Monthly Archives: May 2016

In the digital age the question remains: Whadya need?

Ask any good salesman the rhetorical question “Whatya sellin’? and you’ll get the stock answer, “Whatya need?”   The old story comes to mind often, including on a day this week when I read three contrasting – and complementary – library-related stories.

The first was from my favorite day brightener, the Writer’s Almanac. A birthday tribute to Malcolm X (nee Malcolm Little) shed this ray of light on the early life of a complex man whose ideas continue to influence the nation’s struggles with race-based challenges. (

Following a childhood marked by tragedy, Malcolm Little in the mid was arrested in the mid-40’s for larceny. The WA editors tell us that, while Malcolm was in prison,

An older inmate encouraged him to use his time to educate himself. Little began checking out books from the prison library, and when he found his vocabulary too limited for some of them, he copied out an entire dictionary word for word.

The story engendered a sense of loss when I reflected on abandonment of library services once provided through the state’s correctional facilities. Though I appreciate that committed volunteers, including the Women’s Prison Book Project (, are helping to fill that gap, it is a sad reality that today’s prisoners are deprived of the learning options that transformed the trajectory of Malcolm Little’s life.

On a lighter note, I then skimmed the data-driven piece in MinnPost in which Greta Kaul as data cruncher tabulates the hot reads du jour as reflected in circulation data collected by area public libraries. ( Though I enjoyed the snapshot I know well that circulation stats, though quick and easy to collect, are the least meaningful indicator of public good.

Next I was brought up short by a hot-off-the-press thought piece with the alluring title Virtual memory: the race to save the information age. The challenging article raises these disturbing questions:
Are we creating a problem that future generations will not be able to solve? Could the early decades of the 21st century even come to seem, in the words of the internet pioneer Vint Cerf, like a “digital Dark Age”? … It is becoming increasingly clear that the migration of knowledge to formats permitting rapid and low-cost copying and dissemination, but in which the base information cannot survive without complex and expensive intervention, requires that we choose, more actively than ever before, what to remember and what to forget. (

In some ways, libraries and librarians can be viewed as sparrows in the unknown cavern that is the Information Age. Throughout recorded history libraries have offered a safe haven in which the past, the present and the future live as one. With the dawn of the Information Age realistic visionaries embraced the premise that information is a resource like no other, an idea early articulated by Harlan Cleveland (  Over the years, libraries have crossed bureaucratic and technological borders to sate society’s unquenchable need to know.

Malcolm Little’s unmet need was for a port of entry into the world of ideas he could access through his prison library. The high stats cited in Kaul’s piece reflect busy readers’ need to grab a quick read for the LRT ride. Of equal import is the fact that tomorrow’s researchers will need to know what we’ve been doing in these times.

As a society struggling to shape this democracy and the role of this singular institution in the Information Age, we are challenged to ponder the public good implicit in the prevailing question: Whadya need?


ADA at 25 — Assessing the dream in real time, real lives

 It is not incumbent upon you to finish the job, however, neither are you

free from doing all you can to complete it.   Rabbi R.Tarfon

As an unreconstructed advocate for advocacy I cheer when elected officials “see the light”, when they muddle through the logistics, when they listen to the people, when they rise above personal gain to work for legal justice. And so I rejoice this year as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of passage of the monumental Americans with Disabilities Act. Experience tells us that well begun is just half done – and so we embrace the next challenge.

Legal justice has been done. To a great extent American institutions have followed the requirements as defined by law. We have ramps and bathroom stalls and elevators, a host of highly visible indicators of legal compliance with the law passed a quarter century ago.

And yet we sadly pause to reflect when Tim Benjamin, editor of Access Press, writes that “there is a crisis in the disability community and it been going on for years.”

Benjamin writes with passion about a harsh – and hidden – reality:

Over the years, dependency without support has created a sense of learned helplessness for many in the disability community. Too many people are in fear of not getting any of the care they need if they speak out. For too many, persistent attempts to control the uncontrollable become too difficult. Hope for the right public policies has its limits; wishful thinking about better luck with the next agency or next PCA is not a sufficient strategy. For some, believing there is nothing can be done to change the situation leads to resignation: “This is the way it is.”

