Checking out

library pic from Herald Thursday was my last day at the Key West Library. It was a great job in a lot of ways ... I keep telling myself and other people that it's a good thing to leave a job while you still like it. I've loved and felt at home in libraries all my life, and have loved more than I could ever have expected getting to know how they work -- or at least how this one works -- from the inside.

It wasn't all joy and happiness. Every single job has its challenges and this one certainly did -- mostly, from my perspective, having to do with the library's physical plant and the aging and inadequate resources it has to offer for technology access, one of the most important roles public libraries play today. During my short tenure there, I saw almost all government services and most employment functions go entirely digital, which means people who don't have computer access or skills are SOL. Except for the public library.

But enough about the negative -- I'll save that for future rants, perhaps. Here are things I will miss about this job:

  • The people -- specifically, my co-workers. The Key West Library is really fortunate right now to have a staff of smart, nice, funny, generous people. It was always a pleasure to show up for work and see them in the morning. I've had enough different jobs that I appreciated that -- really appreciated that -- and I will miss it. I will also miss many of the patrons, both old friends I got to see and chat with regularly as they came through the library, and people I only got to know through my job there.
  • My commute -- a 10-minute bike ride that took me through the Meadows and the Key West Cemetery every morning, and down Olivia Street every evening. A perfect length of time to prepare/relax/reflect on my day, except during the occasional torrential rainstorm.
  • The books -- Library books. Donated books. Ebooks. Advanced review copies, sent out by publishers. I have plenty of books at home and of course will continue to borrow from the library. But it was reassuring to see how much people still read, and occasionally surprising to see something new or unexpected come across the counter. I even started a Facebook album of donated books that made me laugh.
  • Helping people who genuinely need it -- whether it was finding an obscure title via Interlibrary Loan or helping someone get through a complicated online job application process (I'm looking at you, CVS!), there is a great satisfaction in providing a public service that isn't available anywhere else. There were plenty of frustrations along that line to be sure, but often it works and when it does you feel pretty damned good about your choice of employment, and the county's commitment to keeping the library's doors open.
  • The kids -- from the babies and toddlers just discovering the wonders of the library (the train set! Story time!) to the tweens carrying home box loads of manga books (literally), it was fun to watch them grow up and be the familiar friendly face who provided the fodder to help them grow. I also learned from my colleague Art that you can entertain squirmy toddlers by showing them how the scanner beeps every time it scans a bar code.
  • The vault -- I got to fill in some in the Florida History Department, giving me a better look at the many wonders inside the vault and, increasingly, online. Too many to list here but I may return as a volunteer to keep working on my project of scanning photos from local elementary schools in the 1950s and '60s.

Carnegie Medals: In which I (almost) make a literary prize reading deadline

[gallery type="slideshow" ids="1576,1575,1574,1573,1571,1572"] Every year when the shortlists for various literary prizes -- Booker, Pulitzer, National Book Award -- are announced, I think hey wouldn't it be cool to read all the finalists and compare my judgment with the judges? But I never do. This year, however, I had no excuse when the finalists were announced for the Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction. This is the second year for this prize, given by the American Library Association -- and I would be attending the annual conference in Chicago. I bought tickets to the ceremony and started reading -- there were only six books total, three fiction and three nonfiction.

Neither of my top choices -- The Round House by Louise Erdrich and The Mansion of Happiness by Jill Lepore (with a serious caveat I'll get to below) -- were the ones chosen by the judges. The winners were Canada by Richard Ford and Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan. All six were excellent reads; I highly recommend them and I'm glad I did this. I'll probably do it again next year. And then maybe take on another project: reading the winners of the various big contests and comparing them to each other.

