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December 2005
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February 2006

The Need For Contact

Some years ago, when videoconferencing software was just getting off the ground, you'd hear chatter about how these new technologies were going to radically reduce the need for people to fly around the country holding meetings.  I don't hear that much about it anymore.

I'm participating in more teleconferences and videoconferences these days.  Tomorrow morning I'll be part of a four- (or five?) way telephone conversation that'll be turned into a podcast on the Talis site.  But on Wednesday I'll fly to DC for a meeting of librarians and some of the publishers associated with the DC Principles.  Next week I'll be in DC again participating in a library focus group for the Society for Scholarly Publishing.  And two weeks after that, I'll be back in DC once more as a member of one of NLM's Long Range Planning Panels.  Oh, and somewhere in the middle of that I'll be in Chicago for the MLA Board of Directors meeting.  Throughout it all, email and IM will keep me in touch with what's going on in my library.

At the same time that communications technologies have become more sophisticated and ubiquitous, physical travel continues to be cheap and relatively easy.  And all things considered, people would rather be in the same room when they've got work to do together.  A teleconference or a videoconference is a useful way of getting work done when it's not convenient or affordable to get together physically (I participate in a bi-weekly teleconference for the versioning project because we're scattered across the US and UK), but it's not the preferred method and it's not an equal substitute.

The principle here is that new technologies rarely replace older technologies.  They open up new possibilities and new options.   The challenge is to shift our thinking in ways that recognize the particular advantages of both the new and older technologies so that we're making the best use of each.  It's foolish to spend a lot of time in an in-person meeting distributing reports or making non-interactive presentations of data -- that can be done much more effectively electronically.  On the other hand, the social interaction that leads to effective working relationships is always best done in person.

The mistake we too often make is not paying attention to these differences.  Email or IM are not the same as telephone calls or conversations in person.   Not that one is better or worse in general -- just that they all have different nuances and they're all better or worse in different ways.  We're best off when we learn to take the best of advantage of all of the tools and modes that are available to us.


Small Rooms

Bob and I were talking about career options and the things that keep one fresh and excited about what you're doing.  I was explaining some of the reasons why, even after ten years, I'm as excited as I am about UAB, and why I can easily see myself spending the rest of my professional life here.  "And, of course, if you like Birmingham itself, as opposed to wanting to live someplace else, that's another factor that we haven't even talked about yet..."

It was a nice bit of timing, then, that eight hours after that conversation, Lynn and I were having drinks at a little table in one of the great small rooms in the country.   Alejandro Escovedo played my favorite set at City Stages last year, so as soon as tickets went on sale in August for his performance at Workplay last night, I grabbed a couple.   It was magnificent.  Drums (the legendary Hector Munoz), bass, keyboards, cello, violin, and Alejandro alternating on acoustic and electric guitars (Gibsons).  In Salzburg, they were celebrating Mozart's 250th birthday with cocktails and concerts in the park -- as I listened to the swirling of the strings and vocals, I thought that he'd probably rather be here.   The range of Escovedo's songwriting is simply astonishing, and the ease with which his band moves from moody poetic simplicity to thrashing rock and roll leaves me awestruck.  He's got a new album coming out in May.  I think I'll order it now!

Workplay is a remarkable venue.  Three hundred and twenty seats.  Maybe twenty cocktail tables on the floor in front of the stage, and two tiers of balconies.  Impeccable sound and lighting.  Table service with efficient waitresses.  Every single time we've seen someone there the artist has commented on what a great place it is to play.  They'd played the Earl in Atlanta the night before and Alejandro made a comment about being stuffed into some little dressing room with a bunch of busted chairs.  "But that's rock and roll," he said.  So for anybody who spends their life on the road, Workplay is a real treat.

And Birmingham is replete with remarkable small rooms.  When we saw Eliza Blue at the Moonlight a couple of weeks ago, Elizabeth thanked the audience several times for their attention, saying that they'd never played to a room like this before.  Keith sells no more than 99 tickets a night, makes sure the sound is crystal clear, and reminds everyone that you're there to listen.  It doesn't have the elegance of Workplay, but for the performer and for the audience, the experience is quite similar.

