Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"I Became Very Thirsty for Math"

The New Yorker has a beautiful story about a mathematician solving a famously-insolvable problem while toiling in obscurity. Except it can't really be called "toiling" when it seems as if he is quietly fulfilling a Higher Purpose:
A few years ago, Zhang sold his car, because he didn't really use it. He rents an apartment about four miles from campus and rides to and from his office with students on a school shuttle. He says that he sits on the bus and thinks. Seven days a week, he arrives at his office around eight or nine and stays until six or seven. The longest he has taken off from thinking is two weeks. Sometimes he wakes in the morning thinking of a math problem he had been considering when he fell asleep. Outside his office is a long corridor that he likes to walk up and down. Otherwise, he walks outside. 
 Yitang Zhang was born in Shanghai in 1955, and his education was derailed by the Cultural Revolution. Still, that didn't keep him from learning:
As a small boy, he began “trying to know everything in mathematics,” he said. “I became very thirsty for math.” His parents moved to Beijing for work, and Zhang remained in Shanghai with his grandmother. The revolution had closed the schools. He spent most of his time reading math books that he ordered from a bookstore for less than a dollar. He was fond of a series whose title he translates as “A Hundred Thousand Questions Why.” There were volumes for physics, chemistry, biology, and math. When he didn't understand something, he said, “I tried to solve the problem myself, because no one could help me.”
His story has much in common with Einstein's, of course, but in Zhang there is such humility and singularity of purpose that it's hard to imagine him living the kind of life Einstein did, even were he to achieve such fame.

Read the entire article: "The Pursuit of Beauty".

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Career Fair Presentations on Librarianship

Finished a class on social media for graduating students, so I'm updating the blog with what I also posted on LinkedIn. I want students to know that they can showcase their presentations and other work online, so that potential employers can learn more about them than just what they see on paper in an application.

Here are two resources on librarianship I created for a career fair a few years ago. One is a brochure and the other is a PowerPoint. For the PowerPoint, I printed out the slides and made them into a poster display.

What Librarians Do

Becoming a Librarian


Citing Sources

Since I'm doing a class on social media today, I'm experimenting with posting a few library guides here on the blog via SlideShare. Here's a short one on why we cite sources and how to cite in MLA style.

Citing Sources

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Reading in the Old Year ... and the New

It's embarrassingly obvious that I haven't updated my reading list (see right sidebar) in over a year. I'm leaving it there a little longer, because I hate to see it go, and after all, what's a few more days? But please don't get the impression that I didn't read anything at all in 2014. I did read quite a bit, although much of my reading was in fits and starts, and many books were left unfinished. Every year gets busier, and 2014 was probably the busiest yet. Reading time was replaced, in part, by increased hours at work, but also by some rare (for me) cultural and social opportunities. I actually went to symphony concerts, ate in restaurants, went to movies in theaters, and had a short vacation. Still, there's a lot to be said for a more solitary life of reading and playing music. This year I hope to read more consistently, and to track my reading again. Here are some books I'd like to get to:






Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, by D. T. Max

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, by Charles Seife

Will I read all of these? Probably not. It's likely that some will be replaced by other books I'll encounter in the coming year. There is also quite a bit missing from the list which I'll read anyway: religion and self-help and gardening and decorating and exercise and music. I have been using Pinterest as a way to keep track of books to buy for the school libraries or books I'd like to read myself. (Sometimes those categories overlap, and for now they're all in one large Pinterest board simply titled "Books.") I go through reviews from Library Journal and other places and add titles to my books board. I not only look for books pertaining to the programs at our schools but also throw in a good portion of books to help students succeed, especially self-help books and books on study skills. I started using Pinterest in earnest for collection development about a year ago. I find it a useful tool.

I would love to read a book on information literacy and instruction, but I haven't settled on a title yet. Because I usually have to buy such books, I try to search out reviews and previews before breaking open the budget for them. I also attend a number of webinars during the year, so I'm looking for ones to put on that list as well. All in all, I'm hoping for a year filled with information and learning. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

Back to the Blog

I'm preparing for some classes on various social media for our students, so I'm updating the blog with some posts that had been lingering in my "drafts" folder. It feels good to be back.

Conduct

There's been a lot written lately in the library blogosphere -- about libraries in general, but also more specifically about the ALA Code of Conduct. That seemed to branch off into discussions of privilege. I started following it through Twitter, but soon found I couldn't keep up. I hope to go back and read much of it, because the librarians are all wise and experienced, and I know they have important things to say.

I guess I'd like to add my own voice, small as it is, to the discussion. I support the Code of Conduct. I say that even though it's unlikely that I'll ever attend an ALA conference, at least in person. It's something I can't afford in time or money. But I do think the Code is important.

