Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: A Blog in Review

Blog Year 2 complete!  And as of this (somewhat cheaty) post, I'll have met my goal--matching the number of posts I wrote in 2013 and thus doubling the overall amount.  I didn't think I'd make it, but a couple of bursts of productivity made it happen.

For the edification of all, here are my top 5 most-viewed posts this year...

From that, it looks like my most popular posts have been on media, the ways we consume it, and the way it's beginning to affect us socially and culturally.  Not surprising, I suppose!  Also, people love board games?

Now for the lowest-ranked posts...

I broadened this field slightly since it contains two posts from the past week and another from the previous month.  What we learn here is that my least popular posts have been on media--wait a minute!  Those were the most popular, like, a second ago.  The predecessor to one of these posts is even my most-accessed post of the year--not into sequels, are we?  I guess my review posts are less interesting to you than my media commentary posts.  Too bad, they're easy to write and help me digest all the TV and movies I watch in a year, so Imma keep doin' 'em.  I'm also surprised at the low interest in my post on poverty, given that it's an important topic, I connected it directly to libraries, and it reflects an actual experience I went out and had in the world (instead of watching it on TV...).  Maybe share moar plz.?  

Also, I'll never force a long-form review of a Doris Kearns Goodwin book on you again, I guess.

My favorite posts of the year:

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

An Unwritten Rule of Library Service: Too Much of a Good Thing?

My library has an unwritten policy.  I’m sure a lot of libraries have this policy.  It is, put bluntly, that we don’t like to leave patrons waiting.  If there is one staff member at the desk, and there are suddenly two or more patrons waiting to be served, additional staff must leap into action.  If no rescuers appear, the staff on-deck may send out an SOS to try to get someone’s attention.
“Help!  The public is waiting!”
This is a nice policy.  It’s a noble policy.  But is it a necessary policy?  Is it even a good policy?
We are accustomed to waiting in most other areas of our life, in most other service situations we enter.  We wait at the post office.  We wait at the grocery store.  We wait at the doctor’s office.  We wait at the movie theater.  We wait at sporting events.  We wait at the DMV.
In most of those situations, we bear our waiting with good grace.  We are aware that there are only so many slots of attention that those who serve us can have engaged at one time.  Usually we are okay with it, with the notable exception of the DMV—and, it seems likely, at the library.
It feels like people would go nuts if ever the line at the circulation desk got more than two deep.  I can’t bear this out with any evidence, of course, because we almost never let it get to that point.  We send out our SOS.  We leap into action.
And now people expect to be served promptly at the library, with even less than the reasonable minimal expectation of a delay.  I think we’ve conditioned people in this direction with our damn attention to customer service and overall respect for our patrons.  And I feel that, brooding just beneath the surface of the happy, polite patrons’ faces, is a lava flow of rage and impatience barely held in check by our persistently high-quality responsiveness.
I catch hints of it on the rare occasions when the line of patrons stretches slightly back toward the first shelf of the stacks.  I can see it in the way there is, actually,  no cohesive line, just a sort of general milling about, waiting for a staff member to signal for the next person.   When our timing gets off, when responses slow down, when the line gets long at the library—it’s like civilization is straining at its seams.
People are okay with waiting for their Bieber concert or their Bills game.  They’re less okay with waiting for the things the library offers.  And they know that, by and large, they don’t have to.  Librarians and library staff make sure of it.
On second thought, let’s not re-think the goodness or the necessity of this unwritten policy.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Orphan Posts

Another year is nearly done.  I hope to find time before the clock tolls midnight on the thirty-first to log my quarterly media review for the fall (it's been a doozy) and maybe scratch out a year-in-review type post.

While thinking about material for such an entry, I came across a fluttering, tattered host of forlorn Google docs--some crying out for attention, others shuddering in the death throes of their neglect.  These ghouls are the various ideas for posts that came to mind over the past year and which I abandoned, permanently or otherwise--either because I lost interest in them, or they had too brief a shelf life to remain relevant by the time I could get to them, or because they were just really bad.

Still, some of them show promise, and I'd hate for them to wallow in obscurity forever.  At the same time, I don't want to enter the new year with too many "assignments" hanging over my head.  So I thought I'd open it up to my readers--which of the following topics would you be interested in seeing fully fleshed out in a post in 2015?

