Local public libraries this week might have to work out the bugs on some recently installed computer software, but there will be at least one soothing constant: Haiku at the self-checkouts at the Sequoya Branch Library.
Poetry is alive and beeping at the machines throughout April, aka National Poetry Month.
Conventionally, the self checkout stations at Madison public libraries - which patrons can turn to instead of library clerks to record the barcodes on the items they're borrowing - ask users to choose English or Spanish on a touch screen to guide them through the checkout process.
But at Sequoya this month, there's also a "Haiku" button, offering an off-the-wall series of checkout instructions in the Haiku syllabic pattern of 5-7-5. And a Julia Child-voiced option, where patrons can check out books by following a recipe ("Preheat oven to 450 degrees and scan your card") as if they're baking a batch of biscuits.
"We've done a number of different goofy themes," said librarian Gregg Drexler, who notes that library patrons, like grocery shoppers, can get a little frustrated when the self-help technology meant to speed their checkouts hits a glitch.
The first wacky checkout sequence at Sequoya was for International Talk-Like-A-Pirate Day.
"When you have a pirate talk to you when you're checking things out, and you have a problem with it, at least you have a smile on your face when the beep goes off as you leave the door," Drexler said.
The pirate idea was the brainchild of former Sequoya page Clay Busker, who figured out a way to alter - everyone avoids using the term "hack" - the checkout stations manufactured by ITG, or Integrated Technology Group, to add new "languages."
The idea caught on, and soon staffers were clamoring to write more programs and record the voices for them: Instructions in Pig Latin. A game show. A guided meditation. A zombie choir for Halloween.
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"It's a fun thing to do," said Drexler, who said staffers come in before the start of the workday to record their sound files. "Especially when a new one debuts: It's like opening night at the opera. You've got a brand new one coming out and you get to see what the public reaction is going to be."
Busker, who now lives in Minnesota but continues to volunteer his technical know-how to his former co-workers, has given presentations on his self-checkout innovations at library conferences alongside ITG reps and has a website demo at www.checkoutthemes.com/examples.html The efforts even won the Sequoya Branch the South Central Library System's tongue-in-check "2010 Chester Pismo Snavely Memorial Award for a Nifty Idea."
The only bomb so far?
A sequence called "Baby Talk" "was extremely condescending and didn't last very long," laughs Andy Gricevich, a Sequoya page and a poet who inspired the "Haiku" program.
Gricevich, who runs a Madison reading series and publishes a poetry magazine, always wears a suit to work during National Poetry Month and provides a basket full of poems - some serious, some funny, some wonderful and some exceedingly bad - for library patrons to pick up on their way out the door.
"What you partly lose with automation" like self checkout machines "is the sense of the library as a vibrant public space, people chatting in line and being in a common area," Gricevich said. Offering poems in a basket and adding some unexpected fun at checkout time "kind of brings that back. People often talk to us about it and talk to each other about it."
The Haiku program lasts through April 30. Then what?
"We're in the testing stages," Gricevich said, "For ‘Sequoya Library: The Musical.'"