An Essay A Day

Today’s post is a guest article from Anna, who currently works in the Ready Reference telephone unit Sheila schooled us about in her most recent post. You’ll be seeing Anna’s articles from time to time as her time permits.

I’m here to admit something. I’m not much of a non-fiction reader.

I’ve tried, honestly, time and again, but I always seem to give up after a few chapters. And it’s not that I lack the interest–far from it. I’m fascinated by a plethora of subjects, from psychological disorders, to early radio dramas, to musical theater. It’s just that, try as I might, I can’t manage to finish a book without a good old-fashioned plot.

Even though I have no trouble admitting this shortcoming, I refuse to accept it. Like clockwork, each New Year starts with a proposed fiction cleanse and, along with it, the hope of introducing some variety into my literary palate. A few years back, when I realized the recurring resolutions were doing nothing to vary my reading selections, I decided to compromise with myself by avoiding “real” non-fiction and opting instead for collections of personal essays and literary journalism. For anyone out there searching for a fic to nonfic transition, here are some of my favorite essayists (ranging from easy breezy to packed with facts):

crosley cakeI Was Told There’d Be Cake begins with a confession: Sloane Crosley has a secret collection of toy ponies. And not just two or three, we’re talking an entire kitchen drawer dedicated to a plastic equine family. This is Crosley’s power, dropping cringe-worthy private details of her life until you feel welcomed into her sphere. Or maybe not welcomed in as much as eavesdropping from one table over, at a hip, divey bar in Brooklyn while you envy her impeccable style, shiny hair, and ability to air her dirty laundry like it ain’t no thang. Her follow up collection, How Did You Get This Number?, regales readers with tales of Portuguese clowns, black market furniture trading, and the worst roommate ever. While I wouldn’t call these essays particularly enlightening, they’re certainly compulsively readable.

I will read anything that David Sedaris writes, and then I will read it ten more times. My obsession with the snarky, OCD-addled nakedmemoirist borders on excessive, but read his account of a week spent at a nudist trailer park, the title story in the aptly named Naked, or his reflections on working as a Macy’s elf in Santaland Diaries, and you’ll see why I literally wept tears of fangirl joy upon meeting him at a book signing. While most of his essays take humorous topics as their focus, don’t get too comfortable–Sedaris is the master of the poignant wrap-up. When he’s got you where he wants you, he’ll hit you with an emotional truth-bomb and you’ll be left awkwardly sad-laughing in public.

bethlehemI don’t know why it took so long for me to read any Joan Didion. I don’t know why I waited until last year, at 25, to pick up a collection of her essays. What had I been doing with my life until then? What better things had I been using my eyes for? Now that I see the error of my ways, I will spend the rest of my days reading, underlining, and memorizing anything and everything she’s ever written. I’m not sure if it’s the subject matter (lots of California dreaming, catnip for a homesick West Coast transplant like me), the dark, nostalgic tone, or just the magical way she has of putting words together, but I’m hooked. Start with Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album for a good introduction to Didion’s style and save The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, memoirs centering on the death of her husband and daughter, respectively, for when you’re at your most emotionally stable.

Zadie Smith is, hands-down, my favorite human. She’s smart, funny, powerful, a master storyteller, and, as it turns out, pretty changingdarn good at essays too. Smith’s collection, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, is not a breezy read. It’s a bit dense in places, but oh so worth it. Her essay-ing, like her storytelling, is complex and layered: an exploration of her father’s last days becomes a study on the art of comedy, moving seamlessly from a hospital bed in a seaside English village to an experimental performance at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. An ode to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God investigates the meaning of soulfulness and the power of “extraliterary” readings. And a recap of a weekend in LA covering the Academy Awards peeks at our obsession with fame and the notion of celebrity. With so much information and emotion packed into each essay, you’ll be culturally sated upon completion.

–Anna

Thoughts on Anna’s nonfiction picks? Suggestions of your own? Leave us a comment!

 

 

 

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Howdy, Partner!

