Friday, July 19, 2019

The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe - by Ann Morgan

I wrote my first blog "My Year of Reading 'Year of' Books" ten years ago. During that year I read, and wrote about, 33 books that documented some stunt that the author had undertaken for a period of twelve months. Some were about diet choices, others about not spending, travel, religion, and indeed, reading. I still like to pick up "year of " books. It is even one of the labels I still use for this blog. I can't remember where I found out about this book, but it seemed like a good choice for my geographer husband and I to enjoy together as an audiobook. We listened to much of it during the long drive between Maryland and Massachusetts while coming back from a visit with our families, and we finished it while we were vacationing in South America to see a total eclipse of the sun (and drink wine). It was fitting that we were traveling as we listened to this book.

This was unlike the other "year of" books I read in that it did not follow a chronology. Instead Morgan divided her work into themes based on what she learned from doing her rather ambitious project of reading a work in English translation from every country in the world during the course of one year. Her first challenge was to determine how to define a country, which isn't as easy as it might seem. She also explored questions of what and whom to read, and how to get English translations in languages that hadn't been translated before, and how she would get books at all from countries without publishing industries at all. Also, exactly, how was she going to find the time to read almost 200 books, and blog about them, and do her "day job" in the course of one year. One very important lesson she learns is that just because she wishes something to exist, doesn't mean that it does. She realizes early on that she has to break a lot of the rules she set out for herself, and determines that "instead of me reading the world, it seemed the world was reading me - and forcing me to rewrite the bits with which it didn't agree."

Morgan's partner builds her a bookshelf on which to hold all the works she reads during her year of reading the world. She opts to own all the books, rather than getting any library copies. However, her affection and admiration for libraries is evident throughout. She begins her book with a loving tribute to the Cambridge University Library, and her memories of it from her days as an undergraduate. Clearly enchanted by the building and all within she describes it as a "time machine", "magical", "mythical", and "a Narnia of reading". Beyond bewitching, the library was an erotic place as well with stories of "intrepid third years having sex in obscure corners" and tales of the porn-stuffed "magnificent erection" seventeen-storey tower. She continues for several more pages using all manner of metaphor to describe the awesomeness of the place.

Morgan refers to other libraries throughout and recognizes that they will not be replaced by the internet or "googling". While the author realizes that technology was necessary for her project to come to fruition and that "reading the world in a single language would have been almost impossible thirty ago" she also knows that hard copy books still matter, pointing out that when the Tucson-Pima (Arizona) Public Library opened a bookless branch in 2002 "users obliged the management to bring in physical books". And when she asked an unnamed academic for suggestions on underrepresented African authors "he suggested rather gruffly that I could find everything I was looking for on Google Books." To which she added "he's not right". Several pages later she comes back to the question of Google Books and kind of library it is. She quotes academic librarian and historian Robert Darnton
When businesses like Google look at libraries, they do not merely see temples of learning. The see potential assets or what they call "content", ready to be mined.
And follows up with this word from author Nicholas Carr from his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains 
That great library that Google is rushing to create shouldn't be confused with the libraries we've known up until now. It's not a library of books. It's a library of snippets.
The chapter entitled "Encountering Roadblocks: Censorship, Propaganda, and Exiled Writers" details how getting the materials we want can be made difficult by religious zealots, governments, and fascists who believe that certain works in the hands of the masses are dangerous. She describes the attempt to "wipe out Bosnian culture by bombarding the National Library in Sarajevo in 1992" as well as the Hitler's attempt to rid Germany of all Jewish authors, and other undesirable "foreign influences". What I hadn't known about before was the Library of Burned Books, created by a resistance movement in Paris and containing copies of all the works the Nazi's burned.

Morgan also notes that censors are at work on the internet as well and that as their tools become more sophisticated it becomes harder and harder to realize that anything is even being hidden from us.

Not a beginner's "year of" book. This is the most sophisticated work of the genre I've read. Morgan has some truly deep insights, not just about herself but about reading, technology, geography, globalization, censorship, and how we see ourselves in the world.

Even after reading books from 196 countries (plus Kurdistan) Morgan recognizes that her undertaking constituted less than a drop in the bucket of what there is to read, and learn, and know. I especially liked this quote from Argentine author Alberto Manguel in a History of Reading

"We are always at the beginning of the beginning of the letter A".

This book did inspire my husband and I (no strangers to world literature) to double down and begin reading more other-than-American authors. We will begin with Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral. Others might find something of interest on this list of recently published translations.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Hired Girl - by Laura Amy Schlitz

I'm not sure how I found out about this historical novel, but I expect I must have read a review that indicated that it was a Baltimore (aka my hometown) story.

Schlitz tells the tale of  Joan Skraggs (alias Janet Lovelace) a young girl who runs away from her abusive father (who burned her books!) and ends up working for the Rosenbach family in Baltimore. She tells her employers that she is eighteen, although her actual age is much younger. Janet loves to read and is thrilled when she is invited to use the Rosenbach's private library. Still she dreams of one day visiting the Enoch Pratt Free Library, and getting a proper education. Since she only has Sunday mornings and Tuesday afternoons off during which she either attends Mass, or receives religious instruction it seems as if she will never have time to explore the libraries, art galleries, or any of the other myriad benefits the city has to offer.

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Year of the Flood - by Margaret Atwood

My husband and I anxiously await Atwood's Testimony (a sequel to the Handmaid's Tale) in September. In the meantime, we are taking some time to read some of her other works - some that we've read before and others that we haven't. This was our first go-round for The Year of the Flood - the second of the Maddaddam Trilogy.

This story centers on the lives of the Gardeners who, in a age of everything biotech, are still trying to live organic lives by growing their own food and eschewing technology.

There is only one passing mention of a school library in this book, however, another passage was so reminiscent of things I've read in my research on book banning that it warranted some space on this blog.

