Shifting Gears

"If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing."
- Ben Franklin

My brother used to have this quote hanging on the wall in his room when we were growing up. As he wanted to be a writer (which I’m happy to say that he is), it was a reminder to keep working on his craft and create stories and novels worth reading. It’s a writer’s version of Ranganathan’s law of “save the time of the reader” by working hard to make it worthy of the reader’s attention and effort.

I’d like to think that I have written things worth reading over the last five years I’ve had this blog. I’m appreciative of the compliments I’ve received and reports of post sharing within various workplaces. It’s been crazy look at the WordPress dashboard and see readers from all over the world in addition to pingbacks in different languages. It really speaks volumes about the power of the internet as a platform. 

This isn’t a “so long and thanks for all the fish” post, but a signal in a shift in gears. I picked that Franklin quote for both parts: writing and doing. The writing period is not completely past me, but with the new job I have shifted into the do things portion of the quote. I’m in a place where I can channel my creative energies so as to create, develop, and implement ideas and concepts for the library. When I get home these days, writing is the last thing on my mind (and I have some half finished drafts to prove it).

In closing, I had typed out a rant about the current state of librarian blogosphere in which I went on at great lengths. I took a long look at it before  erasing it; the whole thing just depressed the hell out of me. Since it would eclipse everything above it, I just left it out.

This blog isn’t dead, just dormant. If you need me, I’m still on Twitter.

Ciao.

Reference: Life on the Desk

(If I write a memoir, I’m using that as the title. -A)

One part of my new job duties is collection development and one of the sections that I cover is the true crime area. This past weekend I was thinking of the David Simon book, “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets”, which was the inspiration for two excellent TV series Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire. I only got part of the way through the book; I stopped reading it because I got caught up in other things and found it hard to pick up again.

One of the things I remember from the book is the “Homicide Lexicon”, a detective created set of informal rules that apply to murder investigations. I started to think about a Reference Lexicon, a set of informal rules that apply to most reference transactions. Here’s what I would say are the rules and why.

1. Patrons are (sometimes) wrong. They can be wrong about the title, author, actor, musician, where they saw it, what the cover looks like, and any other detail that might be helpful.

Human memory is a tricky thing. Human thinking is a mess as well. I once had a person swear up and down that the book they were looking for was called ‘The Maids’ and it had a certain cover to it; as it turned out, it was ‘The Help’ and looked nothing like that. I tend to take what people say at face value, but the higher their degree of certainty about specific details is when I can’t find anything tends to throw up a red flag now. I’ve been proven wrong on this, but that’s a tiny number compared finding the right results that have completely different characteristics.

2. A question is asked once, but it can takes many searches to find an answer.

When someone asks me to look up a title for them, my preference is to ask for the title. If the title is very common, then I ask for the author. I check alternate spellings (e.g. Louis vs. Lewis vs. a mispronounced Lois) and ask about what else they remember about the material (such as plot, characters, genre, etc.). From there I head out to the internet or databases like Novelist, depending on the parameters. I also keep Rule 1 in mind.

3. The initial few reference interview questions are the most critical to an efficient interaction.

Ambiguous subjects require some follow up questions to figure out where you are going. Do they want birds as pets, birds as animals species, or birds in mythology? The first few questions are vital to narrowing it down to the right circumstances. Don’t assume, just ask.

4. Sick people with colds, flu, and other communicable diseases will cough, sneeze, and touch everything on the desk. Healthy people will make little or no contact.

Unless someone is really icky, I don’t generally feel the need to sanitize my hands after someone sick is at the reference desk. I like to imagine that I’m building up a more robust immune system that will allow me to survive the world’s next plague. I’ve had people cough on their library cards when they were handing them to me, sneeze on the desk, and touch every single pamphlet, flyer, and other publicity material before putting it back. If you can’t handle germs or get easily grossed out, then a service desk is not in your future.

5. It’s good to be good; it’s better to be lucky; it’s even better when it becomes a part of you.

It’s one thing to be familiar with a genre, topic, or series because it’s a personal interest. It’s another thing to be able to make an educated guess on what people are asking for based on hunches. It’s still yet another thing when you can answer a question on a subject to which you have no personal interest because you remember it from a previous reference interaction that you had six months ago. People might disagree on this one, but I have found that being able to accurately retain and recall things from previous reference interactions is an invaluable skill. It saves time and it makes you look like a genius and/or freak. Personally, I’m just lucky that my brain is built for this kind of trivia.

6. Every person who needs help will have a certain look to them, but they may not come up to the desk and ask.

Sometimes it will be obvious, other times it will not, but getting a feel for it comes with time and practice. It may mean getting up from the desk and approaching the person to ask if they need help. Even if they don’t, they will be thankful that you asked (with a tiny percentage being annoyed, but forget about them). They might even ask you a question unrelated to what they are looking for at the library. It doesn’t hurt to ask and it can be the best customer service. And it’s nice to stretch your legs every now and again.

7. First, check Amazon. Then check WorldCat. Then check Google.

You can swap the first two based on personal preferences, but they are excellent resources for identifying materials that are not in your collection. They also provide all the details necessary for an interlibrary loan request. If they don’t have what you are looking for, then Google becomes the search of last resort. Good luck. *makes the sign of the cross*

8. When you don’t think the library owns something, it will be the only result in your search as well as being checked-in on the shelf. When you are certain that the library owns something, it will take multiple searches to find it and the all of the copies will be checked out/on hold/missing/lost/in mending.

Pretty self explanatory. It’s a bit of Murphy’s Law at work.

9. To a patron, all searches are easy. The more straightforward they thing their request is, the easier they think it is. Finding a patron who appreciates the size of the collection (be it 10,000, 100,000, or 1,000,000 items) is a rare feat.

Perhaps this is why people question what a librarian does; all they see is that I type a bunch of things into a computer and come up with an answer. It’s partially true since there isn’t much magic involved in knowing subject headings and being able to type words into a search box. As the most visual part of the job, it’s not hard to see why people don’t recognize it as a skill.

Where the magic happens is translating the gobbledygook of their request into actual results. Yes, there are a number of easy ones (“I want the next Alex Cross novel” isn’t rocket science), but getting to the root of research requests and connecting them to the right information is the magic of librarianship. I’ll put it another way: anyone can draw a duck; but if they want a drawing that looks like a real life duck, they can go to an artist and hire them to draw it. Librarians are the artists of information; people can certainly do their own research but this is our livelihood, profession, and passion.

10. There is such a thing as the perfect reference interview. It’s a skill, an art, and it can be mastered.

For me, the perfect reference interview is the one that makes someone’s day. It doesn’t have to be important or big, but just right to make them leave feeling good. It means I have them more than they expected, whether it is materials, information, time, and/or patience. The last two can overshadow all others because it shows a level of care and concern that translates at the human level. Many people cross through our lives on a daily basis, but how many of those people give us a sincere kind word? It’s a small act but it can change a life. Making someone’s day at the desk is my idea of a perfect reference interview outcome.

 

What do you think?

“Food for Thought”: My First Keynote

Last Thursday, I had the privilege of giving my first keynote to the 2014 Lehigh Valley Spring Workshop. It was one of the best workshops I’ve ever attended and many thanks to Courtney Eger and the other Lehigh Valley Executive Committee Board members for having me. Unfortunately, a family emergency arose and I could not stay to the end of the final session. I’d like to publicly thank and commend Daniel Huang for going above and beyond the call of duty in escorting me to the highways I needed to get to for the trip home. It was really appreciated and a sanity saver.

As you might observe from my blog output in the last couple of weeks, my writing efforts had been focused on this keynote. As I note early on, it was a real challenge. I wanted to convey a message that would resonate with every kind of librarian and also give some specifics for people to chew on on their way out.