There have been many great partnerships throughout history – Orville and Wilbur, Hillary and Norgay, the Steves (Jobs and Wozniak), Rodgers and Hammerstein, Ben and Jerry,  the Curies, Bert and Ernie, Sherlock and Watson, Katniss and Peeta  -just to name a few. These partnerships, whether real or fictional, were formed over like interests and are a testament to what can be accomplished when people work together towards a common goal. Right here in Pittsburgh, The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is creating some great partnerships with the goal of literacy throughout the city.

I’m extremely fortunate to be a part of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Office of Programs and Partnerships (OPP). Within this department which is housed at the East Liberty branch of CLP, we have a great collection of staff reaching out to a variety of groups in their own unique way, forming partnerships and conducting programs throughout the city to promote a variety of literacies within the community.

The BLAST crew regularly head out to the Pittsburgh Public Schools and related events, connecting with our city’s young readers and future leaders, aiding in early learning and literacy skills.

The Labs @CLP work at providing space and time for teens to connect to new learning experiences via technology.  Teens, an often neglected and misunderstood demographic, are able to engage with fellow teens and library staff through unique, technology-centered literacy.

LYNCS, of which I am a member, reaches out to various groups in Pittsburgh to provide a variety of literacies in neighborhoods, communities and schools. We run the gamut of providing pre-school story times, senior citizen technology programs, information and hands-on technology  at community events, and financial and job literacy to Allegheny County Jail inmates alongside our colleagues from the various neighborhood branches. In addition, the LYNCS crew has managed a temporary, pop-up library in the neighborhood of Allentown, bringing library services and programming to a community lacking easy access to our neighborhood branches and their services.  Over the past year and a half that we have been in this temporary setting, we have had the pleasure of working with great community partners to provide access to library services, unique programming and a community center for this often neglected and little known Pittsburgh neighborhood. A great result of the partnerships formed with various Allentown and other Hilltop groups, has led to the pop-up library  transitioning to the Allentown Learning and Engagement Center (ALEC), a project which would not have been possible without the partnerships formed with our community neighbors.

outreach

LYNCS colleagues at an outreach event.

 

The entire staff of The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is working to reach out to all of the city neighborhoods, not only through library services and programming within the neighborhood branches, but also through a variety of outreach initiatives encouraging literacies beyond its brick and mortar locations. We are happily building new partnerships, whether it’s at the circulation desk or in a city park, not just during this National Library Week, but every day of the year.

-Maria J.

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Snow White, Master Swordswoman?!

Happy National Library Week 2014! Help us celebrate by visiting any Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh location this week to tell us about the books that changed your life.

Like most any kid, Disney animated films figured hugely into my childhood. My favorite one changed, depending on which villain scared my little brother more at the time. For a while I’d demand we watch The Little Mermaid over and over until, I guess, sheer exposure desensitized him to the terror of Ursula. Then I moved on to torturing him with Beauty and the Beast. When I was feeling magnanimous, we watched The Lion King, which we both enjoyed.

Snow White and the Seven DwarvesOne Disney movie neither of us could get into, either to enjoy or be scared of, was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. We thought it was boring. And that the songs were meh. And maybe that the dwarfs were a little creepy.

Fables vol. 1: Legends in ExileSo in high school, when I discovered Bill Willingham’s comic Fables, the story of basically every fairy tale character you’ve ever heard of living undercover in modern Manhattan, the character of Snow White did not interest me. I wanted to know more about Bigby Wolf, the chain-smoking, trenchcoat-wearing sheriff of Fabletown, who in his previous life went by the Big Bad Wolf and can transform into wolf form any time the situation calls for it.

Willingham’s portrayal of this fairy tale princess drew me in, though. Snow is the deputy mayor of Fabletown, the neighborhood of Manhattan the “Fables” created for themselves when they fled their homelands in front of an invading army led by a tyrant dictator known only as the Adversary. When we meet her, she’s already divorced Prince Charming for being a womanizer and all around terrible husband, and she just might be attracted to Bigby.