What’s so difficult is that there are many people with disabilities who are employed and pay taxes, who are assets to their community, and are now, because of changes in federal health care law, facing the real potential of having to give up their jobs and their autonomy. These rule changes are compounded by a workforce crisis because of low wages and high demand for personal care assistants. If this catastrophe is not resolved, we may see hundreds or thousands of productive citizens having to move from the community into long-term care facilities—where the next catastrophe could occur. “over the years, dependency without support has created a sense of learned helplessness for many in the disability community. Too many people are in fear of not getting any of the care they need if they speak out. For too many, persistent attempts to control the uncontrollable become too difficult. Hope for the right public polities has its limits; wishful thinking about better luck with the next agency or next PC is not a sufficient strategy. For some, believe there is nothing can be done to change the situation leads to resignation.”

Bottom line, Benjamin asks ”What was the point of the ADA and in Minnesota, the Olmstead Plan, creating laws for community integration, for educational and job opportunities, transportation, accessible facilities and public infrastructure, when people with disabilities don’t have staff to get them out of bed? What were all these millions spent in the first place?”

The fact is, the vast majority of us, know far too little about the physical and political barriers faced by those we do not know or even see in our daily lives. We are disinclined and ill prepared to assess the needs much less to take action.

We leave concerns of people with disabilities to the individuals and their families and to advocacy groups who are immediately involved. If the law needs to be amended, it falls to them. If enforcement of the law is overlooked, we are unaware and politically impotent. We assure ourselves that engagement with the needs of people with disabilities will land us in a complicated legal and regulatory conundrum best left to the “disabilities community.” Besides, aren’t we just this year celebrating that this fight for justice has been won.

The fact is, acronyms notwithstanding, the concerns of challenged colleagues are basic human needs. If we have the will to understand, the tools are at the ready.  A couple of starting points:

  • Or make it a habit to pick up Access Press on free newsstands everywhere. Better yet, subscribe online at It’s a great read for anyone who thinks and cares about disability rights, including the inalienable right to access to information.




Super Suffering of the English major? A second opinion

The headline read in part, “Do English majors suffer more than most?”

Of course, I assumed they were reading Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor, Steinbeck or Dostoyevky or Jane Austin. Those characters share a lot of suffering with their readers.

When I mentioned the headline to a friend she nodded with understanding – Of course English majors suffer more – they cringe over every dangling participle, sentence fragment and grammatical faux pas when they read the morning paper or any document issued by a bureaucracy.

It was my liberal arts son who posited that, though English majors may suffer more, they suffer more eloquently….

So I actually took time to read the tragic tale of the 45 year old therapist who has endured the inevitable suffering that befalls the hapless English major. She’s torn between the impoverished life of the unfulfilled writer and the time constraints of her more lucrative career as a therapist.

Possibly because I’m just not sensitive to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, I’ve long valued my venerable English major as a most congenial badge of honor.   After all these years I have no claim to English major-induced suffering. This lack of pain persists even when I mentally compare suffering charts with non-English majors who sought their fortunes in the corporate world.

In fact, on the whole I’ve found it useful to be able to communicate with some clarity in my native tongue.   I enjoy the ability to spot a literary allusion at twenty paces. For me, an occasional crossword puzzle relieves the cares of the day. As a public transit enthusiast I treasure the relaxed time to share the reading habit with fellow travelers who’ve settled in with a good read. A well-turned phrase can brighten the cloudiest day and a heavy dose of the King’s English catapults me all the way to Monday morning. In fact, reading and writing are fairly essential elements of my personal and professional life.

Maybe it’s because I knew I would never make it to the NYT Best Seller list or achieve immortality in the next edition of the Norton Anthology. Maybe I just always thought there was more to life than a hefty paycheck, a big office and a title. Maybe I would rather learn than try to tell others how to live their lives.

Or perhaps I’m just impervious to the suffering in which I have been steeped unwittingly all these years. In any event, no regrets re the English major.

I will always know in my heart of hearts that, in case of imprisonment or exile I will survive, possibly thrive — as an English major I am fortified by the knowledge that “stone walls do not a prison make” (Lovelace) and that “my strength is as the of strength of ten because my heart is pure.” (Tennyson)  As an English major I am secure in the conviction of Somerset Maugham who taught us that “to acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.”

I’ll have snippets of poetry to recall, stories of charismatic heroines and mighty villains to revisit, and enough understanding of the human condition to feel the pain of others. I will assuage my temporal pain with reflections on the eternal dilemma faced by every English major: “To be, or not to be–that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
or to take arms against a sea of troubles
and by opposing end them.”

