Guns, Porn, and Library Makerspaces

A few months back, the story that a 3D printer created a working (albeit fragile and limited) plastic gun shot around the news in libraryland. As I recall, the reaction in my social circles was swift and decidedly against allowing library 3D printers for such a purpose, despite the fine print about the economics and viability of the guns. Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of how some librarians can be in love with the First Amendment and abandon the Second as if the Bill of Rights was a buffet. The argument could made that words and ideas are far more dangerous than guns, but this post isn’t about that.

In thinking about 3D printers and what kind of limits should be imposed on them, I started wondering about the other big makerspace setup in libraries: digital media labs. While I can see weapons being restricted or banned on library 3D printers (whether it is reasonable or not is another matter), what kinds of limits would librarians place on media creation? What kinds of limits exist already? Could a person record a music track that has violent and/or sexual content? What about visual art with the same content? Granted, some of these examples are well within the boundaries of the librarian free speech ideals, but here’s the question I’m leading up to:

Could someone use a library digital media lab to create and/or edit a pornographic movie?

On one hand, limitations against this kind of material are already established. Most public libraries don’t have a subscription to Playboy (the gold standard of pornography in libraries) and have generally avoided sexual materials due to theft and vandalism. Another rationale is that it would be more trouble than its worth, a case in which the public policy trumps the First Amendment and freedom of expression. There’s nothing wrong with picking your battles, especially in the long game of public relations and budgeting.

On the other hand, there have been steps taken to allow people to view pornography on the computers at the library. Why would the creation of it be any different? This might be some of my libertarian roots showing, but what consenting adults do is their business. (I’m sure this point can be bogged down by a million ‘what ifs’, so I’ll concede that it’s not a blanket pass on all content.) If we allow people to put sexual content in their music and visual art, why not be able to make an amateur adult film in our digital media labs?

Like many grey areas in libraryland, I’m sure there is going to be a diverse reaction to this end of freedom of expression. Just like some libraries ban guns and others welcome them, I’m sure there will be a similar dichotomy when it comes to restrictions (or lack thereof) on creating adult content, be it music, art, or film.

My hope is that that libraries will side on the less restrictive side, favoring the freedoms (expression, intellectual) that we hold so dear. Libraries should be the organization that gives people permission to be themselves, no matter what the prevailing societal and cultural winds dictate. It’s in our very nature to collect and protect material that which is deemed unsavory; this ideal should be extended to the individual.

Hurtling Towards Relevance

In the last few years, the navel gazing around the question of the library’s relevance in modern life makes an regular appearance. There isn’t anything in particular right now that made me think of the topic, but it crossed my mind towards the end of last week. In running errands last weekend, the thought occurred to me that the library isn’t pulling away from the information trends of contemporary society, but rather we are squarely in the path. It’s all in a matter of how you measure it.

In essence, I see it under the umbrella perspective as to how information is treated and managed. Copyright and intellectual property are the elephant in the room for the economic vitality of not only the United States, but the world. It’s a simple idea (the benefits of the creator versus the general public) that has become a deeply complicated global problem subject to the sway of money, politics, and power. It’s part of the emergence of the knowledge economy, one that is based on services that essentially collect, process, analyze, and package information. Manufacturing is never going to be what it once was in the United States, not when Chinese and Bangladeshi companies will do the same job cheaper. But the products of creativity and intellect are ones generally do not need geography, so rights and ownership are the hotly contested principles that should easily fall into the library realm. This is a chance for librarians to make the case on behalf of the public for laws and regulations that make sense in the digital world, both in rewarding the creator and in making their creation available as widely as possible.

This connects into the academic world with announcements such as the University of California faculty adopting an open access mandate. The elemental nature of this part and parcel to the librarian ideal of information access. The tide of Open Access (in its various incarnations) represents a breaking of the knowledge silos that keep knowledge within the confines of paywalls and embargos. It’s an exciting prospect in which researchers and academics have the possibility of getting new discoveries faster. It’s an opportunity for librarians to make new and better connections between research areas and data sets as well as the latest results.

There are other connections to make here, especially in the physical sense. Broadband access to rural locations are part of our information access ideals as well as essential in the aforementioned knowledge economy. This physical end of the digital divide plays a real role in the education and economics of the areas that are beyond the fiber lines. The triumphs of digital education are lost in the slower signal of the DSL or modem squeal. Libraries are common community focal points for those looking to reach the online world; this is our chance to push for them to meet this most basic of needs.

I’m certain there are others, but I think this illustrates my point. If we look to our old metrics for determining relevance, we are going to lose. But if we look at the issues that are pressing right now, we could not possibly be more relevant. A information professional in an information world; it really doesn’t get any more front-and-center than this. The only thing irrelevant here is doubt.

