Thursday, April 30, 2009

Attention young moderns: Reference work is a professional function.

I can’t remember where I saw John Hubbard’s essay Cultural Images of Librarians originally – maybe one of the blogs I read. Anyway, one of the “images” he includes is a copy of the cover of Jinny Williams, Library Assistant (A Career-Romance for Young Moderns). I got the 1962 book through interlibrary loan, and it was all I hoped it would be. The combination of hilariously didactic writing, library themes, and general old-school-ness was right up my very specific alley. Let me just give you a sampling from the book jacket:

…after graduation she was offered the job of junior assistant at the library. This would not give her professional status, but once she learned the complex library procedures, she would be a qualified library assistant. For a girl who loved working with books and people, the situation was ideal.

But Joe Grant, who was in love with her, resented the inroads on her time and the job itself, which was making her too intellectual, he said, for an ambitious mechanic.

Does that sound entertaining to you? Then read on for excerpts.

Theme 1: Tension between “professional” and “paraprofessional” library workers – still an issue, probably in part because those of us with a master’s degree are very defensive about how much money we dropped getting it.

The reference librarian, Veronica Savage (paging Charles Dickens!) scolds Jinny for looking up a senator’s address for a patron. “Reference work is a professional function!” Miss Savage tells Jinny, and goes on to explain that when she had used the book in the past, “You were getting the book, and not giving out information from it!” (Emphasis not mine.) Jinny mutters to herself: “Professional function!...Big deal! I don’t need five years of college to get an address out of a book that I used in high school!” (27)

This next one also touches on what kind of reference librarians should provide. Jinny helps a woman look up her husband’s symptoms and gets this earful from Miss Savage, who shows off her knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System at the same time. (How do one’s eyes snap, I wonder?)

Miss Savage, her eyes snapping with ill-concealed satisfaction, said, “I’ll have to report this incident to Mrs. Bender, Miss Williams. I have spoken to you several times before this about your doing reference work, but apparently you do not think it necessary to follow my instructions. If I hadn’t noticed you going to the six hundred section, where the medical books are shelved, you might have caused a great deal of harm with your kind of reference service.” (116)

Theme 2: Fun with antiquated gender roles.
Part of Jinny’s job? Organizing the magazine shelves. “After she had sorted and straightened out the disorderly shelves, she felt a housewifely pride in their neat appearance.” (80)

Jinny tries to recommend a book about a female senator to a patron.
Mrs. Harding stopped her with a white-gloved hand and shook her smartly coiffured head. “No! I don’t want to read about pushing women. A woman’s place is in the home.” (69)

Theme 3: Bizarre class distinctions.
A woman comes in to ask Jinny a reference question (see above) and is indicated as looking like someone who doesn’t visit the library a lot (not sure what that means). She tells Jinny, “I never been in the libery before. My husband told me to come and look up his sickness.” I don’t know what’s up with this weird vernacular. (115)

Jinny has an on-and-off mechanic boyfriend, but has also been seeing college man Paul Cunningham on the side. Apparently, upper-class people don’t require as much food as their less educated counterparts, as Jinny makes the two following observations: “The Cunninghams obviously enjoyed music more than food.” “He was so nice-looking, so gallant, Jinny wondered why she didn’t feel more emotion when he kissed her.” (150)

Theme 4: The “Career” part of the “Career-Romance”
The whole book is filled with painfully detailed descriptions of Jinny’s work duties, I guess to give readers an idea of what they can expect as a library assistant. This description of Jinny filing cards in the catalog was one of the nit-pickiest. No wonder this is what people think we do all day.

…Mrs. Bender, her face clearly showing her annoyance, approached her. “You should remember by now, Jinny, that we file catalog cards word by word, and not letter by letter. You have filed ‘Americana’ before ‘American Art.’ That is letter-by-letter filing. Since we file word-by-word, it should have been ‘American Art’ before ‘Americana.’ Also,” she went on, her voice still cold, “you seem to have forgotten that the subject cards for American history are filed chronologically, not alphabetically, and you filed the cards for ‘U.S. – History – Civil War’ ahead of ‘U.S. – History – Revolution.’” (163-4)

Good times.

