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Dorthe Nors, Save NYPL, and Blake Bailey (The Bat Segundo Show #538)

This program contains three segments. The main one is with Dorthe Nors, who is most recently the author of Karate Chop. There is also a brief Blake Bailey interview. He is most recently the author of The Splendid Things We Planned. And our introductory segment involves the Save NYPL campaign.

Guests: Dorthe Nors, Blake Bailey, members of the Save NYPL campaign, Matthew Zadrozny, members of Raging Grannies.

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Subjects Discussed: Mayor Bill de Blasio’s failure to live up to his July 2013 promise to save the New York Public Library, the greed of rich people, political opportunism, Charles Jackson, The Splendid Things We Planned, the differences between biography and memoir, being the hero of your own story, subjectivity as a great muddler, the Bailey family’s tendency to destroy cars, being self-destructive, contending with a brother who threw his life away, the problems that emerge from being cold, the differences between American and Danish winters, unplanned writing, the swift composition of Beatles lyrics, the courageous existential spirit within Swedish literature, Danish precision, the Højskolesangbogen tradition, the influence of song upon prose, Kerstin Ekman, Nors’s stylistic break from the Swedish masters, Ingmar Bergman, Flaubert’s calm and orderly life, the human-animal connections within Karate Chop, considering the idea that animals may be better revealers of human character than humans, animals as mirrors, emotional connections to dogs, the human need to embrace innocence, judging people by how they treat their pets, “The Heron,” friendship built on grotesque trust, how the gift exchange aspect of friendship can become tainted or turn abusive, writing “The Buddhist” without providing a source for the protagonist’s rage, how much fiction should explain psychological motive, the hidden danger contained within people who think they are good, how Lutherans can be duped, “missionary positions,” Buddhism as a disguise, ideologies within Denmark, when small nations feel big and smug, Scandinavian egotism, Danesplaining, whether Americans or Danes behave worse in foreign nations, buffoonish American presidential candidates, how “The Heron” got to The New Yorker, Nors’s early American advocates, being a tour guide for Rick Moody and Junot Diaz, how Fiona Maazel brought Dorthe Nors’s fiction to America, Copehagen’s Frederiksberg Gardens as a place to find happiness, happiness as a form of prestige, when happy people feel needlessly superior, Denmark’s subtle efforts to win the happiest nation on earth award, setting stories in New York, how different people react to large tomato, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, how measuring objects reveals aspects of humanity, the tomato as the Holy Grail, flour babies, why strategically minded people shouldn’t be trusted, the creepy nature of control freaks, how human interpretation is enslaved by representations, competing representations of reality, whether fiction is a more authentic representation of reality, how disturbing ideas presented in books can calm you down, exploring the Danish idea of a den to eat cookies, working with translator Martin Aitken, what other nations get wrong about Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen, superficial knowledge of Denmark, Danish writers who need to be translated, Yahya Hassan, and Danish crime fiction.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to talk about the economy of these stories, which is fascinating. I mean, you have to pay very close attention to learn the details and to learn some very interesting twist or some human revelation in these stories. So this leads me to ask — just to start off here — I’m wondering how long it takes for you to write one or to conceive one. Is there a lot of planning that goes into the idea of “Aha! I’ll have the twist at this point!” I mean, what’s the level of intuition vs. the level of just really getting it down and burying all the details like this?

Nors: I don’t plan writing. It happens. Or I get an idea or I see something. Or there’s a line or a passage that I write down. And sometimes it just lies there for a while. Then a couple of days later, I will write another passage, perhaps for another story, and sometimes I put them together. They start doing things. But I write them pretty fast. When the idea and the flow and the voice and the characters are there, I just go into the zone and it kind of feels like I’m singing these. It’s like you find the voice for a story and you just stick to it and write it. It doesn’t take that long. Seven of these stories were actually written in a cottage off the west coast in Denmark. Two weeks.

Correspondent: Two weeks?

Nors: Yes.

Correspondent: For seven of the stories?

Nors: Seven of the stories.

Correspondent: Wow.

Nors: And then I would take long walks and I would go home. Boom. There was this story. So the writing process with this one, it was like that.

Correspondent: That’s like the Beatles writing the lyrics for “A Hard Day’s Night” on the back of a matchbox in ten minutes.

Nors: When it happens, it happens, right?

Correspondent: Well, to what do you attribute these incredible subconscious details? Are these details just coming from your subconscious and they’re naturally springing? Or are they discovered in the revision at all?

Nors: I think they come from training. Because it has something to do with the neck of the woods that I come from. Scandinavia. I was trained in Swedish literature. That was what I studied at university. And the Swedes have this very bold and courageous brave way of looking at existence. I mean, it turns big on them. And they look at the darkness and the pits of distress and everything. Then if you take that richness of existentialism, you might even call it, and pair it up with the Danish tradition — which is precision, accuracy, Danish design, cut to the core, don’t battle on forever. If you combine these two, you get short shorts with huge content that is laying in there like an elephant in a container and moving around all the time. And this style came from training. This came from reading a lot and writing a lot. Suddenly, I think I found my voice in these stories. I think this was a breakthrough for me in Denmark also. That I found out how I can combine the Danish and the Swedish tradition.

Correspondent: So by training, how much writing did you have to do before you could nail this remarkable approach to find the elephant, to tackle existence like this?

