Multiple Bibliomaniacs


One of the best things about scouting for treasures in thrift shops is that I never know what I’ll stumble upon next or what strange and unexpected paths I may follow as a result of my finds.  Over the years I’ve found $1000 in the sleeve of an old all-weather coat (many years and several moves after I bought it), two first U.S. printings of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and the copy of local writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life that led me to become a Supremely Excellent Judge on her Beckoning of Lovely project.  And so it goes.   Although theoretically I am working when I’m scouting books, it does not feel like work to me.  When I pick up a book that has been rebound in a nondescript tan library binding and see it’s a copy of Shock Values by John Waters, I flip it open to the title page, where I hit paydirt (click to enlarge):


This made my (very hot and sweaty) day, partly because I knew I could get a few bucks for this book, but largely because John Waters is one of my heroes and Shock Values happens to be one of my favorite books of all time.  Not only does Waters have an endless supply of great stories to tell, but he also delivers them with self-deprecating humor, joie de vivre, and panache befitting a man with a pencil moustache.   More than almost any other book I’ve ever read, Shock Value serves as an inspirational tale for overachieving misfits.   In a society deliberately engineered to instill and positively reinforce conformity, one simply cannot overestimate the importance of witnessing the journey someone who paid no attention whatsoever to what he was “supposed” to do, but instead followed his own deepest creative urges to make a movie of a hot tranny mess eating dogshit.   Not only has Pink Flamingos made back its $10,000.00 budget many times over, but then John Waters got paid all over again to write about making it.  Is this a great world, or what?

I knew I should sell this book, but I was tempted to keep it because it had personal meaning for me and would fit so nicely into my collection, if not my groaning shelves.  Looking at the book more closely, I saw it had come from the Morris Library at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.   Via my tour of the Columbia College library for a class, I understood what sorts of books were most likely to disappear from university libraries.  This is just the sort of thing that gives hipsters a bad name, because when I looked up the book’s call number in the SUI online catalog, I found there had been two copies cataloged but both were now listed as missing.   Since I had been so torn as to what to do with this book, it was almost a relief to have the decision taken out of my hands.  As an MLIS I could not sell or keep a book I knew was stolen from a library, so I contacted Carbondale to see if they wanted Shock Value for their Special Collections.

I could see there was a gift inscription, but at first glance I thought it said “To Fred, Love From John Waters.   I assumed this Fred was the culprit who had filched it from SIU, but when I showed it to a friend, he pointed out that it looked more like “To Fred, Love Irwin,” with the signature in a different handwriting altogether.  Fred was hence exonerated, and now all fingers pointed to Irwin as the culprit.  I couldn’t help wondering what had happened to make the book land in a resale shop.  Perhaps Irwin and Fred had been romantically involved and had such a bitter breakup that Fred couldn’t stand to see Irwin’s name ever again in his life.  Perhaps Fred had a conscience and simply could not enjoy possessing a book that didn’t belong to him.  Perhaps Fred was no longer among the living, in which case I am very sorry.  Clearly this was not Fred’s fault, unless he put Irwin up to it.

I am picking on Irwin because it is fun, but these things sometimes pass through many hands and someone else altogether may have originally removed it from the Morris Library.   The best thing about this story is that in in true nonconformist fashion, Shock Value took an unconventional and roundabout path and and came out somewhat the better for it.   I don’t approve of taking things from libraries and I doubt the John Waters of now would approve of it either, but I know the book well enough to know that Irwin may have read this passage, from page 49:

I supported myself by selling diet pills and shoplifting.  My specialty was a Navy surplus store, popular with all the tourists in town.  I’d go into the store dressed in shorts and a T-shirt and put on layers of clothes without hiding anything and go apply for a job dressed in the stolen clothes.  The manager never expected that anyone would have the nerve to shoplift and apply for a jobat the same time.  We got so chummy that I almost got the job, which really panicked me.

Morris Library Rare Book Librarian Melissa Hubbard has assured me they would be delighted to have Shock Value back and would house it in Special Collections, where folks can hopefully absorb some of its gloriously filthy essence for generations to come.  I am equally delighted to have played a part in returning it, and I am publishing this story first and foremost in support of my belief that anything can happen.  I would also like to take this opportunity to remind folks that it’s not very nice to steal library materials.  If you really pay attention to Shock Value, John Waters says he quit shoplifting when he started worrying about theaters pocketing his receipts.   Being on the up-and-up seems to have worked for him, as he hasn’t done too badly for himself.

Just Call Them Generation Y Not

Kitten w books & text reading

If I am understanding this story correctly, apparently the good folks at the Pew Internet & American Life Project have released survey results indicating that those in the Generation Y cohort are more likely to use libraries than any other age group. Judging by my younger peers in library school, I am not surprised at all. Not only are they digitally inclined, but they are also avid readers and information seekers who understand that the goal should be to find the best information source for a given need rather than to impose one’s personal preferences inflexibly.

I am loving that the greatest hope of libraries is now that which has been considered by some to be their downfall, namely young people who grew up digital. Perhaps we can now stop whining about how the library world is going to hell in a handbasket and start focusing on providing more innovative web-based services to our largest single group of users. Y the hell not, eh?

