Open Thread Thursday: Third Rails

Since last week’s Open Thread had some great discussions, I’m doing it again this week. I liked having a theme, so this week will be the third rails of librarianship. (Sorry, unemployment has already been covered.)

So, what gets left unsaid? What gets pushed aside? What’s the buck that gets passed? What’s the elephant in the room that no one is talking about? What’s the topic that gets everyone up in arms?

Personally, I’d say intellectual freedom is a third rail for librarianship. We tout it as a principle, but when it comes to the practice it gets a bit muddled. For all the times that we seek to preserve different viewpoints within our collections, opposing viewpoints or perspectives that are not popular in professional discourse tend to get marginalized, ignored, or vilified. There is a difference between well meaning people disagreeing and personal indictments of differing viewpoints.

A reminder that anonymous comments are allowed in case you just want to point out the third rail and not grip it yourself.

Big Tent Librarianship over at HackLibSchool

Over at HackLibSchool, Britt Foster has written a post about my Big Tent Librarianship article and calling for unity starting at library school. She writes:

The “big tent” mentality must begin in library school.  We must begin by challenging ourselves to reach out to those in our department, and to students at other library schools.  The web has allowed for the conventional barriers of interaction to fall away, and given us the tools to somewhat define our own education.  Yes, we may all have to take this class or present that paper to graduate, but interacting with fellow library school students will inform and expand our motivations and knowledge,  give us new tools for advocacy, and a broader platform to advocate from, constructively criticize our own education, and offer successful solutions to other students looking for change in their own programs.

I had not read that post until today, but I got a “great minds think alike” moment because I had written something similar in my closing thought as part of the ACRL presentation the other day.

In closing, I’d like to leave you with this final thought. Once upon a time, we were all sitting in a classroom at our respective graduate level library science programs. In that classroom, there were no academic librarians, public librarians, school librarians, or special librarians. We were just people who wanted to be librarians, who sat through the same core classes, and worked together on projects and papers. While we later took classes that reflected the interests of our own career paths, for that brief period of time we were all together. I’d like to urge you to go back to that time. To think about the shared purpose in those professional nascent days. To remember that are no actual barriers between us and that there never were. That we as a profession share those common roots and origins. In getting back to those aspects, we can once again work together to advocate for all kinds and types of libraries. Just as we worked together in that classroom back then.

Check out the rest of her post. This project just puts a giant smile on my face every time it pops up on my Twitter feed or Google Reader. It’s really impressive to me the amount of effort that they have poured into the project for the benefit of the profession as a whole. They’re taking the library program and making it work for them, expanding it well beyond the walls of their own classrooms. Pretty frikkin’ sweet, I’d say. These are people to watch.

If you want to know more about HackLibSchool, check out Micah Vandegrift’s post talking about the project back in October on In the Library With The Lead Pipe. The project has its own blog now. (I’ve created a Google Reader bundle with that blog and the blogs of all the current project participants if you want to grab it in one go.)

ACRL Presentation Transcript

I presented to the ACRL today online to kick off a conversation series. My presentation, “’Big Tent’ Advocacy: Shared Goals, Imagined Boundaries” went well. Or it felt like it went well: it’s hard to tell when the audience is online. I had a good feeling about it, so I was glad to get a chance to talk to the ACRL membership about something that is a dream of mine. For ACRL members, the session was recorded so you can go listen to it anytime. (I have no idea where they post such things.)

I have found that the best way for me to present is to use a script. I write it before entering a rehearse-tweak cycle that goes on till right before the presentation. Today was no exception as I was tweaking the script right until about an hour before the talk. By the time I hit presentation time, I can concentrate on breathing, pacing, and tone.

The only downside was my slide deck. I use Open Office for PowerPoint type things; when I save it in the PowerPoint format, it strips out all of the font changes. So, the look I was going for was completely not there, rendered into Arial and misplaced. I only glanced at it while I was talking, but when you’re on live, there’s not much you can do but make the audio even better.

For those who are curious, I’m posting a complete copy of my script. It doesn’t have some tangents I went out on, but it covers everything that I said. I hope it makes as much sense reading it as it would sound if I was speaking it. This was the first time I was able to talk about “Big Tent Librarianship” to any group of peers. I was a bit nervous about it since it’s pretty personal to me.

