Wednesday, September 28, 2005

This guy comes up to me

A colleague of mine says that what I should've written is a post about how libraries have to manage "free" access. He thinks that people don't think of librarians as freedom fighters because they think of us as bun-haired shushers, more interested in restricting information than letting it go free. Talk about how library rules ensure equal access to ideas for the whole society, he suggests, and you can talk about how librarians guarantee freedom of expression over the long haul.

An interesting idea, and really, the kind of think I'm hoping you'll discuss with your local Friends of the Library or Library Board. And a pretty good post for National Library Week.

And then he told me how "books don't really get banned anymore."

Tell Gordon Lee, on trial in Georgia for letting a minor get a comic book with a non-sexual picture of a nude Pablo Picasso in it.

Tell the U.S. Customs Service, which trampled the basic rights to political speech in an attempt to protect corporate property.

Tell Rep. Gerald Allen of Alabama, who wants it to be illegal for state funds to support "positive depictions of homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle."

Tell the F.B.I., which apparently has run out of violent criminals to catch and has usurped the authority to define obscenity, which Miller v. California relegated to the states.

It's nice to sit in my ivory tower, where we talk strategy and most of the battles are won anyway, and if they weren't, I could quit and go work somewhere else. But the First Amendment I believe in is not yet a given. It's still a work in progress. It's not consistently protecting the folks out on the front lines of the bookstores and publishers and public libraries yet.

Outside, it's America.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Freedom tastes of reality

This was supposed to be my annual post on Banned Books Week. I was going to say all kinds of things about how I'm almost a First Amendment absolutist and exhort you to go read books that scare people and talk to your local librarians about it.

Then the power went out at work pretty much all day today. (Again. I will not comment on our service level from the local electric utility, but this shirt sums it up pretty well.) When the lights go out, we clear the building. So there's a level on which our whole collection was "banned" for most of the day by this power outage.

That level says a lot about librarianship as a "profession." A profession is supposed to have a shared, encoded value system. It's not just a task you do, it's the things you believe and the way those things make you see the world. (And, of course, sometimes those things should be stated as simply as possible.)

For some of us, that makes everything about intellectual freedom. Whether the library is open or closed determines whether the ideas in it are available or not. We try to design circulation policies to help people do the work they need to do without monopolizing a scarce resource. We try to catalog to make ideas accessible and we try to answer reference questions in a way that allows users to find their own answers. We do this because we believe that it's what makes science and art and learning and democracy work.

Of course, sometimes the balancing act is tricky, particularly when you consider that I'm not the most radical librarian out there. Not hardly. I've heard catalogers argue that their added level of access justified a 2 year backlog of material. (Not at my current job, thank God.) Back in the mid-'90s, we gave ourselves quite the black eye by arguing the hard line on censorship. I still believe that the Internet should be a completely free speech zone, and that most libraries should include some sexually explicit material. That said, I also don't think that everything is appropriate for the Children's Room, and arguing as if it were made us look as bad as Dr. Laura and her friends looked to us.

It's easy to say you're against "banning books." It gets tricky when we talk about this book in this place for these people. It gets sticky when we talk about loan periods and fines and reserves and reference and archives. It gets all messed up when we talk about hours and space and services and budgets.

But this is our quest.

If we want free libraries and bookstores, we need to get people talking about what that means. We need to listen to all segments of our communities, on both the concrete and the abstract.

That's why I keep bringing it up. My readers are smart, passionate, involved people. You are who we need to talk to. You are the backers we need, and the constituents we need to hear from.

Speak up.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Check my look in the mirror

Courtesy of TRP and Hugh, because this blog gets too serious.

What do these photos have in common?

You'll know who he is somedayThere goes my heroBut I aaaaaam Napoleon!

My name is...Fascinating.

Oh, and by the way? Thanks, everybody. You're important to me and I appreciate it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

If you told me you were drowning

You may well have already heard about the authorities in Gretna, Louisiana, who blockaded pedestrian evacuees out of New Orleans. If you've seen the first reports from the tourists who were turned back, you might want to hear NPR's reporting on the incident as well.

It's a good piece of journalism because I think they do allow the police to present their side of the story. You get a glimpse into what goes through someone's mind as they hear about looting and murder barely miles away, and they realize that they don't have the necessary resources to ease those people's needs either.

It's important to hear both sides, because it's so easy to judge this from afar. It's easy to lump this in with all the other Racist Southern Cops stories. If, like me, you think most things boil down to money, it's pretty easy to define this as Haves versus Have-Nots. But it's scary to put on those other shoes and take the viewpoint of someone whose primary duty is to serve and protect his local community.

And let me make something perfectly clear. That's no excuse. It doesn't make it better.

It makes it worse.

