Building the Future – Brooklyn Public Library and Y.A. Services

By Rachel O'Neill

Nearly 30 years in the making, the building of the Central branch of Brooklyn Library that dominates a corner of Grand Army Plaza, went from ground first being broken for the building in 1912, to completed construction in 1941. In 1997 the Landmarks Preservation Commission declared it a landmark building and in 2013 the interior of the library, much like the concept of the Public Library itself, remains a work in progress. Walking into the Central branch is literally like walking into an open book, one that offers glimpses of how the public library of the past and present is actively repositioning itself for a future role as something much more than simply a repository of knowledge and information, accessible to all. On a recent visit, I decided to take myself on a tour of the two floors open to the public before settling into the Youth Wing for an afternoon of observation and a conversation with one of the library’s two children and young adult specialist librarians on duty that day. After the near complete silence in the adult/reference sections and the popular library upstairs, and the low buzz of the info-commons and the library café in the main lobby, the noise level goes up a notch or five as I opened the doors to the Youth Wing which is a world away from traditional notions of the public library as quiet space. And while there is certainly public debate and a lot of enthusiasm for having both types of environments, the palpable energy of the Youth Wing space certainly made for a lively library visit.

The first thing I’m told by Yesha, the Y.A. librarian, who is standing under a “Cats Against Cat Calls” banner (a visual medley of pink lettering and photos of cats in their best haughty feline pose) is that she herself was asked to be quiet recently  by a young patron for talking too loudly – so much for the mythical figure of the shushing librarian! While the main focus of the Youth Wing is still reading and study, how that reading and studying is undertaken is changing rapidly. Books are still central to the space but laptops are also available for checking out and there are eight desktop computers for use in the Y.A. area. Color printing, either from a library computer or a patron’s own electronic device, is available for a small fee and Yesha handles queries and facilitates various printing requests during the course of our conversation.

In addition to the computers in the Youth Wing, teens also have exclusive access to all the computers every Tuesday afternoon between 4.30pm and 6pm in the Info-Commons as part of the Teen Tech Time program. However, by far the most popular teen tech offering is the Active Gaming Arcade program on Saturdays providing access to games such as Minecraft, which hones players creative gaming skills, encourages them to explore new environments, collect resources to use in these spaces and adapt and protect the space from attack.

A downside Yesha mentions in terms of having the availability of online games is that the teens rarely play against each other but tend to retreat into the games by themselves and so another aim of teen programming at the library is to try and balance things out and encourage more interaction between patrons. To this end there is an art club, writing clinic, poetry workshop, book club and a Game On! board game challenge, there’s even a monthly open mic. session as part of the teen program. Programs are planned to run with 2-15 teens taking part and having eight or more participants is considered a success.

Not all the programs are instant hits and Yesha explained that a recent self-portrait program required the librarian to order teens in the tech lab off the computers and point blank refuse them further access until they tried drawing “for at least 10 minutes”! While most did their 10 minutes and fled, eight teens stayed and returned to complete the program the following week, small steps perhaps along the path to what Durrani and Smallwood have called creating the people orientated library service:

As custodians of information, librarians everywhere have a role to play in eliminating the root causes of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and inequality. It is no longer acceptable for libraries and librarians to refuse to acknowledge this social responsibility. The choice is simple: if the information profession does not acknowledge its social responsibility and act upon it, it will no longer have a social role. People will then develop alternative models of information and knowledge communication, which do meet their needs. There will then be no libraries as we know them today. The choice is our to make – today.

The location of the Central branch means that it services teen patrons across a broad demographic spectrum, from the relatively high-income area of Park Slope to the lower income areas of Crown Heights and Brownsville, as well as patrons who travel from further away to use the facilities unique to the Central branch. In turn this means there is a real opportunity to level the playing field of access, and in terms of teen patrons, by far one of the most effective and popular programs is T4 – today’s teens, tomorrow’s techies.

Previously, I’d spoken to a former participant of the program, now a librarian himself who explained that for him the program had given him an opportunity to take a different path to the one he’d been heading down as young man. While currently only offered at the Central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, the program gives teens a chance to learn basic computer skills via an intensive summer workshop. This is then followed up with a minimum commitment of three hours per week for at least a 6-month period of volunteer work at the library, assisting librarians, and trouble shooting computer problems encountered by older patrons.

This intergenerational aspect and the social skills that are developed while carrying out a responsible volunteer role, as well as the varied practical skills that are learned, demonstrates the active way the library is fostering not just a community for its own future but make tangible what Dewey thought a “Great Community” might be.

