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A little technology can even help the library

One of the treasures of any university is the Main Library with its many floors of books and a basement full of magazines and periodicals from ages past to last week.

Tucson has the University of Arizona, which has a big five-story Main Library that is open to all, even snowbirds who don't pay Arizona taxes.

Has the Internet rendered libraries obsolete?

Not entirely. The information you find by browsing through an entire shelf devoted to a topic is more complete and better organized than what you'd find on any website.

The complete content of most books is not available on the Internet. The most you'll get online is a synopsis. There's still no better way of learning a topic than by browsing hundreds of titles on an actual shelf.

Library knowledge also smells better than Internet knowledge. There's nothing like the aroma of thousands of old books, musting away. It is the scent of wisdom. It is the odor of humility, for in a huge university library one is confronted with a mass of knowledge one will never attain.

But by reading quietly in a library, one joins a quest for knowledge with the others who are also reading quietly in a library. Unlike reading at home, reading in a library makes me feel part of a collective effort to glean wisdom from what is stored on the shelves.

People who meditate claim that meditating with others is much better than meditating alone. Apparently, the vibes collect up while sitting in silence in the same room with others and eventually so many vibes build up that it gets to be quite a deal.

The same thing happens in a library -- as long as everybody minds their P's and Q's.

Trouble is, with modern technology, very few people mind their P's and Q's in the library anymore. They're too busy minding their buzzing, beeping, ringing and glowing gadgets.

Last winter when I visited the U of A library, it was almost impossible to find a quiet corner. The place had become a student lounge. The only thing missing was a big-screen TV blaring the football game.

Loud cell phone conversations. Loud visiting. Loud crumpling of candy wrappers. Order and decorum had completely broken down.

What the place needed, I thought to myself, was one crabby schoolmarm with her hair in a bun posted every fifty feet to hush up the barbarians. And she should be armed with a Taser.

Last week when I pulled into Tucson, one of the first things I did was take a hike to the big University Library.

What a surprise.

They had filled the place with big screen TVs. Every floor had three or four.

However, the TVs were silent. Instead of a football game, the screens showed messages from library headquarters.

The most frequent message: "Is somebody not minding their P's and Q's? Don't hesitate to report behavior violations to..." and it listed a phone number and an email address.

Brilliant! The library administration had found a way to get the modern college student to behave: Put TV screens everywhere, put no-nonsense rules on the TV screen -- and give the rules teeth!

Another message: "Cell phones are to be turned to vibrate at all times. Cell phone conversations are only allowed in the elevator lobbies."

Wow. Music to my ears.

So, how have students responded?

The place was absolutely silent. The students whispered respectfully when they had to converse. When their cell phones vibrated, they ran to the elevator lobby to talk out of earshot of the study areas.

The only problem: There were so many more people in the library that desk space was difficult to find. However, because everybody was so nice and quiet, you could sit next to a bunch of people and not be irritated (unless there was a sniffler, in which case the Taser could come in handy).

What an exciting development. Somebody put their foot down. Somebody decided that if people these days didn't know how to behave, we'll teach them.

But instead of hiring a taser-wielding schoolmarm with her hair in a bun, somebody realized it would be cheaper and more effective to buy a few flat screen TVs.

For once, technology functioned to make people more considerate than boorish.

Let's hope it's just the beginning.