Saturday, January 19, 2019

Even from Afar, Carol Channing Served up that Broadway Wow

Ben Brantley, "Even from Afar, Carol Channing Served up that Broadway Wow," New York Times, Jan. 15, 2019, p.A23
     When Ms. Channing, who died on Tuesday at 97, first appeared in the part with which she would forever be identified, I was only 9 years old and living in Winston-Salem, N.C.
     But as a boy in thrall to all things New York, and especially all things Broadway, I monitored whatever was happening on its stages as closely as long distance allowed in the pre-internet age. My parents subscribed to The New Yorker, so that was a help, and I could go to the Wake Forest College library, just a bike ride away, and check out the arts pages of The Times.


   Carol Channing first appeared as Dolly in 1964. At that time, a young musical theater fan had to bicycle to the library periodical room to read the New York Times.

   In the post-internet age, good arts reporting might actually be more difficult to find. Newspapers are laying off arts critics and drastically shrinking arts coverage [1]. It's easy enough to find celebrity gossip, but not so easy to find reviews, history or critiques.  That's a real loss to the community, not only because there  is no way for people to find out about arts events they might want to attend, but because there is no recorded history of the local arts community.
      Here in Utah, Artists of Utah 15 Bytes  and  LoveDanceMore  are examples of online publications that are trying to fill the niche for regional arts reporting. The arts reporting gap is also one that libraries could try to fill through community journalism.

    One obvious way librarians could promote local artist is by writing and collecting book reviews for local authors.  When the Portland Press Herald threatened to stop publishing book reviews a local author (Stephen King) launched a successful protest.  King argued that  the newspaper was taking away publicity that local writers depend on.  As newspapers downsize,  local arts is often replaced by generic news-wire stories about nationally famous authors or artists. Without regional arts reporters, people will probably still  see reviews of Stephen King's books, but may never even learn about new books by people who write about their part of the world.  These local books are essential to building a sense of place that is a foundation for resilient communities.

[1]  Jed Gottlieb, "Curtains Fall on Arts Critics at newspapers," Columbia Journalism Review, January 6, 2017.   "With their champions banished from papers, legitimate artistic endeavors start to recede from the mainstream consciousness in favor of fluffy celebrity-driven stories."

They Believe King's No Bigot, But They Agree He's Finished

Trip Gabriel, "They Believe King's No Bigot, But they Agree He's Finished," New York Times, Jan. 18, 2019, p. A10.

     Opponents of Mr. King, and even some of his supporters, have long been frustrated by the impression he gives to non-Iowans who think his 16 years in office prove that his constituents are racists.
     "I'm embarrassed by him," said Amy Presler, 48, a librarian in Fort Dodge, who grew up on a farm as the youngest of 10 siblings. "I don't want people in the nation and the world to think that Iowans are behind him and support that sort of talk.  We don't."


     There's a photo of Presler in the article.  She looks like, well, a librarian-- hair pulled back in a ponytail or bun (hard to tell), glasses with thick plastic frames and wearing an elaborately lacy cardigan.  There's a shelf of library books behind her which suggests that the reporter, after interviewing the die-hard conservative kafeeklatsch at Zakeers Cafe, headed over to the public library in search of someone more open-minded.  The librarian, as I would expect of any librarian, disapproves of Representative King (R-Iowa-4) and his outrageous statement, "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization-- how did that language become offensive?" 

     The article makes a point that Presler is as local as they come.  Though it does not mention her party affiliation, it's hard to miss the association between books and more enlightened politics. Did she become a librarian because of her tolerant attitude?  Or did she learn tolerance through the practice of librarianship? 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Hidden Traces

Sam Knight, "Hidden Traces: How Historical Manuscripts are Giving Up Their Secrets" (Annals of Science), New Yorker,  November 26, 2018, pp. 38-45.

Melloni is the director of the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Sciences, an institute in Bologna dedicated to the history of the Church.  He had heard of the Marco Polo Bible, but he was unaware of its poor condition until a colleague spotted the crumbling book at an exhibition at the library in 2008, and pitched a project to restore it a find out more about its past.  "It was like a sort of Cinderella among the beautiful sisters," Melloni said.  Like other people accustomed to handling old texts or precious historical objects, Melloni has a special regard for what Walter Benjamin called their aura; "a strange weave of space and time" that allows for an intimation of the world in which they  were made.  "You have in your hand the manuscript,: Melloni said, "But also the stories that the manuscript is carrying.
Collins cautioned that historical proteomic techniques are still in their infancy.  "We still need to learn what these things mean," he said. But when you realize that the surface of any old object might be bearing newly discernible biological information -- that you are holding a manuscript and you are also holding the stories that the manuscript is carrying-- it makes you look again at the world's libraries and archives, and wonder what secrets they contain.  


