Posts Tagged ‘Books’

Libraries: reinvention and the digital underclass

Posted: Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 12:45 pm
By: Tim Gebhart
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A couple unrelated national items last week drew my attention because they came on the heels of a local news item that I found impressive.

In a syndicated story, the LA Times looked at how libraries are “reinventing” themselves as they “struggle to stay relevant.” Although I believe libraries will always be relevant, they are coping with changes wrought by the digital age. The story notes that e-book collections at U.S. libraries grew nearly 60% between 2005 and 2008 while print collections grew less than 1% during the same period.

Yet the growth of digital technology caused Jason Perlow at ZDNet to consider the risk of creating a “digital underclass.” I’m somewhat taken back by Perlow (or the headline writer) referring to this arising “when the libraries die,” particularly when the post recognizes how unlikely it is that 10 years from now everyone will have their own handy — and affordable — digital reader. Ensuring access to books and information is what makes the wonderful institution of the free public library a significant element of any community.

The role of libraries and their reinvention is, I think, documented by what Siouxland Libraries has seen since renovating and expanding its main branch. The first six months since the main branch reopened to the public saw record use. During that time, the main library had close to 7,000 visitors a day and patrons borrowed nearly 267,000 items, a 17 percent increase over the same time period in the last year of normal operation. It’s clear the demand isn’t just for printed material. For example, there were almost 54,000 sessions of computer use during that period, meaning the computers there are being used roughly 300 times a day.

Although I’m still an ink and paper kind of guy, even I have checked out e-books onto my Nook from the library’s collection. Plainly, the usage statistics indicate not only that the library remains relevant but that it is apparently handling reinvention quite well so far.

A surprising but pleasing statistic

Posted: Thursday, September 9, 2010 at 9:37 am
By: Tim Gebhart
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When I first saw something about Bowker releasing a new research report “on who buys books and why,” I was thinking about a post on how I fit — or didn’t fit — the mold. But then a particular statistic grabbed me:

32% of the books purchased in 2009 were from households earning less than $35,000 annual [sic] and 20% of those sales were for children’s books.

It’s very refreshing to see that, even in a recession-plagued economy, those who may be struggling still are wiling to purchase books for themselves and their children. Given that the Census Bureau indicates the median household income of every state in 2008 exceeded that $35,000 figure, it is gratifying to see that one-third of books are being purchased by those who fall below the median.

This doesn’t mean I’m no longer going to support libraries and organizations that get books into the hands of children. Likewise, no one would suggest a family skip mortgage, rent or utility payments to buy books. But I think this shows people understand just how important books are in the overall scheme of things.

Library budget proposal troubling

Posted: Friday, July 23, 2010 at 12:11 pm
By: Tim Gebhart
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I about fell out of my chair reading the local daily this morning. I knew the mayor had unveiled his 2011 budget but I was shocked when I read he was proposing cutting the library budget by 44 percent. Since I was still on my first cup of coffee, I decided to hold off on completely exploding until I saw the actual budget proposal.

Once I actually reviewed the proposal, I remained irritated enough to dash off an email to the at large members of the City Council and the one from my district. (Much of what follows comes from that email.) Granted, the vast majority of the cuts come in the building area. If that means I need to wait a while longer for the new Westside library, I can understand that. But some of the other proposed cuts are quite disheartening.

For example, the mayor proposes to totally eliminate the summer reading tutoring program for children. I can’t imagine the program is that costly. Perhaps there is another source of funds for this program but, if not, it appears we are unwilling to invest in the future of this community but are willing to place budget cuts on the backs of those who may need it most. Likewise, the proposal totally cuts funds for equipment ($1.1 million, although that may reflect pushing back the Westside library) and, unbelievably, reduces the amount to acquire books and A/V items by more than half. This is despite the fact the “Need to Know” section of this portion of the proposal already acknowledges, “Continued reductions in expenditures for library materials inhibits ability to meet customer demand.”

