Thursday, May 31, 2012
George is a mild-mannered librarian living in Los Angeles. He does not own a car, still uses a rotary phone, and is writing his "Encyclopedia of Obsolete Things" on his manual typewriter, based on interviews he tapes with a clunky, old camcorder. One of his subjects, Sophie (a projectionist) causes him to reconsider his views on the obsolescence of love.
A great movie. Five stars.
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Professor X writes about public libraries and college libraries in this work. He sees his local "beautiful little jewel" of a public library as an important part of the idyllic existence he dreamed of when he and his wife bought a house they could not afford (which prompted him to look for the part-time teaching gigs). But in most places where I read a passage about college library I could almost hear the author give a dejected sigh:
- "...the library is so lightly used..."
- "I went to the college library and checked out a collection of [Shirley Jackson's] short stories. The book hadn't been borrowed for decades..."
- "I always do an introductory class on research. We all trudge down (emphasis mine) to the library and sit at the computer terminals".
- "I once had a student who handed in a paper late, and this was his explanation: he got a late start because he couldn't find (emphasis in original) the college library."
- "Once, as we started to do research, one of my students found the name and call number of a book she wanted to use. She dutifully wrote it all down on a slip. 'So what do I do now?' she wondered. 'Give it to a librarian'."
- "Last week, I visited the campus library. I found I could hardly work because of the noise."
While there are quite a few passages about libraries, librarians are barely mentioned at all. After taking the time to "trudge down" to the library the students don't have a training session with an actual librarian; X demonstrates the databases himself, indicating that "it doesn't take...long to demonstrate how to search for newspaper and journal articles on Lexis-Nexis, EbscoHost, and Academic Search Elite". Perhaps if he asked a librarian (who probably would take some time with the databases) for assistance he might get better results from students. His anecdote regarding the little used Shirley Jackson book did include a librarian whose "eyes widened in horror when she saw the [Social Security] numbers" and names of the students on the "quaint checkout card" from the 1960s in the back of the book. The librarian "shredded the card and eyed [X] with great suspicion".
The author quotes an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education which suggests that the library be included on tours for prospective students. (Are there really schools that don't include it?) And that "they should be welcomed by a librarian who delivers the message that the library is critically important to each student's academic experience." I will say that Maxwell library is included on the Bridgewater State University campus tour, but we have been unable to convince those in admissions that someone who works in the library should be given a chance to address the baseball-cap bedecked troops that move through the building. Instead we bite our tongues as we hear as the backwards-walking student leaders use words such as "nonsense" to describe the research process, or confide, in a conspiratorial tone, that they've never actually checked a book out of the library.
Reading this book I found myself feeling as cynical as Professor X does about teaching in higher education. Much of what he writes about are things I've observed myself, but the book does have some glimmers of hope as well. I read of community college students who worked hard, and learned a lot, who otherwise would not have been able to afford to go to college, and the author does some reflection on his teaching and recognizes what he has done, or not, that did or didn't work well.
I think the most important lesson I took from this work is that I am indeed happy in my small house deep in the "student ghetto" of Bridgewater. I often think about how much quieter the big houses, farther from the center of town, must be but X has provided me with a cautionary tale of what happens when one goes looking for greener grass. He demonstrates well how paying for a big house, when he was quite content in his previous (smaller) one, precluded him for actually being able to live in it.
Thursday, May 24, 2012
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
In two years time, for my fiftieth birthday, I plan to make a pilgrimage to Peru's "Lost City of the Incas," Machu Picchu. I do not plan to make so much of an adventure of it as Adams did and will risk the ridicule of Adams' guide, John Leievers - who lamented to Adams the first time they met that "People used to be travelers....Now they're tourists". I plan to stay in a hotel in Cusco and take the train ride up to the ruins. Which is not to say I cannot appreciate the voyage undertaken by the author, who had virtually never slept in a tent before, much less done any serious hiking. He, however, eschewed the namby-pamby 4-day hike on the famed Incan Trail in favor a month long trek worthy of a real "traveler" - like explorer Hiram Bingham - the Yale University professor credited with "discovering" Machu Picchu in 1911.
