Machines will fail

“Machines are gonna fail and the system’s gonna fail…then, survival. Who has the ability to survive? That’s the game – survive.”

Do you remember who said that?   That line came back to me over and over again throughout the month of January as our library struggled with a hacked webpage that took hours and hours of staff time and technical help from other libraries to restore.  No online catalog.  No patron accounts.  No blog.  It was not a fun time at the library.

Machines will fail.

Reading devices fail, too.  [Don’t get me wrong—I still love my Nook!]   But literature and the written word—well, those have done a pretty good job of surviving.

So, while I was “away” in the weeds of hacked webpages, here’s what I’ve been reading.

At the Virginia Library Association Council meeting in January, we introduced ourselves to each other by briefly reviewing what we were reading at the time.  I talked about Spirits of Just Men by Charles Thompson.  Thompson has spoken at our library before, and had just been the guest speaker at a  Pittsylvania Historical Society meeting.  He’s a professor at Duke University and a native of Franklin County, Virginia.  Spirits of Just Men is about moonshining, a pertinent topic now that our county has been made famous, or infamous, by virtue of Discovery Channel’s Moonshiners.  One of the points that Thompson makes so eloquently is that his nice office at Duke would not be possible had it not been for his grandfather’s involvement in moonshine.  Those who portray these people as backwoods hillbillies clearly do not have a full picture about the extraordinary survival skills they developed in order to provide a livelihood for their families.  Thompson is always an intelligent observer of the culture around him, and this book does not disappoint.

Elizabeth George has written seventeen installments in the Inspector Lynley series of mysteries.  Some of the more recent outings have not held my attention, but her newest, Believing the Lie, has a psychological element that I have found intriguing.

George’s books are lengthy—though in fact, I began reading her so long ago that I can remember that the first few were normal size.  This one tops the 600 page mark—20 cds in audio.  A typical George book weaves several plot lines, all related, and all tend to come together at the end. What captures my interest are her dense characterizations.  Those doing the investigating are often more interesting than the murder itself.  If you have a long weekend, this is the type of book that can absorb you for long periods in a satisfying way.

Oh, and the line at the beginning?  That comes out of Burt Reynold’s mouth in the movie Deliverance.  Talk about backwoods—I think I can hear the banjo.

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Uranium studies

Libraries are, as I have noted before, all about connecting people with the information they need.  In the interests of doing just that, I am posting links here to all three of the uranium mining studies that have been released in the last month.

Democracy rests on the premise that citizens stay informed about issues.  Many who live in this area have awaited these studies with great anticipation.  To be truly informed, however, it is necessary for us not only to read news accounts of what they say, but also to become familiar with the findings ourselves.

I would only suggest that if you are not going to read these studies–and they are lengthy–at least read the nontechnical summary of the National Academy of Sciences report.  That begins on page nine of the report.  It’s a mere ten pages long, and it’s a good starting point.

Here’s where you can find each of the reports:

National Academy of Sciences Report:

The Chmura uranium study, The Socioeconomic Impact of Uranium Mining and Milling in the Chatham Labor Shed, Virginia is here, as is the National Academy of Sciences report:

Finally, the study commissioned by the Danville Regional Foundation, conducted by RTI, can be accessed here:

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One more book

I get lots of good book recommendations at my book club meetings.

What a radical idea.

This is my shout-out to the fellow members of my book club.  Intelligent and thoughtful women all, they are also astute reviewers of their latest reading.  Recently, one of them recommended The Snowman by Jo Nesbø.[1] Since I respect the woman who recommended it, I picked it up right before Christmas.

Folks, this is not a light holiday book.  One other thing:  you can’t put it down.

If you have read any of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series, you will feel at home in the hands of Nesbø, one of several “hot” Scandinavian mystery writers [Henning Mankell is another].

I did not have any difficulty figuring out who the murderer was early on, a point worth making only because I am usually not very good at that part of the mystery reading experience.   I am going to assume it was not Nesbø’s intention to fool the reader.  Though I will say he sprinkled in plenty of false leads and red herrings [There!—that’s my Scandinavian pun for this review].  Beware, too, that the violence in these books is particularly horrifying—again, not unlike the Larsson books.  Though be forewarned that Nesbø himself does not like being compared to Larsson.[2]

What made this a book I could hardly stop myself from reading—despite being surrounded by my children and  grandchildren, who seemed to want to focus on Christmas, of all things—was  the relationships between Harry Hole, the detective and central character, and two women.  One was his colleague, Katrine Bratt, and the other was the love of his life, Rakel.

