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What Will Become of Uninformed Muttonheads Who Promulgate Misinformation on Slate About Public Libraries?

On April 22, 2014, Slate published a long, intellectually reprehensible, and dangerously ignorant article written by Michael Agresta, a self-described “writer and critic” who is such a condescending simpleton that he once compared Lena Dunham’s artistic growth with “a kid playing with this incredible new toy.” The true child is Agresta, who has opined on the state of public libraries with the consummate acumen of a competitive eater who lacks time to taste the hot dogs he stuffs down his gargantuan maw in his rush to hog the questionable spotlight. To say that Agresta gets public libraries very wrong is an understatement. It is like saying that Brad Paisley does not understand racism or Jenny McCarthy does not understand science. For this puffed up little Fauntleroy willfully insinuates, through the hack’s lazy technique of Googling one solitary link to support each foggy point emerging from the dim mist of an addled mind, that public libraries don’t have much of a shot at evolving in a digital age, even as he fails to pore through the considerable journalistic ink revealing what they’ve accomplished already and how many of these digitally inclusive achievements are rooted in principles more than a century old.

SudokuAgresta points to the NYPL’s present Central Library Plan (see my previous reporting), which threatens to shutter the Mid-Manhattan and SIBL branches while uprooting the main branch’s unprecedented research division in the Rose Reading Room, as something which would merely invite physical collapse. What he fails to consider is how shifting the research collection from beneath the main library to a New Jersey storage facility will cause considerable delays when any member of the public requests a special item (to say nothing of how the new architectural plan hopes to accommodate a heightened influx of visitors; all this was chronicled by The New York Times in 2012 but don’t count on Michael “I’ve Got a Slate Sudoku Puzzle to Fill In” Agresta for due diligence). He wrongly and smugly assumes, without bothering to look up the facts or talk with any public officials, that a library without books “seems almost inevitable,” even when the actual facts reveal regular people checking out physical books at the NYPL more than ever before: total circulation at 87 branches has risen 44% since 2008. This is because Agresta is not a journalist. He is a prevaricating muttonhead, little more than a dimebag propagandist, writing tendentious pablum that, like most of the rubbish published in Slate’s godforsaken cesspool, contributes to cultural dialogue much as rats enhance apartments.

alaWhile Agresta is right to point to (without citing it) the ALA’s 2011-2012 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study’s alarming statistic that more than 40% of states have reported decreased public library support three years in a row, he hasn’t thought to contact the ALA to determine if this trend has continued. By contrast, it took me all of two minutes to contact the ALA’s Office for Research and Statistics. I got the current statistics 90 minutes later from a very helpful man named R. Norman Rose. It turns out that, in FY 2013, states reported that they were having an easier time soliciting funds for public libraries. Rose was good enough to inform me that the new report will be up on Monday. Agresta mischaracterizes the Pennsylvania Senate vote in which the Free Library of Philadelphia came close to shuttering. Active mobilization from the public — more than 2,000 letters directed at state legislators — prevented the so-called “Doomsday” Plan C from being enacted. In other words, the library is far from dead in America. A very active public is preserving it from hostile political forces and any dispatches about its future need to take this activism into account. Agresta then points to 200 public libraries shutting down in the United Kingdom without pointing to the far more interesting problem: nobody seems to know how many public libraries in the United States have closed.

loaburnFrom such dubious figures and distorted facts, Agresta concludes that we are apparently living in an “era to turn its back on libraries,” and he has the effrontery to pull the librarian’s answer to Godwin’s Law out of his chintzy pauper’s hat: the burning of the Library of Alexandria. After shuffling various apocryphal versions of the centuries-old story behind the conflagration like a lonely salesman playing solitaire in a motel room, Agresta then makes the reductionist conclusion that “even the smallest device with a Web browser now promises access to a reserve of knowledge vast and varied enough to rival that of Alexandria.” This is the foolish statement of a blinkered man who has never set foot in special collections, much less considered how books published only a few decades ago can quickly go out of print, often without a digital backup. As someone who sifted through invaluable special collections papers that nobody had touched in two decades only last week, I find Agresta’s conclusion risible. Agresta also doesn’t seem to understand that paper ages and that librarians exact tremendous care to keep invaluable archives preserved. (As scholar Sarah Churchwell informed me in an interview in February, Princeton has kept its F. Scott Fitzgerald papers so tightly sealed that not even the most fastidious historians are allowed to touch its pages.) And while digitization certainly helps when the original source isn’t available (and can often reinvigorate existing collections much as the NYPL Lab’s Menus and Map Warper pages do), not every piece of paper is going to get digitized. Libraries thrive when print and digital systems come together. The mistake by arrivistes like Agresta is when foolish rhetoric is trotted out in lieu of the facts:

If the current digital explosion throws off a few sparks, and a few vestigial elements of libraries, like their paper books and their bricks-and-mortar buildings, are consigned to flames, should we be concerned? Isn’t it a net gain?

carnegiepittAgresta then attempts to paint the Carnegie libraries as “the backbone of the American public library system” without pointing to one vital impetus behind the Scotsman’s philanthropy: Carnegie wanted libraries to be the most striking structures in small communities from both an architectural and communal standpoint. Early Carnegie libraries, such as the Free Library of Braddock, had recreational facilities and billiard tables on the first floor. As David Nasaw describes in his biography of Carnegie, Carnegie wanted these libraries to be perfect. The Pittsburgh library alone set aside space for a natural history museum, an art gallery, and a music hall, and involved one of the largest nationwide architectural contests of its time, involving 102 entries from 96 architects in 28 cities. Agresta’s boorish suggestion that libraries resembling strip malls are a continuation of Carnegie’s grand ideals is not only incorrect but an act of vulgar complacency, especially when this foolhardy Slate scribe has the audacity to suggest that “design benefits were ancillary, of course, to the fundamental purpose of the Carnegie libraries.” Further, one can see the communal legacy of Carnegie’s library in Houston today, with its cooking classes, toddler yoga, Photoshop classes, and afternoon movies. In other words, libraries have been “experimenting” with “maker spaces” for more than a century, not recently as Agresta claims. Agresta’s suggestion that wondrous projects highlighted by the Library as Incubator Project are a response to digital perils is quickly eradicated once one visits the Project’s About page. While digital collections are highlighted (as they naturally would in any library in 2014), the Project’s primary purpose is to encourage collaboration between libraries and artists. But that doesn’t stop Agresta from ending his paragraph with this preposterous zinger, parroting the “eloquent” Caitlin Moran:

It’s easy to imagine how a local institution built on these sorts of programs could continue to serve as hospital of the soul and theme park of the imagination long after all the paper books have been cleared away.

Even when Digital Public Library of America founder Dan Cohen tells Agresta, “We love the idea of making a connection between the digital and physical realm,” Agresta fails to ken the DPLA’s purpose, as clearly delineated on its About page. The DPLA’s chief goal isn’t to replace the physical library with the digital one. It is to provide digitized materials to other libraries in a valiant attempt to “educate, inform, and empower anyone in current and future generations.” There is nothing within this mission statement which suggests, as Agresta puts it, a “revamped” set of library ideals for the digital age. But don’t tell that to Agresta, who saves one of his most officious insults for the hardworking librarians who are an unspeakably invaluable part of what keeps libraries going.

