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It may be somewhat fashionable to call oneself a bad reader, but I’m pretty sure I was bad at it before being bad was cool. I was bad before I read about it on the internet, at any rate.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

I recently had the chance to sit down with a couple dozen high school students and interview them, or mock-interview them, for a job in my library. I had to tell several of them that, although it seems like a natural and appealing thing to say, one should never tell a library interview committee that one loves books.

Why on earth not? Because librarians are offended at the notion that all we do is sit around read books. We also shelve them, put little stickers on them, and dust them from time to time.

But there is more. The librarian, the good librarian, is well-informed about many books, and can offer a suggestion or two to a patron who needs a recommendation. But the recommending skill, the I-can-find-you-anything-you-need skill, is in some ways contrary to the solitary and still skill of real reading.

I noticed shortly after I got my first library job that I had less need to own books, because I was around books all day. More books than I could hope to read in a lifetime. I would borrow ten books at a time, read a few, and renew, renew, renew until I finally had to bring back the rest unread. I wanted to know about this series or that author so I could do my job with reader’s advisory, and much of the time this meant reading a few chapters and moving on to something else.

I didn’t finish many books this way—I think we are all abandoning the idea that finishing is a virtue, anyway—but I did my job and got books into the hands of my patrons. I started listening to audiobooks, too, so I could increase my book consumption, and soon I was never without a book in my bag, three in queue on my MP3 player, six more on my desk, and a ridiculous spreadsheet of what I hoped to read once I had worked my way through what I had already checked out.

The funny thing is, this isn’t too different from how I was as a reader before I became a librarian. I’m not trying to say that my pre-library self was a serious reader with a geological attention span and being a librarian makes me a sort of walking Reader’s Digest Condensed book; I’m saying that my talent for picking up a book, flipping through it to find my favorite passage, reading it, moving on to the first page of a new novel, giving up and going on to look something up in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations is nicely matched to the work of a librarian.

So of course I, and librarians the world over, love books. Of course I’m being flip when I say I’m a bad reader. But you know how fashion-crazy librarians are.

arnold bennett

Reading expert, arbiter of all things

November is the month that causes a turkey’s and a librarian’s thoughts to turn to next year’s summer reading program. And October, and September, and maybe even part of August. It never leaves our thoughts, really. But, ah November! The time to order reading logs, stickers, posters, and little bitty plastic things to give away to young readers. Every year, librarians mutter to themselves that this will be the year it gets easier. This year,  we will have simple reading logs with simple instructions, we will be able to account for how much reading was done, no one will lose their reading logs, and even an adult librarian will be able to understand how the whole thing works. (Ooh, cheeky.)
So, in this time of hopeful planning, before the depression associated with reality sets in, let me offer a few words of charity from summer reading expert and library supporter, novelist Arnold Bennett (1):
“Literature, instead of being an accessory, is the fundamental sine qua non of complete living. I am extremely anxious to avoid rhetorical exaggerations. I do not think I am guilty of one in asserting that he who has not been ‘presented to the freedom’ of literature has not wakened up out of his prenatal sleep. He is merely not born. He can’t see; he can’t hear; he can’t feel, in any full sense. He can only eat his dinner.” (2)
You see? Tell that to the little children when they ask what the heck it’s all about. Not the plastic compasses and t-shirts. It is so that they may be able to eat their dinner with a certain self-satisfaction, and possibly a summer reading-themed cup.
1. I have no evidence to support this claim, but why should that mean anything?
2. From the excellent Literary Taste and How to Form It, 1909. And if the young ones need more counsel from Uncle Arnold when they have a question such as, “Which should I read first? Silas Marner or Always Lots of Heinies at the Zoo? tell them this: “You do not exist in order to honor literature by becoming an encyclopedia of literature. Literature exists for your service. Wherever you happen to be, that, for you, is the centre of literature.” Very apt, sir. Thank you.
the borrower

