Responding to violence

Last year when I worked at a public library, I suggested we do more displays on current topics in society — racism, refugees, gender issues, etc. This was met with resistance as the city I worked in didn’t want the library to appear to be taking stands on issues (more on that later) but I was permitted to do a display on drug addiction. New Hampshire is one of the states dealing with rampant opioid addiction, and has one of the highest rates of prescription painkiller use in the nation. It was very popular, by which I mean people took books from the display and we had to restock it. That to me was a strong indicator that people want to learn more about what’s happening in the world.

Friday (when the news of the Dallas shootings was fresh) at the academic library where I now work, I discussed with a co-worker how shell shocked I felt from the week’s news — it was awful to wake up to news of one violent act after another. I told her it seemed like a good time to make a display about nonviolence and racism, something for people who also felt overwhelmed by the news. She agreed that would be a good service to the community and that she’d like to work on it.

I went back to my office. A short time later one of our coworkers called me from the front desk to say the two of them had imagined a problem: wouldn’t people come in and ask why now that it was police who were victims were we putting up a display, and where were we when innocent black men were killed earlier in the week and when mostly hispanic and gay victims died in Orlando? I said that wasn’t the intent at all, it was the groundswell of violence that had caused me to feel we needed to offer a display. Heck the bad news wasn’t even limited to America. There were innocent victims of violence and racial, religious,or cultural intolerance in Dhaka, Baghdad, Syria, Istanbul, Europe, Britain.

We agreed tentatively that they would also put out books on homophobia, extremism, Islamophobia, etc. But the conversation unsettled me — was I unconsciously reacting because cops were killed, even though I don’t like or agree with media coverage that seems to favor the lives of cops or members of the military over civilians?  (I say that as the wife of a former Marine who hates that implication.) Trying to take a detached look at it I decided my initial sense was that we needed to offer resources on nonviolence and a historical perspective on how America has reached this point. I was inspired by something the Bishop of New Hampshire shared on Facebook: an article I read just before work, on how to be a peacemaker.  I wanted to make a display that would help people understand each other and the world.

No, I didn’t value police lives over other lives. Why now? Because news of gun violence, as well as racism, was incessant this week. Should we try to retroactively respond to all the other violence that has been in the news this summer? I guessed that was an OK compromise, but it made me feel as if my instinct was selfish, and also made me wish I hadn’t suggested the damn display in the first place. Still, my feelings weren’t what mattered, being inclusive seemed like a good thing, so I just hung up and got on with my work.

But later the first colleague came back to me and said we needed to stick to the initial scope of the display: nonviolence and racial injustice in America. She felt it would just look like we were covering all the bases to include other issues, and that she’d rather have a substantive conversation with anyone who asked “Why this display, now?” She got why someone might ask us about it, but was comfortable articulating that whether we should have a display every time something bad happens or on every issue isn’t the point, the point is that yesterday, we just wanted to help people who feel pained by the events of the past week. Like we did. She thought we should honor that, rather than cheapen it by trying to be all inclusive.

Her sensible offer to have conversations about the display is just what should happen when people have questions about tough issues or positions. That’s the only way forward — to calmly discuss things. I’m grateful for her perspective and a little ashamed that my own reaction (“fine, include everything and everyone”) was to cheapen the horror, even if I was diluting it with other, equally horrific things. I came by that in part because of my experience in the public sector, where taking a stand was considered taking a side, which was discouraged or even forbidden.

Should libraries, public or academic, create displays that present information about controversial or divisive issues? I think they should. People are hungry for something more than news bites, and books can provide more in-depth analysis. Libraries also, as part of our mission, collect resources that present varying viewpoints as long as they meet the standards set for our collections (well written, well researched, well reviewed, for example), and therefore we’re in a position to challenge people to read points of view that differ from their own. If we’re taking a side it’s the side of creating an informed citizenry. Will anyone question our motives? Possibly. But I have a good answer — I’m trying to learn how best to respond to this, and thought others might want to learn too.

