Friday, May 13, 2022

Junk Science and the American Criminal Justice System - by M. Chris Fabricant

Cover image

Written by the Director of Strategic Litigation for the Innocence Project the aptly named Fabricant explains how fabricated science has been used to convict innocent people, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  

The cover image of the book which shows a dental mold biting into hundred dollar bills is an allusion to the junk science of bite mark evidence. Created by a brotherhood (they were initially all men) of dentists calling themselves "diplomates" (my, that sounds important!) of the American Board of Forensic Odontology (ABFO), they asserted themselves experts on bite marks without actually having done any scientific study on the forensics of bite marks on bodies.

These "experts" would testify (usually for money) in criminal rape, murder, and assault cases indicating that bite marks found on bodies could have only been left by a one specific person (usually the defendant in a trial).

It took over thirty years for this science to be debunked while innocent people were convicted and sent to jail. The author calls this "poor people science" because it is still used, along with other discredited forensics (including ballistics, fingerprint analysis, and hair microscopy) to convict those who do not have the means to hire a good defense attorney.

A few mentions of prison libraries gives this book a space on my blog, but I would have included it anyway since it is really a book about information literacy. It gave me a lot to consider regarding peer review, the gold standard of credible sources for undergraduates writing research papers. I help hundreds of such students every semester, many don't even understand what "peer review" means, they only know their professor told them to include such sources in their paper. The ABFO were peers who reviewed each other. They created their own body of experts without doing any studies, and their junk science is still being used today. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Spells & Shelves - by Elle Adams


May is Mystery Month, and I don't really like mysteries. Often people tell that they think I will like a certain mystery book, or mystery series mostly because they take place in a library, or have a librarian in them. They are almost always wrong, because really I just don't like mysteries. Each May I read one to blog about just so I can include the genre, but (and I can't say this enough) I really don't like mysteries.

I chose this one because it had a witch librarian in it, and I do like witches. For those who like books about orphans who don't know they're magical this one also fills that bill.

When Aurora (Rory) discovers that her late father was a magical person, and that she is being pursued by vampires, she moves in with her three aunts and two cousins who live and work in the library for paranormals. The women are biblio-witches they "weave spell from words". 

One thing Rory learns from her Aunt Adelaide is that the library is "semi-sentient" and I was reminded of Ranganathan's Five Laws of Library Science the fifth one of which is "A library is a growing organism". Ranganathan knew that all libraries are semi-sentient?

Of course libraries are also magical, regardless of whether they are for "normals" or "paranormals".

Friday, April 29, 2022

Pura's Cuentos: How Pura Belpré Resphaped Libraries with her Stories

In honor of Día of los libros/Día de los niños I read yet another book about Pura Belpré, New York City's first bilingual librarian. Bright illustrations of coquí frogs, mangos, mice and cockroaches show how the stories about Puerto Rico are just as vibrant as the stories of New York City with its fabulous music and dance scene.

Pura knows, too, that stories that are not written down can be just as exciting as stories in books, and that stories in all languages should be told. Everyone has stories to tell and hearing other peoples' stories will make us all richer. 

Written primarily in English there is Spanish vocabulary sprinkled throughout. A story for all about stories for all.

See also Sembrando historias and The Storyteller's Candle/La velita de los cuentos.

The Reading List - by Sara Nisha Adams


Libraries change lives. The books we read, the people we meet, the physical space, the programs all create the magic, and community of the library. 

When indifferent library worker Aleisha finds a reading list inside of a returned book she not only changes her own life by reading the eight books, she begins to make a difference in the lives of some of the other library patrons as well. Most notable among these is recently widowed Mukesh Patel, who has yet to return the long-overdue book his wife last read The Time Traveler's Wife. Although Mukesh was never much of a reader, his late wife Naina was an avid reader and library user. Through the magic of books (and the library) Mukesh finds a new connection with his beloved granddaughter Priya. It turns out they both love Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and Mukesh begins to think about everyone who is connected by the books they read.

