Monday, May 13, 2013

"I don't need libraries so nobody else does" - All op-ed columnists

I just read another story about the irrelevance of public libraries by a privileged, white man who has never stepped foot in the library he is writing about. In this lame op-ed in the Huffington Post, Michael Rosemblum has decided to go ahead and describe the future of libraries by using himself as the sole example of people who use libraries: "Even though I lived right across the street from it for many years, I never went inside. I never sat in its reading room. I never checked out a book. I never explored its stacks to go through old volumes of bound periodicals in some research project." So that means that no one did, or at least no one worth mentioning.

These "libraries in crisis" articles are published every few months by all sorts of forward-thinking writers and are meant to make some sort of cultural commentary on the state of society. What these stories about the obsolete nature of libraries never do is take into account all of the people who are not like the author. These authors have decided that we all don't need libraries for the following reasons: The author can afford to pay for the internet and any media subscriptions he or she needs,  the author can afford to buy books, the author is employed, the author is literate and went to college, the author has access to cultural institutions, the author remembers when libraries had card catalogs and now they don't, the author may or may not have children but in any event kids use iPads, and of course Google.

All of these reasons are cited again and again across internet news outlets whenever a library near a writer's home is being built, remodeled, or changes in some way. And while all of these reasons for the unnecessary nature of libraries might add up for the author or people just like the author, for many people the library is something wholly different and completely necessary.  

For many people, the library is a lifeline to news and information, education, unemployment resources, government assistance programs, technology training, and career development. It is a place that parents can take their children (for free) that provides them with literacy programs taught by professional librarians, books, technology resources, and a safe space to learn and engage with others. It is a place for students to go for homework help and tutoring after school, and to hang out with friends off of the street. It is a place for anyone. And in New York City, where Rosenblum lives, there were over 16 million visits to the New York Public Library last year. Certainly there are people who can afford not to go to libraries. But for most people it is a place they cannot afford to be without. And in a democracy, we allow access to information and knowledge to all of our citizens.

Kids on computers at a library, what?!

As for the argument that because of the internet we don't need libraries, it's the same as saying that because we can buy books we also don't need libraries. Just because the internet exists and we can get information faster than ever doesn't mean that everyone has access to this.Wireless internet connections are not currently free, computers are not currently free, and many reputable news sources and research databases are not currently free. And even when information is "free" we are still paying with our personal information. The library is one of the few places where people can truly find information for free because of the American Library Association's Electronic Computer Privacy Act which protects the privacy of personal records and internet search histories.

Then there's Rosenblum's argument that because libraries are no longer just about books they aren't really libraries anymore: "Library: a place for gathering people, giving people the opportunity to encounter each other....Well, there you have it. Another 3,000 year old institution killed by the web." I understand that change is difficult to adapt to. But to me, the fact that cities and towns across America are dedicating libraries as community spaces in addition to places that house books, technology, and other media, is really smart. Public libraries are for everyone, and by evolving libraries are reflecting more users' needs.

One of the biggest reasons for the idea that libraries aren't needed, aside from the fact that these writers are openly omitting any portion of the population that are unlike themselves, is that libraries are romanticized. Writers, who are ironically dealing with many of the same issues as libraries when it comes to content dissemination, like to remember a simpler time when libraries only served one purpose (which was never really the case). Categorizing public spaces makes it easier to think about complicated issues like access to technology, poverty and wage discrepancies, social factors and privilege. But to determine that rather than allow libraries to change based on the needs of many, they should instead not exist based on the nostalgic notions of a few, is a very narrow way to think about not only libraries but the world.  Libraries are changing and that's a good thing for everyone, even the people writing about how much they don't need them.

No one normal misses this.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Reading between the lines

Maybe we don’t all judge books by their covers, but we do judge them by their dust covers where reviews are commonly printed. In the same way most of us would be reticent to try a restaurant without Yelp reviews, most of us would never dream of a foray into the unknown territory of a reviewless book. In fact, we probably wouldn’t even know most books existed if not for the reviews they receive upon publication, and for a lucky few, when they are chosen for national book clubs, like Oprah's. Reviews serve as not only a guide for readers, but also for book buyers and librarians to stock their shelves.  And those reviews can determine how a book is received, viewed, and read by audiences. But ultimately, how a book is reviewed (or not reviewed at all), carries a deeper meaning for readers who will judge and validate their own choices based on the opinions of very few at the top of the reading chain.

