Why We Are Still Here

Yesterday I was working with a woman who needed help applying for jobs. Both of the jobs were in housekeeping, and both required an online application. The woman was not at all comfortable navigating the online environment, but the two employers allowed no other avenue for applying.
I spend most of my days doing one thing and another involving online technology, whether it’s entering book records into an online catalog, posting library events on social media, or dealing with the library’s business via e-mail. We got one application filed, but at a certain point in the next one I hit a snag I could not get past. I tried answering the questions on this page several different ways, but I kept getting the message that ‘There are errors on this page.’ It was very frustrating, and in the end the woman I was helping left to call the employer and tell them there seemed to be a problem with their application process.
But the larger point I took away from this experience—and it is certainly not the first time I have observed this—is that we are fast moving towards a digital world that disenfranchises many people. Sure, our kids have long since incorporated most technologies into their daily lives, perhaps too much. And we as adults are mostly comfortable using Websites and e-mail and smartphones. But what about all those people who, because of education, economic status or other factors, simply have not learned about these things? Do we just leave them behind?
Ever since I have worked in libraries (29 years now) I have been hearing that libraries are obsolete and on their way out. This is said mostly by people who don’t know much about libraries, but it still bothers me to hear it repeated from time to time. When I spend an afternoon working with someone like this woman yesterday, it reminds me again of one of the more important reasons we are here, and why we will need to be here for quite a few years to come.

Corporate Authors?

When my daughter was younger, she read through the entire Warriors series of books, those epic tales of tribes of feral cats and their many adventures. The books are written by Erin Hunter, and at one point during her fascination with the series I learned that Erin Hunter is not a person—it is the name used by a group of six experienced children’s book writers who share authorship of the books.

I pointed this out to a co-worker the other day, and she said, Oh, like Nancy Drew? She then informed me of something I had never known—that Carolyn Keene, author of those great old mysteries for young readers, was also not a real person, but a corporate name for a group of authors who wrote the books. They were another product in what was known as the Stratemeyer Syndicate, founded by Edward Stratemeyer early in the 20th century.

It was Stratemeyer’s idea to employ groups of authors to turn out book series for kids. All of the authors, who were originally paid $125 per book, were required to give up all rights to the books. Over the years Stratemeyer Syndicate authors produced the book series The Bobbsey Twins (Laura Lee Hope), Tom Swift  (Victor Appleton), The Hardy Boys (Franklin W. Dixon), and of course Nancy Drew, in addition to several other less well-known series. A study in 1922 found that the overwhelming majority of books that children were reading in America were produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate.

In my years I have learned to deal with the idea that the books of some authors, such as Margaret Truman or Elliott Roosevelt, were all written by ghost authors. It happens. But when I was a kid, avidly reading the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, I had distinct images of what Franklin W. Dixon or Victor Appleton looked like. They meant a lot to me. So now, at this late age, it is not easy to be so disillusioned.

What do you think? Does it matter whether the authors we loved as kids are real people or not?


Thanks to the Municipal Library Consortium’s decision to subscribe to LibraryElf, it is now easier than ever to keep track of all your library materials.

Who uses Elf?

  • Anyone who wants to reduce overdue fines
  • Families with children and lots of books
  • Individuals with several library cards
  • Anyone who requests a lot of holds


What’s delivered?

  • Email and/or RSS alerts before items are due
  • Email and/or RSS alerts on overdue items and holds
  • Consolidated list of yours or your family’s library loans and holds
  • Cellphone text message alerts for holds
  • Real-time checking by browser




Go to www.wgpl.org and click on “Library Elf” to sign up today!


Libraries and Tax Forms

As recently as the 1980s there were several places around town where taxpayers could find the forms needed for annual filing. Among these were public libraries, post offices, even some grocery stores! In time, all but one of these has abdicated this responsibility–the public library. The problem is that it is not in anyone’s core mission to provide tax forms, nor are there laws specifying where they can be found. So if the U.S. Postal Service decides not to bother, they have that right.

Public libraries work more closely with their clientele. We understand people’s needs, and so we have never stopped providing tax forms. But providing this service is dependent upon the state and federal government sending us forms to distribute in the first place. For the past several years, both have been cutting back on what they will send us. Missouri especially has greatly curtailed the forms they make available, while the federal government has been cutting back a little more slowly.

However, we just received notice from the Internal Revenue Service that due to recent budget cuts, they really need to transition to electronic filing more aggressively. They are sending us significantly fewer forms this year. Most troubling is the fact that they will not send any instruction booklets for the 1040 and other basic forms. For years we have been working with library patrons to show them how to visit the IRS Website and print out the forms they need. But printing out whole instruction booklets can get pretty expensive. Of course there’s the option of finding the booklet online and reading through it while you work on your forms, but that is not an option for people who are either not online at home or who simply do not know how to use the Internet.

On one hand we see it as a good idea for the IRS and state governments to transition to online filing: it saves tons of money and it saves tons of paper. Every year, libraries throw out or recycle boxes and boxes of forms nobody needed. But even though many millions of Americans have long been comfortable using online resources, there are still significant numbers of our fellow citizens who are not. We hope we will be able to go on helping them, but sometimes it seems like the ‘powers that be’ make it awfully hard to do that.

