Thursday, July 29, 2010

First Time Out

When I’m working the Circ Desk I often get the opportunity to chat with people about what they’re reading. I also see how often a book goes out when I stamp the due date in the back. It is possible for me to get a very accurate picture of how popular a read is by looking at the stats we keep on each book. I have no idea who has taken the book out, but I am able to tell how many times the book has gone out. But, by and large, I can get a rough read by just looking at the stamped date. The dates are color coded so I can also see if the book has gone out a lot this year or last or even the year before depending on the stamped ink color. There have also been times when I’ve noted that the last time a particular book went out was say, October of 87. That is a long time between check-outs.

Anyway, sometimes when I flip the back cover I see that for this particular book there are no stamped dates. So this means that this patron is the first person to borrow this book. I usually make a remark like: “Hey, you’re the first person to take out this book.” As a rule the individual smiles, I then ask “Let me know what you think of the book when you bring it back.” The patron usually smiles, nods their head and says “Sure”. I first started doing this with children. I have a very clear memory of having to lean over the Circ Desk to speak to a small child and ask them to tell me about the book when she brought it back. She beamed at the prospect of an adult interested in her opinion of a book. She then told me all about the book. Evidently she and her mom had already read the book in the Children’s Area, liked it and were taking it home for additional readings. I found the activity so enjoyable and successful with children that I decided to expand the request to include adults.

Now the chances that I’ll be at the front desk when the book is returned are not good. But there have been a few cases where the individual to whom I made the request has sought me out to tell me about the book. And that is just great. My request is not merely a way to chat away the time with patrons, although it is a pleasant activity. I really am interested in what people like to read and the reasons for doing so. One of the reasons is because I sometimes get recommendation requests. So if my breadth of knowledge concerning the collection is expanded by other readers who have first hand experience with a particular book I have a much better chance of hitting the mark for any individual reader.

There is also an additional reason. I too like to read. And when a few hundred books pass through your hands each week you can’t read them all. No matter how much you might want to. So some type of personal triage for reading material is necessary. One way I decide what I’m going to read is personal recommendations. If someone I work with recommends a book I take that as a very good sign. And if a patron recommends a particular book that too is a strong point in favor of my checking it out. Now, does this method always produce a winning read for me? Nope. But what it does do is it allows me to chat with others who also happen to enjoy one of my favorite activities. In addition, it also expands my exposure to include a particular book; one that, for whatever reason, I might never have chosen to take off the shelf and read myself. What a deal!

See you at the Library,

Monday, July 26, 2010

Time For A Quiz

Question: So what makes for a busy day at the Library?

Answer: People.

On last Friday we had 159 persons pass through the front doors in the first two hours of operation. As I’m sure you all realize that makes for over one person per minute. Now, to be fair, not every one of these folks needed immediate help from the person behind the circ desk. But I’m sure every person who walked in appreciated the smile and hello that they got. And if I recognized them and was not overly busy they also got my “How the heck are ya, (fill in your name here)?” greeting.

As the person at the Circ Desk my primary responsibility is to help each patron as they enter our domain. This may mean just checking books out as they are about to leave. Or it might mean directing someone to the rest rooms: “Right through the archway on your right, there are additional rest rooms downstairs.” Or to the children’s area: “The doorway, just past the public computers. Please remember that if your child is under five they need to be supervised at all times.” Or the Dickert Museum: “Through the archway and down the stairs. At the bottom the stairs go straight ahead. Please remember to turn off the lights when you leave.” Or the Adirondack Room: “Through the archway and down the stairs at the landing turn left go down another set of stairs and you’ll see the doorway on your left.” In addition I also get to help people straighten out there library account, enroll new library card holders, answer the phone, renew items via the phone and direct people to adult fiction and non-fiction: “Through the archway and straight ahead.” Educate patrons in using the public computers: “Please sign up here. If you have not used our computers before, please be sure to read over our policy statement and sign on the bottom. The user name is “All” there is no password and there is a forty-five minute time limit.” And when I’m not doing any of those things I’m checking-in books or cataloging periodicals and generally tiring to be helpful. I’ve been asked where to find a cup of coffee in town, where the cheapest motel is to be found and “Is this the right road to be on if I’m driving from Montreal to Philadelphia, PA? Yikes!

All of those things are fun to do and all of those things are useful in helping people make the most of their time spent in the library. But none of those things is my absolute favorite thing to do. My favorite thing is to help someone find what they are looking for. It is usually a book. They may know the title, or not. They may know the author, or not. They usually remember what the book was/is about, but sometimes they are a little sketchy on that too. Now, all of these bits of information help in the search. But for me, if some of these components are missing that makes the search all the more intriguing. I am not alone in this viewpoint. In library school and when librarians get together they talk about some of their all-time favorite searches. It’s true. I’ve also heard librarians refer to this activity as “The Hunt”. They get pretty excited about it. Actually, in my experience, it is probably the closest thing to a single attribute that all professional librarians share. They don’t care what the search is for they just relish the seeking. And the more difficult the search the more pumped they get. So, the next time you meet a librarian and can’t think of anything to say, just ask them to tell you about some of their favorite item searches. Be sure to use that term: item search. But before you do, find a comfortable seat, or get a tall drink. You’re going to be there a while. And don’t be concerned about that funny look you see in their eyes. It’s not directed at you.