Lost in the world of books

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai is the story of Lucy, a young children’s librarian from the fictional town of Hannibal, Missouri, who mostly inadvertently kidnaps a ten-year-old boy to rescue him from an evengelical Christian upbringing that threatens to pray the gay right out of him. It’s also an eye-opening trip for Lucy herself, who sees truths about her own Russian immigrant family’s story that she could never see before. At the beginning, Lucy places herself between Huck Finn and Humbert Humbert, both literally (her last name is Hull) and figuratively, as a fellow runaway and kidnapper.
This is a book full of allusions to other books, many of them children’s classics like The Wizard of Oz, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and The Borrowers, as well as classic librarians like our friend Marian. In fact, Lucy’s world is almost completely informed by books and stories. Makkai’s use of these classics is clever and quite funny, and goes very well with Lucy’s concept of herself (1). I didn’t read this hoping to find some aspect of its representation of children’s librarianship to disagree with, but I did find myself thinking that Lucy has, at least in her own mind, reinforced the stereotype of a librarian as a socially inept, book-obssessed dreamer. Her life is, in a word, derivative, despite the interesting tension created by the contrast of her actions and her general view of herself. Lucy is part revolutionary, an impulse she pulls from her father’s stories about life in Communist Russia, and part reader’s advisor gone bad, as she tries to find book after book for her young patron that will enable him to see beyond his constricting circumstances, until she decides to remove him from Hannibal herself.
Most librarians probably hear this comment when they tell someone what they do for a living: “Oh, you get to sit around and read books all day!” Uttered with a sort of glee that is both wistful and somewhat skeptical. You really just sit around and read books all day? So why should I vote for that library bond? Don’t you have enough to read already? But, you see, we don’t just sit around and read all day. We do read, but most of that happens on our own time, because we want to be able to recommend books, not just point the way to them. Lucy’s work at the library, as it is represented in The Borrower, is limited to chapter book read-aloud hour, recommending fiction to readers, making a few displays, a little talk about Summer Reading, and checking books out. One of the primary tasks of a librarian is collection development, the process by which we determine how well the collection is being used, what to order, what to weed, how to allocate budgets, and so on. This is all the behind-the-scenes work that allows librarians to offer a really well-balanced collection, with everything from fiction to graphic novels, picture books, nonfiction, audiovisual materials, periodicals, databases, and more. But there is none of this in Lucy’s life (and maybe that’s because it would be unbearably dull, like reading endless screen shots of circulation statistics).
Are you snoozing yet? I hope not, because here’s what I really want to get at: I think that the mind of the public associates librarians with reading fiction. And fiction is, as everyone knows, totally frivolous. Sheer pleasure. And not necessarily worth supporting. It’s also easily downloaded to an e-reader through Amazon or some other mega-service with poor search functionality, thousands of results, and one-click purchasing. If you accidentally spend $2.99 on a novel you don’t particularly care for? Oh, well. It was just for fun anyway. You didn’t need a librarian to help you with that.
This is the part of the librarian stereotype presented in The Borrower that bothers me the most, that a librarian, especially a children’s librarian, is someone who has no real ideas of her own and lives through and for books, and all of those books are fiction. What about the rest of the library? Forget about some vaporous idea of bibliotherapy through discovery-of-self-quests; what about handing a child a book that might show him not just what  brave children can do when they fall down rabbit holes and get lifted out of windows, but what the world will look like when they grow up? What about career books, books on museums and art and travel? That open their eyes to science, history, inventions? Books that show children that the world is not contained within the four square walls of their home? (2)
When I was a young teenager, I went to my library almost every week to find

crusader castles

Written before he grew a foot and a half and became Peter O'Toole

one book, and I’d sit and read it, or stare at the sketches, and dream about what life would be like when I left my hometown for the wider world. It showed me a version of life that was at once historical and fantastical, because it was a book written decades ago about a subject that was hundreds of years old, and it brought with it all the peculiarities of the circumstances in which it was written. I found myself dreaming about not just the subject, but what it might have been like to be the book’s creator, and that book led the way to years of nonfiction reading. That book was Crusader Castles by T.E. Lawrence (3). I wouldn’t have found it if I’d been confined to the fiction shelves.

