anti-poverty @ your library

There are things I don’t really like about the American Library Association, but the rest of the biblioblogosphere pretty much has that topic covered. But there are some things I do like, and one of my favorites is ALA Policy 61, the “Poor People’s Policy,” which states

The American Library Association promotes equal access to information for all persons, and recognizes the urgent need to respond to the increasing number of poor children, adults, and families in America. These people are affected by a combination of limitations, including illiteracy, illness, social isolation, homelessness, hunger, and discrimination, which hamper the effectiveness of traditional library services. Therefore it is crucial that libraries recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society.

Its first policy objective is “Promoting the removal of all barriers to library and information services, particularly fees and overdue charges.”

I am happy to report that my library recently made several strides in that direction.

In past years, we have held a food-for-fines program from Thanksgiving through the end of the year. People can bring in a non-perishable food item and have their fines waived. Many people donate additional items so that we are able to waive the fines of every patron (some patrons already depend on the goods they receive from the Community Cupboard, and I am glad that we are able to make donations on their behalf).

First, we lowered the fines on all children’s materials from 10 cents a day to 5 cents a day. It has always seemed to me that library fines are particularly regressive toward children, who are often among the poorest of our library users. A child may take out a whole stack of picture books, whereas a grown-up might take out only a couple of books, yet the fine on the child’s ten picture books will be five times that on the two novels the adult got. In a family with several children, the fines double, triple, or quadruple quite easily.

Neither lowered fines nor waived fines help if a patron has lost a book. It breaks my heart to see a kid unable to use the library because of a lost book she cannot pay to replace. In my branch, we recently asked the Friends if they would be willing to pay for just such a lost book, and they said yes. In the course of discussing this at a staff meeting, we decided to start a small, separate donation fund just for that kind of occasion.

If you’re looking for more ideas on poverty and libraries, please check out the Homelessness, Hunger, and Poverty Taskforce.

mudflap woman

There’s nothing to rouse one’s ire quite like having one’s home insulted. That home can be your country, your team, or your family, and in its worst forms, that ire is what leads to nationalism, gang warfare, and brawls at soccer matches. Most of the time, however, the stakes are more subtle, and the feeling is worth exploring.

As most of you know, I live and work in Wyoming. Ire was my initial reaction to the so-called mudflap girl flap. Fine, I thought, the image may be sexist, but do you have to dump that all on Wyoming? Wyoming, like 49 other states in the nation, has its share of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism. It’s sort of weird to see the names of your state library officials next to an exhortation to tell them to pull material from the public eye.

Wyoming has its problems, and I won’t deny them. Most notably, we worst in the nation when it comes to discrepancy in pay between men and women.

I know that for some people these things are all of a piece: sexual image of woman –> objectification of women –> paying women poorly. There are, I am sure, connections. I spend quite a bit of time trying to explain to people that if you say men, you say women, not girls; if you say ladies, you say gentlemen. Only if you say boys do you then say girls. (I’d also kind of like it if we started talking about female doctors and writers and presidents–have you ever head anyone say, “Oh, he’s a man doctor?” No? I thought not. Ever taken a course called American Men Writers? Well, you probably have, but not under that title. Woman writers aren’t special; they are writers who are female, not some rare breed of being that require double nouns.)

Many commentators (including our first lady) have said that the way to create pay equity between men and women in Wyoming is to get more women working in the oil and gas industries. (To give you an idea of how lucrative these fields are during boomtimes, I’ve met high school dropouts who make twice what I do with two masters degrees.) That approach would work statistically, but it’s not a solution. The solution is to value the work that women do and pay people who are teachers and childcare providers and nurses and–yes–librarians in a fashion that is equal to the services they provide. The solution is to make sure that all full-time jobs pay a living wage, so that women are not stuck in minimum wage service jobs.

Those solutions probably also include learning to see women in a variety of ways, not simply as objects adorning mudflaps or library marketing posters. But discussing objectification is the easy part. We can write all the blog entries we want, but I don’t think that any number of blog posts is going to get a living wage bill passed.

