Monday, June 28, 2010

Booknote: This Book is Overdue!; It is also overhyped

Below is my review of the book, which I wrote for my GoodReads page, that a few librarians out there seemed to like. I was not too impressed, but at least, if anyone asks, I can say I read it.

This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Given that this book has been hyped by a good number of librarians in Librarian Blogsville, I resisted picking it up. I am not much into reading stuff that seems to be over-hyped. In the end, I picked it up because I saw it in the new books shelf of my local public library, so I figured it would be a low risk reading. The book does not even live up to the hype.

When I started reading, I noticed right away that it has a fanboy tone to it, and I am not using the term in a good way. The book seems to be written more for non-librarians and people outside the profession. Those of us in the profession already know most of what is in the book. I wanted to think that it was a good thing that someone would write something positive about librarians in this age when governments and communities want to cut library funding left and right while people think everything is online (it is not, contrary to a lot of wishful thinking, nor will it all be online anytime soon). If nothing else, the book is a pretty quick read. If you are a librarian, as I said, you probably know a good amount of the material, so you can likely skim parts of the book without feeling you missed anything. For instance, if you are a librarian blogger, or you at least follow library blogs, you can safely skip the chapter on librarian bloggers. There is nothing new here that you have not seen before.

The best parts of the book, at least the ones that resonated with me, were the chapter on Radical Reference, the one on the Connecticut Four, and the profile on the New York Public Library. The Radical Reference folks are a good example of what librarians do best in terms of helping a community right at the street level. The Connecticut Four chapter is a must read if you do not know who they are or what they did to fight for your right of privacy. They fought a government more than willing to set aside the Constitution and your rights for the sake of security. What was that thing Benjamin Franklin said about those who are willing to give up their freedom for security? These guys were not willing to give up their freedom, and they fought and won. Be sure to thank a librarian for they are one of the few folks these days willing to stand up for your rights. Finally, the NYPL piece shows a real tragedy, in spite of the good work this institution does, in terms of forsaking specialized, often unique knowledge and resources, for the short term chimera of more foot traffic. Folks may try to spin it, but that is what it boils down to.

In the end, the book has a good moment or two, but overall it just tries too hard to promote the hipster librarian image a little too hard. Sure, we are trying to get away from the shushing librarian with a bun image, but this book goes to the other extreme. I feel the book could have been more, but it failed and took an easy route. I think some people should read it, to get a sense of some of the good things librarians do these days, but be careful not to fall for the excessive hype and attempt to be too cool. If you have to keep proclaiming how cool you are, you are not.

View all my reviews >>

Friday, June 25, 2010

Revisiting whether I should or not blog something

C.W.'s recent post at Ruminations for her seventh day in her 30 day blogging challenge made me think a bit. It made me think because some of the questions she is answering are questions that I have pondered myself at one point or another. For some reason, I have been pondering some of those questions again. I figure then this could be a good time to revisit the topic of things I blog and do not blog about.

For reference, let me start by boiling down some of the key questions from her post and the post C.W. is replying to, which you can find at C.W.'s post. I am basically rephrasing the questions as I understand them from the readings so I can then address them.

  • Do you feel constraints in terms of speaking/blogging about the profession? This is applicable to those who blog but do not do so professionally.
  • If you blog professionally, do you feel it has threatened your career? Then again, I think this is applicable even if you have a personal blog.
  • Is it concern even when you are blogging about general LIS issues?
  • Would you be uncomfortable or feel restraints if you knew the boss or other powers that be read your blog?
The above are the basics. C.W. raises other questions as she writes, but I may or not get to those as I take a look. Let me start with the first question on that list.

Do I feel restraints in terms of talking about the profession?

