Category Archives: libraries

Decimal Points Matter

Regarding yesterday’s entry: Mark Bartlett, Head Librarian at the New York Society Library, informs me that the replacement cost for the missing Law of Nations was actually $1,200, and not $12,000, as reported in the New York Daily News article that I quoted here yesterday.  He also provided this link to an NBC New York story on the matter, with a short video of the book in question.

Thanks for the clarification, Mark!

No Longer Long Overdue

Yesterday at the New York Society Library, the estate of George Washington’s Mount Vernon presented the library with a copy of one of the two overdue books the first president checked out in the late 1700s. (You can read my original post about this right here.)

In a formal ceremony at the NYSL, James Rees, the executive director of Mount Vernon, presented NYSL chairman Charles Berry with a copy of The Law of Nations, one of the two books that Washington checked out of the library in October 1789.  (You can read the full story of the ceremony here.)

The book isn’t the copy that Washington checked out — staff at Mount Vernon had no luck locating the original, so the estate purchased a similar copy, published the same year, from an online vendor for $12,000.  That raised some eyebrows among Mt. Vernon fans, who would rather have seen that money spent at the Washington home.

For Mr. Rees, though, it was a matter of principle.  By not returning the book on time, Rees explained, George Washington “did not do his public duty.”  I think Washington — who took civic duty seriously — would have approved. Sometimes a symbolic gesture is priceless.

“I Cannot Tell A Lie: They Were Under My Bed.”

Those of us who have sheepishly returned an overdue library book and paid the seventy cent fine can be a bit less embarrassed now — because thanks to some recent record scrubbing by the New York Society Library, we found out we’re in good company: George Washington has two overdue books.

According to the story in the Guardian:

The library’s ledgers show that Washington took out the books on 5 October 1789, some five months into his presidency at a time when New York was still the capital. They were an essay on international affairs called Law of Nations and the twelfth volume of a 14-volume collection of debates from the English House of Commons.

The ledger simply referred to the borrower as “President” in quill pen, and had no return date.

Sure enough, when the librarians checked their holdings they found all 14 volumes of the Commons debates bar volume 12.

Under the rules of the library, the books should have been handed back by 2 November that same year, and their borrower and presumably his descendants have been liable to fines of a few cents a day ever since.

Doing the math, that adds up to an overdue fee of about $300,000.  My pal Mark Bartlett, the NYSL’s head librarian, approaches this matter delicately and with a diplomacy that would likely have made the first president proud.  “We’re not actively pursuing the overdue fines,” Mark says. “But we would be very happy if we were able to get the books back.”

Another Reason to Love Your Local Library

As part of the research for my latest project, I’ve been closely scouring the Washington Post from the mid-1950s on.  While doing research at the Library of Congress last year, one of their typically awesome librarians helpfully steered me away from the microfiche and over to the online resource ProQuest.

If you’re not a research nerd, I’ll explain.  ProQuest is a database made up of tons of different newspapers — the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor , to name just a few — with every page scanned into a pdf file.  You can pull up a full page, look it over, and if you see something you want to read, you simply click on the article and a new pdf file will pop up with the article on it all by itself.  Everything is clickable, from the crossword puzzle to the comics to the ads. 

But what makes the system really useful is that you can type in search words — like the name of your subject, for example — hit RETURN, and the search engine scours all the pdfs for your search terms.  That saves you from having to crank through a microfilm, scanning for an article or headline — the sort of thing that makes me motion sick when I do it for hours on end.

Anyhow, as I’ve been writing my sample chapters for my latest project, there have been times when I’ve wished I could get back into the ProQuest system to look some things up.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to get down to the Library of Congress to log into their system.

Finally, I decided to see if my local library might at least have old microfilm of the Washington Post that I might be able to use, so I got onto the website of my county library to do a bit of poking around.

To my surprise, our county library system has ProQuest access to a few newspapers, including the Washington Post. Not only that, you don’t even have to come in to the library to use it.  If you’ve got a library card (and I do), you can use your card’s ID number to log into the system from home. Fantastic, and just what I needed. 

So, consider this a shout out for a job well done, Montgomery County Public Libraries.  Just another reason to love your local library — and if you haven’t visited your local library in a while, or poked around on its website, go ahead and do so.  They won’t mind a bit.

