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 In others the author offers fair criticism and suggestions about where we can do some reflection and reparation where outdated language and systems are used.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 doctor.coffee 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.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Living Wake-the movie


My husband has a habit of looking up movies (as we're watching them) on The Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) and telling me what other venues the actors and actresses have played in. Earlier this year while we were viewing season two of The Handmaid's Tale on hulu he informed me that Ann Dowd (Aunt Lydia) played a librarian in a film called The Living Wake, at which point I immediately added it to my Netflix list. I'd forgotten all about this conversation until last night when we watched said film and the library scene came on. James looked up The Living Wake on imdb and asked if I knew who the librarian was. I said she looked familiar, but couldn't place her and when he told me she was Aunt Lydia, our previous conversation came back to me and the entire episode came full circle.

The premise of this film is that self-proclaimed genius K. Roth Binew (Mike O'Connell) discovers that he has some dreaded, as yet unnamed, disease and has been told of the exact date and time of his death. In his final day he plans his own wake and invites a band of rather eccentric people to join him for his last performance. He is aided in this endeavor by his sidekick Mills (Jesse Eisenberg) who employs a rickshaw to transport K. Roth to his various destinations. One of these is the public library where K. Roth attempts to donate the five (unpublished) books he has authored. He is thwarted by the nameless librarian, a shushing bunhead, who informs him that she cannot accept donations. She explains that there is a process and that all books must be approved by the board. She, as a mere know-nothing librarian, has no authority to choose books. Furthermore, she says, that the public cannot be trusted to select its own materials otherwise "this place would be brimming with pornography and gun magazines". And although K. Roth admonishes her to "flex your muscle and abuse your power" she shuns his advice reminding him that "the rules are the rules".

This film is not so much sentimental as it is irreverent. It will likely appeal to those who liked Moulin Rouge! or Big Fish. It is a must-see for those who are interested in librarian films, but be aware that those looking for a film that passes the Bechdel Test will not find it here.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose 1983-2005 - by Margaret Atwood


My husband and I read this collection of Atwood's writings over an eight-month period. Thought provoking, as well as conversation provoking, we both just felt smarter each time we read some of this work. 

Atwood gives libraries and librarians their due in various essays - starting with the Introduction
As one early reader of this book pointed out, I have a habit of kicking off my discussion of a book or author or group of books by saying that I read it (or him, or her, or them) in the cellar when I was growing up; or that I came across them in the bookcase at home; or that I found them at the cottage; or that I took them out from the library. If these statements were metaphors I'd excise all of them except one, but they are simply snippets of my reading history. My justification for mentioning where and when I first read a book is that...the impression a book makes on you is often tied to your age and circumstances at the time you read it, and your fondness for books you loved when young continues with you through your life.
This custom of telling of the history of reading a book is something that can be found in my blog as well. I often begin my posts by saying where I found a book, or when I first read it. There is in fact something rather meta in my description of my first encounter with Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale when I consider it in light of what Atwood says here. And in honor of this tradition, I will divulge that I checked this book out of the Maxwell Library, the one in which I work. I picked it out specifically because I wanted to read Atwood, and this seemed like it would be a good read along with my husband.

Atwood gives a shout out to librarians and archivists as "guardian angels of paper" in her essay "In Search of Alias Grace".

Without them there would be a lot less of the past than there is, and I and many other writers owe them a huge debt of thanks.
This was written in 1996, and seems to set up her comments in a later work - a review of A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World by Robert Bringhurst (2004). Bringhurst's book tells of two poets Skaay and Ghandl who were from Haida "one of the many cultures that flourished along the northwest coast of North America before the arrival of the smallpox-carrying, Gospel-bearing Europeans in the nineteenth century." The two survived the disease, but were left blinded. They told their stories, in the original Haida language to John Reed Swanton, an ethnography/linguist who was "collecting stories as a way to learn a language." The poets died in the early twentieth century and "their stories gathered dust in libraries for almost a hundred years" before Bringhurst found them and over a twelve-year period taught himself the language and wrote a book about it.

It is a good thing we have archivists and librarians, otherwise we wouldn't know this story at all.

In her discussion of author Dashiell Hammett Atwood laments the lack of a library in northern Canada where she spent her preadolescent summers, and informs the readers that she, therefore, had to re-read a lot of detective fiction. Where she found Erle Stanley Gardner, or Ellery Queen "dry", Hammett's writing was, conversely, "fast-paced, sharp-edged, and filled with zippy dialogue." We also learn that "as a boy [Hammett] wanted to read all the books in the Baltimore public library". I imagine she means the Baltimore City library, rather than the Baltimore County library, which is where I got my first library card. Nevertheless, this bit of trivia gave me a special thrill.

Atwood describes her foray's into Harvard's Widener Library as a graduate student in the 1960s in her Introduction to She by H. Rider Haggard
Once I was let loose in the stacks, my penchant for not doing my homework soon reasserted itself, and it wasn't long before I was snuffling around in Rider Haggard and his ilk...
In her introduction to "The Complete Stories, Volume 4 by Morley Callaghan" we learn that Callaghan's books were
sometimes banned by the public library in Toronto - I forget what the rationalization was, but the real reason could only have been that if a Canadian were to do anything so ethically dubious as write, he should at least write like a proper colonial and not like someone who had lived in the Paris of Joyce and Gertrude Stein.
Totally appropriate that I'm writing about this during Banned Books Week.

