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October 16, 2013

Long time passing, long time gone, due in four weeks

A Library Question for those Gentle Librarians amongst us, and I’d love further answers if y’all pass it along.

I just asked our Database Guy for a report: for all the books currently checked out, give me the most recent date it previously circulated. The Database Guy conceded that the information was in the system, but would be tricky to get out. I trust the guy on this—there are far more obvious reports that took a very long time to set up, and it still isn’t possible to suppress the record for one volume of a multi-volume set in the catalogue—so that’s not the question. The question is… well, it’s a three-part question. Does this (A) seem like useful information to have, and (2) seem like something close to a report you already have and use, and (iii) seem like I am asking for the right information in the report to find out what I want to know?

OK, the last one requires context. We are expecting to go through a major cull of our open stacks soon, either moving off-site or withdrawing 40% of the books. It seems that people who don’t work in a library think that the cull should largely consist of getting rid of books that don’t circulate, for a variety of definitions of circulating. Which, of course, makes sense: if nobody uses a book, why have it? Or certainly why have it on-site. The thing is that those of us at the circulation desk see stuff with a last date-due stamp of APR 21 1995 or NOV 3 2008 go out all the time.

All the time! What does all the time mean? I have no idea! And then—most of the books that go out circulate a lot, but what does a lot mean? I have no idea! Are the patterns different for books in D (History) and L (Education)? I don’t know!

So while mostly this is idle curiosity (is the thing I believe I am experiencing actually happening) and recalcitrant anti-culling (30% of the books currently out had sat on the shelves for eighteen months or more before somebody wanted them and WAS ABLE TO FIND THEM), it also seems like potentially useful in curating a collection carefully, since in fact weeding is an essential part of the job. And one thing that being a baseball fan has taught me is that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation data is more accurate than experience.

Does this all make sense? Is there something else I should be looking at? Or is this something that all the other libraries already do?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 19, 2013

Eight letters!

I was asked this morning to bring down all the books by Ellsworth Grant. Mr. Grant was the mayor here for a while, and was kind of the unofficial state historian. One of those fellows who knew everybody, and was likely enough everybody’s cousin. Anyway, a quick look through the catalogue yielded a couple of dozen books and films in a variety of categories.

I had mentioned at one point that Jessica Mitford had books in five letter categories in the LC system, which I found pretty impressive. Mr. Grant has items in our library under E, F, G, H (HC, HD and HV), J, P, T and—believe it or not, as you like—V. Eight! Wow. Eight.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 22, 2013

O BraveNewWorldia (full text, campus use only)

One of the reference librarians at The Institution What Employs Me was tasked this summer with overhauling the research tutorial for our website. Better her than me.

Anyway, there I was in the session where she went through the new pages, and I was thinking ZOh My Lord this is incredibly intimidating. I mean. Half-a-dozen pages with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one, and vocabulary and color coding and examples and counter-examples… it took us an hour to go through it all, and I was exhausted far before the end. And I know all that stuff.

And I started thinking that when I was writing a paper in high school, I could use all the resources. I could cite both of the journal articles that I reasonably had access to, and all four of the books in the library that were remotely on-topic, and even the ready reference to fill out the page. Done! I am so on top of this! A tutorial would have had to show me where the indices sat (on the top of the card catalogue, if I remember correctly) and how to use the microfiche machine and that’s pretty much it.

Even at college, where our library was substantial, doing a research paper involved hunting for half-a-dozen articles and whatever books were on the shelves. I remember the disappointment when I found that—let’s say two of the six articles I found through the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature that were in the library’s collection were not sufficiently on-topic to cite. Oh, I was a crappy researcher, I gotta say, but still, the problem was finding enough stuff to cite.

Now, the skill is wading through the oceans of it. Honing your search expression to give you lakes rather than oceans, and then knowing the landmarks that will keep you close to shore (or perhaps guide you to port? I’m not really digging this metaphor) and finally the ability to skim lightly over the, er, shoals? Ah, hell with it. You know what I mean. It’s easier to find a thousand articles than to find one article.

And it really is intimidating. If intimidating were a staircase, academic library research would be the Escalator to Nowhere. If John Henry saw the mountain of academic resources on steam drills, he would lay down his netbook and cry, Lord Lord, that mountain is so tall, and John Henry is so small, that he would lay down his netbook and cry. And as much as good tutorials and sessions and teachers and librarians can do, they can’t change the basic intimidatingnessosity of it. It’s just an aspect of the thing itself. All you can do is (we hope) convince people that they really can do this intimidating thing despite its intimidosage.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 17, 2013

Speak friend and enter

So I don’t think I have ever written here about passwords. It’s one of those things that is a part of The Way We Live Now that wasn’t a part of things In My Day—I don’t think that our neighborhood club (the Northview Four-Star B’s Club) had a password, and if, as I think I recollect, my elder siblings occasionally required passwords for entry to their bedrooms, it was along the I can’t let you in until you say ‘swordfish’ lines. My first bank account had a passbook; I didn’t get a bank card with a Personal Identification Number number until, oh, 1986 or so. I wonder when I first had three passwords to remember. I don’t think I had more than one or two in college—the aforementioned PIN and presumably one for the PR1ME or VAX or whatever we had, and I think that might have been it. And then after college, it was the bankcard and nothing else for years. My kids are growing up with passwords, though. I think my daughter already has three, and she isn’t twelve yet.

So. Like all of us These Days, Your Humble Blogger has had to figure out methods for selecting and remembering passwords. I probably have a dozen different passwords for different web sites (including this one), and some of those (even tho’ it is Not Best Practice) I use on more than one site. Some of them I haven’t changed in ages; some I am compelled to change every so often. It’s a mess. Like it is for you, I imagine.

Now, as it happens, I personally am enough of a pessimist to believe that any determined professional can break into any of my accounts no matter how clever I am about passwords. I am not overly worried about the level of difficulty, beyond making it not ludicrously easy—I don’t use password or 123456 or baseball or any of those, but neither am I going to eat my liver over making an unguessable-but-still-memorable password for each site, and then change to new ones every ninety days. Just isn’t worth my sweat.

But I do have a password plan, one that I haven’t seen talked about a lot, and one which I think (I think) provides passwords that are relatively easy to select and remember and are not in the dictionary lists. And I can pass it along to you, Gentle Readers, without (I think) compromising its value, so here goes: for three months recently, my password for something was PR2803.A2m37 or possibly PR2803.A2d87—I don’t remember which one I chose. If you don’t immediately recognize those, they are Call Numbers in the Library of Congress classification system and the correspond to two editions of As You Like It, both of which were checked out to me at the time. Of course, having the actual book from a library that uses LCCNs helps, because I can just look at the spine of the book until my fingers remember the password. However, an actual physical book is not necessary: the Library of Congress will provide.

Let’s say you want a new password for your Google account. How about HD9696.8.U64g6657? I don’t know if the book’s any good, of course, but I don’t need to read it, do I? Or what about PN6728.B33d4? If you want a longer, stronger password, just prepend the ISBN number: 0880920718PZ7.H37595Go is 22 characters, including upper and lower case letters, numbers and a punctuation mark, and it tops out the meters at the web sites that rate passwords. No, you are not going to memorize it, but you can easily find that LC page again to copy the info from. Or you can bookmark the LC page! Or, if you are worried that someone will see your bookmarks and figure out how to get from your bookmarks to your passwords, stick the books in a wish list or browse list at a retailer, and then use the ISBN to get the LCCN each time.

Or, really, if you are worried that someone will see your bookmarks and figure out how to get from your bookmarks to your passwords, then accept that such a determined and intelligent person is going to figure out your passwords anyway, and stop worrying about it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 11, 2013

The Luxury Life of the Academic Library

OK, new fund-raising idea: we’ll put your name on one of the buckets that we shove under the leaky places in the roof, and we’ll print your name in our Annual Bucket List. How about it? The William Robinson Jones Memorial Receptacle. The Mahmoud Bin Hariri Bin. The Gabriel Martinez Unsealed Window Tarp. The Millie and Marvin Rabinowicz Perpetual Damp Patch.

Just sayin’.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 15, 2013

Warning signs, warning signs

Just a quick question for those of you who work (or have worked) in academia—if the Director of the University Libraries feels compelled to seek out the circ desk people at midday and warn them that the University Provost will be in the library in the afternoon… how seriously should I take it as a warning sign of deep, serious dysfunction?

And whose dysfunction?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 21, 2013

Happy on the Shelf

None of the QKs are currently checked out.

The library that employs me, being an academic library (and not being a specialty library) uses the Library of Congress classification system. Y’all are familiar with it? The call “number” is alphanumeric, beginning with a letter for a general subject and often another letter for the sub-subject and sometimes (but not often) a third letter for sub-sub-sub-ject. Anyway, Q is science, and QK is botany. And none of our botany books are out. Not one of them. Zilch.

Not that we have a lot of botany books. Five hundred-odd. We don’t have a big botany program, and the sciences are more journal oriented now anyway, I’m told. Still: no botany books currently checked out. Or missing, for that matter. They are all there, just sitting on the shelves. In fact, the last time someone took out a botany book was in November. It came back, on time, not renewed, in December. 72 days and counting.

Of the thousand or so books in QL—zoology—two are currently checked out. One of those is checked out to the head of public services here; I’m figuring that since it’s an 1833 publication, it’s checked out to him for some sort of display or demonstration purpose. Or, I suppose, just because it’s cool, which would totally count. The other is Aristotle on the movement of animals. That’s checked out by an actual instructor. In the philosophy department. So that’s all right.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 4, 2013

Never Do That to a Book

Your Humble Blogger happened to be reading in Anne Fadiman’s collection of essays Ex Libris, and came across something truly shocking. The essay is called “Never Do That to a Book”; the proscribed thing is leaving it facedown, splayed to save the page. This is a habit I broke myself of, eventually. I won’t say that I never, ever do it, but it’s an emergency act, intended for a moment or two. I would never leave the house with a book in that condition, or retire for the night with a book on the bedside bureau broken-spined beside me. No. I don’t do that anymore.

I use bookmarks! Bookmarks! Bookmarks, people!

My most common bookmark, these days, is the slip of register tape they give me at the public library. As they give it to me (or as I tear it off the machine myself—on my last trip the clerk pretty much insisted that I take my stack of books over the self-service kiosk rather than wasting her time at the desk, despite the quite reasonable quantity, probably under two dozen including the videos and CDs) I try to put it in the book I am most likely to read first. I’ve probably already started one at that point, possibly more than one, so I may have a place to keep already. When I’m done with that first book, I usually transfer it to another and then another. I like to keep them, eventually, in a big manila envelope, as a record of the children’s reading (or at least checking out), but sometimes they get thrown out or crumpled beyond legibility.

Other bookmarks include receipts, price tags, those oval-shaped bits of cardboard you tear off a new Kleenex box to get at the tissue, and even on occasion printed bookmarks. Rarely those. I have a few lovely ones; laminated or hand-painted or whatnot, and even one I knit myself, but I don’t use them much. At my library of employment, we use 8"x1" cardstock strips to mark just-shelved books for me and my co-workers to double-check; some of those found their way home, as well as a whole slew of similar strips cut out of red paper (of ordinary 20lb weight) that were cut by mistake. Those are great bookmarks, only for some reason they get lost a lot.

We attempt to instill the bookmark habit in the kids. This is… moderately successful. They know about bookmarks, anyway, and they know that if a parent finds a splayed book there will be a yelling, but the clarity on the concept is not altogether there, as witness the variety of things that they are likely to attempt to use as bookmarks. Socks. Other books. Tiny plastic battleaxes. Robotic bugs. Fire irons. Kittens. The ice planet of Hoth made out of Legos. Nor have we been altogether successful at imparting the lesson that at some point one must, in fact, actually stop reading and attend to some other task. Half-a-dozen times a day, in our house, is someone told to put a bookmark in it; I am tempted to get the phrase translated into Latin and added to the family seal. It could go on my tombstone along with an image of Ezekiel and the Skeletons, no? OK, probably not.

But this is my point: Bookmarks.

Ms. Fadiman does describe the scope and range of bookmarkery, from owl feathers and Paris Metro tickets to silver Tiffany bookmarks and reproduction Audubon paintings. She largely rejects these, however, in favor of the book-splaying proscribed in the essay’s title. Sure, it’s bad for the book. But she is in favor of loving a book to pieces—a carnal book-lover, rather than a courtly one. I read with perfect equanimity her descriptions of disintegrating books kept in baggies, cookbooks with egg yolk marking memorable disasters, and even paperbacks carried on airplanes with the already-read chapters torn out and thrown away.

I tell you what I cannot get over, though. I can’t get over… you know what? There are librarians present. Y’all may want to have a nice reviving cup of tea to hand, because you know what is coming next:

She dog-ears the pages.

ZOM, as they say, G.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 20, 2012

Oh, snap

An academic library question. A retired professor has passed to us the contents of his bookshelves, and I have been given the task of making the first pass through a portion of them to determine which we want to add to our collection. It’s a pleasant task—the stuff I am going through is mostly playscripts and books about drama, which is why I was given it—and I have learned a lot about our collection from the searches for duplicates. The books we are being given are quite old, being books from, oh, the late forties through the seventies, mostly, with perhaps ten percent being from earlier or later. My discovery, and I am not at all surprised about this, is that we have lots and lots and lots of books about the drama that nobody has checked out for ten years or more. Lots. That’s disappointing, in its way. It’s hard not to gauge the value of the books by their frequency of use.

Of course, infrequent use has kept many of the books in excellent condition. If I find a book in the gift that we have already have a copy of, and that copy hasn’t gone out in ten years, I can be reasonably sure that it is in good enough condition that we don’t need to replace it with the one from the donation. Sure enough that it isn’t worth the time to track down each such book and examine it, unless (as rarely happens) the copy I am considering is in very good condition indeed. Most of them, though, if we have an identical copy, and it hasn’t gone out for a while, or has gone out once or even twice in the last ten years, I can put it out of consideration. Free books aren’t free, alas. Every book added to the collection costs something: this much for the time spent cataloguing, this much for the time spent shelving, this much for the time spent rearranging the shelves to allow for the new books. Space is finite, too, of course, and in addition to the potential for running out of space entirely, there’s the problem of making it more difficult to find the needles that people want in the haystacks of material on our shelves and in our catalogue. A library collection is, ideally, a collection rather than a hoard. My instincts are rather toward book hoarding than collecting, which makes it emotionally difficult for me to consign so many dozens of perfectly good books to the sale table of history. I know it’s right, but it ain’t easy.

We’re leading up to my question, now, I promise.

In the collection, then, there are the books we have identical copies of, which we (usually) don’t need. The books we don’t have at all, of course, which require a proper decision based on the contents. Then there are the books we have, but in some other version—the paperback, the hardback, the earlier edition, the later edition. The reprint with a new introduction. That sort of thing. More complicated, but it generally breaks down into (a) it’s different enough to be treated like a different book, or (2) it’s not.

And now we’re at my question: let’s say there’s a book in this donation—hypothetical case, it’s a book on Elizabethan Drama. It’s a second edition, published in 1970. The first edition, from, oh, 1961, is in the collection, and it hasn’t gone out in ten years. Looking at the second edition, it’s revised and expanded and has a new introductory essay. What should I do with it?

The quickest thing, of course, is to say we don’t need it. If the first edition didn’t get any dates, the forty-year-old revisions aren’t going to make it pop. It’s gone.

The next quickest thing would be to toss the second edition, and also pull the first edition and deaccession that one. Because it’s not getting used. Although of course that’s a terribly haphazard way of weeding a collection, which properly speaking should be gone through in its entirety, rather than just yanking the odd weed, but there it is.

The not-very-quickest would be to pull and de-accession the first edition and then catalogue and shelve the second edition. After all, it’s possible that the revisions are really good. And if we’re going to have one, we should have the more recent one, right?

The not-quick-at-all-est thing is to do some research, find out if there is a later edition, find out if there are recent citations, do the whole librarian thing.

Is it worth putting that much time into books like that? Because every half-hour put in to researching one book is a half-hour not put in to researching some other book. The point of having me (a library clerk, rather than a librarian) go through all these books first is to minimize the librarian’s time spent doing that research on the collection—or, looking at it a better way, to use the librarians’ limited time doing that research on the books that most reward it. Then the librarians will look at the ones I set aside for them and have to decide which of those they should spend significant time on. I’m going through 500 books; if I can make a confident recommendation on 400 of them, I’ll be doing quite well. They will, I think, be doing well if they can devote twenty hours of work to making decisions about those hundred remaining books over the next couple of weeks. That means that most of them will have to be snap decisions, based on instinct.

But the real snap decision, it seems to me, is whether to make a snap decision or put some time in to do the research. We want the best possible collection, which means doing the research—but we want the best possible collection actually available, which means not leaving dozens of books waiting for somebody to have some time to do research.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 29, 2012

Storage Centers for Printed or Recorded Material, Part Two

Do y’all remember a few months ago when YHB wrote about our institution deprecating the role of libraries as Storage Centers for Printed or Recorded Material? The process has been going on; the Master Plan has been masterly; the architects have drawn up some tasty sketches of the Library of the Future.

Would any of y’all like to guess how much they will be cutting the open stacks? The space currently occupied by the Music Library is being taken away, so we are losing just over 10% of the square footage of the libraries just in that move. In addition, there is a need for group study space, individual study space, quiet study space and classroom space; evidently the library will provide. There will be some movement to compact (movable) stacks; currently we have one small room with movable stacks, which is accessible only to staff. The Library of the Future, I am given to understand, will have movable stacks open to students wandering through and getting themselves crushed to death. Which I’m in favor of, by the way. If the floors can hold the weight.

Anyway, anybody want to make a guess about the projected cuts to the collection? Take 100 as the base, in shelf-feet if you like, of our current open stacks. How big will our open stacks be? How big will the compact shelving be? How much will we deaccession? A guess?

Just to say—in a conversation with my Best Reader, when I was somewhat despondently wondering if anyone other than library staff would kick up a fuss if our collection were to be cut by X%, I used 25% as a figure of outrage. That is, in making up a number to potentially outrage the faculty, if outrage was going to be had, I went with 25%. That number was made up out of my head, based on the 10% decrease in the footprint, plus the initial memo which made clear that the institution did not view books, periodicals, scores and recordings as a priority over open space. I could have said 20%, I could have said 30%. I was just bullshitting. I’m giving that number just to say—your guess should be more than that.

Yes, more than that.

Also? That other guess you made? More than that.

In one projection, we would keep 30% of our open stacks, put another 30% onto movable shelves, and deaccession the remaining 40%. FORTY PERCENT. And that’s the good projection—the other is 25-25-50.

Oh, did I mention that is the baseline of our current collection? That assumes that we won’t be purchasing any new books between now and whenever the project is complete, say, five years from now. Which we will. So, we need to think about it as half or more of our current collection going away, with half of the remaining books going onto moveable shelves, where they will be used by only the most determined students.

And now, the one where your guess is as good as mine: what will the faculty say? Tho’ of course one couldn’t blame them if they view demands for 6/6 teaching loads to be a more direct attack on them than a library cut in half. Still, Obi-Wan, you are our only hope.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 15, 2012

A question answered

Your Humble Blogger mentioned the other day that I was putting on my dancing shoes for some quadrille action in relation to the production of Lady Windermere’s Fan. Our Dance Captain (who is actually choreographing the dancing, and may not be taking part in it at all) found a nice set on YouTube; we are doing a modified version of the third round in this video. We have been rehearsing it, so far, to the music of the video itself: the Dance Captain plays the video on a laptop with some speakers, and we cavort. The sound is not terribly good, and the instrumentation is Not Period, but the melody is nice and suits our dancing quite well. I wanted to help out by getting a clean recording of the song.