  • "The Final Word on Library Usefulness": Conceived as a response to a Forbes piece suggesting that libraries could be shut down in favor of unlimited Amazon accounts, the time frame has shifted a bit on this one--but the question of facing down libraries' detractors never really goes away.  Should I attempt to put the nail in the coffin of all the naysayers and budget slashers?  (Because I totally have that power.)
  • "On the Misanthropy of Librarians": In which I would grapple with the shifting public perception of librarians and the ways in which I think we hold ourselves back--and maybe call out a few bad apples along the way.
  • "All the Ways Our Field is Failing Us" and/or "Alex's LIS Curriculum": I have a lot of Feelings about LIS programs as degree mills, about various weaknesses in the curricula I have known or heard of, about the shift in our professional identity from "librarian" to "information professional," about the tense balance in hiring professionals versus paraprofessionals in trying economic times...all of which I've been unable to articulate without it devolving into an unhinged rant.  I'll probably give it another try, because it's Important.  Why don't you think about those things, dear reader, in the meantime, so we can discuss it?
  • "The Flap Over Seed Libraries": On the more fun end of the spectrum, you could read me working myself into conniptions over temporarily agreeing with nutty right-wing survivalist groups in opposing various state-based ordinances shutting down the seed library movement.  And doesn't everyone love that?
  • "Libraries and the Collaborative Economy": This one I thought I had just missed the boat on.  There was a brief window when "sharing" startups like AirBnB were lighting up the cultural and corporate landscape; web think-pieces and NPR segments were all over it, so I thought I had time to add my two cents, at my leisure, on how libraries have been in on this secret for years--and could continue to push and evolve the concept.  Then, screech, the conversation sort of ended.  Well, now it's back, in a way-- particularly in the various controversies emanating from Uber and its unregulated carsharing activities.  Is it time to look back at libraries to show the way?
Which of these fine topics would you be most interested in seeing me tackle?  Bonus points if you feel like you would comment on, discuss and share the resultant posts!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Bridges Out of Poverty: Understanding, Acceptance, and Libraries

A version of this post first appeared on the website of the Penn Yan Public Library. Why not check out our Facebook page?

A colleague and I recently attended a seminar at the Pioneer Library System facilitated by the stupendous Prudence Pease, an aha! Process Bridges Out of Poverty educator and the self-proclaimed “most controversial judge in Vermont.”  Her topic?  Poverty—its causes, its costs, and the insidious way it can thread through a life, influencing everything from your decision-making to your storytelling.  And it’s a two-edged blade, because for all that poverty puts people at a disadvantage in so many ways, she says that it also prepares them to be more self-reliant, pragmatic, community-minded, and creative in their problem solving.
It was a fascinating take on the subject, and one that I never considered, looking at it from my privileged position.  People who have experienced poverty have a set of skills that I, with my middle-class background, will probably never be an expert at.
But we can’t underestimate the negative impact that poverty has on those who are living it, and even on those who lived it in the past and found their way out.  One of the most striking examples that Ms. Pease gave of the way life just doesn’t flow the same way for these folks is the simple chore of laundry.  For many of us, it’s as simple as throwing in a load and going about our day.
But imagine you’re a single parent of two kids, with no at-home washer-dryer, no car, and a Laundromat at least ten minutes away.  Now the process becomes a near-Herculean task—and you can’t just do the dishes, neaten the living room or (heaven forbid) relax with a book while you’re wrangling all those moving parts.
People in these circumstances experience the tasks that I take for granted in a very different way, and according to Ms. Pease, ordinary chores like this can take up to five times longer for people living in poverty.  Where is someone to find the time to attend classes, give their job search the attention it needs, or take a moment to read to their kids?
These luxuries are still possible—no one suggests otherwise—but they are undeniably more difficult to attain.
That’s why we should look on all our fellow community members not with tolerance—a well-meaning word that often disguises disdain or annoyance—but with acceptance.  Ms. Pease advised the librarians in attendance at her program that she doesn’t expect anyone to like every action someone takes, but we have to at least try to understand why they took that action.  That’s the doorway to acceptance, and through it, maybe some mutually beneficial dialogue.

What’s more, Ms. Pease spoke about the life of those in poverty as being like a fragile web--one that will fall to pieces if one thread gets tugged.  Transportation, employment, housing...any of these facets of life could bring the whole thing down.

Well, the library is another one of those threads.  We provide access to information for all, helping those in poverty apply for jobs, improve their skills, seek out services, and relax with a book, movie, or some music.  When library funding measures come up for a vote, it’s all too easy to dismiss it as a tax hike supporting a community luxury.  But we’re a very real, and very necessary thread in the lives of struggling community members.  And for pennies a year, we give every patron an excellent return on their investment.