Agresta waxes priapic about “book-fetching robots” at the Hunt Library that are similar to the ones “used by companies like Walmart at distribution centers,” as if Walmart was the more ideal model for libraries than the beautiful Beaux Arts edifices carefully considered by Carnegie. But for all of the BookBot’s organizational virtues, the sterile stacks aren’t allowed to be touched by humans, which means that any accidental discoveries must be performed through Virtual Browse.

As the above video demonstrates, with Virtual Browse, you can’t just pick a random book off of these shelves and flip through it. Instead, you have to do so through cold and clinical clicks through a web interface. Moreover, the BookBot is, at $4.5 million, a colossal waste of money, especially since it only returns about 800 books per day — the same work that two full-time students can do. Wouldn’t that money have been better spent on books or programs or top-notch librarians?

When high-tech systems this costly and this inefficient represent the professed future, and when Agresta cannot be arsed to do the math, Agresta’s suggestion that books are “making a quiet last stand” is both ignorant and laughable. And yet in presenting such a partial, incomplete, and uninformed tableau of the current library situation, especially in relation to the Central Library Plan, Agresta’s disgraceful article willfully twists the truth about a very important battle for communal public space into a presumed defeat. This is vile and irresponsible journalism that deserves nothing less than contempt. Michal Agresta should never be allowed to write a longform article on any subject again and the dimwitted editor who signed off on this unvetted and prepossessed drivel should be mercilessly flogged in the court of public opinion just outside the Columbia Journalism Review offices.

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Save NYPL: How an Organized Movement to Stop the Destruction of Libraries is Being Ignored by Mayor de Blasio

It was a Wednesday in mid-March: the presumed wane of a long and relentless winter that had caused many fine minds to crack. Two buildings had exploded four miles northeast in East Harlem. Two more buildings dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge — the very framework of the New York Public Library system — were threatened by a fiendish desire for greed.

Only a few hours after the New York Public Library stage-managed a few beatific rays of sunshine in the form of the belated Lotte Fields, who bequeathed $6 million to the NYPL simply because she loved to read, imposing gray clouds drifted over the stunning stone edifice of the New York Public Library’s main branch. The twin lions rested regal as raindrops pelted upon sixty brave souls, gathering in a steady drench to protest the Central Library Plan, a scheme to close and sell off two vital hubs of the system — the Science, Industry and Business Library (known as SIBL) and the Mid-Manhattan branch — for a wasteful consolidation of books into a overcrowded space that is estimated to cost more than $300 million.

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Last July, Bill de Blasio — then Public Advocate, today the chronically tardy Mayor of New York — railed against the plan, lambasting the lack of “forethought to the building’s historical and cultural integrity.” But despite the vocal admonitions from the Committee to Save the New York Public Library — which gained prominent publicity a few weeks ago through a Humans of New York entry featuring a young man named Matthew Zadrozny eating chicken that went viral, the Mayor has remained steadfastly silent. His glaring inaction, together with continued meetings behind closed doors, has forced the Committee to amp up its efforts.

“The Board of Trustees of the New York Public Library is meeting today,” said Theodore Grunewald, a dapper man of the streets with horn-rimmed glasses, a bushy beard, and a three-piece purple windowpane suit. He identified himself as the Vice President for the Committee to Save the NYPL and was fond of standing next to a de Blasio cardboard cutout, a mildly unsettling likeness reminiscent of the flattened, life-size, B-grade stars that once advertised dicey action movies in video stores.

“One of the items on their agenda,” continued Grunewald, “is, no doubt, the $350 million+ costs of this project, which consists, by the way, of selling the Mid-Manhattan Library to real estate developers, then moving that facility into the Central Research Library. But in order to make room for it, they have to remove seven levels of book stacks underneath the Main Reading Room. Those books serve the Rose Reading Room. They make it possible for scholars and researchers to do their work. Their absence from this building and the banishment of 1.5 million volumes from the key research collections of the New York Public Library to off-site storage will decimate this research library as a research institution.”

Grunewald observed that the main branch, along with the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library, was one of the three greatest research libraries in the world. But unlike the other two research libraries, the NYPL is open to anyone. You do not need to show your credentials to use the facility. In many ways, this open policy makes the main branch the ultimate public library.

“This is one of the most remarkable and innovative buildings in the world,” said Charles D. Warren, an architect and President of the Committee. “Not just because of its great exterior, but because inside its stone frame is a steel structure like a skyscraper building. That’s what holds up the books. Not only does it hold up the books, but it holds up the floor of the Rose Reading Room. And to take those out completely diminishes the meaning and the purpose of this building.”

Warren claimed that the main branch was not in need of serious renovation. “New air conditioning. New fire suppression. That’s it.”

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Mass protests usually attract disparate activists. The hope is that a passion for one cause will inspire a protester to put time in another. One protester disseminated a “gift” bag featuring leaflets for an education project that had nothing whatsoever to do with the library.

But the Wednesday rally was mostly on point. It included Citizens Defending Libraries and the Library Lovers League. Representatives from each of these groups had attended Tuesday night’s city budget meeting on libraries.

I was fond of the Raging Grannies. Despite the insinuated belligerence, the Raging Grannies were a calm and lively group of women with an affinity for music.

“Sometimes we sing against the war,” said Raging Granny Judith Ackerman. “Sometimes we sing against fracking and nuclear reactors.”

But on Wednesday, the Raging Grannies came armed with a fistful of library songs, one of which can be heard below:

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There is also a small book published by the Committee — The Library of Libraries — which is being sold for $5 to help generate funds for the campaign. Publicists for the Save NYPL campaign were kind enough to provide me with a copy earlier this week. The book, described as “a parable,” is written and illustrated by Simon Verity. It contains many red hearts inserted among the prose and depicts vicious rhinos roaming the inner sanctum of the library with malicious intent. The book is an elaboration on Verity’s 2013 commentary, previously published at the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art’s blog.

All this represents the beginnings of a flourishing movement. But the more practical matter of getting an ostensibly progressive mayor to take time away from his hyperbolic Swedish programs to fulfill his pledge and avert the destruction of a major cultural part of New York remains a more grueling challenge. The Committee was a bit diffident on this point.

When I asked about the Committee’s efforts to contact de Blasio, Grunewald reported that the Committee was “working assiduously to reach out to him.” I asked if the Committee had heard anything from de Blasio’s office. Grunewald ignored this question, pointing to an online petition with 4,600 signatures. It was at this point that a mysterious gentleman named Jack, hearing my inquiries, suggested to Grunewald that “we should probably be getting these signs up.” I tried again as Grunewald excavated the many vivacious signs from the plastic wrap.

“Have you actually heard a single peep from him by email, by phone, or anything like that?”

“It is a concern,” said Grunewald. “We did reach out to the Community Affairs Office at City Hall. We’re waiting to hear back.”

But while the Mayor refuses to meet or return calls, the Committee has made efforts to cut through the high-paid lobbyists and consultants, finding some elected officials who are willing to talk. Committee President Charles Warren wouldn’t name anybody specific, but he seemed optimistic.

