Thursday, May 31, 2012

Obselidia - the movie

George is a mild-mannered librarian living in Los Angeles. He does not own a car, still uses a rotary phone, and is writing his "Encyclopedia of Obsolete Things" on his manual typewriter, based on interviews he tapes with a clunky, old camcorder. One of his subjects, Sophie (a projectionist) causes him to reconsider his views on the obsolescence of love.

A great movie. Five stars.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower - by Professor X

This book is not the first thing that Professor X penned about the myth of "education for everyone". His essay of the same title appeared in the Atlantic Monthly about four years ago. X caught quite a bit of flack for suggesting that there were any students who didn't belong in college, so the fact that he expanded on this essay to write a full-length book to say the same thing is pretty brave. Professor X is an adjunct (part-time) English instructor at two different colleges - a private college, and a community college. In both places he teaches students who don't seem to understand the basics of grammar, won't make suggested changes on drafts, and for whom his night classes are just one more thing on their long lists of things to do (along with working full-time and tucking their children in to bed). He tells of students who will never pass English 101, and eventually cut their losses and give up on college. Unfortunately, these students are now saddled with student loan debts for an education that they barely ever started, much less completed. The author discusses the reasons why a college education is considered necessary for so many jobs, and often the reason is simply that there are so many college graduates that an employer may as well hire one as not. It is an "inflated credential".

Professor X writes about public libraries and college libraries in this work. He sees his local "beautiful little jewel" of a public library as an important part of the idyllic existence he dreamed of when he and his wife bought a house they could not afford (which prompted him to look for the part-time teaching gigs). But in most places where I read a passage about college library I could almost hear the author give a dejected sigh:
  • "...the library is so lightly used..."
  • "I went to the college library and checked out a collection of [Shirley Jackson's] short stories. The book hadn't been borrowed for decades..."
  • "I always do an introductory class on research. We all trudge down (emphasis mine) to the library and sit at the computer terminals".
  • "I once had a student who handed in a paper late, and this was his explanation: he got a late start because he couldn't find (emphasis in original) the college library."
  • "Once, as we started to do research, one of my students found the name and call number of a book she wanted to use. She dutifully wrote it all down on a slip. 'So what do I do now?' she wondered. 'Give it to a librarian'."
  • "Last week, I visited the campus library. I found I could hardly work because of the noise."
While there are quite a few passages about libraries, librarians are barely mentioned at all. After taking the time to "trudge down" to the library the students don't have a training session with an actual librarian; X demonstrates the databases himself, indicating that "it doesn't take...long to demonstrate how to search for newspaper and journal articles on Lexis-Nexis, EbscoHost, and Academic Search Elite". Perhaps if he asked a librarian (who probably would take some time with the databases) for assistance he might get better results from students. His anecdote regarding the little used Shirley Jackson book did include a librarian whose "eyes widened in horror when she saw the [Social Security] numbers" and names of the students on the "quaint checkout card" from the 1960s in the back of the book. The librarian "shredded the card and eyed [X] with great suspicion".

Professor X is nostalgic for his own college days when one could read entire journals in hard copy, not just single articles from a database; and students saw their professors doing their own research at the library. I think what X probably doesn't realize is that there have always been more studious and less studious students, and those who love to be in the library browsing the stacks, and those who don't. And professors have always bemoaned students who seemed uninterested in learning for learning sake, and wondered what they were doing in college at all.

The author quotes an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education which suggests that the library be included on tours for prospective students. (Are there really schools that don't include it?) And that "they should be welcomed by a librarian who delivers the message that the library is critically important to each student's academic experience." I will say that Maxwell library is included on the Bridgewater State University campus tour, but we have been unable to convince those in admissions that someone who works in the library should be given a chance to address the baseball-cap bedecked troops that move through the building. Instead we bite our tongues as we hear as the backwards-walking student leaders use words such as "nonsense" to describe the research process, or confide, in a conspiratorial tone, that they've never actually checked a book out of the library.

