“We don’t have much need for books anymore”

Like the nerd I am, I have been making my way through Stargate SG-1 lately. Sometimes it’s more interesting than others, but this most recent episode, “Revisions” in Season 7, portrays the potential perils and pitfalls of technological advancement.

Synopsis: **SPOILER ALERT**

In this stand-alone episode, SG-1 explores an apparently uninhabitable planet. When they send the rover through the gate, it finds an idyllic sanctuary inside a strange dome, protected from the toxic atmosphere just beyond the Stargate. Within the dome, they meet the inhabitants, each one of whom is hooked into “the Link” through an almond cookie-shaped device placed on the temple. Evidently, everyone in the town is hooked up to this miraculous network that has the power to directly connect the human brain and a computer that holds all the records, history, and data for the settlement.

The catch is, the people begin acting more and more strangely as time goes on, and the “updates” from the computer to the inhabitants through the Link become more and more troublesome.

This is where I spoil the plot for you. It turns out that the computer has been programmed to protect the dome and the settlement, but no longer has the power to do so. Over the past few centuries, as the dome has begun to shrink, the Link has been sending individuals outside, to their deaths, in order to maintain equilibrium/harmony/livable conditions within the dome. And then erasing everyone else’s memories of the “lost” people. SG-1, being the do-gooders they are, manage to disconnect an engineer from the Link and obtain his help in re-programming the computer to not only save Jack O’Neill and Teal’C from a computer-driven mob, but to save everyone by relocating them … somewhere else.

Christopher Heyerdahl’s role (he’s the aforementioned engineer) has the closest connection to the community’s technological developments. His scenes cover many of the most intriguing plot developments, particularly dealing with technology, the Link, and re-programming the computer.

What fascinates me about this episode is its presentation of the idea that the brain (and neuroscience) may be the future of information. There are some pretty amazing technological developments on the horizon, and from all appearances, the information profession is going to remain dynamic.

The similarities between this world and our own are also striking. In the episode, paper records have become obsolete on this world, yet end up being the key to saving the settlement. At one point, a secondary character shows Daniel to the “archives” – a poorly maintained, abandoned-looking room with dusty books piled haphazardly on available surfaces, and says “We don’t have much need for books anymore.” Our own society is apparently approaching that point, or one like it.

Finally, this episode advocates for preservation of information outside a “link,” or a network, or the “cloud,” and also argues that paper records may still have a place in the future of information.

And this is one example of the reasons I love science fiction.

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On the Origins and Future of Writing and of “Library,” Briefly

I recently started reading Paper Talk: A History of Libraries, Print Culture, and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, by Brendan Frederick R. Edwards (2005).

A couple of things stood out right away:

The Aboriginal peoples of Canada have employed, both prior to and after contact, a number of sign-oriented levels of discourse in the material of wampum belts, pictographs and petroglyphs, birch bark scrolls, hieroglyphics, and winter counts.

And a quote from Armando Petrucci, as he defines the history of writing:

[A history of written or print cultures] must take into account every type of testimony produced in its period, from books to documents, from inscriptions to coins, from seals to graffiti, of writings in mosaic and carvings in ivory … of writers and of users, of the processes by which writing is produced, and of those by which it is learned and archived.

The text continues with a discussion of the meaning of literacy (problematic and debated and inconsistent) and a discussion of what is a library? This last question got me thinking about the notion in the advocacy of libraries that libraries do not equal “books,” which is a very widely held misconception as demonstrated in recent studies.

I love looking up the etymology of words, so I looked up “library,” wondering if the ancient definition of the word may be having an impact on how people today view libraries.

From The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1966):

A place to contain books accessible for reading (Ch.); collection of books. XIV. – (O)F. librairie (now only “bookseller’s shop” = It., Sp. libreria, Pg. livraria – CRom. *libraria alteration of L. libraria bookseller’s shop, sb. use (sc. taberna shop) of librarius pert. to books, f. libr-, liber book; see -ARY, -y^3. So librarIAN (obsolete)scribe XVII; keeper of a library XVIII. f L. librarius + -AN.

