Pensée #4: Watchmen

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a graphic novel of large fandom and good reputation is hardly in want of an apologist. Ergo, we’ll just leap right over the question of whether comics have literary or educational value — arguments already made by minds far more cogent than mine — and just explore the text at hand.

I’m always biased right off the bat when a book  leads me revisit other books that, for whatever reason, did not make an impression the first time I met them.  Watchmen‘s recurring epigraph, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” takes us all the way back to Plato’s Republic by way of Juvenal’s Satires.  Loosely translated as “Who watches the watchmen?” — sometimes rendered more faithfully as “Who guards the guardians?” –  the phrase has its own Wikipedia entry which led me to a catalog search to get me some Juvenal.

[This also leads me to an interesting theory:  although my required "Philosophy 101" class did not, apparently, revolutionize my life, enough soil was tilled and seeds planted that, years later, Watchmen was able to revive my curiosity about certain authors and texts.  Perhaps the point of reading books is not always to have an amazing revelation in the moment, but to pave the way for greater understanding later on?]

 At any rate, the primary questions the text asks are:  what are the morally and ethically correct things for leaders to do?  And what happens when they don’t do them?  And what could/should be done about it?  In delightful non-linear fashion Watchmen traces one history of costumed crimefighters that’s not as optimistic or happy as other superhero mythologies; unlike the sunny world of Superman, for example,  in which good and evil are clear-cut, the Watchmen universe is filled with ambiguity and doubt…so much so, in fact, that it contains a piece of legislation called the Keene Act.

After a group of costumed superheroes instigated a police strike that led to riots, the Keene Act was passed to outlaw “non-government affiliated vigilantes”; in other words, if you’re going to dress up and fight crime, you’ve got to be legit with the gubmint.  Distressed by this development, most costumed superheroes chose to hang up their capes rather than comply with the law.  When The Comedian, one of the few government-sponsored superheroes, is murdered, the other vigilantes decide to come out of retirement to track down the killer.

[I found, while researching this piece, that the history of registration acts in comics is long and convoluted - for a summary and explication, see, once more, a surprisingly good Wikipedia entry.]

That’s a lot to wrap your head around, and the characters don’t make it any easier, at times.  Rorschach, for example, has some pretty black-and-white notions of justice, strongly influenced by a traumatic childhood; then there’s Ozymandias, who seems harmless enough, but has some interesting notions about what’s best for society as a whole, and doesn’t mind killing millions of people if it will lead to world peace for everybody else.  At every turn in Watchmen the reader is asked to grapple with right and wrong, ethics and justice, personal versus social responsibility, the ends, the means, and the proper relationship between them.

Not exactly a light summer read, eh?  And yet, such a worthwhile one.  It got me thinking about librarians, and how we are often the superheroes of our communities.  Sometimes we are legitimate representatives of the gubmint; sometimes we function as costumed vigilantes, frantically patching neglected holes in the social safety net.  Sometimes we’re trying to uphold the status quo; sometimes, when we perceive the system as unjust, we’re trying to overthrow it.  Our mask is information, and our mission is dissemination…but who watches the library watchmen? To what standards are we held, and by whom?  The ALA code of ethics?  Our supervisors?  The law?  And if it is the law, whose law?  And would that be the letter of the law, or its spirit?  When is it better to uphold the law, and when is it better to take matters into your own hands?

Notice how, once more, I don’t have any answers for you.  Notice, too, how I’ve been blathering on for paragraphs and haven’t even really done justice to the text itself.  I am, however, definitely ready to read Watchmen and Philosophy, which, I hope, will take all my questions, run with them, and, possibly, give me better answers.  Comics aficianados are cordially invited to comment and highlight the many things I have, I am quite certain, failed to illuminate.

A funny thing happened on the way to this essay, which I’ll address in an interlude next time we meet.  Until then, I hope you had some sort of holiday, and that you enjoyed it greatly:

Reading Today: Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen.  A doctor shares what she has learned about healing from a life in medicine.

Pensée #3: A Canticle For Leibowitz

A Canticle For Leibowitz almost turned into a swan song for Alchemy.  I got to the end of the book and thought to myself, “Well, shoot.”  Because, really, what could I say?  Miller nailed it.  All my fears, set down in black and white.  And I had to really sit and mull things over before I could express myself properly, because there’s a lot to think about here.

I read dystopian fiction because I worry about the future of American culture, and a good healthy dip in one’s fears — albeit exaggerated to dire proportions — is a great coping mechanism.  I mean, sure, we’re in a bit of a pickle with the obesity epidemic, our shocking disregard for the environment, and the vast wasteland of brain-rot that passes for television these days, just to name a few issues.  But surely truth will never become as bad as fiction…right?

Once upon a time in a future that didn’t happen, one government called another government’s bluff on the whole Mutually Assured Destruction thing, and the nuclear bombs rained down like lemmings plunging from a cliff.  Angry at their former leaders for making such a mess of things, the survivors decided that knowledge was dangerous, and that they preferred to live without all that book-learning, thank you kindly.  They called themselves simpletons, with pride, and they built themselves simple towns what had neither schools nor libraries, because they weren’t about to get fooled by those Smarty McSmartypantses ever again.

There you have it:  the librarian’s nightmare.

Canticle chronicles several hundred years of this new state of affairs, in which the only organized group that cares anything about literacy and learning is the Catholic Church.   Characters live and die, events rise and fall, progress is made, and then shattered to bits in ways that made me pull my hair in frustration.  Oh, sure, eventually we get universities back…for the wealthy elite.  And poetry continues to matter…to madmen, sure, but one has to start somewhere.  And don’t even get me started on the position of women in this ducky new future – until the very end, women are seldom seen and even more rarely heard; what’s worse, all the women we see are concubines or otherwise miserable wretches.  In fact, it kind of breaks my brain that in a novel about religious orders, there were no nuns.  That strains the limits of my credulity, even for sci-fi!

