Do not pass Go, hand over your two hundred dollars: Top Ten Auto-Buy Authors

Here’s a good Top Ten Tuesday from The Broke and the Bookish: “Top Ten of Your Auto-Buy Authors.” Like Linda, I don’t necessarily buy all these books, but I am very, very eager to get my hands on them somehow; we’ll call them my “auto-read” authors if not “auto-buy” (though in the case of most of these authors, I have at least one of their books on my home bookshelf. If not all their books. Or in at least one case, multiple copies of the same book).

Cover image of State of Wonder by Ann PatchettAnn Patchett: Hands down, Ann Patchett is the first author who comes to mind in this category. I’m still absurdly grateful to the friend at her publisher who got me an advance copy of State of Wonder in February (for my birthday!) when the book didn’t come out till June. I adore everything Ann Patchett writes – fiction, nonfiction, essays, blog posts.

Audrey Niffenegger: I’ve already told my husband that when the sequel to The Time Traveler’s Wife comes out (there was a sample – Alba, Continued – included in the e-book version of TTW), I will need a minimum of five days entirely alone with no distractions of any kind. “It’s not going to take you a week to read,” he observed (correctly), but I don’t plan to read it just once. Memorization takes time.

Cover image of Eleanor & Park by Rainbow RowellRainbow Rowell: I have adored all four of her books and am sad that Carry On is embargoed, as it comes out in October of this year and I may be somewhat busy then. (But not too busy to read, right?) Plus, Rebecca Lowman narrates the audiobook versions of Rowell’s books, and that is a match made in heaven.

David Mitchell: Mitchell’s October book, Slade House, was not embargoed, happily, and I was able to get an e-galley, which I inhaled on vacation last month. I love spending time in his universe. (And yet, still haven’t read Ghostwritten or Number9Dream.)

Maggie O’Farrell: Instructions for a Heatwave sent me scrambling for her backlist, which I quickly read my way through (save one). Cannot wait to read whatever she writes next. Such empathy for all her characters, such heartbreaking plot twists.

Cover image of The Scorpio Races by Maggie StiefvaterMaggie Stiefvater: What an astounding imagination she has. The Scorpio Races is still my favorite, but the Raven Cycle is amazing (still waiting for the fourth and final book!), and she even succeeded with werewolves in the Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy. I wasn’t as keen on Shiver but am excited to see where she’ll venture next.

Neil Gaiman: Again, I haven’t read everything he’s written, but I have loved all his most recent work (Trigger Warning, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, etc.). (Yes, in this case I’m the person who “discovered” your favorite band long after you knew it was cool.) What Gaiman does with magic and myth is deeply satisfying, original, dark, and timeless.

Cover image of The Likeness by Tana FrenchTana French: The Likeness is still my favorite, but the Dublin Murder Squad hasn’t dropped off in quality after five books; these mysteries are all deliciously creepy and psychologically dark, with exceptional character development. Plus the covers are gorgeous.

Chris Cleave: Just when I was beginning to wonder if/when he would publish a new novel, I see that Everyone Brave is Forgiven is due out in May 2016. I was going to say that I didn’t care what it was about, I was going to read it anyway, but the publisher’s description includes the words “WWII” and “London” and “1939,” so I’m even more hooked. And naturally there is a love triangle.

Cover image of To A Fault by Nick LairdNick Laird: I couldn’t possibly buy every book I read, or even every book I love, but I do find that it’s worth it to buy poetry, because (1) someone has to support the poets, and (2) I remember lines and sometimes stanzas but rarely entire poems, and poems are like songs: when parts of them get stuck in your head, the only thing to do is to read/listen to the whole thing. To A Fault, On Purpose, and Go Giants have a permanent place on my bedside bookshelf.

Four Americans and the rest English or Irish. Hmm.

I’m sure the moment I publish this I’ll think of at least five more “auto-read” authors, but I feel good about these ten. Also, impatient for their next books.

Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience Design to Your Library

Cover image of Useful, Usable, Desirable
Useful, Usable, Desirable by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches (2014)

Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience Design to Your Library by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches came to my attention at the end of last year, in a blog post by Sarah Houghton (a.k.a. the Librarian in Black). I’ve been interested in usability and UX for years, and I’d read articles by Aaron Schmidt before, so I added it to my to-read list and asked my department head (who orders the professional development books for our library) to get a copy. As Sarah writes, “I could probably work for the next year on bringing our library into alignment with the principles outlined in this book, and I can honestly say it would be a year well-spent.” It’s hard not to want to dive in right away!