     Books as physical objects are of the subject of  this article which describes scientific investigation of  the traces of protein left behind by people handling books and manuscripts.  Rather than using textual information, the researchers are looking for chemical clues about past authors and readers.  In the case of the Marco Polo bible, there were questions of whether the artifact was really the right age?  Did it really travel to China? "A manuscript's text is only part of it's story," Knight writes

     In order to test books, proteomic researchers need to get permission from librarians and archivists.  In some cases they use "destructive testing" which requires taking a small sample, a definite no-no for rare and valuable books.  Some libraries like the Bodleian Library and British Library have refused to permit even nondestructive testing which takes molecular samples.

      The author of the article realizes that his own notebook will forever carry traces of the fish he ate for lunch, but so what? Is that information important enough to be worth saving the physical object?  Probably not for the notebook, but for other paper objects proteomics can determine provenance or prove that certain conditions (like bubonic plague) were epidemic.  The information in libraries is not limited to what is recorded in text.



Sunday, January 13, 2019

Time to Snuggle Up with a Good Book and a Candle

Danielle Braff, "Time to Snuggle Up with a Good Book and a Candle: Scents From the Old-Fashioned Reading Aid Can Help Transport You to Another Place and Time, New York Times,  Jan.13, 2019, p.ST3.

Candles are also now a common impulse purchase at independent bookstores.  There are shelves upon shelves of literary-themed ones at the Strand in New York.
     If you like to read on a rainy day but it's sunny outside there's Rainy Days Reads ($32.95).  Or if you want to pretend you're in a library, complete with that musty scent of the books and the waxed, creaky floors. there's Enchanted Library ($24.95).
     "We've learned one thing from our customers: Nothing goes together quite like candles and reading, " said Leigh Altshuler, a spokeswoman for the Strand. "Except candles and coffee and reading, and maybe candles and coffee and cats and reading."  


     The author declares with no small amount of snark, "It's not enough just to read anymore. It's not even enough to post your reading on Instagram anymore.  Today, you have to create an atmosphere to show just how analog and sensual you're being."

    In this evaluation, "analog and sensual" are just for show and kind of pretentious to boot. But what if they're not? What if people actually experience online reading as a form of sensory deprivation?  After nearly destroyed the business of bookselling, independent bookstores and small presses are making a comeback.  The reason seems to be that people genuinely crave an analog, sensual experience to enjoy along with their data acquisition.

     Digital reading only focuses on one narrow part of the reading experience -- the part where someone locates some useful bit of data.  This concept of reading encourages perverse behavior where people collect digital files on a computer and imagine they have learned something without ever reading at all. When librarians embraced ebooks as more convenient and cost-effective than print they failed to acknowledge that convenience and price are not the most important reasons why people chose what to read.

     Actually reading a book is  a big time commitment that can take days or weeks to complete.  There is a whole  process of selecting what to read through reviews, recommendations, browsing and following the threads of shifting interests.  Once a book is selected it's followed by experiental immersion in reading.  There is often a post-reading communal experience of book clubs or conversations about books.  If the process were not enjoyable, it's unlikely that anyone would  put in the kind of time it takes to do it right.

     Nonetheless, overzealous digital futurism made many librarians feel ashamed to promote the old-fashioned pleasure of reading.  Reading is touted for qualities of  information, data, convenience and access.  In the article, the scents that conjure "library" are described as woody, musty, waxy, and leathery with a hint of cinnamon. it was up the the candlemakers to realize that people associate the library with pleasures such as  "Bibliothéque," "Old Books," and "Lost in the Stacks," Once the reading experience is understood as sensory,  it's natural to make the association with candles, coffee and cats. I would buy a candle that smells like coffee and dusty sun-warmed cat fur.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

All Natural

 Sophia Hollander, "All Natural, The New Yorker. 94.33 (Oct. 22, 2018): p24.
Last week, as female activists swarmed Capitol Hill to denounce the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, another group of women gathered at a law library in Chelsea to push back against a more local threat: the imminent closure of the Mount Sinai West Birthing Center, one of the last remaining natural-birth strongholds in the city which also offers full access to a hospital.

