I hope Ursula K. Le Guin’s paradise is a kind of library

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I want to share some memories about one of the coolest nights of my life, when I met and shared a meal with one of my heroes, Ursula K. Le Guin.

I’m not even going to try to be clever in this post (I usually try too hard at that anyway). I’m surprised by how kind of raw I feel about her passing, and I feel like it would be good to share these stories still sharply etched in my mind and heart.

Ursula K. Le Guin came to our small, poor, rural library with her friend Roger Dorband. They had collaborated on the book Out Here:  Poems and Images from Steens Mountain, and they were coming to Grants Pass because it was where Roger had grown up.

I was asked to be the facilitator.

I was terrified.

How do you share a stage with a woman whose writing had consumed you, whose stories had taken up residence in your brain and soul?

How do you do it? Easily. Ursula K. Le Guin was kind, and generous, and warm. She was smart, and funny, and passionate. She loved libraries, and she spoke fervently about the magic and wonder of books and learning.

She made sure any children in the audience (clutching their Catwings books) had extra time with her. She asked them questions and whispered to them that Catwings had been her favorite books to write.

She agreed to go to dinner with several of us who volunteered for the library. I got to sit next to her husband, Charles. He asked me about my children and clapped when I told him my oldest daughter played the cello. So did his, he said humbly (not letting on that she is the accomplished cellist Elisabeth Le Guin, professor of musicology at UCLA and a founding member of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the Artaria String Quartet). He told me the story of his daughter arranging to have her whole string quartet fly to Portland to play for them because they didn’t feel well enough to travel on airplanes anymore. I think he teared up a bit.

(He and UKLG lit up when talking about their children. It was a joy to see.)

All this, and then Ursula K. Le Guin pretended to lick my husband.

We, the group at dinner, started talking about book signings, and how in some ways it’s kind of a weird phenomenon. “I’ve just given my readers several thousand words. What’s a couple more?” she said. We all agreed a signature was like a souvenir at the atomic level—a sense that the page had touched the ink that had touched the pen that had touched the hand of the writer. It was incarnate, immediate.

Then my husband grinned and said, “Maybe next time, you should just lick the books.”

It was funny, but oh god. I held my breath. I looked at Ursula K. Le Guin–a Library of Congress “Living Legend” and a recipient of awards from PEN and the American Library Association. Winner of multiple Hugo and Nebula awards. A National Book Award winner. A freaking Pulitzer Prize nominee.

What would she think?

She was roaring with laughter.

When dinner was done and it was time to leave, my husband went to shake her hand. She looked at him with a mischievous smile and gave a quick, lizardy lick to the air.

When I went to shake her hand, she instead wrapped me in a hug.

“OMG,” I shrieked after she left the room, “Ursula K. Le Guin hugged me!” I fangirled for days, weeks. Okay, I’m still fangirling.

And I’m not at all embarrassed by my excitement about that moment. Because I am a fan not just of her piercing, evocative, magical writing, or her ground-breaking, deeply human storytelling, but of her.

May she rest in peace.



Edited to add: I forgot about this, but about a year later, as we were gearing up to ask voters to approve a library district (we were operating just on donations and grants–long story), our library director asked her to write a letter to the editor. She did. I was stunned, and still am, that she would take the time and energy to write a letter in support of a smallish library system some 300 miles away. Here it is.

To paraphrase Borges, I hope her paradise is a kind of library.

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Why Do Libraries Bring Out The Best in Us?

A young JCLI volunteer (my daughter!) protesting the library's closure.
A young JCLI volunteer (my daughter!) protesting the library’s closure.

I don’t want to bore you with the story of my local library—I’ve told it a gajillion times. If you haven’t read it, you can do so here or here (I’m quite proud of this library, as you can tell!).

But I will tell you that even after the roller coaster ride of emotions I’ve been on with that crazy, beautiful library, nothing prepared me for the despair I’d feel when, on the morning of February 23, 2016, the Cave Junction branch of the library was vandalized.

It was a slap in the face.

After everything we’d gone through—the work and worry, the tears and triumphs—to have the library torn apart as though it meant nothing? To have the very door of the library—which had become a symbol for our movement, for our single-minded insistence on reopening—smashed into tiny shards of glass?

