Faceplants, Photographs and the Library Kool-Aid: Observation Notes 18-30

Every few months, I will post a series of observations that I have collected during that time.  I work 4 days a week, study 2 days a week and faceplant every Saturday so it has taken me a while to write . It is unrelated to my previous Observations post. 

Note 18: Mum. My mum was ill for most of 2018. The first half of the year she was constantly in hospital, so in the second half of the year we were all on edge. She wasn’t ill enough to return to hospital, however pneumonia in octogenarians is quite serious. As mum says, every other funeral she attends is due to older people succumbing to pneumonia.

Note 19: Photographs and Mum. I would spend the occasional weekend with my mum, whenever my sister who lives with her was away, as I didn’t want to leave her alone. Mum would just cough uncontrollably for the majority of the time that I was with her. The more she coughed, the more she became distressed. To distract her, I would pull out her albums. Her photographs have aged over the years, but going through them calmed her coughing. She would tell me of her friends, her aunts, the young children in the photos.

Note 19.1: I can’t help but think of George Kouvaros’s The Old Greeks: Photography, Cinema, Migration in which the author explores his parents’ migrant story through examining their photographs and the movies that they watched. It was a tad academic in its writing style which I really liked. His writing style lends itself closer to examination of the text rather than deep immersion into the story.  Kouvaros explores his grandmother’s “Photofilia” which reminds me so much of own mother’s near obsession with photographs of her family. He says:

“Listening to her stories, I came to view the photographs lining the walls of her house differently – not as the embodiment of a world fixed in place, but as evidence of a world experiencing rapid change” (page 100).

Note 19.2: Kouvaros uses not only the photographs of his parents and grandparents to explore the migrant experience, but also cinema – the movies they watched and rewatched that shaped the way his parents dressed and behaved. He also uses poetry, Cavafy and Seferis, to explore how people move to new environments and what these changes mean to them. Kouvaros also says about his grandmother with her home filled with photographs of loved ones

“In the case of my grandmother, the photographs she collected didn’t make the separation any easier. But they did allow her to keep in mind an image of absent loved ones. ‘Photographs are my life,’ she once told me. this statement makes me think that the experience of migration inhabits those left behind almost as much as those who leave.”

Kouvaros gave me pause impelling me to think about my mum’s photo gallery of relatives. Growing up, they were the photographs of cousins getting married. Cousins I had never met yet I felt a connection to through their image and through their wedding story. My mum and her sisters and cousins diligently sending formal, posed photographs of events that they would have preferred to have attended, a reminder of those who they loved, those who had grown up, those who we didn’t know. I remember my mum crying “But I left him a little boy” about her nephew, resplendent in pale grey wedding suit with his velvet red bow tie, Mum’s sister, my darling Auntie Aphrodite beaming next to him and his bride. I met my cousin and his wife twice before he died. His wedding portrait, still in its pride of place on my mother’s mantle, stands as a reminder of this gentle and funny man who had pulled out a row of mattresses when he hosted my husband and I, his 3 sweet sons lying with us storytelling through the night. He only lived to 49, his death shocking all of us. Crying across the other side of the world, his wedding photo remains as a testament to his life, of this world where I keep experiencing rapid change, and of my mum keeping her photophilia close at hand so we never forget who we are, and who we are connected with across the world. I am connected with his sons on social media and every time I see a photo posted, I remember my connection with them. My sisters and I show these photos to my mum, but even on our social media, they are no equivalent to the stories that can be read on my mum’s mantlepieces and walls of photographs.

Note 20: Storytelling and Mum. My mum’s storytelling is quite measured. Where my dad was all Big Fish and difficult to pull the threads of reality from his hyperbolic weaving, my mum is more Maeve Binchy. Stories from her life  woven sensibly and carefully like her well-crafted rugs that Mum made throughout her life to decorate our floors, walls and doors. Her stories at their core are rich with family history, spirituality, humanity, anger and love. At times Mum will be funny in this wry way of exploring and questioning that is typical of the women from her village. It’s a form of humour that my sisters and I and all our friends whose parents come from this village, love. Understated, deeply intelligent, reflective in a way I cannot describe. Part Vlach, part Roumeliot and all parts fierce and judgemental. I have slowly been collecting my mother’s stories. Sometimes I write them down, other times I record her. I have to hold myself back when I recount her tales, afflicted as I am by my father’s predilection towards exaggeration. As I sat with my mum those few nights, her coughing would abate as she quietly told me more of her stories.

Note 21: Mum, public libraries and me. My mum has a particular dislike for my workplace. Well, maybe not dislike. Maybe the word I am looking for is utter disdain for my workplace.

