Thursday, May 5, 2016

Google’s AI Has Read Enough Romance Novels to Write One on Its Own

May 5, 2016
by Abhimanyu Ghoshal

In an effort to make its apps more conversational, Google fed its AI engine a whopping 2,865 romance novels so it can improve its understanding of language.

The idea is to improve the way Google products respond to users. Software engineer Andrew Dai, who led the project, told BuzzFeed News that this sort of work could help make the responses from the company’s search app, as well as the ‘Smart Reply’ feature in Inbox, more natural and varied.

Dai added that romance novels are great for training AI because they mostly follow the same plot – allowing the AI to focus on picking up nuances of language.

After going through the massive trove of novels, the engine was tasked with writing sentences of its own based on what it had learned. It then compared its own work with text from books it had read, so as to continually improve its ability to generate better sentences.

According to Dai, the engine could theoretically write an entire romance novel by itself.
It certainly wouldn’t be the first book written by a bot. In 2013, developer Darius Kazemi started NaNoGenMo, short for National Novel Generation Month.

It was a riff on NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, an annual event that sees aspiring authors pen 50,000-word novels in 30 days every November.

Kazemi generated ‘Teens Wander Around a House‘, which featured a group of AI bots moving through a house while his program narrated their actions. When two characters ended up in a room together, the program drew dialogue from tweets to create conversations.

Earlier this year, a team from Future University Hakodate in Japan built an AI program that wrote a novel called ‘The Day a Computer Writes a Novel’. It was the only bot-authored work to enter the final round, out of 1,450 submissions from humans.

Given the rapid pace of development in the fields of AI and deep learning, it seems like the day isn’t far off when our next read will come not from a library shelf, but from a computer that tailors a custom book to your exact specifications.

Source: The Next Web

The Current: Can public libraries survive as an institution in the digital age?

The following is a transcript of CBC Radio's The Current, which aired on April 29, 2016.

On April 27, Newfoundland and Labrador announced it will be closing over half of its libraries, due to budget cuts.

The viability of libraries in the digital age have some people questioning the need for libraries as books are accessible online and don't need an institution to provide a service.

In 2011, a poll found that 84 per cent of Canadians support funding public libraries. Those who continue to support libraries argue the role of the library goes beyond books — it's a place for community, for shelter and has great resources to help people in difficult times.

With city budgets in constant need of budget cuts, should the institution be saved or are libraries in this digital age obsolete?
  • Beth Jefferson, co-founder and CEO of Bibliocommons in Toronto.
  • Paul Takala, CEO of Hamilton Public Library.
  • Bruce Fiske, social worker for the Millennium Library in Winnipeg.
Can public libraries survive as an institution in the digital age?

PIYA CHATTOPADHYAY: It was some sad news for library workers and users in Newfoundland and Labrador this past Wednesday. The province announced it will be closing down over half of its libraries due to budget cuts. Newfoundland and Labrador isn't alone. Back in 2011 when Toronto was struggling with similar budget constraints, this young resident made a heartfelt plea to then Mayor, Rob Ford.

ANIKA TABOVARADAN: [crying] This branch is so important to me. I’m sorry. If branches were taken away, branches like mine, where are most busy in the city will get even busier. People who don't have internet access at home depend on these computers and libraries to do homework and when I use a computer in a library to do my homework, I’ll be able to get a good job someday, get a good education, and when the day comes to pay taxes, I’ll be glad that years before people paid the extra taxes to keep the system going. I can pay taxes for the kids who depend on the computers in my time.

PC: That was 14-year-old Anika Tabovaradan back in 2011 and she was pleading with Toronto city council to keep her local library branch open. And it really seems that the public is on side. A poll that same year found that 84 percent of Canadians support funding public libraries, but it's not entirely clear what role the library should play in our digital age. We're joined now by two guests to share their thoughts about the future of our libraries. Beth Jefferson is co-founder and CEO of Bibliocommons, it is a company that helps public libraries improve the online experience of their users. She's here in Toronto and Paul Takala is the CEO of Hamilton Public Library and he's the vice-chair of the Canadian Urban Library Council. He's just up the road in Hamilton, Ontario. Hello to you both. Paul, let me begin with you. When you heard on Wednesday that Newfoundland and Labrador was shutting down 54 of its libraries, more than half that they're going to close, what did you think?

PAUL TAKALA: Well, I thought less reading and learning is going to happen in the province and the long term consequences are certainly not positive.

PC: Beth, where are you on this one?