 

 

Public Libraries in the US

The Institute of Museum & Library Services published its latest report on public libraries in the U.S recently. I went straight to the state stats. Looks like New Hampshire is in pretty good shape. More evidence that the demise of libraries is not imminent.

Meanwhile, we’re ready to start new projects for the new fiscal year at my library. One thing I got started on today is radically reconsidering the reference section — I’d like to circulate some books, move others to storage, and weed the ones that sit gathering dust, their spines indicating they’ve rarely been cracked open. It’s painful, because many of them are wonderful resources. But I’d like to make space for materials our patrons do want to use and check out.

A colleague of mine pointed out that this brings up a philosophical dilemma: should expand our offerings of popular materials like movies, even if it means decreasing our purchase of something else, like reference books? Some folks I’ve known in the library world lament that for some patrons, we’re just another video outlet. It can feel like what we are as libraries is in danger if we know some people only come in for movies. Or if we jettison reference materials.

If we want to continue to encourage literacy and a love of knowledge and learning, maybe the answer isn’t to buy interesting but rarely used multi-volume reference sets but to choose appealing books and circulate them. And maybe even pair them with movies to encourage cross-circulation? Say someone takes out the Harrison Ford film Witness. Why not offer some Amish fiction (very popular at my library) or a memoir about growing up Amish or a coffee table book about rural America? It’s hard to quickly pull together related materials on the spot, but a display area is a good place to do this. And catalog tools may be going that way. We use Novelist, which recommends related titles when a patron looks at a book  our catalog. It would be cool if it pointed people to books when they looked at movies or music as well.

Whether our reference section shrinks or our dvd section grows, I’m happy to live in a region and a state where libraries are valued and well-used.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The case for the written and printed word

A few weeks ago I was driving to Vermont to see my college-student son, listening to NPR, and heard this interview with Texas judge and former San Antonio mayor Nelson Wolff, the man behind “Bibliotech” the “bookless library.” As I’ve written here before, Wolff clearly doesn’t know much about the obstacles publishers place on library e-books: burdensome pricing structures, limits on the number of check-outs, etc., which result in long waits for popular titles. He promotes his model as fiscally prudent, but seems not to worry about spending tax dollars on e-books licenses, which expire, unlike physical books, which are libraries’ to keep for as long as they can be mended. And let’s not forget that e-readers and tablets break, wear out, or become obsolete as new technologies come along.

In the interview with Scott Simon, Wolff noted one goal of Bibliotech, to “bring technology to a area of the city that is economic disadvantaged, highly minority, and do not have access to the Internet and the various modes that we have to access it. So we provide eBook readers that they can check out.” If the readers are pre-loaded with e-books, this makes a little sense, but it doesn’t explain: a) how people without internet access benefit from borrowing a device that requires an internet connection to maximize its use and b) why providing internet access and devices has to exclude access to printed books, which are also not common in low-income households. Also, nowhere in any of the coverage of Bibliotech have I read anything about whether librarians or library patrons were asked about their needs.This is one man’s dream, and that’s how it should be reported.

Wolff,  like  much of the press, is also behind the curve on e-books: the Pew Research Center notes that younger library users (16-29) value technology but also read print books at higher rates than older Americans (75% of Americans 16-29 have read a print book in the last year), and studies show e-books sales have leveled off or are declining (Nicholas Carr offers insightful reasons for this at that same link). In Canada, they have fallen to 15% of the book market. In the UK, e-books are 9% of the book market, and in the U.S., e-books are just under 25% market share. That’s it. But you didn’t know that, because the reporting is “1 in 4 books are e-books” not “3 in 4 books are printed.”

That hardly sounds like something to devote an entire new library building to, does it? I think the smarter way to go is to incorporate technology into library offerings, and to respond to the actual needs of local library users. Many of whom are looking for more than technology. They want places to meet and connect with their neighbors, according to sources as varied as the Pew Research Center and the people of Effingham, New Hampshire, who are delighted with the improvements made to their public library and are flocking to events, the most popular of which is “Writer’s Night,” in which “the community turns out to hear presentations by writers,” then “play music, recite poetry, read a passage from a favorite book,” during open mic.  Bravo to Marilyn Swan, the resourceful library director who is working on making her library — and the written word —  a vital part of Effingham life.

