on Balzac, Borges, Breaking Bad, and libraries (1)

(updated 2014-04-18)
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This is the first part of a longer piece about reading, series and cycles, narrative and knowledge, and libraries. It started out as two things: a first post about libraries, and a second post about cyclical narrrative. Then when I saw that the two were connected, I stuck allthenotestogether. The result was a giant hairy indigestible horror, or maybe a horrid giant hairball, so it’s now been split into at least two.

Part the First, this one here, looks at libraries.

Part the Second looks at big cyclical narrative and its connection to libraries, in an attempt to show why burying books in storage silos is a terrible thing to do. There is a way in which it might not be a terrible thing, but this is a way which not yet, I think, been contemplated or created. Consider that post a contribution to my box-ticking of forms, for Innovation and Ideas.

It is possible that Part the Second might be split into two. We’ll see.



“Reading” and appropriate “reading-week activities” as re-envisioned by my university. Sans commentaire:

Reading week activities at UBC Library

There are plenty of activities for all to enjoy during Reading Week. Stop by UBC Library to catch a film, play some games or learn from a workshop. All activities are free of charge.


February 1 – 28
Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, level 3
Chapman Learning Commons showcase exhibit
This exhibit highlights the services the CLC offers to students and the UBC community. From peer coaches and tutoring to equipment lending, the CLC has a lot to offer.
Tuesday, February 18
All dayKoerner Library
Research in a Day workshops
Koerner Library is offering ten of it’s most popular workshops for any interested graduate students, staff, instructors or faculty – all in one day. Sessions include citation management tools, literature reviews, how to build your academic profile, and using GIS in research.
Thursday, February 20
12 p.m. – 1 p.m.
Xwi7xwa Library
Getting Started with Zotero
Have you ever said “my paper is done… except for the bibliography and citations” and then proceeded to pull all nighter? If so, it might be time to learn how to use Zotero! Zotero is a citation management tool to help you collect, organize, cite and share your resources (ALL your resources – books, articles, news sources, websites, videos… you name it!)Tea and bannock will be provided.
Thursday, February 20
1 p.m. – 4 p.m.
Koerner Library, 3rd floor.
Games Day
Take a break from your research and come to Koerner Library for an afternoon of board games and fun! Bring your own games or enjoy one of the games provided. Games available include: Scrabble, Fluxx, Cranium, Apples to Apples, and more!
Friday, February 21
2 p.m.
Koerner Library, Room 216
Film Screening: Scott Pilgrim vs the World
The perfect film to watch on a lazy weekday afternoon when you’re supposed to be doing homework! Part of the recently acquired Videomatica collection.
February 24 – 28
Koerner Library, 2nd and 3rd floors
Freedom to Read Week exhibit
During Freedom to Read Week Koerner Library will be running a series of displays reminding us of the dangers of censorship and the benefits of freedom of expression. Displays include a timeline of banned/challenged books in Canada and posters of frequently challenged works.


A library should not only have books but should be populated by people: walking, browsing, sitting, lounging, curled up, lying sprawled; all over the place, still and moving, in every possible position, reading in a leisurely fashion.Sure, some more traditional libraries might poke their readers in the direction of proper straight-backed chairs, but you’ll still find people cross-legged on the floor between stacks. And a good bookshop should also have happy enraptured readers scattered liberally all over the place. Think of the old Elliott Bay Books in the Seattle of Frasier. Alas, they have been forced to move by rising rents and philistine landlords.

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Arcfinity / Exit Strategies (Arc 2.1) / Hanny Rajaniemi, the next step in literary evolution, via reading and rereading Iain Banks, “The Crow Road”

Now that’s a proper book-place, and they got it right, on how you create atmosphere and encourage other people to come in, stay, start reading, and eventually maybe leave with a book. In a library as in a bookshop, you should only be leaving with a book–if you’re doing it right–because you hadn’t managed to finish reading it and the place was closing (or you had to go and eat, or teach, or home, or whatever) and you absolutely had to finish the book. If the weather’s right and the circulation desk staff are good, you should very very very nearly be able to keep reading while checking the book out and then walking outside to your next stop. Uninterrupted, still immersed. (When working at the University of Manchester library, we were trained in that kind of check-out process. We received uncannily similar training when working in Heffers bookshop in Cambridge, this time for unobtrusively getting people to pay for their books before leaving with them.)

UBC’s main arts/humanities library is not like that. Not only is there less of that kind of immersed, fascinated, marvellous reading full stop; there’s less than you would see in a good bookshop. The layout, seating, and general atmosphere are set up against it.

What is going on instead? People at tables and chairs, often “studying.” A mysterious activity that I often rail against (as it is not the same as “learning” and “becoming learned”, nor the same as “geeking out”). But which has, to be fair, some positives: intelligent interactions, explanation, discussion, commentary. It’s a dynamic activity around books and/or knowledge, and involves learning, so basically it must be a good thing.

I’m in two minds about this: any kind of bookish activity is a good thing, and doing things in groups with discussion is good intellectual activity. But I also feel this is only one of several kinds of bookish activity, and often a stage for people to work through before they can attain independence. Just as people often need to work through stages of guidance, and externally-imposed deadlines and planning, before they are capable of working completely independently. Most of us never get to that stage; I certainly have not.