If you like books that emphasize relationships between people in a cold winter setting, and if you don’t mind some pretty violent action, this book should be worth your time.  Just don’t plan to eat or sleep until you are done.

On another note, let me encourage you to resolve, for 2012, to track the books you read.  You can do this the way my mom did.  She had a recipe file box and 3×5 cards.  She had everything alphabetized by authors, and she noted on the author’s card which works she had read and when, along with a brief review.  Or, if you want to be twenty-first century about it, try an online service such as Goodreads []   or Library Thing [].  If you do this, I think you’ll find it to be a beneficial way to give structure to your reading as well as helpful when you try to remember specific characteristics of a book.

One more thing before I sign off for 2011.  Here’s a link to a list of books Nancy Pearl, librarian extraordinaire, reviewed during a webinar I took recently:

My husband asked me if I had read them all.  I told him, “Read them all?  I haven’t even heard of them all!”  Nancy will expand your reading horizons if you let her.  Don’t be afraid to stretch!

See you next year.

[1] Nesbo, Jo.  The Snowman.  Random House, 2010.  I read the ebook version via our Overdrive service at the library.

[2] AFdj3GhF_story.html

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Small Town

In October, the New York Times ran an article on the post office as the heart of a community.[1] As most of us know, post offices are under tremendous economic pressure.  The use of the Internet, e-mail, electronic bill pay, and alternative shipping providers has meant the volume of mail and the demand for postal services has decreased.  I heard someone recently call the post office simply a delivery system for junk mail. [2]

All the economic questions aside, though, what struck me was the similarity in the way people in smaller communities view their libraries and their post offices.  I have lived in large cities and in small towns; there is a different pace in smaller places.  I think part of the reason is that people become interdependent.  They invest energy in increasing their “social capital.”  They watch out for each other.  As for post offices and libraries, these institutions are natural gathering places for people; they are where rural folks catch up with their neighbors.  They are public buildings open to all.  Everyone is a “member” of the post office and the library, just by virtue of walking in the door.

The Times article talked about people exchanging garden produce in the post office; that’s not an activity that is foreign at all to the staff at our library.   People even bring us baked goods when they come in to make copies.  And as for the post office,  I know that I saw the magic of small town life in action when I arrived there to mail an important document, lacking a few coins from having enough to pay the postage.  I was waved on by the desk clerk who took me at my word when I said I’d be back in a bit with the rest–he tossed the envelope into the waiting basket and it headed out to the truck to make my deadline.

There are small institutions in every part of rural America that are struggling right now.  Small churches, small libraries, small post offices, small businesses.  Somewhere we got infected with the idea that “big” and “consolidated” and “growth” are all supreme goods.  Those that live in small towns, though, know that when things get big and grow, something of the personal is lost.  As the Times quoted one person, “I just wish that they would leave our post office alone,” Ms. Bowling said. “If I couldn’t come here to get my mail every morning, I’d feel a big part of me has died.”  Another interviewee said, ““You’re throwing the little people, the rural people, under the bus.”

Will the local post office survive this assault?   It appears certain that changes are coming, but then changes are coming to many of our institutions.  I like what my friend, Rev. Chuck Warnock of Chatham Baptist Church wrote about “the church as abbey” when he was thinking about the small town congregation: “The old Celtic Christian abbey [was] a center for worship, refuge, hospitality, learning, art, and community. The ancient abbey embraced its neighbors in adjoining towns and countryside as its parish, and served the needs of the community. The Celtic abbeys were not closed monastic compounds that excluded the outside world; rather, they were open to travelers, neighbors, inquirers, and those seeking help. Every person they encountered did not show up for worship on Sundays, but the witness of the abbey impacted the community it served every day of the week. “[3]

Impacting the community we serve every day of the week–not a bad mission for any of us in small town institutions.

[1] “Where post office is the town’s heart, fears of closing,” New York Times, October 7, 2011.



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Reading Roundup

I want to mention three books that have been my reading for the last two weeks.  The first is Michael Lewis’s newest, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World.[1] I have talked about Lewis’s books before; I think his The Big Short is the single best book on the financial crisis that I have read.

This outing by Lewis discusses several countries on the brink of financial collapse, and investigates how they got to this unhappy place.  Iceland, Greece, Italy, Ireland—all of these are covered in Lewis’s trademark style.  That is to say, he talks to people who elucidate what happened, rather than just giving us dry fact.  This puts “skin” on the statistics and engages us in the story.  Whether we want to admit it or not, the story of the world’s current financial problems is our story, too.

This book in some sense follows up on The Big Short; I think that if you have not read either, it would be an excellent approach to read them in that order.