In my mind, I ended up with a sequel to the “Big Tent Librarianship” piece I wrote for Library Journal a few years back. I would call this the “Little Tent” speech since it focuses on the unique nature and circumstances of every library out there as well as how our principles and ideals intersect with the needs of our communities. I had been kicking around the Little Tent idea for awhile (a long while, to be more honest) and this is how it manifested itself. Big Tent Librarianship was written when I was a bit more optimistic and still very young in the profession; the Little Tent reflects someone is a bit older, a bit wiser, but still an idealist. I think it’s a bit more pragmatic since it addresses what I think are the bigger needs of librarians: the self-confidence in their choices and the determination to follow through in turning principles into practice. To me, what matters most at this intersection of time and purpose is how we believe in ourselves.

Before I get to my keynote, the day before I was to speak there was a new post by Hugh Rundle on In the Library With the Lead Pipe. His excellent post raises some extremely thought-provoking questions about the future of the library regarding the intersection of technology and librarian values. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it.

In giving the keynote some context, the theme of the workshop was “Gearing Up for the Future” and the speech was to take place during the lunch hour. I’ve taken my talking notes/script and have edited them into something coherent for the reader, adding and removing words and details where needed. It’s not an exact transcript of what I actually said, but it’s close enough. I’ve also inserted my slides as well as linked to stories that I told during my keynote.

I hope you take its message to heart because that’s where I was aiming.


 

Food For Thought.pptx

Good afternoon, thank you for having me, and what an incredible workshop it has been. I’m so pleased that I was invited and the sessions I have attended have been incredible.

 

I’d like to tell you something about myself from the outset.

When I’m teaching a new computer class for the first time at the library, I like to tell the students this: they are my guinea pigs. They are my experimental group, the ones I get poke, prod, and test things out on. Some things work, others don’t, and we will overcome any obstacles together. It’s meant to put everyone at ease and give a casual vibe to the class, to lower any apprehension between teacher and student, and it’s a decent icebreaker.

So you know, you are my first keynote audience.

However, unlike the class, my purpose here isn’t teaching but to come up with something that would be compelling, inspiring, and wonderful as to relates to the theme of the workshop, “Gearing Up for the Future.” It was a challenge to which I had moments of doubt.

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In finding the words and flow for this keynote, I had my own issues.

First, I personally loathe the question, “What is the future of libraries?”. The root of my distaste is based in the critical thinking and problem solving skills imbued in me from my undergraduate biology degree. That’s like asking the question, “What is the next step of human evolution?”, a nebulous question that could give rise to a range of answers.  (Which, based on current climate change trends, I hope the answer is “gills”.)

Be that as it may, our peers do try to answer that question. But even then It tends to be brushed in broad strokes, a “one size fits all” mentality that feels more like the frustration of finding the right size between different fashion labels.

I read an article about a year or so back about a man who went shopping for a pair of pants. I don’t remember the exact detail, but let’s say that his waist size is 36. He went to one store and tried on a pair of pants which fit perfectly. He then went to another story, got a pair of a pants marked as a 36 waist, and he was swimming in it. It made him curious as to the difference of the sizes so he took a measuring tape and went from store to store. He found that not every store brand of pants that was marked as a 36 waist was actually a 36. The worst culprit was Old Navy in which the pants measured 42 inches, a full half foot larger. I mean, there are misses and that’s a big one. [The article in question. –A]

The market, society, and culture change so quickly these days combined with the disruptions of the last ten years make me hesitant to prognosticate (although I’ve been known to make a few predictions, so I’m guilty as well). 

So, I tried to do what I was taught to do back in those lab days: break everything down and examine the pieces in order to come up with a possible strategy that will help obtain a solution.

My problem? Too many variables.

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Personally, I believe that libraries are extremely contextual to their communities. Some of these measurable data points are the tiny variances that make the world of difference between the libraries that are represented here today.

To the outside observer, it forms the basis of review that makes people wonder why X library is thriving and Y library, a few miles or school district or college or university, is not. What is happening (or, conversely, not happening) at X that makes it a community gem whereas Y is just, well, there.

So can we begin to answer the question the looms before us,  a monolithic presence that casts its shadow across our professional lives and discourse.

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I had the notion of trying to make it more exacting but even that lead to it own complications.

“What is the future of your library?”

“What is the future of your library in your community?”

“What is the future of your library in your community if all current trends remain the same?”

“What is the future of your library in your community if all current community trends remain the same but library funding is increased?”

Get the picture?

In adding condition after condition, it dawned on me that this might be the beginning of a solution; that, it is not a matter about how narrowly we can tailor the question, but the question we ask ourselves. Specifically, that we need to not to ask vague questions in general, but asking the right questions of ourselves that reflect our values and beliefs. “What is the future of libraries?” will invoke dozens if not thousands if not millions of answers, but asking “How does my library show the community the value of literature or discussion or imagination or understanding?”

That brought me to another stumbling block. Even as we are changing the nature of the question we ask ourselves, what about the solution? And now THAT began to bother me. I can’t stand in front of these nice wonderful people and say, “Hey, look, let’s rephrase the question, but damned if I know what the solution could be! Enjoy your lunch, have a nice day, and, um… I need something from my car…. yeah….”

In figuring out the path to a solution, I felt limited by the libraryland data before me as well as my own professional biases. I needed a fresh start, a different perspective, and a new approach.

So, I looked elsewhere.

In imagining that the core element of libraries is built around what I will vastly oversimplify as “information storage and services”, I looked for other ubiquitous human resources. Something in which I could examine how people interact with it so as to make observations and suggest equivalents that could lead to different ways of thinking about how libraries approach their respective futures. 

And I think I found a good parallel that can make answering this question more intuitive.

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Consider some of the immediate common traits between the two:

- It evolved with us [short version: the establishment of agriculture was followed shortly by the invention of writing; as we domesticated crops, we also created systems for retaining information such as stories, speeches, and other information.]

- It’s a daily need. You literally cannot live without either. Food drives biological processes, information drives decision making ones [I gave an example of living in the Yukon which in calories equal life and information of finding food and constructing clothing and shelters are vital. -A]

- it is an integral part of our human experience in the world. [short version: I can eat Chinese food while watching Chinese movies and reading Chinese news. The world is connected along cultural lines in exchanging food and information. The internet has ratcheted this up to a near instantaneous experience. I mentioned a story my dad told me that a hundred and fifty years ago, JP Morgan was the richest man in the world. But for all his wealth, he could not have a fresh pineapple. Now, there are no more food seasons (for better or worse) and we can have any food we want at any time. The exchange of food and information are unparalleled.]

Let me share some of my observations that I believe can help us address the question of the future of libraries.

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Food is hospitality. It is the one of the most basic social conventions of welcoming a person into a room, event, or a home. Can I offer you a drink? Can I offer you something to eat? It’s the mint on the hotel pillow, the drink placed in your hand when you arrive at a dinner party, and the offer of bread and cold cuts after a long trip.

Food as hospitality is a codified social norm in places like Iran and China in which such offers take on an elaborate ritual for both parties. It is a weaving of offers and refusals leading to an ultimate acceptance or gentle rejection. But my grandmother would put these cultures to shame with her near continuous offers of sandwiches after we arrived in Connecticut after traveling from New Jersey.

The conversations would sound something like this:

“Would you like a sandwich?”

“No thanks, Gram.”

“…well, we have some roast beef, chicken, and ham I think.”

“No, that’s ok, Gram, I’m not hungry.”

“…we have white or wheat bread.”

Yes. It was relentless hospitality.

