Thursday, November 20, 2014

Because I'm Appy: The Four C's


http://bit.ly/1xHYDc7

This post first appeared in slightly altered form at www.pypl.org.


This week let's talk about the humble app, that newest, potentially most overwhelming of computer thingamajig.  My apologies to anyone who now has that Pharrell Williams song stuck in their heads!   What is an app, exactly?  Well, it’s short for “application”—as in “computer application.”  That just means it’s a computer program, like Microsoft Word.  The trendy, shortened version has come to apply mainly to programs you use on your mobile devices—phones, tablets, brain chip, etc.  (Just kidding about that last one. Or am I?)  Apps tend to be small in computer-space and extremely focused in use—they have very particular applications, you might even say.  (See what I did there?)

I recently attended a great webinar hosted by Nicole Hennig, a real expert in this emerging area of study, called “Apps for Librarians: Digital Literacy with Mobile Apps,” that described a lot of what she calls “core apps” and the ways librarians can use them to enhance services to their patrons.  She’s really knowledgeable and clear, and while I had long intended to discuss apps in this space, her presentation inspired me to organize it slightly differently.  I was going to just jump into some reviews of apps and why you should use them, but Ms. Hennig’s method of categorizing apps into four major types struck me as a better means of approaching this whole, vast topic.   So, how does she split up the world of apps?  She talks about apps for consuming, for curating, for creation and for collaboration.

Consuming apps are pretty straightforward.  They know that there is stuff out there to be read, watched, heard, and so on, and give you ways to do so.  They tend to gather that kind of material up and present it to you in easy-to-digest formats.  E-reading apps like the Kindle app would fall under this category, as would ‘magazine’ and ‘feed’ types like Feedly and Flipboard.

Apps for curation start to give the user a little more power.  In these apps, the content is still out there waiting to be consumed, but they allow you to collect, organize, and present it in your own way.  This can include big names like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, though there are a lot more out there.  You can also curate your own content with apps like Buffer, which allow you to schedule your social media posts throughout the day.  (Because you wouldn’t want your kids and grandkids to go a half an hour without an update from you, right?)

Creation apps—this is where things start to get really interesting.  These guys know that the Force is in you, Luke.  Whatever you want to create—prose, poetry, drawings, photography, even music and 3D models—there’s an app for that.  And it doesn’t matter if you’re a maestro or a rookie, because there are creative apps for every skill level.  Heck, some of the apps used by digital virtuosos are equally accessible to novices.  Some big names here are Adobe Ideas, Diptic, and the very cool music-making app, Thumb Jam.

Finally, we have collaboration apps, which bring it all together.  Whatever you may do on your own in the other three categories, there’s most likely an app that allows you to do it in a group.  Often they’re the very same apps.  (You’ll find that there’s a lot of overlap between these categories.)   Scribble on whiteboards with SyncSpace, share files with Dropbox, and play a game of multidimensional tag over Skype.  (No, I’m not sure exactly how that would work, but it would be fun to figure out.  Laser pointers?)

Ms. Hennig covered a lot of other interesting elements of the app revolution, but the other important one for all of you out there is the concept of content ecosystems—in other words, the idea that the things you create on apps can be synced up across all your devices, allowing you to travel freely between your phone, tablet, and computer(s) without losing anything.

It’s also worth mentioning that apps have incredibly positive implications for accessibility—a lot of them have features built-in to assist people in using them, and there are many that are designed precisely to help people better navigate the world.  There are apps that identify currency for the blind and that help disabled teens learn.  That sounds like a revolution worth supporting, right?

So that’s that for our first foray into the realm of apps.  Check back in the future when I dig into some specific reviews and recommendations. Thanks again to Nicole Hennig for her awesome presentation (you can check out more about her here).  There's a lot more to explore in our appy little realm!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Being a brief reflection on my first days as grown-up librarian

I’m about to start my third week as a professional public librarian.  It’s gone quickly and mostly well.  In the real world, it turns out, colleagues and patrons are as patient and good-natured as you might like them to be, but were secretly afraid they wouldn’t be.  People are basically decent--go figure!

Which isn’t to say things have gone completely smoothly.  People and institutions have their entrenched ways of doing things, and entering into these systems can feel bewildering and isolating.  I’ve found success by trying to adapt to the blanket methods that are in place at my new library--which mostly entails knowing what role each staff member fills, and dealing with them directly in those roles--while carving out my own methods in those areas that affect only me, or which I now find myself (unbelievably) in charge of.

That means I’ve set up my own little processes when it comes to my itty-bitty corners of the collection development budget and to planning my adult programming.  It’s really helpful that the library’s director (among others, but mainly her) is very open to change and has given me carte blanche to do what I want in a few areas.  That’s sort of intimidating!  But after ten days at work, it’s starting to feel like, yes, I actually can exert a little authority here and there.  It’s been really important to feel like I’m doing at least a couple of things “my way,” because otherwise I might find myself going a little nuts in a few months.

It’ll still take some getting used to.  There are three librarians here, of which I’m one, and we’re technically the heads of our departments and everyone else’s “superiors.”  In practice it won’t really work that way, which is more than fine--I’m happy to defer to anyone’s wisdom and experience, whether they have an “MLS” after their name or not.  (That’s a lesson a few young hotshots really should take to heart or risk an unhappy professional life.)  But I do have to remind myself to inhabit my “director” role as much as possible.

One evening I was going over some circ desk procedures with one of the clerks, who was actually the most recent hire before I got there.  She was telling me the policy for patron phone use.  “We’re usually not allowed to let anyone use the desk phone, but the librarians can make exceptions, so just ask one of them--oh!”  It wasn’t until she said it that she realized that I was one of those librarians who’s allowed to make exceptions.  No hard feelings, though--I didn’t realize it at first either!

I’ve had some great opportunities to meet a lot of active patrons and community members.  There seems to be a great crew that’s in the library all the time--the kind of funny, sweet, sometimes odd folks that make me wonder why there hasn’t been a successful library-based sitcom yet.  But I’m also fortunate to be coming to work at the start of the strategic planning process, and was drafted by the library director to take part in a series of community conversations intended to glean ideas and aspirations.  This has been a great way to meet a lot of active, opinionated  people who feel a stake in the library, but who might not be in the building every day.

