September 25, 2008

Banned Books Week - Cause for Celebration?

Why do we celebrate Banned Books Week? Well, it's a worthy celebration, but a more apt title would be "Freedom to Read Week" or "Freedom of Ideas Week." I think this topic is more complex than most readers acknowledge. It's no fun to celebrate a negative thing, but if that injustice is still pervasive in many parts of the world, then it's important for those of us who have the right to read as we choose to do so and to celebrate this right.

I learned this lesson through the lens of another issue: gay rights. I remember having a college professor look me in the eye and tell me he was not against gay rights but then he said unequivocally, "What I am not in favor of is gay pride!" He was a professor I respected and I think this really mixed me up for a while. I think what he meant was that this is a difference we're entitled to, so why focus attention on it as if it's a virtue?....sounds a bit like Banned Books Week.

In the ten years since I graduated from college I have thought of that conversation many times and have come into my own in terms of challenging that professor should our paths meet again: so long as gay rights are not universal, I applaud any and all celebration of the rights that are secure for the gay community (which, by the way, are not if we didn't know). Gays in Israel and Palestine need to see Americans celebrating this difference so they can at least have a distant glimmer of hope for their own situation. (Sorry for this diversion into non-library matters. I just watched Freedom on the Rocks.)

But when I promoted this post last week I called it "I can think of worse things than banning books..." and I can. What is the real problem with banning books (there is one, this is not a rhetorical question)? The problem is that the people for whose supposed benefit the books are burned do not see the power play in progress: if a book is banned or burned, it's probably a book I want to have. So the real injustice is either people not knowing that or not having any recourse to obtain the information being banned.

In this month's Harper's there is a great article that finally confirmed for me that I am not the only one thinking along these lines, although I admit it is totally unconventional. [I also highly recommend (for what that's worth) the article entitled The Western Cannon by Jason Armagost.] John Leonard, in his review of A Universal History of the Destruction of Books, brilliantly points out that, "The fact that 15 million books were destroyed in Poland from 1939 through 1941 is not the most important thing to know about the Holocaust."

Celebrating the freedom to read is fantastic, and working for greater freedoms everywhere is even more fantastic. From where I sit that means increasing access to transportation for the sick, elderly, working poor, veterans and people with disabilities. So I think there are greater lessons to be learned from Banned Books Week than those contained between the covers of a codex. What do you think?

September 16, 2008


Okay, I have avoided this topic long enough. For several months my "Coming Soon" sidebar has promised a post on whether I am embedded or not. While I am not ready to reconstruct my blog with a new address (I originally tried for "Sassy Librarian," but that was taken), I am ready to open myself up to the possibility that, as many have suggested, I am not, in fact, embedded, but "only" a special, solo librarian in as traditional a sense as that job can be.

I have tried to remember where I originally heard the term "embedded librarian" and why I grew to see this position that way. I remember that the first time I heard Susan Fifer Canby's brilliant notion that "special librarians work in the white spaces of the organizational chart" was when her colleague Karen Huffman addressed my Information Systems class last fall. Perhaps I have confounded the terms "special librarian" and "embedded librarian," and perhaps the latter term is too young to warrant a full-on debate of my status.

Mary Talley and Dave Shumaker are currently researching this topic through an SLA research grant. Their survey takes into account organizational structure, proximity to physical library resources, administrative reporting requirements (i.e. is your boss a librarian?), and other criteria that will eventually lead to an operational definition of embeddedness, or at least a cogent spectrum of models of embeddedness. While the vast majority of my Google alerts on "embedded librarian" return tales of academic instruction librarians embedded in Freshman Composition courses and accounts of media librarians embedded with subject specialists, I still feel a pull toward the moniker because of the structure of my position within this organization.

I work with transportation people. We have a dozen or so technical assistance specialists, a webmaster, a finance department, and me. I do manage a print library but that is a very small part of my job. I am not exactly part of the "program staff," but I am more involved with the substance of what we do than the accountants and the webmaster. My boss has tasked me with becoming a "content generalist." So far, maybe I am just a solo special librarian in a very small organization that is going digital. But consider this....

My salary comes from three separate federal grants, each of which calls for a part-time information specialist to carry out its strategic goals. My primary project, which determines who my supervisor is and how I spend most of my time, is to provide information services to a National Resource Center that is housed at our organization. The National Resource Center team consists of six staff people: five program staff and me. While in our team meetings, I feel I am the quintessential "embedded librarian." I am a full-fledged member of the team, but I have funding through them because they need an information specialist. Parts of what I do may not be considered library-like, but all my tasks can be improved by drawing on my library science education.

So where does that leave me? We may have to wait for Shumaker and Talley to publish their study before making an informed decision. In the meantime, I hope this topic will encourage the blog-comment-activity I have tried unsuccessfully to encourage on this site, but which will be a nice primer before I draft my "Controversial Topics" posts later this fall.

September 3, 2008

Back to School Series: Part I

Over the next few weeks I will be chronicling the juxtaposition of my two fall courses, History of the Book and Foundations of Digital Libraries. So far, the overlap is clear. Both professors, in different buildings, on different days, in different quadrants of the District--and they have different native languages and home countries--uttered this maxim: "There is nothing new under the sun." Professor Delfino drove this message home by tearing up a copy of From Fields of Gold by Alexandra Ripley, and then having us narrate our reactions as he pulled the pages from the spine. We learned that our feelings about destroying an "old" medium would likely not be replicated by watching him delete an electronic text file, but there would still be some analogous loss. There is nothing new under the sun. The issues we are dealing with with e-books are not so different from the issues we dealt with when transitioning from orality to literacy. We also learned that we are still in said transition (and we got to play with a Kindle!). Perhaps the most important moment in class was when Professor Delfino said, "Wikipedia is a fact of life." Later in the semester each student will fact-check and enhance the content of a Wikipedia entry about publishing.

Professor Choi wisely made us go all the way back to Vannevar Bush's As We May Think to ground our study of digital libraries and prepare us mentally for the digital collections project that will account for most of our semester grade. We got one hell of a history lesson from her on Day 1, which occurred conveniently less than 24 hours after Delfino's dramatic spectacle. There is nothing new under the sun. As humans we will continue to create and synthesize content, and then automate access to that content, whether our medium be digital libraries, hypercard stacks, or compact shelving.

Stay tuned for more confluence and collision as I navigate my penultimate semester of library and information science!