And speaking of banned books, Atwood's review of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi begins with the question of where to categorize such a book. After making, and rejecting several suggestions she says
A mischievous soul might stash it under "book groups," which would be about as close as my college library's choice of "veterinary medicine" for Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon.
 This same kind of questioning of classification is used in her review of W.S. Merwin's The Mays of Ventadorn. She clearly understands the kind of struggles cataloging librarians face when she recognizes that
It is...the sort of book that poses a problem for classifiers: What shelf to put it on? Is it a memoir? Not exactly, but sort of. Is it a rumination upon memory? Yes and no. It is about poetry? Not only.
I image that not everyone will read this book cover to cover. I expect many scholars will likely read the most relevant parts for their specific research and then return the book to the shelf.

But those who decide to take the deep dive will be richly rewarded.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Soñadores - by Yuyi Morales


This one's in honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15)

Soñadores means dreamers in Spanish. In this beautifully illustrated picture book Morales tells the story of coming to the United States as a Mexican immigrant with her infant son, Kelly. The author explains in an afterword that her son is not a "Dreamer" in the sense that the word is often used today as Kelly was not undocumented, but rather that all immigrants are dreamers in that they come to a new country each bringing their own hopes - and gifts.

Morales describes how disoriented she felt coming to a new place not knowing the language or the customs. And then she discovered the library
un lugar que nunca antes habíamos visto. Misterioso. Fantástico. Incréible. Sorprendente. Inimaginable. 
a place that we had never seen. Mysterious. Fantastic. Incredible. Surprising. Unimaginable. 
She tells of the excitement of finding books, and learning to read...and dreaming.

I read this in Spanish. It is also available in an English version (Dreamers).

Monday, September 24, 2018

Property of the Rebel Librarian - by Allison Varnes



Published just in time for Banned Books Week this young adult novel tells the story of seventh-grader June Harper, whose parents remove all the books from her bedroom when they discover that she is reading a library book - The Makings of a Witch - of which, they inform her, they do not approve. Furthermore, they now need to vet all of her reading material. To make matters worse, they decide that everything in her middle-school library is potentially dangerous material, and have most of the books removed, along with the beloved librarian Ms. Bradshaw! Parents, teachers, and the school principal advise the students that they will face "serious consequences" if they are caught reading any un-approved reading material. This includes any text
containing profanity, drugs, violence, rock/rap music, witchcraft, drinking, smoking, or rebellion of any kind
There is good satire here. The "rebellious' young people just want a good book and a quiet place to read. The stealthy pre-teens are inventive in finding ways to hide their dangerous habit from the adults. Meanwhile their parents receive warnings reminiscent of  the cautions we might be more likely to expect about drugs or sex.

June discovers a Little Free Library in her neighborhood and uses the books therein to start her own underground library at school. She deems herself the "Rebel Librarian" and protects her classmates from discovery by having each one use a superhero pseudonym when checking out a book.

As I expected there were a lot of references to banned books here. And while Erica Jong's Fear of Flying is not among those specifically mentioned, I did see an ironic parallel between Jong's work and Varner's. In both books the heroine finds pages of the books she wants to read covered up. In Fear Isadora discovers oak tags shielding Nazi images in German library books, and in Rebel June's parents glue index cards to some of the passages of her book, which they then complete with "alternate" wording! Isadora uses the old-fashioned steam method to find out what is underneath the covers. June had only to use her memory. Her parents seemed to have forgotten that she'd already read the books!

Will people ever learn that censoring materials will only make them that much more attractive?

The Little Book of Hygge - by Meik Wiking


Probably I should be living in Denmark. Free healthcare and four-day workweeks are enough to entice me. The cozy lifestyle described in Wiking's book sold me.

Hygge is typically a group thing, with conversation and games, but books and warm beverages (two of my favorite things) enjoyed alone figure prominently in the hygge lifestyle as well.

One suggestion the author provides under the heading "Ten Inexpensive Hygge Activities" is to "Set Up a Mini-Library in Your Shared Stairway or Elsewhere in the Neighbourhood". Essentially, he is telling us to set up Little Free Libraries. Wiking also gives a shout out to Copenhagen's Library Bar in the Plaza Hotel. I looked online at some pictures, and it does appear to be lined with books. I couldn't really tell if they were available for browsing, and the lighting may not be conducive to reading. It does look rather hygge though.

And a funny thing happened just as I finished this book. James and I took a trail hike that I'd discovered while riding my bike. We followed the short, well-marked trail to its end, and then weren't sure where we were. We knew of course that we could simply go back the way we came to get to our car, but I was sure that we could also just follow the road. James got out his cell phone, and opened the GPS app and tried to pinpoint where we were all the while we were looking up and down the road trying to figure out which direction to take. This was all happening in a regular neighborhood across the street from where a man was playing basketball with his two children in their driveway. After some frustration with the cell phone I simply walked over and asked for directions. The man was happy to provide them, and the kids were actually thrilled to be able to help telling us what landmarks to look for along the way. People want to connect, and we too often just want to solve everything will our cell phones. 

The only thing I really found off-putting was the propensity of the Danes to wear a lot of black. People should wear more bright colors. Remember how cool the '80s were?

