Tuesday, January 02, 2007

MSM Contra Obama + What the (Library) People Want + Fainting Foils Ontime Trains + Wikiing

MSM Contra Obama Redux
Last month I reported on the mainstream media's nascent campaign against Illinois's junior Democratic US Senator, Barack Obama, one of the presumptive leaders in the 2008 campaign. In addition to members of the media fixating on Obama's Arabic middle name, "Hussein," and joking about how close "Obama," his Luo family name is to "Osama," CNN's Jeff Greenfield compared his style of dress to that of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a right-wing columnist, Debbie Schuessel, in a fit of bizarre pseudo-psychoanalysis, suggested that he might be a Muslim Manchurian candidate. After a series of critical blogabaloos, most, though not all of the offenders apologized or feinted as if they had. But of course it wasn't over. We've got a year and 11 months to go, and Obama's fame and popularity aren't waning, they're waxing.

So it didn't take one day to pass in the New Year before the media, in this case CNN, started up its hijinks again, running the tag line "Where's Obama?" over an image of Al Qaeda's unaccountably still-free leaders Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden during Wolf Blitzer's Situation Room show. As soon as I saw this on DailyKos's site, I fired off an email to CNN's "Situation Room" site, and apparently enough other people did that both anchor Soledad O'Brien and Blitzer himself apologized on air to Obama today. The senator was gracious in his response, seeing "no malicious intent," but he also made sure to thank bloggers for holding CNN to the fire for its shoddy, tendentious journalism, which it is claiming was an error, though the "B" key is far enough away from the "S" key, and there should be enough production control to ensure that such "gaffes" don't occur. I doubt they'll end, however; no matter how far he moves to the right, he'll still be unacceptable to the vested interests now running and ruining the country, so vigilance will be the byword for him and every other Democrat or progressive candidate until November 2008 rolls around. The disinformation campaign hasn't ended by a long-shot.

Clearing the Shelves
Half a decade ago, writer Nicholson Baker wrote an impassioned, eye-opening book, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (Random House, 2001), about the deaccessioning policies of some of the United States's major public libraries, a process that began in the post-World War II years but accelerated with the increasing domination of electronic media. Baker brooked a great deal of praise and some sharp criticism for expending nearly 300 pages on a topic that struck some as obscure and in a manner deemed obsessive, but his emphatic focus and tone were oracular in describing a practice that has only worsened, to the dismay of book lovers and the general populace. Baker's main critique centered on libraries' problematic decisions to replace books with supposedly more long-lasting microfilm and other technologies, based on a series of arguments he revealed as specious. For example, while any number of books, and even some newspapers and other print materials, if properly taken care of, have lasted for centuries (cf. the Book of Kells and other illuminated manuscripts, to take only a few examples), Baker showed that microfilm is comparatively far less robust (as well as more difficult to read without 20-year-old eyes), yet many of the librarians still pushed to move to the newer technologies.

Nearly six years later, Lisa Rein writes in the Washington Post about a related problem, which is the deaccessioning--removal--of sometimes "classic" books, or as the article goes on to point out, any books from libraries because no one has taken them out in a year or given period. This awful practice, which is motivated by the same neoliberal, market-inspired worldview that has infested nearly aspect of our society, and which is abetted by new software, has meant that a host of books that no one happens to check out may no longer be around when someone learns about and realizes they (once) exist(ed). Rein notes that the Fairfax County library system's model is a private, profit-based business, such as Barnes & Noble, despite the fact that, well, it's supposed to be a public, not-for-profit institution that caters to a far wider range of tastes and interests, and it's subsidized by all the tax-payers, unlike private bookstores. Library director Sam Clay makes the argument, as many did in Baker's book, that space is one of the major issues, stating that "a book is not forever. If you have 40 feet of shelf space taken up by books on tulips and you find that only one is checked out, that's a cost." Yet the result is worse, because instead of emphasizing an electronic replacement, his "ruthless" take is, if people don't want it now, it's not important. I need not argue how short-sighted and simplistic this argument is, but Rein points out that it's held more widely than just in Fairfax; the head of the American Library Association, Leslie Burger, states that "There is a sense in many public libraries that popular materials are what most of our communities desire. Everybody's got a favorite book they're trying to promote."

Well, yes, popular materials may be what most people desire--isn't that conceptually self-evident?--but public libraries, at least since the Carnegie era, have existed to serve broad constituencies. Or did. The US once had mainly private libraries; one of those, the Astor Library, provided the basis for the what became one of the greatest collections in the world, the New York Public Library. Now, it's the race to the market-driven bottom--and when this material ceases to hold the public's attention, it'll be sold off and the newest material will fill the shelves. Are we assume that in the future public libraries will carry only diet and cooking, business, and fashion books, pornography, comic books and a narrow amount of young adult literature, and religious, spiritual and pseudospiritual texts? Aren't we ignorant enough as a nation? If Baker's book is right, librarians might not have to wait to remove the newer media, because they'll just disintegrate before anyone has the opportunity to sell them or toss them out. Meanwhile, works that don't have champions and don't meet the necessary criteria will go (back) into private hands, if they aren't pulped entirely....

One option: you can go to your local public library and check out a number of books that probably aren't being checked out regularly. I'm sure it'll take the worker bees a little bit of time to figure out that you're doing this. Keep them for a day or two, or perhaps a week. In the meantime, it'll give the books a temporary stay. Tell others to do so as well. Now, please go get your cards ready and starting culling from those thinning shelves.