Upon entering the inner circle of the Gardeners, Toby (aka Eve Six) is surprised to discover that
the Adams and Eves had a laptop...wasn't such a device a direct contravention of Gardener Principles? - but Adam One had asured her: they never went online with it except with extreme precaution, they used it mostly for the storage of crucial data pertaining to the Exfernal World, and they took care to conceal such a dangerous objects from the Gardener membership at large - especially the children. Nevertheless they had one. "It's like the Vatican's porn collection," Zeb told her. "Safe in our hands."
Ah, the eternal cry of the paternalistic censor. 'Only we can handle the information. All others must be protected from it'.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Harley Merlin and the Secret Coven - by Bella Forrest

For those who like stories about orphans who discover that they're magical, Forrest brings us a bit of a lighter series than that of J.K. Rowling. While readers who like to see a magical rumble won't be disappointed, Harley Merlin (aka Harley Smith) hasn't been cursed with having to save the entire magical and non-magical worlds, so the skirmishes she faces, while not without real danger, aren't quite as dire as those faced by Harry Potter and his friends.

While she is not fully aware of all of her talents, Harley does know that she has some extraordinary abilities. Most notably she is an empath, a gift that makes her exceptionally good at her job spotting cheaters in a Las Vegas casino. It is there that Wade Crowley observes her work, recognizes her for what she is and recruits her to join his coven. The coven has a secret entrance at the Fleet Science Center in San Diego, where Harley lands her "cover" job at the Center's Archives and Library. She is naturally skeptical that she can earn enough money "to keep [her] financially satisfied" working in a library three to four hours a day, four days a week, pointing out that she can earn $3000 in one good night at the casino. Coven director Alton Waterhouse, assures her that he will make sure to match her salary through the Library and Archives job.

Wow! That's some magic!

While we don't know what, exactly, Harley does in her job at the Library and Archives we do know that she does a bit of archival research for her own purposes, which is how she discovers that she is a Merlin (yes, that Merlin).

My husband and I listened to the Audible version of this work. Since there are already eight books out in this series (with number nine due to be released in a week) we will expect to enjoy listening to this series for a while, without the frustration of a "three-year summer" between books.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Becoming - by Michelle Obama

As the semester wrapped up this spring two different students came to the reference desk and excitedly asked me if the library owned this book (we do). When I walked them to the shelf to show them where it was they also both asked if I'd read it yet (I hadn't). So, once classes were over I checked it out to see what all the fuss was about.

This, in fact, is a very good book. Obama is witty, and demonstrates grace and dignity in her writing. She is well educated and wicked smart (as we Bay Staters say) and as such she knows the value of libraries. She first mentions them on page 4.
My mother taught me how to read early, walking me to the public library, sitting with me as I sounded out words on a page 
After "plow[ing] through" the library's collection of Dick and Jane books (the same ones I learned to read with - she and I were born in the same year) she was excited to have new things to read when she entered kindergarten.

After graduating from high school she matriculated at Princeton (despite the comments of a thoughtless counselor had told her she was hardly Princeton material). Her awe of the university library is evident in her description
The main library was like an old-world cathedral, with high ceilings and glossy hardwood tables where we could lay out our textbooks and study in silence
She made good use of the library, studying in the carrels, and doing research about multiple sclerosis - the disease that afflicted her father - photocopying articles from medical journals to send to her parents.

Her observation about legacy kids "whose families had funded the building of a dorm or library" seems especially prescient given recent headlines about Ivy league admissions scandals.

Recognizing that she became successful in part due to the guidance of any number of people who came before her, mentoring others became one of Obama's passions. As the leader of a nonprofit group called Public Allies she worked with young people to help them find internships in the public sector. One of these protégés was a "twenty-six year old from Grand Boulevard who'd left high school but had kept up his education with library books and later gone back to earn his diploma". Who says libraries don't matter?

Just before moving into the White House she was treated to an insider's tour by outgoing first lady Laura Bush "a former schoolteacher and librarian". Obama writes graciously about Mrs. Bush, and other politicians, even those with whom she does not see eye to eye. However, when writing about 45 she pulls no punches. Her concerns about his vulgar language, his "birther" conspiracy theories, and ultimately, for the very safety of the country are made abundantly clear. I was especially interested to learn that 45 attended one of Barack Obama's White House Correspondents' dinners where he sat "stone-faced and stewing". Since 45 has not, in fact, attended any of the Correspondents' dinners since he entered the White House it is particularly intriguing that he attended one of his predecessors.

Written with finesse, this book is worthy of all the bubbly excitement demonstrated by the two students who asked me if I'd read it.

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread - by Cailin O'Connor and James Owen Weatherall

While libraries are never specifically mentioned in this work, it's place on this blog is secured due to the information literacy theme. This work not only tells how false beliefs are spread (twitter isn't the only way) but also how some might be slowed down or stopped. This also explains how truth is malleable, and how even scientists and other experts can be mislead. No one is immune from false beliefs (not even librarians).

I was most interested in the conclusions because the authors make the same point I did when I presented on fake news at a conference two years ago. We cannot expect social media platforms, news aggregators, or algorithms to do this work for us.
...we need to recognize that fake news stories - and propaganda more generally - are not fixed targets. These problems cannot be solved once and for all. Economist Charles Goodhart is know for "Goodhart's law"..."When measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure." In other words, whenever there are interests that would like to game an instrument of measurement, they will surely figure to how to do it - and once they do, the measurement is useless...As soon as we develop algorithms that block fake news sites, the creators of these sites will have tremendous incentive to find creative ways to outwit the detectors. 
The more we, as individuals, know the better we each can become at identifying fake news, fake research, and propaganda. My advice is to read as much as you can.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Ahab's Return: or, The Last Voyage - by Jeffrey Ford

