Libraries Out Loud

I’ve written before about the wonderful libraries in the Kansas City area, including the Kansas City Public Library, the Mid-Continent Public Library, and the Johnson County Library. I am proud to say I have library cards with all three systems. And I am prouder to say that Kansas City ranks as one of the most literate cities in the United States, according to a study by Jack Miller, president emeritus of Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut (though we are only #16 in 2017, falling slightly from 2015 when we were #14).

On July 18, 2017, I attended a program at the Kansas City Public Library called “Libraries Out Loud.” The program featured the leaders of four Kansas City library systems—Johnson County Library’s Sean Casserley, Kansas City, Kansas Public Library’s Carol Levers, Mid-Continent Public Library’s Steven V. Potter, and Kansas City Public Library’s Crosby Kemper III. These four knowledgeable professionals discussed the current state of our libraries, as well as their assessment of what the future will bring for public libraries. The program was moderated by Nick Haynes, who moderates the KCPT Channel 19 program Kansas City Week in Review.

The July 18 session also featured four short documentary films by Michael Price about the state of libraries in Kansas City. The film segments explored four areas of practice in libraries today. They were titled “Building Communities,” “A Literacy Beyond Words,” “Bridging the Great Digital Divide,” and “For the Planners and Dreamers.” All four shorts are available online here.

A major theme of the evening and of the film shorts is that libraries serve the unique needs of the public in their communities, whether those needs be for education, information, or communication. As Sean Casserley said, libraries are “places of the mind” where we can discover “what it means to be human in the 21st Century.”

Kansas City Public Library parking garage

Another theme these librarians emphasized was that literacy is more than about words. It involves knowledge about anything from the environment to fitness to food. Crosby Kemper stated “libraries are about turning information into knowledge . . . about organizing information.”

And libraries are places where anyone can get access to knowledge, as well as help in sifting good information from inaccurate. They are the great equalizers in our unequal society. They are refuges for all.

With these broad missions in mind, the public libraries in Kansas City and its surrounding communities provide the following in one or more locations:

  • Yoga classes
  • Classes on English as a second language
  • A seed library (where patrons take seeds, grow them, and return seeds after their harvest)
  • 3-D printers, which, among other uses, help entrepreneurs create product prototypes
  • Consulting and research for small businesses
  • Hands-on nature programs for children.

They provide ebooks to patrons who never enter their doors, and they mail hand-selected books to homebound patrons who get to the library (Yes, via snail mail—wouldn’t it be wonderful to receive a book picked just for you by a professional librarian on a regular basis to feed and develop your reading habit?). They provide digital connections to those who do not have internet access at home, and meeting rooms for a variety of community programs.

And they even show people how to butcher pigs. (Yes, the Johnson County Library once had a program on how to butcher pigs. Not the actual slaughtering, but to demonstrate where various cuts of meat come from on the animal—knowledge our urban and suburban community otherwise would lose.)

Despite the rapidly changing publishing and digital environment, the four librarians who spoke on July 18 were all enthusiastic about the future of libraries. They see their missions as developing with the times, but remaining relevant.

In the future, libraries might

  • Provide second and third chances for people to receive an education through GED programs, links with online university classes, and continuing education. As Steve Potter said, libraries can provide “remediation wherever you are in life.”
  • Become data hubs to help the public access information and answer a variety of questions
  • Serve as links between the public and their health care providers to transmit health data
  • Collect stories from people and serve as a repository of local history

Woodneath Branch of the Mid-Continent Public LIbrary

Some of these possibilities are already happening, and others are certainly within sight. The Mid-Continent Public Library has purchased all past editions of the Kansas City newspapers, which they will make available to the public. MCPL also has a genealogy center and The Story Center which fosters written and oral storytelling.

I came away from this program marveling at what a great resource we have in the public libraries in our community. And hopeful that they will remain great resources in the future.

Whether you live in the Kansas City area or not, I encourage you to watch the four short documentary films. And local residents can tune-in to watch a special Kansas City Week in Review at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, August 4, on KCPT that will discuss these films and our great library systems. (This broadcast was publicized at the July 18 event, but I haven’t been able to confirm it. You might want to check your TV schedule.)

