Simple Joy of Creating Things

What better way to get back to posting than an episode of Simple Joys. On today’s episode of the simple joys, we feature the sewing machine. Using a sewing machine is one of the most traditional ways of creating things because the concept of sewing is still the same, even after the rise of technology. Whether you use your hands to sew or a machine, the joy is always the same. Once you lift the final product from the table to take a better look at what you created, the feeling cannot be explained.

When you are at home and have nothing to do, you can take up a new sewing hobby. I know most of you will say that it’s boring or for older people, but there is a soothing and calming feeling that comes with using a sewing machine.

Whether you are a professional or an amateur, there is something for all of you. After all, no one started as an expert in sewing; they all started new to it, made their way to the top, and made clothes for them and public consumption.

When I talk about sewing, people’s minds immediately think about making clothes, but there are many more you can do with a sewing machine. Sure, clothes are the most common things to make using sewing machines, but people also make blankets and quilts.

Imagine making your clothes without spending money at the mall only to find you could have made it yourself.

Another fantastic thing about sewing is that buying your fabric is cheaper than having to buy clothes from the mall. When sewing your clothes, you always have your size in mind, which is not the case when it comes to you go to buy clothes in stores. More often than not, many people do not get their size when they are at stores, especially the petite and the plus size. Having and learning to use a sewing machine can cut on the stress of going to buy something only to find out, it is not available in your size, sad, honestly.

The biggest joy about a sewing machine is looking at your piece in action, whether a piece of clothing on a person or you or a mat on the floor or curtains on the windows, having to say I made that, brings you immense joy. The same way fashion designers look at their clothes on the runway and cry when they see how beautifully they turned out to look or feel against your skin. Because you gave up time and money and many mistakes along the way and way too many pricks to your hands, the result is always overwhelming, especially if you had to go a lot to get it done.

I love hosting people over, and I love showing them the things I have made, they are my friends and have good things to say, getting appreciated by other people feels terrific. Sure we are always told that the only appreciation that matters is from yourself, but there is something special about other people appreciating your work; it boosts your morale, and you want to create more stuff.

Sewing works for me because it calms nerves, and it can also work for you. You only need patience. Skill is not that important when starting, and you can learn the skill as you go along, so try it out, I promise the feeling of seeing your creation is worth every tiny prick of that needle.

A Parting Gift

You don’t have to spend a bundle to give a good gift. There are lots of things, say, under a couple of hundred dollars. Use your imagination. Most of the time I don’t even spend that—not on a library worker’s salary, which isn’t the highest. But when it came time to chip in for a watch for my boss, I forked over a whopping $50. We were pooling our resources and there aren’t many of us, so all we could collect was just under $200. Was it going to be possible to get a nice model for this amount? I started to search the Web. He was retiring and I wanted something that was long lasting, reliable, and attractive. I decided on gold tone as these watches look elegant. I could have selected a sports watch, but I knew he had one. You can get a lot of the best mens watches for under $200 online, at least when it comes to fashion watches. The gold tone watches were made by reputable companies like Movado and Burberry. They are sold in high-end department stores and many sites online. I compared prices and went for the best buy. No one in our worker’s group objected. My boss’s parting gift would be quite appropriate because I selected good design and functionality.

We all planned a party at which time we would bestow the gift. At first I thought one gift seemed meagre, but we could do better as a group. We would have the event after work in the back lounge where there is a large table. We would lay out various pot luck dishes and desserts, including a retirement cake. We would bring a camera and upload the photos on Instagram under the library’s account. Thus, we would document his day so he could remember where he had worked for so many years.

A watch is the most classic retirement gift I know of. It is corny and symbolic, but it is just right for the occasion. We wanted our boss to think of us in the future and remember the good times we had in the library. It is a fun place to work because the atmosphere is relaxed and casual. You are always helping people find what they need—even very obscure information. Now it was time for him to leave us and we would have a new boss, someone promoted from within. One day she would get a gold watch as well.

