Friday, October 21, 2011

Wikipedia Loves Libraries, But…

 Do librarians love Wikipedia?  As part of the online encyclopedia’s “Wikipedia Loves Libraries” campaign, a “wiki-coordinated program of…editathons” are being held at libraries and archives in a number of North American cities throughout October.

In Manhattan, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has scheduled “Wikipedia! The Musical!” for Saturday, October 22 at noon. Described in the New York Times as “an event meant to improve Wikipedia’s musical-theater-related entries using the library’s special collections,” volunteer editors will have access to the library’s vast accumulation of information on the industry. 

As far as librarians are concerned, the response to Wikipedia seems mixed at best. The ease with which anyone can change entries and the reliability of claims made in the text are just two of the concerns raised on many forums. One New Jersey librarian has expressed a qualified acceptance of Wikipedia, calling it a “backup” resource from which one can start researching a subject, but one that she doesn’t “trust...100 percent.” What do you think? 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Virtual Libraries – Part 1

Like most people who spend a lot of time on-line, I have strong opinions about what I find.  Vicious gossip sites and forums for unfounded political attacks? Bad. Information on recycling days? Good. Restaurant reviews for the new Thai place up the street? Excellent. Free access to thousands of books in the public domain? Incredible.

While I’ve known about Project Gutenberg for a while, I’ve spent very little time on the site until recently.  Now just one of an ever-growing number of sites that serve as a portal to works in the public domain, Project Gutenberg was one of the first. Founded in 1971 by Michael Hart, then a student at the University of Illinois, the site now offers 36,000 free downloadable ebooks.  

Hart came up with the idea of making works in the public domain available on a wide-scale basis and started by entering the text of the Declaration of Independence on the University’s mainframe computer. (To read more about Hart, who died recently, see the New York Times obituary or the one on the Project Gutenberg site.) For the next 17 years Hart worked largely on his own, typing in the text from more than 300 books. At that point, he started recruiting volunteers to add to the Project’s holdings. Today, most of the books on Project Gutenberg are scanned from printed copies and proofread by volunteers. Interested in helping? Go here to learn more. 

Johann Gutenberg (c.1398-1468), the namesake of Project Gutenberg,
known as the inventor of movable type, a development that changed the
history of publishing forever. 

You can view a copy of the Gutenberg bible, the book most famously associated with Johann Gutenberg, at this site maintained by the British Library. 

What’s it like to browse through a digital library? It’s less colorful and requires a little more patience than strolling through the stacks at your local bricks-and-mortar library or bookstore. And it’s probably best-suited to those with an interest in older works (dating back about 100 years*)-- but some booklovers will find it well worthwhile. Look up Lewis Carroll, for example, and you’ll find not only Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in English, French and German, but some lesser-known works by Carroll such as the Hunting of the Snark, a nonsense poem (subtitled An Agony in Eight Fits) that borrows some of the language that first appeared in The Jabberwocky.

Among those titles most recently added to the Project Gutenberg collection are:

Judith Shakespeare, Her Love Affairs and other Adventures by William Black (published circa 1890), a fictionalized biography of William Shakespeare’s daughter, which begins,

“It was a fair, clear, and shining morning, in the sweet May-time of the
year, when a young English damsel went forth from the town of
Stratford-upon-Avon to walk in the fields. As she passed along by the
Guild Chapel and the Grammar School, this one and the other that met her
gave her a kindly greeting; for nearly every one knew her, and she was a
favorite; and she returned those salutations with a frankness which
betokened rather the self-possession of a young woman than the timidity
of a girl. Indeed, she was no longer in the first sensitive dawn of

From Judith Shakespeare, Her Loves and Other Adventures. Based on the (perhaps not completely reliable) information that is available about Judith's life, she was not destined for a happy ending, outliving both her philandering husband and her children.

Those with an interest in how India was viewed by a Dubliner when Great Britain still ruled the country, might want to try Life in an Indian Outpost by Gordon Casserly (the author of The Jungle Girl, also available on Project Gutenberg), published circa 1914. The book reads like an adventure story (though one imagines it may well reflect an uncomfortable imperialist view) and begins,

“Against the blue sky to the north lay a dark blur that, as our troop
train ran on through the level plains of Eastern Bengal, rose ever
higher and took shape--the distant line of the Himalayas.

Unfortunately, the book’s 30-some illustrations are not included, but the list of captions is and we are left to imagine the depictions of  the author’s “Bachelor Establishment” and “A kneeling elephant.”

Most of the books on Project Gutenberg are published in English and U.S. copyright laws apply. A note on the site reminds users:
 Our ebooks are free in the United States because their copyright has expired. They may not be free of copyright in other countries. Readers outside of the United States must check the copyright laws of their countries before downloading or redistributing our ebooks.

For more general information on Project Gutenberg, visit their FAQ page

For links to other family-friendly sites (including at least one that features children’s fiction from around the world) where you can access free books on-line, visit this page from About.Com

 * The time at which a work enters the public domain varies widely, depending on what year the work was published, where it was published, and the date of the author’s death, among many other considerations. This site at Cornell University offers more detailed information.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Men in Kilts

Remember Mel Gibson in Braveheart?  In his younger pre-fringe lunatic days? It pains me to say it, but the man looked good in a kilt. It’s not a fashion choice everyone can carry off, but it also suits Alexander McCall Smith. There is something gentle and humorous about his expression in the photos that grace the back covers of his books, a look that reflects his worldview: calm, observant, intelligent, and very, very interested in people and ideas. Not only that, but in at least in one of those photos, the man wears a kilt with perfect aplomb.