In order to implement any changes, however, it’s important to get buy-in from all levels, from senior administration to front-line staff, and the authors acknowledge this. They give each “checkpoint” a “difficulty rating” to indicate the scale of each and how much time and skill are required to complete it; not all changes require months-long processes and committees (thank goodness).

But let’s start at the beginning: What is user experience (UX)? According to the authors, UX is “how someone feels when using a product or service,” and the title words of the book – Useful, Usable, Desirable – are “the trinity of good UX”; they are “the three essential elements required for a great user experience at your library.”

Schmidt and Etches cover every element of the user experience in the library, including the physical space (floors, walls, furniture, bathrooms), service points (e.g. the circulation and reference desks), library policies, customer service, signage, technology, programs and services, the collection, and of course the website and social media.

Throughout, the authors focus on user-centered design. For example, they note that libraries tend to be divided between circulation and reference “because those distinctions reflect different specializations in our profession. It’s really not a user-centered way to think about service points and service desks, and it certainly doesn’t reflect the way users approach service points in our buildings.” How do library members know which desk to approach? Usually, they don’t; even labeling the desks “circulation” and “reference” isn’t much help. Some libraries – the Carnegie Free Library in Pittsburgh, for instance – do a better job in this area: they still have multiple desks, but the signage is user-friendly and free of library jargon.

National Library Symbol: white person reading a book against a blue background
The National Library Symbol

Signage and customer service are closely related. Schmidt and Etches write, “Think of the signs in your library as a form of customer service and an expression of your library’s attitude toward its members. Are they as friendly and helpful as the people in your building?” (Assuming your library staff are friendly and helpful. Remember, “An interaction with a person can equally ruin a good experience or redeem a bad one.”) Good signs help library users answer the questions, “Where am I? What can I do here? Where can I go from here? How do I find where I want to go?” These are not just questions that new library members have; sometimes regular users need to accomplish a new task at the library. Do your signs help them find what they need?

Many of the UX principles in this book were already familiar to me, but one new tool I learned about was the content audit, meaning simply a list of all the content in an area. The authors suggest conducting a content audit on a few areas, including the website, the signage in the building, and all print promotion materials. Once you have a list of all the content, you are better able to assess what’s necessary, what’s unnecessary, and what needs to be updated. Once you’ve done one content audit, keeping that spreadsheet up to date will help you keep track of website content, signage, handouts, etc., thus creating a better user experience for library members.

I could go on (see additional notes here), but suffice to say this is a fantastic, clear, compact little book that would be a great addition to any library’s professional development collection. But don’t just stick it on the shelf: it can serve as a great guide for any library that wants to improve its members’ experience of the library. And that should be all of us.


Data collection on banned and challenged books

You know when you are talking with someone and suddenly you wonder, “Wait, how did we get on this subject?” I like to be able to trace back to the original subject, as a kind of memory exercise. When the “conversation” isn’t with a person but is just you clicking from link to link on the Internet, the trail is a little easier to follow, thanks to tabs and the browser’s back button. Here was my path this morning:

All of the above links are worth reading, so I’ll only offer a very brief summary, and a few thoughts. The author of the 538 article, David Goldenberg, expressed frustration that (a) the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) would not hand over the raw data they collect on book challenges, and that (b) the quality of the data presented on the ALA’s site was not particularly granular or detailed and may not be statistically valid. For instance, a “challenge” might be a request to move a book from the children’s collection to the teen or adult collection, or it may be a demand that all copies of a book be removed from an entire library system. There’s a big difference between those two challenges.

In his reply to the 538 piece, Andy Woodworth delves into some of the issues behind challenge reporting and data collection. He writes that students in library school don’t learn they have an obligation to report challenges, that there may be external pressures not to report challenges, and that librarians simply may not know to report challenges. If they do report a challenge, though, there are more problems with the ALA-OIF itself: the amount of information required in the online challenge form is minimal, and the OIF does not have the budget or staff to chase down details or outcomes from the challenges that are reported. (The challenge form is also available as a PDF that can be printed, filled out, and faxed to the OIF. It’s certainly possible to find an e-mail address for someone at the OIF, but shouldn’t this be included as an option on the form?)

While I was in library school, I learned about the ALA’s Sample Request for Reconsideration of Library Resources, a form that can be adapted by any library and kept on hand in case of challenges. At both of the public libraries where I’ve worked, we have had this form ready to hand (though in my experience, challenges are exceedingly rare, at least at the adult reference desk; this is borne out by the ALA data – and many media reports – that show more challenges happen in school libraries than in public ones).