See you at the Library,

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

And The Living Is Easy

I was away on vacation for a week but now I’m back. I’d like to share with you a few things that happened while I was away. We spent the week at a family camp in Vermont. The camp has been operating each summer since 1890. We stayed in a tent that was perched right above the water. So we went to sleep to the lapping of the lake and awoke each morning to the same sound. We played games, chatted, cooled off in the lake (I’d have to call what we did bobbing rather then swimming) and read. And on a few evenings we spent time in the camp’s library.

The library building has a plaque on the outside that denotes the architect and the date of construction. This camp has had a private operating library for almost 100 years. There is no official librarian and the use of the library is strictly on the honor system. I do remember about twenty years ago there being a sign-out sheet for the books, but I don’t recall seeing that this year. Perched on the mantle of the fireplace and on the top of some of the book shelves there are photos and memorabilia from bygone times. There is also a telescope and a globe. I’d say there is about 7,000 to 8,000 items in the circulating collection.

The collection has some non-fiction but tends more towards adult fiction. What we now refer to as summer reading; which is a funny term to denote a genera. But like many informal descriptors it’s also a perfect term. No heavy tomes here, lots of murder mysteries and sinister conspiracies. For some reason, we now feel its okay for folks to not read for intellectual improvement during the summer. We get to kick back, loosen our shirts and enjoy reading just for the fun of it. What a great idea! Of course, if you’re at the shore or sitting in a glider in the shade its tough to read something serious. And if someone jumps in the water right in front of you and the book gets splashed the wrinkled pages just add to the experience. Besides it’s usually a paperback so no blood, no foul. Except for the squashed mosquitoes you find every few pages entombed forever between two covers. A reminder of life and death struggles from summers past.

We spent a few evenings in the library. Right around twilight the bugs would come out and reading in the tent wasn’t all that pleasant. So off we ambled to the library with its light bulbs, screened windows, doors and other readers. Every evening we entered we joined about a half dozen others. Each of us observed a strict code of behavior. In all the time I was in that library I never heard anyone speak. Sometimes, if someone’s eyes glanced towards us as we entered we would nod. Silently, each of us quickly settled down and huddled over our selected find. The only sound was the creaking of chairs as folks came and went. After a bit the books would tend to slip and I would realize I had reread the last sentence a few times. I’d look up and see that others too were reading with their eyes closed. Their books resting on laps or chests with their heads tipped. I’m going to guess that that this scene had been repeated thousands of times, over almost a hundred years, each summer in this library. The only change this year was not in the type or person attracted to this place or this particular activity. It was the medium. Even the Kindle reader in our circle had a hard time staying up late to read after a full day in the summer.

See you at the Library,

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Here’s What I’m Talking About

Maybe I’m preaching to the choir here, but I just experienced an amazing piece of writing that could only have happened in the digital age.

I often post that books and digital ereaders or websites should not be compared in an either / or paradigm. I still believe that. And as a librarian, with the appropriate ALA certified graduate degree (MLIS, University of Alabama 2009) I am a strong believer in the idea that books can and do enrich mine or others lives. But sometimes online reading does things that a physical book cannot. And it does not matter how durable, portable and accessible a physical book is; because the work by its very nature is static and finite. Notice I said “work” not the ideas or concepts found within the book. Whatever is between the covers once it is published is all there is going to be. And that limitation is where a physical book ends and where virtual reading starts.

Here is what happened to me the other morning:

I was reading the electronic edition of the New York Times and saw a simple one line storyline in a sidebar, A History Lesson From An Errant Tombstone. “Okay” I thought, “I’ll bite.” I clicked the link and was sent to the City Room which is a blog written by Andy Newman. I read the post and then followed a link to the complete story: Tombstone on Sidewalk Leads to a History Lesson, here is a link to that article:

I strongly encourage you to click the link above and read the article yourself. I was completely taken by the story, the characters involved and the historical significance of the individuals written about.

But the story itself is not what I really wanted to post about today. What I want to post here is how incredible it is that I was able to come across the blog post in the first place, follow the digital trail to the complete article and then inform you about it. This is something that a physical book, magazine or newspaper simply cannot do. You can have footnotes, you can have references and you can add pages of appendixes. But all of that added content is limited. Nor can you easily edit or update and then publish as you can in a virtual domain.

Here is another aspect: when I clicked on the initial link I was sent to a blog. As we all know blogs simply didn’t exist fifteen years ago. It is a form of writing that originated from a digital / virtual setting. Without the web we won’t have blogs. Without the blog I might never have seen the article.

In addition the article had a multi-media component to it. Along with the article I saw photographs, a slide show and a PDF document. I could enlarge the photos. I could save the photos on my computer. I could zoom in on the PDF document so that it was easier for me to read. I could rollover the PDF to investigate different parts for myself. I could save the PDF electronically if I choose to. I could do all these things and more. None of which I can do with a traditional book.

