The garbage man librarian

It’s been some time since my last post — I’ve completed my first year as assistant library director at a small university, and I admit that budget season, the end of the spring semester, performance management plans (I had to write 14) and writing the annual report have made me busier than I expected. It’s also the season for trying to go to annual meetings of regional library organizations, and my home life has also been occupying a fair bit of my time. I will try to blog more regularly

Today I saw this article about a Columbian man, Jose Alberto Gutierrez, who was not afforded a formal education and worked as a garbage collector. He began gathering books that other people threw out and over the years filled his house. He has thousands and thousands of books and shares them with his neighbors, especially kids.

He saves books and he helps people, and that’s what librarianship is about, in many ways. He’s even helping FARC fighters who now have to find a new way to live. HIs comment on that: ““Books transformed me, so I think books are a symbol of hope for those places,” Gutierrez said. “They are a symbol of peace.””

I leave you with that for now. Books as a symbol of hope and peace. A man with hardly any education who has become a librarian for children around his country.

Recreational reading in college

I am taking on something several people have told me is hopeless at my new library: celebrating, supporting, and encouraging recreational reading at a university. I’ve had numerous people tell me students don’t read anything they don’t have to, and very little of what they do have to. Professors, I’ve been told, like to read in the summer but won’t read a thing for fun during the academic year.

Maybe I’ll find this all out the hard way, but I’m convinced that this isn’t exactly true. Maybe most students aren’t reading War and Peace for fun, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t consume any written words, in print, online, or in audio. Yes, I’m expanding my view of what reading is. I know a lot of voracious readers who also listen to audiobooks and no one questions whether that’s really reading. So aren’t podcasts like audiobooks? I think so. I know several (and am married to one) people who read magazine and newspaper articles, essays and short stories more frequently than books.So then, aren’t blogs like other short form writing? I think so.

Yes, I’m hoping people will read books, too, and I’m working on ways to promote our book collection, too. But even more importantly, I’m hoping to affirm this: whatever you have time for, whether it’s your favorite fashion blog or a true crime podcast or last night’s Red Sox scores, you are reading, and if you don’t have time for a book right now, the library will be here for you later when you do.

Stay tuned. And if you have ideas that have worked at your academic library to promote reading, leave a comment and tell me what worked.

 

Being countercultural

A few weeks ago I had a conversation that’s stayed with me. I was speaking with a group of people when someone pointed out that libraries are countercultural. I think what he was saying is that the existence of a place where everyone, for free, can enter and read and learn whatever he or she desires is really pretty mind-blowing if you think about it.

But is what we’re doing really counter to the prevailing culture? I guess libraries are sort of a part of the “slow” movement. Like cooking from scratch or making things by hand, reading and learning are time consuming, in a culture where many people prefer to do things as quickly as possible – although James Patterson is trying to make reading speedier by publishing books that can be read in one sitting. Regardless of the cultural preference for speed, the Pew Research Center reports that Americans have a very strong affinity for lifelong learning. And there wouldn’t be slow or maker movements if people weren’t willing to invest time in these pursuits, so maybe slowness isn’t all that at odds with the culture. Nor is learning.

What about reading? The media likes to report that no one reads, but again, looking to Pew, that just isn’t true. In their report on reading in America in 2013, the center notes that a large majority of adults read at least one book in the previous year, and not just rich well educated adults. Across their demographic measures, readers were in the majority.

So if taking one’s time to do something worthwhile, learning, and reading are more common than not, what is it that seems countercultural about libraries? Perhaps it’s that we’re open to absolutely everyone, and funded by all for the common good? That we seek to provide diverse materials to every community we serve? That we not only offer public space, but also quiet — there are very few places in the world where people can enjoy relative silence. That libraries do not just offer books and other materials but cherish their existence? That free access to information is libraries’ birthright and highest ideal?

There are many ways libraries are countercultural, and every person will probably have a slightly different take on how this is so. But it’s helpful and to me, comforting, to note that in important ways we are more in step with the culture around us than not.

Libraries: Clinics of the Soul?

First a shout out to Diane Mayr who posted the article I am about to swoon over on the NH Library Association Facebook page. If you’re a repeat visitor to Nocturnal Librarian you know one of the things I write about frequently here is my strong belief that libraries do not need to rebrand, reinvent, or repurpose. We don’t need to be called something else (I’m talking to you, “teaching and learning commons”) or asked to transform ourselves (sorry, ALA) because what we are is already awesome, and has been, and will be. If are just left alone to actually be libraries.

