Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, June 19, 2001



    The Key Question
    The Campaign for America's Libraries
    And It's Free
    The Human Component



Here we are at the American Library Association's annual convention, held this year in San Francisco, where the keynote speaker, Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam, has just asked an audience of about 2,000 librarians a question that is going to astound us all.

I'm paraphrasing it, but the question goes something like this: "How many people in this room have, in the last 12 months, attended a public meeting or joined a local organization?" Putnam asks.

Please know, he says, that he doesn't mean mean private groups such as church or school or "animal" (Elk, Moose, etc.,) organizations; nor does he mean "funny-hat" lodges, New Age workshops, poetry workshops and the like. He means civic-minded organizations and meetings that one joins to help improve the community.

It's a key question because Putnam, in both his speech and his book, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Renewal of American Community" (Simon & Schuster; 541 pages; $26), knows that Americans have receded from community involvement of every kind in the last 30-35 years.

With charts and graphs on the screen, Putnam has stunned us with evidence showing an unbelievable decline, not only in Americans going to church, voting in elections, joining groups, playing bridge, participating in local arts and engaging in sports, but also in giving blood, interacting with neighbors, signing petitions, writing letters to the editor, going on picnics and dining with family members.

The Key Question

So Putnam is demonstrating how all this works when he gets to the key question he thinks will bowl us over. How many people in the room have attended a public meeting or joined a community group in the last 12 months? It's clear that he expects maybe 10% of the people in the audience to raise their hands, but without hesitation, WHAM, a good NINETY PERCENT of the crowd sends up a forest of hands before his eyes.

"WOW!" he says, stepping back as if a tsunami has just risen up in his path. "Why, that is astounding!" The audience starts to chuckle and clap, and Putnam nearly slaps his forehead as if to say, Oh, I get it, this is a roomful of community-minded LIBRARIANS.

"Well, let's try another question," he decides, perhaps thinking the first was a fluke: "How many of you in this room in the last 12 months have either been an officer or committee member of any local organization - again I'm not trying to make funny-hat organizations count here, so let me see the hands of all - WHOA!"

This time not as many hands fly up, but Putnam, again facing a dense wall of flesh waving in front of him, is happily sputtering for words. "Why, you are absolutely - I mean - this is probably the most civic-minded room in America!"

Now everyone bursts out laughing, and Putnam confesses he's going to stop asking these questions because he knows this audience is going to give him the "wrong" message - that is, that Americans (other than librarians) have not only receded from social contact of almost every kind; they have also become less generous (philanthropic), less healthy (mentally and physically) and less tolerant because of it.

The Campaign for America's Libraries

Actually, though, this IS what librarians have come to hear. They know what Putnam is saying is true: Instead of beginning the 21st Century with a sense of mutuality, Americans are experiencing a collapse in "social capital" (networks of trust). In a sense, that's the theme of this year's ALA convention - the fading image of the public library as part of America's (also fading) social capital. "While libraries are popular, they are often taken for granted. While libraries are ubiquitous, they are not very visible," says the literature of the ALA's new "Campaign for America's Libraries."

People know that librarians can help you find books, the Campaign has discovered, but they are less aware that "librarians are technologically savvy," as the Campaign says - or that libraries offer videos, CDs and audiocassettes as well as books, or that you can register to vote, find a job, learn about computers and do a hundred other things at the library that have never been promoted before.

Even if, like errant children, we don't wanna go outside and are riveted to the computer screen, the Campaign is designed to find us and send us looking at a new website called "@YourLibrary" or http://www.atyourlibrary.org . It's oriented a bit too much to children and looks a little rough around the edges to me at this point, but in time it'll be as sophisticated, erudite and entertaining online as the modern library.

(Honestly, though, why trademark "@yourlibrary" when the address is atyourlibrary.com, not @yourlibrary.com? With the emphasis on the @, one's first impulse is to try www.@yourlibrary.com, thus creating a NO CAN DO message which doesn't make the pursuit of atyourlibrary.com very easy.)

Of course, those things that the library stands for - inclusion, community, engagement, outreach, networking and social capital - are the very things that both David Putnam and ALA president Nancy C. Kranich believe must be retrieved, even as Americans flee from them to hide behind our computer screens.

