Resolution, 2013

I have to admit that the end of the year turns me into a optimist. In that brief window of time from Christmas Eve to waking up on New Year’s Day, the cynicism that has built up over the course of a year stubbornly melts away. Perhaps it is the magic and the wonder of the season, maybe it is the marking of the end of the calendar, but in that brief glorious time frame, everything seems fixable, solvable, and otherwise capable of closure. It doesn’t diminish the efforts required to reach such resolution, but it looks like an attainable goal.

I hate when that feeling slips away as the holiday makes its way down the memory hole. It’s as if the solutions that have presented themselves are somehow hitched to that feeling; they are being carried out in the same motion that the holidays are leaving. But I know, deep down, that I can’t keep prolonging the holidays in the hope of keeping the spirit. I need to find a way to continue it forward of its own accord.

In writing this out, I guess my resolution for the year is to remember that the issues in my life (personal and professional) can be solved. It seems silly to write or even say out loud, but sometimes it takes something simple to remind yourself that “crushing reality” of a situation or issue is neither crushing nor reality. It just looks that way.

I hope we can all remember that this year as we tackle those professional issues like eBooks, Big Data, and copyright. I especially hope I can remember that when I am wrestling my own personal demons (and likewise as you deal with yours). Here’s to a year better than the last.

Are We in the Midst of a Lost Generation of Librarians?

I’m working on another post right now, but there’s a question that keeps lingering in the back of my head. I can’t quite seem to resolve it so I’ll share it in the hopes that additional minds can help me out.

Are we in the midst of a lost generation of librarians?

It’s not a single thing that makes me think this, but several. It’s the common story of newly degreed librarians not being able to find positions within a short period of time after graduation. This creates a delay in terms of professional experience if new librarians are taking one to three years to find a job. So, for a profession that is generally a second career (as it was for me), it’s a double late start.

Does this lack of near immediate employment delay entry and involvement into professional organizations? I feel it does. While people are encouraged to join organizations as students, I feel that membership is the first to go if they are struggling through the job market. This generates another delay as it relates to professional involvement. Nevermind the fact that some libraries are cutting back on offsetting professional association dues, funds for conference attendance, or other professional development activities. Even then, in a place that recognizes seniority, those opportunities still may not present themselves.

Combined with the changing role and place of the library (technology! embedded! eBooks and eContent! classroom based!), it becomes a moving target in terms of skill sets. Even though the common complaint is that “my graduate school did not teach me how to do X”, there is an expectation of the skills and knowledge needed for the library at that current moment that the coursework is geared towards. While it is true that certain skills will never go out of vogue, the desire for employers to hire someone who can do the latest and best is not completely unexpected. Are these librarians going to be eventually bypassed on that basis if they can’t find a library job within five years? Perhaps yes, perhaps no.

In writing this, I’m hoping to get additional ideas, thoughts, and perspectives on this question. I would be happy to be shown that we are not in the midst of a lost generation, but I don’t have the data to point to an answer in either direction. So help me out here, please.

Librarianship as a Journey

For me, librarianship is a journey into ignorance.

In walking past the rows of books, I’m reminded about how little I know about the breadth and depth of the universe. Hundreds of thousands of published works around me combined with numerous online databases and resources represents a daunting amount of information. I wouldn’t even dare say the percentage of my knowledge would reach a whole number; it might be one of those comical numbers where the first number at the end of an absurdly long line of zeros appears far far away to the right of the decimal point. It is a moment where you feel just how confined your awareness exists; it is most akin to thinking about just how tiny you are in comparison to the scale of the universe. The profession has made me painfully aware of the limits of my knowledge about the world, even when thinking just about the parts that someone bothered to write down in print or online and share.

It is a constant confrontation with my own ignorance. It is a reminder of how frail, limited, and symbolically mortal my knowledge is. It makes the difference between locating and knowing look like a chasm, for the superficial understanding of most subjects that I possess is generally just enough to do my job without missing a beat so I can move on to helping the next person, phone call, email, or IM. While I thank people for the compliment when they praise my intelligence for locating something or answering their question, it often belies my actual knowledge in the subject matter. I personally cannot explain the nuances of quantum mechanics, Impressionism as an art movement, or the cultural causes behind the Stonewall riots, but I know where to find that explanation or recounting.