Now I understand there’s some impact from “holdbacks” earlier this year and other matters that may not make the comparative figures totally accurate. At the same time, anyone who goes to the main library or the branches (and I do a lot) will see heavy usage at almost any time, particularly in the computer area. An American Library Association study released earlier this year indicated that since the recession local libraries have “become a lifeline.” The statistics the budget proposal itself contains shows that may well be the case with Siouxland Libraries. Computer use has doubled in five years. More than 190,000 people a year use the library. The number of registered borrowers increased nearly seven percent from 2008 to 2009 alone while the number of items borrowed per capita increased 15 percent over the last five years.

I know money is tight and, admittedly, libraries are high on my list of priorities. Yet while I have long believed our library is a shining diamond for my city, I understand the City needs to be fiscally responsible. If that means building projects or non-essential maintenance is delayed, so be it. But to cut appropriations for equipment and acquisitions is the opposite of what we should be doing in today’s economy. Libraries are a crucial part of our quality of life and directly impact some of the less advantaged in our community.

Granted, books aren’t roads and streets but not only can they teach people how to build those roads, I believe they take us a lot more places and a lot further in life. Besides, it’s far less costly to repair a bumpy road than an illiterate child or adult.

Should there be a fee to borrow library books?

Posted: Monday, June 28, 2010 at 10:43 pm
By: Tim Gebhart
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A British author told the BBC last week that in light of the impact of government budget cuts, libraries should consider charging a small fee for checking out a book. Michael Jecks, who bills himself as “Master of the Medieval Murder Mystery,” suggested a charge of 15 pence (currently about 22 cents). He doesn’t believe the fee should be universal, suggesting those under the age of 18 or on means-tested benefits be exempt.

There’s no question budget concerns exist for U.S. libraries. According to the American Library Association, 24 states reported cuts in state funding for public libraries between fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2010 and nearly half were more than 11 percent. Significantly, that reflects state funding. The vast majority of funding for public libraries comes at the local level, where finances certainly are no better. In fact, the fiscal 2008 public libraries survey indicates Siouxland Libraries received 96.5 percent of its funding from local government. By the way, the Census Bureau reported earlier this year that in 2008 just under 25 percent of American households had at least one person getting means-tested government benefits.

Are borrowing fees something public libraries should consider? Some fees already exist. For example, Siouxland Libraries charges nonresidents a “membership” fee between $5 and $6 month to borrow materials, depending on the length of the membership. Still, the concept of charging for library books goes against the grain of our views of public libraries. We tend to consider free public libraries in almost the same vein as free public education (and, from my perspective, for good reason). Still, most scholars agree that publicly funded free libraries were a 19th century invention for America. Great impetus came from Andrew Carnegie, who provided funding for libraries in more than 1,400 American communities. Among the conditions for those funds was that the community annually provide 10 percent of the cost of construction to support library operations and the library provide free service to all.

There is some surface appeal in Jecks’s thought that borrowing fees are “just a small contribution” towards funding libraries and “it’s not the sort of amount which is going to break anybody’s bank.” Certainly, exempting those under 18 and, for lack of a better term, the needy makes sense. Still, what are the chances requiring someone to prove they’re receiving government support will discourage them from checking out material? Or that someone slightly above whatever standard is set may be in a situation where it’s a choice between checking out library books and a half gallon of milk? Quite frequently, these are the people who may be most in need of what libraries offer. In fact, this year’s State of America’s Libraries report from the ALA concluded that since the recession, local libraries have “become a lifeline.”

User fees make sense for certain things, such as swimming pools or a surcharge on tickets to a sporting or cultural event held in a government-funded facility. But libraries are more than just a quality of life issue; they are crucial to a community’s strength and survival. As someone said earlier this year, “Cuts to libraries during a recession are like cuts to hospitals during a plague.” Among the worst things we could do is reduce public support and try to replace it with alternatives that could do more harm than good.

New proof of why kids need books at home

Posted: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 at 12:12 pm
By: Tim Gebhart
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Although there’s undoubtedly a self-congratulatory element at play, avid readers will say they’ve long believed what a study across 27 nations has confirmed: having books at home is extremely important for children. According to the study’s abstract, “Children growing up in homes with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class. This is as great an advantage as having university educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father. It holds equally in rich nations and in poor; in the past and in the present; under Communism, capitalism, and Apartheid[.]”