I do feel some need to be restrained. It is not so much that I worry about others in Librarian Blogsville (though I have had at least one visitor who got a little defensive in making a comment. Let's just say I don't always have a good opinion of the powers that be, and said commenter was a member of the powers that be club, and leave it at that. After a while, it's best to just let things go). It is more that I worry about what my current employers may say or think. Even though I keep this blog, as well as my personal one, very separate from the workplace, one never knows when some post might trigger a superior's reaction. As for Librarian Blogsville, I am very much below the big radar as my three readers know. In terms of others in LIS, the only real restraint is trying not to beat dead horses. If a topic has pretty much made the rounds, I avoid blogging about it even when I may have an opinion. For one, the big boys and girls already took care of it. For two, I don't always have the time to reflect and come up with a good response in a timely fashion; after all, some of us do have to work for a living. So at that point, I just don't feel like making the effort. It is not that I lack ideas or opinions. It just seems that by the point X topic has made the rounds, it is already old news.

If you blog professionally, do you feel it has threatened your career?

Locally, I don't think my professional blog would represent a threat to my career. Though I have some strong opinions, I don't think I have blogged anything that would displease the university president (the mantra here is that I "serve at the pleasure of the president") or any of my superiors. If I have to be concerned, it might be if I went back out on the job market. It is not because I think I have blogged anything terribly controversial in the professional blog, but what I may consider tame someone else may consider incendiary. I have no control over what someone chooses to be offended about, so I try not to let it bother me much. I also try not to be intentionally incendiary just in case. A few years ago, Rochelle Mazar wrote the following:

"Apparently, when it comes to getting a job, it would be best if candidates appear meek, mild, and without opinions, ready to be inoffensive to everyone she meets. Again, I realize full well that there are inappropriate rants that get published on blogs, and I'm the first to cringe at them and work on writing up the blogging policy, but doesn't it seems odd to disqualify a candidate because s/he is prepared to express opinions in any forum? It would be nice if the concept of academic freedom actually meant that academics generally respected and supported the idea of free thought and expression for everyone, but apparently this doesn't work everywhere."

I quoted that passage in a post of my own considering the hazards of blogging and applying to library jobs back in 2005. I dislike the idea of being forced to appear meek, mild and without opinions. The one thing that a lot of the celebrities in Librarian Blogsville fail to realize is that many of them are a little more shielded than other folks. Whether it be due to tenure, which grants certain privileges of academic freedom, or to their fame, a lot of those folks can afford to say what they want in relative safety. Let's be honest: if your library is the library that employs one of the big celebrity librarians, you are not going to fire them over a blog post because they may express a strong opinion that may or not be popular or controversial (this of course does not apply if said blogger does something that is libelous, illegal, so on. Do I really need to make that distinction? I am sure my three readers get it). Hell, Library Journal hired the Annoyed Librarian, who is often both controversial and incendiary at times (then again, she, assuming it is a she, is a pseudonymous blogger). In the end, we are talking reputations here for the employer, and that employer does get the bragging rights of being the place where so and so works. Now as for the point of academic freedom that Rochelle brings up in her writing, it's interesting how that works. You get the academic freedom when you are employed. When you are in the market, all bets are off, and you better watch what you say or blog about. It's the reality of the profession, and by now I accept it. I am not saying it is right; I am just saying it is what it is. I know I may take a risk or two, and I know it is part of being a librarian blogger. Again, it is what it is. I don't think it threatens my career. I think it makes me a stronger and better librarian that I am able to blog and write about my profession, express my thoughts and ideas, and overall reflect on what I do to see what I can learn.

As for my personal blog, that is a different ballgame, and I may have to address that at a later time so as to prevent this post from getting too long. I do have a thought or two on that since I don't really buy into the idea that a librarian has to remain strictly neutral, or at least maintain that illusion. Sure, we do it at the reference desk for it is what is expected of us being professionals. But outside of the library, the way I see it, what I do is my business. As I said, that is another story of another time.

Is it a concern even when you are blogging about general LIS issues?

