Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Libraries in the U.K.: a perfect storm?

As you probably have noticed, I read a lot about libraries in the U.K. Recently, articles and reports have come out with ideas about how to save libraries (coffee + Sunday hours?, interlibrary stock, online services and automated lending?) ... Meanwhile, random dudes hand out books on the Tube, which libraries could/should be doing!). Manifestos have been written; lines in the sand have been drawn.

Libraries in the U.K. have been experiencing a schism, a term recently employed in an excellent article in the Times. You could also call it an identity crisis of sorts: the question is, in the words of Andrew Motion, "shhh and fining or Starbucks and PCs." And the U.K. public has mostly fallen into the trap of believing libraries to be an either/or: as my favourite source of info about libraries in the U.K, Perkins the cat, writes on his blog, "we shouldn't polarise the argument into books or not books." Despite idol worship, we are not a format (as I keep saying; sorry if you've heard me say this a dozen times before. Maybe I should get a t-shirt): we are a service.

Many libraries, or sections within libraries, will always remain a source of uninterrupted quiet contemplation of the weath of historical knowledge, a place in which you can enjoy a silent communion with the entirety of recorded human thought. Many community-based libraries have already evolved to reflect changing communities; we sometimes forget that beyond what libraries represent as object or idol, they ultimately belong to the people. These people are a variable, diverse, sometimes-loud, quirky mass of humanity, and each one of them deserves to be honoured and provided for in their local community library. The other option is to return to the closed-stacks, one version of history library, where the conquerers' version of stories is preserved and libraries are not of the people, but of the elite. Not that the taxpayer model of public libraries doesn't have its issues, but it's the lesser of various evils.

One of the major hurdles facing community libraries worldwide is the lack of use by the (sweeping generalisation here!) 16-45 year old demographic. I've seen this myself, often enough, being smack in the middle of that age group. I struggle a lot with the whole movement to "cool up" the library, with pizza and pajama parties and gaming tournaments, but ultimately, being a repository for books is only one aspect of libraries - another is being a part of community life. The generations coming of age these days are lacking (some would say sadly) the sit-down-and-read-the-book-in-the-library "quality time" we used to have: well, see, that actually turned some people off libraries entirely, so it was never really working for us. Now, we have opportunities to get kids in the door by offering a variety of programs: once hooked, or at least interested, we hope they will remember us as a fun, safe place to visit, and untimately pick up a book or magazine. Frankly, I don't think we have much of a choice but to meet kids more than halfway: as the Times columnist points out, "my son has been inside the local branch once, our daughter isn't even a member." We (and I mean we as a society, as well as we as librarians) simply can't afford for this to be the future. Libraries do gain some members back in middle age and retirement, but not enough, and fewer and fewer will return, if they ever came at all. So what if our children's departments sound like "a kindergarten with all the singing and clapping"? Isn't that better than "children should be seen and not heard"? (I used to make the old joke about the separate children's library entrances of yore - I'm looking at you, Westmount of the 1910s - "Or not seen! And not heard!").

Another major hurdle, in the U.K. specifically, perhaps, is the "perfect storm" of circumstances that have conspired to put U.K. libraries in a specifically horrid situation: the economy is facing all the ugency of the American economy, library membership and use continues to drop, not rise, during the recession, U.K workplace culture has somehow missed the "customer service" revolution that swept across North American libraries in the past decade or so, and the government is without a proper structure for library services (or that structure is missing a unified, competent team in senior management, anyway).

Finally, to balance everything out, we need to be awkwardly funding both small, specific community libraries and larger, district or regional libraries: the latter can necessarily have more of the "communion" factor due to sheer architectural possibilities, and are essential in supporting the local branches and providing/maintaining the idea of a library (as place, as repository) in popular, modern culture. Yes, Alan Gibbons, the "shiny city centre book palaces" belong somewhere, too, but Gibbons is correct in lampooning U.K. officials for not making a commitment (backed with cash) to local libraries within a "reasonable travel distance" from people's homes. Not that I'm chastising them for recently weeding en masse, but perhaps there needs to be a scheme, too, for keeping one copy of Dickens per ... what? 10 miles? Jeesh.

Maybe I will close with a quote from a good friend and colleague of my mother's. This is about faith, kids, but I think the idea applies here. Are we respecting the tradition of libraries, or are we being traditionalists? Are we building or defending dead libraries, or libraries that can live and thrive in the 21st century?

"Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.'
- Jaroslav Pelikan

Whatever happened to...

... me reading poetry regularly? I swear, sometimes I hate myself. Last poetry book I read = something by Canada's George Murray. Prior to that, God, I don't know, something new-ish from Atwood? That's horrible. Oh, no, wait, it was Liar by Lynn Crosbie. But I still suck.

Luckily, the Guardian keeps me from utterly deteriorating into the lowest possible form of human life. Today, "Thrift," by Ted Hughes award winner Alice Oswald.

"So she made substance out of / lack of substance. / Hard of hearing, / she thrived on silence."

Goldman Sachs + Battery Park

... a match made in heaven? You know, this is like those bad marriages, after which people say, "Well, I'm grateful for the children...." I'm grateful for the library.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

DDC vs. world, Round 4, 684

Librarians were packed in like sardines at PLA (apparently; I wasn't there) to hear how Rangeview Library District, Colorado and the Maricopa County Library District, Arizona, tossed out Dewey in favour of "systems based on the BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communication) subject headings."