Whether you think of us as a thread or a bridge, public libraries are helping people out of poverty every day, all around the country.
To learn more about aha! Process and Bridges out of Poverty, click here.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Blowing Off Some STEM

Am I the only one feeling a little tired of the obsessive focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) not just in our educational circles, but in American culture overall?
I know these things go in cycles, but I feel like this trend has been dominating the discourse since the Cold War, with only occasional, brief time-outs to swing the other way (or, more often, to provide political cover that essentially changes nothing).  And now the movement has this shiny “STEM” branding that makes us think it’s an original development, when really it’s just the same old.
Yes, of course science and math and engineering and all that are important.  No one would suggest otherwise.  Kids need instruction in and exposure to all appropriate subject areas.
But no one ever suggests that every kid needs to come out of high school a poet.  Why does it feel that, on the contrary, we’re being told that every kid has to come out of high school an engineer?
Newsflash: some—lots of—kids’ brains don’t work well in the STEM area.  Just as we’ve always acknowledged that they don’t all work well in the lit-n-arts area.
You may say it’s not an issue—that I’m bemoaning a conflict without belligerents.
But when, exactly, in the past hundred years, have the STEM subjects  been at risk of disappearing in favor of literature, grammar, foreign languages, and the arts?
It is these latter subjects that are under constant threat of being cut, defunded, excised, and generally overwhelmed by the “hard stuff.”  Sounds like a conflict to me.

And while I appreciate the burgeoning “STEAM” variant that shoe-horns an “A” for “arts” in there, it doesn’t quite cut it for me.  For those who are sincerely trying to push this alternative, it seems like their efforts are still somewhat ghettoized, while when more “venerable” and entrenched education organizations adopt it, it feels like lip service.  It’s hard to take STEAM seriously as a force when STEM is still entrenched in the way the government discusses education and even immigration policy.
It’s explicitly science and technology, after all, that are enjoying a surge in high-visibility promotional campaigns.  I can’t turn on the TV without being reminded that “we’re not popular...but we know how computers work,” meaning that all those brainless bullies “will work for us someday.”  Revenge of the nerds via STEM!  How charming.

Then there are the big gas companies partnering with media conglomerates to turn sports into an opportunity for on-the-fly scientific analysis that would make NASA blush.  (Just once I’d like to see a commercial featuring a high school football player reflecting on the ways his chosen sport reveal the hidden nature of the human condition in the clash of antagonistic forces... )   I guess there’s always a chance that some of the kids Chevron is trying to inculcate here might end up pioneering ways to fight climate change, but that’s probably not high on any curricula they’re interested in designing.

The Connect-a-Million-Minds project is based entirely on this premise that sports and STEM go together.  Maybe I spoke too soon about  that nerd revenge.  Now I’m starting to feel like efforts are underway to cleanse all geeks from America’s shores--replace the STEMmy ones with jocks, reducing every engineering problem to “how to get the ball through the goal,”  and just ignore and defund the artsy ones out of existence.

And thus a great American dream for which the red-blooded nation has been striving since the 1950s will finally be accomplished.

I’m exaggerating, of course.  A little.  The point is, STEM is deeply entrenched in the planning process of American education policy, with curricula shaped to its needs, big-time corporate conglomerates for sponsors, and a propaganda arm as wide and bristly as Stalin’s accursed mustache.  STEM will be here to stay, while the vestigial appendage of the arts continues to wither, one French program and lit magazine and photography club at a time.

So, as in so much else, it should be the librarian’s task to pick up the slack.  Let us not give in to the drumbeat of all-consuming STEM.  Let’s fill our libraries with books, materials, and marketing for all things literary and artistic.  And not just for the kids—for the adults, too…you know, those larger, slightly lumbering things we insist we want to aid with “lifelong learning”?  For that matter, lifelong learning need not be limited to computer training.  That is, obviously, just as important for adults as for kids, if not more so.  But what about creative writing?  What about pottery?  What about poetry?  What about dance?
All kidding aside, the kids—and adults—whose brains work in the STEM mode will be very important to the future of our society.  They will be the computer engineers, the architects, the urban planners, the doctors, and the mathematicians and scientists charting unheard-of new discoveries.
But where will we be if we neglect the kids (and adults!) whose talents and temperaments lie in the arts?  These are the people who will be making the world a beautiful place.  They will be the people helping us laugh in troubled times.  They will be, like Dickens and Steinbeck and Morrison before them, the cartographers charting the moral landscape of our society.
It may be hard to pin a future value to that.  But look around the stacks of your library and tell me you can’t estimate the value they’ve had every day up to now.  Tell me you don’t think we should be fostering those skills and talents and temperaments just as ferociously as the STEMmy kids’.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Because I'm Appy: The Four C's

This post first appeared in slightly altered form at

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.


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.


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.”


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.



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!