Category Archives: Library and Information Science

Pleasantville Public Library

In the 1998 movie Pleasantville starring Toby Maguire and Reese Witherspoon, David is a dorky high school student obsessed with an old black and white TV show called “Pleasantville.”  The show is set in 1958 and depicts a small town that proudly upholds family values, and has no homelessness and no inclement weather.  David and his sister Jen are transported into the show as the main character, Bud, and his sister Mary Sue.  The two must navigate this scarily “pleasant” world until they figure out how to return to the present day.  Jen in particular is quickly exasperated by the wholesome naïveté of Pleasantville residents.  She boldly invites the star of the high school basketball team to accompany her to Lover’s Lane, and after their evening together he starts to see in color.  Slowly, as a result of Jen’s and David’s presence, more and more of the townspeople begin to change from black, white and gray to vivid color.  The shift from black and white to color signifies an awakening for the character, and each character turns to color for different reasons.

The librarian in Pleasantville is significant by his/her absence.  On their first day in Pleasantville, David and Jen attend school and Jen ends up in the library only because she “got lost.”  Once there, she discovers that all of the books are blank.  The implication is that no one in Pleasantville has need of information, nor for a librarian.  Certainly, Jen’s classmates lack curiosity about the world outside of Pleasantville; their geography class focuses onMain StreetandElm Street, Pleasantville’s two major roads.

The books begin to fill in once more young people start to change into color.  They are suddenly more inquisitive and demonstrate critical thinking skills.  In one scene, the young people are queued up outside the library.  Jen (as Mary Sue) changes into color as a result of reading.  Some of the townspeople remark incredulously, “Now they’re going to the library!” and one man even responds, “Someone ought to do something about that.”   A town council of black and white people decides that “the area known as Lover’s Lane and the library are closed until further notice” while the elementary and high schools will teach the “non change-ist view of history.”

Once things start to become colored in Pleasantville, the library represents change and intellectual freedom, which some characters feel is inherently dangerous.  A book burning is depicted, with black and white characters looting the library and tossing the books into a bonfire in the street outside the building.  The characters who participate support the mayor who is the most resistant to any changes in Pleasantville.  The mayor argues that the values that make Pleasantville great are threatened by such scandalous acts as “thinking.”

Ultimately, the Pleasantville library is a positive force in the town; it is seen as a center of civilization and culture from which beauty springs forth.  By the end of the movie, the entire town ofPleasantvilleis in full color, and even with an uncertain future looming before them, the residents are happy.

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Albus Dumbledore is a Censor

In honor of Banned Books Week 2011, a reflection on censorship and Harry Potter:

For more than a decade, discussions of children’s literature, libraries and censorship inevitably mention Harry Potter.  However, those discussions rarely—if ever—feature an analysis of the library and incidents of censorship within the series itself.  J.K. Rowling offers much to consider on both counts:

Madam Irma Pince, the librarian at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where Harry Potter receives six years of magical education, is described as a “thin, irritable woman who look[s] like an underfed vulture” (CS 163).  Forever “suspicious” of the students (CS 164), she “has been known to add unusual jinxes to the books in her care” (QA).  J.K. Rowling characterizes (and even names) Madam Pince with the stereotype of an old maid librarian whom the students think is “barking mad” (HBP 307).  A guardian of “her” books (QA), Madam Pince is often “breathing down [students’] necks” (SS 198).  She “brandish[es] a featherduster” at Harry during his very first visit to the library and demands, “What are you looking for, boy?” (SS 198).  Years later Madam Pince bewitches Harry’s own school books to whack him repeatedly over the head when she discovers Harry eating chocolate in the library (OP 655).  Though Harry and his friends frequent the library during their school years, they never ask Madam Pince for her help in their research.  Rather, they avoid her and discover information on their own.  They approach her on only one occasion, when they need her to retrieve a book from the Restricted Section.  Thus, as a character, the information professional is superfluous to the Harry Potter story, and Madam Pince ultimately reinforces the negative stereotype of a librarian.

The Hogwarts library, however, is essential to the plot of the entire Harry Potter series.  On two occasions (SS & GF), Harry uses his invisibility cloak to sneak into the library after hours to do research, and Harry’s best friend Hermione Granger spends more time in the library than any other main character.  Hermione, the best student in Harry’s class, utilizes the library not only for schoolwork, but also to research issues of personal interest and to help Harry as he confronts various challenges.  Indeed when Harry and Hermione, along with Ron Weasley, prepare for their most dangerous challenge in the final book, Ron jokes that the three will be “hunting down Voldemort in a mobile library” (DH 95).  By continually referring to the library (or books retrieved from the library) as a source of key information, Rowling highlights the significant contribution of a library to one’s formal and informal education.

