On Things I’ve Read: The Book Thief

This book has been on my reading list for a very long time. I started it once, but had to return it. I decided it would be my pre-semester read for this term. It was worth it.

The book got a lot of attention for its use of Death as a narrator, and rightly so. The portrayal of Death was unique and engaging. True to his form as protagonist, I even rather liked Death. I wanted him to be able to make the choices, rather than being driven to them by humans – and in this case WWII. And I trusted him as a narrator.

But the book was about a little girl named Liesel Meminger, and her life on Himmel Street in a town near Munich. It only takes about 5 years to unfold, but the narrative style, the backdrop against which her story is highlighted, and the depth and complexity of her own story make it seem like an entire lifetime was packed in there. At around 550 pages, The Book Thief was just enough. I neither wanted more nor less, which is rare in a book.

The characters that make up Liesel’s story – lemon-haired Rudy, Papa with the Silver eyes, the ghostlike Ilse Hermann – are given life precisely because of the way that Death and Liesel describe them. They are brilliant and foolish in turn, completely believable, and lovable.

*Spoiler, I suppose*
One warning though – do not expect to make it through the last few chapters of the book without crying. It ends exactly like it should, in my opinion, but wrenches the heart.

Librarianship doesn’t stop at the job description

Shortly after I graduated and left my hometown, voters failed the millage that was keeping the libraries open. Faced with a bare-bones budget, several library branches closed, including the one I had worked for. When the millage passed a year later, those that had been involved in the cuts were hired back, and I was lucky enough to get back in as well. There was a sense of coming home for most of us – we were finally back in a position to do something for our community. As part of the massive factory closures in the auto industry, our area had faced a serious economic downturn. Sure, our libraries could be considered a symptom of that, and everyone was losing their jobs, but there was something different. We wanted to come back so that we could help alleviate the stress for others who had been in our position. We wanted to show that libraries were worth the spending, especially when things got tough.

Miami is a much-publicized, much-observed, and much-criticized situation. On a tight budget, something needs cut, and city commissioners have turned to library system cuts as a way to make up some of that money. Not just cuts though – deep and lasting wounds to the library system, and more widely, the library’s positive impact on the community.

Recently, a Save the Miami-Dade Public Library System tumblr has been started, and this particular post caught my eye. From the introduction:

“After Commissioner Zapata’s cold words to a man who defended his library, “you don’t care about the county, you only care about your job” a library employee felt the co-worker’s pain and wants the public and County Commissioners to know…
We all care about the county and we have proven this through deeds and not just words.

The little that I have done is by no means exceptional and while the details of the extras we do vary from person to person, what I write is largely representative of library staff including that employee who was insulted.”

The open letter goes on to show a few of the examples of overtime worked, contributions made,  and downright self-sacrificing on the part of the library staff. Now, this may not be the case for all library workers, but I know that many of the librarians and library staff I have worked with fit into this picture, right on down to pages.

Most every library worker I know is like this. We like our jobs, sure, and who doesn’t? But we don’t pick this line of work – particularly in public libraries, particularly in cities that have demonstrated at best an apathy toward the library at a governmental level – because we want an easy out.

Library work isn’t an easy out. Passionate people take too-few dollars and turn them into as many services as they can. Libraries are our way of trying to actually create equal opportunity instead of just paying lip service to it. And many of us believe so strongly in that goal that we will give far beyond what our job description asks us to.

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Libraries in Retail Environments

Long ago and far away, I was hired to work in the state’s oldest continuous public library. The building was beautiful, stately, and was the obvious brainchild of someone with a lot of money.

It was also under construction.

As part of a renovation millage, that good old library was getting a facelift and an expansion, forcing the collections to be relocated during the work. The powers that be looked around the neighborhood and settled on a nice space in the local mall, right across from the movie theater.

When I saw this article about Aurora, CO opening a computer center inside their local K-Mart, it drew that concept back to my attention. It makes sense – see the story about the woman who looked up a recipe in the library so she could buy the ingredients in the grocery section – and it’s also part of a growing trend.

Economic realities are often discussed in the library community. Hard-to-find full-time jobs, scant money for programming, scaled-down acquisitions are all fodder for lament. But for those libraries seeking to find a location to serve new sections of the community, partnering with more traditional retail environments can have major advantages.

I currently split my time between working at an academic library and working at a retail store, and the approaches to attracting customers (patrons/users/term-of-the-month) are on opposite ends of the spectrum, certainly. The academic library, a private institution, has strict security and access policies. But the public libraries I used to work at, and those I frequent now as a patron, share a lot of priorities with retail stores. I’ll touch on more of those in a future post, but the big one to me is – who are our target customers?

Certainly, most boutique stores have a target audience. Men’s clothing, women’s jewelry, children’s toys, to name a few generic ones. But what about, say JCPenney or Sears? These retail stores anchor pretty much every mall I’ve been in, and seem to have the same struggle as many public libraries. Who is the target audience?

Answer: Everyone. That’s part of why they still hang in there, in the age of decimated big-box stores. They offer a lot, and have a low cost-of-entry (free!). Quality products, decent service, and ease of access are definite pluses. In general, libraries provide the first two at any location, but ease of access can be harder. New constructions are expensive and polarizing in the community, and renting a normal space can have parking problems as well as watching part of the budget disappear into something the library doesn’t own.