So when I read Alberto Manguel’s article “Reinventing the Library” in the New York Times, via the aforementioned NHLA post, I found myself nodding and saying, “yes, exactly.” Repeatedly. This should be required reading for people who make decisions about libraries’ continued existence and purpose the world over.

To give you a sense of why I loved every word, I will quote Manguel, although I also encourage you to read the whole beautiful article.

“It is in the nature of libraries to adapt to changing circumstances and threats, and all libraries exist in constant danger of being destroyed by war, vermin, fire, water or the idiocies of bureaucracy. But today, the principal danger facing libraries comes not from threats like these but from ill-considered changes that may cause libraries to lose their defining triple role: as preservers of the memory of our society, as providers of the accounts of our experience and the tools to navigate them — and as symbols of our identity.”

I’m with him, especially about ill-considered changes, but I’d urge Manguel and you, dear reader, to listen to this poignant piece on NPR about Benghazi (the place, not the political brouhaha) and hear a Libyan journalist remember how much he loves the library, now nearly inaccessible because of conflict. Anyway, back to Manguel’s point. We have a pretty bad-ass role already. Preserve, provide accounts of, and teach people to navigate our common human experience. He goes on:

“Most libraries today are used less to borrow books than to seek protection from harsh weather and to find jobs online, and it is admirable that librarians have lent themselves to these very necessary services that don’t traditionally belong to their job description. A new definition of the role of librarians could be drafted by diversifying their mandate, but such restructuring must also ensure that the librarians’ primary purpose is not forgotten: to guide readers to their books.”

In many places, Manguel may be right. I got so excited last week because TWICE at the service desk I actually got to recommend books to people. But libraries exist everywhere, and outside of cities, all over New Hampshire and wherever you live as well, libraries and their patrons are pretty much the same as they’ve ever been — people coming to check out books and to share what they’re reading, learning, and doing. When I talk with my colleagues around the state, it’s clear that the public hand wringing about the future of libraries is done by people who don’t go to small town libraries and are unaware that they are still serving a very important, highly valued, and dare I say, traditional role in their communities.

Back to Manguel:

“Librarians are not trained to act as social workers, caregivers, babysitters or medical advisers. All these extra tasks make it difficult, if not impossible, for librarians to work as librarians: to see that the collections remain coherent, to sift through catalogues, to help readers read, to read themselves. The new duties imposed on them are the obligations of civilized societies toward their citizens, and should not be dumped pell-mell onto the shoulders of librarians. If we change the role of libraries and librarians without preserving the centrality of the book, we risk losing something irretrievable.”

That phrase, “preserving the centrality of the book” is what really got me — no matter what else we’re called upon to provide, what makes a library a library? Books. You can’t have a library without books; if we were just computers  and wifi we’d be an internet cafe. Just a place to get warm, a shelter. Just a building for classes and mah jong and lectures and movies, a community center. But none of those other places have what we have. And most don’t even try to; yet paradoxically, we’re often expected by decision makers to offer a good bit of what those other places provide, as well as job searching, computer skills training, and sometimes even social services.

Manguel concludes, “If libraries are to be not only repositories of society’s memory and symbols of its identity but the heart of larger social centers, then these changes must be made consciously from an intellectually strong institution that recognizes its exemplary role, and teaches us what books can do: show us our responsibilities toward one another, help us question our values and undermine our prejudices, lend us courage and ingenuity to continue to live together, and give us illuminating words that might allow us to imagine better times. According to the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, one of the ancient libraries he saw in Egypt carried above its entrance the words: ‘Clinic of the Soul.'”

I love Manguel’s view of what books can do, for the mind and for the soul, and I stand by libraries’ central role as places where there is unfettered access to books. Long live the centrality of the book.

Free kids from reading lists and they thrive

A few summers ago here at Nocturnal Librarian I wrote about the tyranny of summer reading lists. I argued then that kids should be free to read whatever they want in the summer instead of being made to choose from a list, because reading is more appealing when we have the freedom to decide what we want to read. Turns out I was on to something. The Washington Post reports that a series of studies have shown that when it comes to countering “summer slide” — the loss of skills and knowledge during school vacation — the freedom to read anything they like is a tremendous boost for kids. Those granted this freedom performed better than kids who had to read what their teachers chose.

