thank you, ms. jones

It’s odd to me how much news now comes to me via my RSS reader, and how much more quickly I thus learn of things than I might otherwise. Just now I learned from Monica Edinger that Diana Wynne Jones has died. I never got around to writing her a letter to tell her how grateful I am to her work, and thus, as so often happens, I am doing so now, after her death.

What’s funniest in a way is that I’ve actually read very little of her. She was was prolific — books and series and more books and books tangentially related to various series and their worlds — but I have read only a handful of them. But those few are books I have come back to again and again and again.

My grandmother gave me a copy of Charmed Life once when I was sick. I was sick quite a lot as a kid, and I was home by myself all day and would grow terribly bored. Any book that could pull me out of that into another world was a charm indeed, and that book I particularly loved — the setting of the old castle, the jewelry that screamed its enchantment, the sense of trying to shield people from a fate that can’t be denied — it was all wonderful.

A year or so later, my mother and I picked up a copy of Fire and Hemlock from B. Dalton, of all places, which had a huge display of the paperback. It had the most garishly godawful cover — at some point I folded a piece of math homework around it to make a cover for the thing because I was so sick of looking at it. And I looked at it a lot, because I reread this book all the time. I read it every finals week during junior high, and those are perhaps my clearest and best memories of times with it. I was the in the midst of the ages that Polly is in the book then, and I was living in a place I hated, and the people I liked best in the world were musicians, as the other most important character in the book is. And I loved my grandmother more than almost anyone else in the world, and I loved the grandmother in the book, too.

It’s a retelling of Tam Lin (and oh how I love retellings of Tam Lin), and it is about magic and friendship and love and good and evil and spells. It’s got a lot going for it, then, if you like that sort of thing. But the scene I always looked forward to the most, and that I still replay in my head from time to time, is one where Polly is lost in the streets of Bristol, having been dropped off at the train station by her father, who hasn’t bothered to see if she has money for a ticket home. She has, perhaps magically, been drawn to a building where a quartet is rehearsing — her friend Thomas Lynn, and the three other members, and they take her in and give her food and coffee and then, apologetically, go on with their rehearsal, but they don’t need to apologize, because really it is a private concert, just for her.

“If you could hear lime juice, it would sound like violins,” Polly thinks. I can see that basement as surely as if I’d been there, and I go there in memory the way I go to places I’ve really been. But of course I have really been there: that is what books do. And I will remain grateful to Diana Wynne Jones for providing me with such a place for as long as I live.


When I was sixteen years old and a sophomore in high school, I desperately wanted a copy of the new They Might Be Giants album, Apollo 18. My difficulty was that I did not have any money for buying new CDs or tapes, and the album wouldn’t be showing up in the used bins at the Record Collector for a few more years. (It was around this time that the music industry was making its first attempts to control the brave new digital world. They had launched a campaign wherein various recording artists attempted to tell you not to buy used CDs because it took money away from musicians. Sound familiar? The Record Collector had a big cardboard cutout of Garth Brooks telling us kids not to buy used CDs standing in its doorway. They were into irony in marketing.)

This was back in the dark ages, when we did file sharing via cassette tape. I knew of one person who owned the album. He was in a couple of classes with me, and I had a huge crush on him, so I was always looking for excuses to talk to him. Asking a guy you had a crush on to dub an album for you was a little risky. Asking people other than your best friends to dub albums for you was generally kind of pushy. The ideal thing to have happen was to say, “Oh, man, I’ve been wanting to hear that” and have someone offer to dub it for you. I had tried this tactic without success, probably because this was not a reciprocal crush. But I really wanted the album (and I really wanted an excuse to talk to the guy), so I asked. And he did, grudgingly, make me a dub on the tape I gave him. My recollection was that it came back to me without a track listing, though (see again the grudging part), and so I had to go to the record store and write down all the tracks in my notebook while trying to avoid the gaze of the clerk, who generally didn’t non-customers taking up space in the narrow aisles.