Reading this book I found myself feeling as cynical as Professor X does about teaching in higher education. Much of what he writes about are things I've observed myself, but the book does have some glimmers of hope as well. I read of community college students who worked hard, and learned a lot, who otherwise would not have been able to afford to go to college, and the author does some reflection on his teaching and recognizes what he has done, or not, that did or didn't work well.

I think the most important lesson I took from this work is that I am indeed happy in my small house deep in the "student ghetto" of Bridgewater. I often think about how much quieter the big houses, farther from the center of town, must be but X has provided me with a cautionary tale of what happens when one goes  looking for greener grass. He demonstrates well how paying for a big house, when he was quite content in his previous (smaller) one, precluded him for actually being able to live in it.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Of books and trains

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Not far from Brazil's east coast lies the city of Curitiba, a city that knows how to reuse materials. According to this article  from "Tree Hugger" the small library in the center of town was converted from an old train car.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Turn Right at Machu Picchu - by Mark Adams

In two years time, for my fiftieth birthday, I plan to make a pilgrimage to Peru's "Lost City of the Incas," Machu Picchu. I do not plan to make so much of an adventure of it as Adams did and will risk the ridicule of Adams' guide, John Leievers - who lamented to Adams the first time they met that "People used to be travelers....Now they're tourists". I plan to stay in a hotel in Cusco and take the train ride up to the ruins. Which is not to say I cannot appreciate the voyage undertaken by the author, who had virtually never slept in a tent before, much less done any serious hiking. He, however, eschewed the namby-pamby 4-day hike on the famed Incan Trail in favor a month long trek worthy of a real "traveler" - like explorer Hiram Bingham - the Yale University professor credited with "discovering" Machu Picchu in 1911.

This work is much more than an inspiring travelogue. Adams weaves his own adventure into the story of Bingham, and that of the ancient Incan empire and  its ultimate conquest by the Spanish. Of course to do this kind of history telling properly, one must spend much time in libraries doing research, and clearly our hero (the author) did so, as he points out, did Bingham.

Early in the book Adams describes taking a day off of work, so he could take the train into Yale where "he spent hours in the library, leafing through Bingham's diaries and expedition the neo-Gothic splendor of Yale's Rare Books and Manuscripts room". He read much of Bingham's work, and acknowledges that Bingham wasn't really a very good writer. This may be the reason that when he checked out Bingham's Journal of an Expedition Across Venezuela and Colombia the librarian pointed out that "the last due date had been stamped in 1914."

The author tells of at least three specific trips to libraries, as well he gives nods to the Yale Sterling Library and "Melanie James of the sublime General Society Library" in his acknowledgments (and "sublime" is not a word the author uses lightly, either).

Descriptions of Bingham's library research at Yale, and in Lima, illustrate that his quest for information went hand-in-hand with this quest for finding the lost city.
the more hours he [Bingham] spent in the university library researching the final days of the Inca empire, the more convinced he became that their lost city really did exist - except it was called Vilcabamba".
Bingham pursued this notion with a visit to the National Library in Lima, where he spent "much of his brief time" with historian Carlos Romero "whose archival research had raised the prospect that Vitcos, not Vilcabamba was the Lost City of the Incas". The follow up to all of this, with explanations of the difference between the two places, and flaws in theories, is a beautiful demonstration of just how messy research can become, with one piece of information leading the scholar down new paths - something I spend a lot of my time teaching students about, explaining that it is not necessarily a bad thing, either.

There are also at least three other places in which Adams tells of other researchers use of libraries, and how these also piqued the scholars' interests into tracking down more information.

And finally, I will say that reading this book prompted me to add the following movies to my Netflix list: Secret of the Incas and Lost City of the Incas as well as an Indiana Jones movie, not because there is some evidence that the character Indiana Jones is based in Hiram Bingham, but rather because Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull includes a scene in Yale's Sterling Memorial Library, complete with "mousy student". Adams gives this brief review of the film
The team behind Crystal Skull  might have benefited from a few more hours in the library, since the story is riddled with embarrassing errors, not the least of which is Indy's greeting at a Peruvian airport by a Mexican mariachi band.
It is never a bad idea to spend a little extra time in the library. Perhaps the mousy students are actually on to something.

