Banned Books Bollocks 2013

It’s that time of year again and this will be my fifth (fifth! My God!) post on Banned Books Week. While I have used another curse word in the title in previous editions, I thought I might switch it up to one of my favorite English (as in UK, not as language) curse words. My thoughts on the week have evolved as I’ve learned more about the week, how it is treated, and the circumstances around it. Eventually, I’ll tell you the whole story behind some of these thoughts, but that’s for another year day.

In seeing the pictures shared on social media of various banned book displays, I keep feeling like there is an element missing from those exhibits. There is lots of emphasis on the fact that the books have been challenged or banned and how subversive, notorious, or socially unacceptable they are, the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold approach to enticing people to consider reading them. But I haven’t seen is an explanations provided as to why those books have been challenged or banned. Not to put too fine a point on it, but isn’t one of the main reasons for the week is to talk about the controversy surrounding the content? It’s like asking about the contents of healthy meal and being told, “just eat it, it’s good for you”. Here, read this, someone else didn’t like it enough to try to get it removed somewhere for… reasons.

The only thing I’ve seen that has worked to address the underlying reasons has been Kelly Jensen’s excellent post on Bookriot. She gives a brief explanation as well as links to primary sources for some of the latest book challenges. These abstracts are short enough that I can see someone printing them out and adding them as a insert into the books on their display. The only thing I feel is missing is a closing argument as to why the person should read it anyway. “Here’s a book, here’s why people have challenged it, and here’s why you should read it.” And not one of those “make up your own mind” positions, but something more akin to reader’s advisory about the plot, characters, and the kind of story it tells. This is the kind of follow through that I believe is necessary to show the literary and artistic merits that are so commonly called upon as a defense of the work. Simply hanging a bunch of signs to denote their challenged or banned status is all style with no substance.

Beyond that, I think an important underlying principle that gets lost in the push for people to read these books is the freedom to discuss the ideas they represent. If the purpose of the event is the preservation of differing and possibly unpopular perspectives, then where is the call for dialogue? I can hear my cynical heart mocking me on this point, snickering while it says, “Oh yes, civil discourse on the internet. Good luck with that.” I concede that fact that there is a unhealthy amount of online discussions that split in the factions of “I’m right” versus “You’re an asshole”; and those that don’t start that way can very easily end up marching slowly towards Godwin territory.

Even more troubling to me is seeing some of my librarian peers who proclaim their love of intellectual freedom but react poorly when actually faced with differing viewpoints. It is not a trait unique to the library world, but it is one of believing in the freedom of expression so long as it is words of agreement. I’m not sure how people so eloquently manage such cognitive dissonance, but it’s pretty breathtaking to see in action. I’ll concede that the human mind is capable of many kinds of contradictions, but bragging how open minded you are while marginalizing those who don’t agree with you is still pretty damn amazing. To wit, it reminds of that famous quote from the television journalist Edward R. Murrow.

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

Even so, there should be a call for debate on the issues that get brought up related to the work. The issues that they face, the decisions the characters make, and the implications of their actions are all worthy of examination. Furthermore, when it comes to children’s, juvenile, and young adult literature, the content versus the relative maturity of the audience is also an important conversation to have. The middle ground is overshadowed by the reactions of the extremes, leaving very little room for compromise or dialogue. I know these aren’t new to anyone, but they seem to be discarded easily once the lines have been drawn.

For my part, I helped put together a national campaign to encourage people (librarians, library staff, the public, anyone) to report book challenges or removals to the Office of Intellectual Freedom at the ALA about two years ago. It’s still there, it’s still important, and I still hold out hope that people take a moment to be courageous and speak up, even if it is anonymously. Jessamyn West has a nice roundup as to what different groups are doing for Banned Books Week so take a moment to check it out.

Previous Banned Book Week posts: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012.

Oyster, The Netflix of Books

The latest buzz from the publishing world has been the release of an app called Oyster (aka the “Netflix of Books”). At $10 a month, this subscription service gets you (at the time of this post) access to about 100,000 titles. These titles are all from the only publisher on board right now, HarperCollins. There is no limit on the number of books that a person can view in a month. It’s more expensive than Amazon Prime but has better borrowing terms (Kindle Library allows for only 1 book per month). It’s only available for the iOS right now, but I’m sure they’ll be rolling out other platforms in the near future.

