Conversation in Charleston: Public Access and Data

"Promote ORCID."

That was Greg's "if you take just one thing from this session" recommendation.  Howard agreed, but added, "...equally promote having your researchers submit their funder information when submitting manuscripts for journal publication.  Having the Researcher ID and Funder ID together married up to the article DOI is a powerful combination."

On the other hand, just having Howard & Greg chatting together on the same stage was a pretty powerful combination.   When SHARE & CHORUS were first launched, just a few months after the Holdren memo was released, many observers saw them as competitive.  In this corner, the publishing lobby making a policy end run to try to maintain their market dominance; and in this corner the combined might of the research libraries and universities seeking to leverage their investments in institutional repositories into some greater relevance.  Which of these mutually exclusive solutions would the federal funding agencies settle on? (Or would PMC simply vacuum everything up into an expansive PubScience Central)?

Fortunately, it didn't take too long for the developers to see where the projects overlapped and where there were advantages to be gained for both projects by sharing expertise and perspectives.  By the time I had lunch with several of my Roundtable colleagues at the AAAS meeting last February those conversations had gotten to the point where a joint appearance at Charleston was starting to look like a real possibility.  I immediately thought of Greg as a potential participant.  He's a Charleston regular and has been working with SHARE as a consultant.  Turns out that he had been having discussions with Judy Ruttenberg about a similar panel proposal and when the Charleston directors got wind of all this, they put us together.

Bringing Howard in was a natural given his role with CHOR., and I wanted to include John Vaughn, whose experiences with handling scholarly commnications issues for the AAU go back many years, and whose roles in chairing the Roundtable and in helping to develop the SHARE concept have amply demonstrated his commitment to including the views of all stakeholders in working through these very complicated issues.

The concept that Greg & Judy were developing was broader than just SHARE & CHORUS, however, and when the three of us spoke by phone over the summer we agreed on the necessity of bringing in a data person.  We were very fortunate that Laurie Goodman, editor-in-chief of Gigascience, was able to join us.

I've done several sessions like this over the years -- "facilitated conversation".  No presentations.  Some informal agreement among the participants about the likely themes.  I prepare half a dozen or so questions ahead of time, but once we get to the event, I rarely use more than two.  With the right people, the conversation flows naturally and takes its own course.  My job is just to keep it moving.

With this group, my task was extremely easy and the 45 minutes went by in a flash.  Of course we could have gone on much longer, but I'm happy with the range of topics that we were at least able to touch on.  (The session was recorded, so there will be a link on the Charleston website at some point). 

One of the most striking moments was when Greg asked how many in the audience were involved in managing institutional repositories.  Half the people raised a hand.  Then he said, "Keep your hands up. Now how many of you are successful in getting your authors to submit directly to your IR?" Only 2 hands were left up and one of the two was wavering in uncertainty.

Reshaping the scholarly communication eco-system is a massive job.  As John said, developing achievable policy will require adult deliberations and negotiations among all the key players – universities, libraries, publishers, and government.  It is also clear that a focused effort in data access and interpretation, management, and preservation will become increasingly important, and is one of the areas that currently is both most volatile and most challenging.

So in addition to promoting ORCID, noting funding sources, sharing best practices for effective IR management, and a whole host of other things that came up during the session, John suggests getting one of the nifty yellow Data t-shirts like the one Laurie wore.  Cafe Press has some nice options.


The Goorin Guys and Their Magic Hats

The shop was closed when we passed by after dinner, but the Goorin guys were still there, rearranging the hats on the shelves, mixing & matching the colors & forms just so, getting the visuals ready for tomorrow's opening. 

The King Street store is long and narrow, with the slightly old-fashioned, but comfortably hip feel that Goorin Bros. cultivates.  The hats are stacked atop one another on shelves to the ceiling, fedoras & cloches & bowlers & gatsbys, browns & greens & soft purples & reds arranged as if haphazard; but watching them now, through the glass, we could see that it was anything but random. 