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Nevada, Australian National University and UCLA over a 20 year period and data from more than 70,000 people. It concluded that the difference between being raised in a home without books compared to being raised in a home with a 500-book library has as great an effect on the level of education a child will attain as having parents who are barely literate (3 years of education) compared to having parents who have a university education (15 or 16 years of education).

But a 500-book library isn’t necessary. Mariah Evans of the University of Nevada-Reno said that as few as 20 books in the home still has a significant impact on how far a child goes with their education — and the more books you add, the greater the benefit.

There is, of course, some variation among the nations studied. In some countries, such as China, having 500 or more books in the home results in 6.6 years of additional education. In the United States, that figure is 2.4 years, less than the study-wide 3.2-year average advantage but still an important gain. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the study found that children of lesser-educated parents benefit the most from having books in the home.

Still, the bottom line is that getting books into the hands and homes of children is crucial for educational success. Some of us are fortunate enough to grow up surrounded by books. Not all children are so lucky. Yet because the ultimate return on our investment is so enormous, we need to figure out more and better ways to get books into the hands and homes of children.

In one brain cell and out the other

Posted: Wednesday, May 5, 2010 at 12:27 pm
By: Tim Gebhart
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Everyone probably has a couple self-acknowledged oddities or failings we wonder if anyone else shares. It’s always a relief to find out that other people are in the same boat. So while plenty of people have been talking about Reading in a Digital Age by Sven Birkerts in the latest issue of The American Scholar, what struck me most may not have been as significant to many other people.

See, I’ve got this thing about memory. I’m always amazed at the stuff other people remember that may, at best, barely ring a bell in my mind. So the following paragraph of the essay really grabbed me:

Effects and impacts [of a novel] change constantly, and there’s no telling what, if anything, I will find myself preserving a year from now. But even now, with the scenes and characters still available to ready recall, I can see how certain things start to fade and others leave their mark. The process of this tells on me as a reader, no question. With [a recently finished] novel—and for me this is almost always true with fiction—the details of plot fall away first, and so rapidly that in a few months’ time I will only have the most general précis left. I will find myself getting nervous in party conversations if the book is mentioned, my sensible worry being that if I can’t remember what happened in a novel, how it ended, can I say in good conscience that I have read it? Indeed, if I invoke plot memory as my stricture, then I have to confess that I’ve read almost nothing at all, never mind these decades of turning pages.

I couldn’t count the number of times a minor sense of panic has set in when someone asks me about a book I’ve read. Even if it hasn’t been years ago, I often have a hard time recalling plots, character names and, like Birkerts, sometimes even how a book ended. It just doesn’t take long at all for even significant details to evaporate from my brain cells. So when someone like Birkerts, who isn’t that much older than me, “confesses” to the same experience, I delightedly thought, “I’m not the only one!”

Yet even my parochial pleasure relates to one of the main themes in the essay. Birkerts is certain that “reading has done a great deal for me even if I cannot account for most of it” and that he knows “a great deal without knowing what I know.” I often feel the same. I may not be able to tap into a particular memory or a particular book for the source of something I know or believe, but that doesn’t mean the book left no trace of having been read.

Perhaps this situation exists because of the number of books we read and the fact our brain has to shove other stuff aside as we assimilate the new. Regardless, it’s reassuring to see that even though a “lifetime of reading … maps closely to a lifetime of forgetting” I’m not alone in knowing the utter enjoyment and benefits of reading are more important than whether my memory cells are faulty.

A decade’s worth of banned books

Posted: Wednesday, April 14, 2010 at 12:07 pm
By: Tim Gebhart
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In the midst of National Library Week, the American Library Association has released both its list of the 10 most frequently challenged books of 2009 and the top 100 banned/challenged books of 2000-2009.

