Showing posts with label Libraries. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Libraries. Show all posts

17 October 2018

Based on an Untrue Movie

by Robert Lopresti

When the movie American Animals  came to town this summer it was pretty much foreordained that I would see it.  The subject is attempted theft of rare books from a college library, a subject with which I am not unfamiliar.  In fact, the flick was based on an event I had already blogged briefly about.

To summarize,  four college students decided to get rich by stealing some valuable books from the Special Collections room at the library of Transylvania University in Kentucky.  Their planning technique consisted mostly of getting drunk/stoned and watching heist movies.  The resulting event  was a disaster and about the only positive things you can say about it are: 1) The victims did not suffer lasting physical damage, 2) No books were destroyed, and 3) All four of the fools went to prison.

The movie is worth seeing but I want to bring up one specific complaint about it.  It begins by pompously announcing that: this isn't based on a true story; it is a true story.

And, of course, it ain't.

The gimmick that makes American Animals unique is that while the main part of the story is carried out by actors, it also contains interviews with the actual culprits, and sometimes even shows the same scene more than once, to reflect the version of whoever is talking.  It's clever and interesting, but like I said, you are not seeing a true story.

I have complained before about a better movie that played fast and loose with the facts.  So call me a serial grumbler.

The important things that American Animals got wrong, as far as I am concerned, involved (surprise!) librarians.  The burglars in the movie showed much more concern about harming the rare books librarian than their real life counterparts did.  And the "true story" completely erased the library director who put herself in harm's way to try to stop the theft.  Maybe she didn't give the producers permission to include her?  I don't know but leaving her out was not the truth.

A few more questions and I am not the first person to ask them: If instead of white suburban guys the crooks had been African-American urbanites would this movie have been made?  If so would the script have tried so hard to show them as Good Boys Gone Wrong?  Hell, would they have even survived their arrests?

Unanswerable, of course.

By coincidence I just rewatched another movie based on a true story, one I liked better than American Animals or Argo.  The Informant! concerns Mark Whitacre who is apparently the highest executive to ever voluntarily turn whistleblower about his company's wrong deeds.  In the 1990s Whitacre was a biochemist and high-paid executive for ADM, one of the world's largest food processors.

And he told an FBI agent that his company was involved in an ongoing world-wide conspiracy to fix the prices for corn syrup, which finds its way into everything. As one agent says in amazement "Every American is a victim of corporate crime before he finishes breakfast."  So Whitacre agrees to wear a wire.

This sounds like we are building up to a dark brooding movie with heart-pounding suspense.  That's not what we get.  The flick is full of bright colors and Illinois sunshine and most of the time Whitacre seems to be having a marvelous time doing his spy gig.  At one point he shows his secret recorder to a virtual stranger and explains that he is Secret Agent Double-oh-fourteen "because I'm twice as smart as James Bond!'

Whitacre often provides a running narration on events, which is not surprising.  But his narrative almost never relates to what's going on.  As he is about to plot price-fixing with fellow executives he tells us: "I think I have nice hands.  They're probably my favorite part of my body..."

By now you may have the idea that Whitacre was not playing with a full corn silo.  In fact, as near as I can tell the place where the movie may depart most from the facts is in choosing to show us whether he was crazy from the start, or cracked under pressure.  (As his lawyer points out, FBI agents going undercover get training on coping with a double life.  All Whitacre got was a recorder and a firm handshake.)

I have simplified the story considerably.  The complications are what makes it so fascinating.  I loved watching Scott Bakula and Joel McHale playing FBI agents looking on in stunned horror as shoe after shoe after shoe drops on their case.

One person who seems to have had a wonderful time with this movie is composer Marvin Hamlisch.  In keeping with the spirit of the film, his music usually has nothing to do with the plot of the film.  When a character is taking a lie detector test the accompanying music is -- a square dance?

In closing, let me just wish that if they make a film of your life it has a happy ending.

01 October 2018

Doing It Right

by Steve Liskow

Two weeks ago, I joined fourteen other authors at a fund-riser for the New Britain (CT) Public Library. I taught high school English in the town for thirty years and some of my former students showed up, one of them as a fellow author (see? I did something right). Another former student works at the library, and several of my books are set in central Connecticut, so I had some sales advantages.

I usually avoid events with more than five or six authors because we tend to cancel out each other's sales. Such affairs generally offer "exposure" (try paying your dentist with "exposure" and let me know how it works) instead of a fee, too. Selling books is always iffy, but this event gives the authors better odds.

Literary Libations occurs every other year, and the organizers host authors in various genres who have released a new book since the previous event. I only knew three of the other writers (including my former student) and only two others write mysteries. I was between a young poet (who had a great sense of humor and made out like Charlie Sheen) and a college professor with a new textbook. No competition there, right?