In the summer of 2010, authors Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner took book reviewers to task for their seemingly unanimous praise of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.  Both writers who have been derided as “commercial” and “chick lit” authors, spoke against literary reviewers in the New York Times over book selections and critiques. Picoult tweeted “NYT raved about Franzen’s new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren’t white male literary darlings.”  While these claims are not completely supported (the New York Times has given credence to female authors in the past), there is cause for concern. 

Oprah loves Jonathan Franzen but he dissed the initial invitation to O's book club saying the he wanted to reach a male audience...

VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts created infographics depicting the number of women-authored books reviewed as compared to men’s and the numbers of reviewers by gender. The charts are striking. And so are the implications. If a book’s reviews measure its acceptability, then there is something wrong with a system in which on average, women represent less than 25% of the literary pool as both authors and reviewers. The New Republic highlighted similar results:

            “The numbers are startling. At Harper’s, there were 27 male book reviewers and six female; about 69 percent of the books reviewed were by male authors. At the London Review of Books, men wrote 78 percent of the reviews and 74 percent of the books reviewed. Men made up 84 percent of the reviewers for The New York Review of Books and authored 83 percent of the books reviewed. TNR, I’m sorry to say, did not  compare well: Of the 62 writers who wrote about books for us last year, only 13 (or 21   percent) were women. We reviewed a total of 64 books, nine of them by         women  (14.5    percent). “We know women write,” poet Amy King writes on the VIDA website. “We know women read. It’s time to begin asking why the 2010 numbers don’t reflect those facts with any equity.” – The New Republic


Reviews drive the perception of a book, but what drives book reviews?  It is from four main sources that books are even considered for review in a prestigious publication like Harper’s or the New York Review of Books. Kirkus ReviewsLibrary Journal, and Booklist all drive mainstream book reviews through their summaries of titles. It is within these one paragraph descriptions of books that reviewers from mainstream sources take their cue.  These summaries also offer reviewers’ opinions about the books. And those opinions matter. A "starred"review in PW still increases a book'schance of getting media coverage and showing up in your neighborhood bookstore.  Unlike mainstream book reviewers, these reviewers are anonymous and sources from these publications say that they are academics, librarians, and subject specialists in the field. The subscriptions to these publications also cost much more than typical magazines that offer book reviews (between $100 and $450 per year). These anonymous reviews give popular reviewers a context with which to frame a book as it is being read. This influences ideas about genre, audience, and literary merit.

When it comes to mainstream book reviews - genre, authorship, and the reviewers themselves are elements that need to be taken into consideration.  In a heavily male-dominated arena that values “literary merit” over genre fiction (such as science fiction, romance, mysteries, etc.), reviews leave many books out of the running.  What we need to remember is that classic authors such as Raymond Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut, and Jane Austen were all considered genre writers at some point before becoming mainstream literary icons and that our biases towards genres are created by book reviews.  By not reviewing books that are considered genre pieces, especially novels about relationships authored by women that are often tossed into the romance pile, we as readers are missing out on plenty of books.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Rehab Through Reading: The Power of Prison Libraries

"New York is shelving its prison law libraries," reported the Wall Street Journal this week as the New York Prison Commission is allowing county-run prisons to discontinue libraries.  Many don't consider prison libraries to be a necessity, and neither does the Supreme Court - in the 1990s the court ruled that prisoners do not have a "freestanding right to a law library."  And while this might sound like nothing for the general public to feel concern over, we should remember that prisoners are serving a penalty of time in a system meant to rehabilitate them and eventually release them back into society.  We should want the people who have served time in jail to be as fully capable to become law-abiding citizens as possible. Education is a powerful tool - it alleviates ignorance and opens up the mind. And in prisons, the only access to education is through libraries. There might be televisions, but there is no internet access and little contact with the outside. Books are the primary tools for self-education.