I still have almost all of my cassette tapes. Some were gifts or were purchased new; many were purchased used, and many are dubs or mixes. Some of the mixes are dubs of mixes, in fact, or mixes made up of what we would apologetically say to one another were dubs of dubs. “Sorry about the volume on that one song. It’s a dub of a dub.” Or sometimes even a dub of a dub of a dub. You lost sound quality, but you got music, and it was music that I cared about.

I also recorded things off the radio and, very rarely, from the library, although in the latter case I only ever recorded individual songs, not whole albums. I had some weird ethics in my head whereby recording a single song from an LP (the library still had LPs) was okay, but recording a whole album was theft. I am aware that the music industry and the legal system do not view things in quite that light.

I still listen to those tapes, and to the LPs I got from various family members when they decided to upgrade to CD at various times in the 1990s. I have some tapes I got from my friend’s roommate who had met some guy and was moving to Boston and shedding various possessions before the trip. (She’d also had a huge party and had lots of leftover alcohol which she encouraged us to drink — free music and free beer!) I also have a lot of music, in various formats, that I’ve purchased in the years since. This is how I get most of my music nowadays, actually: I buy it.

But I also still share stuff with my friends. Nowadays we do that by downloading and uploading files — sometimes just songs, sometimes mixes, once in a great while whole albums. I’ve never gotten into filesharing with strangers, or using Napster or any of its successors, or torrenting, largely for the same ethical reasons I once had for not copying whole albums from the library. It has less to do with legality and more to do with what seems right to me, and that interests me.

I grew up in a time when it was kind of hard to get copies of music. You had to have friends, or talk to guys you had crushes on. You had to have some kind of relationship built up with a person before you could request a dub. Usually you then provided a tape for them. A good friend might lend you the album and have you make the dub yourself. Making dubs was a somewhat time-consuming process. You wanted to make sure the album would fit nicely on the tape. Once I knew something about sound levels, I wanted to make sure those were good (oh, the tapes I made before then! I cringe!).

And I think it’s those memories — of sitting on the floor of my bedroom waiting to hit the record/play buttons on my boombox, of unwrapping the cellophane from a new package of cassettes, of debating what kind to buy and hoarding the precious Maxell points (I saved enough to get the poster), of talking to friends, of talking to boys — that inform the way I share things now.

Lewis Hyde’s classic book The Gift (with the wonderful original subtitle “Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property”) talks about how art and creativity are part of a gift economy, not a market one, and I agree with him. The consumption of art and creativity works similarly, I believe, at least among friends, on what I might call a sharing economy.

Ever since I read that the real purpose of DRM, in the minds of publishers, is to prevent not piracy (you can afford to let geeks game your system) but casual sharing, I’ve been sort of worried and horrified. Other people have code proposals and policy proposals and manifestos and plans. I don’t have any of those things. I have, I suppose, a cultural proposal. Libraries can’t, of course, encourage people to go out and copy our stuff, nor should we. We walk a delicate line between the gift economy we want to exist in and the market economy we have to negotiate. But I want to believe that the gift economy is where our true heart lies.

I won’t be able to leave my dubs of dubs of dubs to the library when I die. But I want to leave their spirit.

hearts and minds and ebooks

Like just about everyone else in libraryland in the past few weeks, I’ve become immersed in the HarperCollins ebook expiration outrage known on the internet as #hcod. (That stands for HarperCollins Overdrive, but of course we in the Library Society of the World like to think that the Cod of Ethics is in there too. The Cod of Ethics disapproves, by the way.) (For those not in the know, HarperCollins announced a couple of weeks ago that starting March 7, all ebooks published by HarperCollins purchased through Overdrive — one of the main vendors of ebooks to libraries — would vanish after the 26th checkout, and libraries would have to repurchase them.)

We’ve had all kinds of reactions here. We’ve had sputtering outrage. We’ve had manifestos. We’ve had videos. We’ve had graphics. We’ve had long posts about the nature of print and digital materials. We’ve had numbers run. We’ve had roundups of posts. We’ve had discussions of the news and the reactions and the posts and discussions of the discussions!

I’ve been reading and following and muttering and despairing along with everyone else. Then Monday my coworker had the brilliant idea that we should display some of our “best loved” books — things that had circulated over 100 times, and we got it all together in the course of the day due to a fortunate set of circumstances involving my office furniture getting partly replaced and a table needing a new home that was perfect for a display and a lot of other details I won’t bore you with.