But I digress.

Canticle is an epic book in the sense that you probably shouldn’t get too attached to any one character; lives wink in and out over the centuries, each actor playing his part upon the stage, then retiring.  And yet, taken together, these “little” lives weave a tapestry that mirrors the struggle in which we are all currently engaged:  how to make a better world, how to advocate for what we think is right, how to steer civilization in the course we think best and proper, how to get along with people whose notions of “better,” “right,” best, and “proper” differ from our own.

The novel’s appeal factors are, sad to say, limited, not because the book isn’t excellent, but rather because of its high level of excellence.  Few and far between are the folks who wish to dust off — or research, or learn — Latin and Hebrew in order to get the most out of a work.  Rarer still, I expect, are those who wish to wrestle with grand philosophical and theological questions unless they’re earning grades for their pains.  It is enough, however, that these novels exist and are read by those who choose to read them.

I have, you see, learned something over the course of my brief career that grappling with Canticle has re-confirmed:  learning can be encouraged, but not compelled, particularly in adults.  Once they are done with their compulsory schooling, grownups are free to remain ignorant of everything else under the sun.  Nobody can make them learn anything new, or appreciate the diversity of what life has to offer.  And there isn’t a blessed thing we librarians can do about it.


Except make sure that there will always be physical spaces for wisdom and learning, knowledge and light, peace and quiet.  Except select materials that reflect the best of literature, art, music, science, technology, world culture, even if it’s the pop culture stuff that gets people through the doors these days, because there’s always a ghost of a chance that someone might catch a glimpse of diamonds in the dross.  Except plan programs that teach and edify, either concrete skills or abstract concepts; except read voraciously, then write about what you’ve read on Facebook, Twitter, or your blog, thus elevating what could be a shiny, useless tool into an instrument of civilization.  Except go to the mat again and again with your elected officials, reminding them that, unlike a for-profit organization, the purpose of a library is to uphold the mores and values of civilization, not fill somebody’s pockets.  Except work and work and work and work for little pay and less recognition, in the hopes that, of all the seeds we plant, some will bear fruit.

Society must always have the choice between the wise and the dross, even though wisdom sings softly, and the crass and vulgar will outshout it every time.  Without the choice, without the possibility for grace, the prospect of life on this planet becomes bleak, indeed.  Libraries are an essential service not only for what they contain, but what they symbolize:  the possibility of betterment, the presence of hope in a world growing increasingly more hopeless, the ghost of a chance that maybe someday we will turn away from vapid, petty, pointless and stupid, and invest in the things that rust can’t corrode, nor moths sneak in and chew to smithereens.

At this point I would like to stress strongly that although Miller frames his points in terms of Catholic theology, and that my plaid-skirt survivor outlook does tend to heavily color my own thinking, no one religious, philosophical, or ethical system has a lock on choice or grace.  And this, too, is part of the beauty of the library:  that there is room for all of us here, whether we be Muslim, Neo-Pagan, Christian, Wiccan, Buddhist, Jew, atheist, agnostic, or Pastafarian.

These ideas are not “sexy,” per se.  They don’t translate well to cutesy YouTube videos or the kind of rhetoric that impresses local gubmint.  And yet, we try.  We shout as loudly as we can over the howling din of the shallow and the stupid, and hope that grace descends, as it descends near the end of Canticle, perhaps in a form of which we cannot yet conceive, but ever long for.

I’ll let you off the hook if you decide you can skip this one; if you do decide to read it, or have already read it, please do let me know what you think.  That’s rather a weak note upon which to end, but it is late, and I am tired…and I will need all my strength to take up arms against the sea of stupid once more, tomorrow.

Bonsoir, Constant Reader.  When next we meet, I’ll have flipped a coin.

ETA:  New habits are hard to form.  Yesterday’s book was Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker; today’s is Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected

Pensée #2: In the Woods

I don’t enjoy reading mysteries.  At.  All.

I am, apparently, in good company.  Still, it’s a little embarrassing to write it down.  It’s more embarrassing, though, to admit it to patrons, especially since they think that because you know just enough to bluff with phrases like  

“If you liked Jacqueline Winspear you might enjoy Kathryn Miller Haines!”

then you must share their fondness for all things mysterious. 

When my patrons smile beatifically and ask, “And what mysteries do YOU like?,” there’s always this moment of silent hesitation on my part, a delicate, regretful pause before I shatter their illusion of my biblio-perfection.  And afterwards, they always give me a look, as if I am no better than a puppy-murderer.

Let them look as they like; I don’t like mysteries. 

I do, however, like my colleague, P.,  very much.  When I asked her if she was reading anything good lately, and she enthusiastically recommended Tana French’s In the Woods, I requested it without reading reviews, because, well, P. is smart, fun, and all-around excellent.  I trust her with my readerly life.

And then the book showed up with a big green “mystery” genre sticker on it. 


Still, this is P., after all.  And given that reading 50 pages of a book is my usual modus operandi anyway, I’ll just tell her nicely that the book wasn’t my cup of tea, and that will be that, right?

Er, not quite.  I still don’t like mysteries.  But I do love it when an author creates a compelling protagonist that keeps me reading in spite of my reservations.