Note 22: Disdain. Don’t get me wrong. My mum has a deep respect for education, school libraries, university libraries and perhaps a grudging acknowledgment that the reference/information section of a public library might, might be worth having. She worked incredibly hard to ensure we had access to homework resources and whatever we needed to progress through school. She was unfortunate that her formative years were spent surviving World War II and the Greek Civil War, and did not attend school until she was 11 and then only for two years. Despite her scant two years, she is literate in Greek and always has some reading on the go – spiritual biographies of varying lengths – pamphlets, short stories as well as heavy tomes. Educational and spiritual reading is all that matters to her. Recreational reading is to her, a complete and utter waste of time. My mother does not apply a gender bias towards this disdain. It is in equal parts worthless for women as it is for men, all of whom she feels should do something valuable. Dig a garden, build a shed, knit a jumper, visit the ill, go to church, pray, talk to your (many) relatives, dance, sing, and take care of your home. Sedentary activities such as reading or television watching (and do not get her started on toys or gaming “What do they need Lego for, give the child a stick and get them to help in the garden”). As she sees me as an enabler of sedentary behaviour, my mum gets annoyed at me if I prattle on too much about the “goodness” of my workplace. A few years ago, I asked her to sign a petition to ensure more funding to public libraries and she refused. I mentioned to her that my job may be at risk and she shrugged and said “so what. Find something better to do. Become a teacher”.

Note 23: Unconvinced. My mother is incredibly smart and not under-informed. With me as her daughter, in my arrogance, I have tried to educate her many times on the virtues of libraries to our society. My mother however is unconvinced. Obviously, I do not agree with her. But having now been in the library industry for over three decades, for that whole time I have had to negotiate the terms around having a close relationship with someone who does not like my professional choices. This was difficult for me. How much of my work can I discuss with mum? When do I tip over the scales of workplace discussion to workplace proselytising? Mum’s forthright sense of story picks up on wastefulness and bullshit and she calls it out immediately. It would anger her when dad did it, it angers her when I do it. Tell a story straight and she is on board. Use embellishments and she calls you out. “Stamata! Then boro na’sakou me tis vlakies sou”. Stop it. I can’t listen to your idiocies. A sharp knife cut to pull me back. This used to render me to tears. My cranky mum intolerant of my professional and scholarly wastefulness (oh yes – she’s not a fan of my doctoral studies either).

Note 24: Pull back. Don’t go feeling too sorry for me though. That is not the story I am telling. But it is a necessary part of the story that I am leading towards. My mum’s disdain for my profession and scholarship though has proven to be useful. She is not one that subscribes to the library Kool Aid. That pull back that she provides me with helps me see my work from the perspective of a dissenter.

Note 25: Library/Information Theory time. There was a major shift in library information theory in the 1970s and 1980s. We moved from a time of seeing our library users as information deficient to a user needs model.

Note 25.1: Information deficient: is when librarians consider their user as lacking. Or as needing to be bettered. For example, someone will come in to ask for a “good book” to read and library staff will provide a list of canonical text that will improve the knowledge of the user.

Note 25.2: User Needs: is when librarians assist their user to understand the gap in their knowledge through the use of sensemaking to help bridge the gap. For example, someone will come in to ask for a “good book” to read and library staff will ask the person to consider what type of books do they enjoy or don’t enjoy, what are the elements that they seek out in a book, and then suggestions (not recommendations) are made to try to meet the user’s requirements.

This user needs model has been taught in Library and Information Science degrees since the 1980s. It has since morphed and become user experience design. At its core, it is an approach that places the user as central, and the professional as facilitator to their needs.

An Aside: This model in theory seems straightforward and feels comfortable to work within. But I have given a gentle, feel good example above. Consider how this example would go if instead of a “Good book”, the example was a request for pro-anorexia methods, or how to lobby for more relaxed gun laws or any number of issues that may feel confronting. This is a different conversation I won’t go into for now. I want to consider something different here.

For the most part, librarians work with user needs underpinning their ethos. However, I think that when it comes to non-library users, librarians forget themselves and revert to treating people as information deficient. As needing to be educated rather than trying to make sense of their non-user status, just as I used to treat my mum.

Note 26: The Library Kool Aid. Ahhh! The library Kool Aid. I have drunk from its fountain since I was 4 years old. I love libraries. I love the information provisions, I love the service, the collections, the core values. But just like a holy grail, it can be difficult to criticise libraries, both from within and outside of the profession. Do so and the library proselytisers will eat you up and spit you out like a discarded piece of gum.

As much as I love my profession and the services that we deliver, I think it is imperative that I also engage in criticism of my profession. I have drunk from the Kool Aid you see, so I need to ensure that it continues to taste good. So I am going to mention some of the criticisms (other than my mum’s) I have heard over my decades, and I agree that these are inclusive of my own library practices.

