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A Luddite in the library

Iam a Luddite. I refuse to use an electric toothbrush or can opener. I threw away our plug-in teakettle. I only read actual books; I don’t listen to them on CD while I drive, and I can’t imagine scrolling through “The Portrait of a Lady.” But I am a lazy Luddite. I don’t wash my clothes on a rock; I love my TiVo; and when it comes to research, I think nothing beats the Internet.

For example: “Luddite.” As I sat in my pajamas, Google brought up 632,000 results in 0.36 of a second after my one-word request. Wikipedia, as usual, came in at No. 1. In fact, on every search engine I tried, Wikipedia came up first or second. The hierarchy is based on keywords, algorithms and number of hits to the site. Despite teachers everywhere denigrating Wikipedia, it seems to be going strong.

Bing.com, new from Microsoft, gave me 311,000 “Luddite” sites. It was visually pleasing and also listed “related searches” including “Luddite Wine,” “Chartists,” “Yeats’s Land” and the single word “Sabotage.” Yahoo was the only one to include Dr. Jays Luddite Sweater. I clicked on it. It didn’t look hand-knit by candlelight, but it cost enough.

Ask.com (formerly Ask Jeeves) was more spread out on the page and seemed simpler, but the first listing was “Luddites at Amazon. Millions of titles new & used.” This was a definite oxymoron. Any Luddite worth his salt would go to a bookstore. On his bicycle. Of course, any true Luddite would go to the library.

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So I decided to make the trip -- in my car -- to the big Central Library downtown. I would see what the Dewey Decimal System listed under “Luddite.”

But first I had to take a shower and get dressed. I know from past forays to the library that many people who go there do not shower. They usually sit at the table next to mine. It is also a good place for students and homeless people to sleep. I don’t blame them. The chairs are comfy. It’s temperature-controlled and quiet.

While I was getting dressed, I heard on the radio about a demonstration at City Hall. Eighteen-wheelers were blocking the streets to protest container fees. So I Googled “surface streets, traffic, los angeles,” and a terrific site came right up, color-coordinated red, yellow and green. My route was green. I grabbed a notebook and, appropriately, a pencil and left.

If you were reading this on a blog, I would now include a sidebar: “Central Library Parking.” If you clicked on it, you could read my little diatribe on the absurd, frustrating parking system at the Richard J. Riordan Central Library. But this essay is about research.

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I do love libraries -- the light, the hush, and especially the shelves and shelves of books, each one a possibility. I worked in my college library putting books away. I found stories and subjects I never would have seen otherwise. I was also flashed by a guy in a raincoat with his pant legs taped to his shins.

There is no general card catalog at the Central Library anymore. Those cards are now used artistically to line the elevator shafts; the little drawers in banks in some parts of the building don’t open. Instead, I searched on the library’s computer. I typed in “Luddite,” and it gave me a list of six books (six!) as well as links to Amazon reviews. I set out to find each book.

Frankly, the Dewey Decimal System is easier to understand than an algorithm, but I don’t have to understand algorithms to use a search engine -- and I do have to understand something about the numerical and alphabetical hierarchies of the DDS to find a book. Still, as I traversed the library searching, first, for 301.5 F7925 (surprisingly not on the shelf right after 301.4), I saw many interesting things.

A lot of people in the library had their laptops open using the free Wi-Fi. I ran into the same young, tattooed couple in various sections, reading a little and moving on. They looked like they were having fun. In the first floor gallery I had to stop and see photographer Yousuf Karsh’s amazing portraits of celebrities.

The first book on my list, “Clinton in Exile,” by Carol Felsenthal, was a dud in terms of relevance. It had a chapter titled “A Luddite Meets the Bloggers.” No. 2, “First Person Queer: Who We Are (So Far),” contained an essay by Gayle Roberts, “The Sexual Luddite.” Numbers 3 and 4 were nonfiction books that used “Luddite” as an anti-technological term to study other things. I found No. 3, “Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives,” but No. 4, “Coyote in the Maze: Tracking Edward Abbey in a World of Words,” was missing. No. 5 was on the shelf and called itself “A Neo-Luddite Treatise.” Its appeal was limited because it was published in 1986. Then, with the final entry, I struck gold -- although not as I expected.

“Through the Fray: A Tale of the Luddite Riots,” by G.A. Henty, was listed under “juvenile.” The children’s room is just off the library rotunda on the second floor, and it took my breath away. Dark wood beams painted with Arts & Crafts designs. Thick carpets, high windows, exquisite chandeliers. And on every wall, an Albert Herter mural depicting California history, originally installed in 1928. My book was not on the shelf, but the librarian knew exactly where it was. “On reserve,” she said. “It’s an old one.”

She brought out a museum box and opened the lid. The book was wrapped in tissue paper -- a boy’s historical adventure, the cover made clear. It was published in 1886; the pages were dark and brittle and the binding frayed. I had history in my hands. It smelled good, like the books at my grandmother’s house in Missouri, books long gone. Inside the front cover was a plate that read “Property of L.T. Szymanski, Engine Co. No 59, LAFD.” It had belonged, I imagined, to a firefighter so young he was still reading chapter books. I felt attached to him, holding his book all these years later. It was too fragile to actually read, but that didn’t seem to matter.

When I got home, I immediately sat down at my computer and typed into Google “Szymanski and LAFD.” Other Szymanskis came up. Jerry, a commander in the Valley. Tim, a public information officer. I wanted to call them but had no idea what I would say.

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I searched using “Engine Company 59 and LAFD history” and clicked on one site after another and finally, in the archives at lafire.com, I found a photo, circa 1920, of firefighter L.T. Szymanski. I clicked on it to make it full screen. There he was 34 years after “Through the Fray” had been published. As the fire engine driver, with his buttoned collar and furrowed brow, he was older than I had imagined, but something in his eyes still told of a boy who liked to read.

I spent three hours at the library and did not learn much about Luddites, but what I did find actually gave me chills. This is what I discovered: If you have a specific destination, the Web is the place to go. If you just need to search, there is no place like the library.

Diana Wagman is the author of the novels “Skin Deep,” “Spontaneous” and “Bump.” She is an adjunct professor at Cal State Long Beach.


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