And It's Free

But that's the great joy of ALA: You can walk around the convention floor gazing at exhibits crammed to their lightboxes with books, stop by the crowded Poetry Corner to hear poets reading nonstop, watch the lines of librarians snake around booth after booth to meet children's authors, and you can't help but think this is all so timeless - it speaks of the First Amendment in action, a safe (and sacred) haven for reading, a preservation of literature that's protected by law and exists (or should exist) in every neighborhood.

At the same time, the ALA Convention has become a technological monster of its own making, where enormous exhibits rise up with not a single book in sight to offer the most powerful state-of-the-art data-management systems, search engines, cataloging devices and collection development technology.

And then, going on all round this huge exhibit hall are meetings of all kinds - hundreds and hundreds of meetings on everything from usage statistics and times series data to cooperative inter-library loaning, literacy programs, central-to-branch communication and that nemesis for librarians, "mold outbreak" (playfully discussed in a workshop entitled "Are We Having Fungi Yet?").

But the one thing that strikes a person standing in the middle of this or any ALA is that all of it - the mighty technology and the great services and the huge collections and professionalism of those savvy librarians - is free. Billions of dollars' worth of systems and books and expertise are represented in this one room, and it's all for you and me. And if we forget about it, because we get sidetracked for a while, don't worry - they're coming after us so we won't forget, and they won't let us forget, forever.

After all, "the ideals of access and participation persist as firmly today as they did in the town-square, yeoman-farmer, plantation democracy of Thomas Jefferson's day," Kranich writes in "Libraries & Democracy: The Cornerstones of Liberty" (ALA Editions; 223 pages; $28 paperback; 800-545-2433, ext.7).

The Human Component

The challenge lies in understanding the context in which today's potential library user can best be approached. "What we need today is a blend of the electronic and face-to-face experience," Putnam says.

For libraries, that face-to-face component - i.e., the human element - is crucial. "If librarians keep referring to themselves as 'information distributors,' " Putnam says, "they may not reach or invite in the audience of users that is waiting outside.

"But if librarians call themselves 'communicators' with everyone who seeks information, they may be part of that goal of social connectedness sooner than later."



Librarians are used to working with controversial issues, but this year the ALA found itself in the center of a clash of community values that angered some members and disrupted a major part of the program.

This occurred when the Coretta Scott King Awards Breakfast, one of the traditional highlights of the ALA convention, was cancelled because of a battle to unionize the nearby San Francisco Marriott hotel, where the breakfast was scheduled.

While negotiations between the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union and the Marriott have been ongoing for years, picket lines have been heating up since last year, compelling other associations (insurance commissioners, political scientists, university alumni) to cancel or move their meetings out of the Marriott.

Early this month the ALA issued a statement that back in October of 1997, when the association signed a contract with the Marriott to serve as the headquarters hotel, it did not know picket lines would exist in June 2001.

Once that contract was signed, however, payment was owed the Marriott for rooms, banquets, receptions and meetings, whether they're held there or not. Thus the ALA has few options. "No matter what action we take, the Marriott will get paid."

Members were encouraged to make their own decisions about crossing picket lines, and it seemed an uneasy solution might be reached until June 1, just two weeks before the convention, when Coretta Scott King asked that the Awards Breakfast be moved from the Marriott.

Too late. The Task Force in charge of the breakfast, having "taken the earlier position of resistance to pressures to politicize the award event," nevertheless deferred to Coretta Scott King and cancelled the breakfast.

"The credibility and integrity of this award and its related initiatives are the highest concern for the Coretta Scott King Task Force, in terms of service delivery and impact on young readers," the Task Force stated. "The recognition of the Coretta Scott King Award winners is the sole focal point of the awards breakfast. Any attempt to lessen that emphasis on their creative accomplishments is unacceptable."

Some librarians were angry that the ALA had not warned them far ahead of time that picket lines might have to be crossed. But others saw the occasion as an opportunity for education. Even from the exhibit floor, many quoted Ms. King's letter, in which she stated her "support and advocacy for the efforts of working people to obtain fair representation in their quest for decent wages and adequate working conditions."