The party was a roaring success and the photos showed the many happy faces. The employees at the library love to celebrate our milestones, be they birthdays, anniversaries, marriages, or retirement. We are a close bunch that has shared many meaningful occasions. What is your work environment like? Not all are as warm and cordial as mine. This was another big day for one of us and my boss would be leaving in style—wearing his new watch, of course. He didn’t seem to notice that it wasn’t real gold because he loved the design.

New Shoes!

I assume you wouldn’t get excited about me getting new nursing shoes. Am I right? They are pretty boring as work shoes go. I knew you have seen them. They are not particularly stylish. They are more basic than anything else with a solid sole and some inner lining. But ask any nurse on her feet for a shift or more at a time, and she will tell you that they are a godsend. Getting a comfortable, soft pair of shoes for work is my idea of heaven because I have problem areas. A well-constructed shoe made just for the nursing profession can make the difference between what seems like an inordinately long day and a normal one. The leather is practically broken in. Yes, a normal person can certainly buy a popular choice of nursing shoes because they are designed for sore feet like me. Some of us have no real choice. We can’t wear street shoes and go home without some pain. And if you have a bunion, you need a special-fitting style.

Nursing shoes do not cost more or less than regular shoes and you can get them on line. They come in virtually all sizes and widths—a feature that is super important. A good fit is not always found with regular shoes as they are limited to the basic sizes. Most nurses nowadays wear a form of sneakers or athletic shoe which would not be suitable for me at work. So I have opted for a designer look for a few more dollars that resembles a street shoe with more support. Having tried every pad in the Dr. Scholl’s aisle at the drugstore, I gave up long ago fixing my old shoes and making them work. I work in a nice office and the one time I came in tennis shoes, I was teased a lot. I vowed that it would be only that one time. I tried to explain to colleagues about bad feet but got little sympathy for the most part.

What I like about some nurses shoes is that they are slip on and slip resistant if you have a tendency to lose your balance. They come in colors to match nursing uniforms and scrubs so you have a lot of nice choices beyond beige, black, and brown. I find that the lack of a strap over my arch is nice since my arch is on the high side and the top of my food gets really swollen. People are used to seeing me in this form of nurses’ clog and I have almost started a trend at the office. People ask about where I found them and I have seen a few copycat looks lurking around the accounting department. I think I have solved my problem and that of a few others with similar bad feet. Our boss was sick and tired of all the complaining anyway and isn’t about to say a word about the rather casual attire that has suddenly become popular.

Take Another Look at Our Periodicals!

People don’t know half of what you can find in a library. They depend too much on other sources and what is recommended to them by word of mouth. Let me tell you that there isn’t anything you can’t find. We have many visitors who ask for consumer reviews of products they want to buy and we carry dozens of magazines to accommodate them. You can research in a few minutes and get started on your purchasing journey.

Imagine one day when a patron wanted information on buying a quality hot tub at a respectable price. Why not just go to the vendor? He wanted “evidence” as found in consumer reviews of hot tubs. I can certainly understand that. When you are about to make a big purchase, you want to read about the features and benefits and a testimonial or two. I led him to just the right place. The library is super organized and it takes no time at all to find what you are looking form. Let’s never talk about libraries being obsolete and the Internet being the information resource of preference. There are things you just can’t find on line.

So we searched through the magazines and found this description of the ideal hot tub. The issue is whether the patron would be able to order the exact one that corresponds to this description. He wanted an attractive modern design with beautiful LED exterior lighting and a waterfall effect where water spills over the side. He wanted durability, top flight construction, and a floating effect that minimizes contact with the ground.

Exclusive Moto-Massage®DX

The original moving jet, now updated to provide not one, but two powerful water streams sweeping up and down the length of your back.

Wireless remote control

Adjust spa functions, such as lighting and music, while you’re in the spa or from up to 30 feet away. Then, rest the remote safely in its bar top docking station.

