Friday, April 18, 2014

Let the Librarians Speak

Sure, we all know that librarians do a lot of reading. Librarians know books the way Michael Jordan knows basketball. However, librarians also do a lot of writing. EIU Writes recently interviewed two members of the Booth Library staff, Steve Brantley and Sarah L. Johnson, about the world of writing seen from a librarian's eyes. 

The interview was conducted over email. My questions appear in italics. Steve's answers are preceded by the initials SB, and Sarah's answers are preceded by the initials SJ

1. What genre of writing do you normally operate in? Emails, grants, reports, blogs, etc? Do you have a particular genre that you enjoy more than others? Why?

SJ--I do a fair amount of writing every day on various projects: handouts for library instruction classes, emails, responses to online reference questions, and book reviews, among other things.  I write a blog ( covering historical fiction. If I had to choose, I’d say I enjoy blogging and writing reviews the most, because the process involves the most creativity. 
SB--I guess I am most often writing daily communications and announcements which are in the form of email. But I also write reports for other faculty and staff in the library, prose to accompany exhibit displays, course and subject guides for web pages, presentations for my professional colleagues at library conferences, reviews of books, and journal articles reporting on library science research. My favorite writing is probably writing that I will present as public speaking at conferences. I can't look at a list of bullet points and speak off-the-cuff in a way that flows well or holds together, so I have to write my remarks. Writing in this way forces me to think about how I speak and the difference between listening and reading.
 2. One of my favorite high school teachers repeated daily the maxim "Strong readers make strong writers." Who would you suggest reading in order to improve writing?
SJ--I definitely agree with that statement! I recommend reading as much as possible in the genre in which you plan to write.That way you’ll not only familiarize yourself with other authors’ typical content and style, as well as any conventions of the genre in question, but you’ll also learn which techniques work most effectively (and which don’t).
SB--I think reading contemporary poets can be very useful to helping us write because their use of language is often playful, creative and frequently such a fine distillation of meaning(s). I find myself surprised and excited by the always new and unique ways that poets use words.
3. You're a librarian, so I gotta ask: What are your pet-peeves? Students being loud? Sometimes I attempt to re-shelve books that I look at briefly. How serious a crime is this?
SJ--I know students are often trying to help out when they re-shelve books themselves, so I’d hardly call it a crime! But in case you were wondering why library staff ask people to leave books they’ve consulted on book carts instead, it’s because we keep track of which books are getting used. If we notice that many reference books on world education, to give one popular example, are being consulted regularly, we may look around and see if there are more we should be buying. It helps with our collection development. Plus, not all students may be familiar with the Library of Congress classification system that we use to shelve books (although they can feel free to ask one of us at Reference if they’d like more info). It makes me nervous to see food and drinks around the computers, so I try to discourage that.  But it hasn’t been a significant issue, fortunately.
SB--Honestly, stereotypes about librarians bother me the most. I see references to media stories several times a year coming from all over the country in which they publish a "scoop" about how librarians aren't bun wearing, glasses-chain having bookworm ladies anymore, that they are interesting people from all walks of life. Well duh. Sheesh, get over it!
To answer your question more directly, the learning process requires talking and discussion as much as it requires reading, writing and listening. We promote the library as a space for collaborative and group study as much as it is a place for silent and contemplative study. Librarians and library staff don't have to police the noise level (although I _will_ shush you if I can hear music or video from your computer/phone/tablet. :)

As for re-shelving the books, stop it! If books are re-shelved incorrectly even by a little bit they are effectively lost to anyone else who needs the book. Let's say you are the next person looking for that book and you can't find it. How likely are you to seek out a staff member or a reference librarian to try to locate it? If you don't ask about it, the book stays lost until someone takes the extra step to let us know it isn't where it is supposed to be. As for the severity of the crime, let's call it a misdemeanor that carries a mild penalty.
4. What do you consider to be the most important elements of writing? Organization? Voice? Grammar? Obviously, all of the elements should work together, but if you had to choose a top three of writing elements, what would be on that list? 
SJ--If I had to pick, they’d be: clarity, content, voice. That may be cheating a bit, because part of making one’s writing clearly understood involves the appropriate use of grammar. My answer also depends a lot on the purpose of the writing; developing a unique voice is less important when writing meeting minutes, for instance.
SB--Coming from the perspective of someone who reads a lot but who also feels like he never has enough time to read, I would say that voice, organization and economy are my top three. Since my time to read is limited I appreciate the originality and distinctiveness of a writer's voice because it is what stands out to me as most memorable in a person's writing. 