In a re-imagined world of Melville's Moby Dick Captain Ahab (along with others of the crew of the Pequod) survived the attack of the white whale. A reformed Ahab comes to Manhattan in search of his wife and son, whom he has been told moved from Nantucket to live with a relative. In a tale of manticores and monsters Ahab reveals more about his travels. He also runs into Daggoo (aka Madi), harpooneer from the ill-fated Pequod. We learn a bit of Madi's back story - that he was young and wanted to see the world - and remembers very little of Africa
I only dimly recall my mother and father. My homeland and Islam. All that was washed out of me by the rolling sea. I've been on a voyage to another world, suffered solid months of stillness at the equator, and been lashed by furious typhoons. At night, I have fleeting glimpses of my father's handiwork, the jewels and metals he shaped like a sprinkling of gold dust in my dreams. That and a story my grandfather told me when I was a child of the fabulous libraries of Timbuktu.
Ahab enlists the help of a journalist George Harrow to navigate the city. Harrow, in turn, seeks assistance from Mrs. Pease, the archivist for the Gorgon's Mirror (the tabloid for which Harrow works). The archive comprised
shelves and drawers and cabinets containing various and sundry articles and clippings from myriad  local newspapers and magazines-all catalogued, filed, and cross-referenced according to a system devised by Mrs. Pease. How the materials were chosen-and the criteria by which they were arranged-was a mystery
Mrs. Pease knew the system though, and could find anything within. With information she found she was able to do research and create maps. Of course any one could tell you that a person with these duties and skills is a librarian. And, indeed, Harrow eventually identifies her as such.

A fun bit of fiction. I'm not sure how true Melville fans will feel about it, though.

Monday, June 3, 2019

The Night Library - by David Zeltser

I'm always on the lookout books about libraries that also intersect with holidays and special events. Zeltser's picture book tells the story of a boy who learns about the magic of libraries on the eve of his eighth birthday (aka his "attainment day"). 

The unnamed narrator is somewhat less than impressed when his parents give him a book for his birthday. But with the help of New York Public Library's lions (Patience and Fortitude) and a fantastic night in the library when books come alive, he remembers the thrill of learning to read on his grandfather's lap. Now one book seems hardly enough! Thank goodness for library cards!

I bought this as a birthday present to myself. My husband and I read it together on my 55th birthday.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Who Killed the Fonz? - by James Boice

Mystery Month May continues with the gang from Happy Days. Unwilling to believe that the motorcycle crash that killed their super cool friend was an accident Richie, Potsie, and Ralph take on the Milwaukee political machine.

Set in the 1980s the paunchy, middle-aged friends start their own investigation into the accident and discover something much more sinister than they could have imagined.

There is a lot of re-hashing of individual plot lines from the old television show including the infamous jumping of the shark. For this blogger, however, the most important reminder was that Richie and Lori Beth met at their college library. So important was this detail, in fact, that it is mentioned twice in this rather short novel.

Fans of the show will likely enjoy this nostalgia trip. And you can be sure that, dead or alive, Fonzie will always save the day.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Everything I Never Told You - by Celeste Ng

Lydia Lee has a lot of pressure on her. Her mother (Marilyn) wants her to be a doctor (a dream she did not fulfill herself) and her Chinese-American father (James) wants her to be popular and to fit in (a dream he never realized). When their daughter's body is discovered at the bottom of  Middlewood Lake the Lees must come to grips with her death. The omniscient narrator gives the reader insight into each of the other members of the family and their histories, as well  as Jack, a classmate, and a person of interest in Lydia's disappearance. Readers eventually know for sure what happened. The Lees, however, are never convinced.

The story takes place during the late spring and summer of 1977. A time when Nath Lee, Lydia's older brother, is looking forward to starting Harvard. Harvard played an important role in the Lee family history; it is where Marilyn and James met in 1957 (in the history department which "had the peaceful quiet of a library"); and it was where James, notoriously, did not get hired once he earned his Ph.D.

Just before his sister's death Nath visited the Harvard campus where he
wandered awestruck, trying to take it all in: the fluted pillars of the enormous library, the red brick of the buildings against the bright green of the lawns, the sweet chalk smell that lingered in each lecture hall.
It is clear that James also remains in awe of Harvard. And that perhaps his son's acceptance is a vindication for him.

James' upbringing in Iowa, where he was the only person of Asian descent at the elite boarding school where his parents worked as a groundskeeper and kitchen worker made him long to be like everyone else. He surprised everyone at Lloyd Academy by passing the admission test, which allowed him to attend the school for free as the child of employees. He had no trouble answering the exam questions having learned so much from reading "all the books his father had bought, a nickel a bag, at library book sales."

Nath also took advantage of the library growing up. As a child he managed to get the librarian to allow him to borrow books from the adult section, and remained engrossed in learning about outer space, physics, and flight mechanics throughout his high school years.

And, finally, on a non-library note I feel compelled, as the wife of a geographer, to snark about this bit of undeserved Harvard fascination:

James' teaching assistant Louisa is less than impressed with some of the responses she found on student exams and tells him
I hope the summer students will be better... A few people insisted that that the Cape-to-Cairo Railroad was in Europe. For college students, they have surprising trouble with geography.
To which James responds:
Well, this isn't Harvard, that's for sure.
Except that it appears that where geography is concerned Middlewood College may indeed be able to hold a candle to our friends in Cambridge. Harvard, in fact, infamously got rid of its Geography department in 1948 when University President, and homophobe, James Conant declared geography "not an academic department".

This YouTube video give us some insight about the current state of geographic understanding at Harvard.

Death Overdue-by Allison Brook

It's Mystery Month May and so, although I don't really like mystery novels, I read one. Of course I picked one about a librarian.

This is a rather light mystery about a young librarian, Carrie, who with the help of a friendly ghost, Evelyn Havens (former library employee, and aunt to Carrie's nemisis "prune-faced" Dorothy), solves the 15-year old murder of Laura (another library employee) in the fictional town of Clover Ridge, Connecticut.

Some interesting tidbits worthy of comment here (besides the fact that Evelyn "shushes" Carrie when she first meets her).

