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.

Yes, We Should Talk About the MLS

It looks like Library Journal’s Editor-in-Chief Michael Kelley spun The Wheel of Perpetual Library Topics and it came up on that pesky graduate school requirement, the Masters in Library Science and its related brethren. “Can We Talk About the MLS?” is an editorial that takes on the notion that all roads to librarianship run through an MLS program, arguing that while it is good venue for learning the underlying theories of librarianship it is a terrible platform for practical and extraordinarily varied skills that span the spectrum of library types and jobs. Furthermore, the degree itself is required hurdle for getting a job in the field. Michael concludes by wondering if this “expensive and unnecessarily exclusionary credential” is stopping the kind of talent we need right now from getting into the field and if other routes (such as apprenticeship) are equally viable options.

My gut reaction is that the MLS is here to stay not because of anything to do with the profession but the way that current higher education is structured. Graduate programs are student loan cash cows allowing these institutions to charge hefty tuitions for a degree that is essential to employment. Our license to practice is their license to print money. Factor in the emerging online programs with their larger class sizes (read: more money), larger class sizes (read: more money), and an overall shift towards adjunct faculty (read: less overhead), it would be a hit to the bottom line to eliminate or weaken these programs. Academic inflation becomes the cherry on top of this expensive educational sundae, one that all of us with MLS degrees have been compelled to eat so that we can practice within the field.

If I asked for comments about less-than-vigorous classes that can be found in MLS programs, I could fill this entry with stories as far as the scroll bar would take me. Personally, I’ve heard about an MLS program teaching an entire semester graduate credit class on (wait for it) Microsoft Office. That’s the punchline to a joke I can’t even conceive since my mind can’t wrap itself the process that would make that possible. I’ve heard similar stories about classes of a dubious nature, but that’s the one I always come back to.

I’ll admit that I look at the MLS program through a very skewed lens. I went from a year in law school to a library science graduate program and they simply don’t compare when it comes to rigor. Law school was running a marathon while the MLS program was a nice scenic 5k run. They have radically different undercurrents; where law school is trying to cull the weak, library science programs are a bit more, uh, inclusive. Perhaps if I hadn’t had that experience I would feel differently about it, but it is what it is.

Now, if you were to hold a gun to my head and ask me to recall the names of the classes I took or you’d shoot, I’d have to say, “Tell my family I love them”. There isn’t much I can connect from the classroom to my work, mainly smatterings of community outreach and reference practices. I wouldn’t categorize them as useless but as not being useful for how I ended up in the library field. Perhaps I am more to blame for my class choices, but I can’t say that all the classes I took were exactly memorable either. However, I know my experience is limited to the program that I attended. I’m sure there are many who would come out to defend their programs.

Back to the editorial, I wonder if there is another viable path to librarianship. Rather than apprenticeship, my thoughts went over to the alternate route certification for teachers. While I don’t pretend to know the nuances on how a program like that would work for librarians, I do feel that if one can be developed it would be a way of attracting the needed talent from other fields into the greater librarian fold. A Master’s requirement can effectively slam the door on someone whereas an alternate route method could keep them moving in our direction. If we want evolution in the field, we can start by not inbreeding when it comes to qualifications.

It seems silly and a bit boorish to demand an MLS out of everyone who deigns to work in the field, especially if they are accomplished outside of it. I know there are prominent people working in libraries right now who do not have an MLS. It even feels a bit ironic to promote inclusiveness of a wide variety of viewpoints as well as services but professionally hold ourselves to a cattle-chute credential requirement.  I understand that there are common standards, practices, and principles that all librarians should be drawing from, but I cannot think that there is only one way to achieve that. In a time of varied learning models and platforms, shouldn’t our professional accreditations expand beyond the MLS?

Forget the Horse, Let Me Tell You About My Awesome Cart

Over the duration of this week, there have been about five different conferences going on in which librarians that I follow on Twitter have been attending. I can’t recall all of the conferences nor all of the hashtags; I can only say that each one of them looks like part of a CAPTCHA. As diligently as the people I follow having been tweeting the choice lines from the presentations they are attending, the tweets that bear phrases like “libraries must” or “librarians must” have set off a slow fuse in me.