I'm still very skeptical about this, but I do appreciate putting all poets together, regardless of nationality, come to think of it.

Dewey can also be a mess for some areas: biographies, anyone? True crime? This is reflected in the collections that have seen better circ since the changes at Rangeview: "circulation of biographies has doubled in most locations. Teen nonfiction has tripled. Also booming is test preparation. “People weren't finding that stuff in Dewey,” Rangeview's collection development manager said.

Monday, March 29, 2010

TDSB faces another challenge

I am far, far too angry to comment about this: A news story surfaced this weekend about The Shepherd’s Granddaughter, by Anne Laurel Carter, being challenged in the Toronto area after appearing on the OLA's Forest of Reading list. Apparently, the book “has clear potential to incite hatred and violence against Jewish and Israeli students,” says the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, as quoted in the Star. There are calls for the book to be removed from Ontario classrooms.

This is the book that won (see press release) the 2009 CLA Book of the Year for Children Award, a prize that I judge.

If I start writing, I will rant, and I have had a long day at work already (P.S. It was my first day back at Rideau Branch! I unpacked my 8 boxes, visited a local French school to present at a staff meeting, covered the evening desk shift, and caught up with a few staff members. More formal meetings tomorrow...). I will simply remind you that I had the pleasure of being present when Anne won our award, and I was deeply moved by her speech. I will refer you to my post about it. To engage with this type of book challenge would be to give it more weight, but I am tempted to remind the Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, or B'nai B'rith, that Anne went kibbutzing twice, and that her views about the Mideast conflict were changed by talking to actual Palestinian families, and by working with the Institute for Community and Organizational Development, Rabbis for Human Rights, and the Tamar Institute. We would all do well to spend more time learning about others, rather than fearing them and inciting hatred. But then, I thought that was obvious, and I'm consistently surprised.

The lovely Patsy Aldana of Groundwood says it best, in a press release reprinted on Quillblog:
"In fact there are a number of very sympathetic Jewish and Israeli characters in the book, but they represent a point of view more commonly found in Israel than at B’nai B’rith — concern for Palestinians whose houses and villages are torn down to make way for the settlements that are considered illegal by most countries in the world. No less a figure than James Loney, who was held hostage in Iraq by extremists and who works for Christian Peacemaker Teams, has praised the book for its balance. The librarians of Ontario who selected this book for the Forest of Reading program and the librarians of the Canadian Library Association (not the same people) who gave it the award for the best children’s book of the year can hardly be characterized as people who are enemies of Israel."

Ya, I know, I was all "I'm not talking about it," but I'm totally talking about it.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Like "watching Avatar without the glasses"

I got through my last day at St-Laurent. It was strangely quiet: well, the usual suspects showed up (the cranky teacher who thinks I hate her because I refuse to be her minion and pick out every single book about Easter for her STAT, the befuddled teacher who can't figure out how to reserve her own books, the teens wanting manga at 5:58 - we close at 6, the little boy crying when he has to leave, the girl wanting books about Paddington because she saw our stuffed Bear) but overall, it could have been far crazier. The comparative quiet meant I actually got my work done - done, done, done, as in "going to Rideau with a clear head and a (mostly) blank slate." Hooray!

This evening I went to a book launch for The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag: A Flavia de Luce Mystery, by Alan Bradley. I previously wrote here about The Sweetness At The Bottom of The Pie, which I loved. Maybe it was the emotional up and down of this week, but I walked into Nicholas Hoare with a feeling of almost homesickness, remembering the many, many launches I had attended at Nic Ho on Greene, and remembering working in the Ogilvy store myself for three years. Three wonderful years, actually - I got a nice discount, got to read at work, and was surrounded by the smell of new books and a diverse cast of characters who were lively, creative and passionate about literature and art (Dan hand-sold the most Ishiguro one summer; Miriam introduced me to Dusty Springfield; Luca taught me how to pronounce Paul Auster - um, don't ask...).

Bradley himself was more or less exactly who I expected: a regular guy (doesn't look his age, which is 71 if you're wondering), somewhat quiet, likeable. He talked about how Flavia came into his life (she intruded on another story, where a major character came across her and inquired what she was doing. When she replied she was taking down license plate numbers, he observed, can't be getting very far, can you? To which she replied, well, I have yours).

He then read from the new book (photo below) and took questions, which ranged from the ridiculous (is a certain character going to cook better in the new book?) to the fascinating (apparently two members of the audience have a young poisoner at home, rather like our Flavia). Every so often, I ask something (not very often). Tonight I asked Bradley about the setting: I had read that he had never visited England, although the novels are so steeped in small-town English life it's unreal. He replied that yes, he had never been there, but was raised in a house full of English expats, and he "grew up reading Punch, and The Strand," and "dreamed of England at night." Then, "minutes after winning the Daggar," he was on the plane to London. Upon arrival, he felt like he was "watching Avatar without the glasses," walking around a city at once familiar and utterly different, as though the London of literature was superimposed upon the modern one. He walked around lost for a bit, and then suddenly it came together, and he says he visited all the literary haunts, wandering streets (he says he didn't go underground once).

A lovely evening, shared with the affable Sean from Writer's Fest, and a fellow librarian re-discovered serendipitously in the audience.