Well. The first thing I did was to poke around the internet a trifle, doing no more than twenty seconds of research myself. Then I gave up and asked on Facebook; most of my FBFs who dance are Scottish Dancers, not English, and English Country Dancers don’t do the Quadrille anyway, as I understand it, but I tend to assume that any piece of music that is used for any English Dance is also used for a million other Dances, and hoped for some recognition. Worth a shot, I thought, and it was, although I did not come up with the title of the piece.

So. What did I do next? I asked a librarian, of course.

It took all of thirty minutes, perhaps, for the reference librarian at the music library to bring to my desk the sheet music for Les Moulinets from the Original Lanciers from Polite and Social Dances: a Collection of Historic Dances, Spanish, Italian, French, English, German, American; with Historical Sketches, Descriptions of the Dances and Instructions for Their Performance, compiled and edited by Mari Ruef Hofer; 1917 Clayton F. Summy Co.

He also linked to the Amazon site for the mp3 as recorded by Smash the Windows. So. No problem.

The best part is that I’m pretty sure I already own the Smash the Windows album with that track on it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 28, 2012

Public Access, if anybody knows where they are

Your Humble Blogger has been hoping to type something about the death of the Research Works Act. But I was hoping to type something that would perhaps clarify the immensely complicated stuff around it, and I don’t have time to do anything like that at the moment. So I’ll just ask for a tiny bit of it—as I was enumerating, in my head, the many things that a journal publisher does that largely remains undone when scholars put together on-line journals, amongst the things that I hadn’t thought of before is that the publishers often will make it easy for libraries to include on-line works in their digital collections. Perhaps expensive, particularly when the publisher is evil, but easy.

For one thing, the really large (and mostly evil) publishers have their own databases of articles; a library can link to those databases in a variety of ways, including within the on-line catalogue. Of course, an individual on-line journal can contact the library, and then the library can catalogue the thing and link to it, but that’s one of those things that I think gets left undone most of the time. A publisher not only has an incentive to contact the library, but has a big old list of libraries to contact, and perhaps has ongoing contacts with humans who work there. And even then, a link from a catalogue line is a very different matter than inclusion in the big searchable databases; again, I don’t know to what extent a small publisher can get a journal included in such databases, but certainly it’s more up the publisher’s alley than the scholar’s. And, of course, it’s different field to field; PubMed will be very different from Academic OneFile; publishers will likely be doing different tasks, field to field, and have experience in their own fields.

So. While I think most academics and academic librarians would like to have something like PubMed or ERIC, huge government-run databases that will include any upstart (peer-reviewed) journal (after appropriate review), where those do not exist or where they are insufficiently inclusive (and I have no idea if those big government-run databases are really sufficiently inclusive) (and sufficiently exclusive to make their inclusivity useful) or where they do not cover what the journal covers, what is useful to librarians? I mean, yes, it’s useful for a journal not to be published by one of the Bad Guys (and there really are some big bad guys), but beyond that, what’s good? Because Google Scholar just isn’t going to cut it, guys.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 17, 2011

Storage Centers for Printed or Recorded Material

Oh, dear.

The head of the institution that employs me just sent out a notice about the formation of a Libraries Master Plan Steering Committee. In the email, this person states that he “believe[s] that libraries such as ours will no longer serve as storage centers for printed or recorded material.”

[After Your Humble Blogger wrote the above, two days passed to deal with the exploding-head thing. So it’s not so much just sent anymore. On the other hand, Gentle Readers shouldn’t consider this a considered response—any attempt on my part to calmly consider the memo just leads to more flying fragments of skull.]

I’m not going to write about the idea of the bookless library at this point—I have no reason to believe that I will be the person to break the streak of consecutive stupid things said about bookless libraries, which currently stands at umpty-’leven zillion and six—but if I were the head of a middle-size academic institution, I hope I would remember to say the quiet part quietly. I mean, yes, I know, everyone knows that the members of this kind of committee are not chosen randomly, nor are they chosen for diversity of opinion. They are chosen, rather, for a balance of pretention to legitimacy and receptiveness to the Administration worldview. And that worldview is certainly communicated to the members of the committee well in advance of the memo announcing its formation. These things are fixed.

I’m not even against fixing these sorts of things in advance. The administration has a responsibility to run the place, and they can’t really do that if they let committees run wild. Not that there shouldn’t be participation by the faculty (and the students, I suppose, with some representation of some kind) (and even participation by the staff would be pleasant) but that usually has to work within the structure of the rigged committee and with the formation of the Adminstration’s worldview in the first place. If we really are getting to the point, in two thousand and eleven, that the University is just now going to started really thinking about the Master Plan for the library, we are screwed.

Not that getting rid of our books and journals is different from being screwed—not that the music library getting rid of their scores and CDs is different from being screwed. But sometimes the library gets screwed; part of running a big place is figuring out whose turn it is to get screwed.

But the thing that made my head explode was that the head of the University said the quiet part loudly. Why? Why put the bad news right in the announcement, under his name, not buried in a report by committee where blame can be spread around and diffused and dispersed, if anybody actually notices the thing until it’s accomplished? What’s going on there?

There are two possibilities that come to mind. A, this could just be a total cock-up, where nobody really noticed what was in the memo until the send button got clicked. Or, second, the University Administration may think that radically reducing the books, journals and recordings available to students and faculty is the good news.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 9, 2011

Scavenging for facts

The educational institution that employs Your Humble Blogger has begun its academic year, huzzah, and one of the signs of the New Year is the students walking in to the library asking us to sign their Scavenger Hunt sheets. This is an assignment given to some dozens of students every Fall requiring them to find twenty or so offices on the campus—the bookstore, the Registrar, Public Safety—and get a signature from each.

I would guess that the other offices just sign the form and get rid of the students as quickly as possible, which makes sense. If you have found the Bursar’s office, then you have found the Bursar’s office. If you need it again, you know where it is. You’re done. From our point of view here in the library, however, getting to the front door is insufficient, and we will not sign the form until the student familiarizes him or herself with the place a bit. I’ll give you my spiel that I give to the students:

We’re not going to sign the form just for finding the front door of the library—tho’ well done finding the front door! An excellent first step. Now you’re going to walk around, look upstairs, look downstairs, think about how you are actually going to use the place while you’re here. Then you’re going to come back and tell me three interesting and useful facts about the library, maybe answer a couple of questions, and then I’m going to sign the form.

One of my friends on the faculty overheard this bit (there is some slight improvisation, but it’s mostly the same to each group) and said I was a hard-ass. Am I a hard-ass? I don’t know. I’ve never sent anyone away without signing the form, and most of the students spend less than five minutes wandering around.

I ought to have been writing down the Three Useful and Interesting Facts that students come up with, though. There’s always a certain amount of overlap, largely involving things on the main floor within a few yards of the circulation desk. People seem to think that the scale model of the University is useful; I am skeptical about that, but I count it. I grudgingly admit that the location of the café is useful. A surprising number of students tell me the location of the Interlibrary Loan office, which is only moderately useful (requests are placed on-line and books are picked up at circ) but they aren’t to know that yet. Some will identify a special collection—the periodicals, most likely and most usefully, or the videos. Some have noted down a piece of trivia off one of the display boards; I have accepted some as interesting even if not useful. Some have said something along the lines of You have a lot of books; accepted. Some have located the Leisure collection or even the Reference collection, so well done there. Some, alas, have claimed to have located the Reference collection as being on a different floor than it actually is. Only half marks there, I’m afraid.

The ordeal of the Three Useful Facts being over, I ask the following question: If you had a research assignment and wanted some assistance getting started, where would you go?

Again, I regret not keeping a tally, but I would estimate that about five percent of the students give something approximating a correct answer (either the reference desk or the reference office), another five percent say they would ask me personally (not a correct answer, but at least I would direct them to the reference librarians), ten percent say uh… here?, and the remaining eighty percent stare blankly at me as if I were speaking Dutch.

Generally, after giving out that correct information, I begin to sign the form while asking the student where one would go to check out a book. It’s a bit of a trick question, since we are actually at the circulation desk at the time of this exchange, but still I estimate no more than half get it right. I then ask the student to guess the loan period, which they never, ever do.

I’m forty-two years old; I have been working in an academic library for four years or so; I went to college in the 1980s, and even then I started as a student worker in the library my freshman year. So I don’t have the slightest remote recollection of what it was like to know nothing about how an academic library works, to walk into a place that is totally different from the high school equivalent. But I hope that nineteen-year-old me would have thought that the most obviously useful facts about the library are (a) where you check out books, (2) how long you get ’em for, and (iii) how you get help when you need it.

Well, that and the restrooms. I give full usefulness marks to those who know where the restrooms are.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 2, 2011

The Old Perfessor, I mean, ranting crazy man

May I just for a moment or two rant about how much I hate the word professional?

I don’t hate it universally and in every context. The distinction between professional and amateur athletes, for instance, is worth making, even if the borderline is, shall I say, a bit fraught. It remains a useful word in that context, or in other contexts where it clarifies the distinction between the fellow who wah-wahs a trombone for the amusement of his family and friends, and the fellow who supports himself on his embouchure. Which isn’t easy, I am aware. No, it’s really professionalism that drives me up the wall, and in that context, what is professional and what ain’t, among people who are all really working for a living.

The whole idea of the professions, from the beginning, is one that we Americans should have rejected with revulsion. The professions (and there are only four: the law, the church, the military and medicine) are those things that the sons of gentlemen can do to make a living without shaming their families. Trade, obviously, is Right Out. Being a landlord isn’t Trade, of course, so long as the land belonged to your great-grandfather, nor is it Trade to invest the capital in a Limited Company for import and export. Nor, of course, is the sale of natural resources Trade. No, if you aren’t at a shop, you can still dine with Society, if Society finds your blood sufficiently aged. In America, however, we are a democratic society of levelers, and are notorious for failing to make the all-important social distinction between grubby tradesmen who run import-export companies and gentlemen who wisely invest their capital, in import-export companies run by grubby tradesmen. Also, Jews.

But instead of rejecting the idea of the professions with the mockery and scorn it deserves, we used our democratic leveling for evil, first simply calling a bunch of things professions that aren’t, and then by just using profession, professional and professionalism to widely describe… well, to describe almost anything. At its best, the norms of the workplace, I suppose, which of course vary not just from field to field but from place to place. At its worst, the bad norms of the workplace, the whims of the supervisors and the power of the employer over the employed, and the prejudices, stigmas and strictures of the society the employers keep. If an employer just doesn’t feel that an receptionist is sufficiently professional at the desk, is it because she’s fat? has dark skin? gray hair? is confined to a wheelchair? Nothing actionable, of course, nothing that would stand up in a court of law, certainly not discrimination based on any of those protected categories. If a veteran with PTSD is insufficiently professional to heft boxes for a delivery company, it’s not because of his medical condition, or his scars, or anything of that kind—it’s just about professionalism. Not that the situation is always that dire… but I’m sure that supervisors often don’t actually know exactly why an employee appears unprofessional, and supervisors are swimming in the same water as everyone else, right?

I am ranting about this now, as it happens, because the edict came down that people in the circulation department must not eat at their desks because it doesn’t look professional. I’m not ranting about the rule—it’s a perfectly reasonable rule, like the rule about eating whilst in costume, and for much the same reason. Of course, we allow food and drink in the stacks, so protecting books from crumbs is clearly secondary to the comfort of our patrons, but on the other hand, there is a lounge provided for the comfort of us on the staff, so it’s a reasonable trade-off. No, the rule qua rule is one I support (and am even willing to follow, so long as my tea is exempted). But when the explanation is that it is unprofessional, I see red.

My employer made the choice to hire part-time workers without specialized degrees, and that’s a fine choice from my point of view, but it is very specifically an unprofessional choice. They aren’t paying us what they would pay a professional, they aren’t giving us the benefits that they would give a professional, and they aren’t treating us with the kind of respect that might be implied by thinking we were professional. No, they don’t mean to imply that professionalism might include any responsibility on their part. No, it is entirely our responsibility to be as professional as possible by doing whatever we are told and not complaining. That’s the true professional relationship, isn’t it?

Look—I know this was just an off-hand comment from a perfectly good boss. It’s not worth ranting over. It’s just one of those things that people say. The thing is that I have heard that sort of thing a lot of times from a lot of bosses, not all of them perfectly good bosses. And I do really think that this rhetoric of professionalism gets applied to wage slaves and exploited workers, and that it is harmful to them, and to the social norms between employers and employees, and to the whole power relationships of employment that I think are seriously out of balance in this country. I know that ranting about the rhetoric of well-meaning bosses isn’t going to fix the problem. I suspect that even changing the rhetoric of well-meaning bosses wouldn’t do much change the balance. But oh, it makes me mad.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 25, 2011

The Library, it's academic

So the following bit popped out at me from What Students Don’t Know, an otherwise not terribly useful article by Steve Kolowich on Inside Higher Ed:

Several recent studies by the nonprofit Ithaka S+R have highlighted the disjunct between how professors view the library and how the library views itself: library directors see the library as serving primarily a teaching function; professors see it above all as a purchasing agent.

I don’t know if that is really Mr. Kolowich’s phrasing or if it came from Ithaka S+R. Whoever worded it that way, it seems like (a) everybody who works in an academic library would agree that it’s true, and (2) it’s really obviously a problem, right? And what seems to be the case is that students who go to their instructors for assistance (which is, of course, the correct thing to do) are often not being told that the reference librarians are an excellent instructional resource, because the instructors don’t think of the reference librarians as excellent instructional resources, but as purchasing agents. And that’s a problem, too, right?

The students who go on to a career in academia, though, are probably the ones who are most likely to really use the reference librarians as undergraduate instructors/helpers. That is, the people who get the assignment, go to do research in the library, and rather than just doing the minimum possible, have the experience of going to a librarian and being directed to some cool resource that wasn’t obvious. I could be wrong about that, of course—I wasn’t that undergraduate, and I am not a librarian, so I am going by observation rather than participation. But I suspect that most college instructors had some good undergraduate experience with a reference librarian.

I don’t really know about doctoral students, librarians and dissertations. I certainly don’t know about them in the sciences. Even within the humanities, I don’t know that there really is any useful generalization. I mean, presumably, that’s what those Ithaka people are trying to find out, and probably before I blog about it I should read those reports, but that’s not how blogs work, is it? Anyway. At some point, as the budding academic specializes, the reference librarian stops being much use—the problem is not finding new material but sifting through the material already gathered, and of course adding the material the readers require. The ILL librarian, that’s useful stuff, but the reference librarian? I suspect in the last year of the dissertating, certainly the last six months, possibly the last three years, doctoral students at most are just chatting with the reference librarians as familiar faces.

And what I am seeing, once the Ph.D. becomes a prof, is that they don’t ask the reference librarians for research help at all. Technical help using the databases, sure—but even then, a fairly narrow idea of technical help that doesn’t include, for instance, tips on advanced search techniques and the special crankiness of the Boolean operators on a particular site. No, it’s get me in to the top-line site, make my password work, link to the journal, and let me research.

That sounds like I am disparaging the profs, which isn’t quite right. Any prof is certainly going to be a specialist in some field and know the details of the field so intimately that a librarian won’t be able to help. Also, the specialist in, oh, Chaucer studies will know all about the Chaucer books and articles coming out from her colleagues, in more detail than the reference librarian could possibly keep up with. That’s going to be true, I suspect, even at a specialist library, where the law librarians will still have to cover all of the stuff coming out or potentially coming out, and the instructors’ specialties will remain a small section of the library’s business. And, of course, these college or graduate instructors are themselves the ones who were instructed in research by the reference librarians I posited above, as well as by the whole doctoral experience. They know how to do research. They don’t need help.

But… by the same token that these instructors are specialists in their fields, the reference librarians are specialists in library reference. No instructor in the university knows the databases as well as the reference librarians, or the ways the citations sometimes fail to surface in one way but come back in a different way. Nobody knows the resources of the library better than the librarians, and those resources aren’t always obvious, or in the library.

I guess what I’m wondering is this: When a college professor is doing research on her topic—a new conference paper or article, or revising that book chapter—how likely is he to go to the reference librarian and say I have come up with x, y and z, but can you look and see if there’s something good I’m missing?

I’m also wondering if it would, in fact, be a good use of time. The librarian would probably come up with a lot of duplicate stuff, and would probably come up with a lot of bad or irrelevant stuff, but… I don’t know.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 22, 2011

A Crowdsourcing Story, and ruminations thereon

I don’t know if Gentle Readers saw the recent story over the last couple of days on the New York Times photography blog (and the photography blog at Der Spiegel) about the photo album with blank provenance and World War II photos. The Times and Der Spiegel posted a bunch of images and asked readers to come up with the photographer and circumstances. And they did: a few hours after the posts went on-line, a doctoral student wrote in to identify the photographer, a man named Franz Krieger. Crowdsourcing! Complete! Very cool, right?

Only… it seems that the Mr. Krieger is fairly well-known among people who study this sort of thing. And there are people who study this sort of thing. At the University of Vienna, there’s Samanta Benito-Sanchez, for instance, who has written about press photographers between the wars. That came up with a quick search of Google Scholar. I didn’t come up with Peter Kramml of the Stadtarchive in Salzburg, who wrote the book on Herr Krieger, but that would not have been necessary. An email to ten or twenty people who study propaganda photography of WWII would clearly have turned up people who read Mr. Kramml’s whether Mr. Kramml was on the list or not. That list could have been gathered in half an hour or so from Google Scholar, the websites of prominent universities, a list of recent dissertations or dissertations in progress, or an index of abstracts. Or the editors of prominent journals could be contacted, East European Quarterly or News Photographer, with a question about who was studying that material, and the list gathered that way. As a reference question, it might well have taken more than three hours, but then of course it took a good deal more than three hours to set up the whole posting-on-the-blogs dealio, as well.

So, here’s the thing: the New York Times could have done some easy research to get contacts, reached those people, got further contacts, and then found out the answer to their question. But it was probably easier to do it the way they did it: post the info and then wade through the comments, following up on the first thing that sounded real. It was easier to ask everybody, assuming that everybody includes experts with actual knowledge, than it was to just ask the people with the actual knowledge. That is what we mean by crowdsourcing.

Now, in point of fact, the NYT was not primarily interested in an answer to their question; they were interested in eyeballs on the page, fulfilling the basic mission of journalism as defined by award-winning journalist and pundit David S. Bernstein as “ filling the area between ads with something marginally preferable to blank space” (see Media, Academia, & Politics, a remarkable and provocative essay that didn’t actually manage to provoke YHB to write anything). The Times got my attention by telling the story the way they told it, presenting the information in the way they did. I don’t ordinarily read their photography blog (or Der Spiegel’s), but I read this one, and even linked to it on this Tohu Bohu. So, well done them, and it would be wrong to see this as purely a reference question.

On the other hand, this technique is of course extremely common. On the baseball sites I frequent, and on some other sites I have been to that have large commenting communities, folk ask reference questions all the time, and get answers, too. And good ones, with citations and links and book recommendations and so on and so forth. It does work. On the other hand, so does the other way, where you find out who is likely to know and restrict your questioning to those people. The internet makes that much easier, too, of course, and frankly being able to email (or tweet or text) some Professor of Photographic History at Universitat Vien and get a next-day response is as crazily miraculous as the crowdsourcing that actually occurred.

So, I guess I’m wondering how Gentle Readers feel about all this, both as people who are quite likely to be looking up information on somewhat obscure topics and as people who are likely to come across blast questions of that kind. Does it annoy you to be included in crowdsourcing? Does it amuse you? Do you do it yourself, or do you lack membership in a large and heterogeneous enough group to make it work, or are you otherwise hesitant for any other reasons? For those who have experience guiding research (and I must admit I’m thinking here about Catherine and Nao particularly, and others who work in libraries, but teachers and advisors as well), do you find this sort of thing cool? Or scary?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 5, 2011

A blunt question

So. Your Humble Blogger was supervising our student workers last night, as I am wont to do, or at least as I am paid to do, when one of our workers says more or less this: A guy just totally walked by the library doors smoking a blunt!

