Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Shakespeare Requirement - by Julie Schumacher

Picking up where Dear Committee Members left off, our still beleaguered professor Jason T. Fitger finds himself chair of the English Department and unable to get his colleagues to agree on the Statement of Vision (SoV) required by the University Administration in order to get a budget, schedule an event, or anything else. While searching for previous SoVs  Fitger discovers, among other things in the departmental files, "miscellaneous library fines". It is not clear if these fines belonged to the previous Chair (one Ted Boti) or if they were for a whole host of faculty from the English department.

We are also introduced to young Angela Vackrey, one of Fitger's advisees. Angela is a first-generation, home-schooled freshman. A bright, if naive, fish out of water.

Her first impressions of Payne University include a survey of some of the buildings, including the library. She likens the tendrils of ivy on the brick facade to "witches fingers".

This sinister view of the library is revisited later when Fitger is attacked by a "frigid cascade of slush" which "slipped down" the "sloping overhang" and "landed with a slap against Fitger's neck".

The menacing feel of Library at Payne University wasn't limited to the outside of the building.
the building was sadly in need of modernization. Its towering metal rows of floor-to-ceiling shelves created a catacomb-like effect, and the overhead lights, cued to old-fashioned timers, had a way of clicking off all at once, leaving patrons stranded in the airless dark.
It was "known as a place where undergraduates went to nap (and, some said, to engage in intercourse in the group study rooms)". 

The foreboding continues as pencils are imagined as murder weapons in the "gloomy" space of a faculty carrel.

I'm sure, however, that despite all of this, the President of Payne University hails the Library as "the heart and soul of the university".

Go ahead and google the phrase "library heart and soul of university" and see what I'm talking about.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Summer Hours and the Robbers Library - by Sue Halpern

The hardest posts to write for this blog are those that are for the most library-centric books. I can't simply put a post-it note on each page that has the word library lest the entire book be marked. Writing about this book is made even harder by the fact that I read it over a month ago while I was on vacation. While I did enjoy a lot of reading (I read, or listened to, four books) while I was away  I got quite far behind on my blogging while I was on vacation last month, and returning from my trip I had so many other things I had to take care of that writing was put on the back burner.

Halpern's book tells the story of the intersecting lives of Solstice (Sunny) and Katherine (Kit) who work together at the Riverton Public (Robbers) library in New Hampshire. Kit is a forty-something reference librarian and Sunny is a fifteen-year-old who "had been sentenced to work at the...library for the summer after she was caught trying to steal a dictionary from a bookstore in the mall." Sunny procured her sentence in kids' court "the place where good kids, or kids who haven't yet gone bad, are sent when they do something wrong, or dumb, or both..."

So, while I didn't mark every time the word "library" was used, it turns out I did mark more than a few passages. Let's start with the word sesquipedalian.

When asked by the judge why she stole the book  (a dictionary of all things) her response that she didn't have enough money elicited further explanation. To which Sunny explained that she wanted to be able to look up the meaning of words she didn't know - words like sesquipedalian. Poor Sunny still didn't know what it meant because she didn't have the dictionary. Of course I could have told her the meaning of my favorite word: sesquipedalian - a foot and a half long - from the roots sesqui (one and a half) and ped (foot) - a word that essentially defines itself. But Sunny wanted to be able to look up the word herself. She was "tired of always having to ask someone when [she] didn't know the meaning of a word."

It is a bit coincidental that I marked a page that mentioned icky library vending machine food, although I had not yet written my most recent post about Dear Committee Members in which I wrote for the first time about such things.

Halpern plays a bit with stereotypes. Kit is a single (really divorced) childless middle-aged woman, who tells Sunny that she's "a big fan of silence" asked why she works in a library.

The Library Director, Barbara is described as
sturdy, with angular features and a white pageboy, handsome, not pretty - a sensible shoes kind of woman with proper manners, manners proper enough to keep her from prying into the lives of the people she worked with or trading gossip... 
There is also one instance of a "shushing" which takes place when a patron laughs loudly at learning why Sunny was "sentenced" to work in the library.

Much of the book is Kit describing her life before the Robbers Library. We find out about library school, and her first job in a library archive room, and a later job at a the Science Library at Emory University. In describing each of her jobs she does admits a dark secret that all library workers know, but don't want to admit - sometimes our work is tedious, or even boring. It is true that sometimes we wonder why the building we're sitting in, waiting for a "stray question", is even open. Or that sometimes our job is just searching fruitlessly for a missing book, or making sure people aren't destroying materials. Meanwhile, we also know that we must convince others that we are "busy" at all times, lest we lose funding, or worse, the vocational awe perceived of us by those outside our occupation.

Ultimately, though we learn that Kit recognizes the value of libraries and librarians. And that while her job may not be "as awesome as being a neurosurgeon" she knows that "putting books in the hands of readers...save[s] lives, too".

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Public (the movie)

I've been waiting well over a year to see this. It finally showed up in theaters earlier this month, just in time for National Library Week. I spent most of National Library Week attending the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) national conference in Cleveland, and was glad to wrap up my time in the Rock & Roll Capital of the World at the Cedar Lee Theater in Cleveland Heights. As a former Ohioan it was a special treat to see this Ohio-based film in the state where it was filmed.

