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Archive for April 2009

Suze Orman Promotes Libraries

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Popular CNBC financial talk show host Suze Orman kicked off her program this week, which centered on eco-saving, with a good word for public libraries.

After briefly introducing the idea of green saving, or ways to save money that are also good for the environment, Ms. Orman continued, “So let’s start, right now, by talking about ways for you to save money by reusing things, recycling them and I’m going to start with my books.  Yeah, my books, or all books.  Now, while it is true that many authors would love to say to you, ‘Buy this book!  Buy this book!’ if you really care about trees, if you care about everything that’s going on, and you care about saving money, why can’t you just go to the library and take the books out?  All my books are there; everybody’s books are there so you can do that.  Save money, save paper—I think it’s a great way to go.”  [Italics added.]

Ms. Orman then went on to talk about holding on to electronic equipment longer rather than dumping it the minute something new comes out, or letting others use your older electronics if you do decide to buy the next new gadget.  As she spoke about about electronics, a list of bullet points was posted on the screen, and her library tip was point Number One:

Get books from the library
Saves trees, paper & money

I’ve  always contended that libraries promote environmentally and socially sustainable reading habits.  Rather than buying a stack of pretty books at a retailer and allowing to them to collect dust on your book shelf to impress your friends and family after you’ve read them, you can cut back on some of this consumption by taking advantage of the library.  Mind you, I’m as as guilty of impulse book buying and bibliohoarding as the next person.  This is not a call for everyone to stop buying books for their personal libraries, rather a suggestion that it is possible to curtail spending and tree chopping this way. How much anyone scales back their book buying budget through library use is up to them, of course.

This is yet another answer to the core question posed by this blog. Why are there libraries?  Why do we as communities set some of our pooled resources aside to create collections of books and media and put them at all citizens’ disposal?  Because it makes good economic sense to do so, of course! Just ask Suze.


Written by whyaretherelibraries

April 27, 2009 at 1:53 am

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What Do Librarians Do?

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While preparing to give an Introduction to Lbrary Services lesson to the sophomores in one of the schools I serve, I decided to pose the open-ended question, “What do librarians do?”  During the actual class sessions with three different groups of English Language Arts students, this of course opened me up to jokes about my key job responsibilities being not letting people in without a pass, kicking people out and shushing.  I had to agree with the students that all these things were manifestations of what I see as my job,  but where I disagreed was the idea that these were my primary responsibilities.

Luckily, I had prepared my flip charts in advance to answer the question as I see it, and during my short prep time, this is what I came up with:

A librarian’s job is to purchase, manage and furnish a collection of materials for a specific user population by… [I know, I know, I’m not thrilled with “furnish…for” either, but it was crunch time…]

1. acquiring the funds to purchase the information,

2.  surveying the user population,

3. studying how other successful libraries operate,

4. setting usage and borrowing policies,

5. educating the user population on  how to make the best use of the materials and equipment in the collection.

I left the educating part for last simply to make the point that coming into the library with their ELA teacher to participate in this discussion and learn about research projects was Number 5 in action.

These five broad bullet points cover much of the job, and now that I have more time to reflect and self-criticize, I see several omissions, which I’ll incorporate when I do this kind of lesson in the future.  These additional bullet points will be something to the effect of…

6. organize the materials to make them easy for users to access,

7. monitor user behavior to improve service and collections,

8. respond to users’ queries by providing answers and/or instructions on how to find answers,

9. provide advice and suggestions for further reading,

10.  provide users with knowledgeable information about the range of materials available to them, both hard-copy and online and their relative strengths and weaknesses.

While speaking about Number 4,  “setting usage and borrowing policies,” I quickly mentioned the idea that “usage” could mean “use of the library space,” hence the ejecting of difficult patrons, the shushing and so on.  Although I didn’t delve it into it during the lesson, due to lack of time, it occurred to me that “usage” might also refer to the use of the materials, or the use of equipment.  My policies in the last two areas could  include charging students replacement fees for lost books and locking computers down to avoid pornographic wallpapers.

Library services are  becoming more crucial in our current recession economy for two reasons.  First, a library-savvy public is making use of public libraries for career information as well to cut down on book, magazine and DVD consumption. Second, because the difficult economic times are forcing an ever increasing number of  formerly free Internet information providers to charge usage fees, which, in my opinion was inevitable.

The latter development means that users will have to choose their information acquisitions more wisely, while libraries will use their pooled resources to make purchases that everyone can share on an ad hoc basis.  This, in fact, resembles the earlier model; the model that existed before content providers foolishly decided to convince everyone that high quality information could be free to users, with all the costs covered solely by web advertising.