The thing about French’s antihero, Rob Ryan, is that he’s a survivor of childhood trauma.  Three children walked into the woods one day, but only one walked out, and the survivor, Adam, doesn’t remember a thing.  His parents move to get him –and themselves– away from the bad memories.  Adam grows up, loses his Dublin accent, changes his name to Rob, and becomes a police officer…but he never remembers what happens to him that day in the woods.

That’s a heavy burden for a person to carry, but carry it he does, sometimes lightly, sometimes awkwardly.  Everything about Rob Ryan is a sign of unhealed grief, from the ways he interacts  with women to the huge gaps in his memory, and I found it both touching and compelling.  French’s genius move here is to show, rather than tell, how Ryan suffers.  She also leaves the childhood trauma unspecified, which creates more pathos than blunt descriptions could, and saves the narrative from melodrama.

There’s plenty here for conventional mystery fans to like, including a truly wicked villain, and the book’s setting –the suburbs of Dublin– has the potential to please those readers who simply must read anything and everything to do with Ireland; in fact, one particular subplot really only appeals to a reader who cares deeply about Ireland and the long, complicated history of the land and its ownership.  The real mystery of In the Woods, however, is whether or not Ryan can get his act together and solve another child murder before the weight of his own unhealed trauma ruins both his career and  his closest relationships. 

This is the sort of book I really should have hated.  Given how frequently crimes involving children show up in the newspapers, I can do without them in my fiction, thank you very much.  Ryan, however, got to me.  I found myself hoping against hope his memories would come back, rooting for his moments of personal progress, headdesking in frustration at his bad decisions…and, ultimately, shedding a few furtive tears at a the resolution of a particular plotline I’d hoped would go differently.

I’m still no fan of mysteries, but thanks to French’s gift for characterization, I’ll be diving back into her world for The Likeness, in which the focus shifts to Ryan’s partner, Cassie Maddox, and her troubled past.  And I’ll make sure to check in with P. on the newly-released Faithful Place, to see if it’s equally gush-worthy.

How excellent to have a trustworthy colleague and friend!  Do you have much luck when your peers recommend books to you?  Have they ever succeeded in getting you out of your comfort zone?  Conversely, has a disastrous recommendation ever put strain on a working friendship?

Reading Today:  A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller.  The bombs fell, civilization went kerflooey, and only the clergy cared about literacy and learning (classics, sci-fi, Hugo Award).

Next time, by your request…the awesome people with whom I work.


Life here at Alchemy isn’t all vampires and snark.  It is, however, rather bookish.

I’m somewhat startled by how infrequently I talk about books in my professional librarian blog.  Then again, my writing about books would be much like asking fish to philosophize about water (especially since fish can’t talk).  Print books, to me, are not so much objects to be fussed over as they are critical elements of survival that I take for granted.  The sun will rise in the morning, the water that comes out of my tap will be potable, and there will always, always be something for me to read.  You will step between me and my books at your peril, and you will pry their papery goodness from my cold, dead hands.

All that being said, I’ve decided we don’t talk about books nearly enough at Alchemy, and that this must change.  Given that I am still my department’s emerging technologies librarian, we will still grumble talk a lot about technology.  Because I’m now officially in the leadership training cohort, we’ll still be talking about leadership.  And because I remain your cynical romantic, we will definitely still philosophize.  There are, however, one or two little cosmetic tweaks we’ll make going forward.

For starters, at the end of every post, I’ll link to the book I’m reading that day.  Given that I am usually reading 50 library books at any given time, and have 50 more on order, this should not prove difficult.  In all fairness, I am usually reading more than one book per day (one for the bus, one for each room in the house, one for my lunch break, etc.), but to keep the literary insufferability to a minimum, we’ll stick to one per post.

Finishing books tends to be an issue for me.  I take Nancy Pearl’s 50-page rule very seriously; it breaks my heart that, at the end of my life, I still won’t have read all the books on earth, so I want to make sure I don’t spend too much time with clunkers.  50 pages is more than enough to be able to file it away in my brain for readers’ advisory.

Still, I’d like to finish more books than I do, which is why I signed up for two reading challenges this year, a 50-book challenge at GoodReads, and a 100 book challenge at Every Girl Blog. That’s technically 150 books to finish this year (doubling up seems like cheating), and I’m going to keep track of them right here at Alchemy, just to save time.  You will find my 2010 reading log thus far in the left-hand sidebar, or you can visit it here.

You’d think we would be all booked up right now, but you’d be so very wrong!  Just to up the ante, starting with the next book I finish, I’m going to review it here at Alchemy.  I love writing book reviews, and would like to get both more exposure and more practice.  The 175-word fiction reviews I produce for Library Journal are definitely fun, and keep me sharp, but I find that, much like the opium addicts of old, it takes more and more of the stuff to satisfy my critical appetite.  Since it would be selfish to sign up to review all the books at LJ, I’ll simply have to branch out.

What else is in it for you, Constant Reader?  Well, those ARCs have to go somewhere when I’m done with them, and I’d prefer it not be the recycling pile.  The sensible, responsible thing to do seems to be passing them on to a fellow information professional.  Ergo, each time I’m done with an LJ ARC, I’ll offer it up for grabs on Alchemy.

As luck would have it, I actually have one for you today – everybody who comments on this entry between now and Wednesday April 28th will have the opportunity to win the somewhat-battered copy of the book I’ve just reviewed.  Today’s mystery ARC is the third novel from a literary mystery author, and if you’re in the mood for a solid whodunit with a number of quirky literary style choices and a meta-fiction vibe, you should put your hat in the ring for it.

