The Importance of School Libraries and School Librarians

Did your elementary, middle, and high school have a library? I attended four different schools in two states between kindergarten and twelfth grade, and each of the four had a library; each of the libraries had a librarian and books. (I wish I didn’t have to spell that out, but bear with me.) Innocently, I took the presence of these libraries for granted, and assumed all schools had them, but this is not the case. Just as “extras” like music and art programs have been cut in public schools, so have libraries.

I read two articles last month (via the essential Library Link of the Day) about school systems that lack libraries and/or librarians and/or an adequate number of books that students are able to check out. The first article, “Unequal Shelves in D.C. School Libraries Benefit Wealthier Students” (Washington Post, March 9, 2015), says that despite literacy being a high priority, the District dedicates no annual funding for school library collections. Later, the article links to a report that conclusively shows the positive impact school libraries have on students’ literacy: “A school library media program that provides up-to-date, accurate, and attractive resources, managed by a certified school library media specialist who collaborates with teachers to augment and enhance classroom instruction, results in increased test scores, particularly in reading….The most important elements of school library media programs have been the quality of staffing and the quality of collections.”

Many Pennsylvania schools are without libraries and/or librarians as well, according to the article “School Cuts Have Decimated Librarians” (Philly.com, February 2, 2015), and in that state too, there is unequal access. University teacher and researcher Debra Kachel said, “The wealthy schools have great programs, librarians teaching kids, coaching them, developing a habit of reading with those kids. Librarians are teaching critical thinking skills, how to search the Internet, how to be safe on the Internet. If you invest in a school librarian, you invest in improving student learning.” Yet many other schools don’t have librarians and lack access to library resources, despite the fact that studies have shown that students who have access to a school library and librarian – “particularly students who live in poverty and students of color” – achieve more. Despite the evidence of their value, a school librarian commented, “Somehow, we struggle to get recognized as relevant to schools.”

This is one of those bang-your-head-against-a-wall* situations, where all the research points to one clear course of action, but rather than take that course of action, unproven alternatives are substituted instead. In this case, decision-makers will point to budget issues, but that seems short-sighted to me. You want to raise reading scores, literacy rates, and maybe even a generation of people who love reading? Fund libraries and librarians in schools.

*”If you really want to get to know someone, don’t see what they like, rather find out what really pisses them off.”

For more information, here are a few resources:

Did you miss the moment?

“Did you miss the moment? And, would it kill you to miss it for good? I think it would.”

This is, according to my memory, the beginning of a prose poem inside the liner notes of a CD by a band called Chamberlain that I discovered when I was fifteen or sixteen. The song lyrics were printed in the booklet too, in the obligatory tiny font, but this wasn’t a song, and yet it’s lodged in my head all the same.

The teen years are an incredible time to encounter new things, a time when you feel things intensely (“more feelingly feel,” as Rilke would have it), absorb them, adopt them as your own. You are, to some extent, a product of your time, but you also pick and choose from what’s on offer to construct your identity: do you listen to the Top 40 or do you scavenge punk rock records made before you were born? Do you read Jane Austen or Stephen King (or both)?

But the real question is, as an adult, do you latch onto books and music in the same way? Do you feel, at twenty-six or thirty-six or forty-six, the way you did at sixteen? If you didn’t hear The Smiths as a teenager, are you likely to love them as passionately as someone who did, or does it just sound morose and kind of whiny? (For the record, I discovered The Smiths at the perfect time, thanks to Stephen Chbosky’s including the song “Asleep” on a mix tape in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which led directly to my purchase of Louder Than Bombs.)

Cover of A Wrinkle in TimeMore to the point for book lovers: If you didn’t read A Wrinkle in Time or Anne of Green Gables or The Perks of Being a Wallflower or The Golden Compass or Alanna at “the right time,” did you miss the moment?

I’m not sure. When I began dating my now-husband, we kept having these conversations where I would mention a book that I just assumed “everyone else” had read, and he would say he hadn’t read it, and my jaw would drop, and I would lend him a copy or, if I didn’t have it on hand, buy one at a used book store and give it to him to read. He was very good about reading them (see: now-husband), but it was hit or miss. A Wrinkle in Time simply isn’t and never will be part of the fabric of his mind in the same way that it is woven into who I am. The Golden Compass, on the other hand, he liked so much he read The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass without any prompting from me (and then he nicknamed our dog “the subtle knife” when she tried to nose between us on the couch).

