ALSC Voices | February 2017

ALSC Profile

Celebrating colleagues with 25 years of ALSC membership
Photo of Alan BernAlan Bern
Children's Librarian
Berkeley (California) Public Library
ALSC membership: 25 years 
Where did you attend library school?
University of California, Berkeley, School of Library and Information Studies
1992, penultimate graduating class, before it became the UC Berkeley School of Information
What was your very first library position?
Previous to my first paid library job, I volunteered at the Berkeley Public Library, where I now work, in four different departments: creating bibliographies for the Adult Literacy program; organizing slides in the Art & Music section; helping in the testing of barcodes for Technical Services; and consultant in the creation of a sign program for Library Administration – this last position was, in fact, paid and grew out of my expertise from 15 years in the printing and publishing industries. If it is financially possible, I highly recommend volunteering for those interested in entering library work -- it helps any prospective library worker to know if he or she actually wants to work in the library profession. Of course, paid non-librarian positions in a library can supply similar information.
In my very first paid library position, I worked doing circulation and information & referral for the Humanities Graduate Service Library, University of California, Berkeley (UCB), California (Fall 1991). I worked while a library school student under the direction of a Library Assistant, who was also a library school student at the time at UCB. I remember his help in learning MELVYL, the online catalog for the University of California system and our always fascinating discussions about Artificial Intelligence in its early days.
What do you love most about your current job? 
Library outreach to underserved communities. For the 25 years I have worked in public libraries, I have advocated for more connection with community through library outreach and collaboration. I have had my successes, and recently the profession as a whole has begun to talk about it more. Yay! Without downgrading anything that we do inside our library buildings, our work outside moves me the most because we are connecting our institution to those who might never have a connection with us at all. It is our ethical and moral obligation to do this vital outreach work and connect with the larger community, and I believe that politically and culturally it makes libraries stronger.
I absolutely love doing outreach to daycares and preschools. I treasure my visits to elementary schools, both to second grade classes and to promote summer reading. At this time, the most vital and far-reaching outreach program in which I play a part is Composing Together. As their 2017 resident poet, I am able to visit middle schools with them and give models and exercises for music students to create their own music-poetry collaborations, all the while promoting the library as a center for both knowledge-building and community engagement. The students and teachers uniformly enjoy our program, My Words, My Music, and there are plans to expand the program to elementary school students as well as to family programs in public libraries in 2017. I consider this kind of complex collaboration to be one of the directions for our library of the future.
What was the last really great book you read? 
I must preface any discussion of “the last really great book” with the fact that my favorite writer is Dante, and since college I have read his work, especially the Commedia over and over; he is always the last great writer that I have read. Since 1980 I have, off and on, translated Dante. Feel free to take a look at some of my recent attempts from my press (since 1975), Lines & Faces: illustrated broadsides.  
And, now, for the “last really great book!” -- The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club. By Phillip Hoose. (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2015)
In this absolutely thrilling story of courageous young Danish teenagers who were disgusted with their parents’ quiet and passive reaction to the Nazi invasion of their country, Phillip Hoose recreates this most exciting, distressing, tragic, but, ultimately, successful and not-well-enough-known achievement during WWII. These young fellows took up the fighting spirit of their Norwegian neighbors and based their actions on the idea of following Winston Churchill’s resistance, as well, by naming their club after him. Fighting for their parents and spurring them on to resistance later in the war, they risked everything and lost so much, sometimes including even their lives! Hoose weaves his narrative with incredibly thorough interviews with one of the still living (he died in 2012) participants, the original leader of the group, Knud Pedersen, who along with his brother and some friends began the group. Hoose has really done his homework and has included many black & white archival photos that perfectly match the mood of the book and take us back to WWII.  Back matter is thorough, helpful, and  illuminating. The cover design is simple, but striking. The design of the inside of the book is also simple, but very readable.   
From my own teen years I do hear echoes – in the activities of the Churchill Club – of similar joyous and absolutely thrilling activities that I experienced. But the irony and the brutal truth is that these were not games that the young Danes of the Churchill Club played: they were fighting the Nazis, perhaps the greatest war machine of all time, as their parents naively waited for things to peaceably shift; and, if they survived, these boys were damaged, sometimes for life, as all soldiers can be, by the real violence and battles in which they engaged.
