What Ever Happened to Virginia Woolf?

By Paul Duckworth, MLIS

Virginia_Woolf_Illustration

“Lies will flow from my lips, but there may perhaps be some truth mixed up with them; it is for you to seek out this truth and to decide whether any part of it is worth keeping.”

—Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own”

 

I’m a bit embarrassed, but I need to admit up front that I’ve never read anything by Virginia Woolf. Why embarrassing, you ask? First, because I’m writing this article about her. Second, because I was an English major in college and she was a prominent literary figure in the Bloomsbury set—as well as an atheist, feminist, and pacifist. One would think she would be a legitimate part of an English major’s education. What happened that kept me from getting acquainted with her? Maybe I skipped a course on early twentieth century writers, or perhaps my college didn’t give sufficient attention to female authors. Now, let’s look at the fact that most colleges in that time period, the early 1970s, failed to highlight most women authors. No, let’s not—that’s an entirely different article. Whatever the cause of my lack of familiarity with Woolf, I regret that I did not come to know her in my education. Thankfully, I discovered her through my career as a public librarian.

Right now, you may have thoughts and questions bubbling up in your mind.

“When did she live?”

shutterstock_705620560“She killed herself, right?”

“Bloomsbury set? That’s old-fashioned women’s underwear, isn’t it?”

“She lived in a lighthouse, didn’t she?”

“I heard she was anti-Semitic.”

“She was a lesbian.”

“Wait—don’t tell me. Wasn’t she in that film “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

“Someone told me that her first name was not Virginia. Is that true?”

Or perhaps even: “Why is this guy writing an article about her?”

Whoa! Stop right there, please. All will be revealed. Be patient and I will correct some misconceptions and tell you, if not everything, then at least a lot of interesting things about Virginia Woolf.

First of all, as some of you are presuming, she is, in fact, deceased. She was born in London, England, in 1882, to a wealthy intellectual family. Woolf died in 1941 in the depths of the River Ouse, near her home in Sussex. Suffering from yet another lengthy period of debilitating depression, she had waded into the river, her pockets filled with heavy stones so that she would sink and drown. She had tried to take her own life, unsuccessfully, a few times earlier in her life, but this attempt proved successful.

An odd word to use in describing suicide: successful. Was her life successful, or was it her death that succeeded? What makes a life a success? By the standards of her time, she was wildly successful in that she married well, was exceedingly well-read and educated, and was a published author of fiction, nonfiction, essays, plays, and short stories. In addition, she was the central figure in a prominent artistic and literary group called The Bloomsbury Group. Money was always easily available to her, and so her life wasn’t burdened by the manual labor that most women endured in England in this time period.

shutterstock_1216099198Nothing stood in her way to work creatively regarding her thoughts, opinions, insights, writings, and associations with people. Nothing except her psyche. Her failing was not one of those usual ones of ability, time, or space, but rather was hidden in the inner reaches of her highly intelligent mind. She inherited a family curse—mental health issues that many of her relatives experienced. Hers was a fragile mind, prone to exhaustion and depression and shaken by the family dynamics of her early years, including being sexually molested by her two older half brothers, Gerald and George. All contributed significantly to what is clear today—she dealt with bipolar illness. She was vivid in her descriptions of how it manifested itself at times. One example is Woolf’s reflection on her mental state after completing her first novel The Voyage Out. “I married, and then my brains went up in a shower of fireworks. As an experience, madness is terrific… and not to be sniffed at, and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one, everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets as sanity does.”

Well, what about Woolf’s family? They were prominent and quite successful in turn-of-the-century London. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was a writer, historian, and biographer. He was the son-in-law, through his first marriage, of the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. Julia Margaret Cameron, her cousin, was a well-known photographer. Her brother, Adrian Stephen, was a pioneering psychoanalyst and well-known pacifist. Her half-brother Gerald Duckworth (no relation to the author of this article) founded the publishing company Gerald Duckworth and Company. Her sister, Vanessa Bell, was a painter and interior designer. Chevalier Pierre Ambrose Antoine de L’Etang, her great-great grandfather, was from the French nobility and served first as a page to Marie Antoinette and later as stable master of the royal stables at Versailles. Her husband, Leonard Woolf, was a political theorist, author, and publisher. He founded Hogarth Press, which consisted of a small hand-operated printing press located in his and Virginia’s home, Hogarth House, at 34 Paradise Road in London.

shutterstock_1145084495And so, what about Virginia herself?

  • No, she did not live in a lighthouse. She did, however, write the novel To the Lighthouse, published in 1927.
  • The question of anti-Semitism is a bit complicated. Her husband, Leonard, was Jewish. It’s clear, though, in some of her writings, that she described Jewish people in critical and negative ways. Here’s a line from a letter she wrote in 1930: “How I hated marrying a Jew — how I hated their nasal voices and their oriental jewelry, and their noses and their wattles — what a snob I was: for they have immense vitality, and I think I like that quality best of all.”
  • Whether or not she was a lesbian might be debatable, but it is a fact that she had a long physical and emotional relationship with Vita Sackville-West, which began after Virginia married Leonard Woolf. Leonard knew of their affair and approved of it, because he wanted his wife, who was often gloomy and depressed, to have some happiness.
  • Her first name was Adeline, the name of her mother’s deceased sister. Virginia’s family never called her Adeline, due to their painful association with the name.
  • She did not, obviously, play any part in the 1966 Mike Nichols film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which was adapted from the 1962 Edward Albee play. So, where does the title come from, you ask? George and Martha, played onscreen by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, sing the lyrics “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to the tune of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” Interesting enough, in an interview with him published in The Paris Review, Albee stated “‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ means ‘Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf…who’s afraid of living without false illusions?” (See here for additional clarification)
  • In addition to her novels, she is also known for her essays, including “A Room of One’s Own,” in which she stated, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

So, what are the takeaways here?

  1. Would Woolf perhaps still be living and writing if she had had access to Symbyax, Prozac, or Risperdal? Slim chance, as she would be 137 years old.
  2. Could she have benefited from talk therapy or positive psychology? While beneficial for many people, these approaches could not be a remedy for the severe bipolar symptoms from which Woolf suffered.
  3. Should she be ignored, not given a spotlight, since, like so many prejudiced people, she seemed to have harbored anti-Semitic views? Good question, but it begs similarly revisionist appraisals of any number of past luminaries, including Theodore Roosevelt for his joy in slaughtering wild animals, Melvil Dewey for his lascivious behavior with women, and Frederic Remington for his anti-Semitism and racist views of Native Americans.
  4. Should she have left her husband for Vita Sackville-West or worked for a closer connection with Leonard? Hmmm, sounds like magical thinking to me. What knowledge does one have of the ways of the heart and the pathways of individuation? Besides, by most accounts, Virginia and her husband were close.
  5. Are her contributions of little value, given her personal life and death? Seriously!? How many other giants of literature could be similarly dismissed, given this manner of thinking?
  6. Was Woolf a complicated enigma who offers little of value to modern readers? I wonder if this question might be more than a wee bit judgmental. Let’s dissect this thread and examine the facts.
    1. One should resist the temptation to judge historical authors on the basis of current standards and mores
    2. Her impact on her contemporaries was significant
    3. She helped lay the groundwork for future feminists

Woolf was a professional reviewer, innovative essayist, novelist, publisher, biographer, and political organizer in the socialist and women’s movements. She seems to have known or met nearly everyone of importance in her day, including Sigmund Freud, with whom she and Leonard had tea shortly after Freud escaped Nazi Vienna for London. She spoke out against war and violence. Professor Jean Mills, author of Virginia Woolf, Jane Ellen Harrison, and the Spirit of Modernist Classicism, said: “Woolf’s comment ‘thinking is my fighting’ was an aphorism that we can usefully claim for ourselves today. Her essay “Three Guineas” has been read as her attempt to grapple with the root causes of violence and war, and she articulates several conceptions of peace throughout her literary output.”