Dorothy is quite an unpleasant sort and furthermore had been envious of Laura back in the day "because all the patrons liked her and wanted her to help them". Evelyn had tried to explain to Dorothy that she should smile more and speak in a "pleasant manner" so that patrons would like her too. Dorothy's response had been that
her job was to answer questions and look up information. She wasn't paid to be an entertainer as well 
And here I must give some acknowledgement to Dorothy's point of view. The expectation that we smile, and that part of our work must involve getting people to like us is a burden demanded heavily upon women. Somehow I doubt that if Dorothy had been a man anyone would have made the same suggestion. In fact, I expect that the opposite would have been true. Her serious manner would have instead have been seen as a sign that she knew what she was talking about.

Meanwhile, Carrie endures a bit of "mansplaining" from police Lieutenant Mathers who suggests that she can find out more about Laura's murder from the newspaper articles online, which she can read at the library.

I think the best line though (and what obviously makes this fiction is) when Carrie is offered the job of head of programs and events and is informed that while the work is demanding "the salary's quite good" LOL.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

To All the Boys I've Loved Before - by Jenny Han

What could have been a trite YA comedy of errors about a teenager who wants to die of embarrassment was, in fact, a much more thoughtful story.

High School junior Lara Jean has a complicated love life, but at least she knows that the library is a good place to study with the boys she's dating/wants to date/pretends to date. She also considers the library a good place to volunteer (although as far as I can tell she never actually follows through on that plan). And the only library book she mentions is one she bought at the Friends book sale. At least it was cheap (75¢) if not free. The only appearance a librarian makes is, of course, to shush.

I picked up this book at the Little Free Library at Borderland State Park. A fun, quick read.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Adequate Yearly Progress-by Roxanna Elden

This satire about the fictitious Brae Hill Valley High School in Texas provides readers with a view of teachers' lives, both inside and outside the classroom. There are a lot of acronyms and, as one might expect from the title, there is much here about assessment, binders full of data, and standardized tests. It is somewhat prescient that this story about Texas' STARR assessment tests, and the real poet who couldn't answer the questions about her own poem has been making the rounds recently.

Brae Hill Valley has a media center "formerly known as the library". Its only use in this work is for a meeting of the Pre-Holiday Cross-Departmental Midyear-Assessment Data Chat ("PHCDMAC for short"). The only mention of the media specialist's (aka librarian's) work involves cutting out a laminated sign warning students to keep their distance from the creepy mechanical Santa Claus that was making its annual appearance from the school's supply room. Ah, well, at least BHVHS has a librarian. Many school districts find librarians to be easy targets when budgets are cut. This story from the Spokane (Washington) Spokesman-Review makes clear how little attention is actually paid to all the assessment data that educators are required to collect. Although there is a strong positive correlation between having school libraries with professional librarians and better student achievement librarian positions continue to be eliminated across the country.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Oryx and Crake - by Margaret Atwood

I first read this work when it was published in 2003. It is the first book of a trilogy, and I've been planning on reading the other two (The Year of the Flood and Maddaddam) but it had been so long since I read this one that I wanted to re-read it before delving in to the other two. My husband and I took the opportunity for a read aloud and will finish the trilogy together.

This is the story of Snowman (aka Jimmy), his best friend Crake, and their shared lover, Oryx. The novel alternates between a time in the near future where the bio-tech industry is running just about everything, including schools; and a bit more distant future, after just about everything has been destroyed. In the former time Jimmy goes to school, schools that even have libraries. Each mention of his school library is about technology. He uses computers and CD ROMs, but never mentions a hard-copy book. When Jimmy graduates he goes to a third-rate college - The Martha Graham Academy - which focuses on the humanities rather than STEM. Martha Graham's library is full of mildewing books, unlike the
better libraries, at institutions with more money, [which] had long ago burned their actual books and kept everything on CD-ROM, but Martha Graham was behind the times in that, as in everything.  
  After graduation Jimmy
snared a job at the Martha Graham library, going through old books and earmarking them for destruction while deciding which should remain on earth in digital form...he lost his post halfway through because he couldn't bear to throw anything out.
Ah, Jimmy, every librarian feels your pain. Just as gardens need weeding to keep them healthy, we know we need to "weed" our collections, too. But throwing out books just seems sacrilegious. What to do?

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Library at the Edge of the World - by Felicity Hayes-McCoy

When I read a review of this work I was intrigued not only because it was about a library, but also because the author has a hyphenated name that starts with Hayes, which is also true of me. I downloaded this and my husband and I listened to it on the Kindle app during a long drive back to our New England home from Chicago. 

We listened to it almost two months ago, making it rather hard to write about now. Also, since I was listening to it, rather than reading it I didn't mark anything. And a search on the word library, or librarian would be rather like a google search resulting in so many hits as to be overwhelming. In any case I will make my attempt to create a post, giving this work its due. 

The story takes place in the fictitious town of Finfarran, Ireland. Our heroine/librarian is Hanna who has returned to Finfarran (her childhood home) following her divorce and taken a job as the director of the public library - a job that she isn't particularly excited about. Mostly she keeps things going, and tries not to rock the boat, until she discovers a dastardly plan to shut the library down. With the help of some elderly nuns she discovers the importance of keeping the library relevant and how to rally the town in support. 

A lovely listen, read by Emma Rowe in her beautiful Irish lilt.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Sembrando historias: Pura Belpre: bibliotecaria y narradora de cuentos - por Anika Aldamuy Denise

In honor of Children's Book Week (this week) and Día de los libros/ Día de los niños (yesterday) a Spanish-language book about Pura Belpré - the first Spanish-speaking librarian in New York City. This beautifully illustrated work tells of Belpré's arrival in Manhattan from her native Puerto Rico. After she got a job at the New York Public Library she lamented that there were no books with the stories she grew up with on the shelves, so she wrote her own collection and created puppets to illustrate the stories during story time.

This book is available in English as Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré. 