Now, I wouldn’t say that we should start offering food or drinks (ok, maybe drinks) at our libraries, but what is in your library right now that welcomes people? A display? A person to greet them? A sign with the rules on it telling them that they can’t use their cellphone and don’t move the furniture and have your ID ready and OMG THIS IS A QUIET AREA.

In the last fifty years, the United States has moved towards a service economy. How we are treated is a leading indicator as to whether we will return to a restaurant, store, or event. Libraries, despite our non-retail purpose, are not immune to these kinds of retail judgments. Nor should we be indifferent to the physical comfort of our patrons. When your community looks at your library, what is the hospitality that you are extending to them? Comfy seating? Personal attention? Something that lets them know that they are welcome to come, to stay, and to enjoy?

When you are welcoming someone to your library, are you offering them something of yourself?

It’s only years later after she was gone that I realized that my grandmother’s offers weren’t just food, but of herself. It wasn’t simply a sandwich, it was Gram’s way of showing care and concern for her family. She wanted us to feel at home, even if it drove us nuts.

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Food is a shared experience. It’s the focus of family gatherings that have become American traditions like Thanksgiving, the overly cliché ‘dinner and a movie’ suggestion that operates as many a first date between two people, the way we mark special occasions of birth, weddings, graduations, and even death. It’s one we are having right now as I talk to you while you eat lunch.

For years, starting roughly when I was in middle school, my maternal grandparents hosted my parents, my brother, and myself for Friday night dinners. And I can tell you what was for dinner just about every week: London Broil steak, steamed peas, and my grandmother’s special mashed potatoes.

Every. Week.

Occasionally, we would have pizza. But that meal brought us together almost every Friday with the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas for years on end, well into my college days. My brother and I loved it. Even when we  were given the option of picking our own birthday meal, we usually asked for that. Why? Looking back, I would say that that meal was an integral part of our intimate bond with our grandparents; it was our shared experience with them.

Libraries have a leg up on the shared experience since nearly everyone can relate a story in which they were urged to read a particular book or see a certain movie. In the same way we tell our family and friends, “you simply MUST try..” this dish or restaurant or wine or whatever has tickled your palate, the same holds true for those cultural objects that move our emotions and minds from the page or the screen.

In looking at your library right now, what is the shared experience you want to your community to have? Is it between people and books or movies or materials? Is it between staff and patrons? Or what about between patrons themselves?

It was only years later that I learned that those dinners weren’t simply for the benefit of my brother and myself, but it was to help out my parents as well. My dad had been fired from his job after his bank merged with another and while we as a family were not in dire straits, those meals were how my grandparents made life a little bit easier for my parents. Through a financially troubled time, they shared some of our burden.

We are a sharing culture. It’s in our social norms, our social media, and social outlets. We lend material, but what can we do to make it a shared experience?

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Food requires skill. When we think of great chefs, the tendency shifts towards the ones we can relate to immediately through pop culture: celebrity chefs such Wolfgang Puck, Gordon Ramsey, and my favorite, Anthony Bourdain and television chefs like Julia Childs and The Frugal Gourmet. But there are multitudes of talented culinary professionals across the globe, from the local breakfast joint to the burger stands to the trendy food trucks. Television shows like “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” take the viewer to small and medium sized eating establishments across the country to showcase local talent and flavors. The skill of food preparation surrounds us.

Despite their best efforts, I didn’t learn to cook till I moved out my parent’s place. Even then, I learned the same way my father had: I got tired of eating out and frozen dinners. Through trial and error (with lots of trial and lots of errors), I was eventually able to put some dishes into my dietary rotation. My mindset in trying was remembering that if I botched things so bad I still had the option of ordering out. That was my safety net in case of absolute disaster. Of course, having a safety net also a drawback since it let my experimental side run wild with trying out things like adding cinnamon to hamburgers. No, that did not work out well and I ate every single one to spite the comments my first wife made about them. That is not recommended either.

In making observations regarding the top rated restaurants to the best hot dog stand in town, my takeaway is that there is no one key element to offering the best collection, programs, classes, service, or ambiance to your community except the desire to do so. To invoke Hemingway’s reply to a criticism by Faulkner about his style of writing, “Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” Do the best libraries come from the biggest budgets, the most expensive staff, extravagant programs, and luxurious classes?  We tend to think that bigger is better in terms of budgets, staffing, purchasing, and programming, but it is not a silver bullet here.

Just like cooking, this is about your skills in using the ingredients available to you. This is your MacGyver moment in which you can turn papers clip and gum into a makerspace or death ray or whatever you need. With the resources that are available to you, what can you do with them?

In my previous position, I had a very limited programming budget, limited staff options, and a medium sized program room. In one year, I was able to squeeze out approximately sixty five adult programs, an average of one per week, well within my budget since most were free, and with a minimum amount of staff time. Because I looked at this way:

No budget? AWESOME. No paperwork or purchase orders to fill out.

No staff? AWESOME. No payroll or scheduling to worry about. I can find stuff that is lead by others or require no additional people.

No space? AWESOME. No clean up! Ok, I had space but I was certain to make sure that my programming was relatively clean.

My programming encompassed a plethora of interests, from local history to gardening to health to authors to artists to chocolate tasting to cooking demonstrations to financial presentations to a bunch of other things I can’t remember in addition to regular monthly programs such as an adult book discussion, yoga (paid for by the friends of the library), meditation, and a crafting class. [Here is my article on library programming that I wrote for LJ. –A]

With the resources that are available to you, what can you do with them? What do you pay for and what do you find for free? What needs staff to be present and what can run itself? What requires space, how much space, and can it be found in other places?

The ingredients are important, but what you do with them is even more so. It’s a skill that anyone who works in a library can develop.

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Food is nourishment. It feeds the body as well as the mind, both in the most literal of senses and figurative. In the most literal sense it is the wonder of our digestion system, although my recollection of the exact processes leaves a lot to be desired: food goes in, some miracle occurs, waste is released. Not exactly the material for a Schoolhouse Rocks song.

Figuratively, food is a catalyst for healing our mental and emotional states. Think about comfort foods, a term in which actual nutrition is set aside for the benefits it brings us emotionally. Mac and cheese, sloppy joes, chicken nuggets, and milkshakes are all kinds of foods that bring us solace when we are feeling despondent. There are also foods that remind of you of people and places, so powerfully attached to our senses that even a whiff can cause a flood of  memories. One of mine is for a particular kind of cookie made with chopped walnuts and covered in confectioner’s sugar that goes by a bunch of different names: Russian tea cakes, Mexican wedding cakes, and as they are known to my wife’s family, nutballs. (Yes, it’s a giggle-worthy name.) One whiff and it’s Christmas again, for it was the cookie of the season.

The common notion reflected in many a quotation about the library is that it is a place that nourishes the mind. This is still an important value to the library as an institution, the librarian as a profession, and of course the communities that we serve. What has changed are the delivery vectors for this kind of nourishment. People look to libraries for education, both in the passive sense from materials and in the active one from classes, talks, and workshops, as well as entertainment, social engagement with others, and a place for volunteer and local organizations to meet.

How do you “feed” your community? What do you “feed” them?

There’s a quotation for which I could not find the original source but was made in reference to Christian beliefs: “We are not called to judge, but we are fruit inspectors”. I believe that the same sentiment could be said for librarians. We do not judge people on their library material, but we do want to make sure that what we offer is meeting their educational, emotional, spiritual, social, leisure, and enjoyment needs. I acknowledge that this is a vast gray area, but one in which we rely on our knowledge and instincts in navigating.

Nourishment comes in many forms and we have many minds to feed.