When we'd been there in the afternoon I'd begun to suspect, watching Chris scamper up the shelves, that they might be slightly other than human, these slender young men, with fine features, and wisps of facial hair.  The way that they, and their female colleague, moved through the store, tending to customers and phone as if it were an effortless dance, as if it were all just great fun. Now, watching their quick, slick movments and the way they balanced their arrangements I thought of the old tale, The Elves and the Shoemaker...

Tapping on the glass didn't get their attention, so I pulled out my phone.  Chris answered and I said, "I'm just outside.  We were passing by..."

Instantly one of them was at the door, "Please, come in, come in...  You have a hat to pick up...?"

"Well, it's my Stetson, actually.  I left it here this afternoon to be cleaned.  I don't know if you've had a chance..."

"Just finishing it up..." another one said, he of the twirled mustaches, coming out from the back, giving it a few more flourishes.  "Chris did a fabulous job.  He's the master."

My hat looked better than it has in very many months.  I'd come in that afternoon, tipped off to the place by Mr TomCat, who'd bought a dandy flat cap a day or two before.  My Royal Flush Stetson had gotten quite bedraggled and I was looking for a replacement.  Chris tried many options, skittering among the shelves and the styles, knowing my size without asking, coming close but, we agreed, not quite finding the one that was right.  He was crestfallen, but optimistic that the next time I came in, just the perfect hat for me would be there.  In the meantime he offered to keep my hat and get it cleaned and reshaped.  "This is very good felt," he said, fingering the brim. "Beaver...  maybe some rabbit..."  He might've been a young Olivander, fingering a wand.

Now, with my finely refreshed hat in hand, I looked at the three, all smiling, bright eyed albeit weary from the busy day. I fumbled, "And what can I owe you..."  "Oh no, nothing at all."  "Happy to do it."  "A free service."

"Well, I'll certainly be in the next time I come through Charleston.  In the meantime, I'll send everyone here that I can."

I know that I will buy a hat from them one day.  The perfect hat will arrive.  I wonder which one it will be.



Settling In At The Edge of Chaos

I left the MRI clinic about 11:00 Monday morning.  A little after 6:00 I got an email that there was a message for me in the patient portal.  It was Dr. Bashir, with the results:

Your MRI of the cervical spine shows almost complete resolution of the abnormal signal within the cervical spinal cord. There are no areas of enhancement. Previously noted transverse myelitis seems to have resolved completely without any loss of spinal cord volume (spinal cord atrophy). This is a very good result from cyclophosphamide therapy.

Based on the July MRI, this is what we were expecting and hoping for, but you never know, so I was a little distracted during the day waiting to hear.  Despite all the positive signs, there's always the worry of things regressing.

But at least for now, my overeager immune system has quit chewing up my spinal cord.  How much function I'll eventually regain remains unknown.  We'll see where the combination of physical therapy and neuroplasticity gets me.  Things have been slowly improving for several months, so I'm optimistic (while trying to stay realistic).  And I am quite relieved that I can stop the monthly cyclophosphamide infusions.

We were in Denver last week for the Quintessential MLA chapters meeting.   When we went out for lunch to the Cool River Cafe about half a mile away, Lynn pushed me in the lightweight wheelchair we call Lightning McQueen.  But at the hotel/conference center, I was able to get around pretty well with Roadrunner (my walking stick) and Guido, the 3-wheeled rollator.  (My wheeled assistive devices are all named for Cars characters).

I mentioned to several people that since I have labwork done every two weeks I know that I'm in excellent health -- blood pressure, kidneys, liver, cholesterol, etc., are all in great shape.  I can't walk and can't use my hands, but I'm in excellent health!

I use it as a laugh line, but I am certainly grateful that it's true and that I'm not trying to wrestle with a bunch of other health complications as well.

I'm writing this late in the day from my new office at the Edge of Chaos.  I mentioned to somebody that it has often felt the last few years that I've been swimming in the middle of chaos.  Now that I've moved to the Edge, things are looking quite mellow.


The New Job

"Effective September 8, I'll be Director of Digital Data Curation Strategies reporting to the office of the Provost."  I've started sending this announcement around to the discussion lists, alerting the far-flung professional network to my change in circumstance.