Meanwhile, the ALA has promised to reimburse all ticket holders by mail.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Scary, that latest column [about Rupert Murdoch and privacy-invading interactive TV]. I'm reminded, as computers are being used to track our every habit, how more than a decade ago libraries worked through the privacy issue early in the move from card catalogs to computerized systems. Great care was taken to design systems that would erase information about transactions as books were returned so that the catalog wouldn't store a history of what books an individual was reading. In many states this deliberate erasure is backed up by data privacy laws.

I seem to remember in public discussions about moving to computerized catalogs citizens being quite concerned about ensuring records weren't kept. Maybe there was more suspicion of the "the government" than of our local grocery store clerk or the friendly computer on our desk. Or maybe we've just given up on trying to control these huge, multinational forces that seem bigger than any democratic urge to keep them from spying on us.

Barbara Fister
St. Peter, Minnesota

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding your recent article on Rupert Murdoch’s move into interactive television, (Holt Uncensored #243), take heart. What you describe is the dream of media moguls like Murdoch. As much as they’d love to have interactive TV combine the mind-numbing effects of conventional television with a drunken-sailor-impulse-buy version of e-commerce, it’s not going to happen.

Digital television, in general, and interactive television in particular, are in a total state of disarray. There are problems with spectrum allocation, poor performance over the airwaves, multiple screen sizes, resolutions and operating systems. The core problem, however, is user interface. How do you build in all the fancy features to, for example, buy the sweater that Katie Couric is wearing on-screen, without making the device too complicated for the average channel-surfing couch potato? Despite all the hoopla surround DTV, nobody has come close to answering this question. Some companies are developing systems that combine everything that a computer can do with the feature set of a standard TV, while others are merely adding a few key interactive features you access from a standard looking remote. And if you think, "great, they're’ll be lots of choice," you’d be wrong. Consumers will not be able to select the system that suits their needs. The service providers, like Direct TV, will choose an operating system and application set for all their customers—one size fits all.

While many cable companies — including DirectTV — and the broadcast networks are now starting to offer digital programming, nobody, okay almost nobody, is buying digital televisions. At the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas this April, the big rah-rah announcement was "Digital Television Sales Up 150% in 2001!" Uh yeah, in the twelve months preceding NAB, the number of digital televisions sold in the United States rose from .01% to .015%. And while that is a 150% increase, having 15 out of every 100,000 televisions sold in this country be digital could hardly be called a massive migration to DTV.

In my novel, "Blackout," the problem of DTV consumer adoption is solved by causing the picture tubes in televisions all around the country to shatter. The FCC issues a blackout order forbidding the use of television and a media mogul-led cadre of companies comes out with a line of digital televisions that use flat-panel LCD screens that can’t shatter. Suddenly everybody wants a digital TV. If Murdoch, or somebody like him, reads my book, you might want to maintain a safe distance from your TV when you watch it, because blowing up existing analog TVs might be the only way to get digital, interactive television off the ground.

Matt Ward, author of "Blackout" http://www.tvblackout.com

Holt queries: How do they get all the TV tubes to shatter?

Ward answers: Ohhh, good question! Figuring out a plausible way to disable televisions nationwide was the biggest technical challenge of this book. After numerous, and mostly lame, ideas ranging from missiles blowing up broadcast satellites to just saying "God did it," Scott Ruda, an engineer who consulted on "Blackout," came up with the following:

Televisions contain two transformers, one that regulates the power from your wall socket and a second, called a "flyback transformer," that bumps this power up to as high as ten thousand volts to create the arc required to send the dots from the back of the picture tube to the front. If a powerful signal is broadcast, narrowly focused around the 15.735 Khz frequency used in NTSC televisions, the flyback transformer, being a tuned circuit, will respond to this frequency and send an arc of electricity powerful enough to burn a hole in the front of the picture tube. And, since picture tubes are vacuums, the sudden release of pressure would cause it to shatter.

This would actually work, in fact I really wanted to try it--a video of a TV blowing up would be a great marketing piece--but Scott was worried that being in the same room with a signal that powerful might make you sterile, crush your eyeballs or cause any number of other litigatible maladies, so we chickened out.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Here's how I dealt with the Safeway Club Card "thing". I stopped shopping there.

