Worth a 1000 Words?: Judging a Book by the Cover

Despite having a perfectly decent copy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I ordered another one this Fall. This order was not driven by increased patron demand either, at least not at the time of the order, but reflected an intention to create demand for that older copy as well as the new one. At the time of purchase, I  was seeking a copy with an interesting cover for a book display.  I realized I do indeed judge a book by its cover. at least when “selling” books. And I think potential readers do too.

Seeking readers, I frequently promote books with covers out as new books and by themes, most recently Halloween–and soon, Christmas. I also highlight books on the shelves, but only those with compelling covers will do.  As well, I create digital slideshows of new items, and thematically.  With the rise of face-out shelving, bookstore type shelving, books with good covers are becoming ever more important to the collection.  In these cases, a picture is indeed worth 1,000 words.  In order to entice readers to embrace various texts, I first need to capture their interest visually.  I notice authors are placing more attention to covers, often acknowledging graphic designers and cover development in their acknowledgements. 

Covers are important to self-publishing as well.  A quick Google search indicates easy templates for creating one’s own cover, including from well-known sites such as Canva. One could now create appealing covers with Dall-E or other AI programs.  So, the question becomes, in this market, with these resources, why publish a book with a bland, boring cover? And there are many, especially in nonfiction.  I once nearly weeded a book while browsing the stacks, thinking the book looked old, possibly decades old; it was published two years ago. The truth is if I think a book looks dated and boring, how would patrons feel?  The truth is many  readers judge a book by the cover. Maybe they still choose a book despite a boring one, especially if reading an eBook, but covers can certainly help “sell” a book.

So, what makes a good, interesting cover? Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. But some recent covers I have liked include those for Remarkably Bright Creatures and Yellowface, both very different yet compelling.   In terms of nonfiction, Traffic by Ben Smith attracts the reader to take a look as does Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies. There are many factors involved. But in order to appeal to readers to engage with 1,000 words, we first need good artwork.

Glimpses of the Future in Fiction: Simulations and Lost Knowledge?

Note: Some plot reveals

Truth is stranger than fiction. This saying is cited often, and now with advances in AI, it may well be more apt than ever. However, lately, I find that novels can call us to consider the features of our new world in innovative ways.

Seemingly unconnected to each other, two novels have some similar themes, related to concerns of our “real world” and a possible escape to better ones. For example, The Ferryman by Justin Cronin and Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land each feature certain similar plots relating to “new worlds” that aren’t quite as they seem. At the same time, each of these bears similarities to The Truman Show, in which Truman realizes he lives in his own artificial world. I am sure there are even more books and films that share these ideas of simulations. It is clear that the idea of space travel to another alternate safer place is buzzing our collective imagination. And yet, there is often an important catch to that dream, according to these works. Sometimes, we can’t quite reach our destination. And what collective knowledge should we bring with us on the journey as we begin anew?

These novels also share a concern with preserving knowledge, or discovering lost knowledge. Each has a secret trove of literature stored just in case. I wonder if there is a collective concern for a new era of information richness and clarity as our current information sources become muddled and distressed. This fiction coincides with at least two relatively recent nonfiction titles related to the idea of lost knowledge: The Library: a Fragile History by Andrew Pettegree and Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge. Meanwhile, Simon Winchester’s Knowing What We Know: The Transmission of Knowledge: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Magic details the changing ways society views the concepts and conveying of shared knowledge. Interestingly, issues with disinformation and misinformation lurk throughout the centuries; they are not new. But perhaps more prevalent now.

These titles, nonfiction and fiction, could constitute an interdisciplinary course on these interrelated themes. At the same time, the rise of AI will add new dimensions to these issues, and how we address them. As the use of AI chatbots increases, there could come a time when we will no longer reference one standard “body of knowledge.” At least the newer iterations add live links to their cited source material. Meanwhile, a related worry is that of “model collapse” in which the data sets are distorted and unreliable; another concern is “Catastrophic forgetting” which “refers to the phenomenon where neural networks lose the ability to complete previously learned tasks after training on new ones.” Each of these issues highlight real anxiety about the future of knowledge in our new age.

In these revolutionary times, fiction can open new avenues for deliberation and exploration of these important issues. A central plot feature in Cloud Cuckoo Land is the discovery of a missing Greek text–does this portend our own future scramble for lost sources of information from within our constructed new worlds? When coupled with relevant nonfiction, these fictional texts offer engaging and thought-provoking ways to explore solutions to current concerns and they are also fun to read.

