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

How Sexy Is Your Bible?

   March 11th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Princess Bible book coverHere's another one of those coincidences with the same topic popping up in different contexts throughout the day.

On my way in to work one day last week, I heard a story on the radio (via the BBC) talking about how children are becoming more sexualized. I wouldn't have thought this was possible, but the report described how, for decades, society has told little girls that they need to be thin and pretty. But recently, society has ramped up this message, telling them they need to be thin and pretty and sexually-attractive to boys. It seemed to say that now it's not just about looks, but that sex appeal is also required.

Later at work, our Teen Librarian asked me if I'd heard of a "princess bible." I hadn't, so I looked it up, and sure enough they are for sale. Our reactions were the same, and echoed the point of the radio show earlier: isn't this an odd mixture of religion and sassy sexy self-image?

Not necessarily, of course, because I know my niece likes Disney princesses, and that is totally innocent. Perhaps I'm just being over-sensitive on the little girl sex angle. Maybe it's just the marketing gimmicky feel of it I don't like - it seems akin to using a cartoon camel to peddle cigarette to children. I guess I just question what this princess message is trying to appeal to in young girls - and whether that should be necessary to sell Bibles. It seems a bit at odds with the pious modesty of Christianity.

Interestingly, this book appears in WorldCat.

And just for a counter-point, BoingBoing reports that Campus atheists offer free porn in exchange for Bibles. I guess there's more than one way to connect religion and sex.

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Reference Question of the Week – 1/31/10

   February 6th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Child poetPerhaps it's just my hyperactive paranoia, but anytime someone asked me an unusual question or acts strangely, I think it's some kind of "secret shopper" evaluating my performance. Case in point, a little while ago the reference desk received the following email:

is there a contest I can use to make my kid a famous poet?

That was it - no name, no other information, just that one line. The email address seemed legitimate, so I researched it a bit and replied:

I think I'll need a little bit more information from you, but I do have some suggestions. It would be helpful to know the age of the child, and also what you're looking for in a contest: are you looking for a venue for live readings, a mail-in contest with winners and prizes, just somewhere that will print poetry from children, or something else entirely?

Our Childrens Rooms subscribes to lots of magazines that accept poetry submissions from children. They're not exactly contests, but the poetry is judged to see if it's worthy of publishing in their magazines. One magazine that publishes a lot of poetry is "New Moon" but others do as well.

The Chelmsford Library has a "poetry slam" every April, which is open to all ages. It is a contest in which winners are chosen, but as our website says, it is a gentle contest. And it's held in April because that is National Poetry Month - during that month, there are a lot of other local poetry-related events, but those usually aren't announced or publicized until closer to April.

There are also lots of online poetry contests - here are a few websites I found:

Another resource is the Massachusetts Poetry Festival website, which is building a database of both poets and venues. It doesn't seem like it's ready yet, but their website has a list of the people building the database, so they may have information on contests they could provide you with.

Lastly, I found a article on the eHow.com website that probably says a lot of what you already know, but also had a few interesting tips relating to childrens' poetry contests.

The woman here who organizes the poetry slams is out for the first part of this week, but I think she will have more ideas. I'll ask her when she comes back, and will email you with whatever else she can suggest. In the meantime, please let me know if you have any questions, or if you can be more specific about what you are looking for. Thanks, and take care.

This was at least a month ago, and I never got a response. I'm not sure if it was real or not, but if it was, I hope it was helpful. However (and granted, I am not a parent), it always bothers me when people refer to their child as "kid" and when it seemed parents are forcing their kids* into something for their own benefit. To wit:

Bruno Parenting FAIL video:


*Oddly, although calling one child "kid" bothers me, referring to a group of children as "kids" is perfectly fine. "Lady" works the same way - calling one woman "lady" seems rude, but referring to a group of women as "ladies" is okay. I am a complex person.

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What is the Point of Reading?

   July 9th, 2009 Brian Herzog

kids sharing a bookSome interesting comments on my last post got me thinking about reading, and why we encourage kids to read.

I know reading is vital for learning and personal development. But beyond that, is reading just for the benefit of the reader?

I wonder: is reading without sharing the experience akin to amassing a tremendous fortune and doing nothing with it? Society tends to paint as "greedy" people who accumulate wealth just for the sake of having more money than they know what to do with. At the same time, we reward philanthropists with awe and gratitude for "giving back" and sharing their excess wealth to benefit society.

So, should reading programs not just encourage kids to total up the number of pages and hours spent reading (which can lead to competition), but to also be "knowledge philanthropists" and share what they've learned and experienced from reading (which might lead to collaboration)? Or would that intimidate kids away from reading at all?

I'm not a children's librarian or parent, so perhaps I'm just late to the party on this.