Good Enough for Me . . .

We have long pondered the question of how old to say Webster Groves Public Library is. This is an important question, because we are, by most measures, the oldest public library in St. Louis County, rivaled in the region only by the older St. Louis Public Library. Last year we completed a comprehensive history of the library which shows that Webster Groves Public Library has been around in one version or another since 1884.

It was in 1884 that a group at First Congregational Church started a public reading room. By 1893, that reading room was moved to a larger space within the Church’s new sanctuary. It was open to the public until 10 at night six days a week. When First Congregational Church tired of providing a public reading room, the mantle was taken up by the ladies of the Monday Club of Webster Groves. In 1911 they opened their club building, which included space for a public library. This library was reported on in the annual reports of the Missouri Library Commission, which called it either The Monday Club Library or Webster Groves Public Library.

It wasn’t until 1927 that the citizens of Webster Groves passed their first tax levy for public library services, and in October 1928 the library building in Frank Hamsher High School was dedicated. This begs the question–do we count our history from 1884 or from 1927? Counting from 1884, we are by far the oldest library in St. Louis County. Counting from 1927, we are rivaled by Kirkwood, where they passed a library tax in 1924.

I just noticed that St. Louis Public Library is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year. They are counting 150 years from 1865, when a members-only, subscription library was created in the city of St. Louis. It wasn’t until 1893 that a tax levy was passed to support a public library. The way I see it, if it’s good enough for St. Louis Public Library, it’s good enough for us.

Thus Webster Groves Public Library is 131 years old, far and away the oldest public library in St. Louis County. Too bad we are still years away from a sesquicentennial celebration or any other milestone. But it’s still nice to know.

Foodie Movies

I saw a movie last night called Chef, a 2014 release starring Jon Favreau, Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johanssen, Sofia Vergara and about a dozen other people. It was pretty good, not great, but enjoyable mostly for the wonderful scenes of food being prepared, which is a kind of theater enjoyed by a certain type of viewer–namely, foodies.

Over the years there have been a number of great food movies. The first I remember is the 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast, based on a novel by Karen Blixen (most famous for Out of  Africa). There was also Big Night, from 1996, starring Tony Shalhoub and Stanley Tucci as brothers and partners in an Italian restaurant. In 1994 Ang Lee gave us Eat Drink Man Woman, about a Chinese restaurant owner dealing with his three independent daughters.

These were all good movies, memorable mostly for their scenes of what many critics call ‘food porn': lovingly rendered closeups of cutting and sauteing and displaying food on plates in splendid, colorful, steamy profusion. For this alone, most of these movies are watched again and again by foodies.

I wonder if I’m missing any? Do you know of any other great food movies? How about great scenes of food in otherwise not foodie movies?

Bill of Rights Day

December 15 was Bill of Rights Day. It has never been a major day of observance, even though Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed it as long ago as 1941, acknowledging that December 15, 1791 was the day the first ten amendments to our Constitution took effect. I noticed that a few libraries had posted book lists for Bill of Rights Day: mostly books about the history of the Constitution and of the Bill of Rights itself. There’s some interesting reading there.
I have to admit that I missed it, and we didn’t post any book list. In retrospect, I would say that even had I known it was Bill of Rights Day, and planned carefully for it, I would probably not prepare a list of books. I would only recommend that everyone read something that day. Sure, there are ten amendments, and various people and special interest groups cite one or another of the amendments as the cornerstone of American democracy. It likely goes without saying that to librarians, the First Amendment reigns supreme, particularly where it says, ‘Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech . . . ’
To librarians, this means the freedom of everyone to read what others have said or written. The American Library Association sponsors a yearly Banned Book Week (usually late September), when we highlight all the many books that various individuals and groups have worked to censor or ban over the years. Works by some of our greatest authors are included, people like James Joyce, John Steinbeck, and Mark Twain. During that week libraries encourage people to read one of these books, just to show that despite misunderstanding and narrow-mindedness, our Constitution still protects your right to read what you want.
People keep us on our toes too. In our very political times, we have patrons who question why we don’t have a book by this conservative commentator or that liberal social critic. We may experience the occasional lapse, but there is never an intention to censor.
I remember once, a patron had asked at the front desk to speak with ‘whoever was the person who censors our collection.’ They sent him to me. He was indignant that we had no books in our collection by Erich von Däniken, the author of such controversial tomes as Chariots of the Gods. What I found was that he had searched under ‘von Däniken, Erich,’ but the library catalog lists his name properly as ‘Däniken, Erich von.’ There were nine of his books listed in the catalog, but somehow that didn’t seem to assuage his sense that we had conspired to keep this information from him.
It is interesting how quickly people jump to the assumption that we purposely censor what they want to read, when the fact is, your average public librarians are probably the people in your town most dedicated to making sure you get to read what you want. So again I say, if you want to celebrate the Bill of Rights, whether it’s on Bill of Rights Day or any day of the year, pick up a book, any book, and read it. Remember, it is one of our most precious freedoms, and freedom is always a precarious commodity.