Friday, September 21, 2018

Wonderstruck - the movie


This mood piece about two runaways (50 years apart) in New York City who find their way to the American Museum of Natural History comes together beautifully in the end. Ben is looking for his father (in 1977), and Rose is searching for an actress (in 1927). Ben is living with his extended family after his librarian mother is killed in an automobile accident. Although Ben's mother is rarely seen in the film (except through flashbacks) books are important to the plot, as is Ben's mother's role as town librarian.  

Friday, September 14, 2018

A Library Book for Bear - by Bonny Becker


In honor of Library Card Sign-Up Month a fun picture book about a grumpy, rolling-skating bear and his first trip to the library.

Bear is sure that he has all the books he will ever need (seven of them) at home. But his friend Mouse convinces him to come to the library, which Bear maintains is too big and has "far too many books". Even as Bear gets quite loud about his opinions the lovely librarian, rather than "shushing" him, invites him to join the other animals at story time.

It is very important to note that while there is some shushing going on in this work, it is not the librarian doing it. The librarian is engaging and welcoming, and knows just how to find the right book for the right animal. That's what librarians do.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Baby Boom - the movie


I don't know what made me suddenly remember that this 1987 movie, which I last saw decades ago, had a library scene, but once the realization was made I set out to find it. It is not available on either of the streaming services I subscribe to, so like any good librarian, I requested it from inter-library loan. 

Diane Keaton plays J.C. Wiatt a marketing guru who is on the verge of being named partner when she discovers that a distant (deceased) cousin has named her guardian of his baby. When the trials of motherhood begin to interfere with her work, she leaves the firm and moves to a farmhouse in Vermont.

She is about to give up on country living when she realizes that the home-made applesauce she prepares for Baby Elizabeth is a gold mine when properly marketed to Baby Boom parents.  After doing some research at the Bennington College Library she starts "Country Baby" - a mail order business for natural baby food.

I can only imagine what this film would be like if it were made today. There were no cell phones, or internet when this was produced. The few computers we saw in the movie were clunky, and had small black and white screens. The fast pace and need to have everything done yesterday would be exponentially magnified today. It made me all the more happy to work in a library where, while things sometimes get busy and deadlines do loom, I know that things will, most assuredly, slow down again once final exams are over.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Undateable - by Sarah Title




August is Read-A-Romance month, and since I can't resist a good aptonym I chose Sarah Title's book about a young librarian who gains her 15-minutes of fame (or infamy) by becoming a meme - the Disapproving Librarian for this genre challenge.

When her sour puss goes viral Melissa "Bernie" Bernard reluctantly agrees to be part of a makeover project for the online magazine Glaze.com, and to prove that she isn't "undateable" by being set up on 30 dates in 30 days.

With all the requisite allusions to calico, sensible shoes, and cardigan sweaters it is also made clear that Bernie is no shrinking violet. Even as she submits to spending hours trying on "foundation garments" (things I previously only knew as bras and underpants) as well as additional time having her hair and makeup done, we see a person with plenty of agency. And, like any good librarian, she is also an advocate of free speech.

Few of Bernie's dates go well, and any reader will guess early on who she will end up with. Furthermore, it wasn't surprising to this librarian that it wasn't her new fancy duds that ultimately landed her a lover, but rather her brains. Bernie's very first date is an early fail when she discovers that not only does Pete (her date) not read, he's proud of it. I expect Bernie takes seriously John Waters' admonition that “If you go home with somebody, and they don't have books, don't fuck 'em!”
In this case she was able to most efficiently dispatch with the advice by discovering the disinterest in books over dinner. No need to waste time by going home with the guy.

I must admit that I did enjoy reading this. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that I will be reading any more romance novels before next August. So many books, so little time.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Americanah - by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie



Adichie's book tells the story of Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who immigrates to the United States, and then, after becoming a U.S. citizen, returns to Nigeria. As a smart, savvy young woman it should go without saying that Ifemelu is also a library user.

Ifemelu and her boyfriend Obinze first use the library only as a place to meet, but she becomes a more active user after she moves to the United States for college. Obinze (an "Americophile") sends her a reading list of American writers he believes she should read. After already having found The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn "unreadable nonsense" she wasn't expecting to find an author she liked, but
She hungered to understand everything about America...Obinze suggested...American books, novels and histories and biographies. In his first e-mail to her...he gave her a list of books. The Fire Next Time was the first. She stood by the library shelf and skimmed the opening chapter, braced for boredom, but slowly she moved to a couch and sat down and kept reading until three-quarters of the book was gone, then she stopped and took down every James Baldwin title on the shelf. She spent her free hours in the library, so wondrously well lit; the sweep of computers, the large clean, airy reading spaces, the welcoming brightness of it all, seemed like a sinful decadence...in those weeks...she discovered the rows and rows of books with their leathery smell and their promise of pleasures unknown...
Well, who needs a man?

Ifemelu is not the only one in this story who uses the library. There are at at least three other characters who are clearly patrons. One of these is Blaine, a boyfriend in her adult years, who not only uses the library, but also defends a library employee at Yale, where Blaine is a professor of Political Science. Blaine is a friend of Mr. White, a "rheumy-eyed" security guard "with skin so dark it had an undertone of blueberries". When a white employee mistakenly suspects that Mr. White is involved in a drug deal and calls the police Blaine organizes a protest after the university responds to the incident with a statement that it was "a simple mistake that wasn't racial at all".

