In the Club: Book Discussion Wins and Fails

Boss came to me a few months ago with an idea: patrons had approached her who couldn’t make the current club’s Monday afternoon meetings, or who couldn’t finish the 400+ page selections before the club met. They had constraints on their time, like jobs during the day, kids, etc. So could Boss and I work on a book club for the busy adult, with short selections and a more convenient meeting time? Thus was born the Short on Time Book Club, meeting Saturday afternoons to discuss books and plays of 250 pages or less.

It’s truthfully been a bit slow to start out. Last month I led the discussion on The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. It’s a 1959 short novel that has influenced the likes of Stephen King, and it’s one of the most terrifying novels ever. So it’s got lots of street cred. However, we only have one skinny little copy in the entire system, and the rest of our copies of the text are wedged in an 832-page monster anthology that will bring shudders to most and perhaps PTSD flashbacks to former English majors. (Ugh, I hated that early American gothic literature class so much…) I’m sure the intimidating packaging of Hill House contributed to the small turnout:

My home copy and the thin library copy, which looks cool and Hitchcockian.
My home copy and the thin library copy, which looks cool and Hitchcockian.
"No no, you only have to read 174 pages of this!"
“No no, you only have to read 174 pages of this!”

Were there lessons to be learned from my first book discussion? Absolutely!

  1. Judge a book by its cover – the cover the library has the most of. If it’s not portable or it looks like a textbook / torture device, people aren’t going to pick it up.
  2. Classic authors’ shorter works are often anthologized.
  3. Newer authors’ shorter works are generally not anthologized. Or if they are, their covers are sexy.
  4. Don’t feel obligated to choose a title that’s familiar. Take a risk with something new and interesting, read a couple reviews online, then dive right in and discover the book along with the book club.

But despite my book selection missteps, I was really happy with the discussion questions I compiled! Here they are, starting with some general book club questions and moving more into Hill House:

  • Icebreaker: Talk about another creepy book you’ve read, a movie you’ve seen, etc.
  • What did you think of the book?
  • What did you like and dislike?
  • Was it a quick and engaging read?
  • Who was your favorite character and your least favorite character?
  • What are some major themes, and how are they similar or different from other horror stories?
  • What was the most terrifying moment to you?
  • How do the different characters perceive the house?
  • How do the characters relate to one another? What sort of social groups do they form, and why?
  • What are the expectations imposed on each character by family, gender, age, etc.?
  • The house is described as having an oppressive atmosphere. How do the characters, specifically Eleanor, experience oppression in other ways?
  • Why does the house seem to focus on Eleanor?
  • Is the house evil inherently, or is the house only affecting Eleanor’s own perspective?
  • Was Eleanor unhinged before coming to Hill House? What caused her final unhinging?
  • Who or what is responsible for the paranormal activity? Does it exist at all?
  • Characters acknowledge that they could just leave. Why do they stay?
  • The narration shifts several times over the course of the novel. When and how does it shift, and why?
  • The first page states that “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolutely reality.” How does this tie in to the overall story?
  • Several times, Eleanor has the thought “Journeys end in lovers meeting.” Does she meet her lover?
  • Do you think Eleanor was a good caretaker of her mother?
  • Dr. Montague has a certain approach to the paranormal, and so does his wife. Do either of their methods work?
  • Horror is an individual experience. How do the characters experience Hill House differently?
  • How does the novel make use of color?
  • What does the house represent to the characters? To you?
  • Aside from her horror stories, Jackson also often wrote about raising her four children, and she published her stories in women’s magazines like Woman’s Day and Good Housekeeping. How does this knowledge enhance your reading of Hill House?
  • BONUS LIT CRIT NERDINESS: discuss themes of family dysfunction, sexuality and sexual oppression, the nurture versus nature debate, the construct of the hysterical female in psychology / media / other horror narratives.

For further reading:

  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  • House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
  • We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  • Further watching: The Haunting (1963) directed by Robert Wise

If you’re familiar with the text and can think of any other discussion questions or further readings, please leave a comment! Happy clubbing!

(P.S. – I do not apologize for the post title. Somebody had to make sure that donated 50 Cent CD played okay and didn’t skip before we gave it to tech services for cataloging!)


22,226: the Home Broadband Survey 2013

So Librarian in Black let me know recently about a report put out by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which shows where the U.S. stands in terms of home broadband connections.

According to the report, which breaks down the results by gender, age, race, education, income, and urbanity, about 70% of the country has a broadband connection at home and 56% of the country has a smartphone. Of the smartphone owners, about 10% have no broadband connection to a computer. So, combining the smartphone owners and home broadband owners, it’s fair to say that 80% of the country has ready and fast access to the Internet. There’s also still a small 3% out there who still have a dial-up connection.

