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Herbst Library - Sarah's Blog

Advocating for Libraries

On May 5th I got to participate in National Library Legislative Day. Every year the American Library Association hosts NLLD, a day for library advocates traveling to Washington, D.C. in order to garner support for libraries from our elected representatives. I was lucky enough to receive a travel stipend from the Young Adult Library Services Association to attend NLLD 2014 and advocate for teen library services. Friends of YALSA funded the stipend.

A quick selfie in the tunnels beneath the Cannon House Office Building.

Before applying for the stipend, I honestly didn’t know a lot about legislative issues, but I did have a feeling that I should be acting for libraries, and specifically for teen services. As a librarian at Urban, I am incredibly fortunate to be able to give my students the resources they need thanks to a supportive administration and the generosity of parents and supporters of the Fund-a-Need program (which the library has been the recipient of twice during my tenure). Even though government funding doesn’t directly affect my library, I feel the need to act on behalf of those libraries that rely on it to survive. I need to act on behalf of teens that need a quiet place to study on the weekends, a place they can get job skills and volunteer. A place where kids who go to public schools that are underfunded can go and get the help they need for school and the books they want to read for fun.

Logistically, there was a lot of planning for NLLD. The state coordinator for California NLLD participants called me about six weeks prior to the event and provided me with the necessary steps to get started. I made appointments with the offices of Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Lee (who represents the district in which I live). When I arrived in DC, ALA had planned a pre-conference for those of us with little experience legislating featuring a terrific speaker, Stephanie Vance, as well as a briefing day to fill us with the information we’d need to advocate.

Issues we sought support on included:

  • Funding for the Library Services and Technology Act
  • Funding for Innovative Approaches to Literacy
  • E-rate program which provides high capacity broadband to libraries
  • Network Neutrality
  • Early Learning initiatives
  • Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act
  • Privacy and surveillance
  • Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act
Please let me know if you have any questions. I was honored to attend NLLD, and I hope to continue advocating for libraries and teen services.


I had the chance to go to Dianne Feinstein’s weekly constituent breakfast.

Posted by slevin on Thursday May 15 at 12:40PM
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Spotlight on Artstor

Artstor is one of my favorite library databases. A virtual image library, Artstor has high resolution digital images covering a diverse range of subjects. At Urban, we tend to use Artstor in art classes, as well as history classes. With over 1.6 million images in the arts, architecture, humanities, and sciences, though, it's clear that we could use Artstor in nearly every discipline.

Results of an Artstor search for images from The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia garnered over 350 results!

While we pay an annual subscription to Artstor, it is a non-profit company that partners with cultural organizations (primarily museums) and academic institutions to create a vast collection.

Search by artist name, museum name, type of art, or a simple keyword to find unique images. One of my favorite features is zooming in to a detailed brushstroke of an oil painting to get a sense of how the artist used his or her medium.

Check out Artstor today, and please let me know if I can help you navigate their vast collection.

Posted by slevin on Wednesday February 19
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American Library Association conference

I just got back from the frigid tundra that is Philadelphia. Why would I go to the polar vortex in the heart of winter? To meet up with thousands of librarians, that’s why!

Philadelphia, if you’ve never been, is a town filled with art and history. On Friday I bundled myself up in two jackets, long underwear, hat, gloves and wool scarf and walked a mile to the Barnes Foundation, which is an unparalleled collection of art which reminding me about the importance of serendipitous discovery.

On Monday night I found myself, along with my colleague from Marin Academy, walking down a grid of narrow cobblestone streets trying to find an acclaimed vegan restaurant (Vedge, amazing). In between those memorable moments, I found myself in the company of thousands of librarians from all types of libraries. I mingled with great authors (Chip Kidd, Gabrielle Zevin, and Barbara Ehrenriech to name a few) and shared ideas with school librarians from across the country.

 One of my favorite sessions was a talk between high school and college librarians, discussing what information literacy (read: research) skills teens need to learn in high school to adequately support them as they transition to college. Another useful session looked at teen brains and the effect they have on information seeking behavior.

When I return from conferences, I am often invigorated. This time is no different. As a solo librarian, I’ve found it vital to attend conferences, tours, and workshops in order to participate in professional discourse, learn from peer schools across the country, and meet like-minded folks who have similar goals. Here’s to the city of brotherly love, or should I say, Librarian Love!

Posted by slevin on Wednesday January 29
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Read Memoirs!

What is it about reading memoirs? I have yet to find a reader who doesn’t love getting a glimpse into someone else’s life. I think memoirs are fascinating to read because they illustrate that fact is often stranger, and more interesting, than fiction!

Take The Glass Castle, for instance. Here is a book about the author, Jeanette Walls, who grew up under very adverse conditions with dysfunctional parents. I think I enjoyed The Glass Castle so much because it deals with a woman going through tremendous hardship and somehow becoming successful. Watch for the movie, starring Hunger Games’ Jennifer Lawrence, next year.