More on Keats, this time by Helen Dunmore

I wish I could write a line like this:

"Keats knew that you could write with a nectarine in one hand, and the juice would run into a poem."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

You're my lobster!

That's a really old reference. Seetha, where are you when I need you?

Actually, this has nothing to do with Phoebe's lobster theory. It has everything to do with how to survive A Long Day.

For me, this was a day in which I said goodbye to some wonderful colleagues, from the incomparable Miss Kristina to the absolutely lovely cleaning staff (dammit. I still didn't get to drive the zamboni....!). It was also a day in which I did my first staff evaluation as a supervisor (whew!) and put the finishing touches on the constant work-in-progress, the Children's Information Desk schedule. I then wrote approximately 7 million e-mails about various things after I am gone from St-Laurent (from displaying on the windowsill - don't do it! People want to see the light of day! - to strategies for the branch to take in 2010). This week I met with almost every full-time (and some part-time) staff member individually to talk about the transitions in our department. Tomorrow, 7 million more e-mails, pack my last box, clean my desk (I'm that kind of girl!) and ship on out.

You know what makes a day like this OK? Wearing your lobster sweater. He can keep you company after you say goodbye to people. He can give you courage doing your first staff evaluation. He adds a touch of whimsy to an otherwise fairly somber day.

Lobster, you're my lobster.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

London's literary landscape - on your iPhone

Well, I just might have to get a smart phone for my next visit: there is a free Get London Reading app, which "brings the locale you are in at any given moment to literary life."

We should be doing this in North America! I know Toronto has Project Bookmark, and another project, the name of which escapes me, where you can dial a number to hear snippets about local history on that spot, but we need an app!

Hughes in Poet's Corner

I'm pleased to read on this rainy Tuesday morning that Ted Hughes will be honoured with a memorial in the Poet's Corner, in Westminster Abbey (if you click through there, you can even hear the dean of the Abbey describe what form the memorial may take).

Monday, March 22, 2010


I was reading this last week in the paper (why do I never read the Work section? There were three good articles) and it really hit home. Me, worry? Dear readers, you know I never have that problem! I had already started to practice some of the techniques mentioned in the article: locating my senses, emotions and thoughts during the course of the day ("When you're listening to a co-worker, observe your own body language. Are you clenching a pen or reaching for your phone?" Me, clench a pen? Never!). Reading this only reinforces my efforts to continue to take a deep breath and focus on the now. I'm happy that it's spring and I can start running outside again, which helps me focus (and sleep better!) and also releases stress.

This is definitely going to be a week to focus on the now (I just typed "new" instead of "now" twice... Freudian slip?). It's my last week at the St-Laurent Branch - next Monday, I return, temporarily for now but hopefully that will change, to Rideau Branch, in a newly-created Acting position. I am really happy about this: I will be able to return to serving all ages in an urban setting. I have enjoyed my time at St-Laurent: it taught me a lot, and getting to know the staff here has been a gift. I also got to know myself better: I had my first "official" supervisory position, and I learned a great deal about interpersonal relations and being a leader.

On the other hand, I now know for sure that I'm not as happy in a position that serves children and teens exclusively. I enjoyed the focus in some ways (it's simply easier to concentrate on one segment of the population sometimes!) but I did miss adult services, especially adult readers' advisory, my first love. It was hard not to be as involved in that area for a year. I think the opposite would have been true: if I had been working exclusively in adults for a year, I would have missed children's services, but not as much.

So back I go, hopefully bringing back with me not only the six boxes of stuff (how does one accumulate so much?) but a new approach to supervisory work, and a new state of mindfulness.

What I've been reading:
  • Various articles about library services in England: letters to the editor, theories about wireless and weekend services, overall rants about the appalling statistics regarding library visits (verdict: #s are tanking), and much-needed levity (sweet! Washing machines? Can I come over? Mine's broken).
  • The Library Paraprofessional Movement and the Deprofessionalization of Librarianship, by the incomparable Rory Litwin: I am sorry to say that longer, academic articles often fail to hold my attention these days, but this one did, completely. I thought what Litwin pointed out about why librarianship is a semi-profession was interesting, and his overall thesis was well-put: "To the extent that service to clients by institutions ceases to be given by individuals who have a mastery of theory, a motivation focusing on intrinsic rewards, a commitment to the service objectives of the organization, a sense of accountability toward colleagues, and who are monitored by their professional peers, institutions are able to operate with greater economic efficiency, but are less helpful to the people who encounter them [...]. Deprofessionalization [...] represents a net loss of autonomy for front‐line library workers and a weakening of those professional values that are in conflict with managerial prerogatives and business methods, despite the apparently worthwhile increase in status that paraprofessionals currently seem to be achieving."
  • Just finished: Generation A (my first Coupland... and now I know why: I didn't like it! I found it overly clever, with annoyingly trite characters. I'll go with the Telegraph review: "Instead of being an alternative to the “babble” of the overloaded online world, the novel contains its own burdensome blurt of unnecessary information") and Catching Fire (sequel to The Hunger Games; excellent. Can't wait for #3 in August! The fact that a colleague left Fire in my mailbox at St-Laurent on Saturday reminds me how much I'm going to miss her). Just about to start a few Orange-listed books, including Roopa Farooki's latest.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Susan Juby cuts to the chase

... As much as I stand behind my post, I think she's also right:

" may have been a mistake to use books as a guide to life. This is because books misled me about a few things. Thanks to warm-hearted stories like Anne of Green Gables, I expected to encounter kindred spirits on every corner, as well as gruff but caring old people... Books hoodwinked me into believing a set of lies about what was and was not important in life. In books...having a good vocabulary was crucially important. When I went to school it turned out to be a serious liability. In books a lack of concern about clothes and personal appearance showed solid character. In school such unconcern spelled social disaster. In books knowing a lot about a lot of things...was admirable and likely to be rewarded. At school it pretty much guaranteed that everyone would think you were a show-off and a bore and would shun you. In books people were mostly nice, and the ones who weren't nice were easy to spot. In school villains were everywhere and they were well disguised."

