"A library doesn't need windows. A library is a window." – Stewart Brand

Dec 21, 2010

Read Something! _Mother, Come Home_ (Paul Hornschemeier)

Mother, Come Home
Graphic Novel / Literary Fiction


A boy and his father try to cope after the boy's mother dies. Mother, Come Home is a powerful exploration of how we can either overcome tragedy or be broken by it.

Appeal characteristics
  • Frame: Told simply, from a child's perspective (although some comments are clearly those of an adult looking back) but nevertheless grapples with complex and difficult concepts
  • Frame: Frequent and adept use of metaphor (usually visual)
  • Plot: No happy ending
  • Characterization: Main character is a child who has to deal with emotionally difficult situations
  • ???: The art style is very clean; frames often just have a character or two in them and are not very "busy"
Other notes
  • J. R. Ackerley, My Father and Myself? -- similar frame of a son looking back on a troubled relationship with his father, but honestly not much else that I can think of as similar; I don't know why this feels like a good readalike to me

Dec 13, 2010

Read Something! _The Hidden_ (Bill Pronzini)

The Hidden
210 pp.
Suspense?/General Fiction


Jay Macklin and his wife, Shelby, are off on a Christmas getaway to a remote cabin on the northern California coast. Jay hopes for a last few days of happiness before he must reveal a secret that might mean the end of their already rocky marriage.

But the couple gets far more than they bargained for when they find themselves trapped by violent storms, their only neighbors a set of two couples whose relationships are ugly on the verge of becoming violent -- and in the heart of a stretch of coastline haunted by a serial killer.

Appeal characteristics
  • ???: Basically no way to identify the killer before the very end of the book, but some red herrings that keep you guessing
  • Characterization: All characters (except those immediately dispatched by the killer as soon as they are encountered) play at least a minimally important role; there aren't a lot of extraneous people walking around
  • Plot vs. characterization: Heavy focus on characters for an ostensible suspense novel; much of the middle of the book is about Jay and Shelby's relationship, Jay's psychological state, etc.
  • Plot: Characters have major problems that are often surmounted with relatively little effort when the plot requires them to be resolved
  • Pacing: Fast-paced beginning with lots of mysteries, revelations, and suspense; a lull in the middle; an action-packed end where all of the surviving major characters are placed in mortal peril at least once
  • Pacing: All plot threads are wrapped up very quickly at the end
  • Pacing: Short chapters
  • Frame: Atmospheric in tone, with a general mood/feeling/atmosphere built up through careful use of detail and allusion
  • Frame: Third person limited point of view, alternating between Jay and Shelby's perspectives with an occasional chapter from the killer's point of view

Other notes
  • This book is not suspenseful in the gripping, heart pounding way I would expect from something marketed as "a novel of suspense." Perhaps it is literary suspense, but honestly I don't really find it suspenseful at all (which is not to say that it was not engaging or did not keep me interested).
  • My Noting: Books entry for this book: http://notingbooks.com/users/hbackman/readings/6057-The-Hidden-A-Novel-of
  • ???

Dec 7, 2010

Read Something! _Swift Justice_ (Laura DiSilverio)

Swift Justice
290 pp.
Mystery/Chick Lit


Charlotte "Charlie" Swift's private investigation business is finally breaking even. Her life is self-contained and self-sufficient, save for the occasional drink with her neighbor or romantic overtures from cop Connor Montgomery.

Then her silent partner flees the country, and Charlie learns that his abandoned wife, Gigi, wants to hold on to the half-share of the business left by her husband and to be a partner -- but decidedly not a silent one. As Charlie tries to track down the mother of an abandoned baby, she sends Gigi on assignments that will hopefully put her off of PI work forever.

But then the baby's mother turns up dead, and multiple different people claim that the infant belongs with them. As Charlie works to untangle the mess, she finds that she may need all the help she can get.

Appeal characteristics

  • Frame?: Humor generously interspersed (often "slapstick" or goofy humor)
  • Frame: Mostly written in first person with a few third person limited passages
  • Frame: Lots of details are given about clothing, decor, etc.
  • Frame?: Charlie is threatened but never is placed in really serious danger; the book is generally to light to bear that
  • Plot: The case is not 100% resolved but the important facts are revealed
  • Plot: Female main character's love life is a fairly minor subplot, but regularly comes up as she periodically dates/flirts with/feels attracted to various male characters
  • Plot: Multiple subplots going on at once
  • Characterization: There are multiple minor characters, each with a defining characteristic or quirk (e.g. sexy cop, priest with a mysterious past, chauvinistic fundamentalist kook, ...)
  • Characterization: Strong female main character who can take care of herself, including physically - but who also has a more feminine romantic side brought out by men she's attracted to
  • Plot vs. Characterization: Unraveling the case is one focus of the book, but the development of Charlie and Gigi's relationship is another
  • Pacing: Suspense increases toward the end
Other notes

  • ???

Dec 2, 2010

Read Something! _The Story of a Marriage_ (Andrew Sean Greer)

The Story of a Marriage
195 pp.
Literary Fiction


"We think we know the ones we love," says Pearlie Cook. But when a stranger appears on her doorstep, Pearlie discovers that her husband has secrets she never could have guessed. Given an offer of freedom as yet unknown to her, for six months Pearlie struggles to understand who her husband really is, and what her own deepest desires might be.

Set in California in 1953 -- a world just out of one war and already engulfed in another, where the slightest hint of nonconformity is severely repressed, The Story of a Marriage is a novel about coming to know ourselves and the people we love, about the damage war does even to those who do not fight, and about the battles we fight to gain and keep our heart's desire.

Appeal characteristics

  • Plot: Love triangle
  • Characterization: Characters' histories are slowly revealed over the course of the whole book, gradually deepening our understanding of them as we learn new secrets
  • Plot/Characterization: Character-focused book; the point is the development of each major character and the relationships between them -- not much actually "happens", plotwise
  • Pacing: Fairly slow pacing
  • Frame: Meditative/introspective tone
  • Frame: First person narration
  • Frame: Some plot events and character backgrounds are integrated with real historical events of World War II and the early 1950s
  • Frame: The historical setting, while important, is not overemphasized; it is significant that the book is set in 1953 but more for atmospheric/thematic reasons than for the use of period detail (of which there is relatively little)

  • The Hours (Michael Cunningham)? Similar time setting (for one of the plots), focus on characters, literary writing... but honestly it has been several years since I read this and I do not have a solid idea as to why my brain is coming up with this as a suggestion

Nov 3, 2010

Read Something! _Ender's Game_ (Orson Scott Card)

Ender's Game

324 pp.
Science Fiction


Decades ago, the buggers attacked. Then they attacked again. The next wave may spell the end of humanity's existence. Ender, a genius child, is in training to become the leader of the human forces in the next war with the buggers. But will the training itself break him -- or his enemies kill him -- before he graduates? And is even Ender enough of a leader and strategist to beat the buggers once and for all?

Appeal characteristics

  • Plot: One major plot, with one distinct subplot occasionally developed (and one semi-subplot, not really a plot but a trajectory followed by other characters that we see unfolding as well)
  • Characterization: Character-focused -- emphasis is on Ender's thoughts, emotions, and experience
  • Characterization: All major characters are genius children
  • Characterization: Most characters other than Ender (and Valentine?) seem a bit sketched out -- they feel like real people and yet we do not know a whole lot about them; Ender is very clearly the center of this book
  • Frame: Some ethical questions are raised (e.g. relating to destroying other species, the ethics of profoundly damaging one person to save the human race, etc.) but are not very deeply explored -- although the text is open enough to allow the reader to do that thinking/exploration on his/her own
  • Pacing: Card gives us several scenes from around the same time period, then skips forward by months to years at a time; as the book goes on the gaps in time are greater
Other notes
  • My Noting: Books entry on Ender's Game: (not available currently; at the time of this posting notingbooks.com was down)
  • ???

Oct 2, 2010

Tiny ponies

(Note to folks reading this on Facebook: If you could come to the actual post on my blog to reply to this one, I'd be grateful. It would be nice to have a discussion visible to people other than my Facebook friends. ;)  )

If you have not recently had cause to Google "tiny pony apple", then you may not have seen this amusing blog post about a small horse the author encountered in an Apple store that no one else in the store seemed to notice.