Now, my reaction was surprise that a marijuana cigarette would, in such an exchange, be referred to as a blunt. Not that I didn’t understand the term, but I have the sense that back in the early nineties, when I was the age that this person is now, the word blunt would have been an old-fashioned, somewhat pretentious or self-conscious way for somebody to refer to a marijuana cigarette. Such an item would have been called a joint, which (further investigation revealed) is a term still in use. I’m not sure what else would have been used in the situation. To the best of my recollection, a classmate might have told me that a guy just walked by the library doors smoking a fattie, but that would not have been a term used from a student to a supervisor. Similarly a spliff or a doobie or a jay, I suppose, or perhaps even reefer, used jocularly and as a way of indicating that the speaker is of course totally unfamiliar with such items. But from a student to a supervisor? It couldn’t have been anything else but joint.

I mean, without changing the terms of the sentence—I might have told a middle-aged supervisor that somebody walked by smoking marijuana, or even I suppose smoking weed, or just smoking something. Actually, I can’t really imagine telling the supervisor at all. Not that it was all that common, or all that uncommon, just not something I would have brought up in conversation, I think. Although I should say that the person had just come in, and I was the first person she had the opportunity to tell about it, so there’s that.

I should add that we are both white, both of middle-class (or upper-middle-class) suburban backgrounds. We are friendly enough, occasionally chat about topics not directly library-related, but aren’t best buddies. We are friendly enough to make jokes about illegal narcotics. I myself have never smoked the stuff (too cheap, mostly, and sensitive lungs) and the student in question is, you know, familiar enough with the smell of it (as I am, I suppose, if I am sufficiently decongested to have any olfactory sense worth the name) but not obviously in what we used to call the drug culture. I imagine all that stuff would make a difference in the jargon, but I have no idea exactly what that difference would be.

Any ideas?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 13, 2011

Making a case

So. Libraries, of course, are different, one to another, which makes working in them interesting and fun. One difference that I have experienced, myself, is in the special displays.

There’s the open display. The librarians (or clerks or interns) have come up with a good-sized list from the collection, pulled about half from the shelves to arrange attractively on a table or two, and are hoping to catch the eye of the patron, encourage the patron to flip through the books and choose one or two to borrow. If you have done it right, after a day or two, the table is looking a trifle sparse, and you supplement from the rest of the list, continuing to do so for the duration of the display, possibly a month. The idea here is to move product, to put it crassly; get the patrons to take stuff out that they would not otherwise look at twice.

The closed display has a different purpose: it is showing off the collection. A case with books by local authors, or at an education institution, by the faculty. Or a display of some valuable old editions, or some books with pretty illustrations, or the original two dozen volumes donated by the founder. If the library is also an archive, the displays may be of letters and photographs, manuscripts and memorabilia. The point is not to encourage people to take these things out. Even when the stuff in the case is ordinarily circulating, for the duration of the display, we want the books to stay in the case. If a patron takes one out, the display is incomplete.

So, from a circulation point of view, we want the books in a closed display to show up in the catalogue as unavailable, and we want the books in an open display to show up as available but not in their usual place on the shelf. Very simple. Both kinds of displays are good—I have spent many happy hours peering into cases at Mugar, Lamont and the BPL. And I have picked up books off displays in the Mission Branch and the Williamsburg Library that I would never have found on the shelf. So I am good with displays. I want to emphasize that I like library displays, and that I am not, by nature, a gripy person.

But it does make me cross that we have, to commemorate and celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the library that employs me, just taken two dozen of the best books about the Civil Rights Movement in our collection, marked them unavailable for borrowing and locked them in a case where nobody can read them.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 9, 2010

Your Opinion

OK, quick question for Gentle Readers:

The sun has gone down, here in the Nexus of Nutmeg, and that means that Chanukah is ovah.

Now, my employer has decked our hall with boughs of pine, and cones, and ribbons, and bells, and stocking hung by the elevator shaft with care. Oh, and nutcrackers. But also with mylar dreidels and cardboard menorahs. And lights and snowmen and poinsettias and Snoopy in a Santa hat. You know. It’s festive.

As I mentioned before, Chanukah is over. Done. Forty-four candles burnt to nothing; no candles left. Tonight I will pack up the dreidels and the Woolworth’s Menorah and all the Chanukah books and crafts, and I won’t bring them out until next December. Should I suggest taking down the Chanukah decorations at my place of employment as well?

Look, everybody knows that the decorations are up as a sop to multiculturalism, so that we won’t look like we’ve forgotten that there are Jews around, even in December. We put them up when we put up the rest of the winter decorations. And most of the other decorations are winter decorations, rather than explicitly Christmas decorations; sure there’s a tree and the stockings, but the snowmen and poinsettias and snowflakes are pretty much just wintery. On the other hand, they will all come down on January Third, or at any rate sometime that first week in January rather than hanging around until February or March. So nobody is fooled.

And on one level, when I see a Winter Festivity display that still has the mylar dreidels two full weeks after Chanukah is over, I don’t feel at all that my feelings as a Jew have been taken into account. I mean, at that point they might as well just put up Purim scrolls and masks, right? The message is we don’t really know anything about Chanukah, but we’ve heard it’s the Jewish Christmas. So my inclination is to take ‘em down tonight, or over the weekend at the latest.

On the other hand, it is extra work and annoyance for those of us who do the putting up and taking down of seasonal decorations. And, at our house, we do leave our magnificent glass-and-bronze Menorah out all year round as an awbjay. It’s not like there’s something distasteful or disrespectful about a mylar dreidel on Asara B’Tevet. And next year Chanukah won’t be over until sundown on December 28th. But in 2013, Chanukah will be over for three week when they finally box up the dreidels, unless something is done to change the way we do things. Which, again, wouldn’t be so bad, would it?

So, here’s the question: For GRs who are Jewish, how do you feel about the cardboard menorahs on the post-Chanukah pre-Christmas stretch? For GRs who aren’t, how would you feel about the yidn taking their mylar dreidles and going home on the tenth?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

November 9, 2010

Grrrrrrrr. Also, Gr.

Your Humble Blogger has used this Tohu Bohu before as a recipient for whinging about training sessions, and y’all were wicked sympathetic. So let me just vent for a moment…

See… see… I’m just saying. If a training session is moved on the day before it is scheduled to take place, and if the training session is specifically for part-time workers who may not have been around the day before, and if the new location is in a basement computer lab… would it kill the people in charge to put a fucking sign on the door that says Training Session? I mean, just so some of us know we’ve come to the right place at last? Or even to write something like Training on the whiteboard at the front of the room, so if we do poke our heads in, we have some signal that this is where the training will be?

And—see, I know this is utterly unreasonable, but I really prefer it when the people doing the training introduce themselves at the beginning of the session, so we know who the fuck they are. It’s not that I want to be their best friend forever, but it is just barely possible that I will have a relevant question later, isn’t it?

And finally, and I would like to say that this last bit is in no way the fault of the poor saps who were saddled with training us, if an organization switches its part-time employees to a timeclock system where we must clock in at the beginning of our shifts and clock out at the end of them, doesn’t it seem like a bad idea to have, every pay period, a process that the employee must go through after clocking out? Perhaps I’m just cranky, but seems to me that after I have clocked out, I’m not getting paid, and if I’m not getting paid, then I ain’t working. I mean, it’s only a couple of minutes—unless there’s something hinky going on, in which case of course it’s more than a couple of minutes, and of course for those of us that are locking up at the end of the day, we can’t start to shut down the computer until after we’ve clocked out so that’s another couple of minutes. And, frankly, my preference on those days would have been to shut down the computer before doing the last walk-around, turning off lights, that sort of thing. But that’s just a preference: if my Employer wants to make it a policy that I do it in the other order and shut down the computer in the dark, that’s their right and I can’t imagine it ending badly in any way at all. But leaving that aside, just as a software design issue, shouldn’t clocking out be the end of the workday?

Really finally, one more thing: if YHB is coming back from a training session this cranky (and YHB is actually a pretty cheerful guy, tho’ you might not know it from this Tohu Bohu, and certainly some other recently-trained co-employees are crankier even than YHB) then something has gone very, very wrong with the process. This will not translate into us being perfectly trained and using the software in the most ideal of all possible ways. Not good for those people who will be dealing with us in the end, and who, presumably, are designing the training sessions in the first place.

Whew. I feel better now. Thanks for listening.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 12, 2010

The good ships

Your Humble Blogger just shelved half a hundred books about Leadership. It was one of those oddball library things, where we suddenly (and correctly) decided to take all the books out of the special collection on Leadership and shelve them in the stacks with the others. Perfectly ordinary, except that it’s an awful lot of bullshit for one day.

It did remind me, however, of my cranky objection to the emphasis on Leadership in our culture over the last twenty years or so. I don’t mean that Leadership is a Bad Thing—it’s a Good Thing, clearly, and there should be people studying it and writing about it and doing it. But it isn’t the only Good Thing, and its GoodThingness has (in my arrogant opinion) got itself too high up in the cultural chain of being.

I got particularly cranky about this when a recent effort was made to inculcate Leadership into the incoming class at the University that employs me. There was a short list of such values: Leadership, Community, possibly something like Integrity or Honesty. Anyway, my immediate reaction was that this was a foolish and mistaken choice. I mean. It is true that anybody can be a Leader but is not the case that everybody can be a Leader, not unless we want to define Leadership down past all meaning (which many of the books do). And while it would be good for everybody to know something about Leadership, as most people will have some opportunities to exercise that knowledge at some point in their lives, it is also true that it would be good for everybody to know something about pretty much any conceivable topic; it doesn’t follow that Leadership should be one of the three or four things chosen out to emphasize to the incoming class.

My suggestion, made idly in conversation long after the Leadership plank got into our platform, was that students would be better off being inculcated with Stewardship. Most people will have the opportunity to exercise knowledge about Leadership at some point in their lives, I admit, but most people will pass up their opportunity to act as Leaders, and that’s all right. That is, in fact, in the nature of Leadership. But not only can anybody exercise Stewardship, everybody can exercise Stewardship, all at the same time, and it only gets better.

What is Stewardship? Essentially, Stewardship is taking responsibility for something without claiming ownership of it. Taking care of stuff—of communities, of people, of the environment, of buildings, of knowledge, of capabilities, of life. It’s a tremendously important thing for a college kid to know about—most kids come to college having been taken care of most of their lives, and having consciously extended their responsibility to perhaps a car or a computer, but little else. They have acted as Stewards, sure—they have taken care of their sports teams or their gangs or their wardrobes, probably, but they haven’t known what they were doing, or how, or why. Some clear thought and argument on Stewardship is bound to help them, and can’t really hurt those people who have been doing a good job of it beforehand.

Now, it is true that Stewardship has become a buzzword for socially reactionary religious groups to cover environmental activism. I don’t want to endorse those groups (although given that they exist, I would rather they put some effort into environmental Stewardship rather than spending that effort in persecuting minorities and supporting the Other Party), but I don’t think it’s a problem to subsume their buzzword into a new buzzword. There’s the possibility of a positive effect on those organizations, and even if, as I admit could happen, some people take the use of the term as a kind of dog-whistle rhetoric that indicates tacit approval of their other policies, that could work to my advantage as those people might then be more open to the greater fields of Stewardship that might lead them away from the more mean-spirited policies of those groups.

That’s all in my imaginary world, though, where the shift in emphasis from Leadership to Stewardship is something that would be seriously considered by my University or others like it. All I do about it is gripe on this blog; I don’t have the reach to change the actual mission statement. And—just to say it again, I don’t think it’s a Bad Thing to teach college frosh about Leadership. But in our catalogue, Stewardship as a keyword search turns up only 21 items; Leadership turns up over a thousand. That seems like the wrong ratio.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 22, 2010

Hold me back, take away my library card.

So here is where I need your help, Gentle Readers.

I finally watched Avatar on DVD on our little screen at home, but it’s too late for you to do anything about that. I went up to wash it off me in the tub, and naturally in picking a Bathtub Book, I went for the original novel. Which, as I have said, is one of my favorites. And I’m enjoying it, and I’m thinking that’s the way you do it. I mean, sure, have your main character boink the chief’s daughter and become a fighter of legendary skill, and sure, have him control the largest possible exotic beasties in a way makes him the foreordained of legend, but you don’t stop there! You have him become the freaking Messiah, the Mahdl’T, the Lasagna Alamode, the Kumquat Haagendasz, He who can prepare many dishes so they are all ready at once, the Shortnin’Bread of the Way and the Rightful Duke of the Planet, and ultimately the Padedbrah Emperor of the Known Universe And Its Suburbs.

So, anyway, I’m digging on this book, and at this moment I am writing to you, Gentle Readers, I am digging on it enough to want to read the next one in the series.

Which is where you come in. Because I have only the dimmest of memories of Doon, Meshuggeneh, and those memories are not what you would call positive. But I am tempted, for the first time in a score of years, and it turns out my library has the thing.

Please.

Stop me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 19, 2010

It is called a fire alarm for a reason.

Just a note here, since I cannot announce it over the Public Address system where I work:

If you are in a library, and you hear a fire alarm, leave the building.

True, the odds are very good that there is no fire. It may be a drill. It may be a glitch in the alarm system. It may be someone sneaking a smoke in the bathroom, which although technically involving fire is not a fire within the meaning of the act.

One of the things it may be is a fire.

If it is a fire, and it probably isn’t, but if it is a fire, it will probably not wind up with open flames in the stacks.

But if it does come to that?

I know you do not want to gather up your things and walk to the entrance and stand out in the sun or the rain or the snow for ten minutes while the building is cleared and we get the high sign to let you back in. That’s a pain, and since the odds are very very good that there is no fire, or no fire anywhere near you, it seems like a lot of effort for nothing.

But you won’t actually know if this low-likelihood event is taking place unless you see flames on the bookshelves, will you. And paper? The substance in all those books? And paper dust?

Think about gambling for a minute. If we were to wager on, oh, let’s see. Take two decks of cards, you pick a card from your deck and I pick a card from mine, and we see if they match. If they don’t match, you win a dollar. If they match, you pay me a dollar. But if we match five times in a row, then you not only pay me a million dollars, but I set fire to your fucking hair and trap you in an exploding building full of poisonous smoke.

Would that be a good bet?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 7, 2010

A private library with a public purpose

One of the odd things about the library that employs me is that we are an odd sort of public/private place. We are, in point of fact, private—the university is a private one, and we could, if we chose, keep the public out. But in common with a lot of private university libraries (but by no means all), we have lots of services available for the public as well. We probably have a little more wide open a policy than most places: pretty much anybody can use anything within the library any time we are open. We do reserve the right to throw people out or kick them off the computer or just stop helping them over at reference, but we rarely exercise that right. There are always half-a-dozen or more people just camped out at one of our computers, doing whatever it is they are doing. Some of them are regulars, in every day or nearly, some for hours and hours. I know some of their names; others are nodding acquaintances.

Several of them appear to be running businesses out of our library. Well, and by running a business I mean that they are using our internet connection to do all that internetty stuff, filing paperwork and sending invoices and so on and so forth. There’s a sense in which the guy who is writing his memoirs is running a business, in that he is hoping to make money from selling the thing. Or you could argue, I suppose, that the people in here studying for the bar exam are running a business, in some indirect sense. Or the fellow who is doing investment research. But that’s not what I mean—I mean that they are doing the things that they would do in a home office, only they are doing them here. And not doing them once a month when the DSL is down, either. Five days a week, in for a few hours to take care of business.

Now, I have to admit that makes me a trifle uneasy. On the one hand, I totally understand that once you have let people come in here and use the internet and the books and periodicals and so on, it would be very wrong indeed to restrict that use because of the content. On the other, we are an educational institution, we get lots of money from various groups and individuals (not least the students who pay tuition) in order to support the educational mission of the institution, and there is something not altogether kosher about our using our resources to support businesses with no connection to the University. Or with a connection, one might even say. And there’s some sense in which allowing free riders to better themselves, to learn, to get exposure to the wide variety of fields we cover, to even up the digital gap a bit, is all very nice, but allowing free riders to make a quick buck or two isn’t so heartwarming.

Still. If we were to have a policy saying that you couldn’t run a business out of the library, we would have to enforce it somehow, and that would be much, much worse than letting people do their things. Clearly.

I would be curious, at this point, to know what Gentle Readers think at this stage, before I go any further. I won’t stop here and put a blank space, but please just think, for a moment, about your response to the situation, formulate it as if you were going to respond, one way or another. You would be easy in your mind about the regular use of the academic library by unaffiliated patrons for profit-oriented businesses unrelated to the university. You would be uneasy in your mind, but would rather put up with it than enforce some sort of exclusionary policy. You think we’re crazy to allow random people to come in and get on-line anyway. Something along those lines.

Now, another point: I’m pretty sure one of the fellows is running a business selling dirty movies. I’m not positive, but I think that’s what is going on—anyway, let’s posit that he is, or at least that somebody could well be. He is not watching dirty movies; that we could very easily put a stop to, if we wanted. Nothing more salacious than an occasional publicity still gets on-screen; mostly he appears to work on a catalogue of some kind, inventory perhaps, getting titles and addresses and whatnot. Now, I am aware that he could be doing research for a book, or I could be misreading what I glimpse on the screen (and I do attempt not to be nosy, for my own peace of mind), or there could be a million other explanations for what he is looking up, printing, and writing. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that this guy is selling hard-core pr0n, yum yum, doing all of the internet and printer parts of the business on our machines. Does this affect your feeling about the policy? Because I have to say, it does affect mine. And I am not against dirty movies. I don’t think they should be illegal (any more than they currently are, and in places less), and from a logical, theoretical point of view I can’t make a real distinction between somebody who uses our stuff to run a business trading in smut and somebody who is buying and selling scrimshaw. And yet, the connotation is definitely there.

Now, another only distantly related policy issue. I happened to notice a fellow the other day who was drinking a beer while typing away. He appeared to be of age, and was not disruptive. He was a biggish fellow, and a cold beer on a hot day was liable to be good for him. In the absence of inebriation, is there some justification for preferring that our patrons drink a Coke rather than a beer? There is such a policy—and as my supervisor agreed, the policy effectively just asks patrons to drink their beer from a cup or mug, rather than drinking it from a bottle. The policy may have some justification (on a college campus, a policy that allows responsible drinking will lead to irresponsible drinking, and this is, after all, a library), but I can’t help thinking that what is behind it is a moral value that beer is worse than cola, even in moderation. And I don’t believe that. Any more than I believe that watching people fucking is worse than watching people fighting. And yet…

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 16, 2010

Mostly, people don't take stuff. Mostly.

So. Times are bad. Crime is up.

There have been, to my knowledge, five laptops stolen out of the library this semester. All of those were reported as having been left unattended. It is very easy to pick up a laptop, shove it in a backpack and walk out the door. The staff have no way of stopping anyone—we don’t check everybody’s bags, and if we did, we wouldn’t know who had their own laptop, who had borrowed a friend’s with permission, and who was a thief.

You may be asking yourself, Why would someone walk away from a laptop lying on a desk? Well, it’s a fair question. Some of the reported incidents have involved bathroom breaks (or so was the claim); I have talked to people who seemed to think that it was tremendously inconvenient to gather up their things and shlep them over to the bathroom (or to one of our lockers, which require a quarter for deposit). I actually understand this. Most of the time that somebody walks away from their stuff, they walk back after five minutes to find it untouched. I would be willing to guess that happens nineteen times out of twenty. That’s pretty good odds.

Unless, of course, you don’t want to have your laptop stolen. In that case, the odds stink.

