Notes on WLA Mid-Winter Conference (January 2013)

I was a huge fan of Randy Cohen when he was writing the Ethicist Column for the New York Times so I couldn’t wait to sign up for the WLA MidWinter Conference where he was going to be the key note speaker.  I’m happy to report that he is as entertaining in person as he was in his column.  What did he have to say to us librarians?  I loved his idea that reading is essentially subversive (!) It leads to questioning and cn be transformative.  He recommended a little book called The Uncommon Reader, by Alan Bennett.   It is a fictional account featuring Queen Elizabeth becoming a reader!  One story was about the Queen who was about to meet a famous author and requested copies of his books so that she could read them before meeting the author.  An assistant asked why she didn’t just get herself briefed on the author.  She replied “briefing closes down a subject.  Reading opens it up” 

Since I’m a children’s librarian I took away these thoughts of Randy’s about reading that I want to keep in mind next time I meet a reluctant reader: Reading makes you independent – you can do it all by yourself and its private too. And you can escape to a life bigger than your own.  (Obvious, I know. but somehow hearing this talk made it fresh again)

Randy’s take on the difference between escapist fiction and literature:  Escapist fiction, like TV Soap Operas, is all tied neatly at the end, nothing and no one is really different.  But in literature, things are different at the end – transformed.  It reminded me of the end of Huck Finn where he “lights out for the territories”  Things are definitely going to be different.

Then Randy read to us and let us discuss several questions that he received from librarians when he was writing his Ethicist Column.  Things we’ve all experienced such as what to do about the patron who is viewing pornography or the parent who wants a book for his child’s research assignment (where’s the child? Oh, he’s too busy to come in)  Lots of smiles of recognition.

Then we were treated to a talk by Andromeda Yelton, named one of ALA’s Movers and Shakers. (In 2010 I believe.) *see Yelton’s reply below for correction*  Impressively thoughtful and articulate, you can see Andromeda’s talk and get a good feel for her personality at her website   What I took away from her talk was a useful summary of the 4 values of traditional libraries: Sharing, Privacy (reading a book is private), Preservation, and Access to Information.  With ebooks all that is changing – for example, while you’re reading your ebook, your ebook is reading you to find out your preferences.  There is no ebook strategy that promotes all the traditional library values – which ones will we choose?

After Andromda’s talk and a quick break we heard from Mary Chute and Peggy Cadigan of the New Jersey State Library.  They encouraged us to continue to reach out to people who don’t have access to technology and offered some suggestions: allow patrons to check out laptops to use in the library, go to schools to find out who the ethnic communities are that you are possibly underserving, visit senior centers and bring the technology to them, and consider the plight of exoffenderstrying to catch up –  figure out how to contact parole officers and make sure they remember the wealth of services a library can offer someone trying to re-enter society.  Here’s some other novel ideas:

  • A Colorado library sends someone to patrons homes to introduce iPads in a Tupperware party format
  • One library put a library in a room in a housing project
  • One library lets people check out a person: a Muslim, a paraplegic, a gardener, etc

Lastly, we should all take a look at something called Raspberry Pi, a tiny computer being made available for about $25.00.

It was a worthwhile morning, immersing myself in the questions that we wrestle with as librarians but in such an entertaining way.  Thanks, WLA!


*Thanks to Betsy Bishop for these notes!*

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