what i'm reading: syria's secret library: reading and redemption in a town under siege

Syria's Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege is a tribute to the power of books to heal, to offer refuge, and to nourish communities. It's also a tribute to the spirit of resistance to tyranny and oppression.

In 2013, the Syrian town of Daraya was targeted by the country's dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Many residents managed to evacuate, but others stayed, determined to hold the historic and then-thriving town as a stronghold against the Assad regime.

There, as their town was bombed and burned, a group of young men built an unlikely refuge: a library.

The story of how these young Syrians salvaged and rescued books, often placing themselves in great danger to do so, is remarkable -- but even more remarkable is the community they built. Every book was catalogued, dated, and signed out when borrowed. The origin of every book was noted, so that its owners might reclaim it in happier times. There were book clubs and lectures. Some rebel fighters took books to the front lines and started a book club there! The library became a community centre, an oasis, a refuge, and a stronghold of resistance.

In library school, I had occasion to read about reading -- why we read, how we feel about reading. (I've blogged about a wonderful book on this topic: Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries and Community by Catherine Sheldrick Ross, Lynne McKechnie and Paulette M. Rothbauer.) I thought of this as members of the Daraya library community described what the library meant to them. They ticked every box: gaining knowledge of the world, gaining self-knowledge, building empathy, an escape from present-day worries, a search for strategies and solutions to present problems, a connection with something larger than oneself. As the author puts it:
This was a library for everybody. On its polished shelves were books on just about every topic you could think of, each one either an education, an escape or entertainment for the reader, and often all three.
The library team were mostly former students whose educations had been cut short by the civil war. They wanted to keep their minds sharp, and they wanted to learn how to best serve and rebuild their community when the war ended. They came from all backgrounds, and had been enrolled in a wide range of study, from poetry to physics to economics. They set up a system of self-government; they protected books, and they protected each other. Their efforts are one of the most inspirational stories you will ever read.

Of special note is young Amjad, the teenaged self-appointed Chief Librarian. Librarians will recognize not only Amjad's passion for his work, but his spot-on instincts. For example, he made sure to sit where everyone could see him, and to let everyone know he was available to answer questions and find books.

Members of the library team told the author:
We believed that a place like this could store part of our heritage as well as the keys to our future. It would not only help us to continue our education but be there for anyone who loved reading. We also hoped to use the books we gathered to create a curriculum for local youths. This way they would have some sort of guidance, like we had at university, rather than just randomly reading any book they came across. In short, we wanted the library to become a minaret for Daraya.
This minaret was built and guarded not far from the site of the oldest known library of the ancient world: a collection of clay tablets, complete with tags that are believed to be a cataloguing system, uncovered by archaeologists in the 1970s.

Daraya's secret library served as an education centre, lecture hall, and reading room.
Classes were being held there, on everything from English, Maths and world history, to debates on literature and religion. These were usually followed by lively discussions. One of the most memorable and popular talks was on how the Japanese city of Hiroshima had been rebuilt after it was devastated by an atomic bomb in the Second World War. Another lecture which fired people's imaginations was on the London Blitz during the same conflict and how the city and survived near endless bombardments.
The people creating the library are very clear that their work is part of the revolution, and part of their own salvation in these darkest of times.
We believe that building this library is very important, not just for our minds but also for our souls. We are convinced that knowledge rarely comes when you sit doing nothing. It usually follows hard work and sometimes taking great risks. . . .

Among the books we value most are those which describe how people in other countries have dealt with traumas like ours. We hope that by reading these we can learn the best ways of rebuilding our nation when the fighting has stopped. They give us hope in dark says like these.
Syria's Secret Library paints a grimly honest picture of the truth behind the cliche "war-torn region". One heartbreaking detail that stays with me is a teacher cutting out images of food from the books she was using, so her students -- for whom hunger was a constant condition -- wouldn't have to see them.

Mike Thomson, author of Syria's Secret Library, is a reporter who has covered Syria and many other war zones for the BBC. This project, which began as a radio documentary, is an incredible feat of journalism, given how Thomson was forced to conduct his interviews by text, Skype, WhatsApp, and other electronic means. Thomson's subjects had only intermittent access to the internet or mobile networks, and they were under constant threat by bombs and snipers. Their town was blockaded, their crops bombed, burned, and watched by snipers, so they had almost no access to either food or fuel.

