or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk




Reference Question of the Week – 11/6/11

   November 12th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Show Me! A Picture Book of Sex for Children and Parents - Photography and Captions by Will McBride - Explanatory Text by Dr. Helga Fleischhauer-HardtThis was a bit bizarre. Three or four weeks ago, a woman came to the reference desk holding her Blackberry. English was not her first language, so there was a bit of a language barrier, but on her Blackberry was a photo of a book titled Show Me!

I didn't recognize it, but from what I could piece together of her story, she had found this book in the home of friends of hers. She felt it contained child pornography, and wanted to know if the book was illegal. She said she noticed it while they were all sitting around talking, but as soon as her friend went into another room, she rushed over, snapped a covert photo, and then ran out of the house and came straight to the library. She wanted to know if the library had a copy and if it was legal to check it out.

I tried to explain that "legal" and "illegal" usually doesn't actually come into play - but if it would with anything, it would be child pornography. However, her photo of the book wasn't clear enough to read the author's name, and a search on Amazon for Show Me produced a lot of results, with none matching the cover (although there were a few that were slightly uncomfortable to skim through in this context).

After a few pages of results, I think she understood that there were a lot of books with "Show Me" in the title. I told her if she could get the author's name from the book the next time she goes to her friend's house, then we'd have a better chance of finding the book.

As she walked away, I actually thought, "well, that was weird, and I will never see her again."

So I was surprised when the woman returned this week. She walked up to me as if no time at all had passed, and just said,

The author is Mac Bride.

I don't have the greatest memory for faces, but for some reason immediately knew who she was and what she was talking about. I searched for "show me mac bride," which lead to a Wikipedia article on the book Show Me!, by Will McBride (the Mac Bride/McBride mistake was me not getting over the language barrier right away).

According to the article, this book does have a history of being challenged in court, but the outcome was not definite. Distribution of the book was stopped to avoid potential legal challenges, and some libraries withdrew it from their collection, but the Supreme Court case cited seemed to only allow the government to ban the sale of the book (not owning it or loaning it, although I am no legal scholar).

We do not own a copy of this book, but I did find a copy at the Boston Public Library (through the state-wide Virtual Catalog), and told her we could request it if she wanted. She asked again if it was legal to take that book out of the library, and I said that yes, it was. Someone could challenge the library making it available, but that it didn't seem illegal to have it.

With that, she said thanks, that's all she wanted to know, and left.



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Navigating NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books

   October 25th, 2011 Brian Herzog

SF Signal presents A Guide to Navigating NPR's Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy BooksThis isn't new, but I read on Slashdot last week that NPR listeners voted for the top 100 science fiction & fantasy books of all time.

But the website SF Signal saw a problem: the 100 science fiction & fantasy books were from all over the genres, and had basically no rhyme or reason. So they created a readers advisory flowchart, to help readers select which of the 100 they'd be most interested in reading by answering a few questions.

A 100-book flowchart graphic is massively huge (see below), so they also made an interactive version - it's great, and worth a look:

Flowchart for choosing science fiction and fantasy books

Does anyone know of other interactive "choose-your-own-adventure" type readers advisory tools out there?



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Reference Question of the Week – 8/14/11

   August 20th, 2011 Brian Herzog

That book : of perfectly usless information, by Mitchell SymonsA boy of about 10 comes to the desk with That Book of Perfectly Useless Information, holds it up to me, and says,

Do you have any other books of useless trivia, because I really like useless trivia and want to learn more useless trivia.

So naturally, knowing we have lots of books like this, I spin my computer monitor towards him and type in a keyword search, limited to our library, for "useless trivia." I click the search button, and am instantly embarrassed by the result.

Oops. But his response was classic - absolutely dead-pan, he just says "no, I'm not interested in that."

Trying quickly to recover, I searched for the book he has in hand, explaining that each book is assigned subjects, which will link to more books on that same subject. It does, and a bunch come up - all at the same call number of course, so I walk him over to that shelf and help him find a few good ones. He is pleased and goes off to the Circulation Desk to check them out.

Now, I go back to the catalog record for the book he had, because something caught my eye. The subject heading for that book was "Handbooks, vade-mecums, etc."