Cover of Alanna: The First AdventureEvery reader misses some things that “everyone else” has read, and I am no exception. Recently, I read Alanna by Tamora Pierce, which had been recommended to me by a friend who couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it (sound familiar?). I read the other three books in the Song of the Lionness quartet as soon as possible. My adult mind cheered for feminism (a fantasy novel with birth control!), while my tween mind (though we didn’t have that word then) inhaled the characters, the story, the world-building and mythology, the romance.

I wish I’d read Alanna when I was twelve or thirteen, but I enjoyed it immensely as an adult too. It is rare for me now to lose myself in a book in the way I did routinely when I was younger, but it still happens – and it happens more often, I’ve noticed, in books with a fantasy, dystopian, science fiction, or magical element, books like The Night Circus or The Bone Clocks or Station Eleven. These books are worlds in which I’m immersed, rising out of them at the end only reluctantly and regretfully. But of course, I can always read them again.

In Gabrielle Zevin’s novel The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, the title character writes a note to his adopted daughter about “the necessity of encountering stories at precisely the right time in our lives.” He urges her to remember that “the things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the things we will respond to at forty and vice versa. This is true in books and also in life.” The perfect time to encounter a book may be when you’re thirteen, or it may be when you’re thirty; you may read it once when you’re thirteen and once when you’re thirty and discover different things the second time, or simply enjoy it all over again.

Though some books and some readers will never be a match – and that’s okay – it’s worth keeping an open mind and going back to books you may feel you’ve missed. Now might be the perfect moment.

Book Club Books

In the fall of 2008, when I was living in Brooklyn, I helped to start and run a book club. We met consistently (once a month, give or take) for about a year. According to my records (i.e. a post-it note), here’s what we read:

October 2008 – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
November 2008 – On Beauty by Zadie Smith
January 2009 – Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
February 2009 – The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts; Matrimony by Joshua Henkin
March 2009 – Watchmen by Alan Moore
April 2009 – You or Someone Like You by Chandler Burr
May 2009 – Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion
July 2009 – Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
August 2009 – All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
September 2009 – Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

11 books total: 8 novels, 1 essay collection, 1 nonfiction, 1 graphic novel

In the spring of 2010 I moved from Brooklyn to Massachusetts. It took me a little while, but I found a book club again that fall, and have managed to keep it together, more on than off, since then. According to my records (i.e. a piece of yellow legal paper and, more recently, a google spreadsheet), here’s what we’ve read so far:

November 2010 – The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
December 2010 – Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin
January 2011 – A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
February 2011 – Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
March 2011 – Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
May 2011 – Room by Emma Donoghue
June 2011 – Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
July 2011 – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
August 2011 – The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard
September 2011 – Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
February/March 2012 – Bossypants by Tina Fey; Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling; Seriously…I’m Kidding by Ellen DeGeneres
April/May 2012 – The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
August 2012 – The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
December 2012 – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
January 2013 – Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson
March 2013 – The Receptionist by Janet Groth
April/May 2013 – We Sinners by Hanna Pylvainen
June 2013 – Little Wolves by Thomas Maltman
August 2013 – Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters
September 2013 – Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer
October 2013 – Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
Nov 2013 – The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
January 2014 – Longbourn by Jo Baker
February 2014 – Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History by Andrew Scott Selby; The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft by Ulrich Boser
March 2014 – Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings by Craig Brown
April 2014 – Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
May/June 2014 – Orlando by Virginia Woolf
July 2014 – The Haunting of Hill House and/or We Have Always Lived in the Castle and/or “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
August/September 2014 – Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
October 2014 – Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
November 2014 – Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
December 2014 – Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
January 2015 – Wild Girls by Mary Stewart Atwell
February/March 2015 – Breasts by Florence Williams
April 2015 – The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

37 books total: 28 novels, 10 nonfiction (including memoir), 1 short story, 2 repeat authors (Virginia Woolf and David Mitchell)

After this many years of book club experience – plus over a year of co-leading a book group in the library – I stand by my “What Makes a Good Book Club Book?” post from 2012. A book should have a little conflict or a central dilemma, be thought-provoking or eye-opening, prompt readers to consider the past, present, or future in a different light. Page count and availability are also important practical considerations.