"Prison is a bare-bones world of isolation. Other than occasional calls home, letters and family visits, the prisoner is totally separated from the world outside the walls. There is little to distinguish one day from the next. World events become foreign and remote because the prisoner is so disconnected that prison itself becomes their world, their universe. There is little or no rehabilitation or education available to a prisoner. There are no incentives for bettering yourself. The prisoner is warehoused in a mind numbing world of sensory deprivation until his/her sentence is up, then cast back into society, often ill prepared." -Submitted by John Evans, Bostick State Prison, Georgia via Prison Book Program Blog.

Most prisons do have libraries, and besides legal materials, these libraries also stock fiction and non-fiction books, including educational materials (such as how to obtain a GED), and these materials are usually donated from public libraries. Earlier this year in a class on collection development in libraries, employees of the Prison Library Project spoke about their experiences with books in libraries. Two of the members had been incarcerated and described reading as a means of education, connection with others (through book clubs), and maintaining sanity while in prison. Their testimonies reminded me that prisoners are human. Learning and stimulation are human needs that books can meet.

Books are often used in juvenile detention centers to engage young people and hopefully transform their lives.  Books Beyond Bars is a project out of UCLA that donates books to a juvenile detention center and conducts weekly book discussions with the teenagers living there. While it might be more socially acceptable to rehabilitate children who have committed crimes through literature and education, the power to transform is not lost on adults.

Probably the most famous prisoner to ever turn his life around through reading is Malcom X.  But almost anyone who has ever read a great book knows the power of words to transport, engage, and shed light on dark corners of the psyche. If books can change people, they can certainly change prisoners. And those in government know this.  Public libraries receive funding because they are deemed important by taxpayers.  One City One Book programs have sprung up across the country because there is  power in literature that can bridge divides among people and communities. State-funded Early Literacy Task Forces are dedicated to ensuring all children's intellectual access to reading. We know that this is important. We know that reading changes lives. So why withhold this from prisoners?  If the goal of incarceration is to reacclimate prisoners to society, shouldn't we care that there are at least resources available to encourage learning and growth?

Aside from the fact that prisoners have rights to legal counsel, (whether that is accomplished through a library or not) when they are released the rest of society has a right to live among other law-abiding citizens. Producing better people from correctional facilities should be a priority so that cycles of crime and violence don't continue. I love books enough to believe that this is possible through reading and learning. And not just the classics - even completely meritless books by literary standards can offer people a glimpse into their own lives or a fantasy, can allow a reader to see patterns in typical story lines and characters, and can build confidence in the reader if perhaps she has not read a book in years. Reading changes people in one way or another. Words are powerful and they can set us free.

Four walls can never hold me in
They are physical, like bone and skin
The body trapped behind this wall
cannot contain my soul at all
Imagination sets me free
Beyond the fence that surrounds me.
No bricks can ever stop my mind.
No bars can keep my thoughts confined
I can go deep inside myself
Like a dusty book on a shelf
Another world exists inside
My heart is free – I am outside!

-Submitted by Michael E. Heller, Pinckneyville Correction Center, Illinois via Prison Book Program Blog

Monday, February 25, 2013

Pink-Collar Ghetto

Secretaries, customer service representatives and librarians all have one thing in common, all are pink collar jobs and all are part of a growing trend of “emotional labor” that is expected in the service industry.  That service sector jobs employ high numbers of women, and are usually unstable and offer low or no benefits is not a coincidence.  Historically women have worked outside of the home only to the begrudging collective approval of male breadwinners.  Service industry jobs were created for women and meant to exploit women’s natural aptitude towards service.  Not only are these jobs lower paying and less stable than many other industries, they are also more emotionally taxing.

Librarianship is no different.  While this profession requires an advanced degree in library science, it also requires service with a smile. By many professional standards the pay is quite low, with median wages for librarians at about $40,000 in 2009. Not by chance, this profession employs high numbers of women. As a graduate student in library and information studies, service is not merely taught so much as ingrained   This is a core competency of the profession, and one that I think is keeping librarians in bottom ranks of professional salaries and reputation.