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Food is local. You do not get a cheesesteak outside of the greater Philadelphia area. I don’t know where the exact line is, but eventually such a request turns into a rib-eye steak with some weird cheese on it. In my travels, I have seen a Philadelphia cheesesteak described in many an inaccurate fashion, mostly in terms of the cut of the beef.

The same notion is true for the paellas in Spain, the beers of Australia, the curries of India, and nuanced differences between Kansas City and Carolina BBQ. (Kansas City: tomato based with sugar, most notably brown sugar or molasses. Carolina: thin and watery from either mustard or vinegar, noted with hints of spices that make it tangy and peppery.)

They are a culmination of the events and influences on a culture or people throughout the years. It is a sprawling picture that captures what plants grow there, what animals roam through, the kind of weather, how long people have been there, whether they have been occupied or not, and so forth and so on. It’s the history of a people wrapped up into grains, fruits, vegetables, and meats.

When I talk to people who have never been to New Jersey about the diner culture, there is a certain kind of fascination that gets invoked. You mean you can get a cooked meal any time of day? A menu that has cheese sticks, coffee, and lobster tails on it? (Although I would never ever ever EVER recommend getting the lobster tails, they are still there.) It’s a place that sits in a unique position in New Jersey culture, a hybrid between restaurants and fast food joints with an eclectic menu, nostalgic ambiance, and a loyal following. 

Sound familiar?

In looking at your library and its community, what are the events and history that have brought it to this point in time? Who settled, who left, who stayed, and who is just arriving? What are the local aspects and elements that make it different than the next town or school or college over?

What is vital here is that community identity cannot be overlooked nor set aside. That which is thought of as local, be it an image, attitude, or way of life, is integral to your service population. You will lose if you fight it, but you stand to gain so much more when you embrace it, celebrate it, and foster it. This is not to maintain the status quo for your library, but to mold the changes you make along the local norms and image.

Libraries are not simply buildings surrounded by communities, but the common good a community has invested in that reflects its local values, assist local goals and ambitions, and satisfy local information needs.

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And so we arrive back at the original question: what is the future of libraries?

Well?

Is the future: books, eBooks, bookless, print on demand, makerspaces, collaborative spaces, community centers, quiet zones, remote storage, coding, computer labs, programs, webinars, seminars, mobile apps, mobile websites, workshops, embedded, super PACs, Minecraft, Amazon, paraprofessionals, or self publishing, to name but a few things?

Yes… and No. It depends.

I’ve always liked this quote from Sir Ken Robinson: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” But I feel that “wrong” in the librarian world is defined as “wrong for all libraries”, not as it should be interpreted as “wrong for their community”. That ill and awful notion of the “perfect library” smothers the original ideas and concepts that would work and flourish within the unique circumstances of a single library which I will say for the purposes of naked hyperbole could be YOUR library. Lack of scaling or repetition of results is not a fatal flaw to any collection or program or service that only works at ONE library. For all the times that library science isn’t actually a science (at least by this trained scientist), this is not when it should act like one.

So, if I was forced to answer this terrible question, what would I say is the future of libraries?

It’s a nod to the past, a meeting of current demands, and room for the future. Sometimes we catch up, sometimes we follow, and sometimes we lead. And it’s the way it is meant to be.

What matters is merging our professional values with our communities.

What matters is what fits within our own set of variables.

What I ask of you here today in this room at this very moment, when you are driving back, when you arrive at your library tomorrow and the next day and the day after that is to keep this phrase in mind:

“The future of libraries is what I am doing today to best serve my community.”

 

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(That slide should have a giant “THANK YOU” across the top, but Google Drive would not cooperate. -A)

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Surviving LFF

I think I have LFF: Library Future Fatigue.

Maybe it came from catching the some of the tweets from the invite-only “Libraries From Now On:  Imagining the Future” Summit last week. This is not to be confused with The Future of Libraries (by the epic concern trolling tagline, Do We Have Five Years to Live?) that was also last week nor the The Future of Libraries Survival Summit last month. Reaching further back, there is also Reinventing Libraries presented by The Digital Shift. I’m willing to bet that a variation of the word future has appeared in the theme of a state or regional conference or at a minimum the name of a library conference program.

Perhaps I’m just overly sensitive to the term at the moment since I will be keynoting a spring workshop in which the theme is “Gearing Up for the Future”. While I’m excited for the opportunity to speak, part of my brain is making a sour face punctuated with gestures and saying, “This future crap again?”. [Don’t worry, Courtney, that part of my brain will be VERY VERY quiet during the talk. –A] But it doesn’t feel like I could swing a cat embroidered cardigan without hitting some person or event in which the future of libraries isn’t playing a prominent feature in their writing or activities. I know I’ve written and made my own predications about the future of libraries or specific trends, but this just feels like an avalanche.

What’s the deal here? What is the impetus for this crystal ball (navel) gazing that has sparked a cottage industry of conferences and a slew of writing on the topic? Is there a shortage in the world’s supply of library planning skills that needs to be addressed?

I know I’m being unfair there. These are serious and sincere people working towards a common goal and so I’m not trying to belittle their intent or efforts. To be more reasonable here, the last twenty years have put libraries on notice for community expectations with the innovations of communication and technology. Glancing back over the previous ten years, it’s hard not to wonder what the next ten years will bring.

But lately the output from those writings, summits, and conferences have left me feeling cold. The impression that I get from these things is that the emphasis is placed on things (makerspaces, collaborative spaces, eBooks, etc.) rather than people (librarians, library staff). While one could say that the people are instrumental in making or accessing these materials or services, to me it doesn’t seem to emphasize anything that is unique to the librarian skillset. It feels like things are being pushed with the idea that the people will follow; and magically, those people in the future will be librarians who just happen to have those ideal skills. To me that’s a big gamble and one that leaves the profession vulnerable to the quagmire that is the question, “You need a master’s degree to do that?” It feels like an calculated investment in the institution with the hopes that the profession falls in behind.

Maybe it’s our allegiance to alphabetical order, but have we placed the Cart before the Horse? The oft repeated line revolves around how we are people who serve others, but how does that measure up in a future in which technology gets the spotlight?

Censorship: Stories to Watch, Things to Think About

Here are some book removal stories that you should know about going on right now:

On April 2nd, the Meridian (ID) School Board voted to remove the Sherman Alexie book, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” from the curriculum. The book, no stranger to past challenges, has been controversial for its content since it was released in 2007. In response to the removal, there were arrangements made to give out copies to students as part of World Book Night, an act so heinous that someone called the police. Whether the fight will be taken to the public library system is something to be closely watched.

Meanwhile, in Orland Park, Illinois, the protracted conflict over internet filtering policies continues onward via the proxy battle of FOIA requests. This started back in October when the issue of filtering on adult computers was the subject of a complaint to the library board brought by Megan Fox and Kevin DuJan. Since then, Fox and DuJan have handed out leaflets in front of the library claiming that it was a “dangerous place for children” and launched a social media campaign to pressure the library into changing its policies. Kudos to the board for standing firm in their beliefs and hopefully a speedy end to the legal wrangling.

Finally, earlier this month in my home state of New Jersey, the West Essex School Board is considering the fate of the book, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz. As of today, I understand there was another school board meeting in which the book was discussed but I don’t know what the outcome was. I am hopeful about this situation as it seems to be the most reasonable: there are alternative titles in place as well as support for the book in the community.


The other weekend, I was watching the Ken Burn’s documentary “Prohibition” when something eerily familiar about the talking points of the temperance movement emerged. First, they spoke of the need to ban alcohol as a way to protect the children. It’s the same rhetoric that gets wrapped around book removals and internet filtering; if these books are still available or there are no filters, then children will be the ones to bear the consequences of exposure to these ideas and/or images. Simple enough, right?

