The Browne Issue System and the reordering of experience

Lorcan 3 min read

I was looking for a description of the Browne Issue System because I wanted to do an entry about it and avoid having to describe it. The State Library of Queensland provides a description.
Briefly, a reader has several tickets, each with a pocket. Each book has an associated card, with some bibliographic detail and a key by which it can be arranged. I am familiar with an approach based on accession number: a running number within year of acquisition. The Queensland approach talks about class number and author for arrangement. When a reader checks out a book, the card is inserted in the pocket in one of their tickets.
The data on the card is repeated on the book itself, and, again, in the system I am familiar with, a label in the book is stamped with the due-back date.
The tickets are organized in trays. They are organized by date of issue, and within date by the key on the card.
OK, so this means that there is a lot of manual processing of the tickets in the trays. Each day, the issues have to be ordered and added to the trays. When a book is returned, the ‘key’ and date of return guide you to the ticket location in the trays. When a book is reserved, somebody needs to check the catalog, and, if the book is not on the shelf, look for the relevant card in the trays. This involves manually looking for the card with the matching ‘key’ in the trays, sequentially looking in each date until found. A reserved item is flagged with a piece of colored card, so that when it is returned it can be set aside and checked against the file of reservations. Renewals involve finding the ticket and moving it to its new location in the trays. Typically, a small number of ‘queries’ will mount up, cases where something goes awry because a card or ticket is misdirected in some way. These may consume quite a bit time to sort out.
There is much tedium here: sorting and searching manual files, and transcribing details from the tickets and cards onto postcards to send out as overdue notices, or to request return of reserved materials, and so on. I worked for several years for what is now Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive. I am sure that my current poor posture is related to the many, many hours I have spent stooped over the issue system!
There is tedium. There are also small pleasures. The pleasures associated with dexterity, or achievement of a technique. There is something of the skilled practice of a craft involved. And the skill matters: on a busy day, one wants to be able to find and process tickets quickly. You become accustomed to finding the ticket and then taking the card out, placing it in the book, and returning the ticket to the reader with one sweep of the hand. This goes deep into your experience 😉 Twenty years or more later I still occasionally think about those tickets and feel my fingers moving out to remove the card and replace it in the book. For those that were so moved, there were also intellectual pleasures associated with solving the queries – of discovery, of working through problems.
This experience has become a private touchstone when I see discussions of how technology has changed things, or when people bemoan the loss of valuable practices as our digital environment spreads. Take this quote, for example, from the melancholy Adorno:

Technology … expels from movements all hesitation, deliberation, civility … Not least to blame for the withering of experience is the fact that things, under the law of pure functionality, assume a form that limits contact with them to mere operation, and tolerates no surplus either in freedom of conduct, or in autonomy of things, which would survive as the core of experience, because it is not consumed by the moment of action. [Theodore Wiesengrund Adorno. Minima Moralia. Verso: London, 1978.]

Now, the replacement of the Browne Issue System represented the decline of a minor craft, the replacement of a modestly skilled but tedious activity. It changed a pattern of experience, saved time, restructured buildings (not necessarily for the better). But this is a case where access to ‘pure functionality’ is a benefit which outweighs the ‘withering of experience’ it brought about.
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