bad ass librariansTo save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda, a band of librarians in Timbuktu pulls off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven.

In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world’s greatest and most brazen smugglers.

In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of accused thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali.

Over the past twenty years, journalist Joshua Hammer visited Timbuktu numerous times and is uniquely qualified to tell the story of Haidara’s heroic and ultimately successful effort to outwit Al Qaeda and preserve Mali’s – and the world’s – literary patrimony. Hammer explores the city’s manuscript heritage and offers never-before-reported details about the militants’ march into northwest Africa. But above all, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is an inspiring account of the victory of art and literature over extremism. (description from publisher)

April 10-16 is National Library Week!  What a perfect time to check out some materials featuring libraries and/or librarians.

Here are a few of my favorites, and even though technically the main characters aren’t librarians, they definitely do spend a lot of time in libraries.  First off is The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason.  When they wrote this, they were fresh out of college, so their descriptions of academic life at Princeton really hit the nail on the head.  Also, the book’s plot reminded me of The Da Vinci Code, as the two main characters are close to solving the mysteries of an ancient Renaissance text that has confused scholars for centuries.  It’s fast-paced and there’s lots of code-breaking going on.

Another favorite is The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.  This is a lengthy Draculian tome, so it’s catalogued in the Horror section.  The book begins with a young woman exploring her father’s library when she discovers an ancient book with letters all addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor.”  Generations of researchers have risked their lives and their reputations trying to learn the truth about Vlad the Impaler, and to uncover this source of darkness and rid the world of it powers.  Now this young woman must decide whether to take up her father’s quest; her journey takes her from  Ivy League libraries to archives in Istanbul and Eastern Europe.  I don’t usually read Horror, but I couldn’t put it down.

Just think about it.  Celebrate National Library Week! And find the answers to your quest at your Davenport Public Library!

Recently, I met best-selling author Brad Meltzer in a Chicago book store.  Naturally, I picked up an autographed copy of his newest novel, The Inner Circle.  (He had a large following — I had to wait in line a long time!)

The book revolves around Beecher White, a young archivist who loves his job at the National Archives.  When his childhood crush, Clementime, shows up seeking help in tracking down the father she never knew, he takes her on a private tour, and even shows her the secret vault used only by the  President.  Within moments ( is it by accident or plan?) they discover a priceless artifact hidden under the President’s chair.  Minutes later, the security guard who admitted them to the vault is found dead.  In hours,  Beecher is on the run, unsure who he can trust,  yet frantically trying to stay one-step ahead of his pursuers by successfully decoding concealed messages.

This is a fast-paced read and those interested in political conspiracies or action-packed thrillers will be entertained with all the unexpected twists and turns.  Initially, I wasn’t certain about the ending, but then it made more sense when I read that  Meltzer has a sequel planned, using  Beecher again as the primary character.  He is a rather lovable archivist, after all.

For those who may be further intrigued by the mysteries of symbols and codes, check out the author’s show on the History Channel, Brad Meltzer’s Decoded.

Adrift after graduating from Harvard and rejecting the demands of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, Avi Steinberg stumbles into a job running the library in a tough Boston prison. Funny, heartbreaking, sometimes brutal, always human Running the Books is his memoir of his time spent among the inmates.

The criminals that Avi encounters are complex – many of them are cruel and dangerous, but there is also an undercurrent of sadness, of lives devastated by poverty, abuse and violence. Hope for redemption for most is slim. And although he is completely unsuited to prison life, Avi attempts to reach out and make a difference – with decidedly mixed results.

This book also works as an excellent memoir as Avi reflects on his own life and the choices he’s made. The humor is sardonic and Avi is not afraid to shine a light on his own failings. It’s also a great study of the library as central to a community and to the humans, imperfect and lost, that use it.

Herb & Dorothy, an Arthouse Film by Megumi Sasaki, tells the amazing story of the Vogels–a couple who built one of the most extensive collections of minimalist and conceptual art despite their modest incomes.

As former artists themselves, Herb and Dorothy began collecting other artists’ work in the early 1960’s with two rules in hand: 1. the piece had to be affordable and 2. it had to fit in their small, one-bedroom apartment. They decided to live on Dorothy’s salary from working at the Brooklyn Public Library and use all of Herb’s Postal Clerk earnings to buy art. But Herb and Dorothy didn’t just buy art, they also cultivated intimate relationships with some of today’s most famous artists who were virtually unknown at the time they were sought out by the Vogels.

In 1992, the over 4,000 piece collection was moved from the Vogel’s tiny apartment to the National Gallery of Art after much wooing from museums and institutions around the world. In the film, Herb explains how important it was for him and Dorothy to donate their priceless collection to the very people who paid their salaries (taxpayers) and thus made their means of collecting possible. The Vogels have since created the Vogel 50×50 program where 50 of their works were donated to a museum in each of the 50 states, and Iowa’s recipient was the fantastic Cedar Rapids Museum of Art (their first exhibit of the donation, Less is More: The Vogel Gift of Minimal and Conceptual Art, just ended in May).