To a certain extent, the app was inevitable; if people can rent movies, then why not books? It was a matter of getting the content providers (namely, publishers) on board with the idea. A few years ago, this notion would have been unthinkable and seen as an impediment to the development of the eBook market. The push was to buy the books, not to borrow (or even rent) them. So what has changed?

I believe the factor that has changed is the value of user data; specifically, the collection of data related to reading habits. Amazon doesn’t hide the fact that it tracks the reader from how much of a book or article is read to how long people read to what parts of a book slow people down. But their numbers are proprietary, their giant industry trump card, and the fuel that is helping them make decisions about their own foray in the publishing world. This is the industry intelligence that the publishers who are not Amazon are lagging behind on.

In the past, there have been signals from the publishing world that they would look more favorably upon libraries if we allowed them to collect the same information about readers from eBook borrowers. They have been resoundingly turned down for a good number of reasons, the first and foremost being that of patron privacy. Amazon skirts this principle by having the transaction go through their website and making the person subject to their terms and conditions. The Nook is in unstable territory as its fate rests with Barnes & Noble and their storefronts. Apple isn’t as much of an option as their bookstore has gone soft. So, what kind of options are left for them?

I think that Oyster has great potential for the consumer by filling a desired niche, but I think that one of the main compelling reasons for publishers to provide their material is to collect their own data about readers. What can be learned about their audiences represents a gold mine for future business decisions, marketing forecasts, and targeted advertising that will help keep the publishing industry afloat in the coming years. It’s not that the titles aren’t worth trying to sell anymore, it’s that the reader information has become more valuable. The new economy isn’t so much about the product, but about how much you know about the people who use it.

EDIT: I originally wrote that it was cheaper than Amazon Prime. It’s not. I corrected that line. Thanks to Frank for pointing out my simple math error.  

National Badass Library Card Sign-Up Month, Reloaded

Two years ago, I got sidetracked on a blog post and made up something I called “National Badass Library Card Signup Month”. I created a bunch of images instead of writing a blog post that I had in my head since the inspiration for the images came easy and the words for the post were proving to be difficult. Some of the images reflect the memes of the day (Chuck Testa) while some have aged much better (animated library card Nyan Cat). I wanted to do something last year, but I ran out of mental energy. But, as you can probably guess where this post is going, I’m getting back on the saddle.

30 memes, 30 days.

That’s what I’m calling it. I made an image for each day of the month all related in some way to National Library Card Sign-up Month. Each day at noon (US Eastern Standard Time) starting on September 1st, an image will be posted to my Tumblr. They cover a vast array of meme themes from the classics to the contemporary with all manner of pop culture thrown between. It’s been fun bringing my love of libraries together with my love of memes.

Special thanks to my brother Pete for helping me refine jokes and pick memes. When the Woodworth brothers get together on something, it’s always a great time. Pete is a writer as well so be sure to check out his published works.

Don’t miss this!

The Eternal Clouds of the Anxious Mind

I have anxiety.

It may seem strange to some, but I labored over the wording of that first sentence. Other phrases like “live with”, “suffer from”, and “have been diagnosed with” didn’t seem to quite capture the nuance I was seeking. It’s not an unwanted roommate on equal footing with the rest of my mind and all I have to do is find a way to evict it. While there are times when I suffer from the symptoms that relate to anxiety, I don’t feel it warrants a term that is more aptly used to describe people in pain, torture, or other greater forms of physical or psychological duress. The diagnosis angle seems too impersonal and clinical for my preferences in approaching this topic as a blog post. While I won’t deny other people the right to use these terms for their own anxiety, I’m not a fan.

In combating the symptoms, I’ve been taking a low dose of anti-anxiety medication for the last few months. Prior to that, I had not been a big fan of the SSRI drug family. My first experience with these kinds of drugs was not the product of anxiety or depression, but as a migraine preventative. Where previous migraine bouts were limited to a couple of headaches over a couple of months then years apart, the migraines I experienced in my late 20’s decided to go full time. I was getting them every day or every other day which, combined with a visual aura followed by extreme light and noise sensitivity, puts a giant crimp on daily life. The SSRI I took then stopped them cold within a day and brought a scary health episode to a close. The downside while I was taking them was a lack of moods and insomnia, a combination that lead to lying awake in bed to think about why I didn’t have much emotional range. These aren’t exactly the best thoughts for lulling yourself to sleep each night. In later years, I took another drug from the SSRI group on a short term basis to deal with depression associated with my divorce. I had to switch medications because of the side effects which included those really bad thoughts they warn you about. While I would prefer not to be on medication, I can’t argue with the positive results with another drug from the same group this time. 

