A Vision for the Academic Library

There’s a lot of talk about the problems facing academic libraries. Talk about marketing. Talk about services. Talk about facelifts. “Students just don’t know what we have to offer” and “I can find it all on google” are the two loudest refrains. The idea from most libraries is that success is based on getting students to understand. Better marketing. Better product placement.

This is all fine and good. It’s true – there’s a lot that libraries offer that students aren’t aware of. Students for the most part have very low information literacy – or, to use terms non-librarians would understand (which is important, by the way) – students often don’t know how to navigate the information world. They don’t know that the information they find isn’t that great and they don’t know how to find better.

But I’m not so ancient now that I can’t remember being a student. I can’t say I used any services – let alone library services – all that often. I used the library, but not the services. But if I had needed to, I would have had a confusing and difficult choice. Do I need help writing the paper? The professor sends me to the writing center. Oh, but wait … I’m kind of having problems with the bibliography, too. I’m also supposed to go to the library? Ok, fine. Paper’s done and submitted … but my professor can’t read my .pages file. So I have to talk to tech support also?

Student academic services in my opinion should be a one-stop-shop. If you bring everything in the same building, it’s easier for the student. It’s also easier to streamline services. And I don’t just mean that the writing center has an office in the library – I mean true integration. A student should be able to walk up to the person at the desk and know that no matter what they are asking, they will get a response – maybe that person has to fetch someone with the right specialisation sitting nearby, that’s fine – the important thing is that the student doesn’t have to run around trying to figure out who to talk to.

For one thing, anybody who’s worked on the reference desk knows that students come to us with tech questions constantly. More often than reference questions, on some days. We also sometimes read papers and give advice on grammar, style, structure. They’re in the library already – why trek over to the writing center for that part of it?

Moreover, sometimes these functions overlap. Students might ask the IT help desk what programs they should use to keep notes while doing research. Often, the writing center does not notice that the student isn’t citing sources or has blatantly plagiarised. If everything is integrated into one set of services, then there’s more mutual awareness. A person helping with a paper for one reason can point out other weaknesses. The student doesn’t have to go through the same process multiple times.

Naturally, the ideal location for such services would be the library, which usually has both physical study space to offer as well as print resources (though fewer and fewer of those, these days). Most academic libraries have computer labs and it’s often when students are working on their papers on the computers that they encounter difficulties.

Academic libraries seem to be trying to join the modern world wearing the same old dusty clothes. We need to think about what students need and how to provide it – but as long as academic libraries hunker down and defend their territory, they won’t be able to grow enough. We need to stop being on the defensive and start thinking about what is needed. Libraries exist because of need. If we only defend our previous roles, the need might disappear. If we redefine ourselves, we can serve students much more effectively.

In sum: we should not be “the place with the books” but rather “the place to go when you need help”

***For the record, I also think that public libraries have needed to rethink their role – but they seem to have done so pretty well in many places. If you think of the library as a source of information, the public library seems to be doing pretty well: providing access to technology and helping those who struggle with it, offering programming which provides information on the most essential issues for individuals today – and of course, offering access to information resources. There are some things I would like to see – more engagement with local government so that the librarians could offer information on municipal services. Also, more training in issues that people seek help with … legal and medical issues, for one. Of course, these are sensitive areas – but I’d love for people to see the public library as the place to go for help of any kind. A citizen information center which might not provide all the answers, but at least knows the best path to the answers.

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Reading Thomas Hardy

It seems to me Thomas Hardy gets very little attention in the U.S. – he is not read in school or included as part of a common culture the way Twain, Dickens, Austen, Dickinson, Salinger, and so on are. And so I passed through many years without reading a single Hardy novel. This tragic error was finally corrected a year or two ago when I finally read Tess of the d’Urbervilles – a powerful, haunting book. Tess kept popping up in my brain until I ultimately decided to read another Hardy and see if they would all stick with me so tenaciously. The choice of book both times came as an accident – that is, I found 50 cent used copies at Goodwill or a library sale and tucked them away for future reading.

This time, the book was Far from the Madding Crowd which, I have since read, is the only of Hardy’s books with a semi-happy ending. Well, lucky me. If I had to deal with another Tess haunting me, the strain might have put me off Hardy for a bit, no matter how great his skill.

