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Waiting for Elijah

In some Jewish traditions, the return of the prophet Elijah will herald the coming of the messiah. To prepare for his arrival, they set aside a chair and a glass of wine at the Passover feast. Some rabbis teach that Elijah might return in the form of a stranger or wanderer, perhaps even someone who, at first glance, you might not want in your home. I was reminded of this story when I read this post from Eric Berlin's blog.

I am not macho. I avoid confrontation with the best of them. Finding someone passed out on my front porch would certainly startle me. But calling the cops on him struck me, both then and now, as an overreaction. A more measured response, it seems to me, would have been at least to discover if the guy was hurt and assess whether someone other than a police officer would be better suited to the situation.

Berlin's post and my reaction stayed with me several days, so much that I asked friends and workmates how they would have responded. To my dismay, every last one agreed with Berlin. They cited largely safety concerns as the prime reason for involving the cops, often saying some variation of, "You never know what that guy could be capable of."

True. But there are people we encounter every day—at work, in the store, at home—who are just as capable of doing harm as any of us. Being disheveled and passed out on another's property is no greater indication of a person's badness than wearing a suit and tie signifies a person's goodness. Of course the guy on the porch's behavior was beyond the norm, but was it really enough to tie up a 911 line and occupy five officers and three police cars? Are certifications and surgical gloves required to deal with unexpected situations, as if some rage virus will exploit human emotion?

Besides the Elijah story, Berlin's post reminded me that librarians—especially public librarians—are on the front lines every day. Sometimes our patrons are disagreeable in temperament or appearance or odor. Sometimes they're even a little batty. The job demands that we constantly assess and react to our environment and the people in it. However, we must always do so with deep thought and even deeper humanity.


Way to Break That Uptight Image

Forget shushing. The Queens Borough Public Library will ruin your credit. For a little more than a decade, the Queens Library has been referring delinquent overdue fine payers to a debt collection agency, according to yesterday's New York Times.

I know public libraries need to protect their resources and ensure access to as many people as possible. I also that know public libraries are strapped for cash. This past year southern Oregon set a record for the largest set of public library closures in American history. And if it can happen in a place as civic-minded as Oregon, it can happen anywhere.

But isn't getting a credit agency involved a little like killing an ant with a mallet? Do public librarians really want to treat patrons, even delinquent ones, like scofflaws or debtors? And what ever happened to protecting patrons' personal information?

Beyond such vexing ethical questions, this eleven-year-old program stinks of laziness and failure on the part of the Queens Library. Two of the things librarians are supposed to be good at is keeping records and devising systems. With accurate records and efficient processing systems, it should be relatively easy for the Queens Library to minimize theft and prevent excessive abuse of borrowing privileges. At the very least, they should be able to set a reasonable limit and suspend an offender's library services before it gets to a point worthy of collection agency intervention.

If librarians don't do the things that we're supposed to be good at—the things that set us apart—why are librarians necessary at all?



More than a year ago I switched from PC to Mac. It wasn't a political move against Microsoft. Nor did I act out of the belief that Justin Long is cooler than John Hodgeman, because really he's not.

My working life, like most people's, has been dominated by PCs. And at the time I had a job in which I was responsible for fifteen library computers that seemed to have been assembled by a chimp and could barely cope with XP processing bloat. I simply got fed up with PCs and decided to emancipate my home computing environment from them.

I won't add another treatise to the Internets about how superior Macs are. Let's just say I've never regretted my choice. However, my choice ruled out another option, for the time being: Linux.

I seriously considered making the switch to one of the Linux flavors, but I was—again, like most people—put off by the relative lack of system support and user manuals. I did not relish the thought of having to become my own self-taught tech support, and the great design and plug-and-play approach of Apple proved too good to pass up.

