Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Library day in the life : round 8 (Monday 30 January 2012)

The "Library Day in the Life" project, coordinated by Bobbi Newman, runs twice a year: librarians, library staff and library students share their day, or week, through various media (blogs, Twitter, photos and videos).

I am rather late to the party here, as although I knew that round 8 was happening on Monday 30th January, I didn't join as that day was scheduled as a teachers' training day at my son's school, which meant I couldn't be at work. Then I realised that the project is running for the whole week, so I did sign up, but, as yet, I have not added my details to the project wiki, as there always seems to be someone else editing it, and only one person can do it at a time. Details, details ...

I'm one of those awkward part-timers who is never there or always in the wrong place on any given day. I work the equivalent of three days a week, spread over four days, and I have two roles, one third as Subject Librarian for the School of Welsh at Cardiff University and two thirds cataloguer. In practice, the boundaries are quite blurred. Both functions used to take place in the Arts &Social Studies Library, but in 2004 cataloguing was moved to an office block a couple of miles away to make room for the new Special Collections & Archives (SCOLAR). To complicate matters further, I catalogue material in SCOLAR, which often means being back in our old, transformed, home, as the nature of the material is such that it isn't advisable to move it around too much. So, two roles, in three locations.

Monday 30th January:
I took this day off as annual leave because of the school INSET day, but I did take some paperwork home with me and went through quite a heap of queries, emerging at the end with a pile of paper for recycling and a totally tidy set of different coloured plastic wallets with remaining work items nicely sorted. Not exactly a typical day's work, but worthwhile! I also made the mistake of looking at my work email late in the afternoon while not in work, which can often lead to stressful moments (being in possession of the facts but without the tools to deal with things). In this case, there was an email from a tutor who is teaching a module beginning this week, who had just realised that we have only three copies of a Welsh play published in 1982, which she would like 32 students to have read by next week. Would it be possible to make copies or obtain copies of the play somehow?

This is not an uncommon scenario with humanities subjects in general, and Welsh in particular. Publications tend to have a very limited print run, and by the time they are wanted in a university they are often out of print. Commercial interest decreases, whereas academic interest grows, over time. We do aim to buy every adult novel, book of poetry, and published play where possible, so we have a very wide range of Welsh literature, but we do not buy multiple copies unless or until they are requested (by which time, in publishing terms, it is often too late) - otherwise we would need a very much bigger library! Plays in particular are very ephemeral publications: not many make it into the canon.

Because of copyright restrictions, we are not allowed to copy whole plays without permission, so I sent a "holding" email to the tutor promising to deal with this in the morning, and explained the copyright rules. I reflected on the gulf between the students' expectations and the reality of needing to work both within these rules and in the context of a market which doesn't put out of print 30-year-old Welsh plays very high on its list of priorities.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Novelists, editors and getting those facts right

Whenever I stumble on something that isn't quite accurate in a book, I feel cheated. I expect I'm too much of a pedant. Strangely, it seems worse in a work of fiction, which is a paradox. The fictional world is, after all, not real: but we have to believe that it is, and an inaccuracy can jolt the reader out of the make-believe.

There are so many ways in which the writer can be tripped up. Perhaps the finished work was not written in its final order, and the danger here is that common problem in filming, the continuity mistake. A character comes into the room, but he is already in the room according to the previous page. Somebody knows something which they could not possibly know because they were not there at the time and there has been no opportunity to tell them. Occasionally, characters even mysteriously change name mid-novel. I suspect that cutting and pasting plays a part in this kind of error. Pity the poor author, who has probably been looking at the text so much that s/he can no longer spot these things - but surely that's where the publisher's editor comes in?

There's another category of mistake too, the factually inaccurate. I've come across lots of examples of these. No names! Here are a few: a novel set in England in November, which begins with the characters sitting outside enjoying the sunset at 8 p.m.; a novel (by a famous author) in which a whole twist of the plot turns on someone forgetting to put the clock forward or back, but she has got it the wrong way round for the season (to be fair, that particular author did start life in the southern hemisphere - still, the action takes place in England!); a novel by another well-established author in which a son who lives in Devon proposes to run his parents into Portsmouth for shopping and tea - a round trip of about six hours and nearly three hundred miles by my estimate. Why do people get Plymouth and Portsmouth mixed up? Nobody who had any connection with either place would! It isn't necessary for writers to know every area they write about, of course, but for the reader who does know the place there's a risk of spoiling the effect if they get it wrong. 