In a similar vein to The Glass Castle is Jesus Land, written by Julia Scheeres. Jesus Land is a story about a turbulent childhood like Walls’, but this time featuring fundamentalist Christian parents. Scheeres focuses on her relationship with her adoptive brother, and while the story deals with a lot of heartache, it is a very compelling story.

If you want something a bit more uplifting (although not without its share of difficulty, namely hunger due to drought), try The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, a memoir by William Kamkwamba, a man from Malawi who developed a way to get electricity into his hometown.

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, is another memoir that offers a glimpse into a woman’s life that was falling apart, but rather than wallow in struggles of drug abuse and grief, she goes on a poorly planned, often dangerous, adventure (but survives to write about it!).

If you want a very lighthearted memoir, both Bossypants by Tina Fey and Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me by Mindy Kaling are laugh out loud funny.

There is a memoir for everyone, and you can even search in the library catalog to find even more memoirs by musicians (Decoded by Jay Z), authors (This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff), athletes (When the Game Was Ours by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson), addicts (Smashed by Koren Zailckas), and criminals (Papillon by Henri Charriáere), among others. There are even a number of memoirs in graphic novel format, which is a great way to get in some reading in a shorter amount of time.

Have even less time? Check out Six Word Memoirs, a collection of, you guessed it, six word memoirs.

As always, please let me know if I can help you find the perfect book to read!

Posted by slevin on Thursday January 23 at 01:56PM
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Music and more from SFPL

I like to encourage students (and faculty, staff and parents) to get an SFPL library card for a variety of reasons. First, they offer numerous resources that we simply cannot compete with (whereas our small and mighty collection has nearly 10,000 books, their's is in the hundreds of thousands!). Second, public libraries are convenient, even to our students who live in Marin, the East Bay or the Peninsula; the recently renovated Park Street Branch is a 5-minute walk away and the expansive Main Branch is a 20-minute bus ride from Urban. Finally, they have myriad electronic resources that offer unique resources for satisfying both research needs and personal interests. 

Among those resources is the eMusic collection from Alexander Street Press Music Databases. After logging in with your SFPL library card number and barcode, you will be able to find jazz, classical, and world music and listen on your browser or download on your phone. Also featured is an American Song collection, featuring historically important music like protest anthems and folk songs as well as a Dance in Video collection showcasing over 500 hours of dance performances and documentaries.

Listen to the San Francisco Blues by Virginia Liston!

If that wasn't enough to motivate you to get a library card, SFPL is now offering great new library card designs. Both new and replacement cards are free until February 14!

Posted by slevin on Monday January 13
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The Joys of Reading

In honor of having the next couple of weeks off from our regular lives, here are my top reasons that you should read over the break.

  1. Reading for pleasure is a different animal than reading for school. There’s no need to annotate or deeply reflect (although, if it moves you, by all means, take notes and reflect!). Get lost in the story, the beautifully constructed prose, the imaginative characters, and the experience of being immersed in a world different than our own. If you don’t believe me, this article touts reading as being awesome, too.
  2. I’m reminded by one of our great Library Leaders, Gwen, that reading improves your vocabulary! In fact, there are even studies that show that reading for fun also boosts math skills! Brains are amazing! Books are amazing!
  3. Reading also makes us better writers. And writing makes us better readers!
  4. Reading is relaxing! Don’t get too relaxed, though, and drop your library book in the bathtub (it happens!).
  5. Finally, I read in order to learn about people and places different than those that I know. Whether it is a science fiction novel truly different than anything I’ve ever imagined, or a story about a person living in another country, books allow my imagination to run wild.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I enjoy a good TV show and movie every now and then, but something about being entertained by a book (or graphic novel, or a great magazine article) switches something in my brain.

photo taken by Sarah Levin at Urban Ore in Berkeley, CA

I feel lucky that I’ve always been a reader. From reading The Wind in the Willows as a little kid before bed to the New York Times article I just finished a few moments ago, I nearly always have something I’m reading. I read so much that I often forget the plots of books I’ve read. I forget when I read them, too. But all that doesn’t matter so much, because, like this author on Rookie, I feel that books give me an ephemeral escape from my day-to-day.

A challenge to you: read over break. Read something you never would’ve read before. If you have never read a coming of age novel, read The Perks of Being a Wallflower. If you have never read a graphic novel, check out The Watchmen. If you have never read a non-fiction book, read The Devil in the White City. If you have never read a biography, try Just Kids. If you have never read science fiction, read The Parable of the Sower.

Need a recommendation? The Library Leaders are hosting a book party tomorrow (12/18) at lunch to get you pumped to read over the break. We’ll have books available for checking out and some holiday treats! 

Posted by slevin on Tuesday December 17, 2013 at 11:05AM
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Coconut Cake

Every year on the tenth of December, I think of making this cake in honor of Emily Dickinson's birthday.