In the case of the Otay Ranch Branch of the Chula Vista Library, the option to put a library branch near the food court of a local high-end mall wasn’t intuitive at first, but the benefits have been obvious:

The library opened in spring 2012. Its high-impact location, coupled with vibrant interiors that spill out onto the food court, garners heavy foot traffic. Parents and kids stop by for a program or materials after shopping. Tagalong spouses make a beeline for the library while their mates shop. Shoppers check their email or download a book while relaxing in the food court. No one goes home empty-handed.

Wheeled stacks, pegboard walls, and excellent sight lines provide flexibility. By matching the mall aesthetics, placing plenty of furniture outside, and offering Wi-Fi to the food court area and beyond, the space draws people in who might not otherwise visit a stand-alone library.

Benefits of the mall location are numerous. Custodial, security, and public relations services are provided by the mall. Partnerships with other tenants, i.e., the Apple Store and Barnes & Noble, provide help with ebook downloading to visitors.

Like this excerpt points out, the library benefits by drawing in customers from the food court and related retailers, which can really improve the library’s exposure and the substantiating statistics. Relationships with surrounding businesses provides benefits for both parties, whether in a mall or downtown setting.

It also reinforces the library as part of the community. Public libraries can run the risk of appearing like the white tower of academia – intimidating and forbidding to outsiders. Allowing the general public to view the library in a context they are more comfortable with can go a long way to alleviate that.

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Go Lightly: Moving Adventures

There are few sites on the internet that seem to get me as much, and as often, as xkcd.

As I continue to engage in late-night marathon packing sessions in preparation for my move this week, I contacted the cable company to hook everything up. Which brings up this comic.

Because the current tenants clearly don’t understand this need, and so have refused to schedule a disconnection date so that I can have internet this weekend. No, instead I have to go to the company and prove I live there via lease, but only after I move in. And since I move in just before the weekend. . . I’m not sure I can handle this.

Amazon, Showrooming, and Discoverability

Photo by Steven Depolo on Flickr

Feature image Creative Commons Steven Depolo

Amazon has been dominating the news lately. I did a quick search on Google News, and came up with this:

Google News search of "Amazon" on 7/22/2013And there were the expected “Amazon vs.” articles: Wal-Mart, Apple, Barnes & Noble, IBM. Still, that’s a lot of vs for a company that has grown, apparently organically, from an online bookseller to a behemoth outlet for ALL THE THINGS. But of course, that kind of growth alarms some and upsets others, so the court cases and high-profile competition isn’t out of line.

The tidbits about the .Amazon domain registry failure was a treat, for me, as was the news that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has funded the recovery of the Apollo 11 engines from the bottom of the Atlantic.

But the top link had me intrigued: Amazon vs. Your Public Library? In a battle that doesn’t seem much like a battle, why is it even a consideration for Fortune magazine to ask: “But could Amazon (AMZN), tech’s behemoth retailer, really be threatened by the neighborhood library — a centuries-old institution known for musty shelves, high school cram sessions, and ‘Shhhhhh. Quiet please?'”

The answer is: it’s hard to say.

At first glance, Amazon seems to be cooperating with libraries for the most part. Through its Affiliate links and related programs, Amazon offers a cut of their sales to libraries that include them on their web page – the article cites NYPL. When holds lists get too long, it can be an attractive option for people to jump ship and just buy the book. With Amazon’s increasing shipping speeds, that option is as good as paying to be moved to the top of the list. E-Media outlets like OverDrive offer the same idea – want a book, but your library doesn’t have a copy available? Hop over to Amazon, BN, or other partnered sites to pick it up. And again, OverDrive gets a cut.

And David Carr pointed out in the New York Times, Amazon needs physical outlets. This has been argued against, and certainly not every customer needs to browse a physical collection before making an online purchase. And unlike brick-and-mortar booksellers, the library doesn’t really suffer from “showrooming” that is, customers coming to a physical location to check out items they plan to buy online. Normally, this would cost retailers essential customer conversions – but does it operate the same way for the library?

If Amazon is bringing people through the library doors to look at a book/DVD/etc, is that such a bad thing? Is “discoverability” part of the library mission, even if it’s not reflected in circulation statistics? Certainly, discoverability IS a part of the library mission, and I would argue that while it may be harder to track, this is exactly the kind of relationship the library needs to strike up with e-retailers, and Amazon is a perfect beginning. After all, booksellers and libraries have successfully served the same population for centuries, without this talk of versus.

If Amazon can find a way to actually support community libraries (and maybe even independent booksellers!) then libraries should be alright with showrooming.


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Late to the Rowling/Galbraith Party

J.K. Rowling and The Cuckoo's Calling

Yes, I know. You’ve read this 1000 times already since it happened last week. And I’m sorry that I’m adding to the stack.

Sorry, not sorry, actually, because it was one of the professors at my school that helped. Duquesne University’s Dr. Juola has been working on software to help identify works by the same author. It took less than half an hour for the system to process The Cuckoo’s Calling and list J.K. Rowling as the most likely author. When asked by journalist Cal Flyn of the Sunday Times to look at the text, Juola went to work. And look at the ruckus it’s caused.

While not the only thing that went into determining authorship, it’s still one of the most publicized. Flyn did great journalism and provided a few other authors to be tested to provide more certainty (P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, among others). And then of course the confirmation leaked by Rowling’s legal team – oops.

But I just wanted to give props where it’s due. Well, done Dr. Juola and team!

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