If you don’t happen to be starting your job in time for an opportunity like that, I’d urge you to make other efforts to meet similar people in your community.  Find all the civic meetings in town and attend as many as you can--and speak up to introduce yourself.  People will be delighted to meet the new librarian.  Everyone here has been.

So I guess if I had to sum up the lessons of my first weeks on the job…

Defer to local practices, but carve out spaces for you to make your institutional mark.

Seek and use your colleagues’ experience, but don’t fail to inhabit your professional authority.

Get out there and introduce yourself to the community!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Solved: The Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives (Happy Midterms)

On this Election Tuesday, I think I’ve cracked the difference between Liberals and Conservatives.  Bear with me a minute here.  I'll get to the library connection at the end.

Conservatives are more comfortable—and more capable—of thinking in terms of the individual, and less capable of thinking in terms of aggregates of people, things, or phenomena, and liberals would be the opposite or inverse or whatever of that trend.  These traist can have positive and negative consequences, but generally I think the conservative bent toward almost militant individualism is harmful to society.  By this I don’t simply mean that conservatives are more selfish than liberals, but that is part of it.  Let’s look at how this works on a few policy issues.

On voting rights, both liberals and conservatives likely subscribe to the notion that “every vote counts.”  But, whether they realize it or not, they mean two very different things.  When a liberal says it, he knows that it is not strictly, literally true; we get that it takes lots and lots of individual votes, working together, to make a difference, but you still need to count each and every one of them to have any effect.  Conservatives, on the other hand, seem to believe, on some level, that it is literally true that every single vote counts.  That somehow one or two votes can decide national elections.  Thus their ravening for voter ID laws, the disenfranchisement of wide swathes of people in hopes of stopping a statistically negligible cadre of election fraudsters.  The cannier, wonkier conservatives know all about the numbers and statistics and the effects of disenfranchising minority voters and such, but for the average conservative, that’s all just kind of sound and fury; what matters is that one malefactor has been thwarted in his attempt to cheat the system, and thus, on the grounds of that “success” alone, democracy is saved.  And if it happens to ensure that more conservatives win elections, that just confirms that their way of thinking is right.  (Actual politicians exist in a grey area between the wonks and the voters, I think.  Intellectually, most of them understand, probably, the wonky reality; but in their actors’ hearts they have convinced themselves of the voter-in-a-tizzy sentiment, and sell it accordingly.)

The environment is another obvious realm where this dichotomy holds sway.  The liberal-minded has absolutely no problem reconciling everyday weather phenomena with the overwhelming evidence of a dangerously shifting climate.  But the conservative is incapable of making, or unwilling to make, that distinction.  Snow, to them, at any time and in any part of the world, is irrefutable evidence that climate change is a “hoax” or, at best, that “the science is not yet settled.”  They remain secure in their self-constructed womb that everything is as it should be, that no levees are bursting and that God put oil there for us to burn.  Again, there are layers to this.  Those at the top, working with a high level of information, can be perfectly intellectually aware of the real dangers posed by climate change, yet it is in their interest to serve the interests, in turn, of the corporations and systems that benefit from climate business-as-usual.  It then becomes their job to convince the public of the lack of danger and the need for the status quo.  And those down the food chain, to varying degrees, swallow the image of reality put forth by the worldview of the individual phenomena as trump card in the game of Truth or Fiction.

Then there are various –isms and –phobias, which, for this purpose, can be reduced to a single social phenomenon: name-calling.  (Obviously there’s a lot more to this issue than that, but the way we treat each other on the most basic level is pretty much where the rubber meets the road.)  To the conservative mind, a few catcalls, the occasional “sissy,” “queer” or “fag,” and even a sprinkling of well-intentioned “boy” or “macaca” never hurt anyone.  The people who take offense are no-fun wusses with paper-thin skin, and don’t blame me if they can’t take a little locker-room name-calling or an honest-to-goodness compliment!  That’s lizard brain thinking, though, folks.  Decades of (liberal-inspired) sociological research has shown the harmful impact of slurs and unwanted advances.  The conservative sees the individual with, as he would have it, unjustified bruised feelings that, unseemly as they are, at least have no apparent impact beyond the aggrieved party.  The liberal, on the other hand, sees thousands of youth suicides, radicalized minorities, rape and the fear of rape, and generally negatively-impacted psyches that lead to all kinds of suboptimum life results.

It seems that this trait makes it difficult for conservative folks to comprehend how an event that impacts one person can also deeply affect the rest of his or her community.  For example, some conservatives have blasted activism in Georgia around the Michael Ferguson killing as “playing the race card” and “importing a problem from another state.”  They don’t seem to get how communities can be rocked by what happens to just one member.  That’s the privilege of being upper-echelon, where no matter what happens to someone similar to you, your own position is secure; they don’t see that other groups are not so lucky—that things that happen to one member could easily ripple through to them, or be repeated on others if the conditions that caused the initial incident are not addressed.  (It should be noted that this doesn’t break down on strictly racial lines.  The Republican to whom the above negative sentiments toward the Georgia activism can be attributed is a black man—but a more insulated, more secure, and more conservative black man.)

It’s funny how far this extends.  As a liberal, I can recognize that my characterization here is very generalized and that there will be liberals whose attitudes resemble the way I characterize conservatives, and vice versa—but the aggregate effect is, I think, accurate.  Meanwhile, it's more likely that a conservative is incapable of seeing that nuance, and, if confronted with this argument (or others, like discussion of sexism and misogyny, homophobia, racism, etc.) would grow resentful and defensive—unable to separate the arguer’s statements on a system in aggregate with the way it reflects on the arguee individually.