Exceptional filtration

Tri-X/No bypass filtration—a Highlife exclusive: 325 sq. feet of effective filtration area is matched to the power of the jet pumps, so 100% of the water passes through the filters 100% of the time. Plus, dishwasher-safe Tri-X filters come standard.

Energy efficiency

Multi-layer foam insulation means heat stays in, making HotSpring Highlife spas among the most energy efficient you can own.

After making this information his checklist, the patron started to research stores that sell this brand. I told him to allow for at least two or three choices in case the price was too high on his preferred model. We took another look at the consumer reviews to see if they had comparisons in addition to the hot tub featured as “your best bet.” I also recommend side by side reviews. We then found some stores in the area that can order the right hot tub as they had only a demo model. It would only take a month and it would be up and running in his back yard.

The Archive Room

The library is still the ultimate resource hands down. Take that, you online diehards. And I am not the only person to say so. This venerable brick and mortar structure that exists in every town houses most everything you need to research a topic; and, yes, you can also go on the Internet in the computer room.

Subjects can range from the practical to the outlandish and everything in between. Just ask the librarian if you don’t know where to go. Don’t be shy. Some people miss the archives room because it is off to the side of the main area; and if people do know about it, they think it is for rare items only. It is a must, however, for patrons of all types. You never know what you will find. Important documents are kept in storage—many withering blissfully with age. It may seem a bit old fashioned, but it is great fun to browse. As with other library assets, things are appropriately arranged and easy to navigate. It is a marvel of organization. Once smitten with the process, you will no doubt want to return.

One visitor recently asked about dehumidifiers of all things. I think he was about to make a purchase and was a bit overwhelmed. Why he thought the library was the fast way to get knowledge, who knows. He was right. We did have some brochures and pamphlets in the archives room in a section devoted to appliances. People often lose their instruction booklets after a period of time. The patron didn’t have to even check these out overnight, although you certainly can. A quick perusal gave him what he needed to know about sizes, prices, operation, and caveats. What is interesting here is that dehumidifiers are used in the archive room itself to protect old documents from light, extreme temperatures, and moisture. He had the devices right under his nose to evaluate first hand.

A dehumidifier is a simple electrical plug-in device that comes in various sizes and sucks out moisture in a given space. It can be regulated as needed. Some sophisticated models that are used in museums and library archive rooms are a little pricey. At home use is often devoted to excess moisture that causes coughing and respiratory discomfort, and people are often looking for the quietest dehumidifier they can find, to make it easier to sleep while it’s running. Dehumidifiers are also helpful in combating certain allergens. Our visitor easily narrowed down his parameters and was able to select a model suitable for his needs. He did become a bit fascinated with the ones interspersed throughout the archive room, which is not surprising.

While he asked questions, we were only able to point him in the direction of resource material. We are not consultants on products! We did, of course, employ dehumidifiers for storage areas and protective purposes; but that was where we drew the line. Someone technical no doubt selected and installed them for our particular job. Librarians and staff are on hand to direct research efforts and let patrons know of little known facts. They are worth their weight in gold. If you are stuck online and not finding what you want, the library is the best place to go.

Oddly Romantic Gift?

If my boyfriend would ask me, I would tell him what to get me for my birthday, Christmas, or Valentine’s Day. However, he has a mind of his own. Sometimes he comes up with the oddest things he thinks are romantic gifts. They traditionally are not. Consider the following story.

While working in the library on a normal day, my boyfriend happened to be on premises one afternoon. He was sitting at a large wooden table with his laptop open in front of him. Did he want me to see him? I have no doubt! Nonetheless, he was engrossed in some online research and I was dying to know all about it. In retrospect he was looking up an item he wanted to give me for a gift. Perhaps he hoped I would take a peek and make my own selection. It didn’t happen.