There's another category of inconsistency which we seem able to live with more easily, such as the fact that Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford seems to have been on the point of retirement ever since his first appearance nearly 50 years ago (that only jars a bit if you read the books straight through in one go). I gave up on another otherwise enjoyable series when a very dead character reappeared two books on though - I found it confusing, and a series presents a whole extra level of need for consistency if you are going to carry your fans along with you (or is it just me?)

One error I've seen very recently didn't spoil the willing suspension of disbelief in the same way, and it's one I'm sure would pass a lot of people by. A character had used Google to look for information, and noted a certain number of results. A second character did the same search, and got exactly the same results. Most unlikely, I longed to say to the author! Google search results are tailored to the searcher!

I do hope that being a librarian isn't putting me on the path to being unable to enjoy books ...

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Reading aloud

I read a chapter or two of a chosen book (often chosen by me, admittedly) to my child, aged 10, every night. I really enjoy this time for winding down at the end of the day. It's a chance to introduce him to books he might not otherwise think of trying. I was much read to as a child myself, well into my teens. It was a family tradition: my grandfather, who did not have the advantage of a university education but was nevertheless widely read, loved reading the works of Dickens aloud (doing all the voices). I didn't benefit much from that as he died when I was quite young, but the habit persisted. It is probably the way I encountered quite a few of the classics. Good writing stands up well to being read aloud: in fact, whether something sounds good read aloud is one yardstick for measuring good writing, I think.

It is several years since I first had the surprised comment from another parent, "Oh, are you still reading to him? Can't he read yet then?" Even a relative who is a retired teacher has said something along the lines of "I don't remember anyone ever reading to me, but of course I could read by the time I was 3". It seems a pity that reading aloud should be seen as something you only do for those who can't read for themselves. You can read books which may be a bit beyond a child's own reading age: that's how you can expand their vocabulary, and that's how they pick up the rhythms of the language (or, in our case, two languages). It's also a chance to share and enjoy both old and new favourites together. I have only one child, so I don't have to juggle different ages/reading ages/bedtimes, which must make the whole bedtime-reading venture a bit more complicated.

Choosing the right moment to introduce a book can be a bit of an imprecise art. I've abandoned one or two temporarily and returned to them later with more success. We have many (old) books at home, and I am greatly enjoying revisiting some childhood favourites, but we also benefit hugely from having the wonderfully refurbished Cathays Library within walking distance to provide new authors to stretch our horizons and to fill the gaps where something from the past has escaped the net. Recent successes include "The secret garden", which I loved in childhood and which my son also enjoyed, and Dodie Smith's "101 dalmatians", which somehow passed me by as a child so that was new for both of us (I didn't even know it was a Christmas story, so that was an added bonus!). At the moment we are reading "The borrowers afield", having read the first book some time ago and then having recently enjoyed the rather different TV adaptation with Stephen Fry at Christmas.

I doubt whether many children today (with honourable exceptions, of course) are ever likely to be the natural readers my generation was, as we had fewer other options for entertaining ourselves. That makes shared reading all the more important, in my view. I hope to fit quite a few more good books in before it's deemed to be "not cool".

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

How reliable are our reference sources: or, how old was Bernice Rubens?

'As a child I was simply a liar by nature ... I was happily at home with mendacity. It was less boring than the truth. My natural home lay in fiction.' - Bernice Rubens, "When I grow up" (Little, Brown, 2005), pp. 2-3.

We cataloguers spend a lot of time trying to identify authors, usually by using dates of birth to distinguish them from others with the same name. I sometimes wonder whether we worry too much about this: some users do not want this level of detail. On the other hand, it is useful to be able to attribute works to the right author. We use Library of Congress authority records where possible.

