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.
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.)
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.
Whether it’s my podcast-heavy diet or baby-induced reduction in mental bandwidth for extended concentration, I haven’t been doing much book-readin’ lately. Which is OK, as not reading is finetoo.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks to Jessamyn West for republishing Phil Agre’s advice from 1996 on how to help someone use a computer. Swap out computer for “smartphone” or “e-reader” and it’s still quite relevant. Some favorites:
Nobody is born knowing this stuff.
You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner.
If it’s not obvious to them, it’s not obvious.
Most user interfaces are terrible. When people make mistakes it’s usually the fault of the interface. You’ve forgotten how many ways you’ve learned to adapt to bad interfaces. You’ve forgotten how many things you once assumed that the interface would be able to do for you.
Explain your thinking. Don’t make it mysterious. If something is true, show them how they can see it’s true. When you don’t know, say “I don’t know”. When you’re guessing, say “let’s try … because …”. Resist the temptation to appear all-knowing. Help them learn to think like you.
Be aware of how abstract your language is.
As someone who helps people with technology for a living, both at a public service desk and in one-on-one appointments, I appreciate the reminders. One of the biggest challenges I’ve encountered is breaking through people’s technological self-hatred. A common refrain I hear from people struggling with their devices is “I know I’m stupid, but…” It drives me insane. They are not stupid. Their frustrations are almost always justified, being the result of a user interface that was not built with them in mind. What seems simple and sleek for Silicon Valley technophiles might be baffling, counterintuitive, or simply too small for the less agile fingers of the digital immigrants I encounter every day.
Agre has advice for these situations too:
Whenever they start to blame themselves, blame the computer, no matter how many times it takes, in a calm, authoritative tone of voice. If you need to show off, show off your ability to criticize the bad interface.
Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.
On Tuesday I hosted a discussion at the library on the films of 2018. It was an informal time to swap favorites (or least favorites) from the year, and discuss the Oscar nominations that had just been announced. Opinions abounded, of course.
I brought a laptop and projector so we could watch trailers of the movies being discussed. This turned out to be helpful, as I was surprised by how few of the movies the attendees had seen. Of the eight Best Picture nominees, one man had only seen Black Panther.
This gave me the unique opportunity of curating their exposure to the year in film. We watched trailers for high-profile nominees like The Favourite, Vice, Roma, and BlacKkKlansman, but also lesser-known indies like Leave No Trace, The Death of Stalin, Cold War, and First Reformed. I was this close to just going through the rest of my top 10, but I restrained myself (and ran out of time).
Librarians are in this position often. Introducing readers to their next book or viewers to their next movie is part of the job, but also a privilege and a pleasure I take seriously. Maybe a title I recommend will become their all-time favorite, or become inextricably linked with a future memory, or be forgotten as soon as it’s over. Regardless, we’re point guards. We’re there to make the assist, to keep feeding the shooting guard and forwards and hope they score more often than not.
After the program, I walked past the reference desk and saw the gentleman who had only seen Black Panther. He was asking to be placed on hold for Leave No Trace and The Death of Stalin, and I couldn’t help but smile.
Want to give some love to three services I’ve enjoyed lately:
Kanopy is a free streaming service available through your public library. (If it isn’t, ask them to get it!) Abundant with titles from A24, The Criterion Collection, and other high-quality providers, it’s rife with a delightful array of foreign films, indies, and documentaries to fill the FilmStruck-shaped hole in the hearts of cinephiles. My watchlist expanded pretty quickly once I signed up, much of it classics and Criterion titles I’ve been meaning to watch and want to get to before my wife gives birth. In the last few weeks I’ve watched Three Days of the Condor, The Seventh Seal, 48 Hrs., Ugetsu, Battleship Potemkin, and The Wages ofFear, with more on the horizon. Get thee to Kanopy!
I’ve been using Hum for a lot longer than Kanopy, but only recently realized how much I love it. It’s the perfect songwriting app. Super easy to quickly record song ideas, gather lyrics, and add helpful metadata. Beautifully made and a joy to use, though I really ought to use it more. Since I recently released the songs that comprised my 20s, I’m excited to see what will become of the song ideas currently residing in Hum.
System Information on Mac
I rediscovered this function while trying to clean out some disk space on my wife’s MacBook Pro and make it run faster. Previously I used Disk Doctor for this job; it’s a fine app that costs $2.99, but System Information is built-in and provides a more granular view of your files. It also makes deleting them super easy and satisfying. It’s a bit hidden, but well worth the hunt. If you’re a file hoarder or haven’t optimized your Mac in a while, you’ll be shocked by how much cruft builds up. Also by how large iOS backups are! (Seriously, my wife’s storage space more than doubled after I deleted those.)