Art as resistance: The work of the so-called
"Syrian Banksy" was in the same town of Daraya,
and is featured in this book.
The author frequently felt guilty about enjoying his privileged life in the UK while his subjects, who had become his friends, were suffering. Thomson, who clearly felt it was his mission to tell the world about this horror, was shocked and disgusted that some of his peers remarked that the suffering Syrians "don't know any better" or "must be used to it by now". These comments illustrate such a lack of empathy, such othering! Do people "get used to" starvation, to being bombed? They may lose hope, or they may struggle on in nearly impossible conditions, but I can't imagine anyone truly gets used to it.

I have only two minor quibbles with this book. One, I wish the subtitle had been "Reading and Resistance" rather than "Redemption". It would be a much more accurate reflection of the story -- so much so that I wonder if the publishers felt "resistance" was a loaded word.

My other complaint is the author's occasional musing on why the United States did not intervene in Syria's civil war. Thomson notes that "the previous president" (i.e., Obama) talked a lot about the situation but did nothing, and he quotes one of his subjects praising Trump for bombing Syria. Surely Thomson knows that US interventions have caused more destruction, dislocation, trauma, and starvation than they have ever repaired. Surely he knows, too, that the US did very little to help the millions of refugees created by this civil war -- and has demonized and tormented refugees from other areas. I can understand Thomson's frustration, but looking to the United States as a potential saviour strikes me as bizarre. As I said, these are minor niggles, as the book is largely apolitical.

Syria's Secret Library is a moving, inspiring story about the human hunger for knowledge and community, and the will to resist and endure, even under the most difficult circumstances.


what i'm reading: the instant pot bible

I've never reviewed a cookbook before, but then I've never been this enthusiastic about a cookbook before: The Instant Pot Bible by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough.

Why I love this book

Before I bury the lede with a lot of explanation, I'll tell you why I find The Instant Pot Bible so appealing.

-- The design. When you're using a book for information, design and layout are very important. Someone (or someones) really nailed it with this one. I find it incredibly clear and easy to use.

-- The formatting. Ingredient list on the left, step-by-step instructions, IP times and settings highlighted in a chart. And so on. Not only a great format, but more consistent than many other cookbooks I've used.

-- One specific bit of formatting that I find super useful is a gray box called "Beyond". Here, the authors put all the substitutions, extras, and equivalences. I appreciate not having to sort through those to read a basic recipe.

-- Road maps! The Instant Pot Bible includes many mix-and-match, create-your-own recipe strategies that the authors call "road maps". Here's an example.
This is the first page of a two-page recipe.

If you don't want to use these road maps, they're easy enough to avoid. But for me, using a road map means I'm not only following recipes step by step, I'm learning more about cooking.

-- A huge variety of recipes, using a wide range of ingredients and for all different palates -- and using the IP all different ways. 

-- Useful tags, such as "fast and easy," "can be gluten-free," "vegetarian," "can be vegan," "fewer than 10 ingredients," "freezes well," and so on. Using tags to do this, rather than organizing the book according to these categories was very smart.

-- Really good writing! I love the authors' writing style. It's personable, warm, and down-to-earth. They want cooking to be fun and easy -- and they want to gently help you move out of your comfort zone.

-- Everything is explained. I like a cookbook that doesn't assume you already know how to do everything. Equal access for all levels of cooking experience!

The back story

I was a little late to the Instant Pot craze, which turned out to be a good thing, as the newer models are easier to use and safer. I bought my "Instapot" (as I like to call it) about six months ago. I chose the 8-quart Ultra model. I gave away my beloved slow cooker, and have been using the IP for all my batch cooking -- which is almost all the cooking I do.

Until recently, when I needed to know how to make something in the IP, I would just google "Instant Pot Chicken Noodle Soup," "Instant Pot Beef Stew," or what have you. For variety, I would google "Healthy Instant Pot Meals" or the like.