We are: officious, weak spined, useless, a waste of tax money, sloppy, inflexible bureaucrats, unimportant, inconsiderate of authors,  council asset monitors, overrated rangers, and it goes on. I am sure that others can continue to add to this list.

Note 27: Library dissenters. Several months ago I got caught up in a twitter storm when I supported an author who was making disparaging comments about libraries and their role impacting her earning capacity. She is not the first person to have made disgruntled sounds about libraries. Over the years, there have been many dissenters. Let me point to Terry Deary who in 2013 lost his shit over his books in libraries. The Forbes magazine author who wanted libraries to give it up to Amazon. Or even more recently, the furore caused by Marie Kondo suggesting that someone only needs to own 30 books in their personal library (I have here linked to an article that instead of only highlighting the anger, is one that tries to make sense of her ideas). These are just a few examples that I have observed (and occasionally engaged in) over the years. I have used the Terry Deary example in when I was teaching my Library Diploma students, compelling students to understand his perspective over that of the library supporters perspective. Agitating for an understanding of non-users rather than only teaching them how to defend the fort.

Note 27.1: I do understand that those who are quick to defend the fortress library do so because it is under constant attack. Budget cuts, the retail push and special interest lobby groups often making small incremental inroads into the running of the library. There is also an important role for these defences to be made but we need to be more strategic in our approaches.

Note 27.2: Library dissenters are like the family black sheep whose photo does not make it onto the mantlepiece. Just because their image is not there, does not mean that they don’t exist, and that they haven’t had an impact in your life.

Note 28: Where you see shit, smell manure.  In 2009, I had an author approach me to say that she was unhappy with libraries. I have dedicated 10 years of my life in trying to make sense of her comments to me. Her comments led to the creation of this blog which led to my doctoral studies and outputs. The author never said she hated libraries and is actually quite a supporter of them. However, her words had such a deep impact on me, that I returned to uni, I gave up my team leader position in a venerated city library (you know – the type of library that others dream of being employed in), I have refinanced my house loan twice, and I am still working towards completing my doctorate in trying to come to an understanding as to how library practices impact the creative outputs of authors, specifically romance fiction outputs, and what the ramifications are of these practices. I have convictions that I am testing here. I need to understand what libraries have done. Why have we done it. Does it need to change. Do we just tell dissenting or unconvinced non-library users to suck it up? I certainly haven’t said that to my mum. Or do we need to do some navel gazing as a profession and try to come to an understanding of which of our practices are the ones that have mostly created agitated situations and whether these are negotiable practices.

Note 29: Faith: The public library service that I use has disbanded overdue fines. There is no such thing anymore. And they have an amnesty on all previous fines accrued before the date that the new policy changes came into place. The anger and bureaucracy involved in collecting fines stood in the way of service provision. Librarians in this service are no longer overrated rangers. The library’s administrators underwent a sensemaking process whereby they came to an understanding of the impacts of fines. They moved away from an information deficient model where the borrowers needed to be taught a lesson in returning materials on time, where the borrowers needed educating, to one where they tried to understand their motivations and concerns. I have a deep faith in my profession and those who are dedicated to library practice to moving towards an understanding of the unconvinced and dissenting non-library users, rather than attacking, defending and agitating for them to drink Kool Aid that is bitter to their lips.

Note 30: It’s a Saturday night. It’s 9.30. I am in my pyjamas and reading a book. I receive a text from my sister who lives with Mum. “We are watching Aliki Vouyouklaki and Dimitri Papamihail in I Neraida kai to Palikari. Come and join us.” My book is forgotten. Tsak! I am in the car, heading to mum’s house. Aliki Vouyouklaki is a legend of Greek cinema. The Marilyn Monroe, Doris Day, Sally Field of Greece all wrapped in one. Her rom-coms with her ex-husband are Greek classics. I grew up viewing them at the local Greek cinema in the eighties. George Kouvaros’s book has given me a new way of examining the movies I was brought up on.

My late cousin’s face pops into my head as I am driving to my mum’s house. Back in 1996, it is at his home, on the mattresses on the floor laughing with his kids, that the news of Aliki’s death reaches us. National mourning in Greece peaks for this darling of the screen. Other cousins – who prior to this day I had never met, yet through their photographs, I knew them well – sneer and debate about her acting ability, but they can’t deny her silver screen legend greatness.

