People-like-us Syndrome

I left my bicycle in the London Library’s bike-shed yesterday. The shed has a lock that can be opened only by library members, and so I didn’t bother to chain the bike to one of the stands. I usually do, but it was a Sunday, the library was closed and I figured the odds were that few if any other members would be opening and closing the door, potentially letting strangers in. During the week, I chain the bike when I leave it there, but I don’t bother to double-chain the basket, which detaches, the way I do when I leave it on the street.

Notice that I was only worried about strangers. I noticed that too, when I thought about locking/not-locking it. It never occurred to me that a library member would steal my bike. I mean, they’re London Library members. They’re people like me!

I make those kind of unconscious decisions all the time, and I’m sure we all do. It’s OK to leave my scarf on a seat, because only university members come here; it’s not OK to leave my book there, ‘anyone’ might come across it. There are in-groups and out-groups in my head. And for some reason, my in-groups (library members, shoppers at one specific — but not any other — farmers’ market, neighbours) have no dishonest people in them, no liars, thieves, cheats.

All the more shocking, therefore, when I read this morning that at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, publishers were losing up to 75 per cent of their stock to, well, looters — 75 per cent can’t really be called petty pilfering, can it? My assumption, automatically, is that some ‘they’ group — outsiders — came in and perpetrated the thefts. Because I can’t get my head around the fact that book people would steal. They wouldn’t, would they? Even though I know there are statistically as many liars, cheats, thieves among my professional cohort as anyone else’s professional cohort.

I know it, but I don’t believe it.

Contempt for skills, Part 2 million

OK, let’s get today’s rant over with, we’re all busy people. According to the Local Government Association and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, libraries are now to be ‘saved’ by putting them in doctor’s surgeries, churches, and other community centres (and let’s not forget their previous genius idea, putting them in supermarkets).

Apart from the multiple reasons that this is a terrible idea, the real reason it’s a terrible idea is that these libraries will no longer be run by librarians. (I know, I know, but bear with me — we need to spell things out for the barbarians not only no longer at the gate, but sitting on our front doorsteps.)

All it takes to realize how necessary librarians are to (duh) libraries, is to look at Google Books. Just look at it. (Go on, I’ll wait.) Do a quick search. Type in almost anything — oh, I don’t know, Moby-Dick. The first title that comes up is, miracle of miracles, Moby-Dick. Or is it? It isn’t (God forbid) the first edition. It is a 2008 reprint published by ‘Forgotten Books’. Its preamble is hugely encouraging:

Forgotten Books take the uppermost [sic, sic as a dog] care to preserve the wording and images from the original book. However, this book has been scanned and reformatted from the original, and as such we cannot guarantee that it is free from errors or contains the full contents of the original.

So, Forgotten Books takes so much care that they can’t actually say if the whole book is there or not. Good choice for the number 1 slot, Google algorithm!

Number 2: another reprint, volume 1 only.

Number 3: an issue of Life magazine from 1956, with an article on ‘How to read Moby-Dick‘ (something you won’t be able to do so far if you’re relying on Google Books).

Number 4: another reprint, volume 2.

Numbers 5 on down: An article in Indianapolis Monthly (really, I’m not making this up) on whale-watching; an essay called ‘Fathering the Nation: American genealogies of slavery and freedom’; an issue of Popular Mechanics from 1950…

I’m at the end of page 2 of Google books, and so far there is not a single reliable copy of Moby-Dick. Let’s ignore that I’ve found Henry James in a search that includes the term a ‘contemporary’ classic; or Hemingway under Edith Wharton; or or or…

Google had a load of cash, and thought that all that was required was unskilled labour. The local councils have no cash, and are relying on unskilled labour too. Are we expecting more than old copies of, if not Popular Mechanics, then its 2011 equivalent?