We see it happen every day in political debates (“my opponent just had to play the race card,” “why do they flaunt their sexual lifestyle choice?”, “I’m not a misogynist—I love my wife and mother!”).  Maybe this understanding should lead liberals to approach some of their arguing in a different way—and I am certainly in favor of trying that in the social sphere, where strident pop sociology holds sway, where individuals’ personal outrage has been calcified into academically-anointed aphorisms and paeans that serve no purpose but to turn one’s interlocutor away in disgust—but I am loathe to give ground on this in the political and policy arenas, where there are so many objective truths that have an impact on our everyday lives today and into the future, and where change may be incremental, but nonetheless needs to happen in order to ensure our progress and survival as a society.

This is, to me, yet another reason why librarianship is essentially liberal and we must accept ourselves as such.  We are all about accuracy, and the concept of the individual-as-everything-you-need is just so false.  In order to be accurate, you must look at trends, statistics, repeated results.  And I feel like we do all that in libraryland—very liberally.   Similar to the example of “every vote counts,” we have a sense of “every reader counts,” “every book read counts”—but we look for the results of that reading in the aggregate: a more literate and informed society.  We’re a liberal profession, people, in underlying philosophy if not in everyday belief.   It is, however, my humble opinion that we should all be voting liberally.  Because conservatism is the philosophy that tends to think, “That one guy looked at anthrax on the computer; he’s a threat to all society!” and “This handful of books is amoral and should be banned, because if they reach just one person that’s too many!” and "Information is a commodity and should be priced as such!" and so on.


But guess what?  Even if a few librarians still vote Republican, I feel like it’ll all be okay—in the aggregate, we're fighting the good fights.

In any event, I hope you all voted today, and I hope you voted for Democrats.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Quarterly Media Review: Summer '14

With everything going on in at the end of the summer and beginning of the fall, I didn’t have time for my ever-so-beloved Quarterly Media Update.  Never fear!   I have about five minutes to do a quick thumbnail version of what went on between June and August.  Here we go.

Books

The First Family by Mike Dash

This chronicle of the rise of organized crime is slow at points; it focuses, a bit too strongly in my opinion, on the early lives of key figures, and on intricate descriptions of crimes--both the mundane, like counterfeiting, and the lurid, like murder.  This should be more interesting than it sometimes is.  Luckily the pace picks up when describing the complicated relationships between rival families, and especially when it delves into the various techniques used by investigators who are, depending on their fortune, either smugly confident or desperate for a win.  The character profiles of some of the more prominent figures are good, notably that of pugnacious, obstreperous Inspector Petrosino, the Italian-American who made it his life’s work to destroy Italian crime in the United States.  Then, especially, there’s the obscurely terrifying boss Giuseppe Morello, AKA the Clutch Hand.  (And what an evocatively apt nickname that is!)  With much of his criminal activity shrouded in mystery, the author does a good job of piecing together his early life and connecting him to the dark activities that plagued early twentieth century New York, and tracing him through the boom years and the busts.

What really comes through in this mafia origin story is the sense of selfishness and greed that was bound up with grandiose notions of an old world gentility, a gentility that these beasts wouldn’t truly recognize if it hit them in the face. During Morello’s one lengthy prison stint, it’s clear that reform was never on his mind--indeed, that he probably felt he had no need to reform, that he had a right to his grasping crimes.  As soon as he was released he got to work re-establishing his place in the mob.  It’s a depressing lesson: crime may not pay in the long run, but it has enough perks to keep at it despite its dangers.  And the Morello family’s criminal legacy lingers on in today’s underworld.

I don’t think this book is essential for every library, but if you have a strong True Crime collection, this one belongs in it.  It’s a sort of twisted Book of Genesis for all the mob stories of the twentieth century.

Sous Chef by Michael Gibney

A fast-paced look at a day in the hard-drinking, sometimes philosophical life of the eponymous fine dining cook. I blazed through this compact tome, fascinated to take a more authentic look at the industry I know best from "Hell's Kitchen.” The author, himself an experienced sous chef gifted with words as well as knives, spends some time, in the few moments available for reflection, on the nature of service, whether there's really a place for ego in the kitchen, and the care with which truly gifted chefs approach every dish. There's plenty of bravado on display, too, though our unnamed protagonist (undoubtedly an author stand-in) has reached a tipping point in his career, somewhere between the vulgar boy's club of the line and the lofty concerns of the head chef--here depicted as an inscrutable, remote figure, a being who gives the impression of having transcended, somehow, even as he's high-fiving you or cussing out the prep cook.

If you have any cooking-themed programming, this book is a great insider look at an opaque industry for your community members!

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre

This is a dark, grim book of Cold War-era espionage on both sides of the Berlin Wall, filled with analog tradecraft, hard-bitten career spies and the dames who love them, and the lingering specter of German anti-semitism. It's full of exciting twists and turns as well as several important explorations of the morality of the Soviet/socialist system, the empty ethic of the west, and the soul of spying. And it's a darn depressing book, described by one contemporary critic as possessing "an atmosphere of chilly hell." Very apt. But it's also an early appearance of my beloved George Smiley (of Tinker,Tailor, Soldier, Spy fame), so it's got an underlying, distant strength of kindness.

Everyone loves a spy tale, but it’s good to remind your patrons that it’s not all shaken martinis and femmes fatales.  Make sure you have this volume in your collection.

Graphic Novels

Saga vol. 1 and 2 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

I like everything Brian K. Vaughan has ever written, including this gorgeously-illustrated space opera, love story, and family epic.  That said, he has a definite schtick, and for me, it’s starting to wear thin.  I’d like to see him write outside his normal register of “contemporary young people slang and humor in an unexpected context.”  The contrast of the vulgar sitcom banter with the sci-fi visuals and situations is amusing for a while, but after a time I find that I want the story to take itself more seriously.  It certainly deserves it.  On the other hand, I have nothing but praise for Fiona Staples’ expressive and fluid artwork.

Saga is an important work by an important creator, so if you have a graphic novel collection of any stature, you need to have the first few volumes, at least.  But if, by his next project, Vaughan hasn’t shaken up his style, it may be time to consider thinning the holdings.