More Library Talk

Continuing our discussion on libraries from yesterday, there is some good news: libraries are working hard and doing some creative things to bring in new readers, especially younger readers. I point you toward this article in the Maryland Gazette on the libraries in my area hosting video game competitions — specifically, Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero.

According to the article,

“The video games are part of a larger effort by libraries across the county to get more teenagers involved. Kathie Weinberg, the teen librarian at the Bethesda Library, said the libraries have recently planned a number of events geared toward teens, including coffee houses, forensics sessions, and concerts. The Bethesda library brought in two representatives from MAC Cosmetics who did makeovers for more than 40 teens.”

That sort of thinking, however, led to a snippy editorial cartoon captioned “These Days At The Library,” making fun of the library as catering to game players at the expense of books. That, in turn, prompted this letter to the editor from two library employees, including the Young Adult librarian. I’ll quote them in part:

“These programs in no way diminish the importance of someone ‘just want[ing] a book.’ Yes, we have dramatically increased our teen programming this summer, but we have also increased our teen user base and their leisure and academic reading. In fact, circulation of teen books has increased more than 50 percent in the past year.”

More young people using our libraries? Circulation of teen books up 50 percent? Sounds like a win-win situation to me.

I’m was planning to head to the library this week as it was — but while I’m there, maybe I’ll also see if they’ll let the head librarian and me play “Sweet Child of Mine” together on Guitar Hero 2. I call the bass part!

The Library System We Deserve?

According to this article in today’s Washington Post, budget reductions have prompted the D.C. public library system to propose cutting back its hours — including the closing of all branches on Fridays.

I wish this wasn’t a common occurence. Even in my neck of the woods — up in Montgomery County, Maryland, where we have a fairly healthy budget — our libraries aren’t open every day, either. Even more frustrating, the local library two blocks from my house is closed on Sundays. I can almost understand closing on a Tuesday, or even on Friday. But closing on weekends, when it’s easier to find the time to visit the library — and when students often need their resources the most — is teeth-gnashingly exasperating.

The thing is, Americans have a shaky relationship with their libraries. Like an aging or senile parent, we love them in concept, but don’t want to visit them. When that new David Baldacci or Stephen King or David McCullough book comes out, we don’t run for the library, we head for Barnes and Noble instead. We’d rather purchase it new in hardback and read it when we have the time, rather than read a loaner which we only have a certain amount of time to read before it’s due back.

I’ve heard plenty of reasons offered for why we don’t visit libraries as much any more. Germphobes don’t like the thought of reading a book that plenty of others have touched or (*shudder*) may actually have read in the bathroom. Others cite the inconvenience of having to return the book after a certain number of days or weeks (though some of these are no doubt the same people who have no problem returning a movie or video game to Blockbuster after three days). Researchers say the availability of materials on the internet has removed the need to run to the library for the Encyclopedia Brittanica or a newspaper from 1972. Some point out that libraries, in their rush to acquire as many copies as they can of the latest bestseller, often give short shrift to older books — making the library a great place to read books published after 1990, for example, but not much else.

There’s something to be said for all those arguments, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re all finding reasons to stay away from the library. It’s like public transportation: everyone wants government to invest in more buses and mass transit for someone else to ride. We like the idea of libraries more than the libraries themselves.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit and speak at a number of fantastic libraries up and down the Atlantic Coast — the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, the New York Society Library, the Philadelphia Library, and even my local library in Damascus, Maryland — and if there was one thing they all had in common, it was readers and librarians who were passionate about them. Unfortunately, passion alone doesn’t keep the doors open on Sundays, when I’ve got my nose pressed up against the glass front door wondering if they’ve got a copy of Ted Widmer’s Martin Van Buren so I can look something up. Our libraries need more than our passion and affection; they need our support and patronage.

If you haven’t been to a library in ages — for any number of reasons — visit one again. You’ll find it’s still the best form of entertainment around, and librarians are still some of the most helpful people on the planet, always ready to help you find anything you’re looking for — and maybe even recommend something you don’t know you’re looking for yet.

Go on. You deserve it.