The Case Against Little Free Libraries

I always thought they were kind of cute, but a Toronto librarian makes a strong case to the contrary.

“[Little Free Libraries] are a highly visible form of self-gratification cleverly disguised as book aid, and the effects of this visibility can be better understood through a consideration of their role in a landscape . . .”

This kind of “branded philanthropy” serves as a vehicle for virtue-signaling by the homeowners who install Little Free Libraries in their front yards, Schmidt and Hale say. They’re particularly ubiquitous in hyper-educated, affluent, crunchy blue enclaves across the country—your Ithacas, Berkeleys, and Takoma Parks, where residents tend to wear their shabby progressivism on their sleeves. But the Little Librariest neighborhoods may be tucked away in the Midwest, where the movement got its start.

As pointed out earlier in the piece,

““There was something that kind of irked me about the title,” says Jane Schmidt, librarian at Ryerson University in Toronto. “As a librarian, my gut reaction to that was, ‘You know what else is a free library? A regular library.’”

The big free library in Somerville, MA


Commonplace Books

A couple of nice bits encountered in recent reading: First the poet August Kleinzahler in a piece on poet Michael O’Brien.

“But [George] Oppen taught O’Brien a great deal, lessons he took to heart. Later, he described what he had learned:

A kind of plain-spokenness about inner things. Not to simplify. To know as precisely as you could just how complicated things are, and not to make them either more or less so.

Patience. That there are things you can’t rush.

‘Paradise of the real’. That it was here, if anywhere … How resonant that word ‘real’, was for Oppen, for Duncan, for Jack Spicer.

That there was no part of one’s life that couldn’t be part of one’s poem.

Clarity. That clarity was possible.

That you could employ prose or verse as needed.

That writing poems was a serious business. Not that you had to be a bloody owl, but that it mattered.”

And a quote from a piece on libraries in the Sunday NYTimes (the essay is by Manesh Rao here quoting Sophie Mayer).

“[The library is] the ideal model of society, the best possible shared space,” because there “each person is pursuing their own aim (education, entertainment, affect, rest) with respect to others, through the best possible medium of the transmission of ideas, feelings and knowledge — the book.”

The first library I remember going to, The Chicago Public Library (now a historical society) On Michigan Avenue.
The first library I remember going to, The Chicago Public Library (now a historical society) On Michigan Avenue.

And finally encountered this lovely piece ending a recital recently. Ivor Gurney’s “Sleep” (here sung by Bryn Terfel).

Library Tourism

I know I am not the only person who, on visiting a new city, checks out the library as a tourist attraction. An architecture blog has fueled the fire by proposing the 19 most beautiful libraries in the country.

Having recently seen the Geisel library at UC San Diego, it’s something else (although conventionally beautiful it is not).  But no argument with the Boston Public Library, still my favorite library anywhere.  bpl

The main reading room at BPL, a place I mostly go to write, rather than read.

Of the others on curbed list, in addition to Geisel (yes, of Dr. Seuss fame) and Boston, I have seen the Library of Congress (worked there for years in fact), the NYPL (pretty wonderful), The Peabody Library (although for an event, not to browse), The Washington Library in Chicago, The Beinecke (worth a special trip, particularly at sunset), the Law Library at UMich (which would not have made my personal list of bests), and the L.A. Library.

I would have included the Quincy (MA) Crane Public Library too, a H.H. Richardson masterpiece. And the renovated Cambridge (MA) Public Library is pretty fetching too.



The Newly Renovated Boston Public Library

On one of my recent work jaunts to Boston, I checked out the nearly complete renovation of the Johnson Building of the Boston Public Library. First opened in 1972, the building was named after its architect, Philip Johnson, and meant to complement the McKim building, build in 1895.

The older building has been beautifully restored in all of its Renaissance Palazzo knock-off glory, now a less dingy and far more comfortable place to be. (The crazy Sargent murals are still in place on the top floor.)  But the essential dignity and grandeur remain.

The Johnson Building makeover was perhaps a harder case. The original building was a bit fortress-like in a 1970s style that isn’t much missed, with a giant empty atrium at the center (generally with painting visibly peeling off the ceiling window casements in my memory at least). That said, it worked well enough for me (and I’m a fairly intense library patron), had a good collection, but was not someplace I ever warmed to.

The redesign seems to be heading towards an answer to what a  future-friendly library might be. (Something that lots of places are wrestling with, as I’ve posted about, and we are about to get a big dose of in DC with the renovation of MLK Library at Gallery Place.) I don’t know any more than they do about what the future of libraries will disclose, but a few impressions above courtesy of an evening visit earlier this month, with cell phone snaps. Some beautiful things…others a little headscratching…

Library Redesign: What to do with the Books?