“We are trying to talk with any elected officials we possibly can,” said Warren. “We have had some very good meetings and we have some upcoming meetings with some of them. We would love to meet with the Mayor.”

Warren suggested that the Council and the Controller may be receptive to the Committee’s message. He also pointed to the State’s landmark authority over the main branch, which is still being litigated. It is still possible that the State could reject any attempt to modify the building’s structure. Warren noted that two court actions were holding up the Central Library Plan: one by a citizens group and one involving Weiss and Hiller (representing plaintiffs Edmund Morris, et al.).

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Several protesters informed me that they would take the rally to City Hall if they had to. But what remains unclear is the timetable, the manner in which the Committee is organized, and whether these efforts have any bewitching effect beyond a popular photoblog.

It turned out that Matthew Zadrozny, the aforementioned pollo-eating beefcake, was at the rally. He went out of his way to approach me. He asked if I was a reporter. I told that him I was in a way. And we chatted.

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Correspondent: Who are you in relation to the Committee?
Zadrozny: I am working with the Committee. I’ve been with the Committee since December. I’ve been attending these protests since June of last year. And every Saturday, I’m organizing the weekly work-in protests at the library. We’re asking the public to come and protest while you work by sitting in the Main Reading Room, getting your work done with a www.savenypl.org sticker on your laptop.
Correspondent: I’ve seen those protests being announced. How much turnout? I mean, that seems more of a passive-aggressive form of protesting, I think.
Zadrozny: Well…
Correspondent: This is very active, however.
Zadrozny: Today’s protest is very active. On Saturdays, we want to garner the regular users of the library and give them ways to express their outrage at what’s happening by just getting their work done with a sticker.
Correspondent: Aha.
Zadrozny: It’s as simple as that.
Correspondent: It’s protesting for introverts.
Zadrozny: Protest…not necessarily. We encourage them to email the Mayor at savenypl.org. But we also encourage people to come out afterwards, get a drink with us, and talk about the future of the library.
Correspondent: Mayor de Blasio has remained silent. So are these protests doing any good?
Zadrozny: Mayor de Blasio, as Public Advocate, came out criticizing the plan. As Mayor, it’s true. He’s remained silent. We’re still waiting to hear from him. But we’re hopeful.
Correspondent: You’re hopeful. Why are you hopeful?
Zadrozny: We’re hopeful because he took a stand as Public Advocate and we believe that he understands the impact that this would have on the city and on local communities.
Correspondent: Is it possible though that the Committee was used in a political gesture rather than an actual act of true political movement?
Zadrozny: Uh…we don’t think so.
Correspondent: Why?
Zadrozny: Because we believe that the Mayor understands that this is, in many respects, an issue of equality, of opportunity. We believe the Mayor understands that if the Mid-Manhattan and the Science, Industry, and Business Libraries close, the amount of space in the system will be reduced. We believe that the Mayor understands that if Mid-Manhattan closes, there will be less space for students in the CUNY system to study. We believe that the Mayor understands that this is bad for New Yorkers.
Correspondent: Is it possible though that the Mayor has changed his mind?
Zadrozny: (pause) We’ll find out.

[May 7, 2014 UPDATE: The New York Public Library abandoned the Central Library Plan, opting to renovate the Mid-Manhattan Library on Fifth Avenue instead. The main library is no longer under threat.]

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More Bedbug Hysteria in Canadian Libraries

Two weeks ago, we revealed how a New York Times story relied on fear and misinformation to spread needless hysteria about bedbugs in public libraries. We spoke with many of the sources that reporter Catherine Saint Louis had relied on, including entomology professor Michael Potter, and discovered that the odds of getting a bedbug from a book in a library were “so low that it’s not even worth talking about.” Professor Potter was kind enough to provide us with a report which revealed that while bedbug incidents have increased holistically, the threat they pose to public libraries is well behind hotels, motels, college dorms, nursing homes, office buildings, public transportation, and movie theaters.

Yet in the past week, Saint Louis’s irresponsible reporting has inspired Canadian news outlets to engage in crass sensationalism. On December 13th, CBC News claimed that bedbugs were infesting multiple branches of the Vancouver Public Library. But the story relied upon hearsay from library patron Gail Meredith, who conveyed to the CBC that “the pest control people came to the conclusion that the only thing that was going on in my life that was likely to bring them in is my library books.” The article doesn’t confirm this with the pest control people, nor does it attempt to corroborate this incident with the VPL. (Robert Zimmerman, the only reporter listed in the article, did not reply to our request for comment.)

Reluctant Habits made several efforts to contact the Vancouver Public Library to determine the details of the 41 bedbug incidents cited by CBC News. There were phone calls and emails with VPL spokesman Stephen Barrington, who claimed that he was “between meetings.” By Friday morning, Barrington had fled his office for the rest of the year, as hard-working Canadians are wont to do. A helpful VPL employee named James Gemmill passed along a message to VPL chief librarian Sandra Singh. As of Friday afternoon, Reluctant Habits has not heard back from the VPL.

Fortunately, there were more explicit details from Toronto.

On Wednesday, the Toronto Star waded into these murky alarmist waters. Star photographer David Cooper claimed that his wife Peggi-jean had discovered three bedbugs in a checked out copy of Peter Robinson’s Watching the Dark. But Reluctant Habits has learned that the Coopers preferred breaking an attention-grabbing story to one of their employers rather than resolving their problem directly with the library. According to Toronto Public Library spokesperson Ana-Maria Critchley, the Coopers went straight to the Star rather than the Toronto Public Library.

“I’m not even sure if she returned the book,” said Critchley by telephone on Friday morning.

Critchley confirmed that the Toronto Public Library has indeed experienced its share of bedbug problems. In the past twelve months, there have been 24 bedbug incidents in thirteen branches. But the Star‘s Alyshah Hasham fudged the facts to fill in the sensationalist sudoku. Aside from the fact that these 24 bedbug incidents in the past year represented a drop from 30 incidents during the preceding year, it’s worth pointing out that thirteen of these incidents originated from chairs. The remaining eleven were located in books. This slight majority towards furniture is not the even split that Hasham claims it is. Additionally, the Star undercounted the items borrowed by Toronto Public Library patrons. I confirmed with Critchley by telephone and email that 33 million items were borrowed last year, not the 31 million claimed by Hasham.

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With only eleven reported incidents in 33 million books, your chance of getting a bedbug from an item checked out from the Toronto Public Library is 1 in 3,000,000. According to the National Weather Service, you stand a better chance of being struck by lightning three times during any given year. According to the National Safety Council, you are more likely to die from a dog attack, a flood, contact from hornets, wasps, and bees, a legal execution, or a fireworks discharge, or a flood.

I was able to reach Hasham on her cell phone on Friday afternoon to give her an opportunity to respond to this story. She told me that she could say nothing on the record until she had cleared it with her superiors. I also asked her how any person calling herself a journalist could spread alarmism like this, misrepresenting a minor problem. She responded off the record. I told her that she was doing tabloid journalism, not real journalism.