But, little by little, in answering their questions, I am pushing back the borders of my own knowledge limitations. Each day brings a new fact, topic, or tidbit of information that I didn’t know the day before. I may not be putting a significant dent into the sum total of what could be learned in this universe, but I am pushing back the boundaries just a little bit each time. It is this tiny benefit that makes me appreciate the journey even more.

For me, librarianship is about being self aware of one’s own ignorance and embracing it as an impetus to stay curious, to seek answers, and to continue to grow. It is truly a journey into ignorance.

Dream Big

I’ll admit that I didn’t watch or listen to the President’s State of the Union address last night. I was in bed feeling ill after an otherwise good day. I was following it on Twitter as people tweeted the points they liked and made their own observations about the proceedings. There was something in the tweets at the end of the President’s speech that stuck in my mind and compelled me to look up a transcript of the address hours later. It was people talking about the ‘dream big’ ending to the speech. I lay in bed for a long time, staring at the screen of my laptop as I let the words sink in. A couple of things came to my head.

Does libraryland have dreamers? The answer came back as an immediate and resounding yes, but current conditions call for realists. Realists in the sense of keeping library issues grounded to the limitations of staff, facilities, and funding. People who can tell the profession and the public about the consequences of funding loss, the smaller resources, and the diminished services. It is a time for serious people; those who can crunch numbers, present bare facts, and engage all parties for the continued use and funding of libraries. What does it matter if the library has a mobile website or video games or employment assistance computer labs if they can’t keep their doors open? Numbers are king as door counts, program attendance, items circulated, and database accesses drive advocacy efforts.

Without a doubt the realist has an important place in the overall picture. You need to have someone who can ensure the future through the basic necessities (in this case, money). But for all the worries, concerns, and other issues, do librarians give themselves enough time to dream about the future?

To that question, I wish I had an answer. My instincts say no but my brain says that the jury is still out. Which, to me, brings up more questions instead. When people dream about the the future of the library, do they think of the next financial year? The technology that exists now that they want to incorporate into their collection? The programs they’d want to schedule next month, next summer, or the next year? What they want to accomplish on their state association or ALA group at the next annual conference? How far into the future do people think when they are asked to dream about the future of the library?

These are all good thoughts on future concerns, but for myself, it is still a bit smallscale. Where are the big dreams? Or, more importantly, what are the big dreams? What are the visions of fulfilling the mission of the library in twenty, thirty, or even fifty years from now? Will it still be a place? Will it be entirely person to person focused, whether physical or virtual? What is the future of information access? How will the library be involved in the lives of members of society?

It’s important to remember that dreams are not about accuracy but about possibilities. No one knows how technology and communication will change in those periods of time because they are moving along so quickly. But to deny dreaming big under that reasoning is to deny most (if not all) future thought as well. I hope that after reading this that you take a moment, clear your mind, take a deep breath, let go of the immediate future, and just dream big for libraries. Maybe just your own, maybe just your type, or even the field as whole. But just stop for a moment and dream.

And if you do, dream big.

The Infernal Sunshine of an Overactive Mind

19371730147_ORIGTonight, I went through my notepads and organized them. As you can see, I have a little love affair for the legal pad. If I forget to bring one, I will deputize another one to take its place. This creates multiple notepads on the same subject and can make the statement “I don’t have my notes in front of me” more ominous as I have to pore through multiple notebooks to find what I seek. Even then, some notepads get pulled into other services in a pinch. Tonight’s effort was to take pages from the pads and match them to the right ledgers. While loose paper is not an ideal solution, it is better in the long run to have it organized than to have it neat and tidy.