One of the first things I learned in Library School were Ranganathan's Five Laws of Library Science. Although the rules were written almost a century ago, they remain quite relevant:
  • Books are for use
  • Every reader their book
  • Every book its reader
  • Save the time of the reader
  • A library is a growing organism 
Each of these laws is evident in this work about people connecting through books and libraries.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

The Boy in the Field - by Margot Livesey

In the waning days of the 20th century, siblings Zoe, Matthew, and Duncan discover a stabbing victim left to die in a field, and their lives each take on a new direction, and each finds a use for the library. Teenage Zoe begins dating an Oxford University student. She masquerades as an undergraduate and discussing things such as the Bodleian Librar keeps her from blowing her cover. Matthew, in an attempt to find the perpetrator of the crime, searches for clues in the local papers at the public library. Duncan becomes curious about his birth mother and decides he wants to find her. Zoe suggests he look her up in the phone books at the library. Additionally, other uses of the library are sprinkled throughout the work.

Monday, April 4, 2022

The School for Good Mothers - by Jessamine Chan


Bringing together ideas from The Stepford Wives, The Handmaid's Tale, and the movie A.I. Jessamine Chan finds a new way to scare the bejesus out of all of us.

Frida Liu is a single mother trying to co-parent her toddler (Harriet) as best she can with her ex-husband (Gust) and his live-in girlfriend (Susanna). During the Labor Day weekend Frida is unable to console the eighteen-month-old who is suffering from an ear infection. Neither is able to get much sleep over the three days. Frida, at her wit's end, leaves the house, and her daughter unattended, for two hours. The police are called when the neighbors hear the baby's incessant crying. After several months of invasive monitoring, and limited supervised visits with her daughter, Frida is sent to a facility where she can be rehabilitated as a mother. The year-long stay involves learning to parent with a creepy robot surrogate for her daughter, on a defunct university campus.

Mentions of libraries are infrequent and tend to be nefarious in nature. Frida is told not to do research at the library prior to her court hearing, lest she be monitored; the former music and dance library on the prison campus is empty; one mother is being rehabilitated for having allowed her eight-year-old to walk home from the  local library alone (a four-block distance). Frida gets one 10-minute video visit with Harriet a week which take place in the former campus library. Even these become depressing events. On the rare occasions when Frida's phone privileges aren't rescinded and she is able to connect with Harriet, Gust and Susanna, the calls are fraught.

A truly chilling tale for the twenty-first century.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Lailah's Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story - by Reem Faruqi


In honor of Ramadan which starts today, and National Library Week, which starts tomorrow, I read Lailah's Lunchbox. In this beautifully illustrated book young Lailah is excited to be fasting for the month of Ramadan for the first time. She is worried, though, that her classmates and teachers in Peachtree, Georgia won't understand why she isn't joining them at lunch. She decides to go to the library during her lunch period where she is greeted by an understanding librarian, Mrs. Carman, who is happy to share the time with her, and to help her gather her thoughts so she can best explain why she is fasting, and why Ramadan is a special time.

Friday, March 25, 2022

The Blind Assassin - by Margaret Atwood

I do enjoy a good bit of metafiction. In the tradition of Irving Wallace's The Seven Minutes; Ann Patchett's Commonwealth; and Cornelia Funke's Inkheart Atwood's The Blind Assassin tells the story of a fictitious novel of the same name.

Laura Chase's posthumously published book (following a questionable suicide at the age of 25) has a kind of cult following. Although some love it and it was "well received in critical circles in New York and London",  others thought it 

would best be forgotten. Although it isn't...even after fifty years it retains its aura of brimstone and taboo. Hard to carnality goes it's old hat, the foul language nothing you can't hear any day on the street corners, the sex as decorous as fan dancers...