The way I think of Hardy is this:

If a teacher asked, “What is a novel?”, Far from the Madding Crowd would be the kid wiggling in his seat hand stuck as high in the air as possible puffing “OOH! ME! ME!” Hardy is truly the master of the traditional novel – he brings all the elements together seamlessly: characters, prose, setting, plot. This conventionality is not a flaw, though nowadays many authors strive to break the mold. Can we really complain of lack of originality with such characters, such prose, with a whole little world so perfectly constructed and a plot paced so that it is gripping but allows space for reflection, time to catch up? But beyond how pleasant the book is to read: Hardy seems to stir up all kinds of thoughts in me. The depiction of women, the consequences of one’s actions, the individual characters, the nature of relationships. These are the issues I wish to touch briefly upon.

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The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee

A book can enchant you for so many different reasons – sometimes it’s the prose, the simple beauty and music of the words as they flow through you. Sometimes a character will strike you as so vivid and particular you can have conversations with them as you take a walk or indulge in lazyday daydreams. Sometimes the plot is so riveting that you fly through because you just can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Janice Y.K. Lee’s The Piano Teacher didn’t hold any of that for me. The plot was a bit dull, the prose merely adequate. There were certainly some interesting characters – but alas, none of the main bunch. What the book offered instead was a glimpse into a place and time – Hong Kong before, during and after the Japanese invasion of WWII.

The stories of the love affairs and little explored intrigue are only vaguely interesting – the connections among the characters aren’t particularly striking and the three main characters themselves don’t really seem to deserve much attention, at least not until the end of the story arc for each, when apathy has already set in. The loveliness of the book is in everything that is happening around these love affairs and financial grabbings. The culture and society of Hong Kong in these times, the world that is created – that is the strength of the book and makes it worth a bit of a yawn here or there. And maybe there’s a bit of longing to know more about the more interesting side characters – their lives before and after. But that’s okay. It’s worth a read, just to get a sense of how it might have felt to live through those experiences and to focus on how societies change over time through both dramatic events and plain evolution.

 

 

 

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Here on Earth – Alice Hoffman

AliceHoffmanHereOnEarthThere’s something irresistible about free books, especially when they are found in unexpected places – in this case, spotted while leaving a farm market. You rush to the bookshelf and peruse the titles with a singularity of purpose rarely known on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Title after title of self help books and guides to spiritual enlightenment only makes that rare find just so much more desirable – a recognizable name, a unique premise, anything that indicates that this book might be … well, if not amazing, at least tolerable. Really, the most mundane books seem like absolute gems when found in such a situation.

That is how I came across “Here on Earth” by Alice Hoffman. I had no real expectations regarding the book’s quality – I knew the author’s name, but it was there, it was free, and there wasn’t anything more appealing to be had.

The book’s most glaring flaw is its basic premise – I just can’t see how it is necessary to have a modern Wuthering Heights. The gothic exaggerations and extravagances just don’t translate well to the modern world. There is a certain absurdity that the author seems insensitive to. Reading the book was a relatively painless experience – I cringed occasionally at some overly sentimental attempts at poetry, but couldn’t complain much about how the book moved along through the story. The characters were hard to understand, a bit forced – but what else could you expect from such an attempt? I really think it best to just leave Wuthering Heights when and where it belongs. Continue reading

A Month of Sundays vs. The Dean’s December

I’ve recently read two books about decay, about modern society, about dealing with the crushing effects of the 20th century. Both written around the same time – late 70s, early 80s. Are they irrelevant today? Absolutely not, at least for my generation. I wonder if future generations will feel the same – if there will always be this sense of something lost. It’s not for me to know.

The books were “A Month of Sundays” by John Updike and “The Dean’s December” by Saul Bellow. They were quite different books, though I do feel the emotions and struggles they approached are very similar. Having read them one after the other and seeing each protagonist struggling to deal with the world around them, I couldn’t help comparing and contrasting the two works. One struck me as highly effective, the other significantly less so.  Continue reading

Journeys into the YA World

I generally don’t read young adult books on principle. I used to, that is, after I stopped reading them as an official young adult. I read them happily along with adult books until I was 20 or so. But I do feel that young adult books should in some way hold some secrets in them, nothing more really than the secrets of life itself – but it feels like an intrusion to read the secret in the form it is told for the first time to young people.