And then you find out that those dwarfs were definitely NOT helping Snow when she was lost in the woods, and that she forced Prince Charming to teach her sword fighting shortly after they got married so she could enact her revenge. She does so. Bloodily.

Fables vol. 19: Snow WhiteThe latest trade paperback volume to come out, volume nineteen, is aptly titled Snow White and highlights all of this character’s strengths: She’s intelligent, she’s a fierce mother, she’s a loyal and loving wife, and she keeps those physical fighting skills sharp in order to protect her family.

But most of all, she is willing to make hard choices. In this volume, characters who are physically much stronger than Snow fail, and it is she who must save the day, using not only her master sword fighting skills, but her wit and strength of will.

No meek, pale princess, this, but a modern warrior woman.

Once Upon A Time Season 1Snow White has gotten makeovers in other media as well. In ABC’s Once Upon A Time, the fairy tale characters don’t know who they are because of a curse. In this version, pre-curse Snow White is a wiley woods woman who would do anything for true love. Her cursed alter ego Mary Margaret, though, does start out rather meek.

Mary Margaret doesn’t stay meek for long. Even before she recovers her memories, and therefore her true identity, she begins to stand up for herself and the things she wants. When her daughter Emma breaks the curse and Mary Margaret recovers her memory, her ferocity comes out full force.

Although I can’t help but look at the similarities between Once Upon A Time and Fables and think, a little possessively, “Fables did this first!” (I have been reading this series for ten years, so I’m just a little bit attached), I’m exceedingly glad that Disney’s version of Snow White is no longer the only visible version in our culture.

Excellent, woman-empowering retellings of Snow White and other fairy tales give us role models we can look up to, examples we can hope to follow. Willingham’s Snow and ABC’s Mary Margaret are much closer to real women than their fairy tale princess counterparts; they just have a few extra powers. But they have problems, they make decisions, they take actions, and they deal with the consequences themselves instead of always relying on others to protect them.

And when the situation requires, they pull out their swords and fight.

–Kelly

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No big deal, just changing lives…

Next week is National Library Week. The theme this year is Lives change @ your library and as you can see from the sweet header, the honorary chair is Judy Blume (You don’t get much cooler than Judy, right?).

We love that we’re the people you turn to when you have questions. We’re information junkies around these parts and live to spread the news. But we really love when we can match you up with the right book. No lie, we all mentally high-five ourselves when you stop in and let us know that you tore through the book recommendation from your last visit.

This year, the very clever folks in our Development office have put a focus on the later…

web banner

Beginning next week and through May 16, we’re hoping that you’ll consider making a donation to the library and sharing what book has rocked your world in a big way. Each branch will host a cool display of your choices.

Some staff picks from my branch:

  • Charlotte’s Web. This is why I’ve been a vegetarian since childhood.”
  • Into the Wild. Because I hate it that much. But it was really important for me to learn how to dislike a book the right way.”
  • The Giver. I can’t remember how old I was when I first read it, but I do remember that it was first time that a book actually meant something to me.”
  • The Handmaid’s Tale – it opened up the world of dystopian literature for me.”

We can’t wait to see what books changed your life!

- Jess

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‘Burgh on Film: Out of the Furnace

Please welcome Ross to the Eleventh Stack blogger rotation! His quips, tips, and opinions will appear here regularly once a month from now on.

Pittsburgh has a long history with film, and Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, now available on DVD, is a welcome, breathtaking addition to the tradition.

Photo taken from The Nerdist - all rights reserved to same - click through to read an interview with Scott Cooper

Photo taken from The Nerdist – all rights reserved to same – click through to read an interview with Scott Cooper

The movie, which has no relation to Thomas Bell’s Out of This Furnace, opens at a drive-in movie theater. The image projected on the screen is that of a well-dressed businessman, ascending an escalator. As he rises, the camera pans down into the field of parked cars. This particular scene didn’t stick out for me the first time I saw it, but–re-watching it recently–I found it striking. Drive-in movie theaters have all but disappeared–time capsules from a bygone era. The camera’s descent into this relic, juxtaposed with the ascent of a sharp-dressed businessman exemplifies, to me, one of the many themes of the movie: the times are changing, out with the old and in with the new. I find it interesting that it’s at this intersection that we’re introduced to Harlan DeGroat, the movie’s meth-head villain, menacingly played by Woody Harrelson. An angry, frothing evil practically bleeds out of his eyes. He’s not a villain you love to hate; he’s a villain you hate with a passion and hope he gets his comeuppance.