Nors: Well, I started writing at eight. And this book was written when I was 36.

Correspondent: But you didn’t have the Danish masters and the Swedish masters staring over you at eight, did you?

Nors: No. But I had the Danish song tradition. We have a book in Denmark called Højskolesangbogen. You’ll never learn how to say that. But it’s a songbook.

Correspondent: (laughs) She says confidently. You never know. I might learn!

Nors: You wanna try? But that songbook — in the real part of Denmark that I come from, all the farmers, they would use that songbook a lot. And there was no literature in my household. It was middle-class. A carpenter and a hairdresser. But this book was there. And what I learned from that was that these songs, they were written by great Danish poets and then put into music. It would be so precise. I love that book. I sang these songs. I read these poems. And then later on, there was my brother’s vinyl covers. It was Leonard Cohen. It was all these guys that he had up in his room and I could read. And a lot of the training came from that. And then later on, university, of course, and the boring part of training.

Correspondent: The analytical stuff. Well, that makes total sense. Because there is a definitive metric to these particular stories. You mentioned that they were akin to singing. And I’m wondering how you became more acquainted with this musicality as the stories have continued. And also, how does this work in terms of your novels? Which are not translated. There are five of them. And those are obviously a lot larger than a short story. So how does the musicality and that concise mode work with the novels?

Nors: Well, I think my first novel was extremely influenced by a Swedish writer called Kerstin Ekman, who I wrote my thesis on. And it was so influenced by her that I kind of shun away from it. Because I don’t want to sound like her anymore. And then on my third book, I started to find that the voice that blooms in Karate Chop — and there’s a breakaway there; it’s like a break in my writing.

Correspondent: A karate chop!

Nors: It really is! Because the first three of my novels were classic structures. They had plots and peaks and this whole Swedish abyss of existentialism and darkness. But then with this one, I broke away. And the next two novels I wrote are short novels. And they’re more experimental in their form and they’re very close to the whole idea of accuracy. And that line, that sentence, has to be so precise. And it has to sing. And it has to have voice. And it has to be just so accurate. That’s the sheer joy for me: to actually be able to write a sentence and to know people will get this.

Correspondent: This is extraordinary. Because if you’re writing a short story so quickly, and it’s not singing, what do you do? I mean, certainly, I presume that you will eventually sing in this mode that you want to. But that’s a remarkable speed there. So how do you keep the voice purring?

Nors: Well, actually, I do a lot of reading out loud while I do it. And the rhythm has to be good when I read it aloud myself. I talk a lot. I walk a lot. And I think literature like this has a lot to do with listening to how the words sound and how they work together. But that’s an intuitive thing. There’s no math in this. Either you can carry a tune or you can’t perhaps, right?

Correspondent: Sure. Absolutely.

Nors: So it’s something instinctive, I think.

Correspondent: I’m curious to know more about the tension between the Swedish existential dread and angst and the Danish identity. You touched upon this a little bit. I saw your little Atlantic soliloquy about Bergman and how you looked to him as a way of living a tranquil life and not living a wild life, which gets in the way of…well, gets in the way of living, frankly.

Nors: Exactly.

Correspondent: I’m wondering. What do you do to live or draw upon experience or to move into uncomfortable areas? Or is your imagination stronger than that? That you don’t really need the life experience. Your imagination in combination with the singing that we’re identifying here is enough to live a tranquil life? Or what? And also, I was hoping you could talk about the tension between the Swedish and Danish feelings and all that.

Nors: First of all, I try to live my life as any other human being. I just try not to really be destructive about it. I’m 43. I’m not afraid to tell you how old I am. So I tried a lot in my life and a lot of it has been dramatic. And it has been filled with emotions and breakups and stuff like that. And, of course, I draw on the experience from that. But these days, I think the discipline is very important. I don’t need more drama in my life. I don’t know why you should seek out drama. Causing pain in your life? That’s an immature thing to do at my age, I think. You can’t avoid it. It’s going to happen anyway. People you love will pass away. Your cat will be hit by a car. Or stuff like that. You don’t have to seek it out. It’s coming to you.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering if that impulse isn’t necessarily a writerly impulse, but just a human impulse. Because when we get closer to forty, we start to say, “Well, do we really want to live this way?” Our choices sometimes become a little more limited. Our responsibilities are greater. We now have a duty to other people. And so is that really a writerly thing? I mean, is the writer doomed in some sense to almost be a child to some degree?

Nors: I think you’re absolutely right. I don’t think it’s necessarily a writer thing. I think it’s a time in your life where you think that. Or you go haywire and you go right into the abyss, right? Ingamr Bergman was around 47 when this happened for him. Because he lived a pretty crazy life. Having children all over the place and women. Pretty destructive.

Correspondent: Locking Liv Ullmann up.

Nors: Yeah, exactly. Being very chaotic. An emotionally chaotic life. And then around this age, he took this path also of not living like a monk. Because he certainly didn’t. But he was just very structured and disciplined. And I enjoy that. It sounds boring to people. But I really enjoy it. Don’t need more drama in my life.

(Loops for this program provided by Martin Minor, Mooz, 40A, Tim Beets, Tim Beets, Aien, and DANB10.)

The Bat Segundo Show #538: Dorthe Nors, Save NYPL, and Blake Bailey (Download MP3)

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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.”

* * *

“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.

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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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