I get to my mum’s and enter her bedroom. The lights are off but the television light reflects and falls in different shapes and glints across her room. To my left, on her vanity, I see evidence of her photophilia. Several photos of all her daughters, of mum with dad, and of her sisters and mother. On her chest of drawers, are more photos of her family from across the world. I walk further into her room and my sister and mum are waiting. “Quick, hop on the bed so we can start”. Mum asks me what I was doing when they called me. “I was reading”. She sighs resignedly, knowing that she really didn’t expect any differently. “It’s good you came. You read too much”.

The three of us watch this classic movie. It is an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, but with a happy ending. One where the priest and Romeo and Juliet trick their parents into thinking that they are dead and the family rivalries end immediately in their grief. As soon as regret flies from their parents lips, the two leap up and declare their success at dispelling the old family hatreds, and then declare their love for each other and then on to the party. Food and dance and singing for all.

The movie ends, and I have to go home. I say good night to my mum and sister. Mum turns and says,”it’s a good movie to get you away from those books”. I turn to my sister and ask her where did she get the DVD copy from. “I borrowed it from the library”. Mum looks at me and in her wry village humour says, “Ah. At least the library is good for something”.




Thanks goes to my fellow Shallowreader conspirator Infogenium who gave me valuable input for this post. 


9 thoughts on “Faceplants, Photographs and the Library Kool-Aid: Observation Notes 18-30

  1. Oh, Vassilikí, this is beautiful: “Where my dad was all Big Fish and difficult to pull the threads of reality from his hyperbolic weaving, my mum is more Maeve Binchy. Stories from her life woven sensibly and carefully like her well-crafted rugs that Mum made throughout her life to decorate our floors, walls and doors.”

    As the daughter of a librarian (by default, not education–long story, different times), my support for libraries is unwavering, one I’ve never questioned. We must have spaces for people who need and want access to information and entertainment and history and resources, and who cannot afford that access, to have it. And yet, I rarely, if ever use the library myself these days!

    Thank you for sharing these lovely notes.

    • Thank you! And I completely agree with you. I think public libraries are whole cycle of life spaces and few people will use the services consistently throughout their lives. Rarely using the library is fine. You used it in your past, and you might return to them later. Libraries tend to be steadfast, if anything.

  2. Awesome thoughts. I really enjoyed this. I think you should preserve this somehow with your mother’s stories and photos. It’s a great tribute to mothers and daughters and family dynamics.

  3. I totally perked up when you wrote Vouyouklaki-Papamichaeil, you know I’m obsessed with them. They turned out more Taylor-Burton than Woodward-Newman, but that was what saw us coming back to them again and again. Like your mum’s photos, I think those films, FINOS FILMS! for the win, really contain all the anxieties, the bitterness, and the hopes and dreams of our parents’ generation and as 2nd gen kids, our access to our past, unknown and known only through storytelling around dinner tables, long laden with cold food and warm ouzo, as they talked and talked and talked. We’re the “martyr-es” to that world and sometimes, I don’t quite know what to do with it. I’m glad you wrote your notes.

    • I am often astounded at the similarity of our lives despite being at polar ends of the world from each other. I think that FINOS films was the thread that kept everyone in the Greek diaspora connected and with similar experiences. I love your wording, that we were “martyr-es” to that world. We were. I too don’t quite know what to do with it. Thank you.

  4. Whereas your mum has disdain for libraries, my mum is indifferent. She had a vague sense, when I was in university, that it was where I studied and the books I brought home from them were only good until we could afford to buy our own.

    I think that Greece doesn’t really have a library “culture”, so it’s alien to our mums. My mum loved books and she read a lot when she was younger (now, it’s Greek newspapers on the iPad and CNN all the time), but they were books that wealthier village people lent her. She never had access to a library, or its services, or what it could do for her, and it was one thing, maybe b/c of the language barrier, that Greek immigrants didn’t access, unlike, let’s say, healthcare. Whereas being in the leftover of the British Empire, I went to schools where the library culture and what it could provide was rich and encouraged. So much less so now with funding cuts, etc.

    • You are correct. Greece doesn’t have a library culture like the English speaking world. However, that is slowly changing due to the economic crisis. Their concept of library is very much in the vein of library-as-a-repository and not one of circulating libraries.

      My mum’s disdain can also amuse me. Years ago, when I worked in her local library which at the time had the largest Greek book collection outside of Greece so they needed lots of Greek speaking staff, many Greek borrowers would try to coerce me to waive their overdue fines and when I wouldn’t they would get aggressive and threaten to tell my mother. I would go home and tell my mum about their manipulative attempts and she would get even angrier “Den ehoun tipota allo na kanoun. Oxi mono tebeliazoun sto diabazma, argoun! Diplo to prostimo!” “They have nothing else to do. Not only are they lazy, sitting and reading but they are late! Double their fines!”. Hilarious!

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