The most referenced and quoted incident of censorship in the Harry Potter series occurs when Ministry of Magic representative turned Hogwarts professor Dolores Umbridge instates “Educational Decree Number Twenty-seven,” banning an alternative magazine called The Quibbler which features a controversial interview with one Mr. Harry Potter.  As Hermione points out, “if [Umbridge] could have done one thing to make absolutely certain that every single person in [the] school will read [Harry’s]  interview, it was banning it!” (OP 582).  Rowling reveals the ineffectiveness of censors and the shrewdness with with young people circumvent them.

Another, less noticeable incident of censorship serves as a significant plot point in the series:  Rowling reveals that Tom Riddle, who becomes the dark wizard Voldemort, learned a great deal of dark magic from books in the Hogwarts library.  In the case of Horcruxes, which involve murder, “Voldemort g[ets] all the instruction he need[s] from [a library book]” (DH 102).  Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore removes all of the Horcrux books from the library, but not until well after Tom Riddle has attained access to them.  Here, Rowling illuminates an ethical dilemma for librarians in regard to equal access to information:  when he is underage, Tom Riddle uses information he found in the school library to commit crimes against other people; Dumbledore makes the choice to censor that information by removing it from the library collection, yet Harry and his friends have no hope of defeating their foe without access to that same information.

Considering the psychology of the censor, Dumbledore’s decision merits deliberation:  Dumbledore consistently demonstrates wisdom and is widely believed to be a talented educator and leader, yet he freely admits to weaknesses, to the capacity for grave errors in judgment.  Certainly Dumbledore has his critics.  Does this example make a case for some censorship being acceptable?  Moreover, the Hogwarts library contains the aforementioned Restricted Section (which is where the material in question was shelved in the first place):  is this, in effect, a form of censorship that is acceptable? 

Key:

SS=Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

CS=Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

GF=Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

OP=Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

HBP=Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

DH=Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

QA=Quidditch Through the Ages

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Ontology in Library Science

Today I’m letting my inner nerd out to play…

Wordle: ontology in library science As part of my library science education, I spend a lot of time thinking about words, words, words.  Words as labels, key words, language, natural language, artificial language, ambiguity, conciseness.  In Peter Morville’s Ambient Findability which is all about information, information seeking and information access, I was delighted to run into Ludwig von Wittgenstein, the crazy philosopher genius who suggested language is insufficient to convey meaning (love him!):

Wittgenstein argued, “the root cause of…ontological challenges lies not only in semantics but also in the underlying logic of classification:  Consider for example, the proceedings we call games.  I mean, board games, card games, ball games, Olympic games, and so on.  What is common to them all?” (Morville 2005, 133)

It’s part of an information specialist’s job to identify the commonality in documents or artifacts, and duly classify and catalog them so that others may access the information.

I don’t aspire to be a cataloger but it is an aspect of any librarian’s work to understand these things.  And I couldn’t resist indulging in a bit of philosophical musing since the topic of ontology itself (the study of the nature of being, existence or realityreminded me of reading Descartes in Philosophy 101.  It became an exercise in precise langauge:

I pulled Joel Feinberg’s Reason and Responsibility off my bookshelf, thinking I would revisit Descartes’ musings on the melted candle and quickly discovered that “melted candle” was my own interpretation of Descartes’ discussion in “Meditation II” from “Meditations on First Philosophy”—Descartes does not use the word candle.  Rather he uses the word “wax.”  Now, with my curiosity piqued, I decided to google “Descartes melted candle” to see if the results would pull up “Meditation II” or if I would need to change my query.

Search terms play a huge role in accessing information.  The first result in my google search took me to “Meditation VI,” not “II.”  More interestingly, the third result was a paper discussing the very fact that Descartes uses the word “wax” rather than “candle!” Then I opened a new tab so I could change my query to “Descartes wax,” and the first result this time was the Wikipedia article on Descartes which mentions his “Wax Argument.”

Because I’m a word geek, I consulted my handy paperback copy of The Merriam-Webster Dictionary New Edition and looked up “wax” (a yellowish plastic substance secreted by bees for constructing the honeycomb) and “candle” (a usu. slender mass of tallow or wax molded around a wick that is burned to give light).  The definition of “candle” led me to consider the following:

On my mantle, there is a mass of wax molded around a wick—is it a candle if the wick has never been burned?  Does a candle’s existence depend upon the wick being burned and the wax being melted?  Or is the potential for the burning and melting sufficient to bring the candle into existence?  The definition of “wick” reads, “a loosely bound bundle of soft fibers that draws up oil, tallow or wax to be burned in a candle, oil lamp or stove.”

So I suppose it is a candle, then, that reposes between the Tibetan song bowl and the Our Lady of Fatima figurine, but my understanding of a candle and a wick are that each relies upon the other for its own existence, or sense of being.

My contemplation of candles and wax led me to wonder, are information and accessibility also inextricably linked?  In order to be information, must a given document be accessible?  Or is the does the document’s existence render it “information” regardless of whether a person can access it?

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