Honestly, I am rarely concerned when I blog about general LIS issues. If it is some big issue that everyone talks about, I probably won't blog it in the first place (see above). If it is a small issue, since I am flying below the radar, I don't worry much either (again, see my reply above). There are topics I find interesting, that I have opinions and thoughts on, and that I can write about. I just choose what to write about in the blog versus what I choose to write in my private journal. In the words of the wise Walt Crawford,

"There's a lot to be said for responses not posted, and blog essays never blogged. Writing it down is great as a safety valve. Submitting it for anyone else to see is frequently pointless (and sometimes dangerous). "

You can find where I quoted him originally here. If you follow the link, you can dig up the context. Sometimes I just need to write it down, to express myself, to explore my thoughts. It does not follow that I have to share them with the rest of the world. It does not mean I am any less thoughtful, reflective, informed, or passionate.

Would you be uncomfortable or feel restraints if you knew the boss or other powers that be read your blog?

I already know my boss reads the blog. She told me so. I don't know if she has read it recently, but I do know it is on her feed reader. It has not bothered me, and I have not changed the way I blog because of my boss. I came in to my current position as a blogger. Since I do not write on any specifics of the workplace, other than the occasional chronicle of an outreach event for documentation, I do not worry or feel uncomfortable over the boss reading it. As for the other powers up the food chain, I do have some concerns. But as a good friend of mine once said, I try not to poke the bear if it is not necessary.

What I have learned overall is that I need to exercise some common sense as a blogger. There are things I can do, and there are things I cannot do. The things I cannot do are often labeled as such because I have an interest in remaining employed. One needs to be discreet in this line of work. I do take some more risks in my personal blog, but even there, I still exercise some degree of caution. The main question is where do you draw the line? This will vary for every blogger. Where do you take a stand, and where do you let the line slide back a bit in the interest of self-preservation? I have found that as a librarian blogger, you learn to choose your battles. Librarian Blogsville can be exciting, interesting, educational, but it can also be an unforgiving and hostile place; it depends on what the mood of the community may be at the time. Write something on a blog that gets interpreted the wrong way, or taken in a less charitable light, and the shells will fly. Skewer the wrong sacred cow, and you may find yourself labeled as "someone who does not get it." Again, it is what it is. I have been blogging as a librarian long enough by now to now what I can write about, what is not worth my time, and the minefields that I definitely should avoid.

At this point, this reflection is pretty much like a status report. It is kind of where I stand in terms of my blogging. It does not address everything; I could still consider my personal blogging. For now, this is just a snapshot, a work in progress. There is still much to explore and consider.

For reference purposes, here are a couple other past posts where I have explored some of the ideas I am trying to express here. If nothing else, from looking back, I can see that this is not a new issue or concern for me. Pretty much I have been thinking about this in one way or another almost since I started blogging. And from what I can gather, I will likely continue to consider it, explore my boundaries, evaluate, and keep blogging within my comfort zones:

Friday, June 18, 2010

Article note: On the need for librarian continuing education

Citation for the article:

Massis, Bruce E., "Continuing Professional Education: Ensuring Librarian Engagement." New Library World 111.5/6 (2010): 247-249.

Read via Emerald.

This is basically a short opinion piece that advocates for the importance of continuing education and professional development for librarians. I don't think anyone can argue against that, even though training programs and options are often the first thing to get the ax when budgets get tight. Massis does mention that training is one of the first things to go in depressed economic conditions. To counter, Massis argues that training and continuing education have inherent benefits such as "strong engagement on the job and supporting the overall mission of the organization" (247).

Massis goes on to mention that there are options for affordable training; these options often take the form of online offerings. Things like "regular web references, postings and readings of blogs, wikis and other social networking tools can increase the level of knowledge, understanding and engagement in the profession on a daily basis" (248). Such tools tend to be the darlings of the 2.0 librarians, and I agree with the statement to an extent. I do quite a bit of my upkeep via blogs and tools that provide a feed, but those only go so far. My problem with cheap (or free) online options is that, like everything else in life, you get what you pay for. The quality of those cheap options varies greatly. A good number of free webinars, for instance, do not provide anything new or substantial if you already keep up and are well read in the profession. After a while, one needs more professional sustenance than blogs or links you follow on something like Twitter. My point is that too cheap training, something that many libraries are relying on now in the interest of being budget conscious, is not going to be beneficial either. For example, I have kept notes on some of those webinars that are not exactly groundbreaking, such as this one.