The second book is Blue Nights by Joan Didion.[2] A famed author, Didion has suffered devastating losses in recent years.  The first was the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne.  She chronicled this in her A Year of Magical Thinking, a moving and well-written book.  Blue Nights tells of the death of their daughter, Quintana.  Didion uses a repetitive, nearly litany-like style to recount Quintana’s life and death, but there is plenty in the book about Didion herself.  I found it to be a mixed work.  Some portions—for example, parts about life in mid-century America—were well-done.  Other, very personal sections, did not translate well into a book for the general reader.  All of it was elegiac, as the title might indicate.  Sometimes the reader feels, not so much a kinship with Didion in the human condition, as a voyeur at the very private unraveling of her life.

I have saved the best for last.  The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern[3] is a fantasy, a book like none other you are likely to read this year.  [As an interesting sidelight, the book’s draft was written as a project during National Novel Writing Month, which I discussed here recently.]  The author has, in essence, created a type of creation narrative centered around a circus, one that is only open from dusk to dawn.  The narrative has two warring “gods”—Prospero the Enchanter, and Mr. A. H—who create a game of very high stakes for the two main characters.  The world of the circus is distinctively black and white.  The circus itself is called Le Cirque des Reves—the circus of dreams.  The devotees of the circus—the reveurs [dreamers]–are distinquished by their blood-red scarves.  It’s an alternative universe of great power and attractiveness.  These two, Marco and Celia, who are both magicians, eventually come together to find a solution for the game.  In the process, we meet a host of supporting characters who are also fascinating.   I can’t say enough about this book, nor do I want to tell you so much that it loses some of its mystery for you.  You find yourself transported into this circus, a reveur yourself by the end.  It’s magical.  Read it.

[1] Lewis, Michael.  Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.  I read this book in traditional print.

[2] Didion, Joan.  Blue Nights.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.  I read this book as a Random House audiobook read by Kimberly Farr.

[3] Morgenstern, Erin.  The Night Circus.  New York:  Doubleday, 2011.  I read this book as a Random House audiobook read by the incomparable Jim Dale.

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Come Write In

If you read the Danville Register[1], the Star-Tribune, or watch WSET-TV[2], you may already be aware that, at midnight on November 1, armed only with their wits, the vague outline of a story, and a ridiculous deadline, more than 250,000 people around the world set out to become novelists.

Why? Because November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, the world’s largest writing challenge and nonprofit literary crusade. Participants pledge to write 50,000 words in a month, starting from scratch and reaching “The End” by November 30. Some of them will be working on those novels here at the library in Chatham.  We call it “Come Write In,” which is the library arm of the Nanowrimo movement.

We can’t write that novel for you, but the library will provide a supportive environment, including beverages and snacks to keep that energy flowing.  Local writers are always on the lookout for a good place to write, and the library is a great hub for grassroots communities of writers to gather, discuss their work, and, of course, produce that one-month novel.

“The 50,000-word challenge has a wonderful way of opening up your imagination and unleashing creativity,” says NaNoWriMo Founder and Executive Director Chris Baty.  “When you write for quantity instead of quality, you end up getting both. Also, it’s a great excuse for not doing any dishes for a month.” Write-ins at libraries and other venues offer a supportive environment and surprisingly effective peer pressure, turning the usually solitary act of writing into a community experience. We also have some books that will help with the process.

Although the event emphasizes creativity and adventure over creating a literary masterpiece, more than 90 novels begun during NaNoWriMo have since been published, including Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, both #1 New York Times Best Sellers.  [I’ll review The Night Circus in my next post].

Those that sign up and return to the library here to work on their novel will receive a very nice thumb drive, so that at the end of the month, you have a way of saving that masterpiece.



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Reading Roundup

I started a yoga class last week.

It’s probably the bravest thing I’ve done in awhile, so yes, I am patting myself on the back, in case you were wondering.

I have some orthopedic issues, so I was reluctant, even fearful, to try it.  I also have some “get off your duff” issues that added to the reluctance.

I'm sure I looked just like this.

The biggest reason I overcame those issues and went for it was that I had just finished reading Younger Next Year for Women by Chris Crowley and Dr. Henry Lodge. [1] There are many exercise books written every year, and nearly none of them are as motivational as this book.

The authors alternate writing chapters; Crowley provides the layperson’s voice, and Lodge provides the science.  Together, they convince you that you can be functionally younger than you are now through what they call The Next Third of your life.    All you need to do is follow Harry’s Rules:

1. Exercise six days a week for the rest of your life.
2. Do serious aerobic exercise four days a week for the rest of your life
3. Do serious strength training, with weights, two days a week for the rest of your life.
4. Spend less than you make.
5. Quit eating crap.
6. Care.
7. Connect and commit.