A few days later, he took me to dinner for my birthday and presented me with a rather large and heavy box, dutifully but not elegantly wrapped. Was I surprised. It was a concealed carry weapon holster made for women. I guess that means it was a little smaller to carry a modest-sized pistol a lady would be likely to carry on her person. But wait, there’s more! Inside the holder was a gun!

Yes, he said, he had researched it in front of me in order to get inspiration about what would be right for me. He was worried about a rash of burglaries in the neighborhood and felt it was time for some self- protection. Mmmm. I didn’t walk home in the dark from the library and robberies were not likely in a place that did not do transactions with money. No matter, he said, it was time. You never know when or where a threat will transpire and you had to be ready.

Okay. I was game. The holster, after all, was particularly nice. All leather with some heavy stitching and a rivet or two for show. I could immediately see, upon examining some nice etched scrollwork, that female gun carriers do require carry options that are quite distinct from those for men. For one thing, apart from the taste for decoration, women’s bodies are a different shape, and what is comfortable on a lady may not be on a man.

A concealed holster is a unique animal and must have an appropriate design. I see that my boyfriend had got it just right in terms of both comfort and concealment. Someone had done a lot of research in this area. He said that the set he selected had been endorsed by thousands of female shooters and gun carriers and he felt particularly satisfied with his choice.

The holster by the way had a nice leather matching belt so you could wear it around the waist and position the gun to your side for concealment. To me this is preferable to an ankle band or mock purse. As startled as I was at the gift, it was practical and useful; plus, it made me feel super safe.

Sand and Buff!

I went to a second-hand store with my friend Jenna and found a great bookcase for my ever-growing collection of books. I loved it but it had some dings and the color was kind of ugly. Jenna mentioned that I could sand it all down and repaint it. I am not really big on manual and she knows that, so I was surprised at the suggestion. But she said it would be easy and I finally caved. The bookcase is really cute! Anyway, we haggled the owner down to $10 so I figured what was the worst that could happen? I waste a couple of days and I am out $10? I’ve experimented with enough recipes to know that sometimes you really just have to see what happens.

We got the bookcase back to my place and I asked Jenna how I should start. She told me that she had one of the best air compressors on the market and some tools I could borrow, and the way she explained it, it sounded ideal. Her whole family works in construction so she is super handy. I think she felt bad for me and offered to help but once she planted the idea in my head, I really wanted to do it myself. You know that expression too many cooks in the kitchen? I was afraid that if she stayed to help, that would be the case. She brought everything I’d need the next day, so I could get started. Then she walked me through how to turn everything on and how to attach it all. We went to the hardware store and picked out a new paint color (I chose seafoam green). We hung out for awhile and then she had to go. It was just me, the bookcase, and Jenna’s tools out in the yard. It was a little intimidating, but I felt the same way I do when I approach a new recipe: just because it is unfamiliar does not mean it is impossible.

Her compressor is electric, but we had an extension cord running from the backyard outlet on the deck so I could operate it out there. I didn’t want the dust or paint getting all over my house, but the deck is fine. I got the sanding attachment set up just the way she told me and maybe I just wasn’t doing it right. The compressor kept kicking on and it was very loud. The sander was kind of fighting to get away from me, too. I toughed it out for awhile and got as much of it done that way as I could stand, and then I gave up and did the last bits by hand. I have to say, my arms were pretty sore so I sort of wish I had stuck with the sander. It got the dinged bits smoothed out much better than I did when I did it by hand.

After that experience, though, I was a little nervous setting up the paint sprayer. But let me tell you—that was a totally different experience. I thinned the paint like Jenna told me using water. She recommended setting the PSI to 45 and had even showed me how to do it so that was what I did. I got started with that and wow. I have no idea how long it would have taken me to paint it by hand with a brush, but it was more time than I would have been willing to put in.

I did the first coat in about a half hour, and some of that was figuring out how to work it. The second coat took me only twenty minutes.

