Dissecting a Dirty Word in Libraries: Science Fiction

Let’s do a little Reader’s Advisory, shall we?

When Emily St. John Mandel’s book Station Eleven came out, it quickly became my hot pick when a patron came in and asked if I had a recommendation for a “good book.”  I had them hooked from the get go, “it’s really a book about memory: family, relationships, love and how we move forward and connect in times of tragedy.  It’s a beautifully written story, and I love how just when you think Mandel is going to follow a predictable plot line, she flips the script, and it includes a travelling band of Shakespearian actors!”  Then, I’d start to lose them when I said, “it takes place after a plague… “ (patron’s eyes begin to widen and glaze over) “and it’s about how we regroup and reflect on our lives..” (me, beginning to talk really fast to keep their attention) “wait, it’s a gorgeous book and it’s not sad!”  Patron says, “is this sci-fi?!”  Me: “yes, but it’s sci-fi light! I promise! It’s really not that much sci-fi!” Annnnnd, I’ve lost you.

Science fiction gets such a bad rap in libraries to a general audience.  It has a reputation for going right to the “hard stuff” that we may collectively imagine, such as machines and far-out technology, space and interplanetary travel, cyborgs and the like.  Yes, while that is a portion of the genre, it encompasses so much more that deserves your attention and yes, maybe even your love. 

A more exacting definition of science fiction is that it takes place in a world/space/time different than ours now.  It can indeed be on other planets or places, or it can be earth, and is typically a little further into the future, or maybe even in the past.  There usually has been a mass societal change and could have been brought about by some shift in the environment or technology.  Literaryterms.net uses a phrasing that I like, that it’s imaginative and based on science, but whoa doggie, science is huge!  It encompasses so much!  (Side note: You may have also heard of other similar genres such as speculative fiction, which can include magic or the supernatural, think of it as a subset of sci-fi.)

Science fiction runs the gamut of hardcore to the most softest of core, and I’d like to recommend some of the latter so that you may just turn into that person who attends that post-shelter-at-home party and can wow your friends with how awesome and smart you are because “oh yeah, I’ve read some sci-fi in my day, no big deal” as you cooly sip your cocktail or mocktail. 

Here are some great, softer-core science fiction titles to get you going: 

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson 
American War by Omar El Akkad
Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang
Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Recursion by Blake Crouch
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
The Wanderers by Meg Howrey
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel 
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
The Farm by Joanne Ramos
You Have Never Been Here: New and Selected Stories by Mary Rickert
Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories by Vandana Singh
The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

*Please note that many of these titles can fall into the subgenres of the sci-fi umbrella, which can include fantasy, speculative fiction, and dystopian fiction to name a few.

Banned Books Week-Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

What is Banned Books Week anyway? “Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information.” *

To this day, “don’t ever laugh as a hearse goes by for you may be the next to die…” still dances in my brain at random moments.  Having grown up in a funeral home, I knew this held no validity but still felt that thrill of the forbidden, the unknown.  Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark was a staple in my and my family’s collective experience during childhood, and may also be the reason we’re all extremely morbid adults.  Who knows?

The American Library Association conducted a study from 1990-1999** of the most commonly challenged books–guess who was #1 for a decade?

Why the most frequent challenges?  My guess is that Schwartz’s lighthearted treatment towards death and all that nitty-gritty, such as rot (specifically humans), worms, corpses, et al, commonly introduced to younger audiences is a lot for the general public to welcome, especially given our pervasive avoidance of the topic of death.  More specifically, according to the Intellectual Freedom Blog via The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association*** by way of the Banned Books Resource Guide, the reasons are commonly cited as:

  • “too scary and violent”
  • “too morbid for children”
  • “shows the dark side of religion through the occult, the devil, and satanism”
  • “cannibalism”
  • “unrealistic view of death”
  • “cause children to fear the dark”
  • “cause children to have nightmares”

You know what?  All of the above is true!  The stories are morbid, they do discuss death, and who didn’t fear the dark as a child?  Luckily, parents have the choice as to whether or not to allow their small children to read them, but do not have the right to make that decision for everyone else who patronizes their local library.


A Quick Note From the American Library Association Conference in San Francisco 

While at the ALA Conference in San Francisco, learning about all that is shiny, sticky and new in librarianship, I started my day with Gloria Steinem.  She spoke for less than an hour but completely blew my hair back.  The woman is brilliant, modest, quick on her feet, and all of the other things that you’d expect of a woman who has dedicated her life to equal rights.

A few paraphrases from GS:

-Men can be feminists.

-If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

-Every year on Columbus Day I forget to put a note on that statue in Columbus Park that says “murderer.”

-Women are kept down by men controlling by their reproduction. It all starts there.

-We’ll boost the economy by giving women equal pay. It would put millions back into the economy.

She left me in an incredible headspace, feeling empowered to be better, to connect as humans, to learn and impart, to question what is being said to you, and to be the kind of librarian that I want to be, rather than what I think is expected of me by my peers.  It’s easy to forget these basics in the day-to-day, and we all need a little nudge back to the inner light once in a while.  Mine just happened to be from Gloria Steinem.

Best conference ever.

The Public Library-Six Months in the Trenches

It has been one year since I graduated with my Master’s in Library Science, and exactly six months since I began working in a public library.  Obviously, six months barely qualifies me to say that my big girl librarian pants are fully on.  Despite this, I have cultivated some unique insights specifically relating to the theory taught in grad school and the application of them in my daily life.  Here is my six month reflection, or if you will, the real deal on what happens in one public library.

