Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians

#64, July 28, 2000.


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Guru Interviews

  1. Tara Calishain
  2. Jenny Levine, part I
  3. Jenny Levine, Part II
  4. Reva Basch
  5. Sue Feldman
  6. Jessamyn West
  7. Debbie Abilock
  8. Kathy Schrock
  9. Greg Notess
  10. William Hann
  11. Chris Sherman
  12. Gary Price
  13. Barbara Quint

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Wanna See Your Name in Lights?

Or at least on this page, anyway? I'd like to print here your contributions as well as mine. As you've noticed, articles are brief, somewhere between 200 and 500 words -- something to jog people's minds and get their own good ideas flowing. I'd also be happy to run other people's contributions to the regular features like Favorite Sites on _____. I'll pay you the same rate I pay me: nothing.

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Visit My Other Sites

My page on all things book-related. NEW STUFF ADDED in January

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Best Information on the Net
The directory I built for O'Keefe Library, St. Ambrose University, still my favorite pit stop on the information highway. .

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My Word's Worth
a weekly column on books, words, libraries, American culture, and whatever happens to interest me.

Subject Index to My Word's Worth at
myword/subindex.html <

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My personal page

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SUBJECT INDEX to Past Issues

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Neat New Stuff I Found This Week
July 28: roller coasters, travel books, faq files, and more.

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My resume
Or why you might want to hire me for speaking engagements or workshops.

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What IS Ex Libris?

The purpose and intended scope of this e-zine -- always keeping in mind that in response to readers, I may add, subtract, and change features.

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Highlights from Previous Issues:

My Favorite Sites on___:

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My Rules of Information

  1. Go where it is
  2. The answer depends on the question
  3. Research is a multi-stage process
  4. Ask a Librarian
  5. Information is meaningless until queried by human intelligence


Mary Ann Boyno, Cranford (NJ) High School Library,

The YALSA panel at ALA may have been a real boon to those of us laboring in school libraries. It reminded public and college librarians that, although our students may seem skills ignorant when they reach you, we have been leading them to the path of knowledge but with mixed success.

Wherever we ply our professional skills, we are bound by many constraints. In school libraries our problems - beyond the students' assumption that they already know everything about technology and confuse that with information literacy - include time, schedule, curriculum, attitude, and staff.

Once everyone is present, settled and, hopefully, paying attention, what can you accomplish in a 40-45 minute period? (I speak here of middle/high school classes since many, if not most, elementary library periods are scheduled as prep periods for the teachers and range from 20 to 30 minutes/week.) Whatever you demonstrate, introduce or discuss, if there's not time, or adequate equipment, for each student to use the resource or practice the skill, you start all over the next day or find yourself repeating everything on a one-to-one basis during the next class visit.

If several consecutive days can be scheduled, you're in luck. However, some teachers don't want to "give up" much, or any, class time for in-library research let alone resource instruction. In their defense, state standards, while often including information literacy skills, really emphasize covering information for standardized testing; in addition, in my district, for example, all courses/tracts have identical midterm and final exams - not much room for maneuvering! Unless you have a very large library with adequate technology and professional staffing to provide access for several classes simultaneously, you also run up against the problem of blocking out 3rd period for several days to the exclusion of other classes that period.

Curriculum writing is generally done without input from the librarian no matter how often we plead to be consulted before the final product is approved with something like ". . . a research project could be done for units 2 and 8!" A personal favorite is the research or additional reading suggestions included in the teacher's guidebook.

Attitude, attitude, attitude. How many school librarians feel their building and district administrators have even a clue about our professional abilities or what a good, well-supported program can do for students and teachers? How many understand that we teach every time we work with one student or 25? Do they understand that our pre-technology budgets, no matter how grand, are not adequate when faced with the cost of CD-ROM or Internet-delivered resources? [Some do not even understand that these are annual subscriptions! Isn't the Internet free?]

Believe it or not, there are still many teachers so cowed by even the electronic catalog, that they refuse to bring classes to the library - don't want to ask for help and don't want to appear foolish. Then there are the "just hop on the Internet," the "no Internet," the "you don't have to site a source for this," and the "a minimum of 25 resources must be cited" varieties. Thankfully, there are also the treasures who always talk to you before finalizing a project, schedule library time in advance, ask for suggestions, determine if adequate material is available, and support the library and librarian.

Librarian is the operative word here. Many of us, especially in elementary schools where even a part time aid is rare, work alone. If we're lucky, we have a full time aid or clerk; the super fortunate have a professional colleague as well as clerical support. Depending on circumstances and budget, we do it all - book selection, ordering, cataloging, teaching, surfing, replacing copier or printer cartridges, refilling paper trays, clearing jams, solving printer problems, uploading, downloading, making change, creating newsletters, serving on committees, cleaning equipment . . . . and helping students.