I was lucky that it didn’t rain or anything overnight because I left everything—bookcase, tools and all, outside. I cleaned the paint out of the paint gun and cleaned up the sander but even with wheels, Jenna’s compressor is bulky and kind of a pain for me to move. She can get it going like a pro but I just wasn’t as good as her.

Sunday Jenna came back to gather up her tools and helped me get the bookcase in place in my living room. It looks great. So the final verdict on my air compressor review is this: if I ever get another piece of furniture secondhand, I would definitely use the paint sprayer again. But I don’t think I would use the sander. Jenna says that it can take the paint off of a car, and I believe her! She also told me that I need to lift weights and get my arm strength up, lol!

Monthly Newsletter Time Again!

I have a recurring job that I truly love, because it publicizes news about books in the library. It is a labor of love, but surely not a chore at all. It is a task that rolls around every month that requires my time and concentration. I put together the best items of interest in one publication, staple it, and send it off by snail mail. It’s as easy as pie.

There is much to tell in the world of reading and the sphere of books. New offerings are always coming out to tempt diehard readers to pick up yet another tome or to go online and download. I prefer to give people something concrete and tangible they can put in their hands and peruse at their leisure. I want them to keep it around. With information about the latest happenings in the reading world at your fingertips, you can choose your favorite method of indulgence from a mystery novel and historical fiction to travel or romance. For me, once I start a good book, I can’t put it down (or turn it off as the case may be). The way you read is insignificant compared to the enjoyment attained.

I mentioned the stapler and I want to give a shout out right now to this handy device without which the newsletter would not be a complete finished product. This tool keeps all the pages intact as well as my mind. In minutes it does it binding job efficiently, saving me valuable time (better used for scouting new material), and of course my arm. Why my arm you ask? Because my trusty companion is electric. It is the latest, greatest model to boot.

An electric stapler is nothing new, of course, but few people have them around at home or in their desks unless you are at work in the utility room, and then it is shared amongst many. You have to wait your turn as a rule. Plus, most copy machines will collate and staple on their own. When I prepare my newsletter, I don’t do it that modern way—although it isn’t a bad idea. I print everything out and assemble the newsletters as I go. This way I can have black and white plus color page inserts and not stress my reproduction budget. It is a manual job, but with the stapler, it is a breeze. The best part is that I have my very own device.

Electric staplers come in different sizes, albeit the shape is pretty standard. Some are for basic jobs and some are for very heavy duty work. Mine is somewhere in between. You place your pages neatly between the metal jaws and press down gently on the smooth plastic top. No need to exert your muscles! With the old hand models, you often had to weigh down heavily to get just one staple in place. With the new version, in no time you have done one hundred sets, and you are done! No arm cramps in sight.

I wouldn’t be able to send out the library newsletter without this kind of masterful help. Whoever invented it gets kudos. There are now electric three-hole punches, perforation machines, and paper cutters as well. With the stapler, it is no longer a thankless task to provide a quality newsletter in minutes.

Should libraries be temples of silence?

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That is certainly what they used to be, and some libraries still are; however, the old stereotype is by no means universal, and the image of the librarian as a stern middle-aged woman with her hair severely tied back, going around saying “SHHH!”, is one that belongs more to cartoons and comic books than reality.

There are certainly some library users who would prefer libraries to be temples of silence, and who look down their noses at anyone who dares to make any kind of noise, but I sometimes wonder if they do so simply because they believe the old stereotype rather than because they are genuinely upset by a bit of noise.

And there are also people who don’t care whether other people are offended or not by their behaviour and will carry on being noisy no matter what others think.

So what is the best course for a library to follow – to be strict about silence or allow any level of noise? It’s a tricky question, because – as mentioned above – people have different standards and levels of tolerance. It’s also tricky because there’s a big difference between enforcing absolute silence and allowing a measure of noise – it’s easy to tell when the former has been achieved but very difficult to determine what is an acceptable level and the point at which it has become unacceptable.