Hawkeye, vol. 1: My Life as a Weapon by Matt Fraction, David Aja and Javier Pulido

A great, stripped-down chronicle of what it means to be a superhero--especially for a hero in the “highly skilled” category who is nonetheless surrounded by the “godlike” on a daily basis.  Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye--my longtime favorite Avenger, and so much cooler than the movie version you may know--is a wise-cracking, sardonic narrator who forces a smile between constant bruises and contusions. He just never quits.  This first volume shows him making a life away from the Avengers, but demonstrates that he never takes a day off from being a hero.  It’s a great microcosm that stands for the entire Marvel Universe and its ethos of “normal guy” heroes who will never pass up the opportunity to sacrifice for what’s right.

Hawkeye is critically acclaimed for its sharp, real writing by Matt Fraction and the great geometric artwork by David Aja.  This title belongs on every library shelf to demonstrate that heroes can flourish at every level of power and every level of society.

Television

The Americans (FX)
Season 2 was the “parenthood” season, for those of you following along at home, but I had the good fortune of bingeing out on the whole series this summer.  What a tense, thrilling show!  It delves into a period of our history that hasn’t gotten a ton of pop culture treatment--that is, the late Cold War of the 80’s, with all the attendant craziness of Reaganmania and various wild international developments.  But it balances really great spycraft with serious family drama.  Both seasons measured arcs that dealt seriously and realistically with deep-cover KGB agents settling into the middle years of their arranged sham marriage and the charged feelings that have inevitably developed between them.  Season 2, specifically, juxtaposed the agents’ very normal(-ish) home life with the deadly stakes of their profession, as a complex murder mystery causes them to reassess their relationship with Mother Russia and to take serious steps to protect their clueless, American citizen children.

But none of that matters.  This show makes you root for the KGB.  Wrap your head around that!  When this series becomes available, add it to your collection as a bookend to the aforementioned spymaster Le Carre’s work on the earlier and middle stages of the Cold War.

The Leftovers (HBO)
A series that brings to mind the famous poem by Stephen Crane: “A man said to the universe:/‘Sir, I exist!/”However,” replied the universe,/”The fact has not created in me/a sense of obligation’”--which is actually quoted in the pivotal ninth episode.  

Roughly 2% of the world’s population inexplicably vanished 3 years ago.  What does it mean?  Is it an event of religious ramifications or is it a freak scientific occurrence?  Is it of the utmost significance or merely a particularly bizarre blip in the convoluted history of the human race?  The show offers few answers to these questions, but it does a better job of answering, “How would you react if the world irrevocably changed before your eyes?”  The answer: given enough of us, we’d do almost everything.  Cults flourish, relationships splinter, and coping is necessary but hard to come by.  This series isn’t very fun, but despite its baroque concept, it feels very real--richly drawn and intensely felt . Sometimes that’s all you need.  That, and a great soundtrack, which this show also has.

Rectify (Sundance Channel)

Speaking of not very fun, but very real, here’s season two of the ponderous, philosophical Southern Gothic crime drama.  Daniel’s quest to find a place in the world he missed during twenty years on death row continues, as do his loved ones’ various efforts to deal with Daniel’s slanted worldview.  Meanwhile, the mystery of the murder that landed him in jail all those years ago continues to unravel.  What is guilt and what is innocence?  Who has baggage that needs rectifying?  Will Amantha last at her Wiggly Piggly job?

Bleak, meandering, thoughtful, difficult, rewarding--Rectify is William Faulkner meets “Masterpiece Theatre.”

Movies

Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie

I’m bundling these two films together because they both succeed on the same levels (and not at all because I’m way past my self-imposed deadline and really want to get this post out…).  They’re two properties that, on the surface, should not have worked--they’re just too out there.  But against all odds, the third-tier comic property and the Scandinavian building block toy made perfect, fun blockbusters.  They both have heart, too, in Peter Quill’s barely-concealed vulnerability and in Lego’s live-action metastory about toys unplayed with.  Guardians also advances the Marvel Cinematic Universe in crucial ways--the Collector!  The Celestials!  The Kree!--so I’m very on-board with where it hints we’re heading in that realm.  Less serious but equally fun: seeing lego versions of Batman, Gandalf, Han Solo, and Abraham Lincoln all hanging out.

Games

Sets

A deceptively simple-looking matching game.  Out of a field of cards, you have to find sets of those that exhibit each of the game’s various attributes without repeating--shape, color, outline, and number.  Oy, what a headache.  It’s fun, though, and good for quiet solo or group play in the library.

Arkham Horror (Fantasy Flight)

Let’s get the bad out of the way first: the best games provide on-board text, or even better, iconography, that almost makes it possible to play out of the box without looking at the rules.  Very good games at least use this text or iconography as a “crutch” so that once you have breezed through the rules, the game itself reminds you of its own ins and outs.  A highly complex game, Arkham Horror doesn’t really succeed in this regard.  Granted, there are so many moving parts here that it would be hard to do so, but I would have really appreciated something on the board to remind me of crucial details like the round sequence, the modus operandi when opening gates, or the process used to close and seal them.  For all of these elements and more, my rulebook became rather well-thumbed throughout the evening of my first play--and second, and third…

(And okay, game makers, can we please talk about your rulebooks, particularly the indexes?  I know this must be one of the most difficult elements of the design and publication process--meticulously laying out the hows and wherefores--but you’ve gotta make it accessible.  That means ‘well-structured’ and ‘well-indexed.’  This marks the second super-complex game I’ve played whose rulebook is neither--the other being, of course, Game of Thrones.  I’m starting to think I should moonlight as a volunteer rule indexer.)

Aside from that...what a great cooperative game!  If you’re into H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, this game encapsulates it really well.  It may seem a little overstuffed at times, but this isn’t an old-timey short story, after all--epic board games have more room for everything, the kitchen sink, and a shoggoth, too.  Replayability is a big factor here; there are so many options for characters to play, event cards to draw, items to acquire, and--most of all--cosmic baddies to face that each outing is sure to be a brand new experience.  And everything has the flavor of Lovecraft, in the pulpy bios of the playable characters, the headlines of the ‘newsflash’ cards, and in the beautiful artwork all over every square inch of the board and cards.