Beyond the theme of change, the central theme is that of choice. The movie’s tagline, “Sometimes your battles choose you” is characterized through the struggles of mill worker Russell Baze, phenomenally played by Christian Bale. A good, decent man by all accounts, we struggle along with him throughout the entire movie as he is constantly put into trying situations. How far will he go to help his brother, Rodney, fresh from his fourth tour in Iraq and played with subtlety by Casey Affleck, get out of debt? How will he be able to care for his ailing father? How is he going to live if the mill he works at does, in fact, close? Bale’s character even says it’s cheaper to get steel from China, as if admitting that is tantamount to him succumbing to the forces he so desperately tries to control.

There’s really nothing new about the narrative here, but the actors infuse such realism into their scenes that, even if Cooper doesn’t use them to their full potential, you have to take notice of what’s unfolding before you, despite the slow-moving pace of the film.

And that’s one of the reasons why I love this film.

These characters seem natural, organic, born from the blast furnaces that forged our city. There isn’t a false note in anyone’s performance. Even relative newcomer Zoë Saldana holds her own against a heavyweight like Bale.

And speaking of Bale, he might as well be giving a masters class on acting in this film. It baffles me that he got his Oscar nomination for American Hustle instead of this. He has a scene on a bridge with Saldana, barely four minutes long, that is better acted than most of American Hustle’s entire runtime. The scene is so real, bubbling over with palpable emotion, you almost feel like a voyeur watching them.

Bale looks so much like a genuine Pittsburgh mill worker, hardworking and worn, that I’ll forgive him for not having a typical yinzer accent. Despite that, he embodies Pittsburgh, complete with Braddock’s zip code tattooed on his neck. He even goes hunting with his uncle, played by Sam Shepard. He wouldn’t look at all out of place at a bar like Jack’s or Dee’s on the Southside.

And speaking of Pittsburgh landmarks, the second reason I love this movie is because there’s so much about it that makes it genuinely feel like Pittsburgh.

I love seeing Pittsburgh on film. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m seeing the places I’ve been and the streets I’ve walked projected onto a twenty-two-foot screen in a darkened theatre. It makes the city seem monumental, almost mythical. Maybe every New Yorker feels this exhilaration upon exiting the theatre. Maybe that’s why they call it movie magic.

It’s not just the scenery—beautifully shot on Kodak film as opposed to captured digitally—that makes the film feel authentically Pittsburgh. Honestly, Braddock has never looked better and during the film’s climax, the Carrie Blast Furnace almost outperforms Bale and Harrelson with its grandness.

It’s not just the music, which features songs by Eddie Vedder. I don’t even care for Vedder’s music and I must admit that putting it on top of scenes of Braddock works splendidly.

It’s something else.

There’s something so honest about seeing the cracked streets, boarded up houses and laboring smokestacks of Braddock on-screen, alongside a movie that is so much about perseverance despite obstacles. Pittsburgh is no longer “hell with the lid taken off.” Even the fish have returned to our rivers (I still wouldn’t swim in them, though). Pittsburgh has pulled itself up out of the furnace and taken matters into its own hands, just like Bale ultimately does in the end. It’s almost as if Cooper captured the driven character of Pittsburgh.

Also starring Willem Dafoe and Forest Whitaker, Out of the Furnace is a slow-burning revenge film that has stayed with me since I first saw it in the fall of 2013. I’d liken its tone to another one of my favorite films of that year— Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners . I get the urge to watch Prisoners every time it rains, which—as a result of living in Pittsburgh—is roughly three hundred times a year (I realize this probably says more about me than any psychiatric test could, but I digress). I feel like I could always watch Out of the Furnace, though. Despite its somber tone and deliberate pace, there’s an underlying steadfast hopefulness about the whole thing. When we lose everything, we fear nothing and that spurs us on to take action.