This work is much more than an inspiring travelogue. Adams weaves his own adventure into the story of Bingham, and that of the ancient Incan empire and its ultimate conquest by the Spanish. Of course to do this kind of history telling properly, one must spend much time in libraries doing research, and clearly our hero (the author) did so, as he points out, did Bingham.
Early in the book Adams describes taking a day off of work, so he could take the train into Yale where "he spent hours in the library, leafing through Bingham's diaries and expedition journals...in the neo-Gothic splendor of Yale's Rare Books and Manuscripts room". He read much of Bingham's work, and acknowledges that Bingham wasn't really a very good writer. This may be the reason that when he checked out Bingham's Journal of an Expedition Across Venezuela and Colombia the librarian pointed out that "the last due date had been stamped in 1914."
The author tells of at least three specific trips to libraries, as well he gives nods to the Yale Sterling Library and "Melanie James of the sublime General Society Library" in his acknowledgments (and "sublime" is not a word the author uses lightly, either).
Descriptions of Bingham's library research at Yale, and in Lima, illustrate that his quest for information went hand-in-hand with this quest for finding the lost city.
the more hours he [Bingham] spent in the university library researching the final days of the Inca empire, the more convinced he became that their lost city really did exist - except it was called Vilcabamba".Bingham pursued this notion with a visit to the National Library in Lima, where he spent "much of his brief time" with historian Carlos Romero "whose archival research had raised the prospect that Vitcos, not Vilcabamba was the Lost City of the Incas". The follow up to all of this, with explanations of the difference between the two places, and flaws in theories, is a beautiful demonstration of just how messy research can become, with one piece of information leading the scholar down new paths - something I spend a lot of my time teaching students about, explaining that it is not necessarily a bad thing, either.
There are also at least three other places in which Adams tells of other researchers use of libraries, and how these also piqued the scholars' interests into tracking down more information.
And finally, I will say that reading this book prompted me to add the following movies to my Netflix list: Secret of the Incas and Lost City of the Incas as well as an Indiana Jones movie, not because there is some evidence that the character Indiana Jones is based in Hiram Bingham, but rather because Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull includes a scene in Yale's Sterling Memorial Library, complete with "mousy student". Adams gives this brief review of the film
The team behind Crystal Skull might have benefited from a few more hours in the library, since the story is riddled with embarrassing errors, not the least of which is Indy's greeting at a Peruvian airport by a Mexican mariachi band.It is never a bad idea to spend a little extra time in the library. Perhaps the mousy students are actually on to something.
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Thursday, May 17, 2012
Books, for me, are a home. Books don't make a home - they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space.Often her memories go back to the Accrington Public Library, with its Dewey Decimal System, and cubicles for "individual study" - right next to the large print book section - to which Winterson observes "Mrs W was nothing if not old-fashioned. She knew that masturbation made you blind....Presumably one thing led to another."
There is warmth there too - a hearth. I sit down with a book and I am warm.
Winterson speaks well of librarians saying they are "reliable" and even mentions thinking about becoming one herself, as the best, of the few choices, she sees for a young woman from Accrington where "women couldn't be anything except wives or teachers or hairdressers or secretaries or do shop work....[or]librarians...[she] thought of doing that" but decided she would rather write her own books.
Books, libraries, bookstores, reading, and writing all play important roles in Winterson's life. She is quite philosophical about the way she was raised - book burning and all - as she recognizes that without that denial she might never have learned to appreciate reading, and the life of the mind, it helped her to develop.
