Posts Tagged ‘libraries’

The Guardian has a wonderful slide show of photos of Occupy Movement libraries that have sprung up in cities across the globe.  (The photo below is from London.) 

One of my favourite chapters of This Book is Overdue by Marilyn Johnson was her chapter “To the Ramparts!” about librarians on the street during protests, giving information to all comers.  During the Republican National Convention in New York in 2003, there were many protest marches.  Radical Reference, a group of on-the-street librarians, was there to help:   

They had numbers for emergency legal services, details on area restaurants, copies of laws governing assembly and protest.  So they could alert one another to trouble spots and police cordons, they used a mass text-messaging service designed especially for activists, called TXTmob, which inspired Twitter.  And they had back-up: on-call librarians with computers and access to reliable databases and reference materials.  They circulated among and served not just the 500,00 people marching in the United for Peace and Justice protest, but the thousands of other protesters in multiple other actions.  (109)

Occupy libraries : Occupy libraries picture by Richard Lea

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The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared

Alice Ozma

New York: Hachette, 2011.

Most of the time, when I go to the literary criticism or essay section of a bookstore, my first instinct is to look for books I already have or know about.  It’s a kind of settling in ritual, scanning the shelves for familiar colours and fonts, seeking similarity to my bookshelves at home or to the very bookshelf I’m looking at as it appeared the last time I was looking at it.  Was that book here last time?  Do they keep a good supply of Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris in stock?  I want to see my interests and erudition reflected back to me.  It is rare that I feel a surge of joy at a new discovery, because, let’s face it, books about books are not published every day.  Last week I found two new books that made my heart beat faster: The Reading Promise and A Jane Austen Education (more about which soon).

Alice Ozma was named after two characters from children’s literature: Alice, from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and Ozma, the ruler of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz.  Her father, Jim Brozina, a children’s librarian, chose them as her middle names.  She has adopted them as her first and last names, an apt decision for a girl who was brought up on books.

When she was in Grade 4, Alice and her father made a pledge: they would read for 100 consecutive nights.   While celebrating the accomplishment, Alice upped the ante: what about going for 1000?  They got much further than that.  From Grade 4 until her first day at university, Jim Brozina read aloud to his daughter every single night.  Including prom night.  They called it The Streak.

I read this book in one sitting tonight, my own version of a streak, as I am not often alert enough to read for so long, no matter how much I may want to.  But this book had me hooked.  It’s a book about books, it’s a book about children’s books, it’s a book about a committed teacher (cue the tears), it’s a book about the enormous value of libraries in schools (cue more tears), and it’s engagingly written.  

The book has its rough spots; it is Alice Ozma’s first book, and it gets off to rather a mushy start.  But it was also a page-turner.  I wanted to know what challenges the pair would face and how they would overcome them.  Aside from the fact of their amazing streak, this is also an engaging memoir structured around reading.  There are chapters on her parents’ divorce, on book sales and sick days, on funerals and date nights, on car crashes and suicide.  The chapters are timed and structured well, and each ends with a punch line.  Ozma’s humour is dry and self-deprecating, and she tells her story well.  The final chapter on her father’s beloved school libraries being turned into computer labs and emptied of books had me on the edge of my seat.  That chapter should be required reading for every school administrator.

After being asked by a slightly bemused friend if the routine did not get boring after a while, she realizes

We were already good at routines, but The Streak was anything but.  Every night was different because every story was different.  Even when a book started to drag, as some did late in the second half, there was still the thrill of getting closer to our goal to make things a little more interesting.  But as my father told him, and as anyone who reads regularly might agree, the only thing that has to be similar from night to night is the act of turning pages.  Everything else changed as soon as we picked up a new book, plunging us deep into a new landscape with unfamiliar faces.  The Streak was routine, yet it was as far from routine as anything a parent and daughter could do together.

Reading to my boys at bedtime is my favourite time of day, but there are days, lots of them, when it just does not happen.  (This is because I’m a stickler about bed time.  Jim Brozina was not.)  Nevertheless, this book made me want to enlist the boys in a big poster-making project: a huge 10 by 10 calendar to mark off our own unbroken streak of 100 days of reading.  As her father says in his preface to the book, “Nothing that lasts has been accomplished without effort.  The things that we are most proud of took quite a lot to achieve.”  This book makes me want to pull out the stops and make no excuses.

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The Library at Night

Alberto Manguel

Toronto: Knopf, 2006.

There are few writers who are capable of such lush bibliophilia as Alberto Manguel.  It’s not a giddy, frenzied kind of love.  It’s the kind of love that makes the 50-year marriage: steady, assured, unshakable.  He is as sure of his own love for his books as he is of theirs for him, even the books he has not yet read:

I have no feelings of guilt regarding the books I have not read and perhaps will never read; I know that my books have unlimited patience.  They will wait for me till the end of my days.  (255)

This book is Manguel’s personal take on the library, his own and others’.   His chapter on the library at Alexandria is a timely read in these exciting days for Egypt, and in it, he writes his yearning for closer and more intimate knowledge of the greatest library in legend.   He discusses the building and burning of libraries, libraries carried by donkey and libraries carried only by memory or the imagination.   