It speaks to the banality of evil. It speaks to how easily we can let fear and a narrow viewpoint lead us to a horribly wrong action. It is a concrete example that you didn't have to be in the floodwaters to choose only to look out for your own gang. Gretna was wrong, entirely wrong to do those things. But if we wish to sit in judgement of their failure to see beyond their own boundaries, we owe it to ourselves to listen to Gretna's words.

A piece of advice I should've considered before I chose this title. Perhaps I should've turned my radio up 16 years.

I'm not a coward, I've just never been tested.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Get your back into it

About a week ago, The State Library of Louisiana put out a call for assistance to the library community. Library use is through the roof, as displaced people look for a place to file for assistance, to look for jobs and homes, and to search for and contact their loved ones. There just aren't enough computer seats for them all, and they were looking for help.

One of my bosses saw this call, and got the ball rolling. We've just gotten through our big summer phase of equipment replacement, which means that, at the moment, we're flush with older computers with some life left in them, in search of a home.

This morning, we wiped, reloaded, tested, and prepped 40-some machines to head down south, complete with monitors. Planning and prep was a little more complex than initially estimated, and the actual work significantly more simple. (Which, I suppose, suggests we got the plans right eventually.)

It felt incredibly good to actually do something, especially something which involved roughly equal amounts of muscle and brains on my part. We usually donate our old equipment to charity, but I'm not usually part of the process. It's nice to get back the feeling of being active in this situation. It's not pumping the water or rehanging the electrical lines, but it's a small, tangible kindness which will help some person's life get a little more normal.

And my boss and my employer deserve a lot of credit for creating this opportunity for me.

Here endeth the lesson.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

We can't rewind; we've gone too far

We made a lovely trip to Barnes and Noble yesterday, because it's not like the house is full of books we haven't read yet or anything.1 At the checkout line, we found the tiny impulse-buy music display. This was not too hard to pass up, being filled with things like That's What These Damn Kids Today Call Music Volume 6,702.

But I took a little closer look, and found Herbie Hancock's new release, Possibilities. By all rights, this should be a hell of an album, featuring guests like Annie Lennox, Sting, Joss Stone, Raul Midon, and Angelique Kidjo. It was tough to pass it up, but I did. And I can sum up why in one sentence:

iTunes has spoiled me.

I don't just mean that I've sipped the Cupertino Koolaid, although that's dangerously close to true. I mean that my preferences as a music consumer have changed because of digital music storage, playback, and purchasing.

For starters, I have definitely become a "try before you buy" person. In a related incident, I buy singles now. Time was, I would buy an album for the big single, or just because I like the artist. I can't see myself doing that anymore. I want to hear at least that 30-second snippet of every song before I decide to buy the album. (And I really appreciate it when a brick-and-mortar store has a listening station.) If I'm not sold, I want the freedom to decide which individual songs I buy.

Then there's the physical storage issue. I don't really need to buy more physical CDs. Most of the time, CD booklets are mediocre at best - the art doesn't particularly interest me, I get lyrics much less often than I like, and it's a miracle to actually see liner notes. Let's face it: I'm going to take that CD and put it in my computer anyway, so honestly, if it's my money going down, I'm better off to start digital.

(Sidebar: digital music services should figure out how to do gifts better. I can't give you a particular album from iTunes; the best I can do is give you a gift certificate and instructions. I ought to be able to send someone a particular album, or better still, a mix. Have that ready by Christmas, will you?)

And finally, there's the price issue. If I don't really want the atoms, I shouldn't have to pay for shipping and storing them. Even though iTunes is not $9.99 all the time anymore, I think they're still usually cheaper than buying the physical CD. It's kind of funny: in the early '90s, I believed pretty strongly that a CD shouldn't cost much more than $10, and 10 years later, I can defend that idea again.

Audiophiles will tell me I'm wrong, that AAC is a lossy compression format and I'm not getting the full sound that I would on a CD. I know that they're mathematically right. I also know that I don't own any equipment, including my ears, that can tell the difference. In fact, my lossy music files sound damn good (to me) when I plug in my iMic and listen to them on the stereo instead of the tinny laptop speakers.

Sadly, Possibilities is not on iTunes (yet). There are samples on Hancock's web site, and it sounds like something I want more of. The bookstore (I live in a town where you can say "the" bookstore) is getting out of the commercial CD business, so I'm unlikely to be tempted until the next time we go to The Big City, or Herbie gets the disc on iTunes. We'll see which happens first.

1 And what did I buy, you ask? Learning Unix for OS X Tiger. It's a real page turner. They're setting Steve Jobs up as the main suspect, but I think Linus Torvalds did it...