1. I listened to the audiobook, so I don’t have it sitting around to lift quotes from. But it really is worth checking out. I can see why Makkai limited herself to classics, because if she talked about the books that librarians most often deal with (i.e., currently popular titles) the book would date very quickly.
2. I feel a little bit like an evangelist myself here. But here’s a better nonfiction evangelist: Marc Aronson at his Nonfiction Matters blog at School Library Journal. And I have to confess that I read a lot of fiction, too. Just not exclusively.
3. You never know what will interest a kid. But for you librarians out there whose young patrons have already read all nine million pages of Seven Pillars of Wisdom and for some reason want to read more, try finding a copy of Crusader Castles, or Oxford’s Essential T.E. Lawrence (1992). Or E.M. Forster’s lovely essay on Clouds Hill, Lawrence’s Dorset home, in (I think) Two Cheers for Democracy. My copy got lost in a move, but it’s either in that one or Abinger Harvest. Good luck finding any of those in your ruthlessly efficiently-weeded library stacks, you collection development dynasts, you.

my invented life

  New Mexico YA author Lauren Bjorkman has started a blog series on librarian superheroes, defenders of defenseless books. I’m not saying I’m a superhero compared to people like Alia Muhammad Baker (1), but when someone bestows the title on you, you don’t shy away. You step up to the reference desk and find those copies of The Day My Butt Went Psycho for your patrons.  And I did have to defend my love for the Babymouse series when one of my coworkers suggested that perhaps I was a little too excited to see Babymouse Burns Rubber on the new books shelf one day. You can read the interview here.

1. Here’s an interview with Alia Muhammad Baker, who saved thousands of books at her library during the Iraq War. And here’s an interview with Jeanette Winter, author of The Librarian of Basra.

banned books week

Take a look, it's in a book...Reading Robot!

It’s that time of year again, when robots try to find a decent book to read. Otherwise known as Banned Books Week.  Children’s books are supremely well-represented on annual lists of challenged books because of a conspiracy on the part of children’s publishers to bring attention to their products, and librarians are hearty defenders of children’s right to read. Remember this as you go on.
Because I can’t resist a good reference book, I dipped into the old Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales and came up with the following from the entry on Childhood and Children: the author of Centuries of Childhood, Philippe Aries, aruges that childhood is “a cultural construction that emerged in Europe in the seventeenth century and came to full fruition in the eighteenth century. Prior to that time…what might now be clearly seen as child was merely a small person, with limited economic potential, and the separate and protected sphere of childhood did not exist.”
Along with the Enlightenment idea of the tabula rasa came the belief that children were born pure and could be corrupted by malicious influences, including the wrong sort of books.
In the Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature, the entry on censorship mentions Anthony Comstock, the 19th-century politician who crusaded to ban dime novels. Comstock’s image of children as glasses of sparkling water that could be dirtied with a single drop of ink led to the fight to ban ink. Okay, maybe just dime novels, which were, after all, printed in ink.
And who to enlist in this marvelous war, in which small defenseless children were to be protected against Vermicious Books? Why, librarians, of course. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Same of Tom Sawyer? Those characters are hardly benign influences on children. Get them out of the library! Nancy Drew? Her girl-powered hijinks will only lead children to believe that they are as powerful as adults. Librarians were eager to offer children the very best books and took a moral interest in young readers’ development. Farewell, red-haired detective.
Now we move on to an odd coincidence. At least, I think it’s a coincidence. Someone set me straight if I’m wrong. The Curriculum Materials Center at Minnesota State University Moorhead gives an award for the best read-aloud picture book for older children. Note: this is an award given by librarians, or at least supported by the library. It’s name? The Comstock Read Aloud Book Award. It’s named in honor of the award’s funder, the Solomon G. Comstock Memorial Fund, so I’m guessing there’s maybe only a distant relation, if any, between the two Comstocks. But what if it was the Anthony Comstock Book Award? Maybe for books to be read in a closet somewhere where no one can chastise you.
The point of this highly inefficient ramble? Make like a robot and celebrate your freedom to read.
Reading the Map of Knowledge

An art or a science?

