Showing posts with label Library. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Library. Show all posts

Friday, August 4, 2017

WITMonth Day 4 | Visibility and women in translation

One of my original goals for WITMonth was introducing more readers (and industry folk) to the very problem of women in translation. As more and more readers, reviewers, media outlets, translators, publishers, bookstores, and libraries join in the efforts, we're getting that done. Every tweet, every review, every post that references WITMonth means one more person learning about the cause.

This is huge, because WITMonth largely began as an obscure, minor blogging event. And while most readers still probably don't know that only ~30% of books translated into English are by women writers (and some probably don't care all that much...), more and more are discovering this - and their own reading biases - daily. And they are working to fix it.

But this post isn't just about how it's great to see more readers becoming exposed to the issue. It's more about visibility at large, and how impossible it is for any movement to advance without those who ensure that people can even be exposed to the issue. I've long hoped for greater bookstore/library involvement in WITMonth, out of a belief that the overwhelming majority of readers are introduced to books not necessarily through Twitter, but through literal visibility.

Readers - particularly younger readers - walk into the bookstore or library, and typically gravitate towards the books that are clearly labeled. This is how I do most of my bookshopping/library-hunting: I first check to see what's exposed on the display tables, then I look for the little bookseller recommendation tabs, and then aimlessly browse. The uncomfortable truth is that there are far too many books in the world for every reader to be exposed to every single one. Most of us need some sort of guidance - whether capitalistic/publisher-guided or genuine/word-of-mouth - to find good books.

WITMonth 2017 has seen a notable rise in bookstore and library involvement. This is wonderful. Even as most bookstores highlight a select collection of books that are probably familiar to hardcore readers of translated literature, they are opening the door for countless readers who haven't heard of the cause and didn't necessarily know about the publishing imbalance. Furthermore, a significant portion of literature in translation (and especially women in translation) is published by independent or lesser-known publishers. By placing these books front and center, bookstores and libraries are able to introduce readers to an entire world of literature that they might never have considered previously.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

WITMonth Day 25 - If not at the library, if not digital... then how?

The problem I'm going to describe here is not unique to women in translation, but it's especially noticeable: Books are often technically in print but unavailable for all intents and purposes.

Here I am, plugging in author after author after author into my very liberal, very well-stocked library's database. And when I search for women writers in translation, I find that only a handful are available. And certainly when I look for digital copies through my library, only a handful of recent titles show up. Why?

I know that a lot (a lot) of literature in translation is published by not-for-profit university presses, but here's the thing: most readers cannot afford to buy every book they want to read. And certainly not when the book is more expensive than the average paperback (I'm looking at you, $28 paperback 200 paged novel!). We inevitably rely on other entirely legal and moral resources such as libraries or digital libraries to access literature. (Of course, even this is highly limited - I speak as someone who spends at most a month of the year with access to English-language library books, relying more on the graces of the eLibrary and kind souls who are willing to cart books across the ocean for me.)

But if the books aren't available... what are we supposed to do? Like I said, this problem isn't unique to women in translation, but it's felt much more strongly. The moment the playing field is so much smaller, it becomes increasingly difficult to actually get your hands on backlog women writers in translation. Even titles which are still in print but less mainstream are all but impossible to find.

I don't have a solution here. A few years ago, I thought the answer would be through digital books: All publishers would obviously digitize their entire catalogs and provide them to libraries with loan limitations and we'd be on our way to a utopian future full of all books. That hasn't happened, and honestly it seems like publishers - particularly smaller ones - are in no rush. That leaves us with a bit of a problem. Any thoughts?

Friday, May 3, 2013

Yes, eLibraries are improving

It was about a year ago that I wrote a fairly angry post about the Boston Public Library's general failings as, well, a library. Though it went against all my instincts to criticize any library, I felt as though the BPL and I had reached an impasse - they remained firmly in an old-fashioned, clunky, messy state of mind while I wanted them to move forward. Then, over the past couple of months, as both my other local eLibraries have made the excellent step of adopting Overdrive's new website style (and longer check-out periods as well), I began to think that maybe it was time to write off the BPL for good. Why was I still holding on?