The study didn’t mention any overlap between the 3% of dial-up users and 10% of smartphone-only users, so just for fun, let’s pretend they don’t overlap and thus 83% of our population has some sort of connection to the internet in their home. That still means a whopping 17% of our population does not have any home internet connection whatsoever. That’s nearly 1 in 6 people! They either are not connecting to the internet at all (which is probably fine for about half of them), or they’re finding ways to connect to the internet outside the home: friends, relatives, school, work, wireless in restaurants and cafes, leeching from their neighbor’s unsecured wi-fi connection, or – you guessed it – the public library.

Now, let’s make this data a little more real by applying it to the city where I work. Remember, 83% of people are connected in some way. (It would actually be really fun to sit and compare the broadband data against the census data along age, education, and income for the city and for my branch’s neighborhood, but then this post would never get done.) The Census Bureau estimated the 2012 population at 130,741 residents, so if 17% of city residents don’t have a home internet connection, that equals 22,226 people who are offline. That in itself is the population of a small city. For those 22,226 people, our five library locations are the only free, secure, and oftentimes convenient way to get online. On top of that, there is always assistance from tech-savvy staff and free computer literacy classes. No other body of government is providing free computer literacy classes to the public except the library.

Even if half doesn’t feel a need to be connected (another blog post for another date, that one), there are still 11,113 people who are interested in connecting and are looking outside their homes to go online. And that number doesn’t include many of the undocumented immigrants in the city, nor people travelling from out of state, nor the usually-connected residents whose connection is temporarily down (if that’s 0.5% of the population and 1/4 heads to the library to get online, that’s 163 patrons muttering to themselves about how long it takes Comcast to send out a maintenance van), nor the seniors who normally don’t use computers but get a letter from a government agency directing them to fill out a form on the agency’s website, or they want to see Facebook photos of their new grandchild who was born in another state. Does that bring the number to 12,000? 15,000? 25,000? With this in mind, why are budgets still shrinking when it’s obvious that public libraries are providing such a vital service to populations that are at a great technological and social disadvantage?

Kids’ RA, and some professional development

The last few months have been crazy busy, both in Libraryland and personally. The dust has finally settled after moving to a new place in June, last month I visited PA to see family and friends, and after nearly four years of relying on public transit, I have my own set of wheels. Being sans vehicle wasn’t a big deal in Chicago, and even in New Haven I could get around with the buses, walking, and the occasional car rental, but I feel like my world has expanded about 3000%. One of the biggest barriers preventing me from being more professionally active has now been removed. No more futile playing with Google Maps looking for public transit routes that don’t involve a taxi ride, or walking along highways without sidewalks, and no more worrying about returning rentals on time with full tanks of gas! On Friday I went to my first association meeting, which was a great experience – I got to talk / listen to other professionals and see what’s going on outside of my own librarian system, and find out there are lots of opportunities to get involved that I didn’t even know existed. I don’t get to use my web design skills much nowadays, and I’m itching to get out from behind the library walls and go out into communities. Hopefully, it’s going to happen in the next few months.

The branch has been closed on Saturdays for the summer, so Mondays are even crazier than before, with an overflowing DVD cart from four days of an unattended book drop, stacks of children’s books of unknown provenance hanging out on every available surface, summer reading prizes to give out, and an outdoor concert series and piemaking contest in the park right next to the branch. And insatiable young readers, who have been coming out in higher numbers than ever before, seeking out their next book with quite specific criteria in mind, criteria that doesn’t necessarily come in subject headings.

I’ve added some new weapons to my reader’s advisory arsenal lately: AR BookFinder US, which I discovered as a bookmark on a computer at the main branch, the Barnes and Noble website, and even Pinterest. AR BookFinder and Barnes and Noble are great because you can narrow results down by age, something that isn’t built into our catalog. AR BookFinder also has a TON of topics you can choose under their advanced search, such as Adventure-Fantasy and Disabilities-Speech Impaired. The downside to such detailed search criteria? You’ll have to sort through every title in the big series, like Magic Tree House, to get standalone books or smaller series in the genre. Perhaps AR can fix this with a “does not contain” search limiter.

RA of the Day: A few weeks ago we had a super little patron who had just read Close to Famous by Joan Bauer, and she wanted to follow it up with more food fiction. I wasn’t getting many chapter books with the “Baking – Juvenile Fiction” heading in our catalog, so I took to the Internet, where I found Barnes and Noble has categories for food, recipes, agriculture, miscellaneous food fiction, and cooking and baking within their children’s books. Score. Five minutes later, she was happily using the self-checkout to take home Pie by Sarah Weeks.