 

shutterstock_575109037Woolf was not hesitant to break the mold of cultural expectations for proper women’s behavior. In “10 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Virginia Woolf,” the British literary biographer Lyndall Gordon wrote, “In the 19th century nice women were quiet. Virginia Woolf said that she and her sister were taught the ‘tea-table’ manner. This was designed to keep polite, self-effacing conversation flowing. The most vital fact in her life was the contrast between this stifling of utterance, this concealment in ’shadow’ and the ground shaking under her like an earthquake when she brought out her full-throated ’Outsider’ voice, protesting against military or domestic violence in favour of nurture, listening and sympathy, values which the civilized of both sexes already share. The voice of her Outsider prepares the way for the present voice of the #MeToo generation.”

In the midst of Woolf’s articulate contributions to literary, cultural, political, and social circles, there was an intermittent and turbulent wrestling with an unknown force within her psyche. She was unable to elude it. In a suicide note she left to her husband, Leonard Woolf, she wrote, “I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of these terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.”

If a person were to take away only one reason to celebrate Woolf, it would be my assertion that she was not just an important author, but a feminist icon. How so? She gave two lectures at the University of Cambridge’s women’s colleges in 1928 and developed them into the famous essay “A Room of One’s Own,” which was published the following year. As Wikipedia states, it was “an important feminist text… noted in its argument for both a literal and figurative space for women writers within a literary tradition dominated by men.” Her voice, along with those of other women writers before and after, has helped to open up publishing to women. And, it has helped put more women’s book on our library shelves and important voices in the spotlight.

 

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The Man and the Machine: What Ever Happened to Oliver Sacks?

By Paul Duckworth, MLIS

On a sunny, mild day last week, rare this winter in the Midwest, I walked to the mailbox to collect the usual assortment of flyers: oil change coupons, muffler shop flyers, supermarket ads, the ubiquitous fast food coupons, and special offers for hearing aids (yes, I admit that I am “of that age”). There, mostly hidden amidst the glossy and pulp paper promotions, was something I actually wanted—the new issue of The New Yorker, dated February 11. And so, sometime that evening, after walking outdoors enjoying the weather, cleaning up after the cat, and cooking a pot of spicy curried dal, I was able to settle in and savor the deliciously-drawn and worded cartoons, plus an article or two of interest. As I flipped through pages, I stopped, riveted and disbelieving, on page 28: an article by Oliver Sacks! Those who don’t know me can’t appreciate what a fan I am of this odd, intelligent, soft-spoken Brit.

You may very well be mulling over the words “Oliver” and “Sacks” and thinking, “Is it Sacks? Seems it should be Sachs” and “Why are those words somehow meaningful to me?” Or perhaps, “Wasn’t he a doctor?” Or, “Why am I connecting him with Robin Williams?” Plus, of course, the question “Whatever happened to him?”

What happened to him is simple to say: he died in 2015, aged 82, after a great career as a neurologist and writer. The fact that he is deceased may help you better understand why my eyes were riveted, my mind reeling, by this page 28 in one of my favorite magazines. The article was titled, appropriately enough, “The Machine Stops.” Is Sacks comparing himself to a worn out machine? I wondered. Are we humans merely a collection of wires and chemical reactions operating under the marvelous laws of physics? Has Sacks spoken from the dead? More about this article soon, but first, some background about the man and his marvelously mesmerizing mind.

Unless you are a neurologist, your first association with Sacks probably dates back to a movie theater in 1990 when you went to see Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in “Awakenings.” Or, if your amalgamation of protoplasmic cells had not yet emerged onto planet Earth back then, you might have watched the film more recently at home on DVD, courtesy of your local library. But then, being the reader you are, no doubt you connected the film to the book of the same title, written by none other than Oliver Sacks.

So, you very well may know who Oliver Sacks is, or was. However, I’d wager that there’s a lot about the man which you may not know. Following is a list of statements about Sacks and his life. See if you can tell which of them of him are true, which are false. Answers are at the bottom of this article, in small print, upside down. Take a guess, or look up the answers in your thousands of books and millions of web pages at your disposal.

  1. He was British, born in London.
  2. Was a bodybuilder on Muscle Beach in Venice, Calif.
  3. First cousin of Israeli prime minister Abba Eban.
  4. Suffered from a rare condition called prosopagnosia: a neurological condition characterized by the inability to recognize the faces of familiar people.
  5. His I.Q. was between 180 and 200, higher than that of Stephen Hawking.
  6. Sacks “discovered” Temple Grandin and wrote about her.
  7. Used L-Dopa.
  8. Was a meth-head, for a time.
  9. Was gay.
  10. Immigrant to the U.S.
  11. Lived on an Israeli Kibbutz for a while.
  12. Scuba diver.
  13. Both parents were physicians.
  14. Failed medical school.
  15. Atheist.
  16. Owned a BMW motorcycle, which propelled him on numerous long road trips.
  17. In his early college days, after being awarded £50 for an Oxford University essay on anatomy, he spent most of it to purchase the twelve-volume Oxford English Dictionary.
  18. His middle name was Wolf.
  19. Made friends with the Hell’s Angels.
  20. A collection of his essays, titled The River of Consciousness, was published posthumously in 2017.
  21. A collection of his essays, Everything In Its Place, will be released this April.
  22. Recovered from encephalitis lethargica, also known as sleeping sickness.
  23. His books have been translated into more than 25 languages.
  24. Was reputed to have been a prolific handwritten-letter writer who never used email.
  25. His neurological knowledge helped inform the early inventive stages of the Internet.
  26. Authored 16 books.
  27. Doubting himself, he burned the manuscript for the first book he wrote.
  28. Suffered from writer’s block for several years.

So, how did you do? Look, now you know more facts about Sacks than you ever thought you wanted to know, plus a few plausible-sounding things that are not true.

OliverSacks-quote

In case you’re wondering, I haven’t forgotten about saying more in regard to what inspired me to begin this article: Sacks’ short essay, “The Machine Stops.” In the summer of 2015, weakened by cancer, short of breath, his eyesight failing, having just a few weeks to live, Sacks was attempting to complete an essay about social media and in the midst of his work discovered the prescient 1909 short story “The Machine Stops,” by E.M. Forster. Forster’s story was set in a futuristic world where people live in solitary isolation underground and a giant machine takes care of all their needs, including a device for communicating with other isolated people that we today would recognize as instant messaging and video chat. At the story’s close, the machine “crashes” and down goes civilization with it. But before they die in the chaotic entropy, people realize this: the only thing that matters is humanity and one’s connection to the natural world. Forster’s Sci-Fi story resonated with Sacks, and in a letter (handwritten, of course) to his friend Atul Gawande, Sacks shared that he was trying to complete his essay about smartphones, etc. and was delighted to have found Forster’s short story.

In this final, brief piece, “The Machine Stops,” which The New Yorker withheld until now, Sacks wrote what were perhaps his final words to the public and “raged against the machine” with his calm, intelligent, rational, and cogent observational thoughts:

Everything is public now, potentially: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases…. [People] have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved…. [I feel] that the very culture in which one was nourished, and to which one has given one’s best in return, is itself threatened [and I have] deep fears about the well-being and even survival of our world. Nonetheless, I dare to hope that, despite everything, human life and its richness of cultures will survive, even on a ravaged earth. While some see art as a bulwark of our collective memory, I see science, with its depth of thought, its palpable achievements and potentials, as equally important; and science, good science, is flourishing as never before. I revere good writing and art and music, but … only science, aided by human decency, common sense, farsightedness, and concern for the unfortunate and the poor, offers the world any hope in its present morass. This idea is explicit in Pope Francis’s encyclical [On Care For Our Common Home]…. We can surely pull the world through its present crises and lead the way to a happier time ahead. As I face my own impending departure from the world, I have to believe in this—that mankind and our planet will survive, that life will continue, and that this will not be our final hour.