My problem with this argument is that I find it to be disingenuous. If the protection of children is paramount, then what they read or what internet sites are available to adults doesn’t rate a spot in the top ten concerns. Housing, food, shelter, education, health care, and support systems should not left wanting if the protection of children are the priority. It reminds me of a wonderful quote from Sister Joan Chittister speaking of the topic of abortion with Bill Moyers:

But I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking. If all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed, and why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of what pro-life is.

While I will concede that what children read, hear, or see is important, you lose me when you advocate that it is more important than some of the essential basics I’ve listed. Because between making sure a child has enough food to eat, clothing to wear, and an education system that provides a future versus a book that has naughty words in it or people in a video engaged in a sexual act, I’m choosing the former.

Second, the temperance movement found power in turning alcohol into a wedge issue: are you with morality and the family, or are you with the Devil and the drink? In following various book removal and internet filtering stories over the years, I’ve seen the same kind of narrative emerge: if you don’t support our morally-based conclusions, then you have chosen to side with pedophiles, perverts, and criminals. It works well in the realm of public opinion (Prohibition did get passed as an amendment), but poorly in terms of practical public policy.

Book removals end up being case studies in the Streisand Effect by raising the profile of the vulgar/filthy/unseemly literature, thus actually encouraging more people to read it as well as discuss its content and meaning. For lack of a better analogy, internet filtering is like building a fence to stop people accessing certain content. The solution to people bypassing the fence is simply “more fence”, thus setting off a never-ending arms race between filtering software and the means to defeat them. Nevermind how it can catch people who are not trying to access restricted content, but that’s just seen as collateral damage of First Amendment rights. No big deal, especially since we’re already playing loosely with constitutional interpretations.

As of late, I’ve come to thinking that the word “censor” has been evolving within the language. In times past, it meant a government official who approved popular culture content; these days, I believe it has changed to anyone who overreaches on restricting content to a group or segment of the population. It’s the difference between a parent not allowing their child to see a movie versus a parent not allowing any children to see a movie. The fact that we refer to places like China or Saudi Arabia as having “government censorship” acts as a point in my favor, for otherwise the phrase is redundant as it relates to the government. Would it be fair to say that what the people are doing in the above stories is censorship? I’d say so since I believe the word (like many other words before it) has changed over time to mean any form of material restriction. This is just another case of how the language changes over time.


I’ll be honest with you since I can’t seem to find a way to close this blog post. I keep writing the same sentence about lessons I took away from the Revolutionary Voices ordeal, but I’m having a hard time articulating them. In a way, it’s like an old wound that only aches when the weather turns cold. I live with it, I’ve gotten past it, and I talk about it candidly, but on those cold days it stirs up the emotions associated with injury that caused it. I wonder if any other librarians who have experienced similar situations feel the same way. But I’ll try my best to share those lessons right now.

I try to keep in mind that the majority (not all, but most) of people who make these complaints are acting out of their own variation of good intent. I don’t agree with them, but I try to understand the basis of their objections. I think the difference between removal and reconsideration is sometimes lost, where the latter might move it up a grade level or age bracket as opposed to being no longer available. There is a thin line between being righteous and self-righteous, one that gets skewed or forgotten within a pluralistic society. I’d like to believe that the people I read about are good people, but sometimes that’s very hard. It’s also very hard to forgive and it takes much longer than you think.

Someday, I’ll write more of the details from my book removal experience. I think it’s important since it lights a candle in the dark for librarians who been caught in the same snare. I’ve always tried to be honest and candid as a way of helping out other people through their own issues and I think something like that would help. But it’s not a blog post for today.

Some day. But not this one.

Moving On

I’ve made the announcement elsewhere, but I’m happy to share that I will be joining the Cherry Hill Public Library as their new Reference and Adult Services Supervisor in two weeks. I will be under the directorship of Laverne Mann, a friend and one of my oldest profession contacts in the library world. Cherry Hill also happens to be my hometown and where my parents still live so there is a “homecoming” aspect to this change.

As the excitement settles down and the reality of the change starts to settle in, I’m finding myself in a very introspective mood. The new position will be a lot (for lack of a better term) more. Of what? Everything. More meetings, more activity, more reports, more scheduling, and some things I’m not very familiar with. It’s daunting and frightening all at once since it still exists in the great unknown of what the position really entails. But, on the other hand, I’m excited to be in a position to move ahead with some of the ideas and projects that have been simmering on the back burner for me. I welcome those opportunities!

To be certain, part of me is sad that I’m leaving the library that I’ve spent the last six years of my life. I’ve built some solid contacts in the community as well as a rapport with my coworkers and regulars. It’ll always be my first library where I found my grounding, shaped my instruction, and refined my professional qualities. It does house a dark time in my professional life with the whole Revolutionary Voices debacle and I’ve been thinking as of late what/if I want to write about that now that I’m moving on from the system. To be honest, the feeling I’m left with when it comes to that event is disappointment and parts of it are not worth revisiting. But there are some things I’d like to say, but I’ll leave that for another blog post.

Watch out, Cherry Hill, there’s going to be a new (reference and adult services) sheriff in town!

Fisking How “Libraries Are Failing America”

Last week, a column by David Harsanyi entitled “Libraries Are Failing America” appeared in the online version of The Federalist. In this fair but meandering article, Mr. Harsanyi makes some good points about how libraries can do better as well as some wonderfully awful points about the modern library. Since his focus wanders around through the piece, I’m going to chop it up into sections.

A new Pew Study claims that libraries “loom large in the public imagination,” with 90 percent of Americans ages 16 and older saying that closing down their local libraries would have an impact on their community. The public may imagine that libraries are dynamic centers of learning and community, but the Pew data seems suggest that they’re mostly places where your prosperous neighbors borrow books and movies without having to directly pay for them. And as Pew points out, adults with “higher levels of education and household income are more likely to use public libraries” – and the more you use the library the more well-off you probably are.

“Library Lovers,” those designated as having the highest levels of engagement, only represent 10 percent of Americans. Among them, 66 percent are white, most of them college educated and living in households earning more than $50,000. Also, deep in the Pew poll we learn 58 percent of these highly engaged freeloaders say they borrowed more books than they bought last year, compared to 38 percent of the general population.

I have to admit I like the word “freeloaders”. It’s what are called “fighting words” in librarian circles, the kind of thing you say when you want to push the buttons of public librarians. (Also a button pusher: saying “libraries” when you mean “public libraries”. School, academic, and other types of librarians hate that.)

The trouble is that it denies the underlying notion of that the library is a community resource. Just like police, fire, highway crews, and other things that society pays for and doesn’t necessarily use (but are glad to have when they need them), the library is such a resource. It makes financial sense that people would pool their money in such a manner to share books, movies, magazines, and other media. Based on Walt Crawford’s data, the return on investment averages about 4:1 in which $4 services and materials are given for every $1 invested. If people could get such an average return from Wall Street, we’d all be dirty stinking rich.

But beyond an investment, consider a financial argument of the net savings to those families at a time when the number of Americans with savings is dropping. For example, let’s say a family of four pays $100 in library taxes and (following Walt’s number) borrows the equivalent of $400 worth of materials over the course of the year. Further, let’s stipulate that the parents save the difference ($300) in an investment that averages 4% growth (about double the interest rate of my savings account with my bank) per year for the next 20 years. Using this compound interest calculator, by the time their kids go to college their investment will be $9,948. While it’s not a “let’s retire” amount of money, it’s certainly not chump change either.

If you really think that spending $400 a year for things to buy versus $100 for things to borrow and using the remaining $300 for something else is a better option, then we’re going to have problems. (Note: If my financial calculations are off, please let me know in the comments.) The only remaining argument would be that it is better to own than to borrow and that’s a whole different ballgame.