What do you like best about public libraries? And what do you hope they become in the future?

Discovering Jane Austen

Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817, two hundred years ago tomorrow. I first encountered her novels in the spring of 1970, when I was in the ninth grade and cooped up at home with the mumps. I didn’t have a bad case of the mumps, and I felt pretty healthy. But I couldn’t return to school until the swelling in my cheeks and jaw went down.

“I’m bored,” I whined to my mother.

“Find a book to read.” That was her stock answer any time one of her children said they were bored. Either that, or she told us to clean our rooms.

“I’ve read everything.” I whined some more, as only a fourteen-year-old girl can whine to her mother.

Mother went to the bookshelf in the living room, which contained mostly adult books. Other than the encyclopedia (which was educational) or the twenty or so volumes of Readers Digest Condensed Books (which were pretty well sanitized by the editors who condensed them), I was only allowed to pick a book from the living room bookshelf if I had parental approval.

She skimmed the shelves and pulled down a book. “Here,” she said. “Read this.”

It was Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

I took it back to my bedroom and curled up under the covers and opened the book. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Well, that sounded promising. Even fourteen-year-old me got the humor in that line.

I read the whole book over the next few days. And loved it.

After I was fully recuperated and able to go to the public library again, I searched for other books by Jane Austen. I didn’t read her novels back to back, but I did read them all over the next couple of years.

I really liked Northanger Abbey (a lot like Victoria Holt and other Gothic novels I had read), but I didn’t think any of Austen’s other novels were as good as Pride and Prejudice. Sense and Sensibility was supposed to be her best—and Mother said she liked that one best—but I preferred Pride and Prejudice. Marianne Dashwood was too silly. Emma, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park were fine, but still not as good as Pride and Prejudice.

By the time we studied Pride and Prejudice in my Honors English class during my senior year of high school, I had read everything I could find by Jane Austen—all the novels she had published in her lifetime. My classmates complained about having to read Pride and Prejudice. “Oh, no,” I said. “It’s wonderful!” Not many of them believed me.

Fast forward to when I learned there was a partial manuscript by Jane Austen that someone had completed and was publishing—something new by Austen! I was a working mother, with very little time to read. But I rushed out to find a copy of Sanditon. And I did the same thing when I found a volume that included both Lady Susan and The Watsons, which I’d never read before either.

And, of course, I have watched every televised and movie version of Austen’s novels. I saw the 1940s version of Pride and Prejudice when I was in college. I was very disappointed—the costumes were all wrong, Mr. Darcy was not particularly compelling (sorry, Mr. Olivier), and they skipped huge chunks of the book. The 1980 BBC version shown on Masterpiece Theatre was much better.

In fact, that 1980s version got my husband interested enough in Jane Austen that he read Pride and Prejudice, and later took on some of Austen’s other books as well. (At least Sense and Sensibility—I’m not sure if he read them all or not.)

And then there was the very swoonable 1995 version with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth.

Sigh. . . .

I learned to like Emma, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park better from the Masterpiece and movie versions, though I still like Pride and Prejudice best.

At this point, I’ve read all her novels at least three times. I’ll probably read them all again at least once more before I die.

I look forward to seeing new film versions in my lifetime also. All in search of the perfect Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. And the perfect Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson, wonderful actress though she is, was too old for the role) and Edward Ferrars. And Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow was pretty good, but not quite officious enough for me) and George Knightley.

I have so many more contacts with Austen’s work to look forward to in life. And my interest all started because I was bored one day in 1970.

What have you done out of boredom that turned out to be a good thing?

Sleepless in Kansas City

One of the disadvantages I’ve found in getting older is not sleeping as well as I did in my youth. Ever since childhood, I’ve had trouble sleeping during times of stress, but now I hardly ever sleep for eight hours straight. Most nights I wake up once, but some nights I can’t fall asleep, and other nights I wake up around 1:00 or 2:00am and lie awake for an hour or two.

