Pop Goes the Library

Using Pop Culture to Make Libraries Better.

by Sophie Brookover, Liz Burns, Melissa Rabey, Susan Quinn, John Klima, Carlie Webber, Karen Corday, and Eli Neiburger. We're librarians. We're pop culture mavens. We're Pop Culture Librarians.


Interview with Jeff Chow Of Library Elf

Jeff Chow, one of the developers of Library Elf, kindly agreed to answer a few questions for a Pop Goes the Library interview.

Liz B.: What was your inspiration for Library Elf?

Jeff: The inspiration for Elf came about because my friend started to receive a lot of overdue fines -- he and his wife were having a hard time keeping track of their library books and videos at their local library. They have three kids and the library is a big part of their lives (everyone has a library card). At first they tried a manual system where each kid took out exactly five items. That helped a bit but it forced a fixed reading diet on the kids and the kids weren't particularly keen on being limited this way.

So he asked if some software I was working on at time could be adapted to help him and his family keep track of their library borrowings. He basically wanted an email reminder notice just before their books and videos were due. We built a prototype and when he and his wife started using it, they were amazed at how much it changed the way they used the library. It had a wonderful freeing effect when it came to their library activities. They discovered that they're able to go to the library more often and check out items with less worry, plus the kids are a lot happier since they could borrow without restrictions.

Just before going to the library, his wife would print out an Elf email reminder notice and walk around the house collecting all the items. She found that the printout was very convenient because the kids tend to put the videos and books in odd places. And without the printout, it was easy to forget what was checked out. The printed slips of papers from the libraries often were the first things to get lost.

At the same time, another inspiration for Elf came about because of our needs. Here in the Greater Vancouver Metropolitan area (British Columbia, Canada), there are 11 different library systems that are within driving distance. Many of us use a number of these libraries and it can be difficult to keep track of all of the books that we’ve borrowed. With this, we could also use a way to consolidate multiple cards and get early email reminders as well. Like my friend, Elf has helped immensely and we are able to check out more books and return them on time. We’re also finding that we go to the library a lot more often now.

Between my friend's need of wanting to consolidate his family's library accounts, within a single library, and our need of wanting to consolidate library accounts across libraries - Library Elf was born.

Liz B: Can you share with us any new things that we may be seeing from Library Elf in the near future?

A lot of the new development is on having the system work more efficiently. In the near future, Elf will be moving to a larger server. We are also working on trying to reschedule more of the checking to when the library is closed. Although Elf doesn’t take much of the library’s computer resources, this would be better for both the library and user. Notices could go out earlier and the processing would be in the library’s off-hours when their computer system is used less.

Liz B: As you know, bloggers have been discussing Library Elf and different issues about library security that the Elf brought to their attention, such as privacy of RSS feeds. Library Elf has been responsive to those issues; in particular, I'm thinking of Mary Minow's concerns and comments and the Elf's responses, both at the site and at her Library Law blog. Is there anything more that you'd like to say about security and RSS?

RSS is still in its infancy. The way to handle RSS for private feeds at this time is with HTTP authentication but many of the RSS readers have not implemented this yet. Also, there is more than one way of handling HTTP authentication, which further complicates the problem. Bloglines apparently uses the least secure method of HTTP authentication. To recognize a private RSS feed, Bloglines requires that the username and password be embedded in the RSS URL.

As RSS grows, more attention will be paid to the security aspect of it. For now, it’s best not to have identifying elements in the RSS feed that can be linked to the individual. For Elf’s RSS feeds, there are no references to email address or the person’s last name. Still, those who are not comfortable with RSS may want to consider email only or RSS readers on their own computer.

Liz B: Is it OK that I think of Library Elf as the Elf? Or do you prefer the J. Lo version, L. Elf?

Elf is our preferred way as well.

Liz B: Pop Goes the Library is about popular culture and libraries; what do you consider your pop culture area of expertise?

Interesting question. Not sure if I have an answer. However, if user comments are any indication, it might be about convenience when it comes to things related to library activities. I think the bottom line of Elf is that many of our users are borrowing more and frequenting the library more often. Amazing that such a small thing as giving advance due notices is able to change the borrowing habits of library patrons.

Liz B: Thank you, Jeff!

Jeff observes that giving advance notice changes the borrowing habits of patrons; in this case, increased use. What strikes me is that Jeff listened to what patrons wanted and figured out a way to do it. Too often, in library land, the response to patrons is to tell them how the library does things (a slip of paper with dates, to be held onto and tracked by the patron) rather than figuring out a way to respond to the patron's need (advance email notice of items out and holds waiting).

Prior Pop Goes the Library posts about Library Elf: Library Elf; Revisiting the Elf; Not the Elf Again

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Briefly Noted: Oscar Nominations

They were announced this morning. Print-friendly list here. Gentlepersons, start your engines.



YALSA has its own blog! There is information about ALA Midwinter; this is my first year going to Midwinter, so I found it very helpful. Other cool news: ALA announced that the children/teen literary awards press conference scheduled for Monday, January 23rd, will be webcast.