The organizers charge a hefty admission fee--in advance--because it is a fund-raiser (authors get in free and they even feed us). That large fee conditions people to spend money on new books. A local caterer offers everything from hors d'oeuvres to pasta to ice cream, and they have a cash bar. If you've never worked an event where alcohol flows, you won't believe how it can spike your sales.

This year, the librarian greeted me by asking, "Have you seen your gift basket?"

I had no idea what she was talking about, so she showed me the prize table.

Fifteen people assembled gift baskets as raffle prizes, and one couple liked my first novel Who Wrote the Book of Death? (set in New Britain, of course, and mentioning local landmarks) so much they gathered the various wines and snacks the book mentioned into one lavish gift. That floored me, and it got even better when I learned that same book was the topic of the library's book group the following week.

Guess what? I sold a lot of books (ate well, too). The picture shows Alderman Don Naples and his wife, who assembled the gift basket, along with Arnaldo Perez, the lucky winner. The seedy-looking guy on the right  autographed the book for him.

Within two days, the organizers sent me a thank-you note for appearing and asked for suggestions to make the next event even better. I told them I wished every event went as smoothly as this one had, and hoped they made as much money as their planning and hard work deserved. Then I suggested that the library discuss another one of my books in two years.

19 September 2018

Lost in the Stacks for 41 Years, Part 2

My published works.  Photo by Tamara Belts
by Robert Lopresti

This is my second column celebrating my retirement by reviewing high and lowlights of my career as a librarian.

My third professional job was at a university.  I was still a government documents librarian.  One day an older community member wandered into my department.

"So you get federal documents here."

"That's right."

"Do you have classified publications?"

I laughed.  "I can barely get them to send us tax forms."
                                                         


But let's talk about something they did send us.  One day David, my assistant,  placed one newly-arrived publication on my desk, as opposed to the usual location.

I figured out why pretty quickly.  A the bottom of the cover it said: FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT USE ONLY.  There are certain kind of publications that are not supposed to be sent to depositories, and that is one of them.

What's disturbing is that we are thousands of miles from the GPO.  Many libraries must have received that publication before we did, but David was the first to spot the problem.  Hmm.

The publication was about an organization that does not approve of certain activities and allegedly had a habit of blowing up buildings in which those activities took place.  This publication explained to law enforcement officials the methods these people had allegedly been using.

This was before email so I called the GPO.  "You didn't mean to send us that publication."

"Why not?"

"Because it's full of diagrams of explosive devices.  It's basically a manual for bombmakers."

"We'll get back to you."

Later that day they did.  "You're right.  Destroy it."  Now, I should explain that any publication the federal government sends for free to a depository library remains federal property.  They can demand it back or tell us to shred it if they want.  (What they can't do, minus a court order, is ask who has read it. Librarians are fussy about that.)

So  I destroyed the publication.

A few days later I got a letter from GPO, addressed to all depository libraries.  It said that the publication was sent by mistake and we should return it immediately.

Back to the phone.  "You told me to destroy it.  How am I supposed to return it?"

"We'll get back to you."

They did.  "Send us a letter explaining how you destroyed it."

I was sorely tempted to say "I used the method shown on page seven."  But who needs that kind of trouble?

               

I have lost track of how many offices I had in this library.  At least eight.  At one point my desk was in an open area.  A fellow employee told me that as a supervisor I needed an enclosed office.  "In case you need to yell at someone."

The view from my last office.

And speaking of moving, I supervised the shifting of the 200,000 government publications at least five times.  On the day we finished one move we had the windows open and a squirrel hopped in.  He went straight to the A 13's: the publications of the Forest Service.  "Boy," I thought, "if only the students could find their way as easily as you!"



I wish like hell I could tell you the exact day this happened.  It was one of the most significant dates in my career.  I was at the reference desk and a man asked "Do you have the German railroad timetables?"

"Wow," I said.  "No.  The best I can do is give you the phone number for the German consulate in Seattle.  But wait!  There's something brand new called the World Wide Web and we can access it from this computer."

Google didn't exist yet.  I think I went to Altavista.  He typed in the words German railroad timetables, in German.

And boom, there they were, your choice of English and German.  Up-to-date and free.

"Okay," I said.  "Right now, this moment, my job just changed completely."

And it had.  For example, my library no longer has a reference desk because people don't come with easy questions anymore, the kind Google can answer.  Now we specialize in helping with longer research projects.  But students still need help.



A student had been asked to find out everything she could about someone - anyone - who lived in our county in 1880.  I took her to the microfilm reels for the 1880 census, showed her how to use them and went back to my desk.

Soon she reappeared with a question: "What's a demimonde?"

I knew the answer but, following the old rule,  I took her to a dictionary to check that it indeed meant prostitute.

She had found an entire building full of demimondes: a brothel.  She was thrilled.

I told this to another librarian who nodded gravely.  "In Seattle they called them seamstresses."


