What Exactly Do We Train For?

That’s essentially the question I have this Sunday, to which I feel that I don’t have enough data to provide an answer. If I was formulating a hypothesis on the basis of what I’ve observed in terms of both national and state conference programming, continuing education classes within my own state, and what I’ve managed to pick up over the years, I would say that the library profession is extraordinarily keen on training people on tools like databases, websites, and other information retrieval or organization tools.

While to some of you this might seem like a no brainer (“It’s what we do, Andy.”), I find what isn’t offered speaks louder. There are very few marketing and advertising opportunities (including demographic and population analysis, something that got classroom time at my MLS program). Any customer service practices program tends to be about policy rather than people, and considering that body tone and expression rank higher than words spoken I would think some basic body language or facial expression reading classes might be in order. A couple of years ago I would include advocacy oriented sessions, but that seems to be a cyclical offering for the bad budget years.

While talking about the “Best YA Books of 2011” is certainly a good conference session, there is less talk about how to advertise, display, or otherwise even provide an ice breaker for approaching the YA audience about these books. These presentations are very nice, but without something to draw in the patron to them, they are going to collect dust on the shelf.

There is a big push to proclaim that libraries are a people oriented endeavor, but our training seems to belie that priority. (I would say that our policies in general do as well, but that’s another argument.)

So, what exactly are we training for?

In taking a look at your library or library system, state association and conferences, what do you think we train for? What do you see offered versus what do you think should be offered?

(Follow up question: Are terms like marketing, advertising, branding, and their kin bad words in the librarian profession? What’s the aversion?)

To the MLS Class of 2013

It’s now the middle of August, an inauspicious month that marks the final full month of summer before its unofficial end at the Labor Day holiday in New Jersey. Most library science graduate programs around the country are preparing for another year of instruction for a mix of returning students and new blood. For the fresh faces, I thought I’d offer some advice for their tenure in their graduate programs. While I am a relatively new person on the library scene (having graduated in 2006), I’d like to share some of things I’ve observed in my time and travels.

I encourage other librarians to add their advice to my own (either here or in your own blog) and thank you in advance for taking the time to do so. Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2013:

Network.

If there is one thing that every graduate should leave their program with, it’s a a list of names and contact information. Who are the people on this list? Classmates. Faculty who taught them. People in state or national associations or who work for library vendors. Librarians who tweet, blog, write articles, speak, and present in your field of interest or focus. They need not be good friends, you need not have meet them face to face, but they know who you are.

To say that librarianship is a people business is not simply about the communities that are served, but that vast network of professionals who are brought together by a common cause. Compared to other occupations, librarians are overall a friendly helpful bunch who answer a call for help or advice or otherwise debate. I’ve always been pleasantly surprised when I’ve reached out to people I’ve never met and asked them for advice, commented on something they said or wrote, or otherwise made contact. More often than not, you’ll find that these people are open to conversations, talking about topics of interest, and giving you some additional advice. Yes, some are aloof or time limited or just plain arrogant, but it is a worthwhile chance to take.

Question.

Take this one word advice to all its meanings. Ask out of curiosity for those things you want to know more about. Ask out of investigation and information vetting to determine authority or merit. Ask out of rebellion in challenging both old and new ways.

Ask, ask, ask. Sharpen your inquiry skills since asking the right question saves you (and in some cases your patron) time and energy tracking down the correct answer. It’s never too early to work on your interview skills, even if you never intend on gracing the reference desk. The right questions lead to the right answers.

Work.

There are libraries that will hire people in progress for their MLS/MLIS. You don’t need to wait to have the degree in hand to start job hunting and considering the job market you should apply early and often. If you can’t find a job, find an internship. Some are paid, some are unpaid, but each offers valuable experience. If you can’t find an internship, volunteer. It may not be what you ultimately want to do but it does get your foot in the door.

And if you can’t volunteer, then build your own personal learning network. Find people in the field you are interested in and follow them on Twitter, read their blogs, friend them on Facebook, circle them on Google Plus, and subscribe to the listservs. Get involved in the larger conversations even if you are just a listener. (You should probably build your own personal learning network anyway.)

Find your passion.

That pretty much sums it up. What library or librarian aspect ignites that fire within? Digital divide? Book challenges? Open access? School media? Reader’s advisory? Find it and begin the journey to mastering it. Become the expert, the advocate, the one who stands up before their peers and says, “This is important”. Join forces with others who feel the same way. If you see no one else tackling the issue, than it is up to you to do it.