For the most part, the links that turned up were fake cooking sites. These sites feature recipes copied from anywhere else (often from the Instant Pot site itself), with useless verbiage added for the purpose of forcing readers to click and scroll. They are stuffed with ads, often video ads, that cannot be blocked. I would try to swoop in, get the information I needed, and swoop out. But after a while, the ads, the sameness of the recipes, and the fake-blog writing really started annoying me.

I borrowed a few IP cookbooks from the library, but I most of them had very few recipes for anything I wanted to cook or eat. Then a library customer told me about the Instant Pot Bible.

And not just any customer: Babs, the woman who runs the produce truck that serves the North Island communities during the summer and early autumn. The truck comes into town once or twice a week, rotating through the communities, with high-quality fruits and vegetables that put the supermarket produce to shame.

Babs is a lovely person, a great salesperson, and from what I gather, an accomplished cook. I gave her nonfiction audiobooks all summer, to listen to on her long drives between towns. She told me these audiobooks have changed her life -- the highest praise I can get as a librarian.

When she enthusiastically recommended this book, I gave her word a lot of cred. And now I'm passing along the joy.


what i'm reading: ali: a life by jonathan eig

Ali: A Life is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary person. It's an epic page-turner at more than 500 pages. This is simply a fascinating book about an utterly fascinating person.

If Muhammad Ali hadn't existed, you couldn't make him up. No fiction character on this scale would be believable. It would be a cartoon.

The only athlete who comes close is Babe Ruth -- but Babe Ruth never aligned himself with an outlaw counterculture and made shocking pronouncements about the U.S., imperialism, and racism.

Ali was a mass of contradictions. He craved material wealth, yet gave away money as if he had an unlimited supply. He was a self-absorbed egomaniac, but incredibly generous, not only with his money but with himself.

He made one of the most important political statements of his generation, one that had profound consequences to his career, one that inspired countless others to follow his path -- yet he never uttered another political statement in his life, and was spectacularly oblivious to world events.

With his own words and his self-constructed image, Ali intentionally and purposefully fashioned a new image of blackness that shocked and thrilled African Americans and white America alike. Yet after that era, he never uttered a word about any racialized issue again, whether apartheid in South Africa or the police beating of Rodney King.

Ali lived to cultivate his image and to be The Greatest -- but put himself on what must be the longest, saddest, most hideous downslope in professional sports history.

Jonathan Eig brings you all of Ali, the good, the great, the bad, the awful, the crazy, the amazing. Some parts will inspire awe. Some head-shaking disbelief. Some disgust. Eig doesn't shy away from any of it.

* * * * *

Growing up, Ali had learning disabilities, and severe dyslexia. This deficit may have been a source of unusual strength in spatial abilities and timing -- two of his boxing abilities that were almost unparalleled in the sport.

When Ali was a young, up-and-coming fighter, the sportswriter Dick Schaap took Ali (then Clay) to Harlem to meet Sugar Ray Robinson, one of the young Ali's heroes. Robinson could hardly be bothered to look at his fans. Ali vowed that when he was famous, he would never treat fans that way.

It was one promise he made good on. For his entire career, Ali would shake hands and sign autographs and pose for pictures and make himself available to everyone, at any time, with no thought to his own privacy or the value of his time. Here's one of many illustrations.
One day in 1970, a white Philadelphia schoolteacher named Marc Satalof asked his wife if she wanted to go for a drive and see if they could find Ali's new home. . . . Ali was in the living room watching TV with friends. Satalof introduced himself and asked Ali if he would visit his school, Strawberry Mansion Junior High, in an all-black, gang-infested section of North Philly. Ali agreed without hesitation. He showed up on the day he said he would and spoke to several groups of students. When Ali complained he was getting tired, Satalof thought the boxer was politely suggesting he was ready to leave. But Ali said no, he didn't want to quit; he hoped instead to take a short nap and then come back to the school and address the rest of the students. Ali proposed a trip to Satalof's house, which was near the school. While Ali was napping, one of Satalof's friends knocked on the door, checking to see if he was okay, because it was unusual to see Satalof's car in the driveway in the middle of the day. Satalof asked the neighbor to be quiet because Muhammad Ali was sleeping in the next room. The neighbor laughed. If you're cheating on your wife, the neighbor said, don't worry, I won't tell anyone. No, really, Satalof said, it's Muhammad Ali. At that moment, Ali, having heard the conversation, stormed out of the bedroom, throwing air punches and pretending to be mad. After signing an autograph for Satalof's friend, Ali went back to the school and stayed three hours, until every student had a chance to hear him speak and every request for an autographed had been filled.
This book is full of stories like this -- one of the most famous people in the world, being generous and kind, with not a single camera rolling or reporter taking notes. In fact, the 1996 Olympic torch lighting, when the aging Ali, silenced by Parkinson's syndrome, thrilled the world one last time, begins with exactly that kind of generosity.