So, without further ado, here is the script of my presentation to the ACRL.

 

***

This is less of a presentation and more of the start of a conversation.

I’m not here to give you a new set of tools. I’m here to give you a new mindset.

This afternoon, I want to talk to you about the mission I have embarked upon. To unite the entirety of the library profession under one banner and one purpose: to work together to advocate for libraries of all types and sizes.

For me, this mission began on April 15th 2010.

At the time, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had just unveiled his state budget in the middle of March. It took a day or so before the news started spreading about what it meant for libraries. On its face, it was rather bleak: an overall 74% reduction to statewide library funding. It meant the elimination of interlibrary loan and the termination of group database and internet service contracts negotiated by the state library (which included all of the state colleges and universities), to name a few of the significant cuts. For academic libraries in particular, there would be an additional loss of funding that would have resulted in higher library fees for students or simply across the board cuts to materials and services.

On this basis, the New Jersey Library community mobilized. For my part, I started a Facebook group entitled “Save NJ Libraries!” as a means of organizing people, directing some online efforts, and having a common place to share information as it came out. I was working at the grassroots level and kept tabs on what was going on at NJLA, the State Library, the Save My NJ Library.org administrators, and other efforts around the state.

As such, I was invited to attend a meeting for Rutgers library faculty and staff as well as the MLS faculty to come up with ideas and to plan actions to fight these cuts. As the largest public university in the state, Rutgers had the most on the line from the funding cuts. It took place in one of the multipurpose classrooms in one of their many libraries, a working lunch for those involved. Sitting in the back of that room (because I was late, parking at Rutgers is a nightmare), I remember listening to a series of speakers talking about the situation and proposing different courses of action. They talked about educating the faculty and students as to what the cuts would mean to them, their academics and their research. They talked about reaching out to the alumni to get them involved in contacting the governor as well as the University president. There were discussions about flyers to give out, about creating signs and what they would say, and about taking part in some of the larger rallies on campus. I was pretty clueless as to what resources and actions that academic libraries could take; everything I was hearing was new and in my head I was drawing parallels to what the public libraries around the state were planning or doing.

As the meeting came to a close, I don’t know who said it, but there was a question that arose: what are the public libraries doing about these cuts?

Now, before I go on, let me tell you a little something about my background. My undergraduate degree is biology. I have always had an interest in the sciences; for me, it is the observation and attempted explanation of the world around us. I’m a big fan of science specials in which average people are unobtrusively recorded acting and interacting in their, for lack of a better term, natural environment. I wouldn’t say this was a Jane-Goodall-and-the-chimps moment, but it did cross my mind.

Rather than speak up, I remained silent and listened as the conversation unfolded.

And to sound like one of those science program announcers, I was fascinated by what I heard. I don’t remember much of what was said per se, but what I do remember is that the talk took on a very casual tone. As it progressed, it evolved into ideas of what public librarians could or should do, what people had heard they were doing, and maybe looking into taking time to find out.

I sat there, listening quietly as the conversation moved back and forth, and came to the realization: they don’t have a clue. They were speaking in tones that were overtly unsure. It was the information equivalent of radio silence. Here we are, an association of information professionals, and no one knows that is going on outside of their own immediate library circles.

I’m not telling this story to make light of my academic peers. Everything they said was in good faith and good intent, and I thank them for taking the time at this meeting to make mention about public libraries. I’m telling it because it would be a common observation in the weeks and months to follow.

I saw it during a state library association committee meeting when the members started talking about the cuts to education funding that were in the same budget. School librarians (who are classified as administration staff and not as teachers, at least some school districts in New Jersey, putting them beyond the protection of the unions) were getting cut all over the state. Entire school districts were laying off or reducing their librarians and their library staff, slashing the library budgets, and otherwise reducing the school library to a space with just books and computers. The conversations I had or were present for with other public librarians would talk about these events but almost in a detached way. “Oh, did you hear about the cuts in so-and-so district? Aren’t they terrible?” These conversations would die out without anyone uttering the question, “Well, what can WE do about it?”

