Bureaucracies are humans too. I should know. I used to work in one. Sometimes the job was very exciting, and at other times, the term “work” was loosely interpreted. (Can you read between the lines? I’m trying to say that I used to have a life outside the home!!)

But these automated bureaucratic machines seemingly control many aspects of our lives, sending out automatic bill notices, email reminders, letters about the status of your children’s immunisation, requests for tax papers, and — oops — overdue notices on library fines.

On one of our trips to the library, I spied Hans Christian Andersen, a musical from 1952 featuring Danny Kaye. With ballet sequences, fun songs and the innocence of the youth, I knew that this would be a winner with the girls.

Before this film, the girls had never seen a full-length video. We don’t have any DVDs, and the older girls’ only screen-time is on Youtube with David or a Playschool video once or twice a year. (Cali is still too young for any extended screen time.)

And, yes, the charm of Danny Kaye delighted the girls. The ballerinas entranced them. The songs caught their imagination, although when they sang “I’m Hans Christian Andersen”, it sounded more like “Han Chizzen Anderjen”.

Are you familiar with the film?

But, alas, when I received the automatic overdue notice for keeping the DVD longer than three weeks, I couldn’t find the case. The DVD was still in the drive of our computer, but the plastic case had vanished. Did one of the girls take it to their room to look at? Had it fallen behind the sofa?

At this stage, I had been packing up all our books, so I had relatively few books to look through, and I couldn’t find the case anywhere. However, I felt confident in approaching the library and successfully pleading my plight because I still had the most important part — the DVD. The case is just window dressing, right?

In our local jurisdiction, you don’t get fined for having books out past their loan period. (The council would prefer patrons to return the books and keep reading, rather than just stay away — an admirable policy.) However, when you have an overdue book, your account is suspended. That’s easy to get around — I quickly signed up one of my children so I could keep our borrowing habit alive.

So on one of our trips to the library I took the DVD in and asked two things. Was it possible that I had previously returned the case without the DVD? (No, I guess not, but it was worth a try…) So, could I return the DVD without the case?

The librarian didn’t think that was possible. “We can’t check in the DVD without the case. Why don’t you go home and see if you can find it?” (Yeah, I didn’t bother looking at all, so that was really helpful advice!)

After another week (that included some further searching that unearthed missing drink cups and the red spotted shoes I couldn’t find on Sunday morning), I approached the Head Librarian — she of the grey hair and sensible glasses who can recite the Dewey Decimal System backwards.

Hans Christian Andersen
I asked if I could return the DVD disc.

“Hmmm…” She peered at me over her glasses, sizing me up to determine if my story was true. Was I just hoarding the case at home because I had taken a liking to the cover insert?

“No, we can’t enter it into the system without the case,” she finally decided. “Why don’t you have another look?”

Since it had been three months since I initially checked out the DVD, I don’t know what the librarian thought I had been doing in the meantime. (Well, I did flee the country, but I returned in order to clear my name, so doesn’t that count for something?)

Last week I finally received the notice I had been dreading. It was a notice detailing the amount I would have to pay to replace the DVD. $33.85! Since when does a DVD cost that much? (Granted, I’ve never bought a DVD, but that price still seems a bit steep.)

A quick look on ebay showed me that I could replace the DVD for about $15. So either the library system chooses to extort their patrons or it gets ripped off by its own suppliers (probably the latter).

I was in a particularly adventurous mood when I composed my letter. It wasn’t really because I needed the $15, but the principle of the whole situation — where I was trying to do the right thing and the system kept blocking my way — made me want to rebel further.

I also made sure that I addressed my letter to the Head Librarian of all Head Librarians. (Making sure your letter reaches the right person in the bureaucracy is crucial in cutting through the red tape.)

I have an enquiry about the lost library item [details provided]. I actually have the DVD that goes in the case… it’s just the case that is missing. Every time I have approached the library to return to the DVD, I have been told that I must have the case too in order to return it. As the total charge for replacing this item is $33.85, and I can buy the item, new & sealed on ebay for $17, I wondered if it would be okay to purchase the item new and hand that in to the library in lieu of paying the $33.85 fine. I would like to settle this matter, as I am not in the habit of losing library loans.

So imagine my delight when I received a friendly letter in return! (Note to self: make sure to teach the children how to compose nice letters — they will need that skill in the future!)

I apologise for you experiencing such difficulty in returning the ‘Hans Christian Anderson’ DVD. If you have still not located the case please bring the disc into [a specific library] and ask to speak to the librarian. We will sort this for you. There is no need to buy a replacement copy.

That sounds easy, I thought. And it was. I drove into the appropriate library, spoke to the appropriate person and now I have a clean record again. So bureaucracies are human, you see. You just have to find the human in them to talk to!