We're lucky here in Malibu. Our branch of the L.A. County library is open six days a week, has a decent selection of books, a great selection of videos, a pod of computers for public use and every year, courtesy of the local elementary school, displays macaroni-covered renderings of the California missions.
But if you want to browse the card catalog, good luck. (And by card catalog I mean the online data base, which has replaced those birds-eye maple cabinets, the ones with the long and skinny drawers filled with foxed and fuzzy cards. I miss them, miss the typewriting and the thumbprints and the typos, miss the musty scent, the sense of time, but that's a different essay.)
I'm a fan of the online database. You get to see all the books in all the county branches. You can reserve almost anything and get it delivered to your local library within days. Sure, you lose the serendipity of linear browsing but you gain the power of the boolean search. Not a terrible tradeoff.
In the beginning, as with the card catalogs, anyone could peek inside. Wake up the computer with a tap of the space bar and there it was, the online search box. Just enter the author or title or keyword and the hunt was on. Now, however, you have to enter your library card number just to search the catalog.
If you don't have a library card, or simply don't want to leave yet another electronic trail in the world, you have to ask a librarian to stop what they're doing to help you. And in Malibu, since the dedicated data base computers are broken, all three of them, you now have to wait in line for one of the wildly popular public computers to sign on.
We're lucky to have the library here. Consider the deep cuts in operating hours in other libraries and I have to say we in Malibu are extremely lucky. But putting something as simple as a search behind any kind of barrier is contrary to the open source nature of the library.
Bring back the truly free and open card catalog. Put the "public" back into library.