The reason is actually quite simple - content. The BPL has a large, very diverse eBook collection. Even though everything else about their site (and their overall library) is distinctly lesser, there's no way around the fact that they often have access to books and media that smaller libraries don't. And now, despite their instance on sticking to Overdrive's old, clunky site design, the BPL has actually gained back some of my respect.

Why? Because the BPL has the option of recommending eBooks for the library to purchase. And more surprisingly, they actually listen. The day I discovered this rather hidden feature, I recommended five books immediately. When I came to recommend the sixth, I realized there was a limit. A week or two later, this limit was lifted and I was able to recommend another five books. I assumed these recommendations were going to the same place my complaints about the non-electronic library had gone, but I figured I might as well show an interest in these smaller publishers whose books I wanted to read.

The other night just as I was about to go to sleep, I saw a new e-mail from the BPL, informing me that the book I had placed on hold was ready for check out. Then another e-mail came in, and another seven in quick succession. Nine out of my ten requests were now on hold for me. The tenth was a book I had recommended the BPL purchase for the sake of other readers - Brodeck, one of my favorite books from the past few years. It too was suddenly in the library's collection.

eLibraries get a lot (a lot) of flak. Truthfully, most libraries have fairly limited collections and awkward search engines. Most probably do not enable recommendations as easily as the BPL does. Of the two other eLibraries I patron, one has no option to recommend titles, and the other has a much less intuitive recommendation form.

But the fact that the BPL is doing this is tremendous. The fact that recommended books are bought within two weeks is incredible. Digital libraries may still be flawed, but now the heaviest claims are starting to disappear. I love that browsing is improving for some eLibraries. I love that I can recommend the library purchase boatloads of translated fiction, or books from the NYRB or a publisher like Small Beer Press. I love that I recommended the BPL buy Brodeck, a gem of a book, and now within 48 hours of its purchase, it's already been checked out and there are two other people on the hold list. I love that half of the books I requested already have others clamoring to check them out. Most of the books in the BPL's digital catalog are mass-market romances, or thrillers, or books that simply don't interest me. But now there are ten more interesting, diverse, and somewhat unexpected books within the BPL's collection. More on the way, with the books I requested today. And I'm looking forward to reading them.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Library eBook lending - revisited

A couple months ago, I posted about what I saw as the strange phenomenon of readers avoiding a convenient and free method of acquiring eBooks - library eBook lending programs. In the post, I raised some of the issues with the current eLibrary models, and comments backed up these negative claims, rightly pointing out how cumbersome and often clumsy the current library systems are. Unlike me, for whom the prospect of acquiring new books in English from halfway across the world is a huge advantage, most readers saw the messiness and limited quality of these eLibraries as making it rather worthless.

So today, I'm pleased to announce (somewhat belatedly) that at least one of the three eLibraries I patron (don't judge me...) has made a tremendous step in the right direction. And surprisingly, it's the one that until now was the messiest, the most cumbersome, and the least cooperative. Northern California Digital Library, I commend you.

Up until just a couple months ago, NCDL's site was cramped, uncomfortable and extremely difficult to maneuver. This is the eLibrary I frequented least often, in large part because I could never seem to find the books I was looking for. Their search bar was practically unusable, their collection seemed mostly comprised of travel books, and all in all, it was a nightmare to use the site. So, like many readers pointed out in the comments, I just didn't.

Now as you can see (if you clicked the link...), the site is much more modern, much more clean. It's a little hard to compare without the previous look and feel (I found only two small, blurry screenshots that don't accurately portray how annoying the site used to look), but regardless: the NCDL's new site is nice. But more than just the general aesthetics, the site now has a much smoother functionality. Most importantly, it also has an excellent browsing method because for the first time, one of these three eLibraries I patron has figured out how to use filters.