Most of the librarians served as liaisons for academic departments.  Among other things, that meant teaching sessions on library resources.  I had recently taken that role for a new subject when I was strolling across campus and a professor saw me.  His eyes lit up.  "Rob!  Looking forward to your teaching my class tomorrow!"

"Me too!" I assured him.  Then I rushed back to my office and checked my calendar.  No mention of a class.  Had I reserved a classroom?  No.

So who was this professor who was expecting me?  I knew some of the profs in that department by sight, but not all.  This was before the time when you could find a picture of everyone in the world by going to the Web.  (I especially like LudditeHermitGallery.com)  I narrowed it down to about four.

I called the department secretary (if department secretaries ever went on strike at any university, the place would collapse within a day).  "You gotta help me," I begged.

Between us we figured out it had to be Professor X.  I sent him a grovelling apology.  Which class was I supposed to be teaching, and what did he want me to cover?

He wrote back with his own apology.  He had gotten me confused with a different Rob.

Whew.





In my city we only get measurable snow in about half the winters.  1996 was one of them.  Woke up one December morning to well over a foot of white stuff. My city didn't own a snowplow.

I normally bike to work; that wasn't going to happen. Driving was out and the buses weren't running.  So I walked the three miles.

All the way I had my headphones on and the disk jockey kept listing an ever longer list of closures.  I should explain that back then the university seemed to take a perverse pleasure in staying open whatever the conditions were.  They always sent out po-faced statements urging personnel to decide for themselves if it was safe to come to work, but they wouldn't close (so workers who didn't show up wouldn't get paid).

So I am almost finished with my two-hour trudge and am starting up the hill to the campus proper when the DJ says: "Here are the closings."  Dramatic pause.  "The university is open.  That's it.  Everything else in town is closed.  When the world ends the school paper will be the only place that reports it because the university will refuse to close."

The boss bought pizza for everyone who showed up.  (And someone actually drove out to pick it up.)  The next day the university closed and the DJ bragged that he shamed them into it.


                                                     

One day a young woman told me she was having trouble finding sources for a paper.  I had developed a quick technique for finding out how far a researcher had gotten and I applied it.

"Have you tried Database X?"

"No."

"Have you tried Database Y?"

"No."

"Have you tried Database Z?"

She burst into tears and ran out of the room.  I couldn't coax her back.

I never used that technique again.

                                          

One of our regular patrons was a Vietnam vet who was having trouble with the VA.  As he told the story he wanted to receive disability payments because his time over there drove him crazy.  The VA's defense was - again, according to him -- that he was already crazy when the army drafted him.  Not a great argument.

A member of the public is welcome to use our collection and anyone could borrow our federal publications, if they showed ID.  This veteran wanted to borrow some but he refused to show his ID because he thought the VA might be tracking what books he read.

I told him that didn't match my experience of reality but I respected his right to his own.  Nonetheless, he couldn't borrow the documents.

He used them, over several years.  I don't know how his case turned out but he started taking better care of himself and bringing in fellow vets whom he helped use the docs.  I counted that as a win.

                          

The worst and the best: someone stole more than 600 pages out of our old Congressional Serial Set volumes.  After more than a year and a half of sleuthing by various people at our university we got the evidence that led to the thief's conviction.  You can read all about it here and here.



One day I picked up the book on Occupations from the 1920 Census and read about "Peculiar occupations for women."  The introduction explained that census takers had reported women in a lot of occupations that women obviously could not have been working in, like masons and plasterers.  And so, the census bosses explained solemnly,  the records were carefully examined and if they could figure out what the mistake was they corrected it.  Or should I say if they figured out what the "mistake" was they "corrected" it.  And how many female pioneers in their fields were erased from history?

Years later, that led to my first nonfiction book.



One night I took my family to the best ice cream parlor in town.  The young man behind the counter said: "Last year you helped me with a research paper.  Not only did I get an A but the teacher kept it to use as an example.  Your ice cream is on me."

The super chocolate tasted particularly sweet that night.


 Back in January I taught a workshop on library resources and, as usual, handed out a quick feedback form.  One student wrote: "You introduced me to subjects I didn't even know to ask about."

My pleasure, friend. 


I would like to end by saying something I have not said in forty-one years on the job: Shhhhh!









05 September 2018

Lost in the Stacks for 41 Years


by Robert Lopresti

Gonna get a little off the main track here today.  I hope you forgive me.  You see, as of the first of September I am retired. I am going to tell you about some of my most memorable moments in forty-one years in the library mines.  Most have nothing to do with crime or writing.  So indulge me or go read something else.  I hear they have a lot of terrific stuff at MySpace.

                                                                         
When I was getting my Masters in Library Service degree the school urged us to call them as soon as we got our first jobs and tell them the salary.  So when I did I called them and gave them the big number: $10,300 a year.

"That's great," said the clerk.  "It will bring up the class average."



