Tuesday, 2 weeks later!

Nothing worse than missing your bus and not having your book. So I have 20 minutes to kill at Peet’s. This blog a day thing is now almost 2 weeks later. Where does the time go?

In the meantime, I’ve been to Monterrey Park to meet with Chinese-American librarians. It’s such an interesting group of ABC’s, long-time residents, and new immigrants. The mutual aid aspect is evident every day on the list-serv. I see jobs there long before I see them on the content-oriented listservs I have been on previously.

listservs. I’m so old.

And then there was last weekend’s Easter / Cesar Chavez trip to Joshua Tree to commune with Lydia’s desert ancestors. Brutal light, but a stunning landscape, including a little park-like walk with climbing walls. I’ve always wanted to be more of a rugged, outdoors type, but retiring to our hotel with its 3 hot pools was certainly nice.

Work is work. I can’t really call it a salt mine, but it’s a challenge. The signal to noise ratio is often very low, making it hard to pick out what is important, and what can be ignored. And stuff has to be ignored. We are so short-staffed, and we do so much. We’ve been doing Big Data by hand to a long time, and we have too often added automation on top of those processes, rather than replaced them with automation. My friends in cataloging long ago transitioned to pre-labeled books and bulk ingest of records. I think they did anyway—although there is still a lot of hand work there as well.

What’s exciting is the teaching I am starting to do. It’s still too early to tell how deep the audience is, but every indication is that I’m going to be doing a lot more workshops in the future.

Plague ranches

You probably think I spend my days looking at maps. I have actually spent very few days doing that, but they are really interesting when they happen.

Once I visited a retired physician whose collection had sustained fire damage years ago. A few hundred really interesting antiquarian objects–but he wanted to sell.

Another time I got to grab carload of maps from Stuart Allan’s working collection.

And of course, when I started my jobs I spent a great deal of time learning my collections. Unfortunately, in recent years that has mostly meant going through drawers looking for things to throw away. But on the bright side: that means I’m in there taking a hard look at what is worth saving for the long haul. Most times, that means asking myself: what do my library have that no one else is likely to have? Second question is: what might I get around to scanning before anyone else does?

Yesterday I got to run through the remaining collection of UC Banana Slug. All too often, my colleagues aren’t being replaced when they retire, but that also means UC Surf Board gets to fill in gaps and become even more special than it already is. I brought back south with me a real nice set of stuff. Some completely ordinary, but no one else in the state is likely to keep it. Some was super unusual to have in California: a 1908 property atlas of Cairo in the style of a Sanborn.

And then there was the quite ordinary looking map of plague ranches in Monterey County. I’m sure there’s a story there somewhere.


A quick Google tells me this hand-annotated map might be younger than I am. Or it might be much, much older.

I forgot to check the date.

Narrow miss

I almost forgot! But the first step in a practice is remembering your practice, right?

Sunday we made our 5th trip to the LA Zine Fest. We have made it to 5 out of 6, and I don’t think we knew it existed my first year in California (and that would have been a solo trip anyway since L was still up north). This time it was back in downtown LA for the first time since our first visit. It made me remember my first time in LA, and leading a bunch of classmates through Skid Row on the way to Little Tokyo. Downtown sure has changed a lot, but Skid Row remains intimidating. I’m hard to shock, but as we were leaving on Sunday I was rather dumbstruck by just how many people are living on those streets. A sobering end to the day.

That said, the downtown core is as revived as any big American city, but it maintains its Blade Runner feel with an exciting mix of cultures.

Zinefest itself never disappoints. It is truly a collection of lovely misfits, and I could easily spend a couple hundred bucks on the wares. As is our habit, we went with a budget. We came away with a nice selection of photo zines, perzines, and comics. I even picked up a scholarly monograph about a long forgotten 19th century anarchist geographer. I didn’t know they made them back then!

So there you have it. 2 in a row!

On writing and discipline

The original thought behind all this was to have a place to share the happenings of life, particularly in relation to being a librarian. But along the way, it was mostly about ordinary life. Life has been very busy for the past few years, and Facebook took over most of those random, daily updates about what I’m doing. Granted, some of that is taking photos of meals that I’m eating, but vicariously seeing what other people are eating, reading, and doing –and where they are doing it, has been exciting. I’ll admit to being a bit of a fanboy. Addict? If I am, it’s a mass addiction that surrounds us (perhaps like caffeine — just something to keep us keeping on).

On Facebook people regularly send challenges akin to chain letters of old. And I do remember getting a chain letter or two in the 70’s. Most of these breeze by me (Open the last book you ready to page 76, blah blah blah), but occasionally the challenge resonates. This flavor isn’t so much ‘post this on your wall,’ so much as ‘look what I’m doing.’ Right now I have a friend doing a drawing-a-day, and they’ve been wonderful.