I think that gate barring my entry into Linux may have just lifted, however, with the introduction of this computer. It seems to be a capable alternative to the OLPC XO, one that could help poor schools and first-time older users learn computing, without the evangelical baggage of One Laptop per Child, which still has not satisfactorily studied the cultural effects of dropping computers among people who need water more than electronics.

The Asus Eee has got my geek flag flying. And at $400, even a Playful Librarian could afford it.


Shut Up, Mormons

Ken Jennings seems like a nice guy. He's certainly a smart guy, what with having set that record for wins on Jeopardy! and all. I'd like to have a beer with Ken Jennings. Except I can't, because he's LDS, as he reminds us when he asks: Politicians & pundits, please stop slandering my Mormon faith.

I can only respond to his op-ed plea: No, Ken Jennings.

Not because I'm a Mormon hater. Not even because I'm a politician & pundit. I'm all for people believing what they want if it gives them comfort, and I'm not here to tell people that their beliefs are wrong. How could I? They are, after all, beliefs—as in, closely held convictions beyond reason. I ask, however, only two things of believers: don't try to convince me that your beliefs are the best, and don't try to restrict my legal rights based on what your god tells you is right.

I say no to Ken Jennings' request because I ask one additional thing of Christians in America: stop complaining that you're being bashed.

I know, I know. The LDSers are considered a little off kilter by most American Christians. But Mormonism is still a Protestant sect, and in America the Protestants won a long time ago. And even though they're not part of mainstream Christianity, Mormons hold a significant amount of wealth, power, and influence, at least in Utah. How else could they afford to build temples that look like a film set for Peter Jackson's next epic?

So, please, forgive me if I don't consider Mormons among this country's oppressed. Just imagine what an atheist, Muslim, or Hindu would have to go through to get elected.

Mormons, who tend to vote overwhelmingly Republican, now have one of their own in the race for that party's presidential nomination. And they're dismayed that Romney's faith is an issue in the race? Aren't they aware that Republicans like their god the way they like their business—big? Of course they know. They've known the party they're in bed with for at least 112 years.

I agree with Jennings that, in principle, a candidate's church shouldn't matter in an election. For what it's worth, I think Huckabee should be forced to choke back down whatever Baptist sputum his god-gag reflex makes him want to expectorate. And such things as belief and faith shouldn't matter in office, after a person is elected, either.

Government and law exist as a baseline to civil conduct. They're about keeping some semblance of order and peace and fairness, while preserving as much personal freedom as possible. Beyond that it's up to us to determine our personal morals and life conduct. Government is meant for the public sphere; morals, for the private. The two should never impinge on each other.


The Serious Side of Play

"The kids are just imitating what they've seen adults doing," he said. "They don't understand . . ."

"They don't have to understand. Even the games they play are preparing them for their future—and that future will come whether they understand it or not."
Octavia Butler, Kindred (p.99)
As this dialog from Butler's novel suggests, child's play can be a serious thing. Play offers clues to a child's past and present and often predicts where that child might head. Of course, Butler's brilliant insight gains resonance in its context, because it describes the children of slaves playing at selling each other at a slave market.

Therefore, we really need to ask ourselves if we want to give this sort of thing to our children to play with. I don't know what creeps me out more: that it's a toy ATM or that its model is named YOUniverse.


Vintage Image

Earlier today, my friend Martin, whose gifts as a photo researcher are legendary, sent me a link to a great site, Square America. It features part of a private collection of vernacular photography from 1900 to 1975. I call the site great because it stimulates so many different aspects of my interest in culture.

The social historian in me applauds the preservation and distribution of such ephemera, which has formed the foundation of the most interesting historical work of the past 30 years.

The digital archivist in me laments that the site has almost no metadata describing the subject or content of the images or the physical condition of the photographic prints they represent.

My inner Web evangelist loves the use of the Internet as a curatorial space. But he also wishes that, in addition to owner-created metadata, the site had social tagging and search functions to allow visitors to sort the images in multiple categories, thus enabling them to "curate" their own experience on the site and find surprising juxtapositions among otherwise unrelated photos.