For me, the silence, the empty spaces in these conversations was more alarming than the cuts themselves. Here I am standing in the presence of fellow professional librarians, people who have spent their lives searching, researching, locating, and otherwise connecting people to the information or materials or literature that they are seeking, AND YET we were dumbfounded as to who to talk to, WHAT to do, WHAT actions to take, or even HOW to find out about libraries that were in need of support. That we were faced with a question that goes right to the heart of the survival of libraries within our own state but either could not or would not take the time and effort to find out the answer from people who were in our own profession. These were peers who were looking for help themselves, sometimes to stave off closing their doors FOREVER.

Does that sound RIGHT to you? Does that sound how librarians should act? Does that sound like how a professional organization should function?

When I was approached about this speaking engagement to the ACRL, it was on the heels of a post I had written called “Vertical Advocacy in Libraryland”. It was my first foray into trying to articulate what I was seeing and feeling in those previous months. I define ‘vertical advocacy’ as the act of exclusively advocating for your type of library, sometimes to the detriment of other libraries. It’s a notion that I myself am guilty of as I reflect upon the things that I shared during the advocating and lobbying opportunities that were afforded to me. I think about the stories and ideas that I shared and how they were mostly in regard to or about public libraries. I mean, let’s face it. As a public librarian, it really shouldn’t be a shock that these would be the libraries I would be throwing my support behind to get funding or spending restoration.

But, the more I thought about it, the more those conversations continued to bother me. That eventually the library community in New Jersey would claim a partial victory in only having a 43% cut. And yet school libraries and librarians got slashed, sometimes out of existence. And yet public libraries continue to close in places like Camden, Jersey City, Newark, and Trenton. And I’ll be honest, I don’t know how the academic libraries in New Jersey fared, but based on the funding outlook from the state, I’m going to guess they took their own knocks. Those kinds of cuts don’t even make it outside of the campus newspaper. The whole thing didn’t sit well with me. I kept coming back to the question: “What can be done to resolve this disconnect within the profession?”

The answer to this question came to me in what would become a Library Journal Backtalk article entitled “We Need Big Tent Librarianship”. It’s not so much an article as it is a personal manifesto and the compelling and underlying reason that brings me here today to talk to you about shared advocacy values and goals. The term “big tent librarianship” is the idea that the profession has enough basic elements and underlying commonalities that we share a collective interest in the continued existence of all types of libraries. That, to use ALA Past President Jim Rettig’s term, there is a library ecosystem in which the different libraries depend on one another. That the school libraries lead into the academic libraries, that the public libraries interface with both school and academic, and that special libraries work to fill the niches and uncovered areas of the others.

The overall point is that we (and I say the royal we) are all connected. “Big tent librarianship” is an idea to bring library professionals of all stripes and types, creeds and degrees, places and spaces, and to bring them together to advocate, to take action, and to work towards the continued use and growth of libraries across the United States. That we as a profession are connected by a common thread of teaching information literacy as a life skill, the curation of personal curiosity and education, and the preservation of information access for those who seek it now and in the future. Now is the time to rally together for this future.

I believe that my talk comes at a fortunate moment. Recently, ALA President Roberta Stevens has charged a task force with the following question: "If there was no governing body currently in place, what structure would you envision that reflects ALA’s goal of an engaged and collaborative membership, the effective use of new technologies and the changes in outlook and expectations occurring with the new generation of people working in libraries?" It’s a ‘blue sky’ re-imagining of the organization and how it could or should change to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

I hope that this talk can be the start of that re-imagining. The lesson that I’ve drawn from my story and from the anecdotes that I’ve heard is that there are barriers to communication within and across the field. It is a matter left for each one of us to overcome; it starts with the individual.

In evolving into something new, I urge those who are listening to me today (and those who will listen to this recorded talk later) to work towards building bridges within the ALA organization. I urge you to demand better information sharing practices so that you can be more readily informed about current news in different areas and regions. And I urge you personally to take whatever steps are required to be informed and active in the role of advocating for every library.

For that last point, I’d like to offer a few suggestions as to how to do that because I believe it can lead to the other two changes.

The first is education. Or rather, a bit of self education outside your usual scope. A pair of trade sources that I would recommend would be Library Journal and School Library Journal. I’m not talking about reading these publications cover to cover (or every link on their website), but just give it a scan. See what interests you. Get a feel for what stories or issues that are going on right now.

I’d also recommend attending sessions at state conferences that are outside of your usual fare. Take an empty time slot and find something that catches your eye or relates to your position from a different vantage point. It’s not like you would be compelled to stay the whole time if its really not to your taste, but it will afford you a different perspective or an appreciation of different issues that are facing non-academic librarians.