I had many far more strident and far more obnoxious things to say about people’s reactions to the campaign, but quite frankly, I’m tired. I appreciate the variety of opinions I’ve seen, many of which have affected the way I think about the issue. But I’m tired. I’m tired of discussions about whether my bumper sticker (a similar mudflap woman from Arches Book Company in Moab, UT) is helping or harming the cause of equal rights. I’m tired of other people having similar arguments. I’m tired of being told what I should or should not think as a feminist. I’m tired of talking about empowerment. I’m tired of defending my state and the people in it.

I’m ready for an actual fight.

just a reminder

Awhile ago I answered a question for Radical Reference which brought me back to Peggy McIntosh’s article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”  A friend of mine in college had the male privilege version of the list pinned to his door.  My college was a good place in that, for the most part, people knew this stuff and did their best to live by it.  That effort was not always successful, but it was there.

I regret to say that my Easter started off this year with a conversation with someone who, upon hearing that I go to the Episcopal church in town, mentioned that he, too, had once been an Episcopalian until–and here he made a homophobic comment that I won’t repeat.  “Excuse me?” I said.  And I tried, with probably limited success, to explain that I did not find his comment–or his views–appropriate, and that, in fact, I found them offensive.

I was thinking, of course, of Dorothea’s post from a week or so ago.  Dorothea is speaking specifically of “geekland culture” and more broadly of culture on the web, but her point is applicable everywhere.  Unfortunate, but true.  It was even applicable at my college; it’s certainly applicable in the wider world–what everyone used to call the “real world,” as though there are worlds one can inhabit that are unreal.

I have to remind myself of that, and I have to remind myeslf, with posts like Dorothea’s, that it’s also my responsibility to do something about it.

librarianship in wartime

The Society of Archivists in the UK has posted a few entries from the diary of Saad Eskander, Director of the Iraqi National Library and Archives. You can get the diary as a Word document from the Society’s website. I’ve also created an online version using pasta.

You can read more history on the Library and Archives during the course of the war from The Memory Hole and the Christian Science Monitor. NPR also has a story from a few years ago about rebuilding the library, which, at this point, may need to be done all over again.

[diary link via SRRT list]

women and altruism: preliminary thoughts

I was thinking briefly about submitting a proposal for Five Weeks to a Social Library. I didn’t, primarily because the only social tool my library currently uses is Flickr, and I haven’t done much with it, and because I didn’t feel up to teaching myself screencasting on top of work, school, life, etc.

I just read Meredith’s post about the male/female ratio in the proposals, and the fascinating comments that speculate about why more women may have submitted than men. I don’t know the reason, and I’d be interested to see the survey, if they do one, but I will say this: Five Weeks is the first library conference (or conference type thing) I’ve ever even thought about submitting a proposal to, and I suspect that at least part of the reason I even thought about it was that I knew that the organizers were women.

I went to an all-female camp for about a million years, and I went to a college that, as we liked to say, is a women’s college that lets men in now, and perhaps as a result I’m often inclined toward projects that involve women doing things. But I am also somewhat disturbed by my reaction.

I read all the blog posts and comments and other bits of conversation that delved into the topics women and technology and sexism in librarianship as they were written over the past few months, and I wondered many of the same things. Where were the women on tech panels? Were fewer women being asked, or were fewer volunteering, and if that was the case, was it because of time constraints, or because they didn’t feel “techie enough”? Just who was responsible for representing women? Like many of you, I was pleased by Roy Tennant’s Library Journal column, with the exception of one bit at the end:

We need women in digital library positions. We need their unique perspective and their civilizing influence on the boys’ clubs that many library systems units, professional events, and online forums have become. But more than that, we simply need their talent.

It’s the second sentence in that excerpt that bothers me. I didn’t write about it at the time, but it came back to me now, because it relates to a bit of what bothers me about many of the theories on why more women than men submitted proposals to Five Weeks. It’s what bothers me about my own reasons for almost submitting, in fact.

Do we really believe that women are more civilized than men? As I recall, one of the arguments against women’s suffrage was that women didn’t need to be able to vote; they were already able to affect their husbands’ votes with their civilizing influence. Are women more likely to involve themselves in tech-for-good than in tech-for-tech? That seems more possible to me, but I’m going on hunch combined with Dorothea’s research, which, as she notes, is a bit old.

