2015 booklist – into Africa

With a trip to South Africa planned for the end of 2015, books about Africa, and South Africa in particular, dominated this year’s reading list.
The best of the lot was Rian Malan’s My Traitor Heart. malanMalan, a South African journalist writes and observes, documents and reflects on Apartheid from the vantage point of someone who carries the weight of the sins of his fathers. He does not for a minute take any undo credit for his anti-apartheid stand, no pats on the back, and is completely honest about his own struggles with biases and conflicts and his place of privilege. It reminded me in some ways of My Promised Land, only 10 times better and much more honest.

Richard Dowden’s Africa: Altered states, ordinary miracles covers the continent as a whole, with each chapter devoted to a country or issue. Dowden, a British journalist, has been coverings Africa since the 1960s and offers both access and insight. There were not that many miracles and the overall sense is rather depressing and hopeless. Everyone got it wrong about Africa, from the colonists, through the super-powers, the aid organizations and the national governments. It’s a hot mess where no-one is spared responsibility (except maybe some missionaries) and good intentions can not redeem.
African fiction complemented the non-fiction readings and mostly demonstrated that real people live in these countries and while they are never really removed from politics, the everyday activities that dominate their lives are very much those of young people elsewhere.
S.J. Naudé, The alphabet of birds is a series of interconnected stories about mostly young South Africans, moving between countries and struggling with national, personal and sexual identity and their place in the world. NoViolet

NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names is a story of a young girl growing up in Zimbabwe in a shantytown with no indoor plumbing and singing Lady Gaga. It enforces some of Dowden’s thoughts on the role of NGO’s in African countries and like all the other books on Africa, turned upside-down my notions on good-bad, home, desired outcomes, personal and national responsibility, and what one can do to help.
While each book was excellent, I was left feeling despondent and ashamed of my pathetic attempts to help by buying books from Better World Books. It turns out that sending our discarded books to African libraries may not be such a good idea after all. First, it fills the shelves with, at best, children’s books that have nothing to do with the African experience, and at worse, with useless 2004 Excel manuals that local libraries are loathe to discard since the book as an object is given high status and weeding the collection is not common practice. In addition, it turns out the donating books to local libraries undermines the local publishing industry that are producing high quality books that are more relevant to the local population.

Africa aside, I read a total of 30 books in 2015, 20 in print, 10 on the kindle, 16 from the library, many many good ones. In addition to the ones described above, the best literary fiction: Rachel Cusk, Outline. The funniest (humor is really hard to achieve and when done right it’s so wonderful) was Julie Schumacher, Dear committee members. Deserving of the credit it received is Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the world and me and the classic that I missed and glad I caught up on is Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the art of archery as well as Death in Venice.


Some thoughts on DLC 2015

I just came back from DLC 2015, having to leave a day early so I can teach tomorrow, and came back thinking that this is best DLC I can recall in recent years. Not sure if the change is on my side or on DLC’s.

On my side, I am two years removed from serving on council, and those dreary monthly conference calls are beginning to fade away. They were always a challenge for me because the feeling was that you were listening to text and sub-text at the same time, but you never know which was which. Unless there was someone to keep you in the loop it was easy to be clueless (thanks fellow council members for keeping me afloat.)

On GPO’s side, maybe I was naïve, but I seemed to sense that a lot of good stuff was going on. I am quite impressed by the demo of the new FDsys and my sense was that the audience was as well. If it lives up to the demo, and there is every reason to believe it will, it will be in a league of its own. For people like me who still miss Thomas.gov and never took to Congress.gov, this is an appealing alternative.IMG_8721

I wish I could have cloned myself to attend multiple sessions, but here is some of what I ended up going to:

  • Info Lit in Action and Framework for Info Lit. both focused on teaching government information within academic libraries. Both Seth Porter and Shari Laster provided interesting examples from their work. Sharri’s mirroring of the ACRL literacy guidelines to government information was particularly interesting to me as someone who teaches in these areas.
  • The Monday morning kickoff, which already seems days away, was quite cheerful. Council chair Hallie Pritchett has an upbeat personality and she set a nice tone with her delivery of the traditional morning calisthenics (on second count, I realized I need to move from the 5-10 category to the over 10 category)
  • It was nice to see the libraries that received Depository of the Year award, and to count among them two of my fellow former council members Suzanne Sears for UNT libraries and Stephanie Braunstein  for LSU Libraries. Later that afternoon I got to hear in more detail about the work that Suzanne and her colleagues do at University of North Texas, Eagle Commons Library.
  • After lunch, Cass Harnett  and I presented Where has all the data gone: Citizen Created Tools. It was great creating this presentation with Cass and pulling our strengths together across two coasts. The presentation was about tools created by different groups such as developers, hackers, universities, foundations; what they all have in common is that they use data (numeric and textual) from the federal government. This can be the FR in XML, bulk data from FDsys, Census files and more. I think our presentation was well received, or at least a number of people told me so.
  • I enjoyed all the education sessions I went to and learned a lot. Highlights included some interesting non USPTO sources for searching patents for genealogical research, and some interesting things about FOIA and GAO reports and learning about NLM. The poster session was a particular delight, and not only because one of the presenters was a former students who is now at the HSS.

    Leah Castaldi presenting on Minority Health Reports from HHS.gov

    Leah Castaldi presenting on Minority Health Reports from HHS.gov

On the lighter side, after years of complaining about the Doubletree Hotel, even that wasn’t so bad this year. The rooms were not freezing and there were no snuggie jokes and the wifi and technology worked everywhere.

Looking forward to 2016!