As I conclude, I think about the film “Awakenings” and Sacks’ later comments about his work in that hospital ward. He was tenacious and courageous in trying to reach and cure those patients who were locked in their own bodies, yet awake in their minds. I think about listening to the audio version of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat as I drove through the Sandhills of Nebraska one July many years ago. Sacks was compelled by his curiosity to enter the world of these people with neurological differences and share their experiences with us. On The Move comes to mind, his fascinating tell-all autobiography that I listened to a couple of years ago as I was driving to Yellowstone. I loved listening to his voice, as he accounted stories and scientific knowledge. What lingers most for me, though, is his sense of compassion for those with neurological differences and how he treated each person with whom he worked with gentleness. Sacks regarded each one as a full, three-dimensional human being, rather than mere subject or patient. In so doing, he has given his readers much wonder, delight, empathy, and insight into the human condition. Sacks was a 19th-century gentleman who, lucky for us, lived in the 20th and early 21st centuries. His joy of knowledge and his ability to take events and facts and weave them into insightful connections is unparalleled. His words remain as a gift for us and for the future.Answers

 

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Shreddings of the Heart: Who Was V. C. Andrews?

By Paul Duckworth, MLS

As a young, impressionable librarian, recently graduated with my MLS degree, I went to work in a public library in a medium-sized Midwestern city, where I did the usual reference tasks common in the 1970s. I was fascinated by the rich variety of interests and passions that motivated patrons to not only visit the library but actually come to the desk and ask for help (how often does that happen these days?). Among the subjects and authors that people were looking for, two names often popped up in requests: “Where’s Barbara Cartland?” and “Why aren’t there any V. C. Andrews books on the shelf?”

I gracefully step aside from discussion of Cartland’s bodice rippers and ask you to focus your attention on today’s topic: shreddings of the heart, which is what Andrews penned. Stir together themes of vulnerable children tormented by neglect, rape, incest, greed, death, or betrayal by a family member, sprinkle in ghastly gothic overtones, skillfully fold in some personal tragedy, and top it all off with the workings of a vivid imagination, and it is no wonder that readers of V. C. Andrews’ five-book Dollanganger series identified with the characters and felt as if their hearts had been ripped apart with each new installment.

V._C._Andrews Source Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Who was this V. C. Andrews who attracted so much interest from readers, especially teenage girls? And whatever became of her? Yes, I know — in simple terms, she died. “What!?” you say, “Dead? But she has a new book coming out this month!” Indeed. That’s part of the story. There is much more to tell, both before and after her passing.

Cleo Virginia Andrews was born on June 6, 1923 to William and Lillian Andrews of Portsmouth, Virginia. After high school, she enrolled in art correspondence courses and then began a successful career as a commercial artist and fashion illustrator. All the while, she felt completely compelled to write, and did so every night after work, at home, where she continued to live with her mother, Lillian, for Cleo’s entire life (for Lillian outlived her).

Silent Pain

Unbeknownst to most people, Virginia was crippled and confined to a wheelchair much of her adult life. Two conflicting stories exist about the cause of her condition. One claims she fell down the stairs at school, which caused back injuries. The other, vouched by relatives, says she suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis. Family members describe her as being in a full-body cast for a time, and having little or no neck movement. Her editor, Ann Patty, said, “Her spine was fused – it didn’t move. From her butt bone to her head, the spine did not move.” Her cousin describes Andrews as standing up at a high desk and typing out her first few novels. Whatever the cause, Andrews lived her life in great, unremitting pain. She suffered in silence, but the pain poured out through pen and paper. Fans of her fiction can be thankful that her hands and mind did not object to constant use.

Andrews was bored by her artistic daytime job. All her imagination and energy went into writing. Several stories and novels were rejected. Then, a magic moment: her pitch letter to a literary agent resulted in Flowers in The Attic being bought by Pocket Books with a $7,500 advance. Two weeks after its 1979 paperback publication, it was on the bestseller list. And the rest, as they say, is history.

So how did Cleo Virginia Andrews become V. C.? As one story goes, a printer at Pocket Books reversed her name on the cover and shortened it to initials. Another explanation is that the publisher wanted readers to wonder if the author was a man or a woman. Just think—we could be talking about the famous Cleo Virginia Andrews today! A happy accident, or publisher’s strategy, indeed.

Fame and Inspiration

When fame (and fortune) landed in her lap, Andrews avoided publicity. She was quite private and gave few interviews. Indeed, her physical condition was not well known. She kept her focus, day and night, on writing, never caring about health or other matters. According to a relative, Joan Andrews, “She knew she had a lump on her breast, but would not take care of the situation until she finished the current novel she was working on and also the sequel. By then the cancer had begun to spread.” She died of breast cancer on December 19, 1986, just seven years after Flowers’ first publication and is buried in Olive Branch Cemetery, Portsmouth, Virginia. In a rare interview with Contemporary Authors, she said, “There is no beauty without ugliness, and no enjoyment without suffering; we have to have the shade in order to see the light, and that is all I do in a story, put my characters in the shade–and try before the ending, to have them in the sunlight…. My novels are based on dreams, and situations taken from my own life, in which I change the pattern so that what might have happened actually does happen–and therein lies the tale.”

Andrew Neiderman

MV5BZTQ2OTA3ZTQtYjEzYy00ZWUxLThkMzEtYjQ3YTFhOWIyNGY1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjQwMDg0Ng@@._V1_

Source: IMDB

V.C.’s two brothers and her mother took charge of her estate, and along with their publisher, secretly selected an author to continue the ideas and storylines of her books. It seems that a tax case in the early 1990s between the estate and the IRS resulted in the ghostwriter’s name being publicly revealed. Andrew Neiderman has been the voice of V.C. Andrews’ many bestsellers since finishing up her fifth book, Garden of Shadows. His story is fascinating in itself. He was hired by the estate, never met V.C. Andrews, and is a popular fiction writer in his own right, with several novels published. When he began writing as V.C. Andrews, he used two different computers, one for his own work, and one for Andrews’. He has done quite well in imitating her voice, types of characters, and nuances. Contemporary readers maintain the popularity of her novels, with no end in sight. Many seem not to know that Andrews has been gone for more than 30 years.

Continuing a Legacy

Neiderman recently signed another contract with Simon & Schuster for an additional four V.C. Andrews titles, after already having done about twenty. Silhouette Girl was just released on January 2. Beneath the Attic, a prequel to Flowers in the Attic, comes out at the end of August, 2019. For those with a fondness for statistics, her 75+ novels have sold more than 100 million copies in 95 countries and have been translated into 25 languages. Not bad, eh?

 

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What Ever Happened to…?

By Paul Duckworth, MLS

Xerox Machine

Chester Carlson invented the photocopier in 1938, but the now ubiquitous magic machine didn’t appear in commercial usage until 1959. The first one in the spotlight was the hefty Xerox 914, weighing in at a whopping 650 pounds. It wasn’t long before college students and librarians were “Xeroxing” magazine articles and catalog cards galore, in addition to using the trademarked name as an adjective and a verb.

If you’re old enough, you may recall the Xerox Corporation joining the ranks of Kleenex, Frigidaire, Clorox, and others in endless attempts to get people to stop misusing its name. Today, we “photocopy” everything under the sun using countless brands of equipment. The Xerox Corporation is still in business, and they still make Xerox machines. However, like so many longtime names in American business, they were absorbed into a new enterprise (now called Fuji Xerox).

