Thursday, January 10, 2019

Her Mother's Daughter - by Marilyn French

"A novel by the author of The Women's Room" says the cover of the book. When I learned the term "feminist literature" in college it was because of Marilyn French. I actually read The Women's Room, the whole thing, when it was assigned to me in my Literature and Social Change course 25 years ago. I was stunned during a small group discussion in class to learn that one in my group (a man) admitted to not having read the whole thing. This, of course, did not stop him from providing us all with his opinions of the work.

Anyway, when I saw this on a free book exchange shelf I knew it would be a good thing for me to read during my time off over the holidays.

The novel follows four generations of women from the turn of the 20th century, through the depression and into the tumultuous '60s and '70s. The mother-daughter relationships throughout the decades are always complicated, and aggravated by the fact that they are living in a man's world.

Whip-smart Anatasia discovers solace in books, and the small library in the back of her elementary school classroom, as well as her local public library where books on art and photography pique her interest. As an adult Anastasia finds her dream job as a photographer for World magazine. She describes preparing for her interview
I had enough wits about me to set the interview a week away. This gave me time to go through all my drawers, considering. I rejected all those pictures of angry or dismayed mothers; and most of those that were interesting, odd close ups of unusual objects like a stack of sewer pipes or a train wheel, or the inside of an iris. All baby pictures were taboo. I ended with a set showing men working, machines, and a few splendid landscapes. After all, I knew what World liked. I saw it every week in the Herald waiting room. It was the best picture magazine-and the best paying-in the world. At the time, I regret to say, I did not think about all the concealed censorship; about how, if you want to get ahead in the wold, you take your cue from what is established, and shoot the things the establishment enjoys seeing, and avoid those it does not. I did not think about the ways we are taught, outside the church and the schoolroom, what to value, or about my being manipulated by the power world. I just wasn't thinking; I wasn't a political person...I didn't even think about how I automatically knew what photographs to include, or the meaning behind the choice of what to exclude.
As we close the second decade of the 21st century self-censorship is still an issue. I think the difference now is that artists and authors are aware that they are doing it. Concern over what will sell, or what our bosses will like continues to drive so much of our decision-making.

Also still alive and well is the practice of men participating in book discussions about books they freely admit to not having read, as evidenced by an (entirely optional) gathering I attended just last weekend.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library - by Carole Boston Weatherford

Going to elementary school in the 1970s meant that for one week in February each year we would celebrate Black History. It seemed that there were only two people worthy of recognition whom we would study each year: George Washington Carver and Benjamin Banneker (the latter was especially important to us because he was from Baltimore County Maryland, where my school was located). It did not occur to me that there might be more to history than what we were taught. Women (neither black nor white) were barely mentioned in any kind of historical context.

Even as Black History Week expanded to Black History Month there was little discussion of the contributions of those other than white men in building our country. We did discuss slavery, but recognition of contributions of individuals of color were rare.

Growing up in Puerto Rico in the late 19th century Arturo Schomburg was explicitly taught that "Africa's sons and daughters had no history, no heroes worth noting". A lover of books and reading, Schomburg set out to find the history that he knew was there. Like me he learned about Benjamin Banneker. Unlike me, however, he learned about a scholar whereas I simply learned of a native son. I'm not even sure I knew why he was famous beyond the fact that he had been a free black man during a time of slavery. Learning about Banneker began a lifelong quest for Schomburg to find out all he could about African Americans. His passion lead him to poet Phillis Wheatley, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and whaler Paul Cuffee. He also found some surprises about famous people who were descendants of Africans, among them naturalist John James Audubon, author Alexandre Dumas, and composer Ludwig van Beethoven. He collected all he could and soon had an enormous selection of literature.

A true mover and shaker of the Harlem Renaissance he rubbed elbows with W.E.B. DuBois, and Booker T. Washington. His vast collection of literature by Black authors and about Black history and was purchased by the Carnegie Corporation in 1926 and donated to the New York Public Library.
If Harlem was the heart of African-American culture, 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library was the mind. If the library were a university, its alumni would include the Harlem Renaissance figures who lost themselves amid its stacks and wrote in a quiet room downstairs. Schomburg's collection...would become the cornerstone of the Division of Negro History Literature and Prints.
It included more than five thousand books, several thousand pamphlets, plus priceless prints and papers.
He went on to found the Fisk University Library's Negro Collection in 1931, and then returned to the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library where
Arturo became the guardian of his collection. His peculiar method of shelving books arranged them by size and color, like a bouquet. In fact, he fired a new librarian for using the standard Dewey Decimal System. 
Any librarian can tell an anecdote about a patron who couldn't remember the title or author of the book they wanted, but they knew the color of the cover, so we won't necessarily shake our heads at Schomburg's methods. The Dewey Decimal System has plenty of drawbacks, too.

