Monthly Archives: May 2010

Why libraries matter, cont’d.

“I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be the person that I am, I’m very very certain that without libraries I wouldn’t have the career that I have.

…For most of the human race, pretty much all of the lifespan of the human race, information was currency. Information was like gold. It was rare, it was hard to find, it was expensive. You could get your information, but you had to know where to go, you had to know what you were looking at, you had to know how to find your information. It was hard. And librarians were the key players in the battle for information, because they could go and get and bring back this golden nugget for you, the thing that you needed.

Over the last decade, which is less than a blink of an eye in the history of the human race, it’s all changed. And we’ve gone from a world in which there is too little information, in which information is scarce, to a world in which there is too much information, and most of it is untrue or irrelevant. You know, the world of the Internet is the world of information that is not actually so. It’s a world of information that just isn’t actually true, or if it is true, it’s not what you needed, or it doesn’t actually apply like that, or whatever. And you suddenly move into a world in which librarians fulfill this completely different function.

We’ve gone from looking at a desert, in which a librarian had to walk into the desert for you and come back with a lump of gold, to a forest, to this huge jungle in which what you want is one apple. And at that point, the librarian can walk into the jungle and come back with the apple. So I think from that point of view, the time of librarians, and the time of libraries — they definitely haven’t gone anywhere.

In other ways, we’re in a time of economic difficulty. Libraries are the best place to go to start getting information. They’re the place where most Americans who do not have Internet access go to get Internet access. And we’re in a world now in which jobs are applied for online, jobs are advertised online. You need to be able to know which social services to connect to, you need to know how to retrain, you need information, and all of that information — the focal point for it is your library. So from my perspective, libraries are as important as they have ever been, and they may be more important than they have ever been.” — Neil Gaiman

New York’s public libraries are facing an unprecedented and potentially devastating budget crisis. Whether or not you live in New York, you can help. Here’s how.

(h/t The Book Case. Photo credit: Steve Mullis for MPR.)

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Why libraries matter

“Books permit us to voyage through time, to tap the wisdom of our ancestors. The library connects us with the insights and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. Public libraries depend on voluntary contributions. I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.” — Carl Sagan

New York’s public libraries are facing an unprecedented and potentially devastating budget crisis. Whether or not you live in New York, you can help. Here’s how.

(Image via Paper Castle Press)

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Save the libraries!

New York’s public libraries are facing an unprecedented and potentially devastating budget crisis. Whether or not you live in New York, you can help. To skip this post and take action, click here, here, and here.


Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed executive budget for the upcoming fiscal year drastically slashes public funding for the city’s three library systems — the largest cuts in the libraries’ history. The budget reduces funding for the Queens Library by $16.9 million (bringing total reductions to $28.3 million since 2008). The Brooklyn Public Library faces a $20.6 million cut. And the New York Public Library stands to lose a staggering $37 million. If approved by the City Council, these devastating budget cuts would take effect as soon as the beginning of July.


The New York Public Library would close 10 branches, reduce 6-day service to just 4, circulate 6 million fewer items, and cut back on essential (and free) programs and services — including Internet access, voter registration, job search assistance, tax form assistance, and classes on literacy, entrepreneurship, retirement planning, and English for non-native speakers — as well as lay off nearly a quarter of its staff. (See NYPL president Paul LeClerc’s article in the Huffington Post for details, including a filmed testimonial from Patti Smith and other video tributes.)

The Brooklyn Public Library would close 16 libraries, severely limit weekend hours, lay off hundreds of staff workers, and cut funding for essential materials and services — resulting in 6 million fewer library materials, 15,000 fewer public programs, and 725,000 fewer free public computer sessions.

The Queens Library would lay off over 400 employees (with a total reduction of nearly half its workforce over the last 18 months). 14 library branches would close completely. 34 branches would be closed 4 or 5 days a week. The staff and funding for an about-to-be-opened Children’s Library Discovery Center would have to be drawn from the Library’s already thin resources, further reducing service in other locations. And of course, dramatic reductions to desperately needed materials and public programs are to be expected. (Details here.)


Because — as should be evident to anyone who’s actually set foot in one — libraries are not just warehouses for dusty and irrelevant old books. They’re living spaces, full of people perusing everything from the latest bestsellers to newspapers to classics to obscure titles unlikely to be carried by Barnes & Noble. They’re reading The Hungry Little Caterpillar or Harry Potter to their wide-eyed kids. They’re getting expert help from librarians with their research for school or work. They’re holding neighborhood association meetings to discuss local problems. And they’re attending free public events of all kinds, from children’s story hour to adult literacy classes to resume-writing workshops to conversations with famous authors and artists in packed auditoriums. The libraries are centers of community. To hobble them, or shut them down completely, is to impoverish the life of the city.