Are you in a book club? What have been your favorite and least favorite books to discuss? Do you have tips for moderators or facilitators? Do you start with a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down? How do you choose what to read next? Leave a comment!

Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free by Cory Doctorow

cover image of Information Doesn't Want to Be FreeCory Doctorow is one of the most articulate and outspoken advocates for online privacy and sensible copyright laws; he is staunchly opposed to Digital Rights Management (DRM). As “Doctorow’s First Law” states, Any time someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you and won’t give you the key, that lock isn’t there for your benefit. His newest book, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age, is organized into three sections, one for each of his laws.

Doctorow’s First Law has been illustrated neatly by two excellent webcomics: “Steal This Comic” (xkcd, a.k.a. Randall Munroe) and “I tried to watch Game of Thrones and this is what happened” (The Oatmeal, a.k.a. Matthew Inman). Both comics make the point that buying digital content through official online platforms (a) can be difficult-to-impossible, and (b) means you can’t take it with you, whereas illegally downloaded content can be used on any device or platform.

Plenty of consumers want to pay creators for their work, but also want control over that content once they’ve bought it. (As Amanda Palmer writes in her foreword to the book, “People actually like supporting the artists whose work they like. It makes them feel happy. You don’t have to force them. And if you force them, they don’t feel as good.”) Digital locks – DRM – tie up our digital purchases in ways that make them complicated to use and sometimes make them outright obsolete. This is frustrating for law-abiding people who just want to be able to bring an audiobook from computer to car to digital media player of choice, or who want to read an e-book on any device they happen to have, no matter what operating system it’s running. There’s no reason an e-book file from Amazon should be incompatible with a Kobo device, except of course that Amazon – not the author, not the publishers (anymore) – wants it that way.

Doctorow’s Second Law applies more to creators than consumers: Fame won’t make you rich, but you can’t get paid without it. He’s not talking Lady Gaga levels of fame; simply, if you’re an artist, no one can buy your work if they don’t know it exists. The Internet can work to connect content creators with a potential audience. However, Cory writes, “The fewer channels there are, the worse the deal for creators will be. Any choke point between the creator and the audience will turn into a tollbooth, where someone will charge whatever the market will bear for the privilege of facilitating the buying and selling of creative work.” The publisher Hachette realized this belatedly with Amazon last year; by requiring DRM on all the e-books they sold, publishers handed over control to the retailers, who aren’t about to give it up. Authors – the creators – were caught in the middle.

I marked more pages in the third section of the book than in the previous two combined. Doctorow’s Third Law states, Information doesn’t want to be free, people do. As a creator himself, Cory isn’t against copyright, but he points out the difference between industrial regulation and regulation on an individual level: “Copyright is alive and well – as an industrial regulation. Copyright as a means of regulating cultural activities among private individuals isn’t dead, because it’s never been alive.

The entertainment industry – particularly Hollywood movie studios and record companies – want to be able to regulate copies on the individual level, at the expense of personal privacy. However, their arguments that piracy is destroying the industry have been neatly shot down by none other than the GAO, who said that it would be “difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the net effect of counterfeiting and piracy on the economy as a whole.” YouTube is a particular thorn in the entertainment industry’s side, even though, mathematically, only a tiny fraction of content on YouTube is potentially copyright-infringing. (To calculate this, Cory multiplied every entry in IMDB by 90 minutes per program (low for movies, high for episodes of TV shows), which comes to only about 28 days’ worth of YouTube uploads.)

When movie studios and record companies attempt to place artificial restrictions on individuals by adding DRM and other kinds of digital locks on their media and media players, they are attempting (unsuccessfully) to protect their content, but “You can’t ‘protect’ devices from their owners unless you can update them without their owners’ knowledge or consent.” This is a dangerous area. As Cory writes, “when technology changes, it’s usually the case that copyright has to change, too.…[but] the purpose of copyright shouldn’t be to ensure that whoever got lucky with last year’s business model gets to stay on top forever.”