However, even the "whimsical" sex was enough for the book banners to come out against it

What people remember isn't so much the book itself, as much as the furor: ministers in church denounced it as obscene, not only here; the public library was forced to remove from the shelves, the one bookstore in town refused to stock it. There was word of censoring it. People snuck off  to Stratford or London or Toronto even, and obtained their copies on the sly, as was the custom with condoms. Back at home they drew the curtains and read, with disapproval, with relish, with avidity and glee - even the ones who'd never thought of opening a novel before. There's nothing like a shovelful of dirt to encourage literacy. 

There are more than a few mentions of private libraries. Other libraries get a bit of ink as well. The Chase sisters, Laura and Iris (the narrator) take their lessons in their home library from a succession of governesses and other instructors following the death of their mother. The curiously named Miss Violence gave the girls the run of the library and "let us do what we liked" while she (Miss Violence) "sat by the window and read romantic novels from the lending library".

An aging Iris also considers what do with a trunk full of "notebooks...typescript...letters to publishers ... corrected proofs...[and] hate mail". Leaving this archive to a university or library where it "would be at least be a ghoulish way" seemed reasonable. 

There were more than a few scholars who'd like to get their claws into all this waste paper. Material [emphasis in original] they'd call it - their name for loot.

There is a somewhat surprising ending, although as Iris points out to her audience "you must have known for some time".

It took me a while to get into this book. In fact the first time I tried reading it was about twenty years ago. However, I not only finished it this time, I was sorry when it ended.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Off the Edge - by Kelly Weill

The rather long subtitle of this work is "Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything". Weill immerses herself into the culture of the Flat Earthers to discover how and why they came to believe. The short answer: it's all YouTube's fault. There is of course a lot more to it, but most contemporary Flat Earthers got started by going down a YouTube rabbit hole, and once they went down they found more and more videos by other people proclaiming to have done "experiments" that prove that the world is flat. 

I must admit that until I read this book I assumed Flat Earthers were putting us on, but not so. They are indeed quite serious, and are ready to fight (some to the point of fisticuffs) with those who disagree. Evidence to the contrary is unlikely to sway those who subscribe to the Flat Earth theory. Nor does the threat of loss of companionship. Many have lost family and friends over the issue. Some have severed almost all ties with loved ones and only have the online community of other Flat Earthers for companionship. Conspiracy theorists of all stripes have, sadly, always allowed this to happen. As Weill describes the disappointment of the Millerites in the 1840s when the apocalypse failed to materialize as predicted by their leaders

...many members only became more fervent in their belief, proclaiming that the real end was still coming soon...believers let their crops rot and their friendships fail...These groups often find trivial factors to blame for their disappointments...

Libraries are at the front lines of combating misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories. Weill finds a topographic map in a library that refutes some psuedo-science described in a 1930 Leaves of Healing newsletter which purports that "Flat Earth belief as a matter of salvation or hellfire".

Libraries can also provide information that only intensifies the arguments of a true believer.  In 1919 Flat Earth Society founder Samuel Shenton theorized that if an aircraft hovered over the earth that it could simply wait until the its destination caught up with it (since the earth spinning on it's axis after all). He was vindicated when he found plans for a similar airship (created by another flat-earth believer) in a library. And, rather ironically, it was research in his local public library that led Charles K. Johnson to Shenton, and the International Flat Earth Research Society (IFERS) in the early 1940s. Johnson was able to contact another flat earth believer Wilbur Glen Voliva who "confirmed" everything Johnson believed.

As we debate how far social media should go in monitoring speech in order to combat misinformation, and as book banners across the country attempt to remove materials from schools and libraries in unprecedented numbers, the need for librarians (never mentioned in this book), who can help people navigate their research, is made abundantly clear.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

The Yellow House - by Sarah M. Broom

My husband and I attended Broom's virtual session last year at Boston University's Anti-Racist Book Festival. We had not heard of her before, but she piqued our interest, and we ordered the book on Audible and listened to it together. The Yellow House is a memoir not only about the specific house in New Orleans where the author grew up, it is a book about our relationships with the places that form us. 