In a token nod to technology, I’ve updated my blogroll to indicate which library blogs I’m actually reading right now.  I don’t read many blogs, sad to say; this is not because I don’t love you madly, but because I loathe squinting at a tiny screen.  Because printing out posts is neither time-efficient nor environmentally sound, I limit my blog reading only to those authors who make it consistently worth my while.   Paradoxically, however, I am always on the lookout for blogs I haven’t yet discovered, and it seems sensible that I should start with you.  Ergo, if you are blogging, please include your link so that I can repay your kindness to me by checking out your thoughts as well.

Last, but certainly not least, a feature for the comment-shy:  WordPress has just initiated a delightful new star rating system, allowing you to indicate how much you liked a particular post without having to leave a comment.  I’ve enabled this feature, and you will now see it at the top of every post.  The only way I’m going to get better at this is if you give me feedback, so please, for the sake of quality control, make your (dis)pleasure known ad astra if you’re not feeling chatty.

Poll results indicate the bulk of you are interested in hearing about My Year of No, a project that began on Facebook.  When I come back from my “nobody should work on their birthday” mini-holiday, I’ll tell you all about it…at least, all about the professional aspect.

Happy reading!

Reading Today: This is for the Mara Salvatrucha, Samuel Logan.  A gang member turned informant spills the beans on the MS-13, one of America’s most notorious street gangs (non-fiction, true crime).

Title Fail (Insert Vampire Metaphor Here): Library Failure, Pt. II

Previously, on Alchemy, we’d seemingly written ourselves into a corner, what with surface-scratching neuroscience, myth, symbol, and many examples of heinous fail, all of which actually happened somewhere in library world.  In addition, a number of brave commenters stepped up to the plate to talk about their own mistakes and failures.  On these brave souls I hereby bestow the Black Badge of Infamy With Pink Skulls Upon It. 

Metaphorically, of course.  I’ve got no budget for actual badges (and you don’t really need them anyhow).  What I do have are a few stolen moments in which to advance my theories.

First, the vampires.

Vampire as Fail Metaphor

Ever since John Polidori sat up all night telling ghost stories with Byron and the Shelleys, we’ve had vampires in our fiction, for good or ill. Many a scholarly study theorizes as to why this particular undead creature continues to fascinate us, but from where I’m sitting, it’s pretty simple:  humans need blood to live, and vampires take blood.  Ergo, vampires are scary as hell.

[What's interesting is that we seem to be entering a fictional age in which vampires have compassion, can be redeemed, even fight for equal rights.  Ergo, I'd better hurry up and finish this metaphor before what was once a classic symbol of terror becomes completely drained of its potency.]

Vampires make a lovely metaphor for failure simply because the prospect of screwing up exerts a similar effect:   failure stops us in our tracks, drains us of confidence, leaves us depleted and wondering what the heck happened to us.  Once you’ve been bitten, it’s hard to shake it off and bounce back, especially if you don’t feel you have anyone you can confide in.

Now up the stakes by thinking about failure specifically within the library.

 Librarianship is a profession in transition, actively questioning its future.  What’s the role of the physical library?  What do reference services in the 21st century look like?  How do we serve the “born digital” without neglecting the rest of the community’s needs?  What’s the future of cataloging?  How can we teach information literacy to people who are perfectly happy with Wikipedia, and don’t necessarily care if Wikipedia is wrong, or if better sources exist?  How can we convince the non-librarians who oversee our medical/special/school libraries that our services are value-added?  Are library coffeeshops still hot, or are they “soooo 2004″?

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s enough to establish that librarianship gives us enough to worry about on good days.  Adding the prospect of failure to the mix simply ramps up the possibility of vampiric possession.  When everything around you is hazy, nebulous, uncertain, subject to change at any moment, the prospect of somehow “doing it wrong” is almost too much to bear.

So what do we do?  Because this is me you’re dealing with here, you get two answers:  a logical one, and a mythic-symbolic one.  In Part III of this series, I’ll give you the logical answer which incorporates the forty thousand things I’m learning about neuroscience!  And in part IV, we’ll finally get to Abraham Lincoln and his vampiric (or not) tendencies.

I know, I know.  I took a day off, I got buried in catch-up work, I had to lower the blogging bar.  It happens.  Can I get a witness?  I shudder to think what will happen when I disappear the week of my birthday, if, indeed, I do dare to take that much vacation all at once.

Until next time, I remain,

your library alchemist.

Excuses: An FAQ

And just where have you been, young lady?

I’ve just returned from another one of my mini-staycations.  Notice how nobody died, and nothing caught fire.  My email is a right backlog, though – I’ve spent most of this morning cleaning it up.

Don’t you worry about becoming irrelevant in today’s fast-paced world of digital excitement?

Even we technomages have our limits.  I think it’s very important to spend periods of time away from workmail, workblogs, worktwitter, workfacebook, and, well, work, period.  I’m actually much more concerned at the moment as to whether or not I can use the word “technomage” without J. Michael Straczynski slapping a lawsuit on me.  A quick search of the Trademark Electronic Search Service (TESS) at the USPTO site indicates I’m safe, but I think he should probably call me, just so we can have a good professional discussion and clear that up.

Fair enough.  Now that you’re back at work, can you tell us why there was no August Wilson Leadership Academy post for Feburary?

Er, yes.  That.  I chose to spend my time differently last month.

But it was such a good idea!

I know.

And you promised!

I know!  I hang my head in shame.

So, when will we see the next installment?

When I read something that inspires me.  It’s not looking hopeful.  I’ve been reading a lot of leadership material, and, well…

Well what?

It’s kind of depressing.




Reasons vary.  Some books are heavy on the inspiration, light on the practical implementation.  Others are crammed with bullet points, suggestions and tips to the point where it’s overwhelming.  And don’t even get me started on “management parables.” 

