Friday, July 2, 2010

Reporting in from ALA

I'm back!

On this unnaturally cool week, we've got a doubleheader for you: The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler.

They're two books that were going to be a trilogy, except Butler died before she had time to focus on the third book. Both Parables follow one Lauren Olamina, a Californian woman who lives near Los Angeles in a society that resembles both a postapocalypse and a dystopia. The United States has collapsed, existing in name only, jobs have evaporated, and runaway inflation has put most needs out of reach for a significant percentage of the American population. Lauren and her family cling to survival in a walled enclave built out of a suburban cul-de-sac, subsisting on food grown in backyards and traded among neighbors and practicing their shooting -- just in case. The outside world is filled with the poor, the violent, and the addicted. There's a new drug, known as pyro, that's spreading throughout the country and creates in its users the desire to light things on fire. Millions of Southern Californian refugees, victims of a nonexistent economy, police forces that charge exorbitant fees for their services, and violence from the poor, are streaming their way up I-5, on their way to Oregon, Washington, Canada, or a newly-seceded Alaska.

In the midst of all this chaos, Lauren is busily planting the seeds of a new religion, called Earthseed, which says that the only thing worth venerating is change and that it's the destiny of the human race to colonize other worlds; this is her attempt to reunify the human race in pursuit of a single goal. She's interrupted at the age of eighteen when her walled neighborhood is finally overrun, her family is killed, and she's sent walking up the interstate with two of her neighbors. As they fight their way up the Pacific coast, they accumulate followers, people who join up for protection, fellowship, and, eventually, the tenets of Earthseed. At the end of the first book, they've settled on a few dozen acres of isolated woodland north of San Francisco, owned by one of her followers, and begin the process of building a community, named Acorn. The Earthseed religion strongly emphasizes learning over education with special attention paid to reading, math, and the sciences. It's a communal way of living; people look after each others' kids and share their food.

In the second book, Lauren's daughter takes over the narrative and pieces together the story of the rest of her mother's life after settling down in Acorn. A new president is elected, a Christian fundamentalist who -- wink, wink, nudge, nudge -- loudly decries the actions of vigilante bands of Christians who have been attacking poorer communities and killing or enslaving anyone who doesn't subscribe to their creed. The country appears to be devolving into a theocracy, and Acorn is one of the last holdouts. Unfortunately, they are finally invaded and Acorn's residents -- including Lauren -- are enslaved, their children taken away and adopted into good Christian homes, away from their "heretic" parents. Lauren's daughter is one of those kids, as she tells us years later while sharing her mother's story. A fortunate landslide leads to an uprising, the extermination of the slavers, and the scattering of the people of Acorn. Lauren, during her flight, begins to think that she needs to grow her system another way; instead of centralizing it into a single community that can be attacked, she should teach people, who can then go out and teach others. The story then skips forward a few years, when we find out that not all of Lauren's family was killed in the initial invasion of her enclave-neighborhood; her younger brother has survived and is now a minister in the church supported by the new president. He manages to hunt down Lauren's daughter in her good Christian home -- where she has been abused and neglected for being black and unlike her adoptive parents' real daughter -- and take her home with him.

We jump forward a few years again, and we see that Earthseed has spread far and wide; there are communities everywhere, and the religion, centralized under Lauren's authority, has become wealthy enough to build schools everywhere and invest in industries that promote spaceflight; the goal here is still to find other worlds to live on. Lauren's daughter finally meets her, 20 years after her birth and subsequent seizure by the fanatics, and discovers that although her mother loves her, she loves Earthseed more: her first child. The book ends there; the series will never be finished.

I find myself disappointed by that. It's pretty different from Butler's other books, which are much more overtly science-fictional -- people with super-powers and all that -- but it's still typical of her writing, which I love. She had a singular talent for uniting a whole slew of issues -- from gender to race to politics to religion -- into a single story. Her protagonists tend to be African-American women, which is a welcome change from most of the science fiction of her era, which was -- and still is -- overwhelmingly white-male-dominated. I have no desire to read only books that are narrated by characters just like me, and Butler's work is a perfect example of the difference I seek.

Then there's the epic nature of the Parables' plot (epic in scale, not as in "epic win"); this one woman in a collapsing society creates a whole new belief system that, after years of struggle, hard work, and horrifying violence, sweeps the world and begins to change it. It's good stuff! I strongly recommend both books, as well as the rest of her work that we hold: Bloodchild and Other Stories, Dawn, Wild Seed, Kindred, and Fledgling. Out of these five, plus the Parable books, I guarantee there's something for everyone. Vampires, aliens, immortals, time-travelers, or budding High Priestesses, it's all good.

Now, I skipped a whole week. What's going on with that?