I think the question boils down to the needs of library users, and that will vary a lot depending on who they are and what they are trying to do with their time in the library. This is where one has to remember that a public library is not the same as one in a college or research institute – it is primarily there for the “public” to use, and that means everyone and his dog (as long as both are reasonably well behaved!)

In other words, why would anyone want the library space to be silent? Some people prefer to study in silence, but is a public library really a place of study in the sense that a college library is? Most people go to public libraries to find books to read for pleasure, DVDs to watch, etc, or to track down specific pieces of information – this is not the same as analysing texts and writing assignments based on that analysis, for which a greater degree of concentration might be required.

OK – kids also use public libraries to help them with their schoolwork, but kids today rarely work in silence. You will see them wearing headphones so that they can listen to music while they’re working – so silence is a no-no for them anyway.

Then there are library activities that are definitely non-silent – story time and “baby bounce” sessions for very young kids, for example.

As you might have gathered, I’m no great fan of the silent public library – a thing of the past in my opinion. However, I’m prepared to accept that other people may think differently – for example, those who reckon that the world is a noisy enough place as it is and the library provides a welcome respite.

It’s not an “open and shut” issue, so feel free to disagree with me if you like!

Two funny library stories

You might not think of the library as being somewhere where funny things happen, but I’ve come across a few in my time.

There was this guy who came in and asked if we had a world globe that he could look at. We did, and my colleague pointed it out to him – it was standing on a cabinet not far from the library desk.

He took a quick glance but it was clearly not quite what he had in mind. He came back and asked my colleague: “Don’t you have one that’s life size?” She thought for a second and said, “well, in a sense we do, but it’s in use right now. You’re standing on it!”

Here’s one I heard that happened in a library in the UK, where they have a weekly news magazine called The Economist – it’s been running for many years and covers a lot more than just Economics. Way back in May 1981 Pope John Paul II was shot four times by a gunman in St Peter’s Square in Rome as the Pope was being driven along in an open car. Despite being quite seriously wounded he made a full recovery and lived for another 24 years.

Not surprisingly, the event was front-page news across the world, with The Economist being no exception. The cover of the next issue showed the Pope slumped in the car with the headline “The Sins of the World”. This was a quotation from the line in the Catholic Mass that reads “O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us”.

However, the library assistant in one particular library managed to place the usual library stamp on the issue in question immediately underneath the headline, so it now read: “The Sins of the World. NOT TO BE TAKEN AWAY”!

The Dang Cleaners

I am sitting in my favorite library. I love books, and while I do use my Kindle, I love to see them in the near distance. I love the smell and the touch of books, old and new, and set my sights on this venerable old building as often as I can. It is my place of pleasure and respite.

I can spend hours reading. Sometimes it is the same book and sometimes I rotate. I spend probably more hours in a day doing this than anything else. That includes texting, emails, messages, and the like. Thus, it is my special time and I hate interruptions such as a fire drill or library closure time. You can always find me in a carrel way back in the farthest stacks seeking refuge in a favorite tome.

Imagination my chagrin one day when the housekeeping crew came in early to do their “housecleaning” tasks. The dang cleaners! While I know it is vital to keep my surroundings spick and span, it is annoying to hear the roar of the vacuum for minutes on end. It is overwhelming to my delicate sense of hearing. Five minutes seems like an eternity when that infernal noise is in the air. I can’t concentrate or even daydream. As for a nap, forget it! (There are a few tired souls who manage to sleep through anything!)

So this particular evening, I went up to the two cleaners nearest my desk and begged for mercy. Alas, no one spoke English. I started gesturing and making odd movements like I was playing charades. I said, “Vroom vroom no!” at least a dozen times. I think they wanted to send me to the nearest asylum, and they would probably be right. I was in quite a state at this point.

