Saturday, September 25, 2010

A library is a kind of heaven

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, libraries, archival, information science

"I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library" – Jorge Luis Borges

Now that I am an information scientist, I work with librarians. They've become some of my favorite people. I used to travel a lot for my work, and I still take a business trip about every year or two. It usually happens that I have at least one free evening, and I always go to a library, whatever is closest to the hotel where I am staying. It beats watching cable TV in the hotel room, and I've always been more of a reader anyway. Usually I find the current issue of a journal or magazine and read a few miscellaneous articles, but if I have more time, I'll scare up a smaller book from the "recent acquisitions" shelf and read the whole thing at a sitting.

On a few occasions I've been in the middle of some research, and took advantage of the collection in a larger library that I happened to be near. Usually, though, for research I go to a nearby library that has what I am looking for. Books and collections about any subject are easy to find now that Google Books has a "Find in a Library" feature. That is how I found that the nearest library to my home with "Mayflower Families Through Five Generations" (I needed volumes 2 and 11, for starters), is at the Corbit-Calloway Memorial Library in Odessa, Delaware. That's a lovely small library with very hospitable librarians.

There are also numerous special collections of interest in the college libraries along "University Row", that stretch of PA Highway 3 that is anchored at one end by Drexel University and at the other by Westchester University, and has something like thirty small universities and colleges strung along it (including Villanova, which isn't so small). But lest I go on to fill a large post with my own library stories, let's get to the book.

This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson belatedly peers into the huge transition that libraries everywhere are undergoing, now that it seems everything is being put on the Internet. The title contains a double pun: "Overdue" is a self-reference, and librarianship is the art of saving everything and cataloging it so it can be found again.

What do librarians do when they are not checking books in or out and levying fines (and saying "Shh!")? A great deal more than people think. A library is a kind of museum. One could think of it as a museum of stuff you can read, and take home to read at your leisure. The cover of the book shows a librarian decked out as Supergirl, bursting out of a pile of books while grasping a Kindle™. This is only part of the message the author wants to convey, however, and by the end of the book she has circled back to a love of less virtual materials.

Most of the book chronicles the rapid changes to libraries as everything goes online. Gone are the banks and banks of card catalogs, where you could search by author, title or subject. I can search the online catalog via the local library's web site (or any library's web site). The space thus saved is taken up by extra tables to hold computers for public use. In some libraries, certain older collections have been discarded in favor of paying for access to online databases that contain most (but usually not all) of the same material in virtual form. And if a book is available as an e-Book, you don't even need to check out a paper book. If you don't have a Kindle™ or similar device, or a PDA or phone with a reader app, you can download to your computer and get an add-on for your browser that displays e-books.

Virtual access doesn't cover all the bases, not by a long shot. Most e-books are black/white only, so color illustrations lose a lot, and if care was not taken during scanning to de-screen photographs, the resulting aliasing can make the images undecipherable. Then there are books with "nontraditional" content: scratch-n-sniff panels, pop-ups, and fold-outs come to mind. Overdue! contains one long chapter on zines, particularly zines produced by librarians. A zine is a self-published magazine, typically issued as just a few hand-produced copies (we used to call this samizdat). Many, and particularly those produced by librarians, contain items you can't scan: buttons, pop-ups, stapled-in pressed flowers, upholstery or even carpet samples…

This brings up a side story I just have to tell here. The research department libraries where I work issue laboratory notebooks to scientists, where they enter their results, have each page dated and witnessed, and return them to the library periodically to be microfilmed. This is important for evidence in patent disputes that can arise years later. The advent of cheap printing and cheap copying has resulted in some issues that cause our microfilmers fits. Some scientists seem to think they need to squeeze all the results of a whole year, or even their entire career, onto the pages of a single 156-page notebook. So they print everything rather small and tape these little printouts, dozens to a page, in overlapping fashion. I have seen notebooks that started out 7/8" (2.2 cm) thick with the binding stretched to accommodate five or six inches of content. To microfilm the book, each taped-on printout has to be filmed, so it can take an hour to film one "page". This is a significant reason that research departments everywhere are introducing electronic lab notebooks and requiring that all content be rendered in PDF form; PDF format is the new "virtual microfilm".

And this points up matters taken up in the latter part of the book. A collection of someone's letters can be a pain to archive and curate (I know; my parents' letters during WWII take up twenty binders). But how do we preserve the e-mails of someone, particularly if they tended to delete a lot? And with MS Word or Word Perfect being used to write and edit manuscripts, how is a later student to know the creative process behind a writer's book or article? Time was, you had a series of drafts, but unless a writer has saved intermediate versions of a word processing file, the only item in existence is the finished product, in .doc or .pdf form. Now what?

By the end of the book, Ms Johnson has become jaded with the thrill of the digital takeover of our libraries, and is clearly longing for the feel and smell of paper-based collections. Research libraries everywhere still collect the tangible memorabilia of memorable people. I visited the Ronald Reagan library in Simi Valley, California a few years ago. I looked at some of the items on display. While I might be able to read this or that old letter just as well over the Internet, there was something about being there, in the presence of a paper that the President labored over as he wrote to someone, that the Internet cannot provide.

I have a semi-famous relative (a cousin of my grandmother). Last year I contacted the library where her letters are kept, wondering if they might have correspondence from my grandmother to her, when both were young women. They didn't have anything quite that old, but perked up quite a bit when I remarked that I had letters written by her when she was 18 or so. Eventually, I produced good scans of the letters and sent them color prints and a DVD with the images. They are really hoping I'll pass along the originals some day, which I expect to do if it happens that none of my grandmother's great-grandchildren want the materials. There is a bit of a thrill in handling and conversing over such artifacts. This is why I call libraries a kind of museum.

Love your local library. They are changing a lot, but the fundamental stuff of being a librarian is not changing: they want to help. And they can help. They have resources, with which they are very familiar, that we can seldom imagine. If you have an interest in something, anything, go ask a librarian about it. Chances are, you'll learn something new, something surprising, even something quite satisfying that you could not have found any other way.

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