dispatches from ola 2016, part 1: choosing to walk a path

I attended OLA* for only one day this year, partly because I'm already missing so much work for bargaining and other union business, and partly because one day is often enough. There's a huge lineup of presentations, poster sessions, book signings, vendors, keynote speakers, tours, receptions, etc. - lots of etc. - but the presentations are the meat of the conference. Four presentations a day for three days is just too much.

As it happened, three of the four talks I attended shared a theme: bringing library services to underserved, marginalized, and socially excluded communities.

My first of the day was Choosing to Walk a Path: Library Services with Indigenous Peoples on Purpose. Monique Woroniak, from Winnipeg, a city with a significant indigenous population, first set the social and political context. It was a bit like being at our annual socialist conference: the presenter using the expression the Canadian state, as opposed to Canada, and speaking about settler colonialism as an ongoing structure, rather than an event in the past.

Woroniak showed an old family photograph from a few generations back, when her own forebears - as for many Canadian-born Canadians - were "settling" the prairies. She set the current context as the marked increase in "public expressions of indigenous sovereignty," beginning with Idle No More, but echoing through Canada with a heightened presence of indigenous literature, and in Winnipeg, with social spaces, a magazine, and other events.

I liked her explanation of the difference between diversity and anti-racism initiatives. Diversity programming celebrates multiculturalism - a commendable goal, and better than its opposite - but it leaves power structures unchanged. Anti-racism programming and services seek to create conditions to transform that power imbalance.

That can only happen with (what is now called) a "community development" model. Rather than think of ourselves and our institutions as experts - the holders of special knowledge or at least the keys to that knowledge - telling the community what we have to offer, we work to build relationships, so the community can tell us what they need.

What this looks like in practical terms, as far as I can tell, is not substantially different than a purposeful and meaningful attempt to be more inclusive, combat racism, and educate the public at large about a marginalized community. The difference, it seems, is how one arrives at that goal. And in a field where we are measured by statistics - how many materials circulated, how many people attended a program - this shifts the focus from end result to process.

The most important thing - something we talk about all the time in relation to youth, older adults, or any other population we serve - is not to tell people what we're doing for them, but ask them what they want us to do for and with them. Sounds simple, right? The reality is remarkably elusive. In the context of austerity budgets and skeletal staff, taking time to build relationships and focus on process might as well be a unicorn ride on a rainbow.

One minor note I found interesting was Woroniak`s take on the use of the word "ally". She said (I paraphrase), "You don't call yourself an ally. If a person from the community you are serving calls you an ally, then accept that as a great compliment, but you don't decide that." I'm not sure what to make of that, given that Idle No More shares "I am an ally" badges online.

Next up: Prisons and Libraries: A Relationship Worth Incubating.

* Officially the Ontario Library Association Super Conference, but always referred to as O-L-A, as if we are attending the organization.

what i'm reading: the invention of air by steven johnson

How do we know that the oxygen exists, and that oxygen is different from carbon dioxide? Well, we know it because we've been taught those facts. But how did that knowledge enter the scientific record? Air is invisible to our eyes. How did humans first understand that invisible gases exist, and have predictable properties?

Answering that question, The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America by science historian Steven Johnson, is at its most interesting. The body of experiments that led to the "discovery" of oxygen, carbon dioxide, the properties of gases, and other foundational principles of chemistry were completely unknown to me. (Indeed, I doubt I had ever considered the question.)

This book introduced me to one Joseph Priestley, considered the father of modern chemistry, and a towering thinker of his era, yet largely unknown to the public today.

As Priestley was a contemporary of several of the American "founding fathers", the author illustrates Priestley's importance with these statistics.
In their legendary thirteen-year final correspondence, reflecting back on their collaborations and their feuds, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams wrote 165 letters to each other. In that corpus, Benjamin Franklin is mentioned by name five times, while George Washington is mentioned three times. Their mutual nemesis Alexander Hamilton warrants only two references. By contrast, Priestley, an Englishman who spent only the last decade of his life in the United States, is mentioned fifty-two times.
One reason (of many) that Johnson greatly admires Priestley was that he valued open inquiry and the sharing of knowledge more than personal credit or financial gain. Priestley was a dedicated open-source man. He would share his ideas, writing, and data with anyone who was interested. This probably resulted in less fame, and definitely resulted in less income, but those were not Priestley's goals.

The Invention of Air is much more than a biography of Priestley or an account of his experiments. Priestley's work helped define and solidify scientific method, and his political and religious ideas influenced the birth of the American republic. I found these areas more challenging and less interesting. Johnson assumes a degree of knowledge of the history of science that I lack. And the book gets bogged down in biographical detail that seems trivial or irrelevant.

I loved Johnson's The Ghost Map - I'm at least partly responsible for it being promoted widely in our library system - and I've enjoyed (on Netflix) several episodes of Johnson's PBS series, "How We Got to Now". So it was a little disappointing not to love this book, too. But The Invention of Air is often fascinating, and it's well worth the read.