As library employees, we have to figure out how to deal with the people who figure that their odds are good. That is, every few hours, a library employee will spot a neglected laptop. We don’t have a real policy for this, not a properly published policy. What we generally do is hang around for a bit waiting for the owner to come back, at which point we inform the laptop owner that five laptops have been stolen out of the library this semester, and that his could well have been the sixth. The student expresses chagrin and the employee goes back to the desk and gripes to co-workers, who shake their heads. This is about as effective in dealing with the problem as the four-dozen signs we posted.

I believe, by the way, that there are professionals hanging around the library, particularly on evenings and weekends, mingling with the students and keeping their eyes open for opportunities. If this is not the case, then laptop fencing must not be very lucrative, as it certainly appears to be an obvious niche if there’s money in it. But it is possible that it is students doing the thieving for their own benefit. There is disagreement in amongst the staff about the theft of the X-Box from the Collaboration Pod; there are people who feel that the unit is most likely sitting in a dorm room, a replacement for a busted one, and there are people who feel that the unit was traded by a student for drugs or drug money, and those who agree with YHB that a professional took the thing to his fence. No evidence, of course, just a difference in worldview. I should say that the students who work at the desk tend to the idea that the thieves are other students, which might carry some observational weight.

At any rate, whether the laptops are being taken by students or outsiders, we would like it to stop. And we aren’t sure how to go about instilling more caution in our patrons (which is the best and easiest first step). Some of us feel that when we come across a laptop alone, we should take it to the circ desk, leaving behind a message that we have taken protective custody. The drawbacks of this plan are obvious, but the benefits might possibly outweigh them. I don’t know. I would think that would be the likeliest to spread via anecdote—a fellow who sees a message left on top of his laptop might not tell anyone, after all, even if his own actions are altered in future. And we won’t reach everyone individually, so we need to rely on social changes. On the other hand, I work at the circ desk, and I really really don’t want to be the one to whom the student applies for the safe return of their property. Particularly not as we get toward the end of the semester, when tempers are short.

I don’t really have a solution, nor do I expect GRs to come up with one (although, yes, it would be lovely). I’m just griping, because people are stupid and other people are dishonest, and the combination can really ruin my workday.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 16, 2010

Information, Technology, Communication: choose two

So, a couple of fellows just came through here, around the back by the administration offices. The senior guy said that they were from IT, and that he had just shut down a ‘port’ because a computer had been ‘compromised’, and was sending out a ton of traffic, essentially a denial of service attack.

Now, it’s Spring Break around the university that employs me, so we are running with fewer people than usual, so I can’t altogether blame the fellow for not finding anyone more senior than YHB to tell his interesting story to. I mean, I’m a circulation assistant. All I’m going to do is pass the story on to somebody else. But it’s totally plausible that I was the only employee in the library sitting at a desk at the moment he was through, so what the heck, why not tell me as you are going out, in addition to sending an email or filing a whatnot. The fact that I am only vaguely aware that computers have ports and could not with any accuracy tell you what they do and don’t do, or how I could tell that a computer port had been shut down by IT, well, not his problem, I suppose.

All right, in the interest of passing the story along to somebody who has the unfortunate job of dealing with the now de-ported computer, I ask what seems like the first question someone will ask me: what computer is it? What room is it in? This is a bit of a stumper; the IT fellow has to look it up on his laptop, and his coworker has to co-look it up with him. But the laptop is slow and has difficulty connecting to our wireless, so this takes a little while. Hum de dum. Of course, it being Spring Break, we’re not so terribly busy here, particularly as I cannot (being the only one here) leave the Circ Desk and go shelve any of the five carts of books waiting for me. La de da. My understanding, by the way, is that the public computers here at the library (and of course there are dozens of them) have some sort of security in place specifically to prevent that sort of thing, but security doesn’t always work, does it? Aha! He has the information: the computer in question is in room XXXX, another wing of the building entirely, not in the library at all but in the Hmphm Department.

Well, then. Excellent. I mean, excellent for the library. Not so good for the Hmphm Department. When I began to direct this IT fellow to the Hmphm Department office, so he could pass the story along to them, he shrugged, put his laptop away, and said that no doubt they would call IT when they discovered that their computer didn’t work properly.

I’m mostly passing this story along to you, Gentle Reader, because I don’t really have anybody else to tell it to. I will try to drop by the Hmphm Department office later, but I do need to stay at the Circ Desk, because, you know, only fellow in the library (insert video of cartwheel). I am also passing it along because I am just utterly dumbfounded and flabbergast and disoriented: if this guy really didn’t need to pass along the info to anybody, but was going to wait until the aggrieved user called IT, then what was he doing here?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 26, 2010

Working Around (and around and around)

Your Humble Blogger works with data.

I mean, everybody does, if you think about it, right? Because everything is a datum, and the plural of datum is data. Or something. Anyway, what is actually true is that YHB has some skills in getting data into systems and out again. I’m not a true data jockey, but most of the work I’ve been paid for over the last twenty years or so has involved databases of some kind, and most often I have been working alongside and for people who don’t really get databases, or data at all, really, so I have picked up a lot of useful tricks.

This is unfortunate in many ways.

Oh, it’s not so terribly bad to have the ability to write a report and see whether the report is telling you what it’s telling you it’s telling you. On the other hand, my experience has led me to think almost entirely in terms of workarounds. And while workarounds are useful, and get things done, they also tend to inhibit good data management.

Here, let’s talk specifics. You know how YHB’s employer has gone with a new, brand-new, open-source, southern-hemisphere ILS, and how that has worked out to be very very interesting for all concerned? Well, for two or three months in there, we simply did not bill for missing books. And I’ll go back a bit and talk about our policy—when a book is overdue 45 days, we mark it as lost and bill the patron. If the book is returned later, we credit out a chunk of that bill. That bill is sent through the Bursar’s Office of the University, which means for a student, no course credit, transcripts, a diploma, whatever. It’s our little way of getting attention.

What that means is that once a month or so (on the Bursar’s schedule, not ours) we need a list of those items that (a) are more than 45 days overdue and (2) have not yet been billed. The second one isn’t that big a deal, as we can and do indicate in the system that the bill was sent. The first one should be that difficult either. Except that I lied just up there—what we need is a list of those items and the person who took them out. And our system insists that once a book is missing, it isn’t checked out. Which makes sense. If we know who has it, it isn’t missing, because we know who has it. If we have billed for it, then we are saying the person doesn’t have it, so it isn’t checked out to him. See? It makes perfect sense, except that it does not allow us to use the system with our policies.

We asked for a report that would give us all the information we need, and we got a report that gives us much of the information we need, along with several pieces of information we don’t need. So for the last three months, I have obtained a report that is, oh, say, 491 lines long. Then I can sort and throw out the 317 lines that I can easily eyeball as being wrong. Then sort out another chunk of twenty or so, and then another twenty or so, and I’m left with, what, a hundred and thirty or so? Now, of those, there are still a dozen or so that are not real, but I have to look at each one individually to find out which. But that’s OK, because I have to look at each one individually anyway, to get the rest of the information that wasn’t in the report. Getting the report and sorting it down to 130 (or so) is a matter of fifteen or twenty minutes. Looking up each individual entry takes longer, at a rate of five a minute or so, call it half an hour. So let’s call it an hour, altogether to turn the report into usable information.

Now, an hour a month isn’t actually that much work. It’s a perfectly workable workaround. Getting a report that works could take days. The annoying and repetitive work of getting the information is not actually more annoying than the annoying and (largely) repetitive work of report writing, and a lot less annoying than continuing to pester people for (f’r’ex) a list of the names of the fields (without which report-writing is extremely difficult). And, as I say, I’m all about the useful tricks and workarounds. All it really requires is that I understand why the report is wrong, what is wrong about it, and respond cheerfully to the three hundred false positives, knowing why they are there. This is one example of three (that I can think of off the top of my head) similar reports that don’t-quite-work unless I massage them after-market.

The problem is that it may come to pass that someone else wants information from the system. Perhaps even when I am not around. That me-not-around thing happens quite frequently, in fact. And if I were to sit down with someone and explain how I go about getting the information we need, well, that is likely to be the most annoying part of all. That, then, is my impetus to get a properly working report. Even though I would just as soon not bother.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 14, 2010

My Sympathy is with the Prof.

Here’s a good one for the library stories file: a few years ago, a certain older faculty member, let’s call him Professor Tenured, asks the Director of the Libraries to explain about all this computer database stuff that the libraries are all on about these days. Now, the library Director knows that this is a fellow who is not computer-savvy; this is one of those types who have the department secretary print out emails and put them in the box, right? You know. Director does not think that she’s going to thunderbolt Prof. Tenured on the road to Damascus and suddenly he will use all the resources available to him. Still, this is a good guy, a good teacher and writer evidently, and fairly influential on the Third Floor, if you know what I mean. So she not only invites him to come in and get a virtual tour, but offers to make a house call and set him up at his own desk, with bookmarks and all. He accepts the latter offer, of course, and so off goes the Director to sit down with Professor Tenure and show him the proverbial.

This is one of those Professors who has an outer office and an inner office, you know? The inner sanctum being furnished with stacks and stacks of books covering every possible surface. Total stereotype, bless his hairpiece. Well, come in, come in, and I’ll just have to move some of these books here, and I’m very excited about learning all this, and you can see I’m old-fashioned, and let me just move these books, you see I don’t use the computer thing because I’ve covered it up with these books here, and just a minute, and um, I know there was a computer here…

It turns out that the CPU had been stolen. No way of knowing how long ago; not only had he not tried to turn it on in months, but he had assumed that it was behind some of the stacks of books somewhere, where it may well have been for some time before somebody lifted it. Computer gone, professor cry no more.

Professor Tenure is still teaching at the institution in question, and still teaching well, from what I hear. Came in to pick up some ILL books today. Ah, books.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

December 4, 2009

An Awkward Moment

So. Fairly often I am at the circulation desk taking care of a student when that student’s buddy comes up behind them and thwacks them one.

To give you a sense of things: as you enter the library, the circ desk is to your right, perpendicular to the door. Thus, when facing the desk, people are entering behind you and to your right. The café is directly behind you, and the stairs to the bulk of the stacks come down behind you as well. So it is easy for someone to sneak up on you, all unbeknownst, like. Also, most of our students are ‘college age’, between 17 and 22, say. A great age for thwacking your buddies in the back of the head, or on the shoulder, or kicking them in the seat of the pants.

My usual reaction to this is a Librarian’s Glare, second level, followed after the departure of the kids by quietly smiling to myself about the whole nature of homosociality. Except that sometimes it isn’t homosocial. Sometimes it is heterosocial. And my emotional reaction to that is very different.

Just to be clear, I am talking about a fellow giving a reasonably firm but not vicious punch in the shoulder, slap up the back of the head, or hip block to a young woman who doesn’t see him coming. Today (my inspiration for the post) it was actually a kick to the seat of the pants. Not a bruising blow, but not a nudge. What used to be called a love tap, back when spousal abuse was considered sweet.

In today’s case, the young woman responded with affectionate eye-rolling; she kissed him shortly after. I responded with a Class One Librarian’s Glare (with eyebrow raised to the full third level), and with this post.

I don’t mean to be all whatsit, but seriously, no young woman should allow herself to be treated with that kind of rough affection in public. That should not be tolerated in our library. It should make the practitioner of the kick (or slap or punch) an immediate social pariah. Not because the young woman is being harmed, and only somewhat because I suspect that a fellow who routinely kicks his girlfriend’s ass in affection will have difficulty restraining himself in anger, and not only because for the love of Mike she had no way of knowing it was you and if she had responded by instinctively grabbing the book off the counter and decking you with it she would have been well within her whatsit, but because that kind of roughhouse is bad, bad, bad for women everywhere, for the women sitting in the café, in the entrance, on the stairs, or working behind my counter who have to watch it. What are the odds, at any point, that there is a woman within view who has been the recipient of abuse from a family member, romantic partner or other boy friend? Fifty-fifty? More? From the numbers and demographics, I would guess closer to two-to-one.

And yet, I never say anything. I glare, and I shake my head, and I go back to my desk and type. Because in the world as it is, my saying something would be wildly inappropriate (and might lead to my being fired, depending on what I said and how I said it), and would not be welcomed by the student who was kicked, and furthermore as there is no overwhelming social norm backing me up, wouldn’t do much good, anyway. Sigh.

And another thing that makes me uncomfortable about the whole thing—I assume that when a young man thwacks another young man at the desk that they are not romantic partners. I do think that homosocial thwackage is a part of our social norms, and although I wouldn’t encourage a son of mine to adopt that kind of thing, I wouldn’t ground him for a week if I saw him do it. I see third-graders behaving that way in the schoolyard all the time, and I give them only two levels of eyebrow. If I saw a son of mine thwack a girl, especially from behind, it would be Groundhog Day for him, if you know what I mean. Is this sexist? In a way, I think so, but I also (being sexist in that way) think that the world being the world, abuse of women by men being so much more prevalent than any of the other combinations (as heinous as those are), a man thwacking a woman in public has a devastating symbolic weight. A man thwacking a man does not. I feel justified in making this distinction, and yet it nags at me, when I contemplate what my (outward) reaction should be to a thwack at the desk.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 31, 2009

Looking Down

OK, so y’all know that I am a circulation clerk at an academic library, right? As such, part of my job—most of my job, really—is supervising college kids who are working five or eight hours a week for pocket money. This is fine; it’s easy work, and I’m pretty good at it. The job is, essentially, being a visible grown-up. There’s a good deal of training and manual-writing, which I can do, and a fair amount of basic circ-work, checking in and out and shelving and so on, but mostly, I am making sure that the young persons show up and do what they are supposed to do. Yes? And provide a grown-up presence in the library, in case that is necessary.

The grown-up presence is really my job. All I have to do, most of the time, is walk around, wear a necktie, and have gray in my hair. The student workers will not be as inclined to chat with their friends and romantic interests if I am nearby, or to slang each other, or ignore the desk. I rarely have to ask them to stop doing something inappropriate; I do my work by just being there. I am Uncle Supervisor. This is excellent work for me, because I do not secretly want to be twenty again, or to join in the lives of the students. I don’t listen to their music or watch their television shows (which aren’t usually on television); I don’t dress like them or speak like them, and I don’t have a facebook account.

I also don’t make the hiring and firing decisions, which is nice for me. The people who do make those decisions consult with me, and I am carefully noncommittal. I have, on a couple of occasions, confirmed that a student will not be missed; I have much more rarely stood up for a student who I think is potentially a good worker. The person who does the hiring prefers, on the whole, to hire women than men, I think on the reasonable grounds that college-age women are more likely to be steady and responsible than college-age men. I think this is true in general for our university’s students, but fails to take into account that a young woman in her sophomore year is likely to remain at her level of maturity for another year, while a young fellow is fairly likely to learn about buckling down right about then, even after a freshman year of slack. But my point here (and I’m slowly getting to it) is that while I am the supervisor on shift, I am not the Head of Department; the big decisions and the discipline are done elsewhere, with minor input from me and the other supervisors. I am in between.

This all means that I am friendly with the students without being friends with them. They know a little about my life (that I am married and have children, that I act in community theater) and I know a little about theirs (where they are from, their field of study), and perhaps we discuss books or art, but I don’t, for instance, know about their romantic lives, or their fights with roommates, or their finances. Oh, sometimes I wind up finding out about some of that, against my will, but on the whole, I keep my nose out of their business. Yes? Clear? Now the tricky bit.

We have a student, let’s call her, oh, you think of a name. Rachel. How about Rachel? We don’t have a Rachel at present. OK, we have a student worker who we’re calling Rachel, who seems to be fairly bright, helpful, pleasant, prompt, all that good stuff. No problems, as far as I know. Our working hours overlap only a little bit; most of her hours she has a different supervisor, but I do see her at least briefly twice a week, and then of course on occasion in the library when she isn’t working for us but for her profs. I have had a few conversations with her, but I would say I know her even more distantly than many of the other student workers. And I certainly have no complaints about her work, which I haven’t seen, for the most part.

I have a complaint about her clothing.

And I should say—I don’t even have a complaint about her clothing, as such. I mean, I am not complaining.

Rachel has a large and well-formed bosom. I have seen pretty much all of it at this point, and I do have to say I’m impressed. It’s not, you know, astonishing. Her breasts are not the biggest of all our student workers; I would guess Rachel has a C-cup, and we have a couple of workers in the double-D region. And all of the young women wear clothes I consider inappropriately revealing. Another of our workers, let’s call her Joan, has an absolutely tremendous bosom, real enter-the-room-before-she-does figure, and about a yard of décolletage most days, and if I were her father, I would prefer she wear high-necked stuff, but she doesn’t, and that’s her business. But Rachel’s outfits show a difference in degree that I think is a difference in kind. This is less like peeking and more like being flashed.

You know about cleavage—there’s the cleavage that is a vertical line, and there’s the cleavage that’s more of a V, and there’s the cleavage which is actually two lines? Where you can see the skin between the breasts? Sometimes women with small breasts have that, but for a C-cup, it usually requires either very good undergarments or really remarkable breasts. Or low gravity, I would guess. Anyway, what I’m saying, with Rachel, there’s the skin between the breasts, the underside of the breasts, and part of the nipple.

Now, when I say, above, that being Old Guy on Duty is excellent work for me, the one thing that I do worry about in that capacity is that I am the kind of Old Guy who likes to look down the shirts of young women. I attempt to do so discreetly. I mean, in addition to our workers, there are the students and faculty; the job does require a fair amount of people handing me books over a counter, which is a terrible temptation for a very susceptible circulation clerk. I am rather afraid of developing a reputation as a Creepy Old Guy, rather than an Avuncular Old Guy, and I hope I have avoided that so far. I am also afraid of actually being a Creepy Old Guy, in the sense that I don’t want to creep these young women out. Partially because of ego of my own, and partially (I insist) that I really do believe that everybody has a right to a workplace that doesn’t creep them out. I hope that my safely-married status is comforting; I am the most married man in the world, as people who get to know me quickly figure out. I haven’t made a pass at a woman other than my Best Reader since I was a college kid myself, working at the circulation desk. I don’t want to do anything with these young women other than look at them on occasion, to the extent that I can do so without creeping them out.

All of which is to admit that I do look down the shirts of my inappropriately-dressed underlings, but I don’t stare open-mouthed, drool running down my chin. I look our employees in the eye when I speak to them, and I don’t make up tasks for them that involve a lot of bending at the waist. You know? I am creepy, but I try to keep it within bounds.

With Rachel, however,it is extremely difficult not to stare. In fact, I wind up staying further away from her, looking away when talking to her, and generally trying like hell not to look down her shirt, because I don’t think I can do it discreetly. While, of course, thinking about it and, particularly when she enters the library, taking a quick look.

Now. On the one hand, I do think it’s her business; she is neither so stupid or so nearsighted that she is unaware that she is showing off, and I actually support her in her right to so choose. On the other, I think it’s a minor mistake—I doubt she realizes that it’s not just the hunky guys in her classes but the creepy middle-aged staff and faculty who are getting an eyeful of skin. Perhaps she does, and either (a) she thinks it’s a fair tradeoff, or (2) she likes showing off to creepy middle-aged people. I have no idea.

The difficulty for me is that as her supervisor, I feel that it would be a good idea if someone told her that she shouldn’t flaunt her bosom quite so much whilst working. Or at least if someone made it clear that it might very well make other people uncomfortable, and that it would be better to use some discretion herself in the interests of workplace amity and so on. But I don’t want to tell her myself. I can’t imagine that conversation going well at all. (Rachel, if I could just have a moment of your time, I just wanted to say I’ve been looking down your shirt, and—) Nor, honestly, do I feel like a conversation between YHB and the other supervisory staff would be enjoyable and free from awkwardness. (Can you tell Rachel to cover her damned tits already?) I think, in point of fact, that any such conversation would be likelier to increase the difficulty of the workplace rather than decrease it.