(Excerpted from this).

Friday, March 19, 2010

Keats in Rome

I was reading about the recent fundraiser for the Keats-Shelley house in Rome, and it made me remember my visit there in 2002. It was on our first trip to Rome, and I was determined to make the requisite literary pilgrimages to the house and Keats' grave. Both surprised me by being rich experiences, filling out my trip in ways I had hardly imagined.

Like Alison, I found the house itself quite evocative, and moving. I drove myself crazy last night trying to remember where I stashed the photos from that visit, and, from what I can remember, the photos from inside the house, of which there were few (this happens when I'm really interested in something, or feel that taking photos might be disrespectful - I think in this case it was both), were blurry, flash-turned-off ones. Sorry, but you can take the virtual tour of the Salone (not for those prone to motion sickness). Alison mentions the view from Keats' window, especially, as bringing Keats off the page as a poet and into life as a real person. I felt much the same way there: somehow, the fact that the house is somewhat musty, cluttered and dark, and does little to play up the sensationalism of Keats' last days (25-year old Englishman tragically dies of TB!), made the scenes all the more powerful.

And, overall, I could hardly ask for a more peaceful, lush and enchanted place to be buried than in the Protestant cemetery. I certainly know where those photos are, since they made it into the album, and are in fact some of my favourites of all of our trips. First of all, you emerge from the Piramide metro station to find it has quite literally led you to a pyramid, now surrounded on all sides by modern traffic intersections. I can still remember the mix of historical vertigo and utter joy I felt when I saw it: hey, Kris, I don't mean to alarm you, but there's a pyramid in the middle of that intersection over there.

The pyramid of Cestius

The Pyramid of Cestius was built between 18 BC–12 BC as a tomb for Gaius Cestius Epulo, and is now one of the best preserved sites in modern Rome. Adding to my delight, it's now smashed right up against the Aurelian wall (well, it actually kind of looks like it ate part of the Aurelian wall for lunch) - this was apparently a cost- and time-saving measure when the Romans were building the wall (why waste precious stones on wall when there is a perfectly good pyramid to keep people out sitting right here?).

Then you get to the cemetery, called the Cimitero Acattolico in Italian, literally, the non-Catholics' cemetery. "It might make one in love with death / to be buried in so sweet a place," wrote Shelley. He's very nearly right. Added to the World Monuments Watch List in 2006, the cemetery, surrounded by a moat, is overflowing with lush trees, wild grasses, and white marble. From this deliciously illustrated magazine article, I learned that the cemetery was set up at the request of the ageing exile, James Stuart (yup, as in heir to the English throne), and that "the Vatican forbade the use of the symbol of a cross on any tombs, and, at least until the late 1870s, epitaphs could not contain any suggestion of “eternal bliss” which was relegated only to Catholics." Here you find epitaphs in English, Italian, Russian, Chinese, and Arabic (and more than ten other languages); artists, scientists, historians, diplomats, exiles, poets, and explorers lie side by side.

I've long been a wanderer in graveyards; it started when we lived in the country, and there were many local graveyards to walk the dog in, contemplate life, and escape the noise and bustle of Main Street (well, it was rue Principale, but you know what I mean). I don't think I ever encountered anyone else on my ramblings, and that was kind of the point. I still have fond memories of exploring the Anglican cemetery at Rougemont, and the cemeteries in and around Bedford and Mystic, and I still sometimes picnic in Macdonald Gardens Park, which I was strangely drawn to before finding out it used to be a cemetery, too. Not that these cemeteries aren't beautiful in their own way, and they all certainly had a sense of peace and reverence that I certainly responded to, but the Protestant cemetery in Rome was like all of these cemeteries on crack, for lack of a better analogy. It was one of the first times that the richness of history in Europe struck me. In Bedford or Rougemont, "old" graves would be those of the 1820s; in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, the earliest graves are only a century older, but the sense of history is amplified by the pyramid, and the Aurelian wall.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have to say one of the things that delighted me most about the cemetery (hey, when do you see "delight" and "cemetery" in the same sentence?) were the CATS. Yes, I mean felines. Strays, actually. You can see one at the gate above. Rome is known for its mangy cat population, and they really are everywhere, strutting around as though they owned the place, which, with their pus-filled eyes and dodgy hairballs, they kind of do. They have status as "biocultural patrimony" (stop doubting me! As if I could make this up! And you thought the colony at our Parliament was bad?! There's some perspective for you...). The cats stalk the cemetery, unwitting guardians, overseeing the tourists and defying gravity by perching on the wall and pyramid. Their presence adds an air of both gravity (these are cats of a certain lineage, you know) and whimsy.