If it’s not obvious, I love a good legal notepad. Combined with a decent pen (none of those disposables, this pen better have some grip to it), it’s my tool of choice for conferences, meetings, and working on thoughts and ideas. As I looked through some of the filled pads, I can see inklings of stuff that eventually came to fruition. These are in the minority compared to the sum total of the ledger; there are many other jottings that never came to pass, whether it was from change in direction of thought or not enough time or simply left aside. It makes me think about the amount of castoff concepts and ideas that get left behind everyday. I know I can drag out these notepads and go over them as a reminder of what I was thinking at a certain time, revive past concepts, or find inspiration for something new. With the notepads, I can block out any of the usual online distractions that take away from my writing and really focus on the words, sentence cadence, and paragraph fit.

(Just a quick aside: this is not a repudiation of the smartphone, netbook, or other device people use to take notes, tweet, or post blurbs about conferences. It’s just that it doesn’t work for me. There is something about having the words enter my ear, go to the brain, then translated into writing that makes the experience more memorable. I’m not worried about getting the right hashtag or the wifi dropping me and other aspects that really distract and derail my train of thought. I can just write, make notes in the margins, and let stuff just flow out onto the paper.)

Some of my blog posts are born on these pages. There are snippets of sentences and paragraphs that I wanted to capture before they disappear. Jumbled on the page, I think it might give one a glimpse of the disjointed thought process that sometimes plays out in my brain. It is a strong start and a strong ending looking for a middle, or a essay in search of a stirring conclusion, or blog post in search of a catchy title or introduction. I can get hung up on a phrasing or word choice so easily that there will be parts in brackets just so I can keep writing the rest of the thought and agonize over it later. Even then, it’s just me, the pen, and the paper trying to hash something out.

At this moment, the notepads are a reminder of all the things I want to write: blog entries that have been hovering around my mind, a (long overdue) blog post for 8 Bit Library, perhaps another entry for the Young Librarian Series, thank you notes to speakers, and letters to all sorts of people. The list of prose grows, for certain, and there is much to write, read, edit, and send. And, hopefully, with a little luck, I can keep all those notes in order.

Here’s hopin’.

Hide ‘n Seek

Camouflage. Both prey and predator species use it in nature for their own purposes.

Prey species use it to hide or blend in. Whether they match with the foliage or the rest of the herd, it’s a survival technique. You can’t get picked off if you don’t get picked out. Never stand out, that’s the name of the game.

Predator species use it to hunt. They meld in shadows and landscapes, either by coloration or clever disguise. The deception is revealed only when it is too late for the quarry. Lure them in and then strike when they least expect it.

To a librarian, the library is our natural environment. Amid the desks, stacks, computers, and other benign furniture, we work as a greater part of the information exchange. We dress the part, looking (more or less) like we work and belong at the library. To our patrons, we are part of the institutional landscape.

As you think of yourself as part of the overall library scene, consider about what your library camouflage means: are you just fitting in to go without notice, or are you biding your time for the right opportunity to impress patrons with knowledge of materials and resources while demonstrating how it fills their needs?

Are you that of a prey or a predator?

(Author’s note: The alternative title to this post is “An ode to Seth Godin” since I think it closely resembles his style of postings.)

Tuesday Night Deep Thought: Information Future?

Today I found myself pondering the following question:

“Where will information content be in five years? Ten years?”

And after a long bout of deliberation this evening, I couldn’t really come up with an answer. I think that’s part of our professional problem, really. I can’t think of one person who has more than the most speculative of an educated guess. I’m sure there are some who might read this and take umbrage at this statement, thinking that they are or know someone who could provide an answer. But my guess is that if we were to take the answers, seal them in an envelope, place them in a time capsule, and open them in five or ten years, they would be mostly (if not completely) wrong. (There could be a wager in this, I reckon.)

In thinking about the future, I did a survey of the past. I took a look at some of the sites I use now (and some related ones) to acquire a proverbial snapshot at what existed, what just started, and what was yet to be five years ago. Here are the results:

  • Established five or more years ago: Amazon, Blogger, Livejournal, Delicious, StumbleUpon, Google Picasa, LinkedIn, Wikipedia, WordPress, LISNews, TinyURL.
  • Infancy/just started five years ago: Gmail, Facebook, Bebo, Flickr, Yelp, Netvibes, Ning, Reddit, Library Thing, Digg, Kayak, Vimeo, Newsvine, Renren (formerly Xiaonei; it’s the world’s largest social network based in China).
  • Didn’t exist five years ago: Google Calendar, Reader, & Maps; YouTube, Twitter, Friendfeed, Tumblr, Diigo, Foursquare, Jaiku, Plurk, Good Reads, Brightkite, Scribd, Hulu, Fancast.