“Group study” is what UBC promotes, anyway, and an activity to which it dedicates increasing amounts of space (and money to spend on that space).

As contrasted with silent solitary reading.

A major complaint about UBC’s Koerner and, especially, Barber libraries–our two main ones for the humanities on campus–is that they are not well-suited to grown-up library work, in silence. A common complaint from several colleagues is that it is very hard to find any quiet space on campus. Some people cannot even get this in their offices. That could be grounds for contracual and human rights complaints, certainly on working conditions. Most of the campus noise is urelated to direct university work: reversing trucks that have to beep, construction, waste disposal. Yes, in the middle of the day, when you are sitting in your office trying to think, read, write, mark, work. And no, I don’t necessarily want to wear headphones or listen to music (or whale-song, or whatever) while working. I am easily distracted, and work best in silence. Were I a UBC undergraduate right now, I would be registered with the good people of Access & Diversity for needing a low-distraction environment. A&D, by the way, are great, and I love them to bits: come the revolution when useless administrators are lined up against the wall, I will defend these people to the death and put myself between them and the firing squad.

But I digress.

We need quiet. By “we” I mean everyone engaged in scholarly work, of a sort that involves reading (words, images, the two together), with eyes and brain engaged. That’s faculty, but also undergraduate and postgraduate students, researchers of all sorts, and–this being a public university–any member of the general public, from schoolchildren doing projects to our local senior citizens. And visitors.

It’s a library, and should feel open and comfortable for everyone. Everyone should be able to come here and read quietly.

But no. It’s dominated by “study groups” making noise.

Here’s a quick comparison of “group” and “silent” study spaces. Note how the two are decreed to be separate: another library misunderstanding of bookish activity, missing the need for spaces where people can read in companionable silence, possibly passing notes to each other…

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If their website and Grand Plans are any indication, our library has lost sight of what it means to be a library. Just as is the case for the figurative representation of our university that is its site and Official Documents, which portray a university that has forgotten what it means to be a university, and is trying to erase the idea of a university, replaced with a corporate fiction that is a tissue of marketing, branding, slogans, projects, NewSpeak, and other such things from the world of the Project Management Handbook. This is the writing of fiction, specifically of science fiction (where the pseudo-“science” is that of business and management); the construction of a pseudo-utopia; and an attempt to pass off an alternate universe as the real thing.

It is possible that this parallel world is the real thing. I don’t know. I have seen some evidence of this world’s existence: men in suits, people at meetings talking NewSpeak, people from administrative “units” to whom what happens in teaching and research were alien concepts, whose practicalities had to be spelled out. On one occasion, I had to explain why someone who was an instructor for a class would need to know their students’ names. It was like talking to extra-terrestrials.

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I’ve also met admin and more senior people at meetings who were talking “double”: when I had a sense that something else was going on, that these people were talking a different language, which sometimes overlapped with your own but sometimes didn’t; and a sense of danger, that what I was saying might be misunderstood in the other language, from too much proximity and overlap. Other layers of information and strands of conversation were happening underneath and between the lines. I am happy to have that in front of me, in black and white, to unravel. But this? Difficult. Even saying “I know something else is going on here, and I don’t understand it” means something else in OtherSpeak.

Conversations never concluded, decisions were never reached. Or they were, apparently, but bore no relation to the notes I had taken (and then was supposed to destroy; I now see why). Misunderstanding, misconstrual, and misprision were compounded by misdirection. The very idea of direction was different, alien, seemingly absent: of there being some sort of pattern, sequence, order. I don’t mean a nice logical linear kind of direction, but any sense of direction at all that could be understood as such by any creatures from humans to ants.

This is reflected in my institution’s novel, intriguing, and alien approach to ideas of “maps” and “mapping” (not to mention “the important information that YOU need”). On the UBC Korner library site, following the route of

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then into what looks like it might be a useful map-section:

Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 4.06.15 PMleads you to this, which is not a map nor even very useful or well-composed, and does not include BOOKS or other THINGS CONTAINING KNOWLEDGE:

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Google Maps helps you to find the place, but then just dumps you there… then eventually the site leads you to maps, but they’re stylised schemata rather than true & accurate maps (not least in the lack of “here be monsters” in the borderlands and liminal spaces):

The only thing that’s labyrinthine about this library is its website. Especially if, like me, you’re looking for a map. One that is simple, elegant, and useful.

Meanwhile, the catalogue is a disaster. I use the Princeton one to check bibliographical information then put that directly into the UBC one.