– Ch. = Chaucer

– (O)F. = Old and modern French

– Pg. = Portuguese

– CRom = Common Romanic

– f. = formed on

From etymonline.com:

A place for books, late 14c., from Anglo-Fr. librarie, O.Fr. librairie “collection of books” (14c.), noun use of adj. librarius “concerning books,” from L. librarium “chest for books,” from liber (gen. libri) “book, paper, parchment,” originally “the inner bark of trees,” probably a derivative of PIE root *leub(h)- “to strip, to peel” (see leaf). The equivalent word in most Romance languages now means “bookseller’s shop.” O.E. had bochord, lit. “book hord.”

In these two etymological definitions, the word “book” appears 12 times. More than that, however, is the fact that there are no more recent variations in the etymology, that allow for different, more comprehensive meanings that would encompass the functions, programming, assistance, and services provided by modern libraries.

Even in the modern definitions provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, only one definition focuses on collected materials other than books, and that one is a definition given to the collection of films, gramophone records, music, etc. that has been recorded between the 1920s and the 1970s.

I wonder how long it will take for the definition of libraries to evolve into one that represents all the various functions, services, etc. provided by modern libraries?

Will “library” then revert from its recent “dirty word” status in some circles? (Many places are moving away from using the term “library” to describe their information centers, because it gives visitors and the general public an incomplete understanding of what the centers hold and provide).

When will the definitions of “library” and “literacy” broaden to include all the various types of writing and information formats that have been and are currently available?

Lastly, it is clear that the ancient definition of a library does not even take into account other ancient forms of writing and of literacy.

Party Girl, Rupert Giles, and Librarian Stereotypes

A few months ago, while trolling my favorite selection of personal style blogs, and hopping from one trendy lady’s site to another, I came across a blogger who commented that somehow, her outfit that day made her feel like a frowsy, dowdy (pick your adjective) librarian. My immediate reaction was to protest (and I did, politely and in the comments) that many of the most stylish women I know are also studying to be librarians, and that the majority of my fellow students really enjoy playing around with clothes, personal image, and appearance.

As I finally get around to learning about the Foundations of Library and Information Science (a required course that clashed with another in my first year), I’m being exposed to the same stereotypes in a more regulated, studied way. Some of the readings for our first course included books on images of librarians in cinema and pop culture over the past 100 years or so. Many, both men and women, wear glasses. Many are either dowdy, or overcompensating for that stereotype by conforming to its opposite and partner-in-crime, the “sexy librarian.” Aha! Here is a refreshing, personal take on the two opposing-but-married stereotypes, at The Modern Day Pirates.**

An article in Library Quarterly 73(1), 54-69, by M. Radford, and titled, “A Cultural Studies Reading of Party Girl” led me to watch the movie (for studious purposes, of course!). One interesting statement the article makes is that the “dowdy librarian” stereotype was developed in the early 1900s, and certainly well-established by the 1930s (evoking memories of Mary as librarian in It’s a Wonderful Life).^ Radford focuses on the dowdy librarian, and gives these as the main characteristics:

obsession with order,

dour facial expressions,

monosyllabic speech,

sexual repression,

matronly appearance,

fussiness,

and dowdy dress.

The thing about Party Girl is that the main character begins the movie with one stereotypical persona, the eponymous “party girl,” and over the course of the movie, transforms into the opposite, or the “dowdy librarian.” I think it points out two dominant stereotypes in a particular context, that can actually be generalized to throw light on two dominant stereotypes for women in many, if not all, contexts. Unfortunately, librarians (and women) have a long way to go to discourage and eliminate these long-standing stereotypes.

Anyway, here’s what Radford has to say about the movie:

It is not a statement about librarians or their stereotypes but an exploration of what happens when the stereotype is placed in another, very different, context.