(An occasional series in which I go all library school on you and try to explain the arcana of the library.)
In his book Reading the Map of Knowledge: The Art of Being a Librarian, Peter Briscoe writes that “Readers who can remember…myriad references, noting repetitions and relationships, are natural bibliographers.” That is, if we  read consciously, trying to absorb, connect, and analyze, we learn not only our subject matter but we become experts in the literature of our subject.
In the spirit of becoming a walking bibliography, here I present a brief look at subject headings. Why on earth would I do that? Because if you are “all about books,” as I have been accused of being, you probably find yourself in a library from time to time looking for something on a specific subject, and you look upon the density of a good library catalog with a certain yen for the ease of me-type-you-give-answer Googlery. Fear not.
Subject headings are those phrases developed and listed by the Library of Congress and used in library catalogs in the item record. For example, the abovementioned book has the subject headings “Librarians–books and reading,” “Collection development (libraries),” and “Books and reading.” A search under any of those headings will return results including Reading the Map of Knowledge. (If the library owns a copy, that is.)
But who outside the cabals of librarianship understands subject headings? Why not just use keyword searching? Funny you should ask. Keyword searching is in fact a pretty good way to search, if you have other limits like “picture books” or “adult nonfiction.” But poorly limited keyword searching can be frustrating. Witness the patron who came in the other day looking for books on nursing (the kind of nursing where you’re a nurse, not a breastfeeding mother).
Here’s a simple exercise (I didn’t say fun) to help you get to know your library catalog a little better. Do a keyword search for something, anything, and choose one result. Then click on one of the subject headings on that item record and see what comes up. If it’s a well-covered subject, you should get a nice page of books on your subject. Whereas keyword searching may return dozens of tangentially-related results, subject searching returns more specific results. Beware, however: any searching is only as good as the record it has to draw from.
In conclusion, one more quote from Reading the Map of Knowledge: “A book is the distillation of the best thinking its author ever did, an intimate sharing, one human being to another.” Okay, one more: “A library is set up as a gigantic referential system. One things always points to another. It is possible that no search ever comes sompletely to an end.”
And why should it?

C'mere a minute

A neverending topic of conversation at your average library is how to increase circulation statistics. Apparently it’s not enough to provide access to a wide variety of materials across a range of formats and subjects, and then open your doors and welcome the hordes. Ideally, some sort of advertising campaign would alert your public to the library’s goods and services, perhaps with billboards, radio spots, bus ads, and whatnot. But what if a media budget is not handily available and your circulation figures are falling (no crude jokes about librarians’ physiques, please)?
William here, no stranger to long and complicated answers to questions of the human condition, has the answer for you.
Naval press gang

That's what you get for getting drunk within 50 miles of the sea

 The naval pressgang. Imagine yourself innocently walking down a street in any seaside town in England during the Napoleonic Wars, and a sinister-looking fellow approaches you, not with a library book, but with a bayonet. Before you can say Bob’s your uncle, you’re eating weevilly biscuits and your teeth are falling out into the Caribbean.

It worked for the Royal Navy, and it can work for the public library, too. If they won’t come in on their own two feet, drag them in at pencil point. Isn’t that pretty much the model for school tours? And, just as regulating officers used to earn a little side money by letting men go free in return for a guinea or so, we can increase our budgets by letting the truly desperate pay for their freedom not to read.

Consider this as you celebrate Banned Books Week, September 24 – October 1, 2011 (1). Everyone talks about the freedom to read (it’s probably enshrined in your library’s collection development policy), but no one’s talking about the freedom not to be attacked in the street and forced to sign up for a library card.

Did I mention that September is also Library Card Promotion Month? Please, please, keep the librarians behind their desks where they belong, not roaming the streets looking for their next victim. At least wear your library card on a chain around your neck.

1. One story of the nickname for the Royal Navy, “the Andrew,” is that one superstar pressman, Andrew Miller, nabbed so many men and pressed them into service that it might as well have been his navy. I thought perhaps the library could be “the William” because it was all his idea, but he modestly suggested that we name it after everyone’s favorite musical librarian.