See also The Storyteller's Candle/La velita de los cuentos.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Shakespeare Requirement - by Julie Schumacher

Picking up where Dear Committee Members left off, our still beleaguered professor Jason T. Fitger finds himself chair of the English Department and unable to get his colleagues to agree on the Statement of Vision (SoV) required by the University Administration in order to get a budget, schedule an event, or anything else. While searching for previous SoVs  Fitger discovers, among other things in the departmental files, "miscellaneous library fines". It is not clear if these fines belonged to the previous Chair (one Ted Boti) or if they were for a whole host of faculty from the English department.

We are also introduced to young Angela Vackrey, one of Fitger's advisees. Angela is a first-generation, home-schooled freshman. A bright, if naive, fish out of water.

Her first impressions of Payne University include a survey of some of the buildings, including the library. She likens the tendrils of ivy on the brick facade to "witches fingers".

This sinister view of the library is revisited later when Fitger is attacked by a "frigid cascade of slush" which "slipped down" the "sloping overhang" and "landed with a slap against Fitger's neck".

The menacing feel of Library at Payne University wasn't limited to the outside of the building.
the building was sadly in need of modernization. Its towering metal rows of floor-to-ceiling shelves created a catacomb-like effect, and the overhead lights, cued to old-fashioned timers, had a way of clicking off all at once, leaving patrons stranded in the airless dark.
It was "known as a place where undergraduates went to nap (and, some said, to engage in intercourse in the group study rooms)". 

The foreboding continues as pencils are imagined as murder weapons in the "gloomy" space of a faculty carrel.

I'm sure, however, that despite all of this, the President of Payne University hails the Library as "the heart and soul of the university".

Go ahead and google the phrase "library heart and soul of university" and see what I'm talking about.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Summer Hours and the Robbers Library - by Sue Halpern

The hardest posts to write for this blog are those that are for the most library-centric books. I can't simply put a post-it note on each page that has the word library lest the entire book be marked. Writing about this book is made even harder by the fact that I read it over a month ago while I was on vacation. While I did enjoy a lot of reading (I read, or listened to, four books) while I was away  I got quite far behind on my blogging while I was on vacation last month, and returning from my trip I had so many other things I had to take care of that writing was put on the back burner.

Halpern's book tells the story of the intersecting lives of Solstice (Sunny) and Katherine (Kit) who work together at the Riverton Public (Robbers) library in New Hampshire. Kit is a forty-something reference librarian and Sunny is a fifteen-year-old who "had been sentenced to work at the...library for the summer after she was caught trying to steal a dictionary from a bookstore in the mall." Sunny procured her sentence in kids' court "the place where good kids, or kids who haven't yet gone bad, are sent when they do something wrong, or dumb, or both..."

So, while I didn't mark every time the word "library" was used, it turns out I did mark more than a few passages. Let's start with the word sesquipedalian.

When asked by the judge why she stole the book  (a dictionary of all things) her response that she didn't have enough money elicited further explanation. To which Sunny explained that she wanted to be able to look up the meaning of words she didn't know - words like sesquipedalian. Poor Sunny still didn't know what it meant because she didn't have the dictionary. Of course I could have told her the meaning of my favorite word: sesquipedalian - a foot and a half long - from the roots sesqui (one and a half) and ped (foot) - a word that essentially defines itself. But Sunny wanted to be able to look up the word herself. She was "tired of always having to ask someone when [she] didn't know the meaning of a word."

It is a bit coincidental that I marked a page that mentioned icky library vending machine food, although I had not yet written my most recent post about Dear Committee Members in which I wrote for the first time about such things.

Halpern plays a bit with stereotypes. Kit is a single (really divorced) childless middle-aged woman, who tells Sunny that she's "a big fan of silence" asked why she works in a library.

The Library Director, Barbara is described as
sturdy, with angular features and a white pageboy, handsome, not pretty - a sensible shoes kind of woman with proper manners, manners proper enough to keep her from prying into the lives of the people she worked with or trading gossip... 
There is also one instance of a "shushing" which takes place when a patron laughs loudly at learning why Sunny was "sentenced" to work in the library.

Much of the book is Kit describing her life before the Robbers Library. We find out about library school, and her first job in a library archive room, and a later job at a the Science Library at Emory University. In describing each of her jobs she does admits a dark secret that all library workers know, but don't want to admit - sometimes our work is tedious, or even boring. It is true that sometimes we wonder why the building we're sitting in, waiting for a "stray question", is even open. Or that sometimes our job is just searching fruitlessly for a missing book, or making sure people aren't destroying materials. Meanwhile, we also know that we must convince others that we are "busy" at all times, lest we lose funding, or worse, the vocational awe perceived of us by those outside our occupation.

Ultimately, though we learn that Kit recognizes the value of libraries and librarians. And that while her job may not be "as awesome as being a neurosurgeon" she knows that "putting books in the hands of[s] lives, too".

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Public (the movie)

I've been waiting well over a year to see this. It finally showed up in theaters earlier this month, just in time for National Library Week. I spent most of National Library Week attending the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) national conference in Cleveland, and was glad to wrap up my time in the Rock & Roll Capital of the World at the Cedar Lee Theater in Cleveland Heights. As a former Ohioan it was a special treat to see this Ohio-based film in the state where it was filmed.

Written and directed by and starring Emilio Estevez, this film tells the story of  librarian Stuart Goodson who works at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. During an especially cold spell in the city a population of homeless men decide to occupy the library overnight as they have no where else to go to escape the bitter temperatures when the building closes. Goodson stands with his patrons and likewise refuses to leave the library. Speculation from law enforcement, local politicians, and the media about what is happening inside the barricaded building leads to misinformation, and some "fake news" reporting.

The last thing I did at the ACRL conference was attend the keynote address and book signing by Alison Bechdel. I had her sign my copy of Essential Dykes to Watch Out For From there my husband and I had lunch and then made our way to the theatre. I must say that was getting a bit worried that this film would not pass the Bechdel Test, but ultimately it came through (but just barely). It really would have been especially tragic to watch a failing movie on the very day that I met Bechdel. It seems a film about a profession that is dominated by women could have done better than to just squeak by. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this film. It was well acted, well directed, and had a good surprise ending.