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Reference Question of the Week – 9/28/08

   October 4th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Kids in the back of a carSometimes, an innocent reference question has the potential to turn into a multi-million dollar industry.

Late one evening, a man in his early-forties came up to the desk:

Patron: I'm looking for someone to drive my kids.
Me: Um... where to?
Patron: My kids get home from school about 3 o'clock, but wife and I don't get home from work until about 6 o'clock. Most of the activities they want to do (sports, dance lessons, piano lessons, etc.) are after school, but they can't do them because I can't drive them there. I'm looking for someone who can drive my kids to their activities and then bring them home afterwards. Can you give me the number of the group in town that does that?
Me: I don't know of any group that does that specifically. I think most people use nannies or babysitters, or carpools or relatives or neighbors. But I'll check around and email you what I find.

After a little more talking, I learned that he and his family had immigrated here from India a little over a year ago, and so didn't have family in the area and hadn't met many people yet. They couldn't afford to pay a babysitter, especially since the kids were old enough to be home alone, but just not old enough to drive.

I first checked with our Childrens Librarian, as the Childrens Desk usually knows about kid- or mom- or family-related resources in the area. And I was right. She told me that the middle schools in town have buses that move kids between the various schools to get them to school-related after-school activities. Also, she said that high school kids volunteer around town after school, and that perhaps he could find one of them that could drive his children around.

I next checked our Community Information database, which is a listing of social services and non-profit organizations in the area. Most of what I found were child services for low income families or at-risk kids, but there was also a listing for the Chelmsford Mother's Club.

This club is kind of like a support group for new and expectant mothers, so I didn't think it would help him directly. But I linked to the Mother's Club website from CommInfo, and found that they had put together a great resources page. I couldn't tell if any of them could help the patron, but it was a good list to start with.

I emailed these three options to the patron, but haven't yet heard back.

And after thinking about this question for a few days, this really does sound like a business that could make a fortune.

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Library Investigation

   July 16th, 2008 Brian Herzog

WHDH-7 logoOne of the local television stations in Boston, WHDH 7, just aired an investigative story into libraries:

Theaters and video stores usually require an age of 17 or older to see or rent an R-Rated release, unless there is parental permission. But something altogether different is going on in some local libraries. 7News' Jonathan Hall investigates.

Read the transcript, or watch the video.

This is similar to the situation we had here a little while ago (except without the undercover investigators), which prompted us to put label ratings on VHS and DVDs when possible. And it looks like the Boston Public Library, "in line with American Library Association guidelines," is on the same page as us.

Libraries do not raise children, we provide access to information. Parents raise children, and we do what we can to support that need - while at the same time supporting the informational and educational needs of everyone else in the community.

I found this news report interesting, but a bit sensationalized. I'm sure as long as there are parents and children (and news outlets in need of ratings), issues like this will never die.

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Libraries and Parents and Children

   July 26th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Movie poster for 'Thirteen'We recently have been faced with an interesting problem in my library. On the surface it seemed like a pretty simple issue, but the more we thought about it, the more complex it became.

The Situation
A mother came in and said that she had found the movie "Thirteen" (Official Website, IMDb, Wikipedia) in her (thirteen year old) daughter's room. It was overdue, which means that she must have had it for weeks. It also means that we checked out an R-rated movie to an underage child.

The mother was angry that her child could have checked out such a movie, and didn't understand why the library wasn't enforcing the MPAA movie ratings.

One unusual twist in the story is that the woman wasn't directly challenging the movie being in the library's collection (which is usually the case). She understood that it is a movie people in the community might want to see. She was just upset that her daughter was able to check it out, since the mother had seen this movie and felt it was particularly graphic and inappropriate for her young daughter.

As librarians, our collective first response was the party line: we do not censor materials, we don't tell people what they can and can't check out (based on content, anyway), and library staff certainly can't keep track of what every parent in the community allows their particular children to do. Besides, no matter we may do at the desk, kids can use the self check-out machines and we'd never know.

However, none of us felt that this answer was good enough. Yes, all of it is true, but it also felt like a cop-out. We wanted there to be something we could do, rather than just throwing up our hands and telling parents they're on their own. So, we brainstormed what could be done, and came up with options:

1. Regulate Materials Based on Item/Patron Type
We felt that there must be a way within our ILS [?] to make certain types of borrowers unable to check out certain library materials. We use SirsiDynix Horizon 7.3, and we already use Item Type codes to differentiate between feature films, documentaries, kids DVDs, audio books, fiction books, etc. Horizon also allows different borrower types. We thought that we could let parents choose to give their children a "child" card, which would prevent them from checking out anything with the Item Type for R-rated movies.

Unfortunately, after checking with our system administrator, we found that Horizon does not compare these two codes, and so this idea would not work with the Horizon software. There is a "birth date" field, which we have never used, and we're not sure if Horizon can block certain Item Types based on birth date, either.