A couple things I learned along the way:

* I've been neglecting my literary fiction -- for the last couple years I've been on an extended genre jag. Which is cool ... but means I'm missing out on some great books. It was good to have a reason to read some of the best current fiction. Canada was probably my least favorite of the three but it was an absorbing, if grim, read. It did feature a few fantastic lines like this one about spending the day at the movies in Mississippi:

"We'd emerge at four out of the cool, back into the hot, salty, breathless Gulf Coast afternoon, sun-blind and queasy and speechless from wasting the day with nothing to show for it."

And that is EXACTLY what it's like after you go to the early show at the Regal.

* After reading This is How You Lose Her, I didn't at all buy the argument that it was misogynistic or otherwise hostile towards women -- if anything, Junot Diaz goes out of his way to show what an idiot Yunior is for repeatedly screwing up relationships with smart, cool women. Hence, the title.

* I liked Spillover and I feel kind of guilty for it not being my favorite in the nonfiction category -- in fact, it was probably my least favorite of the three -- but I'd just like to take the opportunity here to say that David Quammen is an amazing science writer for nonscientists and if you haven't read The Song of the Dodo, his masterpiece about island biogeography, go do it RIGHT NOW. It's one of the books I'd grab if my house were on fire. Seriously.

* There wasn't a theme at all to the choices, but the fiction titles were all coming of age stories, which is interesting since Erdrich and Ford are in the double digits, bookwise. And even more interesting, all three were celebrations of geekdom -- Canada's young hero is seriously into beekeeping, Yunior is a comics geek and Joe and his buddies in The Round House are obsessed with Star Trek: The Next Generation. I liked that about all of them.

* The Mansion of Happiness was the easiest going down of the nonfiction titles and I was glad to see it here since it didn't seem to make a lot of other year's best lists, and I admire and respect Jill Lepore as one of those top-notch academics who writes for humans (she's a Harvard professor AND a New Yorker staff writer). But the book felt more like a compilation of great New Yorker pieces than a cohesive book. I'd already read most of them in the magazine and I still enjoyed reading them again -- it was full of fun facts about board games and attitudes toward breast-feeding (like the book called Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes, Drawn out of the Breasts of Both Testaments, published in 1646), the history of library children's rooms and the publication of Stuart Little, sex education and eugenics (including the fact that the guy behind the Ladies' Home Journal column "Can This Marriage Be Saved" was a hardcore eugenicist. Lovely).

* This little project helped clarify for me the role of ebooks and ereaders in my life. Obviously they're great for immediate gratification and convenience and I have no intention of giving them up. But I think I'll try to limit my use of them on my genre reading, which is really focused on plot and character, and not for nonfiction and literary fiction, where I need to focused in a different way. I bought Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher as an ebook shortly after it came out -- but when it came to reading it, I had a difficult time. Which also could have been due to other events in my life at the time. I didn't finish it before the awards ceremony, which made me feel bad -- I was so close to actually meeting my deadline. But I bought a couple print copies at ALA -- they were reduced price! And we didn't have it in the library collection! -- and found my reading was much easier when I switched formats. This is not a judgment on the quality or value of different types of books -- just an observation of my own reading experience. And means, as I had suspected and hoped, that there will be a continuing role for print for many of us even as ereaders and ebooks find their place in what one marketing dude at ALA called "the reading ecosystem."

Fewer than 50 links about That Book

I read Fifty Shades of Grey. Hey, it was for my job! So I could discuss the most popular book in the nation with patrons! Nothing to do with dirty bits and kinky sexual practices. Honest!

