Voynich Manuscript in the news

A friend of mine has a beautiful sleeve of tattoos based on the bulging and whimsical flora and fauna in The Voynich Manuscript, which has come up in two of my newsfeeds in the last few weeks. This article in the New Yorker talks a lot about the historical theories and contemporary culture surrounding the manuscript (maybe I should join the listserv?) This article in New Scientist discusses a new theory for decoding based on the entropy of distinct words. The idea is that identifying where words are concentrated within an entire text allows you to analyze themes (if the words can be read) or in this case how likely it is that page after page of undecipherable text has actual meaning. The fact words with a high concentration in the astronomical sections are not found in the botanical sections means it is more likely that these words actually have meaning–which is exciting!

I would really like this manuscript to have actual content that can one day be decoded. The X-Files enthusiast in me really *really* wants it to be some kind of lexicon from another planet… 

I wrote a paper on medieval cataloging, and one of the things I learned is that medieval library catalogs existed less to keep record of the collection in a single library and more to let users know what was available in the surrounding area. Individual collections were relatively limited because of the time and expense it took to create a work pre-printing press, so it was helpful to know what other material was within reach. It makes me wonder if any medieval catalogs have any record of who owned the Voynich Manuscript.

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New Piece from Anonymous Book Artist of Edinburgh

Here’s an article with an awesome picture of the new piece from the anonymous book artist of Edinburgh! Hungry baby birds would like some lunch, plz.

In other news, I am so excited about the NEW NEIL GAIMAN BOOK coming out at the same time as the NEW TERRY PRATCHETT BOOK!

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Hulk Smash Library Stereotypes

A library in the Chicago area appears to be crowd sourcing to fund a sculpture of the Incredible Hulk, both to liven up the outside of the building and to SMASH stereotypes that libraries are quiet, dormant environments. The fundraising drive will also boost the library’s graphic novel collection and go towards video editing and graphic design software for the patrons to use. I think this is a SMASHING idea!

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$47,000 settlement to Occupy Librarians

I haven’t heard much about the Occupy movement lately, but this article came up in the Books section of my Google News feed this morning. Apparently the city of NY will be paying $47,000 to the Occupy Library for the destruction of all of the books and equipment that were treated so recklessly when the park was cleared out. I wonder what they’ll do with the money? It says the firm that represented them “will collect $186,000”, but I don’t know if that’s supposed to be from the Occupy Library as payment for representation or also from NYC for some reason.

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Review – The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon

I acquired this book several years ago, either from my best friend or my ex-boyfriend. They both gave me Michael Chabon books around the same time since I liked The Adventures of Cavalier & Klay so much, and I can’t remember who gave me this and who gave me The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. I am a bad friend/ex-girlfriend because I am just now getting to both of them, although in my meek defense they were given to me right before I started grad school and didn’t have the energy to read much besides except old Terry Pratchett and Agatha Christie favorites. I was doing myself no favors leaving this on the shelf, because I LOVED it.

Three adjectives: Vivid, Delightful, Poignant

A young man graduates from college and faces the summer ahead of him… he drinks a lot, and he has a crush on everyone, but Chabon makes all of this just feel like frothy exuberance that is fun to read and so easy to relate to. And this was his very first novel.

I’ve never been to Pittsburgh, but Chabon is able to highlight specific areas of the city–giving the story an authentic, biographical feel–while painting it broadly enough to feel like it could be any languorous college town in the summer. The characters’ clothing, the rooms they inhabit, their dead-end jobs, everything is a little jewel box that makes you really empathize and feel like you wandered aimlessly through this summer right along with them.

Chabon is so very clever when he’s at his best. He uses the summer months as a metaphor and driving element in a couple of different ways, but my favorite was how describes the way May careens into August every year as like riding in an air-conditioned elevator that is shooting to the top of a building. The story is full of wonderful, clever details like this, but it’s always applied with a light touch that keeps the plot from being bogged down by description or device.

One of the reasons I liked this book so much is because it reminded me a lot of how I felt during my early twenties when I graduated from college. I don’t want to presume myself an “enlightened” 28-year-old and act like that was so long ago or that I have gained very much perspective, but it’s still a time I can now look back on with fond embarrassment. I drank too much and had a crush on everyone and worried that people wouldn’t like me because I didn’t know how to act, but all of it was so exciting and charged. Chabon captures and distills this feeling so skillfully and perceptively.