The book seems, in part, to have been written in celebration of the completion of his own library at his farmhouse in France, and while I enjoyed the various discussions of libraries throughout the world and history, it is the passages about his own library that stay with me.  This is book porn at its best: the quest for and triumphant success in building a home for his beloved books.  He gives this wonderfully sensuous description of his plan for the library:

The library I had imagined for my books, long before its walls were erected, already reflected the way in which I wished to read.  There are readers who enjoy trapping a story within the confines of a tiny enclosure; others for whom a round, vast, public space better allows them to imagine the text stretching out towards far horizons; others still who find pleasure in a maze of rooms through which they can wander chapter after chapter.  I had dreamt of a long, low library where there would always be enough darkness around the pools of light on the desk to suggest that it was night outside, a rectangular space in which the walls would mirror one another and in which I could always feel as if the books on either side were almost at arm’s length.  I read in a haphazard way, allowing books to associate freely, to suggest links by their mere proximity, to call to one another across the room.  The shape I chose for my library encourages my reading habits. (133-34)

And he made his dream come true, building from the stone ruins of a barn a home for his more than 30,000 books. 

Alberto Manguel

As he describes the gradually more personal spaces of the library and the study, the intimacy between writer and space grows ever more profound:

There is a notable difference, for me, between the large room in which I keep most of my books, and the smaller room in which I work.  In the large room, the “library proper,” I choose the volumes I need or want, I sit and read and make notes, I consult my encyclopedias.  But in my study, the chosen books are those that I consider more immediate, more necessary, more intimate. … These feel like extensions of myself, ready at arm’s length, always helpful, known of old.  Many times I have had to work in rooms without these familiar volumes, and felt their absence as a kind of blindness or lack of voice. (177)

I know that mute feeling when away from my (much more modest!) walls of books.  Tucked into the corner of my study, surrounded by my books, I am home, and I can think most clearly.  I am at home in print, between the pages of a book, or when creating my own scribbled path across a page.  At work in other places, I yearn for my desk and do not feel right until I am back at it.

Manguel perfectly articulates that sense of how the puzzle pieces are in place when he is among his books.

To know whether a certain book exists in my library, I have to either rely on my memory (did I once buy that book?  did I lend it?  was it returned?) or on a cataloguing system like Dewey’s (which I am reluctant to undertake).  The former forces me to exercise a daily relationship with my books, many unopened for long periods, unread but not forgotten, by going repeatedly through the shelves to see what is there and what is not.  The latter lends certain books, which I have acquired from other libraries, mysterious notations on their spines that identify them as having belonged to a nameless phantom reader from the past, cabalistic concatenations of letters and numbers that once gave them a place and a category, far away and long ago. (62-63)

That daily relationship with his books, their patient waiting for him to pull them off the shelf, that’s the steadfastness of the true book lover.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Here is an interview at salon.com and a six-minute interview on NPR with Marilyn Johnson, author of This Book is Overdue, a book about librarians that I am enjoying immensely.

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Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper

by Nicholson Baker

New York: Vintage, 2001.

Three things I did not know before reading Double Fold:

1: The idea that the acidity in wood pulp paper will turn books into dust is hyperbole.  The paper may yellow, the bindings may be very fragile, and a very, very small percentage of paper may crumble if you scrunch it up into a ball (when was the last time you scrunched a page of a book you were reading or using at the library into a ball?), but it will not turn to dust.  Your dead tree books are safe.

2.  In the 1850s, paper was made from rags, and there was a global rag shortage.  The New York Tribune and Sun both reduced their size in response to the increasing cost of paper.  Dr. Isaiah Deck, an American geologist, proposed a novel solution: unearth the millions of mummies in Egypt, unwind them from their winding cloths and ship the linen to America.  And they did.  On July 31, 1856, the Syracuse Daily Standard printed this: “Rags from Egypt.–Our Daily is now printed on paper made from rags imported directly from the land of the Pharaohs.”  Victorian imperialism at its strangest.

3.  In the early 1970s, in an effort to de-acidify its books, the Library of Congress put them into a vacuum-sealed room with DEZ.  DEZ, diethyl zinc, it highly reactive with water.  It would be sprayed over and penetrate closed books in search of the trace amounts of water in them.  It was thought to be the miracle cure for acidity because “If all went well, the diethyl zinc would bind with oxygen in the water and turn into zinc oxide.  Zinc oxide is a mundane, mildly alkaline substance; … it would remain fixed in the paper’s fibers as an ‘alkaline buffer,’ ready to obliterate any acidity that might ripen in time” (113).  Here’s the catch: DEZ bursts into flame when it comes into contact with air, there being so much moisture in the air that it causes an explosion.  Highly combustible chemicals used to preserve books.  Only in America. 

You may note from the picture of the cover of the book that its print is blurred and the image imperfect.  This is what reading microfilm is like, and it is the transferring of millions of pages of print to microfilm in the name of preservation that Baker decries.   The effort to “save” newspapers and books by disbinding them to transfer them to microfilm or, more recently, to scan them, is destroying forever the original print newspapers and books.  Neither process preserves faithfully the image of the original.  Poor quality, lost pages, and the destruction of the print original are all, from Baker’s perspective, capital crimes of the multi-million dollar effort to “preserve” newspapers and books. 

Baker is impassioned.  He has invested tens of thousands of his own dollars in buying and preserving original print runs of American newspapers.  He is well versed in the follies of libraries’ attempts to save space, dollars and books.  I am sympathetic to his cause, but I found it so very, very difficult to finish this book.  November was supposed to be my month of books about libraries.  It became, instead, my month of falling asleep to Nicholson Baker.  It became the month of, “Anything but that book, please.”  He is so earnest, bless him, and I can see that he has invested so much work into this book.  It is just so very, very dry.  There are only so many ways that you can say “microfilm is a poor substitute for the print original.”  It is an important message, and this book deserved the strong hand of an editor with an eye to pulping half of its pages.

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