Anna Quindlen, who earned her liberal arts degree at Barnard, seems to cope well with her suffering. In her delightful book How Reading Changed My Life, she writes:

In books I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but into my own. I learned who I was and who I wanted to be, what I might aspire to, and what I might dare to dream about my world and myself. More powerfully and persuasively than from the “shalt nots” of the Ten Commandments, I learned the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. A Wrinkle in Time described that evil, that wrong, existing in a different dimension from our own. But I felt that I, too, existed much of the time in a different dimension from everyone else I knew. There was waking, and there was sleeping. And then there were books, a kind of parallel universe in which anything might happen and frequently did, a universe in which I might be a newcomer but was never really a stranger. My real, true world. My perfect island.”

It’s also uplifting to cherish the words of poet and philosopher Khalil Gibran who reminds us that “out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls.”

Though I feel the pain of the English major therapist who has endured such suffering I hold with the rosier view espoused by Garrison (nee Gary) Keillor’s imaginary support group, the Professional Organization of English Majors, (POEM). As English majors already know, the promises, purposes and products of POEM are readily accessible online, at the library or bookstore or at






Armchair Learning – Click and Learn from Massive Media Archives

Life… It tends to respond to our outlook, to shape itself to meet our expectations — Richard M. DeVos

The agenda of go-to opportunities scheduled for Older Americans Month is robust and welcome – learning opportunities abound – to learn from the experts, to share ideas, join a spa, to take a class or participate in a conference. The focus and the effort are to be lauded!

Still, seniors who yearn to learn often encounter barriers – money for tuition, fees or registration, physical limitations, lack of transportation, time commitments.   As a long-time advocate for armchair learning I can’t let OAM pass without a pitch for just a few of my favorite online learning picks

Increasingly, digital learning could and should be the flagship of lifelong learning. Though there’s lots of buzz about distance learning for young learners or as a cost-effective way to build a trained workforce, we tend to overlook the fact that lifelong learning is a certain investment in a full, rich, mentally and physically healthy life for older Americans, a learning life of ideas, opinions, information and memories and curiosity about life, the university and everything.

My concern is that too many of us, including lifelong learning proponents who push keyboarding skills, undervalue the potential of 21st Century access to the expanse and power of resources waiting to be tapped by seekers of knowledge or entertainment. Judging by promotion of the virtues of digital skills one might conclude that, for older techies, the primary applications are email, shopping, sports, and sharing progeny photos.

In fact, armchair learning opens the mind to endless possibilities. My goal in the OAM posts is to raise expectations – learners’ expectations of the abundance of recorded knowledge and techie trainers’ expectations of the learning horizons of seniors.

Though my skills are limited, my searching style is random and my fuse is short, I have faith that the Net is as patient as it is bountiful. That bounty includes – and is clearly not limited to — massive libraries of programming that began life as broadcast or cable television or radio. Many of us still think of mass media as being “of the moment”, unaware of the vaults of learning possibilities waiting to be clicked. The myth persists that you need to view or record the program as it is aired. Patently no longer true.

Because my quest to learn leans to independent, unscheduled, free and open (read armchair) learning I am currently poking around the staggering mix of digital libraries devoted to archiving and extending the life of broadcast/cablecast media – documentaries, informed discussions, book talks, interviews – all searchable and viewable online.

For me, radio rules. That may be because I learn by listening – and I’m probably not armchair bound but more likely doing boring chores while I make room and time for the information and ideas to sink in.   Still, doodling and knitting do improve focus.

For example, listening to Krista Tippett early on Sunday morning is a ritual; the On Being website and blog keep rattling around my head during the week. And if I oversleep or need a refresher listen it’s archived here:

Similarly, most public radio programming is posted, cataloged, annotated almost as soon as it is aired. A ready point of access is NPR inclusive site ( It’s just a click to listen to archived treasures including All Things Considered, Fresh Air Radio, Morning Edition, Talk of the Nation, Science Friday, The Diane Rehm Show, Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me Weekend — and a whole lot more – from wherever and whenever. For a lighter touch click on the digital replay of This American Life with Ira Glass – wouldn’t this be a good time to take a fun break at — or to reflect on the Bob Edwards’ wise words, as apt today as when the were recorded

Though radio’s great TV is not without its charms. In fact, yesterday’s television programming excels as an untapped learning resource. The wealth of video options on the web is staggering – random, but immense. Virtually every producer maintains an archive and search tools. It’s important to underscore that many of these programs are captioned. Readily accessible video vaults abound, including these, the tip of the digital iceberg:

Access to archived mass media is an obvious starting point for the armchair learner – the idea is to dive in, to eke the most out of the techie tools, to expect success.