Since I was at work last night, I would have loved a Golden Globes webcast, and instead settled for updates from bloggers.


Wee Free Men Movie!

Huzzah! Sam Raimi, of Spider-Man and Evil Dead fame, has signed on to direct a film adaptation of Terry Pratchett's wonderful YA novel, The Wee Free Men. Visions of library reading clubs, movie viewing parties, and lighthearted movie vs. book smackdowns are dancing in my head. Via the ever-excellent PopWatch.


Celebrating The Golden Globes @ Your Library

Sophie: So the Golden Globes are just around the corner -- the awards ceremony is on January 16th. I wonder how many libraries are hosting Golden Globes parties? How much fun would it be to roll out a cheap red carpet (a remnant, perhaps? I bet some smart and friendly carpet store owner would be willing to donate a length of fabric to such a worthy cause) and invite all of your patrons to come dressed in all their finery for an evening of sparkling cider and cheese crackers, complete with catty remarks about the celebrity fashion missteps and running commentary on the winners. Even better: host a mock Golden Globes, and encourage library users to nominate vote for actors in imaginary categories like Most Expressive Hands (Wentworth "Sophie's Boyfriend" Miller, of Prison Break) or Most Method Facial Hair (Jason Lee, of My Name Is Earl).

Liz: One of my favorite parts of the GG is that the actors all seem a little bit looser. Is it because the GG, despite being viewed as a good indication of what will be Oscar nominated, is still taken less seriously? I mean, just because Pia Zadora won one..... OK. So maybe its not as serious, but man, with the Oscars I feel like I'm watching someone's formal, but with the Golden Globes I always feel like I'm hanging out with the stars in someone's house. Mock categories: Who will be late for their own category? Who will make the best speech? And will Heath Ledger Michelle Williams survive if only one of them wins?

Melissa: me, I think the reason the GGs feel more informal is because of the way the auditorium is set up. got the tables, so you can clique up with your buddies (or, more likely, with the people from your movie or TV show). the Oscars, meanwhile, you're sitting in rows, and having to deal with seat fillers and all that nonsense. never really followed the Golden Globes myself, but they definitely
seem like a better event.

Some of my burning questions are:

  • Is George Clooney a better director or a better actor? have a chance to find out--at least his nominations didn't come from the same movie. winnning one, but not the other!
  • Will some of the new network TV shows this season, like Everybody Hates Chris, My Name is Earl, and Commander in Chief, get shown the love? will it be another good year for cable TV, thanks to nominations for shows like Rome, Weeds, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage?
  • Will those Desperate Housewives split the vote in the Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series, Musical or Comedy, or will one of them manage to stand out, a la the Emmys?

Sophie: I think we're not acknowledging the elephant in the room at The GGs: The Booze. The tables, organized by TV show or film, are stocked with bottles of champagne, and I imagine that there's an open bar, as well. The GGs are the frat party of awards shows, with fewer backwards baseball caps and in a nicer venue.

Interestingly, for all their obvious lack of seriousness -- the GGs are, after all, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's big chance to give a sloppy wet kiss to the beautiful people -- the Golden Globes are a much better predictor of Oscar winners than any other award. Independent Spirit, New York Film Critics' Circle, LA Film Critics' Circle -- none of these come close to gauging accurately the results of the Academy Awards, held just a month later.

So if the Golden Globes are sort of jokey and not that meaningful, but are still the most accurate predictor of (the supposedly more serious and credible) Oscar wins, then I'm forced once more to ask: what do these awards really mean, in general, and for libraries? Are they just opportunities for red carpet glamour, self-congratulation, and box office (or more likely, DVD sales) cash-ins? Which, translated to libraries, would equate circulation, basically.

I think that they tend to be more adventurous in the nominating than in the actual voting, for sure, which leads to situations not unlike the Newbery Awards, the committee for which seems often to give the Award to a really good book, and give the Honors to really great books. And yet, in libraries, we all acknowledge that we shouldn't only have Newbery, Printz, National Book Award, or Pulitzer Prize-winning titles on the shelves. I wonder if the same goes for DVDs of films and TV shows -- once we get beyond owning the top-grossing titles or the Nielsen-topping titles, do we only purchase award-winning titles, or do we go beyond the winners' circle and select (and showcase, and hand-sell) titles that maybe didn't get any nomination love?

Returning to my original idea about what libraries can do to celebrate the Golden Globes, and awards season in general, you know how it's assumed that libraries will have book discussion groups? Why not movie or TV or even music discussion groups? Awards season is a wonderful time to kick off programming like that, and the schedule could be organized around the categories: Best Drama, Best Comedy or Musical, Best Foreign Film, Album of the Year, Best Hip-Hop Artist, and so on.

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Collection Development and Word of Mouth

Since the birth of my daughter, I've been attending two different La Leche League meetings each month. One is held at a public library, the other is held at a community center. They're both wonderful groups, with one major difference: the group that meets in a community center has its own small lending library; the one held in a public library does not.