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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal - by Jeanette Winterson

"The trouble with a book is that you never know what's in it until it's too late" proclaimed Jeanette Winterson's Pentecostal mother (identified in this memoir as Mrs W), who kept only six books in the house (one of which was the Bible, and two others were "commentaries on the Bible"). While Mrs W finds her salvation in her faith, the younger Winterson ultimately finds it in the Accrington Public Library, where, ironically, her mother sends her each week to pick up her "stash of murder mysteries". It was in the library that Winterson discovered Jane Austen, Gertrude Stein, and T.S. Elliott. Throughout the book Winterson discusses classic works of literature, and how reading, and writing, changed her life. She talks of books the same way one might speak of a lover, using words such as "pain", "joy" and "betrayal", but also as safety and comfort
Books, for me, are a home. Books don't make a home - they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. Inside there is a different kind of time and a different kind of space.
There is warmth there too - a hearth. I sit down with a book and I am warm.
Often her memories go back to the Accrington Public Library, with its Dewey Decimal System, and cubicles for "individual study" - right next to the large print book section - to which Winterson observes "Mrs W was nothing if not old-fashioned. She knew that masturbation made you blind....Presumably one thing led to another."

Winterson  speaks well of librarians saying they are "reliable" and even mentions thinking about becoming one herself, as the best, of the few choices, she sees for a young woman from  Accrington where "women couldn't be anything except wives or teachers or hairdressers or secretaries or do shop work....[or]librarians...[she] thought of doing that" but decided she would rather write her own books.

Books, libraries, bookstores, reading, and writing all play important roles in Winterson's life. She is quite philosophical about the way she was raised - book burning and all - as she recognizes that without that denial she might never have learned to appreciate reading, and the life of the mind, it helped her to develop.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Lost Memory of Skin - by Russell Banks

Sometimes I go looking for a book that might be appropriate for this blog, but usually, I just read whatever interests me and then mark any passages that happen to mention libraries. Such was the case for Lost Memory of Skin, and it turned out that I started by marking the very first paragraph of the book, wherein our protagonist, a  level 3 sex offender who is known only as the Kid, goes to a library for the first time in his life. He is vaguely aware that he probably is not supposed to be there, and knows for sure that he is not allowed to go online, so he asks a reference librarian for assistance using the web, the librarian helps him to look up his own address on the sex offender website.When his mugshot comes up, and he realizes the librarian recognizes him, he exits post haste.

It turned out that there was quite a bit more about libraries and librarians in this work, as the novel tells not only the Kid's story, but that of the Professor as well. The Professor, who teaches Sociology at the Calusa State University, is a morbidly obese genius who is not only a library trustee, he is the son of a librarian, and is also married to a librarian (Gloria). The Professor and Gloria have two children, who were conceived in the conventional way, but otherwise the Professor and the librarian have a rather unconventional sex life. This is not the first book I've read about a librarian who actually has a sex life, but it is rather rare that said librarian does much out of the ordinary. I always like to see something that busts the librarian stereotype. And so it was with some chagrin that I read the passage which described the Kid's only visit to the Professor's house. The "comfortably tastefully furnished home" which apparently looked like a "professor's and librarian's" home as far as the Kid was concerned.

So, I began to wonder how this fictitious home stacked up to my real-life-professor-and-librarian home. This is what I found:
  1. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves - check
  2. Paintings and framed photographs on the walls - check
  3. Oriental carpets - check
  4. Elaborate stereo system and racks of CDs - check
  5. Large flat-screened  TV, and a long shelf of DVDs - Hah! Our television set is medium-sized, and it is not flat screened. It also sits inside of a television cabinet, which I understand is quite passé now that everyone has a large flat-screen TV. 
Well, perhaps James and I don't really shake any stereotypes here, but I do still feel smug about the fact that our only television set is an older model that, in fact, doesn't get any reception, beyond what we can watch on Netflix.