Here is a classic good example of maps, mapping, and directing people; from Princeton University’s Firestone Library:

Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 5.16.36 PM Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 5.21.10 PMSee? “HOW TO FIND STUFF” i.e. ACCESS INFORMATION is the most important thing on the page. There’s a practical guide to using the floor plans:

Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 5.21.58 PM Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 5.22.10 PMand then the floor-plans themselves, which are proper architectural draftmanlike maps. Here is one, from my most frequently-used floor:

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Compare a different approach to library mapping, that of Cambridge University Library. It still focuses on access to maps and consideration for users, putting themselves in their shoes:

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Something that is altogether lacking at UBC and is not only a tradition but an institution and crucial to Deep Serious High-Level Thought And Brilliant Work at Cambridge:

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Strategic plans offer another rich field of research, for reading and attempting to analyse differences between online worlds and their representations of their own realities. Some feel more like manifestos and declarations of human rights. Some are plans for the future and deal with hypothetical intentions. Beware the rhetorical traps that try to persuade a reader that they are looking at a description of current tangible reality: they are part of the marvellous poetics of this fascinating sub-category of utopian fiction.

Here is the strategic plan of the UL. It is a one-page PDF that basically says “we promise, intend, and plan to be a library.”

Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 4.34.21 PM Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 4.34.33 PMCompare that to the strategic plans of UBC Library, spread over several webpages:

Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 5.06.01 PMUm. Screenshots follow from

Not to forget the obligatory four-page 3.8 MB glossy brochure, UBC Library’s Strategic Plan (2010-2015):

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etc. etc. ad naus.

There’s this:

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And this sort of thing:

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A world of difference from the Cambridge approach.

Guess which one is the better library?

I’m only getting started, as are the library. I wish they’d spend more time on books and information and knowledge, and less on marketing guff. If you were to read the following out of context, would you ever guess that they were referring to a university library?

Students’ evolving needs demand that we deliver a responsive, integrated program of services and create exceptional learning and research environments. The Library’s extensive teaching programs equip students with skills for lifelong success in an information-intensive world.

Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 4.47.04 PM Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 4.47.20 PMOne wonders if this sort of thing has been going on:

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Then there is this worrying section:

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Well now. obviously, “yes” to the “research” and “knowledge” stuff, but ‘NO” to the obsession with Viagra-paradigm, cancerous, and historically Fascist “goods” of growth and acceleration. There is much to worry about in the rest: a conflict with other actual University practice (massive corporate contracts with Microsoft and Blackboard, and see previous post on Policy 81), and wonder about the role of librarians and their self-perception here. It’s all about territorial competition and expansion within the university (which has therefore ceased to be a “universitats” as it is no longer “universal”); an extreme simplistic Darwinian competition for limited resources for survival of the fittest; and about aggression, dominance, conquest, and quashing of rivals. Macho politics, spun out over many words and pages.

Compare, if you will, the elegant simplicity and timelessness of that single page from Cambridge.

Compare its use of terms like “service, support, innovative and collaborative, cultural and intellectual resources, scholarly” and multiple uses of “learning” (not just students: everyone).

UBC has instead opted for The Way of “executive team,” “leadership,” not listing people’s offices, and having a four-person Communications & Marketing division. That is separate from UBC Brand and the other UBC Communications and Marketing people–individual profiles, areas of responsibility, and contact information are notably absent from the site (just a general contact form)–an unknown number of whom inhabit a gorgeous mansion with panoramic views:

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Worrying, too, are the political and economical implications of the following:

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In terms of University governance and budget overall, this sort of unnecessary BS eats money. A translation into practical terms: how and why I am teaching language to classes of 40 students 3 hours a week, instead of 20 students for 5-6 hours a week.

On the other hand: perhaps Communications & Marketing is home to the most creative minds UBC, producing innovative experimental fictions, expanding the bounds of utopian science fiction and autofiction; the inheritors of Montaigne and Rousseau in exploring the self through writing the self. UBC Creative Writing and our writers in residence are just a front; the secret, protected haven for visionaries and imagineers is that beautiful mansion on the hill.

Perhaps this is where we’re moving and what the Branders are actually doing and making:

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On 20 February 2012, a new kind of publication was born – a sumptuously illustrated digital quarterly dedicated to exploring the future. At once wildly imaginative and deadly serious, Arc brings together thinkers, designers and writers to explore the possibilities of tomorrow.

Here is Arc’s first year in its entirety: every feature, every essay, every story. Issue by issue, you’ll explore unexpected possibilities, measure humanity’s chances, contemplate society’s collapse, and wonder as its artefacts come to life. You’ll find feature writers and essayists who approach the future with humanity, as well as imagination; who look beyond the usual doomsday scenarios and technical quick fixes to discover what the future might actually feel like. You’ll gather insights from all quarters: from animators and anarchists, professors and producers, professional futurists and eccentrics with an axe to grind. And as you explore original work from the likes of Margaret Atwood and Bruce Sterling, M John Harrison and Nick Harkaway, China Miéville and Jeff VanderMeer, Alastair Reynolds and Liz Jensen, you’ll discover why Arc is quickly establishing itself as an important and original voice, both in science fiction and in the wider world of letters, design and technology.

We hope you enjoy the ride.

From Arc 1.1:

Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 7.30.02 PM Screen Shot 2014-03-30 at 7.30.14 PMAnd from the Arcfinity blog:


  1. Everyone should read Dilbert. Daily. This is what RSS feeds and suchlike are for.

  2. In the words of another national public body, Advertising Standards Canada:
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