Chad Comello

Libraries, culture, typewriters

Category: Libraries (page 1 of 4)

What’s your favorite library memory?

In honor of National Library Week, I’d like to know your favorite library memories or experiences, distant or recent. And if you don’t have any, why not?

See my libraries tag for more goodness.

Refer Madness: A String of Beeps

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

I was on the phone with a patron when I heard it: that incessant beep the copier makes when something goes wrong.

Once I finished with the patron on the phone, I went over to see what was the matter. This time it was “Insufficient funds”. The coin tower screen showed 25 cents, which was enough for the two copies the patron wanted to make. I cleared the attempted copy job, tried it again, and it printed fine.

I assume copier technology has advanced since the mid-20th century, but you wouldn’t know it based on what’s churning out copies in many libraries.

“I guess it just hates me,” the man said with a smile.

“It’s just old and cranky,” I tell him, which is true.

“Well, I’m old and cranky too,” he said wryly. (A sense of humor goes a long way when dealing with technology—of any age.)

It’s a phenomenon we’re all familiar with: the computer or copier or iDevice malfunctions, but as soon as someone comes to the rescue, it works fine. We made it through this operation painlessly, but it was emblematic of how much of my job is realizing how things get screwed up and how often it’s the machine’s fault.

I can’t tell you how many times a patron brings a device to the desk and says “I feel so dumb” or “This is a dumb question, but…” Sure, sometimes patrons don’t read instructions or signs correctly. But just as often it’s the design of the machine or app that led to the failure. The annoying beeps and popup error messages are just an insulting icing on the cake.

Though the machine is just trying to say:

*BEEP* ERROR

its frustrated victims actually hear:

*BEEP* WRONG
*BEEP* YOU’RE STUPID
*BEEP* SCREW YOU

Counteracting this ought to be the chief quest of good design. It makes everything better: users can actually use things without going insane and devices can be used with minimum intervention from outsiders.

Easier said that designed.

A skeptic’s “Glance at the Public Libraries” of 1928, from H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury

Watch out, world: we’ve got ourselves a 90-year-old hot take!

In the June 1928 issue of The American Mercury, a periodical edited by the famous journalist H.L. Mencken, there’s an article by Fletcher Pratt called “A Glance At The Public Libraries”. I stumbled upon the issue while processing material at the Frances Willard House Museum. It was there because of the article about Willard in the same issue, but the library article was what first caught my eye.

Pratt, a writer of science fiction and history, worked at Buffalo Public Library for a time and used that experience to write this sardonic, dismissive, sexist contrarian take on the public libraries of that time.

Why read it at all? First, as a historical artifact, it provides valuable context from a different era. Second, even though it’s almost 100 years old and, to modern minds, retrograde in its view of library workers and their work, I think it’s important to read contrarian perspectives on issues close to one’s heart and mind. Librarianship is my career and one I love, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore criticisms of it.

It’s also just plain funny, in a tongue-in-cheek, insult comic kind of way. Pratt goes Don Rickles on the profession in a way only someone familiar with it could pull off.

So let’s consider what Fletcher Pratt tells us about how public libraries have changed since 1928 and in what ways they remain the same, if at all. I recommend reading the whole thing to get the full experience. But let’s take a look at some of my favorite parts:

It begins:

Every public library in the United States now places restrictions on the use of fiction.

Librarians, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. Restricting fiction seems laughable now, given how popular and dominant it is in the book and library worlds.

American librarians, in fact, have become obsessed with the idea that the national literature will go to the dogs unless they persuade their customers to read something beside fiction. Indignant papers in the library journals and long discussions at librarians meetings are given over to the great question of how to keep the public from reading what it likes and how to induce it to read the moldering stacks of books it doesn’t care about.

That’s what I mean about funny.

Three classes of books—travel, biography and history—are held in orthodox library circles to be the best antidote to this depraved fondness for works of the imagination. To these the best shelves are given, for them the special bulletins are printed, and on them the lady attendant spends the best efforts of her cajolery to make her percentage of nonfiction circulation high.

