If you want something done….

One of the most useful aspects of going through old library correspondence is that you gain professional experience without having to make mistakes. I found a fabulous letter from an donor to a librarian (ca. 1968) in which she discourses at length about many things, including fundraising:

“…Another thing I don’t like is making contributions to organizations that engage public relations counselors, as I always feel that my money is being handed over to a lot of smart aleck smoothies, who are rated on their ability to lie convincingly. Why on earth cannot reasonably intelligent people control their own public relations? Anyone who has mastered freshman English, and has the slightest speck of wit, or imagination, ought to be able to do so.”

The lesson I take from this is similar to what I gleaned from a conversation with a former boss of mine, who was a brilliant fundraiser. I asked, “how do you master the rhetoric of fundraising?” “It’s not rhetoric,” he replied. I realized that he must be right. Until and unless you believe deeply and honestly in raising money for your cause, potential donors will sense your insincerity.


You Never Know Where They’ve Been!

In the August 3 issue of the New Yorker, Nicholson Baker (of Double Fold fame), offers a little personal essay on his experience with Amazon.com’s e-book, the Kindle 2.

I was about to skip the article, frankly, until I read the following quote from a Kindle reviewer:

“I’ve always been creeped out by library books and used books,” she wrote on the Amazon site, “You never know where they’ve been!”

Another, similar opinion from the article, this time from the manager of a British import store in Maine: “Her Kindle was in her purse; she’d crocheted a cover for it out of green yarn. In the past, she said, she’d taken books out of the library, but some of them smelled of smoke–a Kindle book is a smoke-free environment.”

Now I love new books, mostly for the feeling of “This Just In!” that you get when you browse them at the superstores, but my deepest regard and passion is (of course) for books which have lived lives. Book which have existed hand-to-mind in a repeating cycle for decades, centuries, and even (in the case of our cuneiform tablets), millennia.

I, too, have smelled smoke on books, and I love it. But I think my experience is probably different than the above; mine is of leather-bound books which smell of pipe and cigar smoke–one imagines from old Oxford college rooms, or a nineteenth-century gentleman’s library. Hers was likely the ashtray-smell of cigarettes clinging to a Dan Simmons novel.

My challenge as a professional (in one sense) is to attempt to convert, or at least, enlighten, readers like these to the romance of the book as artifact–the the realm of inspiration and its many vistas which open at your feet when you have the keys to its portal.

I have no problem with the Kindle. As a librarian, any vehicle which promotes reading and reflective thought is a Good Thing. As a special collections librarian, it actually could be a boon–eventually, if media like the Kindle “replace” paper books–ALL printed material will end up in special collections. My job is to make sure that they don’t die there, but rather live on in the imaginations of the romantics who will always want to use them.

What Does It All Mean?

On July 1, The Providence Public Library became a different institution. As has been reported in the news, we have turned over the 10 neighborhood branches to a group calling themselves the Providence Community Library (GIVING them all the books, computers, and furniture in the buildings and leasing those buildings for minuscule sums). While everyone hopes they can make a go of it (because NO ONE likes it when a library closes), there are simply no guarantees. But the branches are now their problem.

The Central Library, where I work, and which contains over 1 million items, has experienced an almost 70% staff reduction, and so a crew of 32 people are attempting, rather valiantly, to do what more than 80 people did a few weeks ago.

So, my posting has slowed down because I have more work to do in general. Readers can add our story to the nationwide plight of libraries–all libraries–no matter what funding streams or sources (private or public) they have, what leadership they are under, or what socio-economic slice of the public they serve.

In this emerging time of trimmed budgets, streamlined functions, and general re-tooling, I am often under a bit more pressure to explain why special collections is still vital–and I suppose I’ll be using this blog as more of a think-through-it venue than a “look what I found” dump, which is how it started.

I Walk the Line

Conventional wisdom (or, What We Are Taught In Library School) about special collections includes a cardinal rule: the stacks (i.e. shelves) are NOT browseable.

This idea is reinforced with every report of rare book theft and at every conference which touches on security.

What bothers me is that, of all the places in a library, special collections is the place where browsing can generate the MOST inspiration. Especially when you are dealing with the sort of patrons who are using my collections the most: ARTISTS.

An artist, unlike a scholar, does not generally welcome the idea of searching, be it through an online or card catalog. Artists need to SEE what they are looking at, and often need to touch it as well.

What I want is a way to let the patrons browse the books without worrying about security. The few times I have let this happen, controlling it as much as possible, there have been fabulous results–very excited people who revere the materials and respect them for what they are, and use them to further or even engender their creative or intellectual projects.

THAT is the great function of special collections.