On the one hand, I get the points people are making. “Here’s how you can build a makerspace” or a digital media lab or Facebook presence or whatever they have successfully constructed and found community acceptance. It’s nice to see the process, the pitfalls, and the benefits and drawbacks. (Unless they skip over the drawbacks to focus on how awesome their project is.) They are there to show off the final product, not necessarily the journey to that point.

On the other hand, I think more often it is like starting to read a story a few chapters in. I can’t seem to recall many details about how they decided to build whatever it is they are talking about. What was their community research? Did they do any marketing to identify groups within their service community that made their project more likely to succeed? How was the need for a particular service identified? I’ll admit that I’ve heard presentations in which they addresses this as an opener for their talk, but it doesn’t get much stage time.

I’m saying this because it feels like most library innovation oriented talks take the tact of describing their project in detail and then spending time trying to convince the audience that it is a necessary addition to their library. Sure, it sounds great, but I really want to know how the idea got rolling. Personally, I think that’s one of the weakest areas in librarianship right now: approaching and measuring our communities for their needs.

So, when and where are those talks happening? That’s when librarians will be able to build better community relationships so they can host the materials and services that are in demand. Whether it is a makerspace, computer lab, digital media center, or lending out gardening equipment, examination of the genesis of these ideas as it relates to dialogues between librarians and their communities is the bigger issue here. I can read someone’s conference handouts on how to do it, but if I can’t figure out how to reach out and get the feedback that I need to start me down the path, then I’m stuck.

You can build it, but you should damn well make sure that they do come.

Send Me the Check That You Would Have Sent to Consultants This Year

(Note: This is a column that I wrote for American Libraries that they passed on using. After reading today’s Gavia Libraria (aka the Library Loon) post, I thought it would be a good time to share it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I made one edit so that it works for the blog. –A)

Brace yourself for I am about to perform an amazing trick: I will divine your library’s future.

Please place your hand on the [screen] and relax. Breathe in through your nose, breathe out with your mouth, and open up your mind.

Aha! Already I can feel the psychic vibrations as they find their way to my mind and open up the portal to your future. For reassurance, believe me when I tell you that I now have placed two fingers to my temple while squinting or closing my eyes, whichever is more impressive. A vision is now forming!

I’m sensing something about money, either not having enough of it or not certain how to spend it.

What, too easy? Let’s delve further.

You have a good rapport with the people who come to your library, but something is missing. There is a need, a want, a desire that your members have expressed but you’re worried. You’re not completely certain how to do it. The picture is now becoming clearer!

I’m sensing that it has to do with something mobile. They want to access the library from wherever they are. You must fashion a website that works on mobile devices and an app to allow them to access their account wherever and whenever they want. The tools are there, just build it!

No, wait! They want a place to build things that uses fancy futuristic machinery. Either lend them the tools while hiring the experts to teach them or perhaps get one of those 3D printers that will make their dreams become a reality! The desire to design is only matched by the longing to hold their creations in their hands!

Hold on, that’s not a toy I see them holding, but what looks like a tablet or eReader. Yes! They want to be able to download books, music, and other stuff from the library. You must work to get the rights to these materials as well as create a platform that will make it easy for them to use. Right now they are trapped in a murky place where the instructions aren’t so straightforward.

The vision is getting cloudy! Ah, now that makes sense! They really want to learn about the cloud. Their confusion arises from hearing about how they can do all kinds of things online. Computer classes for your members and technology training for staff should do the trick. Reach out to them on the social media platforms that they frequent and astound them with details of what they could learn!

But, one moment, there is something blocking this outcome. I see it now! They can’t even get to the cloud because they don’t have a computer at home or there are no acceptable ISPs in the area. They have come to you at the library to find the access that they seek! They want to walk through your doors and be assured that the internet world has not left them behind!