The mental health history of my family tree reads like the lineage of European nobility, for it is long and illustrious and apparently a tradition that is handed down from one generation to the next. I have three family members with paranoid schizophrenia diagnoses (a great uncle and two second cousins once removed). Beyond that, I’d have to take off my shoes to count the number of family members who have dealt with anxiety, depression, addiction, OCD, and other mental conditions over the course of their lives. Needless to say, family reunions are never dull.

There are times when I wonder how much (if at all) these mental illnesses influence my own mind. Do I have those occasional disturbing, haunting thoughts because I have an overactive imagination or it is the product of a dissociative condition? The realistic answer is former but the anxious mind doesn’t completely agree which is enough to put the splinter of doubt at the periphery. It shouldn’t be that way since I had an MRI of my brain done a couple years back when I was experiencing visual distortions every now and again. My neurologist went over the results and told me that my brain was structurally normal which also rules out other conditions. (Me, after finding out the results: “Good, I can now tell me I have a normal brain.” Neurologist, without missing a beat: “The structure is normal. This doesn’t cover function.”) 

I’ve wanted to write about anxiety for awhile because talking about it has always been helpful to me. The reality of acknowledgment always edges out any horrible possibilities that my mind can conjure while some obstacles just evaporate or become clearer by simply articulating them. The mental isolation, that all too often feeling that I am the only one in the world who can understand what it is like, melts away as others open up about their experiences. Sunshine, as they say, is the ultimate disinfectant and it has held true for me when it comes to anxiety. It’s not a silver bullet but it curtails the influence that anxiety can exert over me.

During his lifetime, Winston Chruchill referred to bouts of his depression as visits from his “black dog”. I wouldn’t call my anxiety that (mainly because I like dogs), but I can appreciate the frame of reference: something that comes and goes without much indication as to duration or frequency. Since my massive panic attack back in February, I’ve been on the march back towards the (relatively) normal life that I had before that time period. I’m much better than I was and continue to improve as time slowly marches that event further into my past and, yes, I still have a ways to go.

When and how it will make itself known in the future, I can’t possibly guess. But I will try to stick to that little phrase I picked up during my semester abroad in Australia so many years ago:

“No worries.”

Programming Unconference Northeast 2013

I’m proud to say that I’m one of the unconference unorganizers (as we have dubbed ourselves) for Programming Unconference Northeast on September 27th at the Darien Public Library in Darien, Connecticut. It should be a great day of meeting and discussing programming topics and issues with my fellow librarians as well as hearing Lisa Carlucci Thomas give the keynote. Since I helped organize a school librarian conference a year and a half back, I’ve grown to love the format. It really helps to connect with other librarian and learn from their experience as well as provide your own knowledge to them.

My partner in crime is Erin Shea from Darien PL who has been gracious enough to put up with my pestering over the last couple of months. The original idea for a programming unconference originated from her and my friend Janie Hermann from Princeton PL. With any luck, there is going to be a Jersey one in early 2014 , but this was a good way to give it a trial run. I’m really looking forward to it and I know it’s going to be a blast!

For those interested, there is more information (including registration) on the website. This is a free conference which will also be providing a lunch for attendees. Yeah, it’s full of lots of win!

Hope to see you there!

Guns, Porn, and Library Makerspaces

A few months back, the story that a 3D printer created a working (albeit fragile and limited) plastic gun shot around the news in libraryland. As I recall, the reaction in my social circles was swift and decidedly against allowing library 3D printers for such a purpose, despite the fine print about the economics and viability of the guns. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of how some librarians can be in love with the First Amendment and abandon the Second as if the Bill of Rights was a buffet. The argument could made that words and ideas are far more dangerous than guns, but this post isn’t about that.