BETH JEFFERSON: Well, these are definitely difficult economic time for Newfoundland, but I think everywhere we've seen is that libraries are some of the most efficient use of tax dollars of any educational institution, and this is a time when they need libraries most.

PC: Paul Takala, you said that there will be less reading and I'm wondering why you think that is if libraries shut down?

PAUL TAKALA: Part of their strategy is saying they will increase access to digital materials, and that's really important and we do that as well, but providing access to digital materials doesn't necessarily replace access to physical books and we know people that who don't have access to a library branch in reasonable proximity, a lot of them used to come into the library to actually get connected to the internet so a lot of people are going to be left without really much access.

PC: Calvin Taylor, who is Newfoundland and Labrador’s library board chair says that everyone in his province, when these 54 shut down, will still be able to access a library within a 30-minute drive from their home. I think his number was 85 percent of people. When you talk about proximity to libraries, is that good enough that you might have to go 30 minutes to go to your library?

PAUL TAKALA: Well, if you're a senior citizen that doesn't drive anymore or you're a young student that is looking for a place to go after school to do homework, a half hour drive may not be very feasible.

PC: Calvin Taylor also says that we're going to have fewer libraries, but that means that the ones that will remain open they can be better; they can be improved. They can improve resources to the remaining ones and that that will, in itself, help increase literacy rates in Newfoundland and Labrador. What do you think of that argument, Paul?

PAUL TAKALA: Well, I think certainly what they're doing though, is they are saving a million dollars cutting a lot of branches. This is an 8.4 billion dollars budget deficit or budget itself and I think what Beth said is that the small amount of money they're saving is a million dollars. Sure, they're going to increase some hours at some other locations but ultimately they are cutting service to the province.

PC: Let’s broaden out a bit. I mean, when libraries close, Beth, what do you think the impact, whether to Newfoundland and Labrador or elsewhere, what do you think the impact is on a community?

BETH JEFFERSON: Well, I think we heard that in the initial clip libraries really have a very deep impact on a surprisingly broad range of people and the local branch library is a very important community hub, like a public park for many. It’s one of the few public spaces that remains big enough to hold us all across generations, across economic divides, where you really bring people together in ways that are increasingly unusual.

PC: Paul, talk to me about that communal experience and how libraries serve communities beyond the books, in a sense.

PAUL TAKALA: Absolutely, and one of the things that makes me proudest to be working in a public library is walking around our branches or a central library and seeing people of all walks of life, of all ages, using the space together. There is a social cohesion that gets enhanced by public library experience. I think it's great that you know, someone of means is sitting at a table reading a newspaper or book beside someone from a very different background and we find, especially nowadays with our increasing senior's population, we have a lot of seniors come to the library just to read the paper, just to be around people. They attend out programs and for some people it's one of the few social engagements that you have.

PC: I mentioned it, and Beth mentioned the digital reading. That's where a lot of people are turning to and perhaps abandoning the traditional library. So, Beth, you're not a librarian, but you work with them and you work with them on hey let's fix your, improve your digital presence. Within that context, are libraries still relevant in terms of a place where you go and get your books and you get them for free and you return them every two or three weeks, or don't and pay your fines?

BETH JEFFERSON: Absolutely. First of all, I think in this era where we're all spending increasing number of hours online, we also are at the same time craving human connection, real human connection, face to face, in person in ways that are new and I think the real opportunity for libraries here is to bridge the online/offline divide and bring people together in new ways where they might meet and connect online but have a place to meet in person as well. That's something that Amazon, e-bay, Facebook can't deliver and that libraries are uniquely positioned to do.

PC: Okay, so you work with libraries on sort of making that bridge, that connection between digital and that communal social experience that many people have when they physically go into a library. What advice do you give them? What can existing libraries do to improve their value to the communities?

BETH JEFFERSON: Well, I think they're already doing a huge amount in this space. It's important to say that almost half of visits of large urban libraries today are online. So, as many visits online as in person and there really is an opportunity when people are browsing their collections online to connect them to the events of the space, to book groups, to conversations that libraries still are investing in. In fact, and Paul will know more, but increasing and increasing and putting increasing investments towards—

PC: Towards the digital stuff?

BETH JEFFERSON: Towards the physical events and using the spaces in new ways. So as you remove, in some time areas they're pulling back on the stacks, but creating greater event space, greater space for local groups to meet in person, book groups, just events of all sorts.

PC: Paul, is that what you're doing in your library?