There's been a nice assortment of congratulations and well-wishes.  But what has surprised me have been the comments from people who assume that this means they won't see me at the usual library conferences anymore.  What?  I'm still a medical librarian.  I'm still a member of MLA & SCMLA & MCMLA & ALHeLA.  I won't be representing UAB at the AAHSL meetings anymore, it's true, but I'll continue to go to the other conferences.  And given the increasing importance of data curation at research institutions I expect to be more involved with the work of some of my librarian colleagues rather than less.

Lynn reminds me that she went through a similar thing 25 years ago when she left UAB to work for EBSCO.  She had to work very hard to get people to understand that she was no less of a librarian just because she was no longer working in a traditional library job.  I guess I'll have to do the same thing.

John Meador, most recently Dean of Libraries at SUNY-Binghamton, picked up the reins as UAB Dean of Libraries August 5.  The challenge he has accepted is to merge the two existing library organizations -- Lister Hill and Mervyn H. Sterne -- into a single organization serving the entire university community.  Unlike some recent reorganizations (UNC & Florida come to mind), UAB's roots as a primarily biomedical research institution offers some unique opportunities.  The two libraries are similar in size of staff and budget, are located just a few blocks from each other on a compact urban campus, and serve an increasingly multidisciplinary institution.  So while services will continue to be delivered from both buildings, we anticipate that, over time, a single, seamless organization will be formed to provide those services.

It's a bit of a conceptual leap because even though most of the important work that librarians do now takes place outside of the building, we still think of the library organization and the library building as occupying the same space.  As I was trying to explain the goals of the merger to a faculty member he said, "But the biomedical literature will still be based at Lister Hill, won't it?"  I had to tell him, gently, "Actually, since we spend less than 1% of our content budget on print, that hasn't been the case for five years now."  The reference librarians do far more of their work by chat, email, phone, webinar, office hours in classroom buildings, or meetings & workshops around campus than they do in person in the building.  The building is still very important, of course, but basing the organization on the physical limitations of the building is an anachronism.

One consequence of the merger is that the two Director positions go away.  The Director, Lister Hill and Director, Mervyn Sterne functioned as deans, although we didn't have that title.  But we met as part of the Deans Council and had the same level of budgetary and personnel authority as the deans.  Now that there is a single individual with the title, as well as the authority, of Dean, those two director positions are superfluous.

So what has opened up for me turns out to be quite marvelous.  Every research institution in the country is trying to figure out how to effectively manage research data.  What services should the institution provide?  How do you effectively manage security?  How do you establish policies and monitor compliance with the full range of increasingly complex federal requirements?  How do you make data available for reuse in clean and well-structured contextualized environments?

A number of institutions have made some headway in sorting this out, but part of the challenge is that there isn't really a single entity within the modern research university that is the logical home for the full range of issues that need to be addressed and coordinated.  It requires true collaboration among the libraries, IT, the research office and the various pockets of excellence and expertise that exist across the campus -- often unknown to each other.

My task, for the next several months, will be to map what exists at UAB, to figure out who is doing what, to identify where there are significant gaps, and then to work with all of the various players to help develop strategies for pulling all of the pieces together into a coordinated whole.  From this vantage point it looks ridiculously complex.  

I plan to have a lot of fun with it.



There's Always Music

I like that people ask me if I'm playing any guitar these days, even if the answer that I have to give is not a happy one.  Friends & colleagues know what a major thing it's been in my life, and to look at me at the recent MLA meeting in Chicago, you might've thought that maybe I'm improving enough to be back at it.

Alas, no.  I don't have enough flexibility, agility or acuity in my fingers.  I do keep the '72 Thinline in my study and try to pick it up for 10 minutes a day.  I can form most of the chords -- I just can't move between them with any dexterity.   It's good therapy for my hands.  

In the last couple of months my hands have improved to the point where I'm typing using all my fingers again.  Things are trending in the right direction.  But it is oh so slow.

