To Be Or Not To Be A Library Director

About two weeks ago, there was a thread on the Library Society of the World group whether or not people were interested in becoming a director (or for those are directors, why they chose it). At the time, my answer was that I wasn’t interested in the position, but I’d prefer to be a higher-up-but-not-apex position. That is, I’d want to be in administrative position of some kind, but I don’t want to be where the buck stops.

Currently, I enjoy being the second-in-charge at my branch. I get to be to the chief when my boss is out of the building, enjoy a certain level of autonomy, and don’t carry the bulk of the responsibility that would come with being the branch manager. My underlying rationale was that I like and enjoy working on the public desk and being able to interact with the library members. I love teaching classes, working on programming, engaged in outreach, and doing publicity, all those ‘librarian’ things that are most closely associated with the profession. In a library system like mine, taking steps up the administration ladder means less public interaction, more budget and behind-the-scenes-paperwork, and more of the political/diplomacy that is needed to keep the system going. It’s not that I can’t do those things, but it doesn’t appeal to me. The thought, at the time, was that I wanted to still be in touch with people and change their lives.

But, over time, that logic slowly eroded away.

Me: “I want to make a difference in people’s lives! I do that by helping out, one person at a time! I can do that in my current position!”

Brain: “But if you’re a director, then you can do things that will effect more people.”

Me: “Explain how.”

Brain: “Directors can develop and set practices and policies that affect entire communities, states, regions, and even be a model at the national level.”

Me: “Woohoo!”

Even with that Simpsons-esque inspired turnaround thinking, I still have some hesitance. The first is pretty basic: I don’t have much experience working with a budget or supervising a staff. (Or, in the case of the latter, supervising a library staff.) I know these are things I can learn with some help and experience, but it still hovers in the realm of unfamiliar territory for me. It doesn’t hold me back, but it does impact my resume in this tight library job market.

The second is less of my qualifications and more of the ones that I see in some of job postings for director positions. They aren’t so much looking for a director as they are looking for a unicorn (a phrase I really wish I could take credit for but someone smarter than me said it). I’m constantly amazed that none of these positions include “must be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound”. The kicker usually arrives at the salary listed, a constant reminder about how much or little our job skills are valued. I’ve seen them range all over the place, marvelously unattached to the cost of living around the state. I understand that towns and boards want to find the best candidate, but at some point it just creates unreasonable expectations. That wouldn’t stop me from applying, though.

The third is something that arises out of my impending marriage to The Fiancee. Simply put, she is the breadwinner in the relationship. As such, this creates a geographic limit as to where I can look for a position, director or otherwise, within the Burlington or Camden county area. (Translation for people who don’t know the area: that area roughly across from Philadelphia and areas extending north along the river.) There are two county systems (one of which I work for already) and maybe almost a dozen town libraries in that area. This isn’t exactly the biggest area to pick from, but it does have some great libraries in it. Basically, I suffer from the same problem that some unemployed librarians deal with: moving is not an option for employment prospects. So I’m locked into this area so long as The Fiancee is still posted here. (This is not a gripe, just an observation.)

I’ll concede that I don’t have a complete picture as to what a director actually does. I have friends who are directors that I talk with on a regular basis; I get a good idea of what their work lives are like. But there is a vast difference between someone who is the director of a small rural operation that draws its budget from a foundation versus a large urban operation that is just another cog in the city wheel. Even in holding these two public library examples aloft, there are so many factors that morph the picture of the position. The demographics, the communities, the legacy of previous directors, the relationship with the purse string holders, and the public opinion of the library can shape it into a widely supported community asset or a begrudgingly funded specter of the institution. In listing these kinds of factors, I would hope that you don’t see them as ways that public libraries are different but as ways in which they are unique.

My reasoning for not seeking a director position was initially steeped in the public interaction that I enjoy, but I cannot deny the possibility of greater beneficial projects and efforts if I found myself in the position. So, setting aside the limitations for a moment, I find myself asking, “Can you get both?” I would imagine that you can and that is certainly something I will be looking out for in the future. (Although I have to yet to determine the wisdom of such a desire.)

To repeat the question that Martha asked: “[W]ho either is a library director (or dean) or desires to become one? Why? What draws you towards this work? What do you love about it?”

Pride and Publicity Prejudice

In the Philadelphia radio market, there is a news station that has been on the air as long as I can remember. On this station, there is an advertisement for a marketing firm that has been playing for as long as I can remember. I don’t recall it completely without the prompts, but it goes something like this:

“A man wakes up and gets out of his advertised bed. He eats a breakfast of advertised coffee and advertised bread, toasted in an advertised toaster. He puts on advertised clothes, looks at his advertised watch, gets in his advertised car, and drives to work. But he refuses to advertise for his business because he says advertising doesn’t pay.”

You get the picture; this is the tale of someone who is bombarded by images, messages, and branding everyday yet doesn’t see it in his own life. It’s the advertisement equivalent of the cerulean belt in which we think we make independent decisions when it comes to product selection. But, in reality, we’re more likely to pick up a brand that we’ve heard something about (anything, really) because we have had some sort of encounter with its advertising. Familiarity, even in passing, is a higher favorable factor versus the unknown or when all other factors seem to be the same.

I’ve been thinking about advertising, publicity, and marketing in the library world since last week after viewing this TED talk by Dan Pallotta about the way we think about charities and non-profits. My enthusiasm for TED talks has cooled over the years, a result of seeing how much the events tend to be the focus rather than actually supporting (as the TED motto goes) ideas worth spreading. But I digress.

For those who want to skip to the chase here, one of the excellent points Dan makes is in regard to our misguided notion of how overhead should work in charities and non-profits.  In essence, spending money on the cause is good and spending any money on non-cause related things is bad (even if it raises more money/awareness). Overhead and administration are considered the anathema of the noble purpose and good deeds that these organizations are set up to do. But, in putting such restrictions and pressures on these groups, it ignores two important points.