A favorite device for increasing circulation painlessly is to require every reader who uses a reference book to fill out a slip for it.… Another potent scheme is to take books into the schools; a third is to offer vacation libraries of twenty-five or fifty books for the summer. Are they read? Who cares? It makes circulation, and circulation, in the librarian’s mind, is the summum bonum.

Here is where things get a little more familiar to us moderns. Circulation remains the summum bonum of the profession, however much local value and subject matter still factor into collection development. If a book doesn’t circulate, it won’t last long in a space-limited library.

Nothing is more curious to the outside observer than the typical librarians’ preoccupation with the infinitely little. Recently, for example, an angry controversy raged through the library world as to whether Radio or Wireless should be the heading under which books on the subject were classified. … In the library where the writer once worked hours of discussion at a staff meeting were given over to the absorbing question as to whether it was better to hold a book in the left hand and insert the charge slip with the right, or vice versa.

Book in left, charge slip in right. Wanna fight about it?

This tireless energy over trivialities argues that small minds are at work, and sure enough, there is a certain lack of intelligence among librarians. The reason is not far to see; intelligence follows the cornucopia, and library work is probably the worst paid of all intellectual vocations.

In our defense, tedious discussions about trivialities are hardly exclusive to libraries. But if you’re mad about Pratt asserting a lack of intelligence among librarians, you’re definitely not gonna like his reasoning:

Since girls first discovered that it could furnish them with pin-money while they waited for someone to love them, library work has been a prime favorite with the female of the species. It involves little labor, and that of a highly genteel character; it demands no great mental ability and it places the husband-hunter who enters it on public exhibition, where she can look over and be looked over by all the nubile males of the district under the most refined auspices.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and suggest Pratt would not have fared well in the #MeToo era. Next he tackles library school:

In no case does the course extend beyond two years, and the pedagogues have had to drag in such subjects as the History and Philosophy of Printing to make it last that long. Before the schools got under way the libraries trained rather better staffs than they have now on a month’s lectures with practical experience. The truth is that there is very little to teach; any literate person can learn all there is to a library system in a few weeks. Consequently the library schools have to drill their future B.S.’s and M.A.’s in the beautifully vague principles of “library economy,” and to impress them with the importance of such details as inserting the charging slip with the right hand, or lettering the title on a thin book in the proper direction.

I’ll save the discussion about the pros and cons of library school for another post. But “beautifully vague principles” mixed with arcane details is pretty spot-on—and why I love libraries so much. He then tips his cap to Andrew Carnegie, patron saint of library buildings:

There are never enough branches to go round, but the head librarians, pushed from below by their staffs and from above by aldermen anxious for pork, do their best, and so new branches are added apace. The fund established by the obliging Mr. Carnegie makes it easy; all the city has to do is furnish the books; the Carnegie fund will put up the imitation Greek temple and even the funerary vegetation around it.

Finally, Pratt touts the Newark library as the “highest peak” of effectiveness, unlike that of its neighbor:

Right across the Hudson is the great New York Public, in any one of whose vaulted corridors Newark’s whole collection would be lost. The contrast of striking. In the New Jersey institution one watchman is at the door and a whole corps of eager assistants stand ready to help the visitor; in the marble monument to the Astors one may count a dozen policemen in neat horizon blue idling about to enforce the library rules, while one poor boy struggles vainly with requests for information.

Refer Madness: The Worst Thing

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

Some days on the desk are rough. Challenging patrons, technical difficulties, a case of the Mondays—whatever the issues are, like sneezes and football sacks they often come in bunches to create a day that’s better forgotten.

This was not one of those days.

First, there was a man who said he’d submitted an interlibrary loan request for a movie two months ago, hadn’t heard back, then found out there wasn’t a record of it at all. This is an aggravating situation all around, for patrons who deserve better service and for staff who seek to eliminate mistakes. Such a blunder can make a patron visibly and justifiably frustrated, but this gentleman wasn’t. “If this is the worst thing to happen to me today,” he said, “then I really just have first-world problems.”