What I don’t understand is, why are the elements around the act of reading regarded as something anyone can do? The phrase, ‘I would write a book if only I had time,’ has become a sick, sad cliche. No one says to Philip Glass, ‘I would write a symphony if only I had time,’ or to Magdi Yacoub, ‘I would ditto a cranial haemorrhage if only ditto.’ (At least, I’m guessing they don’t.) So why are writing, and reading, considered unskilled? Yeah, let’s ask nursery groups, and doctors’ receptionists, and boy-scout leaders, or even the scouts, to run the libraries. After all, you don’t need to know anything about anything to do that, do you?

I’ll be in my surgical scrubs and operating behind the produce counter at Aldi at 1 p.m. Anyone with stroke-like symptoms, line right up.

Editathon-ing away, the Victorians rule the waves!

Well, that’s a Saturday spent usefully. No, I haven’t joined the Boy Scouts — although it’s a thought. Instead I spent the day at a seminar organized by the British Library in conjunction with Wikipedia. From the BL’s point of view, it was a way of promoting its special collections and areas of interest to a wider audience, and particularly to those who cannot travel to the library itself.

The group seemed to be mostly divided between computer-folk and Eng.Lit. people, with the odd sprinkling of historians (well, one, I think, me) and a classical music person, plus a table-ful of enthusiastic sci-fi-ers.  (Did you know it was a BL speciality? Well, now you do.) Plus Lauren Collins from the New Yorker, taking notes so as to write us all up, we assume as hopelessly comic characters.

We split up into groups to create pages highlighting different areas of the BL collection that we were interested in. The table I was on was Victorian, and we produced Wikipedia pages on Barry Ono, whose train-spotterishly vast collection of penny-dreadfuls is now owned by the BL; on Andrew Forrester, who wrote short-stories with one of the very first female detectives; on Ruth Traill, as far as I have determined, the first fictional female detective; and on a late Victorian novelist whose name I have shamefully forgotten.  I also added a bawdy 1830s song about the fire that destroyed the old Houses of Parliament to the Burning of Parliament page, just to lower the tone.

At lunchtime we broke off to find out what everyone else had been doing, and lo and behold, the Victorians had conquered the world — the sci-fi buffs had been working on Mary Shelley and the Brontë’s juvenilia; the poetry table on Victorian poets; and even those working on the BL table had focused on their 19th-century collections.

I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned from this, although I’m damned if I know what it is. In the meantime, if you need a rude drinking song, check out Wikipedia’s Burning of Parliament page.

Help write Victorian history

What fun. The British Library (here) is calling all budding Victorianists to join them on 4 June for a massive edit-in. The idea from the library’s point of view is to help spread the word about the depth and breadth of the various Victorian collections quietly waiting for readers at the BL, by adding new Wikipedia entries, or updating and expanding already existing ones, and particularly focusing on their special collections: Dickens, boys’-own stories, penny-dreadfuls, the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays.

‘Access’ is changing. When I first started to write, if I needed a date, I checked it in an encyclopaedia, on the shelves across the room. Spelling, a dictionary, on the other side. A page reference? It was jotted down on a ‘to check when I’m next in the library’ list.

And now? Dates are online, either Wikipedia for the biggies, the Dictionary of National Biography for the UK figures, accessed via the London Library (blessings on your head, LL!) or a dozen other websites. Spelling, OED via the Westminster Public Library. Page reference? Google books. Checking citations, Project Gutenberg. And every day it still seems like a miracle. My ‘to check in the library list’ is now vanishingly small.

One of the greatest developments is also the BL’s, its digitization of hundreds of complete runs of 19th-century newspapers. This has opened up huge new research areas, and is quickly changing our views of British history, turning it from a London, Times-centric research base, as has been the default, to a broader view, geographically, politically and socially.

The one caveat is that it is only free if you are physically in the BL, which strikes me as very peculiar. If you have a reader’s ticket, and can key in your number, why not free to any registered BL reader, as with so many libraries?