Written and directed by and starring Emilio Estevez, this film tells the story of  librarian Stuart Goodson who works at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. During an especially cold spell in the city a population of homeless men decide to occupy the library overnight as they have no where else to go to escape the bitter temperatures when the building closes. Goodson stands with his patrons and likewise refuses to leave the library. Speculation from law enforcement, local politicians, and the media about what is happening inside the barricaded building leads to misinformation, and some "fake news" reporting.

The last thing I did at the ACRL conference was attend the keynote address and book signing by Alison Bechdel. I had her sign my copy of Essential Dykes to Watch Out For From there my husband and I had lunch and then made our way to the theatre. I must say that was getting a bit worried that this film would not pass the Bechdel Test, but ultimately it came through (but just barely). It really would have been especially tragic to watch a failing movie on the very day that I met Bechdel. It seems a film about a profession that is dominated by women could have done better than to just squeak by. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this film. It was well acted, well directed, and had a good surprise ending.

More about Alison Bechdel's keynote can be found here.

Passing the Bechdel Test with Alison Bechdel

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Dear Committee Members - by Julie Schumacher

Recommended to me by more than a few of my colleagues at the university, this satire was excellent listening fare for my husband and me during our regular weekend drives to our beach house. Told in epistolary style, this book is a series of letters written by English professor Jason T. Fitger of the fictitious Payne University (located somewhere in the Midwest). Fitger's letters are addressed not only to committee members, but to ex-wives, colleagues, friends, and administrators as well as to various people who are in positions to hire some of Fitger's acquaintances. These infamous Letters of Reference (aka LORs) were easily my favorite parts of the book. Fitger's outsized ego is revealed, as is his sarcasm, and any number of his myriad peccadilloes through his letters. Still, in the end we wish him no ill will. He is already dealing with plenty of BS that anyone in academics will readily recognize. I daresay that the descriptions of the shabby state of the offices in the Department of English hit too close to home when compared with the accommodations afforded to the Humanities at my own University.

Of course any academician worth their salt knows the value of a library. While we can never be sure that Our Dear Professor Fitger actually ever darkens the door of a library himself, he does seem to recognize them for their importance in exploring academic pursuits. For instance, in one LOR for student Gunner Lang (who is seeking work-study student employment anywhere on campus) Fitger's supplication that the young man be placed in the "library rather than the slops of food service" acknowledges that the library is a superior place and one that a student such as Gunner, who has "bona fide thoughts and knows how to apportion them into relatively grammatical sentences" certainly deserves to be. This LOR is written rather early in the book (which takes place over one academic year). A second LOR for young Gunner is written much later in the year in hopes of procuring the lad a summer research fellowship so as to write a literary criticism of O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods. Fitger surmises that Gunner will put the $400 award to good use
by availing himself of the foul-smelling vending machine sandwiches in Appleton library while immersing himself in a study of narrative uncertainty and violence
This is not the first time, however, that Fitger mentions bad library vending machine food in an LOR. This honor goes to the letter written for his friend Troy Larpenteur, who rather inexplicably, is looking for a job as a sales associate at the Zentex Corporation. In his letter Fitger reminisces back twenty-three years
to the sight of Troy...at the Seminar table, his hair looking as if he had slept on the floor of the library by the vending machines (he usually had)... 
One other letter makes mention of the library: one written on behalf of Fitger's unfortunate colleague  Karolyi Pazmentalyi whose department (Slavic Languages) was a victim of the evil Provost's recent reorganization. Fitger describes his hapless friend's lonely work over the previous decade
holed up in a corner of the library his craggy profile visible in the the fluorescent glare of the overheads when everyone else was uncorking a beverage at home
which resulted in publication of a scholarly book, the type of work that would normally bring with it a promotion, but in Pazmentalyi's case was dismissed since his entire department was being purged. Again, I found that this passage hit a bit too close to home for me.

This book is truly a must-read for anyone in the Academy, although I expect that faculty will find it a lot funnier than those in administration will.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Hot Milk - by Deborah Levy

Last month I visited my wonderful child in Chicago where we enjoyed a visit to the Bourgeois Pig which featured two of our favorite things: coffee, and a Little Free Library. The LTL looked like a little Gnome house and from it I picked Levy's book. I hadn't heard anything about it before, but the back cover description indicated that it had some dark humor. What the cover description didn't tell me was that one of the main characters was a librarian.

Little Free Library (zip code 60614)
Image from Yelp.
The story revolves around Sofia and her mother Rose (the librarian). The two have traveled to Spain in order for Rose to get treatment for a mysterious illness from Dr. Gómez, whose unconventional methods include taking the two women out to lunch and insisting that Sofia not utter word throughout the meal.

As Rose is no longer working (only partly due to her health) there is little in the book about her job. We do know that her "duties were to catalogue. index, and classify the books". It was made clear on each of the three occasions in the book in which Rose's occupation is mentioned that cataloging and indexing were her most essential duties. However, as Sofia reflects upon her mother she comes to the realization that working with words doesn't necessarily translate to an ability to use them well.
She cataloged a billion words but she could not find words for how her own wishes for herself had been dispersed in the winds and storms of a world not arranged to her advantage.
Librarians most certainly don't like things that are not arranged to their advantage. Rose was also very clearly a difficult person to satisfy. And that may be the closest we come to understanding why Rose would want to leave library work.