Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Library Book - by John Fiske

Well, I really had no choice but to read this one when I saw an article about it on American Libraries Direct.A historical novel about the building of the New York Public Library, The Library Book tells the story of John Carrère and Thomas Hastings, the architects who designed the marble monument. It is also the story of author Fiske's alter-ego Henry Peabody, an architect who is designing a library, and writing a book about the New York Public Library. As is always the case with historical fiction it is hard to tell what is true and what is not, and in the case of The Library Book there is the added layer of wonder about what is true and what is fiction for the Henry Peabody character. And because the stories of Peabody and John Carrère were parallel, I sometimes lost track of which one I was reading about. Fiske does point out in his Author's Note that it is a work of fiction, and offers examples only two "vignettes" that are actual events. Readers are left to wonder about the rest. Was Miss Bough Carrère's lover? Was she even a real person? Did his wife know? How about Horace Avery, the mad artist? Was he real, or simply an artistic device? I did look up the facts around the book's tragic ending, and almost cried when I found them to be true.

There are, of course, library references throughout the book. I highlight some of my favorites here:

In discussing the design of the building early on Hastings has this to say: "It has to be for the people, a democratic place....Not a royal place. It's a public library." Carrère responds "It has to usable for librarians, too. (p. 30). See my May 23rd post to see my feelings about how democratic I think the Library is. I was interested to read that the architects thought of the librarians, too. My own library underwent a major renovation in recent years, and although the planners and architects consulted with us, our ideas were largely ignored, which has made for some rather weird spaces and book arrangements in the building. I did not see any evidence in The Library Book that the architect's spoke to librarians, except to point out that librarians were not consulted in the designing of the Boston Public Library. I did note that the architects themselves determine that "the catalog room is the most important room in the library". Again, I can't tell for sure whether that determination is made with any input from librarians. (For those readers born after about 1985, the catalog room would have housed a card catalog, a drawer filing system that patrons used to locate books, used before catalog records went online.)

Library card catalog

Fiske plays a lot with the ideas of "positive space" and "negative space" and the layers of meaning in each in art and architecture. It was good to see that libraries were ultimately defined as positive space "because those spaces are so wonderful and useful and new with a purpose." (p. 162). And finally I smiled when I saw this passage about children playing with building blocks: "They built an entire town, even the library....It looked like a nice town, and the library was unmistakably the largest building." (p. 236).

This work would have benefited from some better editing. There are stray letters, and other typos in several places. As well, there was one rather glaring inconsistency.  On page 49 there is specific mention of Margaret, Horace Avery's sister, however, on page 61, we learn Avery's funeral was sparsely attended due to the fact that "He had few friends, his parents were gone, and there were no siblings." (emphasis mine.) Perhaps I misunderstood something, but I went back and reread both passages, and I could not see any other meaning in them.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

American Library Association Annual Meeting Begins Today

For the next six days New Orleans will host over 20,000 members of American Library Association (ALA).   I am not attending, and I will be happy when its over. Although attendees represent only a fraction of the total ALA membership all of us are inundated with e-mails telling us what is going on, which vendors will be there, and which poster sessions are scheduled. I can't help but think that an organization of information specialists could do a better job with managing its e-mail list serves. I have been to ALA before, and plenty of other library conferences, and one thing I am certain of is that the lines at the women's restrooms will be horrific. With the possible exception of the lines at the American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA), library conference lines are the worst. It almost makes me think I should have considered engineering as a career choice. I think the most egregious example of poor restroom planning I experienced was at the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) conference in Baltimore in 2007. All scheduled at the Baltimore Convention Center at the same time were: ACRL, a Mary Kay convention, and a cheerleading convention. Really? Three conventions of mostly women? Who planned that? For my sisters who are crossing their legs I have this advice: the lines are usually shorter if you go up one flight.
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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Was - by Geoff Ryman

My friend Brendan is very good at picking out books that he thinks I will like. When he recommended this one I asked if there were any librarians in it, and he said he thought maybe there were because one of the characters was doing a bit of research. As it turned out, this one has quite a few different references to libraries and librarians, but, unlike me, Brendan wasn't on the lookout for them when he read it.