The head of the media ecologist in me hurts at the remediative implications of visiting a Web site that posts images of photographs of women and the events of November 1963, as they appeared on a TV screen.

The voyeur on my left shoulder gets a cheap thrill looking at pictures of people I don't know getting married, sleeping, enjoying summer, and even taking part in what looks like a key party.

The privacy conscience who sits on my right shoulder wonders if some—even one?—of the people pictured in the photographs are still alive and know that images of their younger selves are posted on the Web?


Dangerous Readers

The November/December 2007 issue of the Boston Review contains an excellent article by Colin Dayan, who discusses the largely overlooked Supreme Court case Beard v. Banks. At issue: do prisoners have the right to read what they want? In the majority opinion of Justices Breyer, Roberts, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, and Scalia, SCOPUS decided against that right for prisoners on June 28, 2006.

This issue needs to be thoroughly considered by librarians because it cuts so cleanly to the heart of our identity and core values as defenders of open intellectual inquiry and free expression. Should only those considered good or worthy be granted such access or is that right inalienable?

Before you answer, let's ponder a thought experiment. There's a fundamentalist who commits a crime against the United States in the name of his god. He is rightly tried and convicted and incarcerated, but remains completely unrepentant. He believes with all the conviction a human can muster that he did what was right and points to passages in his sacred text that support his position. Should he be allowed access in prison to his sacred text, which he clearly believes tells him to do these things? What if that sacred text is the Bible?

I really want to hear what you think about prisoners' right to read what they choose. So, I'm not going to post tomorrow, and perhaps not Monday, to give you time to read, think, and post comments.

I'll prime the pump by saying that I believe prisoners should be allowed to read whatever they want, provided the reading material is not illegal. Ideologically, I oppose censorship. Sociologically, I think that most criminals turn out that way from lack of an education or intellectual stimulation, so how is preventing them from reading in jail if they want to helping them rehabilitate?


O, Canada

Yesterday, my cubicle mate, Peter, introduced me to Prevent-It, a Web information campaign for young workers produced by Ontario's Workplace Safety & Insurance Board.

The great Canadian novelist Robertson Davies once called his homeland "America's Attic," referring to Canada's geographic position and cultural relevance relative to its neighbor to the south. However, his description is also apt if one thinks of an attic as a kind of Wunderkammer. Though Americans and Canadians share many qualities that make us appear indistinguishable, upon closer inspection their sensibility and aesthetic seem just a little skewed from an American perspective. Prevent-It is one small instance of this cultural difference.

As its name, description, and source suggest, Prevent-It offers advice for young workers on workplace safety and handling unsafe conditions. There's nothing particularly innovative in the way the WSIB uses technology on this site. It's split into Flash and text-only versions that seem to serve the standard public-service fare—except that the flash animations feature a severed hand, its former owner, and the many ways in which his life is comically altered by having a bloody stump.

I can't imagine a U.S. government agency producing an information campaign with as much self-mocking cheesiness and cartoonish gore, and I think it's great. I also think Prevent-It is worth a short study by some government docs or E-government specialist.


Internet Beats White House Security

Or, it does with the help of an 16-year-old from a fishing village outside of Reykjavik.

Vífill Atlason somehow got a hold of a private number that bypasses the White House main switchboard. He called and posed as Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, Iceland's president, to have a chat with Bush and ask him to visit his country. He was transferred several times to people who asked him personal questions about Grimsson.

It was like passing through checkpoints. But I had Wikipedia and a few other sites open, so it was not so difficult really.
Atlason got as far as Bush's secretary, who scheduled a call-back appointment. The police showed up at his home shortly thereafter wanting to know where he got the phone number. According to Atlason's mother, Harpa,
He's very resourceful you know. He has become a bit of a hero in Iceland. Bush is very unpopular here.
Thus proving that Iceland is part of the rest of the world, and that their education system produces clever students.