Should a library be more concerned with offering a collection of resources for reference and educational purposes or should it be competing with Borders Barnes and Noble?  Because if a library is driven by market needs, we can do a better in the private sector (through a Netflix-type services, for instance);

Ah, Borders. The short version is that they were killed by Amazon along with outdated publishing business models combined with no entry into an eBook market. Public libraries are not competing on that level so it really isn’t a good comparison.

Also, Netflix-type services presupposes an internet connection either at the cell smart phone level and/or home service. We’ll get back to that later.

and if we’re aiming to make a cultural center where a diverse citizenry is excited about knowledge, we can still do a lot better. Right now libraries seem to offer a weird mix of what we don’t need and what we don’t want.

I’ve lived in four major metro areas in the past decade, and all the libraries I visited have catered to the whims of the public rather than functioning as a center that promotes literature and learning for the masses. Actually, books seem like a secondary business in many libraries. Like a lot of you, I consume extraordinary amounts of junk culture. The last time I went down to my local library, I could have borrowed a DVD copy of ‘This Is the End’ or ‘Taken 2′ (both of which I’d seen, and both which are available on Netflix or for $1.10 at a Redbox) or a book on CD of ’50 Shades of Grey,’ but I couldn’t find a decent book on the history of early Christianity.

This isn’t a libertarian critique or an elitist one, it’s simply an attempt to point out that libraries fail to fulfill their self-defined purpose.  The mission statement of The New York Public Library, for instance, says the organization’s charge “is to inspire lifelong learning, advance knowledge, and strengthen our communities.” Are libraries strengthening communities?

I remember a comment on a news article about a public library that said that all the library should offer is the classics (remember all those books you had to read in high school?) and other high minded literature. It represents an overly simplistic view of culture in which only “high minded culture” begets the like and “junk culture” creates the same. The truth is that they are more complicated and intertwined than what appears from cursory examination.

Consider Shakespeare, hailed as a cultural cornerstone of literature and drama subjects. At the time when it was written, the occupation of acting was remarkably low in the social order, frowned upon by the church and society. When Shakepeare’s plays were just starting to be performed, it was the “junk culture” of its time.  The rippling influence of that ‘junk culture’ would inspire performing artists and writers for generations.

“Junk culture” can be the inspiration for other, more “high minded” culture.  The author Stephen King spoke in an interview about the hard-boiled pulp paperbacks from his local drug store and the way they influenced his writing. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg created the Indiana Jones character from the matinee serials and pulp magazines of their youth. The musical style jazz was considered to be ‘junk culture’ in its heyday and it would become the basis for swing, blues, rock and roll, and other popular music styles.

Furthermore, the library has always had some sort of “junk culture” within its history. I can guarantee you that the some of the dime novels of the late 19th and early 20th century found their way to libraries shelves along with Emerson, Thoreau, and Dickens. The so-called “classics” of literature emerge over time, not at the moment they are selected for the shelf. As we say in the profession, we try to have something for everyone’s tastes.

Gracy Olmstead at the American Conservative makes some excellent observations:

Nonetheless, it seems that those using libraries are somewhat homogenous: they’re mostly wealthy, well-educated, and well-informed. Yet the library ought to reach a diverse population: it ought to offer resources to those from lower incomes, without many community connections, or to those lacking technological or informational resources. Yet many such individuals are the library’s rarest frequenters—or never use it at all.

I did like this point that Mr. Olmstead made. More on this later.

For a few, libraries offer technological resources that some may typically lack access. But like others who run other government institutions, library professionals seem to function under the mistaken notion that they oversee laboratories of innovation. If the library’s rarest frequenters are the ones we’d like to see in them the most, then libraries are failing. This is probably why we see constant mission creep. Take this statement from American Library Association President Barbara Stripling on the heels of the Pew poll release:

But we also know that one-third of all Americans still lack home broadband Internet, and a recent global survey finds U.S. adults lag behind many of their counterparts overseas in basic education skills. Our work is not done, and libraries will continue to innovate and meet evolving needs as new technologies and applications emerge. Libraries are transforming lives through education and help level the playing field for all.

No, they’re not. Not often. How innovative can a building filled with “new technologies” like “the Internet,” books and CDs be? My local library still has an entire row of books on cassette tapes for your enjoyment. Who are they catering to?

Last point first: I don’t have a good explanation as to why the library still has cassettes. I could guess, but that would be another hundred words I’d like to write about something else.

Mission creep happens in the library world because of the differing needs and demographics of the communities that we serve. GED programs, unemployment assistance, and job training programs may be the bread-and-butter of one library where another revolve around movie discussions, music performances, and author talks. Comparing libraries is a lot like comparing people and wondering why they aren’t the same race or gender or size. Communities can be similar, but they generally are not exactly alike. In that way, libraries find themselves involved in different roles than people “traditionally” think of when it comes to the library. Even that idea of “traditional” aspects gets some heated discussion within the library world.   

As for innovation, I have more of a philosophical and emotional argument to make. Innovation is not the result of spontaneous generation, but the product of the many varied influences that visit upon a person. It could family, friends, education, experiences, and culture. On that last aspect, culture, the library fits within that sphere. It’s about the exploration of personal interests, the freedom to think and ponder and wander, that is the kernel for such innovation. Creativity does not exist under factory conditions, but when the mind is free to roam. That is where the library fits in; and while there are few direct links between those two points, I would reckon it exists more often than people give credit.

“Information Omnivores,” one the groups Pew points to as having the highest engagement levels, also has high household income (35 percent in households earning $75,000 or more) and the highest technology use among any group polled. Almost half own a tablet and 68 percent own a “smartphone,” according to Pew. These are folks who are probably stream movies and music and read books on one device or another. Moreover, broadband access (over 100 million Americans have access and do not sign up) a rural American problem, and rural Americans have the lowest library attendance per capita.

The census says we have around 17,000 libraries in the United States (this doesn’t include school libraries).  These libraries spend much of their $11 billion yearly budgets subsidizing the entertainment needs of people who can afford to do help themselves. Some of us find comfort knowing that there are buildings in nearly every town filled with books. But if they’re not helping Americans who need it the most, what’s the point?

Here, Mr. Harsanyi, we find some agreement. There is a glaring disparity in broadband access in rural America. The private sector doesn’t have a financial interest in running fiber optic lines out to those places and so those communities are part of a slower, older information access model that includes DSL and dial-up (yes, that still exists.) By the way, the term you are looking for is “digital divide”. 

With that in mind, let’s skip to your concluding question.

The digital divide is not simply a rural issue, but an economic one. Take, for example, the city of Camden, NJ, arguably one of the poorest cities in the country. I’ll concede right now that the issues that face Camden are numerous and not something that any library could solve, but bear with me. In 2010, with the state sending less aid, it was announced that all three libraries would close. These budget cuts hit every department within the city: police, fire, ambulance, highway, etc. Eventually, the libraries would be taken over by the county library system and only one location closed.

Invariably, within these budget debates, the idea of funding the library over police or fire is brought up. How can you spend money on a library when the specter of crime looms over the city? I can understand a decision to fund more police and fire positions over libraries, but for me it becomes a case where people want opportunities and what they get instead is law enforcement. Police and fire are not trained, equipped, or able to offer education, GED help, job search assistance, or job training, the tools of opportunity in such areas. Even if major employers like Target or Wal-Mart moved into the area, police and fire do not offer the internet access required to apply for these jobs since they only accept online applications. (You should see some of those applications; they are never ending webforms with short timers.) While societal order is maintained, so also is the cycle of poverty within these areas.

