Library Futures

Libraries, Reading and Society

How long have people been proclaiming the end of libraries? How long have librarians been tossing around the word “relevant” as if it might hurt us?

Personally, I believe that if libraries are doing their jobs they can never become irrelevant or obsolete. We provide access to information and expert research assistance. In public libraries (my professional and personal home) we also connect people with ideas, imagination, and community.These things are so basic to what it means to be human, and to have a good life, that libraries (or at least, what libraries do) should always be at the heart of things.

Now, I’m fully aware that many things are changing. My own relationship with information and reading changes with the technology I’m using and the venues, virtual or otherwise, where I’m engaging with info, ideas and stories. But just because we have search engines and e-books and transmedia storytelling doesn’t mean that libraries are done for. We do face some big challenges–potential opportunities–as formats, access and profit models are in flux, and as world economies continue to struggle with rebuilding from the “Great Recession.” Libraries can be poised to make ourselves even more essential as these struggles move forward.

Allow me to quote myself. In my job search I have made two applications recently that included Supplemental Questions asking me what I think libraries face in the next ten years. I particularly appreciated one potential employer (I love you, Multnomah County Library) for framing this question in terms of “opportunities” rather than the more worrisome “challenges” or “threats”. Here is what I said in response to the prompt to share my vision for public libraries in the next decade in 400 words or less:

While the social, economic and technological environments in which we live and work undergo constant change, the essential mission of the public library—to connect people with information, ideas, story and community—will not change. Neither will our role as ambassadors, actively representing the library and its value as an engine for prosperity and quality of life. One of our greatest opportunities in the next decade is to heighten that ambassadorship. Our goal should be to eliminate the ignorance factor: too many people in our communities and in the media don’t really know what we do or what we offer, and therefore find it too easy to disregard or to dismiss us (not to mention defund us). As the world remakes its economies, libraries are more essential than ever. We have the chance to place ourselves center stage in civic planning.

As technologies, formats, access avenues and expectations for access change, both for books and for information, libraries have the opportunity to demonstrate their agency by acting as high-profile advocates of readers and learners. Publishers face thorny challenges with electronic formats, a rapidly evolving device market, and unpredictable patterns of usage and demand. They will continue their work to develop models that allow them to profit while responding to user expectations in the downloadables market. At the same time, database vendors are shifting their models and pricing structures, with the possibility that paid research will migrate from database subscriptions to search engine platforms. The library’s role is absolutely essential in both of these landscapes—reminding publishers and vendors of the value (and power) of lending, and making certain to protect and support those for whom the new technologies remain either out of reach or bewildering.

Libraries will continue to innovate for information services, programming and outreach. We will explore new ways to meet people’s needs as their habits and attitudes toward information-seeking change, whether we meet them in person or electronically. Social media and online creativity tools let us engage directly with library users. We build stakeholding in the library by providing fun and enriching activities that speak directly to peoples’ interests and also bring them together across disparate backgrounds—again, whether in person or in the cloud. Innovative programming creates its own opportunities to fulfill the library’s mission, to reach underserved populations, and once again to demonstrate the library’s value.

LGBTQ or not…

Book group, Reading and Society

I am a member of an LGBTQ book group. For those of you not in on the culcha, the acronym stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer. “Queer” is kind of a catch-all for everybody on the sexuality and gender spectra who don’t feel the other labels fit. Sometimes, especially regarding teens, the Q stands for Questioning, when you’re just not sure. Sometimes you’ll see it LGBT, without the Q; or LGBTQIA, adding Intersex (which is different from transgender, having more to do with variant physiology than a gender identity that contradicts anatomy) and Allies (we love our allies!). Sometimes you’ll see GLBT or GLB, but it makes some folks politically uncomfortable to put the men (Gay) at the head of the line. Including the “B” and the “T” is important; historically, gay men and lesbians have sometimes been not only uncomfortable with but downright discriminatory towards bisexuals (“Ew, gross, you sleep with people with *those* parts?? Get away from me!”) and transgender folk (“Ew, just pick a gender! Be your parts, already!”).

With that out of the way: we’re here, we queer, we like to read and to talk about books. And we welcome straight people to join us at LGBTQ book group, cuz it’s about the books. Which, in our case, are by or about LGBTQ people.

Sometimes I wonder if having a specifically LGBTQ book group is the right thing. Do we really need a separate group? Can’t queer issues just be a natural part of any book group that’s paying attention to the human condition?

But as soon as I ask those questions, I know the answers: yes, it’s awfully nice; and no, for most groups it doesn’t work that way.

It really is nice having a book group “of our own”. I have made some very important friends through the LGBTQ book group (that seems to happen in every book group!). I really value our time together, sharing our perspectives on the material and the issues it brings up, disagreeing and laughing (also typical activities for a book group). It means something not only for us personally, but also that our local library recognizes us and makes a space for us.