Beyond demonstrating the importance of libraries, this work also shows the importance of books as "windows and mirrors" on multiple levels. 

Monday, December 17, 2018

Algorithms of Oppression - by Safiya Umoja Noble

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (one of the most devastating natural disasters of the 21st century) my husband learned an important lesson about doing Google image searches in front of a class. Typing in "Katrina" into the search box he (and the class) were bombarded with pictures of buxom women. This was literally just days after the hurricane struck and news of horrific flooding and drownings were still the top news stories of the day. Noble explains that similar results are returned when one types in the words "black girls".

However much we might want to believe that machines will provide neutral results, the fact remains that algorithms are written by people (mostly young, white men) who wittingly or not, program in their own biases.

My own research on Google and heuristics demonstrates exactly what conventional wisdom tells us: that people are more likely to click on links that appear at the top of a search result list. If people don't see what they want they assume it isn't there. It is very unlikely that someone will look beyond the first screen of results.

This is not only a problem in Google, but in library databases as well. Providing the example of searching the term "black history" in the ARTstor database the author shows a result page full of European and White American artists.

There was a lot to say about libraries and librarians in this work. In some places there is praise for our work, and recognition of our value. In others the author offers fair criticism and suggestions about where we can do some reflection and reparation where outdated language and systems are used.

A few years ago, I gave a presentation in which I compared librarians to colonizers. By creating an ambiguous and arbitrary system of organization and classification, and putting ourselves in charge of it, and, furthermore placing those on the margins in a position that requires them to come to us for assistance we are regulating knowledge, and determining who gets a piece of it. Noble goes even further explaining how the Dewey Decimal System itself, along with the standardized subject headings, were created so as to oppress. Citing the work of Hope A. Olsen from the the School of Information Studies at the University or Wisconsin, Milwaukee Noble explains that

Those who have the power to design systems - classification or technical - hold the ability to prioritize hierarchical schemes that privilege certain types of information over others. 

As recently as 2016 the term "Illegal Alien" was being used as a Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH). Students at the Dartmouth College were successful in their bid to have the term removed. The headings "Noncitizen" and "Unauthorized Immigration" are now used. The move was not without controversy and included a threat to the funding of the Library of Congress in the form of  HR 4926 "Stopping Partisan Policy at the Library of Congress Act". Librarians have recognized our own use of outdated and offensive language before, replacing the heading "Jewish question" with "Jews" and "Yellow Peril" with "Asian Americans".

Privilege and bias are also evident in the Dewey Decimal Classification system. For instance over 80% of the 200 range  numbers is used for Christian religions although only about a third of people worldwide identify as Christians.

Librarians, however, also can be credited for discovering and resolving some of these problems. I was reminded of this article, recently shared with me: Remembering the Howard University Librarian who Decolonized the Way Books were Catalogued".  It is important to note that the librarian was a woman of color, highlighting the necessity of a diverse population when designing and creating systems.

In her conclusion Noble envisions a new type of search engine, one in which
...all of our results were delivered in  a visual rainbow of color that symbolized a controlled set of categories such that everything on the screen that was red was pornographic, everything that was green was business or commerce related, everything in orange was entertainment, and so forth. In this kind of scenario, we could see the entire indexable web and click on the colors we are interested in and go deeply into the shades we want to see...In my own imagination and in a project I am attempting to build, access to information on the web could be designed akin to the color-picker tool or some other highly transparent interface, so that users could find nuanced shades of information and easily identify borderlands between news and entertainment, or entertainment and pornography, or journalism and academic scholarship.
This is indeed an ambitious project, and I would add that all caveats for design would apply. Such an undertaking would need a large, diverse group of people to categorize. As well I would be cautious about cutting into the autonomy of the users. What is pornography to some is art to others. Letting an algorithm decide what is scholarship and what is journalism can also be problematic. Some scholarship isn't really scholarship, and some journalism isn't really journalism. No matter what search engine is used everyone should use deliberation and do their due diligence in making selections about sources.

On the final page Noble reminds us that
Now more than ever we need libraries, universities, schools, and information resources that will help bolster and further expand democracy for all, rather than shrink the landscape of participation along racial, religious, and gendered lines.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Geography of Genius - by Eric Weiner

Nine years ago I embarked on a project of reading "Year Of" books. One of the books I read, together with my geographer husband, was Eric Weiner's Geography of Bliss in which the author sought out the world's happiest places. When we discovered that Weiner had written another geography book we downloaded it and listened to it together during our regular drives between Bridgewater and Fairhaven. In The Geography of Genius Weiner visits places that were once hotbeds of creativity, or in the case of Silicon Valley, still are.