Because libraries are one of the great social equalizers. Not everyone has an iPad or Kindle; not everyone has the spare cash to buy all the books and DVDs they desire; not everyone has Internet access at home; and not everyone can afford to go to college, and enjoy the intellectual environment that higher education makes easily available. But the public libraries stand open to all, offering the accumulated information of the world to all, and saying to minds great and small (as well as small minds that may yet be great): Here is an open door to knowledge — and therefore to opportunity, and to power. All you need is a desire to enter.

Because, as even Google’s director of technology admits, a chat with a reference librarian — whether in person or by phone or online, 24/7 — is still better than a Google search.

Because chances are good that the novel or biography or history you’ve just read was written with the help of libraries and librarians. And even if you’ve never used a library in your life, many of the world’s great leaders, thinkers, activists, authors, scientists, artists, and entertainers have. They were inspired to pursue their professions partly because of something they read during childhood afternoons spent in libraries. They used information from libraries in the course of their work to produce the books, films, scientific advances, and social and political movements that have undeniably enriched our lives. And the people who will transform our lives yet again, the ones who’ll solve the energy crisis or find the cure for cancer, may well be in your local library at this very moment — reading, thinking, and open to epiphany.

Because as Archibald MacLeish said, “What is more important in a library than anything else — than everything else — is the fact that it exists.” Libraries, which ensure free and universal access to information more than any other public institution, are at the very heart of a democracy. As such, their funding and continued existence should be absolutely non-negotiable. Along with public schools, libraries should be held up as the embodiment of some of our core democratic ideals — the ideals that we honor, as President Obama has said, “by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.” Libraries connect us to the great minds of the past and nourish the great minds of the future. They supply the intellectual oxygen to a democratic society. Needless to say, cutting off that supply when it’s needed most is short-sighted in the extreme.

As a recent Internet meme started by Eleanor Crumblehulme declares: “Cutting libraries in a recession is like cutting hospitals in a plague.” I can’t really put it much better than that.


If you’re a New Yorker, click on the links below to send an email to your elected officials. If you’re an out-of-towner, your messages will still be sent to Mayor Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. The Queens Library page also has a petition that anyone can sign. And of course, wherever you are in the world, you can donate.

New York Public Library
Brooklyn Public Library
Queens Library

Update: According to a librarian at BPL, New Yorkers should also call 311 and file a complaint about the proposed budget, and ask that funding for libraries be restored. The more phone calls flood the system, the more the powers that be will sit up and take notice. So go call!

Update 2: You can also text NYPL to 27722 to give $10. A $10 donation will be added to your mobile phone bill. Go to for details. Message and data rates may apply.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for helping out. Please spread the word.

(Image credits: Lars Klove for the NY Times; Daniel Solis)

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An atheist, supreme

Marc Cooper of the Nation magazine writes an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times:

As President Obama considers nominees to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, a debate bubbles as to whether religion should play a role in his choice.

This is a no-brainer. The religious views of the next justice of the high court must absolutely be a decisive factor.

Though the court without Stevens will be left with six Catholics and two Jews, the open seat should not go to either domination. Nor should it go to a Presbyterian, a Lutheran, a Methodist, a Muslim or even a Zoroastrian. If it did, that would make nine people who all have one religious principle in common: a belief in religion.

Clearly, the next person to take the bench should be an atheist.

While few sitting politicians have the political courage to name a declared nonbeliever, it is something that Thomas Jefferson (and several others among the founders) might well have done.

In an 1823 letter to John Adams, Jefferson was forthright about his views of religion, and Christianity specifically. “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerve in the brain of Jupiter,” Jefferson wrote. “But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors.”

In other words, Jefferson liked what Jesus, the man, stood for, but could definitely do without the rest of the bunk.

That’s right. Bunk. There aren’t a lot of us, but something like one out of six Americans calls himself a nonbeliever. Holy moly! That means we would still be underrepresented with just one justice. But those of us who refuse to subscribe to any religious hocus-pocus would be happy to take what we can get in a country where seemingly no politician, from either party, can resist the temptation of ending a speech with the empty phrase “God bless America.”

Read the rest here.

Of course, the chances of an open atheist being nominated to the Supreme Court today are slim to none. The cultural and political climate isn’t right, at least not yet: Jefferson was a long time ago, and his antagonistic stance toward religion was quite obviously a major reason why the conservative Texas Board of Education has removed him from a list of influential Enlightenment thinkers. But if there’s any American politician who might be favorably inclined — at least personally if not publicly — toward nominating a nonbeliever, it would be Barack Obama, who has paid tribute to his own mother as an unabashed freethinker. It’s still unlikely that he’ll select an atheist, but what a courageous act it would be if he did.

In any case, it’s invigorating to see Cooper declaring his atheism in a major newspaper, and insisting that atheism be recognized as an important voice in America’s national conversation on values. More like this, please.