That first job was at a public library.   I was the government documents librarian but occasionally  I worked in the children's room.  I was at the desk there one day and two women walked in.  Obviously mother and grown daughter.  The mother marched up with a determined expression that said: I am going to get the answer if it takes all day.  Librarians love that look.

She fixed me with her steely gaze (why aren't gazes ever aluminumy?) and said "There's this book."

"Okay," I said.

"It's about a tree."  

 And that was clearly all she had.  No author, no title. Just a subject, a memory, and a burning desire to share it with her daughter.

I stood up.  "Follow me."  We marched to the Easy Readers.  I pulled out The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein.

Her eyes went wide.  "That's it!  How did you know?"

I shrugged.  "I'm a librarian."




My assistant was Sue.  Between us sat a file cabinet and by the time I left every drawer had been neatly labeled with a misspelling of my name she had clipped from an envelope received in the mail: Robert Lopreski, Roberta Lopresti, Robert LoPresti, Robert Loparesti...

When my first short story was published I brought the magazine in and plopped it down in front of her open to the right page and pointed to my name.  "That's by me."

She tossed it back on my desk.  "No, it isn't."

Oh ye of little faith.

                                           

One day at the reference desk I got a phone call from a woman who wanted to know if we had The Power of Positive Thinking by Phyllis Schaeffer.

Now, a librarian is supposed to rely on sources.  If you ask me to spell cat I am supposed to check the dictionary.  But in this case I said "The Power of Positive Thinking  is by Norman Vincent Peale."

"No," she said with complete confidence.  "Phyllis Schaeffer."

So I checked the card catalog.  (Yup, that's what we had back then.)  Peale, yes.  Schaeffer, no.

Then the penny dropped.  The Power of the Positive Woman, by Phyllis Schlafly.  Well, the woman had been positive, all right.

                                                     

One of the longest-running science fiction fan organizations in the country used to meet at that library.  They held a special event to celebrate an anniversary and I graciously volunteered to be the library's representative.  Possibly this was because the guest speaker was Isaac Asimov.

He was, naturally, great.  His subject was a recent editorial in the New York Times saying that setting up a system to watch out for asteroids was a waste of money because, as I recall, no huge meteor hit the earth for many thousands of years, and therefore another wouldn't hit for thousands more.  Follow that logic?

Asimov gleefully reported on past NYT editorials on science.  One was an announcement that rockets wouldn't work in outer space because there was a vacuum.

This library was the largest in our part of the county and when one of the small libraries had a reference question they couldn't answer they bounced it to us.  One of those smaller institutions had a director named Miss D.  Her main characteristic, as far as I could tell, was that she was terrified of the members of her library board.

One day she called up and asked for the government documents librarian.  It seemed one of her  board members was looking for some government statistics about drug abuse.

I wrote the questions down. "Some of these I can answer," I told her.  "Some of the data I don't think is available."

"Well, do what you can."

I did.  This was long before the Internet and I had to dig through a whole lot of books.  Finally, after several hours of toil I called her up.

"I was able to find most of your answers, but not all of them."

"Oh," she said.  "Then never mind."  And hung up.



One day a patron (that's what librarians call customers, by the way) wanted to know what the phrase "the beast with two backs" meant.  I knew but I damn well wasn't going to tell her off the top of my head.  Fortunately Shakespeare's Bawdy by the brilliant Eric Partridge was at hand.



My next job was at a college library.  It was there that I found a report from the government of New Jersey that mentioned that the name of a small community in the southern part of the state, Mauricetown, was pronounced the same as a larger city in the northern half, Morristown.

Hmm...  That's the sort of thing my Atlantic City private eye Marty Crow would definitely know.  The result was "The Federal Case," Marty's first appearance in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

                                                           

Each librarian worked as a liaison for an academic department.  The acquisitions librarian told me there were several openings.  Naturally I chose English.  An hour later she was back with a file the size of a phone book.  "Read it and tell me if you still want the English Department."

Turned out two professors had come almost to the point of suing each other over an argument that involved the library.  One had written to the school paper complaining about the library and his colleague had written back, as I recall:  "Pay no attention to him.  We in the department have all had to hear him banging his spoon on his high chair before."  They eventually signed a joint statement agreeing that academic disagreements should be settled out of court.

I did take on the responsibilities for the English Department.  Didn't get sued.


                                                   
One night a college student came up to the reference desk and asked: "Is Nicaragua in Europe?"  This was during the Reagan administration when it looked like we might be invading that country any day.

I think I kept a straight face.  "No, Nicaragua is in Central America."

"Oh," she said.  "Is Central America in Europe?"

                                            
It was my Sunday to work at the reference desk.  It was snowing like crazy.

I was thinking about the next day.  I was the head of the search committee and we had a candidate coming in for a job interview.  In fact she should be flying in around now.  I hoped that the driver sent to pick her up got to the airport on time.