New York Public Library has just re-opened its 53rd Street branch (replacing the old Donnell Library). Justin Davidson in New York Mag doesn’t much care for it


Glance in from the sidewalk, and the eye falls on a set of blond-wood terraces that go cascading into a cave, between walls of metal slats and raw concrete. The vibe mixes the slovenly with the dictatorial. On the steps, felt discs — four per row, not really plush enough to qualify as cushions — demonstrate where to place one’s behind, but in the end most people sprawl or hunch. Neither is especially comfortable. This narrow buried amphitheater gives library patrons a split-llibraryevel vista: above, a rat’s-eye view of the street and passers-by; below, a wide screen playing a promotional slideshow for New York and its libraries. Architects love choreographing such chance urban spectacles, but this one enjoys a special kind of pointlessness.

The Times was less critical adopting a wait and see stance and pointing out that the community space function of the library might be very well served by the innovative design.

As a bookish type, I share some qualms about thinning the collection out during a renovation (but it’s been happening for decades and probably centuries). On the other hand it looks like an intriguing space to me, perhaps pointing towards some new directions of what a library can be.  As John Cage said, “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” I’m looking forward to checking it out when I’m up there next, and seeing how it compares to the plans for the new MLK Library in D.C.

The Archive Vanishes

No news to anybody in the archives and records world, or researchers who work with public documents or manuscripts for that matter, but huge amounts of the original written legacy of the last 30 years is falling into the digital abyss as formats become obsolete, hardware is hard to find/non-functional, and magnetic storage media itself crumbles into dust.

But maybe there’s hope: A paper in Nature reports on a novel approach to saving the archives, applying techniques from digital forensics. Stanford’s efforts to save the Stephen Jay Gould Papers from oblivion gives an example of the impetus.

The Gould papers were an early indication of an issue that’s been rapidly worsening: four decades after the personal-computer revolution brought word processing and number crunching to the desktop, the first generation of early adopters is retiring or dying. So how do archivists recover and preserve what’s left behind?

From, “Digital forensics: from the crime lab to the library” by Mark Woverton.

The approach is to fit out archivists with the skills of a crime investigator (who will star in the spinoff “CSI: The Manuscript Division,” I wonder?).

The list of dead or dying media that a UNC prof mentions– floppies, Zip disks, CDs, DVDs, flash drives, hard drives–reads like my career. I’m sure that any digital traces of a monthly opera newsletter I contributed to and later edited for years was delivered to the printer and archived on SyQuest discs, a medium and a company both long gone. So is PageMaker, the program we designed it on. The newsletter was no great shakes, but probably somebody put stuff on SyQuest worth saving, be it a data set that has otherwise impossible to recreate info, a great novel or an archive of legal docs.

Fragments of Sappho’s poetry. (By Masur (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons)
Seems like UNC is on the job, with a tool called BitCurator, so maybe future generations won’t have to depend on the digital equivalent of somebody using a scrap of Sappho’s poetry as a wine stopper to rescue a legacy. (I know that story may be only a romantic legend, but it’s still evocative.)

Unreasonable Words: ALA’s 10 Most Challenged Books

The American Library Association has released their State of America’s Libraries Report 2016 and nestled among many interesting tidbits is the current list of most challenged books in libraries. (I assume this is all libraries, but, as usual, the list is heavy on teen titles, always the scorched earth of book censorship.)

Out of 275 challenges recorded by the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom, the “Top Ten Most Challenged Books in 2015” are:

  1. Looking for Alaska, by John Green
    Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group.
  2. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James
    Reasons: Sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and other (“poorly written,” “concerns that a group of teenagers will want to try it”).
  3. I Am Jazz, by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
    Reasons: Inaccurate, homosexuality, sex education, religious viewpoint, and unsuited for age group.
  4. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, by Susan Kuklin
    Reasons: Anti-family, offensive language, homosexuality, sex education, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group, and other (“wants to remove from collection to ward off complaints”).
  5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon
    Reasons: Offensive language, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group, and other (“profanity and atheism”).
  6. The Holy Bible
    Reasons: Religious viewpoint.
  7. Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
    Reasons: Violence and other (“graphic images”).
  8. Habibi, by Craig Thompson
    Reasons: Nudity, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group.
  9. Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan, by Jeanette Winter
    Reasons: Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group, and violence.
  10. Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan
    Reasons: Homosexuality and other (“condones public displays of affection”).

via Executive Summary | News and Press Center

John Green! He’s practically an institution after “Fate,” and a wonderful writer to boot. And although I am in hearty agreement with the assessment of “poorly written” for E.L. James’s entire oeuvre, where’s the fun (or habibithe feasibility) in expelling works for that? “Condones public display of affection” is also a head-scratcher, and one would assume understanding a ‘religious viewpoint’ is one of many reasons The Bible, still the big dog on the porch of banned books, is read and worth having in a public library collection. Fun Home the musical just won the Tony, and the graphic novel is a great, and poignant read, and by reliable accounts the show is super. I’m not really much of a graphic novel reader, but one positive effect of this list on me is that I now want to read Habibi, which of course, I’ll get from my public library.