Wait, perhaps not. They have come to the library not for the computers, but for the people and programs. Yes! Your staff, your programs, and the chance to see their neighbors face-to-face have proven to be an irresistible lure in this digital age. They seek stimulation of the mind, the human contact, and a need for “third place” in their lives. Alas, the vision is fading…

And there you have it. I have divined your library’s future.

Admit it. You are impressed. Sure, I was a bit all over the place for a while there, but I still nailed it. Given how many people were trying to simultaneously reach me psychically, I might have gotten some of the signals crossed. But I saw your future in there.

You are most welcome just so as long as your check is in the mail.

(Everything But) National Library Week

If you asked me what library related activities went on this week, I’d be hard pressed to give an answer. The Digital Public Library of America launched on Thursday to much social media fanfare. The Circulating Idea podcast Kickstarter was also launched and within two days was fully funded. After those two events, I can’t really think of anything else significant this week. Something I read in one of the regular columns in Library Journal made me want to punch the screen but that’s nothing new either. No, it wasn’t the Annoyed Librarian because both of their columns were rather banal this week. No, it wasn’t John Berry’s piece either even if it lead to an epic ALA Think Tank thread.

No, what I can tell you about this week is that it was bookended by the bombing in Boston as well as the (currently unfolding) hunt for the bombers. It was a fertilizer factory in Texas blowing up, well, most of the town (This is a map of the blast area with landmarks via Reddit. Skip it if you don’t want to be additionally horrified.) Congress dropped the ball on passing a gun purchase background check amendment to a bill despite widespread support. Chicago got all manner of weather, suggesting that the Bermuda Triangle may now run through Hinsdale. The Gosnell “House of Horrors” trial continued to unfold in ways that would give Stephen King the willies. Iran experienced a scary giant earthquake. I’m stopping here because, unfortunately, I really could go on.

Without a doubt, it has been a rough week. In an age of instant information transmission, it’s hard not to avoid breaking stories which bring all of the incomplete uncertainty with it. Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook can send rumors, speculation, and inaccuracies around the globe in moments. To be fair, it can also send corrections, confirmations, and official accounts in the same time frame as well. But doesn’t lessen the resulting moments of confusion.

The human brain doesn’t like information gaps so it tries to fill those with anything it has on hand, be it real or imagined. Rationalizations play Monday Morning Quarterback to our thoughts as a way of finding reconciliation and closure using causation and correlation that doesn’t necessarily follow through. Elsewhere in the brain, our primitive risk calculating system (best thought of as “the gut”) makes risk calculations that are based on emotional factors, not logic. This can push aside our better judgments in favor of immediate action, whatever that may be.

It’s hard to sit tight and wait for events to unfold so that a bigger clearer picture emerges. Like many people, I want to know what is going on and a lack of larger perspective stymies that. I’m going to try to step away from the computer for a bit to allow things to develop, but I know I’ll have one eye on the screen as I pass it. I try to keep in mind that, as rough as this week has been, this too shall pass. We’ll come out on the other side of all these things a bit older, a bit wiser, and hopefully a bit stronger. It’s just a matter of getting there.

In the meantime, be kind and try to take care of one another.

Support the Circulating Ideas Kickstarter

Yesterday, fellow librarian Steve Thomas launched a Kickstarter campaign to help enhance and expand his librarian podcast, Circulating Ideas. He wants to get some new equipment, better audio software, and compensate the lovely musician who composed the podcast theme music. As Steve does this on his own time, his love for the profession, and his desire to do Fresh Air-like interviews, it’s a pretty damn worthy cause in my opinion. As of the moment of posting, he is about $1,500 towards his $2,000 goal with twenty nine days to go. The first day went really, really well, but it’s still not across the goal line. So, please take a moment to read about the Kickstarter campaign, check out the podcast site (maybe listen to a few either through the site or iTunes), and consider adding your donation. It’s a pleasure to support this kind of work on behalf of the librarian profession and I’ve gladly given to the cause.

Full disclosure: I have appeared as a guest on the podcast in the past. I was also one of the many interviews that Steve did at PLA 2012.