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The stuff we take with us

Three decades after graduating from college, I was still lugging class textbooks from residence to residence as I moved around Texas to take new jobs.

Here is an indication of how attached I was to these and hundreds of other books: One of the most expensive texts I ever bought was something like $30. It was a political science book I had to buy for a master's-level class. The book was useless as a reference because the PAGE NUMBERS IN THE INDEX DID NOT MATCH THE ACTUAL PAGE NUMBERS IN THE BOOK! So, looking for Machiavelli? Good luck finding references to him on the actual pages.

I am learning this summer that I certainly was not exhibiting the bizarre behavior I thought I was. Dozens of people have brought old texts and hundreds and hundreds of other books to the library to donate for the Friends of the Library book sale. We're down-sizing, many of them tell us. We're retiring and don't have the space anymore.

I finally got to that very point two moves ago, when I was preparing to leave Wichita Falls for Temple. I looked at all those books and at all those boxes of books and said, No More.

And almost the entire collection, including that political science text, went to a charitable organization that could get some kind of value out of them other than the selfish feeling of owning (controlling? coralling?) all that stuff.

Misty-eyed ... and more

Laura, my oldest daughter, has always loved horses, so when someone donated a copy of the 1961 book called "Misty of Chincoteague" to the library, I figured she had probably read it as a child.

I took it to her, and she got tears in her eyes as she recalled the pleasure that little book gave her when she was small.

I figured I would go to Amazon and see what it would cost to buy, and then donate that amount to the library.

I got the shivers, though, when I recalled a conversation I had with another of my daughters about her quest to track down a book called "Little Mommy" that was her favorite children's book, period. (I still have the book stored in my memory and can recite it on cure even though it's been about 40 years since she sat in my lap and had me repeat it over and over and over again.) She said she found "Little Mommy" in ebay, but would not disclose the (what must have been very high) price.

This set of shivers was accompanied by another on Sunday when I read a column in the New York Times Book Review by Terry Eicher about her own search for a childhood favorite. The prices she was looking at were off the charts, as far as I'm concerned.

But, whew!

I found "Misty" in its 1961 version at Amazon for $13.

It was certainly worth that to see the look on Laura's face.

 

Steep learning curve

A woman came in one day this week hoping to use one of our public-access computers to apply for a job.

Her only option was to fill out an application online. At the very outset, I commiserated with her because several years ago I was looking for a job, and I found that the vast majority of employers wanted online applications, period.

The process of filling out all those forms, especially as someone with 45 years of experience in a variety of jobs in a variety of places, was daunting, to say the least. Each and every online form, including most of those for state agencies, was different. So, every form had to be filled out completely. I could spend a half a day on just one application form.

The lady who came in did not have that problem.

Instead, she did not have an e-mail address, did not know how to use a computer mouse and did not know how to type.

Oh my, I thought as I tried to guide her through the process (after getting her a gmail account), what kind of job can she possibly hope to get?

She left after about 55 minutes, even though I offered to extend her time and to help her. I'm sure she was even more frustrated that I was those few years ago.

We at the library can and do want to help people like her. But, sometimes the learning curve is pretty darn steep.

Is it stolen?

It almost goes without saying that the Internet has enabled countless thousands of students and would-be authors to steal the work of others and present that work as their own.

I've not seen data on the extent of the plague of plagiarism, but I'm guessing it must be a terrible problem. In the classes I've taught at Baylor and the University of Texas, I didn't have to worry about plagiarism because I was teaching courses that required original reporting of discrete events.

I wonder about the issue because I'm a librarian as well as a consumer of information, and I want to trust writers and authors. Better, I want to be able to verify that the words they put forward as their own are, in fact, their own.

I have recently run across a reference to two online services that allow for such verification. One is called Safe Assign, and the other is Dupe Off. I checked them out, and found that Safe Assign is designed for the academic world alone. Dupe Off is available for a fee, for the most part.

So, how else to double-check for originality?

I agree with comments made by Jeffrey Beall, scholarly initiatives librarian at the University of Colorado Denver, in an interview with The Charleston Advisor: He said he finds the best practice is to read the material, figure out where the writing style changes and then Google or Bing those sentences. That works for me.

So, while it is easier than ever to plagiarize, I think it's easier than ever to find a plagiarist.

Although I recall the first plagiarist I came across. He was a sports writer for the university newspaper that I was the editor of. The guy was a native of Yugoslavia and spoke with a heavy accent. He also wrote with a heavy accent, scarcely worrying about things like articles and adjectives. So, when he turned in a story for publication that was in the king's English, I knew something was wrong. Soon, I found he had stolen the work of a real journalist.

Now, that was easy.

 

The impact of evaporation

Every once in awhile someone will donate a batch of those old-timey VHS tapes of movies to the library, and I put them on a cart by the front door where people can pick them up and take them home for absolutely nothing.

You'd be surprised how few takers there are. In fact, I can think of just one regular patron who still has a VHS. He takes the movies that aren't for children.

Nobody donates old cassette or eight-track audio tapes, because nobody has a player.

Unfortunately, this same situation is playing out over and over again as digital formats replace earlier formats and older formats such as print.

Vint Cerf, one of the developers of the Arpanet back before there was ever any thought of the Internet, recently participated in a conference in London sponsored by The Guardian newspaper, and he told interviewers that he was extremely concerned about the future of the kind of information storage that we today call the public library.

That storage device could be as endangered a species as the modern-day newspaper, Cerf noted, repeating something I've felt for quite some time.

"I am really worried right now about the possibility of saving 'bits' but losing their meaning and ending up with bit-rot," he told reporters. "This meanas you have a bag of bits that you saved for a thousand years, but you don't know what they mean because the software that was needed to interpret them is no longer available, or it's no longer executable, or you just don't have a platform that will run it. This is a serious, serious problem and we have to solve that."

Now Cerf is a very, very smart man. And here's the deal: He has no idea what that storage device will look like down the road. Will there be libraries? If so, how will they work? He doesn't know. It goes without saying that neither do I.

He does think that the solution will require a whole new infrastructure.

Where will the money come to built it?

Will another Andrew Carnegie step forward?

I'm with Cerf: We have to fervently hope so.