Most frustrating is the inability to walk unassisted.  For short distances I can get by with the walking stick Josie named Mr. Whiskers.  For Chicago we brought the folding wheelchair we've dubbed Lightnin' McQueen.  I can also use it as a walker and was able to make my way around the conference hotel and the exhibit hall on my own.  My legs tire easily so I can't go for too long, but we were pretty happy with what I was able to manage.

The prognosis remains maddeningly uncertain.  We don't know how much permanent nerve damage has been done.  The inflammation probably started as much as two years ago, so we can assume it's pretty extensive.  On the other hand, the mysteries of neuroplasticity have my neurons creatively seeking new pathways to get the messages accurately from the brain to the muscles in my hands, legs and hips.  These days I do feel more connection to many of those muscles than I did for a long time.  And then there's the muscles themselves.  After so long with limited mobility the muscles are weak, but still undamaged.  So I see the physical therapist every two or three weeks and I exercise daily.  I've several different routines that I do in 10 or 15 minute blocks for a total of 20 to 45 minutes a day.  If the Cytoxan continues to reduce the inflammation and the exercise continues to strengthen the muscles, it is perfectly conceivable that I will again walk unassisted and be back to playing guitar.

In the meantime, there are other ways to make music.  Several months ago I discovered a recording I'd made of me playing guitar and singing "Little Black Car."  It was from several years ago when I was experimenting with a new little recorder.  I'd pulled the track into iTunes where it got buried in my 18,000+ item library and I forgot about it.  When it resurfaced, I sent it off to the band. Mr TomCat recorded a bass track to go with it and Dook sent me a drum track.  I pulled the pieces into GarageBand and came up with a reasonably serviceable mix.  I sent it to RedMolly who was acting as dj for the Armadillo Ball and we surprised Tambourine Grrl with it.  I wrote it for her 20 years ago, back when I was still living in St. Louis and making the long drive to Birmingham and back to see her.  I introduced it at the Ball as I always did when I played it live, telling the story of that long drive and my passion for the girl at the end of it. "...and so, since I was playing in a country-punk band, I wrote a song about my car."

Hobbled I may be, but not so much as to stop me from arranging to play that song for her.

Next up, I want to talk the band into working on our version of "Wagon Wheel."  I love our harmonies on that one.  I'm fooling around with the harmonica.  And I can still sing.

Little Black Car 



Always A Librarian First

Long before I became romantically involved with Lynn, before I even met her, I knew her by reputation.  I was impressed then and have continued to be during these nearly two decades that she's been wife and friend as well as colleague.  Now she's bringing the colleague chapter to a close.  This just out:


IPSWICH, Mass. — May 16, 2014 — Lynn Fortney, Vice President of Medical E-journals and E-Packages at EBSCO Information Services (EBSCO) will retire on July 5, 2014. That date is her 25th anniversary at EBSCO.

Fortney says, “I have had an amazing career, but my successes have been because of the impressive colleagues I have been privileged to work with, librarians and other information industry leaders alike. EBSCO provided me an incredible opportunity to apply my understanding of the unique issues faced by health sciences librarians to what has become the largest suite of products and services in the information industry. Medical libraries today bear little resemblance to those from the early days of my career and neither does EBSCO. 1973 - 2014; my career has been an awesome, Walt Disney World's Expedition Everest roller-coaster ride.”  

Career Highlights

Fortney started her library “career” in the eighth grade, working as an aide in her school’s library, but it was not until she attended Grinnell College that she learned what a librarian could accomplish in terms of finding information. After graduating in 1972 from Grinnell with a B.A. in American Studies (with a minor in studio art), Fortney attended Emory University’s Division of Librarianship where she earned a Master’s degree in 1973 while working at the Central Library of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System.

Her first professional library position was Medical Reference Librarian at the University of Alabama College of Community Health Sciences (CCHS) Library in Tuscaloosa. In 1975, she was appointed Chief Medical Librarian of the CCHS, and was instrumental in developing the plans for and eventually moving the library to Druid City Hospital (now DCH Regional Medical Center). In 1982, Fortney accepted the position of Associate Director of Public Services at the Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences/University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she was deeply involved in the selection, implementation and training for the library’s first integrated library system (ILS), the Georgetown LIS.

