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Books History Libraries Review

Ideology and ‘Information Hunters’

When I first heard of the new book Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded Together in World War II Europe by Kathy Peiss, I thought it was so far up my alley it should have just moved in.

The book tells two primary, interweaving stories:

  • how the information-collecting missions of the Library of Congress, OSS, and the Allied forces conflicted and aligned before, during, and after the war
  • how individuals engaged with those missions on the ground

One person’s story that stood out was Maria Josepha Meyer, employed by the Library of Congress and the publisher Hachette to collect books, documents, propaganda, and any other useful material in pre-occupation Paris. When the Nazis invaded in June 1940, she found herself trapped in Paris with no money and an expired passport. She eventually got an export permit from the Germans for her professional library, personal effects, and furniture, and at the last minute swapped her furniture for the war collection she would have been forbidden to ship.

Another was Adele Kibre, an academic who found herself spearheading a clandestine microfilming operation in Stockholm as a way to send foreign publications to OSS for intelligence gathering. Microfilm technology was in its infancy, so quality varied generally. But Kibre’s results were clear and consistent despite her limitations and the secrecy required.

A central figure in the book was Archibald MacLeish, the poet and writer who served as Librarian of Congress from 1939-1944. His work with William Donovan to develop the Research & Analysis branch of OSS helped modernize the Library of Congress and push it beyond the traditional understanding of libraries as neutral providers of books and information.

Peiss:

With the growing international crisis, [MacLeish] raised the stakes for books and democracy, calling upon librarians to be not merely custodians of culture but defenders of freedom. Like Donovan, he had perceived the dangers of fascism early and believed in American intervention. As an artist, intellectual, and the nation’s leading librarian, he was convinced, as he later put it, that ‘the country of the mind must also attack.’

As MacLeigh wrote in 1940, the keeping of war-related records “is itself a kind of warfare. The keepers, whether they wish so or not, cannot be neutral.”

As much as I’d like to view libraries as places that don’t discriminate or take ideological stands, the right to read is itself an ideology, as are the rights to privacy and access. Despite being taken for granted in democratic and literate societies, they must be believed in, fought for, and defended like any other ideology. (Notice too the war-like language.)

Peiss’s book examines how people and institutions reckoned with that dilemma in extraordinary situations. Overall, I found the parts about the people much more engaging than the broader institutional machinations, which often get bogged down in the acronyms and esoterica endemic to academia, government, and the military.

But if that sort of thing is your jam, Information Hunters is right on target.

(See also: The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell and When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning.)

Categories
History Libraries

Go Pack Horse Librarians, Go!

One podcast that survived my recent purge is The Keepers, a series from The Kitchen Sisters and NPR.  The series features:

“stories of activist archivists, rogue librarians, curators, collectors and historians. Keepers of the culture and the cultures and collections they keep. Guardians of history, large and small, protectors of the free flow of information and ideas, eccentric individuals who take it upon themselves to preserve some part of our cultural heritage.”

The latest episode is about the “Pack Horse Librarians,” a group of women in 1930s rural Kentucky who brought books to isolated areas. The Depression-era WPA paid their salary of $1 per day; everything else was their responsibility, including renting the horses and collecting donated books and magazines to distribute.

It’s an inspiring, well-told story that shows the value of preserving local history.

Categories
Books Libraries

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.

Categories
Refer Madness

Refer Madness: Could be home, doing nothing

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

In my library, one of the information desks sits in a high-traffic area where all the activity from the entrance, auditorium, elevator, and stairs to Youth Services converge. One result of this configuration is that whoever is at the desk (and anyone in the nearby Periodicals area) can hear everything that happens in the cacophonous cement stairwell that leads to Youth Services. Sometimes it’s a toddler’s tantrum or a boisterous conversation. And sometimes it’s a parent who doesn’t realize strangers are listening.

The other day it was a mother frustrated with her son, probably a four year old. From what I gathered, the boy had not been a good listener and they were leaving this library trip in a bad mood.

“I do this for you,” the mother said as they emerged from the stairwell and walked out the door. “I could be home, doing nothing. But I’m nice. I actually care about you and want you to read good books.”

In one interpretation of this scene, the mother is the villain for snapping at her child. But she wasn’t. Her tone was part frustration and part disappointment, without animus or aggression. Since I didn’t see what had happened before their departure, I can’t judge the son for his behavior or the mother for her reaction to it (though from his lowered head and lack of protest I’m guessing he deserved the rebuke).

Despite not being a parent myself, I deeply sympathize with parents in public with their kids. Planes, parks, restaurants, stores, and other public spaces offer ample opportunities for kids to misbehave and beckon the judgmental glances (and even comments) of other adults.

But unless it’s the parent who is egregiously misbehaving, I usually side with the adult. Especially one who brings her child to the library when she’d rather be at home, doing nothing.

Categories
Libraries Refer Madness

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.

Categories
Libraries

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.

Categories
Libraries

The Bomb Librarian

Lots of great bits in this Atlas Obscura story about the Manhattan Project‘s librarian. J. Robert Oppenheimer selected Charlotte Serber, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, statistician, and freelance journalist to organize and lead the scientific library at Los Alamos not because of her library experience (she had none), but because “he wanted someone who would be willing to bend the rules of cataloguing.”

At one point Oppenheimer sends Serber and her husband to Santa Fe and personally spread false information about Los Alamos to dispel any true rumors:

The Serbers entered a local bar with the express intent of telling residents that the Los Alamos scientists were building “an electric rocket,” rather than a bomb. But no one seemed to care. At one point, Charlotte danced with a local man, all the while pestering him about Los Alamos. “What’s your guess about what cooks up there?” she asked. “Beats me,” he said. “Don’t care. May I have another dance later?”

In fact the secrets almost did get out. The Santa Fe Library sent out routine letters to library card holders, which reached scientists at Los Alamos:

A small crisis ensued. The security teams demanded to know how the Santa Fe Library had obtained the names of so many Los Alamos scientists. As a result, “a dark and cryptic gentleman appeared to find out how this flood of mail happened to be sent them and where All Those Names were obtained.”

Turned out, many scientists, impatient with the long wait for books, had gone into Santa Fe and checked them out themselves, under their real names—a major security violation.

When the Santa Fe librarians explained this, the man left. “If a strange character with a long cigar and his hat over his eyes tailed the staff members, they were not aware of it and feel that he could rarely have had a duller assignment,” the library later wrote.

Read the whole story here.

Categories
Film Libraries

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.

Categories
Libraries Television

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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Categories
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!