I've been a "real" (i.e., employed) librarian for over four years now. I love what I do. But there have been times when the profession has made me feel excluded. I should stress at the outset that no one I've interacted with personally, even in the virtual world, has ever directly made me feel this way. Much of it is just an atmosphere. Many (although not all) librarians are liberal; I'm a (sometimes dissatisfied) conservative, with libertarian leanings. Almost everyone I interact with is above me in terms of experience and prestige. At my age (50) and just entering the profession, "rising" isn't even an option. I'm just trying to stay afloat.

None of this is anyone's fault. I feel extremely grateful to the people who gave me opportunities, from internships to my current job. And the people who are at the top deserve to be there. They've worked hard. But there's a certain privilege they have, rightfully so, that some of the rest of us don't. Life choices, mistakes, bad luck ... whatever the reason, not everyone is at the same level.

That's where my small gripe comes in. When I see online degrees mocked ("anyone with a laptop can get a degree" is a common way of putting it) without regard for the institution or quality of the courses, I bristle. My degree program was mostly (although not completely) online; there's no other way I could have gone to school. When I see for-profit schools derided, without qualification as to their worth or the service they provide, I feel shut out, because I work at one. When I see youth valued in our profession over older people like myself, simply because they are young and "have new ideas," I wonder about the ideas I have, ideas which come from a long background in teaching. The truth is, everyone can make a contribution. Beyond endorsing professional, non-threatening conduct at conferences, we all need to be sure that we are supporting each other in the goal of making libraries, and the profession of librarianship, better for all.

What They -- Actually, We -- Don't Know

Wow, it's been a long time. A lot has happened since we last saw each other. For one thing, I have another library added to my freelance-ish list. I wasn't expecting it, but now I'm coordinating library instruction for four campuses, which covers our entire school. So while I've become more efficient at some duties, and thought I could enjoy a time of finally feeling on top of things, I now have more to do.  But it's an enjoyable more, with opportunities for distance instruction and collection development and enthusiastic assistants.

Today was my first "Introduction to the Library" session for the new term. There were too many students to fit into our tiny library room (a good thing), so we missed some of the visuals the library itself can provide. I added something new at the last minute: the top FAQs students have in the library. Things like how to check email, how to log onto the student portal, how to find the handbook online, and what printer to select. Most of this they've been told before, but the first few weeks can be overwhelming, and if a few were bored, others seemed grateful for the review. Then we went over the catalog and research guides and databases, very briefly. A few students asked questions, and some were even taking notes.

I'm always surprised by what students don't know, and then I remind myself that I shouldn't be. I don't go into anything very technical at all, but I do point out what I think they might need to know. For instance, there are always some students who think that the library catalog is a whole bunch of e-books. So while I tell them that we do have ways to read some books online, our catalog mostly contains the records for print books. Being a librarian is as much about mind reading as it is about reading.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Books Saved My Life

(It's been a while since I've written something here, so I thought I'd take up again with a post about how important books are to me.)

"Books saved my life." Well, maybe not literally. I've never been one to give up on life completely; I'm much too stubborn for that, as well as too curious about what lies around the corner. But books have helped me over some really tough spots.

When I was in 3rd grade, and in a new school, the Scholastic Book Club saved my life with the first book I chose on my own: Child of the Silent Night, a biography of Laura Bridgman. Later, in 4th grade, our classroom teacher had a stash of books in the back of the room: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Twenty-One Balloons, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I borrowed them from her, and after school let out for the summer, I missed them so much that I asked my parents to buy them for me. I can't guess how many times I read them, but there are still parts of them, and illustrations, that I remember four decades later.

When, as an adult, I moved to two wildly different cities within two years, and felt lonely and afraid in the midst of a gloomy Southern winter, I picked up the Dorothy L. Sayers mysteries my sister had given me the year before, which I had put aside for later. There couldn't have been a series more tailor-made to cure my ills. I had long been a fan of detective fiction: I had a bunch of Encyclopedia Brown books, which I read over and over, despite knowing how each case was solved. Now here was Lord Peter, a bon vivant, but also not a stranger to the slough of despond, and (later) his lady friend, Harriet Vane, who blended the worlds of academia and detection and romance into the perfect medicine for what was ailing me.

Years later, sinking in the depths of marriage problems, I bought Whittaker Chambers' Witness. The beauty of books is that they create relationships between you and the most unlikely characters. On the surface, an ex-Soviet agent from Maryland (a Quaker) and a stay-at-home mom in Louisiana (a Catholic), one now dead and the other desparingly alive, wouldn't have much in common. But Chambers' story of his break with Communism and his rise as a writer ("In 1937, I began, like Lazarus, the impossible return") gave me hope that I might do the same, albeit in a different time and place and circumstance.