An especially curious passage to read in the summer of "Permit Patty", "Bar-B-Q Becky" and "Coupon Carl".

I think that perhaps Adichie's last mention of the library in this work is my favorite of all time. Ifemelu applies for a research fellowship at Princeton University. When she reads her acceptance, hands shaking, she discovers that "the pay is good, the requirements easy: she was expected to live in Princeton and use the library and give a public talk at the end of the year." All I could think was that the only thing I could think of that would be even better than having a job as a librarian, would be to to be paid just to use the library.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Eligible - by Curtis Sittenfeld


The cover tells us that this is "A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice". Like so many others, I read Austen's P&P in college. Not only that, but I wrote my own "modern retelling" of the tale for a writing assignment. I don't remember the novel very well, nor much of what I wrote in my own version; however, I do recall writing about some "scandalous" affair involving a teen pregnancy and a hasty marriage (based on the true woeful tale of a girl in my high school, and her catholic-school boyfriend). Like Austen's novel this one revolves around a gold-digging mother (well, let's call her "upwardly mobile") wanting to marry off her five daughters.

Eligible is written by someone with a lot more writing experience than I had as a college freshman. She also has a lot more material to work with in the 21st century than I would have even known to consider in 1986. This is to say that Sittenfeld's has written a richer and funnier story than I did, with more interesting characters.

Sittenfeld's classic biting critique of modern life is as evident in this as it is in her other works. And also like her other works, the library is part of the scene, but doesn't necessarily play a role. The favorite daughter, Liz, works for a women's magazine. Her first job in publishing had been as a fact-checker for a prestigious magazine, where she first met her (married) boyfriend, Jasper.
They had started their job using computers with spotty Internet connections, back when fact-checking  meant visiting the public library or waiting anxiously for the return of phone calls.
Mr. Bennet frequents Cincinnati's Mercantile Library to do research and explore the genealogy of his family. And Liz uses the public library to check out an audio book she hopes will keep her parents occupied on a long car drive.

One need not have read the original Pride and Prejudice to enjoy this wicked version. Fans of the Austen's work will find all the expected characters including Mr. Bingley (here a reality television star) and Mr. Darcy (a surgeon). An excellent summer read. I will have to revisit the original now.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Library - by Sarah Stewart


A story in rhyme accompanied by beautiful illustrations tells the tale of Elizabeth Brown, book hoarder. I know some bibliophiles don't think you can have too many books, but they are wrong. One should have just enough books. Books are meant to be read, having them stacked all around prevents them from being used to their fullest potential, and makes them especially difficult to share. If people who have a lot of books want more books they should go to the library. This allows them to read more books without accumulating them.

I am happy to report that in The Library Ms. Brown ultimately does the right thing with all her books.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Riverdale (Season 2, Episode 4) "The Town that Dreaded Sundown"

If you are not yet aware of the television series Riverdale (a noir adaptation of The Archies cartoon series) I highly recommend it (currently available on Netflix streaming). Archie, Veronica, Betty, Jughead, Moose and the rest of the gang (with the sad exception of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch) show us the dark underbelly of the town that '70s kids wished they lived in. It isn't all fun and games just hanging out at Pop's Chock'lit Shoppe and making fun of Miss Grundy and Principal Weatherbee, for Riverdale's wholesome facade masks murder, mayhem, and mobsters.

As much as this show attempts to destroy some stereotypes, others just don't seem to die. The uptight librarian who helps Jughead check out some books about serial killers not only looks the part as she stands behind a sign reading "Shhhhh...Quiet please" she actually gets rather judgmental, questioning Jughead's reading choices. Real librarians would never stand for such behavior.


This episode also features Betty returning with Jughead (her lover!) to the same library to check out a book on Nancy Drew ciphers when she receives a coded message from the Black Hood - Riverdale's own "Jack the Ripper". 

Not convinced yet to watch this? Well, let me say this:
Luke Perry as Archie's father
Molly Ringwald as Archie's mother
And just wait until you hear Josie and Veronica sing Schoolhouse Rock's "Sufferin' till Sufferage". Late Baby Boomers, Gen Xers - I'm talking to you.

A Time to Fall - by Jess Vonn



The last time I wrote a post about a romance novel (A Knight to Remember), I prefaced it with this statement "I don't always read romances, but when I do they are about librarians". So now I must make an amendment: I will also read romances authored by those on whose tenure committee I served. And, as Vonn's book also clears my low bar (of mentioning a library at least one time) for inclusion on this blog, it gets a review here, too.

Fleeing from a bad break up,  Winnie Briggs leaves Chicago and moves to Bloomsburo to take a job as editor of the local newspaper The Bloom. After literally running into her landlady's most dapper son, Cal Spencer, Winnie attempts to keep her distance from him so she can focus on herself. Cal, likewise, had no interest in falling for his mother's quirky new tenant. Sexual hijinx ensue.

Winnie is intelligent and dedicated to her work. So much so that on a Sunday night at 11:00, she was writing a tedious story about a county planning and zoning commission meeting even though "her brain hurt and she wanted to curl up in bed and read the latest Julia Quinn novel she just picked up from the library."

