Books Libraries

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.

On the One Hand…

If you’ve got overdue fines or books, just suck it up and return them. I promise you the librarians will love to have you back. Your guilt will be assuaged and you won’t feel like a scofflaw when you come to the library to browse. (Also maybe don’t ignore the emails and calls reminding you your items are due soon. Someone could be on the hold list for that book or DVD, so just pull an Atticus Finch and imagine how it would feel to be that person.)

On the Other Hand…

If CPL or any other library wants to engender goodwill among patrons and get their material back, they should abolish overdue fines altogether and just bill the patron for a “presumed lost” book or lock their account after a certain amount of time, as many libraries have done.

giphy.gifI’m just a measly librarian with no power over budgets (and who doesn’t speak for his employers, past, present, or future), so woe unto me for dictating policy. But I don’t want for library staff to be high priests, absolving the masses of their bookish sins for a few weeks every couple of years. The public already owns the collection, technically. Nickel-and-diming patrons for what is largely just forgetfulness is what has earned librarians the stereotype of the shushing curmudgeon sitting upon their Reference Throne.

Librarians are stewards of the collection, not owners. Part of that stewardship involves ensuring fair access to material for all patrons, which is why libraries use fines. But the biggest collection in the world won’t be used to its greatest extent if its patrons are hesitant to check things out.

The books and movies and CDs and magazines on the shelf are just waiting to be used. Let ’em fly!

Etc. Libraries

Calling All Citations

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.

Libraries Refer Madness

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

Books Libraries Review

The Meaning of the Library

meaningA few interesting tidbits from The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History (ed. Alice Crawford)…

In “The Renaissance Library and the Challenge of Print” by Andrew Pettegree, we learn the library was not always a hushed, solemn place:

The Renaissance library was a noisy place—a place for conversation and display, rather than for study and contemplation. It was only in the seventeenth century, with these new institutional collections, that the library began its long descent into silence, emerging as that new phenomenon of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the library as mausoleum, a silent repository of countless unread books, its principal purpose the protection of books from the ravages of human contact.

More from Pettegree on the book as object:

The book survives because it is an object of technological genius, refined through two millennia since the Romans decided that there must be a better way of storing information than on scrolls of papyrus. The invention of printing was a critical moment of evolution, but the shape of the physical artifact was already determined, and remarkably similar to the books we own today.

In “The Library in Fiction”, Marina Warner surveys the landscape of the library in imagination, using the Epic of Gilgamesh as a case study of a cultural vessel that is at once telling a story and a story in itself:

[Gilgamesh] calls attention to itself as a written artifact, set down in stone, as described in [its] first paragraph. This self-reflectiveness reveals a crucial quality in the character of the fictive: it has always aspired, since these beginnings of literature, to monumentality. It has designs on eternity and, in order to achieve them, must turn itself from the verbal into the graphic, from the narrated story told once upon a time by someone who has since died into an object deposited for those who come after to find and read.

The library, then, emerges as a safe harbor,

an archive, enshrining those fugitive, mobile, airy webs of words that make up stories, and its existence—its survival—provides the necessary warranty for the work’s value and its imperishability. Without the library to preserve its creations, the imagination is mortal, like its protagonists.

To this point: Wendell Berry writes about the dichotomy of boomer vs. sticker, terms he borrowed from Wallace Stegner, who wrote that boomers are “those who pillage and run,” who want “to make a killing and end up on Easy Street”—whereas stickers are “those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.” Unlike boomers, who are often motivated by greed, stickers, Berry writes, “are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.”

Your local public library’s great asset is that it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s a sticker. It’s not—or at least shouldn’t be—out to make a buck before getting out of Dodge. (I can’t imagine how that would even be possible given how dependent public libraries are on property taxes and patron usage.) It’s on that corner, that street, always. You just have to use it.

Libraries Refer Madness

Refer Madness: Librarians Advisory

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

If you’re a librarian, it’s likely you’re expected to provide readers advisory. (Or is it reader’s?) Every librarian has his or her own area of expertise and blind spots, but whether through direct knowledge or other resources, you’re supposed to be able to give patrons who ask some reliable recommendations on what to read, watch, listen to, or do. This happens fairly regularly at a public library and is, as the NFL puts it, a “major point of emphasis.”

Less common, but just as valuable, is when patrons advise librarians. Last week a man came to the desk looking for the album Trio by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris. He said the catalog said it was in, but he couldn’t understand the CD labeling. I tracked it down and explained the labeling system (MC for country, MJ for jazz, etc.—I can see his point…). He thanked me for finding it and said, “Have you ever heard this?” I hadn’t. “Their voices blend so well. Check it out sometime.”

So I did, and he was right: it’s a beautiful record (with hilarious hair) that got nominated for Album of the Year in 1987. I’m not a pop-culture elitist, but it’s important to be reminded that just because librarians get paid to make recommendations doesn’t mean we’re right, or that other people who didn’t get a library degree can’t do it well either.

Libraries Refer Madness

Refer Madness: RefUSA! RefUSA!

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

“It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.” Though John Adams wrote this passage about Independence Day, I’d say it works just as well for successful reference interviews that lead to unexpected but useful discoveries.

Example: A woman called the desk and said she was doing research for a documentary film being produced about immigrants, minorities, and women who owned small businesses in the North Shore area of Chicagoland. She wanted to find a list of the aforementioned people so she could contact them about participating in the project. My first question (to myself) was: Is that legal? Seemed like anti-discrimination laws would make that kind of info hard to find. But, after telling the woman I’d call her back as it would take a bit to do the digging, I went right to the librarian’s honeypot: ReferenceUSA. (Odds are your local library has access to it. If it does, you should be able to access it from home using your library card.)