If you are facing the slippery side of sixty and you want to change your life, start with this book.

Oh, and take a yoga class.

The other two books I have read recently are as widely varied from this one and from each other as possible.   The first is by an excellent mystery writer recommended to me by my daughter.  Her name is Louise Penny, and the book is Still Life[2], her first novel.  These books have Inspector Armand Gamache as their central character, and they are set in Quebec.    A former radio broadcaster with the CBC, Penny has captured the atmosphere of Canada and gives Gamache great psychological insight.  If the rest of these books are as good as the first, I have some fun reading ahead.

The book I am currently listening to is Confidence Men by Ron Suskind[3], a study of the Obama administration.  Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter,  has previously written about President George W. Bush, and this is very much a behind-the-scenes look at what motivates President Obama as well as what forces have shaped his presidency.  Suskind traces the opposing viewpoints of those who have a voice in the administration, and how those arguments have shaped, or not shaped, policy.  I am about halfway through this book—it’s over 500 pages long—and it’s interesting to be reading it alongside the news reports of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Whether you agree with it or not, it’s worth your time.

[1] Crowley, Chris, Henry S. Lodge, and Gail Sheehy. Younger Next Year for Women:  Live Strong, Fit and Sexy Until 80 and Beyond. Workman Publishing Company, 2007.

[2] Penny, Louise.  Still Life:  A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel.  St. Martin’s Press, 2004. I read this one on my Nook.

[3] Suskind, Ron.  Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President.  Harper Collins, 2011; I read this as an audiobook downloaded to my iPod from Audible.

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Growing Up Bilingual

I read an article in Newsweek recently entitled “Why It’s Smart to Be Bilingual.”[i] It probably caught my eye because I am  grandmother to a nearly-four-year-old, and the photo attached to the article was of a young boy.  I found the article fascinating, though, because of its thesis–that “regular, high-level use of more than one language may actually improve early brain development.”  It helps in our ability to focus despite distractions, to ignore irrelevant information.  These skills are called “executive function,” and they appear very early in bilingual children.

Bilingual education is, of course, far from rare in many countries, but in the United States it is certainly not the norm, especially for toddlers.

The whole Newsweek article is very interesting and I recommend it to you. The author speculates that since attention disorders such as ADHD can be linked to a compromised executive functioning, perhaps learning a second language, which uses these skills, might impact a child positively.

For these reasons, and so many others, I recommend our Mango Languages service to you.  You can find a link to it on our website, or just go here:  Mango helps people learn practical conversational skills for the world’s most popular languages.  You can use our Mango account from your home computer–you do not need to be in one of our libraries.  It’s convenient, and a fun and effective way to learn a language.  Mango focuses on words and phrases that will really be used in common situations, and teaches them through conversation, not just word lists.  There’s help with pronunciation, too, so that when you go to France you’ll have a better chance of being understood.

If you want to know more about the Mango method, check this out:

Oh, and by the way–for a limited time you can learn how to talk like a pirate with Mango.  Try it out here, but don’t wait, Matey:


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Tate’s Book Department

Check out what’s going on at Tate’s Book Department here:

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Speaking of library services…

Last week I spoke to the Chatham Rotary about the library; here’s the text of my remarks:

Thanks so much to you all for inviting me here today.   There’s an old hymn, “I Love to Tell the Story” that maybe some of you know,  and that’s something I think about every time I am asked to speak about the library—I love to tell the story of the Pittsylvania County libraries.

It might not surprise you that librarians are storytellers—in fact that might be your first memory of librarians.  My first memory is being taken to story time at the public library in my home town in Ohio.  This was decidedly low-tech—a room, a bunch of kids, a nice lady, and a book.  No PowerPoint.  No video.   Just a lady and a book—and us.  But that lady held the magic.  She infected us with that magic, and for me, that just started me down the road to a love of reading, of literature, of words, of the life of the mind.

Now that “library lady” had help with me, and that was in the form of my parents.  I always say that my mom was the greatest reader I have ever met—and folks, meeting readers is an everyday thing in my line of work!  Books surrounded my brother and me while we grew up, and to this day when we see each other, we talk about what we are reading.

So that’s my reading story, and it’s not that extraordinary for someone who grew up in the 50s in a nice middle class home where education was valued.  A library lady who told stories, and a supportive home that encouraged reading.  And of course a top-notch school system.  Fast forward to 2011 Pittsylvania County.  For some people, the story isn’t all that different, I would suppose.  We see those folks every day, too—they get their child a library card while still a baby.  They check out piles of books.  They bring their kids to our classes.  They identify the experience of a library very much as I might have in the 50s.  And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that story—supporting that one is a slam-dunk for me.