Microfilm ReaderMicroFilm Reader_1048960790

Bulky and cavernous, these hulks — with names like Kodagraph — started taking up space in libraries during the 1930s. Early models demanded darkened rooms and considerable floor space, although new technology helped squeeze down their size in the 1960s. By the 90s, however, microfilm readers began their decline into obsolescence, a casualty of the mad rush towards digitization. Most medium to large libraries still have one or more devices tucked away for reading microfilm or microfiche on demand, but many staff are understandably unfamiliar with how to use them.

old librarian_2167390Hair in Buns, Shushing, Sensible Shoes: The Image of the Mean Spinster

How did we come to collectively use this image to represent a librarian? In the mid-to-late-19th century, single women started working outside the home in much greater numbers. With many professions still forbidden to women, that of librarian was one of several careers that became known as a “woman’s profession.”

Cornell University librarian Michael Engle, in his fascinating paper “Remythologizing Work: The Role of Archetypal Images in the Humanization of Librarianship,” discusses how the single female librarian was seen as a “good mother,” someone who would educate children and provide morally good literature for the poor and uneducated masses. As Engle relates, the shadow side of this “Good Mother” is “The Crone.” The negative image of the librarian came to gradually replace that of the saint who helps others. Armed with a scowl, shushing library patrons, hair in a bun, feet outfitted in sensible shoes, this mean character lurks even today in the imagination of some people, not to mention living on as a convenient cliché in advertisements. Some of us librarians might admit that, in our early days, we may have put our own fingers to lips to tone down excessive noise within our hallowed halls. I am not confessing.

Card Catalogs

Starting with the Library of Congress’ catalog card service in 1911, libraries began subscribing to this service and filing these cards in the multi-drawered furniture we all remember fondly. Later, OCLC offered its own card service to libraries. Surprisingly, this service continued being offered to customers well into the 21st century. Its termination on October 1, 2015, marked an official close to the card catalog, though they had vanished from most libraries long before that.

Where do old catalogs go to die? Many of them have found new purpose with these uses: sewing and craft supplies, wine storage, coffee tables, shoe holders, displays for postcards in antique shops, etc. Perhaps the most famous example of re-purposing appeared in the TV series The Big Bang Theory, where a card catalog starred as part of Sheldon’s living room decor. And what about those millions of rag content cards with summaries, height in centimeters, pagination, and tracings? At least one resourceful librarian took a heavy box of them home when his library’s card catalog was put to rest. He used them for note-taking and grocery lists. How do I know this? As with the aforementioned shushing, I am not confessing.

But wait, I have declared an end to the catalog too quickly! For libraries that continue to make use of the system today, Brodart makes handsome, well-constructed card catalogs.

24301650_120185669969Library Paste

This sticky paste, generally known in the industry as starch glue, was made of water and flour. Eons ago, many of us used it in our professional endeavors as an all-purpose glue. For the sake of professional accuracy, I must add that as children, a few of us might also have eaten it. You guessed it: I am not confessing to this, either. Production of starch glues was tied to supplies from extensive cassava plantations in Indonesia. When they fell under Japanese control during the Second World War, the industry turned to other types of glues. Here’s a paper on the history of wood adhesives that reveals even more (PDF).

I was not able to discover when use of library paste ceased but can confidently say that when sensible and progressive library staff learned about the virtues of the new PVA glues, they embraced the technological advancement and firmly stuck to it. Besides offering better adhesive qualities, this glue is apparently not palatable.

Library CatsCat on Books_609107240

What ever happened to those lovely felines that used to live in libraries? Many of their kind remain to prowl the stacks and fend off mice. Library cats are still in residence in libraries nationwide, although their numbers are decreasing, perhaps due to a combination of ADA, allergies, and the protests of ailurophobes. My cat still rules over my personal library, though he prefers watching television and sleeping in front of my computer keyboard.

16mm Film Projectors

Can anyone over the age of 40 ever forget the sound of the trusty workhorse Bell & Howell 16mm film projector? For a bit of auditory nostalgia, listen to this YouTube clip. At one time, it was important for AV staff in libraries to know how to use the three types of machines: Manual Threading, Self-Threading, and Slot-Loading.

The introduction of VHS tapes for commercial and educational use in the 1980s led to the demise of film projectors in most libraries. For a brief period, VHS struggled against a competing format, Beta, but soon won supremacy. We all know what eventually happened to VHS. Though gone from libraries, VHS today lives on in basements, attics, and garage sales. Here’s an article on old film projectors to take you farther down memory lane.

CDs_786220756CD-ROM Databases

In the early days of digital information use in libraries, the Internet did not exist for us. Vendors supplied libraries with CD-ROM discs, which looked like today’s music CDs and DVDs. Who of a certain age does not remember InfoTrac, which first infiltrated academic libraries in 1985, and soon followed across all types of libraries? Once Internet access became stable, CD-ROM use soon shriveled and shrank. EdTech has a nice online retrospective on CD-ROM databases.

Melvil Dewey

Born Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey in 1851 in rural Adams Center, New York, Dewey is known for his wide-ranging interests in education, winter sports, spelling reform, and — of course — libraries. His eponymous classification system still thrives, despite long-term competition from the Library of Congress classification system and recent library developments that use a bookstore style to group books by BISAC headings.

As an aside, Dewey would not have survived the current #MeToo movement, for another of his avid interests was female anatomy. Wayne Wiegand, whose biography Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey is considered the most historically complete and revealing, describes his behavior using the phrase “a persistent inability to control himself around women.” Dewey was an interesting, if somewhat controversial character, and it would be fun to write much more about the co-founder of the American Library Association and inventor of the Dewey Decimal System. But to return to the focus of this article, Dewey died of a stroke in Florida, in 1931, at the age of 80.

This forward-thinking quote from Dewey still rings true today:

“A library’s function is to give the public in the quickest and cheapest way: information, inspiration, and recreation. If a better way than the book can be found, we should use it.”

Henriette Avram

If you are like most librarians, you’re asking, “Who was she?” Avram, without a doubt, was one of the most influential figures ever to shape libraries, although few recognize her name. Avram was born in New York in 1919. She was not a librarian by training. Rather, she was a computer programmer who worked for the National Security Agency and, later, the Library of Congress. It was there, at the institution she referred to as “the Great Library,” that she was asked to develop an automated cataloging format. Through her genius, in 1968, the MARC record was born. Avram died in Florida in 2006.

City Directories

Valuable for genealogists, and perhaps most repeatedly used by skip-tracers, investigators, and voyeurs, the contents of the local city directory were among the most requested items of the library-based telephone reference service. So much so that some libraries developed policies as to how much — or little — service they would provide to callers. Strict policies were also developed to safeguard the books from developing legs and walking out the door.

Fold3, Ancestry, and other genealogy databases offer rich historical collections of U.S. city directories, as does the Internet Archive. The obituary of the city directory hasn’t been located, but a plethora of contemporary electronic databases offer much information, usually for a fee. Nothing satisfies the curious more, though, than leafing through the fascinating historical information within the hardbound covers of city directories. The story of how that information was gathered is for another day!

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Does anyone still care about reference collections?

By Paul Duckworth, MLS

Open Books-9043447Imagine you are a customer service librarian being forced to choose just three reference tools out of your entire reference collection and discard the rest. What would they be? Librarians and grad students used to mull over questions like this while hobnobbing at conferences or gathering in coffee shops. But what was once a philosophical reflection about the most valuable reference books (with the assumption being that of course every library needs them), has become a much simpler and more realistic question: “Does anyone care about reference collections anymore?”

It’s 2018. What three tools would any good customer service librarian choose to keep?

