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Friday, October 30, 2009

The Stereotypical Meekness of Librarians

Or, "Karen hates to be scared."

I read with interest two columns in this week's Chicago Tribune. One was written by sensible Barbara Brotman, the other by funny man Steve Dahl, but both carried the same premise: "I don't like Halloween." However, my colleague Joel Sawyer wrote a "Positively Ellinwood Street" post today sharing his hankering for a good scare.

There is much I don't like about Halloween myself. I honestly don't think I could sit through a "Saw" or "Hostel" movie for a million dollars. I wasn't scared, but merely bored by WDRV's "Scary" 10 at 10 today - "Thriller" isn't all that scary unless you're watching the video and "Spooky" by the Atlanta Rhythm Section doesn't begin to spook me. I don't find rubbery ghoul masks at the drug store all that scary, either, but I'm not sure I'd enjoy them more if they gave me the creeps. Driving through my neighborhood, the houses smothered with fake cobwebs, lawns dotted with cardboard tombstones, it all leads me to one giant...shrug. Perhaps I spoke too strongly in saying I don't like Halloween - I just don't "get" all the hubbub.

I do like the costumey part - it's an excuse to buy new clothes, accessories, jewelry. If shoes are involved, double-bonus. I cannot comprehend, however, that annual Halloween sales in the United States add up to more than $4-5 billion. It' s not like you can wear the costumes year 'round, keep the tombstones in the yard...Maybe it's the do-gooder in me, but imagine how many people could be fed with that kind of cash.

I also enjoy the more mystical, spiritual side of Halloween. Halloween arose from a Celtic (Scotland, Ireland, France.) celebration of Samhain, the god of the dead. The Celtic New Year began on November 1, and it was believed that spirits of the dead, along with all kinds of ghosts and goblins, roamed the earth on what was essentially New Year's Eve. Many traditions followed: dressing up as scary beings to ward the spirits off, carving a turnip (!) which became a pumpkin many centuries later in America, leaving out treats for the spirits which then developed into going door-to-door begging for treats. In England, people went "souling," asking for treats named "soul cakes" in return for prayers. On Sting's latest album, there's a rollicking tune called "Soul Cake" to honor the tradition. In the same way that I like a Christmas that focuses more on the deeper spiritual meaning of the season, I like a Halloween with some soul. :) I won't turn down some candy, however. If you'd like to read more about the origins of Halloween, peruse our online encyclopedias or look for books like these in our collection. (We have lots for children, too - see today's Kidding Around featuring Pat Horn's Halloween suggestions.)

I love graveyards, the more overgrown and misty the better. I love rainy, grey days just like today. I just read Mary Roach's Spook, in which she attempts to debunk the idea of an afterlife by interviewing those who research what happens to our souls after we die. I know several people who were seriously creeped by the book - I read it at bedtime and couldn't put it down. I'm unusually comfortable around dying people, dead people, funeral homes, churches full of incense - this may be from 25+ years of singing for peoples' funerals, but those things don't scare me. Violent movies and graphically evil books - not for me. I know they are works of fiction but the daily news is full of the same kinds of terror. In either venue, it does not amuse or entertain me. Life's too short to spend my spare time watching someone suffer, even if the blood is sprayed on and the beheadings are computer-generated.

Now -- this Halloween is unusual for me. I am looking forward to the holiday more than ever, as many of us from DPPL will be gathering to celebrate the joyful wedding of our Head of Youth Services, Veronica Schwartz. The wedding is a costume party, and as our treat to you, we'll share some photographs of our costumes within the next few days. "Bon mariage," Veronica and Joe, and may there be many more happy Halloweens in your long life together - and very few scares.

Monday, October 26, 2009

What Are You Yelpin' About?

Or, About What Are You Yelpin', if I want to be grammatically correct?

Have you seen or tried Yelp? Here's how the people at Yelp define this free online service: "Yelp is the fun and easy way to find, review and talk about what's great - and not so great - in your area."

What that means for you: let's say you'd like to find a good dry cleaner in town, or learn if it's worth waiting in line for over an hour at Paradise Pup, or who can give you a nice manicure for your wedding day. If you believe, as many do, that the best way to find out is through referrals from other locals, you will love Yelp.

How it works: people register for free Yelp accounts and start writing. You can add reviews to businesses already listed on Yelp (see a full Des Plaines listing here). I do not as yet see a way to add a new business. I'm guessing Yelp provides that information to keep people from overpromoting their own businesses, and also as a way to ensure listings are current and accurate. Unless a review violates Yelp's terms of service, it will be posted, whether a glowing tribute or a bilious rant. You can lend 5 stars to your favorite local restaurant or give a 1 star "thumbs down" to that dental clinic with the poor hygiene standards.