But there are other library user stories, too.  The old commercial—orange juice: it isn’t just for breakfast any more—comes to mind.  The library isn’t just books any more.  Of course, it never was—there was always media [though it might have been filmstrips instead of DVDs!], and puppet shows, and research– and though books are our “brand” so to speak in many people’s minds, it is really all about education—connecting people with the information they need to make their life better, richer, more liveable, if you will.  The library delivers equal opportunity in education, public education for all ages.  Some of that education is self-directed, using the books and electronic resources we have.  Some of it is acquired thorugh out classes, whether that be computer classes for adults, or knitting and quilting classes taught by our staff, or our preschool classes that I’ll talk about in a bit.  And some of that education comes through instructive and enlightening experiences we provide–for example, the discussions we had with Claudia Emerson and Mary Sue Terry as part of the Virginia Women in History initiative, or the appearance of guitarist Peter Fletcher, or the Books for Babies program we have funded in partnership with the Womack Foundation to put a baby’s board book and information for parents into the hands of those having babies at Danville Regional Medical Center.  Free public education at the library is not simply about the book as a physical object.  So what if that book might be one that you download to a device that you can carry in your pocket?  As they say at Staples, Yeah, we’ve got that.  Not only do we have it, but we’ll help you make the device work, too.  We have print books, ebooks, audiobooks, and whatever the next flavor of the month is, we’ll have that, too.

For some people in our community, the library is, in their own words, a lifeline.  .  .There’s the man who came to me a couple of months ago.  His job had been in construction and as you know, those jobs dried up with the downturn.  He had done some short-term things, but had the opportunity for a well-paying job.  He wanted me to work with him on his resume.  I taught him how to create a winning resume, a cover letter, and how to prepare for the interview.  He called me three weeks ago to say he landed the job—full-time with benefits.  He couldn’t be happier—and he says he owes it to the help he got at his library.

Or the group of senior adults who came to us week after week for several years to take our computer classes, to learn how to use their computers, digital cameras, iPhones and iPods.  They drove up from Danville in a group, and it was clear it was partly about the computer classes, and partly about the socializing in a comfortable, fun, collaborative atmosphere.

Then there are the children–and this is where I can get very passionate about what we do. We have preschool classes that teach creative expression, social skills, listening comprehension, and the foundations of reading through letter and number recognition and vocabulary building.   One of the newest things we are doing, and something that is near and dear to my heart, is called Mother Goose on the Loose, which is preschool education for babies, the ones that sit on their mom’s laps.  I’m passionate about the importance of preschool education because studies have shown that children who come from areas of economic deprivation who have access to that education are ahead of the other children in measurable ways by the age of five.  That’s not so surprising, but when those children are followed through high school, huge differences open up.  The young people in one study who did not have preschool education had three times more arrests; earned only 2/3s of what the others ones did.  The ones who had preschool education were more likely, as twenty-somethings, to have a savings account and to own a car.  What’s going on here? In preschool classes like the ones we teach, there is structure and routine.  The children have circle time.  They talk about the calendar, they talk about the weather, they learn how to paint or make something.  Someone reads to them and shows them that the story flows from left to right.  They interact with each other and learn to share.  These studies of preschool education demonstrate that these children end up having the “soft skills”, the interpersonal skills, that help them get a job and keep it.  Job training later in life may not work if children do not acquire these soft skills at a young age.  What we do at the library is help teach those skills, and that’s crucial for that child’s life.

There’s an old Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy exclaims that everything at the library is FREE–and Linus says, “Sort of makes you wonder what they’re up to.”  But of course, it’s not all free–it’s paid for with your taxes.  We can make your tax dollar go farther than just about any other governmental agency.  In Virginia, it costs about $24 per capita to provide library service to every citizen in the Commonwealth for a year.  That’s $2 bucks a month, lots less than most of us spend eating out,  less than a burger and fries, and what do you get for that?  Access to information, all the latest books, meeting rooms you can sign up to use, access to a color copier in every building, faxing service, preschool early literacy education for your kids and grandchildren, book discussion groups, cultural events, help with the latest i-thingy someone gave you for Christmas, a friendly person to help you–do you need me to go on?

September is library card sign-up month in the United States.  In your packet, I have included a card application.  Many of you already have one, and use the library–but maybe you know someone who doesn’t.  Share with them what the library is doing.  Don’t whisper, like we were always told to do back in the 50s in the library–let your friends know that the library is about free education for everyone.  Come on in and find out what we are up to!

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