But regardless of the veracity of either claim, neither one helps the position of women in technology, in librarianship, or in the world. Tenant saves himself, somewhat, by concluding that we need women most of all for their talent. I’d like to live in a professional world in which women were judged first by their talent and only later by the content of their characters. Being a person who is civilized and altruistic is a good thing in the greater scheme of things, but neither one does much for your paycheck, at least if you’re female.

It sounds as though I don’t value good character. That’s not true. But I’d like to live in a world where it wasn’t the thing people thought women brought to the table.

keep your laws off MySpace

Once in awhile, ALA does something well, and it is largely because of that (well, that and that I’m still a student and so my dues are cheap) that I am still a member. One thing they’ve done nicely is the new Legislative Action Center. Okay, so it’s not all 2.0. It doesn’t have RSS feeds. It doesn’t have permalinks to its different pages. It’s got a very long and funny looking url to its FAQ sitting there and running off the edge of the site. And it doesn’t validate (or doesn’t validate well?–I must admit that, although I know valid code is important, I have only a very dim idea of what it means).

So why do I like it? It’s got good information. The information is fairly easy to find (unlike, say, any given information on the main ALA website). Like most political action websites nowadays, you can set up a nice little account for yourself that will remind you who your elected officials are and a little bit about them. It even includes state legislators. It has a fairly comprehensive list of media outlets for your region (though I’d like to see a few more of the smaller papers listed–where are the Powell Tribune and Northern Wyoming Daily News?) Most importantly, however, it deals with timely and important issues and gives you good, solid talking points for phone calls to Congress and letters to the editor.

The hottest topic there right now is H.R. 5319, the Deleting Online Predators Act, or DOPA (summary and analysis from Andy Carvin and LibraryLaw Blog), which is an attempt to withold e-rate funding from any school or library that doesn’t block social networking sites–you know, those things the kids are all so crazy about–MySpace, Facebook–could Flickr be next?

A couple weeks ago, the Powell School District here in Wyoming decided to block MySpace on all school computers. I wrote a letter to the editor, which was published in last Thursday’s Powell Tribune. It’s not available online, and I am reprinting it here in full, with some hyperlinks added for online consumption. If anyone from the Tribune has objections, please feel free to contact me. Thanks to Aaron for championing MySpace in librarians and for looking the letter over.

To the Editor:

I was sorry to read of the Powell School District’s decision to ban MySpace.com on school computers.

It is true that there is a lot of dross on MySpace.com (just as there is on the rest of the Web) and that it can be dangerous to get into detailed conversations with people you meet on MySpace (just as it can be dangerous to talk to strange people in the physical world). But there is also a lot of good to be found. Many young adult authors, including Sarah Dessen, Brent Hartinger, Lauren Myracle, and John Green (who won the 2005 Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature,
given each year by the American Library Association), have MySpace accounts. Even some libraries have MySpace accounts–check out the one for the Denver Public Library, http://www.myspace.com/denver_evolver.

Today’s teenagers, often referred to as “digital natives” are often as at home in the virtual world as they are in the real one. Sites like MySpace give them a place to socialize virtually, to try out new ideas and to make something of their own–to decorate their virtual space in the same way they might their room or locker. As school officials acknowledge, new sites like MySpace pop up almost every day, and schools cannot expect to keep ahead and ban them all.

Instead of banning MySpace, schools should embrace the possibilities of this new medium. Instead of trying to protect young people by sheltering them from the world, we should encourage them to explore it and educate them about how to do so safely. Whenever I hear of attempts to keep teens and kids away from online content, I’m reminded of the old rhyme, “Mother dear, may I go for a swim?/Why, yes my darling daughter/Hang your clothes on a hickory limb/But don’t go near the water.” You wouldn’t try to keep a child safe from drowning by not teaching her to swim. You cannot keep kids safe online by trying to keep them off certain sites.

Sincerely,

Laura Crossett

Now get out there and say the same to the powers that be.

(net) freedom now!

Well, after announcing to the world at large (or at any rate to readers of this blog) that I’d be attending Michael Stephens‘s presentation at Dominican, I promptly forgot to go. This is as good an argument as any for why I still keep a paper calendar–when I actually write things down in it, I remember to do them. When I rely (as I did on this occasion) on multiple electronic reminders, I realize at 11:15, in the midst of packing books, that I meant to be somewhere half an hour ago. My apologies to Michael.