The Long Suffering Librarian

Beyond the intellectual freedom, information access, and other lovely sounding principles, I’m thinking that one of the common bonds between librarians is a masochism streak. I’ll take some liberties with this notion and accept one of the Merriam-Webster non-sexual definition entries that uses a great phrase, “a taste for suffering”. While we as a profession find common cause in working towards justice in its social, economic, and educational forms, it is our nature at enduring suffering that build the bonds between us faster than an open bar at a vendor social event.

Right now, you don’t have to travel very far to get antagonized. To the general public, the Internet is frontrunner for putting the library out of business as all that is needed to replicate the form and function of a library is an internet connection and Kindle. It’s a world that conflates information for knowledge, as if the prerequisite for performing open heart surgery is finding a video of it on YouTube. Don’t get me wrong, the internet is a strong contender as a reference desk killer for general and trivia kinds of inquiries like who won the 1958 Best Picture Oscar. But it has a long way still to climb in transitioning as an academic support model to full blown education program (MOOCs are a transitional state for this ideal, in my estimation). Even then, we know internet access is not universal whether we are looking at computer labs in urban areas or waiting for broadband in rural ones. Nevermind how the Kindle and eBooks in general are not panning out to be the paper killer, something an email account could have told them in the story of the paperless office. The information access haves seem to be perpetually surprised by the have-nots, even though the haves possess access to the resources that would tell them all about the have-nots.

Wrap your head around that enigma.

But the animosity doesn’t stop here. Public librarians get caught up in the loop of anti-government anti-tax sentiments that ignore the basic cost/benefit analysis that would reveal that their tax money is actually working. They are the soft targets of governmental budget crunches, a place where money can be borrowed or taken to pay off other outstanding expenses. School librarians get the unique disrespect of not being considered educators just like teachers, as if learning was dependent on the existence of a classroom setting. They are swept into the category of administration, the fancy term for overhead, and given their walking papers in lean times despite evidence about how they impact student achievement scores. Academic librarians face pressures for various angles, whether it is the deprofessionalization of their positions or static budgets with increasing journal subscription costs while publishers tangle with thoughts of print embargoes and open access. I thought I read an article relating how faculty have lowered the importance of the library as a higher education research, but I can’t find it. I don’t know what to say for special librarians, but I would guess it falls somewhere between funding issues and probably some prick out there who thinks that whatever they are curating and collecting isn’t worth it.

While we are at it, toss in the suffering at the hands of publishers and industry vendors. The strange and strained relationship with publishers is one in which they need us for promotion and purchasing but quietly lobby against our underlying principles: First Sale doctrine, copyright, and fair use. eBooks is just a quagmire of rights and licenses, wrapped up in schemes at both taking the most amount of money and control away from libraries. In terms of vendors, the vast amount of anguish comes through their concept of interfaces. If the ILS systems are the eyes into the window of the library’s catalog soul, they are the gaze of the damned, doomed to needlessly consume the user’s time. If I work there and I have problems finding things in the catalog, what chance does the regular person have? Why does this continue to play out this way?

The topper to this litany of disrespect are the well played out stereotypes and typical questions that come with being a librarian. The public image sways between a ribald sex kitten and bun headed shushing methuselah, readers who can’t tolerate any noise above a whisper. The men are gay or unusually effeminate, the women are secret whores, but hey, at least people think librarians are smart. Then the questions or jokes play out: Do you know the Dewey Decimal system? So, you like to read? And the king of these unmindful questions: Librarian is still a career? (Runner up: You need a degree to do that?) The astonishing, mind numbing part is that people think that it is a perfectly valid query and not the rude, obnoxious loaded question that it actually is. Are the rules of decorum suspended because one doesn’t think a career is real, despite strong evidence to the contrary?

But, personally, I think this kind of anguish pales in comparison to what the profession can do to its members and itself. This is well trod territory for this blog over the years and a recurring theme when I talk to librarians about the profession. These days, I don’t which is worse: the stuff that is said out loud or the stuff that people remain silent on. I was going to recount some of the behaviors that are poisonous, but I’d be cannibalizing my previous material. Needless to say, it is an extension of the suffering we endure.

I’ll concede that the whole job isn’t just suffering or that we take pleasure in suffering. But I think that there is a vast amount of suffering the profession will and currently does endure and I’m not sure how much of it is needless. Do we languish in our own agony? Is it easier to suffer than to stand up and make a change? And, if so, why is that?

Self-Censorship in Libraryland

When I was in Australia on a semester abroad, I remember watching some television show in the giant common room of the dorm where I was living. Imagine rows and rows of well worn red loveseat couches pointed towards a large television in a corner with college students liberally sprawled around the room, either in a seat or on top of each other. I can’t remember what we were watching, but I do remember a particular commercial that came on. I can’t remember what they were selling, but it was probably a soft drink or candy or something with an unhealthy amount of sugar in it.