Stay tuned for future armchair learning possibilities, starting with the inestimable resources produced, collected, organized, preserved and delivered to your armchair by government workers who share your vision of a learning democracy.



Post-Indie Bookstore Day Post


Too many bookstores (!) Too little time! Last Saturday was a rush to spend serious browsing time in all of the bookstores noted on the map. One that I missed was the new (to me) Daybreak Press Global Bookshop & Gathering Space. (

Some time ago I had written about Daybreak’s Grand Avenue site. (   Later I lamented that store’s closing. Still, I didn’t follow up to learn about their new location near the University of Minnesota at 720 Washington Avenue, SE

Though I didn’t visit Saturday, I will do so soon. In the meantime, I want to be certain that, since November 2015, Daybreak is welcome space for the U of M crowd and the community at large. What remains is the mission of the enterprise which is to “create a platform for education, activism, and positive community experiences in Minnesota.” The clear plan is to work towards that goal in an environment that features books from around the world and space for community gatherings and programming.”

Hours at the “newish” Daybreak are Monday-Saturday 10-9, Sunday 12-5.

Email:  Phone: 612 584 3359


Drinking and Thinking Water in Northeast Minneapolis

Just when Northeast Minneapolis was running out of corners locals have a new watering hole where they can gather to guzzle, gaze and gab in unique environs.   The Water Bar & Public Studio, ( is opening soon at 2516 Central Avenue NE, just North of Lowry. The Water Bar & Public Studio is a unique gathering spot with a serious mission – “to create a welcoming and generative social space around the life-sustaining, precarious, communal activity of drinking water” These visionaries see the space as “an art and sustainability incubator for Northeast Minneapolis and the Mississippi River watershed.”

A free and open preview happy hour is set for Thursday, May 5 when it’s Neighborhood Night, 5:00-7:00 PM at the Water Bar & Public Studio. Councilman Kevin Reich, Holland Neighborhood Board members, and other recognizables will be on hand to serve local tap water and brews. Though much has been written about the Northeast newcomer, here’s the chance to grasp the goal and to parse the action plan.

The Official Opening of The Water Bar & Public Studio is set for Art-a-Whirl, May 20-22. AAW event hours are Friday, 5pm-10pm, Saturday, 12pm-8pm, and Sunday 12pm-8pm

Promotional materials describe the Water Bar & Public Studio as “a collaborative public art project” led by Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson ( of Works Progress Studio ( in partnership with the Holland Neighborhood Improvement Association (

The Northeast Water Bar is just one of several projects these creative folks are launching this season in the Twin Cities. To follow the action at this vibrant initiative, including their penchant for pop-ups,  you’ll want to check out the website at http://www.water-bar.organd get on the mailing list.





Lifelong Learning Thrives on Digital Digging

After a work life ruled by a cluttered desk calendar I’ve shed blind allegiance to a schedule. Evolving technology has only reinforced my disinclination to commit to the calendar or clock. This somehow justifies my reluctance to register for classes, concert series, monthly meetings, haircuts and most especially medical appointments.

The drive for independent, affordable learning is reinforced by the inability to pay for OLLI or college credits, health club membership or store-bought books. I find that learning thrives when sparked by the freedom to carpe diem and that an active life of the mind is best measured not by the learner’s ability to pay but by his or her thirst for knowledge

Thinking and writing about Older Americans Month which starts today (May 1) sparks thoughts about the freedom that seniors have to explore the borders of knowledge. I originally categorized this independent path as “random acts of learning” – till I compulsively googled the phrase and learned that there’s a blog thus named….A little learning can be a deflating thing….

Still, “Poking Around with Mary” fairly well describes my thrifty and rigor-free methodology. “Poking Around” is the term my friend would use to describe my learning style — how I would hop off the bus to check out a neighborhood or drop in at an outdoor concert or start up a conversation with a stranger while we stood in line for a common purpose, or pursue a person, place or idea on the web.   That, she said, was “poking around” and the blog could simply reflect the “pokes.”