PAUL TAKALA: Absolutely and I think Beth hit the nail on the head. As we embraced digital and, in our case in Hamilton, we've been an early adopter of e-books and last year about 15 percent of our circulation overall was digital. So, we are embracing that and helping people make the shift when they're ready, but a lot of people still love books. What we're able to do with that digital shift is, we're not necessarily buying less titles, but we're buying less copies because of the shift to digital and so that is freeing up space that's being given back to the community in terms of study space, program space, space for people to work together or study alone.

PC: Do you charge for that stuff, Paul?

PAUL TAKALA: No, we don't and what's great about--one thing about e-books is they expire. There are no fines with e-books so people that make that shift never have to worry about library fines.

PC: I ask that because, of course in Newfoundland and Labrador, this is a budgetary measure that they say we've got to save money in the libraries. People take out books for free and in some libraries, Paul, charge users an access fee to even take books out of the libraries. It's sort of like a rental thing. Do you think that's a good idea? When you think about how municipal governments, provinical governments say, well we have to close these things down because we don't have enough money and everyone has to take a hit, do you think charging user access fees is a good idea?

PAUL TAKALA: I don't and I think the important thing to keep in mind is libraries exist so everyone in the community can have access to information and reading material and things to make them feel engaged with the world around them. If you impose user fees, who are going to be the people that are going to be most hurt by that? It’s going to be the people that probably need those materials the most because they don't have the resources to go to Amazon or go to Chapters and buy books themselves, or go to the movies for that matter. So, charging fees is really counter to the whole essence of what a public library is.

PC: Beth, you do help them through modernizing, I guess, modernize the public face of libraries in the work that you do. I'm asking a broader question but in terms of cutting a wide swath across libraries, but are they willing to embrace leverage is there a tradition of libraries. Are they willing and wanting to change the way that you see that they need to change?

BETH JEFFERSON: Absolutely. Libraries are, and those who use libraries, are very aware of it. In Toronto itself, in Hamilton, all over libraries are experimenting with new models of programming all the time, investing in maker spaces and new digital programming all the time. They're very open and it's challenging though because technology investments and certainly digital experiences have a very high fixed cost of development and libraries are often very fragmented in the systems and the key is really coming together around shared infrastructure.

PC: Paul, how optimistic are you about where libraries are headed and the future of them as they adapt and adopt new things?

PAUL TAKALA: Well, I'm very optimistic and I think one of the reasons is that the world we live in is evolving so rapidly that the need for lifelong learning is certainly not going to be going down and the need as we get more into the digital age, the need for connections and communities to come together to places is just as great as it ever has been.

PC: So there's still relevance in libraries?

PAUL TAKALA: Well, certainly the numbers show us that and people love libraries and we work hard to make sure that we're always helping people prepare for the future, and that's really what a public library is, to help people understand where they are and help them prepare for the future.

BETH JEFFERSON: Just building on that, there is a tremendous need and a growing need for these public spaces, both offline and online. If you think about the kind of great wishes for, or hopes for the internet when 25 years ago when it first came to be, it was this kind of big public space, the agora, where we would all have these great conversations and connect in new ways, and I think increasingly people are seeing that it's turning into one big shopping mall, or movie cinema, and that there is a real need for a non-commercial, neutral, big public space where people can connect in those ways and I think the public library is uniquely situated to fill that role.

PC: Beth and Paul, thank you both.

GUESTS: Thank you very much.

PC: Beth Jefferson is co-founder and the CEO of Bibliocommon and she was here in Toronto. Paul Takala is CEO of Hamilton Public Library. He was in Hamilton, Ontario. Well, as Beth and Paul just mentioned, libraries are expanding. They are offering more than just books and computers nowadays. Some even have a social worker onsite providing support to anyone who needs it. Bruce Fiske is the social worker at the Millennium Library Services in Winnipeg. Bruce is with us now. Hi, Bruce.


PC: So, you're a social worker in a library. What do you do?

BRUCE FISKE: Well, since June 2012, I've been there to receive people from all walks of life. Often there are vulnerable folks you know, or just people that just need help accessing resources in the community.

PC: And who is your clientele?

BRUCE FISKE: When I first started there were folks from the immediate vicinity that sort of heard that there was a social worker, may have seen a poster. Those folks often were just library patrons, regular ones, some of them were from limited means, some were folks who lived in the emergency shelter, some older folks would come in, some newcomers, or just a general person who wondered who I was and why is there a social worker at the library.

PC: And what did you tell them about why there was a social worker in the library?