25 Years at EBSCO

In 1989, Fortney was recruited by EBSCO to become the company’s first Medical Library Marketing Manager, and subsequently became Vice President/Director, Biomedical Division. In this role, she provided a biomedical library focus for the company by monitoring trends affecting academic medical center and hospital libraries, recommending new services specifically designed for health sciences librarians, and participating in product development and business planning.

She started her tenure at EBSCO at the dawn of MEDLINE on CD-ROM and the early days of email as we know it. In her 25 years at EBSCO, Fortney experienced the impact of the rise of the Internet, the World Wide Web, and electronic journals. A major focus of her career was working on  tools for collection development/assessment and journal price studies, specifically the Index Medicus Price Study (IMPS). In 1999, the Medical Library Association Collection Development Section awarded Fortney the first Daniel T Richards Prize For Writing Related to Collecting in the Health Sciences, for the “Index Medicus Price Study, 1998-1999”, which she co-authored with Victor Basile.

EBSCO Information Services President Tim Collins says Fortney has helped EBSCO shape its ever-expanding medical resources and provided EBSCO with a very valuable medical librarian perspective. “We have been fortunate to work with such a strong advocate for medical libraries for so many years.  Lynn has been a key member of our team for a long time and we believe medical libraries have benefited significantly from the guidance she provided."

Conferences, T. Scott Plutchak and The Bearded Pigs

Fortney has presented at events and conferences across America and around the world, including delivering the keynote address at the Australian Library and Information Association “Specials” Conference, Melbourne, Australia, 2001. She met her future husband, T. Scott Plutchak (at the time, Director of the St Louis University Health Sciences Library), in 1992, when she invited him to speak at a seminar for academic medical library directors she was organizing in Birmingham. Their wedding was the “featured entertainment” of the Midcontinental Chapter’s Welcome Reception in Kansas City in 1995. Plutchak (currently Director, Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences/University of Alabama at Birmingham), Fortney and several of their musically talented friends in the medical library field formed a band, “The Bearded Pigs,” that played for many years at the MLA Annual Meeting (with incidental proceeds to the MLA’s Grants and Scholarship Fund).

Professional Associations

Fortney has been active in professional associations throughout her career, most especially the Medical Library Association (MLA); teaching MLA continuing education courses and speaking at symposia, serving on various MLA committees and task forces, and in leadership roles of several sections. She was a founding member and first president (1980-81) of the Alabama Health Libraries Association, Chair of the Southern Chapter/Medical Library Association in 2001 – 2002, served on the national MLA Nominating Committee three times (1997, 2004 and 2010), and was elected to the MLA Board of Directors for a three year term, 2000-2003. She says her greatest honor came in 2011 when she was named a Fellow of the Medical Library Association, which she describes as, “a rare tribute for someone who did not work in a library.”  Fortney has always refused to be referred to as “a vendor who used to be a librarian”. For 25 years, she happened to work for a vendor. But she has always been a librarian first.


Happy Guy

It is not uncommon, when I'm talking with someone about my physical challenges, for them to comment on my "great attitude."  Or to note that with all of the drama and intensity surrounding issues at work, I generally maintain a calm and unruffled demeanor.

It's not complicated.  I have a wonderful life.  For example, during Christmas week 2012 (just after I was diagnosed with transverse myelitis) I took a long planned trip to New York City with Lynn, Marian and Josie.  JoBug was six weeks shy of her eighth birthday.  I booked a stretch limo to pick us up at the airport as a surprise -- we'd done the same thing for her Mom's first trip to NYC on the occasion of her 18th birthday.  A good Southern girl, Josie was desperate to see Christmas snow in New York.  Looking at the forecast, I assured her that there would be snow.  And indeed, as we settled into our tiny 34th story room above midtown Manhattan, looking through the early evening toward the Empire State Building, big flakes were floating down, lit up and shining from the green, red and golden lights of the city.

