SPL opened at noon today. The libraries will close at their regular times tonight. Normal hours resume tomorrow.

Stay warm.


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Due to snow.

To pass a little of the time, read this poem by Wallace Stevens, because I like it.

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.


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The Somerville Public Library will close at 4:30 today due to the impending storm.


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steveLast Saturday’s cryptoparty went very all. The attendance was large enough that it was a good turnout but small enough that the attendees could get hands-on assistance. Software developer Steve Revilak (left) gave a detailed but accessible talk on using GnuPG to encrypt email and James okeefeO’Keefe of the Massachusetts Pirate Party (right) explained how to use Tor to browse the web anonymously. We are grateful for their generosity with their time and expertise.

Protecting online privacy is a topic of growing concern, and librarians are playing an increasing role in teaching the public how to protect themselves. Last fall, BoingBoing featured a post by Alison Macrina, “Radical Librarianship: How Ninja Librarians Are Ensuring Patrons’ Electronic Privacy.” Later this month, Washington DC Public Library staff are teaching a ten-part IMLS-funded workshop on government surveillance and transparency that will include a marathon reading of 1984, a talk on how to track campaign finances, live hacking demonstrations, a talk on Internet safety for teens, and instructions on how to use the anonymizing web browser Tor.

Historically privacy has been a core value for librarians, and during the past half century patron privacy has been challenged repeatedly.  In the 1970s the IRS tried to access library circulation records throughout the country as part of its investigation of illegal bomb-making. In 1987 FBI agents visited Columbia University’s Mathematics and Science  Library and demanded information on “foreign users.” The library director refused to cooperate.

More alarmingly, under the USA PATRIOT Act the FBI can now request broad surveillance powers over library users, including the right to subpoena circulation records and the right to monitor patron use of library materials and computers. And librarians are required to keep all FBI visits, requests and activities pertaining to their libraries and patrons a secret. Shortly after passage of the act, many libraries posted signs in public areas that read, “The FBI has not been here today. Watch closely for removal of this sign.”

In 2005 the FBI requested patron activity records from a Connecticut library consortium. The library network refused to cooperate and, with the help of the ACLU, challenged the request in court. The following year the FBI withdrew its request.

The point of all this history is simply to say threats to privacy are ongoing and everywhere, and librarians are committed to fighting them.

SPL is planning another online privacy workshop next month covering basic issues such as how to keep your smart phone from being used to track you and which web browsers don’t save your data. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here’s a set of surveillance self-defense tips from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

And if you missed the cryptoparty and wish you could have gone, the presentation slides are here.




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How about reading and discussing a book with people from all over the world?

Harvard’s Global Outreach Program hosts  an online book group for educators. This year’s theme is “Crossing Borders in Time and Space.”

constellationTheir next book is Anthony Marra’s novel of life in war-torn Chechnya, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. On Thursday Jan. 22, at 7pm, the author will discuss his book with Nieman Fellow Irina Gordienko, a journalist with years of experience covering the region. An interactive online discussion will follow. All that is required to participate is an Internet and the current version of Flash. Registration and more information is here.

Their next book discussion, scheduled for April 30, is on Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s novel of drug-war haunted Colombia, The Sound of Things Falling,  which the New York Times called “a page-turner, but…also a deep meditation on fate and death.”


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A small art installation by the Somerville Arts Council’s 2014 Multi-disciplinary Artist Fellow Kris Hatch has found a permanent home in two of the Somerville Libraries.  Stationed appropriately between the Mystery and Reference sections at the West Branch, ‘The Book of Knowledge’ is a Victorian curio cabinet that invites the viewer to become a part of the mystery.  A second “cabinet” can be found near the Mythology section of the Central Library.

This project is supported in part by the Somerville Arts Council, a local agency supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.


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jfkAll main exhibits at the JFK Library and Museum are closed until mid-March while the museum undergoes renovations. However, there is a small exhibit on the Cuban Missile Crisis open to the public. Admission is free.

The research rooms will still be open, but as always researchers should call in advance to schedule their visit. 617.514.1600 .


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spyConcerned about your privacy (or lack thereof)? Join us at the Somerville Public Library, 79 Highland Ave.,  Jan. 10 at 11:00 a.m., where James O’Keefe of the Massachusetts Pirate Party and other privacy experts show you how to use the web anonymously, encrypt your mail, stop companies from using your cell phone to track you, and more. This is a hands-on workshop, so please bring your laptop, tablet, or smartphone so we can help you install the latest anonymizing software and show you how to encrypt your phone calls, emails, and other communications.


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While I’ve certainly done everything I can to keep snoops away from my computer–I’ve downloaded Adblock Plus, I use the anonymizing browser Tor, I’ve activated encryption on my laptop, and I block cookies–I sometimes wonder if it’s not an exercise in futility. I normally assume that no matter what I can download to protect myself, really determined hackers (never mind big businesses or employees of the United States government) can work their way around it.

However,  a recent analysis of some of the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden suggests I should be more optimistic. Admittedly, these documents are two years old, but they indicate that the  developers working on open source software like Tor and Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) encryption are more than a match for snoops.  According to staff of the German news magazine Spiegel:

Things become “catastrophic” for the NSA at level five – when, for example, a subject uses a combination of Tor, another anonymization service, the instant messaging system CSpace and a system for Internet telephony (voice over IP) called ZRTP. This type of combination results in a “near-total loss/lack of insight to target communications, presence,” the NSA document states.

Other programs that gave the NSA fits (at least as of 2012, when many of these documents were written): the email service Zoho, PGP (as noted above), and OTR (which encrypts IM communications).

The fact that these documents are two years old may give you pause. It’s perfectly reasonable to wonder if the NSA hasn’t cracked these programs since then.  However, PGP was over twenty years old in 2012 and it was still stumping NSA staff.

On the other hand, the documents reveal that getting around HTTPS and breaking into VPNs is child’s play.

Is complete privacy impossible? Yes. Are the developers in the open-source community able to create tools that can give us some protection? Absolutely.

The entire Spiegel article is worth reading. There are short summaries at Gizmodo and The Verge.


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readNPR has a great report on Armed Services Editions, the pocket-sized books that entertained and consoled soldiers during World War II. Here is the link to request a library copy of the new book on ASEs, When Books Went to War.

Have you ever wondered what was involved in making books before the rise of industrial-scale printing in the 1840s? You can watch someone make a book with a hand-operated printing press here.

Grown-ups who read YA books? You’re in good company. While adult book sales were down this year, guess what sales were up 22%?

Today is Jane Austen Day. Amy Elizabeth Smith, author of All Roads Lead to Austen, shares her ranking of the novelist’s books.

Can’t decide what to read? NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan has some suggestions.

Lots of libraries have cats. But how many of them get library cards?


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