Have fun.

(That’s up to you to figure out.)

In the end, there’s a lot of noise about the vigor of MLS/MLIS programs, the state of the job market, the value or professional organization, and the future of the profession and libraries. It’s a constantly moving circus sideshow, a necessary but distracting conversation compared to what is going on in the three rings underneath the big tent. It about meeting the expectations of the main event, to provide all the sights and sounds and wonders that people come to the library for, and to ensure the continuation of the show down the road.

You may accept or reject all or none of this advice, but please accept this final one:

Good luck.

Beyond Content & Container

Julie Strange wrote a thought provoking post on her blog a couple of days ago entitled, “The Knowledge Moved”. (It’s a really good post. You should go read it. I’ll wait.) She writes that the mediums of information and literature have changed and yet libraries in general have stuck with the standards; that our services, programs, and general attitude have not changed in the most basic of ways when it reflecting the technological realities of our respective communities. In the most basic of reductions, if libraries had a campaign slogan it should read, “It’s about the knowledge, stupid.”

The content versus container dynamic is nothing new; this ReadWriteWeb article from 2005 talking about a speech from 2004 looks a bit prophetic in the context of 2011. Within the library world, it is a good source of healthy debate and in my view one without an outright winner.  The words matter, the medium matters, and the rest is all contextual; there is value to the weight and look of the Gutenberg Bible itself as well as a PDF of the same book sitting on my iPad. To the reader, it is a subjective measure.

However, I think content and container is not the only dynamic present in the conversation. In fact, what I seek to do in this post is suggest another dynamic that intersects with content and container and influences the debate. Allow me some blog space to describe what I mean.

content-v-container

On the one side, we have content. This end of the spectrum holds that the words matter over the medium. Another way of saying this is that the importance is placed on the information itself rather than what form it possesses (be it book, movie, eBook, and so forth.) The words or music trump the medium, to the content person, because that’s about what is going in our minds and imaginations that is related to our preferences and perceptions of the world.

On the other side, we have container. This end of the spectrum holds that the medium in which the information is expressed is vital because of the context. A book is not the same as an eBook, listening to the vinyl record is different than an mp3 file, and reading Shakespeare is not the same as listening or watching the Royal Shakespeare Company perform the work. To a container person, the expression of the work makes the important difference.

Content versus container represents a constantly shifting dynamic in which works are judged on the merits of each. It is a “chicken or the egg” riddle for librarians going forward as the number of literacies and mediums continues to expand.

And here is what I am proposing to add to this conversation.

access-vs-venue

On the left, there is access. I define access as the ‘where’ quality in that it relates to where people are when accessing information and literature. The extreme end of access is the idea that people would be able to reach the library anytime anywhere in the manner of their choosing or convenience (akin to a twenty hour hour convenience store). It is an emphasis on the availability of materials that defines the access end of the line.

On the right, there is venue. I define venue as the ‘how’ quality in that it relates to the platform and manner in which information and literature is perceived. It is about the interface whether it is in person, online via chat or email, or over the phone via voice or text. The extreme end of access is a complete focus on the portal or interface which the individual is using. Here, venue is defined by the steps required to in order to complete a search for information, use databases and other online resources, or complete a transaction with a library staff member.

Here is how I see these two dynamics intersecting.

4-points

In plotting them on the X and Y axis, I believe that it adds a required layer to the content-container conversation. Specifically, I am proposing that content and container needs to be examined in relation to the qualities of access (where) and venue (how). For example, it is not simply whether words are on paper or an eReader, but the manner in which those words were found matter as well. I’ve plotted some examples within this graph to try to elaborate on my meaning.

4-points-plotted

By plotting some examples at the extreme ends, I hope this provides some clarity to what I mean. While we can measure each quality independently, I believe that in placing them in this perspective can lend deeper insights into the changes in information mediums and expression. My hope would be that in plotting materials and services on such a graph that it would allow for better pattern recognition of community preferences and ongoing trends as clusters emerged. Perhaps then a better predictive model for information consumption would emerge, giving librarians better prognostication skills as technology and communication continue to evolve. In the end, I would also hope that this would serve to put librarians in proactive position as trend spotters and trend leaders.

***

I’ve struggled with this idea for awhile. And, for what it’s worth, I hope that my labors are not in vain for you the reader. In reaching back to my science background, I am hoping that it can properly articulate this concept in manner that makes more sense written down than floating around in my head. In writing this out, I look forward to hearing comments as to how this idea could be refined or rejected. (Yes, rejected. Science has that option.) So, please, share your thoughts!