The post itself is very funny, but I'm not highlighting it here because of its humor. After telling his story, the author makes a broader point:

Since then, John and I have a term called a “tiny pony.” It is a thing that is exceptional that no one, for whatever reason, notices. Or, conversely, it is an exceptional thing that everyone notices, but quickly grows acclimated to despite the brilliance of it all.
Cell phones and the ability to make a phone call to anyone from anywhere is a tiny pony. The instant gratification provided by being able to have almost any question answered immediately is a tiny pony. Airplanes are tiny ponies. A black president, whose father is from Kenya and mother is from Kansas, being elected President of the United States is a tiny pony.
When does the magic of a situation fade? When do we get acclimated to the exceptional?Is this how we get by? Would anything get done if we were constantly gobsmacked? Is this how we survive, how we stay sane? We define a pattern, no matter how exceptional, and acclimate ourselves to it?
In the library world, I think we spend a lot of time talking about how to better market ourselves and the services we provide to our patrons. A lot of the time, the problem is that people aren't really aware of what we do. But I think that some of the problem is also that people know what we do but don't stop to think about how great it is that we can do these things for them.

What are the tiny ponies in libraries? How can we encourage the public to be consciously aware of these things? Is there a way to keep our clientele from getting "acclimated to the exceptional" when they interact with libraries, to maintain a high level of awareness and appreciation of the things we can do?

It seems to me that if we can answer these questions, we can start finding some really good ways to develop a deep sense of attachment and engagement in more of our patrons. We provide potentially memorable experiences to patrons every day. How can we help our patrons to view them as really memorable/exceptional/impressive?

Sep 23, 2010

Good news!

I haven't been able to get back on track with posting here yet because my life has rather unexpectedly continued to be crazy.

You see, just a few weeks after arriving back in MA, I've been offered a job!

In October, I will start as the Programming, Public Relations, & Outreach Coordinator at the Howe Library in Hanover, NH. (This is the position I mentioned interviewing for in my last post.) I am beyond thrilled. It is a dream job at a dream library. I get to not only do some reference and collection development work, but to do a lot of programming and a lot of work on connecting the library to the community and to other local organizations with which it could form mutually beneficial partnerships. This is exactly what gets me fired up about librarianship -- both reference work, which I love, and the chance to build connections, to do outreach, to find new ways for the library to meet the needs of its community. The Howe has strong community support, a commitment to excellence, willingness to experiment and innovate, great staff who seem very dedicated to their work, funding, a somewhat unique context for a public library... this job is going to really enable me to grow professionally in big ways while contributing to an amazing library. I am excited and ready to get going!

The new job does mean that my posting here will remain irregular for some time. As I get settled in I will try to resume a more regular posting schedule that works with my other commitments. But we have apartment hunting and moving to do, and then I have to get used to working full time and commuting (due to my partner's ongoing job search, we are at least for now going to be about 75 miles away from Hanover -- a sacrifice, but one that I ultimately feel will be worth it). I'll be sporadic at least for the next couple of months, I think, but after that I hope things will find a rhythm.

Sep 12, 2010


Hello everyone,

I'm settled in enough to make a quick post but not quite enough to make a longer one. So, some quick news/notes:

  • The move was fairly uneventful. A couple of our boxes did get destroyed in shipping, so we unfortunately lost a bunch of books. (Word to the wise -- don't ship via the US Post Office, or if you do, make sure you get insurance -- we didn't and they wouldn't even reimburse us the postage for the box that came completely torn up and empty.) We got to drive into MA via Route 2, which I loved -- lots of curvy hilly roads through (sort of) mountains.
  • I was ultimately not offered the job I interviewed for. The feedback I got when I asked how I could improve was very positive, though, which was encouraging -- I didn't do anything wrong, just got beat out by someone with a bit more experience.
  • On the very same day I heard about the job just mentioned, I was asked to interview for another position! It's a very similar kind of job (community outreach/public relations/program coordination plus some reference and collection development), and it's at a busy library that enjoys quite a lot of community support. I think the interview went reasonably well. It certainly made me even more excited about the position! The library building is lovely, and the culture meshes well with the value I place on customer service, staff participation in decision making, and collaboration. Plus: I met with a panel of staff members, and beyond being really nice people, they shared my interests: knitting, dogs, baking...
And finally, to make this post about something actually library-related...

  • I thought this post about treating your volunteers right on the Closed Stacks blog had a lot of good advice. Some of it is perhaps common sense (e.g. letting your volunteers know when your institution will be closed (!!)), but overall I think it provides good pointers on how to treat volunteers in a way that ensures both that they feel good about their service and that your organization benefits from their time. As someone who is likely to be overseeing volunteers in a future job (many of the postings I answer seem to include that responsibility) and who is interested in leadership and management, this was a very helpful post for me to read -- and I hope you'll find it helpful too!

Aug 15, 2010


Due to an impending move to another state, my ability to post to this blog is going to be interrupted. I will try to resume a (semi-)regular posting schedule as soon as I'm settled in.

(Because I know some people who read my blog will wonder, this isn't due to a job offer -- just to our lease running out. We're joining the ranks of those moving back in with parents until a source of sufficient income presents itself.)

Aug 7, 2010

Immigrants and book clubs

I thought that this article on immigrant readers (particularly in the context of book clubs) raised some interesting ideas for those of us working (or hoping to work) in communities with immigrant populations. As with any specific population, immigrants have particular needs, and there are particular ways of addressing those needs that may be more or less helpful to the population.

It is first important to recognize that "immigrants" are not a monolithic group. The article points out that immigrants can be seen as falling into two broad groups -- "newcomers" and "old-timers" -- and that these subgroups have quite different needs:
Technically, old-timers can be considered immigrants, but they are a distinctive category with different needs and goals who, by extension, require a different approach and services from public libraries. They are past "the most tumultuous period of language learning and career re-establishment"; and hopefully their lives have acquired "a more stable routine" that allows them to return to habitual leisure reading (Dali 216). Hence, their expectations of public library services can be much closer to those of native-born Canadians and Americans. They may still be looking for good reads in their native languages and might also become interested in something more. This "more" may very well reflect a desire to reach out to English-speaking readers who like the same books. While old-timers may no longer belong in book clubs for newcomers, they may still be apprehensive of joining book clubs for native English speakers.
This was a useful statement for me because I hadn't really thought of things in this way before. I was aware that immigrants who had been in the country longer would probably have very different needs from new immigrants, but I had tended to lump the former group in with the general population in terms of their needs. Upon reflection, it makes sense that even well-assimilated immigrants would probably continue to have somewhat different needs than the native-born -- that they would probably seek a continued feeling of connection with their home country, for instance.

The article also points out that there can be a wide range of literacy levels among immigrants. This can definitely impact service provision. For instance, an English learners' class that assumes a higher or lower level of general literacy than most of its participants have may not be effective. In the context of book groups, with which the article is particularly concerned, such groups (which can provide important opportunities for socializing and assimilation) may not be appropriate for immigrants who struggle to read; they may need basic literacy education first. (Alternatively, a book group targeted specifically at immigrants with lower literacy levels could be set up.)

The article also notes that even fluent English speakers may still want to read in their own language, but that that doesn't mean they would be unwilling to discuss books in English. For librarians looking to help connect immigrant and non-immigrant populations in their communities through book groups, one good suggestion would then be to allow people to read a book in any language, then hold discussion in English. As the article points out, this requires a bit more care in selecting readings -- they must be available not only in English, but in the primary language(s) spoken by the local immigrant community. (As an English major, I also fear that doing this would eliminate groups' ability to discuss the style of the book and the meaning of specific phrases, though those topics are perhaps of greater interest to academics than casual reading groups -- but that added difficulty would be more than compensated for by the opportunities to allow immigrants and non-immigrants to connect with each other.)

The article closes with a few suggested ways to engage immigrant readers in book clubs. One good and fairly easy suggestion is to make sure that immigrants know that book clubs are for them by creating promotional materials in multiple languages that say that people who have read the book in translation may join. (To go further, I would suggest acquiring copies of the work in translation as well as in English, if the library gathers copies specifically to lend to group members before the group, and advertising the availability of these translated copies.) The article also suggests conducting outreach through ethnic organizations, an idea that I really like. Outreach pertaining to book groups can be folded into a broader program of outreach to these organizations that advertises all of the things the library can do for their members.