That's a contradiction, too. Ali had an absolutely insatiable need for attention. In his younger days, his constantly running mouth, especially his political and racial statements, brought loud, sustained booing wherever he went. He loved that. Later, chants of A-LI A-LI A-LI replaced the boos, and he loved that even more. But he didn't seek publicity for his many acts of kindness and generosity.

* * * * *

Ali underwent the most famous name-change and religious conversion in US history. And the media refused to use his chosen name! Think of that. Today that's reserved for Twitter trolls, but then it was the New York Times and CBS. The World Boxing Association stripped Ali of his championship title because of his political views. Only for that and no other reason.

Ali should have been a multi-millionaire many times over, but his talent and celebrity supported a huge entourage, and he was utterly unable to say no to any request, investment scheme, or attempt to exploit him. His trust and unshakable belief in people's good intentions drained millions into other people's pockets. Don King and Herbert Muhammad (son of Elijah Muhammad, the founder of Nation of Islam) both enriched themselves massively at Ali's expense. Ali was childlike in his naivete, and remained that way all his life.

After Ali reaches the pinnacle of his fighting career, and begins an impossibly long downward trajectory, the story becomes a human train wreck from which you cannot look away. I was cringing. I was mortified for him. I was horrified. I mentally begged him to retire. But although I lost count of how many times Ali said he was retiring, he kept going -- from bad to worse to mind-boggling. Every time I thought it couldn't get any worse, he sunk lower.

It wasn't just bad boxing. It was the inability to box, because his brain was so damaged. It wasn't a once-great ballplayer batting .105. It was that ballplayer forgetting how to swing a bat, while the whole world watched.

He should have been prevented from fighting. It would have been easy to do. His long-time ring doctor quit, refusing to participate further in the destruction of Ali's brain. Madison Square Garden said they would never book another Ali fight -- for the same reason. But too many people were making far too much money off Ali, so they let it continue, long past the time when it was obvious Ali's brain was irreparably damaged.

* * * * *

My interest in Ali has always been political, and the intersection of politics and sports, which (as wmtc readers know) I love and am fascinated with. I am not a boxing fan by any means. Not only don't I like to watch boxing, I detest the sport politically and ethically, knowing how it seduces poor boys with the promise of fame and fortune, then spits them out with their brains battered. So no, I am not a fan. But Eig's descriptions of the matches are brilliant -- the action unfolds before your eyes. Some of the descriptions of the famous matches are nothing short of epic. I learned a lot about the sport itself, both the athleticism it demands and the corrupt culture that surrounds it.

(As an aside, I also learned about the political context of the famous Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire, how it was financed by the corrupt and murderous dictator Joseph Mobutu. We've seen two documentaries about this fight -- "Soul Power" and "When We Were Kings" -- and neither contained one word about this!)

Back in January, I declared this year my "Year of the Biography". Of the eight bios on my list, I read only three, but they were massive: Arnold Rampersad's biography of Jackie Robinson, David W. Blight's bio of Frederick Douglass, and this one. All three books were excellent. But Eig's writing is so lively and entertaining, and Ali's story so compelling, that Ali: A Life is easily the best book I read this year -- one of the best nonfictions I've read in a long time.


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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.
* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.


"at your library" in the north island eagle: 'tis (almost) the season: your library can help

This holiday season, give a gift that entertains, educates, and informs – all for free. I am happy to announce – back by popular demand – another season of "Give Library". Your favourite library branch has beautifully packaged library cards ready for you to pick up.