The challenge I anticipated was not finding businesses in the specific suburbs, but pinpointing the ones owned by different categories of people — especially the ones without websites or info available elsewhere.

How to do this

Hop into the U.S. Businesses database (Custom Search), select the Geography facet on the left, and find Map Based Search. (Selecting Verified Businesses under Record Type makes sense but isn’t required.)ref2

This will bring up a map. If you don’t know exactly where you’re looking, you can Draw Shape or Define Radius to grab a general area. If you do know what you’re looking for, then Boundary Select is the way to go. At first it will only allow you to pick by state as the map will be zoomed way out. But as you zoom further in more options will appear. I chose Cities because that’s what the patron needed, but Zip Codes, Area Codes, Carrier Routes, and Neighborhoods could be helpful in different situations too.ref4

Once you narrow down your locations, click Done and go back to the facets. Then find the Executives category. It’ll allow you to narrow based on Name, Title, Gender, and Ethnicity. The problem with this facet is “Executive” is a broad term. It’s not clear whether it’s giving us the owner of the business or someone on the Board of Directors or someone else. If you’re seeking a specific type of business, then the Ownership category might be of use; otherwise you might be SOL.ref5

Click Update Count as you go so you can see the number of applicable records before you go to the last stage. If the search criteria are broad or cover a large area, it might be a long list of records and you might want to narrow the search. If you can’t, get ready for lots o’ names and numbers!

Libraries Refer Madness

Refer Madness: Pole Stars

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

Summer is finally (almost, sorta) here. “Bees they’ll buzz / Kids’ll blow dandelion fuzz…” The AC is on at the library, but at the ref desk it’s still a bit muggy. The perfect time for this patron question: Do you have any books about polar explorers?

Ummm, OK… Perhaps he was like me in wanting to forestall the coming Midwestern mix of heat and humidity, if only in our dreams. The first choice you have to make when on an expedition for books about polar expeditions is whether you’re in for something perilous, or something (relatively) pleasant. Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (not, I’m disappointed to learn, a sequel to Homeward Bound) is a respected account of that famous first and successful British voyage to Antarctica. And the photo book Call of the North captures the lives of the Inuit by the first Frenchman to reach the North Pole by dogsled.

But if you like your polar expeditions tragic, last year’s In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides will do the trick. There’s also a book literally called The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, which recounts the final icecapades of the explorer Robert Falcon Scott, whose name—let’s be honest—could only be that of an ice-cold voyager.

Stay cool, friends.

America Libraries Refer Madness

Refer Madness: Let Your Free Flag Fly


Refer Madness is a new feature that spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk. 

The patron is a regular. He usually asks for pictures of movie stars or the address of a celebrity he can send a picture to for an autograph. (The V.I.P. Address Book makes that pretty easy.) One time we looked up the schematics of the Ghostbusters proton pack so he could make one at home. But this time he came in with a more abstract question: Does the American flag stand for freedom or does it stand for communism?

I quickly surmised his question was rhetorical. He hadn’t talked politics with me before, but political patron pontification—ask any librarian—is as old as Melvil Dewey. Customer service circumstances like these almost always call for the ol’ reliable smile-and-nod, so I pulled that out as I led him to Saga of the American Flag: An Illustrated History by Candice DeBarr and The Care and Display of the American Flag. They won’t help him ward off the Red Menace, but they have pretty pictures, so he has that going for him, which is nice.


Please Bother Me: On Asking Questions at the Library


“Sorry to bother you…”

I’ve heard patrons say this to me or other librarians at the information desk so many times. And every time, I want to respond: “That’s what we’re here for!” Maybe we at the desk were talking to each other, or typing on the computer, or reading a trade journal, or even just sitting there waiting to answer a question. Whatever it is, patrons often feel they’re being a bother by asking questions when in fact answering questions is literally the librarian’s job. It’s what we enjoy doing and get paid for. But either they don’t get it or we’re not doing a good enough job making that known.

This could be a design problem: old-school reference desks, which are quickly falling out of fashion, can be imposing, alienating beasts. Libraries of all kinds that have been around a while probably have those hefty wooden desks, long and encompassing like ramparts of Reference Castle, with the lofty librarians holding the front line against the swarming public. Librarian’s Domain: None Shall Pass! Or, at desks that seem to sink into the earth, like Bilbo Baggins at Bag End we burrow in behind computer screens or stand-up signage and treat interruptions (“except on party business”) as inconveniences rather than essential.

Many libraries have done away with the traditional info desk altogether. They take a “roving reference” approach, which either has librarians stand at a table a la the Apple Store or sends them onto the floor with an iPad to actively help people find what they’re looking for. I’d love to hear from other librarians who do this about how well it works. Do patrons feel more at ease if they’re approached by staff? Do you feel like you work at Best Buy? I’d love to see data from two libraries of similar size who take these different reference approaches. Does one get more questions over the other?

As a patron I enjoy being able to browse undisturbed and, being a librarian myself, usually don’t need help getting around or finding something. But I’m also not afraid to approach the desk, and neither should you. Regardless of what the desk looks like, librarians are responsible for answering questions and patrons are responsible for asking them. We can’t read your mind, and we can’t help you until we know what you need help with.

So please: Bother us. Early and often. Whatever else we’re doing at the desk, however game we look for whatever you’re about to ask, ask it—no matter what it is.

(And don’t even get me started on “This is probably a stupid question, but…”)