In reality, the costs associated with hiring the intellectual and creative talent required to produce truly valuable information products, be they online newspapers, e-zines or e-books will never be covered exclusively by advertising, just as the same paradigm holds for their equivalents in physical form.  Now more than ever, librarians have a crucial role to play in selecting the best and most appropriate for-pay sources for their users.

Ultimately, the objective of a school librarian is to help train students to understand what librarians do, what libraries offer and how best to take advantage of their services later in life.

Written by whyaretherelibraries

April 25, 2009 at 3:52 am

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Libertine Librarian Comes to Broadway

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I recently went to see Round and Round the Garden by Alan Ayckbourn at Circle in the Square.  It’s part of a cycle of three plays collectively called The Norman Conquests, all of which recount a single weekend full of comical and farcical sexually charged events in the life of three English couples, or perhaps two couples and one couple-to-be, all viewed from different parts of the house.  This part of the cycle, naturally, takes place in the garden, while Table Manners takes place in the dining room and Living Together takes place in the living room; same weekend, same people, meant to be seen in any order.

Round and Round… is amusing in that witty, intelligent way that only a British comedy of manners can be, and, as an added bonus, for me at least, something in the dialogue stood out immediately: this Norman, who is so bent on conquering every woman and possibly one of the men in his immediate circle, the star of she show, the center of attention, the quirky, bright, nonconformist who shakes everybody and everything up, is also a librarian.

Librarianship is far from the central topic of the play, and as I haven’t seen the other two related pieces, I have no idea if it comes up again, but it is mentioned by Norman (played by Stephen Mangan) at least twice.  The first time, it’s a reference to being “in the library” when speaking of his work, I think, and the second time it jumped out at me was when he spoke jokingly of having ensured his job security by having created a whole new classification system that nobody else would ever be able to decode.

There have been myriad discussions and academic papers and web sites and so forth devoted to the image of the librarian in the arts and in society.  We’ve had the affection-starved Marian the librarian in The Music Man, Mary Hatch leading a miserable existence sans George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life and the tireless and feisty library advocate Bunny Watson in Desk Set.  There’s the fantasy librarian seen in TV sitcoms, music videos as well as some X-rated works: prim and proper with her hair tied tightly back in a bun, bespectacled (which seems to mean “unattractive” to filmmakers and script writers), dressed in a crisp suit and silky bow tie that scream, “I’m all business,” and unable to have fun or even be friendly until for one reason or other someone gets her to “loosen up,” shake out her unexpectedly gorgeous mane and leap up onto the reference desk to display her surprisingly attractive form for play time.  Who knew people who wear glasses and conservative clothing could also be fit, attractive and occasionally be in the mood for a little fun?  What a shock!

There have also been a few wonderful and offbeat librarian types in the media.  Mary, the lead character in the film Party Girl and the fabulously satirical Lipstick Librarian, a force to be reckoned with on the Internet, are two of my personal all-time favorites.  And now we have Norman to add to our list.  I’m not sure what exactly to make of him, but at first blush, I kind of like him.

First, he’s a nonconformist, which I view as a good thing.  Second, Ayckbourn has imbued him with a wonderfully offbeat sense of humor, also a plus in my book.  Third, he is the opposite of sexually repressed, which is the raison d’être of so many of the classic librarian icons, including those mentioned above.  Norman is blunt and open in his dealings with others, and doesn’t make much of an attempt to hide his romantic feelings, to say the least.  Fourth, he doesn’t make a big fuss about being a librarian.  Of course, this is again Ayckbourn’s work and not fictional “Norman’s” doing per se.

It’s nice to see a three-dimensional character written in such a way that a feature that could easily become the stereotypical centerpiece of the character’s being is simply allowed to be one aspect of his or her many facets.  Books, plays and films that take a didactic approach to their characters’ traits are so tiresome.  Take My Big Fat Greek Wedding, for example.  As cute as it as it occasionally was, it seemed like little more than a classroom lesson on Greek-ness.  “We’re Greek, so this is why we do X, and this is how we do Y and this when we do Z,” and so on.  My Big Horny English Librarian, this play is not, thank goodness.  I’m eager to see the rest of the cycle, and if I do you can be sure I’ll annoy everyone who passes through by writing a post about it.