Writing for the blog frequently inspires me to poke a little deeper. Now, when I hear of or see something of interest – a display, an event, a park, a coffee shop, a reading space, a specialty shop, a book – I want to learn more – and to share what I’ve learned. Blogs are great for ad hoc poking around, especially when fueled by a compulsion to share….

Since most of my learning is random it’s a challenge to list, much less categorize, the options. Some random thoughts:

  • My favorite poke is probably bookstores, especially used bookstores, where it’s all wonderfully random – authors, subjects, eras, format, language. I tell myself I can identify with all those writers, then internalize their ideas and literary style through osmosis. In fact, it’s the bibliophiles who tend these bookstores that truly inspire me to hang out and learn. Several blog posts reflect this love of bookstores – more to follow.
  • Similarly, many libraries are good, some are great. Librarians are often genetically disposed to share the quest for knowledge. Libraries of all types – public, college, even corporate, church, ethnic and other special libraries, are interconnected in functional networks that facilitate access through any portal – physical or digital. For most learners, the public library is the best port of entry and the most convenient way to explore the learning opportunities, ranging from public programs to home delivery. MNLink offers a handy gateway to the endless possibilities. Still, especially with libraries, it’s often best to shop locally.
  • Those who work in great libraries are fortunate and indispensable fellow travelers on the path to learning, James K. Hosmer Special Collections at Minneapolis Central Library (\ is unchallenged as my favorite because of the incredible collection, stellar service, and the ambient environment that inspires serious research. Check the website – hours are severely limited.
  • The archives at the University of Minnesota are beyond wonderful. Exploring the Archives blog is both random and revealing of unimagined – yet essential – resources.   And if you’ve been wondering about what’s planned for the Bell Museum Library check
  • Libraries and librarians are inclined to listen to the needs of learners who have physical challenges to reading or to poking around the collections; seniors sometimes fail to realize how many learning options are accessible at or through their local library. In fact there are statewide and national networks set up to expand options beyond the local collection. One of several good starting points can be found here:
  • For a thorough and timely guide to resources there is no more comprehensive resource than that prepared by staff of the Legislative Reference Library.
  • You’ve probably visited the Minnesota History Center, but have you checked out the library? ( Though it’s accessible virtually the setting inspires the will to know more. I am always in awe of the serious learning in progress as scholars, genealogists, History Day students, journalists and PhD hopefuls plumb the State’s historic record. [I find it’s best to refresh with coffee and a muffin at Café Minnesota and/or a stop at one of the irresistible museum shops.
  • Though I have made pit stops at most state agency libraries that collaborate through the Capitol Area Library Consortium I know for certain that all constantly evolve and grow, add resources and programs, and create a unique corporate culture. The great news is that searcher can take a virtual tour with just one click of the CALCO directory. A quick tour underscores Governor Perpich’s vision of the “brainpower state”, built on a firm foundation of accessible information services and top-notch professionals who build and mine the power of the resources accessible through this network of libraries and librarians.
  • Over time Pokings have taken me and readers to unique library settings. One of my former Northeast neighborhood haunts, the Polish American Cultural Institute of Minnesota (PACIM has found new digs and new life on the banks of the Mississippi.  The original blog post is woefully dated so check out the new profile and site to learn the latest – and check the online catalog to learn more about the library collection.
  • Though I haven’t visited yet I’m impressed with the collection, the programming and the mission of the East Side Freedom Library. The very special library fosters ideas and action in the former Arlington Hills branch of the St. Paul Public Library. Again, the library features a unique collection and a robust public programming agenda.

One goal of taking this approach on the first day of Older Americans Month is to ease the way into a longer range goal – to demonstrate in tangible and useful ways far exceed most newbies expectation – it just depends on the keeper of the keys to envisions worlds far beyond shopping, paying bills, FB and email.   Armchair learning is within ready reach of any keeper of the keys for whom the goal is to learn.

Life experience tells me that everyone wants to know more about something – it might be presidential politics or polo, violin making or veterans, Iron Range history or hieroglyphics, football or food safety, car repair or climate change, Russian literature or road construction, immigration or isotopes, antiquities or animal protection…

The pitch today is “there’s an app for that” – in my mind, “there’s an opp for that” – an opportunity to enrich the life of the mind. Though the app may unlock the digital door it remains to the seeker to carpe diem. Bear in mind that “on the Internet, nobody knows [much less cares] you’re an “’Older American.”(1)