It was a punch in the gut.

But then something amazing happened.

Word got out about what had happened and we were inundated with offers of help. Our community rallied around us. A local diner, The Powederhorn Cafe, held a “Pi Day” fundraiser (with pie and coffee and proceeds going to the library). Oregon Public Broadcasting covered the story and addressed the lack of law enforcement that might mean nobody would have to answer for the crime. People and businesses donated money for a reward to find the perpetrators. Superhero librarians in other parts of the state offered help and held fundraisers. And good-hearted people from around the country donated money and, more importantly, sent their kind words and support.

The library was insured, of course, but on our shoestring budget, even a $5,000 deductible is a big chunk of change. With all of the support and donations, our library met that goal and topped it, raising over $11,000.

I felt like the Grinch, but in a good way. My heart grew by three sizes that week.

And I began wondering: what is it about libraries that brings out the best in us?

I think the very idea of a library assumes that people are basically honest. If a person borrows a book (or magazine, or CD, or DVD), they will bring it back for somebody else to use. Sure, some people will bring back materials late (lord knows I’m one of the worst offenders here—I could probably fund a full day of operation on my overdue fines alone). They may even abuse the system by stealing books (but those people are few and far between). But at its very core, the library assumes a social contract, an ethos of paying it forward.

Libraries exist because we want to share the hard work of the mind, the growth and expansion that comes from deep thought and wide experience. We want to hand over new discoveries that can be enhanced by diverse perspectives, and we want to hand down knowledge to the next generation so that we and they can benefit. Together.

These words feel small and paltry when compared to the potential of the library. This short movie based on the wonderful book The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, on the other hand, says far more eloquently what I wish to say…and it says it with no words at all.

Trolling Librarians Are The Best Librarians

Hacking’s a terrible thing. Terrible.

Except when it isn’t. Like when this guy pretended to be a Target sales rep and trolled people opposed to Target’s new gender-neutral toy marketing policy.

Or like when the American Library Association got its Facebook account hacked a few hours ago and librarians got all funny and beautifully weird and trolled the hackers, like in the screen shots I captured below.

Did I mention I freaking love librarian humor? These people are the salt of the earth.


Librarians are very discreet:


Did you know your library records are always kept private?:


Librarians can guide you to examples of words like “misogyny” (ya know, if you’re a visual learner):


No, but really, some good advice from Stephen and Steve here:


Libraries Matter, No Matter What

A young JCLI volunteer (my daughter!) protesting the library's closure.
A young JCLI volunteer (my daughter!) protesting the library’s closure.

In May 2007, all four branches of the library in Josephine County were closed due to lack of funding. More than 82,000 people were left without access to any library whatsoever.

(Over eight years later, I still feel a little shocked writing that.)

A past library levy had been absorbed into the county’s general fund. When the federal government failed to renew a decades-old subsidy (meant to reimburse county governments for the loss of income from logging on federal lands) and voters (mistrustful of county government) failed to pass a measure establishing an independent library district, the libraries were closed.

I was there, and I was devastated. I kept thinking about how a whole generation of kids would grow up receiving the message–from their own community–that books, literacy, and knowledge don’t matter. That learning about the world outside their borders doesn’t matter. That libraries don’t matter.

In August 2007, a group of concerned citizens banded together to form Josephine Community Libraries, Inc. (JCLI), and after 18 months of fundraising—stuffing envelopes, staffing information tables, and begging councilors and commissioners for money—volunteers reopened the Grants Pass branch of the library. Committed to providing library services throughout the county, the board of directors made it a priority to reopen the other three rural branches as soon as possible after the opening of the main branch.

I’ll never forget the opening of the Children’s Room on that cold December day in 2008. I was standing at the circulation desk so I could take pictures. On the other side of the ceremonial ribbon stood crowds of excited and curious kids. When the ribbon was cut, the kids streamed into the room. When it came time to check out, they had stacks of books in their arms and magic in their eyes.

On that day, we sent a message to the kids in our community: we care. We care about their education and imagination. We care that they have a future in the larger world.

Last fall, citizens placed a library district on the ballot in Josephine County that would have provided long-term, sustainable funding for libraries in Josephine County. Sadly, it didn’t pass. If it had, renovating the Children’s Room would have been one of the first priorities.