HERB & DOROTHY Trailer from Herb & Dorothy on Vimeo.

Herb & Dorothy, an Arthouse Film by Megumi Sasaki, tells the amazing story of the Vogels–a couple who built one of the most extensive collections of minimalist and conceptual art despite their modest incomes.

As former artists themselves, Herb and Dorothy began collecting other artists’ work in the early 1960’s with two rules in hand: 1. the piece had to be affordable and 2. it had to fit in their small, one-bedroom apartment. They decided to live on Dorothy’s salary from working at the Brooklyn Public Library and use all of Herb’s Postal Clerk earnings to buy art. But Herb and Dorothy didn’t just buy art, they also cultivated intimate relationships with some of today’s most famous artists who were virtually unknown at the time they were sought out by the Vogels.

In 1992, the over 4,000 piece collection was moved from the Vogel’s tiny apartment to the National Gallery of Art after much wooing from museums and institutions around the world. In the film, Herb explains how important it was for him and Dorothy to donate their priceless collection to the very people who paid their salaries (taxpayers) and thus made their means of collecting possible. The Vogels have since created the Vogel 50×50 program where 50 of their works were donated to a museum in each of the 50 states, and Iowa’s recipient was the fantastic Cedar Rapids Museum of Art (their first exhibit of the donation, Less is More: The Vogel Gift of Minimal and Conceptual Art, just ended in May).

HERB & DOROTHY Trailer from Herb & Dorothy on Vimeo.

“In tough times, a librarian is a terrible thing to waste.”

Here at the beginning of National Library Week, let’s pause a moment and think about libraries. What makes a library? Sure, the building is important, and the computers and systems in it, and the books and information it contains. But what really makes a library is the people – the behind-the-scenes people who order the books and process them so you can find them (it’s not elves or magic that does that, but real people); it’s the people at the desks who check out your books or sign you up for that library card; it’s the people putting books on the shelves and keeping the computers up and working (again, not elves or magic – real people); and it’s the librarians at the reference desk showing you where to find that book or digging up that obscure bit of information you need.

Marilyn Johnson has written a fascinating behind-the-scenes peek into the world of libraries – their diversity, their changing role, their struggles in This Book is Overdue! Johnson is not a librarian, just a long-time library user. Her wide-ranging topics – libraries in Second Life, libraries defending the First Amendment, libraries preserving the past, libraries embracing and leading technological innovations for the future – quickly explode any myths about a staid and passive profession. Yet libraries are facing hard economic times, just at the time when so many people need them and Johnson wants to make sure that we don’t let them and what they stand for disappear:

“In tight economic times, with libraries sliding farther and farther down the list of priorities, we risk the loss of their ideals, intelligence, and knowledge, not to mention their commitment to access for all –  librarians consider free access to information the foundation of the information revolution because they level the field. They enable those without money or education to read and learn the same things as the billionaire and the Ph.D.”

Don’t let your library disappear.

Intellectual FreedomIt often surprises people that they can call (or email or IM) our reference desk and ask us virtually anything and we will do our utmost to find an answer.

Callers may be looking for facts or articles to support  liberal, conservative or libertarian points-of-view. They may want information about extraterrestrial life, Elvis Presley’s current whereabouts or the latest bills on gun control. We apply the same skills and methodology no matter what the topic.

The next time the tv or newspaper prompts a question in your mind, give us a call!

free for allIt’s a comfort to read about the daily struggles of your counterpart in another setting. For some, this can serve as occupational therapy. For others, just the pleasure in knowing some scenarios are identical no matter where you go. The social mores of your fellow working-class schlub can lead to a-ha moments of “I know that guy, save for a different name, age, and shirt.” This is the case with mandatory viewing like NBC’s the Office television program, or 1999 cult film Office Space.

That was my impression of Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library by Don Borchert. Some of the shocking tales of this Los Angeles Public Library clerk, you’ll be surprised to know, might trump even the mighty DPL’s offerings.

Are there any tales or films about the everyman that resonate with you?

free-for-all1Some people think that libraries are stuffy, tomb-like places run by bespectacled octogenarians whose primary  function is to go around shhhussshing  others.  Those of us who actually work in one know that’s far from the truth.  One book I found that  really hit the nail on the head as far as how libraries today really operate  is Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks and Gangstas in the Public Library by Don Borchert.  Okay, it’s about a library in California, so some things are a little different, but it is still a quick read that’s delightfully funny, yet peppered with some very poignant moments.

down-cut-shin-creekFor a nonfiction take on the subject, check out Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky by Kathi Appelt and Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer.  During the Great Depression, this WPA program was started to put women to work and to serve the very poor in remote regions of the country.  These courageous book carriers provided their own horses or mules and were paid  a whopping $28 a month!

miss-rumphius2As far as children’s books, an old favorite of mine is Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney.  Miss Rumphius, a retired librarian, plants lupines all over her community– in order to leave the world a better place.  The message is touching and the illustrations inspiring — it’s a feel good book that just makes you want to go out and DO something!