From the back cover of
Love Over Scotland

With the exception of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, which I found less engaging than all the others (despite the exotic background of Botswana), one has the feeling that nothing truly bad happens to any of these characters in the books. Which isn’t really the case… hearts are broken, careers are lost, egos are crushed, important connections are missed, and pharmaceutical data is falsified with serious consequences, but McCall’s treatment of these events is so gentle, so considered that while we may be moved, we are not deeply troubled. There is still an overall feeling of lightness about the books.   Many of his novels are ensemble pieces, in which the reader alternately follows the fates of the various characters. And eccentrics who might be found irritating or even alarming (Lard O’Connor, a gangster in the 44 Scotland Street series is a brutal man, but we see him in the context of his friendship with a young boy, a prodigy, who in turn is deeply endearing, and the victim of his hovering mother’s ambitions) are charming on the printed page.

Smith seems to know a little bit about everything, wine, art, poetry, astronomy, psychoanalysis and philosophy and shares his thoughts and questions on these subjects in engaging tangents—without being pedantic. His books are both literate and profoundly entertaining.  And just a little bit haunting. Certain phrases and images linger: the notion that poetry helps keep “the nothingness at bay”, the moment when two young characters in the 44 Scotland Street series really see each other as full human beings.  The return of a dog to his curmudgeonly owner after a failed kidnapping is as touching to me as any reunion between fictional lovers.

I have found my attention wandering on a few occasions, as when characters discuss or contemplate some aspect of Scottish history, the Jacobite rebellion, for example. And I can understand how people expecting a conventional mystery (the section where Smith’s books—mysteries and otherwise--are shelved at my local library) might become impatient with the author’s meandering style. But I’m more than ready to skim past the longeurs for the far more numerous engaging moments in the texts. Smith even provides a dash of lyrical magical realism here and there, as in the episode in which a young man on his honeymoon is saved by dolphins after being swept out to sea, or the story of a woman who “dates” an actual angel (albeit in a collection that’s somewhat darker than most of his work.)

Note: While doing a bit of research, I came across this site, created by a group dedicated to liberating   men from the “tyranny of trousers”, an organization one might well find in one of Smith’s novels. Proponents of the movement advocate the wearing of MUGS—Male Unbifurcated Garments—instead of pants.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Good, The Sad, and The Hopeful

With two upper West Side mega-bookstores closing in the past few months (see below), book-loving New Yorkers in need of good news may be heartened by the story of Aurora Anaya-Cerda. The owner of La Casa Azul, an online bookstore specializing in books by Latino authors, Ms. Anaya-Cerda is now trying to raise enough money to open a bricks-and-mortar store in the underserved East Harlem area. According to a recent Daily News article, in addition to selling new and used books, Ms. Anaya-Cerda plans to hold readings, open mike nights, and children’s events at La Casa Azul. You can support her 40K in 40 days campaign to raise money for her store here.  More good news: Word Up, a pop-up bookstore in Washington Heights will remain open until November. From the store’s website:

Word-up is a multi-language, general-interest bookshop committed to promoting literacy and community building in Washington Heights. By hosting workshops literary readings and musical engagements for kids and adults, we do our best to support and fortify the creative spirit unique to our diverse, uptown community.

Word Up, located on Broadway near 176th Street, is run by volunteers and is open weekdays from 4 pm to 9 pm and weekends from 12 noon to 4 pm

The news farther downtown is not so uplifting. Following the closing of the multi-level Barnes and Noble at Broadway and 66th Street (now a Century 21 department store), the Borders bookstore at Columbus Circle has permanently shut its doors. I visited Borders during its last weeks, after the liquidators had come in to post their giant discount signs. Against the glamorous setting of the Time Warner building, the store looked tawdry. The shelves were mostly bare and the staff looked tired. The final closing date had not been announced yet and one cashier had scrawled a message on the ID badge that hung from his neck “I don’t know when the last day is.”  Amidst the displays of Father’s Day cards no one had wanted, and Twilight wannabes looking for a buyer, I did find Alexander McCall Smith’s The Dog Who Came in From the Cold, the second installment in his Corduroy Mansions series. While the 60% savings was a significant break on a hardcover by one of my favorite authors, I was sorry that the store’s loss was my gain.

Happy to have the book--sorry to lose the store.

Hoping for a happier ending...Recently I received an email asking me to sign a petition protesting the imminent closing of St. Mark's Bookshop in Greenwich Village. While the shop isn’t one of my usual haunts, I hate to hear of any bookstore closing, especially an independent one.  The good news is that there are plenty of people trying to save the store, including the framers of the petition—which I signed, the Cooper Square Committee, and Michael Moore, who stopped by the other night to stir up a crowd of supporters. Co-owners Bob Contant and Terry McCoy, are negotiating with Cooper Union, their landlord, and have requested a $5000 reduction a month in rent, which they need to stay open.  The St. Mark’s Bookshop has a colorful history, described by Mr. Contant in this New York Times article. Famous customers have included Susan Sontag and Annie Leibowitz, Allan Ginsberg, Philip Glass, and William Burroughs. Cooper Union has promised to give the owners their decision by the end of October.