And, just to embarrass myself further (we’re all friends here, right? We didn’t leave the window open, did we?) I am not altogether sure that want the final resolution of the matter to be that Rachel dresses more sensibly. I mean, yes, it would make things easier for me, but then, you know, in a few semesters she’ll be gone, and I will have an amusing memory, and in the meantime, she really does have a great rack. But when the person who makes the schedule starts asking about next semester, I don’t exactly know how to say I’d like to have Rachel arrive just as I am leaving, please, so I can get one good look without having to deal with the consequences.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

October 19, 2009

My Job, and Not My Job

Your Humble Blogger works in a library, but is not a librarian. I am a clerk. I like being a clerk. It’s fairly likely that I will become an actual librarian, just because of the money and the job security, but for the moment, the job I have is the one I want.

As an example of the difference between what I do and what a librarian does, imagine a college student who comes to the desk and says Where are books about the Civil War? My job is not to tell the student where books about the Civil War can be found; my job is to tell that student where the reference desk is. The librarian’s job is to explain to that student why that is the wrong question, and help that student figure out what the right questions are.

I mean, I could find books about the Civil War. I could find probably find them in fifteen different parts of the library. There’s American History, of course, and World History (not irrelevant), and then there’s Military Science downstairs (divided, actually, into Army and Navy, both helpful), there’s Art, there’s Photography, there’s Literature, there’s Economics, Law or Medicine (and Nursing, nearby), probably Education, likely Agriculture, probably Science and Technology as well. And it turns out that shipwrecks (and salvage) are a subset of Geography. There’s probably books all over that at least touch on the Civil War, and I would guess most of those sections would have at least one book that focuses on it.

(The American Civil War of the 1860s, of course; not Civil War more generally, but it turns out that the student in question was, in fact, referring to that conflict, as I figured.)

Or I could, easily enough, say something like go to E500 or so and look around, which would have been cruel, or picked out something like James Ford Rhodes’s History of the Civil War and sent her away. Easy, peasy. If that were a librarian’s job, I could do that and be happy. But the actual librarian’s job is work, and who wants that?

I did, by the way, discuss the poor sap with the librarian who was at the desk, as we were closing up the library. It turns out that the student had in mind a paper comparing the American Civil War to our invasion and occupation of Iraq. Even our librarian was not going to be able to help much with that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 30, 2009

Back to Banned

It’s Banned Books Week again. Your Humble Blogger is on record with some reservations about Banned Books Week (with later clarifications), but I want to make it clear I’m not on the side of Mitchell S. Muncy who writes in the WSJ last week that the American Library Association is Finding Censorship Where There Is None.

That is, I think there are several matters where Mr. Muncy is describing the situation correctly. The term Banned Books is misleading, if not outright dishonest. There are very few cases where books are banned, by anything like the proper definition of the word, and the cases highlighted by the ALA are largely cases where there is a complaint about the availability of a certain book, and no further action is taken. Oh, some libraries do display books that were actually banned in certain places at certain times, but most follow the official website in showing books that are not banned, but challenged, and that are actually in lots and lots of school libraries and almost all public libraries. These are books that remain freely available to kids. And it is perfectly reasonable for people to ask their libraries to be responsible to their communities, and to bring books to the attention of the librarian for judgment about their appropriateness.

On the other hand, Mr. Muncy is a bad guy, working for a bad organization. When he describes the challengers as being “a few unorganized, law-abiding parents”, it’s a deliberate misrepresentation: there is organization, in fact, he is working for The Institute for American Values, and as a former publisher of David Horowitz and Phyllis Schlafly, he is aware of the organization of narrow-minded parents into legal and public-pressure battles. He is rhetorically attacking the ALA rhetoric, not because he really gives a shit about the procedural issues (and banning and censorship are procedural issues, important ones, but about the procedures rather than the content) but because he wants to weaken the ALA stance in favor of And Tango Makes Three and His Dark Material and Uncle Bobby’s Wedding.

He is opposed to little kids getting their hands on books that support homosexuality, that support knowledge and discussion of sex generally, that use profanity, that question the values his institute considers American. I am opposed to Mr. Muncy’s work, as is the ALA.

So. I am still uncomfortable with the rhetoric of Banned Books Week. That rhetoric allows Mr. Muncy to score perfectly valid points, which is frustrating. But that rhetoric has also over the years been absolutely vital to getting the public sympathy on the side of inclusion, which has widened the mainstream enormously. It’s hard to imagine Simon and Schuster publishing And Tango Makes Three without the ALA’s history of protecting librarians who have wanted to buy similar books for their libraries. And it’s a lovely book. And Mr. Muncy’s organization is an ugly organization.

That’s where I stand on that. Any questions?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 4, 2009

Long time coming

So. The academic library that employs me is an aggregation of earlier, smaller academic libraries. This may be connected to the history of the academic institution that houses it, as it is an aggregation of earlier, smaller academic institutions. But that’s as may be. The result is that there are lots of books that are marked "Science Library" or "College of Women" or some such, and we have to train our student workers to recognize which indicate actual special collections with special shelving locations, and which are just ghost markers. Not a big deal.

I mention it only because of an incident yesterday, when a professor turned up a box full of books in his office, and because he could not return them to the Science Library that no longer exists, returned them to us.

The Science Library, by the way, hasn’t existed for twenty years.

The thing about academic library work—that’s not a particularly impressive version of that story. It’s just the one that happened yesterday. The impressive version of that story hasn’t happened for a couple of years. That’s the one where the professor’s widow donates his academic books to the library (where the deceased would have wanted them to be), a legacy largely consisting of our own missing books. And that’s at our library; when we start talking about what we’ve heard other places…

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 11, 2009

Grrrrrrr. Also, Feh.

Blogging will be short this week, as (a) there are lovely real-life things going on at home, (2) my library director has gone crazy at work, and (iii) there isn’t really a third opportunity for YHB to write for this Tohu Bohu.

I will, however, report that I have survived another evil webinar. While I suppose that there is some comfort in knowing that it is not just some sort of blind stupidity on the part of circ here that prevents us from writing useful and accurate reports, it would be nice if the thing that prevents us were not simply that the report-writing module does not work properly. Gr.

Also, when I was complaining about web training the other day? I forgot to mention that high-pitched giggling is not good trait in an on-line trainer.

But here’s the thing: once a month, in order to do the billing, we here in circ need a sheet of paper for each patron that is being billed, which should have on it all outstanding fines for overdue books, and the titles, bar code numbers and call numbers of those books, as well as the amount of the fines and certain information about the patron. In our old system, which I won’t name, although it does have the same name as a series of heliosphere probes, in order to get this information, we printed out a list of items, and then printed out individual sheets for each patron, and then hand-wrote the call numbers because there was no way to create a report that would give us what we wanted. Well, and actually, it was that creating such a report would have been incredibly laborious and annoying, more so (believe it or not) than doing it the way I’ve described.

Well, that was crazy. And it was, I’m afraid, typical of the report-writing problem in our old system.

Now, however, we have left that software behind, and we have a new, new, new ILS. My hopes for this were high, but my particular hope for convenient and easy report-writing were high. That would make our lives ever so much easier.

In our shiny new system, we cannot actually get a list of items that require billing. Well, not an accurate list.

Does that seem like a flaw?

Because to me, it seems problematic.

But leaving aside the accuracy of the list, there’s this: we cannot create a report that has both book titles and the name of the person who has them out. The two pieces of information—patron name and item title—cannot appear in the same report. They just can’t. We can get the book’s ISBN number, should it have one, on the report with the Patron name, but not the title. Or the call number, for all of that.

And the thing that really, really astonishes me is that ours was the third session by our webinar host, and the first time that issue had come up.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 31, 2009

Libraries and Jim Rice

Is anyone’s reaction to a sentence like the first sentence of Restore the noble purpose of libraries, a column by William H. Wisner in the Christian Science Monitor, to say once?

That sentence, bye-the-bye, is Libraries were once a sacred secular space of silence and reverence—a place where one automatically lowered one’s voice. And yes, they were that once. Perhaps twice. And you know that a column that starts like that is going to have a bunch of other really mockable stuff, too, such as Scholars are made through the quiet study of one chapter at a time and …librarians put themselves out of business one printout at a time… and, well, you get the idea. Or if you don’t, click on through and read (as they say) the whole thing.

Now, when I happen across such obviously mockable stuff as Mr. Wisner’s column, I try to dig under the mockability to get to the actual argument, because sometimes the argument is really good (or at any rate, the author is on the Side of the Good Guys) and I feel I can usefully restate the point with my own style of mockability. Or, you know, sometimes the author is Wrong Wrong Wrong, and I can make a really good point of my own in opposition to the point under the stuff about librarians thumbing a ride into history.

In this case, however, I am stumped. I have no idea what Mr. Wisner’s point is. I mean:

  • Good Stuff: Silence, the Enlightenment, knowledge, patience, television, the word librarian, the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English, reciting whole books from memory, free coffee, humor, humanity, art exhibits (on shoestring budgets), Mr. Wisner’s erudite and presumably hushed conversation.
  • Bad Stuff: Noise of any kind (except Mr. Wisner’s erudite and presumably hushed conversation, printers (mentioned four times), information, technology, library schools, the phrase “information scientists”, the Internet, videos, cellphones, postmodernism, giant Ponzi schemes.
  • Uncommitted: those little USB drives, tea, the Tale of the Wife of Bath (in modern English), database concordances, smaller Ponzi schemes, Twitter.

Pretty much, the whole article is I like the stuff I like, and I don’t like to add paper to the printers.

No, seriously, what does it mean to say that Information on the Internet may come across as authoritative, but much of it is one giant Ponzi scheme, especially in the hands of the young…? In what sense a Ponzi scheme? I mean, I think he’s talking about Wikipedia, but the only sense in which that’s a Ponzi scheme is that people who came along early contributed information, and people who came along later… read that information? If the defining feature of a Ponzi scheme is that it keeps going by using latecomers’ investments to pay off early investors and create a façade of profit, then who are the early investors, who the latecomers, what’s the profit, who is leaving on a virtual boat with virtual sackloads of virtual money? Not that Ponzi got away with the dough, but if it’s a Ponzi scheme, then somebody must be propping up something, right?

And there’s this: In some libraries today it is actually impossible to find any place quiet enough to simply read and study undisturbed. I’m sure this is true. I’m sure that the librarians regret that they can’t manage to keep some quiet areas. But (a) libraries largely do allow people to borrow a lot of material so they can take it away and find some other place to read and study undisturbed, (2) almost any library I have ever had any contact with has made serious efforts to provide some area for quiet study, and (iii) what the hell is so privileged about silence, anyhow? He really hocks about silence, and presents as self-evident that scholarship cannot exist without it. This is simply false. Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! People are different, one to another, including Scholars, and that’s what makes the world interesting and fun.

And—this seems to really be the point of the thing—Mr. Wisner’s insists that there is an Ideal Library, and that libraries must hew to that idea or perish. Mr. Wisner seems to feel that all libraries should focus entirely on the needs of scholars, either scholars that exist or scholars in embryo, as it were. This is not just wrong, but crazy. There should be libraries that have scholarship as their main focus, and others that focus on other things: education, community service, entertainment, whatever. If you are going to argue that those shouldn’t exist, then, well, you have to make that argument. Actually, I think it’s harder to make the argument that there need to be libraries devoted to scholarship (by Mr. Wisner’s understanding of that term), or that those libraries should not, in their devotion to scholarship, accommodate themselves to other things.

Now, this is all here in the Tohu Bohu not only as an example of how I read stuff on the Internet (first: mock, second: attempt to understand, fifth: mock) but because another thing happened that happens to me a lot. I made a connection between two things I read on the same day that aren’t properly speaking related at all. This was one, and the other was a note by the great Joe Posnanski with A Thought About Jim Rice. Jim Rice, for those of y’all not interested in baseball, was a very good player who has recently been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Mr. Posnanski has spent a lot of pixels (and some ink) arguing that Jim Rice was not a Hall of Fame player, and did not vote for the fellow (he gets a vote, so it matters somewhat). But when the man was given his plaque and put in the Hall, Mr. Posnanski enjoyed it. As a fan. And his post, I think, is about that tension between being a fan and wanting to see Jim Rice in the Hall of Fame, and being an analyst and deciding whether Jim Rice belongs in the Hall of Fame.

You see the connection?

Here’s where I saw it: Mr. Posnanski is able to distinguish between what he personally likes and what is measurably good. Now, that is much easier to do in baseball, where everything is written down. And there are definitions of good, there, that do mean something different from what an individual personally likes. And you can be a big fan of a player, vastly enjoy watching the player, and even be thrilled by seeing their plaque in the Hall, without being able to argue that the plaque really belongs there.

I think Mr. Wisner is unable to distinguish between things he likes and things that are valuable. Or, perhaps, between claims that things are good because they give him pleasure (like the memory of Jim Rice at the plate or close reading in a silent room) and claims that things are good because of their utility to other people. The latter claim requires lots of evidence, but if you are going to tell people to pull the plugs on their printers and video machines or vote for (or against) a player’s inclusion in the Hall of Fame, you’ll need that evidence. And more—you need to be prepared for the evidence to come to the other conclusion, and then to argue that conclusion, even if it’s not the one you wanted.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 29, 2009

What'd I do?

So. I wouldn’t say that the relationship between library staff and library patron is intrinsically or inherently in conflict. Well, some days I would say it. Certainly, there are many things that would be much easier if the patrons were not to come in to the library at all. Still, we are in service, we are attempting to help people, if only they would let us.

I’m not going to quote the conversation in its entirety, nor attempt to get as close to the wording as possible. It went more or less like this: a student had come in to the academic library that employs me. He had call numbers on a sheet of paper, and was looking for those books. When wandering through the stacks like a little lost lamb, he obtained the help of one of our student workers, who was able to point out to him that one of the books in question was oversized, and was therefore shelved with the oversized books. The other was not at its proper location.

When the fellow came to check out the book he was helped to locate, he asked (very naturally) about the other one: why wasn’t it on the shelf? I asked when he had looked it up in our catalogue (because if he had looked it up a week or two ago, it might certainly have been checked out), and it turned out that he had not looked them up, he had been given the call numbers by a friendly professor. So nice. Well, I showed him how to look up the book, and it turned out that the book was listed as available. This does happen, more often that we would like, that a book goes missing.

The student seemed surprised, however, because (he said) he had used the book only a few days ago. Oh? I checked our shelving area, our carts, but to no avail. I asked what he did with the book when he was done. And he said (no points for guessing, librarians among y’all) that he had put it back on the shelf where he had taken it from.

Oh, oh, oh.

Oh, oh, oh.

Well, now what do we do? I mean, yes, we checked to make sure the book is not, in fact, where it should be, nor is it just below or just above, or the shelf behind or the shelf in front. It ain’t there. Whatever this sonofagun did with the book, he did not put it back on the shelf where he got it. And now the library owns a book, and it’s somewhere in the building, almost certainly on one of our shelves, and we don’t know where.

We’re going to have to mark the book missing in our catalogue. I mean, it is missing, and frankly, I doubt we will see it again until next summer. It’s possible, of course, that someone will come across it whilst shelving, recognize that it is out of place and bring it down. But it isn’t terribly likely. We could send up students to scour the whole section (hoping that it isn’t out of the section entirely), but that’s going to be a whole lot of hours not doing anything else, and we’re getting to the end of the summer already. And in the meantime, anyway, we don’t want people getting the mistaken impression that the book is actually available, when it is not practically available, even though it is here somewhere.

It would have been so much easier if the guy had just thrown the book in the toilet.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 9, 2009

No Longer Piry

So. The library that employs me is changing software systems, which is on the whole a Good Thing, as the old one stunk on ice, and the new one is, well, better capable of improvement. Anyway, the point is that Your Humble Blogger is the fellow that writes the manual for the student workers at the front desk. And new software means a new manual.

Yes, the software comes with a manual. It’s lousy. The last one was lousier. But the important thing is that the software people don’t know what all our policies are, so even if they had a terrific manual, we’d still need our own version to tell our people what information we must have despite not being Required Fields, and what they are authorized to do on their own and what they need to get supervisory OK to do, and so on and so forth. So it’s good to have somebody at the library who writes the manual for the front desk anyway.

In our library, we have students work the front desk, and although some of them could not be improved by sticking a long hook in through the nasal cavity, thrashing it around for a bit, and then scooping out the detritus and discarding it before packing the skull with natron, that’s scarcely something that the manual writer can count on. Also, there is a substantial chance that the student, prior to entering college, will have read some books with multi-syllabic words in them, but again, the manual has to be for every student, not just the exceptional ones.

Digression: I jest. Our student workers tend, on the whole, to be bright enough. But many of them are shockingly ignorant of anything outside the YouTube/Facebook world. Theater, art, literature, jazz, rock before hip-hop, movies before Memorial Day 2007, science, history, philosophy, philology, philately, gastronomy, astronomy, hegemony, gardening, model trains, erector sets or historical re-enactment—these are not just closed books to them, they are books, dead things, totally deuterochiliastic. Not all our students, you understand. And some of the bright ones are the most ignorant, and some of the dimmest are aware that there is a world out there, and that some of it might be interesting. End Digression.

Here’s my issue: the software (being originally from New Zealand, not that there’s anything wrong with that) uses the term Expiration date in some places and Expiry date in others. I probably should have spotted that earlier, but, you know, they are the same word, really, and of all the things they are trying to get done before we go live with it on Mmemmsday, regularization of terms has got to be below, oh, getting the fines module to work. No, it’s cool. We can work with it.

But there I am in the manual, and I’m writing Expiration in some places, and I’m writing Expiry in others, depending on which screen I’m talking about, and I hand off the draft to one of the students to look at, and he asks if that’s a typo. Well, no, it’s not a typo as such, but… look, very few of the students will ever have used or seen the word Expiry. In the old system, it was always called Expiration. Other than demanding that they fix the inconsistency (which they would probably do, but, you know, don’t distract the guys this week, OK?), how do I handle it in the manual?

For now, I’ve just noted, the first time it comes up, that it is sometimes called one and sometimes the other, and then thereafter used the one that shows up on the screen in the context of the moment. And I will be training these people myself, for the most part, so I can point at the screen and say they mean the same thing. So I’m not, you know, worried about it or anything. But (a) I would like the manual to be as good as it can be, because that’s my job, and (2) when (with the inevitability of time and tide) some student turns to a supervisor and says This requires an Expeeyery Date? Is that today? I want it to be clear to everyone that it is the student who deserves a beating, not the manual guy.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 15, 2009

This train don't stop for trainers, this train

So. Whenever Your Humble Blogger attends a training session of any kind, the actual training takes a backseat to a sort of training connoisseurship. I have run training sessions, mostly small and always in person, and so I have not experienced the specific challenges of the webinar. This morning’s webinar was about the new version of the on-line catalogue.

Digression: Webinar? Webinar? I do not ever want to be the person to can use the word webinar without wincing. I am also going to keep putting a u and an e on the end of the word catalogue until they come and take my us and es away. I can’t reasonably defend the extra letters, but then they can’t reasonably defend the word. End Digression.

I have, however, prepared quite a lot of training sessions, and for similar sorts of things to this software. And I am stunned—seriously, I am stunned by how bad professional software trainers are at running training sessions. It’s their job. They run these things for a living. They should be good at it.

It’s not just the technical stuff. I mean, I do think that, having chosen to do the bulk of their training and meetings via webinar, they should be prepared to use the meeting software with a level of fluency far beyond the people receiving the training. I know it’s not their software, but it’s their session. I mean. If people attending are going to need to call in on a phone line, there should have been advance notice of that; if VoIP is an alternative, then the trainer should know (1) how to set it up, and (ii) whether it works. And there is no reason why a session that is slated to start at nine should wait for half an hour whilst the problem with one group of attendees is addressed. Seriously. If they don’t have tech people on hand to deal with that, then they aren’t serious about running meetings over the web.