Rarely do my dreams wake me up. In fact, I don’t remember many of my dreams. I used to, but this seems to be another age-related change. Or else most of my dreams now are boring.

I do still dream in color. In the 1940s, most people reported dreaming only in black and white, but now 80% of people say they dream in color. There is some speculation that the shift is related to the development of color television.

My husband read somewhere that monophasic sleep (solid sleep for a single period each night) is actually a modern phenomenon. People used to have biphasic sleep, in which they slept for two periods in a 24-hour day. That, apparently, is where the practice of naps and siestas came from.

Some experiments have found that when people have no regular sleep schedule imposed on them, they gravitate to two four-hour periods of sleep separated by a couple of hours. Many of my nights follow this pattern. Since I learned this factoid, I’ve tried not to worry when I lie awake in bed. After all, I also read somewhere that just lying quietly gives one 80% of the benefit of sleeping (though I doubt that.)

Older generations in my family also had wakeful periods at night. My father went to bed around 8:00pm whenever his schedule permitted. He would often get up again around 10:00 or 11:00, drink some Pepsi and go back to bed. Then he was ready for his next day to start at 5:00am.

My mother, by contrast, liked to stay up reading until 11:00 or so. But she often fell asleep on the couch, until my dad woke her up. In the morning, she would stay in bed well after he was up—or at least that’s what she did once she didn’t have kids to get off to school.

When I visited my paternal grandparents as a small child, my bed was usually the living room couch with a chair placed next to it so I wouldn’t roll off. Sometimes I woke in the middle of the night and saw my grandmother sitting in a chair nearby, smoking a cigarette. She sat with one leg tucked up under her, the way I still sit whenever I can do so without opprobrium. I don’t smoke, but I think of her whenever I move around my house in the dark and whenever I curl my feet up in a chair.

My husband’s grandmother also used to walk the halls when she couldn’t sleep. She would move from bed to bed trying to find a restful spot—some nights she spent time in all three bedrooms in their house.

Ereader in night mode

Using an ereader doesn’t help my sleeplessness. I know it’s a bad idea to have that light shining in my face when I’m trying to sleep, but what else is there to do at 2:00am? I use a blue filter to minimize the brightness and I turn on the night mode in my reading apps. With these adjustments to the screen, reading often lulls me back to sleep.

Before I began writing, I used to try to distract myself in the middle of the night by making up stories in my head. Some of the ideas for my novels developed during these nocturnal musings. But now that I’m a writer, that’s work! I still do it sometimes, but since I now want to remember any good plot points I imagine, it’s not as restful as it used to be.

So I read newspaper headlines instead. The Wall Street Journal is delivered to my email inbox shortly after midnight, and The New York Times headlines come in the wee hours of the morning. Trying to focus on economic and international news is usually enough to put me to sleep. If it doesn’t make me mad.

What do you do when you wake up in the middle of the night?

Mid-Continent Public Library ReadLOCAL Initiative

I wrote last week about National Library Week, and I announced that the Mid-Continent Public Library was now offering my books, Lead Me Home, and Now I’m Found. This week I want to tell you about the library’s new ReadLOCAL initiative, which MCPL announced last week.

As I’ve written before, I’m a big proponent of the Read Local movement to promote local authors. I’m one of the administrators of the Read Local KC Facebook group and I’m also involved with Hometown Reads Kansas City. These groups are working to connect authors and readers in our community.

Now, the Mid-Continent Public Library has taken the Read Local philosophy one step further—they’ve curated a special collection of books by writers who live within the library’s service area.

As the MCPL website says about their collection,

“ReadLOCAL encompasses a vast range of writing styles and genres—from mysteries and westerns to juvenile nonfiction and healthy cookbooks. Books in the ReadLOCAL collection stem from various publishing backgrounds—self-published, hybrid published, small press, and large or traditional publisher (with the odd New York Times bestseller sprinkled in)—and have all been published within the past few years.”

And I’m pleased to say that they have put my two novels in their ReadLOCAL collection.