Then I saw some numbers Jason Griffey posted about book circulation at his library. His conclusion? At his academic library, if they applied the HarperCollins ebook rules to the physical collection, they’d have to replace 126 books.

So that got me curious about our collection. Our display was limited to adult books that had checked out over 100 times (there were 220 of those). But what would it be like if I applied the same parameters Jason used?

Here’s the breakdown:

We have 88,680 circulating books in our collection. 23,083 of them have checked out over 26 times.

So yeah. . . if HarperCollins ebook rules suddenly applied to the physical books in our collection, we’d have to replace over 23,000 books.

We would have to replace over one third of our book collection.

If you break down the numbers further, you find that that would mean over 50% of the children’s collection and about 23% of the adult collection. Anyway you look at it, though, it’s still 23,083 books. And that’s a lot of books, and a lot of money. My fiction budget for the year is about $21,000.  It’s generous, but it would not go far if I had to replace even just the adult fiction books in that list.

Griffey and others have noted that, obviously, these kinds of numbers will vary greatly between libraries and types of libraries. Others have pointed out that arguing with these numbers is not ultimately what this argument is about. And I agree with them, to a certain extent.

We are not going to win this with numbers. Libraries are a part of the book market, but we’re pretty clearly not a big enough part of it to make an economic boycott work — and an economic boycott would have the added problem of potentially keeping things from our patrons, which we are not into.

No, this isn’t an economic argument, or a how many circs has your copy of Catch-22 made it through argument.

It’s a hearts and minds argument.

And I don’t mean the publishing industry’s hearts and minds. While some of the individual people involved must have such things, the gigantic corporations they work for, despite their “corporate personhood,” do not.

I mean the public’s hearts and minds.

This is a battle about winning — and rewinning — the hearts and minds of the public. It’s a battle about reminding them what libraries have always done for them. We not only provide information and entertainment — we also preserve it. We made it available to you free not only of cost but also free of licensing agreements, entanglements with corporations, and invasions of your privacy.

We need to remind our public of how we have done that. We need to tell them about how we are currently trying to do it. And we need them to understand what we need in order to be able to go on doing it in the future.

I don’t know yet all the things we will need, but I know that among us all, we do.

february 2011 reading

Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos — This is this year’s selection for All Iowa Reads, and so I’ll be doing a book discussion for it sometime later this year. It’s a very book-discussiony book (albeit a long one), full of family issues and small town issues and social issues and that sort of thing. Between the length and the number of issues, it almost seemed like there was almost too much, as if the novel were both crammed full and sprawling. But the characters are wonderful, and having recently moved from a town of 351 people, I loved how well Kallos got small towns and how they are both very private and not private at all.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley — This was the choice for this month’s mystery book discussion at the library. There is almost nothing to discuss in Bradley’s very sweet, very enjoyable tale about an 11 year old girl who is an aspiring chemist and accidental sleuth in rural England in 1950, but we managed to eke some conversation out of the setting and the degree to which a willing suspension of disbelief was required.

[listen] The Gin Closet by Leslie Jamison — I’m doing my best to use our library’s downloadable eaudiobooks. Since I’m a Mac user with an older iPod Touch and since Overdrive only lets one person check out a digital file at a time, my selection is generally somewhat limited (I don’t listen to books enough to make placing holds practical). I was quite pleased with this selection. There are two narrators (done in slightly different voices by the same woman on the audio version), Stella, a woman in her twenties who is lost in a sort of twentysomething Manhattanite way, and Tillie, her aunt, who is lost in an alcoholic living in a trailer park in the desert kind of way. The novel deals with how they come to learn of each other’s existence. It is not a happy story, but it is a good one.

The Neighbors are Watching by Debra Ginsberg — There ain’t no fun like making fun of suburbanites, so if you like that sort of thing, you will probably like this book about how a suburban San Diego neighborhood is sent into a tizzy when the pregnant daughter of one of its residents shows up on his doorstep and is greeted by his wife, who had no idea he even had a daughter.

Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music by David N. Meyer — I have loved biographies of rock stars ever since the day I happened upon the 781s at the Iowa City Public Library as a high school freshman. This one is my favorite kind — long, overwrought, filled with music trivia, drenched in more music knowledge and snobbery than the clerks in High Fidelity (I mean, this author hates the Eagles, hates them*), and incredibly snarky. Of course, since it’s about Gram Parsons, it’s also incredibly sad or completely overwrought, depending on your feelings about musicians who die of drug overdoses in general and Parsons in particular. I’m a fan, so I liked it.

How to Be Lost by Amanda Eyre Ward — I picked this up off a donation pile sitting in my office one day when I had forgotten my book. It was blurbed by someone as being “like The Lovely Bones,” which I guess it is in that it involves the disappearance of a young girl from a suburban home. I guess they also both require some willing suspension of disbelief — but accepting that a dead girl is narrating a story makes for a riveting and interesting book in Sebold’s case, whereas accepting the broad series of contrived coincidences just makes for annoyance on this reader’s part in Ward’s. Oh well. I did finish it, but I don’t recommend it.

Daughter’s Keeper by Ayelet Waldman — I love a book where the Amazon reviews ricochet back and forth between “best writing I’ve ever read” and “can’t write her way out of a slush pile.” I think neither of these things. It’s very clearly a first (literary) novel sort of a novel, but I admire a book that manages to portray a naive young political activist in a way I don’t find totally offensive. Said young activist comes back from Mexico and goes to live among the poor in Oakland, and then the guy she’d been seeing in Mexico shows up on her doorstep, so she takes him in. Of course, he is an illegal alien and thus can’t get much in the way of work, and thus he gets involved in a drug deal in which he gets her marginally involved, too, and then the forces of law and order sweep in and everyone gets caught up in the travesties of mandatory minimums for drug sentencing. It’s a novel about a white girl, and thus it is a little bit the Hallmark version of mandatory minimums. In that regard, I look forward to reading Orange is the New Black, which sounds like it might be similar.

* “The Eagles were and remain the most consistently contemptible stadium band in rock. Gram famously referred to their music as ‘a plastic dry-fuck.’ He bore the Eagles a special loathing, as any sane listener might.” p. 366

january 2011 reading

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson — Our library sponsors a mystery book discussion group, and January’s selection was actually all the Stieg Larsson novels and/or movies — read or watch whatever you want and come discuss. I worked my way through the whole trilogy over the course of the month because, if nothing else, they are compelling, and I am just as bad as the rest of the world when it comes to wanting to know what happens next when a main character has a bullet in the head. It’s also nice to read a thriller with committed leftwingers in it, although like Melanie Newman, I have some discomfort with the discrepancy between Larsson’s professed feminism and the way he writes about women.

Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert — Two of my best and oldest friends are getting married. I am a marriage skeptic, and I’d heard good things about this book from other marriage skeptics, so I thought I’d check it out. Gilbert is a breezy and entertaining sort of writer, and she is pleasantly skeptical about the institution, but I was left largely underwhelmed by her sort of slapdash anthropology.

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

We All Fall Down by Nic Sheff — I am amused to no end that WorldCat has the following subject headings for this book: Biography : Fiction : Juvenile audience. I read this via NetGalley (thanks, Michelle!) on the library’s Sony eReader. It’s the first time I’ve ever read an entire book in a digital format, and it worked well enough for this book, which is full of very short sentences and white space and is your basic addiction memoir narrative.

[listen] Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon — This is a novel about identity and identity theft that I ordered for my old library but hadn’t gotten around to reading. I was playing around with downloadable audio at my new library and discovered it was available that way, and, through some set of miracles, I even got it to play on my iPod. It’s an addictive and creepy story with lots of different characters who seem to be totally disconnected to each other but who eventually meet up, which I always love.

There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From by Charles Bryan — Bryan is a struggling writer dude who moves to New York City in 1998 and ends up getting a job on Wall Street writing marketing copy for an investment bank. This is as soul-crushing and awful as you might imagine, and it becomes all the more so when he’s at work on September 11, 2001. Bryan’s a fan of minimalism, and it shows in his prose. It works well for the story he tells.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

information wants to be expensive

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other

Stewart Brand, 1984

This week, unveiled Singles: short pieces by well-known writers that are — you guessed it — available exclusively for Kindle.