Another story that cheered me a bit: in England, students used 400-year-old maps from the British Library to create authentic and very high tech 3D gaming worlds for a competition. These young people, steeped in technology, are seeing library collections come to life in their work. Well done, British Library and city of Nottingham, which sponsors the GameCity “festival of video game culture.” The Daily Mail reports, “The primary objective of the competition was to inspire innovation among students and merge rich visual sources from the past with industry-leading technology.” Not to mention getting them into the archives of the venerable British Library, and giving them reason to value preserving print materials.

Sunshine on Book Mountain

Mountains in ancient times were considered the homes of gods, or places where man could draw near the divine. My brother sent me an article about a book mountain in the Netherlands which looks like heaven to me. 

Architecture firm MVRDV explains the way the 10 year project, actually named Book Mountain and Library Quarter Spijkenisse, ties into the town’s history and setting. They plan to release a book, Make Some Noise, in late 2012 that will be a “photo novel” about the project. The Library Quarter includes 42 apartments from studios to large family units. Can you imagine living here?

There are many more photos at both links above and at inhabit. Several comments at these sites mention sun being bad for books. On the project’s website the architects anticipate criticism on this point, noting, “damage to the books by sunlight is off-set by their normal 4 year life-span due to wear and tear from borrowing.”

Wow. Really? My unscientific research reveals that library books have expected lifespans of 25-50 check-outs (which shows that there isn’t much consensus on this topic). Mending keeps some books going longer. I am pretty sure 4 years is a low estimate. Does anyone know the average shelf-life of  books in your local library?

I don’t have any idea how much the sun damages books. But I looked up average annual hours of sunshine and Rotterdam, near Spijkenisse, averages 1542 hours, versus 2519 where I live in New Hampshire. For reference to notoriously rainy and sunny places, I found that London averages only about 1600 hours of sunshine a year and Seattle, 2019 hours; Miami, 2900 hours; San Diego, 2958 hours; Honolulu, 3041 hours.

Even New York City, which I would have guessed wasn’t particularly sunny since its weather is quite variable and it’s roughly in the middle of U.S. latitudes, averages 2677 hours. So if sunlight is detrimental to book life-span, Book Mountain might work better in Northern Europe than in many parts of the United States. I am stepping away from this post now, rather than spending the rest of my afternoon finding out which places in the U.S. have the least hours of annual sunshine. Because I’m tempted to look into that.

Libraries and the arts

Like many states, New Hampshire recently faced draconian arts funding cuts. Happily, as Connie Rosemont explained in the Concord Monitor, “The Arts Prevailed.” Last year when arts and literature programs lost funding in Wisconsin, a trio of library school students launched a website: the Library as Incubator Project. I read about this innovative idea in Poets & Writers, where you can view a slideshow of  “art, writing, performances and workshops that have taken place in or been inspired by libraries.”

The Library as Incubator Project connects libraries with the arts community. Finding inspiration and ideas and collaborating at the incubator benefits artists and libraries as well as the public they are both trying to reach. The site also links to resources helpful to artists and writers and offers professional development for librarians who want to “incubate the arts.”

When I mentioned the  Library As Incubator Project on an email list recently, a colleague replied with a link to Art-o-Mat, which re-purposes old cigarette vending machines into art dispensers. The machines are found in a variety of locations, including libraries.

Libraries often schedule performances, films, and readings as well. This week Regina Library here at Rivier College is hosting “An Evening of Favorite Poems.”  My nocturnal colleague Peter and I had fun creating a display of poetry books. I actually found too many books for our allotted display space and had to put the overflow on a table by the entrance.

So if you think libraries are just housing books, take another look. Chances are you’ll find the arts.