This was a particularly interesting article for me since I'm under consideration for a position in a library that serves a substantial immigrant population, and I've been thinking about ways I could reach out to that population if I were hired. Although it's short, I think that it offers some good jumping off points and basic ideas for creating a book group experience that is attractive to immigrants, particularly "old-timers."

Jul 25, 2010

The Tall One Knows!

There’s a semi-regular patron at the library where I intern. She is learning English and is usually in search of books with very short stories or essays to read, so that she can work on her comprehension without having to follow a long, complex series of thoughts. The last time I conversed with her was probably two or three weeks ago, at least; I don’t remember much of the conversation other than that she didn’t like the last book we’d found for her, and I helped her find another.
When I was at the library last week, a colleague asked me about this patron. Apparently she’d come to the desk with a question about something relating to writing. Unfortunately, because the patron's English is still fairly basic and her accent is pretty strong, my colleague couldn’t understand what the something was; only that it was a three-syllable word. The patron couldn’t write it down or spell it, but just kept repeating the word more loudly. As my colleague admitted defeat, the patron said, “The tall one knows! The tall one knows!”
I stand four to six inches above almost all of the other reference staff, and I’ve begun to develop a relationship with this patron, so the referent of this statement was fairly clear. Thus my colleague approached me.
…and I have no idea what on earth the patron was talking about! Admittedly I don’t have much to go on; if I’d actually been there I might have been able to suss it out. But I honestly don’t remember our previous interaction in great detail. I don’t remember precisely what we talked about. I’m now a little petrified of the next time I encounter this patron, because I really do want to help her but I’m not sure I’ll be able to! I joked that they say wisdom is knowing what you don’t know...
Above all, however, I am highly amused at my new appellation. It has a certain ring to it, doesn’t it? I am… The Tall One. She Who Knows.

Jul 21, 2010

Read Something! _The Forest of Hands and Teeth_ (Carrie Ryan)

The Forest of Hands and Teeth

310 pp.
YA / Horror

Mary chafes against the demands of her life. Despite the dangerous Unconsecrated who lurk beyond the village fences, she longs to escape her isolated home in search of freedom. When, impossibly, an Outsider comes to the village, Mary's hopes of being able to embark on a new life rise. But the outsider's presence soon becomes a threat, and Mary's escape from the village comes at a high price. Now Mary and her companions are alone in a hostile world. Will they survive, or fall to the Unconsecrated? And will Mary ever find the freedom she seeks?

Appeal characteristics
  • Characterization: Independent-minded, teenage, female main character
  • Characterization: A few chapters mostly about the characters and their relationships alternate with a few chapters of heightened action or suspense
  • Frame (?): First-person narration
  • Frame (?): Romantic elements/subplot
  • Frame (?): Mysterious elements (but the mysteries are mostly never resolved
  • Frame: Extensive worldbuilding
  • Pacing: Short chapters -- 5-10 pages each -- often ending on a revelation or cliffhanger
  • ??: Not very much detailed description of things outside of the main character's feelings and thoughts (visuals, etc. often just get a few words to a couple of sentences)
Other notes
  • I Am Legend? (I've never read this book, so I really have no idea)
  • The later Harry Potter books? Both take place in a fantasy world connected to, but unlike, our own (though HP is present-day and Forest is set in the future); similar emphasis placed on characters and their relationships vs. events; similarly dark; similar protagonists (teens, to some extent with the world of the book revolving around them, faced with life or death choices); semi-similar endings that are happy but not quite fully fleshed out or satisfying (yes, that's a subjective judgment, but I couldn't help myself -- these books frustrated me in remarkably similar ways)

Jul 15, 2010


I promised an update on my job interview!

Overall, I think it went pretty well. I was articulate and had some good answers to the questions I was asked. I put together a pretty decent flyer for the MS Publisher test without feeling too rushed to finish it. I am a little concerned that I didn't say as much as I could have about my qualifications. Sometimes the director would make a comment that paralleled something I'd been planning to say later or talked about the importance of a qualification I had, and while I often tried to indicate that I really agreed or that I had the qualification in question, I think I held back a bit more than I should have out of concern about sounding sycophantic. In retrospect, that was a bit silly. But what's done is done, and in the future I'll be more prepared for that kind of situation.

Of course we also spent a bunch of time talking about the job. And oh boy. The job sounds great. If I were hired, my primary responsibility would be to work on getting the community more strongly engaged with its library. I would also be doing some reference, meeting room scheduling, etc. -- but most of the job would be program planning, outreach activities, and the like. Anyone who knows me should see how this is a great match. To begin with, it ties directly into the whole reason I want to work in public libraries to begin with: my deep interest in how libraries can work with their communities to create mutually beneficial relationships that strengthen the community while ensuring that its needs are being met. I have been itching to get into a position where I can have a major impact on library-community relationships. This particular library is an especially good place for me because it's in a city that is recovering from an economic downturn, in part by rebranding itself as a cultural center. There are tons of opportunities  in that kind of situation for a library to meaningfully weave itself into civic life.

The position also offers a bit more responsibility than the typical entry-level job might, which would also be good for me. It is a bit of a step up from the amount of responsibility I've previously held in jobs and extracurriculars, but I feel ready to grow in that way and confident that I would respond well to the challenge. I think with a little free rein to exercise creativity and initiative, I can really start to put together some great things for anyone who employs me. And at this library, the director seems open to ideas and very supportive of her employees. I think it would be a nurturing environment in which to work, and just the kind of situation that would help me to create and implement my best ideas.

The job would offer plenty of opportunities to take some initiative and run with my ideas, and really have some impact in a vital area of library work. The people I met seemed nice (the circulation worker who I asked for directions to administration gave me a huge smile and cheerfully helped me -- big points for good customer service!), the location is fantastic, and I think it would be a great opportunity for me to grow while accomplishing concrete positive results. And it plays right into many of my strengths -- my interest in this specific area of library work, my ability to organize and multitask, the analytical and management skills I learned in classes at SI, my creativity and strong initiative. I just hope that I got all that through in the interview!

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I make the next cut! If I do, the director will call my references, and my references are very strong. I think I've got a good shot at the job if I make it to the next stage.

For now, all I can do is be patient. If all goes as planned I should hear something quite soon. Send me thoughts of good luck!

Jun 30, 2010

Progress on the job front... and with MS Publisher

I haven't actually posted about this yet for some strange reason. It must be a very strange reason, in fact, because it's exciting news.

I have a job interview!

It's for a community librarian-type position in a public library about half an hour away from where I grew up. From the job ad, it sounds like there will be opportunities to do things I love (e.g. planning programs and services, some reference desk work) and also to gain skills in areas where I'm ready to grow (e.g. supervision/management, overseeing larger programs/projects). It's not 100% clear, but I'm also hoping that there will be opportunities to really go out and engage with the community and figure out their needs and how to bring them into the library.

I am excited and nervous and just want the next week to hurry up and get over with so I can have this interview! But I still have a lot of preparation to do. I have to go back over my notes on the library and do some additional research about the city it's in. I also need to practice, practice, practice interview questions and make lists of experiences and achievements that would make good examples to use when answering questions (I tend to forget specific experiences way too quickly, especially under pressure). I need to come up with one or two more good questions of my own to ask.

And I need to keep practicing MS Publisher. I've been told that after the interview I will have 30 minutes to make a flyer in Publisher. Apparently that's an important skill in this job. I have some experience with Publisher, but not tons, so I've spent the past few weeks getting some practice in whenever I can. I needed some inspiration for practice flyers to make, so I've been basing them on books I've read recently. I've made three so far:
(The last one is a .png because the computer I was on did not have the necessary add-on to save Publisher files as .pdf, and since it was a library computer I couldn't install anything on it.)

The interview is on July 8 -- I'll try to update soon afterward to reflect on how it went...

Jun 16, 2010

Read Something! _Eye of the Red Tsar_ (Sam Eastland)

Eye of the Red Tsar

278 pp.
Historical Suspense

Introducing Pekkala: a man with a near-photographic memory and an ironclad determination to do the right thing in any situation. Under the Romanovs he was the Emerald Eye -- the Tsar's infamously incorruptible chief investigator, accountable to no one but himself, with the authority to question or arrest anyone -- even the Tsar. Now he is a prisoner of Stalin's regime, sentenced to labor in a remote gulag.
But the state has need of Pekkala still. Released from the gulag, he is tasked with a final investigation: find the bodies of the Romanovs, their rumored still-living child, and their hidden treasure. If he scores this coup for Stalin, he will finally be free. But Pekkala is not the only person seeking lost treasure, and there are those who wish to ensure that the truth of what happened to the Romanovs is never known. Can Pekkala find the answers before he loses his life?