  1. The Internet
  2. A good search engine
  3. A smartphone

No, you’re right, they aren’t books, but you have to admit that they are indispensable. Goodbye Encyclopedia Britannica, farewell World Almanac, adiós Famous First Facts. Full disclosure: I got my start in the reference department of a large public library, using standards such as The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, The United States Government Manual, and Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I cut my eyeteeth on them. I fell in love with many, many reference titles and I could not stifle my affection. I loved those musty tomes passionately.

Today it’s a different world—one with different patrons, who have different needs and are asking different questions. About the only thing a reference collection gives me today is warm fuzzies. OK, I am exaggerating…somewhat. Yes, there are some valid exceptions. But let’s look at what’s happening across the country.

Kyle King, at the North Independence branch of Mid-Continent Public Library (Independence, Mo.), works in the district’s reference center. Since he started there 10 years ago, the collection has shrunk from 38,000 volumes to 18,000. He says the nature of the questions he receives has changed. Computer Search-456214333A lot of what used to be ready reference is now solved by patrons themselves who hop onto a search engine for answers. The library has become an educator in information literacy and is taking a major stance as a resource for mastering digital technologies. He notes, “Twenty-five years ago, questions were informational, but now they involve demonstrating skills. For a car repair question, we handed the customer a manual rather than joining them under the hood. Today, though, we do hands-on demos of using email, navigating websites, and filling out forms.” The print reference collection still receives some use, especially in areas where no equivalent online tool is available for free or a reasonable price, such as collectibles, legal materials, building codes, and style manuals. Many reference books have been moved to the circulating collection, and some reference books are occasionally sent to another branch for a patron to use.

Kathi Woodward, Reference Department manager at Springfield-Greene County Library (Mo.), is a relative newcomer to the profession, having started in 2012 after more than two decades in the world of bookstores. During her six years as manager, the reference collection has decreased to half its size. Women Man Computer-289539899She has retained some print materials because there is no comparable or affordable online equivalent, such as various medical reference titles, collectibles, and Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft. Woodward agrees that the nature of the questions has changed and there is considerable focus on technology, job applications, IRS, and “How do I…?” queries.  However, the homework question—that old familiar friend of ours—still crops up often.

For Ben Lathrop, Information and Reference Department Manager for the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, one challenge is the size of the reference collection. The library weeds based on condition only. Two floors of its main library—closed to the public—house large numbers of nonfiction and reference volumes. Lathrop has pulled together a collection of approximately 1,000 volumes located adjacent to reference staff for quick, daily use. In his 12 years with the library, some types of questions have largely disappeared, with library users now asking Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant instead of librarians or their friends. Some customers, though, still ask the library for phone numbers, addresses, and such. While encyclopedias and atlases sit unused, building codes, price guides for antiques and collectibles, and a few titles such as Corporate Affiliations Directory remain invaluable. In many cases, the library allows reference titles to be checked out. Lathrop noted that reference librarians used to practice the “teach a person to fish” approach by helping customers use reference books, but that today they’re doing the opposite: answering the question directly without going into teaching mode.

In early 2016, Jessica Parij, Manager of Adult Services at Rochester Hills Public Library (Mich.), posed this question to ALA’s Think Tank Facebook Group : “What’s your print reference section look like nowadays? Still big? Small? Interfiled? Gone completely?” With close to 40 comments, the most common responses were:

  • Heavily weeded
  • Getting smaller
  • Shrinking
  • Moving to circulating collection
  • Replaced by online resources
  • Sad but tossing the outdated and unused books

These individual comments are particularly noteworthy:

  • “I’m about to decimate mine.”
  • “I just discarded three quarters of mine.”
  • “Gone. A few ready ref at the desk but other than that, all gone!”

Andy Woodworth, manager of reference and adult services at Cherry Hill Public Library (N.J.), a 2010 Library Journal Mover & Shaker, is author of the blog Agnostic, Maybe: the Neverending Reference Interview of Life. Woodworth offered what is perhaps the best response to this post’s featured question in the article he wrote for INALJ (the website formerly known as I Need a Library Job). In the entry titled “Reference Isn’t Dead, Just Different,” Andy says, “I turn downright ornery towards the physical reference collection as a continuing concept that libraries should embrace…. (After weeding the reference collection) I am presently looking at a leaner, meaner physical collection that covers the topics better than their online counterparts.”

So it seems that after ruthless weeding and a focus on the immediate goal of meeting the needs of 2018 library users, those beloved reference books have been replaced by fast Internet, smart searching, and strong technology. The remaining titles have to earn their shelf space. So what should stay? The titles should be solid, dependable, reliable, easy to access, quicker than going online for an answer, and offer beautifully arranged, succinct answers to frequently asked questions. Simple, eh? To paraphrase a great Zen saying, “The way is easy, except for the picking and choosing.” I confess, it still pains me to discard a reference title I have long loved, but I can do it.

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Where Have All the Readers Gone?

By Paul Duckworth, MLS

“I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do.” —Neil Gaiman

Recently, I wrote here about print versus shutterstock_548101636digital and raised the question as to whether the physical book is dying. My question today may seem very similar but it’s really more broad and speculative. In fact, it’s a series of questions.

Is reading on the decline? Are we in a “post-literate era?” Is the act of reading itself on the way out, to be replaced by video, the spoken word, game apps, data implants to the brain, knowledge pills, or what have you?

If the answer is yes, it is in decline, then who or what do we pin the blame on? What can we, as librarians, do to combat it? And why do we want to push back against the trend, other than to save our own profession?

To begin, while it may be trite, we Americans have become multi-taskers, switching from e-mail to social media to news to game apps, then back to our latest ebook. Coupled with this, our attention spans have shrunk. We have increasingly shifted from print to moving images. This trend is not necessarily “bad.” It simply describes the direction in which contemporary culture is moving.

So, what’s happened to reading? We librarians have witnessed the rise of “short reads,” or, to use James Patterson’s term, BookShots. But “James Patterson, Inc.” isn’t the only provider offering something to readers with limited time and short attention spans. The Libraries Transform Campaign recently wrote about short reading on their website, giving many examples of other short reads that are being delivered in print and digital formats.

How else does this “time-attention-focus” shortage affect our reading? Are fewer of us reading, period? Happily, it would seem not. The 2016 Pew Research Center survey on book reading provides a richly detailed series of answers. Among many interesting statistics, 73% of Americans say they have read at least one book in the last year. For 18 to 29 year-olds, that number is higher: 80%. Along with this, a 2014 article from The Atlantic reports:

Last year, the NEA found that 52 percent of 18-24 year-olds had read a book outside of work or school, the same as in the pre-Facebook days of 2002. If book culture were in terminal decline, this is the demographic where you’d expect it to be fading fastest.

So much for the misconception that young people don’t read.

In 2012, Pew conducted a survey to identify why people like to read. The theme of “quiet entertainment” was popular among respondents. Here are some individual quotes:

quotecloud-d

What are some factors that tend to be a positive catalyst for reading? Nothing beats the age-old practice of a parent reading to their child. Adults who were read to as children tend to continue the practice of reading throughout their lives. Along with this, according to a Pew Research Center Study, education level and income both seem to influence reading. Those with college degrees read more than those without. Those in middle to upper-middle income brackets tend to read more than those with lower incomes.