In Conclusion…

I do think I loved this book so much because I could relate to it so much of it, but I also think it is written so skillfully and honestly that many readers will really fall for the characters, their uncertainties, and their fumbling attempts at intimacy. If you like Salinger or Perks of Being a Wallflower, you will probably really like this one as well.

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FRBR User Tasks applied to Software Applications

This post was inspired by reading Karen Coyle’s post from a few years ago that wrestles with FRBR User Tasks, while trying to unpack the searching process of users who conduct research with my company’s customized software applications. It is also an extension of a process I started last summer when I began my current job, that is using FRBR to plan and carry out a project cataloging a collection of software applications. The exciting news is… I am published! I wrote an article about the first stages of this process that will be in this year’s first issue of Information Outlook. It is exciting stuff!

To start with, here are the FRBR User Tasks with brief definitions:
Find: search (with a goal in mind, however abstract.) Basically, “find” what all is out there about your topic
Identify: determine *what* from search results is relevant/useful towards goal of finding more about your topic
Select: determine desired format of relevant results
Obtain: actually get relevant results in desired format

As usual, it is easier for me to understand this if I think about it in terms of an example I can relate to. In this case, I turn to a recent experience purchasing used copies of seasons 1 and 2 of Twin Peaks on half.com.

Find: my initial search was just typing “Twin Peaks” into the website’s search bar
Identify: I narrowed my search results to show just the Movies category; I saw that books/soundtracks/other memorabilia also came up with my first attempt, but right now I’m not interested. After scanning my narrowed results list, I zeroed in on the results related to the show, rather than the movie that came out a few years later.
Select: I knew I wanted DVDs, not VHS or Blu-Ray (if it’s even out on Blu-Ray?), and I decided I’d prefer to buy the two seasons separately. I chose the lowest priced DVDs for each season.
Obtain: I clicked Buy and checked out, excited to soon be drinking coffee, eating donuts and/or pie, and commencing my annual intake of a darn fine program just in time for the 23rd anniversary of Laura Palmer’s death (which will be commemorated by my friend’s Twin Peaks cover band Friday 2/22/13 at the Pinhook in Durham, if any local readers are interested. I can’t decide whether to dress up as Nadine or the Log Lady…)

As Coyle’s blog post points out, not all (or many) searches are this easy to compartmentalize. For example, if I was just trying to learn more about David Lynch and his body of work, I wouldn’t have had such a clear searching goal and the process would be much more serendipitous and meandering. However, FRBR still gives us both definitive language and a good starting point from which to explore the broad topic at hand: users’ searching habits and techniques

So how does this apply to cataloging software applications? Since our software applications catalog is recently birthed and still in a plasmic, mutable phase, I’ve been trying to use FRBR as the framework it was designed to be while determining what characteristics of the applications are important to capture.

Our users are mostly librarians and legal researchers, and their use of the software applications can be broken into two broad categories: Researching and Getting. These two broad categories reflect the most coarsely grained categories of our application users’ research needs–they conduct research to find out about a given area of law, and once they have found adequate results they need to be able to “get” access to them in one form or another.

“Researching” and “Getting” work well as two umbrella terms dividing the four FRBR user tasks. Finding and Identifying are two key steps to most research; first you find what all is available, and then you identify what among the results is useful to you. Getting access is the result of selecting the desired format(s) and then actually obtaining the items for consumption.

Our applications are designed to make these steps easier for users in various stages of the searching process. Some applications are geared more towards the Research phase; since legal research is mostly based on precedent, a user’s goal is often to find out whatever they can about cases in certain areas of law. Some applications are geared more towards the Getting phase. Some users already know what specific cases they want, and so there are applications that allow them to enter citations and then choose the format in which it is sent to them. Most applications are a mixture of both Researching and Getting, so users can choose among different features depending on their different searching needs.

We are still figuring out what all of this analysis means and what all we need to keep track of for the posterity of this catalog, but having FRBR’s language and framework in mind is making the planning process much clearer and simpler. If you subscribe to Information Outlook, please take a look at my article in for more thoughts on this process!

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Review – Little Bee by Chris Leave

I want to introduce a new feature to the blahg–book reviews structured around three summarizing adjectives. Unfortunately my first book review is for a book I didn’t really like. Several of my instructors in library school pointed out that it is a lot easier to talk about what’s wrong with something than what is good about it, so in this spirit I will try to make sure that at least one of the three adjectives in all reviews is not pejorative.

