laundromats, underground libraries, and criminal charges: a library link round-up

I have so many cool stories about libraries and librarians, scattered through multiple email and social media accounts. Lucky for you, I wanted to gather them all in one place. Thanks to everyone who ever sent me one of these.

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Librarians in laundromats! Community librarians are all about taking literacy to the people. In library jargon, we're trying to reach the non-users. If that sounds a bit drug-dealer-ish, it's not a bad analogy: come get a taste, then come back for more.

The puns just write themselves: front-loading literacy, unhampered access... but the issue is deadly serious. You already know about food deserts. Well, there are book deserts, too. Neighbourhoods where libraries have been de-funded, bookstores are nonexistent, and families can't afford to buy books. In the US, great swaths of whole cities are book deserts. After all, there's no profit in bringing books to people who can't buy them.

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Librarians as detectives! Meet the squad of librarians who track down half-forgotten books.
A few years ago, staffers in the New York Public Library’s reader services division drafted a blog post about how to track down a book when its title eludes you. This post spurred a follow-up, in which reader services librarian Gwen Glazer recommended library resources and a number of other strategies (among them are Goodreads groups, a sprawling Reddit thread called whatsthatbook, an indie bookseller in Ohio who is happy to poke around for a $4 fee). Thanks to Google—“how to find a book”—many stumped people seem to land on that post, and they have often written about their enduring puzzles in the comments section. The messages now number in the thousands. Glazer says she often arrives at work to see another 10 title requests.

To solve these little mysteries, Glazer recently assembled a team of sleuths from across the branches: Chatham Square, in Chinatown; the Jefferson Market, in Greenwich Village; the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, near the Flatiron Building; and the Mulberry Street branch, in Nolita. At lunchtime on a recent Wednesday, they were gathered in that computer lab in the library’s offices—across the street from the soaring, spectacular Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (the Main Branch)—to nibble on homemade lemon rosemary cookies and apple, carrot, zucchini bread while they clattered away on their keyboards. Other members of the team participated remotely. The “Title Quest” hackathon was underway.
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Saving books in Syria
I have this book from the library right now: in a Syrian town under siege, a secret library kept dreams alive.
There, the self-appointed chief librarian, a 14-year-old named Amjad, would write down in a large file the names of people who borrowed the books, and then return to his seat to continue reading. He had all the books he could ever want, apart from ones on high shelves that he couldn’t reach. He told his friends: “You don’t have TV now anyway, so why not come here and educate yourself? It’s fun.” The library hosted a weekly book club, as well as classes on English, math and world history, and debates over literature and religion.
The book: Syria's Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege, by Mike Thomson.

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Ah, Florida. Land of sunshine and ignorance.
The Citrus County Commission came to a consensus at the end of October: The county should not spend roughly $2,700 annually to buy digital subscriptions to the New York Times for the 70,000 library-card holders who reside in the county.

The commissioners were not shy in sharing why they thought it was a waste of money.

“Do we really need to subscribe to the New York Times?” one commissioner asked during the meeting.

“Why the heck would we spend money on something like that?” asked another.

Commissioner Scott Carnahan appeared the most passionate against approving the funding, alluding to political reasons as part of his decision.

“Fake news, I agree with President Trump,” Carnahan said. “I don’t want the New York Times in this county. I don’t agree with it, I don’t like 'em, it’s fake news and I’m voting no. They can take that money and do something else with it ... I support Donald Trump."
Yup, there are people out there who support Donald Trump and control library funding. File under horror.

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Elijah Cummings, a bright light in the US Congress, died a few months ago. In an interview on "60 Minutes," captured here by School Library Journal, Cummings talked briefly about why libraries mean so much to him.
“The people who helped me the most were the librarians,” Cummings told Steve Kroft in a 60 Minutes interview broadcast in January of this year, adding that the public library was the only integrated institution in his neighborhood.

Speaking about the librarians, whom he credited with staying past their regular working hours to help him with his schoolwork, enabling him to get out of special ed, the longtime Baltimore congressman and chair of the House Oversight Committee got emotional.

“There are a lot of good people who really care,” he said.
Staying past their regular working hours? Hmm... that sets off my union radar. But I actually have a small personal memory of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Once when Allan was researching at the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, I spent a day there. It's a beautiful library, a true temple of learning. I love knowing it was the first place in Baltimore to integrate.

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Rank your favourite fictional librarian!
Where does your favourite fictional librarian stack up? I may not know every reference here, but I fail to see how anyone could rank higher than Rupert Giles.

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LitHub recently ran an excerpt from Eric Klinenberg's Palaces for the People, a love letter to the public library and a plea for proper funding: Libraries Are Even More Important to Contemporary Community Than We Thought -And They Should Be Funded Accordingly.
In recent years, modest declines in the circulation of bound books in some parts of the country have led some critics to argue that the library is no longer serving its historic function as a place for public education and social uplift. Elected officials with other spending priorities argue that 21st-century libraries no longer need the resources they once commanded, because on the Internet most content is free. Architects and designers eager to erect new temples of knowledge say that libraries should be repurposed for a world where books are digitized and so much public culture is online.