Just when the smell of wild grass and pine needles overwhelms you, you come across Keats, Severn, and Severn's son (who died accidentally at the age of 1 - much has been made of the presence of an innocent child here, beside the great Romantic poet who celebrated the innocence of youth and barely shook it off himself). Keats has his harp, Severn his painter's palette, and the whole scene is equal parts art and artifice, and yet oddly none the less touching for being both.

Thanks to Alison for tipping off this flood of memories.

Keats' grave

Postscript: the cemetery is in a spot of trouble financially (and that's a bit of an understatement). Read more here.

Post-postscript: I had to take photos of these photos: they are from a non-digital camera, and my scanner is acting up today. That's how much I love you!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Anne Frank, after the diary (maybe)

What got me in this article was not even so much the connection (albeit tenuous, and debatable) to Anne, but the life story of the woman who claims to have heard her stories in Bergen Belsen, a woman who many years later kept a hidden crawl space in her home, presumably just in case. Simply heartbreaking.

CILIP Manifesto

Can you call anything a manifesto these days? Even a bunch of tepid statements of the obvious?

Among the tautological statements in CILIP's manifesto: "Promote and protect the rights of users within copyright law, Build a successful knowledge economy, and Preserve the UK's digital cultural heritage."

Although, I suppose I shouldn't mock - nothing is a statement of the obvious in a country where community libraries are quite often in great peril these days.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Revolt against minimalist library architecture?

Martha Nichols on the Cambridge main library reno: "I now find most of the rich clutter I love online rather than in a building like this."

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

1 out of 10 books unborrowed in Welsh libraries

Well, to be precise, 22% of books in Welsh and 9.8% of books in English.

I'm all for keeping the Welsh, as long as the collection is promoted, but weeding guidelines of zero circ in 7.6 years is just insanity.


The comments console me somewhat, in that at least people are talking about bigger issues here, such as the general use of fiction versus reference collections, and the location of material in the library proper. I snickered at the observation that the discrepancies in borrowing English versus Welsh had something to do with "an English-language fiction sector that generates huge quantities of books of dubious artistic merit [and] an extremely underdeveloped Welsh-language fiction sector, in which publishers that just aren't large enough depend on grants to publish a small proportion of the high-quality books they receive each year."

Dymuniadau gorau, Cardiff Central library. You'll need it.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Misogyny in (well-respected) books? Or not...

Interesting re-cap of issues with Larsson's books at Quillblog today. Interesting to me because I had very mixed feelings about this book when I first read it, about a year ago (at right, movie poster).

Start at the beginning: I was a hard-core mystery reader as a young girl. A steady appetizer diet of Nancy Drew, with a main course of almost the entire oeuvre of Ms. Christie. Now I can't read a lot of mystery: I find the tone of many contemporary mystery novels contrived, somehow forced. Reads like bad knockoff Dashiell Hammett.

So, I read Girl with a dragon tattoo, and I was sort of meh about it. When I wasn't being meh, I was getting kind of ick-ed out about the violence, despite what you would think would be de-sensitising doses of CSI, etc. (oh, no! My dirty secret is out now! And you thought I had taste...). While we're on the topic, actually, what is it with the massive amount of CSI-type shows largely depicting violent crimes against women? When did that become the main subject for mass-market evening TV shows? And what does it say about us that we watch them?

Sorry, sidebar. Larsson: There was something about the amount and the tenor of the violence in the book that struck me as odd. It was somehow devoid of emotion, in a way, and yet unrelenting. Rather like watching too many CSI reruns.

And then there was Lisbeth. She just never quite rang true to me, in a man-writes-in-a-woman's-voice-badly kind of way. I hate to be that kind of person, the type of person for whom that sort of thing matters, but in this case, it did (not in Matilda Savitch, btw, which I read recently, speaking of male authors maligned for writing in a woman's voice, or I guess in Matilda's case it would be a girl's voice). Lisbeth sounded off, and I couldn't believe in her, no matter what I tried to explain away as her personality issues or repressed emotional traumas.

Between Lisbeth sounding stereotypical and the violence sounding strangely gratuitous and yet lacking in emotion, the book just didn't sit well with me.

Even so, the Guardian's Viv Groskop almost had me at this quote:

"The book promotes a very Scandinavian sort of equality. The message I took from it was that gender is irrelevant. We behave the way we do because of our individual characters and personal histories. In Larsson’s world, it’s the psychopaths who split the world along gender lines. And, boy, do they get their comeuppance."

An unique interpretation, but I still wasn't sure if I was sold. If gender was so irrelevant, could we really see Lisbeth's characteristics belonging, to, say, a male character?

Then I wondered if it's similar to how some people are afraid of even saying that someone died: they have attached so much importance to the word that they have given it its own power, far more so than it deserves, thereby perpetuating a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy: it is scary and necessarily horrid because we say it is. Same thing with violence in novels (or wherever): we are afraid of portraying it because we are afraid of it. We worry that by reading Larsson we are somehow condoning the violent acts depicted - but why so with Larsson and not any other mystery writers? What has made the reading public react so strongly to his works?