Cory argues that we need a new system of copyright, one that “that enables the largest diversity of creators making the largest diversity of works to please the largest diversity of audiences.” The Internet allows the kind of direct connection between creators and audience that hasn’t been possible before, and copyright must adapt so that it continues to protect content, not middlemen.

Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free is familiar ground for longtime Doctorow readers and those who follow the “copyfight” in general, but it’s also a good introduction for those who haven’t thought much about the issue.

See also: “4 Ways Copyright Law Actually Controls Your Whole Digital Life” by Kate Cox at Consumerist (January 22, 2015)

Lynne Truss at the library

Late last year, I saw that Lynne Truss (author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves; cue grammatically justified string of exclamation points) was publishing a novel this spring. I requested the e-galley, and received not only the galley itself, but a note from an acquaintance asking if I’d be willing to write a blurb for it. (Claire and I met in 2007 at the Columbia Publishing Course; after a stint at Knopf, she’d landed at the excellent Melville House, whereas I had left publishing after a few years and gone into libraries instead.)

I wrote the blurb, and then I asked if, by any chance, Lynne would be doing a U.S. book tour, and if so, would she like to come speak at the library where I work? Indeed, as it happened, Lynne would be coming to the States, and incredibly, she did make a special trip to the library. And I have to say, Lynne is one of the loveliest authors I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, as well as one of the funniest. Below is a little summary of the event.

Cross-posted at the Robbins Library blog.

Lynne Truss read to an audience of more than twenty people at the Robbins Library this past Monday night, inspiring much laughter and a few book purchases. Lynne read from her new novel, Cat Out of Hell, and she read from two sections near the beginning, “So you don’t have to know quite so much.”

Cat Out of Hell 300dpi (2)Lynne told us that the novel was commissioned by Hammer, a publisher of horror in the U.K. “I only wrote it because someone wanted it….Anything I’m asked to [write], I’m more likely to [write]….I like to write for a person.” She had never written in the horror genre before, but knew right away she wanted to write a comic gothic novel exploring the origin of the common phrase “cats have nine lives.” (Originally, her idea was for a story called Nine Lives, about a cat who had killed nine people. That’s not quite what happens in Cat Out of Hell.)

She knew from the beginning she wanted to use a pastiche structure, as she has long been a fan of “the phony documentary element of gothic novels,” which are often represented as a collection of letters and other documents (or, in the case of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, typewritten – a new technology at the time).

One concerned potential reader asked Lynne, “Does the cat die?” to which Lynne replied, “You’ll be much more worried about the dog.” (The dog is called Watson, so that his owners, Alec and Mary, can use Lynne’s favorite Sherlock Holmes line: “Come at once, if convenient. If not convenient, come all the same.”)

Lynne's American publisher, Melville House, made a video for the book's release. What do the cats think of all this?

Lynne’s American publisher, Melville House, made a video for the book’s release. What do the cats think of all this?

As for humor – Cat Out of Hell is quite funny – one audience member asked if Lynne laughed at her own jokes as she is writing. “Yes!” But humor is “high-risk: if people don’t find it funny then you’ve failed completely. And humor is very subjective.”

Structure aside, Lynne didn’t have the content of the story plotted out before she began writing. “If I don’t know where it’s going, the reader can’t possibly be ahead of me!” I’ve read a fair few mysteries in my time, and I’d agree with the author here – it would be rather difficult to guess where the story is going. You’ll just have to read it for yourself!

Other Lynne Truss books:

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: the zero-tolerance approach to punctuation

Talk to the Hand: the utter bloody rudeness of the world today, or, six good reasons to stay home and bolt the door

Making the Cat Laugh: one woman’s journal of life on the margins

The Lynne Truss Treasury: columns and three gothic novels

The passing of Terry Pratchett

Yesterday, the prolific and beloved fantasy author Terry Pratchett passed away. I found out late in the afternoon, and scrambled to put up a display of his bio and books before I left the library. Despite the fact that I’ve never read a whole Terry Pratchett book, I felt the loss, in that distant but no less real way one feels the loss of people one knows of but doesn’t know.