This may be the first work I've blogged about in which one of the character's is a library trustee. The Professor was elected to the position when he proved himself to have better credentials than the three other candidates. Here in Bridgewater library trustees are elected as well. I do not recall, however, ever having more candidates than there were positions available on the board.

 I also liked what the Professor had to say about libraries:

Public libraries are the sole community centers left in America....The degree to which a branch of the local library  is connected to the larger culture is a reflection of the degree to which the community itself is connected to the larger culture.
This novel is based on the true case of the men who lived under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Florida. Sex offenders in Florida must live more than 2500 feet away from any place where children might gather (schools, recreation centers, etc). These men are additionally bound to stay inside Miami-Dade county. The shanty town they built under the highway was one of the few places where they could legally reside. This article from the New York Times tells a bit of their story.

The book closes with the Kid imagining all the things he will do at the public library, once he is off probation.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Dead End in Norvelt - by Jack Gantos

Although this Newbery-Award-Winning book tells a story of a boy with a true love for books and reading (and using books as building blocks for igloos!) it appears that twelve-year old Jack Gantos did not visit a library during the summer of 1962. It may have been because he was grounded, but more likely it is that there is no public library in Norvelt, Pennsylvania. An internet search of libraries serving the area leads me to believe that  Norvelt residents have to travel to Mt. Pleasant to use the public library.

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Balloons show Public Libraries near Norvelt.

Although grounded for most of the summer, Jack is given occasional reprieve to assist his neighbor, Miss Volker, with writing the obituaries of original Norvelt residents, who drop dead that summer at an alarming rate. In dictating one of these obituaries, Miss Volker uses a library metaphor to demonstrate the importance of preserving information:

"...every living soul is a book of their own history, which sits on the ever-growing shelf in the library of human memories. Sadly, we don't know the history of every person who ever lived....But here in Norvelt we had one of those librarians who collected the tiniest books of human history. Mrs. Hambsy...was the first postmistress of Norvelt and she saved all the lost letters, those scraps of history that ended up as undeliverable. But they were not unwanted. Mrs.Hamsby carefully pinned each envelope to the wall, so that the rooms of her house were lined from floor to ceiling, letter upon letter....You were always welcome to unpin any envelope and read the orphaned letter, as if you were browsing a library of abandoned histories."

Miss Volker is rightly concerned that with Mrs. Hamsby's death, this archive will be destroyed. Library archivists know that treasures (e.g. rare photographs; signatures of famous people) are sometimes found lurking in a forgotten place, as seen in this New York Times story about a recent discovery at the Brown University archives. And the power of  letters in shaping and telling history is evident in this  New York Times story about the release of Osama Bin Laden's personal letters.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Choose Privacy Week Starts Today

There has been a lot of controversy here at Bridgewater State University during the past week over an article that was published in the student newspaper The Comment after a young woman spoke at a "Take Back the Night" rally and the newspaper printed more information about her than she wanted released. The editor of the paper has been asked by University administration to remove the article from the website, and large quantities of print copies of the paper disappeared from the stands (FYI - censorship will only bring more attention to whatever issue the censors wish to suppress). Some news reports indicated that the faculty adviser resigned, or that he had been fired, neither of which were true. There has been quite a bit of discussion on campus about what the roles of the paper, and also the young woman (who wanted to remain anonymous) were in this incident. I am afraid that as a society we have become desensitized to privacy issues. I am not sure that people understand that in many settings, both online, and in person, they are giving up some privacy. In passing the USA PATRIOT ACT the government told us that in order to protect us, we had to submit to Orwellian surveillance. In addition, personal information that once required court orders and subpoenas, in the digital age, is easily discovered through bread crumbs that we ourselves leave in the form of text messages, Facebook, and blogs!. The American Library Association is sponsoring Choose Privacy Week as a way to begin a conversation about privacy rights in the digital age. What information do you want people to know about you?

Watch this video to find out the wide variety of ways people think about privacy.