Chad Comello

libraries, culture, typewriters

Category: Libraries (page 1 of 9)

Refer Madness: The Book Dropper strikes again

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.

A few months ago, a coworker and I noticed that every Tuesday, two items appear on the library’s book sale shelves that shouldn’t be there. The library has a system for what gets placed in the book sale, so we know which items are out of place. Given the regularity of these deposits, they are clearly being left intentionally, by someone who knows the library’s donation policy but is choosing to ignore it.

I’ve come to call this library phantom The Book Dropper. The Book Dropper is sneaky, and The Book Dropper is patient. The Book Dropper doesn’t lug in a bag of nasty books hoping the library will accept them. The Book Dropper brings only two at a time, once a week, every week, presumably until there are no more books to surreptitiously drop.

The Book Dropper haunts me.

The Book Dropper’s books are usually in sorry shape, and sometimes downright silly. Decades-old mass market paperbacks, electrical engineering manuals, and a host of other esoteric et cetera in no condition to be sold or added to the library’s collection.

Normally, as soon as we spot the latest evidence of the Book Dropper’s continued ability to evade justice, we recycle them along with the other discarded books. But this week’s evidence was extra special:

That would be a chewed up, dilapidated copy of Everything But Money by Sam Levenson and a Betamax tape of Santa Fe Trail, the 1940 western starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and a suave-looking Ronald Reagan.

*chef’s kiss*

You got me again, Book Dropper. I can’t decide whether to shake my fist dramatically or slow-clap. I’m going to keep Santa Fe Trail on my desk at work as a reminder that this scofflaw is still at large. Perhaps I will watch it only once the Book Dropper has been identified and politely informed of the library’s donations policy.

Summer assignment: visit your local library

Despite their great intentions, those “required reading” lists of books make me cringe. Required reading usually feels like work, whether they’re from a friend, a professor, or a stranger on the internet. Pleasure reading should be based on freedom and empowerment and whim, not compulsion. Use those lists as a resource, sure, but don’t feel obliged to them.

Austin Kleon gets it right by assigning not a specific book, but a way to get one:

  1. Visit your local library and apply for a library card. (Or pay your fines and renew.)
  2. Ask a librarian for a tour of the library building, the online catalog, and the digital holdings. Ask the librarian to show you how to put materials on hold, how to request materials for purchase, and how to use interlibrary loan.
  3. Check out at least one item. (So you have to return.)

My #4: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’re not bothering librarians by doing so. It’s why we’re there!

I can’t tell you how beneficial these would be to you and your kids, and how happy this would make your librarians. Summer is the perfect time too; most libraries have summer reading programs for kids and adults, with prizes and fun activities.

Happy reading!

For the records

Dan Cohen ponders why some recent sci-fi films prominently feature libraries, archives, and museums:

Ever since Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor extracted the Death Star plans from a digital repository on the planet Scarif in Rogue One, libraries, archives, and museums have played an important role in tentpole science fiction films. From Luke Skywalker’s library of Jedi wisdom books in The Last Jedi, to Blade Runner 2049’s multiple storage media for DNA sequences, to a fateful scene in an ethnographic museum in Black Panther, the imposing and evocative halls of cultural heritage organizations have been in the foreground of the imagined future. …

… At the same time that these movies portray an imagined future, they are also exploring our current anxiety about the past and how it is stored; how we simultaneously wish to leave the past behind, and how it may also be impossible to shake it. They indicate that we live in an age that has an extremely strained relationship with history itself. These films are processing that anxiety on Hollywood’s big screen at a time when our small screens, social media, and browser histories document and preserve so much of we do and say.

Ready Player One is another recent example. And let’s give some love to the historical society in Back to the Future Part III. Read the rest here.

Do librarians read all day? Should we?

Librarians and library staff have been fighting the incorrect stereotype (among many others) that their jobs consist of reading all day long. And while I still have programs to plan, books to weed, research questions to respond to, and other things to worry about, I wonder if maybe, just maybe, we took a little time to read on the job and model the behavior we want to see, if we just might see our communities a little better for it.

— Abby Hargreaves, “Do librarians read all day? No, but they should”

I love the spirit behind this, especially for youth librarians seeking to model and encourage positive behavior. But since the whole premise of this article is that patrons assume we’re reading a lot anyway, are PDRs (public displays of reading) the best way to bust this particular myth?

If it were up to me, all librarians would be allowed to do some pleasure reading while on the clock. It directly relates to the essence of the job, even if it doesn’t specifically include readers advisory.

But to “model the behavior we want to see” would require us to read while on public service desks, and I think that’s bad customer service.

If we’re engrossed in or even skimming a book, they will think they are bothering us if they ask a question, which is another very common assumption I would love to destroy.

That said, if you can fit reading in with the other aforementioned responsibilities away from the desk, all the better! It’s a shame some managers would frown upon this. As if looking busy in your cubicle is the only metric for what constitutes good work. I find lunch breaks, pre-bedtime, and audiobooks during my commute enough for me to read 70-80 books per year, but your mileage and busyness may vary.

Perhaps a more structured “read-in” event would be another option: “Read With Your Librarian” or a kind of (not so) silent reading party. People reading in libraries is not a novel concept, but people of all ages intentionally reading their own books together with their neighbors is a photo-op waiting to happen.

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

Originally published at Booklist

In the office one day, my colleagues got to discussing who our library’s Mount Rushmore of patrons would be. Not necessarily the nicest ones but the ones who have become iconic among staff largely because of the mystery that surrounds them.

I thought of a few candidates right away. The man with the quiet, husky voice who calls our small, suburban Illinois library for phone numbers in California. Or the woman who calls looking for information on a website, the same one every time, whose calls are so predictable they could follow a script.

And then there’s the man who calls occasionally with a request: for us to print out the Google Maps Street View of certain intersections, all four corners of them. Sometimes it’s a specific one, but other times he just names a landmark or a city and will accept any street-view pictures of it.

He’s also into appraisal. If we’re not on Google Maps for him, we’re looking up the value of certain artifacts and printing screenshots of similar items on eBay. Previous examples include a Star Wars novelty coin, a book about the First Cavalry Division in the Korean War, an 1853 French coin, and a John Lennon and Yoko Ono “Let Them Stay In” button.

All of this begs so many questions. Where does he get these artifacts? Is he a collector or just trying to make a buck? How amazing is his coin collection? Why the fascination with intersections? (I heard a rumor he asks for the street views because he’s unable to travel and uses the pictures to do so vicariously.)

Whatever the truth is, it’s not my business to ask. I’m very curious about the lives of certain patrons; curiosity is an occupational asset in librarianship. But I’m also very cognizant about not breaking the confidence of people who trust the library enough to bring us their personal requests, however odd or seemingly simple they might be.

So I’m fine with not knowing everything about who’s on the other end of the line. Like the real Mount Rushmore, whose presidential likenesses are famously unfinished but iconic nevertheless, the incompleteness of patrons’ stories is instrumental to their mysteries. And if there’s anything desk librarians should enjoy, it’s chasing down a mystery.

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