If you love seeing Pittsburgh on film and enjoy character-driven movies, then rent, borrow or buy Out of the Furnace.

–Ross

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Need An Answer? Ask A Librarian: Part I

Last summer I wrote about my early years working at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and how libraries have changed in the 40 years I have worked here. One of the biggest changes that has occurred is in how we provide information services or reference. Access to technology has played an indelible role in that.

Carnegie Library has emphasized reference and information services from its first days. According to Ralph Munn’s History of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh:

The Reference Department was organized in 1895 by Elisa May Willard…by the end of 1905 it contained 66,000 books and 12,000 pamphlets. It was designed as a depository for U.S. government documents. Significant collections of scientific and technical books and journals were begun in 1898. An early report lists (1) members of clubs, (2) men seeking scientific and technical information, and (3) students, in that order, as the principal groups of users.

In the 1930s two telephone booths were added to the General Reference Department so that librarians could take calls from patrons who had questions at work and from home. In the 1950s, newspapers and journals began to be published in microfilm, eliminating the need to keep brittle newsprint or binding them.

Microfilm: it was -- and is - a thing. Reproduction of a photograph from the Pittsburgh Photographic Library  (all rights reserved).

Microfilm: it was — and is – a thing. Reproduction of a photograph from the Pittsburgh Photographic Library (all rights reserved).

Special subject divisions were spun off the General Reference Department on the second floor over the years. The Technology Department moved to new space on the third floor at Main in 1909. In the 1930s, Art, Music, and Pennsylvania became separate divisions with only Music and Art also including circulating books with reference materials. Main remained pretty much in this configuration until the 1980s. Central Lending was renamed Popular Library in the 1970s.

For me, after several years on the Bookmobile and a short stint at the Brookline Branch, I was transferred to Main in 1976 as a Library Assistant. I was assigned to the staff of the “Popular Library” where all of Main’s popular circulating books were housed. But half of my time was scheduled to work with the newly established “Telephone Ready Reference Unit.” Because of budget cuts at that time and the loss of about 1/3 of the librarian positions in all Main departments, the thought was to funnel all telephone calls coming to Main for reference assistance to three Library Assistants at the phone line 412-622-3114. Our work area was about 10 ft. x 10 ft. and adjacent to the complete card catalog in the General Reference Department. If we could not answer a question in 3-5 minutes we were instructed to transfer the call to a professional librarian in the subject departments – General Reference, Science & Technology, Music and Art, Pennsylvania, or to the Popular Library.

Reproduced from the 1977 CLP Annual Report. Vicki and Mary in TRRU.

Reproduced from the 1977 CLP Annual Report. Vickie and Mary in TRRU.

Our role was to identify books, authors, titles and CLP ownership of them. We’d look up basic facts in a core reference book collection of about 150 titles. They included basic encyclopedias, the World Almanac, dictionaries (we had several foreign language dictionaries at hand), business directories, and telephone books from all of the major cities across the USA. (We used these just to look up addresses. We were only allowed to look up phone numbers on the occasion of a telephone operator’s strike). We answered many questions about grammar and quotations, government offices, personnel and statistics, movie stars and films, people, popular and world cultures and sports. During the day, we had most calls from companies, news reporters, and secretaries and after school and in the evenings it was students with homework needs. Readers of all ages called at all times if they were looking for books they were interested in.

It was fun work and challenging. To be good at this job you really had to have a broad general knowledge and an interest in popular culture and current events. And you had to love to read – read fiction and non-fiction and love to read about books and reviews. If you already knew the answer, you had a head start in using the print tools in looking up the answer to verify a source quickly and efficiently. Mary, Vickie and I, the intrepid first three LAs, fulfilled this job to a T. And for CLP, by relying on TRRU to answer the easy questions, the subject librarians had time to develop new computer skills like searching commercial, fee-based indexes like the New York Times Database, DIALOG, ORBIT and others. They learned the principles of Boolean searching (the use of the and / or statements). The databases required an in-depth reference interview to refine the query, and while expensive to use database searching was often a big time saver.