First, in keeping administration costs as low as possible, it makes it hard (if not impossible) to attract the talent that would take the organization further into the future. Even if the organization is raising millions of dollars a year, six figure executive pay is considered outrageous even in a multi-million dollar charitable operation. The Stanford MBA isn’t going to join such an organization when he can work a regular job at his market rate salary and then donate generously.  This goes across the board with other organization talent (accountants, lawyers, marketing, etc.) because these groups don’t have the salary to make them attractive.

Second, the pressure to keep overhead low makes getting the message out harder. Spending $40,000 for a full page ad in the Sunday edition of the New York Times is considered an extravagant expense despite the fact that it brings in donations that cover the cost many times over. Publicity campaigns are considered wasteful when in fact getting the message out and finding more people to support the cause is vital to an organization’s survival. But, in the topsy turvy logic that is applied to charities and non-profits, that kind of spending is thought as a fraud of the donor’s intent when they gave to the organization.

I’ve experienced something like that first hand at my library a few years back. A gentleman came in and wanted to donate a bag of books. When they were shown to me by the circulation person, they were nothing new or popular and in so-so condition. So I took them out and put them on our ongoing book sale.

You would have thought I had run over the guy’s dog. He left muttering about how AWFUL it was that the library had put HIS donation out on the book sale. Those books were meant to improve the collection and he wasn’t ever going to donate to the library ever AGAIN. I would say that he clearly didn’t understand the functional definition of “donation” and what it entails, but my tale isn’t anything unusual in the public library world. I could write a treatise on the matter since people will donate (or attempt to donate, if we can stop them in time) the damned things that they would otherwise be embarrassed to put out at a yard sale. From that point forward, anyone who has offered a donation to me has been given the long version of the fine print about how we can do whatever we want with the donation and the many possible outcomes.

In thinking about that incident as it relates to the Pollotta TED talk, the expectations of donations and the perception of public libraries neatly dovetail together. Would people still donate materials and money to the public library if they were told that the money would be used to publicize programs, advertise services, or branding? To double down on this question: would be taxpayers be as supportive knowing that their tax money was going spent in the same way? I believe public libraries are caught in that Catch-22: we need to spend money in order to maximize our reach into the community, but every dollar not spent on materials is perceived as wasteful, unwarranted, or even unethical.

I don’t see this as a broad spectrum problem in the public library world, but an issue for medium to small sized libraries and library systems. Larger urban libraries tend to have their own marketing and publicity departments. But even those lucky organizations seem to focus on larger scope image and branding campaigns, not the nitty-gritty of your average monthly program cycle of storytimes and book talks at a local branch. I know that there are smaller libraries out there that have the kind of publicity staff that I’m describing here, but those arrangements are more of an exception to the rule.

Based on current funding trends, it’s hard to imagine that any sort of non-MLS staff will be added to the library payroll. Combined with depressed salaries, what reasonable marketing expert is going to accept such a position when they can be do much better in the private sector? In trying to keep such overhead low so as to minimize impact to collection budget lines, there isn’t any room to make to add that kind of talent to the staff.

But, with these factors in mind, here’s the bind I see: how are public libraries going to re-brand themselves for the digital age when the funding and the talent don’t exist? And for the people who want to argue as to whether the public library really needs a re-branding, I’m sorry to inform you that that ship has sailed. It left port once the line, “We are more than just books”, became a cliché within the field. (As I recall from Stephen Abram’s keynote at NJLA this year, we seem to say that line a lot and then quote circulation numbers to show how busy we are. What kind of stupid cognitive dissonance is that?) Hell, I still get people walking through the door who didn’t know we had internet access.

In looking at some of these lofty strategic plans that talk about providing services, creating community spaces, and all kinds of future babble, where are the points and plans for letting people actually know that these things exist? Who hasn’t worked a public desk and heard a library member exclaim, “I didn’t know you offered that!” Even now, after a year of lending museum passes, I regularly get calls from people who are just discovering it. I guess I should be happy that my current publicity efforts (which are also free) of press releases to the local papers, postings to the local Facebook group, and flyers all around the library (but not in town or anywhere outside the library) are slowly trickling through and find their way to people’s attention. Perhaps, in the days before I retire, my publicity messages will reach everyone in the community.

If those “libraries are in danger of not being relevant!” Chicken Littles want a new slogan to shout, it’s not that the public library will become irrelevant because we don’t offer the latest and greatest of bestsellers, technology, or 3D printing, it’s that people don’t know the extent of what we offered in the first place. Serendipitous discovery may be the allure of the physical bookshelf, but it should not be the primary method that the public learns about some of the lesser known aspects that their library offers. Doing a great job and hoping to God that we get noticed is not a strategy that will win the hearts and minds of our community in this cluttered, attention deficit driven world.

I have some solutions in mind, but I think that would be putting the horse in front of the cart. It has to be made a priority of the public library, not an afterthought or something that would fall into “other duties as assigned” on a job description. As much as I get compliments on the publicity stuff that I do, I know I don’t hold a candle to the real professionals. It can’t just be something that is assigned to a staff member who needs something to do on the desk; it has to be given to someone who knowledgeable in the field. If this means hiring outside the library or pooling money with other libraries to do it, then it needs to happen. Any solution I can think of will die on the vine if there isn’t the motivation to make it a prerogative.

So, with all this preamble, what remains to me is this hypothetical question for you, the reader:

Would you spend a $1,000 on items for the collection or would you take that money to reach 100 people who didn’t know that the library had a notary, offered training or computer classes, makerspaces, knitting groups, or other services, programs, and materials?