Massis also suggests that full time staff members (from the title of the article, this term usage would suggest librarians, but I am guessing Massis does mean to include paraprofessionals) need to meet with their supervisors and plan their professional development. This is what annual evaluations are supposed to do, at leas the part where you set some kind of goals for the year. The problem often is budget; if there is little to no training budget, and key training is part of your plans, well, to put it simply, you are in quite a pickle. In the end, it becomes a matter of making do with what you do have. Massis calls for a "blended learning" model where the staff should be able to choose from various learning options that can suit the person's needs and learning styles. This sounds very nice in theory, but again, it can be limited by budgetary constraints. I mean, you can discuss all you want with your superiors about learning options you need to have as part of your plan, but if that involves travel to some crucial conference, and there is no travel budget, it isn't going to happen. And while you can at some times substitute with some free options, that is not always desirable. I am not sure what the answer is. When you have cut as deep as you can go, and the administration still asks you to cut more, well, let's just not dwell on that.

Finally Massis reminds us that it is important for those who do undertake training opportunities to share what they learn with others. He then ends the article urging that librarians need to keep up and stay ahead of the curve. I know I will try to do so with what I have.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Just summer reading? I read all year long

Now I am not saying I read all year long just to brag. The reason I say it is because summer is once again upon us. True, summer does not "technically" start until June 21st, but people pretty much get rolling on Memorial Day. Those of us in the library world, along with those in the book retail world, start seeing and putting out the ever popular summer book reading lists (if you need ideas, Rebecca's Pocket is compiling all sorts of booklists for 2010. You should be able to find something there). Summer becomes the time to take it easy, and read some light, fluffy stuff. Unlike reading you may do during other times of the year, the idea for summer reading is best embodied by the beach book, which is basically something light, fluffy, and escapist.

I never got the full appeal or impact of summer reading because I read throughout the year. I don't really make it point to just find specific books to read over the summer. To be honest, I have such big reading lists, all I have to do is reach for the next item on one of the lists. And then, there are other sources where I get reading ideas. In addition, summer has become in recent years just an excuse for schools that were too lazy (or too fixated on testing) to actually cover the readings (and material. My daughter has a pretty hefty math summer assignment plus a reading list) during the school year to dump reading requirements on the students. Sorry, but I come from the old school that says summer is for having fun, not doing homework. That whole idea that "the kids will forget everything" over the summer is hogwash. Besides, we all know the first two weeks or so of school are review anyhow. So, let the kids have some fun, and let them read what they actually want to read.

Anyhow, I wanted to do a couple of things here. First, I wanted to share this post from the Home School Dad where he gives some advice about setting up your summer reading. Dave, the blogger, gives some advice on how to set up your summer reading plan. It's worth a look. Second, there are some suggestions on Dave's list that I could relate to, so I wanted to briefly write about that, if for no other reason than to reflect a bit on my reading habits. That is something I try to do once in a while in the hope, infinitesimal as it may be, that I can chart my reading patterns over time. Just a way to learn a bit more about myself, if my reading tastes have changed, so on.

So, here goes. I am going to highlight some of Dave's suggestions, and then add my reflections and remarks:

Dave writes: "Read a book that you already own but have not yet read."