Well, why don’t you talk about that, then?

No can do.  Much like Booklist, Alchemy only gives positive reviews.

Where’s the fun in that?

Hey, nobody tries to write a bad book.  Even Stephanie Meyer had good, albeit sparkly, intentions.

You know where those lead, right?


So, how have you been choosing to spend your time?

Workwise, it’s still all about the databases:  making sure they’re working properly, troubleshooting them when they’re not, promoting/marketing them, gathering statistics, trying to see if all the vendors can deliver said statistics in the new format certain parties want, running trials, giving meetings, taking notes, and trying to stay on top of / manage the ongoing POWER library situation.


Hey, you asked!


It’s not very exciting, I know.   So much library work takes place behind the scenes, and is difficult to talk about in an exciting way.  This is why I usually philosophize rather than talk about what I’m doing.  I’ll gladly change my position on this if I suddenly get an outpouring of comments begging to hear more about the intricacies of einetwork database statistics collection.

Er, pass.  Are you working on anything exciting at the moment?

When I’m not managing the electronic resources, I’m still doing everything else I usually do:  buying books, fussing over Eleventh Stack and CLPicks, staffing virtual reference and — once in a blue moon — working at the physical reference desk. 

What’s your favorite workday responsibility?

Of all the tasks on my to-do list, coordinating Eleventh Stack is still my favorite.  Serving as team leader/editor is fun and educational, and I’m both surprised and pleased that our library’s blog has passed its second birthday without a drop in quality or quantity.  Credit for that goes to my amazing team, of course.

So, you’re not at the reference desk much these days.  How do you feel about that?

Truthfully, I would like more time at the physical reference desk.  However, there will be plenty of time for that when my countywide committee responsibilities end in 2011.  I think it’s really important to try as many things as you can; even if you find out that certain kinds of library work are not to your liking or skill set, you can still learn from them.  And I’m certainly not sorry for the opportunity to get to know my peers out in the county — it’s led to a number of opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had, and I have a better picture of the Pittsburgh’s public library landscape than I did previously.

That’s a lot of p-sounds in a sentence.

That’s technically not a question.

Sorry.  Read any good books lately?

I thought you’d never ask.  Under the umbrella of professional reading, I’m currently swooning over The Late Age of Print, which nimbly vaults over the “print vs. digital” dilemma by examining the print book as a consumer product / cultural artifact. On the religion/spirituality tip, I’ve got Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian (vocabulary and diction geared toward the divinity school set) and Bring Me the Rhinoceros (more layman-friendly).   Fictionwise, I’m in slack-jawed awe of American Salvage, a collection of tight, well-constructed stories about uncomfortable subjects, and Every Last Drop, the fourth installment of the Joe Pitt Chronicles, a series designed expressly for folks who appreciate the hard-boiled qualities of Chandler and Hammett, New York stories, and — are you sensing a theme, here? — non-sparkly vampires.

 I’ve also got Writing and Publishing: The Librarian’s Handbook checked out, but I’m a little nervous about opening it. 

Why?   It sounds great!

It does!  Problem is, I have a feeling it will blow any other excuses I have for not writing into smithereens.

And that’s bad because….?

Because facing up to the truth about yourself, your gifts and abilities, and the way you can best serve the profession, and then getting over your fears and excuses, is one of the scariest things you can do throughout your career.  And it’s not like you do it once and you’re done with the process:  if you’re growing as a professional, you are constantly surveying the landscape, looking at where you are now, as well as where you would like to be.

Where would you like to be?

That’s the kicker:  I thought I knew.  Now everything ‘s up for grabs again.  This is very scary, but also delightful.

In what way?

Well, when you stop growing and learning, you might as well hang it up.  And I’m afraid you lot are stuck with me for quite some time.

All righty then.  Anything else to report?

I’ve just finished and turned in another book review.  Book reviewing knocks me out, and I’d love to do more of it, so I’m currently scouting out more opportunities there. 

I’ve also just been selected for the third cohort of the CLP Leadership Institute, a training program for Carnegie Library staff under the auspices of the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian grant we received.  I’m hoping this means I’ll be exposed to a better quality of leadership literature; it definitely means a lot more meetings and seminars in my future, though, which brings us back to the problem of making more time to write for Alchemy.

So, what are you going to do about that?

I have a few ideas.  I seem to work better with structure and guidelines, so I’m looking for a writing template that will be both on-topic and regular.  Heaven help us all, I also have an idea for a completely separate library blog, and am quietly making my pitch to parties I suspect might be interested in collaborating on it.  If that takes off, it will debut near the end of April, and will serve to complement the kinds of things I like to discuss, but can’t always make time for.  It will also, I hope, fill an as-yet-unfilled niche in library world.

And that is…?

You’ll just have to rest in the mystery a little while longer.

Fair enough.  How are you going to spend the rest of your day?

I have one hour in which to take things that are currently on my desk and do whatever it takes to get them off of my desk and finished.  I will then spend the last two hours of my day on AskHere PA.

Do you like working virtual reference?

I absolutely love it.  Disdained by some, virtual reference is actually a key service these days, primarily because the quality and type of the questions received simply cries out for informed professionals who are skillful at ready-reference, information literacy, bibliographic instruction, and good writing/communication skills.  A healthy dose of compassion certainly doesn’t hurt either. 

Can you send us off with a video?

Ask and get.  Here’s a clip from a British band called The Heavy, whose performance on David Letterman was simply splendid.  If you enjoy old-school soul, but appreciate contemporary twists, you’d do well to watch this clip, and then run — not walk — to pick up The House That Dirt Built.