That evening, Josie borrowed my iPad to write me this note:

Okay nonai I really need you to save this because  you will miss out on a lot of  fun. So we need to talk this is the best trip I will ever take in my life
so far the three best things happened to me Number one Got to ride a limazen Number two Got some snow And Number Three got a great vu in the hotel You no that means you are the worlds best Grandfather Congratulations. I LOOVE YOU SO MUCH FOR GETING  READY FOR THIS TRIP and allays remeber that you are the best grandfather ever
and everyone in your family loves you.
How could I not be an incredibly happy guy?

The Way of the Thicket

We didn’t know we were “crowdfunding” when we started The Thicket Society – the term hadn’t shown up yet.  It was Joanne Marshall’s idea.  Get a few of our friends to chip in a few bucks to help cover the cost of renting the gear.  I don’t know whose idea it was to do the t-shirts.  We hadn't a clue what it would become.

It’s been an amazing run, but we’ve decided that Boston was the last “official” MLA/Bearded Pigs gig.

In San Diego it was eight friends and two twelve packs and we were tucked into an unused meeting room that Ray arranged for us.  It was low-key, just an excuse for us to get together and play.  At the San Diego Zoo the next day Tambourine Grrl saw the pen with the bearded pigs in it and we had a band name.  In DC the next year we put up a poster and 50 people came.  Folks went to the liquor store across the street and brought booze back.  The hotel was not amused and threatened MLA with a charge of several thousands of dollars for “trashing the room.”  Rock stars!

By the time we got to Phoenix the crowd was rising and the next year, in Philadelphia, I saw more people dancing that I didn’t know than people I did.  Folks were stacked up in the hallway trying to get into the room.  “What are all these people doing here?” I wondered, as I hammered another E chord.  “We’re not that good…”  But we had something.  I've been looking at the pictures.  What times we had!

But each year was a bigger production.  TG would start designing the t-shirts in March, but she’d still be scrambling to finish it up in time to get the shirts delivered to the hotel the day before we arrived.  Duke and I would spend hours on the logistics of gear rental, and then there’d be the hauling and setup and tear down.  Rolling and labeling the shirts over bloody marys on Saturday morning to try to get them to registration by noon.  For the sheer joy of those three hours on a Sunday night we all put in hours and hours of planning and work.  Thank goodness we never actually practiced – where would we have found time for that? 

It was worth it.  But it wasn’t what I’d signed up for.

Don’t get me wrong – I loved it and I am forever grateful to the Thicket Society members who made it possible for us to do the gigs and to all of the people who showed up.  But every year we’d get done and I’d think, “The work to fun ratio is not quite tilting in my favor anymore.”  And I’d wonder if I really wanted to do it again the next year. 

It was after Seattle, during the summer of 2012, that it seemed to me we’d come to the end of that road.  I wasn’t ready to break it to the band, but I decided that Boston would be the last official MLA gig.  

We gathered for dinner at the Summer Shack and I laid it out for them.  Time to go out on a high note.  There was no disagreement.  We’d already done so much more than we ever imagined.  It’s been a wonderful gift.  I hope we’ve given people at least a small measure of pleasure for all that they’ve given us.

Boston was a great gig – certainly one of the very best.  With my short-circuited nervous system I couldn’t play guitar, but I could still belt out the vocals.  The change in instrumentation made everybody step up their game.  And we had the amazing Jack running the mixers and making us sound better than ever.  But as great as it was, I didn’t waver on the decision. 

So that’s it for The Thicket Society.  No more buttons, no more shirts.  Of course it is not  the end of the band.  Although MLA was always the highlight of the year, we've always managed to find other times and places to play.  We never know where and we never know when, but we do know The Bearded Pigs will play again…  and again…  Who knows, it might even happen at an MLA near you.  We’ll keep it a surprise.


What are librarians' views of Open Access issues?

I've cooked up a little survey that you can get to here.