Is Online Oversharing *Really* That Bad?

There is a common lament about online oversharing and, quite frankly, I don’t completely understand the complaint. If a person was standing in front of you prattling on about their personal life, you’d be stuck there till you got an opportunity to politely excuse yourself, make an attempt to change the subject, or have someone come and rescue from their overly personal self involved monologue (unless you happen to be someone who doesn’t mind being overtly rude, in which case more power to you). If someone is oversharing online, you can either ignore, mute, or hide their post; if they are a repeat offender, you can hide them from your newsfeed or circle or even unfriend or block them. Your escape from their TMI posting is just a mouse click away without having to thoughtfully consider your drink glass or trying to make “HELP ME” eye contact with a friend across the room. One mouse click and the offending material is removed from sight, never to be seen again.

Perhaps the reason people get upset is that it acts as an intrusion to a social circle that we have created. In surrounding myself online with friends, acquaintances, and professional contacts, I’ve created a personalized experience that allows me to keep informed of the daily doings and goings-on. When someone breaks that by posting something that falls into the realm of Too Much Information, it creates a fracture in the social mosaic. For all the time that you have spent making connecting, there is no button or filter for that stray unwanted content.

Alternatively, it could be that there is a disconnect between what people would say in person versus what they say online. Without the face to face component, people feel more at ease sharing details of their life that they might not. The computer interface does not judge the information, it just passes the posting along. There is certainly excellent anecdotal evidence of “keyboard courage” that people get when making anonymous blog postings or comments on websites; the only difference in this case would be that it is not anonymous. Or, also a possibility, without the face to face component, people do not see the immediate reaction to their comments or posts. In a conversation, they might alter or stop what they are saying on the basis of the other person.

There are some additional explanations worth noting. There are people out there who just plain overshare. For them, they don’t have a personal or a private side; everything about them is out there for the world to see. Whether it is purposeful, obliviousness, or narcissism, they feel the need to not hold back. (Whether that is a good or bad thing is another debate.) Another possible explanation is to the ignorance of the social ramifications of their oversharing. Again, without the physically present listener, they might not understand how their words, link, and pictures affect other people. In an age of society which has text, chat, and other word based means of communication, there may be a lack of socializing.

Or socializing might just be evolving with the variety of communication mediums that are now offered in the technological society. The physical playgrounds of my youth are being slowly replaced by the digital connections that children and teens can now create. How will social norms look in twenty years as the digital generations come to adulthood and maturity?

Getting back to my point, I cannot help but think that some of the laments about online oversharing are the result of filter failure. It may be a failure of the original poster to consider what may or may not be appropriate, but it is also the failure of the reader to not exercise their powers to mute, hide, block, and otherwise unfriend people who cross their boundaries. The social media sites have given us the power to control what we see, who we follow, and what we read. It’s up to us to use those tools.

What do you think? How much liability does the original poster share with the reader? Can we achieve our comfort levels? Or is it a constant battle to find the right level of sharing?

Kinder Words

It’s the quote above that has inspired this Sunday’s blog entry. When I read it, I immediately thought of a Michael Stephen presentation slide featuring a quote from Kate Sheehan, “Kindness is our chief export” (or something along those lines since I can’t find the slide again). In reading Kate’s post that invokes the statement from two years ago, she wrote at the time:

At Computers in Libraries, I closed my portion of Darien Library’s presentation by saying that “kindness is our chief export.” Of course, information is sort of important too, but I think for many of us, the two are irrevocably intertwined. This is how we know how to help people. Without the kindness, we lose much of our value to our community. When I am in need of a break from public facing time, I often say that I am “out of nice” for the day. I’m not out of the ability to find information, but on its own, it doesn’t do much for my organization or our users.

And what of kindness to each other? When we step back to look at the big picture of libraryland, do we forget the incredible amount of effort put forth by legions of dedicated library workers? Are we forgetting to encourage each other’s hearts? Darien Library has seen a huge number of librarians come through lately. Granted, they are a self-selecting group, but they are all people with the right intentions.

Intentions are too frequently overlooked. When we photograph bad signage or criticize seemingly outdated policies, are we encouraging self-awareness amongst librarians? I think that is the intention- to encourage discussion and to work together to figure out how to best serve our patrons, but it’s easy to slide into finger-pointing without looking at motivation. We’re all going to have bad policies or make foolish decisions at some point, but our intentions have to count somewhere. The tremendous amount of hard work and huge number of good hearts on the front lines of every library in the world have to count.