In other news, you have by now I am sure you have all heard about network neutrality.

net freedom now logo

Now that you’re up on the problem, why not do something about it? Free Press, the media reform group headed by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, has started a NetFreedomNow site where you can send a message to assorted CEOs and elected officials. My friend Emily has put together some snazzy graphics with which you can grace your web site.So go grab an image, plop it on your site, and link it to http://www.netfreedomnow.org!

the long tail of relief

I’m glad to hear that organizations are getting their act together and jumping in to do what Geaux Library Recovery set out to do. Now they’re trying to decide what to do with the site:

One idea is to use it to apply Michael McGrorty’s endangered libraries idea. Maybe a clearinghouse of information for libraries in crisis–any sort of crisis. ALA chose not to officially support a resolution on endangered libraries, for several reasons. My thought is that this would be a source for libraries that wanted to identify themselves as endangered. Mind you, it’s still all very much in the brainstorm stage. Since we have this space, we’d like to do something with it. Your ideas are appreciated. And, if shutting down is the best idea, we’ll honor that. –rochelle

Perhaps such a project will have a similar effect on the powers that be and ALA will get serious about libraries that are endangered by budget cuts. Well, one can dream.

I’ve been fascinated over the past few weeks to see not just the outpouring of aid to people and institutions on the Gulf Coast but also to see the varieties that aid has taken. You know about Geaux Library Recovery, and about ALA’s Adopt-a-Library program. You’ve probably also seen Radical Reference’s compilation of resources for Socially Responsible Katrina Relief. But there’s more.

The Neighborhood Story Project, which I wrote about a few weeks back, is looking for volunteers to “help get their local independent bookstore to take a box of these incredible books to sell as a way to raise money for relief and recovery, and as a way to get out the amazing stories of the people and neighborhoods of New Orleans.” Contact jamieschweser [at] yahoo.com for more information.

On September 8, I got an e-mail from Poets & Writers with a list (since added to) of how writers can help.

And then a few days later, someone from my old writing program forwarded this e-mail [thanks, pasta!] from Bret Lott, editor of The Southern Review at LSU.

Common Ground is running an incredible clinic (and then some) in Algiers, and Naomi Archer is writing up a storm of Real Reports of Katrina Relief from the ground.

And I could go on.

While I am as appalled as the next person by the level of disorganization and incompetence in the official response to the disasters of the last month, I’m simultaneously cheered by the many people–and the many kinds of people–who have come out to help. It pleases me to know that there are as many kinds of help as there are people affected. Perhaps it’s not enough–perhaps nothing ever could be enough–but it’s a start.

New Orleans stories

I’ve never been to New Orleans, though, as I’ve written elsewhere, I feel connected to it by way of water and the imagination. The closest I come to a real connection is this:

In high school I knew a guy named Jamie Schweser. He was a senior at one of the town’s high schools when I was a freshman at another, and I met him via the anti-war movement–the “first” Gulf War happened that year. He went on to do various things–he was involved with a pirate radio station and public access television and all kinds of activism, and he co-wrote a book called Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing with Abram Shalom Himelstein. Some time in the late 1990s or early 2000s, they both moved down to New Orleans and got active down there, and I’d get an occasional e-mail from Jamie. I haven’t heard from him in years. Just a few weeks ago, though, I read a piece in Publisher’s Weekly [sorry; only the abstract is available without a subscription] about what Abram Himelstein is up to now: working with kids in New Orleans on the Neighborhood Story Project, an oral history project, a writing workshop, and now, five books, all written by teenagers. I meant to write about this sooner; now, of course, one can’t send mail to or from New Orleans, and so you can’t order the books.

The other day, I got this e-mail of another New Orleans story from Ted Glick, via the Independent Progressive Politics Network mailing list:

One of the better pieces I’ve seen.Ted

—– Original Message —–
Sent: Friday, September 02, 2005 4:42 PM
Subject: Notes From Inside New Orleans

Thanks to all the loved ones and long-lost friends for your sweet notes of concern, offers of housing
and support, etc. Yes, I stayed through the storm and aftermath. I’m fine – much better off than most of
my brother and sister hurricane survivors. Below is my attempt to relay some of what I’ve seen these
last few days.