Well, I attended ALA, or the American Library Association's annual conference. We call it "ALA" because it's so big, it doesn't need much more of a name. 20,000 librarians descended on Washington, DC between last Thursday and this Tuesday to attend workshops, seminars, discussion groups, and the exhibit hall. I -- as well as most of my colleagues here in the Library -- was among that 20,000.

First, the exhibit hall. It's like most conference exhibit halls; big fancy booths rented by the major movers in the industry and small cookie-cutter booths rented by the smaller, independent companies. Nearly all the database vendors we know of were there -- ProQuest, Ebsco, SAGE, and so on. Also like most exhibit halls, it was full of giveaways; little branded trinkets that open beer bottles, illuminate a small section of wall, or offer an outlet for stress. And books. Lots of free books. Besides the vendors, the rest of the exhibit hall was occupied by publishers like Scholastic, Random House, Hyperion-Disney, Dark Horse (they do comics like Hellboy and Scott Pilgrim vs. the Rest of the World), and Wizards of the Coast (Dungeons & Dragons). I came away from this weekend with more than 40 new books, most of which will end up in the Library. Many of those books are uncorrected printer's proofs or advance reading copies, which means that most of them have not been released on the market yet and won't be for a few months; the rest is just the publisher's attempt to unload surplus inventory that can't be sold. So that was nice. I loved the exhibit hall.

Now that that's out of the way, on to the more important stuff. ALA is very, very large; the conference occupied all of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center here in town, and took over several nearby hotels as well. Dozens of workshops, seminars, lectures, discussion groups and panels are available for registered participants. To make things a little easier on me, here's a list of the stuff I went to, along with summaries of each and what I learned.

H.W. Wilson Breakfast
H.W. Wilson is a database vendor; we subscribe to their Biography Reference Bank. I thought it might be a good idea to attend this breakfast and see what they've been up to, which turned out to be a lot. Bearing in mind that the disciplines I work with consists of the fine arts, literature, and language, I got excited by their new A Social History of the 20th Century, which is a database of art defined within the context of the 20th Century; what social changes do they express? What questions did they bring up for the people of their time? It's a good resource for fine arts, history, and sociology. They're also offering the Art Museum Image Gallery, which is a collection of several thousand scanned images available on the Web from museums all over the world, collected in a single place.

Beyond Library Guides
This was a workshop about LibGuides, which we started using last year and which has been growing steadily in use. This particular talk focused on using LibGuides as a project for students in a first-year course on the history of New York; new features that have been added by the company that owns LibGuides are now enabling more collaboration from people who don't have their own accounts, and turning the guides into a wiki-like project. I'm teaching an FYS class in the fall, and am thinking more about how this could apply; this might also be good for the Library. Allowing people to contribute content would be good for LibGuides like the one that covers free things to do in Washington, DC, or the LibGuide for GSR 150: City as Text. I'll be talking with some faculty as we get closer to the fall for some ideas about what we could do with this.

Ebsco lunch
Yes, database vendors offer a lot of free meals in exchange for permission to spend an hour or more talking to us about how great their company is. Usually, this is justifiable: For example, Ebsco talked about its new Discovery tool, which would allow libraries to include results from their Ebsco databases in with their catalog records; this means that if you're looking for books on a specific topic, you'd also be able to see journal articles that are relevant to your topic. This would save a lot of time and make research a lot easier. Something like this might be in the Library's future, in fact; more on that later!

The Open Access Debate
A panel of advocates for open access, along with a librarian from the National Library of Medicine and a representative from Elsevier, another database vendor, discussed what's been going on lately with the movement toward open access. I've talked about it on this blog before; most of the things I mention in that previous post were kicked around in this meeting, and it was very informative. In general, publishers and database vendors are struggling to figure out how to make open access a viable business model; how do you make information available for free and still earn a profit without going down the credibility-destroying path of advertising? It was a heated debate, actually, mostly centering around the Elsevier representative, and it ended with a huge surprise from a Springer (yet another database vendor) representative, who announced Springer's own open-access initiative. More details about that will be forthcoming within the next few months.

Science Fiction and Fantasy: Informing the Present by Imagining the Future
Actually, this one was just for fun. After a long Saturday, you just want something light to finish off the day. The highlight involved Cory Doctorow, an author I've spoken about on this blog a few times before, and a name my coworkers have grown tired of hearing. What can I say? I love the guy and his work. He's always been a huge advocate for libraries, although he's more known for ranting against copyright, his work for BoingBoing, and as a fan-favorite character on (read all the way to the end; the whole strip is worth it!). Also, they gave out more free books at this talk. I'd say I came out ahead.