And then there's the acoustically magnificent Jemison Concert Hall at the Alys Stephens Center where we've seen everyone from the Alabama Symphony to the Lebeque sisters to Pat Metheny to Sweet Honey in the Rock.   And I will never forget seeing Baryshnikov dancing to the Beatles' Back in the USSR on the stage of the 350 seat Sirote theater.

I could go on, but you get the point.    There's more great music here, in more great spaces, than I have time or energy to take advantage of.  It was Lynn and UAB that brought me to Birmingham, but it didn't take long for the city to capture my heart.


Terrorism and Democracy

"... democracy yields peace and the best hope for peace in the Middle East is two democracies living side by side.  So the Palestinians had an election yesterday, the results of which remind me about the power of democracy."  So says my president at his news conference yesterday.  He continues to beat the drum that by bringing democracy to the Middle East, he will eliminate terrorism.

Quite coincidentally (since I'm several issues behind), I've just finished reading an article in Foreign Affairs pointing out that, on the basis of the actual evidence, "the data available do not show a strong relationship between democracy and an absence of or a reduction in terrorism. Terrorism appears to stem from factors much more specific than regime type."   The overwhelming victory of Hamas in the Palestinian election neatly underscores that point.

More striking than this rather unremarkable conclusion, however, is some of the polling data that the article presents on public opinion in the Middle East.   While there is general support for the notion of democracy, and a general belief that it can work in the Middle East, there is intense dislike of US policies.  The US is viewed most favorably in Lebanon, where 32 percent of respondents claimed to have a somewhat favorable or very favorable attitude toward the United States.  In Saudi Arabia, that response was 4 percent.  Four percent!  No wonder we're not so enthusiastic about promoting democracy in Saudi Arabia -- any democractically elected government there would be actively hostile to US interests.

W and his crew are so filled with righteousness that they've never been willing to look deeply into the causes of the intense dislike around the world for the US, and they blithely ignore the fact that in the past five years they have intensified that dislike manyfold.   As long as W continues on his present course (and I see no reason whatsoever to think that he will change one bit), he will continue to inflame those that hate the US.  But then, he's not really a "cause and effect" kinda guy -- I'm sure he sees himself as more of a "vision" kind of guy.  Those pesky facts musn't be allowed to get in the way.


Politics and Professionalism

I get annoyed when conservative commentators get hostile when a musician or an actor takes a liberal political stand.  Whenever that happens, the Limbaughs and O'Reillys are sure to fulminate about the perverseness of celebrities daring to have political opinions.  The irony that their political opinions make them celebrities seems to escape them.  And it almost seems like cheating to point out that Ronald Reagan was a professional actor who would never have achieved the prominence he did if he hadn't leveraged his celebrity.  Actors are as entitled to be passionate about politics as anyone else -- but because they're individuals, not as actors.

Same with librarians.  As Marcus notes in a recent post, we tend, as a group, to lean left.   I don't know why.  One might speculate, I suppose, that a commitment toward freedom of information is bundled up with a host of other beliefs that push one toward a more liberal political bent.  But "liberal" and "conservative" have become such confused hot buttons these days that I'm hesitant to take that very far.  Leave it as an empirical fact.

But it isn't universal.  Individual librarians run the full gamut of the political spectrum, and I know Republican-leaning librarians who have found themselves in uncomfortable situations when they're with a group of their peers who are enjoying some convivial Bush-bashing without realizing that not everyone at the table shares the same views.

How we deal with that is complicated.  Politeness among colleagues demands that we be sensitive to the views of others when we gather together.   It doesn't mean, however, that we don't get to express political views -- as individuals.  We just shouldn't be surprised if everyone at the table doesn't feel the same way.

As librarians, it's a different issue.  We may have a professional stake in the Patriot Act or copyright legislation.  It is probably not an issue for librarianship whether or not Sam Alito is confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. 