Appeal characteristics
  • Plot: 2 (2.5? 3?) plots are semi-interwoven throughout the book. One plot deals with the characters in the present, and the other deals with Pekkala's backstory, including a romance.
  • Plot (?): There is a mystery, but much more time is spent on character development than on unraveling the mystery
  • Characterization: Character-focused book; much of the novel is about the main character, his past, and his relationships with others
  • Pacing: Pacing is fairly slow for a suspense novel/thriller; generally, a major event happens every few sections, with a lot of slower filler dealing with character development and backstory
  • Pacing: Pacing increases markedly at the end; the book shifts more toward an emphasis on plot than characters, and the characters are put in increasing physical danger
  • Frame: Periodic moments of levity/humor break up the more serious tone of the rest of the book
Other notes
  • The mystery is fairly predictable for readers who are attentive to foreshadowing and hints. Readers who enjoy mysteries that force them to solve puzzles, as well as readers who don't like it when the main character(s) remain clueless for some time after the reader has already figured something out, may not be good matches for this book.
  • My Noting: Books entry on Eye of the Red Tsar: http://notingbooks.com/users/hbackman/readings/5638-Eye-of-the-Red-Tsar
  • Sherlock Holmes? (I have sadly not yet read any Conan Doyle so I don't actually know if this is a match at all...)
  • Child 44 (Tom Rob Smith) -- similar setting; both are thrillers/suspense novels; pacing, focus on characters vs. plot, and general content are quire different; level of suspense in Child 44 is much higher and is sustained throughout the book; Child 44 deals with the ethical issues related to working for a totalitarian state whereas Eye glosses it over; Eye is much better written, stylistically (the phrasing and flow are more evocative and less awkward)

Jun 8, 2010


I used to be an obsessive reader. I would have two or three books going at the same time. Every spare moment would be spent reading. My parents would admonish me to set the book down at the breakfast table, worry that I would crack my head open coming down the stairs because I would read while walking around the house. (Years later I put that skill to good use to get homework done while walking to class at Stanford.) I always seemed to need another bookcase in my room, and that was for books on top of everything I read that I got from school for assignments or checked out of the library.

Then I got to college. Homework assignments were much more time consuming there than at my high school. I had brought books with me to read, but I found that between academics and my extracurriculars, I didn't have much time for pleasure reading. And once I started my English major, I was reading for school constantly. I loved my major (and chose it because of the extent to which I loved books), but reading became homework, and I wanted to do something different during my downtime. This feeling only got more intense as I progressed through my BA and earned a MA as well. I loved reading, but I already did it constantly for school -- I didn't feel the urge to read for leisure anymore.

After I graduated and started my MSI, I slowly began to read for leisure again during vacations (there was still no time during the school year!). Mostly I was reading from the bookshelf-sized backlog I'd acquired during the past five years, but occasionally a different book would slip in. Still, since I only really had time for pleasure reading on vacations, I didn't get much done.

But now. NOW. This is definitely one of the ways in which being temporarily semi-unemployed is a blessing. I have so much time to read! I have started devouring books again like I used to -- not three at a time anymore (I stopped that when I realized I couldn't keep all of the plots straight at once!), but with the old easy rapidity. And here in Ann Arbor I am half a country away from that daunting loaded bookshelf, so I feel remarkably free to choose my reading materials. I am trying to select books from a broad range to reacquaint myself with what's out there, especially what's new. So far I've gotten through both Persepolis books, two thrillers set in Stalinist Russia (hopefully a blog post on those is forthcoming), a book of poetry, and Joy Luck Club, among others. And lined up I have a work of modern literary fiction, a horror novel, a YA book, Tinkers (whenever I get far enough up in the hold queue at my library), and The Passage (ditto the note on Tinkers). Going to my internship is dangerous because right now I don't have much desk work, so I spend a lot of time reading book publications like PW and the New York Times book reviews -- which just gives me more things I want to read...

It feels so good to be getting back to reading for pleasure like I used to!

(You will see reviews of some of the books I read on this blog, and you can find notes on many of them as well at my noting: books page.)

May 30, 2010

Read Something! -- _Child 44_ (Tom Rob Smith)

Child 44

439 pp.
Historical Thriller / Suspense
Sequel: The Secret Speech


Leo Demidov is an investigator for Stalinist Russia's State Security Force. Idealistic and loyal to the state, he has always performed his job well. But a botched case, a scheming underling, and doubts about the system he's always worked within put Leo's family, career, and life in jeopardy.

Exiled and demoted, Leo discovers a series of murdered children who begin to form a disturbing pattern. In Soviet Russia, crime is officially nonexistent. But Leo knows he is on the trail of a serial killer. He and his wife must work against time and the State to find the murderer before he strikes again. And as they get closer to the killer, they approach a revelation about Leo's past that will change the face of the case entirely.

Appeal characteristics
  • Characterization: Plot-focused book; character development does occur over the course of the story but typically happens for plot purposes
  • Characterization: Characters' motivations and internal states are generally not explored beyond the superficial
  • Characterization: Some minor characters, but they largely matter only for their relation to Leo or the case
  • Frame: An atmospheric book that strongly evokes the feeling of living in a totalitarian society
  • Frame?: Explores questions of morality and ethics -- what is worth doing in the name of the greater good? What if you begin to doubt that the greater good is truly good?
  • Pacing: Fast-paced plot -- something big happens in each chapter
  • Pacing: The magnitude (significance, dangerousness, ...) of events increases swiftly toward the end of the book, along with the pace
  • Plot: No substantial subplots
  • Plot: Happy ending
  • Plot?: Possibility of a sequel is left open (though there are not substantial loose ends)

Other notes
  • There are some disturbing scenes, including moderately explicit torture and murder.
  • Plausibility is somewhat sacrificed to the needs of suspense and thrill in later chapters (especially the twist regarding Leo's identity); readers who have trouble suspending their disbelief may take issue with the last quarter to third of the book. (The storytelling is quite compelling, however, and may enable readers to gloss over the improbabilities while they are still reading.)
  • My Noting: Books entry on Child 44: http://notingbooks.com/users/hbackman/readings/5621-Child-44
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell): similar strongly evoked atmosphere of repression and totalitarianism, with a few characters who dare to covertly or semi-covertly resist an oppressive government; similar plot arcs in terms of how the main character develops (from agreement/collaboration to uncertainty to disagreement to arrest to release...)?; Nineteen Eighty-Four does not have a happy ending and is generally much more hopeless in tone
  • Further reading listed at the end of Child 44 in an appendix -- these books are nonfiction, used by the author for research, and provide a further window into the time period and subjects covered in the novel for those who are interested in learning more
  • Eye of the Red Tsar (Sam Eastland): similar subject matter (disgraced investigator in Stalinist Russia investigating cases that have been or are being shrouded in secrecy by the state), similar concern with the main character's past; however, all other elements of style and tone are very different -- Eye does not concern itself with the repressive atmosphere or with the ethics of working for the Soviet state, is much more interested in the characters than in the case they're solving, emphasizes its main character's past much more than Child 44 (in Eye it is integrated through the story rather than a twist), is (frankly) better written stylistically (author has a better grasp of language, imagery, style that flows instead of jerks along)
  • [ETA 7/27/10] John Grisham books? I have not read any Grisham but the Novelist description of his appeal suggests similar interest in ethical conflicts, similarly idealistic characters wrestling with whether they should go against the system, similar fast pace. Grisham notably does not have explicit sex and violence; the more disturbing elements of this book might present a barrier to enjoyment for some Grisham fans.

Apr 27, 2010

Well hello there.

(note: this post was actually written about a week ago and didn't actually make it to the site until now... oopsie.)

It's been a while, hasn't it. My goal is to post here at least once per week, but I confess that between doing all the work for my last month of school ever and trying to get a job at the same time, I haven't had a lot of time for much else. Now that I'm done with school, hopefully I will get going on this blog again.

Yes. I said it. I am done with school. This is an odd sensation after 20+ continuous years of being a student, and I don't think it's quite sunk in yet. The next step is to find full-time employment. I'm sure you will be hearing about that in future.