We Americans pride ourselves on being highly educated and literate, but when we compare ourselves to the rest of the world, how do we as a country stack up in regard to reading? According to the NOP World Culture Score Index on hours of reading per week per person, India is #1, at 10 hours, 42 minutes per week. China is at eight hours, Russia and Sweden are at seven, and Canada, Germany, and the U.S. are about five hours,45 minutes each. Mexico is slightly below America, at five hours, 30 minutes. This suggests there is not a correlation in other countries between standard of living or education and reading.

shutterstock_450545746What librarians can do to foster reading is exactly what we have been doing: promoting reading through storytimes, publicizing summer reading programs, fostering book discussion groups, and promoting literacy by partnering with literacy organizations. Beyond that, we know every book a child is given makes him or her more likely to become a lifelong reader. We know that families who are well educated will be more enthusiastic readers, as well as users of libraries. We know that fostering efforts to raise families out of poverty will tend to move them more into the camp of those who love and find value in reading.

In our present hyped-up, frenetic world of doing, working, chatting, and surfing, perhaps our best stance as librarians is to take every opportunity to water the seeds of imagination in individuals. To be a catalyst for discovery, and to offer not so much a reflection of the culture, but rather a pathway to a life of the mind that offers rich rewards for personal and social development.

Is the librarian’s push to promote reading a kind of self-serving insurance policy to protect our livelihood? Perhaps, to some degree, it is. But more importantly, we understand the secret of reading. And this is what we seek to share.

Ultimately, we as librarians work not to save the institution, not to maintain the status quo, not to save “the book,” and not to act as luddites. The crux of the issue revolves around fostering “the good life.” We believe with all our hearts that reading is a magic elixir that takes us out of ourselves, broadens our perspectives, leads us to ask questions, and brings us into connection with the world around us.

Perhaps Neil Gaiman said it best:

“You’re also finding out something as you read [that is] vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this: the world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”

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Is Print Dead?

By Paul Duckworth, MLS

shutterstock_1031453560It goes without saying that most of us who work in libraries love books. What do we do, then, when people start sounding the death knell for the printed word? Some of us may be dismayed by the statistics about print that we read and hear, including the news release from Amazon that it now sells more Kindle-formatted books than those in traditional format. But the statistics do not indicate any clear death notice, and they fail to tell us the real story.

Let’s consider this.

It’s clear that those heralding the coming death of print never sat in on the university forecasting class taught by noted IBM business planner Ollie Wight in the mid-decades of the last century. Each of Wight’s opening lectures began with Wight stating, “Remember that all forecasts are wrong from the moment they are made.” And so it goes with the predictions about the death of print. These predictions seemed to take on a strident pitch with the emergence of portable electronic tablets more than a decade ago. These days, amidst the proliferation of electronic reference databases, downloadable library e-books, and the ease of hyperlinking, what thinking person wouldn’t wonder how soon the obituary of print would be—pardon me—printed?

I am struck by sociology professor and author John Thompson’s (“Merchants of Culture”) observation that “Few … challenges were foreseen in the feverish hype of the 1990s that the days of the book were numbered. Paper texts were clunky and old fashioned; digital versions were smart and sleek.” Many have jumped onto the perceived coffin of books, Pull-Quote-1newspapers, and magazines and enthusiastically heralded a new day. Indeed, yes, it is a new day—with many more to come for those of us who work in libraries. The rapid changes facilitated by technology will continue and the pace will become even faster than it is at the moment. However, does this mean that print will soon be dead? Perhaps not. When radio appeared, forecasters predicted that newspapers would disappear. The advent of television led to the same prediction for radio.

Going back to 1894, there was speculation that the (then) new technology of phonograph records (à la audiobooks) would bring about the demise of books. Earlier cries were that the newspaper would kill the book. Today’s newspaper, while certainly challenged, is still with us, as is the book it was going to replace. Except for high-end audiophiles, the phonograph record is dead.  So is its successor, the audiotape.  For some of its applications, print is in great decline. Think about reference collections today versus twenty years ago.

Humans, wired as we are by our genetic heritage, tend to like tactile objects. Gutenberg’s invention was a vast improvement over cuneiform tablets and parchment scrolls. Do digital editions and databases offer a similar leaping improvement over print? We humans prefer convenience and practicality along with the sensory and tactile. You, the reader, are right now looking into an electronic screen, not a printed page.  When you pack for a long trip, you may well be packing yourshutterstock_229026028 iPad or other portable reading device along with a laptop. Who wants to lug around a suitcase made heavier by adding several books and magazines?  So, yes, reading digitally is sensible, practical, and convenient. And its integration into our daily lives and into libraries is a no-brainer.

Certainly, digital reading offers splendid possibilities and conveniences. What librarian wants to return to the days of hunting for magazine back issues, finding missing or mutilated copies, or lugging reference books around that are too expensive to be duplicated at all branch locations? Digital reading is wonderful for some applications—but not for all of us all the time.

Stephen Fry, comedian, actor, and writer, summed things up well when he wrote: “This is the point. One technology doesn’t replace another, it complements. Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.” I think this is where we are in the print versus digital buzz. Print is holding its place well for many applications and users, while the adoption of digital formats continues to become more widespread. It isn’t one against the other. There aren’t winners and losers. We simply have more choices these days.

Pull-Quote-2I believe that print is going to maintain a presence in our lives—for the present and near future, and probably for a long time. Why? Many people prefer it for long reading and various aesthetic reasons. Who doesn’t thrill at receiving a handwritten card or letter from a friend? What child does not delight at having an adult share a picture book with them? What emotions do we experience when we pull a long-treasured book off our personal bookshelf and find a pressed flower, a scribbled note, or a bookmark that triggers memories? A while back, I relocated to another city and my books were stored in heavy boxes for a few months. I was able to put them back onto bookshelves recently. The experience was more than I expected it would be. I was so moved that I began to write:

Poem2

Print and digital are close cousins, not warring tribes. Underneath the emotional aspects of an attachment to print, the solid ground is that print works for us. And digital works for us. New technology benefits us and gives us choices we did not have before. The thrill of the new can sometimes obscure the benefits of the old-fashioned. We winnow our way as librarians and help translate the truths of the library into today’s vernacular. We flow with and help interpret the tide and lend a hand to customers as we explore and adapt today’s technologies.

Premature Obituaries for Printed Books:shutterstock_228824866.jpg

  • “Books will soon be obsolete in the public schools.” —Written by Thomas Edison, in the summer of 1913
  • In 1966, in a Life magazine profile, Marshall McLuhan lumped books with other antiques: “Clotheslines, seams in stockings, books and jobs — all are obsolete.”
  • “The physical book will be dead in five years.” —Declared by Nicholas Negroponte, father of the One Laptop Per Child project, at a conference in 2010
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Self-Publishing & Instant Printing

By Paul Duckworth, MLS

shutterstock_268054271As librarians, we know that technology has changed the way we provide service to our patrons—it’s a no brainer. Some of us, myself included, have been around long enough to remember being a part of the beginning waves of change: the introduction of the MARC record, the advent of turnkey automation systems, followed quickly by the rise of personal computers, and the transformation of card catalogs into scrap paper. For years, prior to using the Notes feature on my smartphone, the backs of my library’s catalog cards served as shopping lists.

None of us really knows how technology will transform the way we interact with our customers in the next five to ten years. But there’s one particular area that I’m especially excited about: the advent of instant publishing. Gone are the days when the publisher imprints of Vantage Press and a few others were stigmatized as “vanity presses” and scorned by librarians. Today, any title can be easily published with only a modest financial investment and made available worldwide through standard online retailers, as well as a wide variety of other websites, including ebooks.com, smashwords.com, fictionwise.com, and buy-e-books-online.com.

Why am I excited about this? Furthermore, why should librarians care?

Fifty-ShadesFirst, instant publishing completely bypasses the gatekeeping function of traditional publishing, designed to maintain profitability. It is now possible for anyone who has a good story to tell—or an underrepresented nonfiction topic to explore—to publish their work, be it via print or e-book. Thanks to new publishing alternatives, hot titles like Amanda Hocking’s Trylle trilogy went from initial self-published e-books to having its rights acquired by St. Martins. After being rejected by major publishers, E.L. James self-published her first book, Fifty Shades of Grey, both as a paperback and an e-book. Ever heard of it? I didn’t think so…

Second, books can make it into finished form and into the hands of readers much faster than ever before. That’s undeniably a good thing.