P.S.: Yes, I'm a child of the 80s who's humming "Rockit". And I bet some of you are too.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Take a sad song and make it better

Our Catholic community sings a beautiful gospel-style Alleluia. Most weeks, we only have a standup piano for accompaniment, and the effect is near perfect. Even the most funk-impaired central Ohioan can get into the swing of this one.

It hit me square in the chest yesterday. I knew I was going to Mass to pray for the Delta; it had slipped my mind that for a moment, it would sound like a small Southern church and I'd remember Kermit Ruffins predicting the biggest jazz funeral of all time.

So I threw my head back and let 'er rip.


I had a tough day on Friday for a lot of reasons. At the end of the day, one of my bosses walked into my office. He wanted to tell me that he'd just been to a meeting where the College talked about what it can do for disaster relief. Our students are raising money, both for relief in the Delta and for members of the student body who have been directly affected. Meanwhile, we're trying to convince them that New Orleans is not ready for volunteers to show up yet, but to start planning for December or Spring Break. We'll be taking in at least one student from a New Orleans university. We're investigating whether our faculty and staff have specialties which might be helpful down there, or whether we might be able to offer a temporary position to a displaced educator.

Then we talked about the disaster more generally - the logistical issues, what criticisms are fair and what aren't. What's coming that we'll hear later regarding damage to records and electronics. And we laughed at the picture of me on top of a levee with a pickaxe, saying "ahhhhhh, looks like this one could come out...." like the Three Stooges on top of the Berlin Wall.

It occurred to me later that night to check the stats on this blog. It looks like we stopped talking and then he read my last post. But it would have been entirely in his character for him to see it, and then come up to tell me something hopeful. He's subtle like that sometimes.

I'm very lucky where I work. I have terrific bosses, smart, genuinely good people. They do tend to get credit for their smarts and skills and hard work. But I don't say publicly often enough that they're just good people, and I appreciate having them in my life. So here, in front of the whole Internet: thanks. You're a good man.


Happy wedding day, Joe and Trenise Kirsch.

Friday, September 02, 2005

We will not be beaten down like grain

I got up yesterday morning, and for the first time in my life, I was the primary breadwinner for my household. It's a weird feeling. Kinda scary.

And like everyone, I have a job where little things can set me off. $20 cables. $40 books. Users who don't read instructions or error messages literally. Not enough hours in the day, things that should've been done yesterday.

Life is good.

My house isn't under Lake Ponchartrain. My workplace is open this morning and is rather expecting me to be there. I know where my family is.

I'm not in any of the places around the world which we forget or never hear about.

And I really am blessed, in lots of ways, but if only for what I'm spared, life is good.

I saw a magnificent HBO movie this summer called The Girl In The Cafe. It's coming out on video next week, and I hope you'll see it. Bill Nighy plays a government economist exhausted from fighting the good fight against global poverty. Kelly Macdonald plays the young woman who doesn't understand how it's possible to turn a blind eye. It's an exquisite, pure, untraditional love story, and an incredible indictment of the fact that we all, from time to time, turn parts of ourselves off just to cope.

But we are scabbed, not scarred. We need our shields, and then we need to slough them off. We need that good, soft, hurtable part to temper and direct our amazing power.

I suppose there are a couple of reasons I'm taking this so hard. I've always been fascinated by the power of moving water. As a kid, I was down with the other snipes in the gutter, building little dams and then knocking them down and watching the water race. I love whitewater rafting and Pooh sticks and going to the beach.

And since 1988 I've been ready to move to New Orleans. It's the greatest city in America. It's always struck me as mythic, romantic, funky, complex, magical. She's given me crystal clear snapshot memories of perfect moments. If America's brain works on the East Coast and its heart pumps from Chicago, all those good scary gut feelings and raging emotions come from the Delta. And I fully intend to either attend the 2006 American Library Association conference in New Orleans, and spend a lot of my money (and my employer's) to help the economy, or skip the conference entirely if it's moved.

So make a donation. There's plenty of good opportunities. Better still, organize an event. It takes less than you think... I'm kind of inspired by Wil Wheaton's charity poker tournaments at PokerStars. We could do a local tourney among my card friends. Herself tells me she's heard of Mardi Gras in September parties for charity. As for me, I'm ready to find out if they're ready for volunteers down there yet. And if not now, maybe later, when Habitat is ready to rebuild.

But don't forget Mississippi and Alabama and Africa and the poor people in your own community. Consider an unrestricted gift. Consider how you can live a just life. Don't just cope. Do what you can to persevere. And find the people you care about and hug them hard because you can.

There is so much need. There are so many people who don't have these little things we take for granted... roofs and walls and sanitation and vaccines. It hurts me so badly to even consider it.

I must be fine, cause my heart's still beating.

Life is good.