For those of us who pay attention to such things as how libraries are presented in works of fiction, this one actually packs some punch. After all, this wasn't just any Sunday night: this was the Sunday just one week after Winnie Briggs arrived in town. So what we learn from this is that Winnie Briggs is not simply "kind and smart and funny and lovable as hell" as well as "sexy...and competent". Winnie Briggs is also a person who knows that one of the first things a person does when they move to a new place is to get a library card. And really, there is nothing hotter than that.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Julie of the Wolves - by Jean Craighead George



Sometimes you find libraries in the most unexpected places. I had never read this Newberry-award winning book, although I had heard a lot about it, and I remembered my sister reading it back in the '70s. She told me, as the title suggests, that it was about a girl who lived among the wolves in the Arctic Circle. I didn't expect to find any libraries in this book, but what I didn't realize was that Julie (aka Miyax) didn't always live with the wolves. Before running away she had lived with her father, then her aunt, and then was married at age 13. She attended a mission school, and used the mission library in Barrow, Alaska where she read letters from her pen pal (Amy) who lived in San Francisco. After leaving her husband's family Miyax had planned to visit Amy but lost her way. In finding the wolves she discovers herself, and her own strength.

I picked this book as my July read (a book set in a cold climate) for the Baltimore County Public Library #BWellRead challenge. 

Monday, June 25, 2018

Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx=Sonia Sotomayor: la juez que creció en el Bronx - by Jonah Winter



If there is one thing I love more than a "library" book, it's a bilingual library book! Beautifully illustrated by Edel Rodriguez this biography of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor recounts her life growing up in the public housing projects of New York, to her acceptance at Princeton University, and on to becoming a federal judge, and ultimately her nomination and confirmation onto the Nation's highest court. The book is written in parallel English and Spanish text, and of course mentions the importance of libraries (twice!) in Sotomayor's journey to the Supreme Court. The Author's Note on the back cover provides some additional information about Sotomayor, including her birthday - June 25, 1954. Since I happened read this book only a few days before her 64th birthday I decided to publish this post to coincide with it. Happy Birthday Sonia!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free



If I had a "Bucket List" the Haskell Free Library and Opera House would be on it. The public library in Derby Line, Vermont, USA straddles the border with Stanstead, Quebec, Canada. A line down the middle of the floor of the building marks where one country ends and the other begins. There is no port of entry inside the library. Library users are free to walk back and forth between the countries any time.

Charles Pierce discusses the history of the library in Idiot America and explains that prior to 9/11 residents of Derby Line and Stanstead could freely pass between the countries even without going into the library
For decades, it was a point of civic pride for the people in both towns that they lived right atop one of the friendliest stretches of the friendliest borders in the world. People wandered down the tiny, shady backstreets of the place, passing back and forth between the two countries without ever really noticing.
After September 11, 2001, however
The border authorities in both countries acted quickly to restrict access along the side streets in Stanstead and Derby Line. As part of the plan, it was proposed that anyone parking a car outside the library on the Canadian side might well have to pass through a port of entry before walking up the front steps, which are on the American side.
In the spirit of full disclosure I must mention this bit of odd news about the Haskell Free Library and Opera House involving a case of gun smuggling that took advantage of the library's unique location. Canadian Alexis Vlachos had a friend purchase guns in the United States and leave them in the bathroom of the library to be picked up by Vlachos, who entered from the Canadian side. This story might cause some to get their xenphobic hackles up, however, as quoted by Canadian Don Browning in the article "if we live in fear we have to close up every little potential loophole, that would probably change our way of life a little bit and I don't think it's worth it".

Pierce goes on to point out that it (the 2000s) had "not been an easy decade for libraries" citing closure of the the library run by the Environmental Protection Agency by the Bush (43) Administration, and the passage of Patriot Act which allowed the FBI to look at library records without a warrant.

He further uses libraries as a metaphor describing their orderliness, and contrasts it with the disorderliness of "Idiot America" where the gut, rather than the head rules. Rather than separating Fiction and Non-Fiction (as real libraries do) in Idiot America
Fiction and nonfiction are defined by how well they sell. The best sellers are on one shelf, cheek by jowl, whether what's contained in them is true or not.
The book was published in 2009, Pierce could not have known how prescient his words were.

My husband and I listened to Pierce's book on audio during a long car drive between Massachusetts and Maryland. When I heard the piece about Derby Line I realized I would need to blog about it, and had to then request a hard copy of the book through Interlibrary loan.

Flipped - the movie



This sweet pre-teen rom-com, set in the 1960s and directed by Rob Reiner features Madeline Carroll is Juli, and Callan McAuliffe as Bryce. Growing up across the street from each other means Juli and Bryce know the good and the bad about each other. The film gives the audience insight into how each experienced the same events, "flipping" the narrative back and forth between the two.

Although not library-centric, there is a pivotal scene which takes place in the school library. A conversation between Bryce and his friends, and overheard by Juli (who was actually eavesdropping) precipitates one of their many rifts. No actual librarians in this one - just books and shelves.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble - by Anna Meriano


I found out about this brand new book from "A Mighty Girl" on my Facebook feed.When I read that it was about Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), and celebrated Mexican, Texan, and American cultures, and had a lesson in the importance of being bilingual I knew I had to read it. What luck that it was sitting on a shelf waiting for me in the Children's Fiction section of the very library where I work.

