Chad Comello

Librarian, cinephile, et al

Category: Libraries (page 2 of 4)

A Librarian’s Guide to The Simpsons

In what’s quickly becoming a regular hobby, I went screengrab-hunting on Frinkiac, this time for anything library- or book-related. The result:

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Refer Madness: Playing Favorites

rmRefer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

Every librarian has favorite patrons. Like parents we aren’t supposed to admit it, but it’s true. My favorites have developed because of how nice they are, for their interesting requests, or for their particular outlook on life. One of my favorites is an older woman, a regular, who is delightfully candid about the books she reads and, I’m discovering, shares my taste in reading.

She had Ann Patchett’s new book Commonwealth in hand to check out, and I said I heard it was good. “Yeah, I don’t know, we’ll see,” she said. She wasn’t fond of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell: “The baby in the womb? How dumb was that!” Her favorites this year have been When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, and Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, which we bonded over. “So much people read is just trash,” she told me. “It’s nice to be on the same wavelength with someone.” I agreed and wished her luck with Commonwealth.

This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for patrons like her.

Refer Madness: The Terminator of Ghent

rmRefer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

A gentleman called the desk with a pretty simple question: What was the release date of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines? Because of my prodigious ability to remember useless trivia (film-related especially), I knew it was 2003. But he wanted the specific release date, which IMDb told me was July 2. I thought that would be the end of the call, but it… wasn’t.

Here is the sequence of questions that followed:

  • Who was the lead actress in Rise of the Machines? (Kristanna Loken)
  • How old is she? (36)
  • What is her hometown? (Ghent, New York)
  • What is the per capita income of Ghent, NY ($37,643 in 2014) [Thanks, U.S. Census!]
  • What is Ghent’s percentage of white people? (94.5%)
  • What is Ghent’s percentage of black people? (1.6%)
  • What is the release date of Terminator Genisys? (July 1, 2015)
  • What is Ghent’s poverty level? (5.4%)

The thing I couldn’t figure out while answering these questions was whether this line of inquiry was pre-determined or if he started winging it after the first one. I got the sense he was pulling questions from a list since our back-and-forth moved along at a steady clip. But if that was the case, why bounce around between the Terminator movies and Ghent, NY? If he planned the jump between the two topics, by way of Kristanna Loken, why the sudden incursion of Terminator Genisys?

UPDATE: He called back an hour later with more. Still on a Terminator kick, he wanted to know:

  • Who was the female lead of the first two Terminators? (Linda Hamilton)
  • Is she still alive? (Yes)
  • Where is she from? (Salisbury, Maryland)
  • Where is that? (Between Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic)
  • What has she done lately? (Most recent movie is A Sunday Horse)
  • What is that film about? (“After a near-fatal accident, on a horse the experts thought was nothing special, a determined rider from the wrong side of the tracks defies all the odds to pursue her dreams of winning a national jumping championship.”)

Yep, he’s definitely just winging these.

Man Bookers

This New York Times story about all-male book clubs was not as inflammatory as I knew it would be taken in certain spheres. It turns out (wait for it…) some men are in book clubs just for men.

The reaction from one of the groups to the NYT story is worth reading for important context that didn’t get into the piece: that they do in fact read books by women, and that the group was started out of a desire to get back into reading after kids and life had intervened. The group’s mission: “to leave our day jobs behind, to find meaning and enjoyment in literature, and to know each other better in the process.” What a bunch of misogynist pigs!

They also correctly point out people start exclusive book clubs of every conceivable theme and parameter. To prohibit men from this privilege out of some anti-patriarchy crusade would be misguided, obtuse, and contrary to the spirit of reading.

As a librarian, I cheer anyone who joins a book club at all, or even just starts reading for fun again. And since men participate in book clubs and discussions much less than women, civic groups like this one ought to be applauded, not snickered at. (Although, yes, the International Ultra Manly Book Club has a silly name and some cheeky masculine posturing in the article.)