Go ahead and try Yelp. It's fun and gives you the opportunity to boost our local business community. A string of positive reviews on Yelp can bring new traffic to a small business, because the reviews come up in Google searches and other sources. Businesses are also very aware of what people are saying on Yelp, so if you've got a gripe with a place, particularly one that used to be better, flex your typing muscles and let them know what you think. (Believe me, we read what people are Yelping about the Library!) If you're worried about getting a load of junk mail along with your free account - hasn't happened to me yet. Yelp sends out occasional emails featuring a particular type of reviewed service, but that's about it.

Want to make use of Yelp's reviews without contributing your own? Here's a link - happy browsing.
Or you can visit the main Yelp site, to search cities all over the world - great for the next time you're planning a trip.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Delicious autumn!"

"My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns." George Eliot, 1841.

Every season has her admirers, but it seems to me that Autumn wins the prize. Poets, songwriters, novelists, artists - Autumn never seems to exhaust their creativity. There is always another love letter to this colorful season waiting in the back of the imagination. Fall is definitely my favorite season. As a child, my reasoning was purely selfish: my birthday often falls on the first day of Autumn. As an adult, I appreciate Nature's gentle, beautiful way of telling me to slow down, to breathe more deeply, to appreciate the here and now which may very well be gone tomorrow. While my long, morning commute is never a source of leaping joy, the changing leaves at this time of year turn the first 10 minutes of drive-time into an Impressionistic masterpiece. A little music on the car stereo, and all is right with the world. (Until I merge onto the expressway.)

My colleague Linda Knorr wrote her own love letter to Autumn, "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," over in Positively Ellinwood Street. One of our "regulars," patron Steven Gerard Wagner, surprised me with some lovely Autumnal tributes a few weeks ago. Mr. Wagner spent a day reading, remembering and translating some favorite poetical works, and sent them to me via email. I thought many of you would appreciate Steven's work, and so the "Autumn Leaves" project began. You'll find the Autumn Leaves, red and brown, scattered throughout our Web site and blogs. Click on the leaf and you'll get some lines of poetry or prose and some photographs, all but one taken right here in Des Plaines, all celebrating the beauty of the season. I hope you enjoy them - if you like to stop and smell the roses of Summer, take a moment now to cherish the Autumn leaves. Want to share your own photographs of Des Plaines in the Fall? Email me and I'll be happy to put them on our Web site:

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Two things to PlainTalk about today - news items, if you will.

First, congratulations to the winners of our Banned Books Week contest. Our two winners, Steven and Laura, successfully guessed the opening lines of the following books: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, The Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye and The Color Purple. Not surprisingly, both were English majors in college as well. Laura also tipped us off to something we had not heard before, the idea that it was Truman Capote, not Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill A Mockingbird. Hmmm - we do love a good literary conspiracy theory! :) Steven and Laura were rewarded for their bookishness with $50.00 gift certificates to Via Roma, the charming new Italian eatery at 686 Lee Street in Des Plaines.

A second piece of news: you may have heard that the city is printing a very limited number of copies of next year's budget. If you want to see the budget yourself, we suggest two options. First, there is a hard copy available at our 4th floor reference desk for your perusal. If you have computer access, the entire budget can be found online:

That's all for today. When PlainTalk returns, we'll yelp about Yelp.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Know Before You Buy

A sense of being "ripped off" is one of the worst emotions you can experience. The expensive car that turns out to be a lemon. The lovely home with a basement that floods or major structural damage that will cost thousands to repair. That investment scheme that sends your retirement savings into oblivion.

There are lots of online services that can help you avoid a bad purchasing decision. Today, I'll highlight two of them: the old standby Consumer Reports and a free Web site called ConsumerSearch.

Consumer Reports is both a printed publication and an online service and accessing either one will cost you, unless you've got the good sense to have a library card. (Not every library subscribes to Consumer Reports, but DPPL does.) What's particularly nice about the online version: 1) You can access it from your home computer with your library card number; 2) it's very easy to search for information on a specific product or brand, which was always difficult with the print version. Consumer Reports defines its mission as "Expert - Independent - Non-Profit," so if you want an unbiased opinion from someone with a lot of knowledge on the topic, this is the place to start. Get your library card out and try it now.

ConsumerSearch is a freely available Web site. You don't need to subscribe or even have a library card. As you know, the World Wide Web is FULL of product reviews, from experts and from ordinary folks like us. I don't know about you, but I enjoy the opportunity to rave about a favorite restaurant or an excellent shopping experience, as well as the chance to publicly gripe about poor customer service or product quality. Reading all those reviews can be a nuisance, however. An awful lot of them are full of such bad spelling, garbled grammar and hateful or even obscene language that it's hard to know if the reviewer is serious. Did you know that many of the people who write comments and reviews on Web sites actually being paid to write them and are therefore completely biased and untrustworthy? Nevertheless, ConsumerSearch does a nice job of summarizing all those reviews out there (see the "Best Reviewed" tab), while also linking you to sites where you can buy the products, special offers, related news articles and other online content.

was rated one of the 50 best Web sites for 2009 by Time magazine, and while I found it a little hard to navigate at first, it is well worth bookmarking on your computer and referring to when you need to make a big or small purchase. By the way, when this blog post disappears, you can find Consumer Reports in the Reference section of our Web site, in the alphabetical listing of research databases.

