Cultivating My Bookish Garden; Or, Is My Library Woke Yet?

Every couple of weeks, I run a report in my library’s integrated library system* that shows me how many times books in the browsing collection have been checked out. This collection, which I am in charge of buying books for, is the home of current fiction and popular non-fiction. Reading the report has become a curiously emotional experience. On the one hand, I get a thrill when I see books that I liked get checked out. On the other, I am saddened by good books that languish on the shelf for months, waiting for their readers to come along.

My library’s browsing collection has duelling goals. First, it’s supposed to encourage our students to read for fun. Second, it’s supposed to supplement my budget for literature** so that I don’t have to buy just to usual suspects***. This leaves me with a very small path to tread because people (including me) like to read crap. We need our brain candy every now and then. The brain candy doesn’t have a lot of staying power, literature-wise. In a public library, fiction moves in and out of the collection as its popularity waxes and wanes. This is kind of a problem in my library, an academic library, because we are supposed to be building a collection for the long haul. Personally, I err on the side of purchasing books that I’m fairly certain people will read.

Even though I push toward the popular end of things and buy the odd volume of brain candy, I also stock my collection with books that critics (and I) think are important. I buy books about immigrants. I buy books about racial and sexual issues. I buy books set in other countries and times to try and broaden the horizons of our somewhat homogenous student population. The problem with doing this is that I start to fall into the mindset of buying more books that people should read instead of books people will want to pick up and read. Consequently, there many books I end up putting on my own to-read shelf rather than on my to-buy-for-the-library list.


Carl Christian Constantin Hansen

I am fully aware that my tastes in books are much darker than most people’s. Part of the reason I read so widely because I want to be able to recommend books no matter what a person’s taste in books is, even if a reader isn’t up for something like Preparation for the Next Life, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, Kindred, or Americanah. My hope is that someone will come along and challenge themselves (or I can talk them into a challenge) every now and then. Until then, I can give them something a little lighter to keep them coming back.

I push so hard for challenging books is because I genuinely believe that well told stories can wake people up to the experiences of others, people they might never meet. A well told story can take a reader inside the head of someone who lives a completely different life. Seeing through someone else’s eyes is more effective, in terms of gaining empathy, than a mountain of statistics. I want my collection to be, at least, a little bit woke, as well as entertaining.


* An integrated library system stores all of the information about a library’s collection and patrons so that we can keep track of where things are.
** I am incredibly lucky to be in charge of buying all of my library’s fiction. This is very rare. Usually, you have to wait for an elderly librarian to die at their desk before literature becomes someone else’s responsibility.
*** Damn you, Joyce Carol Oates, for sucking up so much of my budget!



Warm Fuzzies for a Shitty Week

It’s been an awful week, for the United States, for the world. Opening my Facebook and twitter feeds this past week has lead to anxious googling more often than not as I learn who the “thoughts and prayers” are going to now. But! There were two news stories this week that helped restore a bit of my faith in humanity. Both of them are about libraries.

Because libraries are public places, they have become a place for people who have no where else to go. Some communities might ban the homeless, but the San Francisco Public Library and libraries in New York have added hours and resources to help visitors find jobs, housing, and counseling. Ignore the stereotypes that journalists like to trot out about shushing and “not just about books” and read about these wonderful libraries.

As I read these stories, I thought about the shootings in the news every day and about the trainings we’ve had at my library about dealing with difficult patrons. I don’t want to be afraid of people, always on my guard. The libraries in San Francisco and New York are proof that if we keep the doors open and help each other, instead of turning people away because something bad might happen, we are all the better for it.

That feeling when…

  • A book you loved and recommended to someone becomes their new favorite
  • An author finds you twitter after you post a review of their book and ends up saying hi to your book group
  • A book you bought for your library ends up getting made into a movie and checks out a bunch of times
  • You recommend an entire stack of books to someone and they end up checking all of them out
  • A book you bought for your library ends up winning a major award and checks out a bunch of times

…all of these make me feel warm, bookish fuzzies.


James C. Christensen

Once more unto the readers’ advisory breach


Seshat, Mistress of the House of Books. Luxor.

Last week, I lost control of a training I was conducting because I taught librarians how to do readers’ advisory—the art of recommending books. I could not get their attention back. The goal of that particular exercise was to have everyone in a small group (arranged by genres) give and receive a book recommendation. The activity started that way, but quickly turned into four book groups crammed into one room in which the members of each group took turns talking up books and the other members writing down almost every book mentioned. I should have just let them go. I think they could have talked books for the rest of the afternoon.

Tomorrow, I’ve got another reference training where I’m going to do roughly the same thing. I expect it’s going to go pretty much the same way, even if this group is quieter than last week’s.

Once librarians start talking about books, it takes a mayor’s gavel to get them to stop. I know this from experience.

Personally, I find readers’ advisory much more difficult and intimidating than my usual work answering questions at the reference desk. I can find you scholarly articles about just about anything, but finding the right book for a reader on the spot…that’s tough. Readers’ advisory, to me, has higher stakes for some reason. I worry that I might turn people off reading if I recommend a book they’ll hate. I love the readers who will let me fill their arms with books and just trust me—but I know I’m catering to some oddballs in that group. (Hi, guys!) But for someone who tells me that they want to get back into reading or they finally have time to read, I feel the stakes instantly rise.