The New York Times, not wanting to be left out of this small exclusive market, just released its own short ebook, currently available through the Kindle store and Barnes & Noble but “coming soon to the iBookstore and Google eBookstore.”

At the moment, none of these ebooks are very expensive: they range in price from $0.99 to $5.99. But looked at another way, these titles are all very expensive, especially if you are a library.

Let’s say you have a patron who wants to read one of those $0.99 Kindle Singles. Since it’s a Kindle exclusive, it’s not going to be available through Overdrive or NetLibrary, the two main vendors of ebooks to public libraries. If you’re a library that loans Kindles (and there are some, although as far as I can tell it’s still a dubious practice according to Amazon’s Terms of Service), you could of course buy a copy for one of your circulating Kindles. In theory, although this might also be dubious, you could buy a copy and have it on a computer dedicated as an in-library Kindle book reader, or, I suppose, as a loanable laptop Kindle book reader. Of course, those options require that you have a Kindle or a laptop to loan, or a computer to set aside. All of those things are considerably more expensive than the $0.99 ebook.

Get over it, Crossett, I hear some of you saying. It’s $0.99 cents. People can afford to pay that themselves for something they want to read. Well, sure. If they can afford the device or computer to read it on, they probably can afford the $0.99. But libraries — public libraries in particular — are about providing access to everyone, not just to those who can afford it.

Basically, I look at these ebooks and I think, The newspaper of record has published a book on a hot topic that I cannot provide to library patrons. This sucks.

Libraries not just about access: they are also about preservation. Digital preservation is doable. There are libraries and librarians working hard to do it right now. But we can’t preserve something we can’t access and — I’m speaking beyond my technical expertise here, but I’m going to go out on a limb — my guess is that the digital rights/restrictions management software installed on these ebooks would make it damn hard for the digital preservationists to do their thing without, like, breaking the law. Not good. It makes one think that the real censors will turn out not to be the government book burners of Fahrenheit 451 but the corporations that make a profit by restricting access.

Of course, none of this really matters to the ebook makers and publishers and sellers. They are, like the big information vendors, playing a different game. It’s fine with them if library econtent is a wasteland.

I deal on a daily basis with patrons whose lives are made more difficult by technology — who have to accomplish all the things that modern life requires us to accomplish online in hour long sessions on public library computers. If I’d had to work like a patron today, I wouldn’t have gotten much of anything done. The rise of emedia means that not only is information inconvenient for our patrons to gather — it’s downright impossible. Can I interlibrary loan an ereader from some library that loans them? ‘Cause I’d like to read that book about Wikileaks. Thanks.

september – december reading

High on Arrival by Mackenzie Phillips — I actually had little notion of or interest in Mackenzie Phillips, but I love drug addict memoirs, so I picked this up when it rotated through the library. It comes with the special added bonus of being an incest memoir. It may well not be up your alley.

[reread] The Door Into Summer by Robert Heinlein — It’s possible that I reread this book too often. But not probable.

Nobody’s Girl by Antonya Nelson — I ran across this in our collection and picked it up because I used to love a song of the same name sung by Bonnie Raitt. When I read the blurb and discovered this was about a young woman from the Chicago suburbs who decides to move to a small desert town in New Mexico, I figured I’d better read it. It took me a long time to get through it, but it was pretty good, though not really similar to my own experience except in feeling.

Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser — For our Wyoming Humanities Council book discussion series of biographies of American cultural icons. I ended up spending a lot of time talking about the history of the civil rights movement and its various strands and bringing in a whole stack of books, which just goes to show I guess that one’s extracurricular collecting habits do eventually play some role.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen — I love Franzen’s essays most of all, but I liked this quite well — perhaps even better than The Corrections. Despite what you may have read about it plot-summary-wise, it’s really a novel about falling in love and out of love and trying to figure out how to differentiate who you are from who you want to be.