More about Alison Bechdel's keynote can be found here.

Passing the Bechdel Test with Alison Bechdel

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Dear Committee Members - by Julie Schumacher

Recommended to me by more than a few of my colleagues at the university, this satire was excellent listening fare for my husband and me during our regular weekend drives to our beach house. Told in epistolary style, this book is a series of letters written by English professor Jason T. Fitger of the fictitious Payne University (located somewhere in the Midwest). Fitger's letters are addressed not only to committee members, but to ex-wives, colleagues, friends, and administrators as well as to various people who are in positions to hire some of Fitger's acquaintances. These infamous Letters of Reference (aka LORs) were easily my favorite parts of the book. Fitger's outsized ego is revealed, as is his sarcasm, and any number of his myriad peccadilloes through his letters. Still, in the end we wish him no ill will. He is already dealing with plenty of BS that anyone in academics will readily recognize. I daresay that the descriptions of the shabby state of the offices in the Department of English hit too close to home when compared with the accommodations afforded to the Humanities at my own University.

Of course any academician worth their salt knows the value of a library. While we can never be sure that Our Dear Professor Fitger actually ever darkens the door of a library himself, he does seem to recognize them for their importance in exploring academic pursuits. For instance, in one LOR for student Gunner Lang (who is seeking work-study student employment anywhere on campus) Fitger's supplication that the young man be placed in the "library rather than the slops of food service" acknowledges that the library is a superior place and one that a student such as Gunner, who has "bona fide thoughts and knows how to apportion them into relatively grammatical sentences" certainly deserves to be. This LOR is written rather early in the book (which takes place over one academic year). A second LOR for young Gunner is written much later in the year in hopes of procuring the lad a summer research fellowship so as to write a literary criticism of O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods. Fitger surmises that Gunner will put the $400 award to good use
by availing himself of the foul-smelling vending machine sandwiches in Appleton library while immersing himself in a study of narrative uncertainty and violence
This is not the first time, however, that Fitger mentions bad library vending machine food in an LOR. This honor goes to the letter written for his friend Troy Larpenteur, who rather inexplicably, is looking for a job as a sales associate at the Zentex Corporation. In his letter Fitger reminisces back twenty-three years
to the sight of the Seminar table, his hair looking as if he had slept on the floor of the library by the vending machines (he usually had)... 
One other letter makes mention of the library: one written on behalf of Fitger's unfortunate colleague  Karolyi Pazmentalyi whose department (Slavic Languages) was a victim of the evil Provost's recent reorganization. Fitger describes his hapless friend's lonely work over the previous decade
holed up in a corner of the library his craggy profile visible in the the fluorescent glare of the overheads when everyone else was uncorking a beverage at home
which resulted in publication of a scholarly book, the type of work that would normally bring with it a promotion, but in Pazmentalyi's case was dismissed since his entire department was being purged. Again, I found that this passage hit a bit too close to home for me.

This book is truly a must-read for anyone in the Academy, although I expect that faculty will find it a lot funnier than those in administration will.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Hot Milk - by Deborah Levy

Last month I visited my wonderful child in Chicago where we enjoyed a visit to the Bourgeois Pig which featured two of our favorite things: coffee, and a Little Free Library. The LTL looked like a little Gnome house and from it I picked Levy's book. I hadn't heard anything about it before, but the back cover description indicated that it had some dark humor. What the cover description didn't tell me was that one of the main characters was a librarian.

Little Free Library (zip code 60614)
Image from Yelp.
The story revolves around Sofia and her mother Rose (the librarian). The two have traveled to Spain in order for Rose to get treatment for a mysterious illness from Dr. Gómez, whose unconventional methods include taking the two women out to lunch and insisting that Sofia not utter word throughout the meal.

As Rose is no longer working (only partly due to her health) there is little in the book about her job. We do know that her "duties were to catalogue. index, and classify the books". It was made clear on each of the three occasions in the book in which Rose's occupation is mentioned that cataloging and indexing were her most essential duties. However, as Sofia reflects upon her mother she comes to the realization that working with words doesn't necessarily translate to an ability to use them well.
She cataloged a billion words but she could not find words for how her own wishes for herself had been dispersed in the winds and storms of a world not arranged to her advantage.
Librarians most certainly don't like things that are not arranged to their advantage. Rose was also very clearly a difficult person to satisfy. And that may be the closest we come to understanding why Rose would want to leave library work.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Umbrella Academy (the television series)

When the surviving children of Reginald Hargreeves reunite for his funeral they discover that the apocalypse is nigh. While attempting to save the world they discover secrets that threaten much more than family unity.

Beyond binge-worthy, this dark comedy series begs to be binged. Keeping track of the multitude of characters, each with their own dysfunction, superpower, and history is enough reason to watch this without breaking. Throw in some time travel and flashbacks and it becomes an absolute necessity.

While it is made clear that scenes that take place in the present day do indeed transpire in 2019, it is a parallel world of 2019 than the one viewers know. It is a world with no cell phones; one in which our superheroes must use their wired house phone, or find a pay telephone when not at home, in order to communicate with one another when they are not together. It is likewise a world without Google. A world in which if one wants to find out about their sister's new suitor, for instance, one would have to go to the public library and use the newspaper on microfiche to find out more about him. An excellent use of library resources. There is one other scene over the 10 episodes that takes place in the public library, one in which a couple of judgmental librarians wonder where the parents of the drunk teenager are.

A wonderful cast and a good story with some truly unexpected twists and surprises.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Light on Snow - by Anita Shreve

A motherless twelve-year old girl (Nicky) and her father take a walk in the woods behind their house on a snowy December afternoon. They hear what they believe to be a cat's cry, but soon recognize it as human. Following the noise they discover a newborn infant abandoned in the snow, and race to the hospital in order to save her. A police investigation follows. Two days before Christmas a young woman shows up at Nicky's house to thank her and her father for saving her baby. A snow storm prevents the stranger from leaving and over the course of her stay they learn her story. Part of the story is that the only pre-natal care the nineteen-year old received was what she learned from reading library books about pregnancy and childbirth.