I suppose I've still got one school-related commitment (other than going to graduation!) -- this Saturday is the last ALA Book Club I'll be running. We're holding it at a local restaurant and it looks like turnout will be pretty good. The book we're reading is interesting. It's called The Design of Everyday Things; it's basically about how designers should consider how people might make errors in using an artifact, and design accordingly to make use easy. It seems like a straightforward principle, but I think everyone can think of times when "good aesthetics" have actually made something less usable. The book itself is actually more psychology than design. It's a fun little throwback to my college days, when I was almost a psychology minor. Since the book was published in the 1980s the science is slightly out of date, but only slightly. (For instance, the author says that neural network and schema theories are still not widely accepted, and I'm fairly sure that by now they are well-acknowledged in the scientific community.)

It's interesting trying to come up with discussion questions for a nonfiction book. I haven't Googled yet, but I think it's fairly likely that no one will have discussion questions for this book online. That puts me somewhat on my own. But I think I'll do okay -- hopefully people will just be talkative!

Mar 24, 2010


This post is going to be fairly short, because I am on the reference desk for six hours on Wednesdays, which leaves me pretty much braindead afterward. But a big ol' lesson whacked me upside the head today, and I thought it was worth recording.

At one point tonight, a phone call came in. The patron had a fairly heavy accent and the connection wasn't the best, but I heard enough of his initial request to realize that he had a question about his eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Uh oh, I thought, tax question. I explained that I couldn't give him much aid with this, as librarians are not tax professionals and cannot make judgments that might leave them legally liable for an error. Instead, I offered the TeleTax(?) number, and then (as the conversation progressed) another number I found that he could use to talk to someone at the IRS for live tax help. However, he was not satisfied. He kept saying that he had been told to call our number, and that we should be able to help him. I kept trying to explain that librarians cannot interpret tax requirements for our patrons. Finally, because he clearly wanted me to do something more, I told him I could read off precisely what was written about the EITC on the IRS website, which should be the same thing as was somewhere in the instructions he had.

I read the paragraph about eligibility over the phone, and he thanked me. He'd gotten precisely the information he needed from that.

Afterward I realized I had made the fundamental reference mistake: I had not fully understood what the patron wanted and had not conducted a reference interview to figure it out. Instead the keyword "taxes" had set off all sorts of red blinking lights in my brain and I'd gone on autopilot. I'd assumed that I could not help the patron, and tried to refer him away.

It was a rookie mistake. But I suppose that all of us make beginner-level mistakes now and again, regardless of experience level. Sometimes we need a wake-up call. This was mine. I'm trying to think, now, about the other, subtler assumptions I might make in a reference transaction. What else might I be missing by unconsciously assuming instead of asking?

I was lucky this time, because not only does this anecdote provide a learning experience, it also belongs in the Annals of Great Patrons. The gentleman on the other end of the phone was clearly frustrated. He'd been referred to the library by 211 and now I was trying to refer him elsewhere again. But even though I could tell he was not happy, he kept his voice level (if insistent), clearly telling me why he was frustrated and what he wanted me to do to help fix it. He never raised his voice or directed any negative remark specifically at me. And after he'd gotten the information that he needed, he was quite congenial and even thanked me sincerely. In retrospect, his patience and good humor were remarkable. It's unfortunately too common for irritated patrons to make one feel like something less than a full person. I have never had a frustrated patron make me feel, in the end, so much as though I have been acknowledged and respected as a complete person -- mistakes and all.

Mar 13, 2010

Donor-Centered Fundraising and Librarianship

My program requires students to take at least one "cognate course" outside of the School of Information as part of their degree.* To fulfill this requirement, I chose a course in grantgetting and fundraising through the School of Social Work. It was a great choice -- the professor is fantastic; I'm learning things that I know will be very useful in public library work, particularly in later years when I begin to take on administrative roles; and it led to the opportunity for me to write a real grant proposal for the library where I intern (we're still waiting to hear from the funder... it's nervewracking!).

Recently we were assigned the book Donor-Centered Fundraising by Penelope Burk. This book proposes a new paradigm for fundraising based around conscientious, regular, two-way (informing and listening) contact with donors. Burk argues that rather than trying to recruit new donors again and again to make up for attrition, fundraisers and development officers should work on building relationships with donors by staying in regular contact, thanking them personally, and keeping them informed of the results of their donation, among other things. She argues that it is much better spend time on building these relationships and using the stronger connections to move donors "up the ladder" to higher and higher donation levels than to spend the time constantly recruiting new, low-level donors. The book is aimed at nonprofits in general; public libraries are obviously in a different situation from many nonprofits because we are funded largely with tax and other public dollars. But I have been thinking about how Burk's philosophy could be applied in libraries. I am particularly interested in smaller libraries which almost certainly will not have their own development staff.

One might ask: when there is a Friends of the Library, might they not be more appropriate fundraisers than library staff? I'm not sure that in all cases they would. My understanding of how Friends groups and libraries interact, financially and otherwise, is still rudimentary. However, I would think that even if a library has a strong Friends group, there might still be situations in which it would like to solicit donations to itself rather than to the Friends. Furthermore, library staff can support donor-centered fundraising initiatives regardless of whether they are headed by the Friends or by the library.

How? To my mind, the key is this: A good library is already in the business of building strong relationships with our patrons. Good libraries listen to what their patrons want and need, and provide responsive, relevant services and resources. Good librarians try to build rapport with the people with whom they interact. I have had the opportunity to work with and at some excellent libraries, and the most striking common factor among almost all of them has been the ways that many of their patrons felt connected to the library on a personal level.

Building this kind of relationship, where the (potential) donor connects with the organization in a way that feels personal and meaningful to him/her, seems to me to be the core of Burk's donor-centered philosophy. I do not know whether the libraries I have in mind fulfill the specific tenets of the strategy (e.g. contacting donors quickly and in a way that feels personal, keeping donors updated on the impact that their money and the program/service it has funded is having, cultivating donors no matter the size of their original gift). But whether they do or not, I believe they've already come closer to creating a donor-centered atmosphere than many of the nonprofits Burk describes. (Perhaps this is in part because libraries' potential donors are the same as their service population?)

We all know that when community members feel good about their library, they have the potential to be active supporters. But people often need a nudge to move from appreciation to action. How can libraries leverage the strong relationships they build with their patrons to get their supporters to act to the benefit of the library? To use a phrase I've often seen and heard while taking this class, how can libraries ethically and effectively "make the ask" to their patrons? Is it better to target specific patrons who are known to be particularly strong supporters? Should the library make a blanket request on its website or in its newsletter and hope that some people will be inclined to respond? And when supporters respond to "the ask," what mechanisms need to be in place to ensure that they are communicated with at the (potentially time-intensive) level that donor-centered fundraising requires, or at something as close to that level as the library can possibly get?**

What is also interesting to me is that many of the principles of donor-centered fundraising seem as though they can be applied to supporters who, for instance, offer their time instead of their money. Could we use similar techniques and ideas to move volunteers "up the ladder" in terms of the time and energy they commit to helping the library?

It is in fact somewhat surprising to me that this book needed to be written at all. So much of what it advocates -- communicate in a timely fashion, and in as personalized a way as possible; keep supporters up to date on the organization's activities; etc. -- seems like common sense and common courtesy. That is part of why I think libraries are ahead of the game. As service organizations, we've been following constituent-centered philosophies for a while. It just seems to me that we haven't quite figured out whether or how to effectively connect what we're already doing to our need to secure continuing support in times of economic difficulty.


* This is actually a requirement that comes from Rackham, the University of Michigan's Graduate School, not from SI in particular. SI is soon becoming its own school external to Rackham, like other professional schools at UM, but I really hope that they keep this requirement -- it is a fantastic opportunity for students to broaden their knowledge in an area relevant to their careers but not directly within the domain of SI.

** Burk does not ask for perfection, but rather advocates gradual uptake of the principles and practices of donor-centered fundraising for those who do not have the time or resources to pick up the approach wholesale (as I am sure most libraries, particularly small libraries, do not). She suggests that while some increase in resource investment will definitely be necessary at the outset, eventually the increase in funds obtained through donations will offset the greater time requirements. Of course, this somewhat presumes that the organization can hire development staff. If the entire fundraising operation must be conducted by volunteers or by other library staff, the issue of how much time is available in which to perform these activities becomes even more pressing.