Later this month I’ll be speaking at the AAAS meeting on this topic.  Although I know what the positions of our library organizations are, and what some individual librarians might think, I’ve never felt that I had a good grasp of what librarians in general think.  I suspect the range of opinion is pretty wide.  So I’ve come up with a list 15 statements that people can indicate their level of agreement with.  They're the sort of statements one reads and hears in presentations, blogs and discussion lists.  In some cases they may be too broad or simplistic for simple agreement or disagreement so I’ve included a comment block that people can use to amplify their answers or explain why they can’t agree or disagree with the statement as written.

I don’t expect to draw any general conclusions from this, but I hope that it will be useful in illustrating some of the breadth of opinion that exists in the library community.  I'll post a summary of the results here.

The survey shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to complete – although you can certainly take longer, depending on how much you choose to comment.

And, of course, if there are other things you think I should be telling the AAAS audience about what librarians think, I'd love to hear about it.

Hip-Hop Fan

I’ve often thought that if I were ever filling out one of those profiles that includes the question, “What is the one thing that people would be surprised to know about you,” I’d say it’s that I’m an Eminem fan.

Although, to be accurate, it’s much broader than that.  I remember being astounded by Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back which came out not long after I moved from DC to St. Louis.  I’d take my long walks around the city, listening on headphones.  Some days I’d be listening to Van Morrison, but just as often I’d be listening to Chuck D.

I’m by no means a fan of all rap, of course, just as I am not a fan of all of any other genre – I’m a firm believer in Sturgeon’s Law.  The boastful monotony of most commercial gangster rap doesn’t do much for me – listen to K’Naan’s “What’s Hardcore?” for a brilliant takedown of the many poseurs out there angling to be the next 50 Cent.

But the world of hip-hop is vast and complex and contradictory and well worth the exploration.  I didn’t pay much attention to Eminem until the Marshall Mathers LP.  I’d listen to it then in the car on my way to and from the library.  It horrified me and thrilled me and fascinated me.  I was baffled that so many of the outraged commentators apparently couldn’t see that Slim Shady was a character and that much of the album revolved around the tension between Eminem as Marshall and the character he’d created that had brought him so much success. 

I was listening to a lot of Johnny Cash in those days as well, as Rick Rubin (who’d cut his teeth as a producer on the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC) was putting out the series of American Recordings that raised Cash to reverential status in those last years before he died.  I’d read the outrage over Eminem’s “Kill You,” and then listen to Cash’s rueful singing on “Delia’s Gone.”  First time I shot her, I shot her in the side / Hard to watch her suffer but with the second shot she died / Delia's gone, one more round, Delia's gone.  Cash recorded the song four times.

A few years ago I heard an interview on the radio with ?uestlove of The Roots and knew instantly that this was somebody worth my paying attention to – thoughtful, curious, inventive, bold, with an interest in all kinds of music and sound and a deep desire to make something new out of all of it.  So when I saw that he’d come out with a memoir and that it was getting rave reviews, I put it on my “presents for Scott” list and Lynn gave it to me for my birthday.

I read it over the Christmas break and it was every bit the delightful education I was hoping for.  The book itself is a marvel, and the interplay between Ahmir’s romantic self-doubt and his manager’s hard-bitten cynicism enriches the narrative immeasurably.  And it functions as a playlist – if Thompson is this passionate about this artist or that piece of music, then I ought to check it out.

I don’t mean to imply that I listen to more hip-hop than anything else.  Far from it. It’s the vastness of the musical landscape that I feel compelled to explore.  I know that many people fall in love with music during their teenage years and that becomes the soundtrack of their lives.  They return to the same songs over and over and new music becomes stranger and coarser and before too long they can’t understand how people can listen to that shit.  They find Miley Cyrus appallingly shocking while apparently forgetting their fandom for Jim Morrison and David Bowie.  

I confess this seems bizarre and a little sad to me.  I want to listen to it all!  Old, new, stuff I’ve loved all my life and stuff I’ve never heard before.  There are nearly 17,000 songs in my iTunes library.  I put them on shuffle to see what might come up next:  Flogging Molly, Charles Lloyd, Liquid Prairie, Stravinsky, Joni Mitchell, Eminem, John Hiatt, Debussy, Rage Against the Machine, Ryan Adams, John Coltrane…

And then spin it again...