Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bad Robot

I am sure to join the ranks of many others in the "blogosphere" who will villify the San Fransisco State University Library for removing most of its book collection and moving it to a storage facility. The books will still be accessible, via electronic request, by a robotic arm. I disagree that browsing, and serendipity, can be accomplished electronically as well as it can by walking through open stacks. You can't thumb through a book based only on its catalogue record. Read more in the New York Times.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Librarian Who Measured the Earth - by Kathryn Lasky

Q: What do you get when you cross a geographer with a librarian?
A: My beautiful and smart daughter, Paloma, whom I now believe to be Eratosthenes reincarnated.

As the title suggests, Eratosthenes was a wicked smart librarian in Alexandria, Egypt who figured out the formula for determining the circumference of the earth, over 2,000 years ago. (Why exactly do we celebrate Columbus?) What was so fascinating to me about this work was how much my job reflects what the librarians in the great library of Alexandria did so long ago. The book explains how the librarians organized and cataloged scrolls in order to help others to find what they needed; how Eratosthenes looked up pieces of information to find holes in the research (i.e. literature reviews); and how he had to do some major sucking up to King Ptolemy! I would almost point out that some things never change, except that since Eratosthenes day, when only men could be librarians, the prestige that went with the job has eroded considerably.

This is a lovely book with easy-to-understand explanations of some geometric prinicples.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Hole in My Life - by Jack Gantos

Front Cover
Gantos’ memoir about his 15 months in a federal penitentiary for drug smuggling is a cautionary tale for young people, without the cheap philosophy. My husband James and I read this aloud together and had a hard time putting it down. (I probably should mention here that the fact that we’d recently met the author did enhance our enjoyment of this work.)

We alternately cringed at Gantos’ description of picking at his stress-induced acne

I discovered pools of oil and pus under my skin. They drove me into a frenzy. I went right at them. I squeezed down on the welts with my fingers while pressing up against them with my tongue. They exploded, and coils of yellow matter and blood streamed down my face.
And laughed at his adolescent naivety

My big romance of the year was a crush on my psychology teacher, Miss Hall. I’d sit in front of her desk and make troubled-brow faces which I thought illustrated the deep-level neurosis I represented…Finally I got up the nerve to write her a letter about becoming a psychology and literature major. I didn’t dare attempt a love letter – besides I didn’t have to. Any psychology teacher would know that a soul-baring letter from her most devoted student had hidden meaning.
I believe this book may represent two firsts for this blog: the first to mention prison libraries; and the first to refer to four different kinds of libraries (public, school, and academic, in addition to prison – and if you count “genetic library” there are five).

As for his high school library, Gantos mistakenly believes that hanging out there brooding will attract girls. He does not mention actually reading any books there. The library at the University of Florida is mentioned only in passing as part of Gantos’ self-tour of the campus - just another building among the dorms and classrooms. Of his public library on St. Croix he has only this to say
…the library was little help. It was so hot and humid inside I had to scrape the mold off the spines of the books in order to read the titles. Nine out of ten books I looked up were missing. The librarians just shrugged when I mentioned the apparent theft problem. And if I complained too much they just turned up their desk radios and played at being busy.
I am not sure he saw the irony in the fact that he wound up stealing public library property himself, thereby denying others information, as he is leaving Ft. Lauderdale and has the taxi stop at the library so he can look up a newspaper article about his accomplices getting caught, and “rip[s] the story out of the paper”.

It is never a bad idea to ask a librarian for assistance, and Gantos does when he asks the prison librarian for a copy of Barron’s Guide to the Colleges hoping he can get paroled by finding a college that will accept him as a student.

Gantos invokes the librarian stereotype as he describes his release and is given an opportunity to select some clothes from the discharge closet. Eschewing more daring duds, he takes “a plain pair of dark slacks, a white shirt with a button-down collar, and a jacket with patches on the elbows” and declares “I looked like a librarian.” Jack, you flatter us. Would that librarians actually dressed so dapper.

Destruction of library property once again comes back to haunt him upon his release from prison and he discovers he cannot take his copy of The Brothers Karamazov with him because the discharge officer notices the prison library seal on the inside jacket. He had been using the book as a clandestine journal, writing between Dostoyevsky’s lines. To be fair I don’t think he realized that he would not be able to keep the book since someone brought it to him during his first days in jail saying “do whatever you want with the books…they were left in the cafeteria.” He wraps up the work wondering what became of the journal and if others ever found it, and suggesting that “maybe the library will become filled with books with the trapped world of prisoners’ thoughts concealed between the lines.” I guess my hope is that perhaps, instead, the inmates are now allowed to keep proper journals, and the library books are left intact!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Seedfolks - by Paul Fleishman

Seedfolks tells the story of the growth of a community garden in Cleveland, Ohio through a series of thirteen vignettes, each from the point of view of a different character. Over the course of a growing season the neighborhood comes together to build the garden, which is started in a vacant lot with a handful of lima bean seeds by a young vietnamese girl. The neighbors overcome language and cultural barriers in order to empty the lot of trash, solve the problem of getting water to the plants, fight crime, and to teach each other how to garden. The final vignette, told by Florence, serves as an epilogue as it is made clear that she is remembering the "seedfolks" who started the garden, "before there were spigots and hoses, and the toolshed, and new soil. And before landlords started charging more for apartments that look on the garden." Florence, as it turns out, is a retired librarian! Library was also used as a metaphor in the story of  Virgil, a pre-teen whose father has a plan to grow baby lettuce and sell it to up-scale restaurants. When the two find their lettuce wilting, the father (a taxi driver) starts asking all of his fares for their advice - "[h]is cab was like a library for him".