Secondly, organization is key. When the elements of a theme are disorganized it stands out.The flow is broken. I also rate organization as highly important because it is something I struggle with in my own writing.  

Finally, by "economy" I mean the efficient yet elegant use of language to convey your point. I appreciate brevity that does not come at the expense of meaning or elegance.
5. There is a lot of talk circling around regarding the "digitalization" of literature. What does this mean for the future of libraries and librarians? 
SJ--Libraries and librarians are heavily involved in digitization projects, both as users of previously digitized material and as content creators. At Booth, for example, we subscribe to the Early English Books Online database, which has digital images of nearly all materials published in Britain between 1473 and 1700. We also maintain The Keep, EIU’s own institutional repository, with contains publications of EIU faculty as well as scanned-in items from the university’s history. 
More products continue to be offered in digital form – newspapers, books, journals – and having this material available online means increased access for users, which is a good thing. As a reference librarian, one of my responsibilities is to help students use these collections by guiding them to the most relevant resources and showing them how to develop good search strategies. On the other hand, while there’s a lot of useful free content out there, many of these wonderful products are subscription-based – and can be expensive.  This poses challenges for library budgets, and this won’t get any easier over time. Looking ahead to the future, I expect librarians will continue to play integral roles in the digitizing of literature, and in helping people locate the best sources for their needs. That’s what we’re trained to do.

SB--As the digital age has come upon us, libraries and librarians have adapted their practices and skills to accommodate the changes in the way published knowledge is collected, maintained and consumed. 

Generally speaking, from the perspective of the physical library, as digital information has grown, the numbers of walk-in visitors and circulation of physical books has dropped. In response, libraries have redesigned their spaces, collections and services to serve their patron's changing needs. From the perspective of the public services librarian, whose primary mission is to assist library users find and effectively use information, the proliferation of electronic literature in all forms has only made finding it and using it effectively that much more complicated. From the perspective of the technical services librarian, whose goal is to accurately and consistently describe the information objects, print or electronic, for optimal discovery by library users, their jobs are increasingly diversified and, in my opinion, interesting.

To put it briefly, new forms of information exist side by side with older forms and it takes a long time for any format to truly go away, if it goes away at all. Libraries may shift some of their focus from "brick and mortar" issues to issues of access to digital books and digital information, and the delivery of that information over digital networks, but the central mission of the library remains. I've got a book you can read about it: Clough, G. Wayne. _Best Of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, And Archives In A Digital Age_ Smithsonian, Washington D.C. 2013. []

Monday, April 14, 2014

Stradivarius and Shakespeare

For centuries, classical musical lovers and violin aficionados agreed that no violin sounded better than a Stradivarius. There was just something about that old-wood sound.

These 18th century instruments are extremely valuable. In January, a man shot an orchestra performer in Milwaukee with a stun gun and stole his Stradivarius. The reward for returning the violin unharmed? $100,000.

However, according to this article over at Livescience, Stradivarius has lost its reign as King of the Violins. In a blind test in which some of the world's greatest violinists played new and old violins, "The older violins ranked lower in all five categories of the ratings, though new and old violins came out equivalent in the 'overall quality' category. Notably, the soloists couldn't tell an old violin from a new one: Their guesses were no more accurate than the flip of a coin."

So, what explains all this fuss over the Stradivarius sound for hundreds of years? How have we all been fooled into thinking that no other violin has a better quality? Joseph Curtin, the man behind the study comparing new violins to their Stradivarius counterparts, says, "The idea that you can't make a better sound than a Strad has been a pervasive one, and it doesn't really rest on anything except people saying it."

That statement from Curtin reminded me of a comment made by a certain graduate student, I'll name him Tyler, who claimed that Shakespeare was a little overrated. Needless to say, a rousing debate followed. At one point, Tyler said, "If we were not always talking about Shakespeare, we would not consider him the best ever." 