2. Create a Separate "Adult" Video Collection
Another idea was for us to shelve any R-rated (or unrated) feature film separately from the rest of the films. This way, at least, a parent can tell their children they are not allowed to check out "adult" videos (we called it "adult" for lack of a better word. We thought about "Mature," but then had a hard time calling something like Jackass "mature"), and it would be up to the kids to obey their parents.

The drawback in this situation, apart from the snickers at the library having "adult" videos, is that it makes browsing for movies more difficult for all the other library patrons. Now, instead of having to look in two places for a movie for tonight (regular videos and also in the Children's room), they'd have to look in three places. Plus, there's the inadvertent stigma for people being seen browsing the "Adult" collection. We didn't want a solution to one problem to create new problems for other patrons.

Another issue with separate collections is that, years ago (I'm told), a nearby library was successfully sued by the ACLU for not allowing children into an adult reading room in the library. In that case, the library wanted to keep kids out to give adults a quiet place to read, but the ACLU said that the library could not discriminate based on age in this way (oddly, many libraries have a similar policy to keep adult males without kids out of the Childrens Room, but I don't think any of them have ever been sued over it). So, we couldn't use a method that barred kids from an area of the library.

3. Label Movies Clearly with Ratings Stickers
Since we didn't want to shelve these movies separately, another idea was to keep them all interfiled, but to put rating stickers on the movies. That way, parents can still tell their kids that they can only check out movies with certain stickers on them.

This seemed to be a good option, but it also puts the Library in the position of possibly judging the content of the material. It really isn't up to us to decide what's "mature" or "family" and what's not, because it's a subjective decision and people will disagree on it. MPAA ratings are not exactly definite indicators either, but at least they are a recognized "standard."

Something interesting I learned through all of this that MPAA ratings are just guidelines and not legally-binding in any way. The mother in this case thought that we were breaking the law by letting underage children check out R-rated movies, but there actually is no law that says this. Movie theaters that enforce age limits based on ratings are doing it of their own accord, not because they have to.

In addition to stickers indicating ratings, we also talked about putting stickers on the movies marking them as "comedy," drama," "horror," etc., as we already do for many books. Of course, DVD cases are so small that the stickers necessarily need to be small, too. Also, more than two or three stickers will looked cluttered and hard to read, which would be counter-productive.

Another concern with starting a labeling program, as I see it, is in knowing where to stop. If we do start labeling movies, and parents successfully use this, it's really not much of a leap for them to want us to put rating labels on books, too (because we certainly have some that some parents might not want their kids reading). And from there it's just a short hop to internet filtering, so although well-intended, even this is a slippery slope.

The argument in support of labeling said that DVDs are different than books. When reading a graphic book, your own imagination plays a large part in how disturbing the book can be. Also, reading a book is a solitary event, and the read can put them down at any time. When watching a movie though, very little is left to the imagination - once something very graphic is flashed on the screen, it'll be in your head whether you are ready or not. Also, kids watching naughty movies is usually a group event. So, one kid, even if they know they're uncomfortable and want to stop watching, might not be able to stop because of peer pressure and not wanting to look scared.

4. Start a Viewers Advisory Program
We already have a few Readers/Listeners Advisory stations in the library. These computers are dedicated to this purpose, and so do not go out to the general internet. Instead, patrons can use them to access our catalog, recently-added books (using the Delicious Library software), NoveList, and iTunes (to listen to music before they decide to check out the CD). Also, we create printed reading guides for various subjects and authors that are available in the library, as well as having a Reading Room webpage.

Our thought was to do the same thing with movies. We could add movie review related resources to these stations (such as Common Sense Media, Rotten Tomatoes, Kids-In-Mind, Yahoo's Movie Mom), as well as creating and printing viewing suggestion guides, such as "Family Movies," "Movies for Girls," etc.

Where We Are Now
At the moment, nothing has been finalized. Since this is a pretty big issue, we wanted to make sure whatever we choose will be useful to parents, but won't interfere with other patrons' use of the library. I think we're leaning towards a mix of options 3 and 4, but the exact outcome depends on what is actually available to us, and how much extra work the Technical Services department can handle in the processing of new movies.

The bottom line for us is that we don't want to be making choices for patrons, nor do we have the staff or mandate to enforce parenting decisions on a child-by-child basis. But what we can do, what we can use our librarian expertise to do, is provide parents with tools and information to raise their own children the way they want to.

Of course, knowing how I was as a kid, it probably doesn't matter. If there was something I wanted to do, I'd continually look for a loophole or a way to accomplish it, regardless of what my parents or the library said.

challenge, challenges, children, dvds, libraries, library, material challenge, materials challenges, movies, parents, patron challenge, patron challenges, public libraries, public library, rating, ratings

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