BRUCE FISKE: There’s a social worker in the library? I hear that quite often. People are surprised to hear it. Most people realize it is a great idea because I think it’s such a central location. Libraries have historically been there for folks of all means and it’s a place where people of all backgrounds can use as a place of sanctuary. It’s a place where people can relax and enjoy themselves and access all kinds of resources and find themselves in times of trouble, looking for answers. It’s a good place, it’s central, it’s historically known as a place for folks to enjoy the world around them.

PC: And I assume, when you say they can access resources, they can come talk to you about whatever they want, and if there happens to be a book that might help them as well, you could refer them to take that out as well.

BRUCE FISKE: Oh well, you know I'm not a librarian per se, I collect those books myself and I find it helpful in the work that I do and when I first started, I wasn’t as much that sort of person. I think the librarian who is the area I work in now if rubbing off on me [laughs].

PC: But there is someone there to help one of your clients, right? You could pass him along?

BRUCE FISKE: Absolutely, the staff here are fantastic. They'll do whatever they can to provide information and resources to the folks I see.

PC: In a given week, how many people are coming to see you on average?

BRUCE FISKE: It fluctuates. There are some days where I might see over fifteen people or something like that, and then other days maybe less, maybe five people or so. Sometimes, I get out and I'll go visit some of the shelters or I'll just walk around the community. I'll get out and make sure that I'm not missing anyone. Sometimes I'll go through the library, a lot of times I work with security very closely. We have a great security department. They get to know the regulars and if they see someone they don't recognize or it looks like there is trouble, they let me know about it. The same goes to a lot of the branch locations of the libraries.

PC: Bruce, what would you say to someone who says, oh for goodness sakes Bruce, my province is in debt, we're in deficit, we need to close these libraries, and having a social worker like you in a library, it just doesn't add up for me. What do you say to that argument?

BRUCE FISKE: You know, I'm thinking what happens to somebody who's vulnerable and really sort of struggling in the system; of falling through the cracks these days when helping folks is networking and inter agency communication and that sort of thing, and you know what? It's often a case where people are, and the mental health system is, overwhelmed and the waiting time is actually quite long to access services for some, and so what do people do during that time? It can be quite a strain on the system if emergency services and that sort of thing isn't in place for them to go, to help them out in the interim. So, I think you know, I'm kind of helping people along during that period and I think in the long term it's a very useful and hopefully it will expand out and maybe we’ll see other social workers more and more often.

PC: Bruce Fiske, good to talk to you, thank you.

BRUCE FISKE: You're very welcome.

PC: Bruce Fiske is the social worker at the Millennium Library Services that is in Winnipeg.

Well, we don't want to close the book on this one without including you, so do let us know your thoughts. What do you want from your local public library, what would you miss most if it closed, do you think public libraries should be closed?

You can tweet us, our handle is @thecurrent. You can find us on Facebook as well. You can email us by going to our website and once you're there you can click on the contact us link to find out all the ways to get in touch with us.


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

On the Heartbreaking Difficulty of Getting Rid of Books

Summer Brennan Attempts Marie Kondo's Approach to Tidying up Her Library

April 26, 2016
by Summer Brennan

Like a lot of avid readers, I enjoyed Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up but bristled when it came to the section about books. The gist of her now-famous method is this: go through all your possessions by category, touch everything, keep only that which “sparks joy,” and watch as your world is transformed. It seems simple enough, but Kondo gives minimalism the hard sell when it comes to books, urging readers to ditch as many of them as they can. You may think that a book sparks joy, she argues, but you’re probably wrong and should get rid of it, especially if you haven’t read it yet.

Paring down one’s wardrobe is one thing, but what kind of degenerate only wants to own 30 books (or fewer) at a time on purpose? What sort of psychopath rips out pages from their favorite books and throws away the rest so they can, as Kondo puts it, “keep only the words they like?” For those of us for whom even the word “book” sparks joy, this constitutes a serious disconnect. Still, as the weather gets warmer, many readers will tackle their spring cleaning with The Life-Changing Magic in hand.

I wondered, can Kondo’s Spartan methods be adapted for someone who feels about books the way the National Rifle Association feels about guns, invoking the phrase “cold dead hands”? I decided to give it a try.

Following her instructions, I herded all of my books into one room and put them on the floor. There were more than 500, ranging from books I’d been given as a small child to advance review copies of novels I’d received within the last week. Somehow they did not appear as numerous as one would expect. They looked vulnerable and exposed when stacked up in this way, out of context, like when the TSA zips open your suitcase at the airport. But that is the point of the KonMari method—to force us to see our possessions under the fluorescent light of disorientation.