Many of the great young adult books do just that. I believe for me the Tillerman Saga was the guiding force. The world it granted me still colours my life today. The things you read as a kid are indeed powerful. Now that I am undeniably adult, I don’t want to intrude in that world. I certainly didn’t want adults intruding in my fiction world when I was young. I didn’t want anyone to debate with me about Dicey’s character.

And yet the world seems drawn these days to young adult fantasy series. It has irked me since the early days of Harry Potter, when I was in high school and my friends became obsessed. I read Harry Potter only after the final book came out – all books in one weekend. With the Hunger Games, I resisted also. I read only to see what the fuss was about. Both times, I was reinforced in my belief that adults should not read books for young adults. For two reasons: first, kids may be discovering new worlds through these books, they don’t need my critical adult perspective interfering; second, adults should read books with more mature ideas and non-grating prose. I prefer books that treat kids and young adults as intelligent enough to grapple with sensitive ideas, so in that case – well, I guess adults can stand to learn from them as well. But Harry Potter and the Hunger Games do not include such books.

To me, Harry Potter was mediocre at best. The plot was well developed, but the writing was obnoxious and the characters tedious and underdeveloped. The Hunger Games trilogy was better, in the sense that the prose did not irritate me and the characters had some development. However, in both cases, the ideas were simplistic. I had hopes for the Hunger Games … but what is a dystopia without reason? What does the trilogy reveal about humankind? What does it criticise? What is the point of the whole thing? There is no truth that I could sense. It was as though the whole situation had come about by chance. The characters still could all be defined as good or bad. Are kids not capable of more?

I hesitated therefore to read the Earthsea Cycle, but I caved because I simply love Ursula K. Le Guin. Left Hand of Darkness is brilliance, and just a few months ago I read the book Lavinia, which was simply beautiful and incredibly powerful. One thing I love about Le Guin is her awareness of herself as a writer, her awareness of what she is doing.

And so I have now read the first two books of the Earthsea Cycle. There is no chance here. Everything is infused with meaning. Most importantly, Le Guin moves away from the dichotomy of good vs. evil. She instead recognizes that light and dark are codependent. There is no wondering about whether or not Le Guin reveals anything about the nature of life and humankind – the problem is perhaps she reveals too much. Even for an adult, these books justify a rereading or two so that you can fully understand just how much she is saying.

And this is what I love about the Earthsea Cycle. Not that it says something – but that it does not treat children and teenagers as idiots. It trusts them to understand the more complex issues. It doesn’t have to be as simple as good vs. evil. They are capable of more.

When I finish the Earthsea Cycle, I will write more. But I am thus far very pleased … not just because I like the books, but because Le Guin writes these books with true ideas and with true prose, nothing dumbed down or made silly to appeal to teens.

Recently Read: All Souls Day by Cees Nooteboom

ImageThere are many books that I read in the course of the year and enjoy, some that I enjoy immensely. These books I close with a sigh and indulge in a bit of reflection. Their contents pop up in my thoughts frequently over the next few days – after that, less frequently, but still occasionally stopping by.

All Souls Day is not one of those books. All Souls Day is a book which for me finished rather undramatically. There was no moment of reflection. There was an awareness, rather, that the journey it had taken me on had been a journey of moments, becoming clear in intent only towards the end.

I also knew that I had no need to reflect briefly, because the words, the story, the characters, the images and the ideas had become embedded in me. No need to have a gentle goodbye. This is a book that will continue on with me. A book that will be one of that rather tiny collection which I will read repeatedly because although they are embedded in me, there is often a need for a reminder, a need to take the journey again.

All Souls Day is a book that travels like life itself. As I read along, I felt no desire or need for plot – something of a plot emerged gradually, but the captivating part was the flow of the book itself. I could not stop reading it just as I cannot stop walking through my own life. And yet at times I read it gradually, as if afraid to go too fast, afraid to bring it to a close. Beautiful and full, All Souls Day captures the magic of the everyday – its accomplishment is the same thing that its main character strives to do in his bits of film, the ones he rarely shows any one but keeps for itself.

There is so much more that is in this book and I know that each further reading will be just as rich as the first, perhaps even more so. There are explorations of city, of culture and character, and of history and its impact on all of these. The connections among all the different themes becoming clearer as the book progresses, but there is never a lecture or a final conclusion imposed on the reader. The final thought offered is gentle and allows the readers to do with it what they please.