Beyond that, I’d recommend reading blogs. Blogs tend to be more timely and nimble than state conference presentations or the trade publications as they can be published with a shorter turnaround and offer a personal point of view. I’ve highlighted some of the blogs that I would personally recommend reading and the specialties that they relate to. (After I submitted my powerpoint, I completely forgot about special librarians. I’d like to add Rachel Walden and David Rothman as recommended blogs to read.)[1] You can subscribe by email or RSS feed. I personally use Google Reader and that’s the one I recommend, but there are other ones out there.

The second is communication. One way (and perhaps the simplest yet overlooked) is meeting and talking with other librarians. This can be through more formal settings such as conferences or meetings. It’s certainly less daunting when people are wearing name tags and have a common reason for being there. It’s about getting to know the other people in the organization that are involved in aspects that you may not know much about. It’s a significant step towards building bridges within the professional organization.

From my own experience, I’ve organized informal librarian social meet-ups all around New Jersey. I personally believe that this works better as it foster relationships within the profession at the personal level. That person across the table is no longer Samantha the woman who sits on the Teen Library User subcommittee, but Sam who runs all sorts of creative programs for her teens and works to find new ways to bring them into the library. I’m not sitting next to James the conference coordinator and library director, but James the family guy who likes to go bike racing. You get the point I’m going for. As I said before, it’s about making connections within the professional community.

I will admit that it seems very silly to me to sit here and tell the people listening who are clearly intelligence (and possess good judgment, I might add, in attending this talk) that one of things we need to do is talk with each other. But, as I recounted in my story, there can be some basic communication breakdowns. Something like this is a relatively easy, low risk high reward remedy. And as a people oriented profession, the first people we should be able to talk to is each other.

The third is action. Or, to be more specific, the importance of taking action. For the advocacy campaigns of the future, it is my belief that they will rely on everyone getting off the bench to help out. This will mean laying the groundwork to mobilize the membership of state and national library associations. It means establishing and refining our own internal communication networks.

It’s a bit harder to make recommendations on this point because of people’s personal preferences. I can imagine some would not mind being on the ‘front line’ in terms of picketing, rallying, giving handouts to the public or faculty or student body, and otherwise being out there. Likewise, I can imagine some being more comfortable with the logistics and command end in terms of organizing people, working on the message, making additional contacts, and coordinating efforts. Find out where your comfort level exists and thrive in that role. The importance here is in taking action. The importance here is in showing up.

In closing, I’d like to leave you with this final thought. Once upon a time, we were all sitting in a classroom at our respective graduate level library science programs. In that classroom, there were no academic librarians, public librarians, school librarians, or special librarians. We were just people who wanted to be librarians, who sat through the same core classes, and worked together on projects and papers. While we later took classes that reflected the interests of our own career paths, for that brief period of time we were all together. I’d like to urge you to go back to that time. To think about the shared purpose in those professional nascent days. To remember that are no actual barriers between us and that there never were. That we as a profession share those common roots and origins. In getting back to those aspects, we can once again work together to advocate for all kinds and types of libraries. Just as we worked together in that classroom back then.

Thank you.

I’d like to thank Eric and Valerie for inviting me to speak to the ACRL today. They have been immensely patient with me along the way and I’m thankful for that. I hope this presentation and the others to follow live up to the title of ‘conversation series’. I’d like to hear your thoughts.

 

[1] The blogs I listed on my slide deck (but didn’t write what I said about them into the script) were:

School Librarians: The Unquiet Librarian, NeverEndingSearch, Blue Skunk Blog, Cathy Jo Nelson’s Professional Thoughts.

Public Librarians: Librarian.net, David Lee King, Librarian By Day, PC Sweeney’s Blog, Librarian in Black.

The Right Stuff

On the drive to work today, I was thinking about the last couple of blog posts and listening to the radio. The overall point that has been pressed is what the current older generation of librarians have done for the field: the expansion of the total number of libraries, the creation of the modern online catalog, modern shared sources and databases, and other advances in information access and sharing systems. Even with all that, I really can’t get past the haphazard funding models. How could there be so much heavy lifting in one area and inconsistency in another?