I left a voicemail with New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan on Friday morning to see if she could remark upon publishing a news story predicated upon a vastly overstated issue. Surely the Times bears some responsibility for inspiring other news outlets to generate attention over an overwrought problem. Much as Sullivan rebuffed my emails and my tweets, she did not return my call. She has, in fact, refused to address Saint Louis’s story. And while Sullivan and Saint Louis continue to remain silent about the Times‘s reportorial incompetence, other outlets continue to take their cues. Because a good yarn playing on a readership’s fears is more important than being accurate.

“I hear stories all the time about bedbugs in libraries,” said Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann by telephone on Friday morning. The entomology professor at Cornell had been quoted in the Star story. I asked Gangloff-Kaufmann if we could ever know from the Star story just how the Coopers contracted the bedbugs in Toronto.

“I don’t think we know,” she said. “I don’t know what his daily life is like. I don’t know what his neighbor does.”

Gangloff-Kaufmann said that it was likely that the Coopers’ bedbugs came to their home through the book, but pointed out that bedbugs are more likely to be found in furniture. “That goes for any place.”

When I asked Gangloff-Kaufmann if she felt that the recent spate of bedbug stories were founded on hysteria or misinformation, she didn’t wish to answer. But she did concede that the risk of contracting bedbugs from a library was out of proportion with certain responses.

“What is the risk? Fairly low. But the tolerance is zero.”

12/22 UPDATE: I asked entomologist Michael Potter for his thoughts on how bedbugs might have found their way into books in Toronto and Vancouver libraries. He informed me that there was a slight possibility of bedbugs congregating and laying eggs in the bindings and edges of hardcovers and paperbacks.

“If you had a heavily infested dwelling,” says Potter, “there’s always the likelihood that, with time, some bugs could move from former hiding sites and begin residing in books. How often this happens with books taken out from the library is anybody’s guess — infrequently for sure, although it can happen — just as you can pick up a stray bug here and there in any number of other activities.”

Potter told me that if books are situated near a permanent infestation (such as a nightstand next to a bed), the odds, despite being exceptionally minute, do increase. But he reports that worrying about contracting bugs from the library is “certainly no more than obsessing over picking them up from the dry cleaner, cozy upholstered booth of your favorite restaurant, taxi cab or bus seat, or your kids coming home from school for the holidays.”

He was kind enough to provide the following picture, showing books that were permanently stored in a heavily infested apartment:

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“For people who remain concerned about the prospects of bed bugs being transported into their homes on library books,” says Potter, “they can do a quick spot check for signs of the little black fecal spots. Do I do this when I check out books? No. Nor do I go to the trouble of storing my suitcase in the bathtub when I stay in hotels, opting instead for a cursory inspection of the bed and headboard area.”

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The Bedbug Bunk: How the New York Times Used Fear and Misinformation to Spread Public Library Hysteria

On Wednesday afternoon, the New York Times published a story written by Catherine Saint Louis claiming that public libraries were now devoting precious resources to a new threat: bedbugs nesting inside the spines of hardcover books and making their way into public libraries like Norway rats stowing away on dusty ships.

The piece, which drew understandable horror on Twitter on Thursday morning, was the seventh most emailed New York Times story by Thursday afternoon.

But Reluctant Habits has talked with many of Saint Louis’s sources and has learned that the Times article is misleading. Bedbugs are not the major threat that Saint Louis suggests they are. In fact, some of the library directors who Saint Louis spoke with have never had a bedbug epidemic at all. They were merely taking preventive measures in the wake of recent media stories.

“We actually never had an infestation,” said Mary Schubart by telephone on Wednesday evening. Schubart, the library director of the Islip Public Library, was described in the article as taking action against bedbugs “after reading about their alarming resurgence.” But the “resurgence” that Schubart was referring to was the national panic. Schubart told me that the only books believed to have bedbugs under her watch didn’t come from her library, but through interlibrary loan. If bedbugs weren’t a severe problem for Islip’s libraries, why then did Schubart react with such an over-the-top measure?

“I saw the media going crazy a year or two ago,” said Schubart, who also cited a “personal abhorrence to little legs” as one of the reasons she started buying pestilence-resistant furniture for her branches. Schubart wanted to appease an antsy staff and keep her regulars appreciative. The “quarterly” visits made by the bedbug-sniffing dogs cited in the Times article were initially “monthly.”

While Schubart doesn’t regret her vigilance, she does have small worries about how Saint Louis’s reportorial approach could result in a needless panic. “I think that the article could create some hype that isn’t necessarily called for.”

Cynthia Berner Harris, the Director of Libraries for the Wichita Public Library system, also confirmed with me on Thursday that she had bagged books “as a purely precautionary measure” after confirming bugs in a seating area. The bugs were not in the books. She said that she has had only two previous instances “where library consumers forewarned us that materials on loan to them had become infested with bedbugs.” But because of Wichita’s better-safe-than-sorry safeguards, which includes staff training and close attention to the types of chairs purchased, the bedbug situation is under control.

“Let’s not get crazed,” said Sue Feir on Thursday morning. “We were proactive.” Feir, library director at Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, was also singled out in the Times piece as someone taking a bedbug problem into her own hands and for “sending an email blast.” But she told me that none of the library materials had been affected. Only the corner of one bookshelf had a problem.

“The area most cited for furniture/bedbugs,” said Feir, “is an area of the library where people often sit, but do not handle books. Multiple chairs may have become problematic because they are moved around.”

Feir said she had never had a problem with bedbugs before, but she did suspect that institutions don’t talk about bedbugs due to embarrassment. “It is hardly a subject people bring up over coffee.”

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“She called me at least three times,” said Michael Potter by telephone on Thursday morning. Potter, a professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, told me that he had spent three hours on the phone with Saint Louis patiently discussing the issue. “I really tried to emphasize that, while libraries should be vigilant, we must also have a dose of caution about all this.”

Yet despite the considerable minutes that Potter racked up in explicative overtime with the Times, Saint Louis opted to use only one sentence: “There’s no question in past few years there are more and more reports of bedbugs showing up in libraries.” This served in sharp contrast to a 2010 appearance Potter made on Fresh Air, where interviewer Terry Gross allowed Potter to explain late in the segment that while bedbugs remained a problem, the risk was quite low.

“I guess I get troubled when you spend an inordinate amount of time and hope that it will be an educational tool for the public. Instead, it turns out that you whip people in a frenzy.”

When I asked Potter if he had any hard stats about how likely it was to contract bedbugs from the library, he informed me, with a twinge of exasperation in his voice, that the chances were extremely slim. Worrying about bedbugs in a public library was akin to being afraid to leave the house because you might get struck by lightning.

“The odds of you picking up a bedbug from a book in a library are so low that it’s not even worth talking about,” said Potter.

So what were the reports that Potter had been referring to? It turns out that in 2011, Potter had co-authored a survey with Kenneth F. Haynes, Bob Rosenberg, and Missy Henriksen called “2011 Bugs Without Borders.” (Professor Potter has graciously allowed Reluctant Habits to recirculate the survey. The full PDF can be downloaded here.)