I finally found the culprit yielding the oversized metal gobbling machine and yanked the cord from the wall. The looks I got could kill. I plugged it back in with a sheepish grin on my face. After all, they were just doing their jobs. Who could deny them access a few minutes before closing so they could get home early—just this one time? It makes me wonder though, why the library couldn’t just get some robotic vacuum cleaners to do the task in the early hours of the morning when no one is around?

I acquiesced although my evening was ruined and I had to return my Kindle to my backpack to my dismay. I would have to read at home tonight. The noise level there was far beyond the library, vacuum or not. People screaming, kids laughing, TVs blaring, dogs barking… you name it, you could hear it. Living in urban density has its limitations. The only great thing about my apartment is its close proximity to the library!

So the next visit I expect will be back to normal and the vacuum voyeur will be all but forgotten, at least until next time. I can resume my routine, creature of habit that I am. Who isn’t? In spite of interruptions, the library is still the best place in town for solitary solace and a good read. Join me sometime.

Why you still need your library

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When was the last time you went to your local library? The chances are that – if you are out of school but not yet retired – it was some time ago.

Librarians are always complaining that the only people they seem to see in their libraries are young people and old people, and that the “in-betweeners” are notable by their absence.

That’s a shame, because libraries have so much to offer to people of all ages. The thing is, libraries have much more in them than just rows of books on shelves – although I happen to think that books are cool things anyway. Information and entertainment comes in all sorts of formats, so if you’d rather listen and view instead of reading, there are plenty of CDs and DVDs to borrow as well.

Not everyone has access to a computer, but they can go the library and use one there – or take advantage of free Wi-Fi access to link to the Internet from their own laptop, tablet or other device.

I always reckon that the best things you will find in the library are the library staff – well, you’d expect me to say that, wouldn’t you? But it’s true – the library staff members are there to help you find what you want and also to help you make sense of what you’ve found.

We’re good at knowing how information works and how it’s organised, so we can help to turn your question – however vague it might be to start with – into something that is useful to you.

We know that the Internet has replaced paper-based resources for many people when it comes to finding things out, but the Internet is not always easy to use. We have plenty of tricks up our sleeves that can help you to find your way around and save hours of wasted time going down blind alleys. The library subscribes to services that most people do not have access to, so you can explore these extra resources or ask us to do so on your behalf.

All sorts of fun things happen at the library – there are movie nights, quiz nights and games clubs at many libraries, as well as a chance to get out and meet new people. The library has become a social hub for many communities, and an indispensable part of the local scene.

It’s high time you paid your local library another visit – you’ll always be welcome.

How a black man beat library prejudice in 1920s Tennessee

I recently read an interesting account of how a young black man was able to get books from his local public library during the “Jim Crow” days of the early 20th century, when blacks were barred from many public facilities, including libraries, in most of the southern states.

This was Richard Wright, who was born in 1908 and would become a noted writer and Socialist who did a lot to inspire others in the early Civil Rights movement.

When he was 17 he was living in Memphis, Tennessee. This was the time of the famous “Scopes Trial” that concerned a legal challenge to a Tennessee law that forbade the teaching of the Theory of Evolution in schools. One writer who commented on the case was H L Mencken, who in turn came in for criticism from fundamentalist Christians in Tennessee.

Richard Wright read this criticism in a newspaper and decided that if a southern paper disliked what Mencken had written, he must have something worthwhile to say. He therefore determined to read one or more of Mencken’s books, which would almost certainly be held in the local library.

But how could a black man gain access to books held in in a whites-only library? The only way he had been allowed through the library door in the past was when he had been running errands for white people who wanted their books fetched for them. Richard Wright therefore hatched a plan to get the books he wanted, by pretending to be doing the same thing again.

He persuaded a local white man, Mr Falk, to let him use his library card and to forge his signature on book requests. Mr Falk was a bit reluctant at first, and made it clear that Richard was on his own if he got caught, but he had his own reasons for wanting to break the rules. As a Catholic, Mr Falk objected to the bigotry exhibited by southern Protestants – as the Scopes Trial had shown so clearly – and so he felt little loyalty to officialdom. Playing a trick on the public library, at little risk to himself, was not such a bad idea.

