Thursday, April 23, 2015

Notes From a Big Country - by Bill Bryson

This collection of essays was originally published as a series of columns about the United States for the U.K. publication the Mail on Sunday's Night and Day magazine in the late 1990s. Although some references are a bit dated now (e.g. floppy disks, woes of land-line telephones) the anecdotes were still laugh-out-loud funny. My husband and I read these together over the course of the long winter. The right-on-target observations about life in the USA in Bryson's inimitable style were the perfect antidote to the winter doldrums we experienced in New England this year. As a bonus, Bryson mentioned libraries in six of his essays

In "Well, Doctor, I was Just Trying to Lie Down" Bryson begins with some information from one of my all-time favorite reference books The Statistical Abstract of the United States. His discussion of the number of people injured (400,000) by beds, mattresses, and pillows segues into what he learned from the Abstract 's"Table No. 206: Injuries Associated with Consumer Products" which he specifically says he found in his local library while "looking up something else altogether". This is what is so great about the print version of the Abstract. It is an absolutely fabulous browsing book. Before there was FaceBook to waste time on, there was the Statistical Abstract.

Explaining American's penchant for rules in "Rule Number 1: Follow All Rules" he describes his frustration in the constant changing of rules without warning. The first time he found out about airline rules regarding showing a picture ID before boarding (and this was pre 9/11) he was at an airport checking in for a flight. He discovers that he has "all kinds of identification - a library card, credit card, Social Security card [remember when we used to carry those around with us?], health insurance card, airline ticket" all had his name, but none had his picture. He illustrates his priorities so well - here - 120 miles away from home, he did not bring a driver's license, but he did carry his library card.

American's love affair with cars is treated in "Why No One Walks". Like me, Bryson chose to live in a place "within walking distance of shops." He describes Hanover, New Hampshire as a "typical New England college town, pleasant, sedate, and compact. It has a broad green, an old-fashioned Main Street, nice college buildings with big lawns, and leafy residential streets. It is, in short, an agreeable place to stroll. Nearly everyone in town is within a level five-minute walk of the shops" yet, he explains, no one walks, except him. He walks "nearly every the post office or the library or the local bookshop". Bryson and I are rare breeds here in the United States. Driving is something I know how to do, but will avoid whenever possible.

On informality in America (in "Help for the Nondesignated Individual") Bryson extols the wonders of living near the campus of Dartmouth College
one of the Ivy League colleges, like Harvard and Yale - but you would never guess it.
None of its grounds are off limits...Indeed much of it is open to the community. We can use the library attend its concerts, go to its commencement exercises if we want.
This, of course is how it should be. Living and working in a college town myself I know how contentious town/gown relations can be. Opening events, and the library, up to the local community is not only a good PR move, it is the right thing to do. One of the first papers I wrote in library school was on community use of academic libraries. I think any college or university, public or private, has an obligation to allow at least some use of its library facilities to the local community.  I am glad to say that the university library in which I work allows free borrowing privileges to anyone who lives in town.

There is little that gets my geographer husband and I more excited than reading something that entwines his passion for places and mine for books and libraries together. So you can only imagine the magical evening we had after reading "Where Scotland is and other Useful Tips" in which Bryson tells of going to the library in order to "look at the travel section." There he found "four books exclusively on Britain, plus another eight or so on Europe generally, with chapters on Britain". Ultimately he discovers that "what Americans know about Britain is pretty much nearly nothing..."

And, finally, in "The Fat of the Land" Bryson describes his misadventures in dieting and a trip to the library to find a book with a better diet than the bran and water diet one his wife invented for him. He settles on a work titled Don't Diet which he reads in "that reading area that libraries set aside for people who are strange and have nowhere else to go in the afternoons but none the less are not quite ready to be institutionalized..."

While there are no other libraries to write about, my reference librarian self would be remiss if I did not correct the mistake Bryson makes in his essay about our shared favorite holiday - Thanksgiving - in "The Best American Holiday." He provides some history of the pilgrims, and when President Lincoln declared it a national holiday in 1863 to be celebrated on the last Thursday of November, however; Bryson then goes on to say that "there it has stayed ever since." This is not quite true, in 1939 President Roosevelt moved it to the fourth Thursday of the month. While the fourth Thursday is often the last one, in years in which there are five Thursdays in the month Thanksgiving remains on the fourth. This ensures that there are always at least four full (shopping) weekends before Christmas.

While probably not what most would suggest for date night, I highly recommend reading this with a romantic partner. Laughing together is a wonderful aphrodisiac. My husband was happy to see that I found another of Bryson's books (A Short History of Nearly Everything) for us to read together. If there are any libraries in that one you will no doubt find out about it here. For more Bryson fun, I also recommend A Walk in the Woods

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

If I Stay - By Gayle Forman

An interesting premise for a book - much of the action in this young adult novel is the out-of-body experience of Mia, a young musician who, along with her parents and younger brother, is a victim of a devastating car accident. Out-of-Body Mia watches and listens as her relatives, friends, and boyfriend visit comatose Mia. She hears a nurse tell her grandparents that she (Mia) is in charge of everything that is happening, and Mia then understands that she must decide whether to live or die. The story alternates between what is going on in the hospital's ICU, and memories of Mia's life before the accident. It is a good book which almost didn't made the cut for this blog; however, one library metaphor in which Mia describes the hospital chapel as "hushed...a library kind of quiet" is all that is needed for its inclusion here. It was then just icing on the cake when we learn that cousin Heather "has decided she wants to become a librarian". This by way of Mia's grandmother who "twitters on for...five minutes, filling [Mia] in on mundane news" along with tidbits of information on gardening and cooking.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Clara and the Bookwagon - by Nancy Smiler Levinson (In honor of National Bookmobile Day)

This easy-to-read book for children is based on the story of the first bookmobile, a horse-drawn wagon that served rural Maryland (my home state) at the turn of the 20th century.

