My job does not include shushing. In fact, quiet is the last adjective I'd apply to the Utne Reader library, and not only because the staff is anything but. Enforcing whispering tones does not fall within the domain of the Utne librarian, nor that of most other librarians nowadays. The weathered image of the librarian as a grandmotherly, finger-waving bookworm has been defunct for quite some time. Librarians are more likely to be protecting civil liberties, promoting literacy, and guarding people's access to information than pursing their lips.
There's plenty of shushing going on lately, but it's a different kind, one that threatens purveyors and protectors of information to a frightening degree. Librarians have responded by raising their voices in protest against the Patriot Act, the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), the 65 Percent Solution, and round after round of budget cuts-all of which ultimately restrict information, services, and access in public and school libraries.
With that in mind, I want this new column, Shelf Life, to represent the Utne library: its shelves, its spirit, its significance. This library is not quiet; it sounds voices and ideas seldom heard elsewhere. More than 8,800 periodical titles have appeared in the library since Utne Reader started in 1984; more than 1,200 arrive today, all on their own regular (or regularly irregular) schedules. When you add books, DVDs, and CDs to our weekly intake of periodicals, our library grows by about 200 items each week.
As librarian, I constantly seek out new publications to add to the din-those just getting started as well as others we just haven't happened to hear about. We get wind of quite a few through editors and zinesters who send new projects our way. We're alerted to others by on-the-ball readers who come across gems and share them with us. For instance, a reader in Fairbanks, Alaska, recently mailed us a copy of the Ester Republic, a delightful 'rag' from a nearby town of '400 rugged individuals'-something we probably never would have read otherwise.
I came back to the Utne library in late August, about a year after I completed an internship with Chris Dodge, Utne's librarian from 2000 to 2006 (and a one-man repository of independent press trivia). During my first weeks as Chris' successor, when the shock of it was still fresh, I recorded my most vivid impressions of how it felt to be immersed in independent media. Above all, it felt as if the fat, which I had grown so accustomed to seeing in the mainstream, had been trimmed away and left behind.
In the independent press, there is no room for reporting that favors scandal over truth, for petty partisan differences, for celebrity-stalking or false optimism. Writing is not always elegant. Photos are often black and white. The May issue might not be published until September. But I think most Americans, regardless of political affiliation or personal beliefs, would prefer these small imperfections to the more polished fluffy stuff that's becoming difficult to avoid.
Chris once shared with me a highly scientific system of fluff detection he'd pioneered. If a magazine dropped from chest level startled nearby editors and/or rattled the floors, fluff was present, possibly in high quantities. (This process does not apply to academic journals, whose bulkiness can very rarely be attributed to high fluff content.) Test it out at your local library or bookstore, if you dare. If you're not seeing as many independent titles as you'd like, talk with the librarian or the bookstore manager-if they know you want to read a title, they're a lot more likely to keep it around.