Vancouver Island Regional Library (VIRL) cards are good at all 39 branches, from Sooke to Masset, from Tofino to Quadra Island. The card gives you access to millions of books, eBooks, audiobooks, streaming movies, digital music, video games, and magazines and newspapers from around the world. They make great stocking stuffers.

Your library can help you with your holiday preparations in so many ways. Tired of the same old recipes? Wondering how to make Christmas dinner in your Instant Pot? Need a new gluten-free baking challenge? Cookbooks are among the most popular of all library materials.

Looking for craft or design ideas? Your library has the best kept secret of the DIY and crafting world: the Hobbies and Crafts Reference Center. This e-resource is a an incredible collection of ideas and instructions in categories such as Arts & Crafts, Collecting, Home & Garden, Indoor Recreation, Model Building, Needlecrafts & Textiles, Scrapbooking & Paper Crafts, Performing Arts, Science & Technology… and under each of those, there are dozens more categories – far too many to list here!

Each category offers articles, videos, and complete books. Whether you're thinking of a beautiful hand-made gift, easy holiday décor for your home, or a fun craft to share with co-workers, the Hobbies and Crafts Reference Center has the answers. It's all available to you, at no cost, through your library card.

Could this be your incentive to learn more about your library's e-resources? I can think of many library customers whose eyes will light up when they see what's available. If you're a bit intimidated or unsure of how to use this fun database, we're here to help.

On a more serious note, December is a difficult time for many people, especially in the north where the hours of daylight are so short. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression that is triggered by the change of seasons, and it's very common. The holidays can also be a time when we miss people who are gone, or when we feel lonely, surrounded by images of happy families. Media images of a "consumer Christmas" – where we are urged to spend, spend, spend – can leave us feeling inadequate and dissatisfied with our lives.

If you recognize yourself here, I encourage you to explore possible pathways to feel better. Your library is well stocked in books and articles on self-help, spirituality, and physical and mental well-being. If you need help finding information, library staff takes your privacy seriously. You can be assured that anything you share with us will be confidential.

And finally, your library is a place of community and sharing, for the holidays and every day. Come in and enjoy.


write for rights 2019 #write4rights

Today, December 10, is Human Rights Day. The date commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, the first document of its kind.

Every year on December 10, Amnesty International holds a global letter-writing event: Write For Rights (in Canada). Hundreds of thousands of people around the world write handwritten letters calling for action for victims of human rights abuses, and offering comfort and support to political prisoners.

Every year at this time, I try to think of a different way to invite readers to participate in Write For Rights.

All through this year, I've been struggling with cynicism and despair about the state of our planet and the state of democracy. So even though all the warm and fuzzy reasons I've listed in the past (and below) are true and valid, the most important reason to Write For Rights is deadly serious. The world is seriously fucked up. Many, if not most, of us who care about the world feel helpless in the face of such enormous, complex, and intractable problems. Whether or not we will collectively succeed in make a difference on a global scale, we can each make a difference on an individual scale. Amnesty International provides us with an opportunity to do that.

Amnesty sometimes chooses the Write For Rights cases with a theme, such as activists who are women and girls, or earth defenders. This year, the cases focus on people aged 25 or under.

If a difference will be made, these are the people who will do the heavy lifting. It's our job to support them in any way we can. Amnesty letters are an important part of that support.

I've been participating in Write For Rights for many years. In the last few years, I've been challenging myself to write one letter for each of the ten highlighted cases. I give myself one week to get it done.

But that's just me. It's not all-or-nothing. It's something instead of nothing.

For every case, there are multiple opportunities to show support -- but it's the personal letter that makes the greatest impact.

* Emil Ostrovko is in prison in Belarus, one of 15,000 young people enduring long, grueling prison sentences for minor, non-violent offenses.

* Jianne Turtle is a young teen from the Anishinaabe community of Grassy Narrows. She is fighting for environmental justice for her people, whose communities have been devastated by mercury poisoning. Canadians may have heard of Grassy Narrows but not understand the issues. Here's an opportunity to learn and to help.

