Magazine mashup from American Libraries, Jan/Feb 2021. More mashups here.
Magazine mashups from American Libraries, September/October 2020
Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.
Since transitioning to a new position at work last year, I’m no longer on the reference desk. (Also the library is currently closed due to COVID-19, so there’s that.) But I didn’t want to let my list of ideas for this series languish, so here are a few short vignettes from desk shifts past.
1. A woman told me of sending a picture of a painting she made to a friend, to which the friend replied “It’s not my taste.” “I think she’s a bitch,” the woman said. She goes on about how she thinks the friend is jealous, and that she’s not sure what she’s getting out of this friendship. She’s more disappointed than anything. The friend is very rich but her other friends were nice about the painting.
2. An older woman who’s a regular patron from eastern Europe told me about her son, who’s a physicist: “…but you wouldn’t believe how much asshole he is.” After I helped her with her question, she said, “Thank you. What a country.”
3. The dad who wanted to check out Scythe so he could keep up with what his teen daughter was reading.
4. The dad taking note of titles on the New Books shelf for when his kids are older and he can read for pleasure again: “I don’t want to miss any good ones.”
5. A regular asked for recommendations for movies about psychopaths. I rattled off a few that came to mind, which she was grateful for but also replied, “You’re eerie…”
6. The nerdy 10-year-old kid who was so excited to find books on the subjects he loved: baseball and Star Wars.
7. The teen girl talking to her dad on the way out of the library: “I texted Kelly to ask if she wanted me to pick her up a book from the library and she said ‘You’re funny; I’m watching Netflix.'”
Thanks to COVID-19, today was my first day working from home. (That’s my new makeshift workspace above, squished into the space between the closet and extra bed in our guest room. I’ve since added a second work laptop.) My library is closed to the public indefinitely, along with most everything else, but as my work mostly happens online I can continue relatively unaffected.
A few days ago I joked that my life isn’t going to change much because all I do is go to work and come home. Thanks to Mr. Almost 13 Months, we don’t travel or have much of a social life. The biggest change will be adjusting my schedule with an active toddler around. But I’m excited for more time with him and my wife and for a much shorter commute.
I feel extremely fortunate to (1) still have a job (2) that I can do from home and (3) will continued to be paid for. I know that’s not the case for many, many people.
Stay strong. We’re in this together.
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.
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.)
Some takeaways from this survey:
- Yay for libraries, duh.
- Every other activity included in the survey—including movies, sporting events, zoos, national parks, and museums—charges admission fees. If all of them were free to access, would there be a different #1?
- Maybe not, because another asset for libraries in this regard is their multitude of offerings for every conceivable demographic and interest. Libraries are for everyone, and “everyone” has a different reason for going to the library.
- Libraries and movie theaters are both competing with streaming services and other entertainment sources for people’s attention, but theaters don’t provide internet access or storytimes or computer classes or study rooms, etc. etc. (And I say that as a cinephile and librarian, whose ideal day would be comprised exclusively of eating, visiting a library, and going to the movies.)
- I’m not sure how the disparity in library use between men and women bears out in my own library, but my sense is the difference isn’t as large as the survey indicates.
- Based on my son’s enjoyment of our library’s storytime, I know which activity he’d pick:
Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.
A patron walked into the library and approached the desk.
“I was just at a bookstore but I didn’t want to buy too many,” she told me.
She had a list of books she wanted, some of which she got at the bookstore but a few she left to see if she could get through the library.
“Sometimes, when I buy books,” she said, “they just sit there. If I get it from the library, I’m reading up a storm.”
There is absolutely something to this. I have a bookcase full of books at home, yet I can’t remember the last time I picked one off those shelves to read over a library book. Because I know they’ll be there indefinitely, there’s no urgency to read them. A library book, on the other hand, has a deadline attached to it, and often a waitlist.
In the debate about library ebooks, one of the key points ignored by publishers is that there is broad overlap between library users and book buyers. More than that, the relationship between libraries/librarians and bookstores/authors is symbiotic. We may have different priorities, but I believe we’re on the same team and help each other immensely.
Yet publishers (and their new overlord Amazon) would have people believe libraries are parasites, stealing potential customers away from authors with free* books.
The book world isn’t a zero-sum game. In the case of this patron, everyone won. The bookstore and authors got paid, the library got checkout stats, the woman got what she wanted, and the books got read (victims of tsundoku aside).
I keep thinking of the quote from Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist about his illicit relationship with Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain:
You know, it could be like this, just like this, always.
In the context of the movie, this was a naive, desperate wish. I sincerely hope that’s not the case for the future of ebooks.
That doesn’t stop me from trying. While browsing the new releases at a neighboring library I spotted Ian Doescher’s Get Thee Back to the Future, a complete retelling of Back to the Future in Shakespearean verse.
It’s an incredible literary feat. What plays in the movie as this…
DOC: Are those my clocks I hear?
MARTY: Yeah, it’s 8:00.
DOC: They’re late. My experiment worked. They’re all exactly 25 minutes slow!
MARTY: Wait a minute. Wait a minute, Doc. Are you telling me that it’s 8:25?
MARTY: Damn. I’m late for school!
…Doescher turns into this:
MARTY: Alas, what ringing! Why hath this commenc’d,
The tintinnabulations of the bells?
DOC: Peace! Count the clock.
MARTY: —The clock hath stricken eight.
DOC: A-ha! Then mine experiment hath work’d!