Anne Frank Was an Unpublished Citizen Journalist: A Response to Michael Gorman
July 23, 2007, 9:37 pm
Filed under: blogging, librarianship, libraries, Uncategorized

Although I must acknowledge that the fractured attention span caused by my hectic summer schedule lends itself more to small bites of expression than to multicourse meals, I have a personal interest in the Michael Gorman controversy and couldn’t resist jumping into the fray. First and foremost, I would suggest that Mr. Gorman’s comments on digital media clearly reflect a negative bias despite his assertion in his controversial 2005 Library Journal column Revenge of the Blog People that he is “no antidigitalist.” Never mind that he has skewered video games, Wikipedia, Google, the Google Books digitization process, weblogs, and consistently asserts the superiority of print sources over digital ones and the importance of the librarian as a mediating authority in the process of gaining access to recorded knowledge. Gorman may or may not be an antidigitalist, but he is certainly a library traditionalist and arguably disingenuous in his persistent habit of verbally yarking all over a medium he claims not to despise. He is free to have his biases, as we all are to the extent that it does not interfere with our functioning. In the case of a librarian, functioning could arguably be defined as having the capacity to locate the best source of information to meet a given need.

Judging by his fixation on the dangers posed to libraries and literacy by our wretched overreliance on the internet, Michael Gorman seems to assume that one cannot be an avid ‘net user and a bibliophile. Obviously he has never visited my house and had to navigate around the precarious piles of books, bless his little heart. Come to think of it I have yet to encounter one confessed digitalista who is not an avid reader and bibliophile. and the only person I ever met who believed books were on their way out was not a librarian or library student. On the contrary, the library types I’ve encountered have for the most part recognized that one of the things that distinguishes the internet from all other media is that it encompasses all other media by providing highly specialized multimedia information packages that include (among other things) multiple points of access for books, including free online texts. Michael Gorman seems to object to even these on grounds that they will never be complete or comprehensive, but neither is my local library and this hasn’t stopped me from using it yet. Yet another objection to digitalized books is that the texts may not always be authoritative versions, to which my prescriptive response would be “Find out if it is an authoritative version and use it accordingly.” Ooh, that was hard.

Books do have a distinct stamp of authority by virtue of going through the editing and publishing process, but that very publishing process ensures that many books on certain subjects such as computer technologies and popular culture are already outdated by the time they hit the shelves. I’m sure I can learn something about the origins and development of an evolving cultural phenomenon like flash mobs by reading a book like Smart Mobs by Howard Rheingold, but the book is necessarily limited in that it had to stop at a given point while smart mobs have continued to grow and mutate in response to technological changes . Fortunately the author is smart enough to recognize the need for currency, which is why he has a weblog in which to post about newer developments. As a librarian, I could not recommend the book over the weblog or vice-versa because they are mutually complementary. The book provides a conceptual foundation, which can only be enhanced by the addition of current information from authoritative sources. The web site can be instantly accessed but is not likely to provide the book’s comprehensiveness and depth of focus.

The artistry of selection means being able to find and suggest the best possible sources across all media depending upon the needs of a given user. Granted, Michael Gorman and I would probably agree that the best way to learn about Jack Kerouac would be to read his books. The only one of those held at my local suburban library is On the Road, but I’m sure I could obtain any number of other texts through interlibrary loan (ILL). Likewise, my local library only has one Kerouac biography, but I could have access to numerous others (not to mention other texts such as literary criticism) through ILL. I could also obtain many Kerouac resources through online booksellers and have them delivered directly to my door if I wish to spend the money, a level of service that libraries would do well to emulate.

Although it would be absurd to try and learn about a writer like Kerouac without texts, it would be just as absurd not to explore the other venues through which he can be understood. This NPR multimedia page is a gem of a resource, with a video clip of Kerouac reading from On the Road on the Steve Allen Show, plus various audio recordings of Kerouac both alone and with his contemporaries. My local public library offers no access to Robert Frank’s seminal short film Pull My Daisy, for which Kerouac provided the narration, but if I am not lucky enough to have access to the riches of an academic library collection, I can watch the film in its entirety for free on Google Video. And if all of the above isn’t enough, I may need to visit the extensive Kerouac archive at the New York Public Library and seek the assistance of a special librarian.

This brings us to this persistently thorny issue of authority, which Michael Gorman seems to believe is primarily the province of books and librarians. I know this because I read it on the internet, and I had no trouble finding exactly the piece I needed instantly, using Google. As nice as it is of Mr. Gorman to worry that we may not be able to find the information we need online, I cannot help wondering by what standard he expects us to regard him as an expert on the on the internet. His expertise in many subjects is undeniable, among them libraries, librarianship, and cataloguing. I would not accept as an authority on the internet someone who has expressed his vehement antipathy for Google, Wikipedia, weblogs, and digitization while denying a bias, but I’m quite sure you are capable of forming your own opinion on that based on the evidence at hand.