I encourage all readers in the Kansas City area to browse through books in the MCPL ReadLOCAL collection. Just one more reason to appreciate your local library.

And keep coming back to this MCPL site, because more books and more writers will be added over time!

What programs are available to support local authors in your community?

Libraries Transform—Celebrate National Library Week, April 9-15, 2017

This week, April 9-15, 2017, is National Library Week. It’s a time to celebrate libraries and library workers and to promote library use and support. According to the American Library Association website, the theme for National Library Week this year is “Libraries Transform.”

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for public libraries. I remember many trips to the library in my hometown when I was a child. When I visited my grandmother in the summer, she took me to the library near her house so I could check out a stack of books to keep from being bored between trips to the beach.

Later, I was the “library mom” for my kids when they were each in first grade—I checked books out of the library to take to their classrooms every few weeks. And I enjoy libraries now as places to meet with other writers, to hang out in between appointments when going home is inconvenient, and to write when there are distractions at home.

As for being “transformed” by libraries, I think it is fair to say that I wouldn’t be the reader—and therefore the writer—that I am today if I hadn’t spent so much time in libraries as a child. Over the years, I’ve used the books I’ve checked out of libraries to learn and to escape. Books let me experience the world as it really is, as the ideal it should be, and as the fantasy I sometimes wish it were. Most evenings, I choose to read instead of watching television—even when I can stream programs I like. There’s something about using my imagination as I read that visual experiences like television and movies can’t duplicate.

The library I use most frequently now is the Mid-Continent Public Library (MCPL).  It has many branches throughout the Missouri side of the Kansas City region. I also have library cards with the Kansas City Public Library (KCPL) and with the Johnson County (Kansas) Library, because I’m in those libraries often enough that I might want to check books out there.

All three are excellent library systems. I live midway between two MCPL branches, and the system has many other branches throughout the part of Kansas City in which I live. I’m at some branch almost every week. And I check out most of my ebooks through the MCPL Overdrive system.

Kansas City Public Library parking garage

The KCPL system has a beautiful branch in downtown Kansas City which offers excellent literary and historical programs for readers, and it also boasts an art gallery with changing exhibits, often related to Kansas City history. Another KCPL branch near the Plaza shopping that is a great place to hang out. Both branches have nice coffee bars also.

And I have regular meetings in the newly renovated meeting rooms at the Johnson County Central Resource Library. If it had a coffee bar, I might even be tempted to move to Kansas.

All three libraries, as well as the Olathe (Kansas) Public Library, have recently joined their catalogs. So now I can link my three library cards and search on one site to find books anywhere. I still have to check them out of the library where the book is located, but the combined catalog makes my searches much easier.

I’m also pleased to announce that the Mid-Continent Public Library has acquired my two novels, Lead Me Home and Now I’m Found. The Olathe Public Library already had a copy of each book, so now they are available on both sides of the Kansas/Missouri state line. I’m most pleased when readers buy my books, but I’m thrilled when people read them—however they find a copy.

So, those of you in the Kansas City area who have not yet read my books, now you have no excuse! (Unless all copies of the novels are all on hold at the library.)

How have libraries transformed you?

Black History: Hidden Figures and The Underground Railroad

In recognition of Black History Month, this last post in February is about two experiences I’ve had this month related to African-American history. At the start of the month, I saw the movie, Hidden Figures, based on the non-fiction book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly. And during the last half of the month, I read The Underground Railroad, a novel by Colson Whitehead. Both have caused me to reflect about story and history—two themes I write about frequently in this blog.

First, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Hidden Figures. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t speak to it. But the movie told an unknown chapter in African-American history in a dramatic and engaging way. If Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backward and in heels, then these women “computers” did it backward, in heels, and running half a mile to the bathroom every day.

I didn’t grow up with the Jim Crow segregation laws because I came from a small town in the Northwest. I went to public school with Blacks starting in 1961, there were no separate drinking fountains or restrooms in my town, and there was no public transportation in town so no one worried about who sat in the back of the bus. I didn’t really become aware of racism until the mid-60s when the national news reported marches and riots in large cities.