Woah!  Dancing skeletons!  That’s, er, not very professional.

Probably not in the conventional sense.  Remember, though:  Alchemy’s all about balance and fun along with all those high standards.  See also “not forgetting you’re a human being with human needs” and “regular rock out breaks.”

Well, that was…very Alchemy.

Thanks!  Tune in next time for a little less fun, but a lot more professional philosophy, probably early next week.

10 Things Currently Making Me Happy

Wait, what?  Who are you, and what have you done with our melancholy alchemist?

Fret not.  I’m as harried and hectic as ever, as you might have guessed from the long pause since my last entry.  And, to be perfectly honest, goat farming is starting to look good again.  I’ve applied for an internship at a local farm, and will keep you posted. :)

But!  I promised you a happiness list, and I always keep my promises.  My definition of “happy” tends to be slightly eccentric, though.  I wouldn’t say I’m only happy when it rains (that’s just garbage), but I’m decidedly neither cheery nor sunny in the conventional sense.  This is because, like Eric Wilson and Barbara Ehrenreich, I believe we ignore our shadowy aspects, and the gifts they can bring, at our collective peril.

All that being said, here’s my list.

#1.  The interrobang

Punctuation for the 21st century!!.  How can you possibly look at that and not smile?

#2.  The Pixies

This is the most accessible tune I could think of to post – some of you might actually remember when it was first released.  But if you plunge more deeply into the YouTubes, you’ll find all sorts of other melancholy goodness from this talented group.

#3.  Ferrets Dancing to Weezer

No explanation necessary, really.

#4.  Zebra finches rocking out

Contemporary art = really cool.

#5.  Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget.

Have you ever hugged a book? Because I have. Lanier’s cautionary tale about the limits of Web 2.0, and his problems with its infrastructure, is something I’d love to see librarians read and respond to.

#6.  I’m not the only person who feels that way about #5.

Jessamyn West explains it all for you. Includes an interview with Lanier. Bookcrush! Authorcrush! Prominent Librarian Crush! What are you waiting for? Go read it!

#7.  Charlie Huston’s “Joe Pitt” novels.

Like Pulp Fiction, with vampires.  PS:  They definitely don’t sparkle.  Also, a romantic subplot designed for us cynical-romantics.  Start with Already Dead.

#8.  Steampunk Dice.

For the gamer who has everything. Valentine’s Day draws apace. I’m just saying.

#9.  Witty T-shirts.

Exhibit A. See also. It only hurts when I laugh.

#10.  Book Challenges

No, not like that.  The kind where you sign up to read 50, 100, or some other quantity of books in a specific time period.

I’ve signed up for challenges at Goodreads and Every Girl Blog, but I want to single out a wonderful challenge I just stumbled upon: The GLBT Challenge.  Not only is it a laudable idea, but it’s organized in such a way that you can participate as much or as little as you like.  In fact, it’s insanely manageable, even if you’re already challenged up to your eyeballs.  Click on over and take a peek.  January may be behind us, but Feburary has just begun…

So, there you have it.  I’ll not compel you to go and do likewise, but if you’d care to leave a comment, I’d love to know:  what’s making you happy right now?

Science / Silence: Notes on a Media Fast

One of my favorite short stories is Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian.”  In a future world, where everyone lives for television, Leonard Mead likes to go walking alone at night.  During one of his pedestrian jaunts, he is arrested and sent to the Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies.  After all, why would anyone wish to be out in the moonlight, drinking in the air, when s/he could be inside staring at a shiny box?

Perhaps I’m exaggerating just a bit for effect, but I felt a little bit like Leonard Mead last week when I gave up media consumption, for science.  If embracing technology is progressive, and eschewing it is regressive, I wanted to create my own little Center for Regressive Tendencies and see what horrible things would happen as a result of stepping out of the lifestream for a little while.

I’m pleased to report that nobody died, and nothing caught fire.  I did, however, learn a lot about my media consumption patterns, including a few things that surprised me.  And, because I’m human, I totally fell off the wagon on one memorable occasion…but in an unexpected way.

Positive effects

Overall, it was a relief to step away from the near-constant stream of news and information modern culture provides.  While I missed the psychological rituals around reading a print newspaper, for example, doing without the actual content made me feel lighter and happier.  Not once was I tempted to skim news online.  Co-workers, most of whom didn’t know I was media fasting, clued me in on everything important happening locally and nationally, so I was still able to discuss current events with patrons. 

When I did engage with job-related technology functions, I did so with a critical eye toward how much time I spent doing it, and whether or not it was to my ultimate benefit.  After two days of analyzing job-related newsreading, I was able to unsubscribe from a lot of services, as they were either repetitive or not adding value to my workday.  I found out I could fuss over Eleventh Stack and CLPicks much less than I do, and still maintain high standards.  Best of all, I felt a lot less frazzled and a lot more clear-headed.  It’s one thing to know, logically, that you can’t process all the information that’s out there; it’s another thing entirely to feel the practical effects of voluntarily limiting what you consume.

At the reference desk, I turned the media fast into a creative challenge:  how many questions could I answer without turning to the world wide web or a database?  Many of them, as it turns out.  Never underestimate the power of the humble dictionary, thesaurus, almanac, phone book, and encyclopedia to get you what you need.  At my library, we also keep Consumer Reports (including the buying guides), Morningstar and ValueLine at desk reference too, and with good reason, because they’re asked for a lot. 

[What's interesting there is that even when we let people know they have web options for accessing these materials, 9 times out of 10 they still prefer print - just life in the magic print-centric bubble that is Pittsburgh, I reckon...but I digress.]