'Roll Review #5: Savage Love

There's little I can say about Dan Savage that he couldn't say better.

I first encountered Savage through This American Life, where his radio essays carry the wit of David Sedaris' pieces and the poignancy of David Rakoff's essays, but without their air of world-weariness. On the contrary, Savage's essays betray a deeply felt engagement with the world—sometimes full of wonder, sometimes full of outrage.

Shortly thereafter I came upon the thing he's probably most famous for: his syndicated sex-advice column Savage Love, which originates from the Seattle alt-weekly he heads, The Stranger. Here we find the rawer side of Savage's pen—in both the uncooked and profane senses—and it's here that his wit truly sparkles.

As a gay man writing about sex, Savage lends a valuable voice to a genre too long dominated by prissy, old, straight women from whom no one would want advice about three-ways. But to say that Savage writes about sex from a gay perspective is to not do justice to what he adds to the long and pathetic history of advice columns. He takes on all comers, women and men, straight and gay, young and old, missionary and deviant. And his advice always looks to burst the bubble of common cultural bias and sex-based prejudice.

Furthermore, Savage is blunt about a topic that Americans too often dance around. He uses such words as cock, fuck, and blowjob not because it's fun to write dirty words (OK, it's a little fun), but because his subject has very real repercussions for the physical and emotional health of his readers, who are best served by clarity and directness. Sometimes you just have to call a cock a cock.

It makes no difference if you read Savage Love for enlightenment or titillation. You're likely to learn something whether you want to or not.


Now I'll Be Famous

In January 2007 the Pew Research Center released their report "A Portrait of 'Generation Next.'" It reveals that among those surveyed between the ages 18 and 25, 81% chose "To get rich" and 51% chose "To be famous" as one of their top two goals in life. This represents a significant split from the previous generation, ages 26 to 40, 62% and 29% of whom, respectively, chose the same goals.

This makes perfect sense to me, one firmly planted in Gen X. I and many of my friends would never have chosen either answer as our top two goals. It's not that we're great humanitarians. We want to be rich and famous as any American would be. But the response lacks a key component that would have stopped me from selecting it: rich from what? and famous for what? That so many Gen Nexters unquestioningly believe wealth and fame to be goals in and of themselves is quite telling.

Therefore, though saddened, I was not surprised to learn that the young man who went on a shooting spree in an Omaha, Nebraska, mall earlier this week wrote "now I'll be famous" in his suicide note. Has a more chillingly concise summation of our time been penned?

Our era values fame to an unprecedented degree. We're given the perception that fame is easier to gain than ever. Too bad reality TV and YouTube and the other tools that enhance that perception of access to fame—that spur our fascination with fame—weren't enough for a troubled teen with equal access to a gun.


King & King

Does anyone else find it strange that public libraries, which stand for freedom and exist solely for the benefit of their communities, get attacked so often?

Well, it's happened yet again in a suburb between Philadelphia and Allentown, PA, where some mother was shocked and awed to find that the book she was reading her toddler included a scene in which two men kiss.

''I saw them at the altar and I said, 'This can't be what I'm thinking,''' Eileen Issa said, recalling illustrations of the prince holding hands with and kissing his new husband. ''I was sick.''
Judging by the photo, Ms. Issa isn't, um, a reader. She's at least not enough of a reader to have flipped through the book—a children's book weighing in at a massive 32 pages—in advance to see what it's generally about. So kudos to her for visiting a library and trying to read to her kid. But sick? Really? As in vomiting induced by affection between men?

Her husband, who apparently shows no affection to his son for fear of triggering emesis in his wife, chimes in.
''I just want kids to enjoy their innocence and their time of growing up,'' Jeff Issa said, explaining his persistence. ''Let them be kids … and not worry about homosexuality, race, religion. Just let them live freely as kids.''
I'm particularly fond of Mr. Issa's emotional "let them be children" rhetoric.