Simply put, this is a gap that is not being filled by the philanthropic private sector. However, public libraries can and do fill that role. But that role requires funding in the form of taxes, the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named of conservative politics. To reach these poor populations, libraries need funding that will enable them to provide the materials, services, and staff to reach into a community to help lift them beyond the shadow of poverty.

In this way, America has failed its libraries by not providing the necessary funding. I will concede that libraries are not a silver bullet for the digital divide, but they are a tool for combatting deficiencies in education, income, and equality that exist within America. They represent the ideal of the self-made individual who took the resources afforded to them and made something greater, something that Andrew Carnegie believed when he used his fortune to building hundreds of public libraries around the world.

The public library is failing in its mission to reach poor populations, but it is not a failure at the point of execution. It’s a failure to recognize and provide the support that it needs to reach those people who need it the most. Public libraries cannot exist on good will alone, but a financial commitment to the improvement of communities that need that extra help.

“Conscience Do Cost”

The Black Caucus of the American Library Association released a statement last week denouncing the ALA for not moving the 2016 Annual Conference out of Orlando, Florida in protest of the existing version of the “stand your ground” law and the resulting homicides that have raised that (ahem) defense. You can read their statement in full at their website as well as an update from the BCALA President regarding their press release. It’s the background material for the rest of this blog post.

One particular passage of the BCALA press release jumped out at me:

BCALA believes that ALA, which claims various commitments to diversity and tolerance, should have begun plans to find a new venue for ALA 2016 following the July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman. BCALA must question ALA’s true commitment to diversity and racial tolerance when ALA, North America’s largest and strongest library association, still plans to hold its largest and most financially lucrative function in a state that has become Ground Zero in initiating weapons laws, as well as voting policies, that potentially put the rights and safety of African-Americans at risk. ALA annual conferences are generally well-documented and publicized, and BCALA fears that librarians, 20,000 strong, conducting business and spending money in Orlando will negate any claim that librarians have to being advocates of equality and social justice.

But the strength of this passage seems weakened by the subsequent update by BCALA President Jerome Offord, Jr.:

To be blatantly clear, BCALA did not and has not called for a boycott of the 2016 conference. I want to remind each of you to understand that your leaders were sensitive to the matter, while understanding the stance. Please do not allow others to use our concern as a way to divide and/or isolate BCALA, Inc., its members, and/or its leaders. Again, we did NOT call for a boycott.

[…]

Your leaders are aware that ALA, an organization that we all pay dues to, has a financial obligation and contract. We are aware that the possibility of moving the conference is near impossible. However, the impossibilities and challenges regarding the Orlando conference does not mean that we should or shall remain silent about an issue that impacts our communities and people we serve.

(Emphasis mine.)

As an outside observer (read: not an ALA member), I don’t have any skin in the game. But what I find so compelling within this issue is an larger looming question, how committed is the ALA to the politics of its principles and ideals? At first glance, the answer is when they have to get out their wallet.

To be fair, there are financial consequences for pulling out of a conference contract. I don’t know what they are but I would presume in the tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. But in reading some of the financial based points, it’s as if no one has ever broken a lease or ended a cell phone contract or withdrew from an agreement ever. Has no one ever paid a monetary penalty for making a change in their lives?

Contrary to what Mr. Offord has written, moving the conference is not “near[ly] impossible”. Contracts can be breached, other arrangements can be made, and the conference can go forward in a more suitable location. For all the talk I’ve heard from fellow librarians of “We are the ALA, we can be the change”, that spirit has evaporated in the face of “it would be a lot of work to do and would require some sacrifice on your part”. I would presume part of that sacrifice would be in the form of potential one time member fee to offset the breach expenses. Given the vocal opposition to membership increases, that would an interesting conversation to listen as to why people would not want to chip in to support a core value.

ALA is not a stranger to the race issue in its history. The 1936 ALA conference in the segregated city of Richmond made it an experience that was roundly limited to white participants. Inferior accommodations, separate seating areas, and exclusion from social events limited or denied participation from African American librarians.

“Even the most passive will confess that the conference got off to an unfortunate start. The interjection of face antagonism, however it may be ‘defended’ as being necessary or expedient, could have been avoided by the proper action, and was most certainly not calculated to win the admiration of those who desire to look upon the American library movement as a great force for the service of all mankind.” [1]

This is in sharp relief to how attitudes had changed by 1954 when segregated chapters were banned from participation within the organization. ALA has the capacity to take a stance here, so doesn’t it?

Part of the argument against moving the conference is the observation that some of the future venues are in states where gay marriage is illegal. While I can appreciate the point, I don’t find it compelling here. Growing public support as well as the key court cases have shifted the gay marriage issue to an inevitable conclusion of acceptance. It is true that this does not help couples right now who are denied the benefits of marriage even if they are legally wed in other states. But for me it falls short as a rebuttal since improving conditions for people of color doesn’t have the same cultural force behind it. There is no growing public support, legislative action, or court cases seeking to bring opportunities (social, economic, educational, or otherwise) to people of color, in particular to African American men. In any event, the presence of another injustice should not act as a pass for the venue; two negatives do not make a positive. Under such scrutiny, the gay marriage parallel doesn’t hold up.

The apparent fallback position from there is a shoulder shrug of “well, you can find something wrong with every state which means we couldn’t meet anywhere”. I will concede that there isn’t a “perfect” venue and that each state has its own prevailing brand of social injustice. But in this case and context, there are better options that can be taken in this timely manner. Orlando could still be a good conference venue in the future but there is importance of sending a message now. Granted, some of the concerning elements could change in the next two years (the law could be revised or repealed) but the timing here is everything.

For myself, this feels like the well tread territory of the profession doing things for the sake of convenience over principle and ideals. We enter into ridiculous contractual arrangements where we sign away control just so we can provide eBooks, journals, and other services rather than building our own infrastructure. The oft repeated library science graduate philosophical question revolves around the pros and cons of buying controversial material for our collection. While we give the pitch perfect answers of material inclusion over outside objections, the actual application of this question too often ends with avoiding material because we don’t want to be inconvenienced by the time and energy it would take to defend it. In putting our communities first, we cast aside ownership and development in favor of throwing money at what we can get right here and right now based on the fear of losing people’s attention. In our journey to make our mark in this modern digital age, we are selling our souls in little bits and pieces.

That’s how we erode our moral high ground when it comes to questions of information access and material availability. It’s the pragmatism of conflict avoidance gone amuck, good people acting in fear of the negative comment, letter, or editorial that will put the library in a “bad light”. We have an approval rating of over 90% and yet we hide from ourselves and our values. Not because we will be arrested, oppressed within our community, denied our freedom of expression, or suffer some other calamity, but because it’s too damn hard and too much damn work. The term “slacktivism” leaps to mind as it is just easier to pass a resolution in support of an issue but I don’t want to wrinkle my shirt by rolling up my sleeves.

It’s disappointing to watch well meaning people sit on their hands and run out the clock on taking action that lines up with their professional ideals and values. It’s sad to me that the Mr. Offord felt the need to clarify the statement to provide assurances that their members would still be encouraged to attend. The library is an institution that supports diversity through its service to all people; the ALA can and should do better on this situation.

 


[1] Jesse H. Shera, “Richmond and Beyond!” Wilson Bulletin for Librarians 10, no.10 (1936)

Note: The origin of the post title comes from an episode of The Wire.

This Is What A Blog Post about What Librarians Look Like… Looks Like

This week, two things happened on one day: librarians participated in The Day We Fight Back, a nationwide call to action to protest NSA practices of privacy intrusion and metadata collection. People were encouraged to reach out to their elected officials to express their discontent with current practices and to push for the USA FREEDOM Act, a bill that would curb or eliminate certain governmental data collection practices. It had the grassroots groundswell that I hope will lead to real change, even as my cynical side starts to snicker while settling in with a bucket of popcorn to watch my optimism writhe. 