What keeps us going? Watching a student expand or refine their search strategy. Having a student tell you what resources he has used already and ask for your help. Hearing "I really liked this book." Seeing her eyes light up when she finds the perfect article. Getting a "thanks for your help."

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If you haven't yet read Nicholson Baker's article in the July 24th New Yorker, I urge you to do so. There is a lot of food for thought there for our profession.

I hadn't expected to agree with him. He is, after all, the man who wrote a misguided lament for the card catalog in a previous New Yorker, the man who attacked the San Francisco Public Library for discarding books. In short, here is yet another outsider claiming to know more about how to run libraries than librarians do. And yet, the man clearly loves libraries. He is our ultimate library user. Why aren't we on the same side?

Probably because we define the role of librarian differently. He clearly sees librarians as curators, whose primary function is to preserve the written historical record. Revering the physical library, he sees librarians as people who work in a library, while we, as Barbara Quint says, think of a library as anyplace a librarian happens to be. Since we see ourselves as professionals whose responsibility is to use our limited space and money wisely to serve the changing information needs of our patrons, we have no trouble discarding materials our current patrons never use. He, on the other hand, feels actual pain at the loss.

If we have a common meeting ground with Nicholson Baker, it is in the belief that content should not be allowed to disappear from the face of the earth. When we discard books, we are confident that other libraries will retain them. We discard physical newspapers and magazines in the belief that nothing significant is lost when we replace them with microfilm or a digitized version. We assume that the replacement versions are complete and readable, and that they do not significantly degrade the quality of the text (though any of us who have spent weeks or months researching through microfilm are fully aware that it is an exceedingly unpleasant experience).

The revelation in this article is that we ARE losing actual content when libraries discard bound volumes of old newspapers, replacing them with microfilm. A microfilmed copy of a 1902 Chicago Tribune is a feeble representation in black and white of the brightly colored originals. He points out that we can read about the New York World's Yellow Kid comic strip, which spawned the term "yellow journalism," but we cannot SEE the yellow itself -- it doesn't reproduce in black and white microfilm. We lose significant content when we cannot see the cartoons and other art in their original colors.

Just as we in fact lose valuable content when we rely on "full-text" databases which are not really full-text. We lose cultural content when we lose letters to the editor, ads, and other presumably inconsequential features like Jim Mullen's Hot Sheet in Entertainment Weekly (funny, snotty remarks about current entertainment issues). We lose not only artistic but informational content when color illustrations are preserved in black and white -- the full nuanced meaning of scientific illustrations, or demographic maps in American Demographics. It's a trade-off many of us are willing to make, that gains us space and increased access to lots more articles. We just need to be aware we're making it.

We assume, when we buy microfilm and throw out the originals, that the microfilm is complete and the image is readable (how many of us look through it frame by frame before we dispose of our hard copy?), but Nicholson shows us that neither assumption is correct. Reels of microfilmed newspapers are advertised as complete even if they are missing a few issues. In the case of the New York Sun, there was a six month gap in the filmed record for 1862; not knowing that, many New York libraries threw away their copies of the original newspaper. Other newspapers may be complete on microfilm, but so badly filmed that large chunks of it are unreadable. And that's even assuming that the film itself does not chemically deteriorate or lose emulsion.

Our argument for replacing physical copy with microfilm or digitized versions is both space and the physical deterioration of the acid-based paper. Baker argues that the paper deteriorates only at the edges, that the basic blocks of text, tightly bound together so that air does not penetrate, have survived remarkably intact. He argues that the money spent on massive microfilming projects (which destroy the originals in the process) could better be spent on leasing more space or constructing larger buildings. We also believe it is safe to discard because the Library of Congress is keeping the originals, but sadly, even LC is discarding the physical copies after filming them.

I'm afraid Baker is right -- it is not reasonable that a dealer in old newspapers, who cuts them up and sells individual articles, has a better collection of old newspapers than most research libraries. It's even sadder that, when the British Library sold thousands of volumes of American newspapers, Baker himself had to invest his life savings in purchasing them, because the only other bidders were the dealers who were going to cut them up. It's one thing for preservation to be done by private individuals out of love, and another thing when they feel they must do it because libraries will not.

The real issue here is that we make individual discard decisions based on the needs of our own libraries without asking who IS preserving the historical record. We simply assume it is being done. Baker warns us that we cannot make that assumption. I have argued previously that we should work in consortiums to make sure that content is not lost when we make our individual discard decisions. Baker's revelations about lost newspapers suggests we might even cast our net wider and include historical societies in such consortiums. We may not be the mere handmaidens to the written record that Baker thinks we are, but surely we do have a responsibility to refrain from participating in its extinction.

For more on this issue, see the current issue of Library Juice at

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Rien n'est plus dangereux qu'une idée, quand on n'a qu'une idée. [Nothing is as dangerous as an idea when it's the only one you have.]

Emile-Auguste Chartier. Propos sur la religion (1938) no. 74

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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.