During that drive, it hit me: libraries are a lot like NASA

Over the years, NASA has built rockets for taking all sort of payloads into space. They’ve created a re-usable space craft that has served in hundreds of missions. They have constructed a pair of space stations (first Skylab, now the International Space Station). The scientific experiments that are carried out during the missions or on the space stations provided key scientific data that cannot be replicated on Earth. They have put men on the moon, probes and rovers onto other planets, and spacecraft that have exited our solar system for parts unknown. The Hubble Space telescope has returned images from the edges of the expanding universe, a glimpse of the primitive moments of the universe after the Big Bang. It has shown us the wonders of the universe.

But when it comes to funding… well, it’s a mixed bag. It even has its own Wikipedia entry to chart the relative flatness or decline of funding since the 1960’s. But for such a respectable institution that brings scientific advances and greater understandings of Earthly problem through experiments in space, how is it that the funding remains relatively flat? Don’t people see the value and merit of what they do?

And so it is with libraries. I’m preaching to the choir on this one, so I will spare the rehashing of library value. But for all the things that NASA and libraries do on behalf of society, for whatever reason it becomes a hard sell. Overall, both have the same likeability factor. People say that they are provide useful items to society. But when it comes to the funding, there is a disconnect. The talk becomes that the cost is too high, the area of effect is haphazard, and that people simply don’t see the need anymore. And for all the advances and technologies that have been built by NASA engineers, for all the information networks and growth that librarians have built over the years, it can far too easily get set aside when the value is not articulated to those who control the budgets. That’s a serious problem.

Despite my sloppy handling on the Sunday Speculation post, I did receive one answer to the underlying question as to what happened to the political and financial relationships between libraries and their communities. Stephen Abrams wrote:

The simplest answer is that those people and the people/politicians they built the relationship with retired or were voted out of office. These relationships need to be continuously cultivated, evolved and sustained, and worked on through the political process and through association work. As can be noted ad nauseum, many next gen librarians (certainly not all) have abandoned library associations (I have seen the demographic and renewal membership numbers) and, according to research surveys, distrust the political process and vote/participate at very low rates on top of GenX being a small generational cohort. So we’re in a Catch 22. How do we engage the next generation of advocates in library issues?

It’s a good question. I don’t recall anything in the graduate coursework about building and maintaining relationships with funding bodies. Should the MLS programs start addressing this issue through coursework? Within my own state, I’ve seen advocacy sessions offered during the state conference and a single day conference. Should this be something that state associations are doing on a year round basis? There are certainly people within the field who have had tremendous success building these relationships. Should they be tapped as mentors, role models, and consultants for libraries looking to improve their standing?

I’d be interested in seeing how this issue was handled historically and what the profession will do about it at the future. What do you think is the best approach? Should this be something in the core classes at MLS programs? Or is it really something you learn on the job with mentors, conferences, and workshops?

***

On a related note, I am finding the discrepancy between the number of replies from the Sunday Speculation and the Mea Culpa post rather interesting. I would have thought the idea of competencies and metrics for evaluating members of the profession would have gotten a stronger response. With the number of complaints about the younger generation of librarians that went with some of the replies for the Sunday post, I would have surmised that people had a specific idea of what they wanted a librarian to be able to do in terms of job skills and abilities. For all the insults that were hurled in my direction in regards to being a young librarian, there is a notable silence when it comes to actual expectations. In building this new gilded age of libraries, what are the skills, abilities, and knowledges that young librarians should know and/or look to master?

Mea Culpa

Click if you don't get the reference

I successfully managed to step in a quagmire today with my Sunday Speculation post regarding a hypothetical case for librarian retirement. My post was the equivalent of fishing with dynamite: it was bound to catch a lot more than what I was looking for and managed to get me all wet in the process. I know all too well about ageism and the discrimination that can be accompanied by it; I’ve had a family member be the target of such actions, long before the laws and lawsuits that would come into play to reverse such practices. So, for the people who took offense at that particular aspect of my post, I offer my apologies.

Out of the ashes of that inflamed discussion, I would like to pull out the notion of competency in the profession. As it has been astutely pointed out, whether a person can fulfill the new demands of the profession is not limited by age but by ability. This poses a series of questions: what would be the criteria to measure a librarian as competent? What can be done to bring people up to those measurements? And, however unpleasant as it might be, what would be done about those who fail to measure up? (As to this last question, I do not believe in passing the buck.)

