Monday, June 17, 2019

Once Upon a River

Diane Setterfield. Once Upon a River: A Novel. 2018.

     The character of Henry Daunt is inspired by the magnificent real-life photographer of the Thames Henry Taunt. Like my Henry, he had a houseboat kitted out as a darkroom. In the course of a lifetime he took some 53,000 photographs using the wet collodion process His work came close to being destroyed when, after his death, his house was sold and his garden workshop dismantled.  On learning that many thousands of he glass plates stored there had already been smashed or wiped clean for use as greenhouse glass, a local historian, Harry Paintin, alerted E. E. Skuse, the city librarian in Oxford. Skuse was able to stop the work and arrange real of the surviving plates for safekeeping. I note their names here out of gratitude for their swift actions. It is hands to them that I have even able to explore the Victorian Thames visually and weave this story around Taunt’s images.  [p.461]


  This anecdote describes the preservation function of the library.  It's not just a “book museum,” but a multi-media museum as well. As is often the case, the librarian stepped in to rescue a valuable history collection only after part of it had already been destroyed. While librarians are sometimes criticized as "gatekeepers," it is also true that outside of bookish professions people may not recognize the value of media artifacts. 

The heroic librarian is specifically mentioned by name since the rescued photographs were the basis for a novel. Unlike Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, this novel doesn't reproduce any of the  historic images that inspired it.  The but the images are only represented in the writing. This kind of output from library materials is so much more imaginative than the carefully documented scholarly communication and undergraduate term papers we tend to associate with library research.  

   There are a number of books about Henry Taunt and his photographs.  In his day, he even wrote a river guide-- A New Map of the River Thames (1872), which inspired interest in recreational boating including what is possibly the best river-trip book ever written, Three Men in a Boat (1889).  


Thursday, June 13, 2019

Book Publishers, Unbound at Last

Jane Margolies, "Book Publishers, Unbound at Last," New York Times, June 12, 2019, p. B6.

When Abrams Books recently moved to new offices in Lower Manhattan from its longtime home in Chelsea, it hired the consultants that companies typically calling for their expertise in audiovisual, m lighting temperature and ventilation needs,     It also hired a library consultant, who identified the first and latest editions of almost every title the 70-year-old publisher had ever printed, which were then line up on towering oak shelves.  The 10,000-volume library is the first thing visitors see when they enter the new workplace.     That may sound musty, but Abrams was striving for a modern workplace.  Designed by the architecture firm Spacesmith, the 41,0000-square-foot office has an open plan, m a spacious cafe and state-of-the-art technology.


     In a redesigned publisher's headquarters, the first thing visitors see is an impressive library of all the books Abrams Books has published.  The books serve as a kind of architectural decor that communicates the 70-year history of the company in a concrete way.  The author of the article feels obliged to take a dig at a company "committed to print in a world going digital," and yet the publishing industry has stabilized and is even beginning to grow again.  Maybe the world of reading has become as digital as it's going to get.  When ebooks started to gain a foothold, librarians who never studied calculus believe that the trendline of digital publishing would keep going up until nobody read print any more.  But in fact, not all curves are straight lines, and not all readers want ebooks.

     Librarians may sneer at the decorative use of books, but a photo with the article shows just how effective this design strategy is.  The library stacks are enticing-- they make you want to go in and browse.  If Abrams were going to publish your book, they help you envision it on the shelves of a bookstore or library.  It doesn't look musty at all.  It looks kind of magical, like a place I'd be happy to work. 


Wednesday, June 12, 2019

3 Million U.S. Students Don't have Home Internet

Michael Melia and Jeff Amy, “3 Million U.S. Students Don’t Have Home Internet,” Deseret News [Associated Press], June 11, 2019, p A3. 

     School districts, local governments and others have tried to help.  Districts installed wireless internet on buses and loaned out hot spots.  Many communities compiled lists of wi-fi-enabled restaurant and other businesses where children are welcome to linger and do schoolwork.  Others repurposed unused television frequencies to provide connectivity, a strategy that the Hartford [CT] Public Library plans to try next year in the north, end.      Some students study in the parking lots of schools, libraries or restaurants— wherever they can find a signal.     In rural northern Mississippi, reliable home internet is not available for some at any price.      On many afternoons, Sharon Stidham corrals her four boys into the school library at East Webster High School, where her husband is assistant principal, so they can use the internet for schoolwork.  A cellphone tower is visible through the trees from their home on a hilltop near Maben, but the internet signal does not reach their house, even after they built a special antenna on top of a nearby family cabin.


         In this story the library is both a helpful internet hot-spot and a nuisance because it isn’t open long enough hours. The public library and school library are theoretically places where kids can use the internet, but in practice students are sitting out in the parking lot. Why haven’t any adults noticed this?  Couldn’t they open the buildings for internet-enabled study halls?  How come the assistant principal whose own children have no internet at home has never had a talk with teachers who casually tell students to learn math from YouTube videos?  The article reports that 1/3 of houses in their town have no computer and 1/2 have no internet.  It seems easy enough for teachers to poll their students to find out how many have home computers or home internet. 