As might have been expected, Richard’s first attempt to get books for himself was one that he approached with some trepidation. He waited in a line of white people at the library desk, trying to look “as unbookish as possible” as he later wrote in his autobiography “Black Boy”. When the librarian finally noticed him he handed over Mr Falk’s library card and a forged request for two books by H L Mencken.

At first the librarian was suspicious and asked Richard if he was planning to read the books himself. “Oh no, ma’am”, he replied. “I can’t read”. She turned away to fetch the books, muttering to herself as she did so. When she returned she handed Richard the books he wanted and he then knew that he had beaten the system.

That act of subterfuge and defiance was a major turning point in Richard Wright’s life. It did so in more than one way; not only did it break a barrier for him in personal terms, but it also opened a whole new world of books and learning.

Even so, he would still have to face much prejudice from whites who regarded it as unnatural for black people to gain knowledge from books. He quoted one white man as telling him “You’ll addle your brains if you don’t watch out”; some white people clearly believed that black brains were different from white ones. Richard Wright had to hide his new learning for fear of having this new world snatched away from him again.

This story – and others like it – makes me sad when I look at how many people simply don’t take advantage of the opportunities that libraries open for them, and don’t defend libraries when they come under threat. People could lead much more fulfilling lives if they allowed themselves to learn and have new vistas opened for them. Richard Wright struggled to get to first base, which is where everyone today, whatever their skin color, can start from if they so choose.

Why you need both libraries and the Internet

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Many libraries – not just public libraries but ones that serve schools, other educational bodies, and commercial and industrial companies – have closed in recent years because the people who pay for them have taken the line that “It’s all on the Internet” and so there is no need to keep books on shelves. I regard this as a mistaken view that is based on general ignorance of how the Internet works and how it is accessed.

For one thing, it’s not “all on the Internet”. OK – there is a vast amount of information that can be found there, but until every piece of text that has ever appeared in print (or, indeed, manuscript) has been digitized and made available via an Internet search, it won’t “all be there”.

Another huge problem with the Internet is that there is far more there than most people will find useful. The fact that it is possible with anyone with anything to say to get it published on a website means that millions of people have done precisely that, and a large proportion of what they have produced is (IMHO) complete and utter trash.

Somebody once said that the Internet is like the largest library in the world, but with all the books thrown on the floor. In other words, the information is there but you’ll have a huge problem finding what you want.

You do have tools at hand to help you find things, namely search engines such as Google and Yahoo, but they are by no means the whole answer. When you enter your search terms you are likely to be presented with thousands of hits, but how do you know which are going to be useful and which are not? Some of the pages and sites to which you can link will be pure advertising, some will be put together by people who are presenting a very one-sided view of the topic, and only a small proportion are likely to give you impartial and well-organised information. There are tricks that website owners can use for getting search engines to present their sites on the opening pages, so the user cannot be sure that what they see is reliable information or the result of search engine manipulation.

On the other hand, libraries contain material that has been specially selected by trained and experienced professionals, and presented in ways that make it easy to find. A book – to take the average library’s most obvious resource – does not get published unless it has been through a rigorous process of checking, organisation and approval. It is a package of information that is designed to make access as easy as possible. You can flip through the pages in a matter of seconds to get a feel for whether it is likely to be what you are looking for, and it is probably indexed in a way that allows you to get to exactly the right place with little delay.

It would be wrong (and silly) of me to say that a book is always the answer and a web page is never so. However, what I am saying is that they both have their advantages and there is room for both in the world of information gathering. The great thing about public libraries is that they have both – there are books on shelves to browse and computers with Internet access for web surfing and finding out the latest information.

So why make do with only half the picture? Go to the library and get the lot!