  • Even though I believe in borrowing as much as possible, I still buy a significant amount of books. This is usually because I tend to buy stuff that I want to keep and reread (or think I may want to reread at the time). I also buy books that are rare, and this means stuff I know I would not be able to get in any library in Tyler, TX (including mine). The result is that I have a good number of books waiting to be read. I do try to get through them, but then, since I am also borrowing, often via Interlibrary Loan (thank you ILL Librarian), this is what happens. I start on one book or two that I own. The ILL's arrive, and in spite of my attempts to space out the requests, sometimes they arrive at the same time. Since ILL's do have to be returned, and often they cannot be renewed, I have to start reading them when they arrive. This means that any book of mine I was reading goes into the waiting list so to speak until I am done with what I borrowed and need to return. I then go back to my book or books that I was reading. It also reflects why, if you look at my GoodReads page, there are times I list 5 or 6 books as current reads. I usually read three as a general rule at a time (a fiction, a nonfiction, and a graphic novel or manga). Anything more than that means ILL had a delivery. This pattern is pretty common for me.
Dave writes: "Choose at least one book based on something you just read from your list."
  • This is something I want to do more. Very often I read something really cool, often nonfiction, and I want to learn more. For example, I recently finished the book Liquid Jade, which is a history of tea. By the way, if you like microhistories, this is a pretty neat book to read. In the book, it talks about Zheng He, the Chinese eunuch admiral and the time when China did rule the seas. This sounded like an interesting topic to me, so I added When China Ruled the Seas to my reading list. Books like that are things I find by serendipity, which sometimes is the coolest way to find something to read. By the way, speaking of eunuchs and similar, I have had Moreschi: The Last Castrato on my reading list for a while as well. I don't think there is a pattern there in those reading choices, but these are interesting things. Moreschi was the last of the castrati, children who were castrated before they reached puberty in order to keep their singing voices. Moreschi was the only one of his tradition to be recorded. No, Moreschi was not mentioned in Liquid Jade. I am recalling it now since I was mentioning Zheng He. Sometimes my reader's mind works that way; I find connections or lines that go in what may seem like wild tangents.
Dave also suggests reading biographies of personal heroes. I have to admit that I am not very keen on reading biographies. This has changed over time. When I was younger, I loved biographies of people like Sir Frances Drake. While I do find historical figures fascinating, I often prefer to read about them within larger histories than reading a biography. I may have to take a chance on this since I have seen some good reviews of biographies recently.

I don't agree much with the suggestion of choosing a book you should (or ought to) read. Dave argues that you should challenge yourself as a reader, so he picks something he should have read in high school. I pretty much got done with compulsory reading when I left graduate school. I still have an idea of things I should read, usually related to my work as a librarian or because I want to learn more about a topic. Overall though, I don't care for the notion that I should read X or Y just because some stuffy list or professor says so. Besides, I am fairly well read already, so I can leave the "books you should read" to those who actually need to be reading them desperately.

Dave writes: "Read the book if you have seen the movie."
  • I say to this absolutely yes. The movie will never be as good as the book no matter how hard they try. More often than not, movie makers butcher a book. Even the Lord of the Rings films, which are excellent and capture the film's feel and ambiance fairly well, cannot substitute for the books. I went ahead and reread the trilogy before the films came out. I had not read them since I was a teen, so this was an interesting experience going back and seeing if I would enjoy them as much now as I did then. I liked them a bit better as a teen, but they are still good. I will add that if you watch a movie based on a comic book or graphic novel, you have to read the original work. You practically owe it to yourself. While the film for Watchmen catches the graphic novel pretty closely, if you have not read the book, you will not know about the different ending, or even about the comic inside the comic. On the other hand, the film for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is nothing like the book, other than catching a bit of the steampunk. Don't get me wrong: I find the movie very entertaining, but if you think LoXG is just the film with Sean Connery, you are missing a lot. So yes, read the book if there is a film for it.
Dave also writes: "Read something based on someone else's recommendation."
  • I will say that for me it depends on who is doing the recommendation. Since I already have many ideas of what I want to read, I usually take recommendations from sources I trust. For example, if Jon Stewart, of The Daily Show, interviewed and author, and it sounds interesting, odds are good I will try to pick up his or her book at some point, even if it is not on a topic I am usually interested. Why? Because I know Stewart and his gang are thoughtful in their selections, they are smart in interviewing the authors, and they make pretty good book talkers to be honest. I read Paulo Coehlo because my mother suggested it. I get suggestions from others from all over, but I trust a few. Having said that, I am fairly open to new books, and if someone suggests something, within reason, I will at least look at it; it's no guarantee I will go on to read it, but I will look it over. I do try to keep the options open since part of my work after all involves recommending books to read to other people.