Just as with the bestseller lists, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is number one on all-decade all-star team, so to speak. And it’s still amazing to see what shows up in the top 25 of the list. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, first published in 1937, ranks fifth on the decade’s list. Other classics include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (14th), Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (19th) and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (21st). Even though English curricula recognize the worth of these novels, they still get attacked by book banners. That seems a sad commentary on intellectual and personal freedom.

Rowling may have a contemporary on the 2009 list. The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer is new to the 2009 list. It’s “religious viewpoint” is one of the reasons it is challenged. And what is that religious viewpoint? Evidently, it’s that, like Harry Potter, there are “supernatural” elements to the stories. Also new to the list is My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. Lauren Myracle’s best-selling young adult novel series TTYL, written entirely in the style of instant messaging, headed the list.

Seven books actually fell off last year’s most challenged list: His Dark Materials trilogy (series) by Philip Pullman; Scary Stories (series) by Alvin Schwartz; Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya; Gossip Girl (series) by Cecily von Ziegesar; Uncle Bobby’s Wedding by Sarah S. Brannen; The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini; and Flashcards of My Life by Charise Mericle Harper. Here’s the complete 2009 list with the reasons for the challenges:

  1. TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series), Lauren Myracle (Reasons: nudity, sexually explicit, offensive language, unsuited to age group, drugs.
  2. And Tango Makes Three, Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson (Reasons: homosexuality).
  3. The Perks of Being A Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky (Reasons: homosexuality, sexually explicit, anti-family, offensive language, religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group, drugs, suicide).
  4. To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee (Reasons: racism, offensive language, unsuited to age group).
  5. Twilight (series), Stephenie Meyer (Reasons: sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group).
  6. Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (Reasons: sexually explicit, offensive language, unsuited to age group).
  7. My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult (Reasons: sexism, homosexuality, sexually explicit, offensive language, religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group, drugs, suicide, violence).
  8. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things, Carolyn Mackler (Reasons: sexually explicit, offensive language, unsuited to age group).
  9. The Color Purple, Alice Walker (Reasons: sexually explicit, offensive language, unsuited to age group).
  10. The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier (Reasons: nudity, sexually explicit, offensive language, unsuited to age group).

I can occasionally understand an “unsuited to age group” complaint. Particularly in the school context, though, it seems far more sensible to allow students whose parents object to read an alternate title rather then have one or a couple families decide the curriculum and what everyone else’s children can read. Likewise, while requiring parental permission in school or public libraries may dissuade some kids from reading those books, it is a far less restrictive alternative than depriving access to all readers of a particular age.

The ALA defines a challenged book as one where there is a “formal, written complaint filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.” And remember, one of the 2009 challenges was in the Sioux Falls School District.

Now they’re banning dictionaries

Posted: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 8:04 am
By: Tim Gebhart
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Too often supposed moral outrage deprives both individuals and government bodies of common sense. The latest case in point? First, a California school district removed a dictionary from all all school shelves after a parent complained about a student finding a definition of “oral sex” in it. Now, the Menifee Union School District is forming a committee to review whether dictionaries containing the definitions for sexual terms should be permanently banned from the district’s classrooms.

The dictionaries at issue, the Merriam-Webster’s 10th edition, are used as reference works in fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms and the concern is whether they are “age-appropriate.” The dictionary is college level but was purchased for the classrooms because there are students who read significantly above their grade levels.

So what is the definition that got one (repeat, one) parent so hot and bothered?

Main Entry: oral sex
Function: noun
Date: 1973
: oral stimulation of the genital

Given how racy that definition is, the school district should also consider banning computers. After all, the online definition adds the words and has links to the definitions of “cunnilingus” and “fellatio.” And teachers better not ask any of these kids to learn about or do a paper on Bill Clinton or else the schools will need to consider banning newspapers, magazines and encyclopedias.

No doubt there’s plenty of other “objectionable” words in this and other dictionaries in the school, such as prostitute, intercourse, penis or masturbation. Does that justify removing or editing all the dictionaries, even the ones in the libraries? Since when does hiding words mean the acts they describe don’t occur or that kids don’t learn about them?