She also used the local public library to read newspaper accounts of the baby's rescue, and the name of the man who saved her.

Meanwhile, Nicky begins to wonder about all the what-ifs that led to the discovery of the infant, who otherwise likely would have been found as a tiny skeleton in the spring. What if she and her father had decided not to take a walk that day? What if her mother and baby sister had not died in a car crash - she and her father would never have moved to New Hampshire in the first place. And
What if my father had not, as my mother once told me, walked into the university library one spring morning to read about the Yankees-Orioles game the night before and seen my mother at the circulation desk, studying for a chemistry exam while putting in her work-study hours, and asked her, on the spur of the moment, how he might get permission to look at a series of rare Jefferson drawings kept in the vault.
Like the title character in Judy Blume's classic Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret this book ends with the narrator getting her first period. However, Shreve's work is most definitely a bit darker than Blume's.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Every Day (the movie)

This is a love story between Rhiannon, a teenage girl, and A, a soul who wakes up in a new body every day. A never knows what gender, race, ethnicity, or abilities they will have from one day to the next. Neither does A have any control over whose body they will inhabit on any particular day. They only know it will not be the same one as the day before, and that it will be someone about the same age as they were the day before. 

On the day that A wakes up in the body of George they find themselves in an "old school situation". George's mother picks out his clothes, and only agrees to let him out of the house to go to the library to study. A contacts Rhiannon and tells her that they have about an hour to meet before George's mother picks him up. Rhiannon and A get "shushed" at least three times before Mom arrives and goes ballistic when she finds Rhiannon kissing her son between the stacks and chases her out of the building.

This very non-binary tale, based on the book by David Levithan, is thought provoking well executed.

Friday, February 15, 2019

We Are Water - by Wally Lamb

In this work Lamb re-imagines the town of Norfolk, Connecticut and artist Ellis Ruley as the fictitious Three Rivers, Connecticut and Josephus Jones respectively. It tells the story of the Oh family: Annie, an artist who is about to marry her same-sex partner; Orion, her psychologist ex-husband; and her children Ariane, Andrew, and Marissa. Each chapter focuses on a different character.

Annie's early life is shaped by a flood that killed her mother and baby sister. The disaster is something she rarely discusses, so her children must research it at the public library, reading the old newspaper accounts on microfiche. 

Annie is also the subject of an internet search on a public library computer, many years later. A search performed by someone who, as a condition of his parole, was to stay off the internet. Nevertheless, the parolee (Annie's long lost cousin Kent) "walked from the halfway house to the library downtown [and found] an open computer station, far enough from the front desk for anyone to see..."

As a young woman Annie searched for a job using the Want Ads found in the local paper at the public library. She had been primed from a young age to use the library, as her mother had taken her to story hour as a child. Belinda, whose father was buried the same day as Annie's mother and sister, remembered Annie from her days working at the library. Belinda once even used her job there as a cover to her parents when she goes to meet a boy at the movie theater - telling them she was called in to work to fill in for someone who was sick. 

Although not an especially library-centric book, this one does demonstrate a myriad of different ways that libraries are used. 

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Unsheltered - by Barbara Kingsolver

In 21st century Vineland, New Jersey Willa Knox, her husband, father-in-law, two grown children, and one grandchild move to a dilapidated house on Plum Street after having to leave their home in Virginia following a job loss.

On the same Plum Street lot in 19th century Vineland, Thatcher Greenwood, his wife, sister-in-law, and mother-in-law also live a house that may very well fall apart around them.

Is there a historic significance to Willa's house that could save it? Only good research will tell!

On her maiden voyage to the Vineland Historical Society, Willa discovers that the town was designed as a Utopian community in 1861 by Charles Landis, and that
within the first decade Vineland had eighteen public schools...Three seminaries, fourteen churches, Masonic and Odd Fellows Societies, a public library, and a hall built on Plum Street to host one of the country's most exciting public lecture series.
Well, after all, what kind of a utopia would it be if it had no public library?

And, in fact Thatcher Greenwood and his friend Mary Treat made good use of said library (as well as the Harvard Library and the Boston Public Library) in their day. Willa, on the other hand, is more of an archives person, making use of the files (with the help of curator Christopher Hawk) at the Historical Society. Hawk's connections at the National Agricultural Library land Willa with a trove of letters written by Mary Treat, and thus, the book comes full circle.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Library Book - Susan Orlean

This book started showing up all over my Facebook feed late last year. Excerpts, interviews, and recommendations came from friends, family, and organizations. Everything I saw gave me reason to believe that I would love this book. And I did.

Of course it would have been right and good (and indeed, most meta) for me to have gotten a copy of this from a library, but I knew that there would be a long waiting list, and I really couldn't wait, so I purchased and downloaded an e-version onto my iPad. I read it out loud with my husband. We both thoroughly enjoyed it.

Normally when I read a book I mark any passage I find about libraries, so that I can easily find them when I am done reading it in order to write my blog post. It is not so simple when I read a book entirely about libraries. If I were to mark every relevant page I would essentially have to re-read the entire book, and I'd still be hard pressed to figure out what to write about here. So I was forced to make some hard decisions. As it is, I marked over sixty pages, so not even everything I found especially noteworthy made the final cut.

In this ode to libraries Orlean weaves together her own relationship with public libraries with the story of the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) and the fire that destroyed the Central Branch in 1986. The tale includes the history of the LAPL begining in the 19th century. Replete with quirky characters including early library director Henry Lummis, and Harry Peak, the man who was arrested for, but never convicted of, starting the fire.

