Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Simplicity of Basics

I make a habit of trying to explore different libraries in different corners of the country. Many libraries seem in a struggle for identity, caught between being archives of history, warehouses of books, educational institutions, public spaces, study areas, social anchor points, and purveyors of print culture and reading.

These things all sound so similar, but the tension between them is clearly in our discussions of 'library as place' and whether the 'library without walls' is ever going to replace the brick and mortar edifice of my youth. It's also in the tension between food policies and the coffeeshops, as well as the struggle to serve youth in the same space as the elderly, poor, and homeless.

Yesterday I was sitting in the periodicals section of the Penrose Library at the University of Denver (Colorado). Sitting there, completing an online training for managing federal records, my eyes kept wandering to the brightly colored magazines surrounding me. My fingers were itching to touch the glossy cover of the news magazine from Africa, but then, looking around, I realized that every third magazine interested me enough to want to pick it up: Ms., Bitch, Natural History, Der Spiegel, Popular Mechanics, and so on. I think I heard a soft slurping sound as I stood up and was thoroughly sucked in by the collection.

I don't remember the last time I was in a browsing collection that was so simple and yet effective. Comfy chairs + visually engaging materials + display shelves = drawing in readers. In my four hours there, I did manage to complete my online training, but I also learned about the issues of air quality in Peking surrounding the Olympic games, as well as how Obama's trip last month to Berlin was organized.

And yet, despite the struggles that many colleges and universities are having with basic literacy, the libraries that I have been to lack the encouragement to read for pleasure and background understanding of larger issues. Sure, we're all too busy these days to take time out to read the paper. And sure, our budgets are being maimed by the lack of fiscal support for the public sector. But somehow, when the chair and the shelves are both at my fingertips, it seems a lot less daunting to squeeze it in, like a furtive cigarette between my classes and work.

In an educational institution, sometimes service doesn't mean just giving the patrons what they need for their classes, but rather giving them the room to grow beyond their current understanding of the materials.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Other Blogs and Reading: @ the Library

Because the blogosphere wouldn't be complete without talking about other blogs, this has been one blog that is consistently interesting to read. And a 'must read' for any student considering becoming a librarian. His vivid anecdotes of patrons along with news snippets and intellectual freedom commentaries provides a sharp perspective of library work.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Reference: Digital Dictionaries

For a language that was initially considered to be too base to use in royal courts, German grammer is full of complex points, cases, directionality, and a number of segregations and labels that would impress even the most seasoned cataloger.

Over the years, I've just gotten used to looking up every fourth word in the dictionary, not because I didn't understand the meaning, but rather because I can't seem to memorize what most Germans consider to be simple operating details of the language. Like if the preposition 'through' should be used with the accusative or the dative case. Or if a spoon should be referred to with masculine, feminine or neuter articles.

Who thinks about spoons as having gender anyway? And if the spoon is masculine, why on earth is the fork feminine? And then why is the knife, the most phallic and suited to violence of all the silverware, neuter? I don't know anyone who would think of knives as being neutered. Then there are the plurals that don't have any kind of regularity in their endings. None of that English laziness where you just slap an s on the end. Nope, sometimes there's an ending change, sometimes a vowel change, sometimes both, sometimes neither.

But regardless, I've developed quite a thumb for thick dictionaries that include genders, plurals, cases, and idiomatic expressions, and so I was more than pleased to discover this dictionary project from The Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences:
(sample record)

I was pleased because I can type far faster than I can look up something in the dictionary, even if I am pretty fast with those wiley reference tomes. Up until that point, I had been using this other project run by educators and academics in Munich:

Although the DWDS is a work in progress and many of the entries are incomplete, it is a beautiful accomplishment, even in the midst of its inadequacies. It includes all the information you might get from a standard dictionary as well as other features such as word relationship diagrams, a pool of example texts where the word occurs, and a list of synonyms.

It's a dictionary that's been redefined without the limitations imposed by the medium of bound paper, and it makes me hopeful. Because if digital dictionaries can become so effortlessly free of the limitations of the historical print format, maybe online catalogs can get there eventually as well.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Travel Destinations for Library Geeks: Philological Library, Free University of Berlin

What library nerd isn't going to swoon over a library designed to be shaped like a brain? Honestly, I was skeptical when I first visited the Philological Library in the southwestern corner of Berlin, Germany. I've seen too many architectural feats of design that were beautiful but entirely impractical for the reality of shelving books and accommodating patrons. But in this case I was pleasantly surprised by the success of form and function.

With the stacks resembling the lobes and the folds and the stem consisting of the central staircase, this language and philosophy library in the student union of the Free University, Berlin is a great example of modern architecture working as a modern library. The whole building is a solid investment in design, from the environmentally friendly heating/cooling to the passive lighting, from the staffing to the study areas. Despite the artistic bent of designing the building to look like a brain, the function of the library was clearly weighted equally in the design process. The whole library can be run in the evenings by one or two staff members. The bright (and warmer) upper levels offer a variety of study space, while the interiors of the lower levels house the books.

The attention to detail in the design and execution is carried out on the digital side of the equation as well. Searching the catalog yields your standard lists of books and resources, but also offers the user a floor plan of the library with the location of the book clearly marked. This sounds like an obvious innovation for an online library catalog, but has been terribly slow in being implemented in most libraries.