I've read a bit about Larsson and I know he advocated for equal rights and was very involved in political activism against the right wing movement in Sweden. I somehow can't reconcile the two Larssons. Is Swedish writing so unfamiliar to me that I was able to completely misunderstand the tone of his three novels? I felt the same way about The unbearable lightness of being when I read it... as in, "um, guys, did no one else want to vomit a little at the portrayal of women here?"

I don't know where I'm going with this post, in all honesty. I think I'm just asking the questions, and wondering how you guys feel.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

I like me some contagions!

The NIH has a great online exhibit of public health posters. They are all wonderfully strange and utterly ridiculous - I can't even pick one favourite, although I think I would have to go with the Chinese diatribe against spitting (burn it! Burn it!!!). A propos of nothing, is it just me, or is the spitting problem actually getting worse? I see it all the time....

Also fascinating: the iconography key, and the evolution of ideas about sources of contagion and "safe" sex.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

This started out about LibraryThing but ended up as stream-of-consciousness

Hooray! It's Saturday! Pajamas at 1 pm!

No, seriously, this week kicked my butt. It involved a LANCR meeting in which I had to agree to be president for another term (but I did recruit 3 more people to the executive!), I trained one teen volunteer and interviewed another, I doggedly inspected core picture books in English for our yearly replacement list, I cobbled together a scrapbooking program for March Break next week, I hung out at Main Library's Collection Development department doing my CD work (always cool to be with these people, in what I believe to be one of the best-run departments in the library, nay, in the city), and my Algonquin students learned about buying serials.

Highlights of the week: the home-based book club girls discussed The adoration of Jenna Fox (thought-provoking). One girl said this was her fav. book club pick - YAY! I also had a heart-breaking but heart-warming discussion with one girl and her mom about the recent death of the girl's father. I gave her my contact info and encouraged her to talk to me anytime. Like me, she's an introvert. I said to her mom, you must still be numb, and she said it's like a nuclear explosion has occurred. Then I went into the washroom and I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I thought about where I've been and where I am, and I washed my hands, and I thought about who is or would be proud, and tried not to cry. On Friday, I attended my second Joint Professional Development Committee meeting (librarians across the OPL system) and not only survived without incident (last year was a lynching, and no, I don't want to talk about it. Amy blogged about this type of thing much better than I did. Or perhaps I'm just afraid of what I might say) but was inspired by a spoken word poet (stop. Watch this).

More on the general weirdness of this week next week, when I am actually allowed to talk about some stuff that happened. End results = good, but the winds of change blew westerly. That's all I can allude to now, dear readers!

I should absolutely not have whiled away the morning finishing The Hunger Games (amazing) reading my McGill SIS newsletter, starting Generation A (my first Coupland, I am ashamed to admit), and reading 200+ items in Google Reader. What was my point? Oh yes, I should be grading my student's assignments - they had to come up with a Collection development policy and build a selection list for a school library. I am behind, um, in the sense that I haven't started grading yet.

If you like me, are wasting time, I would recommend checking out the stats on LibraryThing, an excellent source of time-wasting, navel-gazing book geekiness.

I read 57.8% female and 42.2% male authors, of whom 81% are still alive (the latter surprises me, actually; I would have said more had kicked it). I also find the Vous et nul autre list interesting, not to mention charmingly-named.

Okay, okay, okay. Red pen, here I come....

New Bodleian reno

I'm sorry, but this artistic rendering depicts the same old fairly uninspiring and frankly kind of ugly building. I'm all for saving facades, but couldn't they have done something with the "well-equipped swimming bath," as described by Jan Morris in 1965?

It may be state-of-the-art preservation, but it certainly doesn't make the heart sing.

More photos here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Excuse me, I have to go to New York now...

"The oldest cultural institution in New York? Perhaps the Metropolitan Opera? Nope, 1880. The Metropolitan Museum? 1870. The New-York Historical Society? 1804. No, it appears to be an obscure little organization on East 79th Street called the New York Society Library, established in 1754."

Read it.

(I spent a few mins. just playing with the scrollbar on the photo - really cool. But that could be because it's late on a Thursday after teaching 2 hrs and working 8, and I'm work-stoned).

P.S. You know what else happened in 1754? Walpole coined the word "serendipity." The colonies in New England proposed a union. Thomas Bowdler, English physician (as in, bowdlerise), was born. You know, it was, like, a long time ago.

P.P.S. Can you tell I'm exhausted?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Reading motivations

Something that Elizabeth Gilbert said in a recent interview in Chatelaine struck me, and I've been meaning to blog about it for awhile. She was asked about the appeal of and the current "boom" in memoirs written by women (examples given in the interview included Lit by Mary Karr and the wonderful, heart-breaking The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Gilbert's answer was:

"I have a theory about this. My grandmother — who was pretty representative of women of her time — had to keep seven kids alive in the dust bowl during the Depression. She needed a disappearing place and she found that in books. She read fiction because reality was beating her down. My life does not have those same arduous challenges and it's easier in every way except one: I have a lot more choices than she had and life now is more confusing. I have my own autonomy, and every single day I have to organize my life in a way that my grandmother didn't have to. I don't think women today read for escape; they read for clues. The criticism of memoirs is that people read them to be voyeurs. But a lot of people read them for help and answers and perspective." *

I think this is really interesting - women read for clues. I think that's definitely part of it, and definitely something I do, not just with memoirs. Actually, I rarely read memoirs, so I can really only compare with my fiction reading. I wonder if it's more common for younger women to do what Gilbert describes, given that we lack wider life experience? I read A fortunate age and compare myself to the 20- and 30-somethings in it. Have I made the right choices? Did the characters turn out any better? I read Lynn Crosbie's brilliant, searingly horrible Liar long after I had been in the main character's situation (well, sort of) looking for answers: how did another woman deal with this? How should I? I read Zadie Smith's Changing my mind (particularly the section entitled "Feeling") thinking, Yes. Exactly.