Leonora Logroño (Leo) is the youngest of five sisters. Her family owns a bakery and as everyone is busy preparing for Leo's favorite holiday, Día de los Muertos, it seems that they are hiding something from her. Maybe she should learn some more Spanish so they wouldn't be able to talk without her understanding. Beyond language abilities, though, Leo is sure that there is something else that everyone in her family knows, and she doesn't. When she discovers that she comes from a family of brujas (witches) Leo decides help her friend Caroline by deciphering a spell using her rudimentary Spanish-language skills and her decidedly untested magic only to find herself getting deeper and deeper into magical trouble as she attempts to undo her botched sorcery.

Of course it wouldn't have a place on my blog if it didn't include at least a mention of those most magical of places - libraries. The first place we find them is with the famous "going to the library" excuse in order to sneak out to do something else. There is also a classroom library, used as a decoy destination so that a note could be passed. Leo and Caroline do like to read though, and Leo wonders, while looking at Caroline's bookshelf, if Caroline might "reopen her lending library" now that she has moved back to Rose Hill.

The novel does also give a bit of a shout out to information literacy when Brent (the unfortunate object of Leo's failed hocus pocus) asks Leo if her "methods" had been "tested and "peer reviewed". Although I had to wonder how many sixth graders would know about the peer review process I had to smile at the passage.

In addition to being an avid reader, my other passion is cooking, so I was especially happy to see that I would be able to make use of this book on my other blog "Una Nueva Receta Cada Semana". I am looking forward to making "Leo's Lucky Pigs" (aka "Piggies", or "Puerquitos"); and "Pan de Muerto Mensajero" (Bread of the Dead) and documenting my experiences later this year.

A book for lovers of Harry Potter, the Spanish language, and baking. Looks like I hit the jackpot!

Monday, June 18, 2018

A Tribute to Libraries-In Honor of Father’s Day

 I don’t generally do guest posts. I made a special exception for this essay ”What is Father’s Day Anyway” written by my friend Joe Duley. Libraries shouldn’t have to act in loco parentis, but as Joe points out the Library as a safe haven is one of its most important roles.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Twelve Angry Librarians - by Miranda James


Baltimore County Public Library's #BWellRead 2018 Challenge for the month of May is to read a book recommended by a friend. My friend Fran recommended this one to me. And in a first for this blog it is a mystery novel! Honestly, friends are always recommending library-mystery books to me. The thing is, I have never liked mystery novels. Not even when I was a pre-teen was I even interested in Nancy Drew, or the Hardy Boys. I wanted to like them, all my friends did, and my big sister did, but I just could never get past how the characters in these series could get themselves into hot water so often. It's not like they are looking for trouble, but they always seemed to get tangled up into some sort of caper whether they wanted to or not.  

And so it is with Charlie Harris, interim director of the Athena College Library and his Maine Coon cat, Diesel. In this book the sleuths (human and feline) have the help of the librarians who are attending the Southern Library Association Convention to solve the mystery of who poisoned Gavin Fong, Charlie's library school nemesis. Lots of librarians in this one, and quite a bit of critical thinking, too.

I haven't been converted into a mystery lover, although I did find this to be a page-turner. I do, however, promise to read another library-mystery this time next year. It turns out that May is Mystery month!

The Hundred-Year House - by Rebecca Makkai


I picked this book up at the Millicent Library earlier this month just browsing the shelves looking for a fun book to read during a long-weekend trip to NYC. This story is divided into three parts moving backward in time from 1999 to 1929 to 1900. The story of the haunted house (Laurelfield) and its occupants, is pieced together through its history as an artist colony, a compromising photograph, and mysterious files locked in the attic. 

There is heavy use of libraries by the characters in the first (most recent) part of the novel. In each successive part, as the story moves back through the century, they become less frequent. In the final section the only library mentioned in the one located at the estate. This is in steep contrast to the regular employment of all different kinds of libraries (public, school, academic, and archives) for a variety of uses by the characters who would live in the house 99 years later. 

Doug, a would-be academic (and son-in-law to Gracie, the owner of the house) is working on his dissertation about Edwin Parfitt (a poet who once stayed at the artist colony). Doug makes good use of his public library but is not always necessarily working on his dissertation. What his wife, Zee, doesn't know is that he is writing a book called Melissa Calls the Shots (no. 118 in the Friends for Life fiction series for pre-teen girls). Something else Zee doesn't know is that he had once used inter-library loan to request a book about her infamous family when he and Zee first became engaged. Zee had similarly done research on her own family at her boarding school library some years before.

I thought I might have a first for this blog, with a character who used inter-library loan, but it turns out that honor goes to one of my very early posts - 52 Loaves which I read in 2011. This is the first one since then, however. 

Doug is without a doubt the heaviest library user. Although it is one of his housemates, Miriam, who finds some dirt on the ghost of Laurelfield by reading her obituary on microfiche at the public library.

The first section of the book ends with a bonfire, built to "burn some bad art". Doug throws in three books from the Friends for Life series. Let me make one thing perfectly clear here - it is never okay to burn books, even crappy ones.

Friday, May 18, 2018

You Think It, I'll Say It stories - by Curtis Sittenfeld


One thing I've learned about listening to audio books is that if I expect that I might want to blog about the book I should download the Kindle version, if available, in addition to the Audible edition. This provides me with (searchable) text version in which I can go back and find references to libraries after I'm done listening.

Sittenfeld's stories create a witty yet biting look at suburbia - each with its own surprises. The author shows us that beyond the superficial existences we observe, multi-faceted individuals live. Characters who are portrayed as one-dimensional are given depth once we see them from other angles. And some even use the library.