On the few occasions (and I mean less than a dozen since they started the program) that I've run in there to get something, I have given the phone number of a close friend of mine that is in the program and isn't as paranoid as I am about privacy issues. I figure, hell, I get the "discount", and she gets the "credit" if there is any, and...best of all...I mess up their data collecting because I shop in a different city and don't buy any of the products that most normal shoppers use. And, of course, I pay with cash.

At least at this point, that doesn't require I.D. to use, and it's anonymous! There is no reason, other than data collecting, to create a club program like theirs. Who cares who is buying a particular product, either it sells or it doesn't.

Bonnie Stuppin

Dear Holt Uncensored:

If it matters, and since its mentioned, your readers might care that they can get those grocery club cards without sharing information. I contacted Safeway and asked them to send me a card addressed ANONYMOUS to my Post Office Box. Now [today], in the stores they will also give you a card without asking you to provide the normal info as well...

Alex van Luik Windmill Books

Dear Holt Uncensored:

The best way to foil the lifestyle trackers at grocery stores is to find a few friends and exchange cards once a month or so. You get the discount, they get to puzzle out why "Pat" bought Diet Coke and baby food in April, brie and Perrier in May, and pork rinds and cat food in June. Big Brother may be watching but he'll be confused by what he's seeing.

Ed Dravecky III

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I have enjoyed reading your column for quite a while now, I really appreciate the commentary that appears in every column. I work for Conari Press in Berkeley, and I just wanted to address one little comment made in #240 regarding STOP orders. I am not qualified to speak for all publishers, but maybe this could be addressed someday in your column.

When a bookseller calls for a STOP [Single Title Order Plan] order, we usually ask if they have ordered from us before, or if the bookstore is a B&N or Borders store. This question gets asked because of our contractual deal with our main U.S. distributor. Unless our distributor is out of the book the store would like to order, we cannot sell it to them directly. In most cases, a STOP order is from a B&N or Borders store calling us directly, because the "book manager" does not know from whom HQ usually orders. The Indies, if one distributor doesn't have a book, will usually go to another distributor before calling the publisher directly. I don't know of any independent publishers that would go out of their way to make it difficult to sell to an independent bookstore, and charging different rates for STOP orders would certainly do that!

Anyway, this is not a burning issue, but I would hate to think that the independents believe we are trying to hurt them in any way. We would not have gotten any number of our titles off the ground without the indies! (One of our titles just made the Booksense 76 list because of indie votes!)

Teresa Coronado Conari Press

Dear Holt Uncensored:

[Note to readers - my query for a description of the book, "Brother Iron, Sister Steel," got to reader Laree Draper too late for reply in #243. She wrote in that column that On Target, her independent publishing house, had found that independent booksellers were "ignoring" the book. Her response, though too late for #243, arrives with a P.S. of interest to all readers.]

The author of "Brother Iron, Sister Steel" is Dave Draper, who's been Mr. America, Mr. Universe and Mr. World – the wheel and axle of muscle-building past, present and future. In the book, he tells how to go about the good task of fitness with lots of enthusiasm, common sense, logic and love - intelligence not excluded.

P.S.: There's another aspect about the independent bookstore story, too, I think: The giddiness of the BEA reports fascinates me. Down here in the publisher trenches, things look a little different.

Small publishers, who in my opinion are and should be the independent bookstores' natural partners, have given up on the partnership and are branching off into new areas. Their books are showing up in Harley showrooms and yarn shops, vitamin centers and natural food groceries. By ignoring the small presses, the bookstores are forcing the publishers to look elsewhere for sales, and this is creating a whole new competition for bookstores... and it looks as if the bookstore owners are sleeping right through it.

Self-published and small-press books have admittedly been published with lower budgets and lesser quality in the past. This was a valid reason for passing over these books, but it's just not true anymore. I can name at least a dozen other common things of our lives that we used to scorn, but times have changed.

As a lover of bookstores, let me shout to the store owners and book buyers: WAKE UP or you'll never make it through the next wave of competition because it's under the radar -- who thinks of a yarn shop being competition to a bookstore?

Laree Draper

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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