[reread] The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley — When in danger or in doubt, reread.

[reread] The Rooms of Heaven by Mary Allen — Reread shortly after I accepted my new job. The book is about many things, but I reread it primarily because it is set here in my home town of Iowa City, and because it is full of places and people that I knew and wanted to reacquaint myself with.

Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey — A charming and hysterically funny (well, hysterically funny if you have any connection to academia) book about a young woman who becomes her father’s literary executor.

Eleanor Roosevelt Volume 1 by Blanche Wiesen Cook — The next entry in our Icons discussion series. Eleanor Roosevelt is one of those people who was, it seemed to me, So Admired by so many people that I figured she must actually be rather dull to read about. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that that was not the case.

Up From the Blue by Susan Henderson — My idea of a psychological thriller is a book just like this one — a book where you suspect and are afraid that frightening things are happening, but you can’t quite figure out what they are, or what they mean, or even whether or not they are totally real. Throw in a (mostly) kid narrator and some mental illness, and I’m hooked.

The Good Daughters by Joyce Maynard — I breezed through this women’s fiction page turner (to reduce a book utterly to a genre phrase) in one day on one of the last weekends I was avoiding packing while I was still living in Wyoming. As long-time readers of this blog will know, I am a sucker for novels with family secrets, and this has them in spades.

Jane Fonda’s War by Mary Hershberger — The final book for our Icons discussion. As I mentioned to several people, I think it’s probably good that it was my last discussion in Meeteetse, or I’m not sure anyone would have shown up, due to the intense hatred of Jane Fonda. The most tangible similarity among all the people whose biographies we read is that they all had FBI files; all of them but Eleanor Roosevelt were against the Vietnam War (and one imagines she would have been, too, had she been alive). Muhammad Ali was in far more trouble than Fonda over his opposition to the war at the time, but he is now revered as a hero, and she’s still hated. No one was able to solve this particular mystery at our discussion, but it made good fodder.

[reread] Deerskin by Robin McKinley — Usually when I move to a new place to embark on a new endeavor, I reread The Blue Sword, but as it’s about moving to a desert outpost and I was about to leave my desert outpost, I went with some other McKinley books instead.

Girls to the Front by Sara Marcus — I wasn’t a riot grrrl in any conscious fashion; I didn’t hear the term or most of the music till I got to college. But this book covers exactly the years I was in high school, and its descriptions of what the world was like then were so completely spot on for me. I hated high school, but those years have a particular poignancy nonetheless. The “first” Gulf War is the first war I ever protested. I remember standing outside the Emma Goldman Clinic when Operation Rescue stopped in Iowa City in 1991. And I remember going to so many shows — the Pixies in Davenport, the benefits in the Unitarian Church basement — where the whole front of the room was dominated by the mosh pit. If a riot grrrl band had ever played there, if one of them had said, before the set, that they wanted all the girls to come up to the front — I would have been there. Immediately.

She Got Up Off the Couch by Haven Kimmel — The she in the title is Kimmel’s mother, who got up off the couch in their rural Indiana home after seeing a television ad wherein Abe Lincoln said she could go back to school. She got a college degree and a masters and became a teacher, and this book is about that, but it’s also, like A Girl Named Zippy, just an excellently (I might even say zingily) written portrait of a place and its people. And it’s funny. And true.

Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House by Meghan Daum — Daum’s memoir-ish book about houses and homes wins the prize for the funniest book I read this year, but it also hits poignantly close to home for me. Like Daum, I have moved a somewhat uncountable number of times (I’ve never lived in a house longer than four years, ever), and I also lust after real estate. Reading this book as I perch in my friends’ house, where I’ll be staying and then housesitting for the next 7 months, made for a particularly rich experience, as the beauty of transience is that you can always imagine that the perfect dwelling really is out there. Daum captures that perfectly.

homeward bound

A little less than five years ago, I wrote to announce that I’d taken a job in Meeteetse, Wyoming.

Today, I write to tell you that my Western idyll is coming to an end, and I’ll be riding (metaphorically — I still haven’t really learned to ride a horse) into the sunrise as I head back east. Starting December 13, I will be the Adult Services Coordinator at the Coralville Public Library, in Coralville, Iowa, just next door to my hometown of Iowa City.