By this logic, Mr. Issa's veal, I mean, son should also be protected from all those stories that end happily ever after with the prince and princess hooking up, because they're sexual in nature, too. And it goes without saying that tales of princesses kissing frogs should be burned.

Forgive the ad hominem bits of my reaction to Mr. Issa and his mouth-breather wife. I take libraries and attacks on them very seriously. But on a broader scale I'm opposed to censorship of any kind. And this is censorship, because the Issas' actions could limit other parents' ability to expose their children to aspects of life the Issas find distasteful.

That's a deal I suspect the Issas don't really want to make—especially when someone with an even bigger mouth tries to dictate exactly what they can and cannot expose their son to.


Sexy Librarian

No, it's not a Halloween costume. It's a new novel by my colleague, Julia Weist.

The inaugural publication of Ellen Lupton's Slush Editions, Sexy Librarian is an offshoot of a larger art project by Weist and Maayan Pearl, itself well worth checking out. Between its covers, the book follows the love life of Audrey Reed, a young artist/librarian. But on a larger level it acts as an examination of the pulp narratives we as a culture distract ourselves with.

Destined to be the greatest gift since the Nancy Pearl Librarian Action Figure, this novel will stuff your favorite librarian's stockings. Buy it to support an emerging artist and future librarian and maybe learn why librarians are so damn sexy.

Here's a hint: we're playful.


Myths, Urban Legends, & Misinformation

In the September 4 Washington Post, Shankar Vedantam reported on cognitive research into how and why people believe in false information, such as the fairly common belief that the side effects of a flu shot are worse than the flu itself.

"Contrary to the conventional notion that people absorb information in a deliberate manner," Vedantam writes, "the studies show that the brain uses subconscious 'rules of thumb' that can bias it into thinking that false information is true. Clever manipulators can take advantage of this tendency."

These cognitive "rules of thumb" are apparantly quite powerful. Once misinformation is effectively disseminated, it's really difficult to reverse the effect with true information, partly because the rebuttal of a myth requires the repetition of the myth, which in turn reinforces it. "In politics and elsewhere," Vedantam adds, "this means that whoever makes the first assertion about something has a large advantage over everyone who denies it later."

This research is hugely important to the study of media effects. We know now how powerful radio and television have been and continue to be in our perception of the world, political or otherwise. The Web dwarfs both, combined, in its ability to spread truths and falsehoods—and thus asserts its control over us through its context and content.


EBSCO Redesigns Visual Search

In November EBSCO announced their scheduled late-December launch of their redesigned Visual Search, which I've long thought to be poorly named. It's really a visual browse/refine results.

Without actually using the new interfaces, it's hard to tell if this redesign represents an improvement of what's already out there. Functionality goes a long way toward usability.

That said, my initial reaction is that both interfaces are extremely hierarchical. They'll be good for drilling down into a topic—particularly interface shown in the second screen shot. It appears to be much more intuitive than the first, which breaks a cardinal rule of spilling data off the screen. The hierarchical arrangement will play well with librarians, who tend to be generalists. They almost always know a little about many topics and, consequently, need to burrow down into a specific topic it to find an answer for a patron.

I don't think it'll improve general user statistics greatly, though, because its hierarchical structure limits lateral findability and nonlinear discovery, which is what most researchers who know a good deal about a topic need. Furthermore, general-public researchers tend to recoil from highly graphical results displays because they want to go in, fiddle around a bit, and get out with just enough of what they need. Hence the durability of Google's interface, which hasn't changed appreciably since it was launched.

So, I predict, based strictly on my screen shot view, that the redesign will go over really well in pitch meetings with librarians and library directors, but over time it'll prove no more popular than their current interface system with user patrons. In other words, it'll be yet another librarian's tool, not a library tool.

At least it shows EBSCO is trying new things. And, eventually, they might nail it. Until they do, the redesign gives them an excuse to be in touch with their clients and hold their hands through pitches and staff training.