These types of challenges take a little bit of discipline, and most of mine is taken up getting to work each day and keeping my shit together. But this long languishing blog, and my research projects, need some discipline. I’ve been gathering and analyzing data for years, but not publishing it. It’s going to take some extra discipline to get that writing done. I have two active writing projects at the moment, and the thoughts are all there, they just need to be put into words in a proper order.

So I think the least I can do is commit to 10-minutes a day to keeping this up to date. Maybe not every day, but I’m throwing down the gauntlet. Everyone needs a practice. If I’m not going to do yoga or meditate, the least I can do it write.

Beijing HQ

One of the strategies this trip was to have a home base in Beijing from which to operate.  Rather than attempt to visit 3 libraries around the city each day, which last year ran me ragged, I decided to have a more leisurely pace, and try to get people to come to me.

I knew that Meng Fanyong and I were going out of town for the weekend so that I could see where he grew up and meet his family.  (The photographs of that side trip are up, but there’s a lot more narrative to go along with it.  Corner me at a party. )  And even though he was not arranging my schedule, Lao Meng played a hugely central role in this trip by being my AirBNB landlord.  So yes, I’ve developed personal, professional, and economic relationships with informant number 1.  But this is thick data, and we discussed on Monday what parts of our shared story are data and which ones are information between friends.  As I am four years into working with this community, it is clearly much more about cultural exchange and long term partnerships than it is about neutral empirical data gathering (whatever that might look like).  @futuremeng is more than someone I follow online.

But thick data and all, I feel a need to document and show visually just how I have been doing this.  That’s either the flaneur in me (sorry for my Orientalist gaze), the BFA-holder (with continued interest in the New Topographers), or maybe it’s a bit of performance art.  Or maybe the reason for my accommodations this time had much more to do with being on a tight budget.  My time, my dime—the Fulbright money was gone a long time ago, and this is clearly not part of my day job.

So the story I tell myself is that I knew I was spending time with Lao Men, I knew I was going to the Capitol Library, and I knew I wanted to be someplace centrally located so people would come to me.  And Lao Meng happens to have this apartment which was his father-in-law’s worker apartment.

If you’re going to Beijing for more than 2 or 3 nights, rent it.  It’s fun, and it’s completely comfortable for a Westerner who can do a 5-story walk up.  The photographs on AirBNB are accurate.

And it worked flawlessly.  We even had a group dinner with Zhang Li and Q right on the corner!

So it’s central.  2 subway stops nearby, one of which is an interchange (although the transfer between the two is currently under construction so to be most accurate: it’s currently close to 2 subway stops on two different lines).  Super convenient.  The transfer station, Shuangjing (双井) is underneath the East Third Ring Road.  What I didn’t know before going is that it connects to a giant, modern mall–the Viva Mall / Fuli Plaza (富丽广场).  Coincidentally, my Hong Kong hosts used to live in a building right next to this mall.

Super central!

So I’m going to take you on a walk home from the subway stop, and show you a little bit about what my one week of ‘daily life’ was like, as I trekked from the Viva Mall / subway stop to the apartment.  Basically, east to west along the main arterial in the maps.

Walk from subway to the red pin.

Below is the view about half-way down Guangzhumen Outer Street from a pedestrian overpass.  You can see the elevated Ring Road–that’s our starting point.  The two towers are pretty fancy, with a luxury car showroom anchoring one of the first floors.  There’s a mall there too, but I didn’t explore it beyond the sunken plaza level (a coffeeshop and a Shabu Shabu restaurant were the only things of interest to my eye).

The first floor corner entrance has a triad of Western businesses: Haagen Daas, a 24-hour KFC, and a Pizza Hut.  It’s a 9- or 10- story mall, with two sets of UME movie theaters, a health club, and a KTV on the very top floors. At least two floors are dominated by restaurants (mostly Chinese, there’s also Korean, an Ajisen ramen shop, and a requisite Starbucks).  I think there might be an I-Max.  In the image, I’m basically standing with my back to the subway exit.

1st floor corner entrance.


Away from the corner, street vendors sell quid, stinky tofu, and fruit.

The mall currently has some strong Disney branding–far too large and conspicuous to be unauthorized.  This is close to the embassy district and is at a major Beijing intersection.  No one is going to wrap Water Tower Place in Star Wars decoration without authorization.
beijingHQ-5 beijingHQ-6
It’s a big, fairly fancy place, that sees a pretty large crowd come through every day.  I didn’t get to see it on the weekend, but I’m sure it’s packed.  Most of one floor is devoted to the child-industrial complex.

MaxEn is a McGraw-Hill brand of after-school tutoring center.


Self explanatory.


Ballet school.


Chinese chess club/academy.

My subway stop is supposed to be a transfer point between two lines, but it’s currently curtailed as they increase the capacity of the walking tunnels.  One morning one of the entrance gates only opened part way.  Apparently it was stuck, or else the workers couldn’t get in to close it all the way off.  I decided pretty quickly that crossing the street was the more effective way of getting into the station.