At times, I think that I reflect on my reading habits, and I know there is at least one librarian out there who may read this and cringe. "You mean you don't read classics" or "you don't read (insert whatever may be considered proper, correct, etc. here)." Those librarians don't worry me much. I am more worried about the librarians who actually admit, some with a degree of pride, that they do not read at all. Yes, I have met those creatures who use the excuse of being around books all day to not read at all. They mean they do not read for recreation or outside the narrow materials they may read related to their work. In my book, a good librarian should be an avid reader, and he or she should read as broadly as possible. Reading widely should be part of the job and trade for us. In the end, I will agree with Dave when he says that you should make your summer reading list as unique as you are. You should make your reading lists as unique as you are. Make them as eclectic or as specific as you wish, and in the end, read. Read because you want to learn new things. Read because you want to escape. Whatever your reason, just read.

Friday, June 04, 2010

What I have read from the NAS list, now with brief thoughts

The NAS recently published a study on those books that a lot of colleges assign to incoming freshmen over the summer. I would like to write a response to some of their observations at some point, since the study seems far from perfect, but I wanted to look over their book list. They do not exactly make the list easy to read, so I took the list from the EXCEL sheet they provide and went through it. The list contains 180 books. I have typed below the titles that I have read from the list. Links go to WorldCat records (so you can find them in a library near you if so moved). The ones I have read then:

Out of the list, I have read 19 books. A significant number of the books on the list fall under literary fiction, a genre that holds very little interest to me. I had enough of it after I came out of graduate school. While I do read some literary fiction in Spanish from Latin America, and some in translation from around the world, that is about it. Anglophone (read mostly British and especially American) I don't particularly give a hoot. As for the nonfiction on the list, there are one or two works that might interest me, but overall I am not too excited either. Part of the reason is that, for some of the books, I have read others on the same topic, so I don't feel any urgency to read on X or Y again.

Now, here are some works I have read that I would propose to substitute or just to point out that I have read the author, even if not the work listed. Consider it just me looking at my reading preferences and profile.

  • Philip K. Dick. In addition to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, I have read A Scanner Darkly. Dick is definitely a writer worth reading. Someone else that may be similar is Alfred Bester.
  • For Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed is probably the best one for students. I have read her most recent one Bright Sided, and while it is worthy for discussion (and probably more relevant at this point in time), it is not as engaging.
  • I have not read The Wal-Mart Effect. However, I have read Big Box Swindle, which not only looks at Wal-Mart, but at other mega-retailers who are just as bad as Wal-Mart in terms of the damage they can cause.
  • I have not read The Maltese Falcon, but seen the film. In seriousness. I have read some of Hammett's shorter works as well as Raymond Chandler's works. Want another similar suggestion? Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer series.
  • I read Tracy Kidder's Among Schoolchildren. This is nice, but I would have thrown in some Jonathan Kozol instead. Not as cuddly, so to speak and more punch, which a lot of young people need.
  • I would consider adding Roméo Dallaire's Shake Hands With the Devil. Want to make the kids feel bad about how governments and bureaucrats (from the West) abandon other nations to genocide while tying the hands of those wanting to help? This is the book to read. I don't say the remark of making the kids feel bad just to be snarky. Actually, the NAS argues that many books on the list are meant to make students feel bad about the West (and I will say that in many cases, they should). This one is moving, and it will make people upset and angry.