Then I remembered who had been given the job of arranging her transport.  Uh oh.
 
                                           
Speaking of search committees, I once went to lunch with a candidate.  He asked who was paying for the meal.  When I told him it was the college he ordered the most expensive thing on the menu.

I told the search committee: "Don't offer him the job.  He won't take it."

They did.  He turned it down.  We lost the position.

Nobody likes Cassandra.



One day the boss called me and another librarian into his office.  "I've been thinking about that meeting we had on Monday," he said.  "I want you two to run the project."  And then he spoke for several minutes about what he wanted, while we nodded solemnly.

Outside his office I turned to my colleague.  "Boy, I hope you were at that meeting on Monday, because I have no idea what he was talking about."

She said: "I was hoping you knew."

We went to the assistant boss who was outraged.  We soon got an apology for the confusion.  I never did find out what the project was about. 
                                                          

This was the time when computerized databases were first trickling into libraries.  One of the first we got (on a free-standing computer) was a list of all doctorate dissertations.  Another librarian, Barbara, and I both wanted to check out our father's PhDs.

"My father always insisted on people calling him 'doctor,'" I said.

Barbara is African-American.  "My father never cared whether people called him 'doctor' as long as they called him 'mister.'"

Which rather  put things in perspective.

                                                          


Most computer databases were expensive and you paid by the search.  Therefore only librarians were allowed to do the searches.  I remember one student asking me to search PsycInfo for peer-reviewed research articles that tested the theory that mental illness was caused by demonic possession.

I didn't have much luck.                            

One day I was at the reference desk and the president of the college walked in.  I had never seen him in the library.  He looked around, spotted me at the desk, and walked over.

I sat up straight, ready for action.

"Do you have a waste basket?"  By gosh, I knew the answer to that one.


The first computerized databases (i.e. periodical indexes) we got came from a company called Silver Platter and were literally on shiny discs, larger than LP records.  One day I was showing them to a group of adults (i.e. not college students) who seemed quite awed by the new technology.

The database froze.  I knew what that meant; a static electricity build up.  I also knew how to fix it.

While they watched I opened the case, took out the disc (by the edges!) and shook it vigorously.

"Do you know why I am doing this?"  Head shakes.

"I'm chasing off the evil spirits."  Nods.




The director of that library was Dr. Robert L. Goldberg.  He could be insanely frustrating but I learned more from him than any other boss.  For example, he told me approximately this:

"A good manager shares credit and hoards blame.  If the college president tells me he likes something in the library I always tell him who  did it, because it's important he doesn't think  this is a one-man operation.  But if he hates something and wants to know who is responsible, the only answer he gets is: me.  Because whoever did it, I am responsible."
                   

And that was the first ten years of my career. Tune in on September 19th when we will cover the remaining thirty-one years.

In the mean time, please save your files as the computers turn off automatically.  Please bring material to the circulation desk to borrow.  Safe travels.

06 June 2015

Proper Care and Feeding of Authors – in which our writer tries to be serious for a few minutes…

by Melodie Campbell

Here’s part one of the series (reprinted with permission):

What NOT to ask an author… (especially a Crime Writer who knows at least twenty ways to kill you and not get caught)

There is nothing I love better than meeting readers, both those who already know my writing, and those who are new to my books. But recently, I was asked to talk about those things that are touchy for an author.  So here goes…a short list of No-Nos!

1.  Do not ask an author how many books she has sold.

Trust me, don’t ask this.
Really, you don’t want to.  It wouldn’t help you anyway.
Because honestly, I’ll lie.

I’m amazed that complete strangers regularly ask this.  Would you ask a lawyer how much money he makes?

Because here’s the bottom line: most of us with traditional publishers make about a buck for every book sold, whether paperback, trade paperback or ebook.  Sometimes, it’s less than that.  (Yes, we were shocked too, when we found out.)  So by asking how many books we’ve sold, you can pretty well figure out our income.  And frankly, I don’t want you to.  You see, I write comedies, and it would depress both of us.

Also:  our royalty statements are at least six months behind (at least mine are.)  We don’t KNOW how many books we’ve sold to date on new releases.  Which is probably a good thing for our egos, if we want to keep writing.

Dare I say it?  The supreme irony is: the only ones likely to make a living in the writing biz are those on the business end.  The agents, and those editors and others employed by publishers, booksellers and libraries.  Sadly, you can't expect to make a living in the arts if you are a creator.

2.  Do not ask an author to read your manuscript and critique it for free.

So many times, I’ve been asked to do this, in a public place, with people overhearing.  Sometimes, by people who don’t even have the decency to buy a single book of mine first. 

Why this is bad:

First: I am in a place that has been booked for me to sell my books and meet with readers. That’s what I’m there for.  You are taking precious time away from me and my readers.  Believe me, my publisher won’t be happy about this.  Ditto, the bookseller!

