Saturday, May 31, 2008

There Has Got to Be an Easier Way

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution has a post up on how he finds new books to read. (If you're not reading Marginal Revolution yet—and you should be!—Prof. Cowen reads scarily massive numbers of books on wildly divergent topics.) Here's just a partial list of the things he does to find new books (bracketed expansions of acronyms are mine): “visit Borders every Tuesday to look for new books, go to a local public library every other day and scan the new books section, subscribe to TLS [Times Literary Supplement], London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, noting that you should spend more time with the ads than the book reviews, read the blogs Bookslut and Literary Saloon, read the new magazine BookMark (recommended), read the NYT [New York Times], FT [Financial Times], and Guardian and their books sections....” (FYI, he's a professor of economics, not English, so it's not like keeping up on new fiction is part of his job description.)

This reminded me of a post I've been meaning to write for awhile about the person I know who had the most trouble finding new books to read—my grandmother. Well, no, let me rephrase that slightly. She outsourced the job of finding books for her to read to my mother and me, so really it was us who had the book-finding problem. My grandmother went through a book about every day and a half, so every two weeks, when my mother and I went to the library, we had to find about 10 books for her. And she was a picky reader. She liked love stories best, but only if there was no sex or bad language in them; she would read lighthearted mysteries, like the Mrs. Pollifax and Cat Who series, but nothing violent or dark or scary.... It was really all that my mother and I (and the wonderful librarians at the Middletown Public Library) could do to keep her in books. Our saving grace was that, once three or so years had passed, she would forget that she had read a book, so we could give it to her again.

How did we keep track of which books she had already read? At that time the library kept a card in the back of each book with the library card numbers of everyone who had checked out the book, along with their respective due dates. So we just had to look for our library card number in the list and see how long it had been since we'd last checked that book out. "Horrors!," I can hear the librarians out there thinking. "Freedom to read! It is unethical for the library to keep records like that of who has checked out a specific book! What if the government subpoenas those records?" I understand the logic behind that position (although I also don't think that my grandmother really would have cared if the government found out about her love of the novels of Janette Oake), but at the same time, I can't even imagine how we would have kept my grandmother in books without those records. We lived out in the boondocks, so it wasn't like we could make a mid-week run to the library and get more books for her if we accidentally brought home a pile of books that she had read recently. The library was too small for us to give her exclusively new books, and ILL was no solution—in the dark days before Amazon, it was hard to get much information about the content of a book without holding it in your hands. (Library of Congress subject headings don't really tell you things like, "How graphic are the murders in this murder mystery?" or "Is there out-of-wedlock sex in this romance novel?")

So when I say that libraries really ought to consider doing something Amazon-like to help people find books that they might like, I'm thinking of all of the time that my mother and I spent over the years flipping through books to decide if my grandmother might like them or not and scrutinizing the little card in the back to see how recently she had read them. If you estimate that we spent half an hour every two weeks doing that for probably thirty years (well, I only participated in this process for about ten years, but I think my mother did it for close to thirty)...that's a lot of time that could have been saved if the library catalog had had some system for saying, "People who like the kind of books that you like also like these new books." And that's one of the ethical values of librarianship too, right? Saving the time of the reader?

(Oh, and for another argument for why libraries ought to be taking a page from Amazon's book, check out the comments to Prof. Cowen's post. Count the number of people who advise using various Amazon features to get good book recommendations, and the number who know enough about how those methods work to recommend ways to improve the Amazon recommendations. Now count the number of people who say anything at all about libraries/librarians as a way of finding new books. By my count, the ratio is 7 to 0.)

Friday, May 9, 2008

Another Benefit of E-books/E-articles/etc.

They're much easier to move.

I'm just about finished packing. Just out of curiosity, I counted the boxes of information that I'm moving—not counting documents that I need to keep for legal or record-keeping reasons or anything like that, just books and papers that I'm keeping purely for the value of the information in them.

The tally:

  • 4 milk-crate-sized boxes of notebooks/papers/printed articles/photocopies/etc. from my undergraduate and graduate courses

  • 1 milk-crate-sized box of coursepacks from my undergraduate courses

  • 17 smallish boxes of books

  • A half-box of cookbooks

  • Two years' worth of American Libraries and Information Technology in Libraries

I hereby resolve to think about moving 22-boxes-plus worth of paper next time I'm tempted to print an article to write notes on it or to buy a paper book that I could get as a (not DRMed-to-death) e-book. Henceforth (or at least until I'm settled into someplace that I have no intention of moving out of ever again) all of my information is going to be electronic.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Don't Trust Everything You Read in Books, Part 274

A new biography of King Louis XIV's mistress, Madame de Maintenon, got the whole way through the editorial process at Bloomsbury (one of the more prestigious British publishing houses) without anybody noticing that one of its sources, a “diary” supposedly written by the king, was actually historical fiction.

Stories like this (as well as 6.5 years of working in the publishing industry) are a big part of why I worry that traditional information literacy instruction does a disservice to students by encouraging them to rely on external authority cues (Was it published by a reputable publisher and/or in a peer-reviewed journal?) rather than on internal accuracy cues (Do their numbers add up? Can you track down and verify their sources?) when evaluating information. Not everything that's made it through the editorial process is true, and not everything on the Web is false, and it seems like students would be much better served by learning how to evaluate the truth of the message rather than the “trustworthiness” of the medium.