Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Casual Vacancy - by J.K. Rowling

"A casual vacancy is deemed to have occurred:
a) when a local councillor  fails to make his declaration of acceptance  of office within the proper time; or
b)when his notice of resignation is received, or
c)on the day of his death..."

My sister read this book before I did, and I asked her what she thought of it. "There are no like-able characters" was her response. After reading the book myself I must concur. There are some characters who are less despicable than others, but this is certainly no "triumph of good over evil" story. In fact "Harry Potter" fans will not find much in common with the books they love in this adult-themed novel. This is not to say it is not a good book. I enjoyed reading it, and found it to be quite a page turner. Although it takes place in small-town England, the back-biting politics described could just as easily been in small-town New England. Coincidentally, my own small New England town has just found itself with a "casual vacancy" of its own, and it seems there are already some questions as to how to fill it. Watching this play out should be even better than reading the book

There are two kinds of libraries mentioned in the book. A high school library, that is simply an incidental setting, and the other is a first for this blog - a hospital library trolley. The Trolley is pushed through the wards  by hospital volunteer Shirley Mollison, one of the many unlike-able characters in the story.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Bad Haircut: Stories from the Seventies - by Tom Perrotta

In his introduction, Perrotta says this collection of short stories about growing up in the '70s  is "about everything the Wonder Years leaves out". He is referring to drugs, sex, homophobia, racism, bullying, and questioning of authority. The ten stories that comprise the work follow one character called "Buddy" from childhood through early college. Buddy, who instigates some of the cruelty we see in the book, is not necessarily a sympathetic character, but we are only seeing glimpses of his life. One thing I do like about Buddy is that he is a library user. Although use of the library is only mentioned in two stories: "The Wiener Man"; and "The Jane Pasco Fan Club" I will optimistically believe that Buddy used the library a lot since there is a nine-year time span between these two stories. In "The Wiener Man" eight-year old Buddy specifically says he checked a book out. In "The Jane Pasco Fan Club" Buddy and the lovely Jane go to the library to debate "the virtues of telling a story through the eyes of a minor character". And it is here that we see romance bloom between the teenagers - so much fun we can have at the library.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian - by Scott Douglas

Like Anne Miketa'a Library Diaries, Douglas' book is a series of essays about his work, co-workers, and the patrons at the public library where he is employed. Unlike Miketa's book, this one is funny and well-written. Rather than simply making fun of people and insulting them, Douglas reflects on what he learns from them, and how they help him grow, both professionally, and personally.

I probably could comment on something he says on just about every page, but in the interest of not making this the longest blog post ever, I make particular note of my favorite library topics:

On stereotypes
The Librarians who interviewed him for his first professional job "were distinctively librarian - large framed glasses, granny hairdos, and uptight frowns". This sentence refers the reader to one of Douglas's many footnotes which reads "the stereotypes about librarians are largely true." Sadly, I must concur. He goes on with these descriptions:

"You say library (emphasis in original) and there's this iconoclastic image of an old-lady librarian telling people to be quiet and not to run." To be fair here, Douglas goes on to say how important "that iconoclastic lady" is to the library.

'The librarian was the typical stereotypical librarian-ugly clunky glasses, hair in a tight bun, and clothing that could just as easily have been put on a man. She looked irritated when I asked her where I could plug in my laptop..."

He doesn't, however, cast any aspersions about himself being hip, even as a non-stereotypical young, straight, male librarian:
"I wasn't cool. I was a librarian, and not being cool was as cool as I'd ever get."

On critical thinking
As a university librarian I am often frustrated by the fact that we are supposed to teach students to be critical thinkers, but it seems we are not supposed to do it (think critically) ourselves. Administrators seem to just want us to do what we are told. Douglas makes a similar point when discussing his frustration with his courses in library school
I didn't think the school needed to get political and have faculty implement viewpoints, but I thought it was important to study the way media, both online and on TV, had radically changed the way people sought information. How can librarians teach others to think critically and objectively when they themselves are not doing it?
On censorship
The library banned when it became a nuisance.
It didn't take long for things to get out of hand....Teens started stealing library cards so they could get extra time [on the computer]; adults would constantly argue about why they deserved more hours; and even little fourth graders were asking older kids for advice on how to 'pimp out' their MySpace page....Ultimately, MySpace was blocked because it was slowing down the network. This wasn't the real reason. The real reason was because it was making all the librarians mad. Actually, the straw that broke the camel's back was when a manager saw a teen posting a photo of girl's nipple piercing [sic] to his page.
Popular online role playing games would meet a similar fate. When a "middle-aged mother of three kids" started spending all her time in the library playing a video game Douglas was told to
Find out what this game is and make...a list of why we should ban it. I want to get rid of that lady. If all she is doing is playing a video game then she doesn't need to be in the library
Once the website was blocked the woman stopped coming to the library, so did her children, who often came to the library to read books.