2. Visit the Banned Books Week website for more information.



The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

A-L and Beyond

The first thing that happens when you start working as a children’s librarian is that you go around looking for all the books you read as a child, or as many as you can find. (Me and Katie, the Pest is still on that list.) The second thing that happens  is that you involuntarily start a mental list of all the references in children’s books to libraries and librarians. There are many.
I have a feeling that this is because 1) children’s writers want to encourage an appreciation  for librarians in their young readers, or 2) they want to cultivate a secret understanding between reader and writer that librarians are actually a little bit scary on the outside but possibly human underneath, or 3) children’s writers see children’s librarians as a sort of daemon (see Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass), a little soulmate who scurries around helpfully and without whom they would not be complete.  Perhaps No. 3 is the minority.
To begin an occasional series on libraries and librarians in children’s books, I’d like to introduce a fellow chained library from one of the most enjoyable new books I’ve read this year, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente (1): A-L, also known affectionately as Ell, or taxonomically as a Wyverary. (His mother was a Wyvern and his father was a Library.)  Why is he chained and what will the heroine September do about it? All questions will be handled at the appropriate time and place within the workings of Fairyland. All I can say is that he is “fastened with an extremely serious-looking lock.”
A-L has the advantage, or disadvantage, of being quite knowledgeable on every subject from A-L. This is his genetic heritage. His siblings M-S and T-Z have their domains, as well. Of course, as a card-carrying member of the Dewey Decimal Conspiracy, I have to ask, if his father is a Library and his subjects are limited by the alphabet, then are libraries in Fairyland organized solely on the basis of the alphabet?
That would be all right for a limited amount of information, but, Wyverary, when a four-year-old comes up to you wanting Trucks, do you have to escort them to T, and then B for Big Rigs, then L for Lowriders, and so on and so forth? Or do you succumb to decimalization and lump them all together under 629 for Things with Wheels that Go Vroom (I’m not completely sure that’s the right subject heading)? Or is it a moot point because there are no trucks in Fairyland, and anyway your internal catalog stops at L? I think that there must be an Encyclopedia back in Ell’s family tree (or MARC record), so perhaps really he’s an Encyclo-Wyverary, to account for the alphabetical indexing.
Fortunately, Ell’s knowledge comes in handy just when September needs it, and, perhaps even more important, his great big heart does, too. I hope this means that Ms. Valente is in Group 1 above.
1. I saw Catherynne M. Valente at MythCon in July, and she was brilliant. Read some of the essays on her website, and her blog post/MythCon keynote on why we are so obssessed with medieval-style fantasy settings, “Dragon Bad, Sword Pretty.” In honor of Wyveraries and Ms. Valente’s other recent book, Deathless, (it’s for grown-ups), here’s a picture of the Russian fairytale “Maria Morevna,” on which Deathless is based. The image is from Lucy Maxym’s Russian Lacquer, Legends, and Fairy Tales, Vol. II (Siamese Imports Co., 1986). Yes, that is Koschei the Deathless lurking in the upper right corner, so watch it.
Maria Morevna
the chained library at hereford cathedral

The Chained Library at Hereford Cathedral

I am completely sold on this idea. Chaining books to the library shelves? Think of the savings. Whose idea was it to let people take them home, anyway?
This lovely picture is of the chained library at Hereford Cathedral. Although many of the books are older, the shelving and chains date from the early seventeenth century (thank you, “Treasures of Hereford Cathedral” guidebook).  The library was both an archive and a reading room, hence the chains. I like to imagine a conversation between a time-traveling modern library patron and a 17th-century cathedral librarian:
Patron: How many books can I check out?
Librarian: What do you mean, check out?
Patron: Well, I want to get some DVDs, too. Where are they?
Librarian: Let’s see…DVD…500, 5, 500…God, I hate Roman numerals.
Patron: Yeah, I never could understand that Roman numeral decimal system, either. Just show me where your self-check is.
Librarian: This is a public library, sir. I don’t think that’s appropriate.
 When I thought about a name for this blog, I considered “The Unchained Library” because, you know, we live in such a mobile kind of society. And then I thought about how my laptop battery lasts thirty seconds when it’s unplugged and I have to drag a bunch of cords and ethernet cables around when I want to plug in the printer, and I felt a real sympathy with what may be a fading idea of permanence in our information and communication systems.
So, it’s chained because a chain is something to grab hold of and something that keeps valuable things in their rightful place. It’s chained because there are always limits on how free and unconnected we think we are, evidenced by the growing number of reasons to connect online even as we ditch our cords and cables (well, as some of us ditch them). But the number one reason it’s not “The Unchained Library”?
Because I am not the Righteous Brothers.
What I am is someone who likes to writes about books, particularly but not exclusively children’s books; new books and old books; reading; writing; um, and almost anything having to do with books and libraries. For example, did you know that in early libraries books lay flat, which is “the most comfortable position for the traditional codex structure of a book”? (Thanks again, “Treasures of Hereford Cathedral.”) So, chains and no more standing books on their ends. I’m going to have to talk to my director about this.