CLIS Student Chapter of the American Library Association

Discussing Book Discussion Groups January 21, 2008

Filed under: ALA Midwinter Meeting — edesmond @ 1:24 pm

Session: “Books Build Friendships” – Mon. Jan. 14, 8:00 – 9:00 a.m.

The last program I attended at the Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia was part of the Sunrise Speakers Series–a panel discussion about book discussion groups and their benefits. It was moderated by Carol Fitzgerald of, which is a website with resources for reading groups. Panel participants were Jennifer Hart of Harper Collins Publishing, who also writes the blog Book Club Girl; authors Elizabeth Noble and Victoria Lustbader; and Shireen Dodson, whom Ms. Fitzgerald called “the book club queen” and whose book The Mother-Daughter Book Club has its tenth anniversary this year.

The panel focused on womens’ book groups and particularly mother-daughter groups. Ms. Dodson explained that these create opportunities to communicate about any topic and learn things about people that you wouldn’t otherwise. “Daughters learn that they don’t have the only crazy mom. Mothers learn that they don’t have the only daughter who’s pushing the envelope.”

The panelists also gave some tips on how to create successful book groups. Ms. Hart noted that people in her groups always relate the books to their own lives, and it can be especially satisfying to discuss memoirs or fiction that lends itself to this. The panelists also emphasized that it isn’t necessary to always read choose “great literature” for your group to read. Ms. Noble commented, “You can still have a discussion about something that isn’t as clever–something lighter and more fun.” She said this can be a good way to bring groups together at first, because you can start out with a book that’s less intimidating. The panelists all praised book groups as a way for people to expand their horizons, introducing them to books they wouldn’t have otherwise heard of or read.

This panel was a good introduction to the challenges one faces in setting up or participating in a book discussion group, but especially to the benefits of participating in one, and it was a good note on which to end my Midwinter Meeting experience!


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the Harlem Renaissance January 18, 2008

Filed under: ALA Midwinter Meeting — edesmond @ 1:58 pm

Session: President’s Program – Sun. Jan. 13, 3:30 – 5:30 p.m.

At the Midwinter Meeting, the President’s Program featured author, historian, and former basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.  Mr. Abdul-Jabbar has written several books, and his latest, On the Shoulders of Giants:  My Journey through the Harlem Renaissance, describes the people and events important to this time period, as well as his own connection to the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement which began in the 1920s. He explained, “The Harlem Renaissance didn’t end–only it’s popularity in the mainstream ended.  Just because the gardener who planted a seed retires, that doesn’t mean the seed stops growing.”

Mr. Abdul-Jabbar told of the great effect the Arthur Schomburg Center for Black Research had on his life.  He was first introduced to it during a high school summer program, the Harlem Youth Action Program, and it was here that he first became interested in the Harlem Renaissance.  Mr. Abdul-Jabbar attributes his love of reading and scholarship to his time spent at this library, as well as to his father, a policeman and jazz musician who bought books by the pound (literally).

In his speech Mr. Abdul-Jabbar talked about what studying history and culture had taught him.  Learning about the accomplishments of the past showed him the importance of curiosity and skepticism, and the need for people to have “the skill to find out the truth for themselves.”  However, he stresses that people should not study history merely out of “curiosity.”  We also need to use history’s lessons to improve our society and lives today.  Finally, he also noted the extraordinairy power of words, which he says are more powerful than violence.  “Words don’t placate or diminish anger…You can use words to change the causes of the anger.”

In about a month, an audiobook of On the Shoulders of Giants will be released, which will include period recordings and guest narrators.  Mr. Abdul-Jabbar is also planning to write a series of childrens books.  He believes books are an important way to inspire children to achieve.  In his conclusion he reiterated the importance of libraries, saying “Librarians can pass on to boys and girls words that will become a part of who they are and who they will be.”


Sharing Online Stuff January 16, 2008

Filed under: ALA Midwinter Meeting — edesmond @ 9:01 pm

Session: Digital Library Technologies Interest Group (DLTIG) Meeting – Sun. Jan. 13, 10:30-1:00

At the DLTIG meeting on Sunday, as part of a program called “Share Online Stuff,” several presenters shared projects that their institutions have recently been working on. First Holley Long, Digital Initiatives Librarian at the University of Colorado-Boulder, talked about the University of Colorado Digital Library, which will launch in two weeks. Ms. Long described some ways in which this project was challenging–particularly because previously metadata had been stored in many different places. Some of the keys to overcoming these challenges were collaboration between many departments, the adoption of a common software platform, and the creation of flexible policies and best practices. The digital library will contain four collections and about 35,000 objects, and will also have shared collections with other institutions.

