Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Road to Little Dribbling - by Bill Bryson


My husband and I couldn't resist picking up Bill Bryson's latest work after so very much enjoying Notes from a Big Country and A Walk in the Woods. We weren't disappointed as we once again enjoyed some laugh-out-loud reading time together.

Following what he designates as "the Bryson Line" the author transected the United Kingdom from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath, stopping at a variety of bergs in between, visiting tourist traps, and little known spots alike, he makes keen observations on the people and places along the way.
The Bryson Line

It is unclear whether or not he visited any libraries on this particular journey, however, he did write about things he had learned in libraries
  • Such as the fact that Dwight D. Eisenhower had a home called Telegraph Cottage on the edge of Wimbledon Common during World War II and
  • How the system of road numbering works in Britain in fact he was "surprised to learn that there is a system to British road numbering...it is not like systems elsewhere."
He also discussed libraries as part of an important part of a community
  • Even if the community never existed. Motopia "was a proposed model community based on the uniquely unexpected idea of banishing cars." Motopia, however, was to include "housing, shopping, offices, libraries, schools, and recreational space" with its inhabitants "getting from place to place on moving sidewalks or in taxi boats along lakes and a small network of canals".
  • He also points out that even when Britain was referred to "the Sick Man of Europe...there were flowerbeds in roundabouts, libraries, and post offices in every village, cottage hospitals in abundance, council housing for all who needed it" and wonders why "the richer Britain gets, the poorer it thinks itself"  
  • He notes that Canford Cliffs, while lacking many of the shops he remembered from his previous visit thirty years prior, still maintained "a lovely little library and a proper village center."
  • In a completely deserved dissing of Birmingham, which had announced "massive spending cuts" that would make two-thirds of city employees "redundant" Bryson points out that this move included halving the staffing levels at the new £189 million central library, as well as cutting its hours by 46%, among so many other things. Bryson' sarcasm about all of this is right on target
All of this is being done to save £338 million over four years. That sounds like an enormous sum, but in fact it is a saving of about £1.40 per week per citizen. I wonder what all those lucky people of Birmingham will do with that extra £1.40 flowing into their pockets every week.
American citizens would do well to pay attention. Tax cuts rarely mean that middle and working class people will benefit.

Bryson also uses libraries as metaphors, or simply uses them to make a point
  • He doesn't like it, for instance, "when a hotel puts some books in a bar and calls it The Library."
  • He remembered "the Natural History Museum as being almost empty of other visitors and very quiet, like a library" although, that aspect had changed for his recent visit. He does point out, however, that the whole country of England is quiet in comparison to the United States "like a big library".
  • He suggests that one way to "receive formal adulation" in the United States is by "paying for a hospital wing or a university library or something along those lines." The other way is to "single-handedly take out a German machine-gun nest while carrying a wounded buddy on your back at a place called Porkchop Hill or Cemetery Ridge..."  
This is an entertaining book, and would be a good choice for a vacation read.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Storyteller's Candle/La velita de los cuentos - by/por Lucia González


¡Feliz Día de los niños / Día de los libros! Children's Day/Book Day (or more simply Día) is celebrated every year on April 30 to celebrate multicultural books for children and to encourage literacy. The celebration was started in 1996 by children's author Pat Mora whose work I have written about before (see my previous posts about Pat Mora and Día here and here). 

This year in honor of Día I read a bilingual book about a bilingual librarian, Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian in New York City. The Storyteller's Candle/La velita de los cuentos tells the story of how those who migrated to Manhattan's Barrio from Puerto Rico during the Great Depression found a welcoming library when they discovered that a Spanish-speaking librarian had been hired. Belpré made clear the message that libraries were for everyone by not only ensuring that reading materials in English and Spanish were available to the new arrivals, she also planned story hours, and celebrations that honored their language and traditions.The beautiful illustrations enhance this story about the joy and warmth of family and community. 

Belpré's memory is honored each year with the awarding of the Pura Belpré Award to a Latinx author and illustrator "whose book best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth."

