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2020: A Hellacious Year Can’t Keep a Good Reader Down

23 Dec

The list of all that I missed thanks to this godawful year is lengthy, but who wants to dwell on all that? One of (several) silver linings it brought was extra time for reading. I’ve become a voracious reader over the past several years – prompted by a fear that I was losing my ability to concentrate as I grew older. Working at home for months, followed by a return to a sparsely-staffed library, meant I found myself with uninterrupted time more often than usual. At first, I found it boring, but then took advantage and I put aside tasks that I was working on, from time to time, and read some great books about scholarly communications, about measuring the impact of research, about data – all things related to my work – along with LOTS of things I just thoroughly enjoyed. I hope you’ve found some treasures to absorb yourself in this year, too. And thanks to the many authors who gave them to us. Here are a bunch that I read:

Work Stuff

I discovered Cassidy Sugimoto via a conference that I attended (virtually, of course) and really enjoyed her keynote. It prompted me to seek out two works she’s involved with on the topic of bibliometrics and measuring the impact of research. I recommend both for those who work in scholarly communications. Speaking of, Rick Anderson’s little primer on scholarly communication is one I could refer to friends and/or family who never really understand what I do as a librarian. Not that they’d find it all that interesting, but…

Stephen Few gave the world one of his usual big books this year. (Literally. He has a thing for large-sized books. The 2020 gift is his work, Signal.) I also found myself tracking down a couple of his “little books.” All involve looking at “big data” with a skeptical eye, something that I find myself doing often. We have certainly seen countless benefits of big data and open science during the global fight against COVID, as well as in vaccine development. We’ve also seen more than a few cautionary tales of the troubles of big data as big noise. A longtime key figure in the data discussion, Few steps up to say “hold on” just a bit. Good wisdom.

Georgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec’s fun companion to their wonderful, Dear Data, from a few years back is good fun. I throw this one in my bag at least every other week to work on one or two of the “assignments.” Data Feminism and Calling Bullshit are two excellent accessible academic reads. They prompt a thousand thoughts and ideas for action.

I’ve read (actually, I own) all of Alberto Cairo’s books on data visualization. His latest was a nice companion to others that I read, in terms of getting better at cutting through all of the noise, the falsehoods, the trivial, the bias thrown at us daily via news bits and misleading graphics. These are all skills we need to have – and that we need to teach – in the current world.

Finally, I read Matt Shipman’s book on scientific writing. Matt works in research communications and media relations at North Carolina State University. True story – our Twitter paths crossed someday, somehow, and in doing so we discovered that we both grew up in Petersburg, Virginia, and spent many, many happy years as kids at the Rodof Sholom branch of the Petersburg Public Library. We’ve become twitter friends over the years and I enjoyed reading this really insightful and handy reference book about the work he does. I learned some things for my own work, too.


If you’re a fan of the Talking Heads, Chris Frantz’s story of love and music will not disappoint. He and Tina Weymouth have remained together through all of the years of art school, of being in a groundbreaking band, of founding their own terrific group, and mentoring/fostering the careers of many others. Great love story.

I’m not sure what led me to Jimmy Webb’s memoir. I’ve long loved his work as a songwriter. After reading his memoir, I honestly think I’ll stick to listening to his songs alone. I’m not sure that I like him much as a person.

Natasha Trethewey and Allison Moorer have written two of the most powerful memoirs you can find. I don’t recommend reading them back-to-back, as I did. They are stories of domestic violence that ends in the worst way, and the long, arduous struggle it takes to rise from such circumstances. Both are brilliant wordsmiths and their stories will last with me for some time.

Book Club

I’m part of a truly great book club. We are a really diverse bunch of readers and it results in me reading lots of things (science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction) that I would never choose on my own. These are a few that quickly popped to mind this morning as I snapped photos from the shelves.

In a word, I LOVED A Gentleman in Moscow. We started it last December and I read it through the darkest weeks of the year. It was the best snuggle-into-bed-and-read-book. A beautiful story. I will read it again. I know I will.

Sy Montgomery’s, The Soul of an Octopus, brought me to tears. Really. It’s such an eye-opening adventure into the world of one of our most amazing creatures. Who knew? There are also dozens of fascinating YouTube videos about octopuses, as well as the beautiful Netflix documentary, My Octopus Teacher. Year of the Octopus.

