Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Don't Mess With Our Access!

Today's Librarian Superhero is: Gloria Won, a librarian at the University of San Francisco!!!

I heard a story today on NPR (how often do I say that, it's annoying!) Anyway-- there is this database called 'Popline' and it's the largest database on reproductive rights. Apparently they blocked the search term: 'abortion'. When Michael Klag, the dean of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, which maintains the POPLINE database found out that this search function had been removed, he immediately had it reinstated. Here's a link to the article.

How, might you ask, did Michael Klag find out that the search function had been rendered dysfunctional in the first place? "The block was discovered by medical librarians doing routine searches." Gloria Won, USF librarian, discovered that Popline had decided to turn the term abortion into a "stop word." This means if you search the term 'abortion' you get zero hits.

Won is quoted as saying: "...abortion is a perfectly good noun, there's nothing wrong with it," she says. "And we sent it out to some library list-servs so medical librarians would know about this, and it just spiraled after that."

Woo hoo for Won!

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

E.L. Doctorow at WNEC

I went to see E.L. Doctorow speak at WNEC (full disclosure, I'm a librarian there). He spoke about religion and writing. His premise was wonderful, if a little esoteric. Some of the highlights included his idea that there are two types of people who believe that if it is written it must be true-- children and fundamentalists. He told a beautiful story about his grandparents and parents following the same path of secular men and religiously Jewish women.
But I personally had two favorite parts. The first was when he was talking about the importance of librarians in the lives of writers. He said that librarians are the keepers of the canon by which a writer lives. And when he was asked about tips for young writers he said (and I'm paraphrasing here) "Read, read widely and voraciously. Read anything you can get your hands on."
I was so thrilled with this piece of advice because I am a reader. I never stop. I finish one book and the next day I start another. Often I have more than one book going at a time. But I truly believe that many people believe that they can have innate talent without doing the work. In our culture we praise 'talent' without expressing the need for hard work. Example: Musicians should just be born that way or be discovered as a child prodigies, but the idea of hours of practice or years of training is distasteful to us. I believe I can tell when a writer is not a reader. They often fail to recognize the history inherent in a certain theme or they mistake an idea that has often been examined in literature as something that is uniquely theirs. I also find that writers who don't read don't know about creating word paintings and don't know how critical it is to choose the right words to connecting with the audience. They can often focus on basic plot function or character introduction to a fault. They can also be clueless about the editing process. All of this seems to be a function of our concept that we all have a story to tell, therefore, we are all writers. Or that if a person has 'promise' then the practice is not as important.

E.L. Doctorow has thrown down a gauntlet for all of us in higher ed. Our students must read. They must read widely and they must read our historically significant writers to understand from where our cultural touchstones have come. I have often railed against the cultural hegemonic 'lists' of our legacy of Western civilization, ala Allan Bloom, in "The Closing of the American Mind". On the other hand, I don't want our students favoring The Simpsons to the exclusion of Shakespeare, or Family Guy instead of Faulkner.

On the down side I felt that Mr. Doctorow was not fully able to answer audience questions. And I am not sure about his idea that a person's religion or culture is not central to their writing. I feel that most of E.L. Doctorow's work is very much tied to his Jewish heritage. Maybe not his religion, but certainly his culture and his frame of reference. Maybe that is only evident to other Jewish people, I don't know. But I do know that if someone references an Easter dinner or Christmas morning. I am not always able to feel if the writing was authentic. But I am able to see the references and the themes of the culture of literature. I get those references because that is my culture. And it is a culture that we all can share. It's not about where you come from, or how you celebrate your holidays. It's about reading.. and reading and reading.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The People of the Book

I am currently reading The People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. So far it's really cool. It's a fictional account of the Sarajevo Haggadah.

Alison Bechdel at Amherst

Alison Bechdel
Originally uploaded by fototineke
Ok, so this photo was taken at when I saw her at Amherst last Wednesday evening. But it could have been! I was a little too embarrassed to start snapping photos at such an small setting. Plus I was sitting and chatting with her girlfriend, so it just felt too weird.

Anyway, it was a great talk. She read from her memoir 'FunHome' and I was reminded how poignant it was and how much she relies on bibliography to tell the story of her life and her fathers. Both of her parents were English teachers and much of the action takes place in relationship to the books they were reading at the time. When her father and mother were courting via letters, he was in the army, much of their narrative was based on F. Scott Fitzgerald. And Alison's coming out had much more to do with literary discovery than actual discovery, although there's some of that too!

Alison also spoke at great length about her artistic process and technique. It was fascinating for someone who doesn't even draw stick figures. She is truly one of the most organically geek-y smart people I've ever seen. I was awed!