However, despite our disappointment in the results of the election, JCLI remains determined to provide quality library access for the children in our community by launching First Chapters, a project to modernize and enhance the Children’s Libraries in Grants Pass and Cave Junction.

The project will fund updated books, mobile bookshelves kids can reach, and furniture that actually fits them. It will provide technology that matches their need to learn and resources that fit their need to play.

Just one of the many books that needs replacing.
Just one of the many books that needs replacing.

JCLI has also partnered with Oregon’s Kitchen Table, a group of non-partisan, non-profit community organizations that is helping JCLI with crowdfunding, so that as many people as possible can donate to the project, to feel ownership of the amazing work libraries are doing in our community. If you’d like to help out, you can make a donation here.

First Chapters

By reopening the libraries, we transformed the message we were sending to our kids. Instead of telling them that books, knowledge, and culture are expendable, we taught them the importance of lifelong learning and connection with community and the outside world. With First Chapters, we can reinforce that message. We can teach them that libraries matter, no matter what.

Libraries Matter, No Matter What

I’m really sad.

LibraryCardHandsFor the last seven years, I’ve been volunteering with Josephine Community Libraries, an amazing group of folks who’ve worked with persistence and dedication to reopen our libraries after they were closed due to lack of funding (leaving 82,000 people without access to any library services whatsoever).

This year, some of us formed a political action committee to put a library district on the ballot. The district would have been completely independent of the government entities that closed the library in the first place.

On Tuesday, my community voted no on libraries. This is my response:


This is a hard blog post to write.

A majority of voters in Josephine County said “no” to a library district. They said no to investing in our community, to providing a safe place to learn and grow for our children, to ensuring that we always have a place where, regardless of income, we can improve ourselves.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow.

If you’re a supporter of the libraries, you may be having a hard time deciding what to do next. You’re probably shaking your head, wondering how our county can fail to see that libraries are foundational, that they transform lives daily. Maybe you’re embarrassed to tell family and friends in other parts of the country that you live in a place that won’t fund libraries.

And maybe you feel resentful of volunteering or writing a check to keep the libraries open, feeling as though you are subsidizing a vital community service for the naysayers.

I get it. I really, really get it. I’ve been struggling with those feelings for the last seven years, ever since we began working on reopening the libraries.

But then I remember the election of 2006. I was at the library campaign party when the results were called, and I was busy talking. I turned around to check on my kids, and I saw that my daughter, six years old at the time, was bawling. Just sobbing.

I was taken aback when I learned that the next chance to vote on a library district might not be for another four or five years. My oldest daughter would be eleven. My youngest would be nine. Those are critical reading years. And then I thought of all of their classmates and friends. A whole generation of kids who would grow up without the wealth of information and imagination a library provides…and a generation that would learn a harsh (and false) lesson that libraries, literacy, and education are worthless.

Then I remember the 15,474 people who voted yes. And the over 300 volunteers who give so tirelessly of their time and talent. And the 2,300 people who donate generously, knowing that libraries cost money, that they can’t just operate with a bunch of books and a card catalog.

Many have commented on the dedication of our volunteers and donors. It’s not just a fluke. That tenaciousness arises from the conviction that libraries matter.

Without a library district, drastic changes will need to be made. JCLI simply cannot afford to continue providing the current level of service with current revenue.

I know these changes have to happen, that our libraries will get worse, not better. Sometimes I feel paralyzed by the financial burdens the library faces.  But I try to remember that small actions add up to great accomplishments, and when I volunteer or write out my check, I imagine my contribution helping JCLI provide better library services for even one additional day. That’s one day that thousands of Josephine County children have access to all the books they can imagine. That job seekers can fill out applications online. That seniors can have large-print books delivered to their home. That people of all ages, incomes, and backgrounds can transform their lives.

And it’s one more chance to send the message—to our children and to the outside world—that we care about ideas, education, literacy, and culture.

To find out more, click here.

Today’s Libraries: Something for Everyone (But Maybe Not A Swimming Pool)

In 2007, all of the libraries in my county were closed due to lack of funding, leaving 82,000 people without access to any library services whatsoever.

It sucked. A lot. For so, so many reasons.