Overall, I found myself slowing down more, paying closer attention to things, and, as a result, becoming a lot more efficient and effective.  I was even able to make time to do things I’ve been trying to do for months, like reorganizing my work space.   This tendency carried over to personal projects I’d been working on, allowing me to win National Novel Writing Month three days early, finish a number of other writing tasks, and spend a lot more time with my family, friends, and cats. I walked for miles and miles, because I could, and I even made homemade pizza crusts for the first time in years (until you’ve tasted my homemade pizzas, you simply cannot understand what a boon this is to humanity).

Loveliest of all, I read a lot of books.  Slowly.  In print.  I savored every moment I could spent with a physical text object in my hands, curled up in a comfy place, with coffee by my side.   Here’s a partial list:

The Adept, Kurtz/Harris. First in a series. Fantasy fiction, but with a tone like Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series. If you like your magick high, crispy and historically accurate, you might enjoy this one.

The Ancient Mysteries Reader, Haining, ed. Poe! Machen! Bulwer-Lytton! Love! Er, that is to say, if you fancy rare 19th-century gems of fact and fiction, this is your book.

Rainbow’s End, Vinge. This one’s singular: loads of conspiracy theory and politics wrapped around medical advances that incorporate technology with humanity. Oh, and a white rabbit. A lovely, head-scratcher of a novel for those who like their sci-fi complicated and a touch pessimistic.

The Stories of John Cheever. For my fiction class, but no less lovely for all that. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed classic stories like “The Enormous Radio” and “The Swimmer.” It was lovely, too, to discover just how deeply his gifts ran through the canon of his work. They don’t write ‘em like that anymore.

Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, various. Some Clark Ashton Smith stories that were “new to me,” as well as My First Machen (and if that’s not yet a stuffed animal, look out patent office, because here I come). Lovecraft is okay, I suppose, but I’m far fonder of what his friends and literary descendants did with what he gave them.

The Complete Stories, O’Connor. Also for my fiction class. When you read Flannery O’Connor, you can feel the genius rising up from the page. What’s most beautiful about this collection is the arrangement, which follows the order of original publication. Best of all, the first story in the collection, “The Geranium”–which appeared as part of O’Connor’s MFA thesis–grows and blossoms into “Judgement Day,” a revision she published near the end of her life. Beautiful fiction, bookended by the growth of genius. Also, peacocks!

Desert Gothic, Waters. This prizewinning short story collection caught my eye by virtue of its title, and kept my eye by virtue of its attention to characterization. Rarely does one care so much about the people one meets in short stories, but I found myself almost believing they were real (no mean feat, given my cynical, critical eye). “Mr. Epstein and the Dealer” and “Mineral and Steel” are the standouts here, but the whole collection is a solid way to pass the time, if you like quality short fiction.

The Elegant Gathering of White Snows, Radish. Reviewed this for Eleventh Stack. I have nothing to add but this: sisterhood is powerful.

I’ll spare you the non-fiction picks. Interested parties please ping – if I took the time to list them, we’d be here all night! Suffice to say, with so many good books to read, being without technology was mostly no problem. There were, however, one or two glitches in the system.

“Negative” Effects

Perhaps “uncomfortable” is a better word. See for yourself.

While most of the media fast proved beneficial, there were some less-than-pleasant aspects to it.  For one thing, about four days in, I started really missing Facebook.

When you get to be my age–suffice to say I’m one of those people over thirty you’re not supposed to trust–you know a lot of people.  Not as many as those of you further along in life, but a lot.  And, the economy being what it is, not all of them live in Pittsburgh.  Thanks to Facebook, I’m in close contact with people from grade school chums through library school peers.  Having them all in the same place is even better, because then they get to meet each other; it makes me deeply happy to know that I’ve introduced tons of people who originally had nothing but me in common, and now have solid, established friendships of their own.

So, solitary creature that I am, I still enjoy being social, on my own terms, and Facebook made that easy.  Without it–even though I had a pretty full social calendar–I still felt disconnected from a lot of people I care about.  Avoiding it was psychologically challenging, and when I logged in at the end of the week, I felt re-connected…even though, technically, I hadn’t missed anything life or career-changing.

I also missed YouTube like crazy.  As, I suspect, a compensation for my extremely poor eyesight, I’m very sensitive to sound, highly musical.  There’s always a tune in my head, and I like to listen to music while I do mundane tasks.

A little silence was wholesome and beneficial for me, to be sure.  The funny thing about silence, though, is that the more you have of it, the more clarity you achieve in certain areas…and that cuts both ways.  I had a number of epiphanies, both bright and dark, and learned quite a few things about myself that I didn’t even realize I was covering up by having a constant soundtrack.  Ultimately this is for the good, but it was a somewhat uncomfortable process to go through.

Finally, I did fall off the wagon once, in a very big way that I did not expect.

My dislike of television is legendary around here.  I don’t own a set, and I’m really fussy about what series I check out on DVD.  This could be because, television-wise, I’m a serial monogamist.  I like my Dr. Who old-school, my X-Files episodes with no UST whatsoever, and my vampires non-negotiably non-sparkly, kthnxbye. I am, in short, a television snob.

And then, straight out of left field, Torchwood.

I’d been on hold for this forever, as the wait list was very long. I had no way of knowing my number would come up during my media fast. I was just going to watch one episode anyway, to be polite, and not hurt a co-worker’s feelings. So I figured this would be no big deal, a teensy little rule-break.

I didn’t expect to fall in love with the darn thing. Much like meeting the perfect romantic partner when you least expect it, watching Torchwood hit me like a ton of bricks, and I am now an unapologetic, unabashed Capt. Jack Harkness fangirl.

