Category Archives: library

On Letter-Writing

ToTheLetterRecently, I read Simon Garfield’s book To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing. It was more of a history than a “celebration” (though the author was definitely in favor of letter writing), but it was an enjoyable history, and, like many good books, led me to discover all kinds of other things. One of those was Lewis Carroll’s (yes, that Lewis Carroll, of Alice fame) “Eight or Nine Wise Words On Letter-Writing,” published in 1890 and therefore available through Gutenberg

Between To the Letter and “Eight or Nine Wise Words,” I decided that one of my resolutions this year would be to write pen-and-paper letters to people. Because we had a lot of snow days recently, and therefore a lot of free time indoors, I went a step further: I downloaded Carroll’s pamphlet, re-formatted it, printed it out, and bound it, with some blank pages in the back for a modified version of his “Letter-Register.” (I know, I know: normal people, stuck inside for days, would just watch TV. I did some of that too.)

My version is a lot bigger that the original, with fewer pages; his little pamphlet accompanied a stamp case for carrying around all the different denominations of stamps (this was long before “Forever stamps” were invented). Some pages are sewn in, and some are tipped in with polyvinyl acetate (PVA, a kind of plastic glue).

front cover

front cover

The Guternberg file included some of the original images. Use of the images and text is completely legal (“This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at”).

Inside, first page

Inside, first page

Inside, first page, tipped in

Inside, first page, tipped in

Inside, back cover

Inside, back cover

Back cover

Back cover

It’s really amazing how much of Carroll’s advice holds up for modern letter-writers. Among these bits of wisdom (for those not inclined to read the whole thing): if you’re replying to a letter, have that letter in front of you; start by addressing and stamping the envelope; always date your letters “in full” with the month, day, and year; carry letters in your hand when going to mail them (or you’ll forget); write legibly; if you are enclosing something, put it in the envelope when you mention it (because you won’t remember by the end of the letter); and use a sign-off at least as friendly – if not friendlier – than your correspondent’s.

There’s a lot of other good advice too, and it’s all full of Carroll’s cleverness and sense of humor. Garfield’s book has a sense of humor too (he makes fun of stamp collectors – although, as someone who’s writing a book about letters, and who has previously written about typefaces and maps, I feel he’s on rather thin ice here). So yes, it’s 2014, and we have e-mail and text messaging and Twitter and Tumblr – but we also still have real letters. Write one, and give someone else the pleasure of receiving mail that isn’t a bill or a catalog.



Filed under art, books, letters, library

Winter Storm Nemo, a broken camera, and planned obsolescence

A bit belated, but here are some pictures of the last major storm, “Nemo” (dubbed by the media, not any official agency; only hurricanes get names). Below, a photo of our back porch on Friday night, February 8. It’s dark, but you can see several inches of snow already piled on top of the rocking chair.

DSC05455Below is a photo of our street on Saturday morning, with the snow already up to the top of most cars’ tires. A plow may have been through once or twice at this point, but the snow is still deep in the street, and it looks like all of the color has been sucked out of the world. DSC05456

But then…to her total chagrin and abject horror, we dragged the dog out into the snow. (Because only those of us who are toilet-trained get to do our business indoors.) Her construction-worker-orange jacket brings a spot of color to the otherwise snowy grayscale landscape. (In the background, you can see two of our neighbors hard at work shoveling out of snow nearly up to their waists.)


Later in the day, the sun came out, and the snow plow made a visit to our street.

DSC05469The snow was still piled pretty high, and the sidewalks were nonexistent, so we walked in the street.


Right after these photos my camera stopped working, so I’ll have to get that checked out. I hope I’ll be able to get it fixed instead of having to replace it, but repair seems to have gone out of fashion, and planned obsolescence is the norm.

Note: I wrote this post not long after the storm, and it sat in draft form for a few weeks – though I am back-dating it – because I was trying to find a chart/timeline I once saw that showed when repair for various things (shoes, radios, computers, etc.) became basically impossible and you just had to replace the thing in question instead of getting it repaired. The excellent Swiss Army Librarian spent a generous amount of time helping me try to dig up said timeline, but alas, we both came up short.

However, we found a number of other cool resources along the way:

  • the Consumer Reports Repair or Replace Timeline – access to the timeline itself requires a subscription to CR, but you may well have access through your local public library, as many libraries purchase subscriptions. If you happen to live in Arlington, MA, click here.
  • an article from The Economist by Tim Hindle called “Planned Obsolesence” from March 23, 2009
  • the book Made to Break: technology and obsolescence in America by Giles Slade – didn’t have the timeline I was thinking of, but it makes interesting reading. (It will probably make you angry.)
  • a very long piece from Adbusters by Micah White called “Consumer Society is Made to Break” from October 20, 2008, which includes a clip of (and link to) a short film called The Story of Stuff, and a reproduction of Bernard London’s 1932 pamphlet entitled “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence,” which contains the following rather incendiary proposal:

“I would have the Government assign a lease of life to shoes and homes and machines, to all products of manufacture, mining and agriculture, when they are first created, and they would be sold and used within the term of their existence definitely known by the consumer. After the allotted time had expired, these things would be legally “dead” and would be controlled by the duly appointed governmental agency and destroyed if there is widespread unemployment. New products would constantly be pouring forth from the factories and marketplaces, to take the place of the obsolete, and the wheels of industry would be kept going and employment regularized and assured for the masses.”