Word to the wise: though this is playable with as few as two people, try to get as many friends together as you can, and assign each of them an element of the game to keep track of (like that guy from Seinfeld who gives everyone a job at his parties, but better).  This would make a great program at your library around this time of year--you can encourage participants to dress up and really get into their roles, play freaky music, and even serve Lovecraft-inspired snacks!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Viva Contrarianism?

I’m back after a long gap of preparing for, undergoing, and recovering from a pair of interviews--and I got the job!  I am now (or soon will be) an honest-to-goodness Adult Services Librarian.  Go me!

The main thing I regret is the timing--the fact that I missed out working on those Librarian High Holy Days, Banned Books Week.  I’d better have a great plan for next year.  But I also, fortunately,  missed out on another wave of anti-Banned Books Week sentiment, which seems to be ramping up in the librarian community as time goes on.  For some reason we librarians have to dig into “deep” questions about what it’s all *for*, what it *means*, is it *good* or *bad* and all that.

To me, it just reinforces my feeling that librarians are, culturally, a pack of self-defeating contrarians.

I think it has something to do with our desire to know that we are taken seriously academically and professionally.  There’s a tendency to be overly self-critical when faced with doubt from within or without.

We need to get over this lack of confidence in the way our field is perceived and our overweening fear of being misunderstood, or of not serving every angle of every point of view in everything we do.  We need to let go of this fear of not being “academic” or “rigorous” or “serious” enough.  Just keep being good at research--and writing papers on intersectionality in YA literature or whatever the flavor of the year may be--and we can be sure we’re ticking all the necessary boxes.

As for the problems with Banned Books Week specifically, it’s no great mystery how we should change our contrarian thinking.  No one with two brain cells (which, we have to admit, is the vast majority of people, despite cynical impressions to the contrary) will seriously think that we’re somehow in favor of banning books because of the name of a library event--so we need to scratch that overly cautious concern with “branding” and “messaging” right quick.  

Same thing with the semantic hand-wringing over the difference between “banned” and “challenged.”  One may be more accurate, but one is more visceral.  It’s not dishonest to go for the visceral reaction when we’re trying to grab attention.

And, perhaps most crucially, we can’t concern ourselves with every single nuance of the issue of intellectual freedom during the week in which the goal is, generally, just to raise awareness that such issues exist.  

The rest of the year is for working on your pet issues--and you should.  That one week in September might come off as sounding superficial in comparison to your deep insights into how, say, net neutrality affects some super-specific intersectional demographic.  But that’s the trouble with too much academic thinking in our field, or in any field, really--getting so specific and technical that we ignore the kinds of language and efforts that can actually educate the general public in a meaningful way.

If we can accept the celebration’s role as such, I’ll be a lot happier next year when I take part in my first professional observance of Banned Books Week.  

Meanwhile, November 15 is International Games Day, so I’d better get to work thinking about what my new library will be doing to celebrate!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Troll Repellent

The classic film Troll 2 prefigured the internet by at least a decade.  http://bit.ly/1pV3fVZ
Like many people out there, I get discouraged and outraged by the tenor of commentary around the web--the cesspool of ignorance, homophobia, racism, overreaction, and conspiracy theories that accompanies everything on the Internet.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a journalist providing a thoughtful analysis on the situation in Gaza, or a proud fur-mommy posting Kitten’s First Meow on YouTube: you WILL be labeled something horrible.  (Almost always “fag,” though.)


Unlike some people, though, I have given some thought as to what might turn this Hellscape into a digital utopia, and the theory I landed on was to strip the comments section of its anonymity. It makes sense on the surface: people act out when certain they can do so from behind a veil; websites are kinda like modern-day newspapers, and newspapers don’t generally elevate the anonymous rantings they receive to publication; and so on and so forth.


Well, it turns out that such disclosure isn’t the silver bullet I might have assumed.  Ironically enough, I found an excellent discussion of these matters in the comments section of a political blog (original post).  Rather than reframe these views myself, I thought I’d just reproduce part of the discussion as-is here, and let you, my always-respectful commenters, add to it.  What would be your strategy to defeat the plague of Internet trolls?  Do services such as Twitter and Facebook have a responsibility to police their users?  Where’s the line between keeping the peace and stifling expression?


For easy reference’s sake, here are two resources cited by one of the commenters below:






And now, the discussion.


Vermillion
Yeah, removing anonymity from commenting won't prevent much. As the comment thread on the Zelda Williams piece proved, there are plenty of people who think anonymity protects them from offline harassment, and there are plenty of people who are fully aware they're assholes, and don't mind being publicly identified as such.
Moderation in combination with account limiting (so it won't be so easy to open another account when one gets banned or shut down) may help, but really, it is always going to be a battle between keeping the freedom to comment without fear and the security to allow it for others. Really, what most sites need is a clear, concise and objective statement of what constitutes harassment and abuse, and the wherewithal to stick to it. That is Twitter's problem: claiming to take such matters seriously, but their system is broken and they make no attempt to even enforce the barest of rules.


[Ed. note: Doesn’t sound too different from librarians’ efforts to craft thoughtful library usage policies that protect patrons and their rights!]


Conundrum
The problem with comments is that you get what you pay for. The answer to trolls is moderators, but good moderation is as much work as writing an article. Good moderation has to tread the fine line between supressing alternative points of view that lead to lively discussions and expelling the just plain loathsome. Writers may be willing to "pay their dues" to get published and build a career, but there is no career path for moderators, and volunteers are likely to just supress what they don't agree with.
I kind of like some blogs that work another way, pulling a few of the best comments for display between the end of the article and the start of the rabble; it lets you get the best reactions without wading through the muck.


[Ed. note: I like this guy’s thoughtful understanding of the way volunteer moderation could give way to personal bias.  The “featured comment” idea also strikes me as a good stop-gap, but could it be the end-all?  Should we be aiming to “reform” trolls, or is that too much social engineering, and impossible besides?  What will the end result be if we have a permanent division between “good” commenters and “bad” ones?]


iac
As DB [Daily Banter, the site hosting this discussion] grows they should consider getting a couple volunteer moderators and some concrete commenting guidelines so that their writers can focus their energy on actually writing.
The staff would then simply ensure that the moderators are enforcing the guidelines and not their personal agendas or vendettas.