We recently read Agatha Christie’s introduction to Hercule Poirot. It was only the second Christie mystery that I’ve ever read (Murder on the Orient Express being the other) and it was pure delight.

The Great Believers is our current pick. I’ll finish it in January, but about a quarter of the way through, highly recommend it. The characters are ones easy to follow. I look forward to how it all comes together.

Re-Reads and More

Allie Brosh returned in 2020 with Solutions and Other Problems. I pre-ordered it, read it the day it arrived, and then had to re-read Hyperbole and a Half. I laughed, I snorted, I cried, I shook my head at her talent. And perseverance.

Another election year and all of the social upheaval we’re experiencing these days (a good bit of it long overdue), found me re-reading Sarah Smarsh’s memoir, Heartland, as a means of keeping faith in the people of the “fly over” states. It’s also so much better a book than that Hillbilly Elegy. Smarsh is heads and shoulders above J.D. Vance when it comes to both telling a story and understanding humanity.

We are currently reading and discussing Ibram Kendi’s, How to be an Antiracist, as a library staff. It was chosen as the UMMS all-campus read. It is a 2020 read and act book.

The bird lover in me read Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s, Mozart’s Starling (perhaps the book that I most enjoyed reading this year) and Jennifer Ackerman’s, The Bird Way. Both of these authors have authored multiple books on nature in general and birds, specifically. And they are always excellent.

And I re-read the Ravenmaster’s lovely memoir while on a camping trip in October. I liked it just as much the second time around.

Finally, I was missing my old friend, Kinsey Millhone, the other evening and I pulled G is for Gumshoe off my shelf. I own A to … sigh … Y in Sue Grafton’s alphabet mystery series. RIP, Sue. I may re-read all of them next year. So good.

So, there you have it. As I said at the start, no shortage of good stuff this year. A few good listens, too:

  • Michael J. Fox, No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality
  • Anthony Boudain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2nd time through)
  • Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef
  • Mary Stewart, The Crystal Cave: The Arthurian Saga, Book 1 (book club pick)
  • James Taylor, Break Shot: My First 21 Years
  • Jill Lepore, This America: The Case for the Nation
  • Blair Braverman, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North (I combo-read and listened to this one.)
  • Ani Difranco, No Walls and the Recurring Dream: A Memoir (I want to read this, i.e. turn the pages, in 2021.)

What a year it’s been! I wish you all a very happy holiday season and a 2021 filled with good health, good friends, good work, good music, and good reading!

~ Sally

What Goes Around, Comes Around…

13 Oct

At this time last year, meaning the month of October, I was feeling like a real world traveler, spanning the globe from Massachusetts to DC to Edinburgh and Stirling, Scotland, taking in a trio of really thought-provoking meetings in some wonderful venues. It was something and I vowed to myself that I would do my best to do the same, i.e. travel to an international conference, every year for the rest of my professional days. Taking part in conferences and meetings with people from other parts of the world opened my eyes – and my mind – to a whole host of new perspectives. I was inspired.

Well, here we are, a year later – surely one of the strangest years I could imagine – and the same conferences are all taking place. They’re still international in scope and the content is terrific, but alas, like everything else these days, I’m attending them via a screen; zooming in from my home or my office. And like everything else these days, it’s just missing something for me.

All that said, I’m grateful to be well, grateful to be working, and grateful that I have the means to keep on going. I know that too many people all over the world lack this good fortune right now.

But back to conferencing, one thing I enjoy most about attending a conference is feeling that charge of excitement and enthusiasm that comes with hearing intellectually stimulating stuff. I find myself writing down a dozen ideas for research studies. I come away with a stack of readings. I think, “Why the heck didn’t I get that PhD?”

Well, I didn’t because I thought that, at 39, I was too old to pursue such. I talked myself out of it. And let’s just say that coming up on 20 years hence, I’m not talking myself into it now. BUT, reflecting on a number of the talks and and research presentations that I’ve taken in over last week (NIH Bibliometrics and Assessment Symposium) and this (Transforming Research 2020), I realized something fascinating. At least to me. I realized that way back in 2002, when I had a question about a certain pattern that I observed in exercise physiology research and publications, and I followed it up with an independent study … by golly, I was doing bibliometric analysis!