The past few years have been very busy, and promise to be busier, but I again turn to books as a respite ... from exhaustion, from loneliness, from disappointment, and sometimes just as a way to travel to a different place and meet new people. Books hold the promise to save my life, if only metaphorically, again and again. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Libraries: Inside, Outside, Upside Down?

(With apologies to those bears.) I was reading Lorcan Dempsey's blog and found something valuable -- as usual -- in the archives from about a year ago about discoverability in libraries.  I'm so interested in this topic, and I need to make time to go back and read more of what he's written. For now, some money quotes:

It is not enough simply to make resources available on the network; more active promotion is required if they are to be discovered.

If I want to know if a particular book exists I may look in Google Book Search or in Amazon, or in a social reading site, in a library aggregation like Worldcat, and so on. My options have multiplied and the breadth of interest of the local gateway [i.e., library] is diminished: it provides access only to a part of what I am potentially interested in.


... the institution is also a producer of a range of information resources  How effectively to disclose this material is of growing interest across libraries or across the institutions of which the library is a part.


His most recent post is an update on the above (and of course I'm skipping over updates in-between). I think his approach is so important, namely because he's bringing a scholarly, methodical viewpoint to assessing the state of libraries today. There's a statement of the current climate, the problems, and possible solutions. For instance, in speaking about the "decentered library":


Libraries don't have a holistic view of traffic against their entire network presence. The difficulty of compiling statistics across services is well known. Libraries are working across multiple environments and systems, with intermittent availability of good data about usage, no consistent approach across systems, and usually no aggregate view. This means that the library's knowledge of the use of its own services, and of the benefits of particular approaches, is limited in important ways. At the same time, while there is awareness of the benefits of better data, a data-driven approach to engagement, resource allocation, or service development is not yet prevalent.  


That last sentence might qualify as understatement of the year (make that the decade) for libraries. While the difficulties of gathering such data are apparent, the project shouldn't be impossible. This is just one of the many areas I wish the ALA were allocating resources toward, instead of pursuing their "Yay, libraries!" campaign. There is an urgent need for analysis of library search and usage data, and if the Pew Research Center can tell us about library usage (albeit in a very different way than that mentioned above), certainly someone in the library community could find the means to gather the data we desperately need.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Pinterest

The other day I taught a class session on Pinterest for our cosmetology students at the school. The idea was that students could post pictures of their work on Pinterest and create an online portfolio for potential employers to view. Well, many of the students were already veteran users of the site, and they taught me a thing or two. It was a very enjoyable class, with lots of participation. Some students said they use the site daily. I had created an account and had done some pinning when the site was new, but hadn't really used it much since then.

Preparing for the class got me thinking about other ways I could use Pinterest. Every so often I begin anew my quest for the perfect (free) web-based organizer, but I still haven't found one. All sites seem to have a fatal flaw, and very few systems can truly organize everything. By everything I mean my schedule, tasks, images, favorite sites, articles to read, RSS feeds, and a few hundred other things. Well, Pinterest certainly isn't the answer, but I might just use it to manage a a couple of things on my wish list.

I've long wanted to keep a list of books I'd like to read. I'm a huge fan of LibraryThing as a quick way to create a catalog of books, but I never could seem to maintain my reading list there. I'm not sure why, but it always seemed a little too time-consuming as a quick way to add things. Now I'm trying Pinterest. I pin the book's page from Amazon and add it to my list. The Pin It extension for Chrome makes it easy to pin pages right from my browser.

I wanted a way to save the sites for webinars I plan to view or participate in. I was always emailing myself the links. Now I've pinned them to my Webinar board. The image is often generic to the webinar's sponsoring site, but so far the specific URL has been saved. I've really wanted a way to save articles to read later, and Pinterest sometimes works for this, but not always. I know, I know, there are other sites out there that do this. I just can't seem to devote the miniscule time needed to keep up with them. I'm not sure I'll keep up with Pinterest, either. (sigh)

The downsides to Pinterest? 1) You can only keep three private boards at one time. I'd really like it sometimes if all of my boards were private. You can keep your profile out of Google search results, but that's about it. I'm not entirely comfortable sharing my tastes in fashion, home decorating, food, books, and music with the rest of the world. 2) The site can be a huge time-suck. Even our dedicated cosmetology-student Pinners admitted that there were a lot of ideas they found on the site (for hairstyles, nails, makeup, or even crafts) that they never used. So beware.