The survey reveals that while, on the whole, bedbug incidents have increased, the threat within libraries is well behind hotels, motels, college dorms, nursing homes, office buildings, public transportation, and movie theaters.

“I mean, these kinds of articles need to provide some balance in terms of this problem because we’re developing a paranoia for some people who hear these sound bytes.”

“All of the hallmarks of an epidemic can be found when there’s no disease,” said Philip Alcabes, Director of the Public Health Program at Adelphi’s Center for Health Innovation. Alcabes suggested to me that the bedbug panic corroborates with some of the concerns he expressed in his book, Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics.

“Bedbugs cause itching, of course, but they don’t spread any systemic illness and nobody dies from them. The key is that the problem seems to be spreading and that it stands in for — and reflects back to us — our social anxieties, our worries that the culture has somehow gone too far.”

So why would the New York Times feed reader anxieties rather than serve up the facts?

I made efforts to contact both Saint Louis and New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan on Thursday afternoon, but neither returned my request for comment. I did, however, receive an email from Joseph Burgess, claiming that “the public editor can’t speak on behalf of The Times‘s policies.”

In the meantime, the Times article continues to make the rounds. Is there any hope for a rational consideration of the bedbug problem?

“People can’t be expected to be perfectly reasonable all the time,” said Alcabes. “In an era without witches or angels or signs in the sky, the epidemic offers a context in which some irrational behavior becomes acceptable. Which isn’t a bad deal, in some ways.”

12/7 UPDATE: Brooke Borel, author of the forthcoming book Suck: The Tale of the Bed Bug, has also responded to Saint Louis’s article. She points out that Saint Young is outright wrong in declaring that bedbugs have only just “discovered a new way to hitchhike” through books. “This is an ancient pest, and it has been doing its thing for at least thousands of years. Probably far, far longer.” She also reiterates what entomologists have been telling me over the past two days. The risk is low. “You aren’t very likely to pick up bed bugs in these types of public spaces. The bugs are far more highly concentrated in residences, where they can breed and multiply in close proximity to their food source.”

12/17 UPDATE: A commenter named Joe alerted me to this article, in which CBC News claims that bedbugs are infesting multiple branches of the Vancouver Public Library. The story is suspicious, because it relies upon the hearsay of library patron Gail Meredith conveying to the reporter that “the pest control people came to the conclusion that the only thing that was going on in my life that was likely to bring them in is my library books.” But the story doesn’t confirm this fact with the pest control people, nor does it attempt to corroborate this incident with the VPL. On Monday morning, I spoke with VPL spokesman Stephen Barrington by phone just before he was about to hit a Monday morning meeting. He said that he didn’t have his notes in front of him to spell out the details of the bedbug incidents alleged by CBC News, but that he would try to get back to me later in the afternoon to give me details. I will report any additional details I learn from Mr. Barrington.

12/21 UPDATE: There have been a number of stories circulating in Canadian news outlets about bedbugs in public libraries (including the above-referenced CBC News story). We’ve looked into these claims in a second investigative piece on Vancouver Public Library and Toronto Public Library.

bealibraries

BEA 2012: What Librarians Wish Publishers Knew

The librarians didn’t come for the muffins. But the publishers came for the librarians. And even if, during the Q&A, the publishers bolted out the door like hunters rushing to the other side of the isle with spears and a renewed lust for prancing porcine, moderator Nora Rawlinson handled the panel with a deft hand, squeezing three librarians and a Harper Collins library marketing rep into the fifty fresh minutes. It almost demanded another twenty.

Libraries are often forgotten when considering the brick and mortar part of publishing. But it became very clear during the talk that, with 9,000 library systems across America, libraries are robust places to discover and share books. Of those 9,000 systems, a good thousand have four or more branches. And according to Rawlinson, when libraries survey their public, libraries translate into books.

They are places to promote books, but they are different from bookstores. “Libraries can’t do the stack ‘em high, watch ‘em fly,” said Rawlinson at the panel’s start. But the big difference is that when a library accumulates tomes, they’re guaranteed to go out to the public. Libraries continue to promote specific titles on their websites. And as Michael Colford, Director of Library Services for the Boston Public Library, pointed out, the Boston Public Library website received eight million hits on its website last year.

“A library’s mission is to connect readers with books,” pointed out Colford. But the BPL puts much of its resources into midlist titles and nonfiction, rather than the sturdy bestsellers. And it is this multifaceted focus that drives readers to Boston libraries. “We’re telling them about books they’re not going to get. What we really should be saying is ‘Here are ten books you really should be reading if you like these books.'”

A library, Colford was keen to remind the audience, is also a great physical space. But the BPL has developed a fairly intricate system — including establishing an online catalog shared with the New York Public Library — to ensure that patrons can find the books in an instant. If the book isn’t there, there is the option to input a ZIP and find the nearest independent bookseller. And while the BPL wants to support independent bookstores, Colford noted, “Once you shell them off to another retailer, it’s not a library experience.”

Sari Feldman, Executive Director of the 28 branch Cuyahoga County Public Library, started off her part of the panel by pointing out that 40% of her library’s $4.5 million budget was devoted to overall materials. (There was a running pop quiz before every panelist, in which audiences were asked to shout out a figure in response to a question. And although Bob Barker is not yet dead, he apparently could not be coaxed out of retirement to aid these proceedings.) Her philosophy on purchasing bestsellers differed from Colford. She was more inclined to stock her libraries with them. “We want our customers to have the shopping experience.”

One way that Cuyahoga County has rehabilitated its library system in recent years is through an initiative called Reconnect with Reading. Noted independent booster Nancy Pearl came in and “infused her positive energy” into Cuyahoga. Over the course of a year, Pearl spent one week out of every month getting people to think about what they love to read and rethinking systems on how to connect customers to the reading experience. This included digital billboard ads, Google ads, bus ads, and considerable awareness.

But this awareness has translated into library patrons “knowing us for the authors we bring.” Feldman revealed that there were often hundreds in attendance for a debut author. And, equally interesting, Cuyahoga has used Facebook to woo readers, with librarians leading an online book discussion and suggesting three new books to read if the patron fesses three recent volumes.

Lynn Wheeler, director of the smaller Carroll County Public Library, revealed more impressive results. Carroll County is a six branch system. Yet despite serving a population of 170,000, it was able to bankroll 6,330 programs during the 2011 fiscal year. The library once purchased 73 copies of Kate Alcott’s The Dressmaker for its branches and, because the library displayed the book in all of its branches, it ended up stocking 433 copies. And because there was so much excitement for the book, local historical reenactors were tapped.

And through the simple act of pitting one book against another — an idea borrowed from neighboring Howard County — and encouraging schoolkids to vote on the book, Carroll County was able to get numerous children excited about books. In this “Battle of the Books,” the books in question were given to competing schools. There were 72,000 votes involved. Kids became experts on the books in knowledge bowl-style quizzes. (The accompanying photos during Wheeler’s presentation revealed a Little League-like excitement on the kids’ faces.) An all-boy team won.