So, in case any Gentle Reader finds herself doing this sort of thing, and you never know, this is the first piece of advice from YHB: Beginning your presentation by making the trainees doubt your technical competence whilst simultaneously making them cranky and distracted is bad. And by bad, I mean, worth putting some resources into preventing. This is spilling-coffee-during-your-job-interview level stuff.

OK, then: if a training session involves doing a database search, it is really, really important that the trainer plans out a sample search beforehand. I mean, if the point is to take suggestions from the crowd, to show how versatile the database is, that’s fine, but that would be after a search that has been vetted to make sure that it works the way it is supposed to work. Just as a f’r’ex, if you happen to be showing how tags work in a system, you don’t want to mention that you are interested in skydiving, set up a tag and then end up tagging one book about gay sex and one album of ambient music. Both items look pretty good, actually, but neither of them have anything to do with skydiving, and a room full of librarians is going to (a) notice that, and (2) be horrified by the idea of patrons putting wildly inaccurate tags on their items. Especially—and I want to emphasize this so I’ll put it on the reverse side of the page, away from everything else on the page, in parentheses, quotated, capital letters—especially when they are already cranky and think the trainer is technically incompetent.

Another Digression: If you are training people on library software, you should be aware that the idea of using folksonomy in the system is fraught with fraughtness. Like, add the tag fraught to almost any library tech in the first place, but when you are training a bunch of front-desk librarians about stuff users are doing to their card catalogue, you have entered the heart of the Fraught Zone and if you haven’t prepared your Fraught-fighting engines, you will never break down the fraughtifications. Seriously, you can’t walk into this situation without knowing that. Not if it’s your job. End Another Digression.

OK, here’s the tricky part: in any presentation, the Iceberg Principle comes into play: the audience should be convinced that what the trainer is showing them is the tip of what the trainer knows. The way to do this is to make it true. This means the trainer have to learn an awful lot about the program (or whatever) that is not going to be included in the presentation. This is not wasted. The primary reason why it is worth the company paying a trainer to learn all that extra stuff is that people are going to ask questions (ideally during the now I’d like to answer your specific questions and see what you want to go into in more detail part) and if the response to three of the first five questions is along the lines of I will make a note of that, find out and get back to you, the quantity and quality of the questions will drop off. And, furthermore, people will become convinced of their earlier suspicion: the trainer is incompetent. This is bad, and worth the money to avoid.

And that’s my real point. Once people think that the trainer is incompetent, they will be resistant to the training, and furthermore will think that whatever system they are being trained on is a worthless hunk of shit. It’s about mood and worldview and that. It’s about making the irrational part of people’s head work with the rational part. It’s kairos and ethos. I am utterly astonished that people who do training for a living don’t understand that. Do they think they are not engaged in persuasive speech? Do they not get any sort of training themselves? Do they not read the literature, see the responses in the sessions and afterward, attempt to improve? I can’t really accept that most people who do software training for a living are lazy bastards who can’t be bothered to do the necessary preparation, or that software companies routinely hire crap people and encourage them to run crap sessions, but that is my direct experience over several years, and the alternative seems to be that I’ve just had a bizarrely unrepresentative sampling, which isn’t much more comforting in itself.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

June 9, 2009

four shelf-feet

So, the conversation went like this, more or less:

Library Director: There he is.

YHB: Er…

Library Director: Do you want an OED?

YHB: … you mean, want an OED?

Library Director: Yeah.

YHB: … you mean, to have?

Library Director: Yeah, an OED. I thought you might want it.

YHB: … the whole…

Library Director: The whole set.

YHB: …yes?

Library Director: It’s on this cart. If you want a more recent one, there’s one at [another place in the University], you can have whichever you want.

YHB: No, this is fine. This is great. Thank you.

Library Director: I thought you might want it.

YHB: Yes. Yes, I do.

So. I have seventeen volumes (including the 1961 Supplement and the four volumes of the supplement completed in 1986) of somewhat dusty OED sitting on a cart behind my desk, waiting for the opportune moment to begin the journey home to the house. Where it will… er… well, if I have to buy another bookshelf, I will. Right?

Sometimes, working in a library rocks. Within certain very loose conceptualizations of rocking that involve very old, somewhat dusty reference books. Actually, that happens pretty frequently.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 13, 2009

Methods of Persuasion, not limited to beating with a stick

So, I wonder about this: is there any way for a University to effectively convince its students that it is serious about plagiarism? Or to put it another way, is it possible to convince eighteen- and nineteen-year old college kids that screwing up can get them kicked out?

At the moment, it seems like a lot of places have some sort of mandatory session, held during orientation or shortly thereafter, which makes little to no impression on the incoming freshfolk. As with much of the orientation stuff. These kids are away from home for the first time (many of them), and although you will reach the ones that are easy to reach, those students are (a) likely to be the ones who you don’t really need to reach anyway, because they are sufficiently worried to be paying attention to things like University Policies on Academic Honesty, and (2) also likely to put whatever those policies out of their heads once the real stress of the semester comes in.

And of course I could be wrong about students, generally. But is seems to me from what I’m seeing that there are a big chunk of students who think that they can paraphrase big chunks out of web sites with impunity. That they won’t get caught, or that if they do get caught, there won’t be any lasting consequence to it. Most students, of course, won’t plagiarize on most papers, because they don’t want to. But when it comes time to cut corners, I’d like the students to think it’s not worth the risk.

I really don’t have any ideas. They presumably tell the freshfolk that there were fourteen people expelled for plagiarism in the last four years (or whatever it is), along with however many were put on probation and so on. But part of being eighteen is (at least for many, many people) holding off the belief that things that can happen to other people can happen to you. So making examples of other people is only going to persuade the most responsible students.

The other way, I suppose, is just to not kick out people who do get caught plagiarizing; the University could bring its actions in line with expectations that way, and give a break to some immature saps. I have a vague sense that a couple of generations ago, it was unusual for a University to kick anybody out for cheating of any kind, but then I don’t have any real data on that. And I have a vague sense that a couple of generations before that, it was usual for Universities to kick people out for the most minor infractions, and I don’t have any real data on that, either. Hm.

Still. Given that I really think college students should learn about plagiarism, and should be motivated to learn the rules and keep to them, it would make me feel better if I had some sort of clue how they should go about doing that. Even if it wasn’t properly instituted at the place that employs me, I would rather believe that it was just the wrongheaded Administration screwing up the obvious thing again, rather than an intractable problem. Or that the intractable problem was the Administration, rather than the students. I’m fond of the students, really, particularly now that they’re about to leave for the summer.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 16, 2009

Krug, Whelan, Heather

Your Humble Blogger notes that Judith Krug has died. This being National Library Week, I'll take the opportunity to further discuss my feelings about the Banned Book week that Ms. Krug helped to found. A few years ago I wrote about Banned Books week, saying among other things that “I think the ALA is being misleading if not outright dishonest in pretending that it is defending ‘banned books’.” My point being that it is much, much more complicated than that, and that my preference is that the ALA defend what it really is defending, the authority of the librarian to make choices for the library. Which is what I support. And, further, I support the librarian's choice to make a wide range of books available, with a lenient eye to offensive language, sexually explicit material, and positive depictions of GLBT stuff, political dissent and other good things. Within reason, depending on the library at issue; elementary school librarians should be making different decisions than university librarians. But it should be the librarian who makes the decision, and if the community doesn't like it, they should fire that librarian.

Now, to backtrack a bit. I do find Banned Books week problematic and somewhat misleading. But I support the ALA in pushing back against the pressure that a lot of librarians feel to use somebody else's judgment rather than their own. I found much of Debra Lau Whelan's article A Dirty Little Secret: Self-Censorship in the School Library Journal fascinating on that topic. It's a mistake to think that librarians (or anybody else) can consult their own judgment entirely, able to clearly identify and reject any pressure from any community. What the ALA is doing with its Banned Books week is to exert a little counter-pressure of their own. A librarian belongs to a community of librarians (likely enough) as well as a neighborhood and school, and there's no reason for the good guys to act as if only the bad guys are allowed to push.

What Banned Books week does, as a media ploy, is provide a context in which the individual librarian can make a better decision. And to provide a context in which a librarian knows that he will get legal support as well as community support if a decision is challenged. Those are very important things. When Ms. Krug fought for Banned Books Week, it was within the context of legal battles and public-opinion battles not only for the right of librarians to make their own decisions about their own libraries, but to increase the allowable books all around. I support that cause. I suspect my fondness for libraries (and library work) comes in part from the work that Ms. Krug did in identifying libraries as safe places for the mainstream to get bigger.

You see, when I said a couple of years ago that Heather Has Two Mommies is a long way from the shore of the mainstream (if a bit to the side of the center), I should have acknowledged that it is in the mainstream because libraries fought to widen that stream, and Ms. Krug, may she rest in peace, was a large part of that fight. I still have my problems with Banned Books Week, but in practice, it has been a positive thing.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 1, 2009

Fail

So, there are people who read this blog who understand business and publishing and the business of publishing much better than I do, but… does this note by Evan Schnittman on Why Ebooks Must Fail really make the claim that print publishing is utterly unsustainable and that therefore electronic publishing will destroy it, and that that would be a bad thing?

I know Mr. Schnittman is the head of Global Business Development for OUP, and so he clearly knows much more about the business of publishing than I do—I know so very little, after all—but his argument makes no sense to me at all. Essentially, he's saying that the combination of uncontrolled author advances and an utterly ludicrous norm for advance sales and returns is sustainable only where there is a source for short-term cash flow, and that Ebooks (vaddevah dat means) do not provide such a source.

Again, if I understand correctly, the short-term cash includes a chunk of money that is going to disappear (because of returns); it exists more than nominally, and isn't quite borrowing, but it does come with an obligation to pay back a large but undetermined chunk of it. So I am perplexed by the idea that there is no way to restructure publishing to do without it. I am also perplexed by his insistence that it is more expensive to make Ebooks than paper books; he asserts that the added cost of editing digital stuff, and the necessity of maintaining and servicing interactive digital books, would be greater than the cost of printing and shipping. On the other hand, I have no idea how to estimate those costs (on either side). And my assertion that the bulk of Ebooks will not require extensive maintenance and interaction but will just be books on bytes is not based on any knowledge whatsoever. So I'm willing to accept that he is correct about his estimation of the comparative costs.

Still. He compares advances on trade publishing to professional sports free agency; this means he either (a) doesn't understand sports business at all, (2) doesn't understand the publishing business at all, or (iii) is deliberately misrepresenting the publishing business. And then, having described a business plan that is crazily unsustainable—that even he describes as a Ponzi scheme—he is worried that Ebooks will destroy it. You know what? Even if (implausibly) your Ponzi scheme is sustainable in the absence of Ebooks (but with rising manufacturing and shipping costs and the consolidation of retailers), I fail to see why Ebooks being the straw that breaks that proverbial should concern either us or the big publishers themselves. I mean, if Ebooks breaks the system and everything goes bust, then we start again with a model that doesn't have either crippling advances or fraudulent pre-shipping. Right?

And further: it could be that given the specific factors in the upcoming discontinuity (and there is always an upcoming discontinuity) it will simply not be possible for trade publishing to make available edited books, either on paper or on bits, at a price point that people will be willing to pay. Things change. It used to be that a household in the second quintile of income in this country could afford a domestic servant but could not afford to eat grapes year-round. That has changed; labor got more expensive (well, domestic labor), and shipping and distribution and refrigeration got much, much cheaper. And it's possible that the rising popularity of Ebooks will set off the chain that ends with books being five grand a whack. If so, I have to tell you that based on this note, Mr. Schnittman will not be one of the people I have a lot of sympathy for.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 12, 2009

inclusion, exclusion, occlusion

Benjamin Rosenbaum wrote a note the other day essentially announcing his re-entry into the blogosphere with a note On Blogging that threatened to write an incomplete and imperfectly articulated essay. He did not mention that it would be On RaceFail ’09; I think those were the good old days before I had heard of the thing, anyway. I still know almost nothing about it, and although I found his essay provocative, I am going to attempt to avoid the provocation, and instead write about…

Well, see, here’s the thing. Browsing through the whole controversy, I was struck by this thought: the SF/F community exists, and I am not in it. This may not seem like a startling conclusion to you, but it was to me. When I was a teenager, I thought of myself as a fan, possibly a trufan; I went to the local conventions, dressed in costume, and talked about books and movies and television shows with other fans. Or fen. I wound up being co-president of the specfic fan group at college, although (and this is a whole nother minefield about community) the group wasn’t particularly interested in speculative fiction. But anyway. At the time, I thought (or I think now that I thought then) that there was a sf/f community, and that I was in it.

Later, when I drifted away from attending conventions, I realized that my high school con attendance was really a group of a dozen or so teenagers, taking advantage of an excuse to go to a hotel for a weekend and generally not interacting with anything bigger than ourselves. It was a community, if you will, but not an sf/f community, just a community of a bunch of teenagers. And I became convinced that in truth, there was no sf/f community in any significant sense. Oh, there were people who went to conventions and voted for the Hugos, but not very many, and there were people who wrote and published speculative fiction, but not all that many of those, and not all that many of those were fans, really, in the sense that I understood the term. And lots of people read (or really, watched) science fiction and fantasy, and almost none of them were fans, in the sense that I understood the term. So the idea that there was a community, in any real sense involving communication and connection, bridging, common interests and goals, cooperation, any of that, well, I don’t know that I ever said ain’t no sech thing, but pretty close.

But it turns out that there reallio trulio is a sf/f community. And that I’m not it. Because one of the ways that you can tell if there’s an actual community is if Big Issues come up that people within the community talk to each other about. Did you hear about the Davidsons? is one difference between a neighborhood and a community. And clearly, people were stopping each other on the street (well, the virtual street) and asking if they had heard. And not only had I not heard about the Davidsons, I continued to have not heard Davidsons while the gossip became about what the Jim Melton said to his wife about the Davidsons, and what she said back. Not that I mean to trivialize the topic, but then you can’t really assume that the gossip about the Davidsons is trivial or shallow, either. My point when you look at the dynamic from the point of view that it is All About YHB, the overwhelming conclusion is that I don’t know the Davidsons, nor the Meltons, despite having metaphorically lived down the block from them for years.

Now, one of the things I’ve recognized about the sf/f community, even when I didn’t really believe it existed, is that it is very much concerned with issues of exclusion and inclusion. Which is why the plural of fan is fen, right? I mean, there’s a lot of secret handshake bullshit, ghu and infernokrusher and rot-13 and zines and all the inside jokes that have come and gone over the years. And no, not all of them have been purely fanstuff, but the aggregation is clearly baffling to mundanes, and while I won’t say that such is the point, really, it’s not not the point, either, from the point of view of the insider who gets to really accomplish something by getting inside. On the other hand, this is scarcely unique to the sf/f community.

OK, so I’m getting, slowly, to my point here. Because I have one. Really. I just needed to get it out of my satchel, and there was all this other stuff on top of it. But I’m nearly there, now. Promise. Anybody still here?

So. While happily ignoring everything else about this whole business, what happened to the Davidsons is that a bunch of people were told that the sf/f community is perceived by racial minorities as unwelcoming to racial minorities. That is, racist. Now, as Ben Rosenbaum was saying up there, the accusation of racism, particularly of institutional racism, of community racism, is a very tender spot for us privileged white people, and we squawked. (Of course, by saying we, I am not claiming membership in the community that I was just talking about not being a member of, I’m just saying that had I been part of the we, I would presumably have been part of the squawking white we).

So, there I was, thinking about what Ben said, and about the fact that I wasn’t part of the squawking white we or any of the we at all, and I was thinking about other communities that are similar in some sense to the sf/f community. In that they exist, I mean. One of them that came to mind immediately is Scottish Dancers; while a lot of it is just people going to their local groups and having a good time, there is a national and international community, as evidenced by the fact that when something happens to the Davidsons, people hear about it. Heck, I hear about it, sometimes, and I don’t strathspey. And you know? I suspect that there are people who feel that Scottish Dancing is not welcoming to racial minorities. And that there are people who would seriously squawk about the idea that the community is racist. I mean, seriously. Of course they would.

Of the communities that I am a part of myself, there’s… let’s see, I’m not really good at it, honestly. There’s the Jewish community, which (a) is not looking for new members, other than generationally, which, you know, is different from racism in important ways that are really difficult to explain, and (2) really does, in places, go into the neighborhoods and the churches and try to have bridges between communities, but again, it’s a lot of work, and we have day jobs, and it’s easier to remember that stuff in February than it is in September. And we have a really heavy tradition of inclusion and exclusion. Not perhaps a good comparison with other communities, but I thought I’d mention it.

What else? I work in a library, and am slowly starting to keep up with what is happening at the Davidson branch, and surely there are lots of libraries that are having issues with inclusion and exclusion. I like to think that libraries are less likely to squawk when called on the barriers to minority groups of various kinds, and more likely to put effort into building bridges. Because, you know, libraries. Still, you know it happens: there’s an accusation that a library is not welcoming to the new immigrants to the neighborhood (whether those are from overseas or from the other side of town), or just as likely the local patrons and volunteers get all whatnot, and the story gets written up in one of the library journals or sent around on a listserv, and a RaceFail would definitely be a possibility.

Stretching a point, let’s call community theater a community; I might hear about something that happened to the Connecticut Davidsons, but probably not if the Davidsons were in Ohio, but let’s stretch the point. Is community theater welcoming to racial minorities? In a pig’s eye, is it. I mean, look at it. Look at us. We may talk a good game (or we may not) about race-blind casting or whatnot, but when it comes down to it, we’re a bunch of white college-educated people who would have to work like dogs to make our group anything but a bunch of white college-educated people, and frankly, we’re working pretty hard just to put on a show in the old barn. We’re not going to go into the neighborhoods and find black or asian or latino volunteers, and we’re not going to find babysitters for those volunteers, nor give them the extra help they might need approaching the plays because they didn’t have the college theater experience the rest of us did, and we’re not going to choose plays that are going to appeal to black or asian or latino audiences because we are having enough trouble selling tickets to the shows we like and that have parts that are perfect for us. Which means that we’re going to stay a bunch of white college-educated people, who are largely comfortable with each other, and are certainly not racist. No, no. Just busy.

It seems to me that it’s really hard for people within the community to really know how that community appears to people outside the community. After all, the political Parties spend millions of dollars trying to figure out what they look like to Independents, and look what they look like. And I think—I think—that when you can assume that your community looks good to the people outside, that’s a good deal of what is meant by privilege.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 26, 2009

At the Book Depository, with the cars and the mortgages

I’ve been fond of Ammon Shea’s occasional notes for the OUP blog; he seems to be a fun and interesting guy, and I am looking forward to eventually reading his book. Today’s note, though, seemed to be worth publicly disagreeing with.

The note is Is A Book In The Library Worth Two in the Offsite Storage Facility? He’s largely talking about how much he likes browsing, and sure, I like browsing the shelves myself. When he writes of the sense that even if he doesn’t find anything particularly interesting (and he usually does, of course, having the admirable ability to be interested in things) he will have had the pleasure of browsing, I nodded my head and thought Yes.

Digression: I know there’s the LOL abbreviation for the response of laughing out loud when reading something, now used to describe general amusement. That’s a disappointment to me, because I think the experience of actually laughing out loud when reading something is an experience worth having its own name. Now, of course, people say LOL just to mean a thing is funnyish, which, fine, language, but I liked the idea that the term described the experience rather than the text. I would also like a term for when you are reading something and nod your head, despite there being nobody to see you do it. It’s not quite the same thing—part of the LOL thing is that you risk having to explain the joke to co-workers or other bystanders, while the experience I’m thinking of is solitary (or if performed in public, not really noticeable the way laughing out loud is), but there’s a similar sense of response-but-not-communication that ties the two of them. End Digression.