I know, I started out with blizzard photos and ended up with a 1932 pamphlet that basically proposes outlawing old pairs of jeans. For those who just wanted pictures of the dog in the snow: sorry! For those who are now fascinated/infuriated by the whole planned obsolescence thing: if you find that chart, please let me know!


Filed under animals, library, unusual, weather

What do I read next?

“What do I read next?” is a conversation I have a lot. Here’s a post copied from my other site, which is mostly library-related:

For my summer class, I’ve been working on designing an evaluation of readers’ advisory services at a public library. “Readers’ advisory” is the library-speak term for suggesting books that people will like, either directly (through a conversation or “readers’ advisory interview”) or indirectly (e.g., displays).

I’ve been doing this for family and friends for years without realizing it was a “service” – we just called it talking about books. But it is definitely something that people expect from libraries (and from bookstores), and of course now there are online tools as well, from Amazon’s “If you like this, you might also like…” feature to social networking sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing to the subscription-based NoveList.

Whichbook is a site I learned about recently, and it’s unique in a number of ways. First, it’s incredibly browsable – I got pulled in right away. I don’t think any online experience can really replicate the experience of wandering around in a bookstore or library, but this comes closer than anything else I’ve found.

You can manipulate a number of factors (see below) to get results, and you can also look through lists (“weird and wonderful,” “bad luck and trouble,” “a terrible beauty”), or search by author.

Whichbook’s About page explains that all of the books are fiction or poetry, written in or translated to English, and published within the last ten years. They focus on “books people won’t find for themselves,” not bestsellers, and have a wide range.

The site is British, and once you’ve found a book that interests you, there are links to borrow from a library or buy through Amazon. If you’re not in the UK, there’s a link to WorldCat, so you can find a copy of the book in a library near you. I’ve played with the variables a lot, and the results are promising: a few books that I’ve already read and enjoyed came up, as well as a number of titles I hadn’t heard of before but that looked good. Try it out!

What I’m reading: The Lantern, Deborah Lawrenson
What I’m listening to: Long Gone Before Daylight, The Cardigans


Filed under books, library

City with NO wireless

Getting online without a smartphone or ipad was tricky down in New Orleans, but I am back! With lots of photos to share. The ALA Annual Conference was a great experience, and I got to meet some excellent librarians and explore the French Quarter a bit.

Compared to Boston, New Orleans has more: cigarette smokers, styrofoam cups, heat and humidity, evident homelessness. It has fewer (none) laws against open containers of alcohol in public, and no good-tasting tap water. It has more fried doughnuts covered in powdered sugar, and more sweet tea (though it isn’t as ubiquitous as I thought it might be). It has the Mississippi River instead of the Charles. It is not famous for its solid internet connections, which partially explains why I did not post at all while I was there.

Due to needing to catch up on massive amounts of homework, I will just leave you with this warning for now:

What I’ve been reading: The Magicians and The Magician King, Lev Grossman; Love is the Higher Law and The Realm of Possibility, David Levithan
What I’ve been listening to: The Suburbs, Arcade Fire; Narrow Stairs, Death Cab for Cutie; Achtung Baby, U2


Filed under elsewhere, library, signage

The Gravitation-Electricity Problem

Last weekend I visited the Morgan Library in New York. I never got around to going when I lived there, but I’m glad I finally went: it’s book nerd heaven. (Except that you can’t actually touch any of the books. Being trapped there forever would be book nerd hell.) It’s a library/museum where you can see everything you want to and still get through in under two hours, which is nice for those with a lower wander-around-and-look-at-stuff tolerance.

There was a neat Shakespeare exhibit with early portraits and a First Folio(!), and there was a Diary exhibit as well, which is part of the reason I was so keen to go. Many famous literary diaries are on display, from Einstein to Viriginia Woolf to E.B. White (which, in case you’re a little late to the game on this one, as I was, is not only the author of Stuart Little but is also the “White” in Strunk & White).

This is part of the transcript of an interview with White. He says, “The Journals date from about 1917 to about 1930, with a few entries of more recent date. They occupy two-thirds of a whiskey carton. How many words that would be I have no idea, but it would be an awful lot.”

It should be noted that neither the Standard nor the Metric system uses whiskey cartons as a unit of measurement, and one has to wonder: why not?

This plaque was in front of a page of Einstein’s journal. That particular page was entirely equations, but apparently on another page, he wrote, “I’ve been thinking about the gravitation-electricity problem again.” Which is, of course, exactly what I’d just written in my own journal the day before!