Darn you, sir. Darn you all to heck! You know who you are. :)

In all seriousness, this isn’t really a bad thing either. Quality television shows are rare, and since nobody will sell me an a la carte package with just BBC America in it, I’m always grateful to get the scoop on the good stuff. But do I really need to get sucked into another television show? What about all the writing I need to do, and all those as-yet unkneaded homemade pizza crusts?



I’ve come away from this little experiment more convinced than ever that there are definite benefits to putting limits on one’s media intake and social technology consumption.  At the same time, I’ve also come to realize just how much I depend on certain media for some things, and am actively questioning whether or not that’s what I really want.

In other words, moderation and critical thinking, two things that seem sorely lacking from many fields of discourse these days.  It’s unfortunate that moving more slowly on some matters, or exhibiting  a degree of skepticism and/or scientific inquiry, is perceived as regressive.  I’m a huge fan of changes and advances, but, I would argue, those changes and advances should be playtested.  Anything embraced uncritically, and without limits, has the potential to do great harm.

Indeed, I think, it gives us societies like the one that scorned poor Leonard Mead.  Enchanted by the glow from their television sets, the deluded populace probably never stopped to consider the moon.  Let us hope that, as library scientists, we can apply the same standards to our own media participation, keep what is useful, and reject what is, ultimately, distracting us from the other valuable realities all around us.

In other words, seriously, you need to try one of my homemade pizzas.  Just call or text before you come over; I might be watching Torchwood.

Things I want to write about at some point include:

  • the day I spent at my library as a patron instead of a worker
  • how a library vibe differs from a coffeeshop vibe, IMHO, and why the twain should not necessarily meet
  • a news update from the big white elephant, who was recently put on a diet (whew)

Until next week sometime, however, I remain your cheerfully irreverent alchemist.  Have a good weekend!

Reading suggestions for a snowy Saturday

Having completed my Meebo feasability study, I’m between 2.0 projects at the moment. Next week I’ll dive back into RSS, and I really want to finish my blogging plan. Of all the 2.0 initiatives we could pursue, I think it’s the easiest to implement, and the best possible use of the least possible amount of staff time.

For now, though, it’s a slow, snowy day at the reference desk, and we haven’t talked about books for a while. Ergo, I give you some readerly suggestions for your weekend.

  • For the foodies, Laura Schenone’s The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken details the author’s search for her ancestor Adalgiza’s infamous ravioli recipe.  Part cultural history, part confessional, Schenone’s prose is warm and accessible, and her search for order, structure and stability (in life, as well as in ravioli) are bittersweetly compelling.
  • Prefer your family dramas fictional?  For madcap adventures in a warmer climate, try The Hummingbird Wizard, by Meredith Blevins.  The Szabo women don’t mess around when it comes to their men, and they certainly don’t let a little murder stand in their way.  Hapless Annie, her adversarial mother-in-law, Mina, and her boozy, bluesy, sister-in-law Capri try to solve the murder of a man all three of them loved, in different ways, and for different reasons.  Snarky, sexy, and funny as all get-out.
  • For a more complex fictional adventure, you might like the linguistically complicated, dreamlike atmosphere of The Labyrinth.   Catherynne Valente builds a sumptuous world in which a woman (perhaps) tries to find her way out of (possibly) a labyrinth (maybe).  Steeped in uncertainty, this lush, complex train of symbols reads more like an epic prose poem than a novel.  That’s not a complaint.
  • If Valente’s work left you a little dazed and confused, you might want to turn to Joan Gould’s work for a little clarity.  Spinning Straw Into Gold examines the various phases of women’s lives, and explicates the fairy tales (both classic and contemporary) that can hold the clues to navigating through each stage.  Who knew getting married was a bit like being a selkie?  What’s a selkie, you ask?  Pick up this book, and find out.

If my book picks aren’t your cup of tea, check out what other CLP staffers are reading this month. Book picks are one area where I think a blog would definitely be an asset in our library system – think of how many employees we have, and how diverse their tastes are. We could offer the public a little something every day. Just one more 2.0 dream to have as the snow comes wafting down…

Five books for Friday. Also, taking requests.

Five books I’m reading at the moment: 

  • The Serpent and the Rose, Kathleen Bryan. A fantasy adventure of love, light, magic and glass, in which two young people from different social spheres are thrown together by a quest, and strange magic.
  • Enemy of the Steak, Nikki and David Goldbeck.  A playful attempt, with lighthearted arguments and tasty-looking recipes, to convince your family and friends that more meat-free meals are in their best interest.
  • The Five of Cups, Caitlin R. Kiernan.  A reluctant vampire on the brink of insanity, the mean streets she prowls, and the predatory culture in which she swims.  Chilling, greusome, and, arguably, seasonal.
  • The Princess of Babylon, Voltaire.  The flavor and texture of The Arabian Nights, plus the dry, droll satire you’ve come to know and love.
  • Passion, Jude Morgan.  There’s something about Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Godwin, Caroline Lamb, and the learned ladies behind the leading lights of Romantic poetry.  Steeped in history, and aptly named.

Take a look and see if you can use these with your patrons, or maybe you’d like to read them yourself.  And by the way, what are you reading?

On the technological front, I signed up for a Gcast account last night, so stay tuned for podcasts from LAV Radio.  I’m planning to do short booktalks on a theme, but am also curious about what you’d like to hear.  Do you listen to podcasts regularly?  If you do, which ones do you like?  What is it about them that makes them pleasing?  If we’re going to podcast as an organization someday, these are important things to consider.


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