But the lines aren't always clear.  When we gather at conferences, we gather as librarians, but that doesn't mean that we check our individuality at the door.   If my president were to be impeached (let me indulge in fantasy for a moment), I would oppose any attempt on the part of the Medical Library Association to take a position on whether or not that was a good thing.  But if I were in the audience when a speaker made positive comments about it, I would certainly cheer.  Those opposed are more than welcome to boo.


Josie In Winter

We had to go south looking for snow.   This has been a very warm winter in Wisconsin, and when we landed in Appleton, except for a few gray and hard scattered snowbanks, there was no snow on the ground.  Marian was disappointed.  Southern girl that she is, she'd been looking forward to getting pictures of her baby playing in real snow.

I suggested we drive down along the eastern shore of Lake Winnebago.  A band of snow had come across the southern part of the state late on Friday, stopping about at a line north northeast through Fond du Lac.  If we drove in that direction, we'd probably find a photo-op spot.

Which is just how it worked out.  Beautiful, bright sunny day, with a temperature of about 30.  (The locals kept telling us how warm it was, although to Marian, of course, it was very cold -- "Why are people outside?!" she'd say, everytime she saw someone strolling along the road).  After driving for about 45 minutes I turned toward the lake and we found Columbia Park, a pretty little county park with a boat landing opening onto the frozen lake, a tall observation tower, and about two inches of pristine snow.  There was a light dusting of snow on the tree limbs and on the rocks near the shore.   A line of discarded Christmas trees marked the lane from the boat landing out into the lake, although there were no ice shanties out that we could see.  Mum told us that they've been warned not to go out this year because the ice is treacherous.

The girls took many pictures.  Marian walked out onto the frozen lake (although she made me stay on the shore with Josie, despite the snowmobiles whizzing across the lake surface fifty yards out).  She made a snow angel for the first time in her life.  Josie seemed to think it was all quite wonderful, as she does everything.

On the drive back to Appleton we stopped for lunch at The Brooklyn Grill, warming ourselves with big hamburgers that we all agreed were among the best we'd ever had.  We pronounced the day a fabulous success.


Travelling

In years past, I looked forward to the travel hiatus between early November and March/April.  Typically, my last trip of the year is the AAMC/AAHSL meeting and then I'm home until things start up in the spring.  The last couple of years, though, the beginning of the spring travel season has been creeping up.  Here it is the middle of January and I'm getting ready to get on a plane again.

I like travelling.  I don't mean just the fact of being in different places -- I like the travelling itself -- the airports, the crowds, the taxis, the planes...  Sure, it's tiring and frustrating, but I look forward to it all the same. 

When the topic of travel comes up (say, at a conference dinner with a group of colleagues), people inevitably start telling horror stories.  Tales abound of luggage lost, and planes stranded, and unbelieveable rudeness and incompetence encountered, hunger, thirst and desolation.  I get twitchy.  Sure, I've had a  difficult time or two, but that's not what I think of when I think of travelling.  I think of that first airplane trip I took to DC when I went to interview for the associate program -- drinking a beer and looking down at the Appalachian mountains amazed.  The gate agent at Birmingham who scrambled to reschedule me on a flight to Los Angeles when my connecting flight out of Cincinnatti was cancelled, and how proud of herself she was when she outfoxed the system to get it done.  The cab driver in DC wistfully telling me about the days, long ago, when he was a boxer and almost married the jazz singer Nancy Wilson.  Eventually I can't restrain myself and I interject myself into the conversation with some tale of wonder -- which is exactly not the thing to do.  Spoilsport.

Today we're bringing Josie up to Wisconsin to spend some time with my Mum and some of my siblings.  I was twenty-seven the first time I got on an airplane.  Josie is three weeks shy of her first birthday.  When I was ten, it was dramatic for me to take my brother Daniel by the hand, and walk up to the city bus stop, and put in our fifteen cents to take the bus a dozen miles up the road from Kaukauna to Appleton, and have a burger and french fries at the lunch counter at Prange's department store.  That was a great adventure.  I feel the same way now.