Felonious Grammar
The chilling effect of insisting on real names stifles political and other controversial discussions, inhibiting people from stating their views on gun laws, feminism, errorism, abortion, climate change and so on. When such debates are held face to face, in cafes and over dinner tables, there is little concern that, say, a future employer will learn what you said and decline to hire you (unless you have the misfortune to live in a regime with a Stasi-like network of citizen-spies), but as the internet increasingly becomes the venue of choice for such discussions, any opinion stated under your real name is trivially accessible. For anyone in a vulnerable position – people seeking a job, people whose beliefs are at odds with their neighbors or co-workers – the ability to participate in such discussions depends, effectively, on being able to do so pseudonymous
YouTube has joined a growing list of social media companies who think that forcing users to use their real names will make comment sections less of a trolling
wasteland, but there’s surprisingly good evidence from South Korea that real name policies fail at cleaning up comments. In 2007, South Korea temporarily mandated that all websites with over 100,000 viewers require real names, but scrapped it after
it was found to be ineffective at cleaning up abusive and malicious comments (the policy reduced unwanted comments by an estimated .09%). We don’t know how this hidden gem of evidence skipped the national debate on real identities, but it’s an important lesson for YouTube, Facebook and Google, who have assumed that fear of judgement will change online behavior for the better.


Truth Hertz
The Wired post above is the only reason I agree with the anonymity. I used to post with my real name, but a quick googling pulled up a large number of comments I have made on this, and other sites. They aren't rude or offensive per se, but they do expose a lot more of myself than I'm comfortable revealing to just any random person, one who may or may not have an impact on my life, now or at some time in the future.

[Ed. note: An interesting angle.  I never give much thought to the picture my comments might conjure; I couldn’t imagine an employer sifting through so much data to find and judge me.  But Google is all-powerful and can deliver my comments without much hassle.  This line of discussion strikes me as overly self-interested, though.  My focus in this issue is on raising the level of discourse, and limiting the prevalence of abuse, in the realm where we increasingly spend most of our time.  But there are surely practical implications as well, especially for those of us whose comment history is not rude, but rather politically charged.]

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Quarterly Media Review: Now More Libraritastic (Spring 2014)

I’m back with my much-delayed review of some of the notable media I consumed in the spring of 2014!  Despite the lateness of the hour, I have stuck to those that I read/watched/played in April, May, and June.  You’ll get your July next time.  

In my quest to make these recurring features ever more relevant and useful to you, my library-adjacent reading public, I have added a brief note on each item’s potential for use in your favorite biblioteca.  Feel free to jump around to what interests you, but books and movies are kinda obvious--expand your mind!  Read about board games and graphic novels (discussion of which falls under both movie and TV shows, oddly enough).

Books

The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin

The book so good it’s a recent winner of the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.


Library value: As if you need any encouragement to add Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest to your shelves?  This would make a great centerpiece to a seminar or lecture, perhaps tied to your community’s own history during the Gilded Age.

Spy books

A mixed bag: the past and the present, the East and the West, and one instance of pointless, self-indulgent schlock.

My review of Jack of Spies by David Downing

My review of Night Heron by Adam Brookes

My review of I Am Pilgrim, one of the few books I couldn’t finish.

Library value:  Two must-haves and a miss.  Jack and Heron are particularly attractive books, so adding them to a summer reading display would catch eyes.

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

A mind-bending Shakespearean metafiction of a narrative nesting doll.

Library value: This is tailor made for book clubs.  There will be a lot of contrasting opinions on the scurrilous narrator, his scamp of a father, and his sympathetic but difficult sister.


Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Did someone mention mind-bending metafiction?  The gold standard of the tenuously--and yet deeply--intertwined multi-narrative.  Sci-fi, fantasy, thriller, travelogue, etc.

Library value: This is one of those books, like House of Leaves and, to a lesser extent, American Gods, that needs to be on your shelves just waiting for the reader that needs to find it, wrestle with it, figure it out, dismiss it, come back to it, lather it, rinse it, repeat it.


TV

Game of Thrones season 4

That was a rollercoaster of a season.  It stretched longer than usual for me, since I was fortunate enough to attend a fan premier event in Brooklyn in late March; based on that first episode, I had high hopes for the nine that followed...hopes that were only partially met.  The highs were very high: various intense scenes with pivotal and fan-favorite Oberyn Martell, that massive battle at the Wall, and some definitive turning points in numerous storylines.  But there were missteps, to my mind, as well.  As good as most of Oberyn’s scenes were, I came out of the season feeling like he was underutilized.  Then I had some general pacing concerns, a fact born from the adaptation choice that undergirded this outing from the beginning: by and large, these episodes covered the last third of A Storm of Swords, a sequence of pages chock full with some of the biggest shocks and cataclysmic climaxes of the entire series.  Such events could leave viewers breathless and overwhelmed, but spacing them as the production did led to some uncomfortable dead space in certain storylines, space that was filled with varying degrees of success.  (Space that left the series open for that controversial Jaime-Cersei scene, a moment drawn from the books that the writers and directors nonetheless seemed not to know how to approach.)  I’m generally happy with the season, though, and thrilled by this year’s finale and where various characters are heading--and I can only hope that certain missing elements are being cagily held back to shock everyone, even book readers…

Library value: One university has already had a major course designed around this series and the books that inspired it.  Why not your library?  Make a Thrones course for the people.  Use it as an opportunity to bring in local experts to elucidate fantasy, filmmaking, adaptation, fandom, the Dothraki language...