Please Forward

Notes From Inside New Orleans
by Jordan Flaherty
Friday, September 2, 2005

I just left New Orleans a couple hours ago. I traveled from the apartment I was staying in by boat to a
helicopter to a refugee camp. If anyone wants to examine the attitude of federal and state officials
towards the victims of hurricane Katrina, I advise you to visit one of the refugee camps.

In the refugee camp I just left, on the I-10 freeway near Causeway, thousands of people (at least 90%
black and poor) stood and squatted in mud and trash behind metal barricades, under an unforgiving
sun, with heavily armed soldiers standing guard over them. When a bus would come through, it
would stop at a random spot, state police would open a gap in one of the barricades, and people
would rush for the bus, with no information given about where the bus was going. Once inside (we
were told) evacuees would be told where the bus was taking them – Baton Rouge, Houston,
Arkansas, Dallas, or other locations. I was told that if you boarded a bus bound for Arkansas (for
example), even people with family and a place to stay in Baton Rouge would not be allowed to get
out of the bus as it passed through Baton Rouge. You had no choice but to go to the shelter in
Arkansas. If you had people willing to come to New Orleans to pick you up, they could not come
within 17 miles of the camp.

I traveled throughout the camp and spoke to Red Cross workers, Salvation Army workers, National
Guard, and state police, and although they were friendly, no one could give me any details on when
buses would arrive, how many, where they would go to, or any other information. I spoke to the
several teams of journalists nearby, and asked if any of them had been able to get any information
from any federal or state officials on any of these questions, and all of them, from Australian tv to local
Fox affiliates complained of an unorganized, non-communicative, mess. One cameraman told me “as
someone who’s been here in this camp for two days, the only information I can give you is this: get
out by nightfall. You don’t want to be here at night.”

There was also no visible attempt by any of those running the camp to set up any sort of transparent
and consistent system, for instance a line to get on buses, a way to register contact information or find
family members, special needs services for children and infirm, phone services, treatment for
possible disease exposure, nor even a single trash can.

To understand the dimensions of this tragedy, its important to look at New Orleans itself.

For those who have not lived in New Orleans, you have missed a incredible, glorious, vital, city. A
place with a culture and energy unlike anywhere else in the world. A 70% African-American city
where resistance to white supremacy has supported a generous, subversive and unique culture of
vivid beauty. From jazz, blues and hiphop, to secondlines, Mardi Gras Indians, Parades, Beads, Jazz
Funerals, and red beans and rice on Monday nights, New Orleans is a place of art and music and
dance and sexuality and liberation unlike anywhere else in the world.

It is a city of kindness and hospitality, where walking down the block can take two hours because you
stop and talk to someone on every porch, and where a community pulls together when someone is in
need. It is a city of extended families and social networks filling the gaps left by city, state and federal
governments that have abdicated their responsibility for the public welfare. It is a city where someone
you walk past on the street not only asks how you are, they wait for an answer.

It is also a city of exploitation and segregation and fear. The city of New Orleans has a population of
just over 500,000 and was expecting 300 murders this year, most of them centered on just a few,
overwhelmingly black, neighborhoods. Police have been quoted as saying that they don’t need to
search out the perpetrators, because usually a few days after a shooting, the attacker is shot in
revenge.

There is an atmosphere of intense hostility and distrust between much of Black New Orleans and the
N.O. Police Department. In recent months, officers have been accused of everything from drug
running to corruption to theft. In separate incidents, two New Orleans police officers were recently
charged with rape (while in uniform), and there have been several high profile police killings of
unarmed youth, including the murder of Jenard Thomas, which has inspired ongoing weekly protests
for several months.

The city has a 40% illiteracy rate, and over 50% of black ninth graders will not graduate in four years.
Louisiana spends on average $4,724 per child’s education and ranks 48th in the country for lowest
teacher salaries. The equivalent of more than two classrooms of young people drop out of Louisiana
schools every day and about 50,000 students are absent from school on any given day. Far too
many young black men from New Orleans end up enslaved in Angola Prison, a former slave
plantation where inmates still do manual farm labor, and over 90% of inmates eventually die in the
prison. It is a city where industry has left, and most remaining jobs are are low-paying, transient,
insecure jobs in the service economy.