If you want to nitpick about the numbers, then cast them aside and break it down to its elemental components: money for collection stuff or money for letting people know about what is at the library? If we are an organization attending to the people of the community, then why don’t we make better efforts to communicate and educate what we offer to them? Even some of the most recognized brands in the world (Coca-Cola, Apple, Google, and BMW) advertise and the majority of people in the industrialized world know what they do without prompting. There might be more library locations than McDonalds in the United States, but I’m willing to bet that people could name more items off the their menu than tell me about the variety of materials and services are offered at their local library.

I’m sure there are parallels to be drawn to other library types, specifically whether students, faculty, teachers, parents, and administration are aware of what the library to offer. There are unique publicity challenges to be faced on those fronts as well, to be certain, as it should be made a priority as well. For what does it matter how much money is spent on a collection, resources, services, and materials if people don’t know it even exists?

Waiting for Batgirl

It’s the middle of another summer heat wave here in New Jersey, one that has been on an extended stay for the last week or so. It’s the kind of weather that makes me into a nocturnal cave dweller, hiding from the sunlight and trying only to move around at night. It’s a life of air conditioning and video games with forays to The Fiancée’s place and (of course) country dancing on Wednesday. Inevitably, the hours of solitude lead to extended introspection.

I haven’t been writing much on this blog as of late, something that I know in the past has been a cyclical thing. I partially blame the anxiety medication over the last couple of months that I’ve been taking which has sapped my concentration, raising the interest bar I have to maintain in order to write anything. I now have to feel very strongly about something in order to put fingers to keys; the words have to hound and haunt me over several days before I muster up the focus to type them. While it makes for better posts in the end (or at least I think so), there is less overall output as a result.

But, to be honest, I haven’t been reading much either in terms of library and librarian articles, columns, and blogs. I let the clock run out of Google Reader while transferring my subscriptions to Feedly on a just-in-case basis. In the last several months, I haven’t been able to bring myself to check it with any frequency. I blame myself partially for lack of curation in how I collected all those blogs (~200 feeds if I recall correctly), but the quality of writing has been lackluster for the past year or so. I mean, quite frankly, it’s terrible. And by terrible, I mean awful, boorish, and trite word slop that was vomited into a pre-packaged blog theme bucket.  I know my early stuff wasn’t great either, but it never sucked that badly. I just gave up because I got tired of picking the gems out of the turd pile.

It’s not that there aren’t any good writers out there in libraryland. I have ones that I subscribe to directly or check on frequently. It’s that a decent number of them stopped writing or reduced their output as well. Not that I blame them since this is a time and mind intensive exercise (as it bloody well should be), but I miss them between posts. Some of them are columnists for LJ and ALM so I know that posts are inevitable, if not always as frequent as I would want to them to be. Basically, there’s a drought of quality content.

Another part of my disinterest in blogging is a lack of compelling subjects. I don’t write about work because, well, people from my library system read this blog. While I have written about work in the past, it’s mostly been either puppies-and-rainbows positive or uncontroversial benign kinds of things. But I can’t write about some of the subjects I really want to talk about. Part of this is simple “do not bite the hand that feeds you” self preservation, part of this is to ensure continued future employment options (a different end of the self preservation spectrum), but I also believe that the library world doesn’t handle honest portrayals of the work place very well. Public dissent is considered gauche in a profession that proudly supports the societal provocateurs, miscreants, and iconoclasts but wants to keep discontent in-house. I could easily write a thousand entries about helping people on a daily basis, but the whole library façade will collapse and burn if I was write about my frustrations regarding a policy, decision, or the work environment. I could easily chalk this up to life not being fair or employment expectations of a government employee, but when it is reinforced across the profession rather than abhorred, things are fucked up.

The writing on the workplace that does happen tends to appear under pseudonyms, a mind boggling librarian blogging faux pas in which anonymity is wielded like a dagger against the content.  It’s the Catch-22 of libraryland: damned if you won’t reveal yourself to be evaluated as a source, damned if you put your name to your words since you’ll never work in this town again. Are people not clear on the anonymous forms of freedom of expression, something that (in theory) librarians support? Or is personal accountability so damn important that it overrides one’s rational ability to judge the words as they appear that it demands examination above all other traits?

Does the library world really support those who want to write frankly about their experiences? Edward Snowden gets a resolution of support of whistleblowers at the most recent ALA conference, but telling it like it is in libraryland gets you labeled as a malcontent, an attention whore, and/or a traitor to the cause. What is so poisonous about boldly writing about one’s work environment that it should become career hemlock? Is that even remotely right?

In my rational non-rant infested mind, I know there are hot button topics out there that should and do receive attention. These topics are lucky enough to have people who are better suited to bringing attention to them, sharing updates, and bringing their expertise and perspective to the conversation. I’m talking about topics like copyright, information access, the digital divide, the school librarian in the education system, the library as an collegiate asset, the changing role of public libraries in their communities, and changing value and perception of information in present day life. This isn’t a complete list, but it sure doesn’t include some of the breathless bullshit that people stroke themselves into a self-righteous lather over. “Hey everyone, here’s a list put together by an website intern about how being a librarian is a terrible occupation!” “Look, another news article that makes a Dewey joke!” “This librarian stereotype makes us look old and stupid!”

Perhaps the problem isn’t that these things exist, it’s that there are no alternatives to them. The energy used to create a rebuttal is the same stuff that could help forge a new image, message, or prerogative. But the masturbatory allure that accompanies the satisfaction of low boiling point outrage proves to be too much for some people. Sure, we could talk about the price of graduate school, the public image of the profession, integration of public administration, public policy, and marketing principles into the field, but who gives a shit when it’s so much easier to pitch a toddler-like temper tantrum at someone who doesn’t see the point of libraries, get in a snit about someone wondering if hooking up at a library conference is a good idea, chide others over their personal appearance at work and professional forums, or have an aneurysm of the mere notion that someone is using the term “rockstar librarian”. I know that every single library conversation can’t be about such lofty topics (and God knows how much I have lent my voice to some truly banal ones), but when these kinds of bullshit topics become the most common catalyst for any sort of animated professional discussion, things are fucked up. 