Of course libraries are essential elements when discussing genius and Weiner mentions them no fewer than twenty times.

Twice he used the library as a metaphor:

  • In Athens, Greece he decides to take a walk, as was the wont of many of the great thinkers who hailed from that city. His host, Tony, "approves of walking". However, it appears to Weiner that "this approval does not extend beyond the realm of the theoretical as Tony's expanding belly "says more about the divide between ancient and modern Athens than a library's worth of books".
  • It seems that the stereotype of the shushing librarian will be around for quite some time. Weiner uses the image to explain that working in a quiet space may in fact not be conducive to creative thinking. And that it is in fact the moderate noise levels found in coffee houses that make them ideal places to incubate ideas.

Importantly, Weiner also points out that libraries are not just places for books, but for programs and as gathering centers as well when he sees people queuing for a lecture at the National Library in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Libraries weren't always a public resource. Early libraries were by membership or subscription only. Today public libraries are recognized as the People's University. Block printing during the Song Dynasty (969 to 1276 AD) in Hangzhou China brought information to the masses. "Soon, thousands of titles, on all sorts of topics, were published each year. One library alone, at the Imperial Palace, housed some eighty thousand scrolls."

In Calcutta he discusses colonization with this description of Job Charnock - a seventeenth-century English sea captain, who married an Indian woman.
He wore loose, baggy Kurtas, smoked a hookah...and drank the local libation, a potent moonshine called arrack. Job Charnock, founder of Calcutta, son a English aristocrats, proud servant of the queen, went native.
That might come as a surprise given our image of the British and their attempts to rule India without interacting with India.
Charnock was the exception to those who agreed with Lord Macaulay "a senior official in the Raj, who infamously said that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia."

The same type of European-superiority thinking is evident in Joshua Hammer's work The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu as well.

Throughout his travels the author sings the praises of several librarians who helped him along the way:
  • In Hangzhou, China a librarian named Norman delivers a difficult-to-find copy of the English translation of Brush Talks from Dream Brook by eleventh-century genius Shen Kuo to Weiner's hotel "with all the furtive intrigue of a drug deal or CIA drop".
  • During a visit to the archives Laurentian Library in Florence (designed by Michelangelo) he speaks with Dr. Shelia Baker who is excited about a recent discovery of a letter written by Galileo to a friend. She also explains that to those who lived in the 15th century a book cost as much in relative terms as a car does today. Books were status symbols. Scholars were people who owned many books (even if they never read them).
  • In the Silicon Valley Archives where he walks "into a majestic room, brimming with wooden cabinets and history" a librarian hands him a cardboard box filled with correspondence from Fred Terman's days at the Harvard Radio Research Laboratory during World War II.
  • And, finally, in the acknowledgements Weiner thanks Kathleen McNamara director of Georgetown University's Mortara Center for providing "that most valuable of gifts: a library card."
Smart people use libraries.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks - by Ken Jennings

A Geography Wonk Guest Blog
(See for my other work)

I am honored and a little bit intimidated to be writing for the first time on "Library" Books, a blog by my favorite librarian that I have followed since its inception. Pamela and I share some other blogs -- most notably Nueva Receta -- but I never considered a walk-on in this domain. I am, after all, only a librarian by marriage.

When I mentioned that neither the book I finished this afternoon nor its author would have been possible without maps and libraries, she graciously invited me to write about it here. I was a bit intimidated, because I had not done what I have seen her do with most of the books reviewed here -- mark every passage that mentions libraries, so that she can select the best ones for commentary. I had only the one passage near the end that led to my comment, plus whatever the book's indexer decided to tag. That, however, seems enough to make the case that this is, indeed, a "library" book.
Also see my review on Goodreads.
The book, not surprisingly, is a geography book, or more precisely a geographer's book. Because the author is famous for his mastery of trivia -- Ken Jennings holds the now long-standing record for consecutive wins on Jeopardy -- it may be assumed that this is a book about the geography of an earlier era that was focused on the rote memorization of facts.

Instead, Jennings demonstrates that he knows a lot of things because he is curious about a lot of things, and he is not satisfied to look at the world in just one way. Each of the book's eleven chapters is a personal but well-researched exploration of an entirely different aspect of maps, from map projection to antique maps to geocaching to digital globes. He approaches each facet from the point of view of his own experience, literary references, and people he has been able to interview. His Jeopardy fame has given him access to some very interesting users, makers, and curators of maps!

The library anecdote that most got my attention comes in a conversation with his grandfather, in which he asks why his grandmother -- recently deceased -- had always been so fascinated with atlases. Like Jennings himself, his grandmother Betty had enjoyed spending time not only with individual maps, but also with bound collections.