This seems like the most obvious thing on the planet, right? I mean, search engines have had filters for so long now, it seems somewhat absurd that a site like an eLibrary wouldn't. And yet they don't seem to see the direct correlation between how easily patrons can find books and how much they'll, you know, check them out. The relatively limited collection is still a problem, but with these simple, easy filters, I can find those few, good books I want quickly, easily and without any unnecessary headaches. I've already seen hints on another library's site that they're going to upgrade to a similar style; here's to hoping the others follow in the NCDL's footsteps soon.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Not all libraries are perfect

This is blasphemy, I know, but I have to get this off my chest.

I have long supported libraries. I know that libraries face increasing budget cuts and that they're trying to do the best they can. I know that librarians are generally good people with noble intentions. But if there's one thing I've learned the hard way is that some libraries are, frankly, better than others.

My love affair with the Boston Public Library (BPL) began to fade a few months ago. I remembered the beautiful building as housing an extensive collection, but once I began to browse more extensively, I was disappointed by the limited scope. It was nice, I'll admit, to have all the genres mixed together, but there was something a bit sloppy about the whole thing as well. The organization seemed incomplete and messy. It was bearable, but I found myself struggling just to find a book.

Okay. Fine.

Then I started looking for places to sit with my laptop and study. None. Not one. There's an entire room with desktops for use (which was completely packed), but even as I searched, I could hardly find any desks to work at. And once I did find a suitable table, I was surprised to discover that there were no chairs. Okay, I told myself. It's a larger, far more central library than any I've ever frequented beforehand. It's natural. So I decided to browse a few other sections, including the teen room. I was surprised to see a sign on the door denying entrance to anyone over 18 years of age. I suppose the desire to read young adult books is cut off abruptly the moment one is allowed to vote. Though I doubt anyone would have enforced the rule, the sign itself was enough of a turnoff. I left the library thoroughly disappointed. But these were minor issues, hardly worth mentioning or getting caught up on. But then there's the bigger issue: The BPL is the worst organized library I have ever encountered.

I mean it. The sloppy bookshelves were just the tip of the iceberg. The Audio/Visual section is a complete mess - no organization whatsoever, five carts out with "recently returned items" (some of which seem to have been there for months), terrible broken cases, title and genre inconsistencies... must I go on? But here's what worse - nobody seems to care. I was searching for an item that was supposed to be on the shelves for a solid hour before I decided to turn to a librarian. She very courteously stayed in her seat and looked the item up on her computer (as I myself had done mere minutes earlier), telling me, "It's on the shelf. Just look for it." And that was all. I spent another hour looking over literally every item on the recently returned carts, eventually giving up.

I learned my lesson. The next time I needed something, I placed a hold on it. I saw that the items I requested were listed as on the shelf; I smiled, thinking that at worst it would take three days for them to make the transfer to the hold shelf. How wrong I was. I placed holds on April 22 for five items found in the library. Two books appeared on the hold shelf five days after I placed the hold on them. One book (of which four copies are allegedly in-library) did not appear by three weeks after I placed the hold, by which point it was irrelevant and I cancelled the hold. The hold I placed on one disc was cancelled three weeks in (no reason given), and the hold I placed more than a month ago on another CD that was supposedly in-library became in-transit only the other day.

Here's what drives me nuts. In today's modern world, libraries are supposed to have it easy. Tracking becomes much simpler the moment it's digitized. All that's left for libraries is to maintain some kind of shelf order. To mix up one or two items makes sense. But to lack any coherent order is unacceptable. When browsing discs, even something as simple as genre distinctions is missing, let alone any alphabetical markers. One soundtrack might be found under "pop", another under "soundtrack", a third under "classical". And don't get me started on the loose CDs found floating around as well, cases long abandoned, discs scratched and useless.