It is true that Mr. Gorman has repeatedly stressed his own nonantidigitalism, and we may take him at his word on that based on the fact that his internet critiques have appeared on Britannica Blog. Presumably this represents some form of endorsement of Britannica, a traditional information source that just happens to have an internet presence. Michael Gorman supports the use of these structures of traditional authority, but on what basis does he justify this support apart from personal bias and preference? We know he is rational and credible because he associates the rise of blogging with the damage wrought to scientific reasoning by encroaching fundamentalism (because both represent threats to established scholarship, never mind the fact that you probably couldn’t find two peer groups with much less overlap ). Nonetheless, it behooves us citizen journalist types to disregard the pompous rhetoric and discover the plain fact that the most conventionally authoritative source may not necessarily be the best one and certainly should not be assumed superior to an unconventional resource merely by virtue of its official status. What follows is but one example of many cases in which this principle might apply, but I’m sure you can find your own without trying very hard.

As a grad student, I have access to the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica through my university library, but when I used it to look up Sir Anthony Panizzi (an important figure in the history of library science) for a class project, I found an uncredited article that mentioned some of the highlights of Panizzi’s career but failed to discuss the Ninety-One Cataloguing Rules that are still referenced by librarians to this day. In contrast, the much longer Wikipedia entry not only mentioned the Ninety-One Rules but listed four references for futher reading on Panizzi where Britannica had none. As you may already have surmised, it is very easy for a researcher to find corroborating evidence for something that is unsubstantiated, but impossible to conjure up and proceed on a piece of essential information that has not been provided at all.

Although I certainly agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Gorman that there are different levels of research requiring different levels of authentication, I reject his notion that the initial “exploratory” level deserves to be rejected out of hand. On the contrary, while it is indubitably true that the only research project that should stop at Wikipedia is one of satisfying idle curiosity, reading a Wikipedia entry on a subject of which one knows little can open up a myriad of doorways to more authoritative sources, as well as bringing up further questions to answer as research progresses. Regardless of whether searchers consult librarians or bypass the library system entirely by purchasing documents online, someone who uses Wikipedia as a point of entry into a subject has very little to lose and someone who is lazy enough to stop there probably deserves the quality of documentation they get.

Just as an aside, it is worth noting that it is precisely Wikipedia’s mutability and collectivism that make it particularly useful for gaining a quick understanding of newer technological, social, and cultural phenomena like flash mobs, as well as for providing endless portals into vast depositories for the minutiae of pop culture. I would be surprised if Britannica had an entry on Fonzie at all, let alone one as amusing and informative as Wikipedia’s. There are probably just as many different ways of defining authority as there are people who are prepared to declare themselves authorities, but I am perfectly prepared to accept that someone who has immersed themselves in a subject probably has something of value to share on the topic, regardless of whether they have a steenkin’ badge.

That certainly seems to be true in the case of the Wikipedia entry on Rufus Wainwright, a topic on which I myself know a fair amount. I personally think the site’s credibility would be improved if contributors were named, but beyond that I can find no significant fault with the Wainwright information package and see no reason not to give it my seal of approval as a solid overview of my favorite singer’s career. Furthermore, the singer’s official bio on his own web site focuses mainly on his current album to the exclusion of his origins and earlier work. If the only standard for authority is for an item is to be the official or “authorized” source, a researcher dismisses the considerable value created by the many well-informed users who have contributed their time and resources to produce significant information packages, any portion of which can be subjected to further inquiry if the level of research or interest demands it. What’s not to like?

The fact is that today’s young, as do the young in every age, need to learn from those who are older and wiser; they need to acquire good habits of study and research; and they need to be exposed to and learn to experience the richness of the human record. Pretending that the Internet and the Web have abolished those eternal verities is both intellectually dishonest and a proposal for cultural suicide. —Michael Gorman

Nothing that I have argued or would ever argue would contradict this, and I’m sure the vast majority of internet-loving librarians and literate human beings would say the same. As a student and hopeful librarian, I believe readers should learn to examine all sources critically, including printed ones. It is precisely because the internet is so vast and open that librarians with specialized knowledge will be required to help teach users how to evaluate and weight their sources to meet the specific demands of any given inquiry. They also need to learn when only an primary source is acceptable, whether that source is a weblog or an original manuscript held in a special collection.

I am trying to close this discussion in order to fling my opinions into the ring, but then that is something for which Michael Gorman and his fellow party-pooper Andrew Keen would assume this writer to be eminently ill-qualified by virtue of my status as a “citizen journalist.” I may not have a steenkin’ badge, but at least I can see that in most cases there is something to be said for someone having the initiative and interest to write and create something that represents their interests and that they can share with other people instead of flopping into a chair and fixing their eyeballs on the TV set until they fall asleep. The standards for authority and value are not altered significantly by bringing additional voices into the mix, any more than they have been changed by the existence of self-published books. That assessing these qualities has become exponentially more difficult and complex with the advent of the internet seems to be at the root of what is vexing Mssrs. Gorman and Keen, but fortunately there are those of us who are willing to attempt the task and help others learn to do the same.