Bob’s Burgers

What a delightful discovery this was for me.  What started as an idle need to watch *something* while hanging out with a friend on chilly late spring nights turned into my latest animation obsession.  It’s been a long time since I’ve laughed as hard as I did when Bob decided to live in the walls of his apartment/restaurant to avoid his overbearing in-laws (a natural, and hilarious progression of an otherwise tired TV trope).  Yet somehow even that was surpassed in humor shock value in one moment of absurd cow-death.  Yet more than just belly-shakers, Bob’s Burgers gives us a sweet portrait of a modern-ish, struggling middle class family, with megalomaniacal and bunny eared daughter Louise to enthusiastic, unexpectedly hard-bitten mother and wife Linda, and most especially awkward, randy, blossoming young woman Tina…*uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh*.  But Bob himself brings new life to the trope of the schlubby, struggling, animated family man: he’s less dopey than Homer Simpson, more of a dad than Peter Griffin, and has more of a moral center than Stan Smith.  H. John Benjamin’s patented everyman drawl, with its notes of improv, make Bob the most realistic guy ever incarnated in lines and color.

Library value: The DVDs for seasons one through three are available.  Give your community the gift of Bob bingeing!  A’riiiiiight!!!

American Horror Story seasons 1 & 2

One thing I’ve noticed in the two seasons of AHS that I’ve watched so far is that there isn’t necessarily enough to the writers’ initial concept to fill 13 episodes, and so they end up throwing the kitchen sink at us before circling back to the logical, thematically-satisfying conclusion to the original conceit.  This season treated us to a potentially haunted asylum, a murderous maniac or three, twisted mommy issues, Nazi experiments, UFOs, the Devil, the Angel of Death...and I’m honestly not sure if more than two of those really had much of a bearing on the very effective finale.  It doesn’t really give a sense that the creators have any interest in providing neatly-bound stories.  But who cares?  Every smidgen of it is stylish and interesting, and you’re never sure which bit will end up being relevant to the endgame.  Most importantly, the cast knocks it out of the park.  Jessica Lange is particularly impossible to tear your eyes away from, whether as the southern mom with a dark secret in season one or as the harsh nun who feels an honest calling to help the wretches in her care in season 2.  Her various transformations, particularly throughout the second season, are transcendent.

Library value:  The lesson of American Horror Story is constant reinvention, within and between seasons.  Don’t let that be lost on your library.  Your Library Season One can be brought to an end; start season two with all new costumes and personalities.  Season One: Haunted Library...dusty and stodgy.  Season Two: Creepy experiments at the sleek info center.  Am I over-extending this metaphor?  Er, also, I’m sure your 20-something patrons would love an AHS themed Halloween party or something.

Veep & Silicon Valley

It has been noted that Veep is the king of the awkward human interaction on TV.  To be more appropriate, Veep is the president, and Silicon Valley’s first season makes a very strong showing for Speaker of the House, at the very least.  or maybe chair of the House Science and Technology Committee?  Regardless, both these shows provide laughs and groans in equal measure.  While Veep continues to expose what you can’t help but feel is a very authentic portrait of the venal, self-absorbed people who populate the heights of the American government, SV is much more everyman in its take on a group of brilliant but discombobulated techies attempting to launch a web startup.  I grew very fond of the hapless protagonist, in all his earnestness, and the various twists and turns of fate demonstrate the lingering uncertainty of the tech world.  (And if you weren;t afraid of the possibilities inherent in self-driving cars, you will be after this season.)  And Veep Selina?  She’s a trainwreck, but you can’t help rooting for her self-serving grasping at power, especially as she continues to suffer numerous unnamable indignities.

Library value: All right, I’m having trouble coming up with appropriate library ideas for these HBO and FX shows.  Obviously you should own all this stuff on DVD--especially these premium-station shows that a lot of your patrons may not be willing or able to pay for...and we want to discourage piracy, don’t we?  Oh, that actually gives me a grand idea.  I was going to say that we could take these shows as an inspiration to hold light-hearted debates on current events and technology developments--feel free to do that too--but an even better idea is to use all your premium channel DVDs in an anti-piracy campaign.  I don’t have all the details.  That’s your job.  But it would be nice for libraries to engage in this kind of thing in a variety of ways.  It can be fun!  And bloody and sexy, possibly.  Probably.

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD season 1 and Arrow seasons 1 & 2

Let’s start with Marvel.  The series (which I always enjoyed because I’m a nerd, don’t get me wrong) really picked up toward the middle of the season, after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  In case there are any out there who haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil the Marvel Universe-shaking revelations, but its ramifications really sent this show in a new direction.  The new status quo will lead to some interesting storytelling next season, even as things are looking strange for our beloved Agent Coulson in the wake of his death and rebirth.  I was, though, disappointed that, after weeks of non-stop tension, psychological drama, and even a taste of horror, the season ended with a glorified fistfight.  I would have expected they’d conserve a little of the budget to send the season off with a near-cinematic climax, but no.  And there were a few Chekhov’s Supervillains teased through the year that have yet to be fired, so hopefully next year we’ll get some of that.  All in all, I’m looking forward to a strong season 2.  My other new favorite superhero show was Arrow, which approached comic book adaptation in a very different--some might say more traditionally “actiony”--manner.  I continue to be charmed by its cast of supporting characters, and the acrobatic antics of the title hero put the somewhat clumsy choreography of SHIELD to shame.  The best element of the show continues to be its parallel narratives, showing Oliver Queen as the vigilante in the present attempting to fulfil his vow to save Starling City, while in the past we witness his gradual development into a hero.  The end of the second season was oddly inconclusive, though, to my taste--after a big buildup, it was certainly less climactic that season one with its doomsday device.  There’s a lot to be said about the difference in approach to comic book adaptation that these two series take--not least in regards to one actually directly adapting an established character, while the other adapts an entire universe through the actions of mostly original characters--but I think that’s better left for when both series come back in the fall, and I can do real side-by-side comparisons.

Library value: Everybody loves superheroes.  (Admit it.)  All these movies and TV shows are a great way to lure patrons into reading. “Love Oliver Queen in that WB show?  Here’s 900 pages of his comic book adventures!”  Keep these possibilities in mind the next time you’re working on your collection development.  Comics and graphic novels are excellent additions to your library.  Still holding out?  Wanna fight about it?