A Graphic “Novel” Approach to Nonfiction

Given the rise of visual media in society, this year I intend to expand my collection of graphic novels, including nonfiction.  With that in mind, I turned to the Wilson Core, among other sources, for ideas.  I was interested to see that nonfiction graphic novels are classified in the arts, 741.5.  I wonder if that is the best place? And what would be a better location? To this end, are they primarily casual, general sources of information and reading of a nonfiction type, sources for research? To be read as forms of art?

Then I started thinking about the media generally–it is certainly a hybrid form.  It is not a traditional novel for sure, and would it be the best source for research?.  Would teachers accept it as a source for a research project? So, that leaves casual, popular nonfiction.  But are students who are interested in reading about the Atomic bomb really going to read Bomb for information? Maybe they are. Maybe it would be a gateway to further engagement on the topic.

I am thinking that all graphic novel nonfiction is unique in form and that a potential reader who wants to gain knowledge from a graphic novel is probably not going to seek a longer narrative text-based source immediately, but might rather browse and find another compelling, different nonfiction topic of interest.

Therefore, I am classifying all my Graphic nonfiction (they are not novels) in a special section, much like the literary graphic novels.  Within that section, they will be ordered by subject.  In other words, I will have a mini-graphic library.  This is not a perfect solution, but I can always change it.

What do you think? Where do you shelf these hybrid works?

Losing My Magical Powers? How to Provide the Best Content

Libraries are often considered places of wonder and magic.  The association is made with stories that live there, particularly those of literal magic and fantasy such as Harry Potter.  Sometimes, the very concept of writing and literature is felt to be magical.  Both apply: libraries are special places, in part because of the content they offer. Some of that content is hidden by paywalls or other restrictions to the “free web.”.

Occasionally, too, librarians are viewed as magicians, when they obtain hard-to-locate sources within the “Invisible internet” or demystify the complexities of advanced database or Google searching techniques.

These are all valid and helpful associations.

But, increasingly, I feel as if our powers are fading and outside forces are casting a spell upon us.  I am speaking, in this case, of our databases and journal articles and the content we provide to our patrons in this manner.

I have tried to offer access to the richness of mainstream periodicals and journals with our library services.  I do not want any patron, faculty or student, to have to pay for The Washington Post or Atlantic Magazine or even most journals.  Essentially, with the help of our library databases, I try to offer an internal, miniaturized version of the best of the web. Or, that is my intention anyway, perhaps naive.  This is a radical, even magical, idea that all libraries, from public to academic, offer to one extent or another.

However, I am increasingly stymied in this ambition.  I speak specifically of the increasing supplemental and interactive content.  I do not expect to provide access to the New York Times games, although that would be great.  But I do want to offer interactive maps that accompany articles, for example.  But my biggest conundrum is access to the proliferating “newsletters” and bonus content offered by magazines and journals, from The Atlantic to America Magazine.  Too often, these are not included or offered too late to be of much value to my patrons.  

At the same time, I believe such features will only expand as media companies try to entice more personal subscribers.  With that, the power of the library fades, as more content is out of reach.  So, the big question, what can I/We do about this?  Accept that more patrons will need to purchase content on their own, will that make libraries less special, magical?  Suggestions and ideas are welcome.

Building Knowledge in the Age of AI

I was tempted, but this blog was not written by AI or any Chatbox, one who loves me or not. But this piece is all about AI and its implications for librarians and education.  It seems we can expect a flood of texts written by AI from now on.  The question is how reliable will they be? Will the program pull from authoritative sources?  

As of now, AI  has no access to the “invisible internet” of database resources or print books that have not been digitized.  Nor, does it have materials uploaded after 2021.  When these programs scan sources, how will they determine the value of the sites? Just look for similar language and phrases? These questions have important consequences: for example, a  recent Nature article noted that scientists were fooled by such texts.