When the movie was over, I wanted to know more. What was true and what wasn’t? Turns out, the Kevin Costner character is a composite, and no one really tore down the “colored” bathroom sign. Still, there weren’t restrooms for black women in every building at Langley, and Mary Jackson did have to search out a restroom (though Kathryn Johnson just used the unmarked white restrooms). Several other characters in the movie were also composites or fictional, but their attitudes seemed true to the period. As depicted in the film, African-American women at Langley really did work in separate rooms and ate in separate cafeterias.

Most of the salient points in the three protagonists’ histories were true. Kathryn Johnson did ask to attend briefings that no woman had previously attended, and she did verify the calculations for John Glenn’s first American orbit of Earth. And John Glenn did ask NASA to “get the girl to check the numbers.” Dorothy Vaughn was the first African-American supervisor at Langley and was a strong voice for the female computers who worked for her. Mary Jackson was the first African-American female engineer, and she did have to file a petition to get into the school where she could take courses she needed to qualify as an engineer.

So I discovered the story of Hidden Figures was definitely “Hollywoodized.” Nevertheless, I came away believing it was a true depiction both of the racism and sexism of the 1950s and of the intelligence and courage of these African-American women in contributing to the space program.

Shortly after seeing the movie, I began reading The Underground Railroad, which describes a better-known period in African-American history. This era in the 19th Century is filled with dramatic accounts of slave escapes and the elaborate and dangerous routes they took. I’ve read about gun-toting Harriet Tubman’s courageous trips to the South and about slaves hidden for months in barns and attics, much as Jews were hidden from the Nazis a century later. I wanted to read Colson Whitehead’s best-selling version of this epic story.

The book starts with a lengthy section describing life on a Georgia plantation under cruel masters and foremen. I believed his account. His writing is strong. I found Cora, the young female slave protagonist, to be sympathetic and believable. (Some reviews I’ve read have criticized the depth of the characters in the book, but I did not have that problem.) I was rooting for Cora and her companion Caesar to escape the plantation and find the underground railway station.

And then it turned out that the author created an actual underground railway station, complete with locomotive and box car, to spirit Cora and Caesar out of Georgia. The license he took with the truth totally turned me off of the book, though I did finish it. The novel continues with many stops along their journey. I won’t go into those so as to prevent spoilers. I will only say that at each point in the novel where Cora moves from location to location, she does so on an actual railroad located underground.

What a dumb concoction! The “underground railroad” name was a metaphor. It was “underground” because it was a resistance movement, and the people involved only knew a limited amount about the route, so they could not give away information if they were caught. It was a “railroad” because of the labels given to the locations and personnel involved. The stops were called “stations,” they were run by “station masters” with “conductors” and “agents.” But Colson Whitehead turned the metaphor on its head and purported to make it reality.

As a writer of historical fiction, as one who tries to make my fiction truthful, I found this construct a complete distraction from what should have been a compelling story. I liked the writing. I liked the characters, and I was prepared to believe their experiences. Then I was confronted with a “cute” fiction in a serious book. I couldn’t accept it.

I have been cogitating on why I can accept the Hollywoodization in Hidden Figures and not the fictional construct in The Underground Railroad. I’ve certainly read plenty of books that have turned history on its head—many time travel novels (such as Stephen King’s 11-22-63) take obvious creative license and use portals more bizarre than Colson Whitehead’s. But in those books, the reader knows what is coming—the fiction is the purpose of the story, and they are labeled as fantasy or science fiction. In Hidden Figures, the composite characters and the overstatements (such as running half a mile to the bathroom) improve the dramatic arc of the story. They are “truthy” in our current vernacular.

By contrast, Whitehead’s creation of a fictional underground locomotive detracts from the story. I had not read anything about the book containing fantasy before I started it. Moreover, the reality of the slaves’ journeys from place to place was so much more dangerous and dramatic than what he depicted that in my opinion the train chugging into the underground tunnels cheapened the real history he wrote about.