Oh, I thought, scanning tattered paperbacks and long-forgotten class-assigned texts.


One would be hard pressed to find a lifestyle guru as simultaneously tender and ruthless as Marie Kondo, former Shinto temple maiden and book mutilator. Your socks will feel sad unless you treat them gently and fold them properly, she tells us with emotion, before instructing us to put their cast-off brethren in a garbage bag and send them to the landfill.

The most interesting aspect of the KonMari Method is the way in which it acknowledges the emotional lives of things. Whether that life is inherent or something that we project doesn’t really matter. She bypasses New Age-y concepts like “good vibes” and “energy flow” and jumps right to the chase: the objects you possess have feelings, so deal with it. It may seem silly at first to thank an old sweater for a job well done before getting rid of it, but actually doing so can feel oddly poignant. Kondo’s background in Shintoism is important in this respect. In Shinto cosmology, our physical reality co-exists with an invisible world of animistic spirits. Her worldview is in line with the Japanese aesthetic known in the West as wabi sabi, which explores the delicate balance between the pleasure we get from things versus the pleasure we get from the freedom from things.

The aim of KonMari is to more fully appreciate what you have by letting go of that which no longer serves you. The difficulty comes in telling which is which. Much of what we don’t need tends to blend in with its surroundings, like a camouflaging octopus on a reef, effectively invisible until we grab hold of it or get right up in its face. By handling everything, we cause this hidden dead weight to startle, blanche, and show itself. Kondo even recommends clapping one’s hands over the objects to “wake them up.”

I went through my books one by one. Kondo says you shouldn’t open the books, but I broke that rule—not to read them, but to see what I might have long-ago stashed inside.

There was a surprising amount of stuff between the pages—letters, tickets, photographs, receipts. I found my New Year’s Eve resolutions for 1998; a slip of paper acknowledging my plea of GUILTY to a speeding ticket and instructing me to pay $125 to the town of Athens, New York; a hospital bill for $564; a Xeroxed page from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself with the stanza circled that begins I have said that the soul is not more than the body; the muted floral wrapper for fig apricot soap, still fragrant; the boarding pass for a flight from New York to Stockholm; a yellow hall pass from my California high school.

It occurred to me that part of the reason why tackling the “books” stage of the Full Kondo seems so daunting is that to many of us our books don’t really belong in the category she has assigned. They are not impersonal units of knowledge, interchangeable and replaceable, but rather receptacles for the moments of our lives, whose pages have sopped up morning hopes and late-night sorrows, carried in honeymoon suitcases or clutched to broken hearts. They are mementos, which she cautions readers not to even attempt to contemplate getting rid of until the very last.

To be fair, Kondo no longer thinks that ripping books to pieces is a good idea, but it’s telling to learn that she herself once did this to save space. Keeping parts of books might make sense if your entire library consisted of cooking or craft manuals, but sounds completely crazy when applied to novels or narrative nonfiction. Which chapters of Anna Karenina or In Cold Blood would you keep, for example? The picture Kondo paints is a bleak one, referring mostly to business books and textbooks, to “studying” and “necessary information.” The “classics” she refers to are not Dickens and Brontë but “authors like Drucker and Carnegie,” a management consultant and an industrialist, respectively. With no offense to those two illustrious professions, I am not very shocked that these didn’t “spark joy.”

But to my surprise, I found plenty of books in my possession that did not spark joy either. These included books given to me by exes toward whom I feel no warmth; paperbacks from college with the last 20 pages missing; books that have been more than 10 percent eaten by a former pet rabbit; two sad-looking copies of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, although I’m not sure why. All told there were 30 such books, or perhaps 60. I didn’t count them. They filled three shopping bags. I separated the 547 remaining books I was keeping into two piles—those I had read already, and those I hadn’t.

No matter how joyful or sparkly a book, to her credit Kondo focuses most sharply on a very specific kind of book and book-owning habit: Tsundoku, an untranslatable Japanese word that means “buying books and letting them pile up unread.” First coined in the 19th century, the word doesn’t appear in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but battling it is Kondo’s thesis statement. “Unread books accumulate,” she writes. And indeed they do.

All the books I’d read already went back on the shelves. The 32 unread books “to be read right now” were returned to my bedside table. The 28 “work-related” volumes—I’m a writer, after all—both read and unread, went in their own pile.