The increasing usage and acceptance of AI, presents challenges and new opportunities.  Perhaps the most important skill or students will need going forward will be to assess the accuracy and relevance of texts.  Yesterday, for example, the International Baccalaureate (IB) program announced that it would accept AI  generated material if cited properly. Matt Glanville observed that “When AI can essentially write an essay at the touch of a button, we need our pupils to master different skills, such as understanding if the essay is any good or if it has missed context, has used biased data or if it is lacking in creativity.” So, assessing content will be vital.  Granville states, “These will be far more important skills than writing an essay, so the assessment tasks we set will need to reflect this.” This approach is fine as long as students have time in school and home, to acquire this content in the age of distraction.

Emphasizing skills rather than content has become a trend lately. Memorizing facts is seen as boring and unnecessary.  The idea being students should learn the skills to “do” history and science like  the professionals..  Content could be learned later, or just by “googling” something as the need arose  But if you don’t have a solid foundation of basic facts, how you can judge the credibility of AI-generated content?   Will readers take the time to assess each fact?  Of course, these demands were present with human-generated content, but now the need is greater.  Perhaps it will help that the National Council of Teachers of English is placing greater emphasis on reading nonfiction.  

Of course, the role of librarians is clear: acquire and highlight noteworthy, human-authored background content and nonfiction so that students can build this important reservoir of background knowledge when they encounter new texts, regardless of who or what created it. Encourage the idea that reading for information can be fun, especially if connected with previous knowledge and interesting facts.  It will be essential in a world dominated by texts produced in 5 minutes by AI.


Replacing Dewey? Rearranging Knowledge? Perspectives on Genres in Nonfiction

Dewey is dead or dying.  There seems to be consensus in libraries across the spectrum that the Dewey Decimal System  is both problematic and outdated. Some of the many reasons cited include:

  1. Categories based in the Nineteenth Century fail to incorporate modern scientific and technological changes ranging from computers to the Space Age, and are then “plugged” in to odd, and often inconsistent, places such as 000s, 600s, and more.
  2. There are considerable biases in religion (most of the 200s are dedicated to Christianity with other religions declared to be “other” and crowded into the 290s.
  3.  The social sciences are rife with outdated and biased approaches to 21st Century problems and conditions.

For all these reasons, and many more, I decided to rearrange/genrify Dewey within my High School library.  Developing a new genre-based system is certainly not as easy as it might seem on paper.

Given the move to digital resources and limited space, I weeded a considerable number of print books from the collection.  Even so, I still had to reckon with arranging nonfiction since I was not eliminating it altogether.

What I came up with provoked philosophical and intellectual questions even as I moved titles around, playing “musical books:”

Essentially, I broke up everything and merged areas together to arrive at:

  • Philosophy and religious studies–however I merged mythology with folk and fairy tales (regardless of origins, and rightly or wrongly, readers now see them simply as another form of story)
  • Arts and music (however, sports and games are moved to a new section entitled “Daily Life” which encompasses cooking, food, holidays, etc.)
  • I created a new Health and Wellness section which includes psychology from the 100s, anxiety from the 600s, and biology from the 500s. 
  • A new civil rights section includes African Americans works from the 300s, and criminal justice reform (which could equally well go in my constitution/law/politics section)
  • A new media/journalism area now includes internet and social media as well as propaganda.
  • History now features Ancient History (all civilizations, no more emphasis just on Rome, Greece and Egypt) 
  • Middle Ages (throughout the world) This time period was the zenith of civilization for many cultures who had no “dark ages.”
  • The Twentieth Century unfortunately is broken into wars: World Wars One, Two, etc. Here, I combined all books on the subjects including literature and arts–all books on Vietnam were previously divided into American, Vietnamese, etc, similar to the Cold War which brings together related titles from the 300s and 900s, bridging disciplines and countries.

On a related note, the 800s no longer exist, with every form of literature joining novels in a literary section. Focused on the idea of story, there are subsections for novels (in turn divided by genre), short stories, poems. Dramatic works merged with theater from the 700s. As mentioned, this area also includes the myths/fairytales. It is interesting that for ages libraries considered novels “fiction” but other forms were “nonfiction.” 

My next conundrum is Graphic Novels.  I believe these are a literary form of their own right.  But what of Graphic Nonfiction?  These are not fiction.  I think I would place them in the best subject area.

This process is a work in progress.  I welcome suggestions. It has certainly opened my eyes to the complexity of revising Dewey. This process instilled a new awareness of interconnectedness and the arbitrary compartmentalization of knowledge, however necessary it is to facilitate easy tracking of materials.