And I'm afraid I'm late enough to this show that I don't have much say about the book that hasn't been said. No, it's not very well written. But neither, in my opinion, are many other bestselling works of fiction (I'm still waiting for the International Court of Literary Justice to convene and give me back the four hours I spent reading Angels & Demons). Mostly, it struck me as oddly retro, a throwback to the romances referred to these days as Old School -- of the Kathleen Woodiwiss/Rosemary Rogers 1970s-80s school. No rape scenes, thank God, but a lot of the touchstones were there. The heroine is virginal and insecure. The hero is dominant (literally, in this case), but tortured by his past, yet still able to recognize virginal heroine's stunning beauty when no one else had noticed. And also induce her to multiple orgasms the first time out. And like a lot of the older romances, it's epic in length -- three books at more than 500 pages each. And I feel confident that the vast majority of its readers understand this is a fantasy. Lots of us think of ourselves as insecure but goodhearted people -- and wouldn't it be nice if the one person who recognized our qualities was an incredibly goodlooking billionaire who flies his own helicopter and practices global philanthropy and is extremely good at sex, even if he has some serious issues -- that only you can help him get past? Like I said, fantasy. Just like vampires, dragons, elves and whatever that guy does in all those Clive Cussler novels that fly off the library shelves. (5/23 update: See last link below for an opposing view on this issue.)

So instead of opining further about the book or trying to diagnose the social factors behind its unlikely and astonishing success, I'll simply share a few links worth reading if you're curious.

Ebooks for everyone! At least everyone who wants them

I wrote a piece about ebooks and libraries that appeared in Sunday's edition of Solares Hill. If you are not a Citizen subscriber, or you didn't happen to buy a copy of Sunday's paper, I'm afraid I can't tell you a way to look at the piece.

I can, however, give you a little explication on my attitude toward ebooks: If you like them, great. If you fear them, relax. No one, at least in the world of the public library, is going to force you to use them instead of old-fashioned print books. And I think all the doomsayers who predict the end of Civilization As We Know It are wallowing in their own bitterness and I just don't see the point. Sure, civilization as we know it is changing. That's what it does. Some of the changes are good, others not so much. But constantly calling out all new developments as harbingers of evil is just tiring. And sad. Who wants to be angry all the time? If you only want to read books on paper, knock yourself out.

And what about libraries? We could be in for some rocky times as the digital tidal wave that has already swamped newspapers now reaches us. But we're trying to do what we've always done, which is provide people with reading material and information for their edification and entertainment. Already, in the world of reference, online is the way to go. And as the world goes online, public libraries play an increasingly important role in providing online access and guidance for those who don't have or can't afford computers and internet access on their own. Possibly general interest books will go largely digital, too. But I think it will be awhile. The Monroe County Library's ebook collection, as of this writing, is 549. Our collection of physical books numbers around 150,000.

A couple interesting developments that have come to my attention since I wrote the piece. One is that charging as much for an ebook as for a hardcover may not be as outrageous as I once thought. This piece from Digital Book World made me reconsider and I certainly favor publishers spending money on important things like author advances, editors and marketing. However ... it's one thing to charge $30 or the hardcover equivalent of a book. It's another to triple the prices for libraries (and libraries only) like Random House has done. Their theory seems to be that elending at libraries is just too easy so more readers will borrow instead of buy; but surely they realize from decades of experience with physical books that frequent book borrowers are also frequent book buyers, who may well be inclined to snap up a writer's backlist or recommend a title to their friends? Like many librarians, I was also unhappy with HarperCollins' decision to limit library checkouts to 26 per license. Some library books fall apart (or go missing) sooner than that. But others hang around for years and years.

I've been waiting for someone to figure out the appropriate model for library ebook lending ... and I think a good candidate just appeared. The folks over at Pottermore, the J.K. Rowling empire, are licensing the Harry Potter series as ebooks (yep, we've got all seven of them in the Monroe County Library digital collection). They cost $28, around the price of a quality hardcover. And they expire after five years, which seems like a reasonable length of time for a popular title. In fact, such expirations based on time rather than number of checkouts could serve as a sort of self-weeding mechanism for libraries -- popular titles would, one presumes, be re-licensed while others would be quietly allowed to expire, much as we do today with weeding the shelves. Only without all the cardboard boxes and magic markers.

Now someone just has to figure out how to loan ebooks on an interlibrary basis. And how patrons can donate their copies if they wish. I have faith that somewhere in libraryland, someone smarter than me is already working on both tasks.