Second: Every hour I spend critiquing an aspiring author’s book is an hour I can’t spend working on my own books and marketing them.  Like most novelists, I have a day job.  That means every hour I have to work on my fiction is precious.  Most of us do critique – for a fee.  And many of us teach fiction writing at colleges. 

I’m happy to critique my college students’ work.  I’m getting paid (mind you, meagerly) to do so.  And that’s what I always recommend:  take a college course in writing.  You’ll get great info on how to become a better writer, and also valuable critiquing of your own work.

3.  Do not ask an author to introduce you to her publisher or agent.

Want to see me cringe?

Similar to number 2 above, this puts the author in a very awkward position.  You are in fact asking for an endorsement.  If the author hasn’t read your book, she cannot possibly give it (an honest endorsement.)

Second: You are asking the author to put HER reputation on the line for you.  Do you have the sort of close relationship that makes this worthwhile for her?

4.  Do not ask an author: where do you get your ideas?

Okay, be honest.  You thought I was going to lead with this one.
Actually, you can ask me this.  I’ll probably answer something fun and ridiculous, like:
From Ebay. 
Or: From my magic idea jar.
Or: They come to me on the toilet.  You should spend more time there.

Because the truth is, we don’t know exactly.  After teaching over 1000 fiction writing students at Sheridan College, I have discovered something: some students are bubbling over with ideas.  Others – the ones who won’t make it – have to struggle for plots.  It seems to be a gift and a curse, to have the sort of brain that constantly makes up things.

I’ve been doing it since I was four.  My parents called it lying.  That was so short-sighted of them.



Opening to THE GODDAUGHTER’S REVENGE (Orca Books) winner of the 2014 Derringer (US) and Arthur Ellis (Canada)

    Okay, I admit it. I would rather be the proud possessor of a rare gemstone than a lakefront condo with parking. Yes, I know this makes me weird. Young women today are supposed to crave the security of owning their own home
     But I say this. Real estate, shmeel estate. You can’t hold an address in your hand. It doesn’t flash and sparkle with the intensity of a thousand night stars, or lure you away from the straight and narrow like a siren from some Greek odyssey.
     Let’s face it. Nobody has ever gone to jail for smuggling a one bedroom plus den out of the country.
     However, make that a 10-carat cyan blue topaz with a past as long as your arm, and I’d do almost anything to possess it.
    But don’t tell the police.
 
On Amazon

28 February 2015

Books and the Art of Theft

by Melodie Campbell

Puzzled by the title?  It’s simple.

In high school, I had to read Lord of the Flies, The Chrysalids, On the Beach, To Kill a Mocking Bird, and a whack of Shakespeare.

Yuck.  Way to kill the love of reading.  All sorts of preaching and moral crap in the first four.  (Which, as you will see by the end of this post, doesn’t suit me well.)

Torture, it was, having to read those dreary books, at a time when I was craving excitement.  Already, I had a slight rep for recklessness. (It was the admittedly questionable incident of burying the French class attendance sheet in the woods on Grouse Mountain, but I digress…)

And then we got to pick a ‘classic’ to read.  Groan.  Some savvy librarian took pity on me, and put a book in my hand. 

Ivanhoe.

Magic

A writer was born that day.

This is what books could be like!  Swashbuckling adventure with swords and horses, and imminent danger to yourself and virtue, from which – sometimes – you could not escape (poor Rebecca.) 

I was hooked, man.  And this book was written how long ago?  1820?

Occasionally, people will ask if a teacher had a special influence on me as a writer.  I say, sadly, no to that.

But a librarian did.  To this day, I won’t forget her, and that book, and what it caused me to do.

1.    Write the swashbuckling medieval time travel Land’s End series, starting with the Top 100 bestseller Rowena Through the Wall. 

2.    Steal a book.  Yes, this humble reader, unable to part with that beloved Ivanhoe, claimed to lose the book, and paid the fine.  Damn the guilt.  The book was mine.

3.    Write The Goddaughter series, which has nothing to do with swashbuckling medieval adventure, and everything to do with theft.  Which, of course, I had personally experienced due to a book called Ivanhoe.

The lust for something you just have to have.  The willingness to take all sorts of risks way out of
proportion, to possess that one thing.

A book like my own Rowena and the Viking Warlord made me a thief at the age of sixteen.  And the experience of being a thief enticed me to write The Goddaughter’s Revenge, over thirty years later.

My entire writing career (200 publications, 9 awards) is because of Sir Walter Scott and one sympathetic librarian.

Thanks to you both, wherever you are. 

Just wondering...did a single book get you started on a life of crime...er...writing?  Tell us below in the comments.

