Category Archives: Library

Top Shelf Madness

Almost two years ago I started writing about strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk, in a series I call Refer Madness

My latest one, titled “Finding Angels,” is debuting over at Booklist, as part of the latest issue of “Top Shelf Reference” newsletter. This latest one is about a patron who came in looking for a book about angels, but actually desired something else. 

I’ll continue Refer Madness here, but hope to keep them going in Top Shelf semi-regularly. Thanks to Rebecca at Booklist for the opportunity! 

La La Librarians

Lots of great anecdotes from the New Yorker story “Scenes from the Oscar Night Implosion“, including this one on the Academy librarians planted in the corner of the press room:

In the back corner was my favorite part of the press room: the librarians’ table, where the Academy librarians are on hand to answer questions. Under a sign that said “Reference,” a librarian named Lucia Schultz had a thick binder of Oscar history and another of credits for the nominated films. Reporters came by to ask questions. Had there previously been two African-American acting winners in the same year? (Yes, in 2002, 2005, and 2007.) If Lin-Manuel Miranda won Best Original Song, would he be the youngest-ever “EGOT”? (Depends on whether you count noncompetitive awards. Barbra Streisand was younger, but she won a Special Tony Award.) Was Mahershala Ali the first Muslim to win an Oscar? (They couldn’t say, because the Academy doesn’t keep records on winners’ religious affiliations.) After Colleen Atwood won for Best Costume Design, a Metro.co.uk reporter rushed up to Schultz and asked if any other British people had won four Oscars. “Yes, but Colleen Atwood is from Washington State,” Schultz said.

Later on, as the Best Picture snafu was happening, Schultz had what we could call a run on the reference desk:

On the monitors, a guy in a headset was onstage, and the “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz was saying, “This is not a joke. ‘Moonlight’ has won Best Picture.” When the camera zoomed in on the envelope, the press room collectively screamed. A reporter ran up to Schultz and asked, “Has anything like this ever happened before?” Schultz, who had not prepared for this scenario, was frantically searching her records. “I cannot think of a case where this has happened,” she said. “There are times when people thought it happened.” More reporters lined up with the same question—it was the most attention Schultz had got all night. She remembered something about Quincy Jones and Sharon Stone forgetting the envelope for Best Original Score, in 1996, but no other precedent came to mind. (In fact, Sammy Davis, Jr., once read from the wrong envelope, in 1964.)

Time to update those reference materials.

Fun New Things

Some fun stuff I’ve been enjoying lately:

“This Machine Kills Fascists” Pencils

From Frog & Toad Press in Rhode Island, which has several other colorfully messaged pencils and other goodies available.

Library Extension for Chrome

Not sure where I found out about this, but I’ve been digging it thus far not only with my personal browsing but for work as well. The wizards behind this extension, which will show you if a book you’re browsing on Goodreads or Amazon is in your local library catalog, were very quick to fix an error I pointed out, and seem to be fast overall with adding new libraries by request. I asked them if functionality with CDs and DVDs could be added, and they said it’s possible in a future release.

Library Life sticker pack for iPhone Messages (via TILT)

I mean, when isn’t it appropriate to use emojis like these?

The Book Thieves

As I read Anders Rydell’s The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance, I kept thinking of Sean Connery’s line from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:

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All this book burning by the Nazis entailed looting a continent’s worth of libraries and archives, specifically to root out so-called subversive literature (i.e. anything Jewish). They were also abetted by a very willing populace, including (sad face) librarians:

Wolfgang Herrmann, a librarian who had involved himself with right-wing extremist student groups as early as the 1920s, had been working for several years on a list of literature “worthy of being burned.” The first draft only listed 12 names, but this was soon expanded to 131 writers, subdivided into various categories.

Well, that’s one way to weed your collection… But, as Rydell points out, the Nazis weren’t just about burning books:

The image of burning books has been altogether too tempting, too effective, and too symbolic not to be used and applied in the writing of history. But the burning of books became so powerful a metaphor for cultural annihilation that it overshadowed another more unpleasant narrative, namely how the Nazis did a great deal more than simply destroy books—they were also driven by a fanatical obsession to collect them.

There is a tendency to view the Nazis as unhinged destroyers of knowledge. It is also true that many libraries and archives were lost while under the control of the regime, either through systematic destruction or indirectly as a consequence of war. Despite this, a question that needs to be asked in the shadow of Himmler’s library is the following: What is more frightening, a totalitarian regime’s destruction of knowledge or its hankering for it?

It’s less hankering and more hoarding. Whatever the Nazis didn’t destroy they were perfectly willing to keep for themselves as treasures of conquest. But whether they destroyed undesirable knowledge or stole it and kept it for themselves, their mission was perfectly in sync with the human holocaust that was happening at the same time.

We can say it won’t happen again because books are so much more plentiful and we have the internet as a new means of free expression, but that would be too pat, wouldn’t it? We are never quite as safe from the slippery slope as we think we are.

Refer Madness: Thanks, Man

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

Coming out of a recent concert at the library, an elderly man asked if we had a calendar of events he could take home. I showed him where they were on the shelf, and as I was about to return to the desk, he started talking.

“You have a great facility here,” he said. He’d been a longtime library lover, longtime supporter. He remembered that when his home library was doing some major renovations, one of his neighbors was peeved about the cost:

“She said, ‘Why are they doing that? They’re using my money!’ And I said, ‘You don’t like that?’ She said no. So I told her, ‘Well, they need to keep adding new things and making sure people have the opportunity to learn and grow and get educated. You don’t want that?’ And she said no, that it’s not necessary and a waste of money. So I asked if she had any grandchildren and she said yeah. I said ‘Well, you don’t want those things, but what about them? You want to deny them a good library and good services just because [he leans in and says in sotto voce] you’re a tight-ass?’ No way, I said.”

I thanked him for his kind words and support and he went on his way. Often librarians at the public desk hear from people like the man’s neighbor, who rail against the use of taxpayer money for public services they don’t like. It’s a rare treat, then, to hear such unprompted, unabashed praise and support from someone who had nothing to gain by sharing it.

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.