Since then, I’ve been a volunteer for Josephine Community Libraries, a nonprofit that reopened the libraries when the county government refused to do so. A group of us have also formed Keep Our Libraries Open, working to pass a publicly funded library district in Josephine County.

Anyway, that’s the background to this piece I wrote for Keep Our Libraries Open.

Back in 2009, when JCLI finally reopened the library, we volunteers worried we were in over our heads. After 18 months of working together, we sure knew how to fundraise, but we didn’t know yet know how to run a library. One thing was a given, though: this library would reflect our community’s needs. So we set out a suggestion box.

The ideas we got were pretty much what we expected: materials requests, questions about expanded hours, new program proposals.

We didn’t expect this:

Of Milton, Genesis, and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

For five years, I’ve been attending meetings of my public school district’s curriculum council. Five years of reviewing testing data, kindergarten schedules, and proposed changes in nutrition guidelines–all sorts of drudgery.  Nothing terribly interesting ever happened.

Well, I missed last month’s meeting, and that’s when it all went down. The council decided to recommend that the school board remove Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian from the high school curriculum.

(Note: time for a major mea culpa. I could have voted on the issue over e-mail but I forgot to do so. I realize that was a pretty sucky thing to have forgotten.)

We had discussed other books in other years—Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, most notably—but the most draconian the council had ever gotten was to approve a text with restrictions, which I could live with.  But this time, they voted to remove the text from the curriculum altogether (and yes, I’m still kicking myself for missing the blasted vote).

I greatly respect the other parents on the curriculum council. I truly believe that, to a person, they are doing what they think is right for their children and for our district.  However, I couldn’t disagree more with the decision that was reached.

According to notes from the meeting and an article in the newspaper, reasons given for the removal of Alexie’s book included violence, profanity, and sexual content. Objections were also made to the alcohol consumption in the book.

But the thing is, violence, profanity, and sexual content are laced throughout the entire literary corpus. Indeed, based on those objections, I don’t see how the district can justify the inclusion of the Bible (which is used in a bible-as-literature class) or any of Shakespeare’s tragedies in the curriculum. Consider:

  • Objections to discussion of masturbation in Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian:

How is the story of Judah’s son Onan in the first book of the Bible that different? Judeo-Christian exegesis often considered this story to be an injunction against masturbation and any “spilling of seed” whatsoever (from whence we get the word “onanism”).

“Judah said unto Onan, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.  And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the LORD: wherefore he slew him” (Gen. 38:8-11)

  • Objections to violence:

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lady Macbeth urges her husband to murder Duncan using the language of infanticide.

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.


Is that better than the description of a school fight?

  • Objections to the consumption of alcohol

Consider Gen. 9: 20-23, in which Noah becomes so drunk that he passes out naked.

“And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.” (Gen. 9: 20-23)

  • Objections to sexual and violent content:

Consider Hamlet’s decision to wait until his uncle Claudius is no longer at prayer to kill him because if he waits until his uncle is drunk or has just had sex with Hamlet’s mother, Claudius will go straight to hell:

“and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes.” (Act 3, Scene 3, 88-95)

But, of course, I would never argue that Hamlet, Macbeth, or the Bible should be banned. Nor should The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian. These are all works that engage the mind and the conscience, asking us to grapple with preconceived ideas and imagine new possibilities.

In his pamphlet Aeropagitica, John Milton argued against pre-publication censorship of writing.  For Milton, a mind that has read widely and had unfettered access to all manner of thought is a mind that is trained to discern true things:

“Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing.”

Our students should have the freedom to read an discuss difficult ideas in the safety of a classroom with the support of a well-trained teacher.

Or, as Milton put it, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”


Update: 9/22/14

The matter was put before the members of the Grants Pass School Board, who requested that the issue be tabled for one month so they could read the book. At the next meeting, they voted to approved Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. 

You guys, I am so proud of my school board for insisting they be given a chance to read the book before taking action, and I’m absolutely thrilled that they voted to keep it.

Ex libris

“King Charles I at the Bodleian Library,” by William Gale

I believe that most people (or at least the people I want to know) have a special “library place” in their hearts. It’s what causes the smile that breaks when entering a new library; the shiver on catching the familiar whiff of old books; the frisson of anticipation after realizing that stacks and stacks of books can be taken home and savored.