Richard Smith of the Wolfner Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped in Missouri described the BARD program (Braille and Audio Reading Download). This is a program of the Library of Congress National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. The “Talking Books” program began in the 1930s, recording books onto vinyl records to distribute to people who could not read standard printed materials. Starting in 2008, recordings will be put online, and be downloadable to a “digital talking book player” device. People who register with the service will be able to log into the BARD website and search for books by author, title, subject or keyword, and search for magazines by title or date. Mr. Smith also showed attendees two new sections of the Wolfner Library’s website. You Say It How? is a pronunciation guide where you can hear the names of thousands of public figures pronounced correctly. Recommended Reads is a compilation of bibliographies in different categories, which can be read or listened to.

Next Kerri Willette of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago talked about the Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection. She explained that an artists’ book may be thought of as “an art object in book form,” though she noted that “book form” can sometimes be interpreted very loosely. This is both a physical collection and is currently being digitized. Ms. Willette described some of the difficulties they have had in determining how to share and repurpose metadata in different formats. Particularly, they have had to deal with the question of conforming to other libraries’ cataloging standards versus creating more in-depth records. They also hoped to find “a visual way for users to browse the catalog.” To this end, much of the collection of nearly 5000 objects has been photographed and is now online.


Saving Yiddish Literature January 15, 2008

Filed under: ALA Midwinter Meeting — edesmond @ 8:07 pm

Session: “A Morning with Aaron Lansky” – Sun. Jan. 13, 8:00-9:00 a.m.

As part of the Midwinter Meeting Sunrise Speakers series, Aaron Lansky, founder of the National Yiddish Book Center, addressed attendees Sunday morning. As a graduate student studying Yiddish literature in the 1980s, he came up against a problem: it was very hard to find books in Yiddish. Very few were still in print, and most Yiddish books that did exist were in basements, attics, and libraries of people’s homes. So Mr. Lansky decided to do something about this: he took what he expected to be a two-year leave of absence from school in order to seek out and assemble a collection of Yiddish literature. Almost 30 years later, he’s still doing this.

Mr. Lansky tells the stories of this experience in his 2004 book, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. In his speech, Mr. Lansky told some of these stories–hilarious ones and poignant ones–which exemplified that his mission is about more than just preserving pages and words. “Yiddish was the major language through which Jews encountered the modern world,” he said, and by rescuing these books from the garbage heap (in some cases quite literally) he is now able to pass on the wisdom, perspectives, and unique experiences of this culture.

Mr. Lansky believes making these books accessible is very important. To that end, the National Yiddish Book Center partnered with film director Steven Spielberg to digitize the center’s entire collection of more than 21,000 discrete titles. These will soon be made available through the Open Content Alliance. Mr. Lansky proudly noted that what was once one of the most endangered bodies of literature in the world will now be the most universally accessible.

The center, located in Amherst, Massachusetts, houses not only the collection but also a learning center with popular summer education and internship programs. There are plans to begin an expansion next Spring which will add a climate-controlled repository and space for a “Yiddish University” where, Mr. Lansky says, “students can learn about not only Yiddish but the whole spectrum of Jewish culture.” This focus on education, as well as action, is an important part of the center’s mission. Mr. Lansky ended his speech with this summary of his message: “Books matter. And working together we can change the world.”


Broadband and Digital Television, Coming to a Library Near You January 14, 2008

Filed under: ALA Midwinter Meeting — edesmond @ 9:20 am

Session: “All (Telecom) Politics is Local: What the FCC is up to and what it has to do with your library” – Sat. Jan. 12, 10:30-12:00

Part I: An Overview of U.S. Broadband Deployment and Policy

After the Washington Office Update Saturday morning, I attended a break-out session about telecommunications issues. The first speaker was John Windhausen, president of Telepoly Consultings, a company that works with small local telecom companies. He spoke about U.S. broadband policy (or lack thereof). He stated that in terms of the percentage of citizens with broadband internet access, the U.S. has been falling in the rankings every year, and is currently fifteenth. The U.S. also has a lower average connection speed in comparison to some other countries. This affects libraries, because 99% of U.S. libraries offer free internet access to their patrons. However, 52% cannot always accommodate the demand for this service. Mr. Windhausen talked about several factors contributing to this problem, including a lack of investment in broadband for small business and consumers, and the market structure, which he called “a duopoly between DSL and cable.” He had several suggestions about what librarians can do to help improve access to broadband and their ability to accommodate demand for high-speed internet access. Most importantly, librarians should educate state and local governments about their needs and make sure that they are included in discussions about this topic. Libraries should also form consortia when possible, in order to aggregate their demand and have more power to negotiate with telecom companies for better service. He also added that whenever possible, libraries should use fiber cables for their internet access. This is not currently widely available in the U.S. However, because of its much higher speed, Mr. Windhausen believes fiber is the only technology that will be able to easily accommodate the public’s quickly burgeoning demand.

Part II: The Digital Television Transition

In the second half of the session, speakers Bill Weber of public television station WHYY, and Joe McPeak of the Philadelphia Free Library, gave an overview of the nation’s upcoming transition from analog to digital television signals and described how the city of Philadelphia is preparing for this. Beginning at midnight on February 17, 2009, analog broadcasts will be turned off throughout the country. This will not affect people who subscribe to cable or satellite television. However, those people who currently get their television over the air (for example, using an antenna) will no longer be able to do this, unless they have a TV equipped to receive digital signals, or get a digital converter box for their old TVs.