Here is one last thought. I can also make the article and all of it’s contents available to you, for free at the SLFL, instantaneously. Or you can access this blog and the article on your home or work computer, Blackberry, mobile device or cell phone. This blog is published and available worldwide. Where a traditional book stops the digital world starts; digital domains extend all of the attributes of a traditional book and then goes beyond to the limits of our curiosity and immagination. And when it does it is readers, people like you and me, who benefit.

See you at the Library,

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

What The Author Intended

I recently saw a copy of an illustration by Norman Rockwell. The work is entitled “--And Daniel Boone Comes to Life on the Underwood Typewriter”. I think the illustration captures a number of ideas for both readers and writers. Like many people who read I feel that while the writer of a book provides the reader with their own idea(s) of the characters and events that make up a story, it is then up to the reader to make the work real to her/himself. Even when a writer is very good and provides the necessary description to bring the tale to life in the readers mind, the reader still needs to do the putting together. And to also put things together in a way that is not only appealing but also acceptable to the reader. Not an easy task. Sometimes this means the reader has to suspend disbelief or credibility for a bit to make things work. That’s okay. This idea of the reader being a crucial part of the process is the main criticism of why movies are different and not as good as books. The reader does the work of putting things together not the director, actors or production teams. But do we always put things together as the author meant? I’m not sure. Two people can have very different ideas as to what a character will look like and what the primary motivations of that character are. Hopefully as we learn more about the character some of that ambiguity fades. But that is still up to the reader.

This also brings me around to a second idea. What happens when we learn too much about a character? I’m talking non-fiction here. I’ll continue using Daniel Boone as my example. A number of years ago I read Boone A Biography by Robert Morgan. I really enjoyed the work. I thought Morgan did a great job of not only informing the reader but I also felt that I traveled with Boone during his entire, eventful life. Here is the rub: I also found out that during the Revolutionary War Boone spent most of his time wandering around in what was then the wilderness and that he was not a strong advocate for American Independence. I also discovered that Boone was an ardent slave holder his entire life. Now how do I reconcile the “Opener of the West” the arch-typical American frontiersman, the hero of generations with these two facts? I can’t.

And maybe that was one of the things that Morgan intended with his work. Interesting books, much like interesting people, usually don’t fit into tidy letterboxes. Maybe one of the hallmarks of a good read in fiction is that the author gives you only just enough information so that there is some confusion and you as the reader have to deliver the goods yourself. In Morgan’s non-fiction work maybe one of his goals in writing about Boone was to shatter some of the stereotypes that have grown up around Boone and to let us know that historic figures are really strikingly similar to current day people. These people are a reflection of the times, for good or ill and that they are, like us responding to events that surround them. Of course, some respond with a greater impact then others. These characters are rarely simple, one dimensional characters and that they can lead complicated, rather messy lives at times. Just like you and me.

See you at the Library,

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Map As Compass

I’ve always liked maps. And I have always liked books that have maps in them. I do have preferences. A map as cover art is good. And a map of a fictitious world is useful, especially if the author is using land and city names that have lots of consonants and very few vowels. But my favorite map is that of a real place on the inside cover of a book, preferably a hard bound book.

Let me clarify a bit here. Those maps that depict the movement of peoples at war don’t really help me. I tend to think about the individuals involved instead of the groups. And maps that show broad sweeps of migration of people or species don’t help me much either. Weather maps are okay but they are usually time elapse drawings showing the movement of highs and lows and hurricanes or other types of storms. All of these devices are meant to help with the understanding of a book but, for me, they more often seem to confuse then make clear. And I don’t think I would want to keep referring to the inside cover of a book in order to keep up with the action of the story. I want the map to help me savior the story.

I think the use of a map can also gives credence to a story. It helps the reader picture what is taking place by giving them the where along with the who. If you can see the shape of the land and water you can also see how the story takes shape. Often the land or water itself is used as a character device in this type of book.

Maps may also help to clear up any misinformation that might arise in the readers mind while reading the book. You can follow the action of the story right there in black and white. The little hash marks you sometimes find showing the travels of the characters are helpful but not really necessary; unless the character is crisscrossing continents. The smaller the geographical area in question being depicted the better the map. But it can’t be too small. It has to be just the right size. Big enough so that you need a map to get a clear picture of the relation of things and characters but not so small that you could take in everything with a quick glance if you happened to walk into the story.

To walk into a story. Is that what we do when we read? I would think that it might be one way to describe a good book. When we read we go along with the characters and become an observer of all that happens. In a great book we are not unaffected observers. We care about the characters and the lives they lead. We are unable to influence the characters but they do affect us. Maybe not always in life changing ways but sometimes a book will do that to a person. A great or even merely good book changes our perception. It forces us to go beyond our own little world; to move into uncharted areas, to venture beyond our own thoughts and lives. And it has been my experience that when you do decide to go beyond one’s own neighborhood it is a good idea to bring along a map.

See you at the Library,