These days, I find myself in a version of The Waiting Place from the Dr. Seuss book, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! On one hand, the kinds of projects that I want to be involved with are in one form or another where I’m not in a position to act on them. They live on my idea board, waiting to be awakened from their slumber. I’m waiting for things to happen, people to come around, and the timing to be better. (To be fair, the wedding has taken over a good portion of my life at this point.) On the other hand, being in a spotlight is really tiring. It’s not that I don’t like talking about library advocacy, about some of the projects and causes I’ve been involved with over the years to bring attention to the profession, or being able to use my soapbox to push issues or ideas, but it’s my professional peers that drag me down.

This is well tread territory on this blog and in the field itself, but I still can’t understand what compels such petty and self loathing behavior. Nothing is more suspect than having an ego and nothing is worse than self promotion. It’s backward ass thinking that imagines that the library is first, the collection second, and the staff last. That kind of Byzantine logic would suggest that teenagers when I was growing up had their bedroom wall decorations all wrong: they should have had a poster of a basketball, then possibly a poster of the Chicago Bulls logo, but never a poster of Michael Jordan. Yes, Jordan was part of a team whose efforts helped him post those career record stats, but he was also a draw to the game, a role model to both youth and adults, and a prominent figure within the sport. If basketball was like librarianship, Jordan’s teammates would have yelled at him for scoring too damn much and to knock off those “take off at the free throw line” slam dunks.

At present, there is no one who would universally accepted as a public figure representing the library world. People are waiting for Batgirl, a combination of librarian and superhero in which the good deeds of the latter will never be directly attributed to the former. In one respect, she is the mild mannered professional who goes to work and does her job without much fanfare. But this is in contrast to the amazing and extraordinary things for the community, saving lives in the most literal of comic book ways. But these actions exist as part of a secret identity, known only to (for the most appropriate term here) “the right people”. And so it goes in the librarian field: do great things, but do them as anonymously as possible.

Instead of this bleak vision, I’d like to imagine that librarianship is the goddamn armed forces of information. Each library type and position has its place in the greater context of a team effort. Some are part of the infantry or sailors, some are part of special forces or task forces, and others work to keep all the parts running. No one is fit for every role possible, but there is no reason to deny others that niche. Our collective function is to get timely and accurate information to those who seek, information access for those who need it, and become the “third place” of importance for our communities. As egalitarian as we like to believe we are, there still has to be leaders and followers, everyday heroes, and extraordinary men and women who put themselves out there for their library and the profession. And that’s not a bad thing.

In a way, this blog post has been a long time coming. Some of the angst and vitriol of the last couple of months has been simmering and just writing it out has been quite cathartic. As my writing has been progressing on here, I have been trying to bring myself around to being more open, honest, and vulnerable. It’s been tough at times, but I’ve found the most reward in the feedback I’ve gotten from the personal posts where I’ve talked from my heart.

I had a funny moment as I was reading previous passages where I thought, “Should I actually say some of these things?”, then realized that the words would come tumbling out of their own accord if you bought me two drinks and asked me what I thought of the library world. It was the difference of saying them versus writing them, airing them online versus anyone who would listen at a library conference bar. If I’ve played my cards right, this post be a self fulfilling prophesy for the people who read it; the ones who don’t like me already will think how much of an ass I am for saying such things (clutch those pearls tightly, children) and the ones who do like me will love it for its tone and message (another round for my dear friends).  Will this post change anything other than people’s perceptions of me? I can hope, but they do shoot messengers around here.

ALA Annual 2013 Newbies Twitter List

Just a quick post to announce that I’ve started my annual new conference attendee list on Twitter. I’ve been making a list each year since I went to my first ALA a couple years back during the “OH MY GOD WHY IS IT SO HOT” Washington DC conference. If this is your first conference, send me a message (@wawoodworth) on Twitter and I’ll add you on the list. If you’re a more experienced person attending the conference or want to live vicariously through the new folks, then be sure to follow the list. I won’t be in Chicago for the conference this year, but I look forward to reading, seeing, and hearing all about it from everyone headed to the Windy City.

Here’s all the lists so far:

The 2013 Twitter List

The 2012 Twitter List

The 2011 Twitter List

The 2010 Twitter List (the original!)

The Librarian’s Love/Hate/Love Relationship with Books

The story that is buzzing around libraryland this week is the book weeding controversy at the Urbana Free Library in Urbana, Illinois. The gist of the story is over a weeding policy of Ebola-like aggressiveness that was implemented removing books (mainly non-fiction) that were older than ten years regardless of collection value, usage, wear and tear, and other normal considerations. Freedom of Information Act requests to the library have uncovered narratives that have gems like “our mission is no longer learning” (thanks to Liz Burns for pointing that one out) between declarations of hurt feelings and toes being trod upon. Last night, there was a contentious meeting during which more dirty laundry was produced as the library’s board, the staff, and the public made their discontent known.

In reading over the reports, my gut reaction is somewhere between poor planning, no staff buy-in, and poor implementation. The rush to get the books off the shelves before the RFID arrived was not a mystery appearance on anyone’s calendars. What exactly was happening in the weeks and months leading up to this event? The reaction from the staff tells me that the vision of the weeding project wasn’t communicated very well (if at all) so people could understand why they were being so severe. The reports place them somewhere between sad and confused as they carry out the directions. It turned the situation into what could generously be called a hamfisted directive that put temporary workers in the middle, the staff feeling left out of the weeding process, and the director looking more like a out-of-touch dictator. It’s a series of breakdowns leading to a noisy crash, the kind that draws out onlookers from all around the library world.

What has been sticking in my mind over the last couple of days is the combination of events along with the librarian reaction to them. In the center of this storm is books, the basic building block of library collections since, well, libraries first started. To me, this is just another chapter in the love/hate/love relationship that librarians have with books.

Allow me to elaborate.