Block quote: The Professional is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries, Shiraz Durrani and Elizabeth Smallwood  – first appeared in Progressive Librarians, No. 27, Summer 2006. Republished in Questioning Library Neutrality, Alison Lewis Ed. Library Juice Press 2008.

A Monument to Memory

By Rachel O'Neill

Control of the archive – variously defined – means control of society and thus control of determining history’s winners and losers.1

Or, as Hollywood would have it:

While we must, and will, win this war, we must also remember the high price that’ll be paid if the very foundation of modern civilization is destroyed.

So opines George Clooney in the wonderfully melodramatic trailer for the hotly anticipated movie: The Monuments Men

Based on Robert M. Edsel’s book novel The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, this is the remarkable true story of six men, handpicked to rescue the art masterpieces of the world from Nazi thieves under direct orders from Hitler during World War II.

In total, there were 345 men and women from thirteen nations who joined the MFAA – Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives, of the Civil Affairs and Military Government Section of the Allied armies. Established in June 1943, members of the MFAA came from a variety of arts based backgrounds, art historians, curators, artists, architects and educators and went on to illustrious careers at America’s top Arts Institutions. Many spent up to six years in Europe during and post WWII protecting monuments, locating artworks, and in the years following the end of the war, handling the restitution of works of art and cultural works stolen by Hitler and the Nazis.

While it may be all too obvious why the recovery and restitution of paintings, sculptures, artifacts and documents stolen during WWII was so important to the Allies, it is worth stressing how vitally important having these works restored to their rightful owners and places is, in terms of serving to reconnect those people, torn apart by war on a scale never before experienced, to their cultural past. While Schwartz and Moore raise questions and concerns throughout their essay: Archives, Records, Power, in their conclusion there can be no doubting the importance of archives:

Memory, like history, is rooted in archives. Without archives, memory falters, knowledge of accomplishments fades, pride in a shared past dissipates. Archives counter these losses. Archives contain the evidence of what went before. This is particularly germane in the modern world…the archive remains as one foundation of historical understanding. Archives validate our experiences, our perceptions, our narratives, our stories. Archives are our memories. 2

The drive to collect, organize and conserve materials from the past seems an innately human one. As does the converse: the desire to destroy, limit access to, or hoard, in order to exert some sort of power or control over others is equally a uniquely human characteristic.

Marlene Manoff, in her essay Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines looks to the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, who, she states:

…claims that Freudian psychoanalysis offers us a theory of the archive premised on two conflicting forces. One is a death drive and the other is a conservation or archive drive that is linked to the pleasure principle. In this formulation, the archive affirms the past, present, and future; it preserves the records of the past and it embodies the promise of the present to the future.13 3

Manoff goes on to point out:

The stakes in this struggle can be very high. In 1992, during the war between Abkhazia and Georgia, four Georgian members of the National Guard threw incendiary grenades into the Abkhazian State Archives resulting in the destruction of much of the history of the entire region.17 According to Derrida’s formulation, such destruction represents the failure of the present in its responsibility to the future. Similar losses have recently occurred in Iraq. In the aftermath of the U.S. led “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Iraq’s National Museum, National Library, National Archives, and other repositories have been looted and burned. A chorus of voices has declared this a cultural disaster of immense proportion.4

One of those voices was journalist Adam Goodheart whose article in the New York Times Missing: A Vase, a Book, a Bird and 10,000 Years of History, Mannoff cites, was informed of the devastating significance of the Iraq’s cultural losses by John Malcolm Russell, Professor of Art History and Archeology at Massachusetts College of Art.

In his own, eloquent essay, Why Should We Care?, Russell explains how he found himself responding to western media with the cover-all response: “Because Iraq is the cradle of civilization” 5 when media asked why the world should care about the looting of the Iraq museum in April 2003. But for Russell and his Iraqi born colleagues on site, the significance of the loss went even deeper than the fact that artifacts had been stolen or destroyed. He describes one of his most profound experiences in the days immediately following the looting of the Iraq Museum was participating in an NPR recorded discussion via satellite phone with Ahmed Abdullah Faddam, professor of sculpture at Baghdad’s College of Fine Arts:

Professor Ahmed was very eloquent about what the losses at the museums and libraries meant for the future of the Iraqi people… But his most chilling comment transcended nationalism: “What can you do with a man who is ignorant and doesn’t have any culture? He is just like a dead man.”6

Russell goes on to comment:

He is also a very dangerous man, this empty vessel waiting to be filled with dross. Having a past, having a sense of who we are, allows us to measure our-selves against what political demagogues or market forces say we should be.7

In terms of an on-going commitment to protect the world’s cultural heritage in 2006 the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield was formed, and in September 2008, the U.S. finally ratified the 1954 Hague Convention (Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict), the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross. Between the USCBS and Clooney’s homage to the Monuments Men perhaps there is hope yet for the world’s memories!