Despite that head-nodding moment, what Mr. Shea is leading up to is that he thinks it would be Better if libraries were set up to allow him to browse everything to his heart’s content. He says he’s “not particularly interested in having a debate with a horde of tetchy librarians about what is the best way for them to perform an admittedly difficult job, but…” he objects to the use of off-site storage and paging. He concludes the note, “I cannot help but to find it strange that making a physical object inaccessible is now seen as a sign of progress.”

Now, of course, I would be shocked more than a handful of librarians in the world view off-site storage as a sign of progress rather than as a regrettable necessity, or at least a reasonably cost-efficient solution to a problem that admits of few attractive solutions. The reason I felt compelled to type out this cranky response is that Mr. Shea falls into a trap that turns up a lot, and this particular example is (I think) a good one. The general case is that Person X likes Object Y or Activity Y, and thinks that things should be arranged so that Person X has regular, affordable access to it. I first started thinking about this as a general category in response to the specifics of intellectual property rights and sampling: an otherwise persuasive writer wound up making the case that because it would be prohibitively expensive for hip-hop artists to track down copyright holders and pay fees, there should be (blah blah blah), that would allow us to have good music. The blah blah blah part was actually not a bad idea in many ways, but the argument was really that the economy should arrange itself so I can afford music I like. My response was that I like monumental sculpture, but I don’t expect granite or glass or craftsmanship or design to be cheap enough for me to have some in my back yard.

Sometimes, of course, there is a Public Good that gets put into play. If it turns out that (as I think will quickly happen and has probably already happened) it isn’t economically feasible for a commercial airline to make a profit while safely transporting passengers at a price they are willing to pay, it may be to the Public Good to rearrange the economy. We’d have to look at the benefit to the public in having travel for the people who can’t afford to charter their planes, etc, etc. Maybe it’s worth it, maybe it isn’t. I think it’s clearly in the Public Interest to have a Lending Industry, even (barring an enormous change in our culture and economy) a profitable Lending Industry; I think we’ve accepted that it’s worth it to us to spend some money to make sure that there is a Lending Industry (although, of course, there are differences of opinion about how much money, and how to go about it, and how to minimize the support whilst maximizing the Public Good). Is that true of the Airline Industry?

We’ve largely decided that Opera, f’r’ex, and Symphonic Music, and the conservation and display of Visual Art, and some other aspects of Cultcha are Public Goods that require subsidy, even as there is massive disagreement about whether that subsidy should be through the government or private philanthropy (or, more realistically, the proportions of the two). And although there are different ways of looking at the issue, in point of fact, nobody really thinks that it’s possible to run an Opera or a Symphony or a Museum on the money you charge for admission. Not with our current economy, labor costs, energy costs, etc. Not going to happen. Nor do we fund Higher Education with the cost of admission. Nor, of course, the libraries associated with those institutions of Higher Education. Are the Universities a Public Good worth subsidizing? Again, we’ve largely decided yes, they are, and the argument is over how to subsidize them. What about libraries? Again, yes, absolutely.

But what about browsing? I totally agree with Mr. Shea about the joys of browsing and specifically the joys of browsing through old books and periodicals. And, clearly, there’s no possible way for unsubsidized browsing to work: nobody is going to make a profit selling tickets to an enormous room of old periodicals. I’m not saying you’d have no customers. I’m saying if you took the cost for a year and divided it by the gate number, you’d get a very large number, and if you set the ticket price at that number, you wouldn’t get even half of the gate you started with, so you would have to set the ticket price even higher, pricing out more of your customer base, and pretty soon you’ve discovered that it’s easier to sell burgers.

So is browsing more like a symphony or more like my fondness for monumental sculpture? I have a pretty expansive view of the Public Good (and a pretty narrow view of the costs of tapping the Public Purse), and I love to browse among old books, but I can’t see it. I just can’t. That’s getting into the category of foot massage and bowling leagues. They are good things, and I personally would benefit from massive subsidies, and furthermore there are indirect benefits and increased productivity and so on, but seriously, I don’t see it.

And (to bring this all back to one of The Topics of our society at the moment) I think it’s a good idea to have those conversations, about (a) what things, in a capitalist system, it’s possible to provide at a profit, and (2) what things that do not fall into that category we want to subsidize anyway, and (iii) how much we’re willing to pay for them. And, you know, there are things that can be run at a profit (say, energy plants and prisons) that we may prefer to subsidize so they are run for a greater Public Good than capitalism will. But that’s a different conversation. The one I’m on about acknowledges that browsing, or automobile ownership, or opera attendance, or collecting momumental sculpture may not be economically feasible on its own. And perhaps admits that we won’t choose to subsidize everything we like. And move on from there.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 24, 2009

Coffee, Books, Art

I would just like to go on record as saying that it turns out that opening a café in the library was a Good Idea. And I like Op Art, on the whole. But Op Art in the library café is a Bad Idea.

Or, just maybe, I will change my mind about this, too. But I doubt it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 7, 2009

Year in Books 2008

Yes, it’s every Gentle Reader’s favorite time of year, the time when YHB blah blah numbers, blah blah books, blah blah trends, and winds it up with Ten Or Eleven Books I Liked. Can you taste the excitement?

First of all, YHB read 114 books in 2008, a fairly normal number, but the details reveal a few startling things, starting with five-year records: a low of 28 re-reads, and a high of 86 new reads. The high is only one more than 2005, but is significant (I think) because it appears to be a direct result of the decrease in re-reads, five below 2005’s 33. I’ve now tracked five years of books, which allows me to make trendlines and pretty charts and things.

bcht08.JPG

See? Pretty chart. As we can see from the chart here and here, and these points here and here, Your Humble Blogger is a hopeless nerd. Ah,well.

Seriously, it appears as if Your Humble Blogger’s reading of not-marketed-for-kids specfic is decreasing with an alarming rapidity. Well, alarming if it were worth caring about. I mean, it’s not as if it would be morally problematic if I read more non-genre fiction and non-fiction than specfic, it’s just that there’s a chart, you see, with a line going down. And I suppose it could be argued that replacing five to ten books of not-marketed-for-kids specfic with five to ten books of marketed-for-kids specfic is more likely caused by a shift in marketing techniques than by a shift in preferred reading habits. Or by a shift in library shelving, which is as likely as anything, now that I think about it.

Also, in sample spaces that range from 58 to 86, it’s likely that a significant chunk of the difference is due to my placing things in different categories. For instance, I put The Book Thief under YA/SF, despite feeling quite strongly that it ought not to be considered as such (although presumably the marketers know what they are doing for sales purposes). I also put The Arrival under YA/SF rather than Graphic Novels, despite that being clearly wrong and unsupported by any rationality whatsoever. Dropping those two would bring YA/SF down to 26%, making the line more pointy, looking like 2007 was an outlier. I also could just put all the specfic into one big category without worrying about its target audience, although that seems less helpful for me. On the other hand, I have the category of non-genre fiction, which makes no sense at all, not only because it has in the past included westerns which are about as genre as I could imagine, but because this year it includes three Victorian novels and four Georgian novels, making each of those sub-categories as viable a category as (f’r’ex) Graphic Novels or Plays.

Enough. It’s time for the moment y’all have been waiting for, particularly if you are iced in, bored and cranky with nothing to entertain you: Your Humble Blogger’s Annual List of Ten or Eleven Books Enjoyed for the First Time in the Past Year.

  • The Arrival: This is a really remarkable work, stunningly made, lovely and sad and sweet and beautiful. When I hock about how people claim that literary novelists writing specfic are really just using the tropes of science fiction to illuminate the human condition, as if that was something that genre novelists are not doing, I should bring up this example, where the story works because it’s science fiction, and works because it’s told in pictures, and illuminates the human condition as a comic book about invasion of space aliens.
  • The Wednesday Wars: I only read five children’s books that couldn’t be said to be specfic, and four of the five, while fine, reminded me that I really do prefer zap guns and dragons along with my coming-of-age. This one reminded me that if I stick with the stuff I know I like, there are wonderful books I’ll never see.
  • Klezmer: This is the one on the list I am most likely to re-read in a few years and wonder why I liked it so much. But like it I did.
  • King George V: I know I’m giving this extra Harold Nicolson points, and I suspect that it is considered dreadfully inaccurate and sloppy amongst historians, but I liked it.
  • The Crime at Black Dudley: Really, I put this on the list as a representative of the Mystery Genre, although I did certainly enjoy it, and it represents many of the qualities I think I like about mysteries.
  • An Uncommon Reader: This is from the very beginning of the year, and I have been recommending it ever since. I don’t know whether anybody actually read it on my recommendation, but that’s not my fault.
  • People of the Book: YHB has nearly given up on reading short stories, after discovering that I don’t like them much these days, but this is one of those books that is a series of somewhat-connected short stories linked by a framing device. Only where most of those suck, this one is good.
  • The King of the Schnorrers: Like Dickens, but Jewish! And short! The book, I mean, not the author.
  • His Majesty’s Dragon: A fun and formulaic novel of Napoleonic dragons. I actually reread this one before the year was out, and enjoyed both times through.
  • Horns and Wrinkles: Not an earthshaking book, but a very sweet and crazy book, a book that makes me smile remembering it.

So, of the books on that list, I picked up five at the library based entirely on the cover and a glance, not knowing anything at all about the author or the book before seeing it. Three were books by favorite writers, or at least familiar ones. One I had read reviews of but was skeptical before picking it up at a friend’s house, and one was a gift.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

September 14, 2008

Oh Heli, Oh Heli, Copter!

Of all sad words to hear when anyone working in Higher Education picks up the telephone, the saddest are these: My daughter is a freshman.

Your Humble Blogger works in a library of a University. My first call yesterday morning began with a woman saying my daughter is a freshman; I should have stood in bed. It seems that the young student had been having trouble connecting to the wireless network in the library.

Note: there is no reason to believe that the student in question had been in the library, much less attempted to connect to the wireless network, but that’s the story her mother got, and no student lies to her mother.

I assured the concerned parent that there is indeed a wireless network in the library, and that any student who was having trouble connecting to it should go to the IT help desk, which is staffed by students hired and trained by the IT people. If the student has any more problems, or can’t find the IT help desk, she can come by the circulation desk, said YHB, and we’ll help out.

That’s great, said the parent on the other end of the telephone wire. Can you call my daughter on her cell phone and tell her that? YHB did not say the hell? but something like I’m sorry or I beg your pardon, hoping to indicate some sense of the silliness of the request. It’ll be a mitzvah, said the parent. Nu? A mitvah, now, to call on shabbos? Go figure! YHB did not reply.

In fact, I did call and leave a message on the poor young woman’s mobile, telling her that her mother was having some difficulty with our wireless and that she could come in and get assistance with it at any time. Thank the Divine that she wasn’t answering her phone; we are undoubtedly both mortified enough.

But have you guessed the really tragic part? The tragic part is that in eleven years, if I’m really lucky, my Perfect Non-Reader will be a freshman.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 16, 2008

Old, old, old

One nice thing about working in a academic library is that however old it might make YHB feel on a regular basis, sometimes something happens that puts that in a bit of perspective. Today I got to handle our Nuremburg Chronicles, which was published five hundred and fifteen years ago this past Saturday. The covers look a little worse for wear, but you can still read it. I mean, if you can read Latin, and that gothic print. So probably not. Beautiful paper, though.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 10, 2008

I'm older than I've ever been and now I'm even older

So. Working in an academic library is good for making a person feel old. Usually that’s just the inevitable effect of actually being so much older than the students who work and study here. I mean, just chronologically older. I remember things that happened before they were born. Even the rising seniors were born in—what—1988? When I was in college, anyway. Most of them were born after the Berlin Wall fell, and only have the vaguest recollection of the world before the iMac. So somebody doesn’t know who Dorothy Hamill was, and I feel old.

There’s another kind of feeling old, though, which has less to do with chronology and more to do with—I was about to say maturity, but I think that’s not quite right. Let me give you an example.

Bookends disappear from our library at a rate that surprises me. Who steals bookends? And we’re not, of course, talking about fine fancy bookends, marble horseheads and sparkly geodes. We’re talking industrial library bookends, Ls of metal. Like this or this, only older and cruddier. Right? They cost about a buck a piece, maybe, and we probably buy them by the gross, and they are covered with the grime and book dust of years of use. Who would steal them?

The answer, of course, is that nineteen-year-old college kids would steal them. Of course. When I was a nineteen-year-old college kid, I might well have stolen a bookend or two. I don’t think I would have, you know, taken one off the shelf and left the books to topple over, but if there were an extra one lying about, I might well have thought I could use that and slipped it into my satchel. I wouldn’t have even thought about it much. It wouldn’t have been the cost—even then, a couple of bucks wouldn’t have been prohibitive. It would have just been the self-absorption and arrogance of the nineteen-year-old college kid, who just sees a thing, thinks I could use that, and takes it.

Not that everybody is like that at nineteen. And not that everybody is different at forty. But I was, and I am. Or nearly forty, anyway. And that, you see, is making me feel old in a different way than my recollection of, oh, Peter Frampton.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 8, 2008

Yellow cables, yellow cables, tuppence a bag!

So, my place of employment is replacing—look, I don’t really have time to write out the story, but they are throwing away a crapload of Ethernet cable. This crapload (actually about a shopping bag load) is made up of cables of various lengths, not uniform, some quite long, others fairly short, and they all have their ends cut off, so the yellow cable ends in wires rather than little phone-jack-thingies.

Your Humble Blogger has rescued all this Ethernet cable, because it seems like a mistake to throw away that much. But I don’t actually have any use for it, and for all I know, nobody else does, either. What do you say, Gentle Readers? Should I toss it in the dumpster where it was headed? Or should I bring it to the elementary school and tell them it was a bequest from my great-aunt? Or does one of you want it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

May 19, 2008

STWVOOCSLIMHSFSSOOOTE Award

Your Humble Blogger is pleased to present the 07-08 Academic Year award for Sentence That, When Viewed Out Of Context, Seems Like It Must Have Suffered From Some Sort Of Editing Or Typesetting Error, Yet Is Actually The Correct Sentence As Intended By The Scholar.

This is surprisingly few for a genuinely genetic group when one considers the length of the poem.

The winner is E. Talbot Donaldson, and the winning sentence appears on page 189 of MSS R and F in the B-Tradition of Piers Plowman. Congratulations, Mr. Donaldson!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 24, 2008

You look good, really

Just as an observation. If a female college student decides, on a warm spring morning, to dress up a bit and look nice for a nice day, she eschews the jeans and halter top and puts on a sundress, and people say you look nice today. If a male college student decides, on a warm spring morning, to dress up a bit and look nice for a day, he eschews the jeans and t-shirt and puts on—what?—flannel trousers and a shirt and tie? And people say big job interview today?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 18, 2008

A Library Incident of no particular interest

A few weeks ago, a young woman came into the academic library that employs me and wanted to speak to somebody with some authority. It being a weekend, there was no such person, so she was sent to me. She identified herself as a Christian (unasked, of course), and expressed her concern that our copy of Sex in the Bible: A New Consideration, which was prominently displayed on the New Books Shelf, was not balanced with a more “traditional” interpretation. She was worried, she said, that people who were browsing at that shelf would get an incomplete picture. Your Humble Blogger thanked her for her interest, pointed out the area of the stacks that had books on religion (fairly skimpy by my standards, but containing a few thousand volumes of various interpretations of various scriptures, communities and rituals), and assured her that if there was any particular book that she felt was missing from our collection, we would very much appreciate her bringing it to our attention. She thanked me, politely, and left. As far as I know, she hasn’t returned.

Well.

I was and continue to be mildly concerned. Is there something to be concerned about? Mostly, the concern is for the library and myself. If this woman is an advance scout for some sort of organized protest, it could take up time and energy in an unpleasant way (without, of course, making any actual difference in the end). Also, I am a trifle concerned about the young woman, who is either a pawn in a cynical and vicious movement or an unfortunately blinkered and intentionally dim-witted individual. I suspect the latter, but of course I am as easily fooled as anybody else.

There’s another thing to be concerned about, though: her concern is, or at least might be, reasonable. In the nature of libraries, any book we have, particularly a new consideration of should be balanced. Students (and instructors, and the rest of the community) should have access not just to the flashiest new theories but to the old established ones that they are criticizing, and to the curmudgeonly works of those sticks-in-the-mud who are, well, sticking. In the mud. Rather than being swept along by the current. My metaphor is drawn from creeks.

Do we have plenty and plenty of books that deal with sex in the Christian Scriptures? Well, we have some. I haven’t actually looked through them, but I assume that some of the books published in the 1950s have the “traditional” interpretation that the woman was looking for. Certainly we have more books with feminist, queer-friendly, modern, non-traditional and scientific slants than with fundamentalist slants. If she had examined the shelf (which she clearly had not), she would not have left happy and secure in the knowledge that for every critical work there was an inspirational one. There isn’t.

Also, this particular book had been on the New Books shelf for almost two years, mostly because it wasn’t actually on the New Books shelf for more than a week or two at a time before somebody took it out. When it came back in, our people looked at it and thought well, let’s put that back on the New Books shelf, which they might not have done had it been a work by Joel Osteen. We are deliberately bringing some books to people’s attention; those books are not chosen randomly but reflect the taste and priorities of the library staff and patrons. The young woman who was looking for balance will not actually find it here.

Which is not to say that we endorse or agree with all our books. Part of the taste and priorities of the staff is in favor of a certain balance. But it’s a balance as we see it. We don’t have everything, and we don’t have the same amount on each ‘side’ of each issue.

So, from that angle, we want people to come in and complain that we don’t have x or y book, because of that taste and priority for balance. Because after we have what seems balanced to us, we can’t see the other stuff.

And yet.

Do I believe that this young woman was actually interested in balance? No. I should relate that she was unfailingly polite and nice, that she neither demanded nor requested that any books should be removed, nor did she claim to have been offended in any way by the books that were there. But somehow, in my perception, what she wanted was books that she disagreed with removed from where they would tempt passers-by into error and sin.

Is that fair? Probably not. But it is one of the unfortunate results of a fundamentalist movement that we outside it do not trust anything that smells to us of fundamentalism. It makes us nervous. It’s about the climate, it’s about the fellow travelers, it’s about what happens at other libraries in other states. I’m sorry that I don’t trust this polite young woman, but I don’t.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

April 16, 2008

If it isn't fourteen inches long, it isn't legal

Just wondering, as a hypothetical, if it suddenly turned out that Americans could keep their cars, their light bulbs, their coal-burning power plants, their gadgetty gadgetty gadgets, and have plenty of energy, air, water and elbow room for our grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren, and all we had to do was give up our eight-and-a-half-by-eleven and start using A4, would we do it?

I mean, aside from the inherent elegance of the ISO A sizes, there are five or six billion reasons why switching to the paper that everybody else in the world uses would make money for rich people, which is, after all, the defining purpose of capitalism. And it’s not like switching from miles to meters, which would involve actually moving the cities Boston and Washington until they were the correct metric distance apart. Switching to A4 paper wouldn’t be totally cheap, but we wouldn’t need new printers, copiers, and software. We would need new filing cabinets. On the other hand, we could use our old filing cabinets to store our old typewriter ribbons. Seriously, the library that employs me has a filing cabinet filled with typewriter ribbons. After the heat death of the universe, there will be a librarian, still typing on a typewriter. Which will take A4 paper without an adapter.

Sadly, even if we switched to A4 paper, profs would still photocopy two-up with big black bars on the bottoms of pages. What’s the carbon cost of those big black bars?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

March 2, 2008

The panda, by contrast, eats, shoots and leaves

Best book title nominee, LC T division: Punches and Dies, by Frank A. Stanley. Mr. Stanley also wrote The Grinding Book and American Screw Machines, and co-wrote the Hill Kink Books (back before Hill met McGraw).