The other thing that happened is the article “This Is What A Librarian Looks Like“, a photo essay featuring librarians whose portraits were taken at the most recent ALA Midwinter Meeting. The genesis of this opportunity comes from this post on the Librarian Wardrobe tumblr which calls for twenty librarian volunteers. The photographer Kyle Cassidy had done a similar portrait project with Occupy Wall Street participants (see those pictures here) which was subsequently covered by the Huffington Post. The resulting article features ten librarians along with personal testimonies on the profession. Personally, I thought it was a good article outside of the usual librarian media that paired excellent portraits with personal statements.

So, which do you think got the larger emotional social media reaction? If you guessed the fight for privacy and data protection against the NSA (both of which are highly valued librarian professional ideals), then you would be wrong.

As the article moved through social media, it didn’t take long before the nitpicking began. Not a diverse enough group, nobody from technical services or other specializations, claims of idea theft, and sighs about articles taking on stereotypes made its way across my Twitter feed. I could offer a rebuttal to each of these points, but I think it’s missing the greater problem here: the issue of the librarian public image is a quagmire within the profession. 

When it comes to the librarian’s image, I believe there is an internal struggle between giving an accurate portrayal of the profession versus showcasing the diversity. On the one hand, statistically, the profession is mostly white (87%), female (80%), and most likely heterosexual (I have no data to back this up other than inferences based on overall population demographics which places it at about 4%; if someone has a study on this, please share it in the comments). Like it or not, if the question was what does a typical librarian look like, that would be the most accurate answer; and giving the most accurate answer is an occupational pride point.

On the other hand, librarians are champions of minority causes, whether it is opinion, sexuality, race, creed, or otherwise. Our ideals are caught up in bringing these voices to the forefront, to give them a home within our institutional walls, and to curate and nurture them into the public eye. Shouldn’t portrayals of librarians reflect this aspect by presenting professionals from these minority populations? It follows the notion that those individuals from these demographics aren’t simply part of our collections, but they are part of our rank and file as well. 

To my way of thinking, that’s where the tension resides. It is what turns articles like the Slate one into argument flashpoints in which good and decent public image pieces are dismissed in favor of an unobtainable “perfect” article. It’s the drive to present a richly diverse profession when the reality simply doesn’t support that. You would need the next two years worth of library science graduates to be exclusively African American in order to reach percentage parity (12.6%) with the United States population; you’d need the next two and a half years graduates to be exclusively Latino to achieve the same (16.4%). Offhand, it would take nine years of graduates to be exclusively male to meet US gender ratios (48.8%). (For my math, I’m using the ALA Diversity Counts statistics and the Library Journal Placements & Salaries for the number of graduates.) It’s not a situation that will resolve itself in the near term, but will require multiple generations of librarians with focused recruitment to achieve demographics that fall in line with society at large. We are kidding ourselves if we reject positive articles out of hand when it’s going to take decades to reach the population diversity that we aspire to achieve. Everything is a step and there is no jumping to the end.  

Furthermore, I believe that the people who are least properly equipped to rehabilitate the image of librarians are librarians. I really don’t have faith when one of the most oft quoted lines in rejuvenate the image of the library is “we are more than just books”. Seriously? If we consistently bungle the public image of the library within popular culture, we are certainly not qualified to helm our own professional image campaigns. We need people who are creative, smart, media savvy, and not librarians to do the talking for us. What this really means is giving up control and putting ourselves into the hands of others. Just as people ask us for help, we shouldn’t be shy about asking it for ourselves. We can’t research ourselves out of this mess; we need professional help.

I’ll leave you with this thought that Peter Hepburn tweeted to me: “[L]ibrarians, to our users, look like anyone who helps them at a service desk, simple as that.” Now that’s a self portrait of the profession that everyone can fit into. 

Anxietyversary

I meant to write this post a couple of days back, but my body had some other ideas (sneezy, wheezy feverish ones) as to how I should spend my weekend. Resting, Kleenex, and Netflix pretty much sums up the experience as my sinuses tried to bridge the ocular socket gap to achieve a unified homeland on my face. I’m still recovering today, but I finally feel well enough to sit at the computer to type this out.

It was a year ago yesterday that I had the largest continuous anxiety attack of my life. The proximate cause of the attack was the idea of flying to meet The Girlfriend in Aruba for a couple of rest and relaxation days. I had been looking forward to it for weeks since it was also where I wanted to propose to her. Tropical sunsets, sandy beaches, and the two of us together for a couple of days of doing not much of anything. That’s not the part that scared me.

I was nervous about the flight leading up to it, but my thoughts were decidedly mixed. While I was not the best flyer over the years, I did manage to Australia and back which entails fourteen hour flight times. The statistics are on the side of safety, despite what popular culture and media outlets like to tell us about flying. Surely, I could have a four and a half hour one.

I was decidedly wrong.

My previous experience with anxiety had been handled well by Xanax. Not so this time as each dose I took was steadily consumed by the terror that now wracked my thoughts and body. Literally, I could not stop shaking from the fear. Rational thoughts bounced off the irrational feelings like paper balls thrown at a fire door. Even with the intervention of The Girlfriend and my parents, I could not stop it. I got a few hours of sleep before waking up for my airport departure time. I couldn’t stop shaking or heart racing or the impending terror that was building from all the “what ifs” parading through my head, intensified by what limited options I would have once I was up in the air.

I simply couldn’t do it. And it killed me to finally admit.

It killed me because that day and the few days afterward I could not imagine my future at all. I felt detached from my life entirely, that it was over in the sense of I didn’t know what would happen next or what I should do. (I would note that feeling my life was over did not cross paths with suicidal thoughts. I just couldn’t imagine what I was supposed to do.) I felt like I was standing before a great blank wall, unyielding and impassable. So deep, so primal, so complete was this failure that I just completely shut down. I felt like I had disappointed everyone around me, that I was no longer reliable, and that I had nothing left to offer the world. It reminds me of an expression that Hell is not a place where we do when we die, but a place in our minds that amplifies all of our negative emotions. In that sense, I was in Hell.

Life goes on, as they say, and this simply notion is the first step towards emerging back into the light. As the cataclysm of that wicked day started to recede, I felt my feet return back to ground. That awful fog lifted and I started to see what I needed to do to recapture my life. I made the call to an employee mental health line and found a really awesome therapist. I found a good anxiety medication that works without side effects that I had experience before on other medications. I am very lucky in that I had a very good support system with The Girlfriend, my parents, my brother and SIL, friends, and coworkers. I’ve gotten back to almost normal not simply because I got treatment, but also had the support network to help me get there.

The importance thing to share is that my story doesn’t end there. While I didn’t get to propose in Aruba, but I did propose on Valentine’s Day in our hotel room in Lambertville, NJ. As she is now The Wife, you can tell what the answer was. I still do feel the anxiety especially when I’m traveling, but the more I go places the easier it has gotten for me. I feel that I am still moving forward, even though I have no plans for stepping on an airplane in the near future.

I do have somewhat selfish reasons for writing this since making it back this far over the course of a year is something to crow about; I’m proud of having brought my anxiety under control and resumed my life. But I also know that these kinds of posts can help others by encouraging them to seek out treatment and help, to step out and say that they have anxiety, and to bring visibility to the issue. My career has not yet peaked and my life is not yet done for all the things I want to do. Anxiety is my personal struggle, but not something that I will suffer in silence or let contain me.

Happy anxietyversary to me.