Without a doubt, librarians love books. The profession hands out fancy, well known awards to them on a yearly basis (although we seem to surrender adult fiction to the Pulitzer people for some reason). In taking a cursory look at the ALA Annual 2013 Exhibitor Hall map, some of the largest booths belong to publishers and vendors who provide book housing or display furniture. Our trade journals have large sections devoted to book reviews of all kinds and the typical library publication is loaded with ads for them. They are omnipresent as conference tote bag swag that people have to ship home in boxes.

But if someone asks a librarian if they got into the profession because they like books or read, they bristle. “We are more than just books”, goes the retort refrain. This mantra is an echoing chorus through the professional world in the form of makerspaces, digital media labs, collaborative spaces, and other non-book based pursuits. Beyond these trends that re-purpose library space, the majority of our catalog interfaces would not convey this love of books. They are stunted portals controlled by the outwardly unimportant aspects of collection recordkeeping, interfaces that do not reflect our love of literature discovery and accessibility. We scoff Amazon’s model of recommending other titles, but we still yearn for something that can capture our fantastic knowledge of reader’s advisory, read a-likes, and related reads. The overall trend in the Urbana Free Library situation was to make space for reading and studying areas at the cost of book shelf space. In these actions, the book is an anchor weighing down the future of the library.

However, if you take away the books, the quest for professional identity begins anew. “What is a library without books?” is the navel gazing question that runs in the editorials, blog posts, and social media feeds in the library world. We will fret over eBook rights, licenses, and lending issues without more than a care over streaming video or music (even though we offer all three types of media). Librarians are still a strong presence at events like Book Expo America as opposed to the Consumer Electronic Show, even though people are more likely these days to bring in their personal devices to the library for help (and some libraries offering gadget petting zoos). There are still more profession awards for books than any other kind of material we circulate at the library. Without books, we seem to be set adrift, untethered from all of the other equally important principles of information access and intellectual freedom.

Personally, I don’t have anything against books. I understand their role for people who embrace that learning style. I know what kind of joy that books and reading can bring someone, whether they are two or ninety two. What bothers me is that I can’t figure out whether we as a profession are running towards or away from them. And, in either case, why we would be doing so. It’s not that we have to choose between books and everything else, but how our connection with them relates to the rest of our mission. Right now, I am wondering about that connection because our words and actions seem to be publicly acting out a cognitive dissonance.

What exactly are we doing here?

Roll the Dice

This past week I had the chance to attend a day of the New Jersey Library Association Annual conference down in Atlantic City. In its own way, the location is somewhat apropos as a setting for a librarian gathering. The glamour of the Boardwalk Empire days lives on as a fiction of television, depicting a time when the city was America’s choice destination resort of the 1920’s. The legendary acts of Frank Sinatra, Martin and Lewis, and Sammy Davis Jr. at the 500 Club in the 1950’s would influence and entertain generations of people. But the city has been in a slow decline since the 1980’s as gambling and vacation dollars have slowly slipped away from the America’s Playground to brighter, fresher, and more attractive venues. It’s a city in a labored transition yearning to recapture the magic of the past while stepping into a very different future.

Sound somewhat familiar?

I arrived at the end of the first day of the conference ready for an evening of social events. From what I’ve been told by librarians from other states, this doesn’t happen at their state conferences. They are in bed by 9pm, 10pm at the latest, and everything shuts down. New Jersey librarians are a separate breed. My evening stretched into the hours after midnight, starting with dinner, a formal conference event, a reception, an informal meetup, and finishing with a room party. Perhaps this is what happens when the state conference is held at a casino full of alcohol serving venues by the beach in the summer, but at the previous venue we’d shut down the hotel bar at 10pm and then head upstairs for the room parties. So, if you ever come to our state conference, you had better manage your energy levels and warn your liver: it’s going to be a fun night.

My only mistake was not rehydrating after an evening of steady-but-very-controlled alcohol intake with no food and then soaking in a hot hotel bath. (Being a six foot plus tall man who likes baths, you have to take them when you can fit into them.) I had some pretty weird dreams over the course of a restless night, ending with a constant renewal of my alarm snooze button till I reached some semblance of feeling human. Or at least human enough to get up, shower, dress, check out of my hotel, and head back to the conference.

In its own roundabout way, this is another way that reminded me of libraries and vendors. The conference hotel was $177 a night (I don’t know if that included taxes); I stayed at the hotel casino next door for $40 with taxes. One option is convenient but expensive, the other requires a little money, more work, but ultimately offers you the same thing. This was more prominent when it came to dining at the conference casino; $14 sandwiches and $8 beers was the going average. I could have sought other dining options that would have taken me off-site, but the casino ones were right here. I paid for the convenience even if the quality wasn’t always the best and was subject to the limited selections. Now if that isn’t a good metaphor for libraries paying for convenience over quality or customization in their services and products, I don’t know what is.

As for the conference sessions, I wasn’t disappointed in the ones I attended. The highlight for me was the keynote given by Stephen Abram which was joyful and simply rejuvenating. I haven’t felt much in the way of morale or sense of purpose in a long while. Some of his points I’d like to save for later blog posts, but the ones that I’ll mention here relate to the long view of libraries as a whole.

There are shifts in content (digital collections continue to rise), shifts in services (the addition of non-traditional classes, trainings, and workshops), and shifts in access (the prevalence of smartphones and the continuing slow expansion of broadband). His point is that shift happens; we too often cling onto structure that inadequately supports our principles. We believe in reading and literacy and let the container (book, eBook, etc.)  be damned. We believe in information access and look to provide through an app or an internet terminal as well as an encompassing collection policy. To paraphrase a political operative, it’s about the end user, stupid. The important internal discussions cannot be allowed to completely paralyze the external patron-facing outputs. Shift happens.