But what is most disturbing is the disdain BPL librarians seem to hold for their neighboring library system. The Minutemen Library system (which I am far more likely to patron) is comprised of many significantly smaller libraries, but has a wonderful online catalog, excellent organization, and convenient transfers of books from library to library means that just about every item is available somewhere - hence it is available everywhere. The most I've had to wait for items to move from one library to another was four days - a reasonable time frame when considering the fact that I requested the item on a Friday afternoon. When I mentioned the Minutemen system, a BPL librarian snorted and said, "Bet you've been waiting forever." That's right, but it's not the Minutemen who keep me waiting. It's the BPL. Clean up your act fast, or else you'll find yourself losing a lot more patrons...

Friday, July 22, 2011

Please like the BPL... or something

Can someone explain this one to me? I recently got my I-have-no-idea-how-often-it-comes eNewsletter from the Boston Public Library (BPL) and the following paragraph caught my eye:
Thank you to all who helped the Boston Public Library reach 5,000 likes on Facebook last week. Now, it's time to set our sights on 6,000 and beyond. Like the Boston Public Library's Facebook page and enjoy updates on library events, behind-the-scenes photos, and the opportunity to interact with other library fans.

What in the world does the BPL need Facebook likes for? (I can justify the reasons for the BPL having a Facebook page in the first place) I'm not going to get into the general question of the purpose of Facebook likes, but I really want to understand what possible benefit it could have for a public library. People aren't going to become fans of the library and then buy more of its stuff. Likes have, until now, been used as a sort of gauge for the popularity of certain artists, organizations, politicians, etc. The BPL is none of these things. Please explain.

I can understand that maybe the BPL want to increase library attendance and solicit donations, but this feels like the completely wrong approach. Asking people to "like" their Facebook page just makes them seem childish and silly. Also, kind of lame. 5,000 likes... cause for excitement? Even Henrik Ibsen has more Facebook likes than that!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Six months...

...since I last purchased a book. Until yesterday, when I finally caved in and bought two books at half price. Will the floodgates open?

Since I last purchased a new book, I've learned a few things about how to take the stress out of my reading. For instance, my appreciation for the books already resting on my shelves grew, as did my understanding of the wondrous spontaneity of a library find. I relaxed a lot more in terms of what books I read, partly because I didn't feel the crushing weight of new and old purchases bearing down on me, but also because I found myself reading a lot of good and diverse books.

For instance, since the start of 2011 (one month after the new regime began), 40% of the books I've read have been translated, representing 9 languages other than English. I've read three non-fiction titles (in all of 2010 I read only two titles... and one falls into the last month, when I'd already stopped purchasing new books), several science fiction and fantasy books (truth be told, A Song of Ice and Fire make up a good portion of the English titles...), and a number of books that have languished on my shelves for years.

Now that I've broken the spell, will I run out to buy more and more and more? No. I'm a lot more attentive to the books I see on sale and a lot more hesitant before snapping up a new title. Of the two books I purchased, one is a relative bestseller while the other is so obscure that the bookseller looked at me a little weirdly as I paid (the book was a random find I'd never heard of before... let's hope it's good...). I don't feel as driving an urge to have the newest books right away. I know that they'll still be around in a few months and maybe by that point I'll realize that I don't actually want to read it. Then I can refocus my attention on the other great books I have on my shelves.

But I'm not going to be as strict about the ban anymore. While my ultimate goal is to reduce the number of books in the stacks, I'm going to continue buying new books and reading them. I just might do it a little smarter from now on.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Organization, "bookshelves" and Goodreads

Organizing the mess?

I don't use Goodreads all that often or all that well. I signed up years ago but never really took advantage of the site for anything more than a way to keep track of what books I read. Usually I don't even add details like dates - the when always seems to define itself in my mind - and limit my shelves to the standard offered ones.