While I believe that service should continue to be an integral part of the profession, we have to see beyond merely maintaining library user services and look for the value of librarians’ expertise in libraries. As information professionals we should be teaching and creating rather than simply responding to questions. It is in reference services (i.e. a person coming up to the desk and asking for something) that I think librarians set themselves up for an “affective labor” moment. In any other professional realm, a receptionist or assistant is the person sitting behind the desk or booth and responding to first-tier questions and inquiries.  Instead, in libraries the librarian herself is at the information desk. This means that we are not only answering in-depth reference questions, but also telling people where the bathroom is located.  It is a waste of the librarian’s education, skills and emotional output. It is one of the reasons we are regarded as clerks and filing secretaries.

Guidelines for librarians entail “Approachability, Interest, and Listening/Inquiring when providing reference service in a traditional in-person service setting.” We are asked to make ourselves approachable, friendly, and interested in the user’s needs.  And I think that we should be. But I also think that we need to look at other ways we can serve users outside of in-person question and answer sessions. Face-to-face service is important, yes, but there are many other aspects of the profession that require skills and education - such as developing collections of books and databases, creating online content and producing library programs. It is this lack of awareness that has relegated us to secretarial positions in the minds of the public.

As a pink-collar profession that serves the entire public (unlike nursing and teaching), librarianship is in a unique position to redefine the terms of “women’s work” and allow people to see that firsthand. And we can start by moving away from the reference desk and into creating more content. Almost all academic librarians are required to publish pieces in scholarly journals, and I think that this should be a cornerstone of the profession, along with teaching and creating user content for library websites. These skills and abilities are the means towards moving from unstable service positions to better paying jobs that are not constantly under threat of obsolescence by city and state governments. This is also a way to make the work that women do more impactful. Our work is not less valuable than that of other professions, but instead of service with a smile, we need service with a rationale. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Legally Bound: Librarians and Publishers 4 Lyfe

A post in Gawker today cites a story about a librarian who disparaged an academic publisher in his personal blog and is now being sued for libel by the publisher, Edwin Mellen Press. Gawker makes light of the story - mainly over the idea that librarians are so boring that they are embarrassed to even be posting this story, and that publishers' law suits are so ridiculous it's funny, so that's why they posted it anyway.  While the latter may true in some instances - that this story was discredited due its lack of relevance to the rest of world is mistaken.

What goes on behind the polished wooden doors of academic libraries - namely freedom of access to information via publishers and book, journal, and database vendors - is important to the rest of the world.  Academic freedom and the freedom of information are paramount to the democratic privileges we all enjoy; and to libraries those things are paramount to the profession.

Just breathe. We still have freedom of information, kinda.

Publishers rely on reviews for their titles to be purchased.  It is the job of academic librarians to review the books and journals that they will add to their collection.  With deep budget cuts affecting almost all libraries and collection resources, what librarians decide to purchase matters.  So it is terrifying that when a qualified person shares an opinion about the content of the books produced by a publisher on a personal blog, he or she can be sued for it.  Universities pay librarians to make judgment calls on what books and materials are added to a collection.  It is the job of a librarian to determine if the works are truthful, scholarly, and support university courses.  If a book doesn't meet these requirements it won't be bought.  And if most of the books that fall into this dud category are from the same publisher, why not say so? This is what Dale Askey, a tenured librarian at Kansas State University in 2010, did on his personal blog.

To be sued for libel over stating an opinion about the content of publications is a scary prospect.  And while we can laugh this story off as a librarian getting sued for way too much money from a company way too large to seriously care about this - it has other implications for what we deem as freedoms of speech and intellect.  It also says a lot about the balance between large corporations and personal bloggers.  It is ok to unabashedly promote a product and not tell consumers that you are a spokesperson, but it is not ok to have a personal opinion that could sway consumers away from an inferior product.  What about Yelp reviews and scathing emails to companies from disgruntled customers that are published? Is this to become libel as well?  And what about Facebook's use of our "like" statuses to promote products that we have little or no knowledge of our complicity in.

Don't worry, Tina Fey will figure this scary publisher-bully thing out.

These issues do affect the rest of us.  Anyone with an online presence is subject to these same principles that the Edwin Mellen Press is setting forth.  Opinions matter and opinions need to be protected.  Libraries are the only federally sanctioned institutions to uphold freedom and access to information, and when that is threatened in a protected space it means something for the rest of us.