Race has always been the undercurrent of Louisiana politics. This disaster is one that was
constructed out of racism, neglect and incompetence. Hurricane Katrina was the inevitable spark
igniting the gasoline of cruelty and corruption. From the neighborhoods left most at risk, to the
treatment of the refugees to the the media portrayal of the victims, this disaster is shaped by race.

Louisiana politics is famously corrupt, but with the tragedies of this week our political leaders have
defined a new level of incompetence. As hurricane Katrina approached, our Governor urged us to
“Pray the hurricane down” to a level two. Trapped in a building two days after the hurricane, we
tuned our battery-operated radio into local radio and tv stations, hoping for vital news, and were told
that our governor had called for a day of prayer. As rumors and panic began to rule, they was no
source of solid dependable information. Tuesday night, politicians and reporters said the water level
would rise another 12 feet – instead it stabilized. Rumors spread like wildfire, and the politicians and
media only made it worse.

While the rich escaped New Orleans, those with nowhere to go and no way to get there were left
behind. Adding salt to the wound, the local and national media have spent the last week demonizing
those left behind. As someone that loves New Orleans and the people in it, this is the part of this
tragedy that hurts me the most, and it hurts me deeply.

No sane person should classify someone who takes food from indefinitely closed stores in a
desperate, starving city as a “looter,” but that’s just what the media did over and over again. Sheriffs
and politicians talked of having troops protect stores instead of perform rescue operations.

Images of New Orleans’ hurricane-ravaged population were transformed into black, out-of-control,
criminals. As if taking a stereo from a store that will clearly be insured against loss is a greater crime
than the governmental neglect and incompetence that did billions of dollars of damage and
destroyed a city. This media focus is a tactic, just as the eighties focus on “welfare queens” and
“super-predators” obscured the simultaneous and much larger crimes of the Savings and Loan
scams and mass layoffs, the hyper-exploited people of New Orleans are being used as a scapegoat
to cover up much larger crimes.

City, state and national politicians are the real criminals here. Since at least the mid-1800s, its been
widely known the danger faced by flooding to New Orleans. The flood of 1927, which, like this
week’s events, was more about politics and racism than any kind of natural disaster, illustrated
exactly the danger faced. Yet government officials have consistently refused to spend the money to
protect this poor, overwhelmingly black, city. While FEMA and others warned of the urgent impending
danger to New Orleans and put forward proposals for funding to reinforce and protect the city, the
Bush administration, in every year since 2001, has cut or refused to fund New Orleans flood control,
and ignored scientists warnings of increased hurricanes as a result of global warming. And, as the
dangers rose with the floodlines, the lack of coordinated response dramatized vividly the callous
disregard of our elected leaders.

The aftermath from the 1927 flood helped shape the elections of both a US President and a
Governor, and ushered in the southern populist politics of Huey Long.

In the coming months, billions of dollars will likely flood into New Orleans. This money can either be
spent to usher in a “New Deal” for the city, with public investment, creation of stable union jobs, new
schools, cultural programs and housing restoration, or the city can be “rebuilt and revitalized” to a
shell of its former self, with newer hotels, more casinos, and with chain stores and theme parks
replacing the former neighborhoods, cultural centers and corner jazz clubs.

Long before Katrina, New Orleans was hit by a hurricane of poverty, racism, disinvestment,
deindustrialization and corruption. Simply the damage from this pre-Katrina hurricane will take
billions to repair.

Now that the money is flowing in, and the world’s eyes are focused on Katrina, its vital that
progressive-minded people take this opportunity to fight for a rebuilding with justice. New Orleans is
a special place, and we need to fight for its rebirth.

———————————————–
Jordan Flaherty is a union organizer and an editor of Left Turn Magazine (www.leftturn.org). He is not
planning on moving out of New Orleans.
———————————————–

Below are some small, grassroots and New Orleans-based resources, organizations and institutions
that will need your support in the coming months.

Social Justice:
www.jjpl.org
www.iftheycanlearn.org
www.nolaps.org
www.thepeoplesinstitute.org/
www.criticalresistance.org/index.php?name=crno_home

Cultural Resources:
www.backstreetculturalmuseum.com
www.ashecac.org/
http://198.66.50.128/gallery/
www.nolahumanrights.org
http://www.freewebs.com/ironrail/
http://www.girlgangproductions.com/

Current Info and Resources:
http://neworleans.craigslist.org/about/help/katrina_cl.html

I don’t imagine that Abram Himelstein, or Jamie Schweser, if he’s still there, are planning to move out of New Orleans either. I hope someday I’ll get to see their city. And I hope that they, and the people they know, are safe.

the world is not flat

I hate to break it to you, but, despite recent rumors to the contrary, the world is not flat.