I'm uneducated about much regarding my Goodreads page. On the one hand, I recognize that a lot of book bloggers use this tool, both on the social level but also for categorization. Book social networking sites provide readers with different takes on book categorization. (it should be noted I focus on Goodreads as it is the most popular of the free sites, even if it lacks the categorization wonder and depth of LibraryThing, which requires payment)

What are the correct uses for Goodreads? Friending internet strangers because you liked a review they wrote? Connecting with fellow book bloggers? Tagging the books you've read in an organized manner however you want? Or simply maintaining a list of books read with the rare review and the occasional personal comment (eBook, date read, etc.)? At this point, I've added over 600 books to my Goodreads account, including books I read as a child, series I've forced myself to complete and even the occasional textbook I've studied from.

Their recommendations
Yet in my account, these all fall in the same category: "read". I have added no books to my TBR shelf (for fear of discovering that number does, in fact, exceed 100... by a lot, perhaps...) and as I typically start and finish books over the course of a day without updating Goodreads, only a title here and there could qualify for the "currently-reading" shelf. I have no shelves based on genres, no shelves based on ratings, no shelves based on year (or to be more accurate, era)... nothing.

I suppose part of it is a lack of appeal for definitions and fixed facts. Ratings are flexible - I can amend them if needed (and do so frequently when my opinion of a book changes over time). Reviews are multi-faceted - they express the thinking behind the reader. But shelves? Genres are so flexible and ever-changing... how can I just come up with a bunch of genres that ought to make sense to other readers within such tight confines?

A few months ago, I sorted my Calibre eBook library. One of the most difficult tasks was tagging the books. In this case,these are books I haven't read. Their titles reveal little. I have trouble remembering their authors and their titles. One of the ways I organized the books was by genre. Another was century. A third still was region. For the most part, regional and genre bookshelves were given silly and eccentric titles (not something that works as well on Goodreads).

Doing something like this for my Goodreads library just doesn't click. I can't really see it happening. But if that's the case, is there something else I should be doing with Goodreads? Am I truly misusing the site, ignoring its primary uses? Is this even possible? It leads me to wonder how most readers use their book social networking site of choice. Do they, like me, maintain anonymity and avoid any personal disclosures? Or do most prefer to take advantage of the tools and choices offered to them, writing numerous reviews and sharing titles?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Teens, in the library

Click to enlarge (link)

Unshelved offers a humorous but actually rather upsetting take on budget cuts for libraries. This week's strip (which essentially begins here) looks at the possibility of budget cuts to various library programs (originally mistakenly assumed to be storytime). While obviously not delving into the true problems behind budget cuts, today's strip does display the difficulties in cutting programs.

My middle school was located right by one of my public libraries. In the afternoons after school, my friends and I would all head over to the library, park our bikes outside and descend on the stacks. There we would find many of our classmates already situated in their favorite couches and seats. Some would sit at the three tables outside, the low benches and the sliding glass door giving the feeling to those sitting there that they were still within the library but allowing them the luxury of laughing as loud as they wanted to. My friends and I would typically sit at the designated "study" tables inside - round tables by the "New Arrivals" shelves - where we'd pull out our oversized history textbooks, the latest book we were reading (swapping copies, just to see what the other was into these days) and our often messily organized binders.

Sometimes we'd see our friends going into the teen section, sitting down with an adult or high school student, poring over a notebook or textbook. Many of the students took advantage of the library's teen study programs in order to catch up on subjects they struggled with. In the meantime, the rest of us would sit and study together, using the library computers to do research, carting around about fifty different reference books in order to find the answer to a single bonus question on a homework assignment and checking out dozens of books between us (which we'd then have to find some way to carry on our bike rides home).

Last time I visited this library two years ago, a big sign hung next to the entrance. It showed plans for rebuilding the library, including adding a large media center, a specifically for-teens study center, adding another two or three rooms for quiet study and adding significant room to the stacks. Next to this poster, the library had posted a plea to taxpayers, asking them to vote for a city bond that would pay for this project.