Melodie Campbell writes funny books. You can buy them at  Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers.  She lurks at www.melodiecampbell.com

03 December 2013

Our On-Line Age

by Dale C. Andrews


St. Louis Central Public Library
       In a week when a lot of us of a certain age were reflecting back to events of 50 years ago I found myself off on a related tangent, thinking about how different the task of researching is now from what it entailed back when I was an early teenager in 1963. Some of this was sparked by a comment from Fran to my last SleuthSayers post recalling what it was like to visit a library back then. All of this rang true for me. I remember the process of researching term papers back in the 1960s -- taking the long bus ride to the downtown St. Louis Central Library, spending the morning poring over three by five cards in the card catalogs, filling out a request for various reference texts and then waiting while the librarian gathered the materials and wheeled them out of the stacks. The process was tedious, and if those books piled in front of me spawned their own questions, the follow up research meant starting the whole process over again. It was far easier to forego tracking down a question arising from the review of that first pile of books than it was to follow the thought thread through to fruition.

       The way most of us research and write now bears no relation to that process. A laptop and an internet connection is all that is needed to find just about every factoid imagineable. Personally, I am happy with all of this. But whether we are, in the long run, bettered or hindered by our easy electronic access to information today is a subject that is still open to some debate. It is, in any event, easy to come up with examples of how the ways in which we answer our own questions have changed in a computerized wifi world.

       Personal example one: Some years back two older friends of ours from New York City, Jim McPherson and his wife Phyllis King, were visiting us for the weekend. Jim and Phyllis (now deceased and sorely missed), both poets, were two of the most intelligent and well-read folks you would ever want to stumble across. (Jim was named poet laureate of West Virginia, one of only three in the State’s history, in 1942 at the tender age of 20.)  On this particular visit we were sitting in our living room reading when I came across the word “bookkeeper” and stopped cold, looking at it closely, perhaps for the first time. I turned to Jim and said “Can you name a word in the English language that has three consecutive double letters?” Jim thought a minute and said “bookkeeper.” I was floored -- “did you know that already?” I asked him. “No,” he replied. “It’s just the only example I could think of."  That, in a mind, is astonishing. But with the advent of the internet it is no longer a big deal to secure an answer to that question. Pose it on Yahoo and you instantly get “bookkeeper” and (icing on the cake) “sweettooth” for dessert.

The Little Lost Child (1894)
       Personal example two: When I was a child my maternal grandmother, while working around her house, would repeatedly sing two lines of a song from her childhood. She had long-since forgotten the rest of the song, but remembered that it was about a policeman who found a lost child and, through a convoluted series of verses, the child turned out to be his own. She sang those first two lines so much that the song, over the years, became somewhat of a joke in our family.  Eventually my mother and I tried to find the rest of the lyrics, searching out song encyclopedias at the library, all to no avail. Some years back I even tried a computer search using the first two lines, the only ones my grandmother remembered: "Once a police man, found a little child.” All you get from from an internet inquiry using those words are stories about abducted children. But last week, thinking about this column, I decided to try again. I added the word “lyric” at the beginning of the search. That was all that was needed: The song, lost to my family’s collective memory for probably more than a hundred years, is The Little Lost Child. My grandmother’s memory was wrong -- it actually began “A passing policeman . . . .” But once the inquiry is framed as a search for a lyric, even with that erroneous first word, the internet promptly spits back the complete lyrics to the song, a Wikipedia article about it and (this I could hardly believe) a You Tube rendition. And all of this (as you can confirm by listening in) for a song that is truly terrible and (ironically) would probably have been best left forgotten. But that’s not the point -- the point is that you can now almost instantly find almost anything -- even facts that are largely useless.

       When we have this much researching power at our fingertips you can expect some pretty profound changes to occur in the writing process.  Ready access to such a power allows some research to be performed that simply could not have been done in the past, or at least not without more time and effort than the task warranted. Those followup questions that I ignored late in the day in the St. Louis library back in 1963 are no problem now. 

       Some argue, however, that there may be a dark side to this as well. A notable study of teenagers in Korea, an on-line country where reportedly 65% of all teens have grown up using smartphones, has revealed the prevalence of a condition that the study coins "digital dementia," or deterioration of thinking and memory. A UPI news report concerning the study provides the following example:
Psychiatrist Kim Dae-jin at Seoul St. Mary's Hospital recently diagnosed a 15-year-old boy with symptoms of early onset dementia due to intense exposure to digital technology -- television, computer, smartphone and video games -- since age 5. He could not remember the six-digit keypad code to get into his own home and his memory problems were hurting his grades in school. "His brain's ability to transfer information to long-term memory has been impaired because of his heavy exposure to digital gadgets," the psychiatrist [reported].
       But is the negative connotation involved in calling these symptoms a form of “dementia” really correct here? We know, going all the way back to the writings of William James, that thinking involves the interaction of long term and short term memory.   It is theorized that short term memory cannot handle more than roughly 7 chunks of information (otherwise stored in long-term memory) at any one time, and that the process of thinking involves juggling concepts and facts back and forth between the two in those manageable chunks. Psychologists have also long recognized that we already “share” long-term memories with others and depend on others to fill in our own blanks -- I remember how to do some things, my wife remembers how to do others, and if I was trying to think of a word with three consecutive double letters, well, Jim McPherson would have been my go-to guy.  What we are now learning to do instead is to depend on the computer and the internet to perform this function of data retention and sharing that previously we commited to long term memory -- either or own or others'.  Now what becomes important is not the fact, but how to get to the fact on the computer, e.g. adding that word "lyric" when you are looking for a song.