Catalogs and the March of Technology

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 2.51.27 PMLikely only of interest to library nerds or technology history types, but here’s an interesting piece in American Libraries about how the technology behind library catalogs & how it drove standards (and came to be limited by them).  I lived through a lot of these shifts, including the end of the physical catalog at the Library of Congress. Henriette Avram (mother of the computerized format of bibliographic info)  was still working there at the time and treated with the same sort of awed respect that TBL got in early web days.
From the piece:

“[Melvil] Dewey did not anticipate the availability of the LC printed card service when he proposed the standardization of the library catalog card, yet it was precisely that standardization that made it possible for libraries across America to add LC printed cards to their catalogs. Likewise, Avram did not anticipate the creation of the computerized online catalog during her early work on the MARC format, but it was the existence of years of library cataloging in a machine-readable form that made the Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC) a possibility.”

MARC automated a process, but it was founded on the idea of printing, wrangling and using a physical card, and this has led to any number of misfires…

We, and by “we” I mean all of us in library technology during this time, created those first systems using the data we had, not the data we would have liked to have had. The MARC records that we worked with were in essence the by-product of card production. And now, some 35 years later, we are still using much the same data even though information technology has changed greatly during that time, potentially affording us many opportunities for innovation. Quite possibly the greatest mistake made in the last two to three decades was failing to create a new data standard that would be more suited to modern technology and less an imitation of the library card in machine-readable form. The MARC record, designed as a format to carry bibliographic data to the printer, was hardly suited to database storage and manipulation. That doesn’t mean that databases couldn’t be created, and to be sure all online catalogs have made use of database technology of some type to provide search and display capabilities, but it is far from ideal from an information technology standpoint.

Not to mention a pain for the user. What’s puzzling to me is why we are still stuck with a system that technology has blown past. Karen Coyle wonders too:

The entire basis of the discovery mechanism addressed by the cataloging rules has been rendered moot in the design of online catalogs, and the basic functioning of the online catalog does not implement the intended model of the card catalog. Parallel to the oft-voiced complaint that systems developers simply did not understand the intention of the catalog, the misunderstanding actually goes both ways: Significant differences in retrieval methods, that is, sequential discovery on headings versus set retrieval on keywords, did not lead to any adaptation of cataloging output to facilitate the goals of the catalog in the new computerized environment. Library systems remain at this impasse, some 35 years into the history of the online catalog. The reasons for this are complex and have both social and economic components.

I wonder if they still teach MARC coding in library school? As Wikipedia points out, it’s clearly technically obsolete, but 30 million plus libraries keep track of their collections that way, as the famous saying goes, ” what is to be done?”

Halloween Edition: Ghosts Who Read Succeed!

ghosts_that_still_walkAmerican Libraries has a nice round up of haunted libraries, including this tidbit:

“The local-history room of the New Hanover County Public Library (NHCPL) in Wilmington, North Carolina, harbors the ghost of a patron who frequented the library conducting Civil War research.

Former local-history librarian Beverly Tetterton insisted that some mornings she had found files spread out on a reading-room table when she is certain she had put everything away the night before. Sometimes people report the sounds on pages turning—subtle rustling noises that a “librarian would recognize as the sounds of doing research.”

abbotsfordShe often would find one book, The Papers of Zebulon Baird Vance, left out on the table. Tetterton said that once a 10-year-old boy came into the room to investigate the ghost. “I gave him the book to look at. Later, he walked up and said, ‘Do you think this has anything to do with it?’ Inside this book was an envelope addressed to the person that I thought might be the ghost. I have been through that book hundreds of times and never saw that envelope. I could feel my hair standing straight up.”

There is also a library that takes such pride in its paranormal activity that it’s set up webcams so you can take photos for yourself.

And for some ghostly, and wonderful sounds, check out the first part of Gloria Coates, Symphony No. 1, “Music on Open Strings”: I. Theme and Transformation, a suitably ghostly dance for a Halloween night. Happy trick or treating! We’re curling up with John Carpenter’s Classic Fright Flick, Halloween.

End of an era: The passing of the catalog card

card_cat_drawerLibrary Link of the Day tipped me off to the news that OCLC, the technical provider of all things library catalog related, has printed their last card catalog card.

I remember these catalogs (whether just a few drawers in a school library or the mammoth city of catalogs at the Library of Congress when I worked there in the 80s).  I don’t miss them as an information tool, but they had a certain human beauty that somehow a computer search input box lacks.