No, not really.

Slightly less highbrow but much more accessible to the public,the Brooklyn Public Library is getting some nice publicity from the clothing store Brooklyn Industries. I don’t know who worked out this partnership, but I am definitely in favor of “I love my public library” t-shirts.

BPL is also the Boston Public Library, so this is a multipurpose garment, unlike that Sox and Yankees gear. Go back and forth between New York and Boston with total anonymity! Library Spies Anonymous. Yup.

What I’m reading: Tender at the Bone, Ruth Reichl; Watchmen, Alan Moore
What I’m listening to: The Saints Go Archin’ In, compiled by Ben Apatoff

Leave a comment

Filed under books, city, library


I just came across this little aside in a textbook for my collection development class: “If there is a bibliographic equivalent of alcoholism, many librarians have it.” The following sentence cites the Random House Dictionary’s definition of bibliomania: an “excessive fondness for acquiring and possessing books.” (Note it doesn’t mention an excessive (or obsessive) fondness for reading books.) The text goes on, “Most bibliomaniacs (librarians included) cannot stay out of bookstores and consider it a great feat of willpower and self-control if they manage to leave one without buying a book or two.” Well if that’s isn’t chillingly accurate.

For more on the topic of bibliophilia/bibliomania, I highly recommend Allison Hoover Bartlett’s excellent The Man Who Loved Books Too Much.

Back to doing homework. And sneezing. Is anyone in all of New England NOT sick right now?

What I’ve been reading: State of Wonder, Ann Patchett; The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, Jonathan Coe
What I’ve been listening to: Clarity and Futures, Jimmy Eat World; Say I Am You, The Weepies; The Suburbs, Arcade Fire

Leave a comment

Filed under books, library, school

Marginalia Winter Wrap-Up Part II

Here’s part two; professor quotes from last semester’s Organization and Management of Public Libraries class.

On religion: “The Church has always been interested in libraries – either building them or burning them.”

On Irish monasteries, where much classic literature was preserved while the rest of Europe was in the dark ages: “No one bothered to pillage them, they were too far away.”

On public library work: “Plumbing – that’s the number one thing they SHOULD be teaching you in library school.”

On funding: “They will fund ANYTHING that’s big and red and has a flashing light on top.”

On the limitation of the power of library directors: “NOBODY gets to do whatever they want.”

On the importance of contracts: “If nothing else, it cuts down on the number of times you’re gonna get sued.”

On the emergence of bar codes: “That was some kind of magic.”

On Boards of Trustees with too many members: “If there was a just and loving God this sort of thing wouldn’t happen.”

On Public Relations: “Nobody says no to a Children’s Librarian! They’re the best PR we’ve got.”

On the Chinese lead-paint-in-toys-scare, and deaccessioning: “It’s not going to be a problem until somebody sues you – and nobody’s going going to sue you for having children’s books. They’re gonna sue you for throwing out children’s books!”

On the 1950s: “The heyday of paperweights.”

On different rules for the teen room in a library: “You should be able to swing from the chandeliers in the teen room!”

On centralized selection: “It’s cold and heartless, but it’s brutally efficient.”

On the public’s reaction to outsourcing selection: “Can you imagine [the] Cambridge [Public Library] outsourcing selection? No! They’d burn the place down. They’d have a rally…”

On the obvious: “Librarians love to organize things.”

On power: “It’s amazing how much good you can do in a position of authority.”

On (dis)organization: “There’s a section where they stuffed a puppet!”

On catalogers: “Catalogers are obsessed with accuracy.”

On research: “I’m amazed at how often you go looking for information about libraries and end up in Australia.”

A guest speaker, on politically correct terminology: “I don’t think it’s pejorative – golfers still use handicaps.”

On the timeline: “[Public libraries] have been around for 150 years. That’s current events, not history.”

On the need to justify library costs in business terms: “Don’t blame me for this, blame Reagan.”

On upcoming lecture material: “Next week’s topic is puppets and power tools.”

On customer service: “The customer is NOT always right. Half the time the customer is INSANE.”

On humor and statistics: “There are very few statistical jokes out there.”

On the wording in job ads: “‘Scenic’ means COLD. ‘Scenic’ in Wisconsin means there are no hills to block the wind.”

On the difference between logic and reality: “That’s a logical statement, not a realistic statement.”

On literature, quality of: “SOMEONE should stand up and say Nora Roberts sucks.”

On the ‘Cockroach Principle’: “If one person wants a book, there are five other people who are too socially inhibited to ask for it.”

On strategic plans: “If you are within three years of being perfect, well then, you don’t belong on this earth.”

On the consequences of quoting inaccurately: “Now I’m going to misquote Oliver Wendell Holmes, for which I will burn in hell.”

What I’m reading: First Among Sequels, Jasper Fforde
What I’m listening to: The Hour of the Bewilderbeast, Badly Drawn Boy; Mae’s indie mix

Leave a comment

Filed under library, school