In any event, the part I remember shows a boyfriend sitting in a dressing room when his girlfriend comes out of the fitting room in a very revealing skintight cocktail dress. (The Aussies don’t have the television morality police like here in the States.) The boyfriend is eating or drinking whatever product they are selling when the girlfriend asks a variation of the stereotypical question that has been getting men into trouble since the dawn of clothing: “Does this dress make my butt look big?” After a product placement moment, the boyfriend looks her up and down and says, “Yes, but it takes attention away from your face.”

Needless to say, there was a very mixed reaction to this punchline although it did not play out strictly on gender lines. In recalling this admittedly questionable anecdote that is certain to sour some of the moods of the readers, this was my very roundabout way of getting to the topic of self censorship. The ad reminds me of a instance in which the concept of keeping one’s mouth shut fails, albeit to satisfy a comic premise. However, I believe the concept enjoys a high success rate when it comes to honest dialogue in libraryland, especially in the online version of the profession. I keep wondering why this is so in a profession that is deeply invested in the ideal of freedom of speech, expression, and curiosity. Why is it that people feel the need to self censor when it comes to library discourse?

The biologist in me that has lurked there since I was an undergrad reminds that the big, beautiful organ that resides between our ears is a self-censoring machine. The body is in a constant state of information update, relaying every single update from the senses in what could only be imagined as the world’s worst news crawl. (“Feet reporting that there are still socks on them… Nose update: still no new smells yet… Teeth still touching each other…") Rather than be overwhelmed by all of these signals, the brain filters these things out to allow the important messages to make it through to the higher areas of the brain. As you can imagine, there are lots of good evolutionary reasons for this development that routinely ignores a lot of stimuli.

The amateur psychologist (sociologist? anthropologist?) in me wonders about the mental and social constructs that have developed over time that favor self censorship. The instincts that make you bite your tongue when you’re in a tense or emotional situation, the mechanisms that make people lie about positive outcomes in determinedly negative situations, and (unlike the gent in that commercial) the inward controls that make you ignore your first impulse to give an honest and possibly insensitive answer. How much do these kinds of social factors contribute to self-censorship in libraryland?

In considering external causes, the first factor that popped into my head is the librarian job market. For lack of a better term, it’s a buyer’s market; there are more librarians than there are jobs. Why jeopardize yourself by writing something in a tweet or on a blog that could hurt job prospects? The counterargument to that point would be that by writing online you are distinguishing yourself from the other applicants. But even that has its flaws because it encourages people to say things that are generally agreeable to popular opinion. A person would be less likely to take a stance about, oh, let’s say the inclusion of anti-gay children’s books in a collection if it was anything other than “Hell no”. Barring other normal collection development considerations (such as community, interest, and quality of product), a person could make a case for adding such a book to a collection under the premise of presenting differing viewpoints. But they’d need a flameproof suit in order to survive the royal drubbing they would receive at the hands of their peers. The easier action is to make a safe argument or not say anything, even if a logically valid but emotionally charged argument could be made.

Another factor that I considered is how much time and energy it takes to put something like a blog post together. In crafting a case for a controversial or unpopular opinion, do I want to be saddled with the task of defending it? This might seem like a surrender of principles, but as someone who has written things that get people snapping at me, it is a tiring process to gear up and do battle online for any longer measure of time. For myself, sometimes the choice comes down between putting forth the effort that will get people up in arms versus doing something else that’s fun like video games or spending time with family and friends. Part of this falls into the time honored tradition of “picking one’s battles”, but there have been instances in which I felt like I really should have said something at the time. The moment passes, the library news cycle moves on, and I just shrug and hope I can make up for it later. While it’s true that putting together a tweet doesn’t use the same of work, it also doesn’t say much nor allow for nuance nor work well in making the case for something. The 140 characters of Twitter simply doesn’t convey the same message or importance as a longer form of blogging.

A third factor that arises revolves around gender; as in, this is a female dominated profession and (speaking in the most generic tropes) woman are less likely to speak up or draw attention to themselves in a professional forum. I’m not going to trod down that road simply because I think there are other people who have written better blog posts on the topic.[1] (I’ve linked to them at the end.) I don’t think gender is the whole explanation for self censorship in libraryland writing and debate, but I do think it is a contributing factor.

Personally, I think the profession is tipped toward hiring “safely”, meaning employing people who won’t rock the boat, initiate any bold and scary projects, or stir any sort of controversy. As a manager, I can understand and respect that; you really don’t want to enlarge your daily challenges by adding staff challenges into the equation. The library members can be hard enough as it is to deal with on a regular basis, but having someone internally who is looking to make moves or change things can throw off the mojo for the entire staff. Who wants to make a bet adding an iconoclast when there is a safe choice who can ensure better workflow and dynamics? It’s better to hire a ‘book lover’ than a ‘book fighter’, the preference being for the person who will display their love for the book as an object rather than fighting for the important underlying aspects that the books represents.