Mar 9, 2010

Readers' advisory for a "bad" book?

(I have been suffering from pretty severe writer's block (blogger's block?) recently -- my apologies for my absence.)

Opening a new book by an unfamiliar author is always exciting to me. Usually by the time I begin a book I know a little about the story it will tell, but how that story will be told is still a mystery. I love getting to know a new author and learning how he or she speaks to me -- his/her style, vocabulary, and all the little idiosyncratic quirks that make an author's works truly individual and that will make me feel as though I'm coming back to a wonderful, familiar place should I ever read another work by the same person. Unfortunately, sometimes the experience is not as enjoyable as could be hoped.

The book selected for an upcoming ALA Student Chapter Book Club is Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. I'm organizing the book club, so I need to come up with some good questions. I'm also trying to think about it from the perspective of a readers' advisor, seeing if I can think of elements of the book that might appeal to some readers. (I try to do this with most books that I read these days; I think I could use the practice.)

The problem is that I found this book to be... let's say extremely disappointing (I hesitate to ever call a book "bad," since I consider evaluations of a book's "goodness" to be situational and individual). I don't know whether it's more unfair to say I really didn't enjoy it and not explain why, or to go into a long discussion of all the things I didn't like, so I'll try to hit middle ground with a brief summary of my major comments:

1) Show, don't tell is violated over, and over, and over again. Sometimes authors do this because it's truly difficult to show what they want us to know. But almost everything we're told in this novel could easily have been shown.

2) Character development occurs largely either a) out of our view, in the long gaps (years!) between chapters -- all of a sudden we come back into these people's lives and are told (not shown) that they've changed -- or b) in sudden, revelatory moments where a character dramatically changes in a paragraph, with no buildup or background that helps us understand what about this moment has sparked the change or why.

3) Largely as a result of the two points above, I just couldn't bring myself to care about the characters. This was a shame because the story itself could have been interesting -- but the story's impact really rested on the reader's ability to empathize with and care about the characters, particularly the two sisters at the center of the novel.

The problem I now face is: How do I lead this book discussion, and how do I attempt readers' advisory, for this book which I really did not enjoy?

The first part of this question is actually not as much of an issue. I got plenty of experience leading (academic) book discussions in the course of obtaining my degrees in English literature. I know how to put aside my feelings for a book long enough to ask a question that isn't blatantly leading in one direction or another. (I'm more concerned about whether I'll be able to restrain my own urges to dissect the book enough to avoid overwhelming the discussion, but I had a similar worry last time and I did fine.)

However, the second part of the question is presenting a real dilemma for me. I have tried to be a good readers' advisor and think of things that people might like about this book. But my own negative feelings about it keep getting in the way. I honestly do not see how anyone could like this novel, though I know there must be people out there who do. I have come up with exactly two reasons why people might like it (for the dramatic events of the plot, for the historical setting) and even one of those is strongly tempered (the plot is one dramatic thing after another; it feels like a soap opera -- though I suppose there are people who would not have a problem with that). I'm hoping that at least one person who comes to the book discussion will have enjoyed the novel, and that I can pick their brain a little about why they did.

As a readers' advisor I believe, with Ranganathan, in "every book its reader." I believe that I should help readers find and select this book, if they would really like it. I find it strange that I am so happy to help people find books they want to read that might be considered "trash"* by those who like to consider themselves the intellectual and/or literary elite, but that I simply cannot imagine bringing myself to recommend this novel to anyone.

How does one, as a readers' advisor, recommend books that one profoundly dislikes to people who might enjoy them? Do you just not recommend those books at all? Do you consult colleagues for their input? Do you candidly admit "This wasn't really my thing, but it sounds like the kind of book that you might love"?



* Please note "might be considered 'trash'". I love a good "trashy" book and don't believe that genre or other nonliterary writing is inferior -- just different (often in a good way!).

Feb 14, 2010

Twitter, ambient awareness, and libraries

Lots of libraries are getting on Twitter. But I doubt many of them are using Twitter in the way this librarian suggests.

To sum up the blog post linked above: the writer set up a series of Twitter searches for words like "cite", "citation", and "need" AND "book", geographically limited to a relatively small radius around his library. This allows him to monitor the stream for tweets that describe needs that his library could answer without actually containing a reference to the library within the tweet. He can then respond to tweets that express a need that the library could fill.

I think that this is a really, really smart idea.

I am aware of libraries that monitor Twitter for mentions of themselves. This allows them to keep track of what people are saying about them, and to respond when necessary. But the only people who are going to be tweeting about the library are those who already know about it. An important question to ask for any marketing effort is how we reach not only the people who already are aware of us and use our services, but how we reach our nonusers, the people for whom we are not the logical place to go for information. An intelligent set of searches on Twitter, geographically limited to the library's service area, is a great example of how we can use our presence on Twitter to reach out to nonusers as well as users.

This idea then begs the question: What other social networking tools are libraries using that can facilitate ambient awareness? How can those tools be used to discover the needs of nonusers as well as users, and how can they help us fill those needs?

Feb 5, 2010

Thanks / Gratitude

Shortly after my last post, I came across the following entry in Indexed (a sort-of webcomic consisting of graphs drawn on index cards). I think it relates to my post rather well.

Thanks a lot.

Jan 31, 2010

Just a story

I think it's important to record and share the things that make us smile. So I have a story I'd like to tell.

While I was working the reference desk at my internship the other day, an older woman came up who needed some help signing legal documents electronically. I went over and spent some time helping her open her e-mail, find the right messages, and navigate through the first iteration of the signing process. She had very good mouse skills, but it was clear she didn't understand a whole lot about interacting with things over the Internet. I stepped her through the first of a few documents she needed to sign, then had to get back to the desk. When I came back to check in, she was frustrated -- she didn't understand what to do next, or what had to happen next -- but still wonderfully polite and patient with me. I helped her figure things out, and found the document that she then needed to print. Our printers are sometimes a little cranky with .pdf files, and after a few tries the file consistently refused to print. She was clearly somewhat perplexed and frustrated, but her demeanor was composed as I explained I'd save the file to a flash drive and print it for her from my computer at the desk.

I finally handed the document to her, and she and my supervisor and I chatted a bit about how she was learning computer skills, and how it was hard but she was going to keep at it (good for her!). As she was leaving, she said something like, "I'm going to have to bring you all cookies or flowers or something to thank you!"

I said, "Ma'am, as a reference librarian, what always makes me feel best is just when a patron sincerely says 'thank you'."*

"Thank you," she said, looking me in the eye and smiling, and then she turned to go.

This interaction made my day for a couple of reasons.

- First, the way the patron kept her cool despite clearly being frustrated with some aspects of how things were going. Usually, when patrons get frustrated, their irritation shows in their body language and their tone of voice even if they're still speaking politely, and they can become impatient and less willing to listen to me if I need to explain something a little more complex. The frustration is rarely aimed directly at me (and I certainly can't blame patrons for getting frustrated sometimes!), but even if there is not an intent to express negative emotion toward me, it definitely makes the entire interaction a little more stressful as I try to find ways to satisfy their need. This woman's calm demeanor, and her patience as I tried to find ways to explain things to her that she would understand best, were really wonderful.

- Second -- and this is really what is going to make this memorable for me -- the "thank you." People usually thank me when I've helped them, with varying levels of attention and sincerity. I always appreciate being thanked, even if it's the throwaway formality "thanks" as I hand someone a guest pass to use the computers. But I've had a handful of times now when someone has thanked me in a way that has made me really feel that whatever I've done for that person has been really important to them and made a big difference. What I've actually done doesn't seem to matter so much. I've gotten these kinds of thank-yous for something as simple as finding a book on the shelf. What makes them really powerful for me is the feeling that I have done something that has great significance to the patron, and that they recognize that and deeply appreciate it. I got into this profession because I wanted to change the world by changing individual lives. When someone says "thank you" as if I've just opened doors for them, or as if I've made their week, I know that I'm in the right job.

* Yes, yes, yes, I know that sounds cheesy, but it's absolutely true!

Jan 21, 2010

Book clubs!