Though the measure passed in this one town, I know that in similar situations around the U.S. (and the world), the outcome is very different. It's hard to convince a taxpayer that spending money on a library will actually benefit the entire community. Though it's true, from the youngest children enjoying storytime, to moody teens gaining a wonderful place to learn and study with the help and support of a well-educated and dedicated staff, to the unemployed seeking computers and resources to find a job or write a resume and to the elderly, simply enjoying an afternoon discussing a good book (or getting the opportunity to read again, thanks to audio or large-print books).

So if someone asked me to cut programs from the library, I'd struggle. Local libraries do so very much for the communities around them... it'd be almost impossible to decide which program isn't "worth it". But I know one program I would never cut. Teens may not be the favored demographic when it comes to library budgets, but in the long-run I believe that by putting your money there, you really are putting your money in the future. My classmates and I benefited immensely from our local library - I'm sometimes saddened to think of the fact that most other kids didn't get that opportunity.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Breaking the habit?

The Stacks
Let's be proud for a moment: I haven't purchased any books since late November. Folks, I think this is a record. I decided to cut back on the book-buying in December when I found myself staring at far too many books I'd bought over the last few years that have languished on my shelves without a care in the world. I have reached the "to-be-read stacks" breaking point. About time.

Here's the thing: most new books that get hyped and sell well have short-term success. I don't mean that they're bad books, nor do I mean that they aren't successful. Most, though, just aren't worthy of particular mention a few years down the line. By stocking up on current hits, I'm not allowing time to tell me just how "eternal" and "classic" these books really are.

The "oldies"
This doesn't mean one shouldn't acquire any new, contemporary books. I still want to read the newbies... I just don't want to forget the oldies while I'm at it. I don't understand how one can hoard books to a point where they own multiple books by an author without having read anything by said author. I own several unread books by favorite authors (or classics I know I'll eventually force myself to read, regardless my opinion of the author...) but they're authors I've already realized I like and will want to keep coming back to no matter what.

I have always managed to keep my stacks under triple digits, but of late I've been straying dangerously close (and am way over if eBooks count... which they don't!). I didn't buy all of the books for no reason - continuously hoarding will only mean that at some point I'll entirely forsake books that I truly wanted to read. So now I visit books that have long been on the shelves - I'm currently reading The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years by Chingiz Aitmatov and am finding that it's actually rather good (and not at all what I expected). I finally got around to reading Solzhenitsyn and completing anything by Thomas Mann. I'm making headway in the stacks (with a few library stops along the way) and the conclusion is simple: while new books may be flashy, I have plenty at home to keep me busy for a while. No reason to go book buying within the next two years.

Okay. Maybe more like two months. But for now, I'm doing okay.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Some days are for books

This weekend was the first in a long time that felt good for reading. True, I still haven't finished the collection of short stories I'd been reading fairly steadily the last week, but only because I don't yet have another book by the same author. I'm rather taken with the author - I'll finish only when I know I have where else to go to. Meanwhile, I read two fairly easy, enjoyable books over the weekend.

It's easy to dismiss easy reading. We often confuse "good" literature with "difficult" literature. It's not something so easily defined. It's not as if we say that any difficult book is excellent, but so many of the books we deem to be "classics" and "worth reading" are... difficult. Is it a backwards case? Do we comfort ourselves after reading difficult books, by saying that, "Well, it's a classic. It's an important read," or is simply that the more complex a book is, the better it is? Or none of the above? (probably the latter answer...)

I have nothing against hard books. True, it's easier to burn out when reading them, but there's a wonderful sense of reward when one finishes a long, complex book. I can't pretend I don't relish that feeling. And yet... sometimes a reader needs to relax. After months of struggling with reading (I've had little time or desire in the last two months to read very much, and as such I've read maybe 3 books), it's nice to get into a flow of reading.