     Frustratingly, the article quotes a teacher who refuses to hand out assignments on paper because, “I really need you to get familiar with the technology because it’s not going away.”  The cruel irony is, some students can’t “get familiar” with it unless they have time to do online work at school. Due to the digital divide, pushing internet use outside of school hours just becomes  a harsh and damaging lesson in social inequality. It’s not clear whether students with home internet get better grades because they learn things online (doubtful, considering how distracting it is to be online), or whether the “convenience” of requiring online  homework just creates an extra barrier that causes students to do worse without it just because it’s so hard to turn things in. 

    Regardless, it’s clear from this story that the digital divide is in part an artifact created by digital haves who refuse to accommodate the reality of digital have-nots. In fact, the most common computer that people have is a smartphone, which is close to useless for typing term papers. Teachers and librarians should try using the systems they are imposing on their students and patrons. They might find out that it’s not such an educational necessity after all to force students into battle with buggy, frustrating, poorly designed software just to turn in a multiple-choice worksheet.  If unrealistic expectations are undermining education for 16% - 18% of students, it seems like educators should put a lot more thought into whether their requirements for online homework are educational or arbitrary. 

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Student of the Game Aced Final

Julia Jacobs, "Student of the Game Aced Final: Emma Boettche, a Librarian from Chicago, wrote a mater's paper on 'Jeopardy!' Clues, New York Times, June 4, 2019, p. C6.

     Before Emma Boettcher arrived at the "Jeopardy!" studio in California on a Tuesday in Mach she hadn't heard of James Hozhauer.
     Boettcher, a 27-year old librarian at the University of Chicago, did not know that the contestant she would soon face had already won 32 games, amasses $2.46 million and established himself as one of the game sho's greatest players of all time.  Games are prerecorded, usually five in one day; Holzhauer's first win would not air until April 4.
     As a book and theater lover growing up outside Philadelphia, Boettcher first tried out for "Jeopardy!" in high school.  As she continued to chase her goal, her father, Kevin Boettcher, bought her books on topics that she needed to bone up on, such as sports.
After finishing college at Princeton, she went to graduate school at the University of North Carolina, where she studied information science.  While there, Boettcher decided to write her master's paper on her longtime obsession with a certain game show.
     In her 70-page final paper, Boettcher explored whether certain characteristics of a "Jeopardy!" clue could predict its difficulty level.  She said she wanted to determine if a computer could predict whether a clue was easy or difficulty based on the words it was using or the length of the clue.  In essence, she was asking if there was a material difference between a $200 clue and a $1,000 clue. 

   OK, maybe librarians deserve a little of that vocational awe.  A Master's theses on Jeopardy! clues sounds like a candidate for an Ig Noble Prize, but it seems to have been a useful piece of scholarship. Hozhaur is a professional sports bettor who was using a sophisticated statistical strategy to successfully beat the TV trivia game. He was zeroing in on Ken Jenning's record when the librarian beat him.

     This is the first story I've encountered that contains any description of professional education for librarianship. Although the reporter seems dubious that anyone would bother to study the difficulty of questions, in fact, I have co-authored such a paper myself. [1]  Unfortunately, librarians have spent a fair amount of ink trying to prove that most reference questions aren't all that hard.  The goal is to replace trained reference librarians with cheaper part-time student help. In most such studies, shabby research methodology is based on circular logic that pre-defines certain types of questions as "easy/directional" without ever evaluating whether such questions are actually easy to answer. 

  In any case, if I wanted information help, I'd far rather ask someone like Emma Boettcher with a passion for information than an under-paid part-timer.
[1] LeMire, Sarah, Lorelei Rutledge, and Amy Brunvand. "Taking a Fresh Look: Reviewing and Classifying Reference Statistics for Data-Driven Decision Making." Reference & User Services Quarterly 55, no. 3 (2016): 230-238.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

New Poets of Native Nations

Heid E. Erdrich, ed. New Poets of Native Nations. Graywolf Press, 2018.

     Although a few poets of Native nations are now producing work within the mainstream of American literary publishing, very little poetry by Natives reaches a large audience-- few readers are exposed to multiple indigenous authors at a bookstore or library or even in an academic course. There's simply not enough of our poetry out there where readers can find it.  There is no current basis upon which others might understand what poetry by Native Americans is today, in the twenty-first century.  Consequently, I have witnessed editors and prize jurors choose poets they think are Native American. The result is that more often than you would imagine, what is selected is work by non-Natives.  This poetry not only misrepresents the lived realities of Native people, but it does our communities real harm by presenting another's views as our own. 


     You'd think that someone, maybe academic librarians, would be working harder to collect Native American poets.  But poetry doesn't  tend to circulate much without encouragement and these days it's unfashionable to collect for the sake of bibliography.  In order to persuade my own library to buy such such poetry I've had to suggest a purchase for my own personal use, even for books by poets like Sherwin Bitsui or Orlando White who had recently been in town to give readings and workshops.