Young Clara very much wants to learn to read, but her parents tell her they have no money for books, and are too busy running the farm to read in any case. When the bookwagon comes to her farm she and the librarian convince her parents that learning to read with the books she can borrow free of charge, will not only add to the quality of her life, but may also help her learn new things that will benefit the farm.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Midnight Library - by Kazuno Kohara (In Honor of National Library Worker's Day)

Number One on this list of Twelve Children's Picture Books with Non-Princess Female Protagonists is this empowering, and sweet, tale about a little librarian who runs a nighttime library for animals with the help of three owl assistants. She clearly has book knowledge as she helps Miss Wolf find a book that is not too sad, and also provides community space for a band of squirrels to practice their music, and finally assists a tortoise with getting his first library card and checking out a book. I was glad to find it on the shelf of the library in which I work. Definitely a "feel good" book for librarians of all ages.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Evil Librarian - by Michelle Knudson (In Honor of National Library Week)

I could hardly pass up reading this book when I saw a review for it recently. I found it shelved in the very library where I work, so I was able to check it out and start reading as soon as I knew about it. It was fun reading and I loved it when people asked me what I was reading, so I could show them the cover, and tell them I was reading a book about myself.  It always got a laugh. The book is a fun read, aimed at young adult readers. The story is of a demon high school librarian, Mr. Gabriel, and the student Cynthia (Cyn) who is his undoing. When Cyn discovers that Mr. Gabriel plans to take her best friend Annie into the demon realm and make her his bride she schemes with the handsome Ryan (star of the school musical) and Ms. Kr├álovna - Mr. Gabriel's rival demon - to bring him down.

Mr. Gabriel may be evil, but he does bust a few stereotypes. He is charming and good-looking, and nothing like the school's "old" librarian
[w]ho was a perfectly nice-seeming middle-aged woman who could help you find whatever you needed for your paper of project or weekend reading but not someone who inspired breathless words or flushed faces or shining eyes
a young man who can charge the usually "still and slightly dusty" air of the library with a "strange energy".

There was an element of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in this one, with the twist of course that the librarian was the demon, rather than the demon fighter. Cyn, like Buffy, comes through as a heroine and, after a trip to the underworld, discovers that she doesn't have to passively wait for the boy she likes to make a move, a strong young woman makes the moves herself.

The author gives a shout out to librarians in her acknowledgements, and recognizes that they are not at all evil!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Emily's Runaway Imagination - by Beverly Cleary (In Honor of National Library Week)

I don't think I've read any of Beverly Cleary's books since my daughter (now seventeen) was in elementary school. I remember how much I loved that she loved the stories of spunky Ramona Quimby. Cleary's characters always seemed to be just the right mix of lovable, believable, and vulnerable yet strong. All of these adjectives describe young Emily, growing up in 1920s Oregon. During a time and a place in which a ride in a motorcar, or even eating one banana, could be a special treat, having a library in town was something that needed to be imagined before it could actually happen. Emily is jealous of her city cousin Muriel who goes to the library every week and gets books like Black Beauty to read, for free! Emily so wants to read Black Beauty, too, but Pitchfork, Oregon has no library. Emily tells her mother how much she would like to have a library in town, which prompts her mother to write a letter to the State Library in Salem to ask how to start a library. Emily is proud to be the person who stamps the letter and to take it to be posted. And she is thrilled to discover that the State Library answered the letter with a crate containing 75 books! Emily's mother becomes the town librarian and makes plans to get monetary and book donations to help the library grow.

There is so much to love about this book. I think what I like best is that Emily understands that she is an important person in her town of Pitchfork, Oregon. After all not only is her Uncle the mayor, her mother is the librarian! Emily demonstrates her love for the library in many ways: she donates the dollar of prize money she wins to purchase the book Black Beauty for the town (and, of course) is the first one to read it. She is so proud to see her name in the bookplate as the person who bought it for the town; she helps plan and attends fundraisers for the library, even if it means wearing itchy, fancy clothes; and she makes a valentine for her neighbor, Mr. Quock, when she discovers that he is going back to China and donating his house to the town to use as the library.

Published in 1961, Cleary was writing about a time that even the young baby boomer readers of the day could only have imagined themselves. However, one of the wonderful things about her stories is that they remain so relevant across time. Compare this passage a year when people had no money for the picture show or for gasoline to go riding around in their automobiles they came to the library. During that hard winter there often were not enough books to go around. The state library sent three crates at a time instead of one...Mama checked books in and checked them right out again...
to this one from Forbes magazine (June 19, 2014) from the article "The End of the Story? Why Libraries Still Matter"
The public library in Kinnelon, New Jersey, is a good example of a library that is successfully transforming itself into a “tech hub” by offering free access to computers, the Internet, software, technology training, e-books and online downloads to all community members. After the recent recession, those resources played a crucial role in helping out-of-work and underemployed adults adapt to the challenging economic environment by providing computer classes, job fairs and mobile-device workshops. The library also boosted its offering of family-oriented programs, such as story-time programs, book clubs and free movie nights.
While the services have changed, the importance of the library, especially during hard times is clear. It is also important to note that library services do change. It is why libraries stay relevant even while the nay-sayers believe we can do without them.