What an unbelievably important model for many of our young readers! Tremendous empowerment -- from such a moving and brilliant book.
What’s your favorite myth, legend, or fairy tale? Why?
"The Owl and the Pussycat," a nonsense poem by Edward Lear. Although "The Owl and the Pussycat" is not a tale from a traditional culture, some writers, editors, and even library catalog entries list it as a (created) fairy tale (from the 19th century). [Although not a nonsense writer, another 19th century example of a creator of fairy tales is another of my favorite childhood authors, George MacDonald.] There have been a number of modern picture book versions of "The Owl and the Pussycat," and they continue to delight young kids and are often good for storytime. My very favorite picture book version is James Marshall’s from 1997 – brilliant and perfect comic illustrations, which, unfortunately, he did not entirely finish before his death. I absolutely love the poem: the rhyming (including half-rhymes and internal rhymes) is splendid and the poetic form is a sort of rondel. The made-up word "runcible" is amazing in its combination of sounding normal and nonsensical at the same time: it is now accepted as an actual dictionary term.
The "Why" is the most fascinating part of the story of my pick: when not a librarian, I am a writer and performer, and I have lived in Berkeley most of my life, born there in 1949. One of our branch libraries recently had a program called "My Berkeley Story," and they invited me to tell mine one evening, an evening it turned out that was two days after our last presidential election. My wife was worried that no one would come, but, surprisingly, the turnout was fine. In preparing for it, I remembered that soon after my parents had both died, I had been reading letters that my mother wrote to her older sister while she and I accompanied my father on his first sabbatical year (1951) in Cambridge, England. Here's a part of one of those letters, paraphrased: things are wonderful here, we love our baby boy (me, they mean), but he drives us absolutely nuts by telling us to read "The Owl and the Pussycat" over and over again. Not only do I not remember this consciously at all, but the only illustrations I might have seen were three by Lear himself -- I love them, but, again, other than loving them now, I do not recall seeing them then, since my age at that time was just around the age when humans begin to have specific memories. This personal story has taught me so much: about myself as a writer (someone who loved poetry AND story from the earliest age) and about what lasts and lasts even when one is only subconsciously aware. And, of course, my story has it’s children’s librarian angle as well in my rediscovering "The Owl and the Pussycat.”
What was the single-most influential event in your lifetime?
Without discussing events such as being born or learning to talk, walk, or read, there are still so many events from which to choose, many joys and many sorrows. In terms of both my development as an individual and as a working artist and librarian, I would choose living as a teenager in Napoli, Italia, and beginning to become familiar with Italian culture and society. In 1965-66 my professor-father had his third sabbatical in Napoli, and I had gone with my parents on all three: I was only two and remember almost nothing from when my parents went to Cambridge, England, and Concarnon (France); I was nine when my sister and I accompanied my parents to Hawaii in the year it became state, 1959; but as a teen in Napoli, the world literally opened up for me. I actually discovered myself in so many ways: art, music, reading and writing Italian. There is almost nothing in my experience to compare with the beauty – and dysfunction – of Napoli.
My wife and I return there often to see the gorgeous Bay, the ominous Volcano Vesuvio, and the tortured, twisting streets of Spacca Napoli, an ancient historic center (going back to the 9th century B.C. before the Greeks came) and now a protected UNESCO site. Spacca Napoli -- where I walked as a teen with my Neapolitan friend Umberto to a Mozart concert after school (liceo) where I had struggled successfully all day with Italian and all my high school courses in Italian, stopping for a rococo, a hard Christmas almond cookie (and still my favorite), and, perhaps, learning most important things about myself and my future. One of these strands was to study in literature in college and graduate school, to continue to write poetry, and to fall hopelessly in love with Italia and, of course, with Dante. In brief, I was enchanted and surprised by Napoli – and I still am – and as I was as well later enchanted and surprised by children’s librarianship.