In thinking about 3D printers and what kind of limits should be imposed on them, I started wondering about the other big makerspace setup in libraries: digital media labs. While I can see weapons being restricted or banned on library 3D printers (whether it is reasonable or not is another matter), what kinds of limits would librarians place on media creation? What kinds of limits exist already? Could a person record a music track that has violent and/or sexual content? What about visual art with the same content? Granted, some of these examples are well within the boundaries of the librarian free speech ideals, but here’s the question I’m leading up to:

Could someone use a library digital media lab to create and/or edit a pornographic movie?

On one hand, limitations against this kind of material are already established. Most public libraries don’t have a subscription to Playboy (the gold standard of pornography in libraries) and have generally avoided sexual materials due to theft and vandalism. Another rationale is that it would be more trouble than its worth, a case in which the public policy trumps the First Amendment and freedom of expression. There’s nothing wrong with picking your battles, especially in the long game of public relations and budgeting.

On the other hand, there have been steps taken to allow people to view pornography on the computers at the library. Why would the creation of it be any different? This might be some of my libertarian roots showing, but what consenting adults do is their business. (I’m sure this point can be bogged down by a million ‘what ifs’, so I’ll concede that it’s not a blanket pass on all content.) If we allow people to put sexual content in their music and visual art, why not be able to make an amateur adult film in our digital media labs?

Like many grey areas in libraryland, I’m sure there is going to be a diverse reaction to this end of freedom of expression. Just like some libraries ban guns and others welcome them, I’m sure there will be a similar dichotomy when it comes to restrictions (or lack thereof) on creating adult content, be it music, art, or film.

My hope is that that libraries will side on the less restrictive side, favoring the freedoms (expression, intellectual) that we hold so dear. Libraries should be the organization that gives people permission to be themselves, no matter what the prevailing societal and cultural winds dictate. It’s in our very nature to collect and protect material that which is deemed unsavory; this ideal should be extended to the individual.

Hurtling Towards Relevance

In the last few years, the navel gazing around the question of the library’s relevance in modern life makes an regular appearance. There isn’t anything in particular right now that made me think of the topic, but it crossed my mind towards the end of last week. In running errands last weekend, the thought occurred to me that the library isn’t pulling away from the information trends of contemporary society, but rather we are squarely in the path. It’s all in a matter of how you measure it.

In essence, I see it under the umbrella perspective as to how information is treated and managed. Copyright and intellectual property are the elephant in the room for the economic vitality of not only the United States, but the world. It’s a simple idea (the benefits of the creator versus the general public) that has become a deeply complicated global problem subject to the sway of money, politics, and power. It’s part of the emergence of the knowledge economy, one that is based on services that essentially collect, process, analyze, and package information. Manufacturing is never going to be what it once was in the United States, not when Chinese and Bangladeshi companies will do the same job cheaper. But the products of creativity and intellect are ones generally do not need geography, so rights and ownership are the hotly contested principles that should easily fall into the library realm. This is a chance for librarians to make the case on behalf of the public for laws and regulations that make sense in the digital world, both in rewarding the creator and in making their creation available as widely as possible.

This connects into the academic world with announcements such as the University of California faculty adopting an open access mandate. The elemental nature of this part and parcel to the librarian ideal of information access. The tide of Open Access (in its various incarnations) represents a breaking of the knowledge silos that keep knowledge within the confines of paywalls and embargos. It’s an exciting prospect in which researchers and academics have the possibility of getting new discoveries faster. It’s an opportunity for librarians to make new and better connections between research areas and data sets as well as the latest results.

There are other connections to make here, especially in the physical sense. Broadband access to rural locations are part of our information access ideals as well as essential in the aforementioned knowledge economy. This physical end of the digital divide plays a real role in the education and economics of the areas that are beyond the fiber lines. The triumphs of digital education are lost in the slower signal of the DSL or modem squeal. Libraries are common community focal points for those looking to reach the online world; this is our chance to push for them to meet this most basic of needs.

I’m certain there are others, but I think this illustrates my point. If we look to our old metrics for determining relevance, we are going to lose. But if we look at the issues that are pressing right now, we could not possibly be more relevant. A information professional in an information world; it really doesn’t get any more front-and-center than this. The only thing irrelevant here is doubt.