This struck me as sort of odd and sad -- the lending library is a treasure trove of useful titles I haven't seen at any public library -- but it also struck me as an opportunity. Most public libraries host lots of group meetings every month. It's particularly common to host book discussion groups, literacy tutoring, ESL instruction, Girl and Boy Scouts groups, chess clubs, and so on. Are public librarians taking advantage of the expertise of these groups when it comes to collection development?

Major review periodicals can only review so many titles annually, but publishing in a variety of niche areas is exploding, which makes it likely that many titles of keen interest to devoted hobbyists and participants in such niche activities are likely to go unreviewed, and therefore unpurchased by most public libraries.

Wouldn't it be smart for clever, friendly public librarians to ask members of the clubs that meet in their facilities to offer a few suggestions for additions to the library's collection? For a small investment of time, you could reap any or all of the following rewards:

  • Increased circulation in the niche interest area;
  • Improved community relations with groups who meet in your library;
  • Improved word of mouth -- hobbyists talk amongst themselves. A lot. -- and possibly and increase in library membership among group members who previously only came to the library to attend their meetings;
  • A more diverse collection of improved depth and breadth;
  • The satisfaction of knowing that your library is helping to support smaller imprints and publishing houses.

I'm not suggesting that we open up collection development as a total free-for-all; rather, we should take advantage of expert advice right in our own backyards, and investigate further the suggestions of our public. It's another way of soliciting recommendations for purchase that goes beyond the typical suggestion form -- it's more personal, more memorable, and more remarkable (in the sense of it being worthy of remarking on).

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Sophie's Golden Globes Round-Up, Part The First

In which your blogger realizes she has seen exactly one of the nominated Best Films this year, and that thanks to TiVo, she watches way more television than she previously suspected. This is not a bad thing.

Kung Fu Hustle is nominated in the Best Foreign Film category. It's a humorous martial arts fantasy from China, starring and directed by Steven Chow, who also did Shaolin Soccer. It's got elements of a musical, slapstick comedy (lots of pratfalls), a knock-down, drag-out martial arts fightathon, and a romance. Somehow, though, it all manages to hang together, thanks in large part to Chow's screen presence, and excellent fight choreography.

Grey's Anatomy, on ABC, is my main source of televised junk food. Make no mistake: Although this show is nominated in the Best Drama category, it's not actually one of the best f=dramas on TV, unlike, oh, say, Veronica Mars. Not that we're bitter. Grey's Anatomy is soapy, unrealistic, and suffers from a severe case of poor pitiful me voiceover-itis (unlike, again, VM, which uses voiceovers to witty effect) from its lead character, Meredith Grey, who is way too annoying to be sympathetic. Still, I have a season pass to this show on my TiVo because I just can't get enough of this show's deliciously soapy lack of realism. Five surgical interns, their lives, loves, career highs and lows -- who could resist? The show does have two saving graces:

  • Chief Resident Miranda Bailey, played with spirit, attitude and moments of surprising warmth by Chandra Wilson;
  • and a thorough nonchalance about interracial romance, the credit for which can be laid squarely at the doors of Sandra Oh (nominated for her supporting role as prickly, brilliant, and compulsively quippy surgeon Cristina Yang) and Isaiah Washington, who have more chemistry than Dow and who consistently rise above the often cliched material of this compulsively watchable show.

Prison Break, on Fox, is also nominated in the Best Drama category, and happily, it really is a good show. I'm thinking about what sets this show apart from its fellow contender Grey's Anatomy, because it's just as absurdly unrealistic -- a brilliant structural engineer gets himself thrown in the same state penitentiary as his death row inmate brother, for the express purpose of busting said brother out of jail, because he is innocent of the crime for which he's been sentenced to death. Oh, and the entire plan for the daring, impossible escape is encoded in an elaborate, upper body-encasing tattoo on the engineer's body - and believe you me, this is about one quadrillionth of the story -- and I think it all boils down to the high concept. There's the brotherly love, the prison setting (it's shot at a defunct prison in Joliet, IL), the good bad guys, the bad bad guys, the bad guys so bad they make you whimper every time you see them on screen, the conspiracy leading to the highest echelons of government, all tied to the most insane plot twists and turns this side of 24. The show hangs on the very attractive shoulders of Wentworth Miller, who has been nominated in the Best Actor category for his portrayal of engineering genius and extremely loyal younger brother Michael Scofield. I don't really care whether Prison Break wins as Best Drama, but I would love to see Miller win Best Actor, because he manages to bring sincerity, conniving, regret, and horror to his role as a gentle straight arrow plunged into a savage and crooked environment.

I have watched exactly one episode of Commander In Chief, and I think I can safely say that if the world is divided into fans of this show and fans of The West Wing, I am squarely in the latter camp. Honestly, I know this show is popular, but I thought itwas dumbed-down, unwatchable dreck. Bor. Ing. The one bright light in the show was Donald Sutherland, who was masterful as a House of Representatives power broker grasping for more Beltway control. Unsurprisingly, Sutherland is nominated as Best Supporting Actor.

Up next: The Closer, Entourage, and My Name Is Earl.

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