By the time that Virginia Stanley, director of Library Marketing for Harper Collins, spoke, there was little time left in the panel. So Stanley didn’t get much to say, despite wearing a tiara telegraphing a Queen Victoria-like fickleness. She did say that she was trying to accommodate libraries by getting authors to “appear” via Skype. But given the hearty discussion about how physical space and community produced serious results for libraries big and small, why should publishers and libraries settle for anything less than face-to-face?

The Bat Segundo Show: Marilyn Johnson

Marilyn Johnson recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #324. Ms. Johnson is most recently the author of This Book is Overdue!

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hoping to avoid being arrested by Rusty the Bailiff.

Author: Marlyn Johnson

Subjects Discussed: Why libraries are little regarded by the American public, the preservation of blogs and websites, Josh Greenberg’s efforts at digital preservation, the Firefox extension Zotero, the rickroll video’s removal from YouTube, the Barnard Zine Collection, the reliance upon private entities to preserve information, the lone guy archiving Hunter S. Thompson’s early articles, the French government’s commitment to preserving culture vs. Google, Jessamyn West’s Ubuntu video and copyright problems, the inability for Joseph V. Hamburger’s archives to find a library, a writer’s responsibility to preserve their writing, Salman Rushdie’s digital manuscripts, commenters and obituaries, dead people writing obituaries, the mutability of text, future generations of computer users and libraries, inflatable humans vs. librarians, the New York Public Library consolidation and permanent closing of the Shiochi Noma Reading Room, specialist libraries vs. public libraries, the American Kennel Club Library, librarians within Second Life, vital specialists vs. unpaid volunteer librarians, shaky wifi connections and libraries, the need for out-of-work and underemployed librarians to have online identities, Twitter as a questionable source for librarians, strange construction workers who attempt to hijack the conversation between the Correspondent and Ms. Johnson, street librarians, Radical Reference and whether it provides services those who don’t question authority, and whether the efforts made by the librarians opposing the Patriot Act have fallen short due to harsher prison terms for those hanging helpful signs.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Johnson: The Internet is in the library. Google is in the library. The librarians know how to use that. So you go to those public computers in the library. You have a librarian who can not only do Google, but who can also tell you, point you to any number of other resources that are not included in Google, or that are very difficult to get to through Google. It seems like Google is so simple. “It’s so simple even your grandmother can use it,” is the way it was described to me. Yeah, it’s brilliant for getting the quick hit on the restaurant in the Village that you want to have dinner at. There’s the address. There’s the phone number. There’s the little Google map that will get you there. But when you are actually trying to track back. When I have a clipping of a newspaper, and I’m trying to find the digital version of that, I get lost sometimes. It can’t find it. The bread crumbs don’t take you to where you know it has to be. And I’ve had librarians who have actually shown me how to wend my way through Google, which is, after all, full of redundancies, not weighted in terms of date. You need to put your heavy boots on to wade through it sometimes.

Correspondent: But then again, we are seeing various developments along the lines of what we were mentioning earlier about the mutability of text.

Johnson: Yes.

Correspondent: The Semantic Web, which I can probably go into.

Johnson: Blah blah blah. Yeah, we could go on all night.

Correspondent: Yeah. But to shift it to libraries, are the advantages essentially these informed people, the aspect of physical space, and the aspect of real-life interaction? As opposed to online interaction? Do you think that these elements are strong enough to endure whatever technological developments are emerging in the next four decades?

Johnson: Okay, I’m zipping around the Internet like crazy. I’m not unsavvy. I’ve bent a few corners. I’ve been to the few corners of the Web. I make a telephone call and if there are seven options — the automated answering service that tries to funnel me down one little hall, as opposed to another — I never fit in the categories. I’m never Option 1 through 7. Would you like to hear these options again? I freak out. I go crazy. I need the human. I need the human to help explain it to me. I need the human to help me know what I missed. I need the human to help me phrase the question. And I don’t think humans are ever going to go out of style. Call me crazy.

Correspondent: Yeah. Until, of course, the inflatable human arrives.

Johnson: No, no. You need the librarian. You need the librarian!

Correspondent: The recent New York Public Library consolidation caused the Shiochi Noma Reading Room to be permanently closed on September 8, 2008. You talked with John Lindquist, the former director of this Asian and Middle Eastern Reading Rooms, now curator, who pointed out that his staff had been halved, When the Arabic-language cataloger retires, the library will be without an Arabic-language librarian. So this closing is particularly ironic, given that, in 1997, more than a million dollars were poured into this room to refurbish it and to make it spruced up and the like. So if specialized knowledge like this is so fleeting, if something recently renovated only ten years before is going to be thrown out the window, is it safe to say that the generalists are winning this internecine war within the libraries?

Johnson: They have a really interesting challenge. The New York Public Library. And they’re galloping forward. They’re really trying to take a research institution and preserve as much of the research in it as possible, and also make it a much more tourist-friendly place. People don’t understand that when they come to the library, it is a research institution. That you don’t check things out. So the New York Public Library — the Board — has decided, and the librarians — the chief librarians — that they’ll have a children’s center in the basement there. And they will circulate the books there. And they want more regular users to come to this beautiful building. They want to open it up more. So all of those treasures from the Middle East are there. They’re there. The librarians who administer them and who work with the scholars are not. They seem to be going away. And now John Lundquist has gone away. And this room went away, not because they didn’t like the room or they didn’t like what it stood for, but because it happens to be on a central hall that’s going to provide access for what will now be circulating parts of the library. They took this research library and are melding it with the circulating library. So in the course of making it friendly to people who want to just come and check out a DVD, they’ve had to squeeze some of the other stuff into different places. And those librarian positions that are very scholarly and very specialized, when they come up for retirement, they are not replacing those librarians. They’re putting it into people who can work with the ordinary office/street library user.

Correspondent: Those librarians are part of this big squeeze. So, therefore, will we have to turn to more specialist libraries, such as the American Kennel Club library, which you investigated, or will the onus fall upon universities to pick up the specialized slack?

Johnson: Well, you want to hear a tragic story? I went to the American Kennel Club library. And that librarian is no longer there.

Correspondent: Really?

Johnson: And you know why? Because they’re running out of money. And where are they going to cut it? Where are they going to cut funds? So the librarian is no longer working there. You can go there. There’s an archivist. There are people who work for the American Kennel Club magazine. All the information is still there. All the material. The beautiful skeleton of the old dog looking over the reading tables is still there. But if you want to find something, you’re going to be taking out a flashlight and looking around. It’s just heartbreaking to me. These are really tough times. To lose the human being who is the guide to all this information, and often the architect. Who put it all together. It’s craziness. And we are losing something so valuable right now. This book is overdue, and I wish it had come out last year. Before ever so many of these cuts had been instituted.

Correspondent: So it seems to me that the generalists are winning the war against the specialists. But you do bring up things such as the Second Life librarian. And the scenario there is that it’s largely based up of volunteers. But if you’re relying on volunteers and you’re not relying on compensation, then how can you have enough of a buffer to replace these vital specialists? And not only that, but if a librarian is essentially a persona — a metaphor, if you will — then does that necessarily replace the real thing? Is it something of a ruse? More of a sort of fantasy than a duty to the public?

