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Thursday, 8 March 2018

Officialdom

Since the middle of last year, I have been writing a series of blogposts about brutalist architecture in Sydney. From the late 1960s until the mid-1970s there was a commercial building boom in the city, resulting in a healthy stratum of edifices in this distinctive post-war style appearing in one of the world’s great trading entrepots. Because of this, I decided to research the new construction technologies that I assumed had appeared after WWII to facilitate the construction of many of the multi-storey buildings we associate with modernity. With this in mind, I visited the University of Sydney library where as a graduate I have borrowing rights.

I went into Fisher Library and asked the man at the desk about renewing my borrower’s card, which I assumed had expired. The card had a photo of me dating from a decade earlier and it had cracked along the bottom, almost severing part of the card from the rest of it. He told me the card had expired in 2010 and directed me to the Jane Foss Russell building where the Student Centre is located. I walked along Eastern Avenue – which in the days of my undergraduate studies had been filled with cars but has since been made into a pedestrian mall flagged with cobblestones and flanked by cafes – and crossed the bridge over City Road. In the Student Centre I used a touch-screen display to print out a call ticket. When a woman had her number called and got up to go to one of the service desks I sat down to wait on the same grey padded bench she had used.

My eyes were glued to the screen announcing ticket numbers as they were called. I sat there for about five minutes until my number appeared on the screen, then made my way to the back of the room to where a young man – he couldn’t have been more than 25 years old and he looked like a second- or third-generation Chinese or Vietnamese Australian – took my ticket and the library borrower’s card application form I had filled out using a pen tethered to an unattended desk before I had printed out my call ticket. I handed him my damaged and expired borrower’s card.

He used the computer keyboard on the desk to punch in some details and watched the computer screen hungrily as he waited for the requested information to appear. I stood and waited in front of the desk, which was surrounded by textured carpet tinted a neutral blue colour like teal. The buildings of the CBD were framed in the window facing east next to us.

The man shifted his position nervously in his seat a couple of times and said something like, “I’m still waiting for your record to come up on the system.” He tapped some more keys on the keyboard and wrote down some numbers on a piece of paper with a black pen. He stared greedily at the screen and with the index finger of his right hand manipulated the wheel on his computer mouse, looking for the information he wanted. I told him I had two degrees from Sydney University. He said that the borrowers’ card system was separate from the student records system.

When the requested information still didn’t appear, he got up from his seat and walked to the desk situated directly in front of his where he talked to a young woman sitting there. She wore a shirt and a skirt and had a computer display on which I could see had a list of records. The two of them talked for a moment, then he spoke with a young Anglo man who told him to create a new record.

The young man returned to his desk, where I was still waiting, and punched more details into the keyboard. I told him I had worked for the university as well as being a graduate. He looked down intently at the form, and typed details into the computer using the keyboard. He still had not asked to see any identification, such as a driver’s license.

The man told me to sit on a bench to his left in front of a blue wooden screen so that he could take my photograph. I sat down on the bench indicated and he said I could smile if I wanted. I kept my face relaxed as he counted down from five to zero and took the photo. Then I got up from the bench and returned to stand in front of the desk where he sat. He pointed with his hand at the electronic funds transfer machine attached to the computer and said I could pay – it was 80 dollars for a year’s borrowing rights as an alumnus, and this was an innovation I decided not to remark upon here – and I swiped my debit card and punched in the PIN on the keypad. Then he said he was printing out the card and got down from his chair and went away.

When he came back he gave me the new card with my photo on it and I left, heading back to Fisher Library, where I used a computer to access the library catalogue. I wrote down call details for three or four books on the paper map they had handed me when I had originally asked about the card there, using a pen I had brought with me in my shoulder bag, then headed back to the information desk. I told the man there that I had found an electronic book on the subject I was researching but he said that as an alumnus I didn’t have the rights required to read it. I told him I had also found a book that was marked as being in storage and he put the details into the computer and lodged a request for the book, which he said would be retrieved and placed on a set of bookshelves located behind his shoulder. He said that an email telling me that book was available to pick up would be sent to the email address attached to my borrower’s card. For the other books I had found, he directed me to the Scitech Library in the Jane Foss Russell building, where the Student Centre is located, but on the ground floor.

I walked back down Eastern Avenue and again across the bridge over City Road and found the two books I had located online in the stacks there. When I told him I wanted to take the books out, the man at the front desk with a short white beard and glasses looked at the inside of the back cover of each of the books I had found and said it was ok, then showed me how to use the automatic kiosk to borrow the books. It had an oversize portrait graphical display and an electronic reader that sensed which books had been placed on a shelf attached to the unit.  The man touched an icon to print out a receipt, which he handed to me. With the receipt for the two reference books in my wallet I walked out of the building and headed to the shopping centre to get some food for lunch.

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