A girl can dream…

Let’s monetize thinking

Yesterday in the Observer there was a wonderful article on libraries and their function in the 21st century (here), and the various purposes they serve.

The most interesting part (well, it was all interesting — do read it), the most worrying part was, I thought, where one librarian told of the council wanting to ‘measure’ ‘outcomes’:

‘The council once asked us for an assessment of outcomes, not output,’ says Ian Stringer. ‘Output was how many books we’d stamped out, and outcome was something that had actually resulted from someone borrowing a book. So say someone took out a book on mending cars and then drove the car back, that’s an outcome; or made a batch of scones from a recipe book they had borrowed. It lasted until one of the librarians told the council they’d had someone in borrowing a book on suicide, but that they’d never brought it back. The council stopped asking after that.’

This seems to me to encapsulate the problem with so much of life, really since Thatcher — the idea that everything can be quantified, everything ‘monetized’. We don’t have public transport or publically-owned postal services because they make life a little better for everyone, make the world a slightly better place to live in, but only if they actually make money, not simply pay for themselves, or even cost something.

As one of the librarians said in the Observer article (really, do read it, I’m telling you), if anyone said today, let’s tell everyone we’re taking a bit of their tax-money to build a bunch of buildings, buy books and tell people they can come in and borrow them, all they have to do is return them, well, everyone would say they were nuts. What the piece doesn’t say is how our mindset has altered to make this proposition risible: that in the 19th-century, when the idea of public libraries was first formulated generally, the idea of doing something for the betterment of society seemed normal and worthwhile, while today it seems a joke, an alien concept.

I saw a bit of this myself when I was a baby copy-editor (oh yes, I get around). My nameless corporation (Penguin) invited a bunch of management consultants to ‘stream’, I think was the unattractive word, us to create a range of salary bands. They got each type of employee together and asked questions about what we did. But the questions were not, what did we do, but how did we ‘enrich’ our ‘product’, and what tools did we need to do said ‘enriching’.

Faced with the response that our tools (in those pre-computer days) were pencils and erasers, and that if we were really really really good at our jobs, our ‘enrichment’ was entirely invisible, they were flummoxed. Worse, looking back, I can see from the results that they went back to our Lords and Masters and said we were unnecessary: that our work could be done by anyone, and that paying salaries instead of freelance rates was simply untenable.

Sure enough, long after I left, the copy-editorial department was run down, and manuscripts, as in most publishing houses, are now sent out to freelance editors. There are many, and many are admirable, freelance editors, but what was lost was the pooled communal knowledge, the discussions of ‘What do you think if X’, or the ability for experienced editors to share that experience with younger ones.

To return to libraries: what we have is something that has no price — it is not a ‘profit centre’, it cannot be ‘monetized’. But yes, it ‘enriches’ all of us. To lose it because we cannot put our finger on ‘outcomes’ is a sign of how shallow our societies have become.

Newspeak, 2011-style

Brent council in north London has just rubber-stamped the closure of six of its libraries. We all know why this is outrageous (try: the £100m cuts imposed on the local government being equalled in Brent by spending £100m on a new town hall). That is not what astonishes me — that’s just standard Tory contempt for those with less money (close libraries), and Labour jobs-for-the-boys (build premises for yourself).

What is astonishing is the Newspeak that passes for English. I don’t expect politicians to tell the truth. In fact, I expect them to lie. (And God knows, they never disappoint.) But I do expect them to show just a tiny smidgeon of respect for the people who vote them in (or out! please God) of office. Councillor James Powney (Kensal Green) has justified the closure (note the word — closure — keep it in your mind) of the libraries by saying: ‘Opening our libraries seven days a week will make them more accessible, not less, and enhance the service for many people.’ (My italics, of course.)

So a man who is closing (I’m doing this slowly, for the hard-of-thinking) libraries, defends them by saying he is opening them.

I’m not that smart, I admit. My grasp of English cannot always be relied on.  But is that George Orwell we just heard spinning in his grave?