It has been a fantastic almost five years in Meeteetse and in the Wyoming library system. I’m proud of what I’ve learned and what I’ve done, sad to leave the mountains and my little town, and excited about my next big adventure.

thinking about banned books

I’ve long been a fan of Jessamyn West’s take on Banned Books Week — that it’s a marketing ploy, that most of the books that claim to be banned are actually just challenged and are not ultimately removed from library shelves, that there are many more issues of importance when it comes to censorship and the disappearance of information that used to be public. So I’ve tended to treat the subject lightly if at all at the library — I sometimes print out some stuff and throw up a book display and put a post on our website (and, in fact, that’s all I’m really doing this year), and then I complain to my librarian friends and colleagues about all my issues with the event.

This year, the lead-up to Banned Books Week in the young adult blogosphere was the attempt to have Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five removed from a school in Missouri. (Anderson also has a followup post.)

Now this is very much your typical book challenge of the sort recorded by the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. Someone gets upset that high school students are reading about sex and swear words and, using media-savvy, raises a huge stink. Nothing too unusual in the annals of book challenges.

But it got me thinking again, perhaps because Speak is one of my favorite books, perhaps because the description of it by the objector (“soft porn”) was so ridiculous, perhaps because I work in what is half a school library.

It’s easy to dismiss school libraries as, well, different. They’re serving a specific population. Their collection all has to “support the curriculum.” But I don’t think that we, as librarians, should take that view. As Justice Abe Fortas wrote in Tinker v. Des Moines, “[i]t can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Nor should they lose their right to read freely. And so many of the books that are challenged in schools deal with topics students want and need to know about. Students with same sex parents, teens questioning their own sexual orientation, young people who’ve been abused or assaulted — people don’t write books about these things to be prescriptive. They write about them because they happen. And reading about them happening is one way that those who’ve experienced those things can learn to deal with them, and one way those who have not can have their eyes opened to them.

I want to talk about a lot of things related to censorship and freedom of information, from government information and free law to the embargoes and copyright agreements and astronomical prices that often keep scholars from accessing their own work. But I still want to talk, as I so often do, about that kid lurking in the stacks, looking for something that just might change her life.

alone at the library

I spent hours of my youth at the public library. Hours and hours. Sometimes I went just to check out books, but more often than not I went just to spend time there. The Iowa City Public Library had record players and CD players you could use, and I’d flip through the albums (I first listened to the Beatles at the library), pick out a stack, and set up at a record player, put on the headphones, and read or do my homework or just daydream. I loved it there because it was the only place I ever went where people left me alone.

At school, one was usually supposed to be doing something in particular place, and if you were out of that place, or doing something else, you got in trouble. Stores are notoriously hostile toward teenagers, and of course they want you to buy things. I hate buying things. If I wanted company, I’d go to UAY or, if the weather was good, to the ped mall down town, but when I wanted to be left alone, I went to the library.

Aaron has a short jibe about How to Be Alone, a video that’s been making the rounds on YouTube and that suggests the library as a good place to go to be alone. “Not exactly what we’re going for, eh?” he asks. Commenters on the post beg to differ, and I do too.

Oh, I know building community is important. I know gate counts are important, and program attendance statistics are important, and Facebook fans are important, and people getting to know their librarians and their neighbors is important, and people creating content is important, and all that stuff is important. But every time I hear someone talking about how we need to make libraries more popular and not just places for nerds, every time I hear people talking about programming like it’s the most important and perhaps only thing we do, or should do, for teens, a little part of me wonders what place there is in that library for the fifteen year old me, the girl who just wanted listen to records and wander the stacks and look at old magazines and, well, be left alone?

I also fell in love with Jonathan Franzen while reading his book How to Be Alone, which is about a lot of things, but mostly it’s about reading and thinking and exploring ideas and following the paths of your own particular mind — things that are rightfully solitary pursuits. Some of the greatest things I have ever done have been groups and with groups. But not all of them.

“The first thing books teach you,” Franzen says, “is how to be alone.”