This reminds me of the current political debate going on in my state of New Jersey regarding the evaluation and tenure of teachers. Everyone agrees that good teachers should stay and be rewarded and that bad teachers should be given a chance to improve or be removed from teaching. But how that is accomplished is where the friction begins. But it doesn’t mean that the debate shouldn’t take place; it means that well intentioned people are going to disagree.

In going back to the questions posed, the basic competency criteria that I would propose revolves around good customer service practices, basic technology knowledge, automation program proficiency (in all aspects, including cataloging), and current library issue awareness (both local and national). This is not an exhaustive list, but one to give you an idea of my line of thought. Those who need help should be able to get it either from their place of work or their state library association. Support networks can be formed for this very purpose. As to those who don’t measure up, they should be let go. It’s sad, but there is just so much riding on the line these days that I’m not comfortable with simply letting people slide through.

What is professional competency to you? What are the skills and knowledge that should be emphasized? And how would you approach the question?

Sunday Speculation: The Case for Retirement

While one cannot make the case for librarians to retire simply because they have reached the age of retirement (as would almost be implied solution in various previous positions towards the libraryland unemployment problem), I think there is a better argument for the retirement of older librarians.

The basis? Negligence.

My reasoning is as follows: the librarians who have reached the age of retirement (for the purposes of this argument I will say that this age is 65) are well established in the field. They have accumulated institutional knowledge, the benefit of experience, and a vision that only comes to those who have stayed with a profession for a long period of time. And yet, they have not positioned the profession or the institution to handle the societal, technological, or community trends and changes that currently face libraries. In other cases, they have not built the necessary relationships with those who support the library whether it is the taxpayer or town council. But here we are, deep into a rapidly changing communication and computer age that has revolutionized information sharing around the globe, and rather than be positioned to capitalize on it, libraries around the country are simply fighting to retain funding or even stay open. It represents a failure to lead, a failure to recognize emerging trends, and a failure to act accordingly. That is negligence.

And for those who may balk at this argument, why? Corporations change their executive staff when those people fail to respond to the challenges and problems of the company. Governments changes administrative staff either through elections or appointments. When the senior staff fails, should they not be held accountable for their actions (or in this case, inaction)? This might not be the golden parachute of the former or the nature of politics of the latter, but retirement is certainly not the worst option in the world.

Shouldn’t there be some accountability from library leadership in general on this neglect? Why would the profession continue under people who have failed in such a spectacular manner? During an era of the largest information paradigm shift in the recorded history of mankind, libraries are not at the forefront of these issues. It’s a shame, really.

Before anyone sharpens their pitchfork or wraps another kerosene soaked rag around their torch (for me or the premise of this post), I am just putting forth an argument for the sake of a lively discussion and not suggesting a course of action. It is not meant as a litmus test for anyone to retire. This is also not meant as a blanket indictment of older librarians despite its tone. I just thought it was a better argument for librarians to retire than making it age based. I’m curious for people’s reactions, especially any counterarguments.

So, do you think there is negligence? Why or why not?

Update: Before you hit the reply button, please re-read that last full paragraph. I’d also like to highlight part of my reply to Stephen Abram:

The purpose of the Sunday Speculation posts are to throw out topics for people to toss around and debate. Perhaps it is a vestige of my brief time at law school, but I enjoy the arguments. I’ll argue a counter or unpopular viewpoint for the sake of furthering a conversation (as I am doing in this case). It’s a lab, an experiment, something to ruminate over, and tickle the mind. Edison said, “To have a great idea, have a lot of them.”

Is this my best piece of work? Certainly not. Do I believe in the point of view I’m touting in the post? No. But I do believe that the argument expressed was compelling enough to share and if I’m going to suggest it, I’m not going to toss it casually out there. I might as well make it a good show. This is not disingenuous, this is good debate. Perhaps it is not the best phrasing, but I think I would have gotten hit with ageism no matter how I framed it since I was asking about library leadership from pre-internet days to now.

I don’t have a problem admitting that it is a clumsy, ham-fisted premise that I have put forth. Is it ageism? Sure. Is it illegal? Yes, both here and in Canada. Does it still happen despite being illegal? Yes. Should those people be prosecuted and/or sued? Yes.