Tyler's point was that no one approaches Shakespeare without a huge amount of bias. We are told Shakespeare is the best ever and we in some way want to believe that Shakespeare is the best ever in order to fit in with cultural predispositions. Lo and behold, we read Hamlet and join the "Shakespeare is the Best Ever Club." 

I originally felt that Tyler's argument was baseless, but after reading the article on Stradivarius violins I am beginning to reconsider my position. Do I love Shakespeare because of what is actually in the text, or do I love Shakespeare because everyone has told me that I love Shakespeare?

Almost all Americans are introduced to Shakespeare during high school. This makes Shakespeare literary common ground for much of the nation. The fact that many Americans are able to argue intelligently about Shakespeare's work speaks to his pervasiveness, and therefore his greatness, as a writer. 

Now, I do not want to set up a binary. No one claims that a Stradivarius does not produce an incredible sound. The study simply argues against the idea that a Stradivarius produces the best sound ever. In a similar way, Tyler admits that Shakespeare is one of the greats. His point is that perhaps Shakespeare is not the greatest writer in the history of the English language.

What other "bests" might bare closer examination in our different disciplines? Are John Lennon and Paul McCartney the greatest pop song writers? Should Warren Buffet go down as the greatest investor of all time? Has someone out-painted Picasso?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Shakespeare's Black Lady

We have all read Shakespeare, in high school or college, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Everyone knows who he was and remembers what Romeo and Juliet is about. Most people when they hear or read Sonnet 130 will be able to tell you, "Yep, that's Shakespeare alright." Sonnet 130 is probably the most studied of his sonnets and also likely the most misinterpreted. The sonnet is about Shakespeare's mysterious muse known only as the Dark Lady, who, for the longest time, was thought to be some married noble woman.

In a Shakespeare class last semester, I learned that increasing evidence points not to the Dark Lady being some tragic confined noble-woman, but to a free woman with her own agenda, who quite literally was Black (Sonnet 132: "Then will I swear beauty herself is black/And all they foul that thy complexion lack.")In addition to my professor (John Kunat, a Shakespeare scholar), Dr.Dunken Salkeld argues that she was a woman named Black Luce, who was in charge of a brothel near Shakespeare's playhouse. If this is the case, then we might read Shakespeare with different eyes.

We don't have to think, "Man, Shakespeare, you are so deep. You only care about personality; you don't care that your lady is unattractive. So romantic." Instead, we can read Sonnet 130 and say, "Alright, so what you considered beauty was not standard, but certainly still beautiful. You're just a dude with preferences, Willy."

All this is important because it lets us know that we aren't so changed from the past. Shakespeare was a genius, but he was still a man. Right now, I am reading the oldest epic of literature, written even before the Odyssey, and even before the Hebrew Bible: Gilgamesh, and it is more accessible than either the Bible or the Odyssey, and the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is the most poignant bromance I have read in literature or seen in on film--they fight, they hug it out as equals, comfort each other, and Enkidu dies for Gilgamesh. The human condition was not alien 4,000 years ago, and it will not be so different 4,000 years from now, if we can survive.


My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks; 
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
   And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
   As any she belied with false compare. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fix Your Grammar

I love puppets. And I love fuzzy animals with large teeth (Look at these capybaras. How can you not love these capybaras?). And I love internet videos. And I love grammar.

So, imagine all the love I felt when I came across this video by Glove and Boots on YouTube. It's everything. A bunch of puppets (including a puppet version of a fuzzy animal with large teeth) give directions on fixing common grammar problems.

Hearts popped out of my eyeballs.

So, without further ado, I'll share the love. Here it is: "Fix Your Grammar" by Glove and Boots.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Memorize with a Memory Palace

In a bizarre turn of events, my incredibly awkward younger brother was cast as Romeo in his high school's production of Romeo and Juliet. Interestingly, his teacher told all of the students not to try to memorize the lines; he had a special technique that would help them remember their lines better than reading the poetry over and over.

That technique is the memory palace. A memory palace is an imaginary space you build in your mind and fill with objects. You attach images to the objects in order to aid with information recall. It helps people complete amazing feats of memorization. For example, people with advanced memory palaces can memorize the order of a deck of cards after only seeing the cards once.

So, if you want to learn how to astound your friends or woo your significant other by memorizing a poem, check out the technique here. Also, the memory palace could help you with more practical things, like schoolwork.