Last weekend I began reading the lovely short story collection (I'll be writing more about it later, and will explain its anonymity) and reread a favorite book (that is still amazing - more on this later). I spent the week continuing to crawl through North and South, reading a few pages every evening. Finally, Friday and Saturday I sped through those two easy reads. Great works of art? Questionable. But they both helped clear my head and today I picked up the heft of Wolf Hall at the library. The librarian smiled as she handed it over and said, "This one needs to be back within the month. No renewals." Staring at the fat paperback as compared to my other (slim) choices I replied, "I guess I better start with it then..." We'll see how that plays out.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


This is interesting. Over at Survival of the Book, Christopher raises the idea of instating subscription fees for local libraries.
For now, I understand the value of the free public library system but sometime in the not too distant future there will be a reason to start instituting a yearly membership fee to guarantee the survival of these institutions. The notion of government support-from local to national-is under siege and it is not out of the realm of possibility that one day libraries won't be supported by the municipalities in which they are located.
Christopher's right that libraries are facing serious budget setbacks and issues. There's also a point to the idea that volunteering to pay off fines (raised earlier in the post) will help libraries immensely. But I wanted to add a few thoughts to this idea, ones that may seem in favor and also vehemently against.

Two or three years ago, a library I tend to frequent (not in the U.S.) revoked its subscription fee (which I had been paying). For many years (indeed, as long as this library had existed), subscription fees were part of the package. Children got cheaper deals, while adults were forced to dole out quite a bit of money in exchange for books and resources. Then a law passed to end this practice. Residents have free access to any library in their city. Meanwhile, if you want access to a bigger, better library one town over... no problem. Pay up.

The fact of the matter is that having subscription fees did not really keep most people from using library resources. Checking books out may have been impossible without a card, but people still used the libraries. On the other hand, they had no other choice and the policies were unfair towards those with fewer means. Ultimately, I don't know if libraries have seen significant changes in patronage or funds since the policy was revoked. It's probably too soon to tell. And, keep in mind, this was all abroad.

Still, to imagine now that the opposite would happen in the U.S. disturbs me. I am lucky to have had many library cards throughout my youth - I have seen good libraries, better libraries, and libraries that were... shall we say... bad. For the most part, though, the libraries I encountered all had one thing in common. They all always had lots of people. Lots of kids checking out books. Lots of teens working in study rooms. Lots of unemployed or retired adults looking for various forms of entertainment (or jobs). These people come in, check books, music, movies, knowledge out and then they return it. That's what a library is - the government funding free access to knowledge for its people. Is there anything more democratic than that? Sure, it may not have started as that originally, but that's what libraries are today.

It always makes me a little sad to see things that seem like regression. While there may be a lot of cold logic behind the idea of charging for libraries, as someone who has stood on the other end of it I have to say that it's not recommended. Paying for libraries feels like someone is keeping knowledge from me. And in today's economy, libraries are more important than ever before: keeping kids well educated and entertained after school, allowing adults to learn, and making sure that knowledge is provided equally to everyone. This is not the time to cut back on library budgets. It's also not the time to start charging people for subscriptions.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A library story

A semi-local library has a strange annual tradition. At the beginning of summer every year, this small library cleans out its shelves and puts books outside for any library patron (or even simple passerby) to take. These aren't a few weeds here and there that the library removes. Hundreds of books are placed outside and anyone walking by (this is within a larger building, not the street) can take however many he/she chooses. This collection of books is a strange one, with volumes ranging in languages and difficulty levels (classics alongside childrens' comic books), but it's very interesting. People come out of curiosity, convinced they'll find nothing and leave with an armful of books. The books are also different ages: some are fairly modern novels that didn't get a lot of attention from readers and others are ancient hardbacks with dust all along the spine and pages. The purpose of this spring cleaning is obvious. The library, which is small and doesn't have much room for expansion, needs to clear space for new books. Rather than throwing away these at-times falling apart books or selling them, the library chooses to hand them out for free.