Johnson: Wow, we’re going to go down some labyrinths here. You know, what’s interesting about Second Life is that there are bona-fide librarians who are out there, in their spare time, doing research and development in the field. Like saying, here’s a really interesting wonky kind of thing that we can do. Let’s see if we can adapt library science to it. And, in fact, when you think about it, any population that you can think of can use a librarian to help it. This brilliant Radical Reference librarians, who said “Street protesters in great numbers coming to New York, a place that does not have public toilets. Let’s go serve up some information. Let’s go make ourselves available. And if they need us, they can ask us hard questions and we’ll do our best to find true answers for them.” You know, combat rumors. Help them navigate the streets, some of which will be closed. In Second Life, they’re saying, “Oh my goodness. Here’s this exciting, cool, weird place. Virtual reality on the Internet.” And anybody can access it by downloading the free software. And you create a little avatar and you go into this world. “I bet they need librarians.” And in fact, they do. Why? Because ever so many little corners of this world are created by the people who go on Second Life as recreations of a time in history. For instance, there’s a Renaissance island that has a replica of Shakespeare’s — what do you call it, the theater.

Correspondent: The Globe, yeah.

Johnson: Yeah. There is a Harlem Renaissance world that recreates the 1920s. And so librarians are there doing all this research to help make that world accurate. They’re saying, “This is what fashion looked like. These are what cars looked like. Yes, this existed during that time. This didn’t. This was how a joust went. This is what a lady would wear in her hair.” And these kinds of factual historic questions, librarians are ideally suited to answer them.

Correspondent: On the other hand, when you tried to contact J.J. Drinkwater and these other folks, you had your wifi connection cut out on you. So this leads me to wonder…

Johnson: What?

Correspondent: You mention this in the book.

Johnson: Okay.

Correspondent: That you were trying to interview the Second Life librarians and that you were doing this in a library in your laptop.

Johnson: Oh my goodness.

Correspondent: And the wifi cut out. So this leads me to wonder…

Johnson: Yes.

Correspondent: The real thing, which is not going to cut out. At least I would hope that someone would not dissolve before my eyes. Second Life is not exactly the best substitute for that.

The Bat Segundo Show #324: Marilyn Johnson (Download MP3)

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Tainted Glove

Guardian: “While most of us might expect to have to wear gloves to read 14th-century illuminated manuscripts, Silverman says it is damaging. He and a colleague, Dr Cathy Baker, have published a rather esoteric paper, Misperceptions about White Gloves, in which they call for the wearing of white gloves to be replaced with a policy of people simply washing their hands.”

Cambridge Cache Unearthed

Approximately 170,000 volumes and papers have been discovered in the Cambridge University library tower. Some people believed that this stash of tomes represented little more than the 19th century equivalent of the now classic 20th century pornographic confessional Fist Me Hard! Fist Me Fast! But as it turns out, this cache yielded first editions of several 19th century authors, a collection of penny dreadfuls, and the bulk of it remains untouched. And by “untouched,” keep your dirty minds out of the gutter, folks. You know what I mean. Thanks to some cash from the late philanthropist Andrew Mellon, these books (and an online catalog of these books) should be available to the public roughly around 2010.

Dover Town Library: Hot to Trot

It is a fundamental truth that librarians are among the sexiest people on the planet. But the Dover Town Library staff have me contemplating all manner of sexual fantasies*: you see, they’ve abolished overdue fees.

* — In one, I am tied up to the microfiche machine, forget the safe word, and am forced to endure discomfort that goes outside of the accepted terms. I am then released under the assumption that I will be a “good patron.” Then I’m asked to conduct academic research while being partially blindfolded and handcuffed to the stacks, all this while performing cunnilingus on another librarian and having random Dewey decimal numbers shouted back to me. I should note that this is the safest of the eight fantasies which popped into my head while reading this story. The other seven cannot be reported publicly.

And So the Invasiveness Begins…

The FBI has issued the first demand for library records under the Patriot Act. The library in question is apparently somewhere in the Bridgeport, Connecticut. The ACLU said that it was barred from disclosing the identity of the specific location or the details of the FBI demand. But if the ACLU can’t get this out into the public, perhaps some enterprising citizen journalist (who has more time than I do today) might want to start making some calls. Here are some places to start.

Pero, Piense en Los Niños!

Our Rocky Mountain pal and colleague has the scoop on the campaign to divest Denver’s libraries of racy fotonovelas. After having removed 6,000 of these “tawdry” books, a full review of the libraries’ 2.5 million circulation is now being considered, leaving some wags to opine that “indecency” might be more of an elastic term than explicitly stated, perhaps used as a euphemism for purging the catalog of, shall we say, less Anglo-friendly titles.

Future Scholars Will Infer Meaning from Dubya’s Crude Doodles

If you’ve ever wanted to know how presidential libraries operate, now’s your chance. According to Dr. Jay Hawkes, presidential libraries are “some of the most important and unique libraries in the country.” The tradition began with FDR, who donated all of his personal and presidential papers to the federal government in 1939. In 1955, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act, establishing a system of libraries. And the Presidential Records Act of 1978 deemed all presidential records the property of the federal government. (via Rare Books News)

Roundup

  • Because one can never cover too many awards, I note that Orhan Pamuk has won the 2005 Book Trade Peace Prize. The prize is the most coveted literary award in Germany.
  • Alan Riding points to a quiet controversy that has been unearthed regarding women’s writing prizes (and the Orange Prize in particular). Specifically, novelist Anne Fine is quoted, “I do think the Orange Prize has created a division, an artificial barrier where there was only an awful inequality.” Perhaps the answer is much simpler. Could it be because Fine has never been longlisted for the Orange Prize?
  • Super Size Me filmmaker Morgan Spurlock is entering the book industry. The first book is Don’t Eat This Book. The second one will be Slightly Smarter Though Still Stupid White Men.
  • After years of relying on numbers cobbled together from disparate sources for our neighbor up north, publishers can now rejoice. BookNet Canada has introduced a new centralized sales-tracking system. This makes Canada the last English-speaking nation to do this. But the Globe and Mail‘s Kate Taylor is mourning: “At its most useful, it will let publishers stop guessing how many books they have really sold; at its most dangerous, it will draw them yet further into the pointless game of second-guessing their customers.”
  • In Waynesville, MO, as many as 20,000 books from Waynesville school libraries are going straight to the dumpster. This remarkable idea comes to us from the mind of Superintendent Ed Musgrove, who is inflexible to donations because “it would cost more for us to pack them up and donate them than to destroy them.” It seems that despite the fact that other members and local residents expressed concern over this small-town homage to the barbarians who destroyed the Great Library of Alexandria, Musgrove stayed firm, revealing that the main factors being employed to remove the books are the copyright date and the subject. If you’d like to let Musgrove know how you feel about this, here’s his contact information.
  • One amusing thing that’s come out of the ballyhoo concerning Edward Klein’s expose, The Truth About Hilary, is, as the BBC has reported, the listings over what other books the customers have bought. Currently leading the list is John E. O’Neill’s Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry. Craig Shirley and Dick Morris are concerned that Klein’s smear approach will make Hilary Clinton a more sympathetic person and thus a more viable presidential candidate for 2008. Meanwhile, Klein himself keeps flip-flopping with his source (Or is it none or more than one? One never knows with this guy.) that claims that Bill Clinton raped Hilary to conceive Chelsea. [UPDATE: Ron Hogan has additional information about Klein, jumping off from this Publishers Weekly article.]