Emily Dickinson, whose poems are studied here at Urban in the course American Romanticism, is one of my favorite poets. If you love her work as much as I do, you may like this open access website for Emily Dickinson's manuscripts. It's pretty neat to see her handwriting, and you have the option to have the text pop up next to the manuscript image. You can sign in to create a reading list, too.

Here is the beginning of a poem that has gotten me through many dark walks in the woods, in her own handwriting (click the image for access to the rest of the poem):

Posted by slevin on Tuesday December 10, 2013 at 11:50AM
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Calisphere for Primary Sources

At the Urban Herbst Library, we subscribe to a number of very useful databases (Proquest, US History in Context, Questia and ArtSTOR to name a few) that give us access to information that typically cannot be found on the free web (aka Google). That said, the free web also has amazing academic research sources if you know where to look!

Calisphere is a free repository of primary sources that is run by the University of California system. You can search for themed collections, like The Letters of John Muir or the Dust Bowl Migration, and you can also browse by topic, finding primary sources about the everything from the 1906 Earthquake to the Zoot Suit Riots.

I found their collection of vintage advertisements particularly interesting; bright labels from fruit crates, old movie posters and photos of billboards give us a glimpse of what California was like 50, 100 or 150 years ago.

Calisphere includes all kinds collections, one of the most robust being the Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives. This collection holds thousands of primary source material from Japanese American internment including personal items like diaries and letters as well as US War Relocation Authority materials. 

The next time you need a primary source pertaining to life in California, check out Calisphere. And if you don't find what you’re looking for, be sure to check in with me. I’ll try to help you find exactly what you need.

Posted by slevin on Thursday December 5, 2013 at 09:31AM
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Royals & Reading

Having been obsessed with the Lorde song Royals for the past few months, I was excited to hear a brief interview about the 16-year-old singer-songwriter on NPR.  

When asked if her poet mother, Sonya Yelich, influenced her songwriting she had this to say:

“I think the way my mom indirectly influenced me with that stuff is she always made sure that we were reading in my house and that there were books around. And we would discuss whatever it was that I was reading. So I think my kind of interest in how you can combine words to make something magic, I think that sort of came from her.”

Books are magical! Books will make you write amazing songs or do amazing thing! Reading is the best! Visit the library today to get inspired by some amazing books. I'm happy to recommend fiction, poetry, and non-fiction to get your creative juices flowing.

Posted by slevin on Tuesday October 1, 2013 at 09:50AM
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Research and WarGames

This past weekend I was watching the 1983 movie WarGames, in which Matthew Broderick’s character, a high school hacker, nearly inadvertently starts World War III. In trying to hack into NORAD’s computer system, Broderick’s character must do some research. He heads to the library (yay!) and is shown rifling through the stacks, pouring over microfiche of old newspapers, and flipping through the author cards in the card catalog. The movie devoted some time to this part of the story, highlighting the importance of the research process. If the movie were made today, I believe the filmmakers would show a teenager going to Google and finding what he needs almost instantaneously (Bella in Twilight is a good example of this). What they ought to show is a kid going to the library website to find the old article in Historical Newspapers in addition to searching Google (or perhaps after a Google search doesn’t produce the best results).

Matthew Broderick's character searching the card catalog in WarGames.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not nostalgic for the card catalog or microfiche. I am so happy that doing research has become faster and easier with online catalogs, document digitization, and online databases that provide access to items not readily available on the free Internet. That being said, though, I worry about students satisficing when doing research and merely clicking the first few links they see rather than conducting meaningful research that engages them with critical thinking, decision making, and reading comprehension. 

In October, a Pew research study, How Teens Do Research in the Digital World, was published. The 100+ page study dives deep into the habits of students just like those who attend Urban. The Pew study states that:

students ‘doing research’ has shifted from a relatively slow process of intellectual curiosity and discovery to a fast-paced, short-term exercise aimed at locating just enough information to complete an assignment.

As someone who has been on the front lines of this topic for the past six years, I can’t say the study surprised me, but it is affirming to know that the work we do at Urban is important and necessary in today’s ever-changing digital landscape. When I work with teachers to ensure that students are becoming critical researchers who go beyond skimming the surface to dive deep into topics, I hope to plant the seeds that will hone their intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and critical reading skills. I also hope that students at Urban learn when Wikipedia or a simple Google search is sufficient (figuring out how many tablespoons are in a cup, who starred opposite Matthew Broderick in WarGames, what the flag of Angola looks like) and when they need a more robust research tool (library databases, books, google scholar, a face-to-face chat with the librarian).

Posted by slevin on Tuesday January 8, 2013 at 11:33AM
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The Herbst Library is open M-F from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can reach the librarian at:


by Sarah Levin, Urban Librarian

On May 5th I got to participate in National Library Legislative Day. Every year the American Library Association hosts NLLD, a day for library advocates traveling to Washington, D.C., in order to garner support for libraries from our elected representatives. I was lucky enough to more.

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