Third, local authors in our communities have many more shutterstock_348765254options now for getting self-published and getting their books onto our shelves. I could go on and on, but the benefits of self-publishing are clear for authors, readers, and libraries. An added plus for collection development librarians is that it has become easier for publishers to bring titles back that had moved to O.S.I. or O.P. status when their inventory was exhausted.

Self-published titles do present challenges for libraries. Lack of reviews and cataloging records, competition for limited materials budgets, and acquisition challenges are not insignificant. I have often wondered how my library could offer an e-book to users if it isn’t included in titles offered by ProQuest, Overdrive, hoopla, or other content aggregators. But in my experience, libraries (and opportunistic new businesses) always find ways to shape new technologies into expanded services for patrons.

ebm_bartells1

Source: the-digital-reader.com

Today, Espresso Book Machines are installed in public libraries and other locations. This ingenious device makes it possible to purchase a book from among thousands of available titles and have it printed and delivered (i.e., dispensed from the machine) in a few minutes. Biblioboard makes it possible for individual e-books to be easily added to its database of titles that are available to libraries (MARC records included). Also, its partner, SELF-e, offers a means for people to produce their e-books and distribute them through their public library.

These are exciting times when we librarians can say “yes” to more people and encourage access to more titles.

shutterstock_222267694At one time, the LP record was THE format for music and spoken word. Its replacement, the cassette tape, is long gone and now CDs are beginning to be phased out. The emergence of Beta and VHS videotapes led to forecasts that movie theaters would disappear. Instead, theaters continue attracting audiences, Beta and VHS are gone, formats unimagined at the time have replaced them, and video materials have the highest turnover in public libraries.

Similarly, the development of e-books sparked fears that the traditional book format would fade away. So far, the physical books are holding their own quite nicely and libraries now offer access to far more titles in formats far improved from the original Rocket eBook. No doubt self-publishing will trigger predictions that traditional publishers will crumble. More likely, as with so many other developments, it will simply add yet another format or option to the mix. I predict that we librarians are going to enjoy choices and service opportunities that even the brightest of us can’t predict. How’s that for a prediction!

shutterstock_255656932.jpgWhat do I see when I gaze into the crystal ball? Change. It’s just a hunch, but I think libraries will remain part of that mix so long as we don’t latch onto particular formats as sacrosanct or reflexively try to resist the pace of change, only to make ourselves redundant in the process. Instead, we must continue to embrace new opportunities and technological adaptations in the name of service for our communities.

 

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The Collection Development Conundrum

By Paul Duckworth, MLS

5934882 - student looking at empty book shelves in libraryAlmost ten years ago, David Feldman penned a series of “Imponderables”: books with catchy titles such as Why Do Pirates Love Parrots?, When Do Fish Sleep?, and Do Penguins Have Knees? They moved well in public libraries for a few years, and then people seemed to lose interest in those questions. There are bigger questions, though, that people never seem to tire of pondering:

  • How did life begin?
  • Will we ever cure cancer?
  • Are we alone in the universe?
  • Why do we dream?
  • What makes us human?

Certainly, the shelves of our libraries are replete with titles that attempt to answer each of these quandaries. I want to single out a different question, though— one that we librarians chew on from time to time: “What’s the best way to select new titles for our collection?”

After many years of practicing the art of selecting new materials for public libraries, I have learned many things but I don’t intend to imply that I have all the answers. Nor does anyone else—and I recommend you not allow yourself to be bamboozled by anyone who claims their modus operandi is numero uno. What I’m suggesting is that the question “What’s the best way to select new books for the collection?” is a classic imponderable.

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Oops… I have let a clue slip into the previous paragraph: Art. Selection of new materials is an art, not a science. Says who? I say it is. Ah, yes, art vs. science, another timeless conundrum—and also the name of an Australian electronic dance band that is raucously frenetic, IMHO. But I digress.

Before getting into the art of selecting titles, let’s look at the various triggers that prompt us to select. “How do we decide what gets added to the collection? Let me count the ways.” (Apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.) 

  • The powerful influence of media presence
  • The appeal of cover art: it goes without saying that poor design or the lack of text and colorful graphics will dissuade most if not all patrons from checking out the book
  • Physical size, or the Goldilocks principle (not too big, not too small)
  • Binding
  • Patron requests or to meet the needs of a particular audience
  • School assignments
  • Local interest or tie-in
  • Library book selector says, “It’s my favorite area of interest and my library can never have enough _____ books.” (Fill in the blank: knitting, backpacking, Indian cooking, Scandinavian mysteries, etc.)
  • Fill a gap or special need
  • Amazon customer comments
  • Expeditions to bookstores
  • Donations
  • Bestseller lists
  • Anticipated demand for a title
  • Author popularity
  • It’s the next one in the series
  • A particular title is selected to provide balance in the collection
  • Self-promotion by author
  • Publisher catalogs
  • “Let George do it”—or, in the library’s case, outsource selection responsibilities to a vendor
  • Vendor promotion/customized selection lists
  • Vendor buying levels
  • Vendor list of “best” books
  • Visit from sales rep
  • Print run
  • Price
  • “Whoops! Look, we’ve got some funds we need to encumber by the end of the week.”
  • “The computer made me buy it,” a.k.a. suggested titles generated by software programs
  • Blanket orders or standing order plans
  • Television shows (get ready—Oprah is returning to the air this autumn!)
  • Did I mention the influence of media presence?

 

7338274 - book. word collage on white background.   illustration.What haven’t I listed? Reviews, of course; book reviews. But do they really matter these days? While that’s a completely separate topic in itself, I won’t hesitate to jump in and firmly state, “Yes, reviews matter!” Librarians have many excellent sources of professional reviews from which to choose.

It comes as no surprise that our public expects new books. Not a travel guide from three years ago and not a hot author’s thriller that has been available for a few years. Every survey of our customers says “We want new books,” and every public library’s circulation statistics bear this out. We have our marching orders from patrons: “Make our collection fresh, new, appealing, and up-to-date!”

But consider this not-too-far-fetched example. While we are evaluating a brand new title that discusses the history of yodeling in Tasmania — to replace our worn-out, aging title on the topic — we may find reviews suggesting that this new title is poorly edited and full of inaccuracies, or that it is an unstated reprint of a title originally issued in 1957. Here’s how “art” comes into play. Perhaps we will serve our patrons better by purchasing a well-reviewed title on the topic that was published two years ago, as opposed to one published this month. Also, we may have to stand our ground when other staff members question why such a limited-interest title would be selected at all. We know our clientele, and we see the circ. stats for that old, worn-out tome on the shelf, and we employ what is so aptly described by the phrase “professional judgment.” This is the art of selection!

Selecting books can certainly be informed by science, but I’m of the firm opinion that simply letting the computer do the work is not the way to go. Humans can make judgment calls and handle nuances and shades of gray in ways that software simply cannot, no matter how sophisticated the algorithms may be.

11293717 - young smiling female librarian handing a book to a customerAs professional librarians, we have access to respected journals that offer us reviews of forthcoming and recently-published books. Amidst our efforts to respond to media saturation, vendor buying levels, tweets, emails, phone calls, and blog posts, let us not neglect the art of reading reviews, using good judgment, and knowing our community. Hippocrates said “Art is long, life is short.” I interpret this to mean that it takes us an extended period of time to develop and perfect the craft of selecting books for our library and community of users.