Would it have been better to ask, “Should librarians who have held leadership or administrative decisions since pre-internet days be asked to leave the profession?” Or “Was the action or inaction of library leadership of the last twenty years negligent?” Or even “Are the lack of community and political relationships the result of negligent action by library leadership?”

If you want to judge me for making a hypothetical argument even with the caveats I have attached in the post and afterwards, then I find that a bit unsettling. I find that to be a chilling effect on someone posing a question, albeit a distasteful one, and something that is at odds with the principles of intellectual freedom that are so highly regarded within the profession.

Update 2: Mea Culpa. But I will still continue the discussion below. I’m just opening up a new one from the replies that I have received.

QR as a Metaphor

qrcode

qrcode

qrcode

qrcode

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And now, I kindly ask that you please share your thoughts, whatever they might be.

Update: I think I might have to toss in the towel on this one. I thought it would allow for people to respond in kind, but I had forgotten about WordPress and its desire not to be cooperative with such things.

Basically, what I wrote is that I think QR is a good metaphor for the digital divide. Some people can get the meaning of what the codes represent and others cannot. The seperation of access to one technology piece instantly creates the two groups. Libraries are an important institution since they represent a way of the have-nots (when it comes to computers and internet access) can bridge the divide.

I thought it might drive the point home to use something like a QR code. We can debate whether I’m right or wrong as well.

Open Thread Thursday: Library School

I’m going to try something new and make an open thread. While it is generally an unguided discussion, I’d like to toss out a topic for people to gnaw on for this experiment. Just like the title suggests, I wanted to go with an easy one: library school.

So, what’s good about it? What’s bad about it? What topics do you wish they covered more? How do they handle the modern library issues?

Or you can just rant. Hey, it works for me.

For myself, it’s hard to have an opinion on library school after going to law school for a year. It bothers some people when I say it is easy, but after you’ve been reading five or six 1,500 page books at the same time, memorizing legal concepts and cases, and writing and researching legal briefs to exacting standards under a Paper Chase pressure cooker (and working full time as well), your perspective on what is academically hard is forever altered. I wouldn’t say it was a cakewalk, but it would be like a marathon runner that starts doing 5k races. In library school, I never had to study till I couldn’t feel my face. The only time such facial numbness occurred was after a bunch of beers at the local bar after class one night. That is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my point.

And on that note, have at it.

(For the moment, I’ve taken off the comment setting that requires prior approval before people can comment without moderation in the hopes of encouraging discussion. Yes, I do allow anonymous comments. Don’t make me regret it later.-A)

Reader Mail: Unemployment in Libraryland, Ctd.

Some of the respondents of the original post have gotten hung up on two things.

The “Boredom” Part

Some have taken offense to this particular word and interpreted it to mean that I am insensitive, uncaring, or otherwise flippant regarding librarian unemployment. That’s not the way I meant it. To me, the math behind the unemployment (supply versus demand) is, well, the math. I’m not going to sit here and polish a turd, spin the numbers, and say, “Oh, it’s going to be alright.” I’m going to treat my readers like they are adults and offer them an honest opinion. Too many applicants, too few jobs. That’s what it is.

As much as the survey ten years ago is cited as a contributing factor to the “greying profession” myth, the survey itself is provides an vastly incomplete picture. It doesn’t forecast one of the largest economic downturns in the last eighty years. It doesn’t predict state and local governments squeezing their budgets and make spending cuts that include libraries and their staff. It doesn’t account for the actual rise of communication and computer innovations, the genesis of ebooks, or the expansion of the internet to its current incarnation. Quite frankly, it is not a complete predictive model for anything other than saying that this percentage of librarians will be near retirement age in ten years. That’s it.

Every week, I help unemployed people look for work. I work with them to make resumes, cover letters, help refine old strategies, and find new places to look for employment. I show them the compassion and service they need during a very anxious part of their life. Everyone leaves with something in their hands, even if it is just my business card and a “call me if you need anything” offer. I’ve been unemployed a couple of times in my life. I know the feeling. I don’t take what I have for granted in the slightest. And I truly feel for librarians both old and young who are looking for work; I wish I could help find jobs for everyone.