Strategic Future of Print Collections in Research Libraries
This one was very interesting. The basic question centered around things like Google Books. Do print books have a future in a society where everything's migrating online? Most of the panelists said yes; one speaker from the University of Michigan has been working with Google to scan the university's collection of rare books, and she said something very interesting: "Don't forget microfilm." See, when microfilm was becoming popular at libraries everywhere, the thinking was that microfilm was not a perishable storage medium. Because of this, thousands of books and journals were converted to microfilm and destroyed, whether in the conversion process (pages had to be taken apart to be scanned individually) or afterward (because they were no longer necessary). Unfortunately, a few years later, it turned out that microfilm actually decays; the vast majority of the stuff that was produced between the 1930s and 1980s were produced from cellulose acetate, an organic material that decomposes quite readily in fairly common conditions. Worse still, because they're made from acetate, they give off a vinegary stink and generally make life difficult for everyone. This problem was compounded by microfilm's rapid obsolescence as digital analogues arose during the 1970s, rendering all that expense useless and the destruction of the original texts pointless. There's a lesson to be learned from this. Another speaker echoed the U Michigan librarian; he said the future was more likely to see both print and digital texts supplementing each other, rather than being all one or the other.

Question, Find, Evaluate, Apply
A sort of seminar about ways to assess information literacy. It all sounds like impenetrable Librarianese, I'm sure, but basically, one of our missions here at the Gallaudet University Library involves teaching students and faculty how to navigate information systems to find what they need to do their work. It involves knowing how to use Google and what its limits are, how to perform searches in databases in order to find articles that are relevant to your topic, and when to ask for help. In order to find out whether or not we're successful at this, we have to ask students to fill out papers testing what they just learned, so if you've ever had to do that after a Library presentation, you now know why. It's not to test you; it's to test us. And this seminar offered a bunch of really useful ideas about how we can do this better.

Recruiting Undergraduates to the Library Profession: A Mellon Success Story
Yes, I admit it. I'm actively trying to get students to consider librarianship as a possible future career. This panel consisted of current or former library-school students who had been recruited by the Mellon Foundation into a program that let them go on library-related internships as undergraduates and earn scholarships for grad school. It was actually a pretty enjoyable talk; the proto-librarians were all very interesting -- and funny -- people. One of them said that the thought of being a librarian never entered her mind until one day when she was coming out of the bathroom and spied a poster on the wall opposite her that said, "Ever thought about being a librarian?" And she was hooked. In general, being a librarian requires a few specific traits that aren't easy to find all together, so if I say, "Hey! You should think about becoming a librarian," you should start looking for library schools like now.

Privacy, Libraries, and the Law
This was a fairly sober discussion. Whether we like it or not, the surveillance of our daily activities -- whether by the government or the corporations whose products we consume -- is increasing quickly. As Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, famously said, privacy is no longer the social norm. So what does this mean for libraries? We're still figuring that one out, even as we recover from the storm that the USAPATRIOT Act kicked up around us after 9/11.

For the Love of Reference
This one was kind of fun. Another panel -- there are lots of those at ALA -- discussed reference as an important part of being a librarian. "Reference" is Librarianese for "answering people's questions." Whether it means sitting at the Service Desk for a few hours a week or answering IMs coming in late at night, reference tends to get overlooked in favor of other aspects of working in a library -- electronic resources, cataloging, or larger issues like, as listed above, privacy and assessment. Nancy Pearl, who is probably the first and only librarian ever to have her own action figure, was on the panel, and it was a treat to listen to her discuss how aspects of reference are both changing and staying the same as new technologies and methodologies emerge.

Closing Session: Amy Sedaris
I learned nothing from this, other than the fact that Amy Sedaris is a drunk and possibly slightly insane. Also hilarious. This was the wrap-up session for the ALA Conference itself, a sort of official period at the end of a long sentence about workshops, free books, and new vendors to think about. And yes, it was book-related -- Sedaris wrote I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence.

And that was my weekend. I'm tired. Luckily, this is a three-day weekend!

Next week is the deadline I've set for myself for most of my summer projects. I'll let you know more about those next Friday. Enjoy your 4th!

Question of the Week
How come the books on the display tables at either entrance to the Library haven't changed in a while?
Because it's summertime, mostly. There are fewer people here to look at them and maybe think about checking them out. That doesn't mean they aren't getting looked at, though -- I catch two or three people reading the dust-jacket blurbs every day. They're also being checked out, somehow; they seem to disappear when I'm not looking! You'll see some fresh stuff on there in mid-to-late July, though, for Jump Start, CPSO summer programs, and brand-new and returning students. I guarantee they'll be interesting.


  1. If you were disappointed in the Butler Trilogy (minus one) then why are you recommending it?

  2. My mistake -- I meant that I was disappointed that the trilogy won't be completed. I loved both books!


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