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 26, 2008

Book Report: Jitterbug Perfume

Because I am working only part-time, I only have one half-hour lunch break a week; my other shifts are short enough to avoid the meal break. For only half an hour a week, YHB does not keep a book at the desk. But I don’t remember to bring in a book I’m in the middle of reading, either. So come my lunch break, I find myself in a library without a book. The result, of course, is that I begin a new book. Sometimes (Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony by Richard Allen or Starbucked by Taylor Clark) the book doesn’t get past that half-hour, and back it goes on the shelf. Sometimes the book comes home with me. That is why my library bookshelf groans under the weight of Too Many Books. Seventeen at present. But I can renew them to myself.

Anyway, one strategy for not bringing home another book is to grab a book I’ve read before, perhaps one I’ve read more than once, figuring I will slip it back onto the shelf after half an hour, either satisfied with my little taste, or prepared to pick it up again next week for another half hour. This does not work. After the lunch break, I set the book on my desk, thinking I will reshelve it when I’m up, but at the end of the day, I’ve checked it out to myself and slipped it into my satchel. This is what happened with Jitterbug Perfume. And having started it, and brought it home, I finished it, leaving the seventeen books on my shelf to sit on my shelf for just a little bit longer. But I brought it back to the library, so that’s all right.

As for the book, well, I am too old and too much of a stick-in-the-mud to read Tom Robbins these days without being aware that it is me that he is mocking. It always was, of course. I was never that free-spirited, never that shamanic, never that joyful. Never that obnoxious or self-centered, either, I hope, although I surely tried. These days, I am plumbing the depths of joy afforded by a happy marriage, lovely children, a mother-in-law, a mortgage, a job (part-time), and various other aspects of being the responsible adult so powerfully mocked by Mr. Robbins.

Very deep, those joys. Still stretching down. Wouldn’t be surprised if there was no bottom at all.

Not to knock those Tom Robbins heroes with feather-light hearts. Neither portion is a mess of pottage; people remain different one to another. And I can enjoy the wild prose and the exhilarating exhortations. But I’m watching through a window, from outside. Or more likely from inside. Which is where I belong.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

February 24, 2008

A little sunshine on the snow

One nice thing about working in an academic library is hearing one young woman say to another young woman “Now let’s study some physics!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 25, 2008

In the Widener classification system, books are classified by how close they are to the Hub

Your Humble Blogger has taken part-time employment at a library. Have I mentioned this before? Is it part of the image now? I don’t want to repeat myself to the extent that I take the patience of Gentle Readers all, but then I do like to repeat myself. I do. It’s a rhythm thing.

Anyway, I was shelving the other day and, as often happens when I shelve books, I was musing on the impermanence of knowledge and the shape of the noetic field. Does this happen to you?

For instance, the Library of Congress classification system. It was set up a hundred years ago or more, and the classes of All World Knowledge have changed somewhat. Oh, it’s still a perfectly serviceable system for a large library, but it seems awkward now that books about History are in the Ds, where books about political science are in the Js. Q is science but technology is T. And R is medicine. So books about, oh, the use of robotics in surgery are under R. Right?

And photography is part of technology, or seemed that way a hundred years ago, so books of Diane Arbus or Cecil Beaton photographs will be in TR. You might have expected such books to be with art in the Ns, but you would be wrong. Still photography, TR. Films are literature, so they are in PN1993 to PN1999. And animation? Of course animation is in NC1766 with cartoons. Right?

It’s not that the categorization is strange. Any system for classifying All World Knowledge will have strange aspects, particularly when the classification is for shelving actual physical books on shelves, so any book can be in only one class. The thing that strikes me as interesting is that at one time it was obvious that photography was not a fine art, that cinema is more like plays than paintings, that animation is more like cartoons than plays or photographs. What classes of things are obvious to us that will, to people a hundred years from now, seem like bizarre idiosyncrasies? What aspects of education will seem like they should be in medicine? What aspects of military science should be in agriculture?

The wonderful thing about LC is that it is infinitely expandable. You can always shove another few subheadings in, when it turns out that algorithms are not an obscure branch of mathematics, but the basis for all commerce. So you go to Q (science), and you go to QA mathematics, and you go to QA76 calculating machines, and you go to QA76.76software for electronic calculating machines, and you go to QA76.76.H94 HTML software for electronic calculating machines, and then you put all the books about HTML there, however many there are, with the extension for the name of the author and the year of the book, etc, etc. And if you have 18 books in the QA76.76.H94 area, and no books at all for UF157 through UF302, artillery tactics, maneuvers and drill organizations, well, that’s just which shelves your books are on.

Another shelving note—I noticed that under RA643-645 (public health and disease) I was shelving books about leprosy on the same shelf with books about AIDS and smallpox. It makes me think about how the moment I’m in is not the only moment; Since they set up the system leprosy has become treatable, and then untreatable, and then treatable again; smallpox has been eradicated and weaponized, and AIDS is AIDS. They’re all on the same shelf here, I assume because there’s no medical school; there are plenty of libraries that will have whole ranges of RA643-645. But here, in this library, there’s just the one shelf, with its lesson on … humility? fear? policy? Well, there are always lots of lessons, right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 24, 2008

16,000 and mostly in order

So. Your Humble Blogger may have mentioned that he is a member of Temple Beth Bolshoi, the biggest and largest temple he’s ever entered in terms of size, largeness and biggosity. Also how big it is. Just to mention, our library holds sixteen thousand volumes. Which isn’t a huge amount for a library, but seems to me like an enormous library for a synagogue. It’s a great resource, and terrific, and wonderful, and all, but it’s a little intimidating for me.

And what with the membership and the location, it’s possible for Beth Bolshoi to raise large sums of money, and we do. We raised N+K millions for renovating said library and turning it into a Media Resource CenterTM, and it looks absolutely gorgeous. During the renovation, of course, the books had to be stored off site, and a moving company was hired to box them all up and store them and then bring them back and shove them back onto the shelves. They delivered the books on Monday, and our librarian discovered that while the boxes were properly numbered and labeled and presented in the proper order, and that the shelves were unloaded into the boxes in the order represented in the boxes, within each box the books were loaded in a manner maximizing speed, efficient use of space and structural integrity of the box. In other words, Not In Order.

So. Here are the hundreds of boxes, and here are the shelves, and each box has to be unloaded, and the books inside placed in proper order on carts, and then shelved. The movers clearly were not to be entrusted with the middle bit, there. And for all the size and largeness and biggage of Temple Beth Bolshoi, there is just the one librarian (a terrific lady, but just one of her). So. Your Humble Blogger spent three hours shelving as a volunteer Tuesday morning before heading off to my paying job in the library. What fun!

Now, to the point of the story, other than to whinge for sympathy that by rights belongs to the shul’s librarian, not to me. I believe that most Gentle Readers have worked in or volunteered for libraries, and the rest of you can well imagine the librarian’s dilemma: Given the sheer quantity of books that pass through the librarian’s hands, he is bound to find a large number of them interesting or even fascinating or at least intriguing, and want to just take a moment to open a few up to find out if they will make it onto the List, or even onto the Short List. But even a short look into each of those provocative books would soon take up all the available work time, and nothing would get done. Many people think that librarians read more than anyone else, which may be true on average, but what’s really true is that librarians refrain from reading more books than anyone.

So there I was, hip deep in the shul’s book collection, trying not to look at the books as I put them in Dewey Decimal order. Jacob Neusner’s translation of Pirke Avot with commentary. A commentary on the Song of Songs. Leonard Fein’s Reform is a Verb, which I’m aware of as an influential book in the last generation of Reform Judaism, but which I’ve never read. And the prize of all, David Mamet’s Bar Mitvah, which on the whole, it’s probably better that I didn’t open, because the version in my head has got to be better than the one in the book.

Today, I am a fucking Bar Mitvah. Bar Fucking Mitvah. I’m saying. Davening up here. Davening up here like a—fuck, like a—what? Fucking Bar Mitzvah, that’s what.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 23, 2008

Shadenfreude, where the shade doesn't refer to anybody actually feeling bad about anything

I have at least two notes to write about library shelving, but neither of them will accommodate my glee at this particular bit of news. YHB’s new library—remember YHB’s new library?—not only has shelved Oryx and Crake in the out-of-the-way little neighborhood by the factory where all the speculative fiction books reside, but has actually placed a prominent sticker on the spine of the book that reads Sci-Fi.

You’re skiffy, Margaret Atwood, skiffy! You hear me?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

January 10, 2008

Noah Webster and his 'hood

Your Humble Blogger’s home town library has been renovating the main branch. It’s only been my home town for a couple of years, and in fact the main branch closed a month after we moved here, and remained closed for fourteen months. During that stretch, we all made do with two branch libraries that are both fine, fine, branches, but they are branches. Small. Not large.

The point, though, is that after all this time, our library has reopened. At last. There was a gala reopening celebration, with a band and clowns and drinks and ribbon-cutting and mayoral speeches and general fabulousness, and it was packed. I mean, hundreds and hundreds of people. Throngs. Parents and kids, little old ladies, professional types, hipsters, beautiful people, important people, riffraff, wanderers, madmen, saints. The whole town turned out. It was amazing.

That’s all. Just thought you’d like to know: YHB lives in a town which turns out in the hundreds for a library opening. I win.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

August 9, 2007

Not the municipality in which YHB is resident, fortunately

Your Humble Blogger is attempting to re-enter the workforce. Well, and there it is. It’s a revenue thing. Anyway, having applied for a position at a nearby public library, I was invited to attend a test for applicants for that position. Not an interview, you understand, a test. Hm, I thought. Perhaps this is one of those government-jargon things, where the municipality requires that anyone employed by it has passed a “test”, and that therefore the interviews are called tests, so as to fulfill a badly-written law.

No, it was a test. There were twenty of us in a room filling in multiple-choice bubbles. This was one of (I believe) three such groups. And all of this was for a part-time job. It seems to me that the municipality in question must have decided that every applicant would be given a standard test for municipal employees, and that only after the test had been taken and graded would the employer be able to choose who to interview. It’s all fair and aboveboard. And, of course, they purchased a test from some company, which presumably charges them for every test they grade. Also, they take four to six weeks to grade the tests.

Evidently there is some sort of “Secure Test” provision in the copyright law, which according to the introduction to the test I took, makes it a copyright infringement for me to repeat any of the questions on the test, even in paraphrase. This seems preposterous to me, but then there are many, many things about copyright law that seem preposterous to me. The paper they made us sign indicated that if we were to leave the test and write down any of the questions, it would be an illegal copyright infringement just as it would be an infringement to listen to a song on the radio and write it down. I’m not sure what they meant by writing it down—the lyrics? the melody? the chord changes? the title?—but I’m absolutely sure that whatever it means it would not by itself constitute an infringement. On the other hand, who knows what a judge will say?

So I would like to make it clear that I did not write down the questions, nor are any of the questions I may use as examples actually on the test. Clear? Yes? Good? Excellent.

We watched a video, where public employees dealt with the public and each other in various capacities. A problem would arise, and we would be given four choices of potential responses, from which to choose the best one. As for instance,

A barefoot patron wants to be served, despite the sign indicating the office’s policy no shirt, no shoes, no service. Would you (A) turn the patron away, telling him that there are no exceptions to the policy, (B) shout “HEY RUBE, were you born in a BARN?” as loud as you can, (C) offer to lend the patron your shoes, or (D) kneecap the fucker.

It turns out, surprisingly that kneecap the fucker is often the preferred alternative. Again:

Your co-worker returns from her lunch break stinking of whiskey. She appears to be fully capable of doing her job, but she is giggling quite a lot. Would you (A) tell your supervisor that your co-worker is off her ass again, falsely claiming that it’s the third time that week, (B) ask your co-worker if she is free for lunch tomorrow, (C) draw your co-worker’s inebriation to the attention of the patrons, for a laugh, or (D) kneecap the fucker?

I suspect that the actual value of the test lies primarily in removing from consideration the bottom half or so of applicants, those who can’t or won’t properly fill out the forms. Certainly the actual answers to the questions would tell you very little about what kind of an employee the applicant would make.

A patron indicates to you that he knows people who could have you killed. Would you (A) expedite his request, (B) secretly tape the conversation and then blackmail the patron into killing your co-worker instead, (C) play dumb, or (D) kneecap the fucker?

Honestly, once kneecap the fucker occurs to you, it’s hard to keep from laughing out loud at the video test.

A co-worker claims that the supervisor gave him a raise of a grand a month on the condition that he kicks half of it back to her. Would you (A) go to the supervisor and demand the same deal, (B) ask your co-worker how much half a grand is, (C) start demanding baksheesh from all the patrons, or (D) kneecap the fucker?

I want you all, Gentle Readers, to keep in mind when next you interact with a municipal employee, that every effort has been made to choose only the best from a large crop of extremely impressive applicants.

Your co-workers say that the new supervisor is a cold, inhuman bitch, but you think she’s kinda hot. Would you (A) pretend that you agree with your co-workers in an attempt to get along, (B) ask your supervisor out, (C) send your supervisor and your co-workers pornographic pictures from a spoofed email, or (D) kneecap the fucker.

Somehow, I don’t think I’m going to be working for these people.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

July 2, 2006

titles don't count, of course

Your Humble Blogger has had a couple of interesting conversations recently about wordless picture books. The local library is considering putting up a display, or perhaps a permanent section, and so the topic came up, and I thought I would ask my Gentle Readers for their suggestions.

There’s The Snowman, by Raymond Briggs, of course, and some of the David Wiesner books (Sector 7, Tuesday and Free Fall). There are books by John S. Goodall and Peter Sis, none of which I particularly like. Some of the Gabrielle Vincent books about Ernest and Celestine are wordless, and I like those a lot. And there’s David Macaulay—or do all his books have words? I’m wondering about Rome Antics and Shortcut, neither of which I have in front of me. And there’s Eric Rohmann’s Time Flies, which seems like a Wiesner knock-off, frankly, but not too bad at that.

My Perfect Non-Reader really liked Yellow Umbrella by Jae-Soo Liu, with a music CD by Dong Il Sheen that accompanied it. I just saw a very odd but lovely book by Molly Bangs called The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher, and Barbara Lehman’s The Red Book, which is a small red book about a small red book about a small red book...

Anyway, Gentle Readers, help me help my local librarian flesh out the list. What are the good ones? And if there’s something particularly good that just has a few words (such as Peggy Rathmann’s Goodnight, Gorilla) go ahead and throw it in, just for luck.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.

September 28, 2005

not in Boston, but, you know

Your Humble Blogger was in the library yesterday, not the local small-town library but the library at the somewhat-bigger town fifteen miles away, the library with the surprisingly good CD selection (this week: the 2-disc beautifully remastered All Things Must Pass, a four-disc Complete RCA/Victor Louis Armstrong, and a few others), and I happened to see that they were giving away buttons for Banned Book week. They were largish buttons with big clear letters reading “I READ BANNED BOOKS”. I thought to myself, “do I?”

See, I had looked at the ALA list of last year’s most challenged books, and I have read ... well, I’ve read The Chocolate War, and I’ve read one of the Captain Underpants books, and I’ve read and admired In the Night Kitchen. I think that’s it. Yes, I’ve never read Of Mice and Men or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I’ve never read Mr. Bellesiles’s’s dodgy history tome. I’ve never even heard of the others.

I assume this is because most attempts to remove books from libraries occur at middle-school libraries which have already used their discretion to leave out Delta of Venus or Tutored in Lust (both of which I have read). I don’t know if the library that was handing out the buttons stocks those books. I can’t say I would blame them if they didn’t. Are they banned? Are, let’s see, the Turner Diaries banned from school libraries, or should they be? If I walked up to my nice librarian and shoved a copy of My Struggle at her along with her button, would she be all happy and stuff? Those books aren’t challenged, because they aren’t on the shelves to challenge. They will never make the list.

I mean, I read banned books, or at least I read books without worrying about whether they’ve been banned. I don’t have a problem with a certain amount of discretion on the part of the librarians, though. I would prefer that the Turner Diaries not be in the middle-school library. That’s my preference, and I suspect that if the middle-school librarian preferred to have it on the shelf, I would listen to her reasoning and let the matter go. It’s only a book, after all. I do think that we should fund libraries for adults, and perhaps we should make it a condition of removing a book from a children’s library that it must be in the stacks of the adult library, so a child who is denied the opportunity to read a banned book at school may do so with a parent at home. But in fact, the really unpopular books, the real fringe stuff, isn’t at the grown-library library either, and nobody cares.

No, the reason people get worked up over Banned Book Week is that the most frequently challenged books are right plumb spang in the mainstream. Or perhaps just slightly off to one side, like Heather Has Two Mommies, still a long way from shore. When the ALA and all us libs defend the books on that list, we may well think that we are defending them simply because we are against banning books, but really we think it’s stupid and annoying to ban these books. It’s counter-productive to ban the Harry Potter books, it’s dumb to ban the Captain Underpants books, and it’s just crazy to ban In the Night Kitchen. I am against removing books from the library just for “offensive language” or “sexual content” and certainly for “modeling bad behavior” or “homosexuality”, and I just can’t see “occult themes” as being a big problem.

The top reasons for challenges (according to the ALA) are ... well, let’s take ’em one at a time. The most frequent challenge was to ... survey says ... “sexually explicit” material. OK. I would not ban all sexually explicit material, even from a children’s library, depending on what constitutes “explicit”, but then there are some books I would keep out of a school library simply because of their sexually explicit nature. It’s a librarian’s call, with presumably input from teachers and parents.

Second ... “offensive language”. That’s right out. I mean, I don’t know that I would shelve Jesus Fuck, Charlie Brown! in with the board books, but I doubt that any book that I would want in the library otherwise would be ruled out by “offensive language”.

Third ... “Unsuited to age group”. Ding ding ding! I think it’s a good idea to suit books to the readers, and I think that’s an important part of the librarian’s job. A good reason to challenge a book, or in nicer language to bring it to the librarian’s attention.

Fourth: is the silliness about the occult. I would allow these books, and I think any parent who wouldn’t is kidding himself. Or herself. Or being kidded by somebody. Fifth is violence, and I wouldn’t toss out any book just because it was violent. Or how about a rule that says anything more violent than Mother Goose is out; that’ll keep the pile nice and small. Sixth is promoting homosexuality, which I’m for, so that’s out. Seventh is promoting a “religious viewpoint”, which I can understand is a bit of a church/state issue, but seems way down on that list. Then there’s nudity (woo-hoo!), and some others such as anti-family (my family can stand up to that, thanks).

Then there’s racism, which is a tough nut to crack. On the whole, in a middle-school library, I’d feel reasonably comfortable with the exclusion of truly racist texts. On the other hand, I’d want the library to be reluctant to use that exclusion. I wouldn’t want them to feel they had to guarantee that all the books on the shelves were free of taint. Some judgment is called for; I’d rather have a professional make that judgment.

So, what’s my point? Mostly that it’s more complicated than it looks (shock! surprise! alarm!), and that really in defending the “banned books”, we are and should be defending children having a positive attitude toward sex, romance (including homosexual romance), the occult, bad behavior, and a religious viewpoint. I think the ALA is being misleading if not outright dishonest in pretending that it is defending “banned books”. It is defending a positive attitude toward sex, romance (including homosexual romance), the occult, bad behavior, and a religious viewpoint. It is also, as it should be, against certain pressure groups who want to take the filtering job out of the hands of librarians and do it themselves. These groups want to narrow the main stream, and librarians, on the whole, like it as wide as it is. They present themselves as against banning books, and their opponents as in favor of banning books, and you know what? It’s more complicated than that.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,
-Vardibidian.