When Bob Croneberger became Director in 1986, his feeling was that there was so much information being generated in the world, library customers would be best served by subject specialists rather than generalists.  So we restructured Main and divided the Popular Library and General Reference into the Humanities and Social Sciences Departments.  I had been going to Pitt’s Library School at night to get my Master’s Degree so that I could become a librarian.  I did in 1980, and worked for 6 years at Main as the Young Adult Librarian.  Then, I was honored to be selected the first Head of the Social Sciences Department as we transitioned from General Reference.  And part of that job was supervising Ready Reference!   By the mid 1980’s the Library had its first online public access catalog.  Now, not only could we look up a book to tell if CLP owned it, we could tell if it were at Main, at a branch library, and if it might be out circulating.  This was a boon to the customer because if they needed a book quickly, they could call in advance before driving to a location armed with hope alone.

Around this time we introduced CD-ROM databases. In addition to paying to have access remote research databases online, we purchased reference databases that were updated monthly as new CD-ROM was sent. Initially these databases were just indexes to journal articles, but gradually over the next 10 years full text articles were included for each search. Students could now come, spend some minutes entering search terms and get complete article print-outs as a result, instead in spending hours poring over the Readers’ Guide, Essays & General Literature Index, and the Applied Science and Technology index to identify articles that met their research needs, then sending requests for journal titles to the closed stacks or Microfilm, reading the articles and taking notes on 3” X 5” index cards or photocopying articles to read at home. Boom – what had taken 3-4 hours at the library to do, now took one hour or less. The convenience was amazing.

Over the next ten years library resources continued to change.  In 1995, in time for the 100th anniversary of CLP,  Social Sciences and the Music & Art departments were at long last renovated.  At this time we introduced public access workstations to access the catalog and the internet for the public and the staff.  The life of the reference librarian was transformed overnight. Web based searching was available and individuals, companies, organizations, government, universities and libraries, and publishers of all types began to put free content up on their hastily produced websites.  By 2000, things were changing again.

All rights reserved to Pew Research Center

All rights reserved to Pew Research Center

 

Main Library department’s reference statistics counts peaked at 1,145,567.  More individuals had access to personal computers at work and at home.  During that question bubble we answered many questions that instructed folks on how to find information on the World Wide Web by themselves. Richard and Melissa taught classes on searching the Web.  And soon users were finding their own answers to the easy questions.

That’s a lot to ponder, and there is more to come. In “Ask A Librarian – Part II” I will describe the reference revolution from 2000 to today.

–Sheila

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How Does Your Garden Grow?

After this long, frigid winter, I think most of us are pretty excited about the warmer weather.  I’ve been happy to see early springtime flowers starting to bloom, and daffodil greenery poking up through the ground. I’m feeling eager for our frost free date so I can start my garden for the year. My kids and I have spent the winter planting seeds in jars and watching them grow (did you know that you can grow just about any type of seed in some crumpled up paper towels and a jar? We’ve tried pinto beans, lentils, and apple seeds so far with great success!). I’m looking forward to actually digging in the dirt and watching my crops grow.

In anticipation of my garden, I’ve been thinking a bit about garden design. I have a plot at the Homewood Community Garden, and if you’re lacking the space for a garden of your own, there are lots of great community gardens throughout Pittsburgh- check out this site to find locations and see what’s available. My plot has enough room for me to grow a fair amount of vegetables and flowers, and I enjoy plotting out just where I’m going to plant everything.

After I plan out what to plant this year, the fun part starts!  Buying seeds and starting seedlings is one of my favorite things. I plan on getting lots of my seeds from CLP’s Seed Library, and saving seeds to return at the end of the season. In the meantime, as I wait for the weather to enter full-on spring mode, I plan on checking out lots of books about planting and growing.

-Irene

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