Editor No More

I just sent my last edited article to Susan at headquarters for final proofreading and prep for the printer.  Technically, I haven't been the editor of the Journal of the Medical Library Association since the end of December, but I've been scrambling to finish up the last of the April issue.  I had the issue proper finished up on schedule in mid-December, but the April issue will also include our first online-only supplement, and we've been finishing up the editing of the articles that will be included there.  It's kind of a neat bracketing, I think, that when I started this six years ago we were trying to figure out a way to take the JMLA online, and I'm finishing it with some of our first "born digital" content.

It's been a pretty amazing ride.  I've learned a tremendous amount, and had the opportunity to work with some wonderful people.  I've put a lot of work into it, but so have many, many others.  I don't think, from the outside, that readers appreciate just how hard everybody listed on the masthead works to make the journal the kind of quality publication it is.  And that's not to mention the most important people, of course -- the authors!

I also rather like the symmetry of my being elected to the MLA Board of Directors at this point.  Being the JMLA editor has given me a much greater appreciation for the role of Board and the hard work done by the headquarters staff, so I'm glad that I'll be able to continue to work with them in this new capacity.   

Each of the board members serves as liaison to one or two of the MLA committees.  I'm very curious to find out what I'm going to be assigned to.  Anything but the JMLA Editorial Board!!


Barbarians

A letter in the Birmingham News refers to the death penalty as "a necessary deterrent" and calls the fact that some innocent people will be put to death "a minor oversight in the larger picture." 

There's been quite a bit of chatter about the death penalty here recently since the News, which has a moderately conservative editorial stance, ran a several part series about capital punishment back in November, and is now calling for an end to the death penalty.

Since we live in a time when facts are malleable, and subservient to one's preferred beliefs, it comes as little surprise that the letter writer reverts to the "necessary deterrent" claim, despite the fact that the News series laid out in detail the lack of evidence for any deterrent effect.  A belief in deterrence is one of the cornerstones of death's emotional appeal. 

There are two arguments against the death penalty -- call them the pragmatic and the moral.  The pragmatic argument is very simply that we know that there is no perfect system and that despite all of our checks and balances, we will put some innocent people to death.  Despite W's insistence that he knows that every person he executed while Governor of Texas was guilty, the evidence is clear that this is impossible, given the number of executions.  When faced with the innocence argument, death penalty proponents often pull out some particularly egregious case where there is no doubt about guilt and the crimes were particularly gruesome and awful -- "Surely," they say, "this man is evil and should be put to death?"  This is, of course, an irrational response.  The argument is not about any particular case, but about whether or not we can create a  system that insures, without fail, that only those sorts of cases will end up in the executioner's chair.   The flood of DNA evidence cases in recent years makes it clear that many people have been wrongly convicted -- and it is the law of numbers that therefore some of those who have been executed must have been wrongly convicted.   We cannot design a system that is foolproof.

The letter writer's argument is at least logical -- it's okay that some innocent people get killed.  In the "big picture" it is more important that we kill the evildoers.   The families of the victims need "closure".  "Justice" must be served.   This is Old Testament justice -- an eye for an eye. 

In the fables of vengeance, whether they be folktales or modern novels or movies, the embittered hero, whose loved ones have been brutally murdered or whose lives have been otherwise destroyed, devotes his life to seeking vengeance against those who have wronged him.  The result is always the same.  The hero achieves vengeance and discovers that it does nothing to resolve the hurt and that he has become irretrievably damaged himself; or, something turns him in time and he finds spiritual healing only with the realization that vengeance itself is soul-destroying.

This is the crux of the moral argument -- that when we, as a nation, take it upon ourselves to exact that sort of vengeance, we are corrupting ourselves.  The civilized nations in the world have come to this conclusion -- that it is barbaric for the state to take upon itself the right to put its citizens to death.   (That so many fundamentalist Christians favor the death penalty is just one of the ironies here that is hard to get one's head around).