When Douglas got fed up with teens acting up in the library while he was "in charge" he banned them from using the internet unless they were doing homework. When a page points out to him that that's censorship, Douglas replies "there's a big difference between censorship and punishment". I often say that when someone says what they are doing is not censorship, you can be sure that it's censorship. I have to say that the burnt-out page saved the day on this one. He texted the library manager, who was on vacation, and tattled on Douglas, who was admonished by his manager to let the teens back on to the computers.

Last month when I blogged about The Librarian's Book of Quotes I noted the commentary I found most "thought provoking"

I have never met a public librarian who approved of
censorship or one who failed to practice it in some
--Leon Carnovsky, Library Quarterly 20 (1950)

Here, we see this in action.

On gender
When I was in library school, one of my assignments was to write about five famous librarians throughout history. I was very frustrated with the assignment, as I was determined to write only about women in this female-dominated profession, and as I was studying the early days of librarianship, I had to dig pretty deep to find someone who was not a man to write about. (Ultimately, I did succeed in my quest). Famous librarians that Douglas mentions about are:
Melvil Dewey (whom he does recognize as a "hater of women" as well as an "elitist racist dick")
John Cotton Dana
John J. Beckley
Charles Ammi Cutter

Famous women librarians are remarkably hard to find. Consider, for instance, the first hit I got when I "googled" "famous librarians". On this list of Top Twenty Five Most Famous Librarians in History, only seven are women.

I was particularly intrigued by this commentary about women in library history:
"One thing male librarians rejoiced at was the fact that they could save money by hiring women; at the time, [when children were finally allowed into libraries] women who did the same job as men at the library earned less."

"At the time"?! Give me a break! This is still true today. See the Library Journal Salary Survey.

And an interesting thing I learned from Douglas is that John Newberry's (for whom the Newberry Award is named) A Little Pretty Pocket Book is credited as being the first book in the genre of children's literature. I was surprised to learn that the book was actually marketed "with a ball for boys or a pincushion for girls". I recently read this article which looks at the gendering of toys in the 20th century. It seems we have come full circle.

And finally:
I added An Extremely Goofy Movie to my list of must-watch library movies based on Douglas's recommendation.

More on Scott Douglas at

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Librarian - by Larry Beinhart

Beware the librarian who knows too much! In this political thriller university librarian, David Goldberg, finds himself targeted by Homeland Security for information he allegedly learned by helping an eccentric billionaire archive his papers. He is framed for bestiality (of all things) and goes into hiding in order to save his own life.

This book reads like a handbook for buying an election. Big spenders, behind the scene's deals, and top secret documents combined with Beinhart's thinly veiled characters, and real-life events, made me feel almost as paranoid as the poor librarians who were being stalked (and murdered) in this work.

This book boasts at least four different kinds of libraries: the university library where Goldberg works; the Library of Congress; a community college library; and the private library of billionaire Bill Stowe described as
...wonderful, the literary portion of the dream that was the house. While we [the university library] were closing earlier and earlier and cutting Sundays and holidays and our walls were blank and barren and the steel shelves were unadorned and it all flickered under that shuttering light that flourescents put out, this had mahogany shelves and tungsten lighting and fine comfortable furniture. 
So clear here that rich people deserve good libraries, and the rest of us do not. This point is also made evident earlier in the story when Goldberg must fire one of his librarians. He tells her
The chancellor of the university has a privately funded study that he received from the Heritage Institute, on libraries...and it says that there are far too many physical volumes. That all this can be replaced, except for some rare volumes of historic value, perhaps, by a great cyber library, one library for all accessed from our home and office PCs. That would cut down on the need for almost all librarians, except for cyber ones and it would make all this space available...for classrooms or dorm rooms, which actually earn money.
Those who make these comments really make clear that they either don't understand, or don't care, that libraries are places where those who don't have homes, or offices, can get access to information.

In addition to Goldberg, there are several other librarians in this work. Bookish Elaina Whisthoven (the one who is fired) is described in a rather stereotypical way
Elaina Whisthoven loved books and presumed they would love her back and she wanted to serve humanity, so she became a librarian. She wore large glasses and had large curls that were always clean and always brushed and never styled. She lived like a nun  on her meager starting salary in a room she rented from a retired professor and his elderly wife...
Whereas, head librarian, Inga Lokisborg
with an accent as thick as hand-cut bread [is] a crone, judgmental, and by librarian standards, fierce. The lines on her face are like the fissures in layered shale, her eyes, overall, are the color of slate, but there are chips in them the color of bluestone...
She also has a surprising sexual secret.

Finally we learn briefly about hapless librarian Larry Berk "a wonderful man whom God has mistaken for Job."

There is a lot of commentary in this work about different kinds of information, and knowledge, and how it is used (or not) in order to create reality. This page-turning dark comedy will make anyone who reads it think twice about what they believe they know.