He learned that her passion for atlases had begun when she was quite young, the daughter of a single mother. She and her sister were often left with relatives while their mother worked, and they in turn often brought them to "a welcoming library with pages and pages of beautiful maps."

Throughout the book,  Jennings makes useful connections to literary figures, from Baltimorean E. Allan Poe to Lewis Carroll to my main muse J.R.R. Tolkien. Lovers of libraries are going to find plenty to love in those references, and I am certain that I have forgotten some references to libraries themselves.

As I mention above, however, the index does point to several specific library discussions. One of these is the "ginormous size" (an Elf reference the indexer could not resist) of the map collection of the Library of Congress. Boston-area readers inspired by this might consider a visit to the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library. Jennings does not mention it, but and of course it is not as large, but it is wonderfully curated, and much of it is online.

He also mentions a perennial problem librarians of all kinds face -- and one that will only get more complicated as Baby Boomers age -- what to do when patrons try to donate more maps than a collection can absorb. He is advised to give them as gifts or return them to map dealers.

Of course, no discussion of maps and libraries would be complete without a discussion of the fascinating misdeeds of E. Forbes Smiley, III, who might be a distant cousin of mine. Pamela wrote about his case in her post about The Map Thief in early 2016, right after we had read that book together and gone to the Massachusetts State Library to hear Michael Blanding's talk. Those who enjoy Maphead are sure to enjoy that work as well.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For - by Alison Bechdel

Baltimore County Public Library's #BWellRead challenge for September 2018 was to "read a book you've always meant to read". I wasn't sure how to interpret "always" but I looked back on the list I've been keeping since about the start of this century and decided that a book that's been waiting ten years to be read qualified.

I made several attempts to purchase this at an independent bookstore, which it turns out would have been appropriate since much of the action takes place in such a store. Ultimately, however, I caved and ended up getting this from Amazon. I do offer myself some absolution though as I bought something at each of the independent shops I visited.

Although this reads as a graphic novel it is, in fact, a collection of the Dykes to Watch Out For comic strips. The book includes strips originally published between 1987-2008. While each panel features an independent episode, it reads as a soap opera with characters falling in and out of love, changing careers, becoming parents, and negotiating the evolving political landscape. I had not thought about some of the old political issues that come up in this work for a long time, and likewise was reminded how long some of the stalwarts in Washington have been around making trouble. It was sort of like visiting an old "frenemy".

Despite the fact that the characters in this work are quite well read, it was not until about the midway point of this 390-page book that I found any mention of libraries at all, and it was in a fantasy sequence. Each of three roommates (Ginger, Lois, and Sparrow) imagines what it would be like to live without the other two. Ginger's daydream involves a well organized bookshelf  "in Library of Congress order". I then had to read another 80-ish  pages before a library comes into play again, this time for real. Mo and her paramour Sydney do it "by the book" (so to speak) right there in the HQ 70s in the University Library (the range that includes books on lesbianism). It is no doubt the excitement of this tryst that prompts Mo to apply to library school, something we discover on the very next page! It is at this point that the libraries just keep coming as we follow Mo through her acceptance, taking classes, graduation, and getting her first job - in a post PATRIOT act world.

I am posting this one in honor of National Coming Out Day.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Pasando páginas: La historia de mi vida - por Sonia Sotomayor

This is my second blog post this year about Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. In June I posted about Jonah Winter's bilingual book Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx=La juez  que creció en el Bronx in honor of Sotomayor's birthday. This one I read in honor of the convening of the Supreme Court on the First Monday in October.

Even more "book centric" than Winter's work this book starts out with the line "Mi historia es una historia sobre libros..." (My story is a story of books...). Sotomayor goes on to describe how books, of all genres, influenced her and aided her in learning English, as well as how books helped her to grow, imagine, and learn.

Sotomayor's father died when she was only nine years old. She describes how her local library (Parkchester Library) became a refuge for her, a place where she could feel "consuelo y tranquilidad" (comfort and tranquility). As well she felt "dischosa" (fortunate) that the library was so close to her home that she could walk there. Similarly, as a college student at Princeton University she finds her way to the Firestone Library where
los libros se convirtieron en el salvavidas que me ayudaba a mantener la cabeza fuera del agua.
(the books became a lifesaver that helped me to keep my head above water).
On one of the final pages of the book Sotomayor eloquently reminds us that
Los libros son llaves que desvelan las sabiduría del ayer y abren la puerta del mañana.
(Books are the keys that uncover yesterday's knowledge and open tomorrow's door).
This book is written in Spanish, although an English version (Turning Pages) is available.