The news stories surrounding another execution always feature the family members who have waited so long for this day to come.   They believe that they can only have peace when the one who has wronged them has been put to death.  Given the way our system works, they have waited for years for this.  The desire for vengeance has filled their nights and their days, twisted their lives forever since the day of their loss.   I grieve for them, and wonder what their lives will be like in the weeks to come -- will they find peace after all?  Or will they still wake up at night, full of pain and loss, realizing with horror, finally, that one death cannot account for another?

But maybe it is healing for some of them.  I can't say.  In a society where someone can refer to the state-ordered execution of the wrongly convicted as "a minor oversight", we are all barbarians.


Conversation

I'm a shy guy.  And an extreme introvert.  So,  as a general rule, if I'm given the choice between being stuck in conversation with somebody or sitting in front of the fire by myself with my nose in a book, I'll take the latter every time.

There are exceptions.  Jake is one of them.

I showed up at the Booksmith a little before 5:00, carrying a bottle of wine.  We both look forward to these evenings, which I try to fit in every two or three months or so.  I pick up the books that have collected since my last visit (this time it was Wynton Marsalis's ABZ, which I'll give to Josie on her birthday next month, and a couple of books of poetry by Kay Ryan.  I grabbed a book by MFK Fisher as well, and a novel that Jake recommended). 

Up we go to his little office; we settle in and open our mouths and start telling stories and asking questions.  The rest of the world disappears.  Last night we touched on these topics:  the similarities between the business of independent bookstores and hospital libraries, and how one assures the survival of one or the other; the first editions program at the Booksmith, how it differs from similar projects of other bookstores around the country, and how it has so far exceeded Jake's hopes for it; the quality of the people that have come to work for him in the years that he's been running the bookstore and how in awe of them he is; how that is similar to some of the youngsters who spend a few years working in my library; whether or not Anne Rice and Stephen King constitute "literature" and what that means in one's decisions about what to read; why I think that James Joyce's Ulysses is a great fun novel and why Jake thinks I'm nuts; how my mother and I are alike and how we're different, and what that means in terms of introverts and extroverts and why I think Jake actually leans toward the former, despite his being one of the most gregarious and social people I've ever met; why there is so much great inexpensive wine on the market these days, how the wine industry has developed, the ways in which wine makers are similar to writers and painters, and how developing a taste for different wines parallels the ways in which a scotch drinker develops a taste for Islay malts as opposed to Speyside.

And more. 

As we walked to the door, I told him about tending to Josie on New Year's night.  Both Marian & Josie had colds that had been gathering in intensity during Christmas week.  By New Year's Eve, when they came over to our house, Josie was sounding very congested and Marian was feeling pretty miserable.  The plan had been that they would have the traditional New Year's dinner of hoppin' john and pork chops with us and then go home, but by that point Marian was feeling awful enough that we sent her home by herself and kept Josie so that she could get a decent sleep and then call for doctor's appointments in the morning.

I'm pretty good at getting Josie to sleep.  I stretch out on the couch and I tuck her into the crook of my left arm and I hold a book or magazine in my right hand and I read out loud and the rumble of my deep voice soothes her and she gradually nods off.  I can feel her relax, and when she goes into the deep sleep there's a sort of "chunk" that shivers through her body and then I know that she's turned into a rag doll that isn't going to wake up when I put her on her blanket on the living room floor or up into her crib.  So on that Sunday night, I thought it would be like that.

But the little critter was so congested that every time she'd start to nod off, her labored breathing would wake her back up and she'd howl in her misery.  (Jake was nodding, wistfully, at this point -- I could tell he'd been there with his own kids).  I'd settle her back down and comfort her as best I could.  She'd be looking up at me with those beautiful sad brown eyes and I'd talk to her and make little jokes and she'd smile and suck on her pacifier and we'd go through the whole sequence again.

This went on for two hours.  Finally, she seemed to be asleep (although I didn't feel that "chunk" of deep sleep) and I took her upstairs and carefully laid her in her crib.  I wasn't to the bottom of the stairs before I heard her howling, and when I went back upstairs she was standing in her crib, holding onto the rail, looking as pitiful as a little critter can be.  I picked her back up and settled down on the bed in the guest room.  I went back to reading and consoling and joking and talking and watching her drift off and wake up and howl.  She wanted to go to sleep so bad, and she just couldn't do it.