While the message of the book is positive overall, the author does not pretend that everything is perfect inside the garden. One gardener, Sam, notices that even while the garden helps to bring people together, the neighborhood has recreated itself inside its walls "the blacks on one side, the whites on the other, the Central Americans and Asians toward the back...Each group kept to itself". A homeless man who used the lot to sleep in is displaced, and as people start to worry about others stealing their crops chicken wire and "Keep Out" signs go up.

This this was a rather short book (69 pages) so I read it in both English and Spanish (Semillas) and I learned some new Spanish vocabulary including "bieldo" (pitchfork). Both library references were retained in the Spanish version as well.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Book Burning - A History

For almost as long as there have been books, there have been book burners. The Libraries at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee have created a web exhibit to educate about the history of book burning, censorship, and the consequences of information loss.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The House on Mango Street - by Sandra Cisneros

I have been intending to read this book for several years. I was finally motivated to actually check it out of the library when I found it on the list of books that were removed from Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) classrooms after it became illegal to teach Mexican American Studies in Arizona. (see more information in the No History is Illegal webpage). The new law says that a program may not

 1) promote the overthrow of the US government

2) promote resentment to a race or class of people

3) be designed primarily for one ethnic group,

4) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating pupils as individuals

Teachers in TUSD have been told to stay away from any books with themes having to do with such topics as race, ethnicity, and oppression. The new law went into effect on February 1 so last week professors, (and librarians), at Bridgewater State University staged a "teach in" to explain what is happening in Arizona, and how it impacts ethnic studies programs, and academic freedom. Officially, TUSD says that only 7 books were removed from classrooms, and that none have been "banned" because students still have access to them in libraries. This is hogwash. Teachers at TUSD report many more than 7 books were removed. Furthermore, removing books from a classroom, and a curriculum, most certainly constitutes a ban. See the American Library Association webpage on Banned and Challenged books for more information.

As for me, I was able to use the issue as a starting point when I was asked to speak to a Political Science class about literacy and censorship. I was invited to speak to the class before any of this came to light in the media, so the timing turned out to be fortuitous from a teaching standpoint. Only one student in the class was aware of what was happening in Arizona. It was a course in Civic Engagement so we talked about being aware of what was in the news, and how to become involved in thwarting book challenges.  In my Spanish class, one of the textbook readings last week was about Sandra Cisneros, and specifically mentioned The House on Mango Street so I took the opportunity to discuss the situation in Tucson and read from the novel. I chose a chapter called "No Speak English" to read aloud, and talked to my students about feeling intimated when learning a new language. Interestingly, they actually provided a perfect segue for me by clamming up when I asked them some open ended questions in Spanish just before I read the passage. They did seem to get the connection I was making.

The House on Mango Street is a series of vignettes about a young Latina girl, Esperanza, and her family growing up in Chicago. Of course our heroine uses the library and is excited about the books she checks out to read to her blind aunt, and to show to her neighbor Ruthie, who "loves books" but can't read anymore because she gets headaches. Her "Smart Cookie" mother takes advantage of the opera records she can get at the library "and sings with velvety lungs powerful as morning glories".  The themes in the book (friendship, loneliness, embarassment) are things that can be universally discussed, something that the administrators at TUSD seem to fail to notice. And, perhaps I missed something, but I found nothing in this work about overthrowing the government.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Town that Food Saved - by Ben Hewitt

is Bridgewater's One Book One Community Read for the Spring 2012. It is the story of Harwick, Vermont and the "agrepreneurs" (Hewitt's term) who lead the town's successful local food movement.

The author does not live in Harwick, but lives near it, in Cabot - a mere seven miles away as the crow flies, according to How Far is It? He demonstrates his understaning of the value of a public library by mentioning the Cabot Public Library twice on the same page. He explains that his town has "a fantastic hardware store, a wonderful library, a garage, a post office, a diner, and a well-stocked village grocery, but not much more" so he and his family venture into Hardwick for things such as sporting goods, tractor supplies, and medicine, "and every so often, [to] buy a book at the Galaxy Bookshop, thought mostly...visit the Cabot library for...literary excursions."

Hewitt will be speaking at Bridgewater State University on April 24 at 7:30 in the Horace Mann Auditorium. For more information, and to find out about other "One Book" programs visit the One Book One Community webpage.

The Town that Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food