All quotations from:
Temkin, Sarah A., and Lucy A. Hovell. Jinny Williams, Library Assistant. New York: J. Messner, 1962.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Modern heresies

There’s a theme that’s been cropping up in things I’ve read or heard recently, and it reminds me of a short passage in For the Time Being, an Annie Dillard book I read about six or seven years ago:

“Karl Rahner echoes this idea: it is a modern heresy to think that if we do right always, we will avoid situations for which there is no earthly solution.”(87)

I went to a reading the other week to hear part of an unpublished novel with pretty much this theme at its core, though it was specifically about the idea that modern science can explain and solve everything. And this morning on WBUR, there was a report on end-of-life care (part of a series) that mentioned Americans’ general attitude that death is always to be avoided, and that medicine will always help them do that. Last week, I finished watching Six Feet Under, which is sort of the antithesis to that attitude.

Finally, after taking a break to read an interlibrary-loaned copy of Stephen Colbert’s book, I’ve resumed reading Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded. I have a couple of bones to pick with the book, starting with the fact that Friedman doesn’t cite the sources (besides interviews) of any of the facts he presents. That’s a red flag I haul in front of students all the time. One of his main points, though, is that coasting along on our current way of life and energy consumption model won’t just turn out okay. It won’t just cause us setbacks. It will be devastating. “Incremental breakthroughs are all we’ve had,” he writes, “but exponential is what we desperately need.” (243) And while that may sound alarmist, he also makes a really excellent point (which I think I’ll use in arguing): even if global warming is a “hoax,” think about the worst that could happen if we try to combat it, and think about the worst that could happen if we don’t.

Anyway, I've just been thinking about that idea lately. So, you know, gather ye rosebuds.

Dillard, Annie. For the Time Being. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Friedman, Thomas L. Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, and How it Can Renew America. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2008.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The dangerous waters of classification

This morning, I was working on an online research guide for my library on LGBT studies, and I wanted to include call number ranges - as I tend to do for interdisciplinary research topics. So I walked over to the cataloging office and got me the Library of Congress classification books. There are some innocuous call number ranges in there - though of course you have to look in different places for the Ls, Gs, Bs, and Ts. But in the RCs, there's homosexuality, bisexuality, and transsexualism under "psychopathology" (along with things like sadomasochism). And in the HQs, it's under "Sexual deviations." Now, I was looking at 1997 volumes, so maybe LC has changed. I know it's been slow, and I know I'm just saying, in a less researched and comprehensive way, what Sandy Berman has written whole books about. It just frustrated me.

Also. Remember that recent Amazon de-listing fiasco? Well, here's a blog posting from an independent bookstore in Southern California about why that's just one of many reasons not to use Amazon. (I learned about it from my e-newsletter from Brookline Booksmith, one of the best bookstores around.) I agree with most of what they say. I admit to having used Amazon in the past - though I almost always end up buying from used booksellers. And I definitely don't use it to the exclusion of the plethora of bookstores in the Boston area, including the Booksmith and Harvard Book Store (with its amazing used-books basement, where I recently found An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton).

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Coffee and oranges

This morning I was sitting at my desk drinking coffee and eating a mandarin orange, and I suddenly remembered Wallace Stevens' wonderful poem "Sunday Morning." I love Wallace Stevens, a lot, and was reminded of this poem when Alison Bechdel put part of it into her graphic novel Fun Home.

"Sunday Morning" is a shining example of what can be done with repetition, with iambic pentameter, with themes that seem to have been exhausted (color, seasons, animals, death). I can only hope I ever write something as good as its first five lines.

Here's the first section (of eight); the rest can be found here.

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Like Clare, I have found that one blog begets another. So may I introduce a new blog I just started, I Saw You Reading, which is simply a collection of what books I see people reading. I'll add it to the blog roll on the side. Check it out if it interests you.

Upcoming: posts on a '60s novel about a librarian, and the idea of there being a solution for everything.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

New England: THE place for same-sex marriage

I don't quite know what to say about this, but there were two very different stories in the New York Times today. One was about the murderous backlash against gay men in Iraq, while the other was about the legalization of same-sex marriage (not civil unions) in Vermont. (Not to mention Iowa last week. Iowa! Who knew?)

I took a class on the History of Homosexuality in college, and one of the most valuable things I took from it was the idea that history is not a constant upward trend of progressiveness, openness, and tolerance. It goes in cycles, and people become tolerant and intolerant of many different things. I know that bad things happen to gay people all the time, everywhere. So I don't want to be all rah-rah, the U.S. is so much more advanced. I am glad I live here and not there. I guess it was just the contrast of the two articles side by side, on the same date.

I also recently learned from Slate's blog Broadsheet that you can sign up to be notified when the California Supreme Court makes its ruling on Proposition 8. It's here.

This is all just FYI. I swear I will do a book- and librarian-related post soon.