The organizer put out a call on Facebook to organize a protest; the library provides a space for the activists to meet in person.

Women's health is a political football.  As a woman myself, formerly of reproductive age, I can attest that when you yourself become the target of a patronizing person who wants to make your medical decisions for you  the attack feels very, very personal.  Anyone who has given birth in a U.S. hospital has probably experienced the invasive tactics of medical people who think that their training gives them the right to bully women in labor.  Even this mostly sympathetic article comes off as condescending towards women who want a respectful, calm birth experience that isn't framed as a medical emergency waiting to happen.

The U.S. is one of the most dangerous places in the developed world to give birth.  I'm pretty sure I know the reason.  When I had my baby in a hospital, I was unnecessarily injured.  When I complained about it, a medical person actually yelled at me for being selfish. She said, (and I quote) "The baby is the patient. Not you." (Although the injury did in fact make me into a patient).  In a nutshell, that attitude is the reason that birthing centers should be the norm, not the exception.

Also,  Brett Kavanaugh's crying jag over his own sense of entitlement showed the he does not have the temperament to sit on the Supreme Court.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

New in Town

Frank McCourt, "New in Town: The Initiation of a Young Irishman," New Yorker,  Dec. 3, 2018, p. 20-24 [reprinted from Feb. 33 & March 1, 1999].

     It's a warm October day and I have nothing else to do but what I'm told and what harm is there in wandering up to Fifth Avenue where the lions are. The librarians are friendly.  Of course I can have a library card, and it's so nice to see young immigrants using the library. I can borrow four books if I like as long as they're back on the due date. I ask if they have a book called "The Lives of the Poets" by Samuel Johnson, and they say, My, my, my, you're reading Johnson.  I want to tell them I've never read Johnson before, but I don't want them to stop admiring me. They tell me feel free to walk around, take a look at the Main Reading Room, on the third floor. They're not a bit like the librarians in Ireland, who stood guard and protected the books against the likes of me.
      The sight of the Main Reading Room, North and South, makes me go weak at the knees. I don't know if it's the two beers I had or the excitement of my second day in New York, but I'm near tears when I look at the miles of shelves and know I'll never be able to read all those books if I live till the end of the century.  There are acres of shiny tables where all sorts of people sit and read as long as they like, seven days a week, and no one bothers them unless they fall asleep and snore. There are sections with English, Irish, American books, literature, history, religion and it makes me shiver to think I can come here anytime I like and read anything as long as I like if I don't snore. 


     To this new immigrant, the freedom of America is represented by a public library where anyone can come in to sit and read as long as they like.  After an Irish bartender chides nineteen-year-old McCourt for drinking instead of educating himself he heads for the New York Public Library to find a copy of Lives of the Poets.  In the baffling big city, the library is the one place where his literary ambitions don't seem laughable.


Thursday, January 3, 2019

Shale Play

Julia Spicher Kasdorf and Steven Rubin, Shale Play: Poems and Photographs from the Fracking Fields, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018.

     I grew up in Westmoreland County during the 1970s, when steel mills started closing along the rivers of Pittsburgh. Surface mining operations and slag heaps, abandoned coke ovens, and coal patch towns were just familiar parts of the industrialized, rural landscape I called home.
     With this project, I returned to those places with purpose, opened my laptop in the Pennsylvania Rooms of public libraries and in the Coal and Coke Heritage Center on Penn State’s Fayette campus. I talked to people in diners, attended public meetings and scribbled a lot in my notebooks. Jim Rosenberg and the Fayette Marcellus Watch group welcomed me to their monthly meetings at chain restaurants on the strip outside Uniontown, and I visited the homes of some of the group’s members. Typically, I told people I wanted to write about fracking and asked if I could transcribe their experience in their own words.  [pxxiii]


     You wouldn’t guess it from the research methods, but this writer was working on a book of poetry. 

     The Environmental Humanities have created a new clientele for special collections and archives that focus on local history. Writers and  artists are making use of place-based collections to inform work about the relationships between people and places. Library collections like the Pennsylvania Rooms and academic special collections hold a key to interpreting place-based identity that in turn informs community resilience and the possibility of sustainable change.

      Not that fracking is sustainable. The stories in Shale Play are unbearably sad ones about people trading their forests, farms, rivers, animals, good health, dignity and sense of community for a pocketful of money. Even so, the poems attest that the wounded land and damaged communities are still there despite the overlay of colonial industrialization. Perhaps in some form they will manage to outlast the bastards.