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Bad Ass Librarians of Timbuktu - by Joshua Hammer


This was already on my must-read list when we received it as a gift from one of my husband's geography students. This tells the story of the rich history of literature in Africa - a history which contradicted the story told in 20th century Europe "that black Africans were illiterates with no history". Instead manuscripts from medieval times
proved the opposite-that a sophisticated, freethinking society had thrived south of the Sahara at a time when much of Europe was still mired in the Middle Ages
The work of scribes who copied texts at a rate of "150 lines of calligraphy per day" is described and their pay in gold nuggets or gold dust. The ancient texts were threatened several times over the centuries, including during the French occupation at the turn of the twentieth century. Over one hundred years later it was Al-Qaeda that nearly destroyed the literary treasure.

In the ensuing years many of the manuscripts had been hidden in homes, where they were deteriorating. Abdel Kader Haidara tracked down many of these manuscripts in the 1980s and convinced the owners to donate them to Mali's libraries where they could be preserved. By "2011 the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library in Timbuktu was fast becoming one of the world's most innovative manuscript conservation centers and a symbol of Timbuktu's cultural renaisance". In 2012 Abdel Kader Haidara once again worked to save the treasures, as he organized people to smuggle the manuscripts out of Timbuktu where they could be safe from eradication. This tale is not just about librarians, but also about the common people who risked their own safety to move the books.

Controlling information is one way that those in power attempt to keep their authority. It is an old story. One we see throughout history, and just as relevant today as our own government attempts to vilify the press while spouting "alternative facts".

This could be hard to read at times as accounts of be-headings, kidnappings, and other senseless violence were part and parcel to the story. However, it is also a tale of hope and courage. All who understood that knowledge was worth preserving were the heroes of the story and serve as examples to those who may be despairing.


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Card Catalog:Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures - by The Library of Congress


Almost anyone who used a library before about 1990 (and many after that) will remember using a card catalog - a now obsolete method of finding books in a library which involved index cards in drawers. The cards were interfiled by book title, author, and subject and had the call number written in the upper left-hand corner. Those who went attended the Graduate Library School at the University of Arizona when I did (1990-1991) will remember a cataloging course in which just about all we did was learn how to create proper entries for catalog cards. Machine Readable Cataloging (MARC) records were beginning to emerge in some libraries at the time (including at the University of Arizona) but we did very little with computers in the class, instead we hand wrote entries, and were graded on such things as how close together our punctuation marks appeared to be. What I didn't know at the time was that there was actually a thing called "Library Hand" that prescribed the penmanship to be used on hand written cards. Now that I know this I'm frankly surprised that that wasn't part of the curriculum.

An example of Library Hand from the book

There is a romance around the card catalog. I will admit to missing them. The old oak cabinets were iconic of libraries once upon a time, and as a youngster I was proud that I knew how to use them. My ability to employ the catalog to find information marked me as a learned person. Card catalogs were not without their faults, however. Lazy patrons, rather than writing down a book's call number, would sometimes simply remove the card from its drawer, whence it would never return. Censors could also easily remove all references to a particular library book simply by ripping all the relevant cards from their drawers making it virtually impossible to find the book. This was certainly a lot easier than actually going through the channels to have the offending book removed the library, and frankly a lot more effective. It was also not uncommon for cards to be misfiled, making finding a needed resource into a special kind of challenge.

When I discovered that a new book had been published about this once quintessential symbol of the library I immediately purchased the e-version and downloaded it to my iPad in celebration of National Library Week.

None other than the newly appointed Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, wrote the foreword to this work. I made an instantaneous connection upon reading the first sentence of the book
One of my first assignments when I began my library career was to file Library of Congress card catalog sets into a wooden case in the storefront branch of the Chicago Public Library.
Such was also one of my first assignments at my first library job (as a student assistant at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory Library) in 1991. I imagine this experience parallels that of many Baby Boomer librarians.

The card catalog really dates back to that most venerable of libraries - The Library of Alexandria where books were actually scrolls, and had to be organized in such a way that scholars could find what they needed. The Pinakes was created by Callimachus who divided the scrolls into categories, and created records which included the number of lines, and the opening words of each scroll. You can read an excerpt from the book that describes this early catalog  (published in Time magazine).