When I was sitting in the jury deliberation room waiting with my fellow jurors to be called into court, I realized that what I was about to hear was the culmination of hundreds of hours of work and effort. The accident was five years ago, the depositions that were referenced were from two years ago, and the people attached to the case (lawyers and litigants alike) were about to present that to eight strangers. From all of that, we would hear and base our decision that would make a difference in the lives of everyone involved on about eight to ten hours of testimony and evidence presentation. That’s an awful long time to work towards something, and it impressed upon me the seriousness of the civic duty. While some of my fellow jurors made jokes (some that I would find cruel), I found myself moving in the other direction toward the somber decorum of the court. The ‘kindness’ here would be to refrain from being dismissive as there was very real money involved in the suit. (As it went, it ended in a mistrial so I didn’t get to see or hear everything. But that’s another story.)

I can appreciate the “out of nice” sentiment that Kate references in her post; I too have had days where I would just like to hide in the office and focus on my off-public desk work. This week certainly tested it when I returned to work on Thursday and Friday. I had a modest pile of messages from patrons who insisted that they could only talk to me about their issue or concern, a decent amount of emails (we usually forgo email in favor of face to face, being a small branch and all), and a pile of time sensitive publicity that needed to go out. That’s only what existed on my desk; I needed to catch up on the various goings-on at the library, especially with a particular problem patron who had been creating disturbances. Toss in some interruptions and it creates an excellent recipe for frustration. (And as the air went out on Friday, add in an unmitigated building temperature rise.)

But, as the entertainment saying announces, the show must go on.

What I’ve learned over the last couple of years is a couple of tricks to put me in a nice mood when I’m having trouble summoning up the energy to do so. First, smile at everyone. By activating those smile muscles, you can actually trick the brain into switching to a better mood as the mind reacts to the actions of the body. It is a matter of actually smiling, not just setting your teeth and opening your lips. There are other muscles in the face that get involved in a honest smile.

Second, in smiling at everyone, people will tend to smile back at you. Our brains are trained to mimic the facial expressions we see in other people. It’s why when you think of a parent or sibling or special person in your life smiling you will involuntarily smile at the thought. Even for a fleeting moment, it will be there. You’ve now taken your mind trick on the road in improving the moods of the people you are smiling at. Combined with a “good day/morning/afternoon/ evening” and it can make that first contact with a patron start on an up note.

Third, and some may disagree with me on this, but I believe that I am in fact paid to be nice to people. As customer service is part of the whole librarian deal, I think that good customer service requires kindness, compassion, and understanding. This is not an invitation to be used as a doormat, but just a recognition that those qualities work in our favor as well to diffuse some anxieties and tensions people may be harboring. I also fully realize that it is not easy to be nice to people who are ornery, angry, or downright obnoxious; I would not tolerate such disrespect either. It’s a fine balance but I believe starting with kindness is the best opening to a conversation with patrons.

And it is possibly the best way to start a conversation with a peer as well on an issue, policy, or position. It starts by asking simply, “Why?” It no longer surprises me when I hear or read someone going off on their own tangent as to why they think something has been done, put into place, or otherwise established when it is clear they have not asked for further clarification. In the rush to offer their own opinion, they have forsaken the basic inquiries to explore the underlying reasons and rationale for a decision or policy. I’m fairly certain I’m guilty of it myself, but I keep working on it as an ongoing process. A little more exploration and a little less pontificating might do some good for unraveling the bad signs and policies that our professional peers end up creating.

Will being kind solve the issues of libraries of all types? No, but it sure won’t hurt it either. In the end, it won’t matter how many questions you answered or how many books or DVDs or database articles you found; it will be how the person felt during the transaction. The reputation economy is alive and growing; it doesn’t hurt for the library to be part of it as a leader in the kindness commodity.

(Note: While I was writing this blog post, Jenny Reiswig pointed out that I had a typo in the original graphic; I had uploaded it to my blog and Flickr as I was writing this. Thanks Jenny!)

“We have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty.”

A couple of days ago, the last space shuttle launch took place at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. As someone who grew up only knowing the space shuttle program, it was truly the end of an era. I certainly wasn’t the only one who got misty eyed to watch Atlantis lift from the launch pad and start its eight minute journey to orbit. From reading my various social media outlets, there were some strong feelings about the ending of the program and what the future of space exploration would entail. Later that night, the Science Channel had a special on the launch and everything that goes into making it possible; thus, the misty eyes returned once more.