This novel tells the "back story" of Dorothy Gael (yes, the one from the Wizard of Oz), who according to Ryman, bullied her classmates, and was sexually abused by Uncle Henry. It is also the story of Jonathan, who goes on a quest to find the "real Dorothy" in his last days on Earth, and Jonathan's therapist Bob, who actually knew "Dotty" before she died. There is also some of the story of Judy Garland's family, and the making  of The Wizard of Oz movie. It was very hard to tell how much was true and what wasn't. Fortunately the last pages of the book are a "Reality Check" in which Ryman sheds some light on some of the questions I had, as well as acknowledging the librarians who assisted with his own reearch.

There are about a dozen references to libraries or librarians in the book, and as Brendan recalled, some of them had to do with Jonathan's research, in which he visited libraries and public archives in California, and Kansas. We also learn that as a child Jonathan hated most books, and even "tore up a library book called Anatole." One of the few books he loved, of course, was The Wizard of Oz. I was disturbed to find out that up until about the 1960s Frank Baum's books were generally kept off of library shelves, mostly due to librarians' beliefs that the the fantasy aspect was unhealthy for children. The Oz books were not listed on recommended reading lists, nor were they mentioned in critcal works of children's literature. This article from the Chicago Tribune tells more.

I am always interested when I see references to the librarian stereotype. In describing Jonathan's ex-girlfriend Ryman simply says "She looked like a librarian....She was serious." There is no expansion in the description, Ryman is clearly sure, in the use of this simile, that readers will picture the same archetypical, bookish person. I wish I could become indignant about this, but sadly, I must admit that whenever I attend I librarian conference I am reminded that the stereotype is, all too often, deserved.

One of the books on my to-read list in What's the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank, I learned from Was that an editorial of the same name was published in the late 1800s by William Allen White. Reading the description of "the bookroom" at Dorothy's school gave me cause to consider the question myself.

"There was one table and shelves of spare textbooks. Proud as they were of their schools, even the people of Kansas could not call this a library."

Brendan was right on recommending this one for me. I like a surreal novel, especially one with libraries. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore - by Benjamin Radford

I lived in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas from 1994-1997. Nicknamed "the Magic Valley" it sometimes did seem that it had more than its share of unexplained phenomena. I was there in the summer of 1996 when reports that the "chupacabra" (goat sucker) was terrorizing goats, cows, chickens, and other domestic animals by sucking them dry of their blood, and leaving them dead appeared almost daily in the newspaper. The reports from eye-witnesses who claimed to have seen the monster were pretty consistent in describing a creature with spikes on its back that was some cross between a kangaroo, a vampire, and the aliens who abuducted so many folks back in the 1980s . This is the true, and original chupacabra, which is why I don't cotton at all to this newer hairless, blue-gray "canid" model that some claim to have captured.
"Imposter" say I!

Radford explores sightings, and rumors of both kinds of chupacabras in his work, and discusses his own research and quest to find the mythical beast. He interviews eye-witnesses, and scientists, as well as going into the Nicaraguan rainforest. While he never completely rules out the possibility that the chupacabra exists, he, not surprisingly, finds no credible evidence that anything has ever sucked any goat (or any other animal) completely dry of blood.

The author acknowledges "all the librarians, experts, and chupacabras eyewitnesses who shared thier stories..." and includes visits to "harshly lit library archives" as important stops in his pursuit of the mysterious being.

Find out more about the chupacabra at the Skeptic's Dictionary. Or, If you happen to be in McAllen, Texas you can ask at the McAllen Memorial Library (where I worked) if they still have a newsclipping file on the elusive creature.