Another two hours went by.  It was a little after midnight.  Lynn had gone to bed hours before.  Josie was now actually waking up some.  As is typical for her, even in her misery she'd been in a pretty good mood.  So now she was looking up at me, eyes wide open, stroking my beard (which seems to be a big mystery to her), listening to me read.  I got up and set her in her crib with a couple of her animals.  I thought that if I stayed right there, she'd be okay with it.  And she was, and fifteen minutes later when I looked over, she'd done a nose dive into the mattress and was sound asleep, with her butt sticking up in the air.  I threw a blanket over her (not daring to move her), and eventually went to sleep myself. 

At some point the next day, Lynn was thanking me, and apologizing for my having gone through that.  I said, "No, no, it was great.  It sure wasn't what I'd planned on for the evening, but it was a wonderful experience.  I mean, I was frustrated, sure; and impatient and annoyed and my arm was getting sore and all that; but to be there with her and to feel the nurturing and to know that I was giving her that comfort and security -- that was wonderful.  I don't think I've ever experienced anything quite like it."  Lynn beamed up at me and shook her head at my naivete -- "That's what parents go through every single day."

Jake laughed and laughed.  "You're getting to it late in life, my friend." 

Better late than never.  I left the bookshop and walked out into the rain.


R. Mutt wins

I imagine Duchamp gazing down at the frantic officials of the Pompidou Center thinking, "This is even better than I could have hoped." 

Pierre Pinoncelli (identified as a "French performance artist") has taken a hammer to one of the eight copies of "Fountain" that Duchamp made to replace his original factory-made porcelain urinal after that one was "misplaced" decades ago.  He managed to take a chip out of it, and the officials have hustled it off for "restoration".  No cost estimate has been given.

So I've been grinning for days at the prospect of the Pompidou spending untold sums to fix a porcelain copy of a non-functional, factory-made urinal that was lost in the first place on the basis of its having been a tasteless joke.  Does something happen when you move into the upper rarified reaches of cultural administrators that destroys your sense of humor?

Pinoncelli says that the action was an act of homage to Duchamp and the other dada artists and it seems to me to be very much in their spirit.  Personally, I'd be inclined to leave the thing chipped.  The damage distinguishes it from the other seven copies, thereby returning it to unique status (which the original had as soon as Duchamp signed it).  Of course, then there'd have to be a raging debate among the curators as to whether or not they were required to add Pinoncelli's name to the label as a co-artist.

Since human beings appear to be hard-wired with the need to categorize things, we have to continually wrestle with the question of what art is.  I'm really glad that it's not up to me.  I'm looking around my study at the various objects that I've surrounded myself with.  The oil painting by my great grandfather is obviously "art."  Over on the bookshelf I have the little swatch of The Gates that Mark & Carolyn sent us that Lynn put in a small frame -- is that "art" -- or is it a reminder or remembrance of art?  On the wall behind me, I have several postcards from the Rodin Museum in Paris -- are they art or are they pictures of art?  Propped against the window over my desk is a framed Daumier etching, clipped from the newspaper in which it appeared.  It probably wasn't art when he first created it -- it was just a cartoon in the daily newspaper.  But now, a century and a half later, it is indisputably art.  Temporarily here on the table (because of Christmas decorations on the mantle downstairs)  is that trio of glass bowls that Lynn bought at the gallery in Portsmouth.  Are they "art" or "craft"?  Another biggie.

When I get up on the stage at Marty's with my guitar strapped on and start to sing, I suppose I think I'm doing "art".  But how is that different, then, from standing up in front of 900 librarians & publishers in Charleston and talking about the "End of Libraries"?  They're both performances.  I'm just working with different material, and wearing different outfits. 

Duchamp would be very pleased to see that his joke can still rile up the art world to such a wonderful extent.  I guess that makes him a great artist.