Though I am now a long ways from being one, I shared the same dream as many other children my age did to be an astronaut, gliding high above the Earth right at the edge of a great vast beyond. Since then, I’ve traded one space for another, one of stars and planets for one of information and data. But that still doesn’t stop the sense of adventure and curiosity of wanting to go up and see, even as I harbor a well self-fabricated fear of flying. The desire for visceral tangible adventure is the product of the sensory creatures that human beings are; it is one that cannot be achieved through the online existence that many have settled for having.

It’s a pity that the majority of my memories around the space program come from the disasters associated with it. I remember where I was for the Challenger disaster (third grade and the fortune not seeing it live on television; I would see it later on the news that night). I remember where I was for the Columbia disaster (at home in my apartment in Delaware watching CNN on the tiny television that was in the bedroom). In between, there were launches and space walks, talk of space stations (first Mir and then current International one), and the transient interest of television reporters talking about budget cuts to the space program. Even now, the next generation of space telescopes is at risk of being shelved. And I feel frustrated once more.

I do wonder if the kids in elementary school now will still want to be astronauts when they grow up. I would hope so. And I would hope that our generation would be working on the next step of space travel to make that possible for them. What is it to dream big if we deny them all of the wonders that lay beyond the clouds? There must always be the promise and hope of space; it rests with us to make it possible.

[The title is a quote from the television series Firefly.]

Turn the World Around

Do you know who I am

Do I know who you are

See we one another clearly

Do we know who we are

Between ALA Annual in New Orleans and TEDxLibrariansTO in Toronto, I feel I am missing out on two important librarian gatherings going on right now. In my perspective, the importance is in their timing in the scheme of things.

[Originally, this was one post talking about both ALA and TEDx. Upon review, I broke it out to two separate posts. You can read the other part here. -A]

For the TEDx conference, I was reading fellow Mover & Shaker classmate Eric Riley’s recap of the event. It sounds like it was a great event but Eric hit something that I have been stirring in the back of my brain for a long time.

But honestly, I think there is a gem in this idea, and Fiacre and Shelly really nailed it. There is a desire in libraryland to have a more engaging conversation about the profession.  Something that is driven from the ground up, from researchers, from visionaries, from people who are out there in the field working to shape the profession into something new.  We need this conversation as a profession.

On the heels of my “Why, How, What” advocacy post, I’ve been thinking that the profession needs what can only be described as an old fashioned spiritual revival. The almost Vulcan-like focus on the statistics and studies about the effectiveness of the library in various settings (public, school, academic) turns the conversation around the library into a business-like bottom line discussion. It’s just wrong, really. For myself, it loses the sense of wonder and curiosity that this information age can now accommodate.

Indeed, where is the noble sense of purpose? Where is the irrepressible sense of being? Why are those intangibles, those glorious personal intangibles being so roughly cast aside? For the people who love the profession, who see it through when times are tough, days are long, and patrons are just driving you nuts, it is not the cost/benefit calculus of salary and benefits that sees us through another day. To steal a phrase, it’s the love of the game.

This is not simply the time of an information renaissance; it is a new age of connectivity and communication, an information exchange at multitude of levels from the dry academic to intensely personal. Our communities comes for the emotional experience, whether it is the profound sadness or joy in books, music, and movies or the sense of accomplishment in learning or the feeling of belonging in reaching out online. They aren’t vessels awaiting a cargo of knowledge; they have come to feel, to experience, and to be.

Perhaps this is a continuation of the ‘why’ aspect of the advocacy post, but I think it gets lost in the mix very easily. The profession seems to slip when it portrays the library as a sterile, non-judgmental destination, acting under the premise that the only think people seek is an intellectual safe harbor. Rather, it is a cacophony of viewpoints and expression, a dangerous mix of prose written by potentially unsavory individuals in the distant and immediate past. It is about straining to hear through a chorus of voices that mark many experience paths and finding one’s way.

That is where librarians come in.

Once more, it has to be about the joy. It has to be about the excitement of discovery. It has to be about the sense of service. It has to be about the wonder of what lies on the next page, the next website, or the next program. It has to be rooted in the emotional, the feeling, the very essence of the spirit.

What will see the profession through into the future is neither money nor professional organizations nor studies and statistics nor even well written statements of support from library supporters but the spirit that brought us to the profession in the first place. It’s time to get back in touch with that most basic of force in our lives.

We are of the spirit

Truly of the spirit

Only can the spirit

Turn the world around