Next up I'll introduce you to a popular Web community where people share their opinions on the best places in the communities where they live and work.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Expand Your Horizons

There's a song by popular British rock/pop group Genesis with the refrain, "I know what I like and I like what I know." There is nothing wrong with having your favorites, knowing what "works" for you - unless that gets your wheel spinning in a deep, deep rut, the victim of a too-narrow view of the world. The Library offers big and small ways to expand your horizons beyond what you know and feel certain that you like.

I'll offer two suggestions, coming up this month: live performances at the Library by the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band and Wici: Polish Folkloric Song and Dance. Your first response might be: "But I'm not Jewish, I'm not Polish." My response would be, "So what?" You don't have to be Mexican to enjoy enchiladas nor Italian to love cappuccino. Plus, one benefit of trying new cultural experiences at the Library is that they are free - unlike your local fancy coffee shop.

Beautiful, lively, inspiring music and dance are just that, universal languages that can be understood and appreciated by all. So these two programs can be enjoyed at face value - just listen, watch and smile. You can also learn something at both performances, if that suits you. If you don't know, klezmer music is "a form of Jewish folk music characterized by improvisation and the incorporation of elements of the music of several different (esp. Eastern and Central European) cultures." (Definition courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary) The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band is truly a Chicagoland institution and their artistry will move you and impress you even if the songs are far removed from your own cultural heritage.

The Wici Song and Dance Company was organized in 1972 right here in Chicago, and in 1983 the troupe become the representative group of the Polish National Alliance, the largest Polish fraternal organization in the United States. October also happens to be Polish American Heritage Month. Both of these groups are bringing world-class entertainment to the Library, at a time when it's expensive to travel or even take a trip into Chicago for a show.

I opened with a quote from a Genesis song, "I Know What I Like." I'll close with encouragement from another pop group, the title from the latest U2 album: "No Line on the Horizon." Broaden your horizons and try something new and unusual this month, right here at the Library. Of course, if klezmer music and Polish traditional song and dance are familiar favorites of yours, we would love to see you at these programs, too! :)

Maxwell Street Klezmer Band, Sunday, October 18, 2009, 2-3 PM.
Register online for this free program.

Wici: Polish Folkloric Song & Dance, Sunday, October 25, 2009, 2-3 PM
No registration necessary - get here early for good seats.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Computer skills up to speed?

Autumn sure didn't skip a beat! Already a damp chill seems to have settled in and the sun seems to packed up and left town. It's tempting to bundle up in front of the TV, curl up with a book, and ease into Fall passively but here's a challenge for you - shorter, colder days that draw you indoors are also a great time to learn something new or brush up on your skills.

Like it or not, computer skills are a must in the 21st century. You may only need the basics - how to use a mouse, how to type, perhaps how to check email and search for Web sites. You may have enough interest in online research, banking or shopping to want to go further - you may even need advanced computer skills for your career. For people like me, computer skills even factor into our social lives and entertainment, whether its watching videos and cartoons online, playing games, or keeping up with friends via social networking sites.

No matter how much or how little you need to know, the Library has lots of ways to help. If you like learning in a formal, classroom setting, sign up for our free computer classes - here's the current schedule. Register online, stop by the Reference Desk or call to register at 847-376-2841.

Feel like you've got a good sense of the basics but need some individual, personalized help? Try our Open Lab sessions - find upcoming dates. These are not classes and you do not need to register. Stop in during the Open Lab session and bring your specific computer-related questions: How do I upload my resume to a job site? How can I format this document to look more professional? How do I sign up for a free email account? The Open Lab sessions also give you an opportunity to work in the quiet of our computer lab, helpful when you have a particularly important task.

Finally, if you like learning new things online but find it helpful to have an expert around for advice, try the new "Adult Learning Center," part of our HelpNow service. (You will need your library card to access this from home.) Go to the "Adult Learning Center" and you will find live online tutoring from experts on Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel and Microsoft PowerPoint. If you've been trying to use those programs on your own but need help mastering all the features and options, this is a great, FREE opportunity for you. Try it out! You've got nothing to lose, and can gain valuable skills for living and working.

If you'd rather learn about the clouds gathering overhead, here's a neat article from "Wired," "Weird, Rare Clouds and the Physics Behind Them." Enjoy!