* In China, a young father and husband is probably in one of China’s secret concentration camps for Uyghurs. Up to one million Muslim people have been disappeared and locked up in these camps, where they are brainwashed with government propaganda. This is a human rights abuse on a sweeping scale.

* In Egypt, Ibrahim Ezz El-Din, a human rights worker, disappeared from the streets of Cairo. His work highlighting the need for safe, affordable housing brought him into conflict with powerful people.

* Sarah Mardini and Sean Binder are volunteer rescue workers, saving lives of refugees at sea. They face up to 25 years in prison, for the "crime" of saving lives.

* In South Sudan, 15-year-old Magai Matiop Ngong has been sentenced to death for causing an accidental death while trying to protect a family member.

* Marinel Sumook Ubaldo fights for justice and dignity for survivors of climate change in the Philippines. She needs our support.

* José Adrián had the bad luck to be targetted by the police in Mexico, although he had done nothing wrong. His life and his family's well being continues to be in jeopardy.

* On International Women's Day, 16-year-old Yasaman Aryani and her mother walked through a women-only train with her hair visible. Yasaman handed out flowers, and spoke of her dream of a future where Iranian women could decide for themselves whether or not to cover their heads in public. A video of her gentle action went viral. Yasaman was jailed and interrogated, and faces 10 years in prison.

* In Nigeria, Nasu Abdulaziz was shot and wounded for defending his home and his community. Joining a mass movement protesting forced evictions and destruction of homes and communities, Nasu continues to fight against government terrorism.

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For good measure, I'll also re-run the 10 cheerier reasons that you should participate in Write For Rights.

1. It's easy. Amnesty makes it really easy to participate. Read, type, send.

2. You can do do it from any computer. No meetings to attend, no schedule to keep. Just more of something you do all the time anyway: typing.

3. It's free. No need to donate money. The most this will cost you is postage.

4. You'll feel good about yourself. Enjoy that warm buzz you get from voluntarily helping other people. There's nothing quite like it.

5. You can choose how much to participate. Write one letter, write two letters, write three. Spend 10 minutes writing or spend an hour.

6. You can choose what to focus on. Write about an issue in your own country. Write about an issue in your country of origin. Write for children, or for women, or for LGBT people, or for workers, or for environmental activists, or for another issue that you care about.

7. You're busting stereotypes. We supposedly live in a selfish age where all we care about is I, me, mine. Challenge yourself to say it ain't so.

8. It works globally. Every fight against injustice begins with someone shining a light in a dark place. Be that light.

9. It works locally. When political prisoners are released, they often attest to the difference letters from strangers made in their lives: that knowing they were not forgotten helped them survive.

10. You enjoy your own human rights every day. Why not use them to help someone who can't? It doesn't take much time. It's not difficult to do. And it works.

Write for Rights in Canada

Write for Rights in the US

Write for Rights internationally.


toni morrison on good and evil in literature

Graphic via
Students Exploring Inequality in Canada
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by stories of forgiveness and redemption. I believe endlessly in the human capacity for redemption, and that belief that has only been strengthened as I've seen more of the world.

The stories that interest me the most are when people who suffer loss do not seek vengeance.

I first came upon this idea in the book Dead Man Walking, the 1994 book by Sister Helen Prejean. Prejean is foundational for me, and this book had a profound influence on my worldview. (I already opposed capital punishment when I read it.)

Stories of people who lost loved ones to violence, and opposed the execution of the murderer, always get my attention. I don't see them as often now, as I follow US news very closely.* But the Death Penalty Information Centre gives many examples of this.

The National Coalition Against the Death Penalty has many resources for and about people seeking an alternative to vengeance, such as Murder Victims Families for Human Rights.

The ACLU published Voices from California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Recent studies have questioned the idea that executing murderers brings "closure" to the families of victims.

For myself, a few memorable examples come to mind.

A father who lost a daughter on the attacks of September 11, 2001 spoke out against the invasion of Iraq, and against the death penalty for anyone responsible for the attacks. He said his daughter unequivocally opposed capital punishment and he honours her memory by picking up that cause.