Last Monday, the ALA student chapter at my school (in which I am an officer) held its first book club meeting. The book we selected was In Cold Blood ("Read Something" readers' advisory summary will hopefully be forthcoming at some point; I am slowly working my way through the book for a second time, and it is a little tricky to fit in "fun" reading time around academics, work, internship, and significant other). I thought it was a mostly absorbing and rather disturbing read, and was excited to get the chance to discuss it. I haven't sat down with other people specifically to talk about a book since I was an English major/Master's student, and I've been missing doing that.

But I was also a little nervous. I had never run a "casual" book discussion group (though I have experience leading in-class academic book discussions); neither had the officer who was co-leading the group with me. I wasn't sure if some of my questions and ideas were too academic for this setting. I wasn't sure if the other attendees would find the questions I had made up and found online interesting. What if no one talked? What if no one came?

As it turned out, I shouldn't have worried so much! We had a small turnout but a very engaging discussion that lasted about 45 minutes. I think everyone had a good time. And when we were winding down they insisted that we make sure we'd gone through all of my questions! (That was pretty flattering.) After a couple of minutes I was able to relax and just let things flow. In the end it was not all that different from leading an academic book discussion -- we talked about the book more broadly, and with less reference to specific passages, than we would have in a seminar, but otherwise it felt pretty much the same. And it was a joy to be doing this kind of thing again after a year and a half break. I hadn't realized just how much I had missed it. I think that we will try to do another book club this semester, and I'm already excited for it!

This was also a good experience for me at this point in time because I have applied for a job that includes book group leadership among its duties (and I'm sure I'll find other positions with that responsibility as well). Should I get interviewed (*crossing fingers*), it will be good to be able to say that I have some experience leading casual book discussions, even if it's only one or two events. Helping to lead this book group has also confirmed that I enjoy doing so -- not exactly a surprise, given my background! -- which makes me think that I should improve my skills and knowledge in this area. That way I can be even more qualified for leading book groups, which will increase my changes of getting to do it in the future! So if anyone reading this happens to know of a good resource (book, website, or otherwise) for book group facilitators, please drop me a note in the comments to let me know.

Jan 13, 2010

Reflections on some informational interviews

Over vacation I had a great opportunity to talk shop with the reference supervisors at the Cambridge and Newton libraries, and they have been so kind as to give their permission for me to reflect on these conversations here.*

I came in with a set of questions largely pertaining to how their libraries are making sense of and coping with changes in society, technology, the ways in which people view libraries, what people expect from libraries, and how librarians are conceptualizing what we do. I also had some questions about community engagement in their libraries, spurred by the great class on information use in communities that I just completed. The interviews didn't always stay "on script," but whether we were discussing my specific questions or not, I got a lot of valuable information that helped to fill in my picture of what is actually going on in the real world of library practice right now.

In what follows I'm not trying to be comprehensive; I'm more attempting to hit the high points of the interviews and reflect on what stood out most to me from what we discussed.


On the whole, Cambridge seems to be in a pretty good position right now. They've just moved into a beautiful new facility (an expansion and renovation of the original main library). I was told that the library garners consistently high rankings by residents, and they definitely seem to be well-positioned for some exciting growth in the coming years.

In part since I just completed a course on community information use and community engagement, one thing that really stuck out to me is the high level of community support. I'm definitely interested in trying to figure out what libraries do that makes them central figures in their communities. High-quality service is of course a factor, and from my brief time in the library (the interview was actually performed behind one of the information desks, so I got an especially good look at how the library provides reference service!) it seems to me that Cambridge staff are making a good effort to provide useful and relevant services to their patrons. But high-quality service is just a start. I had some speculations on other factors that might affect community support for this library:

One interesting characteristic of this library that may be a factor is its physical accessibility. Part of their website states that "Cambridge is unique among Massachusetts libraries in that most residents of the City are within walking distance of their public library." I learned that people from adjacent towns sometimes use the Cambridge branches because they are closer than the libraries for the towns of which those patrons are residents (there is a regional consortium; cards from any member library are valid everywhere in the consortium). One of the keys to public support is certainly getting people to come in, interact with the library, and use its services; I wonder if the accessibility of branch libraries increases library use in Cambridge, and therefore community support?

Something that came up as a definite factor in the support that the Cambridge library enjoys is the fact that many people who work in the city government are regular library users. This makes sense -- if the people who control the funding perceive you as valuable, then you are likely to be funded. The next question, of course, is how one gets the people in control of funding to perceive the library's value. In Cambridge it seems as though the situation may be self-perpetuating at this point. Other libraries may need to cultivate this perception in local leaders.

Another interesting thing that we discussed was the library's connection to various other community agencies (e.g. the historical society, legal information organizations, etc.). This didn't explicitly come up as a factor related to the library's community support, but from what I learned in my community information class, I think that the connections that the Cambridge library has built with these other organizations probably play into its community support as well. (The support of institutions and organizations in the community is as important as the support of individuals.) These connections don't seem to be made in a formalized or structured way. My interviewee said that his communication with outside agencies is often informal, and driven by what library patrons need or are asking about. He described it as a matter of knowing where and/or when to refer patrons to places that can help them better than the library -- for instance, he said, he is not a business reference expert, so if someone has a more complex question he may send them to the Boston Public Library's business librarians.

But there was definitely a sense that these referrals could be used for the benefit of the library, too. My interviewee noted that when you speak well of others (e.g. "You should try these folks, they are really helpful and great people") and they hear of the praise, they tend to think well of you in return. He also said that he engaged in some informal networking, just getting in touch with people at various organizations occasionally to catch up and to tell them that they should let him know if he could help with anything. I tend to think of networking as a very formal, structured thing. But it's clear how a friendly offer to help if anything is needed, and referrals coming from the library to an outside organization, could build a perception of the library as useful, helpful, and open to connecting with other groups. In fact, building connections in this way might help to make the library seem more sincere in its desire to help and more actually useful than press releases or meetings or whatever else libraries do to try to connect with outside organizations (clearly I am still fuzzy on this, but that's why I asked about how it works to begin with!).

A couple of other interesting ideas from this conversation:

One thing that came up a few times, and that I hadn't thought about in this way before, is the ways in which libraries can discourage unwanted behavior by small changes in the space and the atmosphere. I think that for many people, the impulse in dealing with bad behavior is to create policies to say that patrons can't do certain things and procedures to sanction them if they violate policy. These kinds of policies and procedures are definitely necessary, but some comments that my interviewee made suggested a supplementary approach -- why not change the affordances of the environment to make it harder to engage in undesirable behavior to begin with? For instance, when one library (I cannot remember if this was the Cambridge library or a different one) had problems with inebriated patrons passing out in the large, comfortable armchairs, his solution was to remove those chairs and replace them with hardbacked ones that were not so easy to fall asleep in. He also saw staff as very important in creating an atmosphere in the library. Even staff who are not physically large can have assertive body language that garners respect for the librarians, the physical facility, and the institution, in that way encouraging patrons to behave well.

This was a way of thinking about shaping patron behavior that I hadn't deeply considered before. I generally prefer the carrot to the stick, but it's often hard to think of ways to encourage people to behave well vs. discouraging them from behaving poorly. Now I've started to think about how creating an appropriate physical space and an atmosphere marked by welcoming yet assertive librarians could stem many problems before they start.

Our conversation covered much, much more than this, but in the interests of keeping this post to a semi-reasonable length and of not spending all evening writing, I will stop there.

Except... the building. I have to talk about the building. It is very, very new, and it is beautiful. Unfortunately I didn't have time to see it all, since I had to run off to my next interview -- but I got a mini-tour of the first floor, and that was enough to get a sense of what the library as a whole is like. The new expansion is huge and airy -- lots of glass, high ceilings, overall a very open feeling. The furniture is pale in color, which adds to the sense of lightness and openness. In contrast, the renovated older section is all wood-paneled and dark. I really feel that it has recaptured the rich, sedate beauty that it probably had when it was first built. I wanted to go sit in the reading room and just soak in the atmosphere. And though the two sections are nearly polar opposites, somehow the transition between the two doesn't feel strange. It is just moving from one beauty to another. I only hope I get to work in a library so gorgeous one day. I want very badly to get back sometime to have a more thorough look around. And if anyone reading this is ever in Cambridge, I encourage you to go visit the library!


One thing that we talked about a fair amount during my Newton interview was the importance of technology skills. My interviewee encouraged me to try to get on the cutting edge of technology. In addition to understanding technology, it's important to be able to discuss it on many different levels: she noted that librarians deal with patrons who have a wide range of technology skills, from people who can't use a mouse on up to people who probably know much more than the librarian. (This is something that I have definitely observed in my time on the reference desk; I'm still practicing how to quickly get an idea of the patron's skill level and how to tailor my own instruction to their skills.)