       A Harvard study, as reported in an article in Science Express examining the effects of a world where information is readily available at the tap of a key, seems to confirm all of this:

The advent of the Internet, with sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger. No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can “Google” the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue. The results of four studies [conducted by Harvard] suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.
       A recent Columbia University study reaches similar conclusions, arguing that we are now using the internet as personal external memory drives. Summarizing that study the Los Angeles Times had this to say:
We’ve come to use our laptops, tablets and smartphones as a 'form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside of ourselves . . . . We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where information can be found.
St. Louis Library -- Atrium where those stacks used to be
       And this, in turn, sounds all in all like a good thing in many respects. Certainly readily accessible information is a boon to those of us who write, and certainly to all of us producing scheduled articles here at SleuthSayers. Reflecting on information and sharing those reflections are far easier tasks without those trips to the library research rooms of our youth. Stated another way, an article such as this one would not have been written if the only sources available were those in the stacks in the St. Louis Central Library back in 1963. Who had the time?

       We are not the only ones changing as the internet renders irrelevant many of the volumes that used to be housed in library stacks.  The St. Louis Central Library that I relied on for research 50 years ago has moved along with the rest of us.  The newly renovated building, scheduled to re-open to the public this month, replaces those stacks where I researched as a teenager with a multi-story sunlit atrium.  There is also a coffee shop where we can wile away some of that time we save.

03 July 2013

Nine lives of the catalog

by Robert Lopresti


I seldom write here about being a librarian because I hate to brag, but  I recently attended a lecture that seems relevant to us as readers and writers.  Lori Robare of the University of Oregon spoke on "RDA for Non-Catalogers."

RDA is Resource Description and Analysis, a new set of rules for cataloging library material.  (And here I should hasten to say I was at that meeting because I am not a cataloger, so I may be about to get a lot wrong.  Don't blame Lori!)  Until RDA arrived in 2010 library books were cataloged under Anglo-American Catalog Rules (AACR2), which was (were?) created in the 1970s.

Now, think about what libraries were like back then.  The purpose of AACR2 was to cram as much relevant information about a book as possible onto a small card which would go into a cabinet and probably never be seen by anyone outside that library.

How many of the words in that last sentence are still true today?  "Relevant information" is probably about it.  You don't have to cram information into a card because today's catalogs consist of computer records which can be as long as necessary.  So RDA says forget about using abbreviations.  (And while we're at it, throw out Latin.  Few users understood it back in the seventies.)

And why assume you are cataloging a book?  Maybe you are trying to catalog a DVD, a software program, a website, or realia, which in my library could be a jigsaw puzzle, a figurine, or lord knows what else.

Of course, the fact that the catalog is on a computer means that readers -- and librarians -- all over the world can see it, as opposed to that hermetically sealed wooden case that existed in each individual library back in the seventies, so consistency suddenly becomes much more important.

It was in response to changes like this that catalogers decided not to keep revising AACR2, but to try a whole different approach: RDA, which uses a system called FRBR--

Okay, don't sweat it.  I'll make this easy.  Let's say you want to find a book: Stieg Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  In FRBR that would be called the work.

So I hand you a copy of the work.  It is titled Män som hatar kvinnor, Men Who Hate Women.  Oh, you didn't want it in the original Swedish?  You would prefer English?  No problem!  But which translation do you prefer:  the English English or the American English?  In FRBR each of these versions is called an expression.  For another example of expressions, think of different recordings of the same song.

You've decided on the popular American translation.  Great!  Hardcover or paperback?  Maybe large-print?  By now you know FRBR has a name for this: it's the manifestation.

Good news!  The library has two copies of the version you want.  And in FRBR each of these is an item.

And somehow  the cataloger has to indicate in the catalog record the work, expression, manifestation and item under discussion.

Easy peasy, no?  What about the movie version of Larsson's book? Is that an expression or a different work?  How about an illustrated edition?  A graphic novel version?

And this brings me to the main reason I am inflicting all this on you.  Lori showed us a diagram made by Barbara Tillett who was, at that time, at the Library of Congress.  She attempted to capture on one page everything that can happen to one little piece of writing.  See if it doesn't blow your mind.


I suppose the only works that have most, much less all of the above, are a small number of  literary classics.  Something we can aspire to, anyway.