Reviewing some of my recent reads on LibraryThing just now for this (2009; 2008), I am wondering now if I don't sometimes subliminally choose novels for pleasure reading in which the main characters have worse lives than me? Or is it just that when I read about people my age, they have very diverse lives? These days, 20- and 30- somethings (I'm right on the edge, in case you're wondering why I keep using both) can be married with kids, still in school, still in their parents' basement, or already divorced. So even more than ever, some of us need clues, or company, or answers. Or all of the above. I suppose to some of my readers who know me in person think I seem very self-assured, but I'm right there, searching, just like everyone else, I guess. Especially in this year, when I turn 30 (I'm not hung up over it, but it is a time to evaluate where you are in life...). I tend not to confide a lot in friends, so I turn to other sources, mostly books, for perspective sometimes. I wonder if memoir readers tend to be a bit like that in general?

And I guess that diversity of life choices is not even a 20- or 30- something concern. Just like that Barnes quote I mentioned last week ("Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren't"). As Gilbert says, she has "a lot more choices than [her grandmother] had and life now is more confusing."

So confusing that sometimes it's tempting to bury one's head in the sand and give up. And so, at the other end of the spectrum in terms of reading motivation is Literacy and longing in LA by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack (known as The Book Lover in the UK). I read this a few years ago, and I don't usually read chicklit, but this was better than most (but still not really great. It's the type of book I read in a blitz, like eating a whole bag of chips in one sitting. Blargh....).

Anyway, on point here. It's about a woman, Dora, who suffers from what she terms bibliomania (crap, I just Googled that an it's apparently an actual OCD! Although, you know, jury's out until I see it in the DSM...). She deals with her life (separation from husband, loss of job) by going on a book reading binge, something she has done before but now does in a quite extreme way, prompting interventions from her sister and others. Dora's use of literature as drug ends up keeping her from actually living; she manages to avoid dealing with the problems in her life by literally holing herself up in the bathtub with a pile of books.

[Sarcastic sidebar: I would be in real danger if I had this kind of disposable income, to a) purchase books indiscriminately and b) hole myself up in a bathtub and not have to worry about, say, working for a living.]

I think I do this, also, just not to the same extent. Sometimes I do feel like (again, if I had the means!) I could slip into obsession. I certainly get panicky enough when I have nothing left to read, no "emergency pile" at home or at work. I read to avoid worrying, to avoid obsessing, and maybe sometimes to avoid actually going out. But then, I was never much for going out.... I don't know.

I guess I'm asking, What do you think about Gilbert's observations, and Dora's obsessions? What are your own reading motivations?

* Citation for the Gilbert interview: Giese, Rachel. "EAT PRAY, LOVE... REMARRY." Chatelaine 83.2 (2010): 102. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 10 Mar. 2010.

Probe International

Dudes, I know, I'm going on about Toronto. Last thing, promise.

We went to the Green Beanery (can't remember where we heard about it). Did you know that the café is part of Probe International, one of Canada's largest federally registered charities? Probe is a local charity, founded in the Annex!

Check it out next time you're in Toronto.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Library wanderings in Toronto

(now with more bookstores!)

Another RA meeting, another chance to explore TPL renos. This past weekend, we visited the Bloor/Gladstone Branch of TPL, which re-opened in July of last year after closing in 2006 for a renovation and expansion. This branch, one of TPL's oldest (opened in 1913 as Dovercourt, a much better name in my opinion...!), nearly doubled in size with the addition of a large modern glass block on the west side. Also, to improve accessibility, the inner and outer staircases were removed and patrons now enter on the lowest level of the library.

I quite liked the marriage of old and new; I am a total sucker for those old buildings that keep the formerly outer wall intact (see also: TPL's Yorkville Branch). I think they did a magnificent job in the lobby, and the 2nd floor landing, where you can stand and look down into the renovated lobby, is a highlight (a 7 yr old was soaking up the view while we visited). I also quite liked the placement of holds (in an alcove with community and library info - photo here). I liked that the former was stored in a binder - this is something I am doing at St Laurent: the valuable poster space on the wall is for library programs first and foremost! The only thing I didn't like about where the holds were was that you didn't have to pass any collections (well, some display cubes, but that's all) on the way; in my mind, that's like grocery stores putting the milk at the entrance: why waste an opportunity to make people walk through your location?

The branch also featured a listening station in the teen section, which was cool. Um, about the teen section. Have a look at this photo I took. I think some good ideas backfired a bit: the addition of the TV has turned the area into a .... loitering spot for non-teens, let's just say. I caught a strong whiff of alcohol while I was setting up the photo. Which is a pity. Don't get me wrong - I am glad that people are in the library, and happy to welcome anyone, no questions asked, but I think that an area specifically designed for teens should be safe for teens. I recently read on the YALSA blog that NYPL Teen Central spaces are reserved for teen use only; if staff see an adult sitting there, he/she will be asked to move. Pretty hard-core, but then, not entirely a bad idea. I would prefer signage or something, rather than having to police the area (but then I say that because my teen zone is behind me, with a glass wall in between us).