    Poetry is an especially weird genre. Everyone wants to be a poet, but nobody wants to read poetry. Well, I do. I even like to write reviews of poetry books. I think one barrier to poetry is that it's actually quite difficult to figure out which poetry to read. Poetry resists descriptive reviews so you have to experiment a bit to discover what you like.  There is a lot of truly dreadful poetry out there, so you also have to be confident to recognize it as dreadful and move on.

     That's why Heid Erdrich has performed such an important service to introduce us poetry readers to some Native American  poets she likes (she's a wonderful poet herself, BTW). [1]  Here's a book that we librarians can catalog and simply pull off the shelf when a student or professor is seeking Native American poets. It would be even better if we bought some of their books.  There's a bibliography of sources on pages 281-284 in case any librarians want to order some.

[1] Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Local Programs Fire Up Readers

Scott D. Pierce and Sheila McCann. Local Programs Fire Up Readers, Salt Lake Tribune, May 31, 2019, p. D1-

     Schools are wrapping up, the weather is warming up, and June is a day away.  Another clear sign of summer: Libraries, businesses and others are gearing up to engage and reward summer readers.     The theme of this year’s challenge is “A Universe of Stories,” honoring the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing.     Last year, almost 28,000 kids from infants to age 12 sing up along with 7,500 teens and more than 23,000 adults, said Liz Sollis, communications manager for the [Salt Lake] county library system. “We’ve actually seen a huge increase in adult participation over the last few years, “ she said.


Four reading trackers for its summer reading program are available: Babies & Toddlers, Kids, Teens, and Adults, each with suggested activities.  The [Salt Lake City] system also suggests going paperless by using its Beanstack site online or by downloading the Beanstack app. 


This article is a local tie-in to one reprinted from the Washington Post.[1]  It lists summer reading programs at local libraries, businesses and other organizations that offer prizes and rewards for reading.  

   As an avid reader, I feel somewhat skeptical about the effectiveness of rewards.  I mean, to me getting time to sit and concentrate on reading already seems like a pretty big reward. However, it’s clear that the programs are popular and they serve a purpose if they make reading fun again. Museum and sports events tickets, free books, and food rewards might work for some people. Choosing what to read may also be the first step in developing self-directed lifelong learning skills that aren’t dependent on classroom teaching.

    The Salt Lake Public Library system is pushing a digital book subscription, which also seems questionable.  Unless kids are using a dedicated e-reader, anything on screens offers far too many distractions that interrupt reading.  Use of ebooks probably also means fewer trips to the library and consequently less immersion in the possibilities such as audio books or graphic novels.  In many library stories, a profound coming-of-age experience happens when kids first move from the juvenile section to the regular stacks.  That transition simply can’t happen online. 
   Digital reading seems even more dubious when it comes from an overtly commercial source.  Scholastic Read-a-Palooza, described in the article,  is an online summer reading program that logs the number of minutes kids read and unlocks digital rewards.  This is beginning to sound a lot less like pleasure and a lot more like the usual schoolwork drudgery, specially if parents can spy on reading minutes. Personally, I would not suggest going paperless. I’d suggest that the long, lazy days of summer are the perfect time to immerse oneself in the kind of absorbing deep reading experience that only print can offer.  The real purpose of summer reading, after all, is not to do better on standardized tests but to rediscover the joy of reading books that are not homework. 

[1] How to Draw ‘em In.


Monday, June 3, 2019

How to Draw 'em In

Karen McPherson, How to Draw ‘em In: Here’s a Magic Formula to Keep Your Kids Reading Through the Summer. [Special to the Washington Post] Salt Lake Tribune, May 31, 2019, p. D1-

It’s a challenge for parents to make reading a pleasurable priority in their family’s life.  But summertime actually is a perfect— an crucial— time to experiment with some of the following strategies, recommended by children’s librarians and reading experts.Many children’s librarians also recommend adding a “game” aspect to reading. Sighing kids up for summer reading programs at the local public library is one easy way to do this.


     The paradox of reading is, it’s one of the most enjoyable of all possible ways to spend time but when kids have to read for school they resist.  Too much screen time also seems to be discouraging kids from reading. The Kids and Family Reading Report (2019) says that 14% of kids ages 9-11 read no books during the summer— double the number since 2016. [1] Reading is essential to educational success, and librarians are cited as experts on how to make reading fun again with the following strategies:

  • Let kids choose
  • Expand the definition of reading
  • Make it a family priority
  • Make reading social
  • Make it a game

The writer also suggests signing kids up for summer reading programs.  It’s probably not just the prize incentives, but frequent summer trips to the library that encourage reading. Shelves of graphic novels are irresistible, even for many kids who think they don’t like reading. 

[1] Kids and Family Reading Report 7th ed. (2019).