There are many pros to checking books out of a library. The books are free, there's always bound to be a wide variety, etc. For some readers the library isn't enough. I, for instance, thoroughly enjoy rereading books. I like being able to pick a book up at any moment and know that I can set it aside whenever I like, without having to renew or return the book. There are many advantages to owning books and the two often come head-to-head. Many feel that purchasing books is wasteful; some think that checking books out from the library is too much effort. Used bookstores serve as an in-between. This case goes even further.

Nobody ever complains about book gifts. To receive a gift is a pleasure, not a frustration. Worries about space for the books become almost irrelevant when you don't pay for them. Even if you don't get around to reading them, the guilt sensation of not finishing a book before returning it to the library isn't there. For the library giving away books, this scenario works well too. They get rid of books and don't have live with the shame that they threw them out. Many libraries do similar things with book sales, but looking at some of these books (one of which literally has dust climbing out of the pages) makes me wonder if that's the right way for the libraries to make money. With the exception of one brand-new book (still in its wrapping), all these books are clearly used. Some to the point where any price would be too high, either because the book is falling apart or because my level of interest in the book is so low there's no chance I'd ever spend even a cent on it. However, when offered for free, I grabbed these books no questions asked. And, I suppose, even the most ardent of library supporters would not hesitate to do the same.

There is no particular lesson to be learned from this, just observations. I wonder if other libraries have similar "give away" policies and if, indeed, other readers find this form of book acquisition suitable. In the meantime, I'll enjoy the books I managed to grab and await next year's stacks of "unwanted" books, where I might once again find a few gems.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Challenged books in 2008

Who knew this still existed?
Some objections led to the removal of ["The Kite Runner"] from library shelves, while others saw it replaced with bowdlerised versions minus the offending scenes, according to the American Library Association, which compiles an annual list of the most challenged titles in the country.

The ALA recorded 513 challenges in 2008, up from 420 in 2007. The ALA defines a challenge as "a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school, requesting that materials be removed or restricted because of content or appropriateness". It estimates that as few as one in five challenges are actually reported. "We believe this is just the tip of the iceberg," said Caldwell-Stone. Seventy-four books were actually removed from shelves following challenges last year, the ALA said.

The books may change from year to year but sadly, each year books are challenged and banned. It's interesting to view lists of banned/challenged books. And a little disappointing. That a children's' book like "The Lorax" would be challenged because it puts the foresting industry in a bad light is fairly sad. So is the fact that a small powerful book titled "Of Mice and Men" should be banned time and time again. Why? "Vulgar language", "violence", and "obscenities". There are many lists of challenged books, some more detailed than others. And even though it isn't banned books week quite yet, there's something troubling to the fact that people are still trying to remove books from public shelves.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Gloomy and irrelevant library thoughts

I hate returning unfinished books to the library. There's something so pathetic to it. Not only is this a monumental failure, but I've renewed this specific batch three times, each time on the very last day I could (thus ensuring I'd have the books for just as long as possible). And still. I had to return them with checkout-date bookmarks still in place. It begs the question. Am I checking out the right books? I've had these four books sitting on my shelf for almost three months and managed to read two (count 'em). Of the two remaining, one I didn't even look at. I started to read the other and kept struggling to get into it. All four of the books were checked out on a whim (none great classics, each chosen for a separate silly reason). The previous batch of books I checked out didn't have full marks either - I didn't finish all there either.

Two possible answers: Either it's true that people lose their love of books after a while, or I'm simply not interested in reading some of the books I check out. I have a whole huge shelf of upcoming books to read and during these last three months I've read my fair share of books, just not the ones from the library. Which again leads me to a confusing dead end - why am I checking these books out in the first place?

A rhetorical question and some food for thought. Hopefully I'll pick better next time...