Written by whyaretherelibraries

April 15, 2009 at 9:23 pm

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A Free Spirit Lights on a Branch

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While browsing through the zeroes in a New York Public Library branch, looking for a book on Excel that would help me improve my pivot table skills, I stumbled across Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks and Gangstas in the Public Library by Don Borchert (New York: Virgin, 2007).  Once I started reading it later that day, I couldn’t put it down.  Aside from the author’s annoying habit of conflating the terms library assistant and assistant librarian, the former requiring only a Bachelor’s degree and the latter a Masters in Library Science, the book is an engaging, witty and sometimes touching look at life in a branch library.

I bridled at the seemingly intentional obfuscation of the author’s job title because it was such a long, arduous struggle through grueling years of full time work during the day and as many courses as I could afford and wrap my mind around in night school, from undergrad through graduate degrees for me to move from library assistant to assistant librarian.  Once I was able to let go of that, however, I really enjoyed the author’s style and his stories.

The cast of characters at his branch of a self-contained library system in one of the smaller cities that make up the patchwork of Greater Los Angeles runs the gamut from Lydia, the charming and upbeat AIDS hospice worker, to the creepy pedophiles who lurk in the stacks to the daily visitor Henry, who battles psychic demons while working through a photocopy of the L.A. Times crossword puzzle, and everyone in between.  Borchert describes them all in colorful language, with his formerly private thoughts about them and their antics interjected for extra spice.

The author also seems to be able handle managing both down and up, according to his account of things, with aplomb.  He gets on well with the pages and is the calm, reasonable and stable rock the librarians can rely on, especially in times of crisis.  When fights are about to erupt or after-school kids who’ve been dumped at the library to wait for their parents are getting out of hand or a patron is angry about having to pay a fine, Don is your man.  He seems especially fond of Terri, the children’s librarian he worked with for many years until she transferred to the main library.  He recounts a funny story of the first program Terri planned that involved animals in the library.  Terri had a severe allergic reaction to a marmoset.  Luckily, none of the children in attendance suffered from the same allergy, but the city administration was careful to thoroughly clean and disinfect the branch, throwing the poor custodians in harm’s way without a care, in the process.

Through it all, Borchert waxes philosphical about what it means to be a civil servant and why cities provide library services to the public.  The uses a population has for a library service are varied, from a clean, well-lit refuge from a hectic world, a place to ostensibly do homework, a source of reading material in a favorite genre, a place to get questions answered, or to broaden one’s scope of knowledge.  “Some patrons use books as an aid to sleep,” says Borchert when referring to the aforementioned hospice worker, “Lydia uses books to make her world larger.”  Leaving your home or office for bit, going to a center of reading and information, interacting with the people who work there and the other visitors and increasing your knowledge are some of the many worthy reasons to have public libraries.

Written by whyaretherelibraries

April 15, 2009 at 1:02 pm

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Libraries? Do They Still Have Those???

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Just about two weeks ago it happened again.  I was having dinner with a friend of a friend and her daughter, when the daughter, in response to discovering I was a librarian said something to the effect of, “It’s too bad nobody uses libraries anymore.”  She went on to say, “I LOVE libraries!  I used to go all the time when I was little,” as her mother nodded in agreement across the table, “but now nobody takes their children to the library.  The kids are all hooked on TV and video games.”

When I was able to get a word in edgewise in this discussion with my enthusiastic young dining companion, who lives in Miami, I did say, “I’ll bet the Miami Public Library has programs for children.”  Again, her mother nodded her assent to this idea as daughter quickly sped ahead to another subject.

I was curious to see if my assertion was correct.  It seemed impossible that it wouldn’t be, but I often find myself blindsided by my own assumptions, so I did a quick search on the web and sure enough, the Miami-Dade Public Library web site offers resources for children both at the branches and online.  A quick check of the events scheduled for the coming week, organized by branch, showed “Storytime” events at all the branches I clicked on.  Yet the perception of my voluble new friend was that such things no longer happened.  Is perception reality?  If a story hour happens when you’re not in the library, does it make a sound?

In response to these comments and many others like them I’ve heard over the years, I’ve finally decided to take myself up on a threat I’ve been making for quite some time now.  I’ve created a blog to bloviate about libraries and how great I think they are.  Another objective of the site is to cover the interesting and unusual libraries of the New York area; their collections, services, events quirks and, of course, their librarians.  I’m making no promises on the secondary goal, but I’m setting a minimum of one post per week for observations, opinions and the like.

Thank you in advance to any and all who come across this blog and take a few minutes to read some of it.

Written by bibliothecario

April 10, 2009 at 9:42 pm

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