Category Archives: Reflections

My Summer of Reading

ImageI didn’t mean to create a book tower but earlier in the summer I stacked a couple titles on my nightstand after I’d finished them and I’ve been adding on over the past several weeks.  Total so far: 35. Now if I could just discipline myself to write about what I read this whole reading blog thing could really come together for me…

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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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Ten Years Later

When I was a kid, one of my ambitions was to become famous and have my birthday declared a national holiday.  Not so much in the vein of Washington or Lincoln, but perhaps in the way that Theodore Geisel’s birthday is celebrated as Read Across America Day.  So on that Tuesday morning ten years ago, in the midst of my dismay, I thought, “This is not what I meant at all.”

Where were you?

My older relatives tell stories about where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination or Martin Luther King, Jr’s.  For a brief period of time the only vaguely similar experience I had was the news of Princess Diana’s fatal accident.  I didn’t know what it felt like to live with such an indelible before and after.

My roommate Velika woke me up that morning after having taken a phone call from my husband (then my boyfriend of two years).  He was on campus for his weekly ROTC muster and called to tell us to turn on the news.  Velika and I were are not morning people.  After she relayed the (wildly understated) message that a plane crashed in New York, we both went back to bed.  It was probably at least two hours more before we were functional enough to begin to take in the scope of the tragedy.

The night before, I had been in a multicultural literature class and the professor had emphasized the importance of viewing the world from varied perspectives, especially those that clash with our own.  “There are only so many stories,” she insisted, “but infinite points of view.”  In our first post 9/11 class meeting, she simply stated, “The world has changed.”

Where are you now?

My husband and I have been married for eight years, parents for six.  We lived on the east coast for four years.  I was a teacher for three.   Yet that journey seems more like a big circle than a straight road that stretches out behind me.  Maybe I feel this way because my house is 7 miles due east of the apartment I was living in ten years ago.  For all the experiences I’ve had in the past ten years, how much have I changed?

I just finished reading an NPR article discussing American life in the aftermath of 9/11.  The article raises the same questions—has the world changed?  Has American life changed?

Freelance journalist Alex Chadwick feels, “since Sept. 11, Americans are ‘more angry, more sorrowful, as though we’ve gotten about 20 years older — or even more — in a decade, but without any of the wisdom or grace that comes to some with age.’”

In many ways, I feel that I’m much the person as I was back then, for better or for worse.  And it seems the same may be said of our nation.  Older?  Definitely.  Wiser?  To be determined.

Where do we go from here?

9/11 is at once distant and personal for me.  My mom and her family are New Yorkers, but no one connected to us was directly affected by the tragedy.  In San Diego, CA, I was about as far away from Ground Zero as I could have been while still within the continental US.  Yet it is always with me.

Today is my 32nd birthday.  I feel neither old nor young.  Ten years from now I think I will have figured out what I want to be when I grow up and achieved a few more of my life goals.

Today, the thought of the people who died ten years ago still brings the sting of tears to my eyes.  Ten years from now I hope it still does.  As much as I may wonder at the unaltered aspects of American life, I would never deny the irrevocable way in which so many American lives were shattered by 9/11.

Today is Patriot Day.  Ten years from now I hope I finally understand what that means.  Or, at least, what being a patriot means to me.  Because for the past ten years, I haven’t felt particularly patriotic when I’ve tired of the solemnity of the memorials overshadowing one of the few days of the year that I really want to celebrate.  In fact, I haven’t felt particularly patriotic for much at all of the past ten years because I was one of those people who, in 2001, agreed with Arundhati Roy’s controversial post-9/11 essays “The Algebra of Infinite Justice” and “War is Peace” in which she harshly criticized my country and its government.

Still, every year the wish I make when I blow out my candles isn’t for me, but for our world.  You know I can’t tell you exactly what my wish is…but if you had a birthday wish today, what would it be?

 

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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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Feeling Better?

Thank you to everyone who has been checking up on me.  I’m touched!  And, yes, I am finally feeling better.  It had been a while since I’d gotten sick and I was a bit surprised at how long it took for me to get back on track.

Of course now my To-Do list has grown exponentially.  I am feeling badly about that.  Is that crazy?  I mean, I know that I could not function properly with a monster cold that included a hacking cough and laryngitis.  Yet I’m mad at myself for letting so much stuff pile up.  So I feel both better…and worse.  Ugh.  Didn’t I resolve to be kinder to myself this year?

The thing is, with March right around the corner, I’m feeling a bit apprehensive.  Any teacher will concur:  March is a terrible month.  I think of it as “Marathon Month” because it just goes on forever, especially in the years when Easter is in April.  This March, my husband is shifting into pre-deployment mode which means an (even more) erratic schedule for him while I have assignments due every single week for my classes.

I don’t want to be in survival mode for the next month but I don’t really have a plan so I’d love to get some insight from you.

What do you do to feel better about a daunting task?  How do you pace yourself when faced with a full calendar?  And what keeps you motivated?

 

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Irony: Library student with delinquent patron record

Last semester I read Defusing the Angry Patron for one of my grad school classes.  It contains great practical advice for librarians (and teachers too) who must cope with confrontational patrons/parents who are upset about one thing or another in the library.  Often these patrons are upset about the content of some book and feel the offensive material should be removed and the librarian should remove it right now! Other times patrons are frustrated with library policy or procedure.

Though I’ve been a library patron since age two, I was never an angry patron until the other day when I discovered that my library account is “delinquent.”  When I asked why, I was informed that I caused “severe water damage” to a book and my account is delinquent “pending assessment of a fine.”

Me:  What?  Which book?  How is that possible?  May I see this alleged water damage?

The woman working at the circulation desk avoided eye contact with me throughout our whole conversation.  She explained to her computer screen that when I returned the book (nearly two months ago) she remembers that it was “very damaged.”  She personally marked it as such and flagged my account.  The book was then returned to its home library and is apparently sitting in some inbox until a tech services person decides how much to charge me for it.

Clearly this librarian(?) needs to read Defusing the Angry Patron.  She demonstrated terrible nonverbal communication skills and used “the library F word.”

No one contacted me about this at all and it was somewhat accidental that I even discovered the status of my account in the first place.  I guess this library does not contact patrons regarding damaged materials—at least not in a timely manner.  That’s a poor policy if ever there was one.

I did not water damage this book.  In fact I barely even opened the book; I only borrowed it so I could check something on the copyright page.  I returned it in precisely the condition it was lent to me; I don’t remember it being damaged when I checked it out (and I would notice such a thing—I’ve worked in circulation too and I know how to take care of books!).

I’ve twice called the book’s home library and gotten the run around because they’re backed up and don’t know when they’ll get around to looking at this book.

Meanwhile, “DELINQUENT” appears across the top of the screen whenever I log into my library account or try to check out other books.

Grrrrrr.  Right now I’m about as happy with the library as I am with insurance companies and if I were just another patron I’d be done with this public library.  I’m that frustrated by this incident.

Sadly, this is one of the big reasons why public libraries lose patrons:  a combination of poor communication and poor policy/procedure.

To my fellow LIS students and library friends, let’s please do better!

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