the literary papers game

March 28, 2007


If you have any illusions of democracy and the sanctity of scholarship in the world of high profile literary manuscript collections, prepare to have them shattered by last Sunday’s NYT Book Review profile of Glenn Horowitz, alpha dog rare book and manuscripts dealer. Several repository heads and curators are interviewed in the article, including NYU’s Marvin Taylor, who comes right out and says “He inflated the market so much…it’s doing a disservice to scholarship.”

I’m bugged by the fact that the hype, fetishism, pursuit of prestige and big cash depicted in the article is fairly dead on, but also by firsthand experience dealing with the ramifications of this, as it sifts down through institutions, to repository staff, to researchers and students, and intellectual culture at large, and misshapes the public view of what constitutes “cultural materials”. So we end up with everyone’s granny knowing that Norman Mailer sold his papers to the HRC for millions of dollars, and  grad students thinking they have to hop on a plane to go about serious research, never making the connection to what archives in our own communities are doing. It smacks of cultural hegemony, intellectual activity as separate from everyday life,  and undue veneration of the same old, mostly white, mostly male giant-figure authors. As you’ll also notice in the profile, Horowitz has stray bits of valuable literary stuff lying around his apartment, making it clear that papers going on the market reach scholars only by luck.

It’s really hard for me to think of this perceived divide between special collections of the literary/high culture variety (those who collect, gasp! the objects of literature!) and everyone else in the archives/records business (those who deal with the papers of chemistry professors, churches, or garden clubs) as anything else besides a professional hazard. Imposed importance makes for real barriers on communication about very similar functions and minimally different materials. My friends who work with million dollar manuscripts have the same insights as those who work with less than glamorous collections. Moreso, it further alienates us from other branches of the library world, and I’m gonna say this again, is a nice distraction from the fact that most archivists and manuscripts librarians are really underpaid.

I recently read Janna Malamud Smith’s My Father is a Book a biography of her father, novelist Bernard Malamud. Smith was motivated to write the book in part by dealing with the sale of her father’s papers, a deal which Horowitz brokered. It’s a really moving and incisive study on Malamud as represented by his papers. If you’re interested in documentation, this is an interesting exercise in context, meaning, and authenticity.


He loves lasagna and libraries

March 27, 2007

Garfield with a bookWho would have guessed that Garfield would be more popular among the titles owned by OCLC libraries than, oh everything but the Bible, the Koran, and twelve other titles. Certainly not me. Read the whole fascinating list of the top 1000 titles here. Originally discovered, along with some factoids on the Britannica blog (yay Choo!).

Psiphon and Internet Censorship

March 26, 2007

Last week’s Chronicle* had a piece about Psiphon, an open-source tool that allows those in internet censored countries to securely connect to remote servers sans filters elsewhere, thus granting unfettered internet access! The article explores its academic use in heavily web censored countries like Iran, as well as profiles the University of Toronto Citizen Lab and its director, Ronald Deibert.

Deibert has a blog, which gives good background on the history of Psiphon, and which linked to this informative map of internet censored countries, via the Financial Times.

* Even though you literally can’t walk through an administrative office on any US campus , no matter how piddly, without tripping over three back issues of the Chronicle, you still have to check your library’s current journals and Lexis, because unless you yourself have a subscription, the joint is password locked down. How dumb!

Ask a Male Librarian

March 23, 2007


In libraries and archives, males are a persistent minority. Their lack of female socialized subservience gets them disproportionally promoted, and their quirky personalities are often the result of both entitlement and high rates of Asperger’s. Instead of giggling, we decided to consult one and get his take. We turned to real-deal male law librarian Brown Recluse Esq. , of the NBA blog Freedarko, who asked “This counts as professional development, right?”

My good friend and fellow librarian has a comb-over. Should I tell him it doesn’t look good, or would this make our time on the reference desk awkward?


Yes, telling him it doesn’t look good would lead to awkwardness. Look, no one wants to be told something they’re doing isn’t working. When a co-worker told me she didn’t like my eyeglass frames, I threw them in the trash that very night and haven’t worn glasses since. Sure, it makes things like driving more of a challenge, but no accidents so far (knock on wood)! But, seriously, the male ego is very fragile, especially in areas of perceived physical decline (like going bald). A more sensitive approach would be to tell him that you think he would look really good with closely cropped hair or whatever hair style you think would suit him better than the comb-over. Then, if he follows your advice, be sure to tell him how good his hair looks. Girls do stuff like this for their friends all the time, don’t they?

At my library, I am serving on a committee with two unattractive heterosexuals. They flirt constantly, which makes my stomach turn. How do I get them to cut it out?


Mimi, that’s quite a conundrum. What you probably want to say is “get a room already,” but that’s not really very professional or polite. Instead, your strategy should be to divide and conquer. Or, just divide, I guess. Pull one of them aside and engage her in conversation individually and separately from the other. Try to find out something about each of them, so you’ll have something to talk about. If the woman likes to knit (and don’t all female librarians knit?), ask her what she’s working on or where she buys her yarn, anything. Just keep them apart. It sucks to have to talk to an ugly person, but it’s better than the nerd mating rituals you’ve had to endure thus far.

UPDATE: Our library dude changed his mind about the second question, so we updated the answer, obvs.

Do you have a question that only a male librarian can answer? Are you a male librarian, eager to share yourself with the world? Write us at

Required reading for new library school grads

March 22, 2007

If you have recently graduated with your MLS and are in the process of seeking employment, especially in an academic library, I implore you to read this fantastic article by Nancy Cunningham. The article, In Search of an Emotionally Healthy Library, could potentially save you a lot of heartache and stress. If only I had had this article when I was interviewing for my current position. There are tons of great tips in here on how to discern whether or not this library is seriously toxic or a place where collegiality is the rule and the staff doesn’t feel like slitting their wrists every day. My own personal job search hint: if the library to which you’ve applied has a male director AND assistant director and the majority of the library staff is female, this should make you scratch your temple. If they also insist on being referred to as “Dr.” while everyone else on staff, even those with Ph.Ds are called by their first names, RUN as fast as your little legs can carry you

Interior Decoration in the Archives

March 21, 2007

Archivist at desk

What do we have here? Why it is obviously the Director of Archives at the New York Museum of Natural History as envisioned in the comic Demonslayer (Vol. 2, Number 2). I guess when you get to be a director, you can put any picture you want behind your desk. Full review available here.

roundup: national archives, grumpy librarians, ILL fees and kids at conferences

March 21, 2007

Times op-ed urges the President to give NARA the funds to process its backlog and hire more reference archivists to serve users.

Chronicle of Higher Ed: Naive academic realizes that ILL costs money; Association for Jewish Studies makes a point to provide childcare for its national conference. (Whatever, we miss Lingua Franca)

Salon: Carol Lay, who does the cartoon WayLay, made fun of librarians two weeks ago in regards to “scrotum”. Angry responses led to a take back in this week’s strip. Now librarians “smell good”. Ooookaaay. (Again, we’re only reading Salon for Heather Havrilesky)