Many public libraries do need renovations, particularly the neighborhood branches. But the problem libraries face isn’t that people no longer visit them or take out books. On the contrary: so many people are using them, for such a wide variety of purposes, that library systems and their employees are overwhelmed. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, about half of all Americans aged sixteen and over used a public library in the past year, and two-thirds say that closing their local branch would have a “major impact on their community.” In many neighborhoods the risk of such closures is palpable, because both local library buildings and the systems that sustain them are underfunded and overrun.

In New York City, where I live, library circulation is up, program attendance is up, program sessions are up, and the average number of hours that people spend in libraries is up too. But New York City doesn’t have an exceptionally busy library culture, nor is it a national leader. The distinctions belong to other places: Seattle leads the nation in annual circulation per capita, followed by Columbus, Indianapolis, San Jose, San Francisco, Jacksonville, and Phoenix. Columbus has the highest level of program attendance: five of every 10,000 residents participate in library activities there each year. San Francisco and Philadelphia are close behind, as are Boston, Detroit, and Charlotte. New York City trails them all.

New York City also ranks low in per capita government spending for the system. The New York Public Library receives $32 for every resident, on par with Austin and Chicago but less than one-third of the San Francisco Public Library, which gets $101 per resident. . . .

Doing research in New York City, I learned that libraries and the social infrastructure are essential not only for a neighborhood’s vitality but also for buffering all variety of personal problems—including isolation and loneliness. And while these problems may be particularly acute in struggling neighborhoods like East New York, they’re hardly confined to them. . .

Why have so many public officials and civic leaders failed to recognize the value of libraries and their role in our social infrastructure? Perhaps it’s because the founding principle behind the library—that all people deserve free, open access to our shared culture and heritage, which they can use to any end they see fit—is out of sync with the market logic that dominates our time. (If, today, the library didn’t already exist, it’s hard to imagine our society’s leaders inventing it.)
Klinenberg posits some other reasons library funding is so disposable, but I (unfairly) ended the quote here. Libraries are antithetical to capitalism.

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In Michigan, a woman faced criminal charges, including up to 93 days in jail and a $500 fine, for failing to return two library books. Seriously. She was unable to receive overdue notices, because she was moving frequently, on the run from an abusive relationship.

I haven't found a follow-up to the story, but I'm hoping the bad publicity caused the Charlotte Community Library of Eaton County, Michigan, to step back into sanity.

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of libraries are going fine-free. There are many barriers to library use, but perhaps none are as pernicious to low-income people as the fear of fines. My own employer has eliminated fines for children's materials, thanks to the advocacy of children's librarians, and we hope to see the same happen for teen materials.

The Urban Libraries Council has charted the progress of fine-free systems on a map.

Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore, Maryland
This story about fine-free libraries in the Washington Post mentions the Enoch Pratt Free Library -- the very one that welcomed and helped a young Elijah Cummings, quoted above.
Last week, the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore announced it was eliminating fines on overdue books and materials. Though borrowers are still responsible for replacement costs for lost items, the Pratt erased $186,000 in outstanding penalties for 26,000 borrowers and reinstated 13,000 users whose cards were previously blocked due to unpaid fines. In doing so, it joined a growing number of libraries across the country that have decided to go fine-free.

Eliminating these fines serves a laudable purpose: The policy can expand access to library services among groups that might otherwise struggle to return materials on time or keep up with payments, including low-income families, people with disabilities and the elderly. In some cases, as patrons return, fine-free policies can actually work to improve library circulation — and even the library’s bottom line. The Pratt, for example, relies on library fines for less than a quarter of a percent of its annual budget, a figure it believes it could largely save in reduced staff time collecting and processing fines.

Proponents of library fines argue that they incentivize borrowers to return books on time and teach personal responsibility. But there is little evidence that fines have any effect on the timely return of library materials. In fact, much of the existing research suggests that they do not affect overdue rates and instead deter readers from borrowing materials in the first place. Libraries have also found that fines heavily affect low-income families and children, excluding the very patrons who rely on libraries the most.

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In Idaho, people are going into public libraries and hiding books that are critical of Donald Trump. The most amazing part of this story is that pro-Trump people use libraries. Or that they can read.

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Just for fun, what are the strangest questions NYC librarians have ever been asked?
The questions posed below are selected from a cache of those written on file cards between the 1940s and the late 1980s, as far as we can tell from the dates on each card. When the staff of the Library discovered them a few years ago in a small gray file box, they inspired awe, laughter, and, most importantly, the box provided a snapshot of the interests of people coming into the Library. Some clearly reflect the times and particular concerns of the day while others could just as well be asked of NYPL—or Google—today.
Buzz Feed brings us (via a Reddit thread) the weirdest things that have happened to librarians at work and the same from two years earlier. Many of these may be amusing, but in reality, they are workplace issues faced by library workers every day.

Working with the public, in (often) the only public space open to all people, carries with it serious health-and-safety risks. In urban libraries, this is a pressing concern, often under-addressed by library boards and municipal governments. In rural libraries, where library staff often works alone, hours of drive-time away from emergency services, it is no less pressing.

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