This transition has been planned for a long time (digital signals began to be broadcast ten years ago) and has several benefits: it will allow for better use of the broadcast spectrum, increased signal quality, and more over-the-air channels. However, because television is an important source of information, it is necessary to make the public aware of this transition and how they can prepare for it. In order to help defray the cost of the converter boxes, the government will be issuing $40 coupons, which can be used toward their purchase. Every U.S. household can request up to two coupons, either online, by phone or fax, or through a mail-in application. The converter boxes will be available for sale beginning in February 2008, and are expected to cost between $40 and $100.

The speakers noted that many people may come to their public libraries for information about digital television and the coupon program, and that librarians should especially focus on raising awareness about it among vulnerable groups such as the elderly, non-English speakers, and low-income households, who are more likely to be affected by the transition.

For more information about the transition to digital television and the coupon program:


Washington Office Update: Bassem Youssef Speaks Out (When He Can) January 13, 2008

Filed under: ALA Midwinter Meeting — edesmond @ 12:34 am

Session: “Inside the FBI: A Whistleblower Speaks Out” – Sat. Jan. 12, 8:00-10:00 a.m.

At the ALA Washington Office update session yesterday, attendees had expected to hear a presentation by Bassem Youssef, who is the Unit Chief of the FBI Counterterrorism Division’s Communications Analysis Unit and the highest ranking Arab-American agent. Mr. Youssef’s unit is in charge of the National Security Letter program. In 2002 he brought to light abuses of these letters, particularly the “exigent circumstances” exception, which states that in cases of emergency warrantless searches could be performed without going through the NSL authorization process. Mr. Youssef found that this exception was being systematically applied to situations which were clearly not emergencies. He was expected to speak about this, as well as ways in which the FBI does not adequately use expertise in Middle East cultures and languages.

However, just last weekend, Mr. Youssef received a 12-page directive from his superiors instructing him that he could not give any prepared presentation or speech. However, he was still allowed to give “spontaneous answers” to questions, as long as he stayed within the directive’s guidelines.

Mr. Youssef’s lawyer, Stephen Kohn, was also at the update session in order assist him in this, as well as add his own experiences and expertise. Mr. Kohn is the president of the National Whistleblower Center, and has written several books about whistleblowing.

Mr. Youssef took questions from the audience, making clear that he was answering as “Bassem Youssef, U.S. citizen” and not representing the FBI. For several of the questions, he listened to whispered advice from Mr. Kohn before answering. Topics included a very brief overview of the process for authorizing National Security Letters, discussion about his work as a liasion to the Saudi Arabian government, and his investigation into the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, for which he won the Director of Central Intelligence Award. Regarding some topics, such as the investigations resulting from his whistleblowing, he was unable to say much at all. In these cases, Mr. Kohn often filled in some of the gaps by relating the experiences from his own perspective. Mr. Kohn’s frustration with some of the actions (and inaction) of the FBI was clear. As the moderator of the session said at one point, “Mr. Youssef’s courage is equaled by Mr. Kohn’s passion.” Mr. Kohn expressed his belief that ignorance and arrogance within FBI administration and policies is endangering the country, as well citizens’ civil liberties. He gave many examples of this ignorance, such as an FBI statement asserting that knowledge of the Middle East, its culture and languages, and expertise in counterrorism are not necessary qualifications for leading a Counterrorism Unit.

Mr. Youssef told the audience that it is important for the public to be aware of these problems and to speak out against them. This, he said, is why he came to speak to us (the first time he has spoken in a public forum) even though he was warned by his superiors that he may be disciplined, depending on what he says.

Mr. Youssef emphasized that the FBI is made up of many good agents who care deeply about protecting America. However, bureaucracy and lack of expertise are getting in the way of that goal. He did, however, express his belief that by continually doing the right thing, it is possible for people to eventually change any situation.

In closing remarks, the moderator stated that the Washington Office plans to file a Freedom of Information Act request for the FBI’s speaking guidelines for agents. He also exhorted librarians to remain active advocates and speak out about these issues.


ALA Midwinter Meeting this weekend January 12, 2008

Filed under: ALA Midwinter Meeting — edesmond @ 2:40 pm

This weekend (Jan. 11-16) ALA is holding its annual Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia. While the Annual Conference in the Summer is focused on programs, presentations, and speakers, the main focus for the Midwinter Meeting is business–many committees, divisions, and other groups hold meetings and planning sessions. However, even for those attendees who (like me) are not members of an ALA committee, there are still plenty of interesting discussion groups, meetings, and speeches to attend. Over the next few days I’ll be posting summaries of the the sessions I attend, including this morning’s fascinating discussion with FBI Agent Bassem Youssef and informative forum on telecommunications issues. Stay tuned for more about these and other topics!