Thirty minutes later, a colleague was setting up for a presenter who needed a PowerPoint and projector. Such a routine and simple task that usually goes off without a hitch. Instead, the laptop decides to become possessed and inhabit the projector as well. Murphy’s Law reasserts itself yet again. The speaker could not have been nicer. He spoke to the attendees as we futzed with cables and buttons. “If this is the worst to happen to your day,” he said, “it was probably a great day.”

That really happened: two different people used the same line within a half-hour of each other.

Not ten minutes later, I had to bump a patron from a study room to make room for someone who’d made a reservation. He was a regular and knew the study room policies, but you never know how people will react to getting booted. “I don’t have to go home but I can’t stay here, right?” he said with a smile. It wasn’t quite closing time, but he got the picture.

The next time I am having one of those terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days on the desk, I’ll remember this hat-trick of good humor and hope to experience it again.

Films Galore and other groovy ’70s library brochures

Digging around my library’s local history collection, I found a stack of trifold brochures promoting the services of the old North Suburban Library System (now RAILS) my library is part of. I’m guessing they’re from the 1970s since NSLS started in the late ’60s. Look at all these groovy logos and colors:

And then there’s the one that summarizes all the services:

All reference desks should have a “Just Ask” sign on them to encourage shy patrons. Maybe I’ll turn it into a button.

I’d love to talk to whoever designed these. Were the icons specially made for these brochures or did they come from somewhere else? Perhaps they could be repurposed for a digital marketing campaign, or at least a cool collage project.

Refer Madness: A Patron Mount Rushmore

My latest Refer Madness column for Booklist‘s Top Shelf Reference newsletter—“A Patron Mount Rushmore”—concerns those patrons who are so iconic yet so mysterious that they deserve to be chiseled into stone, or at least wondered about. Curiosity, after all, is an important tool of the library trade.

Filed under: Refer Madness

Libraries = Internet IRL but better

American Libraries magazine’s “Ten Reasons Libraries Are Still Better Than the Internet”  is some grade-A, top choice librarian bait. Excerpts:

Libraries are safer spaces. The internet brings people together, often in enjoyable and productive ways, such as over shared interests (pop culture blogs, fanfic sites) or common challenges (online support groups). But cyberbullying and trolling can leave people reluctant to engage with folks they disagree with or to share their ideas in the first place. Libraries are places where people can gather constructively and all are welcome.

Libraries respect history. Web pages are ephemeral, and link rot is a real problem. The content of library collections is much more stable. Printed materials are generally published on acid-free paper, which will not disintegrate. And librarians are leading the way to bring similar stability to the web through services like the Internet Archive and perma.cc.

Librarians do not track your reading or search history to sell you things.  Amazon’s book purchase recommendation feature is useful for learning about new books. But this usefulness comes at the expense of your privacy because your reading data is valuable business intelligence for Amazon. The same is true for your web searching history, which is why you often see ads for a product for weeks after searching for it just once. Librarians value and protect your privacy.

The last one is my personal favorite. Though modern library catalogs provide the option to record your checkout history, it is opt-in and the data it collects isn’t sold to anyone.

If I could add one more to the original list:

Libraries are local. Though most libraries are in a consortium or resource-sharing system of some kind and have a lot of the same materials, no one library is the same, and each is the product of its community. I marvel at how true this is when someone asks in a listserv about how other libraries do something and each response is something different.

A Hopey Changey Library

Somehow I missed this story on how the forthcoming Obama Center (above) will be challenging the “scam” of presidential libraries. The author, who wrote a book on the topic, lays out how:

The National Archives and Records Administration—which operates presidential library-museums for every president from Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush—won’t be operating either for Obama. His private Obama Foundation, not the government, will own and operate the museum. And there really won’t be a presidential library. The Obama Foundation will pay for NARA to digitize unclassified records and release them to the public as they become available, but the center’s “Library,” which may or may not house a local branch of the Chicago Public Library, will not contain or control presidential papers and artifacts, digital or otherwise. Instead, according to a NARA press release that called the museum “a new model for the preservation and accessibility of presidential records,” those records will be stored in “existing NARA facilities”—meaning one or more of the agency’s research or records centers across the country.

Is this good or bad?