The RUSA Interview: Just Relax!

In my very first library science class, General Reference Sources, I remember falling in love with the RUSA (Reference and User Services Association via the American Librarian Association) guidelines for the “reference interview”.  Which means, there are a set of guidelines that one must follow in order to give top-notch reference service to a patron, whether face-to-face or online.

When I began at the library, refreshing my reference interview points were priority number one, and I tried so hard to remember all of them during any exchange with a patron.  I put so much pressure on following them to a T, but soon found that the five guidelines can be fluid and really do have a way of naturally presenting themselves in the conversation.

There’s a refresher, or a fresher, if you will:

Approachability: look like you want to answer a question…smile!

Interest: act like you’re listening, or better yet, actually listen!  You’d be surprised how many librarians fail the first two…

Listening/inquiring: listen and ask questions.  I find this to be the most difficult because often times someone will be uber-confident in what they are asking for, and that may cause you to doubt your own instincts.  For example, an older woman was sure that the new release she was looking for was written by Vince Vaughn.  It turned out to be the fiction writer Vince Flynn.  The point is, it’s okay to question their question.

Searching: you help them find the information.  This is my biggest area for improvement because in grad school reference classes, you have to explain how you found everything and describe it step-by-step in your homework.  However, this is real life, not a paper, and a patron is often standing in front of you.  I tend to just find it and give it to them, which is a huge no-no.  Sure, it’s easier for me because I know I can find it, but I need to help them learn to plant, you get me?

Following-up: I find this to be a grey area, and you just need to feel it out over time.  Sometimes the patron doesn’t need a strict follow-up after they have searched.  For example, if they are looking for the movie The Birds, and you find it on the computer and hand them the DVD, then a formal follow-up may not be necessary because you know that they are happy.  Usually what I’ll do is when I find the source or hand it to them, I’ll ask if that is what they want.

All in all, the reference interview is fairly intuitive.  Just smile, be interested, ask lots of questions and remember to stay calm.  Sometimes, the patron will even school you on sources and may know a lot more, and that is okay.  Swallow your pride and welcome the opportunity to learn something new–you don’t know what a “fake book” is?  I didn’t either until a patron told me!

Crowd Control

In graduate school, discussions of the homeless, those with mental problems, or just plain raucous patrons were always done in ivory tower style.  What happens if they smell?  What if they are looking at women in thong underwear on the Internet?  What if they are sleeping in a book carroll?  What if they are washing their armpits in the bathroom sink?  The solutions to these questions were never directly answered, but instead we gave them a big “whadda do”? with a shoulder shrug and went onto discussing online reference sources.  I can’t say if this was exclusive to my particular classes or because those teaching were librarians in academic libraries, which tends to weed out the general public.  Either way, these questions quickly materialized into reality as the nearby homeless shelter opened during the winter months and/or some of our regulars stopped taking their schizophrenia medication.

Naturally, each library most likely has their own policies and chains of command regarding who to notify and what steps to take in case someone gets a little rowdy.  Despite this, a lot of times the (assistant)directors may not be present on the floor and the librarians and circulation staff are left to wo/man that all to often, “grey area” that patrons usually dance in.  What if that patron does indeed smell?  Or what if someone is listening to their music too loud, but I don’t think it’s too loud?  These questions in turn may lead a disgruntled patron to complain and it can be extremely uncomfortable for the librarians because this is that grey area.  A patron may be annoying another person, but it may not be enough to take action on the part of the librarian, which in turn may infuriate the complaining party.  These situations can be a daily occurrence in the library, and whose job is it to educate us in interpersonal communication?  Looking back, I do think that a more thorough dialogue in grad school could have been helpful, especially in teasing out diplomacy skills and tactics to aid librarians that would prevent them from becoming overwhelmed when faced with an angry patron.  Library Therapy 101, sign me up!

There’s No Cryin’ in Librarianin’

When I began working in the library, my mind was swollen with ideas on how things should be done.  When it comes down to the nitty-gritty of it, no matter how much you learn in school, or how many journal articles you read, there’s no substitution for hands on experience, and if you’re lucky, that hand is usually that of an experienced librarian on your shoulder.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never lost my lust for spewing my opinions all over the stacks, but it wasn’t until I swallowed my pride and shut my mouth that the real pearls began to bubble up.

It’s a humbling experience to admit that you don’t know what you are doing, whether you’ve been in the biz for six months or ten years.  Like many careers, in the library you are constantly inspired by other people’s creativity and insight and you just cannot compete with a dedicated librarian’s decades of experience.  And no matter how crabby a librarian can sometimes be (yes, and unfortunately, that stereotype still does exist because that type of librarian still exists), a good librarian is a steadfast sponge for new information.  It can be a struggle, especially for me, to admit that I don’t know everything because I KNOW EVERYTHING ALREADY!  When a co-worker has graciously tried to mentor me, my guard sometimes flares up.  On many occasions my emotions have run the gamut from feeling like crying, being defensive, angry, and slowly and thankfully more often, grateful.  It’s difficult to zip the lips and admit that your knowledge base is lacking, but if you’re lucky, you’ll get paired with an old-school librarian who wants to share their knowledge.

Six Months to Life 

As Hank Williams has said, if God’s willing and the creek don’t rise, this is just the beginning of my library career.  I have no clue what this post will look like in six weeks, six months, or six years.  What I do know is that I want to be the best librarian ever and hopefully one day, I’ll be that kick-ass, and hopefully not the too crabby librarian that inspires some other new six-monther.