They don’t, however, have a lot of our books. This is another reason why we need our LGBTQ Book Group. Books marketed for book groups typically have a specific audience in mind, and that audience is usually both female and straight. When libraries collect book group kits with multiple copies, they don’t normally do so with titles like Stone Butch Blues or And the Band Played On. For most of our group’s titles we have had to scrounge for copies. The Library Foundation has responded enthusiastically about finding funds for LGBTQ-themed book group kits, but we have been told that this will have to go through channels.

So, I love my LGBTQ book group. When (not *if*) I get hired, we almost certainly will have to move away, and the book group is one of the things we’ll really miss.

The double life of Alice B. Sheldon

Books

I recently read James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips, for a book group (an LGBTQ book group, as it happens). I’ve been meaning to read it for years, ever since I read the reviews for it when it was published in 2004, so thank heaven for book groups that get us to read things, eh? As one of the many who became science fiction fans in their teens, and someone who has been wrestling with questions of gender roles and expectations since about the same time, I have a vested interest in the story of this, as it turns out, rather tortured life.

Like many literary biographies, it can be a dense and occasionally plodding read, but Phillips makes wondrous use of her access to her subject and the people who were close to her. The story is a fascinating one, and I have to agree with the reviewers and blurb writers who observe that Sheldon’s life makes for significant commentary on 20th century social history for women and for literature.

My heart goes out to Sheldon, who never seems to have found a way to accept herself in her own skin. She could never reconcile herself to being female in the roles she felt were available to her. Raised by adventurous socialites who took her as a child on dangerous explorations to Africa yet kept her sheltered (some might say smothered, and Sheldon certainly would have) at home in their Chicago penthouse, Sheldon never felt she could step out of her mother’s shadow. Her mother was a successful author of fiction as well as travelogs, who managed to walk the tightrope of building a career for herself as a woman yet remaining within the bounds of expected feminine behavior–a dazzling hostess and raconteur who charmed everyone around her, but burdened her daughter in private with repeated horror stories of the dangers and losses of life. Sheldon never felt she could live up to her mother’s performance socially, and rebelled against feeling she had to. Her upbringing of simultaneous privilege and restriction left her uncertain of what she could do well and unwilling to conform to anyone else’s conventions for success–not a happy combination.

After a stormy first marriage to a poet, Sheldon retreated into the war effort, where she became an interpreter of spy photographs–which led to a career with the CIA after the war. The army and later the CIA encouraged the use of dexedrine as a performance enhancer, a drug which would undermine Sheldon’s health both physically and mentally. A second marriage eventually settled into a sexless but devoted partnership–and then something interesting happened.

Alice B. Sheldon became James Tiptree, Jr.

She had discovered pulp science fiction magazines as a teen, and rediscovered the burgeoning genre as an adult in the late 1950’s, sometimes called science fiction’s Golden Age. She began to write her own stories, but wanted a pseudonym both to protect her career (she had left the CIA and was pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology) and her privacy. She hit on “Tiptree” on a whim in the grocery store, looking at a jar of preserves, and chose a male name to both protect her privacy further and give her writing more authority. As the 1960’s came to a close, James Tiptree, Jr. began to burn up the firmament of “new wave” science fiction with propulsive tales that challenged the reader’s every assumption and comfort regarding human identity and human behavior, especially when it came to men and women. As Tiptree, she also kept up voluminous correspondence with many writers and editors, charming everyone just as her mother had done–but never meeting any one in person.  Rumors circulated about Tiptree’s identity, including speculations that he worked for the government–and that he must be a woman, given his keen observations of the power dynamic between the genders that has a nasty tendency to crush the female. Those closest to Tiptree in correspondence vehemently denied the latter, saying that no woman could have produced those vigorous stories or write the letters that Tiptree did.

Sheldon’s secret was discovered when her mother died. In correspondence and interviews, she had given some actual facts about her background as part of Tiptree’s, and when Tiptree told friends that his mother had died in Chicago it did not take much effort for people to scan the obituaries for the death of a Chicago literary light who had been an African adventurer–and discover that her only survivor was a daughter, not a son.

Sheldon was terrified that she would lose her SF friends over the revelation, but they all rallied to her. Ursula LeGuin, a long time correspondent with whom Tiptree had enjoyed a very warm relationship, welcomed her as a sister, noting that she was still the same person she always had been. But Sheldon herself was not so sure. As herself, as Alice (or Allie, as she preferred to be called), she had never had close friendships with other women. She felt rather painfully that she did not know how to be a woman, and often felt she did not like women; being Tiptree had represented a kind of relief. She had had sexual feelings for women all her life, but had never pursued a relationship with a woman. At many points in her journal over the years she wrote of her frustrations at being female, rejecting her female body, hating what she saw as the weakness and short-sightedness of women, resenting the limitations that she felt were imposed upon her because everyone around her saw a woman.

It is possible that Allie Sheldon was, in fact, a transgender man, or that her gender identity would have found more comfortable expression somewhere closer to the masculine than the feminine end of the spectrum. The latter is, in fact, what she achieved as Tiptree. Then again, it is also possible that her upbringing, her temperament, and the early introduction of chemical dependence on stimulants, combined with the cultural standards for gender relations in her social and professional circles to leave her feeling she had no home, no way to be.