I don't think I've ever seen this particular subject heading before, and I didn't know what "vade-mecums" meant. I was half expecting it to be Latin for "useless trivia," but according to Merriam-Webster, it means "a book for ready reference." Amazing that in all my time as library student and reference librarian, I hadn't come across that term before. I guess you really do learn something new every day.

(Incidentally, the Latin for "useless trivia" is frustra turpis, according to Google Translator.)



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Another Take on the End of Borders

   July 26th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Borders sign: No Public Restrooms - Try AmazonLast week, the owner of Gibson's Bookstore in Concord, NH, sent a message to all his customers about the closing of Borders. There are primarily only two big bookstores in Concord, Gibson's and a Borders, so you might think this would be a celebratory message.

It's not. It's a very somber analysis of how the closing of Borders has the potential to have a widespread negative impact on the bookworld at large. I know there has been lots of articles and posts about Borders closing, but I thought this was worth passing along - thanks, Michael:

Book lovers love to go to bookstores. That’s always been true, and always will be.

Most people remember the first time they went to a book superstore, to encounter what seemed like acres of space, visual interest everywhere, beautiful art on the shelves, infinite discoveries awaiting the explorer, symbols of learning and entertainment as far as the eye could see. And room for like-minded explorers to gather and celebrate their love of books, often with coffee, that drug of choice for the serious reader.

It was Borders that pretty much invented that concept in their flagship store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and it was Borders that spread it across the nation. And today, with Borders going out of business, book lovers are upset and worried. What does this mean for the future of the book industry and of reading in general?

Let me get to that answer in a roundabout way, through a little local history.

When I bought Gibson’s - Concord’s oldest retailer, and now the oldest independent bookstore in New Hampshire - in 1994, it was my belief that Concord was too small a market for chain bookstores to enter. Amazon was still just a glimmer in a Wall Streeter’s eye. There were other small bookstores in the area. I thought we could coexist, serve our market in different ways, and grow.

Borders entered the area in 1999, right after we had doubled our space and added Bread & Chocolate as our café and retail partner. I was surprised and, frankly, worried for the future. Borders was like another independent, that was the buzz, except they were eight times larger than you, had a limitless supply of cash, had whole teams of people working on issues you could only tackle after you’d put the kids to bed, and - the killer - they had a real literary culture. It was hard to find a weakness there. It was hard to convince yourself that you had a future. All you could do was believe in yourself, in your book and business smarts, in the people you had around you, in your public, and in your luck.

Gibson’s took an immediate 25% hit when Borders opened. This was standard and inevitable. We were prepared for it. What we weren’t prepared for was that we would never climb back. Between Borders, the rise of Amazon, loss of parking, and various recessions, we were hard-pressed to stay in business at all. It wasn’t money but pure stubbornness that motivated me, to be honest. That, and the fact that I just loved books.

What did we do? Whatever we could do with no budget, because, frankly, sales were lousy. We introduced a loyalty program, we started doing more events and attracting bigger authors to the area, we built our newsletter and our presence on the Web. We did as many offsite events as we could handle, partnering with dozens of non-profits and schools. We became active in trade organizations, and through networking and staff development we improved what we do in the store.

Adversity made us better. Not richer, but better.

Over the same period, what did Borders do? They continued to attract great bookselling talent at the store level, here in Concord and across the nation. But at the management level, in Ann Arbor, they lost their focus. They frittered away a great brand. Injudicious long-term leases meant that they were stuck in many unprofitable locations. Their business model of the 1990s - relying heavily on CD/DVD sales, encouraging people to lounge for hours without buying - didn’t translate well to the 2000s, and the folks at the top didn’t come up with a viable new approach.

The Borders board in Ann Arbor hired team after management team with no book experience, and not a lot of their innovations worked. Outsourcing their online sales to Amazon, during such a critical time, was a mistake that will be studied in business schools for years to come. Aggressive “upsells” of Borders rewards cards alienated many customers (not to mention booksellers who were disciplined for not meeting their targets). “Category management,” a philosophy imported from the supermarket trade, didn’t translate well to the book industry. And that “make books” program - in which every bookseller in the chain was obliged to hand sell a particular title, as if it was his own favorite - was off-putting to readers who expected to get real recommendations from the talented booksellers they met at Borders.