The people of Norway after "22 July", as it is known there, refused vengeance, and refused to sacrifice human rights or civil liberties in response to the attacks.

And this powerful story, told here by Toni Morrison.
On an October morning in 2006, a young man backed his truck into the driveway of a one-room schoolhouse. He walked into the school and after ordering the boy students, the teacher and a few other adults to leave, he lined up 10 girls, ages 9 to 13, and shot them. The mindless horror of that attack drew intense and sustained press as well as, later on, books and film. Although there had been two other school shootings only a few days earlier, what made this massacre especially notable was the fact that its landscape was an Amish community — notoriously peaceful and therefore the most unlikely venue for such violence.

Before the narrative tracking the slaughter had been exhausted in the press, another rail surfaced, one that was regarded as bizarre and somehow as shocking as the killings. The Amish community forgave the killer, refused to seek justice, demand vengeance, or even to judge him. They visited and comforted the killer's widow and children (who were not Amish), just as they embraced the relatives of the slain. There appeared a number of explanations for their behavior — their historical aversion to killing anyone at all for any reason and their separatist convictions. More to the point, the Amish community had nothing or very little to say to outside inquiry except that it was God's place to judge, not theirs. And, as one cautioned, "Do not think evil of this man." They held no press conferences and submitted to no television interviews. They quietly buried the dead, attended the killer's funeral, then tore down the old schoolhouse and built a new one.
Morrison used this story as an introduction to a lecture to the Harvard Divinity School in 2012. After Morrison's death earlier this year, the New York Times published the text of the talk. I loved reading this and perhaps you will also enjoy it.

Toni Morrison on "Goodness: Altruism and the Literary Imagination".

* The US remains the only so-called developed country that still executes, keeping company with North Korea, Iran, and China. Despite more than 150 exonerations of death-row prisoners, and despite all that is known about capital punisment, 29 states still use the death penalty.


maya moore's quest for justice

Long ago (in internet terms), in the early days of what we then called the Blogosphere, one of the primary functions of blogs was to share other posts and articles of interest that we came across online. Social media has taken over that function -- and much less effectively. How many people actually read links they find on Twitter? While a meme or a short video may go viral, a lengthy think-piece becomes just another passing link in the endless feed.

I stopped using this blog to share articles of interest, but sometimes I come upon something that I just can't let go. Then I need to send them out into the world again through wmtc. I have a couple of those right now. Here's the first one.

* * * *

Maya Moore, currently one of the best professional basketball players on the planet, stunned the WNBA and its fans when she announced she would not play in the 2019 season.

Her reasons are even more surprising: Moore left the game to focus on social justice. Specifically, justice for one man, wrongly convicted and serving prison time in the state of Missouri, and more generally, for a more just justice system. Moore believes this is her purpose in life, deeply connected to her faith.

Last summer, Moore's team, the Minnesota Lynx, took the court wearing t-shirts declaring "Change Starts with Us. Justice & Accountability" on the front and "Black Lives Matter" on the back, along with the names [Philando] Castile and [Alton] Sterling, two of the many African Americans killed by police. The t-shirt also displayed the Dallas, Texas Police shield, a reference to the five police officers killed by a sniper in 2016, one man's protest against police violence.

Moore became interested in the case of Jonathan Irons, currently serving 50 years for a crime he was convicted of in 1998, at the age of 16. She was so moved by the injustice of Irons' case that she decided to focus full-time on criminal-justice reform.

There's also another thread to this story. The WNBA has a salary cap of $120,000. By contrast, the minimum salary in the NBA is $98.226 million. Some fans laud female players for being less "greedy," but $120,000 may like a comfortable salary. But athletes' careers are very short and can be cut even shorter by injury. To maximize earning potential to help secure their futures, female players will also play in European and Asian leagues, essentially playing all year round with very few breaks.

When Moore stunned the basketball world with her announcement in the Players' Tribune website, she left her reasons vague. Then she sat down with sportswriter Kurt Streeter and told her story.

To read more about Moore's decision and Irons' case, see this story from June of this year, in the New York Times: Maya Moore Left Basketball. A Prisoner Needed Her Help.