In "Vox Clamantis in Deserto" the undergraduate narrator at Dartmouth College's is a user of the Baker-Berry Library

Kirsten, a former close acquaintance of Lucy Headrick (a.k.a. "The Prairie Wife") is anxious to read Headrick's new memoir. She decides it is worth buying when she discovers that there are over 300 people ahead of her on her local library's waiting list also desperate to read what the "lifestyle" guru, with over 3.1 million Twitter followers, has to say.

Good stories of imperfect, flawed individuals. This was fun listening.

Monday, May 14, 2018

How to Be a Muslim: An American Story - by Haroon Moghul


Baltimore County Public Library's April 2018 #BWellRead Challenge category was to "a memoir/biography about a person who doesn't look like you". Of course, as my husband pointed out, this could mean anyone who is not my sister, but I took it in the spirit of the challenge and selected Moghul's story. A Pakistani Muslim who grew up in New England, Moghul was born with a myriad of health problems, which relegated him to being one of the "geeky" kids growing up. And where there are geeks there are libraries.

Early in the work Moghul describes the very well-educated family into which he was born - one that
appreciated, encouraged, and rewarded bookishness - which made life easier, since [he] was the kid who made a beeline for the library when the last bell rang.
It is a good thing he was so comfortable in the library as it is a place with which he would became quite familiar. As the only kid whose parents wouldn't sign his permission slip to take sex ed the  "doofy twelve-year-old" was dispatched to the school library while the rest of the kids in his class received their illicit lessons. He became so well-known in his library he described it as a place where "everyone fist-bumped him". As an adult he also made good use of a "well funded public library systen" while waiting for his bookish mother to give lessons on Islam to "housewives".

As an about-to-graduate student of New York University (shortly post 9/11) Moghul proposes that the University hire a Muslim chaplin (himself) to "a senior university official, a woman whose stunning workspace occupied the rarefied top floor of NYU's library". It is here that he learns that "there were levels of power and influence that [he] hadn't the slightest idea of." It has always seemed more than a bit ironic to me that University officials are so quick to recognize the value of library space only when they want to claim it for other-than-library needs.

I learned quite a bit about Islam from this work. I have enjoyed reading several religious memoirs of late. You can see my other posts here, here, here, and here.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Abortion: an historical romance 1966 - by Richard Brautigan


Earlier this year I posted a link to a list of 100 Must-Read Books about Libraries and Bookstores which included Brautigan's The Abortion. When I discovered that the Brautigan Library of Unpublished Manuscripts is a real place, and featured in Atlas Obscura I immediately requested the book from Inter-library loan. It is a rather quick read, and as the title suggests, it is a love story. The unnamed narrator is the librarian at this unusual library where people can drop off their unpublished works at any time of the day or night. The
library came into being because of an overwhelming need and desire for such a place. There just had to be a library like this. The desire brought into existence this library building which isn't very large...
The narrator lives in the library and never leaves the building, as he must always stay at his post in case someone rings the bell requesting a drop off. Authors and their books are listed in the Library Contents Ledger, and then authors are invited to place their book on any shelf they "fancy".
It doesn't matter where the book is placed because nobody ever checks them out and nobody ever comes here to read them. 
The narrator is not without company. His girlfriend, Vida, often stays with him at night. It is through this arrangement that Vida finds herself pregnant and begins to make plans for an abortion in Mexico, and the narrator prepares to leave the library for the first time since he took the job several years before in order to accompany her. He must find someone to watch the library, get several hundred dollars, make travel plans to fly to the border, make a hotel reservation, make a doctor's appointment, and return plans. All of which he does rather easily with the help of Foster, who had once made similar arrangements for a lady friend.

I have to admit that I was a bit jealous of the librarian in the story, who as Vida jokes, lives a hermit's life. Those who know me well know that I someday aspire to become a hermit. It seems that our narrator has the best of several worlds. He gets to be a hermit, and be a librarian, and have company when he wants. He does, however, return to the library after his excursion with Vida to an unexpected surprise.

A surreal read.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Library on Wheels - by Sharlee Glenn



This week (April 8-14) is National Library Week. Wednesday (April 11) was National Bookmobile Day. It was also the day that Glenn's book about the very first Bookmobile was published. I had pre-ordered it from Amazon, and it was shipped on Wednesday, arrived to Thursday, and read (by me) on Friday. Well researched and illustrated with historic photographs, letters, and other period artifacts, this book tells the story of Mary Lemist Titcomb, chief librarian of the Washington County (Maryland) Free Library from 1901-1931. Titcomb established several innovative library programs in the early 19th century, including instituting one of the first children's rooms, and delivering books and other library materials to schools. Not content with simply serving those who were able to come to the public library in Hagerstown (the county seat) Titcomb launched a story hour program for rural children, and set up book depositories in smaller towns, to ensure that access to books and reading was widespread. Realizing she was still not serving all residents, she commissioned the first bookmobile in the United States - a horse drawn wagon whose route included family farms and other isolated areas. The wagon was driven by the library's janitor, Joshua Thomas, who proclaimed himself to be a "Book Missionary" on the 1910 U.S. census.