The branch also featured a great use of LCD projector: projecting historical photos as well as current information above the Newcomer information desk (photo here). The architectural firm involved in the reno also has some lovely photos of the renovation here.

The other library I visited was the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. I've been to Robarts many a time, mostly for the U of T FIS job fairs, but never quite made it to the other tower.

Recently, I discovered that a good friend of mine worked researched there as a student, and I was inspired to really make the effort to visit (despite the - ahem - restrictive opening hours, which I completely understand, but are nonetheless annoying if you're me).

We didn't roam through the collection, which is vast and impressive. We instead took in the current exhibit, which was "Caterpillars and Cathedrals: The etchings of Wenceslaus Hollar," which was lovely in its minutiae. What was also lovely to behold was that a library could so deftly overcome its Brutalist shell to be quite beautiful in the end.

Sidebar: TFRBL has Gwendolyn MacEwen's papers, and I am a big fan of novelist and poet MacEwen, once a rival to Atwood, now largely unknown outside CanLit circles. MacEwen is perhaps best known for her poem, "Dark pines under water", from 1972's The Shadow Maker, which was voted by LRC as one of Canada's most memorable poems:

This land like a mirror turns you inward
And you become a forest in a furtive lake;
The dark pines of your mind reach downward,
You dream in the green of your time,
Your memory is a row of sinking pines.

Explorer, you tell yourself this is not what you came for
Although it is good here, and green;
You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,
You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.

But the dark pines of your mind dip deeper
And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper
In an elementary world;
There is something down there and you want it told.

So, I was more than thrilled to see the bust of MacEwen at TFRBL, and to have a short conversation about her with the library staff member who greeted us.

While on campus, we also visited the Hart House Library (best. ceiling. ever.), which reminded me distinctly of the Birks Reading Room (it could simply have been because of the creaky floors), spent far, far too long in the U of T bookstore, and came serendipitously upon a Toronto Legacy Project plaque for Robertson Davies (since you probably can't read that, it says "The novelist Robertson Davies, 1913-1995) lived here from 1963-1981 as the first master of Massey College").

Monday, March 8, 2010

Toronto city museum

I was reading the Star this weekend, and there was a really interesting article about the (apparently stalled) attempt to build a Toronto city museum, called Humanitas. I say stalled, rather than failed, because the Star reports that the idea is being brought up again (after originally gaining momentum in 07-08), with possible plans to buy the Old City Hall as a site (if you follow that link, I promise a whole section of the site is devoted to gargoyles!).

Meanwhile, I found it interesting that you can also visit the new Toronto Museum Project website, where you can zoom in on various artefacts from the city's rich history.

As you may have gathered from my frequent Toronto-related (OK, let's face it, TPL-related) posts, I am a frequent visitor to Toronto. I used to have really mixed feelings about the city; I had visited Mississauga numerous times (don't ask ... it involved a boy...), and spent a few days with a friend's dad who lives in Kensington Market (a time of which I have very fond memories of visiting Hart House, spending time in cafés, and getting seriously sunburnt while reading Go tell it on the mountain).

Over the past five years, Toronto has really grown on me, especially since I moved away from Montreal, actually, and also since visiting with my husband, who lived there for quite some time before we met. I think discovering neighbourhoods makes a big difference to your experience of Toronto. I also think living in Ottawa made me appreciate the bigger city more (I miss Montreal desperately, and visiting either Montreal or Toronto is a welcome change from home). I now am there quarterly for my OPLA RA committee meetings; I really enjoy exploring the lesser-known destinations such as Mackenzie House (photo here). Now, thanks to the Star, I was reminded that there are many other small museums I can check out next time.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Smorgasbord Saturday

OK, well, it was Smorgasbord Saturday, but ye olde "save as draft" feature got to me. Here it is, as slightly stale smorgasbord!

Friday, March 5, 2010

CLA 2010 Book of the Year for Children Award Shortlist

The top 10 list is up!

Most of the ones I read (but not all... somehow only 36 of 51 got tagged.... I don't know what I did there) are here.

File under: Teh internetz is taking over

Um, the Shorty Awards? For top users of Twitter, apparently.... Won by a Montrealer (among others).

I have nothing nice to say, but I will passive-aggressively link to this!

Thursday, March 4, 2010 First Novel Award

Some goodies are up for this award, including....

  • No Place Strange by Diana Fitzgerald Bryden (Key Porter Books)
  • Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant (Knopf Canada) - loved it! I was just saying to some colleagues last night (we were discussing the fact that it's also on CLA's YA award top 10 list) that it's another of those great YA/adult crossover titles (Life of Pi, Curious Incident...)
  • The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon (Random House Canada) - I really have to make time for this one......
  • Goya’s Dog by Damian Tarnopolsky (Hamish Hamilton Canada)
  • Diary of Interrupted Days by Dragan Todorovic (Random House Canada)
  • Daniel O’Thunder by Ian Weir (Douglas & McIntyre)

Quote for the day

I just read this in the Guardian and it really moved me:

"Julian Barnes [...], explaining how books can help us steer through the tricky waters of life, said in Flaubert's Parrot: "Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren't.""

No kidding.