The “Entrepreneurial” Part

Within this objection, there are two parts. One half is a snarky “Why don’t YOU become a librarian entrepreneur?” reply that reminds me more of a playground taunt than a serious counterargument. As if my suggestion to start a business is completely invalidated because I have not started my own. It’s a weak shot at saying that since I have never started a business that I don’t know what I’m talking about… from other people who have never started a business either. (With the exception of one commenter who has a non-librarian business.) It’s a position that is so baseless and unimaginative as to be completely illogical.

Then there is the "the degree has not prepared me for this” statement. That leads me to this question: if you were able to go to college, get a four year degree, then pass the GREs, successfully apply to the graduate program, and then get an MLS, how are you not intelligent enough to start a business? I want to know where the intellectual capability line is between “smart enough to get an MLS” and “smart enough to start a business”. I’ll give you a hint: such a comparison is nonsense. There are less academically endowed people that start businesses everyday. It’s a complete excuse masquerading around as a retort.

The other half is asking for examples or ideas for librarian entrepreneurship. That’s a fair question, certainly; what kinds of businesses could an MLS degree develop? But I think it misses the point. It doesn’t matter whether there are a million businesses or none; it does not preclude someone from starting one. If there are a million, then there is a market for such things. If there is none, then it means there is an untapped market. (The cynical can say that there are none because they have all failed, but that’s a lame excuse not to even try.) Mine is a call to innovate, to look at the market, to find a niche, and to exploit it. Also, examples are meaningless to individuals without the impetus or dedication to make it happen.

If you think I’m copping out of answering the question, that’s your opinion. You’re a librarian; you should be fully capable of doing the research. Prove me wrong. I have no qualms about admitting when I’ve made a mistake.

As for ideas, I would be happy to provide ideas if you are alright with cutting me a royalty check every month. I’ve given away enough ideas as it is (perhaps you’ve seen the ALA endangered species shirt?) that I might as well get paid for ones that I give away for someone to start a business. As I’m working to capitalize on my own ideas in bringing them to market, I’m a bit out of those kinds of ideas. (I would daresay that it would be akin to starting my own business, but I digress.)

 

Some might object to the tone of the last half of this post but, quite frankly, the time for handholding and kumbaya in libraryland is at a close. There is a very serious and very real need to “show up or get out” in terms of advocating worth, demonstrating value, and engaging our communities as well as our funding bodies to ensure the continued life of the institution. It’s not the time for people to sit on the sidelines and lament, but to get off the bench and into the game.

I’m in it to win it, as they say. “Can’t” or “won’t” is not in my vocabulary when it comes to libraries. And if you want to works towards keeping libraries vital and open, you’ll do the same.

Librarianship as a Journey

For me, librarianship is a journey into ignorance.

In walking past the rows of books, I’m reminded about how little I know about the breadth and depth of the universe. Hundreds of thousands of published works around me combined with numerous online databases and resources represents a daunting amount of information. I wouldn’t even dare say the percentage of my knowledge would reach a whole number; it might be one of those comical numbers where the first number at the end of an absurdly long line of zeros appears far far away to the right of the decimal point. It is a moment where you feel just how confined your awareness exists; it is most akin to thinking about just how tiny you are in comparison to the scale of the universe. The profession has made me painfully aware of the limits of my knowledge about the world, even when thinking just about the parts that someone bothered to write down in print or online and share.

It is a constant confrontation with my own ignorance. It is a reminder of how frail, limited, and symbolically mortal my knowledge is. It makes the difference between locating and knowing look like a chasm, for the superficial understanding of most subjects that I possess is generally just enough to do my job without missing a beat so I can move on to helping the next person, phone call, email, or IM. While I thank people for the compliment when they praise my intelligence for locating something or answering their question, it often belies my actual knowledge in the subject matter. I personally cannot explain the nuances of quantum mechanics, Impressionism as an art movement, or the cultural causes behind the Stonewall riots, but I know where to find that explanation or recounting.

But, little by little, in answering their questions, I am pushing back the borders of my own knowledge limitations. Each day brings a new fact, topic, or tidbit of information that I didn’t know the day before. I may not be putting a significant dent into the sum total of what could be learned in this universe, but I am pushing back the boundaries just a little bit each time. It is this tiny benefit that makes me appreciate the journey even more.

For me, librarianship is about being self aware of one’s own ignorance and embracing it as an impetus to stay curious, to seek answers, and to continue to grow. It is truly a journey into ignorance.