In other words, what happens when you put a party girl to work in a library? Obviously, she becomes a dowdy librarian…

Personally, I don’t like putting people in categories, and I’m not looking to be put in one, either, just because I choose a certain profession with a lot of good and bad and gendered history behind it.

I’d like to finish this post with an idea brought up by another LIS source (bad researcher that I am, I’ve forgotten it by now) provided the ultimate stereotype-breaker that is Rupert Giles in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer T.V. show. Smart, intelligent, nerdy, providing support, encouragement, and open access to the bookshelves for his students, former punk rocker, able to kick serious vampire/demon butt, and also sexy. Even though he wears glasses, a truly 3D librarian.

(I believe he’s holding his glasses in this image. What a great expression!)

*Note to self: Facebook is not an appropriate tool for bookmarking relevant blog posts

**I have just realized that I’m sometimes too smart for me, since I did not post this link on Facebook, as I originally thought, but in fact put it on my Reading List… on this blog. It’s like searching for your glasses while wearing them. On your face. No, I am not admitting to having done this, ever.

^Does anyone know the history/first appearance of the “sexy librarian” stereotype?

Reading Lists and Banned Books

I am so happy this blog was freshly pressed today. While I eagerly anticipate reading more of the authors’ posts, I have already enjoyed their post about Banned Books Week. This may only be the first or second time this, err, holiday (?) has come to my attention. Now that I have a bead on the ALA list “Frequently Challenged Books of the Twentieth Twenty-First Century,” I plan on adding many of these books to my own to-read and to-borrow lists, as a personal and non-violent protest against censorship. I am also going to personally challenge myself to find the science fiction and fantasy novels included in these lists, if there are any, and to read all of those.

The Booksluts make an interesting argument, that the criteria for banning books appears to be based on revealing the ugliness of humanity. I’ve just been reading an article for one of my classes, about Victorian models of public librarianship, that are based around the ideal of ‘clean,’ moral, instrumental, pedagogical, and self-improving reading (Roberts, L.C. “Disciplining and Disinfecting Working-Class Readers in the Victorian Public Library.” Victorian Literature and Culture. 26.1 (1998), 105-132.) Clearly, the idea that some books should be read, and some books shouldn’t, has been around for centuries (I would bet it has been around as long as people have been reading). Another thing the Victorians and today’s banners-of-books have in common are their beliefs that certain types of people are more impressionable, and have weaker characters, than others, and that exposure to these literary ‘dangers’ will be harmful to them and to society. Indeed, they have tried and are trying still to impose their own beliefs and morals on others, by limiting access to certain information and human expression.

Here are some of the stats reported by ALA about the reasons behind the challenges (which you can find using the ALA link above):

  • 1,536 challenges due to “sexually explicit” material;
  • 1,231 challenges due to “offensive language”;
  • 977 challenges due to material deemed “unsuited to age group”;
  • 553 challenges due to “violence”
  • 370 challenges due to “homosexuality”; and

Further, 121 materials were challenged because they were “anti-family,” and an additional 304 were challenged because of their “religious viewpoints.”

My third self-appointed task for Banned Books Week is to begin investigating why some of these books (likely the ones I also put on my to-read list) have been banned or challenged. The first thing I’m going to do is see if I can get the Banned Books Week Resource Guide at my public library.

Lastly, I’m going to check out the calendar and events for this week, to find out if I can participate in anything local.

The list, then, looks like this:

1. Choose books from the ALA’s 2010 Frequently Challenged Books list to read this year. (And some from other years, if they seem particularly interesting, or are already on my to-read list).

2. Find any/all science fiction and fantasy books on the “Frequently Challenged Books of the Twentieth Century” list, and read them.

3. Borrow BBWRG at my public library and find out why the books I’ve decided to read have been banned or challenged.

4. Check out calendar and events for ways to participate in this week!

Finally, this article, and Banned Books Week, remind me of another way that librarians and libraries serve their communities: by advocating for and working to ensure free access to information.