Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sarah Vowell at PLA

Going into yesterday's final presentation at the Public Library Association Conference, I thought author Sarah Vowell was an inspired choice for closing speaker. I have enjoyed listening to the audiobooks The Partly Cloudy Patriot and The Wordy Shipmates, which are masterfully read by Vowell herself, and I anticipated a stirring presentation. What transpired was a bit more complicated. Neither Vowell nor the audience ever really seemed at ease. The librarians in attendance mostly wanted to be entertained, and Vowell was more serious than anticipated.

One of the services for which we as librarians pride ourselves is getting the right book into the hands of the right reader. Throughout the conference there has been an effort to broaden this message to media and electronic services. We try to get the right DVD or website or database to our clients. Perhaps we should go (and do go) even further in getting the right speaker or performer for our communities that attend programs. Sometimes our choices are not embraced, but the library clients return for us to try again. Advisory service is always a negotiation.

Another idea that I sometimes hear at meetings is the wish to get clients to read or view something outside of their "comfort zone." This is librarianship as advocacy, an idea that is not always accepted. How far do we go with advisory services? Do we have the mission of expanding minds? I think that we do, if done respectfully and allowing the reception may be slow in being appreciated or may never be appreciated.

Here is where I return to thinking about Vowell as a keynote speaker - maybe both inspired choice and an awkward first date. Vowell had a more serious message than a tired group of librarians expected. They learned a lot more history than they anticipated. They may have laughed less than they wanted. They were also exposed to the idea (which I like to think librarians know anyway) of looking at both sides of issues.

When you examine Vowell's writing, it is somewhat confessional. Right off the bat she began telling of her research into the history of Hawaii, the topic of her next book. She began the work anticipating her sympathies to be for the Hawaiian queen deposed by the sinister actions the intruding whites, but the more she read the more she realized that the queen herself stood for ideals Vowell disavows. The study of history is messy business, and it challenges our values. This theme of being torn in her sympathies ran through and underneath her program and came to top again in the questions at the end. The last question was how she felt about the way textbooks are chosen in Texas. Her answer was not a condemnation of the right wing advocates who have such a hold over the textbook selection process. She agreed with them that religion should be a topic in textbooks, but she disagreed how it should be there. She felt both right and left wing pressure groups mess up education in most states. The irony is that it is these people trying to fence in history who make Vowell's unorthodox writing so appealing and refreshing.

Vowell spent much of the program reading from her books, which I enjoyed. She seemed a little confused or perhaps even annoyed at some of the laughs. She also seemed rather small in a huge cavern of a hall. I think I would rather hear her again in a warmer setting. I hope it wasn't our only date.


Shannon said...

Thanks for this! As someone who could not be there (and would never have been invited - being in an Australia and more important being a non librarian) I really enjoyed your take.

Lynne said...

I felt the same way about Vowell at PLA. It just wasn't great.

Anonymous said...

As for the textbook debate my thoughts are put both sides of the story in the books. We should not be vilifying the Texas Board of Education as "right wing" for doing that which it is appointed to do. The subjects considered by the Board that raised such a stink seem worthy of inclusion. As a librarian with a history major it seems fair to include the teaching of the civil rights movement to ensure that students study the violent philosophy of the Black Panthers in addition to the nonviolent approach of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And including information on the Venona papers when discussing the history of McCarthyism seems balanced. Lastly including Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, two champions of free-market economic theory, among the usual list of economists to be studied. Keep it fair let the kids decide. And try to refrain from labeling people.