The notion that a federal presidential library would contain no papers, and not actually be federally operated, is astonishing. But to those like myself who have advocated for years—without much success—that it’s time to reform the broken presidential library system, it’s also an important positive development, and one that could be revolutionary.

Oh.

Though I’ve been to several presidential museums, I don’t think I’ve ever been in the library portions of them. I wonder how this will play among scholars who actually need access to the records. Will it be more convenient or less convenient for them to be separated from the “flashy, partisan temples touting huckster history” (LOL)? We’ll see, I guess.

I do like the idea of including a branch of the Chicago Public Library. That won’t assuage all the other local concerns about the Obama Library, but it would go a long way to keep what can easily become an isolated, self-contained operation connected with the community that feeds it. All the better it will be for the former Reader in Chief.

Not sure if any of the other modern presidential libraries incorporate public libraries, but that would be a mutually beneficial new trend.

Want to Read (∞): on becoming a good reader

goodreads.png

I’ve officially become a Reader. Reading books is built into my life, to the point where if I haven’t read anything for a while (a while being a few days) I feel anxious.

It didn’t used to be this way. Regularly reading for fun outside of schoolwork wasn’t a concept I grokked until the end of college, which is also when I started keeping track of my reading. In my post-undergrad phase from 2010 to 2012 I read 16 to 18 books per year. In 2013, when I finished grad school, had a long reading-friendly train commute to a summer internship, and weathered a few months of unemployment, I shot up to 49 books. The number continued to rise once I started working in libraries in 2014: 66 that year, 53 in 2015, and my peak of 80 in 2016. I’ll be close to that again this year.

But I’ll be OK with not one-upping myself, because recently I realized I am trying to one-up myself. Totally separate from the psychic nourishment reading provides me is the equally powerful desire to collect more and more books on my Read shelf, almost for its own sake. Accumulating information and knowledge and units (books in this case) is a key part of my personality—Input, Context, and Learner are three of my top five StrengthsFinder characteristics—so this makes sense. But it can also become counterproductive if collecting-for-collecting’s-sake crowds out the deeper benefits of reading, which are many.

What good is reading a lot if I don’t remember a lot of what I read? I’m one of those nerds who takes notes of quotes and interesting factoids as I read, usually in nonfiction books. But there are several books I’ve read, even within the last year, that I remember very little of, if at all, except a general sense of whether I liked it or not. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who read 100+ books a year: do they have amazing memories? are they skimming a lot of them? do they do anything else?

I suppose it’s the nature of memory when you’re not a savant to filter out certain memories and solidify others. To say it was a waste of time reading those forgotten books wouldn’t be true because I enjoyed them in the moment, and perhaps they filtered down into my subconscious in a way I don’t understand.

But still, I’ve resolved to slow down a little bit, to not feel the need to rush through every book, and to allow time between books to let them settle and to let myself do other things with my time except read.

I know I’m gonna die one day and there’s just not enough time to read everything and that kinda pisses me off. But I’m willing to fail to hit whatever my ideal number of books is, as the benefits of such an arbitrary, artificial, and unsustainable quest will be far fewer than the benefits of quality reading.

Refer Madness: Making Converts

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

One of the best things about having a digital media lab in my library is introducing eager patrons to what it provides. Since ours opened two years ago, the most popular feature by far is the converting software that transfers analog media to digital, like cassette tapes, photo slides, LPs, and VHS tapes.

One couple came to the desk and said they’d heard we could digitize their VHS home videos. I brought them to the room, got them set up with the software, and popped in their tape to test it.

“Oh my God!” the mother said as the video played on screen. She explained it was footage of their son’s first birthday party from the late 1980s. “We haven’t seen this since that day! He is going to medical school now!” They didn’t know what was on the tapes, so the look of surprised delight on their faces was their genuine reaction to being suddenly sent back in time.

Much of the equipment library staff have to deal with every day lose their luster quickly. (Just ask a librarian about 3D printers.) But because, as Arthur C. Clarke said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” it’s good to be reminded sometimes that technology can be damn near magical if we’re able to see it with fresh eyes.

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