They run as slowly as a tortoise gait,
Behind by minutes counting twenty-five!
MARTY: What shocking words are these thou speak’st to me?
What presage of mine own delay’d arrival?
What prelude to a future punishment?
What fable of a race against the clock?
Is’t true, what thou dost calmly say to me?
The time is verily eight twenty-five?
DOC: Precisely—science is not lost on thee!
MARTY: O, fie upon it! I must play the hare,
And skip most jauntily upon my path,
For I am caught up late for school—again.
DOC: Godspeed, then Marty, on thy merry way!
And so on for the entire film. It’s essentially a funny gimmick that Doescher takes to the extreme. Such an endeavor requires an intimate knowledge of and skill with Shakespearean style, which consists of a lot more than just adding the occasional “hath” and “thou”.
Those of you not in the library world probably don’t know about the contretemps currently roiling the industry.
Library users don’t see how much ebooks cost for libraries. I order them as part of my job, and I’ve never quite gotten over the sticker shock of some costing as much as $90 each. And that’s just for a license of 2 years or 52 checkouts, whichever comes first (almost always the 2 years).
Still, libraries will buy as many as they can because ebooks and eaudiobooks are only growing in popularity. Given the limited collection budget for most libraries, now you understand if you’ve ever placed a hold on a library ebook and found yourself #237 on the waiting list for the whole consortium of libraries sharing access to that ebook. Pity the poor souls who want to read Daniel Silva’s latest:
But guess what: that wait time is about to get a lot longer.
On July 25, John Sargent, CEO of the publisher Macmillan, announced that Macmillan would make only one ebook version of their new titles available to each library system for the first eight weeks after publication. This is meant to frustrate library users enough to where they will give up and buy the ebook or print version rather than wait so long. And perhaps they will: more power to any book buyer.
But if you’re thinking, “One copy for a whole library system, which can contain dozens of libraries and thousands of users, sounds like a terrible idea,” then you are correct.
Sargent claims libraries are “cannibalizing sales” based on several factors:
“a seamless delivery of ebooks to reading devices and apps”
He should sit at the Info Desk with me and watch me help an elderly technophobic patron get library ebooks onto their Kindle.
“the active marketing by various parties to turn purchasers into borrowers”
This might blow his mind, but people can be both purchasers and borrowers at the same time and often are, in the case of books.
“apps that support lending across libraries regardless of residence”
If he’s talking about sharing among a regional consortium of libraries, then yeah, that’s the point. The one my library is in consists of over 100 public and school libraries in and near the Chicago area that share a collection of ebooks and audiobooks, and do so mostly to share the enormous cost of buying ebooks. But it’s not like I can borrow from NYPL’s collection, and I can’t even access any extra copies another library in the consortium purchases.
Steve Potash, CEO of OverDrive, one of the largest distributors of ebooks to libraries, responded to Sargent’s specious reasoning and counterproductive pricing with appropriate skepticism:
For Macmillan to paint themselves as victims, in a reality they created, is dystopian. Not only dystopian, it is victim blaming – as librarians are the victims of this flawed logic. It blames public libraries and librarians for the work they do to promote reading, books, authors and help sell the publishers’ products. It blames libraries for the millions of dollars they spend on Macmillan’s product, encouraging the reading of Macmillan books and authors.
And perhaps most importantly:
There is zero acknowledgement by Macmillan of the reality that library ebook readers are Macmillan readers and customers. The high degree of overlap between library users and book buyers is well documented. Libraries build audiences for authors and books, promote reading and discovery, and are a most trusted source for recommendation on what to read next.
Internet-famous librarian (and excellent newsletter writer) Jessamyn West wrote a column for CNN summing up this imbroglio nicely. In “Libraries are fighting to preserve your right to borrow e-books”, she brings the heat right away:
Librarians to publishers: Please take our money. Publishers to librarians: Drop dead.
Then gets to the crux of the issue:
As publishers struggle with the continuing shake-up of their business models, and work to find practical approaches to managing digital content in a marketplace overwhelmingly dominated by Amazon, libraries are being portrayed as a problem, not a solution. Libraries agree there’s a problem — but we know it’s not us.
The craziest thing about Sargent’s memo isn’t everything I’ve mentioned already; it’s that Amazon isn’t mentioned once.
But instead of finding a way to work with libraries on an equitable win-win solution, Macmillan implemented a new and confusing model and blamed libraries for being successful at encouraging people to read their books.
The point here isn’t to self-congratulate libraries. It’s to illustrate that Macmillan’s new scheme alienates the very people and cultural institutions that buy their books and get other people to read and buy them.
Meanwhile, can I interest you in Libby?
All the time people come to the info desk asking how they can renew their library card.
Maybe they got a reminder call or noticed the expiration sticker on the card or were blocked from checking out an ebook. Either way, I point them to the circulation department and off they go. They show their card to the clerk, confirm their contact info, maybe pay some fines, and then go on their way.
It’s routine. An afterthought. Most people aren’t thinking about how such a simple act has the potential to transform their life.
Because renewing your library card is an act of hope.
It’s a demonstration of faith in the future.
It’s a declaration of principles, of the value of civic pride.
It’s a personal affirmation of the freedom to read and take classes and learn a language and join a discussion group and discover ideas you never could have imagined.
It’s a chance to start fresh, even if you regularly use it. Just imagine what it will allow you to read, watch, hear, do, and learn about.
If your library card has gone dormant or missing, renew it and begin again.