Except, with authors, we do know them: we know the output of their minds, their imaginations, their thoughts and ideas and convictions and feelings. Pratchett wrote some 40 Discworld books, as well as about 30 others, for adults and for teens. Readers will be discovering and re-visiting Pratchett’s writing for years to come, and even though he will not be writing any more, there is still a significant wealth of material to read and re-read. The existence of Pratchett’s books may or may not console his family and friends in their grief, but for readers, he still exists in thousands upon thousands of pages.

I am trying to think of writers that I have loved who have passed away, but, fortunately for me, many of them are still alive and writing (or were dead long before I came to their books). I remember hearing that Barbara Robinson (author of The Best School Year Ever) passed away in 2013, and of course there was Maya Angelou last spring. Musicians come to mind more readily: George Harrison in 2001, DeeDee Ramone in 2002 (I remember this only because I was supposed to see him in concert two days later), Levon Helm in 2012.

But like authors, musicians leave a legacy behind. The mind and talent that created a book or an album may be gone, but the words and the music remain.

goodomensSo although, when a friend lent me a copy of a Discworld novel* during my second year of college, I didn’t get into it, I’m going to try again: perhaps with Good Omens, perhaps with Dodger. If you have a favorite Terry Pratchett book to recommend, let me know in the comments.

*The same friend lent me Neil Gaiman’s American Gods right around the same time, setting me on course to enjoy many more of Gaiman’s books since then: Neverwhere; Stardust; Fragile Things; Coraline; The Graveyard Book; The Ocean at the End of the Lane; Fortunately, the Milk; Instructions, and, currently, Trigger Warnings.

3/14/15, edited to add these additional tributes:

What to Do When Authors Die,” Swiss Army Librarian (Brian Herzog)

On the Passing of Terry Pratchett,” Gavia Libraria, the Library Loon

Terry Pratchett,” xkcd (Randall Munroe)

4/13/15, edited to add: I have now read Good Omens and enjoyed its blend of fantasy and British humor immensely. Not sure what the next Terry Pratchett book will be but I’m open to suggestions.

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Cover image of Dead WakeOf the now three Larson books I’ve read, I believe this was my favorite. The two main narratives – that of the Lusitania’s passengers and crew, and that of U-20’s captain, Walther Schwieger – are more closely intertwined than the two parallel (but never intersecting) narratives of Devil in the White City. The story itself was more compelling and clear than that in In the Garden of Beasts (in that book, I remember being frustrated with the main characters’ inability or unwillingness to read the writing on the wall).

As in many disaster narratives, there are so many “what if” moments and missed opportunities, from seemingly small ones like a two-hour delay leaving New York on May 1, 1915 (which would have meant sailing through the dangerous area off the Irish coast in the fog, when the U-boat couldn’t have attacked the ship, instead of in clear weather), to truly staggering ones like the information that the Admiralty withheld from Captain Turner and the Cunard line, and the protection they denied the Lusitania.

The additional story threads – that of President Wilson’s ultimately successful wooing of Edith Galt and his reluctance to enter the war, and the existence and activity of the secret Room 40 in the UK (a sort of Bletchley-before-Bletchley) – were relevant additions, particularly the latter. The Lusitania disaster could have been avoided had the Admiralty acted on any one of several pieces of knowledge; the fact that they didn’t does seem, in hindsight at least, to implicate them as attempting to bring the U.S. into the war on the Allied side, even as they tried to keep the Germans from knowing they had obtained their code books.

Late in the book, there is a damning quote from naval historian Patrick Beesly: “On the basis of the considerable volume of information which is now available, I am reluctantly compelled to state that on balance, the most likely explanation is that there was indeed a plot, however imperfect, to endanger the Lusitania in order to involve the United States in the war.” If this was the British intention, it didn’t work, at least not right away; the U.S. didn’t join the war until 1917.

Well-researched as always, Dead Wake should please Larson fans, as well as Titanic and WWI buffs. My ARC didn’t include the map at the beginning that the final copy is meant to have, and some images would have added to the story, but it was still quite satisfying.

I received an Advance Reader’s Edition through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. I was not compensated for this review in any way, unless you count the free book.