As I did when I reviewed Soul Made Flesh, I caution readers about grisly details of experiments on animals.


in which the death of a rock legend makes me think about how our world has changed

When this came out, I hung the cover on my bedroom wall. 
Sharing memories of David Bowie, as so many of us were after his too-early death this week, led me to think a lot about the world I lived in when I was a big Bowie fan.

My world then

I saw Bowie in concert in 1976, after the "Station to Station" album came out. I was a few months shy of my 15th birthday.

I had a picture of him on my wall, a magazine cover with a green background. I had assumed it was the cover of Time, but a Google image search quickly revealed it was People. No one in my family read People, which means I bought the magazine for the Bowie story and photos.

Although I can't remember anything specific, I know I would have cut out, read, and saved anything about the new album and the tour from Rolling Stone (still an actual rock music magazine), The New York Times, and Time, because I subscribed to RS and my parents subscribed to the others.

In those days, we searched for images and stories about our musical loves, and when we found them, we pounced on and devoured them. They were very finite, and we hoarded everything we could find.

There were a few opportunities to see bands play on TV, and if you were into music, you never missed them. You stayed up for "Don Kirshner," as we called it, or woke up with Soul Train, if that was your music. (I did both.) When "Saturday Night Live" came on the scene, the best thing about it was another opportunity to see bands play.

Sometimes a concert would be broadcast on TV to promote a tour. I have a vivid memory of watching Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review on a small black-and-white set in my parents' bedroom, in self-imposed exile from the colour set that my parents were watching in the den, so I could drink in every detail of the show without annoying comments.

Even more exciting was footage of old concerts and TV appearances. We didn't call them videos: they were footage. I had an adult friend who had a stockpile of rock on film. My friends and I would plead with him to show us The Who smashing their instruments, or something rare like a clip from the Rolling Stones' "Cocksucker Blues".

Concerts were often broadcast on the radio. We would all tune in to the King Biscuit Flower Hour to hear past concerts, or even better, a live concert simulcast on the radio. Allan tells me that the Bowie show previous to the one I attended was broadcast live. Although I don't remember it, I'm certain I was listening.

It's difficult to explain what it felt like, compared to our present time, when a concert is uploaded for file-sharing an hour after it ends, and cell-phone videos are instantly posted to YouTube, and if you want to see what someone looks like, you simply type their name and hit enter. There was always a kind of hunger for more, and also a kind of mystery.

Another thing we have now: the almost instant ability to connect with other fans. In those days, fans of any given band were almost like a secret society. Members recognized each other by lyrics written on notebooks and t-shirts worn the day after the concert, something like a secret handshake.

This is not nostalgia! I don't think for one moment that life was better because I couldn't Google images of David Bowie. It was just very different.

The concert

It was 1976. A friend's parents bought her three tickets to the David Bowie concert for her 16th birthday, and I was a lucky tag-along.*

It was the second rock show I had ever attended, and the first that my parents knew about. I had to ask their permission to go, and - even though the friend's parents would be driving us there and picking us up - they weren't keen. My older sister intervened on my behalf, and got them to say yes.

In the lead-up to the show, we read, watched, and listened to everything about Bowie and the tour that we could get our hands on. We skipped school to see "The Man Who Fell to Earth" the day it opened, and saw it three times that week. We talked about the movie constantly. (I don't remember if the film was before or after the concert.)

The scene outside Madison Square Garden was our warm-up act. There were men in drag, people of every gender in Bowie-inspired makeup, and many people dressed in imitation of Bowie's current persona. In those days, a rock show was like an open-air market for illegal drugs. We had smuggled joints on our person, wondering if we'd be able to smoke at the show.

I believe there was no actual warm-up act, although I can't swear to it. Bowie designed and controlled his shows very tightly, so I doubt he would have a warm-up band sullying the spectacle. But opening acts - billed as "special guests" - were typical in those days, so perhaps there was.

The lights went out, and all of Madison Square Garden became a cloud of pot smoke. My friends and I looked at each other in joy and wonder.

A screen was lowered in front of the stage, and suddenly we were seeing silent, surreal, black-and-white images. It was - I later learned - "Un Chien Andalou", the famous short film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali. Chances are good that few people in the audience had seen the film before. Another vivid memory: the very audible gasp of a crowd of 20,000 when an eyeball appears to be sliced with a razor blade.

The film ended, the screen rose, a white spotlight appeared, and there he was: the Thin White Duke. He was beautiful. He was intense. He owned your attention. I was a mile away, and it felt as if he was singing to me. Yes, I was 14 years old, and not exactly a critical audience. But the audience was rapt. He was absolutely captivating.

Incidentally, I never asked permission to attend a concert again. I just went. At some point I must have needed permission to go only with friends, without an adult, but I don't remember this being controversial. I was the youngest in my family, and the only child still living home. My father's health (mental and physical) was poor, my parents' marriage was disintegrating, and they were too tired or distracted to police me. This was sad, but it had its advantages.