Three adjectives: maudlin, affected, well-intentioned

I came across Little Bee in the breakroom at work. There’s a small bookshelf tucked in the back corner behind the ice machine where people can leave books and magazines they are done with for others to pick up. I had accidentally left my current reading material at home one day (my hour-and-a-half commute is painful without adequate distraction) and Little Bee was the most promising looking offering on this little shelf.

Lets start with the description on the back of the book, which for some reason aims to draw the reader in with a twee and teasing tone that badly reflects the story’s actual alternate attempts to deliver folksy sapience and inflict heart-wrenching emotional stabs upon the reader. The back of the book tells us the plot is a super secret story about a chance encounter between two very different women, and if you tell anyone about the plot details before they have read it themselves you will be RUINING THE FUN. The story is actually a chronicle of a young Nigerian woman’s horrifying journey between her home country and England, and I guess the publisher decided it might as well be wrapped up as a super secret surprise because it is pretty well-worn territory. The busy western woman Sarah learns to deal with her complicated-but-by-comparison-uncomplicated western life after befriending the sage refugee girl Little Bee who has gone through horrible and graphically described circumstances that leave her hauntingly-wise-beyond-her-years.

IDK if there is a word that encompasses “using a character only as a plot device that tells you about the protagonist/drives the plot forward.” An example might be how Mercutio doesn’t really have much to do in Romeo and Juliet except to stand by Romeo as a true friend and (spoilers…) die. This is fine, because Mercutio is one of about two dozen characters and he’s in like three scenes. He doesn’t have to be all that fleshed out, because we get to know him only enough to basically like him and then react accordingly empathetically when he is killed.
This device is not fine when the character-who-is-basically-just-a-plot-device is a constant presence in the story. Sarah’s son, Charlie, basically exists to be adorable, to be ignored, and to then be extremely valued after something-horrible almost happens to him. His “child-like” grammar is kind of like the cutesy backwards R on the Toys’R’Us sign. It’s a signal that he is a child, but it felt unrealistic to me, and it made him feel much more like a symbol than a character you can care about. As a result, when the something-horrible seems to have happened to him, it’s hard to really care or get beyond the obvious fact that it is a plot device for Sarah to reanalyze her priorities.

Maybe most author’s perspectives are affected to some degree, unless you are writing something semi-autobiographical. I wasn’t convinced by the affected perspective of a young refugee woman though–especially in the portions devoted to Little Bee’s ideas about how to “explain” England to her friends in the village. Likewise the kid Charlie’s affected “bad grammar” tone was unrealistic, and it distracted from the story by making me wonder whether the author has spent much time with very many children.

Despite the sticky-sweet delivery, the issues the author addresses in the story–refugees’ rights and the terror of being sent back to a country where almost certain death awaits–are important and real. There are several kind of “meta” feeling points. Little Bee observes that people in the “developed” world enjoy watching scary movies and reading horrifying stories because they do not have any real terror in their own lives. The English woman character is the editor of a magazine, and she struggles with the fact that she wants to write about important social issues but knows frivolous topics will get more readers. And maybe these instances are an indication that the author is well aware that this story is a perfect example of wrapping an important social issue up with a cute cover, a twee blurb, and events within that will satisfactorily horrify its generally blase western audience while secretly getting them to think more about important issues affecting other people.

In Conclusion…
In spite of these good intentions, Little Bee left me feeling annoyed. I think the novel was aiming for a similar feeling to Dave Eggers’ What is the What, which really enjoyed. I think the difference between Little Bee and What is the What is that while they deal with somewhat similar topics (refugees from conflict-ridden and war-torn African countries recalling their journeys and how they react to the western culture they now find themselves in), What is the What is based on an actual story and as far as I can tell, Little Bee is not. Unfortunately, the writing wasn’t good enough to transport me or suspend my disbelief.

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Another Readers Advisory

These readers advisories are from another class assignment we had to do in Collection Development, and my cool group chose to develop a collection of travel DVDs for a hypothetical public library in a small town with an active foreign exchange student program. It was nice, because I got to write-up Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations, which is my favorite show ever that is not The Golden Girls, anything Jim Henson, MST3K, or originally aired on BBC. (That sentence originally just read “…originally aired on BBC” but then I thought of like a million of my favorite shows. It is wishful thinking because I have been writing my ding dang masters paper for so long that I haven’t gotten to hang out and watch TV and do craft projects in like foreverrrrr, wahhhhhh.)