A bookish curiosity

Earlier this year, I wrote about how librarians hate throwing away the strange and useless things that people sometimes donate to us. By and large, it’s true that people send us things that we can’t use and sometimes have to dispose of using the same guidelines one would use for getting rid of hazmat. Sometimes we get something interesting (if only because of the law of large numbers). While I was on the reference desk yesterday, our collections librarian stopped by, handed me a book, and told me there was something weird about it. The book is a paperback copy of L’Île des Pengouins, by Anatole France, published in 1908. I’ve seen older books. It’s kind of cool that the book was written by a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1921). I didn’t see anything particularly interesting about it until I started to flip through the pages. Well, I tried to flip through the pages.

IleDesPengouins     UncutPages

This copy of L’Île des Pengouins had not been cut. This is the first book I’ve ever seen that was never cut.

I only know about needing to cut the pages of books the way I know about most things: via fiction. In this case, I remembered mentions of characters reading with knife in their hand to cut open the pages as they went. Not a sign page of this book has been cut. Based on this fact and the sun bleaching on the spine, this book has sat on a shelf for a long time.

Of course I showed the book to every coworker who came within hailing distance of the reference desk. I educated one of our student workers about galley proofs. (I’m fairly sure they were genuinely interested.)

The process of imposition puts the maximum number of pages on a sheet of paper. After printing, the page is folded, bound, and cut.

The process of imposition puts the maximum number of pages on a sheet of paper. After printing, the page is folded (so that it looks like the image below), bound, and cut.

A folded, but uncut, signature.

A folded, but unbound and uncut, signature.

Once the magic had worn off a bit, I started to think about this book as an object. I can’t read French. I’m not going to cut the pages (or let anyone else do so while the book is in my possession). What is a book when you can’t and won’t read the text? Right now, it’s not fulfilling its purpose. By my own internal logic*, I should be as annoyed by this as I am by the books people buy by the yard to match their decor. But I’m not. I suppose that the purpose of this book is no longer to be read, but to teach. It’s not a book as I define it; it’s a historical artifact.


* Go ahead and make your jokes.


Librarians help people find information and then send them on their way. We deliberately distance ourselves from what our patrons might do with that information. The distance helps us neatly sidestep a lot of tricky legal and ethical considerations. I admit to being curious about what students end up writing by the end of the semester, but until these last two weeks, I haven’t done much about satisfying that curiosity.

de4c95b60882f981ebafba1eed2f5ab0These last two weeks, I have been to two readings and a paper presentations. At the first reading, students opened their notebooks and read a terrific selection of poetry. I confess to being anxious about poetry readings. I always end up feeling like I know too much about the poets afterwards. The second reading was of selections from my university’s literary magazine. There was poetry and prose and even a dramatic monologue. One of their stories particularly struck me. I could have sworn that the story was heading towards a miserably cliched ending, but the short work kept on surprising me. One of the poems was full of the cuttingly critical things that a women’s magazine might say to its readers, if it could. The audience laughed at nearly every line, but the poem stung.

The paper presentations thrilled me. The papers were written by students in the literature class that I’ve been helping to teach this spring. I taught them how to use the library. I helped them find additional sources. I met with them and talked about how they would use the sources to construct their arguments. The papers these students wrote floored me. At the beginning of the semester, I recall several students worrying about having anything unique to say. Every paper presented this week (half the class) was different. Some were in direct conflict with each other—while still being completely convincing. I was so proud of them.

I need to go to more readings and read the university’s nonfiction literary journal. Most of the students I see in the library are at the very beginnings of their college careers or at the beginnings of a project. I won’t see the vast majority of what they produce. The ones I have heard from, however, are brilliant. And I sincerely hope that I see them in print again.

A librarian’s lament

A few years ago, I was watching Inkheart with my sister and her kids. We had to stop the movie at one point to explain why it was such a bad thing to burn books. They’re just ink and paper and cardboard and glue, after all. It was hard to put the feeling of profound sadness I was feeling at seeing books burn. I told my niece and nephew that burning books was an attempt to destroy ideas. I didn’t tell them about the destruction of libraries in the past, like the burning of the National Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992. That burning was an attempt to destroy the history and heritage of a people.

It may be time to have that conversation. 
Mosul Public Library, March 2015
Last week, reports came out that ISIS forces had burned thousands of books and documents from the Mosul Public Library. This week, Western media reported that members of ISIS also obliterated sculptures and artifacts at the Mosul Museum. Mohammed Rabia Chaar was quoted in the New York Times about cultural assaults by ISIS:

The feeling of sickness is growing more and more, day after day, against these imperialist Muslims. Daesh wants people with no memory, with no history, with no culture, no past, no future. (Source)

That’s why people burn books. It’s not the books themselves; they’re trying to erase an idea that they abhor.