Recently Read – Life of Pi

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Today the sun has been lovingly elbowing its way into the sky, despite the stubbornness of winter and I just know that the green is yearning to push its way up through the earth and adorn the shivering branches – and did you see the naked trees dancing in the mischievous wind?

I know that the sun stays relatively still, a burning entity far off in space with no thought as to our situation in this little spot on earth. I know that the “green” is not one thing but many which probably do not feel any kind of collective yearning. I doubt that the trees have an idea of dance and the wind probably does not think much about what it does, for earnest or mischievous purposes.

Yet I can enjoy the story without believing in its literal truth. I do not have to make the choice to believe it to find it nice. Isn’t there, after all, something rather lovely about knowing the facts – the truth if you will (or at least a part of the truth) – about the sun and still being able to view it in a fanciful, story-type way without having to claim that the sun is a god, or pulled through the sky on a chariot, or put in place by some master decorator of the universe.

I’ve put off writing about Life of Pi because of uneasiness about this. Just because the story is nice, doesn’t mean you should put all your faith in it. On the other hand, being aware that it might not be true doesn’t mean you have to reject it fully.

Listening to the story even if you don’t necessarily believe it can be helpful sometimes. Like when you’re frustrated with the endless gray and cold after a late winter snowstorm. Or when you’ve had a day where you’ve seen too much cruelty and need to have a glimpse of the possibility of goodness.

Martel is very black and white. Pick which story you believe – if you can’t decide, you’re a worthless coward. But the thing you can’t do is find  value in both sides. It is a sign of weakness to consider the merit of both.

Despite this uncomfortable conclusion, there is much of value in Martel’s representation of religiosity. It is on the whole engaging and very effective. The prose at times can seem a bit pretentious and sometimes drags, but does not detract too much from the pull of the story.

On a side note, I noticed that I found several books recently to be written in a tedious sort of way. Very celebrated books that seemed to drag (to be precise: The Round House, Life of Pi and, to a lesser extent, Flight Behavior). I started to wonder if there was something wrong with me. Then I started reading On Beauty by Zadie Smith and am utterly enchanted, so nope. Just something grating about these books to me.

My Moons

And in the todays and in the tomorrows
and in the mornings that linger
the evenings that fly
and in the unforgettable moons –
collecting like children’s artwork
and school papers
in the attic of my memories
and in the basement of my thoughts –
the moons that guided me home
in lonely winter and in lazy summer
in all these days,
under and above all these memories
and all these moons
I try to remain.

And these moons that linger –
of many colour and many shape –
Orange, hanging low, soothing and delighting,
a gentle melody of autumn dying and summer laughter.
Silver, huge, suspended high above,
promising fervid nights of ecstatic inspiration,
and of solid soothing friendship.
Yellow and soft, cat’s eyes moon,
watchful and waiting, too often unobserved,
the moon that shows up unexpectedly yet oddly welcome
in all its sneaky truthfulness.

All these moons and more,
watching over my nightdreams and my daydreams
Beloved friends, unchained from space and from time.
Helping me to remain, as me, in now and then and yet to come.

Recently Read: Floating in My Mother’s Palm by Ursula Hegi

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A beautiful and touching collection of stories, Floating in My Mother’s Palm invokes a small town on the Rhein in post-war Germany. The book is driven by characters, from the all-too recognizable neighbor resting her elbows on a pillow as she gazes out the window all day long to the dwarf librarian who fuels the town’s gossip mill. Although described as a novel, the stories are fairly disjointed, with each one focusing on different characters and situations until we emerge at the end with an idea of the town’s inhabitants. We examine closely, then draw away a bit and find ourselves with a full and vibrant picture.

The narrator is a young girl, varying in age from not quite born in the first story, to a teenager at the end. As she discusses the world she grew up in and the people she knew, she herself is strongly influenced by her adventurous artist mother, who is constantly painting images of the town just as Hanna, the narrator, paints the town in words. It is clear in the end that she is her mother’s daughter – impulsive, sometimes rash, yet caring and with an eye for the beautiful and the unseen.

Each character and story is memorable, as is the town itself. The picture, hazy at first, becomes clearer and clearer as the same vistas are evoked in different stories and moods, until the whole town is built solidly in your mind.

A lovely book which I will surely revisit in the future.