One paragraph from the story really caught my attention: “For one class, researchers ran a book fair, where each student picked 13 books to take home at the end of the school year. The fair featured a broad range of selections — fiction and nonfiction, classics and newer works — and students eagerly passed the books back and forth, reveling in the opportunity to pick those matching their personal interests while chattering with one another about familiar stories. (An adaptation of Disney’s “Frozen” was especially popular.) Many also chose works considerably above or below their reading levels so they could share with siblings.” The kids in this class were in second grade in Rochester, New York, and an eye-popping 96% of children from their school qualify for free or reduced lunch.

What struck me, besides the tragically high level of poverty? First, the scene: I can recall many a book fair when I was in elementary school, and how exciting it was to pick books knowing I could take them home and keep them. Second, the image of kids “chattering” and “reveling” not over tablets or computers or video games, but books. And third, that strong desire kids showed to “share with siblings.”

This affirmed for me everything I already know to be true about reading: it’s a joy, when it’s allowed to be. There was no book report or test looming after the fair, the kids just knew they could pick a whole armful of books to read. And they couldn’t wait to share their choices, with each other and with their families. Books are meant to be loved not just by one person, but many. The communal experience of hearing a story together, or reading aloud to other people, is a pleasure just about everyone in America experiences either in school or at their local library, if not in their homes. These kids were not only going to read to themselves over the summer, but to others.

I also wondered whether the researchers considered taking kids to get library cards? Or directing families to the summer reading program at their local public library?  Don’t get me wrong — I love that these kids got to own books, and I wish every kid could. But it seemed very obvious to me that libraries are schools’ best partner in helping low income families keep their kids reading during summer break.

Books on the Nightstand, one of my favorite podcasts, has a Summer Reading Bingo card on their site. I might try it. Or I might throw all suggestions to the wind and just read whatever strikes me this summer. What are your summer reading plans?

Fifty shades of furniture?

British media recently reported that charity shops (which, if my husband’s aunt and uncle’s town Hayward’s Heath is anything to go by, seem to be on nearly every street), which do a brisk trade in used popular books, cannot get rid of the glut of Fifty Shades of Grey. The books can’t be recycled because of the type of glue in the binding. And recently the library where I work discovered that the charity which used to take our unsold sale books and discards will no longer pick them up.

My friend Manda sent me this cool article today from WebEcoist, about ways books can be made into “furniture and functional decor.” Check out this bookstore counter. I think discards would make a very novel library service desk!

The piece also suggests making chairs and sofas, bookcases, and accessories (even planters!) from old books. This would seem to solve the “what to do with 5.3 million copies of Fifty Shades” problem, and also the trouble libraries have with both budget cuts and discards. Also with space issues: what library doesn’t occasionally wish they could re-arrange service desks? Built in sections, these counters could be re-fit when needed.

When I visited Austin, Texas a couple of springs ago I enjoyed the library system’s shop, Recycled Reads. They offer craft classes on upcycling and also sell recrafted books at the shop:

Imagine what you could charge for a book chair.  So maybe this is an untapped revenue stream as well. I wonder if we put out a call for crafty volunteers whether we could auction off a set of  book furniture to benefit the library?

I for one would bid!

Books via bike

Recently I’ve read about two library systems trying a new outreach tool: bikes rigged to pull mobile libraries. Denver Public Library’s DPL Connect is a “tricked-out trike” and wifi hotspot “designed in partnership with Joe Crennen, a local custom bike builder.”  According to their website, “The librarian riding DPL Connect, armed with a tablet and an internet connection, will provide traditional library services, helping customers with digital downloads (eBooks, audio books, and digital magazines), offering reading suggestions, assisting with research and registering new customers for library cards. Down the road, we’re working on DPL Connect’s ability to operate as a full-service library, complete with the ability to check out materials.”

Library Journal reported on Seattle Public Library’s Books on Bikes, which also provides free wifi and features biking librarians pulling a “trailer was developed and constructed by Colin Stevens, who runs Haulin’ Colin in Seattle” that can carry 500 pounds of materials and can hold an umbrella in case of rain.  Books on Bikes services include everything patrons can do at their library except paying fines and returning books. Books on Bikes librarians can check out books, making Seattle’s version a bit more like a traditional bookmobile. They’re even doing book talks and story times, and have a dedicated collection of 400 books to rotate on the trailer.

Living in a bike-friendly community, I love this idea. I think a bike-powered mobile library unit would work well in Concord for festivals, the weekly farmers’ market, parks, and perhaps even school visits to interest kids in the library’s summer programs. Our main branch is close enough to parks, community centers, and downtown festival and market sites, that we could easily pedal there. A unit based at the City’s recreation department for visiting nearby neighborhoods and sharing library services at city camps and other programs would also be cool. I hereby volunteer to pedal!