I’m not sentimental about books, in and of themselves. I get sentimental about what books represent, about the memories of reading books that transported me when I was a kid, of the amazing facts and perspectives I found between the covers (digital or otherwise) of a book. Still, scenes like the one above of the burning books of the Mosul Library make my heart break.

I will leave you with this image of Vedran Smailović playing the cello in the ruins of the Bosnian National Library. This haunting image speaks to me of the futility of book burning. The books themselves—the ink, the paper—may be gone, but the ideas and history can never be destroyed.

The Favor: A Journey to a Foreign Library

Because this piece is longer that what I normally publish here and because it’s more about libraries than the reading life, I’ve published it on

There are many ways to vex a librarian. Quibble about a .10¢ fine. Steal our DVDs. Poop on the floor. I now have another to add to the list: send a librarian out of their home territory to another library.

Read the rest at

We don’t want to throw your books away for you

Last week, I had to turn down a donation. Donations can be wonderful. They can help us fill in gaps in our library collections or replace damaged books. This, unfortunately, isn’t what we usually see off-loaded at the library’s font desk. In this case, the donor was trying to hand off encyclopedias from the 1950s and ’60s, because “someone might find them interesting.”

Then I tweeted about it. Then it got favorited and retweeted by a bunch of other librarians.

Unwanted donations are a common complaint. Years ago, when I worked for a small public library, I arrived at work to find three or four black plastic yard bags filled with moldy, cobwebby volumes of a Braille bible. Not only did our little library not have shelf room for these, but they were unusable in their condition. And we didn’t collect books in Braille anyway. We ended up throwing them away.

There are shelves in the backroom at my current academic library that are filled with donations from alumni and retiring faculty and students clearing their shelves before graduation. These are the ones we can use. The ones we can’t use are sent to the campus surplus depot: books that are obsolete, books that are outside our collection scope, books that are in bad condition, books that are illegal copies. We are, essentially, throwing them away because their original owners couldn’t bring themselves to do it.

In some ways, being a librarian or library worker can desensitize you to what books can represent. People have memories about their books. They want to pass them on. Then we have to be the ones to say, “No, I’m sorry. No one is going to want your copy of Twilight because we have a bijillion of them.” Sure, some of the old books might be useful for historical purposes. I can see that. “But, sir, we don’t collect old computer science textbooks from the 1980s.” I can’t blame them. (Much.) I feel bad when I have to turn people down or tell them what will probably happen to those copies of Readers Digest Condensed editions.

“But the book is still good!”

It could be worse. At least I’ve never had to deal with the fallout of a mass weeding project like other libraries have done (Fairfax County, VA; Emporia State University Library, KS; Albany Library, CA; Urbana Free Library, IL). It’s better to tell someone no up front than having to deal with the outrage when someone finds their donations in the dumpster behind the library.

While searching for articles about library weeding projects and public outcry, I found Julie Goldberg’s blog post, “I Can’t Believe You’re Throwing Out Books!” Goldberg’s post is most extensive and goes a lot further with this topic than I did here and is a very good read about what happens to books that libraries don’t want.

True censorship

A few weeks ago, American librarians “celebrated” Banned Books Week. We made displays. We raised awareness of challenges around the country in school districts and public libraries. We patiently explained the difference between a book challenge and a book banning to anyone who asked. And then the week was over and we put the books back on the shelf. The strange thing about Banned Books Week, for me, is that in spite of anyone’s attempts to get a book away from readers is that a determined reader can always go to another library or buy the book. Books don’t truly get banned in the United States anymore and, apart from periodic outrage when a book is challenged, it’s easy to not think about censorship.

Students reading in North China University’s
library, 1946. Via Vintage Libraries.

Yesterday, I read this timely article in The New York Times about the Hobson’s choice writers have to make when getting published in China: “Authors Accept Censors’ Rules to Sell in China.” According to the article, censors work at every major publisher in China. Publishers can no longer slip books past a central censorship office. Censors will remove offending passages or prevent an entire book from being published. Andrew Jacobs, the authors of this report, points to the wide array of possible offensive topics: references to Tienanmen Square, sex and sexuality,even a depiction of a politician being embarrassed at a state event by dropping food from his chopsticks. The choice for authors who want to sell their books in China is to accept the censors’ changes or refuse to let their books be published there. The choice is between getting some of one’s book through or maintaining one’s artistic integrity. As with the horses at Hobson’s stable, it’s really no choice at all.

Compared to the literary world in China, the book world in the West is a hedonistic and artistic paradise. It seems a little silly to keep pointing out the fact that books get removed from a school or library here and there when there are places in the world where books truly are banned. (Not that I’m going to stop participating in Banned Books Week. BBW will only stop being necessary when people stop trying to get between readers and books.) Soviet Russia had and the Middle East still has their samizdat. No only can you not openly purchase these books, but in some places simply having a copy is a crime.

I have no idea what I would do, were I an author that had just sold the publication rights to a Chinese publisher. Would I stand my ground? Or would I try to sneak some of my words through to readers? If I stuck to my ideals, readers in China would probably never hear about it, unless a pirated copy got through. If I bowed to the censors’, how much of my message would really get through?