Poetic Words: Library Verse

Given my love of libraries and poetry (and the fact that there was at least one great poet, Philip Larkin who was also a librarian), odd that I haven’t posted anything on the intersection of these worlds.  But here’s a nice one by American poet Rita Dove.

Maple Branch Library, 1967

For a fifteen-year-old there was plenty
to do: Browse the magazines,
slip into the Adult Section to see
what vast tristesse was born of rush-hour traffic,
décolletés, and the plague of too much money.
There was so much to discover—how to
lay out a road, the language of flowers,
and the place of women in the tribe of Moost.
There were equations elegant as a French twist,
fractal geometry’s unwinding maple leaf;

I could follow, step-by-step, the slow disclosure
of a pineapple Jell-O mold—or take
the path of Harold’s purple crayon through
the bedroom window and onto a lavender
spill of stars. Oh, I could walk any aisle
and smell wisdom, put a hand out to touch
the rough curve of bound leather,
the harsh parchment of dreams.

As for the improbable librarian
with her salt and paprika upsweep,
her British accent and sweater clip
(mom of a kid I knew from school)—
I’d go up to her desk and ask for help
on bareback rodeo or binary codes,
phonics, Gestalt theory,
lead poisoning in the Late Roman Empire,
the play of light in Dutch Renaissance painting;
I would claim to be researching
pre-Columbian pottery or Chinese foot-binding,

but all I wanted to know was:
Tell me what you’ve read that keeps
that half smile afloat
above the collar of your impeccable blouse.

So I read Gone with the Wind because
it was big, and haiku because they were small.
I studied history for its rhapsody of dates,
lingered over Cubist art for the way
it showed all sides of a guitar at once.
All the time in the world was there, and sometimes
all the world on a single page.
As much as I could hold
on my plastic card’s imprint I took,

greedily: six books, six volumes of bliss,
the stuff we humans are made of:
words and sighs and silence,
ink and whips, Brahma and cosine,
corsets and poetry and blood sugar levels—
I carried it home, past five blocks of aluminum siding
and the old garage where, on its boarded-up doors,
someone had scrawled:

I can eat an elephant
if I take small bites.

Yes, I said, to no one in particular: That’s
what I’m gonna do!


Turns out Larkin did pen one:

 Library Ode

New eyes each year
Find old books here,
And new books, too,
Old eyes renew;
So youth and age
Like ink and page
In this house join,
Minting new coin.
Although, as a heavy user, I have multiple suppliers, for many years my main library was the Somerville Central Library, quirky but with its own kind of hipster grandeur. Somerville Library

Library Words: Pew Field Research on Public Libaries

Pew has foundation money to do research about public libraries and has put up a slide set of a recent report on the “library use” phase of their study, part 2, focusing on tech trends. (You may remember “state of reading” report, which seemed to focus mostly on e-reading).

Public Libraries and Ebooks come up as a predictable source of confusion (patrons are interested, but don’t know they are available). And there are legal, business, and operational issues with “lending” them. of course. More surprising to me was the finding that libraries are “still for books” and “browsing” for a lot of people, including young people. I go to the public library often, and it seems that at least 50% of the activity at any given time is browsing, but the Internet, not the stacks. Database access is highly rated too; I’m guessing this is for paid subscription services, that you can get free via public library membership. (Ancestry.com and Oxford University Press both work this way.)

The slides are up and don’t take long to zip through.


Screen Shot 2013-05-17 at 7.26.50 AM
The Friendship Heights branch of the DC Public Library, one of three branches within walking distance.


Angry Words: Libraries v. Academic Publishers

Battles over academic publishing and IP are going on all over. Cambridge University Press is taking on Georgia State over E-Reserves and whether those constitute copyright violations. This is heading to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, after a lower court handed down a decision mostly favorable to Georgia State.

Sorry, this triangle here means it’s copy protected, so I can’t make you a copy. Please go to Avignon to register with the Pope;  and come back with your login and password. A boar’s head, would be nice too.

The question of copying and who pays or gets paid is a very old one in academic libraries, predating the web by centuries. Some savvy medieval invaders made complete copies of every book in the monastery libraries of the conquered region one of the conditions.

In my long ago college era, reserves meant articles in boxes behind the library reference desk, which I think mostly passed muster as fair use (although they probably were not supposed to be recopied, as they inevitably were). Profs also handed out lots of photocopies, sometimes with instructions not to violate copyright. And there was the unloved and unlamented world of microfiche and microfilm, which really is something we all have to be happy isn’t around any more.

Reserves had become course packs by my late 80s stint in grad school. These were “book like” of the Kinko’s variety and they carried lots of warnings about one-time use, etc., presumably to stave off law suits, although they did occur. People go to school, particularly library school, to get access to lots of information, so there is a built in desire to push limits among everyone involved.

Now that you can buy readings online from academic publishers, I suppose the difference in appearance between what is offered in an e-reading that a professor or library provides and what you might pay for from the publisher has diminished even further. I see that as a mostly good thing, and the idea that you have a EULA to agree to rather than some form of ownership a little weird. Certainly publishers’ business models are stressed by all these changes. Maybe that stress will spawn some creativity around what is needed now given that simple access is a completely different issue;  it’s also an challenge for libraries and academics, as the economics of access to content fall to their shoulders in ways that are hard to predict and manage for.

India has its own version of this going on, in this context still over the photocopying of reserves. A bunch of very high profile academics, led by Amartya Sen, have come out strongly against the presses, pointing out that one argument at least, that photocopying hurts the financial interests of professors, is pretty laughable. From the article:

The letter finally said that “We would finally like to place on record that the petitions filed by the publishers claim that they are acting on behalf of authors and representing the interest of authors. As academics and authors we believe that the wider circulation of our work will only result in a richer academic community and it is unfortunate that you choose to alienate teachers and students who are indeed your main readers and we urge you to consider withdrawing this petition.

Buildings for Books: Book Mountain + Library Corner

Spijkenisse, in the Netherlands, has a spectacular new library. Books may be on the way out, but buildings for them seem to get better and better (the Danish National Library in Copenhagen, Black Diamond, is also gorgeous). 

The idea of having the books housed within a free standing enclosing structure is also used in the Beinecke Library at Yale (thin panes of marble there rather than glass) and also King George III’s library at the British Library. But both of those are glassed in and a bit forbidding (understandably as they are rare book collections). I love the “pile of books in a train station” quality that this new one has. The café at the very top is a nice touch. Another potential stop for my “library tour” of the world…

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
King George’s Library within the British Library
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