Update, 5/10: Continue reading

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Fever dreams

A strange, dreamlike day, this.

I awoke from vivid dreams of being back in college, in the company of a girl I never knew: straight black hair, dark and distant eyes, aloof and openly hostile and strangely compelling — a mix of Aliera from Jane Yolen’s Foiled and something else entirely. She kept insisting that I had to “zap the bat,” whatever that meant; her respect for me depended on it. I had to “zap the bat, zap the bat.” And perhaps I even knew what she meant. Then we went out to dinner, and the restaurant of her choice turned out to be a cafeteria serving ham-and-jelly sandwiches.

Awake, I daydreamed about Barbara Gowdy’s novel The White Bone, which I’ve just finished, and obsessed over the pain and anguish of its great-hearted elephant characters. Then I thought about animal morality again, and animal consciousness, and looked at videos of chimps and elephants mourning their dead. We spend too much effort, I thought, ascribing intention and emotion to the wrong things — to the weather, to volcanoes and earthquakes, to God — and not enough effort in recognizing minds where they do exist: in the animals we live with, the ones we gape at in their enclosures, the ones we see pixelated onscreen. We are surrounded by their dreams.

Then, tonight, a lovely dinner with my wife, at a French restaurant called Robin des Bois whose decor absolutely astonished me: a junkyard of odds and ends, seemingly thrown thoughtlessly together, perfectly unintelligible and yet making perfect sense. A giant bottle in the entryway. An enormous, low-hanging crystal chandelier. Beyond that, a chipped statue of the Madonna and Child. Behind it, a pair of kitschy plastic swordfish hanging on the walls. An old Coca-Cola sign. The enormous face of Jimi Hendrix in the bathroom, watching you pee, while a sticker slapped casually on the mirror demanded “No Smokin’.” The music was a mishmash of old Kinks and ’80s New Wave and some recent, jittery stuff that neither of us recognized. The menu covers featured paintings of women in Bettie Page pinup poses. My wife had a ginger martini and I had a Pomigo (Stoli Orange, pomegranate juice, and lime), which added a dreamlike haze to the dream.

(The excellent food, at least, felt real. Much better than ham-and-jelly sandwiches, and with much better company.)

Walking home, slightly drunk, holding hands, focusing on the single bright star in the cursedly light-polluted New York sky. No, not a star, not twinkling, but a planet, shining steadily: Venus, the Evening Star. At a street corner we stopped for a family biking past, Mom and Dad and Big Brother on separate bikes, and a little toddler strapped into his seat behind Mom’s, saying: “Mom, you said there were no bad people in New York, and you lied!” But said, somehow, without reproach or condemnation; with the matter-of-factness of an ethnographer making notes on the strange people around him and the strange things they say.

On this strange day of dreams and half-dreams, in this strange and dreamlike city.

(Image credit: Dreaming in Technicolor)

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Science is real, cont’d.

More cheerleading for science here.

(h/t FlickFilosopher)

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Maybe symbols are more literal than we thought

It turns out that seeing light bulbs actually inspires bright ideas. Who knew?

From LiveScience:

To see if light bulbs could actually promote insights, [social psychologist Michael] Slepian and his colleagues next gave college students spatial, math and verbal problems to solve and had either a bare light bulb or an overhead fluorescent light turned on in the room partway into the problem. The volunteers either solved the problems faster or more often with the light bulb than with the fluorescent light.

“Our environment can influence our creativity,” Slepian told LiveScience.

Maybe I should remove the lampshades from all our lamps.

But seriously, it’s fascinating to see how responsive we are to symbols of our own making: we imbue an image with meaning, and the image in turn inspires us to carry out what we’ve made it mean:

These findings suggest that it takes more than light to promote enlightenment. Instead, the researchers suggest our brains respond favorably to bare lightbulbs because they are familiar symbols of insight. This kind of so-called “priming effect” has been seen before in psychology — for instance, when shown artifacts from the business world, such as briefcases, people play economic games more competitively, and exposure to the American flag triggers aggressive behavioral tendencies among regular news watchers, due perhaps to how the United States is often linked in the news to attacks both against and from other parties.

Why not apply these findings to the real world? Bare bulbs in all the schools! Bare bulbs at the office! Bare bulbs at the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks! The researchers seem to be on the same page:

“Creativity is an important asset, and over and above individual differences in creativity, we find something as subtle as an illuminating light bulb in our environment can facilitate insight, and thus lead to more creative solutions to problems,” Slepian said. “It would be fascinating to see if this works in the classroom or in the workplace.”

And now, let me do my little bit to help you out:

Hope you have a brilliant idea today.

(Images credits: Schenectady Museum via NY State Conservationist, and BuffaloBloodDonor)

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