A tribute to two great women: Mary George and Pat Reeling

Bad news that comes at you out of the blue and grabs you in the throat and leaves you speechless and deeply sad, such was the feeling I had earlier this week when I received the sad news that Mary George, a reference librarian at Princeton University Firestone Library for the past thirty-five years, passed away suddenly at her home.

I can’t quite remember how long I’ve known Mary George, but it probably goes back to the late 1990s when we were both adjuncts at Rutgers, teaching courses in similar areas of reference such as humanities and social science reference. I visited her at Princeton regularly and had students who graduated and went to work at Firestone Library. All always revered Mary George (for to many of us she was always Mary George and not Mary), most recent among them Thomas Keenan.

Mary George, center bottom, with students

Mary George, center bottom, with students. Seated: Susan White

The depth and breath of her knowledge was immense. At Princeton, she held responsibilities as subject specialist for many areas: Biographical Sources, Comparative Literature, European Union Documents, Library and Information Science. The scope of her scholarship was impressive. Her book on guiding students through the research process features regularly on my syllabi.
In recent years we talked about our shared interest in European Union information. Every spring semester for the past five or six years, I have gone to Princeton with a group of students to visit the library’s special collection in European Union and United Nations information sources. Mary George and Susan White always prepare a whirlwind of a day, with a detailed prepared agenda that includes presentations and tours and conversations and introductions. Seeing and hearing the passion with which Mary talked about her work – all aspects from collecting to helping seniors with their theses – made me appreciate fully her knowledge and dedication.

It was on the most recent visit to Princeton this spring that Mary and I sat together at lunch and had a nice long talk about library and information science education, about the skills needed today, about balancing aptitude and attitude, and more.
I feel privileged to have known Mary George and deeply saddened by her passing.

Earlier this summer, Pat Reeling, professor emeritus at Rutgers, passed away. I have known Dr. Reeling for the entirety of my academic career from the mid 1990s. It was in fact she who chose me. Dr. Reeling (I could never bring myself to call her Pat) walked into the SCILS PhD office and asked to see the essays of the incoming cohort, scanning for a match of interests, and found me. Dr. Reeling then proceeded to pass on to me her vast knowledge in both government information and pedagogy. Dr. Reeling was a great teacher. She brought to the classroom a depth of knowledge and a flair for instilling it in students. Her seemingly random story about how she once used Andriot to help her neighbor fix his lawn-mower is the story you will return to in your head every time you need to construct a search for older serial publications. Image-04

I still have in my files the manually compiled legislative histories and her copy of Schmeckebier. Dr. Reeling was always loved and appreciated by her students, many of whom went on to hold leadership positions, most notably among them Mary Alice Baish, the current Superintendent of Documents at the Government Publishing Office. If you look up to the banner of this blog you will see Dr. Reeling’s photo on the corkboard in my office; she’s my academic muse.

I will end with a somewhat related closing. A former student of mine posted this article titled “Why We Need Older Women in the Workplace.” It speaks in general to the contribution that an experienced and age-diverse workplace makes and to the positive impact of mid- and late-career mentors to new professionals. Such was Pat Reeling, and for that I am forever in her debt.


Working with incarcerated persons

For the past eighteen months I have been working with New York Public Library correctional services program to answer reference questions from incarcerated people. NYPL forwards me the questions and students taking Information Services and Sources answer inmates’ letters as part of their course work.
My colleague Emily Drabinski (who joined the project with her section of the course a year ago) and I, have written two extensive research articles on the topic, which will be published in RUSQ later this year.
In the meantime, Newsweek did a short piece on the project which really captures very little of the project and overlooks some important facets, such as the importance of information for facilitating reentry upon release.
Another aspect of the project that I am concerned with is how well the project meets the learning objectives of students. And for this, I would like to quote one of my students from the Fall semester:
Screen Shot 2015-01-26 at 5.15.51 PM
… each of the letters I received had such a real, genuine human voice to them – fears of re-entry and what would happen if they did not acclimate to society well, a desire to pursue a higher education, and so on. The program gave me a chance to interact with the inmates in a unique context that otherwise would have been very unlikely. I do hope the answers I provided were of help to each of the inmates, as that was my aim throughout the program.


In Memoriam, Jerry Breeze

It was a shock to wake up this morning to the news that Jerry Breeze passed away on Saturday from a sudden heart attack.

Jerry retired recently (summer 2013) from his long time position as Government Information librarian at Columbia University. It was government information that brought us together and we met regularly at Metro GoDig meetings, at DLC, and at Columbia. He was and early adopter of any information technology and a supporter and promoter of online access. He created some wonderful subject guides to government information, and I use them regularly.
Jerry was my go-to GovDocs librarian for the Jewish holidays – he would teach my classes on those occasions when the two were on the same night.

Jerry Breeze (center) with students

Jerry Breeze (center) with students

We had that kind of professional friendship that develops over years. In addition to government information, we shared a neighborhood, a love for the Middle East and many shared values.
It was just under a year ago that Jerry and I, along with two other govdocs librarians, met for a celebratory dinner in honor of Jerry’s retirement. Jerry was telling us about his plans to travel to Turkey and Egypt, two trips that he has since then completed, he just returned from Egypt in October.

Since then we have kept in touch on Facebook, and Facebook, what can I say, is a wonderful thing. Jerry shared posts about Open Access policies, Humans of NY, and photos from his trip to Egypt. His soft spot for dogs, underdogs and justice told the story of the person Jerry was. In the photos, there is always a happy sparkle in Jerry’s eye, and you can see how much he’s enjoying life. That’s how we will remember him.


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