So, where are we now, dear reader? Are you reconsidering your book selection process? My motive was to raise a question, get you to think, and encourage you to ponder possibilities. How do you and your library select? How is it working for you?

And now, forward! Ahead into these times of turmoil and changing tools for publishing and selecting! Having begun with the imponderable question of how to best select new books, I now suggest you be forewarned to never lose the art of your foresight—and to never forebear.

“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.”
― J.R.R. TolkienThe Hobbit

 

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Nothing brings a smile to Paul Duckworth’s face quite like a good book, a long walk, and the unmatched beauty of country life. Click here for more.

Floating Collections

By Paul Duckworth, MLS

20984552 - a stair case of books floating on a cloudy sky backgroundThe concept of floating collections is one that tends to polarize librarians. Many of us either love or loathe the idea. Toss that topic out at a conference social hour and listen to the reactions.

“Floating collections—what a neat idea!”

“Floating collections—I don’t want that to happen in my library.”

“Our library has been using floating collections for several years. We wouldn’t think of going back to static collections.”

“Well… yes, I can see some benefits. But what about …?”

The idea of floating collections is fairly new, wouldn’t you think? Surprisingly, the concept has been around longer than I realized. Floating collections began in a regional library system in Western Canada in the 1930s. The concept was later adopted by a district in Colorado in 1984 (a 50-year delay!). You have to hand it to those Westerners: they are free-thinking pioneers in many areas, including library practices.

I remember first reading about floating collections in 2003. The article I read intrigued me, but triggered several questions as well. It wasn’t until several years later that I found myself working in a library district that had been using floating collections for several years. After reading much more about it in the literature, visiting with librarians, and experiencing it firsthand as both a staffer and patron in a multi-branch system, I have developed my own observations and opinions.

There are some strong and clear positives. Floating collections make books available for patrons more quickly, while reducing staff time and delivery vehicle expenses. Collections get refreshed continuously, meaning branch collections better reflect what their patrons are using. Furthermore, there’s less wear-and-tear on materials, and centralized selectors don’t need to make branch-by-branch decisions on who receives a copy. The Cuyahoga County Public Library in Ohio found that floating led to budget savings of 10-15 percent and greater patron satisfaction. Another library’s experience was that floating collections brought the staff together in communication and collaboration through the bond of joint ownership between branches.

25661348_mSpringfield-Greene County Library (Missouri) began floating collections in 2007, and Lisa Sampley, Collection Services Manager, says she cannot imagine not using floating collections now. Her experience has been that the librarians buy fewer copies of some titles now and use the saved funds to purchase additional titles that they would otherwise not be able to afford. Another plus has been greater circulation. As Sampley put it, “Because materials are more readily available, they check out more.”

How could one argue against these advantages? Looking more closely, however, there are some drawbacks — or at least perceived drawbacks. Redistribution becomes a major issue: “We don’t have any room on the shelves for these items! How do we get them to another branch where there’s shelf space?” Branch collections can no longer be tailored to meet the needs of specific population groups, staff at branch libraries have little or no input as to what is in their collection, and portions of the collection can become unbalanced: “What happened to all the picture books?” “How did we get so much science fiction on the shelves?” Weeding can fall into the hands of busy front line staff, who may not recognize the value of individual items. Finally, patrons have a tendency to return items to a branch near a major road they travel or close to work, out of convenience, rather than to their usual library.

One library’s experience is that branches with high circulation become inundated with materials while those with low checkouts tend to notice their collection getting smaller and smaller. Another issue is with staff time. Much is made of saved staff time after implementing floating collections, but a survey1 revealed that several libraries were unhappy with the amount of time spent on managing collections, especially redistribution efforts. Overall, the redistribution issue is widely accepted as the most significant drawback.

What about circulation statistics? It is generally accepted that floating collections lead to an increase in checkouts—and the experience of many libraries tends to bear this out. However, the facts are inconclusive. Noel Rutherford, Collection Development Manager at Nashville Public Library, found that yes, checkouts went up—for some portions of the collection. However, for other areas or types of material, circulation decreased. Rutherford reported that following their late 2012 implementation of floating collections, some branches in her system experienced a more than 50% drop in circulation of large-type materials and more than 40% decrease in checkouts of AV materials.2 After much analysis and consideration, Nashville Public Library discontinued floating collections in late 2014.

22992147 - library with stack of books opened.The survey mentioned above, of over 100 library respondents, found that there is an almost equal divide between the pro and con camps on the concept of floating collections.3 So, what’s a library to do? Should we float collections or give them a permanent home? The answer isn’t simple. Prepare to take a good look at your library: its needs, user makeup, and objectives. Your answers to the following questions will help you determine whether your library is a good candidate for floating collections.

  1. Is your district suburban, with branches that serve similar types of patrons? Many librarians suggest that floating fits best in districts that have fairly similar clientele from branch to branch.
  2. Do you have a main library or central resource center, along with branches that all serve a somewhat distinct demographic group? If so, floating may lead to mixed results — working well for some branches and not well for others.
  3. What collections do you have that would not be desirable to float?
  4. Is participation from branch staff valuable in shaping collections? How important are tailored collections and branch-specific selections of materials?
  5. Is your district prepared to undertake a vigorous weeding program prior to implementing floating collections? Many librarians report that a thorough weeding effort prior to starting leads to greater satisfaction.
  6. Do one or more branches serve a geographic area and/or population that would benefit from a collection targeted at specific interests, needs, and usage patterns that are distinct from the remainder of your district?
  7. What place is there for low-circulating types of materials in your district? Does it matter where they are housed?
  8. Do you perhaps want to test the waters by initially floating small or specific portions of your materials?
  9. Can you develop a plan prior to implementation so that you can be proactive rather than reactive in dealing with the challenges of floating collections? Lisa Sampley at Springfield-Greene County Library wishes she had done more investigation and planning to deal with likely issues.
  10. Last but not least, what are other districts similar to yours doing? Why reinvent the wheel when you can tap into the rich experience of colleagues at other libraries? Sometimes the best flow of information starts during a library conference social hour.

Abby Hargreaves is a recent MLIS graduate and blogger who formerly worked at a large suburban library district with floating collections. She summed up the issue nicely with these comments from her library blog, 24 Hour Library:

The goal of floating collections is to create greater variety. This is especially important for smaller branches. So, with a static collection, if patrons are the kind of people who prefer to browse to look for something to read, especially in small libraries and especially if the patron prefers a specific genre, their options will be limited.

But what about patrons who prefer to visit a library knowing what they want to get? As someone with a lengthy to-be-read list, this is often my strategy. Floating collections make this challenging. I can check the online catalog, of course, before I leave for the library to go pick it up. But if the book is currently living at a library that’s a bit distant, I have three options: going to that distant library, putting it on hold and waiting two or three days for it to reach me, or going with something else.

So, this is why I don’t have a strong opinion either way about floating collections — or, rather, I have strong opinions both ways and they create this neutral space between them like the center of a rope in tug-of-war.

A Zen librarian might wonder, “What is the sound of one collection floating?” The Buddha would respond, “Be awake. Chaos is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with diligence.” And so we shall!


1 Weber, Kate E. The Benefits and Drawbacks of Working with Floating Collections: The Perceptions of Public Librarians. A Master’s Paper for the M.S. in L.S. degree. March, 2014. School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. p. 27

2 Rutherford, Noel. “To float or not to float?” Library Journal, April 1, 2016, p. 47

3 Weber, Kate E. The Benefits and Drawbacks of Working with Floating Collections: The Perceptions of Public Librarians. A Master’s Paper for the M.S. in L.S. degree. March, 2014. School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. p. 43

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Nothing brings a smile to Paul Duckworth’s face quite like a good book, a long walk, and the unmatched beauty of country life. Click here for more.