I started this blog six years ago, but I've been blogging about books since 2009. My first book blog was called "My Year of Reading 'Year of' Books" a bit of a meta-blog that featured books of the "stunt lit" genre in which the authors took on a yearlong project and wrote about it. In 2010 I wrote a blog called Celebrating the States - a yearlong project during which I posted on each of the 50 states on the anniversary of its statehood. Each post included information about a food or recipe associated with said state, along with a review of a movie that took place in the state, and a review of a book set in the state. Every once in a while I read about a book I've blogged about in another book. I had the good serendipity in reading The Card Catalog to find  a copy of the catalog card from Idaho: A Guide in Word and Picture - written as part of the a program of the Federal Writers' Project during the Great Depression. This was indeed the book I read when I blogged about Idaho. Looking back at the post it seems it was almost in the cards (pun intended) that I mentioned the catalog record for it!




This book has some wonderful pictures, and a lot of history not just of catalog cards, but of the Library of Congress as well. It is a quick read and is sure to be enjoyed by librarians and library lovers alike. Read more about this book, and card catalogs here.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt's Treasured Books - by Susan L. Roth and Karen Leggett Abouraya


The ancient library of Alexandria, Egypt (Biblioteca Alexandrina) stood from 300 BCE to 400 CE. There are various legends as to what happened to this "center where great thinkers, scientists, mathematicians, and poets [came] to study and share ideas". We do know that it was burned either intentionally or by accident and today, not far from where the original library was located, a new library made of  granite and opened in 2002, stands in its place.

In early 2011 protesters in Egypt succeeded in their call for the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. The eighteen days of protest were violent and the new library was threatened. The director of the Library, Dr. Ismail Serageldin, closed the library and feared that it would be destroyed.
"The Library has no gates that can be locked", he called out. "The doors are all glass. There is nothing that prevents anybody from destroying this building with all its treasures, except the will of the people."
And the will of the people prevailed as crowds of students, library workers, and other demonstrators, surrounded the library and held hands to protect it from the devastation and so "the library still stands today holding all of our stories."

This children's book is beautifully illustrated with collages by co-author Susan Roth.

A perfect story for National Library Week about the breadth and depth of love a society can have for its library.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Stella Louella's Runaway Book - by Lisa Campbell Ernst



In honor of National Library Week, which starts today, I read this book involving a library escapade. Stella Louella is afraid she will never be able to use the library again when she realizes that she has lost her library book. The hunt is on as she spends her Saturday tracking the book across town. One after another she meets people who picked it up and read it, and passed it on to someone else. By the end of the day she has dozens of people helping her to find the lost volume. The librarian has a surprise for her though when Stella Louella shows up at the library at closing time and comes clean that the book is nowhere to be found!

Friday, April 7, 2017

Quabbin: The Accidental Wilderness - by Thomas Conuel


In 1946 the Massachusetts towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott, along with six villages were flooded to create the Quabbin Resevoir in order to provide fresh water to Boston. The inhabitants of the towns were relocated, as were cemeteries and some buildings. 

Conuel's book tells some of the history of the towns and how the reservoir was created, and also tells of the beautiful wilderness that stands today with wildlife including bobcats and bald eagles. This slim work is rife with historic photographs providing a glimpse into the life of central Massachusetts at the turn of the 20th century as well as pictures of flora and fauna found at the Quabbin Resevoir. The book was first published in 1981, and I imagine that even since the 1990 revision I read climate change has brought about some additional transformations to the area.

One cannot write a book such as this without some assistance from archivists, historical societies, and librarians. Conuel found a gold-mine of information in Warren "Bud" Doubleday, a former resident of one of the flooded towns. He was referred to Doubleday by a librarian in New Salem. He also acknowledges Audrey Druckert, the official librarian of the historical society, an expert in wild plants and conservator of "a collection of tapes...as close to a complete oral history of the valley before the reservoir was built as exists anywhere."

This book has been sitting on my shelf for a long time. I finally read it as part of Book Riot's 2017 Read Harder Challenge  which includes a call to "Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location" (among 23 others).