Globe Trekker – Middle East (2003)

This two-disc set from the travel company responsible for Lonely Planet travel guides provides a great survey of Middle Eastern geography and culture. Several hosts travel through Jordan, Beirut, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait, Dubai, Oman, Israel, and the Sinai, all the while letting viewers in on the local customs, cuisine, entertainment, transportation, and other cultural signifiers they encounter. Globe Trekker episodes have a more intimate feel than many travel series; professional footage is mixed with hand-held clips, and the guides are often talking over their shoulder or shot from eye-level, making it feel as though you are lucky enough to be their travelling companion, rather than a viewer at home. A selection that highlights the beauty in the culture and scenery of Middle Eastern countries seemed particularly important in today’s political climate, so we were happy to find a resource which depicts the beautiful parts of the Middle East without glossing over aspects of the turbulent reality, such as battle torn Kuwait. This set is available for about thirty dollars, and Globe Trekker provides great complimentary content –such as guides to lodging and cuisine–on their website.

Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations (1995-2010)

Although our collection will primarily focus on world travel, it seemed pertinent to include a selection that provides a unique look at the United States. Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations was a program that aired on PBS from 1995 through 2010; the hosts traveled across America, visiting 39 states, in the name of viewing “outsider art” or “folk art”. This is art created because an individual felt the drive to create, (for example, a landscape of concrete dinosaurs in the backyard) in spite of a lack of formal or traditional training. Often overlooked, outsider art can provide a unique glimpse into pockets of distinctly local, charming, and often strange American culture, and the show does an excellent job of exploring these uncharted waters while maintaining an informed, yet humorous and off-the-cuff tone. We considered obtaining a DVD entitled Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations – Eastern Weaseling, because several episodes are devoted to outsider art in North Carolina. DVDs are available through the program’s website (http://www.rarevisionsroadtrip.com/) and at the low cost of $19.95 it was very tempting. However, this DVD has been tabled for the time being. The program’s niche appeal is both a strength and a weakness, and we elected to choose a DVD with broader appeal and geographic range to represent North America. In the meantime, we will recommend patrons take advantage of the opportunity to stream episodes for free via the Kansas City Public Television website.

The National Parks – America’s Best Idea (2009)

Emmy award-winning Ken Burns’ 2009 The National Parks is a six-disc set that tours America’s national parks and brings viewers into their stunningly beautiful scenery, while telling the story of the history of the parks’ inception, creation, the work that goes into maintaining their pristine beauty, and the environmental and cultural preservation they represent. Burns’ signature style mixes historical photographs with beautiful contemporary footage to weave a compellingly told and illustrated narrative across the coastal United States and into Alaska and Hawaii. This set is a good fit for the collection, since it covers a lot of North American geography, it is the work of a renowned director with excellent reviews, it is aesthetically and educationally robust, and it is affordably priced online at less than sixty dollars, bringing costs down to less than ten dollars per disc. Breaking up the set so patrons can borrow the discs individually will broaden the circulation options, and we will also let patrons know that portions of the series may be viewed for free online via the PBS website.

Globe Trekker – Ultimate Australia (2011)

This two-disc Globe Trekker title is an update to 2004’s Globe Trekker – Australia. This DVD set repurposes footage from a previous trip down under while adding new sights and scenes, including the famous “big red rock” Uluru, traditional Aboriginal rituals, historical Port Alfred Prison, and wildlife all over the island and its coasts. Contemporary city life is also visited, via a rousing bachelorette (or “hen”) party and the annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney. As always, Globe Trekker provides an excellent range of topics and locations while making the viewer feel as if he or she is right on sight with the host, and maintaining tone and content that is relevant to viewers of all ages. At about thirty dollars for two discs, this set is also within the price range of our collection budget. Complementary content is also available through the Globe Trekker website.

…price, relevancy, and covering all of the globe were our main considerations. (The portions above only represent my contributions to the project.) What’s that you say? You *declined* to purchase your FAVORITE show for the library’s collection? Yes, yes I did, for the purposes of this project I’m sorry to say I did. Partly, this is because we had to decide on two resources (out of a list of twelve total) that didn’t make the cut. This was the most difficult part of the assignment! As you can see though, we decided The National Parks was a better fit for our population for the first round of collecting. If this was a real scenario, instead of just an exercise for class, I would advocate for Rare Visions to be purchased at the next possible juncture, because it is just that awesome. You should watch an episode or two! As Lavar Burton says, you don’t have to take my word for it…

And, let’s end on this lovely note:

“She said can we get married at The Straaaaaaaaaaand?”

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