I had other problems with The Underground Railroad, such as its frequent interruptions of Cora’s story to provide a chapter of back story on another character, but I could have lived with those. The major flaw in the book was the underground train. I wanted the book to add to my knowledge of the African-American experience. Instead, his fantastical construct made me question the rest of the history in the book. The history may be at least as “truthy” as the history in the film Hidden Figures, but why did Whitehead give his readers cause to doubt?

In an interview on National Public Radio, Whitehead said:

“once I made the choice to make a literal underground railroad, . . . it freed me up to play with time a bit more. . . . it allowed me to bring in things that didn’t happen in 1850 – skyscrapers, aspects of the eugenics movement, forced sterilization and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. And it’s all presented sort of matter-of-factly . . . .”

Well, I wish I’d known this before I read the book.

When have you been impressed by or turned off by a historical movie or novel?

How Do You Choose What To Read?

RLKC profile picI mentioned in a recent post that I’m a part of Read Local Kansas City. I am also a part of another “read local” organization—Hometown Reads, which lists books by local authors in many cities across the U.S. Go check out this site and see what books have been written by your hometown authors—you might find a gem.

Hometown Reads wants to learn more about people’s reading habits, and they have a few questions for readers. These questions include:

  1. When do you read books?
  2. How do you choose the books you want to read?
  3. Do you read print books or ebooks?

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, I’ve been a life-long reader. While there were periods in my life when I didn’t read for pleasure, it has been my first source for entertainment since I was four or five years old, and even earlier when my parents read to me.

When do I read? Any time I can. As a child, I read in the afternoons during the school year when my homework was done. And I read all summer long, devouring six to ten books a week.

During the years I was in college, law school, and employed full-time, I had little time for reading. But it was my guilty pleasure to curl up with a book on an occasional weekend afternoon, though I had work to do, kids to feed, and laundry to fold. On weekends when my husband was away on Naval Reserve training, I could get through a book or two, and I often did.

Now that I’m retired, reading is no longer a guilty pleasure, just a pleasure. Though at times I feel guilty, because I have a blog post to write or a critique partner’s chapter to edit or groceries to buy. Daily life continues to intrude on time I’d like to spend reading. Or writing.

How do I choose what to read? I’ll read whatever books come into my hands. I frequently receive books as gifts. Some family members give me books they think I’ll like. Others give me books they think would be “good for me.” One nephew works in an independent bookstore, and he finds unusual books that suit my interests, like this year’s gift, West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776, by Claudio Saunt, which is awaiting my attention.

I read literary bestsellers. I read books that friends recommend (which have led to some very good finds, like Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly, and The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore). I read books for my book club, and I read books that other book clubs are reading. I read books that our local library selects for community-wide “Big Reads.”

I read them all, or put them in a stack “to be read.” Most of the books in my stack I eventually read. Others I don’t, which makes me sad.

When I’m browsing, whether in a bookstore or library or online, I often look for books by authors I love. Those tend to be genre books in series, whether they be thrillers or mysteries or romances. But any book with an intriguing cover, or one I’ve read a review of, might get picked off the shelf and find its way into my stack.

The problem isn’t finding books to read, it’s making the choice between books.

Print or ebooks? I’ve addressed this question in earlier posts. I’ll read both, but I’ve switched largely to ebooks, except for books I’m given, books I can’t find in ebook format, and occasional forays to the library. The reason? My budget and my bulging purse. I can carry a tablet with Kindle, Nook and Overdrive apps loaded on it, each giving me access to dozens of books, or I can carry a single paperback, which gives me no choice of reading material when I’m stuck waiting in line or for an appointment. The Overdrive books from the libraries I belong to are all free, as are many Kindle and Nook books. Otherwise, my reading habit would break the bank.

And I can read on my tablet in the dark. That’s my new guilty pleasure. Waking in the middle of the night gives me the opportunity to read a chapter or two before I fall asleep again. I put on the blue light filter and read without bothering my husband.

What about you? What’s your answer to the questions posed above?

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