The youngest of twelve children, Sarah was born into the Yellow House where she lived with many of her siblings, although some of the oldest never lived there. The Yellow House was located in New Orleans Eastpart of the city's Ninth Ward. Hurricane Katrina was the second Hurricane the author, and the Yellow House experienced. As a baby Broom and her family were evacuated when Hurricane Betsy rampaged their home in 1965.

Although her school libraries get barely a passing mention, as a college student at the University of North Texas (where the "cost of [her] ignorance about college was high") she was
ravenous about learning, nearly living at the Willis Library where [she] spent seven or eight hours at a time hunched in a cubicle reading books about subjects fellow students seemed already to know.
After graduation, and a Master's degree from the University of California, Berkeley, Broom moved to New York to take a job with O Magazine. There she met Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell at an author event at the New York Public Library. Power convinces Broom to go to Burundi (a small African country mostly known as a neighbor to Rwanda). 

Bloom eventually makes her way back to New Orleans where she researches the history of the (now destroyed) yellow house at the New Orleans Public Library. 
To find the history of the Yellow House, I had to search original deeds, chains of titles, successions. I stalked the Conveyance Office, the Office of Vital Records, the Real Estate and Records Office in city hall, the Notarial Archives, and libraries. The search was full of cross-referencing and confusion.

I arrived many mornings at the main branch of the New Orleans Public Library in the business district, just across from city hall, and waited in line for the doors to open. If you didn't know better, you'd think the city was full of people eager to read, but actually the line was full of homeless people who had slept outdoors and were trying to get to the bathrooms. 
Broom goes on to describe posted rules of using the library that include the following "disallowed" behaviors: stalking patrons; using or exchanging drugs; bathing; shaving, washing up, or washing clothes in bathroom sinks; bad smells; oblivious  transmission of germs or excessive coughing; preaching or forcing your ideas on others. Also disallowed: weapons and shopping carts. "Most of these things still happened anyway...The library staff spent much of the time policing, which made it hard to get research assistance". 

Any library worker in public service can relate to this. Too much of our time is devoted to policing behavior. Many administrators, as well as library users, are unable to understand our work as anything beyond study hall monitors. We actually would prefer to help people with research rather than spending our time explaining how to use a photocopier, refilling printer paper, or (most recently) incessantly reminding people to wear their masks above their nose.

Find out more about Sarah Broom at

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Picket Fences (the television show) "Elective Conduct" Season 3 Episode 6


My husband and I were happy to discover that all four seasons of the 1990s television show Picket Fences were available through Hulu. We remembered this thought-provoking, quirky drama series fondly. While we are enjoying re-watching, we were not especially surprised to discover that not all of the stories aged well, and we are  having very different conversations about the show than we did 30 years ago.

The third season begins with the fictitious town of Rome, Wisconsin receiving a federal court order to desegregate its schools via the forced bussing of  Black students from the (not fictitious) city of Green Bay. The (mostly) white residents of Rome face their prejudices, and liberal-minded Mayor pro tem Jill Brock calls in the local police in an attempt to stop the students from getting off the bus. Her plan is thwarted with a countermove by the National Guard (a la Little Rock). The story arc exploring race and racism continues for several episodes.

Episode 6 opens with fifth-grade students reading their reports for Multicultural Awareness Day. The teacher is cringe-ily dressed in stereotypical Native American garb and a girl reads her report indicating that Chinese people in the United States are best known for their restaurants, and are "good fighters". The Mayor's son Zachary reads his report on "Why White Kids Should Help Black Kids", citing academic achievement gaps, and indicating that these gaps are because of small brains that only think about sex. He is cut off by said cringe-worthy teacher, taken to the principal's office, and suspended. 