Tiptree’s stories can sometimes be hard to read. As Phillips points out, they stemmed from a dire sense that humans would not allow each other to survive, and that the things we want the most can be so far beyond our ken that we can die of them. The writing is brilliant, and very much of its times, and so remains a significant window on what speculative writers were thinking and feeling in those turbulent years at the beginning of the 1970’s. Phillips has done remarkable work illuminating this striking life.

O Jacky, let me count the ways

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I am a big fan of Jacky Faber. Big fan. The Bloody Jack series by L.A. Meyer hits all my Happy Grinning Reader buttons: historical fiction in a credible world you can practically smell, characters you feel you know in real life, gripping narrative, humor…it’s all here. And there’s Jacky: the girl who has a remarkable natural talent for everything except table manners, and who seems to have done (and survived) just about everything, too. Jacky has a heart as big as all outdoors, she does, and she’ll charm that silly grin I always wear in her presence onto *your* face, too, faster than she can pull out her beloved pennywhistle and start dancing up a storm (that is, until she gets arrested for public indecency).

The books are written in first-person, primarily in Jacky’s highly distinctive voice, although other characters occasionally get to write her a letter (often at wits’ end, since those who care about her regularly do not know where she is or what fate she may have met with this time). The storytelling is irresistible, at least for my tastes, and has you traveling all over the European-known world of the early 19th century. Just by taking her chances as she sees ’em, Jacky becomes a street urchin, a sailor non-pareil, a pirate (pardon me, a privateer), a racing jockey, a card-sharp, a reluctant spy, a deep-sea diver, and proprietress of Faber Shipping Worldwide, among many other things.

If you do not love Jacky Faber, I believe I have good reason to shake my head over you, and possibly wag my finger. These are published as Young Adult fiction, and you will find them in the Teen/YA section of your library or book store, but really, everyone who loves a good yarn and a breathtakingly fun female character (character of any gender) should be reading. Run right now and get them for yourself!

And the best part is that we have her on audio. Katherine “Katy” Kellgren is a marvel and a gift to the reading universe for her voicing of Jacky, and all the other characters and accents, too. May she be blessed a thousand times over for this amazing body of work. I have listened to all the books in the series except the latest, thanks to library downloadables (yay!), and I hadn’t actually “read” any of them in print until I recently got my hands on a copy of The Wake of the Lorelei Lee. I hope that L.A. Meyer, and Kellgren, won’t stop providing us with Jacky fixes until our heroine is well into old age. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Teens, Young Adults: Developing Humans (ain’t we all)

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Teens’ lives are defined by a mix of dependence and independence, as well as by developmental realities that can put them at odds with the adult world. Their main task in life, which hits with an intensity that can feel like life and death, is to find out who they are, how they feel, and what they can be. They generally try to find the answers to those questions by connecting with (or trying to connect with) other teens. Popular culture, technology, and electronic environments help them connect with each other in their own, self-created worlds where most adults will fear to tread or at least not know the way. Both adults and teens have the same basic library needs for information, recreation, and connection, but the differences in their life stages require some specialized skills and knowledge for working with teens.

While it’s developmentally appropriate for teens to turn away from adults, and to at least appear to actively disregard adult authority figures, the process has the disadvantage of relying for answers on other teens—who tend to lack the clarity and perspective that would be most helpful. Teens still need adults, both to provide practical things like material security and transportation, and to provide the positive role models for what adulthood might look like and the structure and support to help them get there. Teens need mentors. They do not need adults to be their buddies, and heaven help adults who try to be “cool” with teens. What they need from adults includes respect for their abilities, energy and talents, and room to express and create themselves freely; but they also need clearly defined and consistently reinforced boundaries. Teens deserve adults who recognize the great things they are capable of, and trust them with meaningful responsibility, while remaining present for guidance and support. I rely on these standards in my own work with teens. If the library can welcome and engage teens, librarians are well-positioned to mentor them at a time when other adults in their lives (parents, teachers, school administrators) have a harder time sustaining trust.

The brains of young adults are still developing neurologically in the areas that govern what adults think of as good sense and good planning. In your teen years you are especially inclined to risk-taking and thoughtless behavior with or for your friends at a time when you can’t always see where it might lead, partly because of inexperience and partly because your brain isn’t quite there yet. Hence the need for mentors. Research has also shown another great Catch-22 of adolescent brain development: teens have difficulty accurately interpreting emotional states in facial expressions and body language. At the very moment when knowing what other people think of you is one of the prime mortal organizers of your world, you cannot rely on your ability to do so—and you don’t know it.

A key difference between working with adults and working with teens is understanding and embracing these developmental realities. The basic principles of library service remain the same for both age groups: you fulfill information requests without judgment, you respond to the interests and tastes of your audience with appropriate and appealing activities that fit their schedules, and you reach out to them with meaningful services and resources. To work well with teens you need to be attuned to their specific needs, familiar with their world and their priorities, and ready to demonstrate both your respect for them, and your requirement that they respect you and the needs of other library users.