Works to start with: all early-American and slave narratives; late 19th-century American novels; works of history; travel guides; Victorian and Edwardian-era nonfiction; books on philosophy, foreign languages, mathematics, and chemistry; any work of poetry that looks like it hasn't been touched in a while; all foreign books; and any books of maps that can be checked out.

A related story: The New York Times's Tina Kelley reports on some libraries' plans to shut down during peak afternoon hours because of rambunctious adolescent patrons. Despite the lack of guidance and supervision these young people are expected to act like angels, naturally, and because they won't, instead of figuring out a way to provide or develop the needed guidance and supervision, the libraries are going to shut down. Just brilliant, really. And when the children years later harbor negative feelings about the library system and as taxpayers refuse to provide funding, these same people will be carping and crying....

"Kids, what's the matter with kids today...?"

Dieting Women Cause Subway Delays--Oh Come On
More nuttiness for the new year: the MTA is claiming dieting women are causing a sizable percentage of its delays. I seriously doubt this. Realistically, how many fainting Twiggy-wannabees could there be on all the lines? But then I don't have any figures to go on and haven't ridden the subway on a semi-regular basis in years. I do know that the MTA's word, like many metro transit agencies, has to be taken about as seriously as a grain of sand. These are the people who were racking up surpluses yet refused for years to address a wide range of transit worker, rider and infrustructure needs, creating a state of crisis. So pardon me if I'm skeptical. How long before the CTA decides to use this excuse as well?

Wiki Wiki Wiki
Not counting a few entries and corrections on Wikipedia, the world's largest and not-so-accurate encyclopedia/dictionary, I'm pretty late to the multifarious wiki world, but last fall I set up a test site for my undergraduate literature class on pbwiki, which I ended up not really using, since I'd already included nearly all the articles I wanted in the source book and didn't assign any presentations for the students to post. I've since designed new pages which I'm considering using this upcoming quarter, and as I proceed, I'll post on here about how the process goes. As a wonderful colleague told me several years ago, the basic wiki technology is free and easy to use, and really flexible. One seemingly simple thing I haven't figured out is how to configure html for wiki pages yet; on the WikiStyle sheet, it says that html is fine for more elaborate page construction, but doesn't explain where or not it needs to be placed in Css style sheet pages or somehow reconfigured to work directly on a wiki site.


  1. Thanks for the suggestion regarding library books. Recently someone told me the rumor that after substantial renovations, a major city library had miscalculated space allocations and just dumped an overage of books in a landfill so as not to draw attention to the oversight with something like a "friends of the library" book sale. You used to be able to donate books to libraries, and they were happily accepted. Now it can be hard to find one that isn't closing depending on where you are in the U.S. I guess I need to start trolling those library shelves for dusty tomes in need of a reprieve. Oh, and that's some serious fear made manifest of a charming, intelligent, (right side of the) middle-of-the-road black man.

  2. Audiologo, they probably did dump the books. Would the outcry be anywhere as great as book-burnings if such information got out? I doubt it. But the books also would conceivably be salvageable. The other aspect of this is that the underlying logic skews towards those with capital, privilege and access, so if you can't afford to build your own library or access a private one (university, etc.), you'll be at the utter mercy of the market.... Did you see the new Obama "slip up"? They are definitely, uh, afraid....

  3. Right on J! Our economy already makes it difficult to obtain health care (I am a vicitim of that), decent food, and affordable housing. I am sorry to see that the access to books has now joined the list of basic human needs that our democracy should secure. And I am sorry to see that the mantras of a market economy are being applied to things that should be indifferent to the economy.

    It is a shame, I am currently dealing with the wealth divide in the progress of some young people I know that are close to my family. I wonder what is going to happen to a whole segement of our society in 10 years who live in poverty and are socialized to give more value to an article of clothing than to the access of knowledge. Books are being made worthless.

    Oh, and fainting dieters. All I can think of is Project Runway and the models that seemed to be dropping like flies. I guess it was the thin air caused by those high heel shoes. Emaciated and dehydrated waifer thin size zeros must really be hurting in the stink, moisture and heat of the New York subway system. It would not totally surprise me, seeing the number of young women that have come to New York trying to be one of the chicks on Sex and the City -- a culture that has trickled down all the way to our pre-teens!

  4. I can finally comment on the library stories (have had a heck of a time logging in!?)

    While Pratt (Baltimore) does regular weeding and deaccessioning, such wholesale clearing of the shelves strikes most of us here as beyond the pale. In addition to being the city library, we're also the State Library Resource Center, and so 'have' to have a range of 'unpopular' titles in the collection. Also our philosophy is more Old School than some of our surrounding systems, such as Baltimore County Public Library, which one one of the original practitioners of the 'Give 'em what they want' system: buy VERY heavy on bestsellers, some minimal reference and other items, and let the school system libraries do homework support. While it has helped their circulation numbers tremendously, it still didn't stop them from facing budget cuts just like we did a number of years ago (and could face again, in spite of the supposedly burgeoning city coffers due to our housing boom). The county public libraries are also the LAST places to go to do any thing more than on-the-surface research. You and I also know what a blow this is to the glorious joys of serendipity one encounters when browsing the shelves.

    As for the NJ system closing branches rather than deal with teens, the reaction in Baltimore is a basic WTF?! They want unruly kids we can ship them some of ours! We've dealt with this for years (I was even at a branch years ago when a fight broke out and kids started tossing heavy wooden chairs at each other). We do a variety of programatic things (and yes do have guards in locations as well). And we resigned ourselves to the fact that the library is going to play babysitter for a many kids a looong time ago. I wonder what ELSE is going on in that town(ship) that lead to this decision.