The whole vexed question of dates of birth and age seems to be a much more sensitive issue to a previous generation. A few years ago when I was the branch librarian in a northern Cardiff suburb a new system was introduced and we were asked to add dates of birth of our users. What a can of worms that opened! The reason was to get a picture of which groups of people were using the library, either as a prelude to reaching out to less well-represented groups or, if that were not possible, to concentrate suitable resources on those who were using it. We were also discussing what age-specific discounts or benefits could be offered to those over 60, and we needed to be able to identify who was and who was not 18, for permission to use the Internet (new to us then). We were not interested in individuals’ personal details, and, as librarians among you will know, librarians do not ever give such information to anyone else. Several people refused point blank to give their date of birth, some left never to return in a rage at being so insulted, one man shouted “so how old are you then?” and looked flabbergasted when all the staff in turn told him their ages. (Far more men than women objected). One lady told me she was 46, which I duly recorded, and then, overhearing me explain to someone else that there was no charge to the over 60s for a particular service, she suddenly aged by 15 years.
Another former Cardiff resident, the author Bernice Rubens, who died in 2004, is recorded just about everywhere, including obituaries in The Times and The Guardian, as having been born in Cardiff on 26th (or sometimes 28th) July, 1928. She attended Cardiff High School and what is now Cardiff University, where she read English. The Library of Congress gives two references for the source of her date of birth: Who’s who (1983) and the Jewish Yearbook (also 1983).  These seem to be cast-iron authorities: but are they? Who is the source of dates in such books? Should we really regard such works as authoritative?
Elderly current and former residents of Cardiff alive today will indignantly tell you that Bernice Rubens was older than she said she was, that they remember her at school/synagogue/locally and that they are sure that the 1928 date is wrong. After her death, one such gentleman wrote a letter to The Times, setting out his recollections of her as a child older than he was, giving his own date of birth as 1926, and challenging The Times to prove that the birth date in her obituary was correct.
Among items recently added to stock in Cardiff University Library are copies of the school magazine of Cardiff High School in the 1930s, and the one for 1938 caught my eye, as it contains an account by Bernice, surname spelled Reuben, Form VA3, of a school trip to Dunkirk (“not particularly famous for anything” at the time). It does not read like the work of a 10 year old!
It may seem trivial to bother about a harmless lie, but she did upset her school contemporaries by claiming in interviews that they were anti-Semitic. There certainly was an anti-Semitic element in Cardiff (as elsewhere) and no doubt there were indeed some misguided girls at her school. In the same 1938 magazine, another girl describes attending a summer school in Berlin, arranged by the local government union NALGO – “as guests of high officials of the Nazi regime”.  The propaganda speeches are duly reported, with admiration for the “wonderful physique” of the German people. The previous year’s magazine, however, had included an article on Zionism by another Jewish pupil, of whom there were many at the school at the time.
If you are going to drop a few years from your age you would be better advised not to make public allegations about your classmates: those years may not seem significant in the great scheme of things, but it means you are talking about (and upsetting) a completely different cohort of people. A few years is a long time in the life of a school, and attitudes did change between the late 1920s/1930s and the 1940s.
I am a great admirer of Bernice Rubens’ work, so when her posthumous memoir, “When I grow up” appeared in 2005 I read it with much enjoyment. With the Cardiff rumours at the back of my mind I wondered how successfully she could publish a memoir without specifying her age (especially difficult if wartime comes into it, as that is a watershed event for most people who lived through it). She does manage to write her story in a way that would not lead readers to question the chronology, unless they had reason. The timing of her period at university is the main weak point: she completed her three-year course, graduated and went to teach in Birmingham before the end of the war by her own account, although a birth date of 1928 would have meant that she was only 17 in 1945. She also includes a photo of a page from a newspaper article about "twenty-three years old Bernice Rubens" - it's undated, but she supplies the date, 1946.

I’m an amateur genealogist in my spare time, and with access to the indexes of vital records through the CyMAL-funded public library subscription to such tools as Ancestry (library edition) and Find My Past, I thought I would try to prove the truth of the rumours one way or another. I had already failed to find evidence of her date of birth, but now I tried again, armed with the extra “e” and without the “s”.  Her  name at marriage in 1947 is registered as “Reuben” (in her memoir in fact she says that her father's surname was Reuben); she and all her siblings were registered at birth as Reuben. It took me just a few minutes to track down her birth in 1923 – not only 5 years earlier than every source states, but also not even at the same time of year (unless her parents were very late with the registration), as the birth is registered in the last quarter (Oct-Dec).  Splendid – not only did she shed five years, she also acquired a summer birthday! (Why didn’t I think of that? My birthday is in gloomy November!) Surprisingly, her date of birth given at the time of her death according to the index is the 1928 one, so she really did succeed in rewriting her own history, if I and older Cardiff residents have got this right!
Intriguingly, in her novel “The elected member”, for which she won the Booker Prize in 1970, the main character, Norman Zweck, is a linguistically talented young Jewish man whose mother lies about his age to make his gifts look more impressive, even delaying his bar mitzvah for three years. Was this Bernice Rubens’ own private literary joke, or a clue for her readers?