to my work, tail between my legs.

But my attention was drawn back to the children's area a little later when music from one of the computer games began to leak out into the library proper. The little black girl was still hard at work on her searches, but at the game computer next to her I found a young Central American woman attempting to place a pair of oversized, grown-up headphones on her daughter's tiny three year-old noggin. Not wanting to alarm the woman, yet fearful my Library Spanish wasn't up to the task, I used hand signals to explain who I was and what I was going to do. Then, adopting the cool, practiced air of a NASA scientist about to perform a tricky maneuver with the Mars Lander, I reached down and adjusted the volume control on the little girl's headset.

And nothing happened. “Magic Bus” tunes continued to broadcast merrily across the library.

Confused now, and growing anxious (patrons beginning to look this way), I spun the dial in the opposite direction and the offending noise was reduced not a whit. And it was then, as I felt the first feathery touch of panic, that the little African-American girl, sounding rather bored, spoke for the first time. “It isn't plugged in,” she said.

And, of course, she was right. I plugged the headphones in, the library resumed its magisterial silence, and, in acknowledgement of her superior intelligence, I turned to my pint-sized savior and performed an old-fashioned bow.

And the future looked up at me and positively beamed.