In my search I also came across a Children’s Food Fiction board on Pinterest. It never even occurred to me that while I’m drooling over cookie recipes and creating my virtual dream home, I’m essentially making pathfinders. This is such a great library tool and it would be so easy to find a book, write a sentence, and BAM! it’s up there for patrons. I’m drooling thinking about how easily I could make a board recommending memoirs and dystopian fiction and old classics and standalone graphic novels. The emphasis on visuals means Pinterest is especially helpful for children’s titles, where the cover design clues you in on the age of the intended audience.

The caveat: to directly link to the library catalog, Pinterest has to be able to pull images from it. It’s not working for our catalog, so that means I’d either have to A) create a usability nightmare with links to Amazon instead of the OPAC and branch availability information that will change as soon as I hit “paste,” or B) abandon Pinterest as a possibility for now. In reality it’s been a struggle finding the time to do any sort of pathfinders, especially with higher priorities like developing our adult health nonfiction collection and weeding history. But one day, though, I’ll get to make them!

Looking for public domain / open content media?

I’m having luck with the Creative Commons Image Search. You type your search term into the box, then select one of thirteen sources for images, sounds, videos, and written content. Based on my extremely thorough research (which consisted of typing “corgi” into the search box, playing with the permissions, selecting a source, and cooing) it seems that Flickr and Wikimedia Commons have the best quality photos. Flickr perhaps requires a little more patience, though. Since it’s a social sharing site, you tend to get rows and rows of similar photos from people dumping out the contents of their SD card. However, there are some gems from amateur photographers that make it worth sifting through the search results.

Corgi by stijnbokhove
By stijnbokhove
Corgi by mccoughlin
By mccoughlin
Corgi by evocateur
By evocateur

Readers’ advisory without subscriptions (and the merits of Wikipedia)

A lack of RA subscriptions is something I’ve been dealing with lately. Being at Dominican trained me into just going to Booklist, but 1) that was a college library, and 2) that library served library science students. My library now doesn’t have Booklist or NoveList, so I’ve been falling back on Amazon, Google, and what little knowledge I possess of the prolific popular writers and the new crop of children’s authors that have come onto the scene since I was a pup.

A brief search for some RA tools earlier this week led me to LibraryThing, a neat little site that’s like Goodreads for librarians and hardcore readers dabbling in amateur librarying. I came across them a couple years ago when I used their forums to track down one of the many barely-remembered chapter books from my childhood. Anyway, they have a book suggesting tool that will show you some similar titles. It appears that if you have an account with them, they can tailor recommendations based on your reading history, but the tool doesn’t seem to be working right now. They’ve also got an UnSuggestor that brings up the least likely book to be on the same shelf as your particular book. It’s a fun tool to play with, but it will take me some time to find a practical application for it.


Wikipedia’s article on RA also has some great ideas that I’ll have to explore.

I know just mentioning the name Wikipedia injects horror into some people like it’s an academic Voldemort and it took some flak a few years ago, but let’s be realistic. I’m sure dozens (if not hundreds) of librarians have collaborated to create that article, and thousands more have read it. How many professionals collaborate on the average pathfinder? And then how many users put that average pathfinder to work? How accessible is it? How often is that pathfinder updated? In how many different formats does it exist, and are they updated simultaneously?

There is no other single and free source that will quickly give you hard information like author bibliographies, Caldecott medal winners, and directors’ upcoming films, not to mention non-RA hard info like country capitals, dates and locations for significant events, typical ingredients in regional dishes, and word disambiguations. Sure, Google can collect all that information, but each page you click has a different page layout, flow of text, audience, and motive before even considering the trustworthiness of the source. After all, Google displays their results by popularity, not by merit. More often than not, Wikipedia editors have already combed through those Google results, plucked out the most authoritative ones, and neatly given you the URL in their References or Further Reading section at the end of the article.

So is it lazy to use Wikipedia? Considering the average patrons’ needs, the library system’s limited holdings, and the limited time I can dedicate to exploring those holdings, I’d say in many cases it’s the most practical option. I could comb through Google pages until I find a source with an .edu extension, or I could search the catalog for the possibility of finding a relevant print encyclopedia like I did in Reference class in library school. Had we but world enough and time. So why waste the patron’s time – and the time of other waiting patrons – looking for information that might not be there in the first place at the branch library? I think that’s the more important question for me to ask.


For quite a long time I thought you couldn’t combine your stray PDF files into one, but apparently it can be done. What’s more, it’s straightforward, requires no downloads (aside from your new PDF file), and it takes only a couple seconds. A quick Google search brought me to PDFMerge! in particular, and it worked so well and so easily I haven’t even explored the alternatives yet.


Looks like you can also split PDFs in case you realized you merged / scanned / converted / etc. things out of order. The only limitations I’ve seen is the size limit of 15 mb, but that’s well within the range of most PDFs people will be using.