1.Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook: Archives, Records, PowerArchival Science 2: 1–19, © 2002 Kluwer Academic Publishers
3.Marlene Manoff: Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines, 2004 portal: Libraries and the Academy 4(1): 9-25
5.John Malcolm Russell,Why Should We Care? Art Journal, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Winter, 2003), pp. 22-29.

A Dystopian, Vampire Romance – tales of eBooks, publishers and public libraries

By Rachel O'Neill

The Coldest Girl in Cold Town is the latest Y.A. novel by Holly Black, published last month by Little Brown (part of the Hachette Book Group). It falls easily into that most ubiquitous of Y.A. fiction categories: dystopian, vampire romance. A week after publication, I purchased the Kindle edition for $4.99 (I had my reasons). While the New York Public Library purchased two eBook editions, for which there are currently multiple holds on the library website, and 72 hardcover copies (of which 22 are currently available to borrowers). Why so many hardcopies and only two of the eBooks edition? It couldn’t possibly be due to the sky-high price extracted from NYPL by the publisher to acquire an all too temporary license to the eBook edition?

In his recent opinion piece posted on Wired magazine’s website (October 2, 2013) Art Brodsky writes about The Abomination of EBooks: They Price People Out of Reading. While he isn’t too concerned with the fact that eBooks don’t offer the same sensorial experience as printed books, for him:

“The real problem with ebooks is that they’re more “e” than book, so an entirely different set of rules govern what someone — from an individual to a library — can and can’t do with them compared to physical books, especially when it comes to pricing”, (the way eBooks) “are priced differently to consumers and to libraries. That’s how eBooks contribute to the ever-growing divide between the literary haves and have-nots.”

Noting that the mark-up to libraries in some instance can be as much as 300%, Brodsky post examines the variety of other restrictions that come with eBooks, not just in terms of what device an eBook may be read on – which he claims is discriminatory enough in itself – he also tells of how libraries are only allowed to circulate an eBook a certain number of times before a decision must be made to renew the library’s eBook license. Not exactly a vision of a library utopia with equal access to all!

But then should we be surprised?

“That corporations dominate our profession as publishers, hardware manufacturers, software providers, database creators, and network gatekeepers, and that an attendant corporate ethic increasingly infuses how library management defines its modus operandi”

as Peter MacDonald has previously asserted (Corporate Inroads and Librarianship: The Fight for the Soul of the Profession in the New Millennium, essay from Questioning Library Neutrality, ed Alison Lewis 2008. Original essay published in Progressive Librarian, Nos. 12/14. Spring/Summer 1997).

As of this week it may even seem like the already difficult relationship libraries have with eBooks has hit a new crisis as not one but two eBook subscription services were rolled out in quick succession. In September Oyster arrived and was portrayed in the media as “a plucky young NYC-based start up”, and then just this week the social publishing service, Scribd, announced it’s own subscription service had landed HarperCollins as it’s first major publisher to come on board and lend it some traction in the race to be the “Netflix for the eBook”. The Forbes commentary said it all:

“And even though libraries have done this for books, for free, for more than a century, so far there hasn’t been a digital, all you can eat subscription platform for books.”

And clearly we need that eBook buffet.

So where does this leave the public library? Perhaps, like the heroine of many a romance novel, in need of a complete make-over.

“As heretical as it may seem in these times, marketing probably deserves financial preference over the more basic library activities”

(Maria J Nauratil in The Alienated Librarian pg 77, quoting Daniel Carroll’s Library Marketing: Old and New Truths Wilson Library Bulletin 57, November 1982 pg 216). But it must be incredibly demoralizing to be trying to get the message out that public libraries are there to cater to patrons, who are often the most under served in the community, while at the same time coping with underfunding, as well as pressure to maintain their collections in the face of strident commercial competition.

So what about a happy/happier ending? While it might not make everyone happy all of the time, there is much worth considering in Eric Hellman’s August, 2013 blog post about an alternative business model for Libraries and eBooks: A Rational Framework for Library eBook Licensing. Hellman offers up a range of practical suggestions for Libraries and publishers to cooperate over eBook licensing, including the currently contentious notion that if the library buys an eBook, it should get to keep the eBook. However, he is also advocating compromise when he suggests libraries could pay up to a 500% mark-up for the most popular eBooks but a much reduced price for eBooks where the library will most likely have some hand in making them a success. While Hellman acknowledges his proposals would require a radical rethinking of how things are done, never an easy ask, the benefits to both publishers and libraries would be immense.

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