* I would go on to have a strange love-hate relationship with this person, who was also my partner in all of my illegal activity. But we were both still innocent of that tangled mess.


here's why i love the internet, part 3,482,092 or whatever

For my work with my library workers' union, I schedule a lot of meetings. Various people can or cannot attend various meetings. We all use different calendar/agenda/diary tools, so sending an Outlook appointment, like we do in our workplace, isn't an option.

As meetings approach, I receive emails from team members, telling me they can or cannot attend, often changing from one to the other. I was having a hard time keeping track of who to expect at what meetings.

I knew there had to be an online tool to help with this. I use Doodle all the time for scheduling, but that wasn't quite right. I didn't feel like asking on Facebook, because I wanted to get a sense of what was out there, not just what was popular at the moment.

At first, Googling "online tool for meeting attendance" turned up attendance-management tools like this, or event registration tools like this. But after a few searches, I hit on "online tool to track rsvps", and found exactly what I needed: Whoozin.

I needed something, I knew it had to exist, and I found it.

I used the internet to further my use of the internet to make my life easier.


dogtopia: a dog hotel comes to mississauga (and we give it a great review)

When we travel, we've always had someone stay over in our home with the dogs. In almost 30 years of dogs, we only boarded our dogs once. It was not a good experience, and we never did it again. Also, for many years, our schedules also required a dogwalker. So we're accustomed to paying for quality, personal care for our dogs.

Now, however, we've come to the end of the road with dogsitters and dogwalkers. For many reasons, that won't work anymore.*

Fortunately for us, times have changed. These days you can find quality doggie daycare in almost any city, and the low-rent kennel is a thing of the past, at least in major metropolitan areas. Friends told us about ParK9, located near Toronto Pearson Airport, and we stopped by for a visit. The facilities are amazing, and the care sounds top-notch. The catch was the price. We've always tried to be generous when paying for dog-care, but the fees at ParK9 were well out of our range - more than twice what we would normally pay. Ouch. Plus, there are add-on fees for administering medication and other services they consider extras.

Driving around Mississauga one day, I saw a sign: Dogtopia. Google told me it's a dog daycare and hotel chain, mostly in the US, but growing in Canada, too. I explored the website, then Allan and I went for a tour. We were really impressed.

The Dogtopia facilities are clean and bright, and smell fresh. The staff clearly loves and understands dogs. They have a webcam, which seems to be standard these days. The staff was extremely amenable to accommodating Tala's condition, with a certain amount of time playing, balanced with rest time in a crate. I feel like I can trust them to give Tala her meds, and to make sure she doesn't aggravate her condition with too much activity.

We've decided that this is our best option for our next vacation. In preparation for that, we're putting Tala and Diego in daycare a few times, so (we hope and assume) they'll associate the place with fun, and not feel frightened or abandoned. We did our first daycare last week! First time ever!

It went great: absolutely no complaints. The dogs had a great time, and Tala had no ill effects from alternating periods of play and rest.

One thing we find odd in both Dogtopia and ParK9, is that the dogs don't go outside to pee and poop. I thought there would be a small outdoor enclosure where attendants would take the dogs, but there isn't. The dogs relieve themselves right in the playroom, and the attendant cleans up. Supposedly the texture and scent of the floor seems, to a dog, like they are outside. Dogs (we are told) act like they're at the dog park, but they don't bring the habit home. I'm a little skeptical, because Tala wouldn't relieve herself at all, the whole time she was there.

One big difference between ParK9 and Dogtopia - other than the price - is where and how the dogs sleep. ParK9 has private rooms or suites - which might sound nice to humans, but being alone in a closed room with no windows could be scary and stressful for dogs. At Dogtopia, crates are set up on either side of the big daycare play area. The dogs take time-outs in the crates, and they sleep in the room they've been playing and socializing in all day, and where they can see all the other dogs and humans. I know that Tala and Diego will feel much more comfortable and secure this way. So, amazingly, the less expensive option is, to our minds, the best option.

Dogtopia has some great deals, too. For starters, they gave us a complimentary day of daycare for each dog. If you buy a multi-day pass in advance, the per-day fee goes way down, plus the overnight boarding fee is half the price. If you buy a pass right away (after your complimentary trial), they give you four free days of daycare. Pass-holders' dogs receive free nail trims, ear cleaning, and other perks. With a 30-day pass, we're actually spending the same, or a bit less, than we used to spend on dogsitting - without any of the worry.

We were very pleased with our complimentary daycare day! The dogs had a great time and seemed very well cared for. As soon as we left them there, we sat in the car and watched the webcam on my phone, then spent a good deal of the day watching on our computers. The challenge will be not spending our entire vacation watching Tala-and-Diego-cam. (Or should that be Talavision?)

* It's one thing to hire a friend to stay over when there's a backyard for the dogs, and walking is optional or at least easy. Walking two dogs, separately, in a building full of dogs, from the 19th floor... who wants to do that?? In NYC, a lot of walking was required, but there was a steady supply of writers, actors, musicians, etc., who were mostly home during the day, and always in need of short-term income. Here, not so much.


happy new year from wmtc

Whatever your mood

this holiday season

I wish you

a year full of

joy, love, and good health...

...friendship, peace, and solidarity.