Clogged entrance / broken gate.

An office building on the same corner is apparently tenanted with wedding and early-childhood offices.  I didn’t discover this until a bit late, but what was I going to do, wander the halls?  Later on in the trip, I began to see how commercial events directly connect wedding services to early childhood services–it really does feel like a breeder-industrial complex.


The Little Red Education Center, a DIY picture-book thingamabob, and a wedding photographer?


In the same building lobby, a panoply of tenants offering wedding services.

Walking away from the subway stop, there’s a bunch of other big retail.  Lots of larger restaurants–fast food and banquet style.  A large grocer (semi-connected to the subway and mall). A Gomz home appliance store nestled between 30 story apartment buildings.  Yet, it’s still China.  Immediately outside the upscale mall are fruit, grilled squid, and stinky tofu street vendors who look like they would scatter in 15 seconds if some random official decided to give them grief.  There are investment banks and real estate offices.



The intersection of the major thoroughfare with my semi-side street.

It was about a quarter mile from the 3rd Ring Road / subway / mall to the entrance to my urban village.  Blocks in Beijing are long–and compounds back into one another so that there typically aren’t shortcuts between them.  Once I turned off Guangzhumen, I pretty much stuck to my path.  At the end of each day I was fairly dragging, and in the mornings I was rushed to get places, but I was able to get takeout Uigher, buns for breakfast, and on the way in with Lao Meng we did stop for Donkey sandwiches.  I’m pretty sure I would have skipped the donkey restaurant if left to my own devices.  There were a number of other places on the block I would have loved to have tried.  No shortage of dining options.

The side street was a more down-home, low-rise version of Guangzhumen.  In the mornings there were any number of vendors and old folks out doing their shopping. In the afternoons, school kids and package deliveries dominated.  There were two distinct flavors of e-commerce delivery services that I keep meaning to look up.


Morning shoppers and commuters.


Setting up for evening dunked 串. Not sure what this variation is called, but it’s super common and many 7-11’s and similar convenience stores also have a selection of kebobs boiled in broth.


The donkey restaurant.



Later at night, the street was further transformed.  There was obviously some sort of festival the first week of November, as I saw a number of places selling paper things to burn–currency and luxury goods.




Just past the donkey restaurant, hang a right down a smaller road.


Watch out for grannies bringing kids home from school.


A cluster of fruit and veggie stands near the intersection.


Past another group of curriers–these from a different company.


Keep going.


Past all the reserved parking spaces…


…Chicago or Boston style.


Someone on the block was drying apples.


Even though it’s cold, these spaces are still pretty actively used.


The buildings are a real mix of ages. The alley has obviously been transformed a number of times.


There’s a little jog to the left.


You’re aiming for the barbershop. But you can stop for a soda and chips at the mini-mart if you’re snacky.


Into the compound through the gate.


Past the big letter sign and the old folks’ bench.


All day, different neighbors met and chatted.


And built a mattress fort against the winter wind–but I never saw anyone use it.


People out back, occupying the former communal kitchens, were having giant clams for dinner.


Don’t be intimidated. I never felt uncomfortable (except when the guy scolded me for taking a photo of the giant clams).


Door #3.


Up, up, up.


A dim light turns on at each landing. Various junk in the dusty bare space.


To the door with the fancy electronic lock.


To a lovely updated apartment with all the necessities.

And in the mornings, it was back out in the other direction.


I was really thinking hard about how to conduct the interviews that were lining up. After two or three trips to the mall, and running the idea by my translator, we agreed that trying to get a classroom or an office in one of the mall’s many childhood development businesses was a good idea.  After visiting Baby Cube, we traipsed from English school to music academy, introducing outselves to the front desk person in each.   We got a couple business cards, offered a free English lesson from the visiting scholar, and even offered to pay rent.  But no one wanted to take a chance.  One place explained that the parents would suspect their cleanliness if they saw a classroom being used for any purpose other than a scheduled class.

Patty was visibly….disgusted? Disappointed?  I’m not sure the word, but she said with some distaste, “These are not business people.  Why would they turn down money for something so simple?”  I was feeling pretty out on a limb with the whole experience, but going from business to business with her was a little bit exhilarating–especially as she became more animated at each place.  I could tell she was pressing our case pretty strongly, but no one would budge.  Everyone seemingly afraid to improvise.

So that’s how we wound up conducting a day of interviews at the UME Book Bar and Cafe.  One after the other we visited with librarians from last year’s trip, Elma, and Lao Meng.


These conversations took towards the end of my stay in Beijing, and in addition to adding some great followup data, they were a great opportunity to speak clearly with my two closest collaborators.  It was thrilling to have conversations with Elma and Lao Meng across our language barrier.  Questions fairly poured out of me, and details from the conversations will trickle into other reports.