It was the message I needed to hear. I’m feel like I’m in a professional rut, trapped with an idea board in my apartment full of ideas but no inclination to follow up. I’m not finding the inspiration to write these days either and it is something that I miss. I’ve felt adrift and disconnected from my immediate library community, my friends and colleagues in New Jersey. Combined with seeing and talking with people I haven’t seen in awhile and meeting new librarians, it’s been a good jump start to wake myself from this hibernation.

In rousing myself from dormancy, it is also driven by a sense of shared responsibility towards this generation of new librarians and library science graduate students. The most striking observation in meeting them is how damn young they look; in doing the age difference calculation, I’m now old enough to be their fun uncle. Though I am a relative newcomer to the libraryland scene (class of 2006), it’s imperative to me that libraries don’t fail in massive, fatal ways on my watch. (Smaller, non-lethal failures are completely expected and encouraged; they are the risk to the natural course of trial and error.) I feel the need to leave them with a legacy to carry on, to expand their possibilities and potential in an information centric world, and to leave the profession just a little bit better than when I started.

In driving away from Atlantic City, I made one last observation as to why it is the perfect setting for a library conference. The city itself was a gamble, constructed as a health resort before morphing into a working class getaway alternative from the social elites of Cape May in the late 1800’s. It would go on to offer attractions, dining, and housing to all social classes; it was a destination that sought to satisfy a desire (and in some cases, a vice). Atlantic City has always been a customer driven economy; those who can bring the people through the doors get to stay and those who can’t get to make way for the next developer.

In similar respects, libraries are no different; we are also people driven entity and a continued calculated gamble on the idea of communal resources. It is the interactions that matter, be it face-to-face, over the phone or email, or now online. The prevalence of individually tailored information access gives the illusion of independence when there is actually a greater need for interconnected networks and the infrastructure to support them. We lose out when our primary focus becomes the collection, policies, and other behind-the-scenes oriented minutiae. We lose out when the discussion shifts away from the value we bring to our respective communities. These are the factors that will determine our continued collective existence.

Crossing the marshlands between Atlantic City in the mainland, I saw the skyline against the perfect blue of a cloudless summer day. It’s a place of dreams and fantasies and an escape from reality, not unlike the image that is sometimes projected from public libraries. Unlike some of the hard luck cases perhaps driving along side of me, I left as a winner. Once again, I feel a renewed sense of purpose in the profession that I love. I will be able to wager once more on the public library, a gamble based on finding new and new-to-me ways to help people. It’s a risk, but the best odds and a payout that can’t be ignored.

So, roll the dice.

No Laughing Matters

Today at the library I was doing a one-on-one instruction session with a person who is relatively new to using the computer. He has taken my computer classes and scheduled these additional sessions so as to get some individual instruction to be able to get his resume typed and start applying for jobs. It’s been a slow process as he is used to using an electronic typewriter (still own one, in fact) and some of the typewriter-vs-computer aspects have been harder to grasp. But, even in its labored pace, he has been eager to learn more, practice what I’ve taught him, and do additional reading.

The session we had today was focusing on sending email with attachments. We were making progress, but he was asking me a ton of questions as we go. I encourage people to ask questions when they have them so this is about par for the course as we go along. After a slew of questions, he stops for a moment, looks at me, and says, “You are the first person who doesn’t laugh at me when I ask these kinds of questions [about the computer]”.

“It’s what I’m here for,” I replied and smiled.

But in those following moments, there’s a bit of different dialogue in my head. I’ve always prided myself with having patience when it comes to computer instruction. I get compliments on the seemingly infinite time I spend explaining everything when it comes to using the computer. It would seem that the time I spent taking care of an elderly grandmother with dementia and short term memory loss has well prepared me for a litany of sustained, not-always-reasonable, and oft repeated inquiries I have gotten in the past. This is something I know I’m good at and a point in my favor.

However, I got a pang of guilt in the midst of his appreciative statement. As I mentioned earlier, his prior experience exclusively with the electric typewriter has made some of the instruction time…difficult. There are aspects of the typewriter that simply do not translate to the computer and the constant comparison of the two has slowly worn down my nerves. It has made some of the sessions into mental grinds as I simultaneously try to provide him with the answers he is looking for as well as steer him in the right direction within the word processing program. It has left me on more than one occasion with my teeth on edge, crawling back to my office computer so I can recoup my sanity through the viewing of websites full of funny cat pictures.

I know that we are all human and we all have our limits. It’s impossible to be actually nice all the time, so we do have to fake it to make it through sometimes. But his generous statement was a reminder of the importance of what I do in the lives of the people I serve. So much so that I’m starting to wonder if knowledge and information is just a secondary role in the lives of librarians. Yes, answers are important, but as I travel along my career path, I’m not always sure that’s what people are looking for when they come to the library. Empathy, kindness, and acceptance may be the larger underlying factors here.

In asking a question, it can present a vulnerability in which a person acknowledges a intellectual lacuna. In this fleeting moment, they don’t want to be judged, ridiculed, or otherwise embarrassed by a reaction to the content of their inquiry. They want to know they are safe with a person they can trust. The reference transaction isn’t simply about connecting someone to their answer, but how they feel about it along the way and after they leave. I’m sure we (the royal we, me and anyone reading this) can think about times when they got the answer to the question they asked but felt good or bad about how the answer was given. That makes a difference in how people perceive the value of the library in their lives and community.

For myself, his comment is a great reminder about the virtue of patience. I know he will be back, I will be there, and we will take on the next hurdle. And as much as there will be times that will drive me insane with frustration, I will take solace in knowing that there are internet cats ready to catch me and get me back to fighting shape. I just have to keep it together till then because it matters to the person I’m helping.