My favorite part of this book has to be this bit from a newspaper article written about Ms. Titcomb for The (Hagerstown) Builder 
The hostess was most gracious, most charming. She wore a soft gray silk and a dainty slipper was visible. The hostile one saw it, saw too-could she believe it?-the feminine frivolity, a jeweled buckle. She heard too, the little woman discussing "Spring Fashions" vivaciously, knowingly, for Miss Titcomb is no mean authority on style and her dress, like her work, is always up-to-date.
It seems you can be fashionable while wearing sensible shoes.

For more books that feature bookmobiles (including another one about the very first bookmobile) you can see my previous posts here.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Educated - by Tara Westover



Raised and home-schooled by survivalist parents in the Idaho mountains Tara Westover rejected her family's admonishments not to go to college and enrolled in Brigham Young University (BYU) before she turned 18. Ultimately she becomes a Cambridge-educated PhD, but not without painfully examining her role in the family. Her father's conspiracy theories about universities and the Illuminati were made known to her long before she thought about going to college herself. Her mother had taken charge of her children's homeschooling, which mostly consisted of letting them learn what they wanted when they wanted, and included occasional trips to "the Carnegie library in the center of town".

Westover recognized that she was one of the least disciplined of her siblings when it came to "doing school" which gave her a lot of reason to doubt her abilities when she arrived at BYU. Her misgivings were magnified when she discovered that her classmates had an understanding of US culture and history that she did not share. Her realization that everyone else knew what the Holocaust was, for instance, caused her not only embarrassment, but also opened her eyes to the fact that her peers shared a collective knowledge that she was missing. She did not even know what she did not know.

If Westover had anxieties about her place at BYU they were only compounded when she arrived at Cambridge. Upon her arrival on campus she and her denizens were invited to take a tour of the chapel, including the roof. She describes the experience of watching her classmates, and her professor fight the wind on top of the building as they cling to the wall while she climbs higher. Finally explaining to her professor that "she'd roofed [her] share of hay sheds" and that
The wind is just wind. You could withstand these gusts on the ground, so you can withstand them in the air. There is no difference. Except the difference you make in your head...I'm just standing...You are all trying to compensate...You've made yourselves vulnerable. If you could just control your panic, this wind would be nothing.
Even this insight though, was accompanied by apprehension
I wanted the mind of a scholar, but it seemed that Dr. Kerry saw in me the mind of a roofer. The other students belonged in a library; I belonged on a crane.
Her ultimate success in earning her PhD demonstrates that she certainly did belong in a library, and the final third of the book (from the time she lands in Cambridge for the first time) is scattered with references to using it. This stands in stark contrast to the first 200 (plus) pages, where there is only one.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Commonwealth - by Ann Patchet



This year I am participating in the Baltimore County Public Library's #BWellRead Challenge which specifies one kind of book to read each month. I grew up in Baltimore County and I got my very first library card from BCPL in the 1970s, so although I now live and work in Massachusetts I am delighted to be a part of this endeavor. So far I've read Mona's Simpson's Anywhere But Here (January) and Beloved by Toni Morrison for February (no libraries in that one). March's challenge is to read a book with a one word title. I found Patchett's book on the Leisure Reading shelf of the Maxwell Library. I assumed it would be about Massachusetts, but it turns out the commonwealth in question is Virginia (FYI Kentucky and Pennsylvania are also commonwealths). And, like Irving Wallace's The Seven Minutes, the title of this book actually refers to a fictitious book of the same name.

This bit of meta-fiction about a blended family in the 1970s with six children is hardly the stuff of the Brady Bunch. Their parents' infidelity is what brings the Cousins and Keating children together and a disdain for their progenitors is what binds them. The novel follows the siblings through five decades. One of them, Franny, lands a job in the law library at the University of Chicago. This is what she refers to as her "real job". She also has an un-real job at the Palmer House restaurant as a cocktail waitress. The waitress job is the one that pays well while the pay at the library "is appalling".

As a child Franny was a heavy library user. She loved to read, forcing her father to make a comment that "It's a good thing there're going to be two lawyers in the family...Somebody's going to have to make the money to buy you all those books." To which Franny retorts "they're free...I check them out of the library."  Her sister Caroline makes a final condescending remark "Well, thank God for libraries".

Thank God, indeed.

Franny's stepbrother Albie finds that he can make good use of the public library as a free place to spend his evenings in order to give his sister and her family some privacy while he is sleeping on their couch. He always has a good book to read while he's there thanks to his job as a messenger which often has him delivering manuscripts to publishers. It is through this job that he finds himself with a copy of a novel that is clearly a thinly disguised story of his own family.

I found this work to be a true page-turner, and a perfect vacation read for my spring break trip to Florida. It was especially good for keeping my mind off of the airplane ride. My Florida friend saw that I was reading it and said that she had also recently read it for her book club and generally liked Ann Patchett's books. I will have to look for others.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Night Bookmobile - by Audrey Niffnegger



The unnamed narrator in this surreal tale discovers a special mobile library that contains everything she has ever read - not just the books but also "periodicals and ephemera-cereal boxes and such". "It's a very complete collection" the enigmatic librarian, Mr. Openshaw, tells her. She spends a few hours with her books, but as the sun rises Mr. Openshaw shoos her out of the shabby Winnebago that serves as her literary memory explaining that the library's hours are "dusk to dawn". The narrator's obsession with finding the bookmobile again leads to several major life changes for her - including becoming a librarian herself.

A story about the love of books, and reading, and how books hold and become our memories.