But such practices come at a high cost in terms of experimentation and innovation. The profession seems to cry out for leadership and innovation but then hires followers and ‘best fits’ for the current work paradigm. It is the ironic shock of hiring someone who is (for lack of a better term) boring and then being surprised when they don’t step outside the role that they have been chosen. To be fair, not every position is one that is invested in creating ideas and change, but I believe too often the majority end up that way. It’s a cyclical arrangement in which the similarities trump the differences.

Even in writing that previous paragraph, I go back and forth on whether I’m barking up the wrong tree. But I’m putting it out there to test the response and get some feedback. Why do you think librarians hold back in discussions, articles, and blog posts? What’s keeping us from putting ourselves out there to our peers? If you agree that it is an issue, what can be done about it?

It feels very odd and wrong that a profession so deeply invested in the spectrum of intellectual freedoms has its own issue with punishing those who take advantage of it within the field, but that’s what it seems to be.

 

[1] If you want to read more on gender in this discussion, The Library Loon has been writing on similar vein with “Silencing, librarianship, and gender: what is silencing?” and “Silencing, librarianship, and gender: who can break The Rules?”. You should check those out.

How to Answer “So You Need a Degree to Do That?”

“You need a Master’s degree to be a librarian?”

This oft encountered, teeth grinding question is something of a rite of passage for every one who joins the librarian field and was part of Tumblr post that came across my feed. I’ll even admit it makes my eye twitch as I summon up the willpower to provide a rationale and polite answer to this query. Hell, you can’t even get out of the profession without it being a source of contention as librarians themselves wonder why an advanced degree (as opposed to a bachelors) is a requirement. Beyond that, it spirals into a conversation about what MLS/MLIS programs teach and their standards, but I want to get back to examining the original question.

To wit, I am thinking that the question itself is not necessarily an indictment of the profession, but an indication as to how much literature and information access is taken for granted in our modern society. The United States (as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK for my international readers) boasts a literacy rate of 99% for citizens over the age of 15.  Books are a short drive or a click away, depending on your preference of medium, and are relatively cheap. The same case could be made for movies and television shows, another lending staple of the public library, as people are able to get them on different formats, On Demand and premium channels, or by subscription (NetFlix or Amazon Prime). The internet killed the encyclopedia (and, in my opinion, your average reference collection) by creating a platform for people to be able to both search and share information on any topic that you can possibly imagine. Wi-Fi (specifically, the free kind) is rapidly becoming a staple of the retail experience, creating an consumer expectation and by proxy creating even more internet connection points. With their rapid technology cycles, cell phones now provide the instant access to both the internet and personal contacts to access information. You’d have to take yourself into some pretty rural areas to not be able to pick up any signal at all, be it Wi-Fi or cellular.

You get the picture.

That’s why I’m considering that the question is less about being a librarian and more about how much literature and information exists in the lives of people these days. It’s the kind of thing that librarians of the last century only dreamed about; being able to provide quick and accurate answers wherever the people happen to be. Even the computer novices that I teach are infected with this concept as they wait only a few seconds before re-clicking on a website link. (“Have some patience,” I tell them. “You do realize that the signal to the website is possibly traveling hundreds of miles if not thousands of miles on your behalf in only a few seconds, right?”) Information has become fast, cheap, and ubiquitous. Why would it take an advanced degree to curate, manage, and disseminate?

That is where the ignorance of the origin of information begins. Those Wikipedia articles? Someone had to write them. The internet browser and connection protocols? Someone had to program them. The transmission lines that carry information packets around the country and the world? Someone had to place them there. The modern ease of access gives rise to the false sense of ease of creation when nothing could be further from the truth. The generations of multi-disciplinary efforts have created this connected world where the benefits are so taken for granted that a lack of access is seen as unlikely, odd, and almost unrealistic. It belies the enormous effort to keep all of these things running, from server farms to metadata management to IT infrastructure. As anyone who has put together a project or performed knows, the time and effort it takes to make it look easy is tremendous.

In looking at the question again, I’m seeing it as less of an attack and more of a chance to demonstrate how the library comes together. Everything has been selected for the community, be it the materials, the services, or even the furniture. These selections have been made by educated professionals who have familiarity with the items in question. It’s an institute built around providing the best answers, not the fastest. The sheer volume of information that is being generated on a daily basis is staggering, nevermind the assortment of mediums that it comes in. Would you really want someone without an advanced degree sifting, sorting, curating, and maintaining it? Especially on your behalf for your benefit and future generations?

I don’t think so.

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?