Say Yes to the Sweater Vest

If you haven’t seen it yet, Sarah Houghton recently wrote a blog post entitled, “Wear What You Want: Dressing to Lead in Libraries”. It’s a great piece about dressing for the library workplace in which she advocates for personal style but acknowledges the existence of dress codes as well as peer and public expectations. It’s also receiving inevitable pushback from the people of the “you can’t just wear anything” camp despite Sarah’s acknowledgements of the limitations of her “wear anything” position. People seem to forget that just because her position doesn’t apply to everyone doesn’t make it a bad one; it just means it is not universal. (Your mileage may vary and all the assorted caveats one can muster.)

When I started out after college, I worked in commercial nurseries. From there, I worked at DuPont assembling plant experiments. My attire during those days was old jeans, crappy t-shirts, and other things that I did not mind getting dirty, wet, or worse. At the time I left college, I had hoped to work in a non-office environment and horticulture answered that prayer very nicely.

In going through the library science graduate program at Clarion, this all changed with my internship. Nancy Clemente, my internship mentor, brought me into her office and told me that my current attire was unacceptable. (I don’t remember what it was, but I’m guessing it was something in line with “high school presentation”.) I was to wear dress pants, dress shirt, and either a tie or a sweater from then on. From that point till the end of the internship, I was always dressed up for working at the library.

For me, it did two things. First, it made me feel the part. I didn’t feel like a student anymore; I felt like someone who was in charge, knowledgeable, and belonged there at the reference desk. Second, it made me look the part. I didn’t look like a graduate student; I looked like a librarian in an academic setting. It wasn’t simply a boost to my own self-esteem and confidence but also instilled professionalism that carried me forward into my career.

While I slacked off in my appearance for a period of time after getting hired at the public library (sorry Nancy!), I have found that as time goes by that I try to dress up more for the job. I’ve added more dress shoes, slacks, and (my beloved) sweater vests to my wardrobe. Once I get some dress shirts that actually fit my neck size, I’ll be looking add ties back in. It might be a bit of overkill for my library, but it feels rights for me.

For myself, it comes back to that “looking the part” in conjunction with who I am. The outfits are my uniform; they put me into “time to be a librarian” mode. It’s not that I can’t do my job otherwise, but how the public perceives me in that ultimate of first impressions (how I am dressed) is important to me. I want it to give them confidence that they can put their trust in me for whatever it is that they need. What I wear makes that difference.

In getting back to Sarah’s post, I can’t help but amuse myself thinking about how the topic of “what leaders should wear” meshes with “where are the librarian leaders?” line of thought. Apparently, people know what they should look like even as they claim that they don’t see any around. Given Sarah’s leadership on topics such as copyright, eBooks, and library filtering (to name a few subjects off the top of my head), it makes the comments saying that she is not dressed for leadership even more amusing. But I’ll admit in my own way that they are right.

No, Sarah is not dressed to be a leader. She is a leader. Those just happen to be the clothing that she wears. She could be in a burqa or dressed like a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and she’d still be the person to talk about those aforementioned subjects and more when it comes to library issues.

Nor is Sarah a unique case; this applies to any of the librarian leaders I see out there right now. There is no prevailing clothing style or dress that links all of these people together; it is their ability to step up, speak up, and act up that makes them the individuals that librarians (including myself) look up to for guidance.

I don’t know about anyone else, but if people can’t get past how someone is dressed so that they can listen to the message they are sending out, then librarianship is going to spend a long time in the wilderness looking for leaders that “fit” the look they imagine them having. To focus on the end of that famous Dr. King quote, it’s the content of their character that matters when it comes to rendering judgment.

I wouldn’t say that appearance is inconsequential, but the reason why libraries are struggling in some areas is not because the staff doesn’t dress nicely enough. It’s a perception of the library as a modern institution in form and function that needs an image makeover. If we are going to concern ourselves with any kind of appearance, that’s the most pressing one right now.

Scene Missing

I usually don’t write about my work at the library because a good number of solid personal reasons, but something happened today that really shook me. One portion of my job is computer instruction; I teach all of the computer classes at my branch plus I offer one-on-one sessions by appointment. The latter are for subjects that I don’t teach in the classroom setting since they don’t generate enough interest to warrant reserving the computer lab. Plus it also gives me a chance to provide additional individual attention to someone who needs a little extra time or care. Personally, I think it’s great outreach, advocacy, and instruction all rolled into one, but that’s beside the point of this post.

Today I had a situation in a one-on-one that I’ve never experienced before and, quite frankly, it put a damper on my mood for the rest of the afternoon. It was with an older gentlemen to whom I have taught computer basics. In my relatively short tenure, I’ve encountered people who were reluctant, hesitant, and downright fearful about using the computer. I try to soothe their concerns, addresses their needs, and get them to see the computer as something that can be used by anyone.

But today was different. About halfway through our time, he stopped me and told me that he didn’t want to go on. His memory, he went on, was not there anymore. He understood what I was saying, but he wasn’t remembering it. Furthermore, he could feel himself not retaining it. He was frustrated, a hint of angry, and an underlying feeling of disappointment. With that, he didn’t want to go on with the lesson and he wanted to let go of the idea of using the computer.

It was hard thing to hear. Having experienced life with two grandmothers who had dementia who ability to retain short term memories were all but shot, my heart went out to him. I have seen the face of frustration by someone who is desperately trying to remember what happened moments ago or realizing they have asked the same question multiple times over a short time period. I’ve seen the anger that can unfold when the person knows there is a connection to be made but can’t seem to find the right words, terms, or concept. It’s the ultimate mind betrayal.

On the other hand, as we started, he had demonstrated that he remembered some of what I taught him in the previous lesson. In going over the basics again, he was readily picking up on what I was saying and doing. It was my own frustration this time in knowing that he had remembered some things, but he was either not realizing it or putting it down as insufficient. It might not have been rushing forth, but it was there.