I then stacked up my remaining 105 unread books against the wall outside my bedroom. They weren’t headed to Housing Works, but their invisible octopus days were over. As a decorating strategy it’s more Bernard Black than Marie Kondo, but it’s important to embrace our true selves. I’ll read them or I won’t read them, or I will give them away, and don’t you dare use the word party as a verb in this shop.

Kondo argues emphatically and in bolded text that the right time to read a book is when it first comes into your possession. But throwing out every unread book on your bookshelf just because you’re not reading it right now makes about as much sense as throwing away all the perfectly good food in your refrigerator and pantry just because you don’t plan on eating it for your next meal. Only you can gauge your appetite.

“A book can wait a thousand years unread until the right reader comes along,” said the critic George Steiner, and that’s true. The good ones are incantations, summoning spells. They are a spark, a balm, a letter from home. They contain demons, gods in a box. They are tiny rectangles with the whole universe packed in. We read books that describe magical portals when really it is the books themselves that are the rabbit hole, the wardrobe, the doorway between worlds. Books, like people, are bigger on the inside. It is by this dimension of imaginative relativity that Hogwarts, Middle Earth, Earthsea, Dickens’s London, Hemingway’s Paris, Didion’s anxious California and the mind of Helen Oyeyemi, reclining like a sphinx between her pages in quiet and glittering sleep, all fit inside my tiny apartment, and inside me.

While Kondo-ing my books I was reminded of the story of baby Krishna, accused of eating dirt. When his foster mother demands that he open up his rosebud mouth to prove his innocence, she looks in and sees the complete and timeless universe inside him with its stars and galaxies adrift in black oceans of vast distance, and all of time that ever was or ever will be, and the blue and green earth teeming with life, and all the ideas and feelings that one could ever think or feel, and their own little village with its streets and houses, and their own garden and herself in it, and every bit of dirt in its rightful place.

It’s not true that when you first receive a book is the only right time to read it. Books can stay with you like a talisman on a quest, taken out of your cloak, unwrapped and understood only at your darkest hour: A light to you when all other lights go out.

It’s a useful exercise to clear the cobwebs from one’s bookshelves once and a while, but don’t let anyone talk you into getting rid of your books if you don’t want to, read or unread. Ask yourself whether or not each book sparks joy, and ignore the minimalist proselytizing if it chafes you. After all, the romance of minimalism relies on invisible abundance. The elegantly empty apartment speaks not to genteel poverty, but to the kind of hoarded wealth that makes anything and everything replaceable and available at the click of a mouse. Things and the freedom from things, and then things again if you desire. If you miss a book after getting rid of it, Kondo consoles, you can always buy it again. Dispose and replace, repeat and repeat. Ah, what fleeting luxury.

Anyway it’s “papers” next. Wish me luck.

Source: Literary Hub

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The New Yorker: Weeding the Worst Library Books

April 26, 2016
by Daniel Gross

Weeding the Worst Library Books

Last summer, in Berkeley, California, librarians pulled roughly forty thousand books off the shelves of the public library and carted them away. The library’s director, Jeff Scott, announced that his staff had “deaccessioned” texts that weren’t regularly checked out. But the protesters who gathered on the library’s front steps to decry what became known as “Librarygate” preferred a different term: “purged.” “Put a tourniquet on the hemorrhage,” one of the protesters’ signs declared. “Don’t pulp our fiction,” another read.

In response, Scott attempted to put his policy in perspective. His predecessor had removed fifty thousand books in a single year, he explained. And many of the deaccessioned books would be donated to a nonprofit—not pulped. Furthermore, after new acquisitions, the collection was actually expected to grow by eighteen thousand books, to a total of nearly half a million. But none of these facts stirred up much sympathy in Berkeley. A thousand people signed a petition demanding that Scott step down—and, in the end, he did.

Public libraries serve practical purposes, but they also symbolize our collective access to information, so it’s understandable that many Berkeley residents reacted strongly to seeing books discarded. What’s more, Scott’s critics ultimately contended that he had not been forthcoming about how many books were being removed, or about his process for deciding which books would go. Still, it’s standard practice—and often a necessity—to remove books from library collections. Librarians call it “weeding,” and the choice of words is important: a library that “hemorrhages” books loses its lifeblood; a librarian who “weeds” is helping the collection thrive. The key question, for librarians who prefer to avoid scandal, is which books are weeds.

Mary Kelly and Holly Hibner, two Michigan librarians, have answered that question in multiple ways. They’ve written a book called “Making a Collection Count: A Holistic Approach to Library Collection Management,” which proposes best practices for analyzing library data and adapting to space constraints. But they are better known for calling attention to the matter with a blog: Awful Library Books.