I do have one suggestion. While the school district looks for those objectionable words, there’s a few others it may want to look up, such as ignorance, overreaction, irrational and asinine.

Beware the book review cyberslums

Posted: Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 4:21 pm
By: Tim Gebhart
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For those who don’t know, my personal blog tends to focus on books, reading and book reviews. Thus, you would think I would automatically hail the advent of a new interweb book review site, especially one created by a well-respected national magazine. But I can’t say The New Republic did much to entice me when it announced its new online book review, The Book.

In an online letter to “Friends of Books and Writers,” executive editor Isaac Chotiner tells readers that the site is a supplement to the magazine’s print material. Why is TNR adding such a supplement? In part because of “the absence of any site for the serious consideration of serious books is also a fact of the web.” Now it doesn’t really bother me that much if, for whatever reason, TNR doesn’t think I seriously consider serious books. But evidently Mr. Chotiner has never heard of sites such as the 10-year-old the complete review, my friends at Words Without Borders or even the more recent Barnes & Noble Review.

Yet that isn’t what really bothers me. Rather, it’s this portion of his letter: “We are not slumming here, or surrendering to the carnival of the web. Quite the contrary. We are hoping to offer an example of resistance to it. … Here you will find criticism, not blogging; pieces, not posts.” Nor does Mr. Chotiner appear to be the only one at The Book with such view. In an October introductory letter sent by email, the TNR‘s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, announced that the site’s reviews “will not be blog posts. Again: They will not be blog posts.”

So, we have a twist on the longstanding print v. “lit blogs” discussion. A print outlet launches a lit blog but, of course, because of who and what it is, it isn’t really a lit blog. It has serious material and is inherently superior. After all, even if I review the same books, I do not do criticism, I “blog.” I don’t write reviews, I write “posts.” Because of those distinctions, anyone who reads a review on my blog is “slumming, or surrendering to the carnival of the web.”

Now I realize my lit crit skills pale in comparison to Messrs. Chotiner and Wieseltier or many of the contributors to TNR. I have frequently called myself an “illiterati.” I also realize things aren’t always all that serious around my blog. But thank goodness the status of book bloggers has been confirmed by the powers that be. Thank goodness TNR will “offer an example of resistance” to what I and others do. Thank goodness it will rescue readers from tawdry book bloggers.

Don’t get me wrong. I agree that the demise of dedicated print book reviews means we need and should welcome additional online book reviews. The more the merrier (although I’d have hoped TNR didn’t have such preconceived notions about the subhuman status of book bloggers). I guess all I can really hope is that The Book doesn’t plan on destroying the slums in order to save them.

Review: Palin Book Lacks Intelligence, Analysis, Wit, Realism

Posted: Sunday, January 3, 2010 at 5:28 am
By: Cory Allen Heidelberger
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I cite, without editorial comment, the review of citizen Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue, newly posted by my friend and new Bard of White Owl Mr. Matthew J. Trask of Hubba’s House:

…[Going Rogue] displays no intelligence, no analysis, no wit, and no realism. I really hate to say this, but it’s Chicken Soup for the Political Soccer Mom’s Soul.

There are no grammatical errors or errors of syntax, no misspellings and the paragraphs and chapters all line up nicely. It’s an easy read, too easy, like a glossy happy sixth grade textbook. I have read Civil War era “Lost Cause” treatises that were more realistic than this. It’s “rah rah go Alaska/America” with pedantic descriptons of Alaskan scenery, a few brief gushing sentences on Alaskan historical figures (William Seward,) and the most generic of quotes scattered here and there. For nuts on the fruitcake, we get the occasional unfunny soccer mom joke, not as in offensive, as in simply not funny [Matthew Trask, "Book Review: Going Rogue by Sarah Palin," Hubba's House, 2010.01.02].

Drop by Hubba’s House to read the full review and leave your comments. Horseman, bibliophile, and imminent groom Mr. Trask is always happy to discuss literature and the affairs of this great nation.