I like the full service version allowing people to check books out as well as sign up for library cards, but I wonder if we’d have trouble with materials being returned. Has your library taken services into the community by bike or other mobile units? How have you handled returns and other logistical issues? If you’ve done library marketing by bike, what has the reaction been in your town?

Coexist

A friend forwarded this infographic about e-books and print books complementing each other. Perhaps despite all the impassioned arguments for and against e-reading, and the debate about how libraries should respond, the dust will settle and we’ll find ourselves in a world not so different than the one we know, with both print and digital books.

At least since library school (twenty(!) years ago) I’ve been hearing both media and anecdotal reports about how few kids and teens read, and yet studies keep showing they are reading. The LA Times/USC poll cited in the infographic found that 84% of people 18-29 like to read. And according to the Pew report “The Rise of E-reading,” 58% of 18-24 year olds and 54% of 25-29 year olds use the library, and the average for all age groups over 18 was nearly 58%.

A Gallup poll in 2007 determined than only 45% of Americans are baseball fans. Libraries beat baseball by 13 percentage points? Maybe reading should be the national pastime? By the way, baseball games are great places to read.

But I digress. The point is, e-books are here to stay, but it’s pretty likely that instead of making print books go away, the two will coexist. And perhaps more people will have the experience someone I know has had: her Kindle was fine for awhile, but she missed regular books, and going to the library. She hasn’t used her Kindle in awhile. It’s not that she didn’t like it, just that the novelty wore off and she went back to “real” books.

I wonder if anyone has studied how long people use their e-readers before they get put in a drawer? Tablets change the dynamic a bit, but I know I’ve had an unopened e-book on my Ipad for a few months now. Out of sight, out of mind, unlike the piles of books beside my chair, sofa, and bed, which beckon to me nightly.

One book one community

An appeal to Nocturnal Librarian readers — what book has your community read that worked particularly well for discussions and programming? I’ve been on the Concord Reads community for a few years.  We’re starting earlier than usual on the book selection process for next fall’s community-wide read, which is good. But we have floated well over a dozen titles without any one gaining consensus so far.

So I thought I’d ask the blogging and blog-reading community. Has a recent “one book one community” read worked well in your town? What made it so great? Was there a flop?

The committee chair recently told me that our core demographic in recent years has been 50-something women. I’ve been advocating for a title that will appeal to teens as well as adults (not a YA book, but one that has crossover potential). Does your community read offer programming for various age groups? Are your area high schools participating? Do you get as many men as women turning out for your events?

For several years the committee in our city seemed to coalesce around a theme and then on a book. We’ve read about the locavore movement, refugees, and low wage jobs, for example. Does your group pick a theme or a book first?

Weigh in by commenting — and thanks for your input!

 

 

 

All Hallow’s Read

It’s strange to me what a big deal Halloween has become. It’s now a major holiday for retailers, with a 2011 survey by the National Retail Federation estimating Americans spend $7 billion on the holiday (we’re not the only ones; this Ottawa Sun article notes Canadians spend about $300 each on Halloween).

I’m not that into it myself. But I like Neil Gaiman‘s idea, which he first posted on his blog in 2010: “I propose that, on Hallowe’en or during the week of Hallowe’en, we give each other scary books. Give children scary books they’ll like and can handle. Give adults scary books they’ll enjoy.”

This “modest proposal” has grown into All Hallow’s Read, a movement to give and read books for Halloween. If you’re not sure you like scary stories, widen your horizon a bit and read something that scares you but might not be filed under horror (political ads are certainly both plentiful and scary this year). For fans of teen dystopia, why not share Shirley Jackson‘s short fiction, including “The Lottery,” published in 1948. In 2010 The New Yorker called it  “perhaps the most controversial short story” the magazine has published. It won’t scare you in the slasher-film way; it’s thought-provokingly disturbing and something Hunger Games fans might appreciate.

Gaiman has posted lists of suggested books from various sources and for various ages as well as printables for celebrating All Hallow’s Read’s. One cool link:  print a mini book version of The Raven to fold and share. Which brings me to New Hampshire’s Big Read, organized by the NH Center for the Book as part of the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read program, and focused on the works of Edgar Allan Poe this fall. Find out more about Poe programming at libraries around the state here.