Tuesday, May 8, 2012
It turned out that there was quite a bit more about libraries and librarians in this work, as the novel tells not only the Kid's story, but that of the Professor as well. The Professor, who teaches Sociology at the Calusa State University, is a morbidly obese genius who is not only a library trustee, he is the son of a librarian, and is also married to a librarian (Gloria). The Professor and Gloria have two children, who were conceived in the conventional way, but otherwise the Professor and the librarian have a rather unconventional sex life. This is not the first book I've read about a librarian who actually has a sex life, but it is rather rare that said librarian does much out of the ordinary. I always like to see something that busts the librarian stereotype. And so it was with some chagrin that I read the passage which described the Kid's only visit to the Professor's house. The "comfortably tastefully furnished home" which apparently looked like a "professor's and librarian's" home as far as the Kid was concerned.
So, I began to wonder how this fictitious home stacked up to my real-life-professor-and-librarian home. This is what I found:
- Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves - check
- Paintings and framed photographs on the walls - check
- Oriental carpets - check
- Elaborate stereo system and racks of CDs - check
- Large flat-screened TV, and a long shelf of DVDs - Hah! Our television set is medium-sized, and it is not flat screened. It also sits inside of a television cabinet, which I understand is quite passé now that everyone has a large flat-screen TV.
Well, perhaps James and I don't really shake any stereotypes here, but I do still feel smug about the fact that our only television set is an older model that, in fact, doesn't get any reception, beyond what we can watch on Netflix.
This may be the first work I've blogged about in which one of the character's is a library trustee. The Professor was elected to the position when he proved himself to have better credentials than the three other candidates. Here in Bridgewater library trustees are elected as well. I do not recall, however, ever having more candidates than there were positions available on the board.
I also liked what the Professor had to say about libraries:
Public libraries are the sole community centers left in America....The degree to which a branch of the local library is connected to the larger culture is a reflection of the degree to which the community itself is connected to the larger culture.This novel is based on the true case of the men who lived under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Florida. Sex offenders in Florida must live more than 2500 feet away from any place where children might gather (schools, recreation centers, etc). These men are additionally bound to stay inside Miami-Dade county. The shanty town they built under the highway was one of the few places where they could legally reside. This article from the New York Times tells a bit of their story.
The book closes with the Kid imagining all the things he will do at the public library, once he is off probation.
Friday, May 4, 2012
Although this Newbery-Award-Winning book tells a story of a boy with a true love for books and reading (and using books as building blocks for igloos!) it appears that twelve-year old Jack Gantos did not visit a library during the summer of 1962. It may have been because he was grounded, but more likely it is that there is no public library in Norvelt, Pennsylvania. An internet search of libraries serving the area leads me to believe that Norvelt residents have to travel to Mt. Pleasant to use the public library.
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Balloons show Public Libraries near Norvelt.
Although grounded for most of the summer, Jack is given occasional reprieve to assist his neighbor, Miss Volker, with writing the obituaries of original Norvelt residents, who drop dead that summer at an alarming rate. In dictating one of these obituaries, Miss Volker uses a library metaphor to demonstrate the importance of preserving information:
"...every living soul is a book of their own history, which sits on the ever-growing shelf in the library of human memories. Sadly, we don't know the history of every person who ever lived....But here in Norvelt we had one of those librarians who collected the tiniest books of human history. Mrs. Hambsy...was the first postmistress of Norvelt and she saved all the lost letters, those scraps of history that ended up as undeliverable. But they were not unwanted. Mrs.Hamsby carefully pinned each envelope to the wall, so that the rooms of her house were lined from floor to ceiling, letter upon letter....You were always welcome to unpin any envelope and read the orphaned letter, as if you were browsing a library of abandoned histories."
Miss Volker is rightly concerned that with Mrs. Hamsby's death, this archive will be destroyed. Library archivists know that treasures (e.g. rare photographs; signatures of famous people) are sometimes found lurking in a forgotten place, as seen in this New York Times story about a recent discovery at the Brown University archives. And the power of letters in shaping and telling history is evident in this New York Times story about the release of Osama Bin Laden's personal letters.
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Watch this video to find out the wide variety of ways people think about privacy.