Saturday, January 10, 2009

Don’t Worry, the Librarians Will Save Us, or, Really, They Will Save Us—a Careful Analysis of Librarians in Pop Culture, and What That Means to Those

Think about the last time you needed some information. Maybe it was whether your Chinese zodiac meshed up well with that of your date last night, or maybe it was work-related: suddenly your boss needed to know the economic demographics of northern Utah. Who knows? It could have been anything. Yet, I am willing to bet that you didn’t think of turning to a librarian. You probably first went to Google, then wikipedia, then maybe you either followed the links at the bottom of wikipedia, or you went back to Google and tried a different search. I know because I’ve been there: this has been my search strategy in the past, and I have watched my roommate do the same on a number of occasions. Friends, there are better options.

Why not a library or librarian? Libraries’ web-sites are usually well designed, librarians are friendly, a phone call away, and, best of all, cost nothing. I bring up cost for a specific reason: if we do suddenly say, “Whoa! How have we fallen into this depression we saw miles ago? Where did my savings go?” librarians are still going to be around to help us find the jobs we lost, the community resources we may need, and possibly the best place to get a drink to deal with where our economy has gone. Really, no matter all else, librarians are vital to our continued social well-being as they possess four skills from which we might all benefit: they can find information better than anyone, they excel at discovering patterns, they are friendly, and, for the most part, offer their services for free.

Thinking about why my friends don’t love librarians as much as I do, I thought it might be worth everyone’s time to take a quick look at the, ahem, relevance of some pop-culture librarians (to the librarians who are reading this, you probably already know who these are, but please do continue if you need some positive reinforcement). I considered creating a poly-hierarchical taxonomy and adding several more examples, but, realizing that sometimes brevity really delivers, have decided to categorize these librarians under two basic headings: Librarians-as-Adventurers and Librarians-as-Information-Gods.

Librarian as Adventurer

Okay, if we all think about it, we can probably agree that Rupert Giles of the Buffyverse stands at the head of those librarians who not only know everything, but are quite willing to stand up to the forces of overwhelming darkness. Giles was not only a librarian par excellence, but could wield a mean axe (actually, thinking more on this, I realize that these are not really mutually exclusive). How many times did we watch him polish his glasses, get the team back on track, and provide Buffy et al with both the relevant and accurate information they needed to save the world?

We would all be remiss though if our imagination did not briefly touch upon Willow. Granted, she wasn’t a professional librarian, but nonetheless she was a wonderful role-model for every digital librarian worth a damn. Willow, armed with her trusty Mac Book could find just about anything, and best of all, she conducted good reference interviews!

I know The Mummy was not really the best film, I considered not even using it, but credit must be given to the writers for including a librarian. Evy Carnahan not only know her Dewey Decimal System, but also could read hieroglyphics. Unlike the main protagonist of the movie, she more than once paused to consider options, retrieve information, and then act. A sure sign of a fine librarian.

We even have super-hero librarians! Go ahead, and take a second to let that sink in. Yes. Batgirl, aka Babs Gordon, is a librarian, in fact she’s a Head Librarian at Gotham Library. From 1967 on, she’s been fighting Gotham crime as well as illiteracy (though not always as Batgirl--after a particularly nasty run-in with the Joker, she lost the use of her legs, and became Oracle. There is also Jet Li’s character Tsui Chik in the film The Black Mask. Honestly, Tsui Chik wasn’t really a great librarian (he was kind of surly), but nonetheless, could feel no pain and kicked kung-fu ass all over the rain-soaked streets of Hong Kong (or whatever city that was).

Friends, these librarians are indeed fictional, but that is no reason to discount the qualities they share with real life librarians: fearlessness, selflessness, and an uncanny knack to find the right information in time to at least postpone looming disaster (be it the end of the world, or just not finishing that report and having to work over the weekend).

Librarian as Information God:

I bet you didn’t realize that there was actually a librarian in The Matrix (with a speaking role no less!). Tank. He was the pretty burly good-looking guy who ran the information systems on the Nebuchadnezzar. This is important to librarians because it reminds everyone that librarians need not always be surrounded by books—sometimes they can be well-muscled digital-resources virtuosos.

Speaking of well-muscled digital-resources virtuosos, while Julia Stiles as Nicky Parsons, logistics coordinator for Treadstone in the Jason Bourne trilogy, lacked the brawn, she totally counts as a kick-ass digital librarian. See, even ruthless shadow government agencies need information professionals (and of course, as a responsible professional committed to bettering her society, Ms. Parsons abandoned said shadow organization when she realized the evil they did).

I ask you dear readers, where would these fictional worlds be were it not for intrepid librarians? The Buffyverse would be over-run with undead and demons, all would suffer under the dominion of an undead mummy, Hong Kong would suffocate beneath the iron hand of a ruthless government as would America, and the robots would win. Suffice to say, are not these terrible forces of all-things-bad so much the same as the forces of ignorance and repression, still alive, well, and among us? Friends, next time you have a question that needs answering, please think of your local librarians. Don’t let the robots win.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Information, Culture, and Responsibility

These screencast videos about technology and culture are so often tacitly about design as anything else; nonetheless this video is thought provoking (and well designed!):

(It should be mentioned that Bermuda has such high internet penetration, relatively, because it is tiny: just over 66,000 people living on 20.6 sq. miles.) Actually, that's my only gripe with this presentation--where did this information come from? Is the data properly contextualized? I know I'm splitting hairs here, but I do wish the video would include at the end some sort of indicator about about how the information was gathered and from what sources.

This video also reminds me of a concept I still often ponder--the difference between information and knowledge, and of course, the process of information becoming knowledge. The video asks "Do You Know?" This is a good refrain for the video, but I then have to ask, what good is knowing when the knowing does not (or cannot) alter behavior in positive ways for the "knower"? I don't mean to sound cynical, this is rather just a question about which I wonder. Perhaps that is the difference between information and knowledge: information is data that cannot yet be acted upon, while knowledge is data that, to use a business term, is actionable.

The tacit question, of course, is how we as a species will begin to deal with this immense amount of information. When we realize that we can create and publish information so much faster than we can organize or even comprehend its fullness, the above presentation takes on a slightly more serious tone; nonetheless, that doesn't mean we can't try. Ah the joys of librarianship! I knew I went into this profession for good reason.

Thanks to Karl at for posting the above video!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

New poetry arrives in the mail...

...which is exactly how a new year should begin. Michael Cross, the man behind Atticus/Finch, and an old friend of mine, sent me his first book of poetry, In Felt Treeling and it is gorgeous (both in edition and content).

Cross frames the poems as a libretto for Lavinia (from The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus) and Eumenides. The poems seem to hint at a sort of internal syndetic structure, but one that has begun to collapse. The language, though, evokes and surprises:

"e. sallow blossom / dis-
sympathy your eyes / sort of
emphatic squints / spatially met
useless near you rend / already
yield / for instress"

In the second half of the book, Come Flora Err--Solos for a Mezzo Soprano, Cross leaves the lyric structure behind and concludes the collection with a series of prose poems (hurrah!). I love the prose poem as a form, but it can certainly be tricky to write. happily, the prose poems in this collection manage to balance the visceral lyricism of the earlier section with the more dense structure of prose blocks.

Chax is publishing some really interesting writers and I am happy to see Michael's work included in their catalog.