In that ensuing conversation that lasted but a few minutes as we wrapped things up, I felt the walls break down. Here was another human being, a bit scared, looking to indulge his interests but his brain wasn’t there for him. We talked about our family histories (he has relatives who had or have the same kinds of memory issues) and about how the brain works in terms of memory, reasoning, and emotion. I wasn’t the librarian anymore, but someone there trying to make him feel better, encouraging him to talk to a doctor about how he felt, and what was important in life (his family). But, even for all those consoling words, I felt very helpless in that moment. I couldn’t offer or provide a solution.

In the end, he walked away. I left the door open to him and reminded him it was not a waste of my time but my job to be there for people who need help just like him. I hope he comes back. I don’t want to give up.

Guest Post: Why am I getting my MLIS? Because I have to.

When I tell people I’m in graduate school studying to be a librarian, I receive the response, “You need a Master’s degree for that?” I find myself struggling to defend it. Librarians do more than what the average person realizes, but how much of that is really gained through the MLS? I usually wind up confessing it is like a stamp to gain entry a nightclub. I’ve been advised countless times by librarians that your coursework doesn’t really matter, but your experience does. I agree that there is no teacher greater than experience, but isn’t this a huge flaw in our profession’s degree? This is also disheartening for me because the first word I’ve used to describe myself most of my life is “student.” I like being in the classroom. I want to learn. I want more degree to mean more than a stamp or a merit badge.

I agree with Library Journal’s Editor-in-Chief Michael Kelley that I have learned almost nothing in library school that I didn’t already know or that I couldn’t have learned on the job or quickly on my own. Coding? I learned the basics of HTML and CSS on my own prior to starting my MLIS, but I was still required to take a basic web development course as a prerequisite for Digital Libraries. Dublin Core? An afternoon of reading would’ve sufficed but instead I had to write 1,500 words comparing Dublin Core to MARC. I wish I spent this time creating records for practice.

Then there are the things everyone assumes we learn in library school, but we don’t necessarily do. Cataloging? No idea! Archives? Tim Hensley, the Director of the Carole Weinstein Holocaust Research Library at the Virginia Holocaust Museum tweeted that he doesn’t hire public history MAs. He hires MLS, MLIS, and graduates with similar degrees because those programs train their students for archival work. This came as a shock to me because my program doesn’t offer archival training. I gained my archive experience under the supervision of a M.A. History graduate instead of a MLS graduate.

I’m three-quarters through my MLIS program and so far the courses have prepared me very little or not at all for a librarian job. This dissatisfaction with my education and preparation as a librarian isn’t unique to my program. Now please do not misunderstand, if you hired me today I’d do an amazing job because I gained experience outside of the classroom. My greatest experience comes from being a Graduate Assistant to the Scholarly Communications Librarian. Previously I had a seventh-month paid archives internship at an automobile museum and was a summer library assistant at a public library. By the time I graduate next year, I’ll have an additional archives internship and a year of full-time experience supervising a study abroad library. I believe I have a lot to offer to a potential employer, but isn’t because of my MLIS. It is because of these library work experiences that I realized that what I am “learning” in my courses is not translating into working as a librarian. Sometimes I wonder how much more I could be learning to better myself as a future librarian if I wasn’t stuck in a virtual classroom three nights a week or typing up papers on the weekends.

I’d love an apprenticeship instead of a MLS/MLIS degree. Librarianship is more like a guild than the academy. Unfortunately, I do agree with Andy that the MLS is here to stay because of the way that higher education is currently structured. Now, we have two options. We can keep advising every new class of MLS students to push through the degree like a chore and get as much experience as possible or we can revise library school curriculum to also prepare our future librarians.

What I want to see is updated curriculum that has caught up to the growing field librarianship. Classes on scholarly communications, copyright, and technology classes that go past basic coding. Not just because I am interested in it, but because that is the direction librarianship is moving. These are the skills I need to prepare myself for the scary library job market. Now you may say that scholarly communications is really only for academic librarians, but making research openly available benefits school and public libraries. And copyright… is there a type of library or librarian that cannot benefit from a stronger knowledge of copyright? Whether it is about protecting the rights of the library or patrons, or determining how we can make our collections available, we need to be educated in copyright law. I got a small glimpse of copyright law in my Introduction to Information Policy course, and decided I needed to know more than what library school was going to offer. This semester I enrolled in the Copyright Law course offered by the my university’s law school. Through this class I gained familiarity with both statutory law and legislative history, discussed the Georgia State case, and had class an hour after the Kirstsaeng decision dropped. It was a great learning experience. No class in graduate school has better prepared me to be a librarian, and it wasn’t even a library school class.

I am an angry optimist and use a Henry Rollins quote as a personal motto, “My optimism wears heavy boots and is loud.” I’m optimistic about the future of library school if we work to change it. We need to update the curriculum. We need less talking in the classroom and more doing. Let’s build experience into the curriculum. Projects don’t need to be limited to the last quarter of the semester. Give us the opportunity to practice by creating metadata records for collections, building collaborative websites, and using emerging technologies in our projects. Library students can be citizen archivists and help a university’s special collections with data entry. Projects can be brought to life if implemented by mid-terms rather than writing a theoretical paper. Have us practice virtual reference with each other, research the copyright and archiving policies of journals to discover by doing, and start writing a grant the third week of classes rather than the third to last. Students can work with open source software to develop stronger tech skills and gain experience building a thorough digital library or catalog. We can even build new software, such as an Omeka plug-in. When MLS programs cannot provide these opportunities to learn in the classroom, faculty and students can work together to develop new opportunities. Universities can host an unconference like THATCamp or begin partnering with other institutions to offer virtual internships. This way we can better prepare our graduates. Our profession and libraries deserve this.

Chealsye Bowley is an MLIS student at Florida State University in Tallahassee, FL and is slowly taste-testing her way through librarianship. She currently is a Graduate Assistant in Technology and Digital Scholarship at Florida State University. In August, she will be running away to Italy for a year to be the Library Supervisor of FSU’s Florence Study Center’s library. She tweets @chealsye and blogs for Hack Library School.