The morals of the story: Read! For fun! At whim! And do whatever it takes to do so. I didn’t start reading for fun until right after college, when I realized I didn’t have to take notes or bullshit write a critical essay on the material anymore. I could just read what looked interesting. And I’ve been doing that ever since.

Been Reviewing

Happy to report that two of my most recent reviews for Library Journal are now online. I wrote about Edward Lengel’s First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His—and the Nation’s—Prosperity and Charles Rappleye’s Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the PresidencyFirst Entrepreneur is already out, and the Herbert Hoover biography, which I gave a “starred” review, comes out in May.

My first two reviews are also up, but paywalled: Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight Before NASA by Amy Shira Teitel here and Industries of the Future by Alec Ross here, which is for Booklist.

Reviewing for two publications at once has been fun but strange. Sometimes I’ll have several books at once and have to power through them, and other times I’ll have just one looming in the distance, giving me some time for personal reading. The reviews are only 175-200 words, though, so they are easier to get through than the essay-like reviews in the New York Times et al. Then again, summarizing hundreds of pages in what is basically a solid paragraph can be challenging, especially when I have strong opinions (good or bad) or the book covers so much ground. Then, once I’ve submitted the review, I can’t really discuss it with anyone because it’s not released yet, and I can’t post my review because it’s for the publication.

Anyway, it’s been a fun gig thus far. Thanks to LJ and Booklist for the opportunity.

England Murder Bicycle Chemistry

rm

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

During an otherwise quiet evening on the desk, someone messaged my co-librarian on our library’s chat service with a specific, but not quite specific enough, request. She wanted the title and author of a book in a murder mystery series, published post-2000. She then provided a some 200-word synopsis of the plots and characters in the series, which involved a young girl in rural postwar England who solves crimes in her village “using her bicycle and chemistry skills.”

She’d tried book-related listservs and message boards, to no avail. Since our go-to fiction RA librarian was gone for the evening, we were on our own. But not quite alone: I jaunted over to NoveList Plus, that magical database beloved by librarians and bookish folks everywhere, and entered keywords from the patron’s description—and which serve as this post’s title.

Boom. First result:

sweetness-pie.png

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first of five books in Alan Bradley’s Flavia De Luce mysteries series. Since NoveList’s plot description was surprisingly sparse, and I wanted to make sure I got the right book in the series, I cross-checked it with its Amazon page and sure enough, NoveList was right on target.

Putting the same search terms into Google yields nothing close to what I was looking for. Google can do many other things well, but its wide generalist’s net can miss what a targeted niche search like NoveList will catch every time.

Which, of course, reminds me of the Neil Gaiman quote you can find on every corner of the librarian internet: “In a world where Google can bring you back 100,000 answers [or in this case 6 million], a librarian can bring you back the right one.”

Thanks to the life-changing magic of NoveList, we got it right tonight.

Not Fine: On Library Amnesty

Chicago Public Library is embarking on a fine amnesty drive this month. The last one seemed to work really well for everyone:

The library reported receiving 101,301 overdue items, valued at about $2 million, and waived $641,820 worth of fines. The late materials ranged from items only a few weeks overdue to one book that had been due since 1934.

It’s really great that past amnesty programs worked out well for CPL, and I assume for other libraries that do them. Getting that material back benefits everyone, and the uncollected fine money probably won’t make much of a dent since fine revenue is usually a pittance in most public library budgets.

But I’m of two minds on this.

Continue reading

Calling All Citations

otter-fishing-wikipedia

The first article that came up when I hit Wikipedia’s “Random Article” button. I’ll call it a win.

Greatly appreciated this post from Jessamyn West promoting the #1Lib1Ref campaign (One Librarian, One Reference), which seeks to get every librarian to add at least one reliable reference source to a Wikipedia article that needs it. Jessamyn:

This helps make Wikipedia better in the process. I added my cite today to the Free Your Mind… and Your Ass Will Follow article. I’m not even trying to be sassy, that is just the page that was handed to me by this great tool that lets you know which articles need citations. I did some Googling, found a Google Book that had some supporting detail for the fact in question, used a book citation tool to turn it into Wikistyle and there you go. I might do two, just in case someone doesn’t have time to add a citation to Wikipedia this week.