Kelly and Hibner created the site in 2009. Each week, they highlight books that seem to them so self-evidently ridiculous that weeding is the only possible recourse. They often feature books with outlandish titles, like “Little Corpuscle,” a children’s book starring a dancing red blood cell; “Enlarging Is Thrilling,” a how-to about—you guessed it—film photography; and “God, the Rod, and Your Child’s Bod: The Art of Loving Correction for Christian Parents.”

Sometimes it’s the subject matter that seems absurd. Of “Wax in Our World,” a nonfiction book for young adults, Kelly said, “Who came into a publisher’s office and said, ‘You know, the kids really need a book about wax’?”

Kelly and Hibner came to value weeding when working at a library in Detroit, in 2008. “Most people that come into a library are looking for a new job, or they’re facing a financial crisis, or they’re trying to do research on a medical problem,” Kelly, who has worked in libraries since 1998, told me. Unfortunately, the library’s career and medical shelves were cluttered with outdated material. “People were picking up books from the seventies on how to find a job,” she recalled. “We were going to the résumé shelves and finding things that would tell you to put your height, weight, and marital status on your résumé,” Hibner added. “We were like, we can’t give this to people.”

“It’s not free to keep something on the shelf,” Ann Campion Riley, the president of the Association of College and Research Libraries, told me. According to Riley, weeding goes back at least to the medieval period. “There are writings where the monks are saying, ‘Should I keep this? Should I keep that?’ ” These questions are pragmatic, but profound—and they have been joined by new ones, such as, should libraries phase out physical books and move their holdings online? The trouble, as Jamillah Gabriel, a librarian at Purdue University, explained, is that “there’s not always an e-book for everything.” Digital libraries are becoming more popular, but they’re not on pace to replace tangible books anytime soon.

When Hibner and Kelly worked together, they had a goldfish they named Ranga, after the Indian scholar S. R. Ranganathan, whose “Five Principles of Library Science,” first proposed in 1931, are still frequently cited today. “No. 5 is, the library is a growing organism,” Hibner said. This conception of libraries—especially public libraries, where universal access is more important than permanent preservation—explains the metaphor of weeding.

When I asked about what happened in Berkeley last year, Kelly and Hibner said it helps, from a public-relations standpoint, to weed gradually. “I pull one or two books a week. Nobody’s going to even question that,” Hibner said. She also keeps a bag of her favorite weeded books under her desk—“Vans: The Personality Vehicle,” “Be Bold with Bananas”—in case any inquisitive patrons want examples.

Some of the books Kelly and Hibner highlight seem so bizarre as to be worth keeping. Shouldn’t everyone have a chance to flip through “The Psychic Sasquatch and Their UFO Connection”? But public libraries aren’t designed to preserve unusual texts, they said. “There are places where you want to hang on to the weird stuff of our culture. That’s in museums and archives,” Kelly told me. “Keeping a bunch of crap on a dusty shelf is not preserving anything,” Hibner added.

Awful Library Books caught on quickly: within a year of launching, the site had been featured on, CBC Radio, and Jimmy Kimmel’s TV show; the site’s Twitter account now has eleven thousand followers. Hibner and Kelly figure that the site will eventually outlast its usefulness, but for now they still get submissions every day—such as “Should a Therapist Have Intercourse with Patients?,” by Arthur Seagull, which was sent in a few months back.

Hibner and Kelly both emphasized that many factors come into play when deciding which books should be kept. You want your books to reflect the community you serve, but the popularity of a book is by no means the only barometer. At Hibner’s library, “War and Peace” has been checked out just five times in the past twenty-two years. “It’s huge; it’s taking up quite a bit of space,” Hibner said. “But for libraries like us to not have ‘War and Peace’ at all—it doesn’t seem right.” Something tells her that Tolstoy is not a weed.

Source: The New Yorker

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

CBC News North: Yukon library book returned, 50 years late

By Paul Tukker | April 12, 2016

A Yukon library book has been returned from half a world away, and only half a century late.

The book, The Story of Madame Curie by Alice Thorne, was due back at the Whitehorse public library on Dec. 18, 1965. Instead, it took a prolonged side trip to New Zealand.

"My family moved from the Yukon in 1967, and unfortunately this little book was not returned and sat at the bottom of a cabin trunk for many years," wrote Roslyn Selby of Bethlehem, New Zealand, in a letter sent along with the book.

"Only recently finding it (after 50 years), as it is still in reasonable condition, I have decided to return it to you."