Guilty pleasures: Nashville, Revenge and Scandal

I can’t believe I got into Nashville this year, but there it is.  It helps that my boyfriend moved down there, but I got hooked on the show in a hotel room well before that happened.  The musical element is almost entirely non-obnoxious, and even pleasant more often than not.  It’s some fun, slightly-trashy evening soapiness, served up with a twang and unrealistic southern righteousness, but I found myself compelled by Rayna Jaymes’ quest to redefine herself in the music industry, and there’s an interesting gay subplot that deals sensitively with self-repression in a not always welcoming context.  Speaking of trashy soap, Revenge happily returned to form this year, with Emily Thorne focusing more on the Graysons and less on shadowy international cabals.  Victoria’s compulsion to end Emily grew ever more baroque, as a long-lost son’s return gave her all the more reasons to act the finely-appointed Hamptons mama bear.  Sadly, Nolan was a little underused this year.  We want more Nolan!  Finally, Scandal served up its usual jolts.  I can’t even talk about the murder and betrayal that went on.  Olivia Pope found herself at her lowest ebb, and it was heartbreaking to see this usually-composed woman racked with doubt and recrimination.  To say nothing of Mellie, whose self-abnegation for the sake of her husband has forced her to endure psychological wounds that the president’s uncomprehending scorn serve only to continually tear open.  And faces were licked, unfortunately.

Library value:  Okay, you got me here.  But just like with romance novels, your library needs a little guilt here and there.  Remember that we’re not running a boarding school!  Your patrons are free to have a good time.  Stock up on those DVDs.

Revolution

Farewell, Revolution, and my favorite character, the schlubby, heroic, dispossessed tech nerd Aaron.  I don’t think enough people gave this show the chance it deserved, but I suppose two seasons is more than a lot of ambitious sci-fi dramas get on network television.  To be fair, I merely endured the interminable gunfights and fistfights that always seemed to leave Our Heroes only negligibly differently-off each episode.  The territorial and philosophical differences between the various factions were interesting in the abstract, but when it was all reduced to fisticuffs, the appeal waned--though when “the Patriots” began brainwashing youth into killing machines, well, that offered a disturbing, dystopian element that the show needed (and hearkened back to its faux-Hunger Games roots).  But for my money, the best element of the show was in the burgeoning sentience of the nanotechnology that suppressed the world’s electricity in the first place, offering a “face” to the overall threat as well as an opportunity for eventual resolution.  Now we’ll never see that potential play out.

Library value: It’s always good to invest in some alternate sci-fi--it’s not all Star Wars and Star Trek, and some of the best speculative fiction is based right here on good ol’ planet Earth..  Bonus points for dystopia and for making your patrons think about the primacy of technology in their lives.

Movies

I’m gonna lump these together because I can, and we all know what I’m going to say.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier changed the face of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Godzilla was a fun romp.  X-Men: Days of Future Past was an effective reset to the X-Men movie mythos and a pretty affecting film in its own right.  And The Amazing Spider-Man --well, there was nothing wrong with it, but it just didn’t leave me as excited as the other movies on this list.  Sony hasn’t quite got the formula down yet.

Library value: I’m getting verklempt.  Talk amongst yourselves.  Here, I’ll give you a topic: The Marvel movies are way better than the (plans for the) DC movies, even considering underwhelming Spider-Man and X-Men films and really good Batman ones.  Discuss.


Games

Carcassonne

Here’s one of those classics of the mature board game set that I had been itching to try out.  It is not as thematically engaging as Puerto Rico, nor as cleanly enjoyable as Settlers of Catan, but it is definitely a worthy game.  You place tiles to build up the French countryside, extending roads, cities, and monasteries as you go.  It’s a bit of a puzzler, essentially the ingredients of an abstract game given some irrelevant thematic trappings (which I absolutely appreciate--when I play games, I’d much rather feel like I am in a way rehearsing some human activity, rather than simply plugging arbitrary sockets together.  Which I guess is something some humans do in real life, but I much prefer stepping back and saying “Oooooh French countryside in an alternate universeeeee, look what we didddddd”).

Library value: It’s always a good idea to stock up on gateway games and classic games.  This one fits under both categories.

Takaido

This game is a treasure.  You and your friends compete to see who can have the nicest time strolling from Kyoto to Tokyo in feudal Japan.  Each player adopts a persona, each with particular bonuses for engaging in the activities you can choose from along the way.  Do you have an artistic soul?  Then collect tryptichs of the splendors of nature you see from the roadside.  A bit of an epicure?  There are many fine meals to be sampled.  Or maybe your tastes are more hedonistic; feel free to indulge in the hot spring spas that dot your path.  All these and more make for a truly lovely frame to a game of collection and progress, where the slowest traveler--more intent on the pleasures of the journey, perhaps--always gets to go first, and the only requirement is that you spend each night in an inn with your fellow travelers.  It sounds like it might be dull, but instead Takaido captures the perfect balance between competition and relaxation.  It is also the most beautifully designed game I have yet played, with a foundation of pure white splashed with a sheer, shimmering palette that puts me in mind of sunlight shining through cherry blossoms.  No lie.

Library value: People of all ages will love this game.  This would actually be a great candidate for generation-bridging game events.  Nothing to get too worked up and competitive over--just a lot of enjoyment for everyone.

Libertalia

Is it too late to talk about the pirate craze?  Maybe, but this game remains fun whether Jack Sparrow is a la mode or not.  I played this one early in the spring, so its details elude me, but in general each player seeks to leverage the strength and skills of their pirate crews for advantage in claiming various treasures.  It’s sort of a light deck-based card game, with a lot of neat pirate ships to choose from and some entertaining scurvy cutthroats on your cards.  This is a game I felt like playing again in order to better appreciate its intricacies--I just haven’t had a chance yet.

Library value: What better activity for next year’s Talk Like a Pirate Day observances?  (You know your library celebrates Talk Like a Pirate Day.)

And that’s that.  Hope you found something of use in my report.  I just read and watch for fun (“I do not read to think. I do not read to learn. I do not read to search for truth.

I know the truth, the truth is hardly what I need!”--bonus points if you can name the musical), but every little stick of media can be turned into worthwhile programming or marketing.  Don’t be afraid to flavor your library with your personal tastes.