It turns out that he does have citations for his assertions. The achievement gap statistics came from the Educational Testing Service, and the information about brain size came from the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica

Cut to Jill Brock in a library speaking to the librarian (in what appears to be the public library). Brock has the offending volume of the Britannica in her hand, reads from it, and asks why it is in the library. The librarian explains that the 1911 edition is a "classic" and that "museums would kill for this set". Jill insists that it be removed because it "contains racial material". The librarian counters by suggesting that by those standards Mark Twain should be removed as well. She actually uses the N-word (on what at the time of original airing would have been network television).  Brock is able to get her son reinstated by demonstrating that the information came from a book in the library. She also gives him a good "talking to".

Wow. A lot to unpack here.

Let's start with the fact that the mayor wanted the book removed because it contained "racial material". Books about race, or written by people of color are being especially targeted in the United States today. Challenges are coming from the left and the right. And we are seeing classics such as To Kill A Mockingbird being questioned. Learning to question what we read in books is essential to a good education. We cannot question what we aren't allowed to see, however.

Deselection (or "weeding") of materials is part of the professional work of librarians. Libraries should have living collection development policies which outline what kind of materials will be held in the library, as well as what will not. Additionally, the policy should explain when/how/what kind of materials will be removed. Reasons for pulling books are myriad and include that they might be out of date, however, that is not the only consideration. Some works are classics, or perhaps are kept because they have value to historians. There is a lot that can be done with a challenged book between outright removal and leaving it on open stacks to be found by impressionable fifth graders who have not received appropriate research guidance. For instance, the encyclopedia set in question might be moved to a special collections room where it is accessible to scholars, but not necessarily to elementary school students, or it could simply be moved to a higher shelf, where it can't be reached by children without assistance, while keeping a current set in a more accessible place. What shouldn't be done, though, is for the Mayor to come barging in, insisting that a book be removed without input of the library board and without any kind of public hearing.

I will say this for young Zachary - I liked that he clearly used at least two sources and synthesized them. He also had full citations, such that his mother was able to find the exact quote in question. That's what citations are for.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Feminists Among Us: Resistance and Advocacy in Library Leadership - edited by Shirley Lew and Baharak Yousefi

I spotted this collection of essays on the New Books shelf at the library as I was looking for something to read over the holidays. While this wasn't really light reading, it was the only book I finished of the three I checked out. The other two were novels that just didn't keep my interest.

The essays in this book explore leadership, feminism, racism, sexism, diversity, and intersectionality (among other things) within the library profession. It is most definitely an academic book, written primarily for other academic librarians

Of course it is no surprise to those of us in librarianship that "white heterosexual men in feminized professions...benefit from 'the assumption that they are better suited than women for leadership positions'". However, as Maura Smale quotes Chris Bourg out in the first essay "Always a Novice" 

If all of you who don't want to play politics, who don't want power & influence to change your values, and who want to have a healthy work life balance shy away from leadership positions; it might mean that you are leaving the leadership of our profession in the hands of those who aren't concerned about those things.

It is a truth that men tend to get the leadership positions in libraries. My own library just hired a white male as our new Dean. In collective memory of the university "white male" describes every library leader we have ever had. 

 "Isn't feminist leadership just about being a decent human being" is the question explored in the final essay "Feminist Praxis in Library Leadership". While the question may seem simplistic it spiraled into quite a lengthy essay. Through targeted interviews with eleven library leaders the authors asked six open-ended questions

  • What is feminism?
  • What is leadership?
  • What are some examples of your feminist leadership actions?
  • How are you addressing issues of diversity and inclusion?
  • What do you read that informs your feminism and/or your leadership?
  • What other related topics would you like to tell us about?

From there three more questions emerged

  • What does being a feminist mean to you?
  • What makes leadership feminist?
  • What tips or advice do you have for others looking to activate their feminism at work?
Readers are provided with some perceptive answers to these questions.

A timely work.