Wikipedia is 15 years old today. About a month ago I donated to the Wikimedia Foundation for the first time during one of their fundraisers, because I’ve been a cheapskate freeloader for long enough. I’ve been using it since high school, when it started getting big and quickly became anathema to cite in any academic or “serious” setting, given its unreliability as an authoritative source. (As an editor at my college paper I once received a story from a staff writer that began “According to Wikipedia…” Headdesk.)

But for a trivia-brain like me, Wikipedia was and remains a delectable time-suck of arcana, and a handy resource I consult more frequently than I realize. For looking up films, for instance, I much prefer its spartan UI and rigid structure to the once-helpful but now-bloated and gaudy IMDb. And though Goodreads is usually my first stop for book ratings and reviews, the sidebar for a well-enough-known book has all the metadata I’d usually need. In good articles the References and Further Reading sections also make great portals to related topics and sources you didn’t realize you were interested in.

I once read somewhere that Wikipedia is like the opposite of communism: it doesn’t work in theory but somehow works in practice. That it hasn’t fizzled out already is a minor miracle, a credit largely due to the many volunteer editors who keep it running (and probably to enough of those annoying fundraising banners that show up in increasingly creative and strident ways). I’ve made edits very sporadically over the years—mostly cosmetic ones like italicizing titles and correcting links—but once while in a Wiki-rabbit-hole I excised a vicious ad hominem comment someone had written on Taylor Momsen’s page, which was pretty sparse at the time and therefore more liable to vandalism.

Speaking of: the site has issues, clearly. Who knows how much longer it’ll be around in its current form. Like the rest of the open web, I hope it lasts and evolves into a sustainable and dependent force for good. This #1Lib1Ref challenge is a good opportunity for librarians like me to be more proactive in this weird and wonderful experiment, if only as a professional obligation.

So thanks Jimmy for 15 years and counting. In celebration I will click the Random Article button (the site’s best feature) 15 times and only 15 times. I’ve got stuff to do after all.

The Library Lives of Others

Earlier this year I started keeping a list of things people have asked me at the library information desk. It’s not totally comprehensive: some questions either aren’t noteworthy (“Where’s the bathroom?”) or slipped my mind during a busy rush. But even as a scattershot sample, it’s an interesting snapshot of what people care about. Here are the ten most recent items on the list people have asked me for or wondered about:

  • Introduction to Academic Writing by Alice Oshima et al
  • Casper DVD
  • Halloween DVD
  • Monster by Walter Dean Myers
  • Cars For U.S. Troops phone number
  • History of Monroney stickers on new cars
  • The Court and the World by Stephen Breyer
  • Stonewall Uprising documentary
  • My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
  • The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

So we have five books of diverse genres, three very different movies, one phone number request, and one reference question I was able to find info on pretty quickly (and learn about myself). A more accurate representation would have more requests for phone numbers and addresses, but it still gives you an idea of the kinds of things people ask a total stranger for.

And that’s what I’ve found so intriguing and invigorating about my public library jobs thus far into my short career. Aside from the regulars whose desires you can pretty well anticipate as they approach, when a person walks up to the desk I have no idea what they’re gonna ask. So when people ask how my job is going, I can legitimately say that every day is different, and I like that. I appreciate the trust people put in me as the guy behind the desk to get them what they need. And I don’t want to jeopardize that trust by blowing them off, judging their requests (openly anyway), or getting them bad information.

Because it’s their lives we’re dealing with. I’ve written before about how I’ve come to view libraries as sanctuaries and the librarian as a kind of secular pastor. Indeed, the info desk can sometimes feel like a confession booth, which patrons approach with every conceivable attitude: frustrated by their inability to find something, ashamed in the asking of it, happy to be getting help at all, and so on. Whatever they throw at me, I have to be ready to respond accurately, with patience and grace when applicable. Librarians have to do a lot of different things, but good public service is and should be number one.

Alternate names for Roving Reference

Itinerant Info
Ambulatory Assistance
Hovering Help
Strolling Support
Stack Stalking

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