I’ve always tied this experience to ending up earning a library science degree and pursuing my current career, but only within the past couple of weeks have I put together the pieces and seen (1) how much they truly were aligned and (2) how research continues on in the area. So here’s what happened:

As a grad student at Ithaca College, working on my MS in exercise physiology, I attended a regional meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine. At the meeting, a grad student (female) presented her research that observed the affect of a particular supplement on a group of subjects performing a particular physical training task. After she finished, an established faculty member (older, white, male) asked her about the subjects of her study. In short, her subject pool had consisted of only females. He questioned her on the legitimacy of generalizing any findings of a study that had not included males and said any study using women needed to specifically state that it was a study on women.

Next up, a grad student (male) presented his research that observed the affect of a particular supplement on a group of subjects performing a particular physical training task. His subject pool contained only males. I bet you’re ahead of me in guessing that, well, he didn’t get the same question regarding the generalization of his findings, nor how he titled his research.

And this happened again. And again. I looked through the program and took note of this oddity, and first chance I got, I asked my mentor, “What the hell is up with that?!” Thus was the seed for my independent study, “Current trends in exercise science research: A feminist cultural studies analysis.” I went to the library, went to the stacks, pulled 20 years worth of volumes of several prominent exercise science journals off the shelves, and began taking note of every title of every study looking at the affects of some intervention on training outcomes. (No Scopus or Web of Science, friends. I’m talking bound journals, paper, and pencil. This took awhile!)

[As an aside, my thesis topic also looked at sex differences, but related to factors of muscle fatigue, not words.]

Fast forward 20 years and I’m sitting in conferences attended by biomedical researchers, publishers, bibliometrics and research assessment practitioners, and librarians and here are some of the titles of studies authored and/or cited by the speakers so far:

Plus, the topic of the affects on COVID-19 on the female workforce in research and medicine, well that’s already targeted for study. Stay tuned for the many studies that will surely be published on this.

So what does all of this mean? Well, personally, I find it really interesting that a little spark that I noticed so long ago, didn’t just find only me. I think had I followed it up with that doctorate, I’d likely be doing this very research today with some of these same people. And honestly, I had no idea that was a possibility. It’s nice to know people are still studying and writing about the topic. It’s also frustrating and infuriating that it goes on, but… that’s another post.

All in all, the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion is being discussed an awful lot today (rightly so), but it’s been a topic for a long, long time. As one speaker said, “We know a lot about what we know. But where is the change?” That’s the real question, isn’t it? And it’s where the real work is. Time to get busy.

Back in the Saddle (kinda)

18 Aug

Like lots of libraries – and many other kinds of businesses and work – my library closed to the students, faculty, staff, and public back in the cold days of March. We worked remotely beginning March 16 and stayed that way all the way up to … August 3. Just shy of 5 months. Even living through it, it seems surreal. Our doors reopened with limited hours, a skeleton crew, and a whole lot of new rules (we wait to see how well people will comply) to hopefully keep us safe and free from exchanging the COVID virus that’s ravaged our societies.

I got through the months at home by doing a lot of streaks – songs, doodles, walks, the NYTimes crossword puzzle. I kept busy with things for work, but honestly struggled with the routine of working remotely. I’m not really made for it. I like the connection aspects of my job. I like coming into work. I like separating work from home. That whole work-life balance idea? It’s hard enough to balance it in our usual, virtually-connected world. Add remote working to it and … MALARKEY!

I have a lot of thoughts about these things – a lot of concerns for the future of work, i.e. how it will happen and some of the new norms we’ll accept, thanks to COVID. But that’s for another post. I also have several posts gestating about some of the really terrific professional development opportunities I’ve taken advantage of over the past months, including the vConference of the Medical Library Association and FORCE 11’s Scholarly Communications Institute (FSCI). I look forward to sharing them here, too (sketchnotes included).

For now, I’m just a couple hours away from a mini-staycation, getting ready to monitor the LibChat service at the end of the day, and taking advantage of a quiet office space. I’m enjoying doing exercises in my new copy of “Observe, Collect, Draw!” by Georgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec, based on their wonderful book, “Dear Data” that came out a few years back. I loved their book and wondered how to ever come up with my own style for doing what they did. Fortunately, this visual journal is filled with exercises to help me do just that. I plan to have it accompany me on part of my staycation, for sure.