Morning Pileup

  • Frederick Forsyth has decided to run against Tony Blair. Well, if this is what it takes to get him to stop writing, count me in as one of his most febrile supporters.
  • Chang-rae Lee’s next novel will center around the Korean War. The story will involve “a refugee girl raised in America after the war, a solider and an aid worker during the war.” Lee also confessed that he made a mistake titling his last novel Aloft, pointing out that too many people were hoping for a gripping tale about real estate developers fighting over a flat.
  • Somehow it escaped our eyes, but “Harry Matthews” gets an appropriately mysterious writeup in the Gray Lady. But an interesting side note is that nobody should trust John Strausbaugh with an “off the record” comment.
  • We all know about Kathryn Chetkovich’s infamous Granta essay about J-Franz. But what I didn’t know is that Franzen’s ex-wife stopped writing and reading after the breakup. The lesson here is that if you hope to keep up your writing career, DON’T DATE J-FRANZ! This has been a public service announcement for the Society to Preserve Creativity.
  • Alice Hoffman was “deeply affected by The Twilight Zone.”
  • Fumio Niwa has passed on. He was 100. Also RIP David Hughes.
  • There’s a campaign in place to restore Ohio’s image by the Ohio Secretary of State. Unfortunately, what the campaign doesn’t tell you is that most of the writers and artists (including Toni Morrison, Michael Dirda, and Roger Zelazy) ended up moving away from Ohio.
  • Oliver Stone + James Ellroy? Say it ain’t so. What next? Paul Verhoeven and Donald E. Westlake?
  • The Cumberland County Library in North Carolina has catered to its constitutency. They’re paying $18,000 of their hard-earned money to offer 700 audio books. By my math, that’s $25.71 a pop, or considerably more than a wholesale or library-rate hardcover.

Afternoon Headlines

  • The illustrious Mark Sarvas has served up spectacular coverage of the L.A. Times Book Festival. He even makes a noble attempt to understand Steve Almond. We also wish Mr. Sarvas the best wishes on his new reign as a teacher.
  • A new novel penned by the late Park Tae-won has been found. The new book’s called Flag of Motherland and is the first novel Park wrote before crossing the border during the Korean War.
  • Arianna Huffington has launched a group blog. Alarmingly, Michael Medved is involved.
  • Why publicist Shawn Le thought we’d be interested in this thing is a mystery. But we can’t resist exposing yet another reason why James Patterson should be avoided at all costs. We thought at first that it was an obscene joke, but Patterson has devised a blog for his new book, Maximum Ride. This dreadful tie-in can be accessed through James Patterson’s official site. The novel involves genetically engineered killing machines hunting creatures who are 98% human, 2% bird. A sample entry reads: “It?s finally starting to look like spring and the flying is great! It?s still a little chilly but there?s no better skyline to glide over then New York! Angel, Gassy, nudge and even Fang is in a good mood! We all want to fly, unfortunately all the regular people are looking up and enjoying the sun – not good for 6 winged kids trying to keep a low profile.”
  • Steve Stern doesn’t get any respect, and he’s been turning out literary fiction for 25 years.
  • Apparently, the twelve men who have walked the moon are “an unusually dull lot.”
  • Ever since she appeared in The Incredibles, Sarah Vowell now has to contend with little girls coming up to her at book signings. At least she hasn’t been showered with spare security blankets.
  • The casting of Harry Potter’s girlfriend has unleashed a good deal of racism on the Internet.
  • Two public libraries in the UK reopened with new buildings. Guess what? The number of book loans went up.

The Reader’s Last Sigh

The Associated Press reports that Rushdie’s new novel will “have a lot more India in it” than Midnight’s Children. That’s great. But it still doesn’t change the fact that Rushdie hasn’t written a single compelling novel since Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

Who says they aren’t crazy about libraries in the sticks? In Modesto, 100 volunteers are trying to maintain a small sales tax to ensure that their libraries stay open.

Geologists are trying to stop a creationist book from being sold at the Grand Canyon. The book, Grand Canyon: A Different View, suggests that the Canyon came into being not by the erosion of the Colorado River over millions of years, but because of a wager between Jesus and Peter. Peter lost the bet. And instead of turning water into wine, as Peter hoped, Jesus created the Grand Canyon. But not without starting a few side projects like lime jello and double-entry bookkeeping.

And Pete Rose has the best marketing gimmick around: “Read my book before judging me.”

[1/24/06 UPDATE: As of November 2004, the controversy died down. I am not in a position to confirm this, although I will try and make a phone call to determine what the National Park Service’s position is, but it appears that Tom Vail’s apocryphal book is still being sold at the Grand Canyon store. Of course, all this came well before any of the Intelligent Design bullshit. But the decidedly unscientific Tom Vail has remained quite smug about his victory.]

Disappearing Books & Some People Just Don’t Understand

In Singapore, Starbucks cafes have initiated a used-book program to get people reading. Read a book, drop it off at a Starbucks, and get $1 off a drink. Of course, there’s one chief problem with the plan beyond this failure to encourage people to read it. (Hypothetically, you can just move a book from the National Library to one of the 17 Starbucks outlets participating.) If the book is bad and likely to put you to sleep, shouldn’t the coffee discount apply before you read the book, rather than after?

At the Three Creeks Community Library, books on the occult are the most likely titles to be stolen. More so than tomes on test preparation or sex. I leave the conspiracy theorists to figure out if the occult books are hexed or not.

Publishers looking for a quick way to pulp their overstock may wish to contact Ed Charon, who holds the Guinness world record for tearing phone books into shreds. Or not. Ed Charon, you see, was just unseated by a thirtysomething. This young upstart can tear 12 1,000-page phone books apart in 12 minutes. “There’s no age or race barriers,” Charon said. “Everybody enjoys this.”

A.S. Byatt writes on the enduring power of the fairy tale and concludes that its legacy can be found on the Web.

The Sunday New York Times reviews Wolves of the Calla and refers to Oy as “the talking dog-badger companion,” while also comparing a conversational exchange involving stew to Widow Douglas’s cooking in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Highbrow attempts to understand popular fiction don’t get any funnier than this. Or maybe they do. Also in the Times: Heinlein’s “first novel,” For Us, the Living is unearthed. No real conclusions about the quality. More of an undergraduate-style summary than anything else. But it does include the blurb-whoring revelation that “the belated publication of this early work is a major contribution to the history of the genre.” Thankfully, John Chute has also taken on the book. He notes that For Us, the Living “promulgates the kind of arguments about sex, religion, politics and economics that normally gain publication through fringe presses, not the trade publishers Heinlein submitted his manuscript to.”

The Green Man Review asks a few spec-fic names (including Charles de Lint, Gwyneth Jones and Ellen Kushner) to spill their favorite books.

And, just as Gene Wolfe’s new book, The Knight, has escaped the floodgates, the folks over at Infinity Plus have an interview up with the maestro.