Should someone come to the reference desk with a challenge, I would be prepared with the reconsideration form. But what the form lacks, I noticed after reading Andy’s piece, is anything about reporting the challenge to the OIF. (On Twitter, Andy said he wrote it into the reconsideration policy at his library that “we reserve discretion to report challenges to the OIF.”) I don’t think it would hurt for library patrons to be aware of that, and it would remind library staff to take the extra step to report challenges when they do occur.

The granularity of the reporting, as Andy, David, and Jessamyn all pointed out, still leaves something to be desired. Every September, I put together a Banned Books Week display in the library and write about banned/challenged books and the freedom to read on the library blog. Every year, I’m frustrated by the ALA website, which, despite a redesign within the past five years, does not adhere to many of the web conventions and usability guidelines outlined in Useful, Usable, Desirable by Aaron Schmidt and Amanda Etches (about which more soon). The information architecture is convoluted and fragmented – there’s information on the ALA main site and a separate Banned Books Week website – the presentation isn’t as clear and attractive as it could be, and despite the existence of both sites, neither usually has the quality of data I want to present to our library patrons.

Both of these problems – the information itself and the organization of information – are especially vexing because information and organization is what we do. Furthermore, intellectual freedom is a core value of the library profession; Article II of the ALA Code of Ethics is “We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.” We need to do better, and it shouldn’t be that hard. We need to:

  • Raise awareness among library staff that reporting challenges is important and that there are ways to do it confidentially.
  • Collect more detailed data when possible and present it in as granular a fashion as possible, noting if necessary that not all reported challenges include the same level of detail.

It’s not rocket science. What are we waiting for?

A new section of our home library

If you’ve been paying close attention to my LibraryThing account over the past year – I am assuming I am the only one who has – you might have noticed a new category of books making an appearance. And that category is: pregnancy and parenting! If you’re in the same boat, here are four books on the topic that I found to be accessible, informative, useful, and occasionally even funny.

Cover image of Birth by Tina Cassidy Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born by Tina Cassidy (2007): Recommended to me by a co-worker who emphatically does not plan on having children herself, Birth has the dubious honor of being the only book I have ever had to set aside while eating. There are some truly gruesome bits, but mostly it’s fascinating: birth went from being entirely in the female sphere, with relatives, friends, and midwives to assist in labor, to a medical event that most commonly occurs in a hospital with a doctor (a male doctor, until relatively recently). What is “normal” has changed dramatically over time, including the past several decades in this country. Bonus: I learned the word “nidget,” which means “to assemble helpers for a birth.”

Cover image of Bringing Up BebeBringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman (2014): I avoided this for a while because of the buzz, but I enjoyed the blend of memoir and research immensely. (I’m also more optimistic than I had been about possibly sleeping through the night inside of half a year.) The main difference between French and American parenting styles, it seems, is that the French don’t cater to their children’s every desire: French children learn how to wait and how to deal with the word no. On the other hand, French parents are less micro-manage-y: they believe in a framework of firm boundaries, but within that framework the kids have a lot of freedom. French society, it should be noted, supports working parents by having national daycare and preschool systems. For all the U.S.’s feminist rhetoric, there are few structures in place to help working parents.

Cover image of Having Faith Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood by Sandra Steingraber (2001): Perhaps you would like to be too terrified to breathe air or drink water? This is the book for you! Governments’ failure to operate according to the Precautionary Principle – chemicals are assumed to be unsafe unless proven otherwise, instead of vice versa – has led to serious contamination of air, water, and food. The higher one is in the food chain, the more toxins accumulate in one’s body. And what’s at the very top of the food chain? The human infant, whose nutrition comes from its mother (in the form of breast milk or formula). “Obviously,” she writes, “a public health policy that asks expectant mothers to give up certain foods while allowing industries to continue contaminating them is absurd.” I appreciated this blend of memoir and scientific research, even if it was nervous-making at times. For those not interested in the science, Steingraber’s description of labor and delivery, as well as the following weeks, is one of the most thorough, honest, and understandable I have read or heard.

Cover image of Expecting Better Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong – And What You Really Need to Know by Emily Oster (2013): A friend with a four-month-old lent me this book written by economist and mother Oster, and I would recommend it in turn to anyone who is pregnant. She explains how in many cases, weak studies have led to (flawed) conventional wisdom; she examines the best and most current research and presents her conclusions on everything from caffeine, alcohol, and fish consumption to sleep positions to epidurals. Oster’s research-based approach (“more information is better than less”) is both satisfying and reassuring.

Are you a parent, parent-to-be, or a librarian who advises parents? What are your recommended books?