Libraries have been a big part of my life for the last five years.  In 2007, my community’s library was closed for lack of funds, leaving 82,000 American citizens without access to any public library whatsoever.  Unthinkable, right?

Long story short: a group of very cool folks got together and fundraised and fundraised some more and re-opened the library as a nonprofit.  There are hopes that we can pass a library district in the near future so that the library is again sustainably funded, but in the meantime we all work like crazy to keep the doors open (more here: www.josephinelibrary.org).

So last year, when I planned my first solo trip to England—sans husband and kids, free to direct my steps wherever I wanted without worrying about potty breaks, snacks, or pending soccer matches—it was only natural that at the top of my must-visit-or-else-what-the-hell’s-the-point-of-going list was Oxford’s storied and magnificent Bodleian Library.

The Bodleian, built in 1320, was Oxford’s first university library (meaning it wasn’t attached to one specific college). That original library, smallish and uninspiring, expanded when Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, donated over 200 valuable manuscripts in the 1440s, so the university constructed a new room over the Divinity School. (Harry Potter fans: note that the hospital wing scenes with Madame Pomfrey were filmed in the Divinity School, and all of the Hogwarts library scenes were filmed in Duke Humfrey’s library.)

Duke Humfrey’s library, finished in the 1480s, lasted about 60 years until, under legislation passed under King Edward VI meant “to purge the English church of all traces of Roman Catholicism,” the library was stripped of all books and manuscripts containing “superstitious books and images.”  (Why do I include this in my short history of the Bodleian?:  it is perversely of some comfort to me to know that my town’s library is not the only victim of shortsighted thinking on the part of autocratic politicians.)

The Bodleian was resuscitated in 1598 by an injection of funds from Sir Thomas Bodley, after whom it was renamed. Bodley established three guidelines that have shaped the Bodleian’s character:

1)      He established an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London that would direct the mission of the Bodleian to this day: a copy of every book registered with the Stationers’ Company was to also be deposited at the Bodleian. This agreement transformed it into a critically important repository of learning in England for the next four centuries.

2)      He determined that scholars from all universities should have unfettered access to the holdings of his library, a generous and liberal policy that allowed the Bodleian to transcend the relatively parochial constraints of English scholarship. (While all scholars were welcome, however, they all had to swear the following oath: “I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, or to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document, or other object belonging to it or in its custody; nor to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.” I know this because I couldn’t resist buying the tea towel with the oath printed on it.)

3)      He ordained that no books were to leave the building. No borrowing of books or materials, period.  This policy is in place to this day for the majority of the collection.

I find this last policy fascinating, because in the early days of my library’s resurrection, we faced a critical decision: invest in the (rather expensive) software that would allow us to circulate books or just house the collection for patrons to view in the library. A very sage and experienced librarian decided the point by declaring that if books and materials didn’t circulate, we would have a reading room, not a proper library. If we agree with that definition (and I do), the the Bodleian, one of the most famous libraries in the world, is technically a reading room.

Even King Charles I, facing a mutinous parliament in London and escaping to the relative security of Oxford in 1642, was denied borrowing privileges at the Bodleian (though in order to appease His Majesty, the librarians had a little stall built inside Duke Humfrey’s Library so the King could taste the fruits of scholarship in privacy). By the doctrine of the divine right of kings, this was the man who was, in Shakespeare’s words, “the figure of God’s majesty/His captain, steward, deputy-elect,” and yet even he was denied check-out privileges.

After my tour of the Bodleian, marveling at the majesty of most influential books and manuscripts in history, I stopped by a pub (as I am wont to do). It occurred to me, as I re-acclimated to the noise and smell and colors of everyday life, that the American library tradition–begun by Benjamin Franklin and brought to fruition by Andrew Carnegie and countless American communities–of enabling every citizen to have free and unfettered access to information is one of the most radical movements in history.

In Oxford, at the Bodleian, I could gaze at magnificent books chained to the shelves, marvel at the scholarship contained in the august buildings, and admire the history of the furniture, the paintings, the architecture.  But in little Grants Pass, Oregon, I could walk into my community’s library and check out almost any book in the building.

In this, I am richer than kings.