The world is not flat at all: it is filled with dizzying heights that fall off into the deep, with shifting sands and fiery eruptions, with water and wind constantly carving the land into new shapes, and with vast expanses which a great many people perceive to be full of nothing. The world is bumpy, messy, variegated to the extreme, and it is bumpy not only in its physical terrain but also in the lives of its inhabitants, in all the sorts and conditions of humans who live on it.

Recently Celvio Derbi Casal, a library student from Brazil who has a blog, wrote to tell me a little about the public libraries there:

We have a very sad field here!! In my city (Porto Alegre, you may know because the World Social Forum was made here 3 times) and its a big city, the capital of the state, the Municipal Public Library has no computers, even for the staff, and the catolog is a card catalog (the old 7.5 x 12.5 cards!). There’s no money for acquisitions, and there’s only one librarian in charge. You can project this picture to the small towns, where there are no libraries sometimes.

So when I read the US blogs about virtual reference or online resources for public libraries, I live a wonderfull but distant dream, and wonder about when our libraries will pass to this condition.

We have wonderfull libraries here too, and very good eletronic information resources, but they are developed and shared only in the college, academic and specialized libraries. Be a public or school librarian here sometimes is an adventure like be an archaeologist, crossing tons of old stuff, searching for something with value.

Contrast that with some of the statistics on computers and the internet in US libraries, as reported at BlogJunction (see the full study from Florida State University)

  • 99.6% of public library outlets in the United States are connected to the Internet
  • 98.9% of public library outlets with a connection to the Internet provide public access to the Internet

Sounds good–but that’s still not the full story:

  • Only 14.1% of public library outlets report that there are always sufficient terminals to meet patron needs. Of the other outlets, 70.2% have insufficient terminals to meet patrons’ needs at certain times of the day, while 15.7% have insufficient terminals to meet patrons’ needs on a consistent basis
  • Most libraries do not have plans for keeping systems running. Nearly 70% of libraries have no set upgrade schedule for hardware, 77.4% have no set schedule for software, and 96.4% have no set schedule for connection speed
  • and, as Jessamyn noted recently, there are still libraries out there who don’t have any computer at all

I don’t think of the digital divide as a tired old cliche, but I also don’t think of it as a single thing. There is not one digital divide, there are many–as many divides as there are lines on a contour map of our bumpy, crazy world. People come into the library where I work every day to use our computers because they do not have computers (or internet connections) of their own at home. For these people, the divide is not ability but access. But othepeoplele come in each day who do not know how to use computers at all, who, if we were to plop them down in front of one of our machines, would not even know where to begin. And many people, of course, never come in to the library at all. Some of them, like many of the undergraduates I used to teach at the University of Iowa, have all the access to technology they could want but are remarkably lacking when it comes to interpreting and evaluating the information they find. Others are among the 21-23% of American adults who cannot read well enough to fill out a job application or read a picture book to their kids.

All of those people need things, often very different things. Some need computers; some need to learn how to use computers; some need help learning to interpret the things they find; most need some combination of all these things. If you stay in your own contour of the map and spend your time talking to other people who live at that same level, it may well appear to you that the world is flat, but it’s just not true.

When I was in junior high, I was taught that the United States was the world’s largest oil producer but also the world’s biggest oil importer and that the Soviet Union was the world’s biggest wheat producer but also the world’s biggest wheat importer. The world situation has changed since then, but the insane way in which its resources are distributed has not. The people with the greatest access to technology are also those who constantly seek more of it and who benefit most from many of the decisions that get made about technology. (A municipal wireless system is kind of neat, but it doesn’t do you a damned bit of good if you don’t have a wireless device, and I haven’t noticed Philadelphia running around handing out laptops to the poor). Libraries are one of the few places in the world where you can hope to have some flattening effect, but you can only do that if you are fully aware of thheightshs and the depths that surround you, and of all the gradations in between.