Friday, June 10, 2011

I Remember Nothing And Other Reflections - by Nora Ephron

'Library" was only used one time in this book; I couldn't stop thinking about it though. "There was a morgue-a library of clippings that was available for research-at Newsweek; morgues are one of the great joys of working in journalism." (p. 21). The library as morgue, and the morgue as a joy. I am not even sure where to begin writing about this. Perhaps there is a different word we can start using to refer to the clippings departments of newspapers and magazines - something that would evoke the "joy" of libraries better than "morgue". I am open for suggestions.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Lady Gaga Library Card

Mostly I do not share my daughter's taste in music, but I surprised myself by realizing that I liked listening to Lady Gaga. I find her music inspired, and her messages affirming. I am not sure I fully understand what the Lady Gaga Library Card is for, but she is clearly pro-library, and  not afraid to call herself a librarian.

Condom Nation: The U.S. Government's Sex Education Campaign from World War I to The Internet by Alexandra M. Lord

Concerns about the spread of syphilis and gonorrhea during World War I  lead the federal government to launch a sex education campaign. These campaigns were aimed primarily at young boys and men and may be seen as precursor's to today's "abstinence-only" programs. Young men were admonished through classes, pamphlets and slide shows, to avoid contact with prostitutes, lest they carry the disease, and  to "keep fit" by demonstrating "self control". Over the next nine decades the Public Health Service would carry on the battle over unwanted pregnancies, abortion, and, eventually, AIDS, delivering messages through all types of media, and in the classroom, while attempting not to offend any constituencies. There was no way to carry out this task without failure. Today, as the United States' teen pregnancy rate continues to outpace that of other developed countries, the Religious Right still manages to call the shots on sex education.

This book had some great vintage images of pamphlets with a window on social morés of the times. Even while there has always been evidence of a large portion of the population engaging in pre-marital and extra-marital sex, the messages were clear that only sex within marriage was the accepted norm. The book also provides good insight into how the government managed to get any information out to the public despite the fact that there have always been vocal minorities who wanted to quash any attempt to educate the masses about sexual health. It was especially interesting to learn that even  almost one hundred years ago the government made some attempt to create culturally sensitive materials for African-American and immigrant communities.

Although libraries are mentioned only a few times in this work, the author makes it clear that they were important to her research. Acknowledgements go to individuals at the National Archives, the National Library of Medicine, the Kautz Family YMCA Archives, and Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota. As well, several of the images in the book are credited to these libraries. She also acknowledges her parents, who introduced her "to the joys of libraries and reading", and who taught her to "look it up!"

The role of libraries as information providers in the government's quest is seen through a lens of censorship. Following World War I the government continued its attempt to eradicate venereal diseases through education campaigns. Schools, newspapers, civic organizations, and churches were involved, as were libraries, some of which defied local censors by "boldly placing the Public Health Services pamphlets on syphilis and gonorrhea on their shelves and then publicizing the fact in the local newspaper" (p. 62).

A discussion of the Religious Right during the last part of the 20th century tells us that "efforts such as purging the local library of works that [it] deemed morally questionable, along with attempts to ban the teaching of evolution and sex education dominated the movement throughout the early 1970s" (p. 143). Of course, the Religious Right, and any number of other organizations, and individuals, continue to attempt to restrict the rights of others to choose what they want to read. See my Banned Books Week page for more information.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Patriot Act Renewed - Library Records Remain Unprotected

President Obama signed the extention the Patriot Act into law on May 26. The Act continues to allow
federal authorities conducting a counterterrorism investigation to seize a patron's library records without their knowledge, and without a court order, although freedom-to-read groups including the American Library Association, the Association of Research Libraries and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression had been seeking these protections. One might ask why we should even have to fight for a protection that is already guaranteed under the fourth amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures.

A Country without Libraries

From the New York Reveiw of Books blog, a lovely tribute to libraries, and a call to arms to save them, even if it means raising taxes!