Selby wrote that reading has been a lifelong love of hers, and the overdue book — a biography of pioneering researcher of radioactivity Marie Curie — was influential in her young life.

"I went on to a career in medicine (paediatrics), and am sure this book helped to inspire me to do so," she wrote, adding that she recently retired after a 40-year career.

"What an incredible story," said Sarah Gallagher of the Whitehorse Public Library.

Gallagher said she was excited to receive a package at the library, initially thinking it was new DVDs for the collection. What she found was even better.

"There were happy tears," she said.

"I was blown away," said Aimee Ellis, director of Yukon Public Libraries. "You hear about these stories in other libraries, and I was excited and thrilled that we got to experience the pleasure of a long-overdue book with a good story."

So, what about the late fee?

'No doubt I have a large overdue fee now,' Roslyn Selby wrote. She sent along a few new books in lieu of payment. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

Selby didn't send money along, but recognizing her possible debt, she instead included several new books as donations to the Yukon library collection. She also promised to send more in the future.

That more than settles it, said Gallagher.

"It's fine-free month at Yukon Public Libraries. Roslyn had no idea how good her timing was."

To read the full article, please visit CBC News North.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Inside Halton: Crafty creations at Oakville Public Library's Community Expo

John Bkila | Oakville Beaver | April 17, 2016

The Oakville Public Library held its inaugural Community Expo earlier this month in the auditorium of its Central Branch on Navy Street.

The free, family-friendly event featured local crafters and technocrafters showcasing their skills.

Titled Create & Innovate, the event also allowed residents to try their hand at something new.

Activities included: silk screening, jewelry and card making, 3D printing, coding, robotics, and arm knitting, among others.

“Coinciding with the library’s mission of building community by connecting people and ideas, the Community Expo aims to bring residents together in an inspiring, intergenerational environment,” stated a media release.

“OPL’s Community Expo is just one example of how its offerings are evolving to encourage creativity, collaboration and discovery in new and exciting ways.”

The Oakville Public Library has six branches located throughout the town and offers programs for all ages, collections of books, digital media offerings and town-wide outreach endeavors.

Please visit Inside Halton for the full article and pictures. 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Guardian: Take two chapters, daily – how to prescribe fiction

April 12, 2016
By Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin

Take two chapters, daily – how to prescribe fiction
GPs are to going to give books to help teenagers with mental health issues. It’s a great idea – but not a new one. Here, two seasoned bibliotherapists discuss the power of novels-as-therapy

The news that GPs are offering books by the likes of Mark Haddon on prescription to young people with mental health issues is no surprise to us. We have been recommending – or “prescribing” – books as “cures” for common ailments from depression to heartbreak since 2008, when we started our bibliotherapy service. Our medicine draws not on pharmaceuticals, but on 2,000 years of great literature.

The concept of bibliotherapy is not new. Plato said that the arts are “not for mindless pleasure”, but an “aid to bringing our soul-circuit, when it has got out of tune, into order and harmony with itself”. Our practice focuses on great works of fiction that effect a sea-change in the mind of the reader. We use writers from Apuleius to Austen – by way of Haddon, Ali Smith and Meg Rosoff – to help people put their lives into perspective, to distract, soothe and rally. Sometimes, it’s the story that offers solace – a sense that we are not alone; sometimes, the rhythm of the prose. Recent studies have shown that reading a book can be more effective for reducing blood pressure than going for a walk or stroking the dog. Try reading Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet when your mind is too agitated to sleep, and you’ll see what we mean. Or, conversely, The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain when you’re in an energy slump – it’s better than caffeine. Fiction has also been shown to help us to relate to and understand others.

The Reading Well for Young People campaign is an excellent initiative, both as a way to approach mental health issues for adults and children – and for encouraging people to turn to literature as a salve. Unlike self-help books, novels are not written to educate or impart advice. Indeed, most novelists do not think too much about the reader at all when seized by the creative urge. They seek instead to understand and articulate something they have observed in life, and in doing so to get as close to the emotional truth as they can. It’s these truths we read for – the insights, observations, often in the form of minute details, on what it is like to be human, to interact with others, and to try to make sense of the world. Transported by the story, we see through other eyes, feel another set of feelings and experience different lives to our own. By reading, we are expanded, enriched and, perhaps, are better placed to understand ourselves.

Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin are the authors of The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies. Their new book: The Story Cure: Books to Keep Kids Happy, Healthy and Wise will be published this September.

Source: The Guardian