Technology skills involve much more than Microsoft Office and Internet browsing or even Web 2.0 skills: my interviewee said that libraries are moving towards information provision via methods that are online but not the Internet, such as databases and ebooks. It's going to be important for librarians to have proficiency with these technologies, which I think should include knowledge of how to evaluate them (since they are often purchased resources) as well as knowledge of how to use them effectively.

One thing I really wanted to ask about in this interview was a community information database, sponsored by the regional consortium, that I'd found linked from Newton's website. It looks great -- it's a searchable resource of various organizations and groups in the consortium's member communities. However, I learned that the database isn't used much, at least not at Newton. (I would say that this is probably true more broadly as well: I haven't found another link to the database on other consortium library websites I've visited, and I spent an entire summer at the Brookline library -- which is also part of the consortium -- without learning about this resource.) One of the major issues that my interviewee mentioned is that it is very time consuming to make entries -- up to an hour per organization. Also, she said that while this kind of resource was very useful before the Internet became widespread, now Google is a fairly good substitute. I was a little sad to hear that something I'd gotten so excited about actually wasn't terribly useful, but in light of my interviewee's comments, it made sense. With limited staff time, and the value of having that information collocated in that way diminishing due to the existence of powerful Internet search engines, I can see how it is worth spending perhaps a small amount more time and effort finding information via search engine in order to save the large amount of time and effort that it would take to enter the information into the database in a usable way. This got me thinking about how we have to connect our big ideas to the reality of our situation as early in the planning stages as possible. I thought the database sounded like a wonderful idea, but in light of resource constraints (in this case, largely staff time), the value it provides is not sufficiently great to justify what it would take to maintain it. Furthermore, this kind of balance can change over time. In the past, the database was more valuable because it collocated information that could be difficult to find. Before most organizations had webpages and before good search engines existed, the database was probably sufficiently useful to justify the resources spent on its upkeep. Now, however, the kind of information it contains is fairly easily available for someone with a little bit of knowledge, so it may not be worth the time and effort to keep it up to date. To me this suggests the importance of continued evaluation of the services we already provide, to see if they are still worth the effort invested.

(I have further thoughts related to this, but they are no longer specific to the conversation on which I am currently reflecting, so I will save them for another post.)

But I've gone on a bit of a tangent. Returning to what we actually spoke about in the interview, one other thing that came up almost as an aside was the importance of trying to just get people into the library and break down barriers as much as possible. This idea arose in connection to some brief discussion we had about a teen fine forgiveness program at another library. Fine forgiveness can be a pretty radical step -- but if it gets someone to return to the library who otherwise might never have come back (and if it isn't given over and over to the same person or people!) then I think that it ultimately will create net benefit for the library. A patron who is given a second chance has the potential to become a library supporter instead of someone who feels indifferent or antagonistic. And a strong group of supporters is very important to ensuring that libraries have the funding they need. A library may gain more from a formerly delinquent patron who becomes a supporter than it would have by forcing that person to pay old fines. (Of course, this can be a politically touchy issue -- fines are revenue. We noted that it can take some courage and willingness to stand up for what one thinks is right to try to get superiors to agree to such a program.)

After concluding the interview, I had the chance to explore the building. The Newton library is very classy -- sharp lines, black furniture, white walls, red/rust carpet. The building was built in the 1990s, and it seemed well kept up, and very comfortable. It has a central atrium which extends up three floors, and given the propensity of such architectural features to cause echoes, I was surprised at how quiet the library was. There are plenty of windows affording pleasant views of the surroundings, and comfortable armchairs are placed in groups of two to four throughout the building. I felt it would be a lovely place to come and curl up in a comfortable chair to read or knit for a while. There were also tables and hardback chairs, of course, as well as study carrels -- something I haven't seen in great quantity in many public libraries. The building has an art gallery, which is a nice touch. In terms of physical layout, I was a bit surprised to find A/V on the third (top) floor. I would expect this to be a popular, well-circulating collection, and thus to be placed closer to the library entrance. However, when considering the physical space I'm not sure how easily it be put elsewhere in the building. The library doesn't have a teen room, but there is a YA area which is clearly marked with a colorful sign. I was pleased to see that an effort was being made to create a space especially for this population.

Overall Observations

Finally, here are some things that I noticed in both interviews.

I'll start with something that seems true in every public library I've become familiar with, not just these two: There is never quite enough staff. Everyone is busy, and as a result there isn't always time to get to extra things that might be fun or interesting but are not crucial. This issue particularly came up in relation to libraries' ability to do new things with technology; new technology has to be investigated, and if it is adopted then it becomes someone's responsibility to set it up and maintain it. Sometimes there isn't time to add this responsibility on top of all the others that librarians are juggling. I feel as though this issue is exacerbated due to the economy and the resulting budget issues nationwide, but it may always be a problem to some extent. There's always something more that could be done. It seems to me that there will always be a balancing act between old and new responsibilities when a library considers adding any new kind of service or programming.

Another commonality I discovered between the libraries was that at both, keeping track of user needs depends a good deal on informal practices, particularly the day-to-day interaction between users and staff. This is not to imply that other procedures don't exist. In some follow-up e-mails, my Newton interviewee described some of the more formal ways that the Newton library evaluates its programs and services, including questionnaires distributed to the public, a Teen Advisory Board, and paying attention to what's being said in literature in the library field. My program puts a fair amount of emphasis on more formal evaluation and research (we are required to take one class in research methods, and the importance of evaluation has come up many times); informal evaluative methods are not discussed as frequently. I think I'd like to know more about how different libraries integrate informal ways of evaluating into what must of necessity be a more formal decision-making structure in the administration. Ultimately, it seems that there would usually have to be a formalized way to collect and use these informal evaluations. I think that it would be useful to know how libraries do this -- whether there are a few typical methods or whether the ways in which this is done are more idiosyncratic.

Overall, these were great conversations with two interesting and engaged librarians, and I was grateful that both took the time to meet with me. I've got a lot to chew on as a result of these informational interviews, and I hope that I can take some of what I learned back to the classroom next semester to fuel discussions with my classmates!


* Just as a note, they have both read and approved the relevant portions of this post before I made it public. I have not used their names to protect some amount of their privacy.

Jan 5, 2010

I return!

Hello there. I hope you had wonderful holidays! I was home with my family for Christmas, then came back to Ann Arbor for New Year's with my boyfriend. It was a nice vacation!

Now I'm preparing for my last (wow!) semester to start tomorrow morning. I'm excited and stressed all at once. The need to find a job is definitely looming. I've started applications for a few positions that look good. It's a little nervewracking -- since this is my first "real" set of job applications, I'm realizing that there's a bunch of etiquette and strategy I don't know (thank goodness for great career counselors like the ones at my school!) -- but I feel that I'm a really strong candidate, and I hope that I'm able to get that message to come through effectively in my application materials. I'm also trying to network as much as I can, when I can squeeze the time for that into my day. I had a couple of great informational interviews back home over vacation (more on that is hopefully forthcoming), so I'm at least starting to get my name and face out there.

Other than job applications, I'm mostly just thinking about my classes. I'm planning on taking courses on:

  • Grantwriting and fundraising. This is my cognate (we're required to take at least one graduate-level course outside of the School of Information). It's a popular cognate for SI folks offered through the School of Social Work. It sounds like it will be a lot of work but also really informative and useful. We'll have to actually write a real grant and make a real fundraising plan; I've already got a couple of ideas in mind...
  • Library/nonprofit management. Another requirement I need to fill. I think that it will be useful. The first iteration of this course was last year; I shopped it and decided to take something else at the time. I think that this is a better time in my program for me to take it; I have a broader understanding now of how libraries work as organizations, and I think that that understanding will help me fit management concepts into context.
I'm also deciding between a course on graphic design and a course on information-seeking behavior. I will probably take the latter; the syllabus for the graphic design course makes me think that it's really going to be more about learning Adobe software than about the fundamental design concepts that I want to learn. But I'll shop it, at least. It's always worth giving something a chance.

And with that... it's 12:30 and I should get some sleep! Class and my internship await early tomorrow morning... (yay for getting back to the reference desk!)