Library Love

Orlean's own love affair with libraries began when she was a child when she went to her local public library regularly with her mother, and they would discuss what books they checked out on the way home. She explains that her family owned very few books because her parents knew that they could get what they wanted for free at the library. In college she eschewed the library and began buying books, to the point that she only had wistful memories of the library. A school project for her first grade son brought her again to the public library
As my son and I drove to meet the librarian I was flooded by a sense of absolute familiarity, a gut-level recollection of this journey, of parent and child on their way to the library. I had taken this trip so many times before, but now it was turned on its head, and I was the parent bringing my child on that special trip...when we stepped in, the thunderbolt of recognition struck me so hard that it made me gasp.
From there Orlean rediscovers her love of libraries, and discovers some things that aren't quite so lovable about them as well. For instance, we see that sexism in libraries has a long history with the tale of Mary Jones who lost her job as director just because they wanted to hire someone else (a man)

Mary Jones' story begins with Mary Foy who was hired in 1880 when
the library was still an organization run by, and catering to, men. Women were not yet allowed to have their own library cards and were permitted only in the Ladies' Room. No library in the country had a female head librarian, and only a quarter of all American library employees were women. The feminization of librarianship was still a decade away.  
Foy served as library director until 1884 when she was removed to make room for Jessie Gavitt, daughter of a "popular rancher". It was further determined that "Foy's father was doing well enough financially that he could now afford to take care of her". A succession of women ran the library until 1905 when Mary Jones, then director, was asked to resign by the library board who believed that "it would be in everyone's best interest to have a man run the library." The man they had in mind was an unconventional fellow named Charles Fletcher Lummis. He was offered the job of director at twice the pay of Jones.

Lummis had been in Los Angeles since 1885, when he walked there from his home in Ohio to take a job as a journalist.  He dressed in a "manner that was not typical for a Caucasian male of the 1880s. His favorite outfit was a three-button suit coat and trousers made of bright green wide-wale corduroy, which he wore with a red-and-black patterned cummerbund."

A philanderer, he was "the focus of endless gossip...reckless, dramatic, quixotic, romantic, and perhaps a bit of a tall-tale teller".

Eventually, Lummis' offensive ways became too much, and in 1910 he was asked to leave.


The story of the fire is interwoven with the story of the enigmatic Harry Peak who some believed started the fire. Ultimately, it was never determined who set the fire, or for that matter if it was arson at all. Harry Peak, however, always remained a person of interest. He was questioned several times, and even arrested and ultimately had over a dozen stories regarding his whereabouts on the day in question. Sometimes he produced an alibi, other times he put himself near the library (but not in it) and at other times he confessed to the crime.

In describing the fire the author made excellent use of allusion, letting her readers know that "The temperature reached 451 degrees and the books began smoldering".

Censorship, book burning, and information loss is the topic of chapter 9 in this book. From Egypt's Great Library of Alexandria, to the Spanish Inquisition, to the colonizers in the Americas destroying Aztec codices, to what George Orwell called that "most characteristic of [Nazi] activit[ies]" - the burning of books. The Feuersprüche (Fire Incantations)
was a pet project of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Party's propaganda chief, who understood how fundamental books were to Jewish culture, theology, and identity. Burning Jewish books, in his opinion was an ideal form of bloodless torture, demonstration the limitlessness of German control...The irony of the Feuersprüche was that they [the Nazi's] treated books as seriously as Jews did. To feel the need to destroy them acknowledged the potency and value of books, and recognized the steadfast Jewish attachment to them.
In describing the LAPL fire and its aftermath the author demonstrates how the burning of books, information loss, and the investigation effected those who worked in the library.
Twenty-four of Central's 250 librarians...asked for transfers to other branches. A survey of the remaining staff asked what the most stressful aspect of the fire was. The answers were dire. They included: "Feeling of powerlessness, helplessness brought about by confusion...feeling of isolation of having to work in an almost empty shell of a building that was once a vital place"; Being afraid that, even though nobody was killed in the fire, somebody is going to be killed or badly hurt..."; and "Feeling like a refugee. Holes ripped in an organic entity."...
Furthermore the "librarians complained of eye infections, breathing difficulties, skin irritation, and post-traumatic stress disorder."

Random Musings

Rather than giving each chapter a title, the author started each chapter with a bibliography of books (along with their Dewey Decimal Call numbers) that were related to the upcoming pages. When I noticed inclusion of a book I'd read (or better yet blogged about - such as chapter thirty's Bibliotech) I was sure to mark it. Chapter fourteen's list caught my attention with the inclusion of Map Librarianship: An introduction by Mary Lynette Larsgaard. The  very book that served as my textbook in 1991 when I took a course on Map Librarianship at the University of Arizona Graduate Library School. A few years ago I found the text in packed away in  box at home and used it to make a book-themed Christmas decoration.

Last Christmas when I put this on display at the library I overheard one student say to another "Look at that, they ruined a perfectly good book to make a decoration". While I agree on principle that we shouldn't destroy books, I also think that making art from out-of-date textbooks is a wonderful use of these works (and frankly, this would otherwise have simply be sent to the recycling bin).

The rumors of the demise of libraries are long standing, as evidenced by LAPL's Senior Librarian Glen Creason's reporting that when he entered library school in 1979 (on a whim, hoping to meet women) that the head of the RAND Corporation announced that libraries would soon be obsolete. 

Perhaps one of my favorite anecdotes in the book is the story about a CBS radio program called Americans at Work that aired during the Great Depression and featured plays about different professions. One of the plays was about a young woman (Helen) wanting to become a librarian. Her mother insists that it is a job for "older ladies who need to help out a bit". Then Helen's uncle comes to the rescue explaining that "a librarian's got to be a right modern smart girl nowadays."

Some things, of course, are universal in libraries. I was especially interested to read about the problem with getting an employee parking lot, something that was an ongoing issue when I worked at the McAllen (Texas) Public Library in the mid 1990s and that people who call asking questions that they can easily "google" the answer to goes on every where.

Orlean had my husband and I crying a bit at the end when she explains why she wanted to write the book
to tell about a place I love that doesn't belong to me but feels like it is mine, and how that feels marvelous and exceptional. All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library's simple unspoken promise: Here I am, please tell me your story; here is my story, please listen.

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.