And so the machine ground to a halt, and a once great chain eventually went out of business. Not because of e-books, not because of Amazon, not because of tough conditions in the book business, but because bad decisions made them vulnerable to those tough conditions.

How do we feel about that? Not good. Sure, Borders made our life difficult, and they didn’t make good decisions over the past decade, but let’s face it, the book industry has just lost millions of square feet of display space at a critical time. Even though e-books have not made the apocalyptic inroads that you might believe from news reports, the industry needs showrooms. The industry needs physical bookstores. No one has figured out how the industry can sustain itself, not to mention how writers can put food on their tables, without physical bookstores, and now all but a few thousand have disappeared.

This is not good news. So even though meeting payroll has just become easier, and maybe we’ll now have the resources to improve what we do here, we at Gibson’s are not as happy as we thought we’d be. The loss of a bookstore is sad for all, and the loss of 500 sadder still. Many of these were beautiful stores, a reader's dream. And they were staffed by thousands of people who love books just like we do.

We don’t know what the future holds. We might expand, we might sit tight. Another chain bookstore might move into the area, or they might not. E-books might take more than the 20% of the market we predict. The situation is in a terrible state of flux.

All we say is this: we are committed to the art of bookselling in Concord. We believe that the independent bookstore is a model not only from the past but for the future. Despite the rise of e-books and the cultural challenges facing our nation, there has never been a better time to own an independent bookstore. Readers still want physical books, and they want to shop in bookstores that are staffed and lovingly curated by local book people. We want to craft the best possible store to showcase the best the book world has to offer. We want to build it so they will come.

To do that, we need your help. In the next few weeks, we’ll be sending out emails describing some new initiatives we’re either contemplating or implementing. Please send us your ideas, too. And above all, buy books from us, if you want there to be an independent bookstore in Concord. That’s all it takes. The future, in large measure, is in your hands. If you want this store to stay in business, give your business to this store. We promise to do our best to earn it.

--Michael Herrmann & all your friends at Gibson’s



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Romance Novels Bad For Your Health

   July 14th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Romance Novel coverI know this is a little random, but it is book-related. I was listening to NPR last weekend, when I heard a story claiming that reading romance novels is actually bad for your health.

There's a write-up on the Common Health blog, and it seems they are considered unhealthy because of all the unrealistic imagery and situations they contain. Not unlike magazines airbrushing the already almost-flawless supermodels, romance novels create a nearly-impossible fantasy world. If romance readers aren't diligent about separating fictional fantasy from reality, their expectations can get skewed, which can lead to unfulfillment, disappointment, and depression.

The article also referred to non-consensual sex, and the excitement of women being "taken" by dominating alpha-males. And that safe-sex is continually portrayed as unromantic. It seems that most of this would be counteracted by simple common sense (I watched a lot of Bugs Bunny growing up, but never tried to walk off a cliff or drop an anvil on someone), but their findings indicated that there is a correlation between frequent reading of romance novels and a disregard for healthy sexual practices.

Which is especially worrying in the ebook era, as the introduction of ereaders has increased the popularity of romance novels. Anecdotally, they're less embarrassing to read now that ereaders allow them to be read in public without anyone being able to see what your reading by the cover - although to be totally hidden, readers also need to keep their heaving bosoms in check.

Whenever I hear of something like this, my first reaction is for the library to try to somehow protect patrons from it. But you cannot protect people from themselves, and it's not really the library's place to restrict what people read - we can provide information, but they need to make their own decisions.

But wow, it would be funny if we had to ration patrons to no more than two romance novels a month - I'm sure our circ stats would take a hit.



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Swallow Safely Book Promotion

   June 16th, 2011 Brian Herzog

I feel bad that this post might not be library blog award quality, but it's been an extremely busy week - so please consider this a light interlude, and I'll get back to more practical posts next week.

The image below is a postcard promoting a book, sent to my director this week. I'd like to submit it here without comment, other than to link to the ForeWord review (cited on the postcard) which was itself an interesting read.

Swallow Safely promotional postcard

(click to biggify)

Okay, I have to make one comment: I never would have guessed there would exist a 180 page book about swallowing. Working in libraries is awesome, except it makes me sad that this book has to exist.



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