This doesn’t mention the leaps in technologies like mobile phones (iPhone, 2008) or e-readers (Kindle, 2007) within this time period, nevermind the announcements of the last few months (the iPad and the Nook). Nor does it include the general decline in printed newspaper and periodical readership that has trended during this time period. And, to toss something else into the mix, it doesn’t account for the change in design of library spaces that make them more community oriented (this would be more of something of the last ten to fifteen years, give or take).

There is simply a lot of things going on; too much, I believe, for anyone to grasp in terms of the big picture. And I think it’s time that the librarian community admits that we really don’t know where exactly information content is going to end up in that time. Sure, we can say where it will be in the short short scale of maybe a year, perhaps two, but beyond that is lost to us.

Am I wrong?

(Edit: Fixed a spelling mistake.)

The Disconnect

Big tree limb down on the property Right as I was finishing dinner on Wednesday night, the power went out. The chili was basically done, left to sit on the gas stove and allow the flavors to intermingle. I had started to bake some cornbread which, once I remembered after locating the flashlights and candles, was about half baked. The house has a gas fireplace and we had been through this power loss routine before. We sent out text messages (I did a couple of Twitter updates) and made a few calls to let people in the area know what had happened (and reported it to the utility company), and then put them down to save on our charge. Gathering what we needed into the family room, we hunkered down in front of the fireplace and made the best of it.

Kathy had a book and read for most of the evening (and as it would turn out, most of the night). I had a book as well that I could have gotten, but I was in no mood for reading. I wasn’t really in any mood for doing anything, really; I was just listening to the wind outside. Laying on the couch, with the crackle of the fire, eyes looking out the back window area watching the tree sway in the wind. Shortly after the power went out, we had limbs from trees around the Where the trees were hitting the front  of the house house breaking off under the weight of the snow and hitting the roof. You wouldn’t hear the crack, just the dull thud as it hit the roof and rolled off. A couple of these whole limbs, perfectly healthy limbs (not a good sign), snapped off at the trunk of the tree. Most rolled off the roof and into the shrubs, squashing them under the weight of branch and snow. I wouldn’t say that I wasn’t worried that one of these branches would fall in such a way that it would smash a window or take out the power lines, but I tried not to let it cross my mind.

Early in the evening, I went out to shovel a little bit. I wanted to do something and that was the only thing that I could really do. I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to do much or get very far, but I was not ready to simply lay there while this was going on. The driveway of the house is not under and trees, so I was going to stay out in the open and not risk getting hurt or killed by a falling branch or tree. I told Kathy I would knock on the window at regular intervals so that she wouldn’t worry; if it went too long without a knock, she should come check up on me. The eaves on the house are rather wide, so I had a place to duck under to avoid any potential falling debris. I got wrapped out and headed outside to shovel the back walk and anything else I had the strength and energy to do.

Once outside, it was bright in only the way that a winter landscape can be. The dark trees against the cloudy sky made everything stand out as I shoveled my back to the driveway. It was apparent very early on that this was going to be a short trip outside if I wanted to continue to shovel; the heavy wet snow was enough to make any snow removal arduous. I didn’t want to take out the snowblower since there is a lot of driveway under trees and I wasn’t feeling that adventurous. So, in standing under the eaves of the garage, shoveling every now and again, I would listen for the wind to kick up. You could hear it coming through the trees from far away, so I’d stop, watch, and listen.

Big downed limb on the property Near and far, you could hear the sounds of branches snapping, their popping and crunching coming through the winter air. Some were so close I’d peer through the darkness to see if I locate the source; others were like distant gunshots, their noise taken away by the wind. I did hear one crash close enough to put it a house or two away, but my vantage was blocked. I did go around the edge of the house to check out the limbs that had fallen, to note their location, and to see if there was any visible damage to the house itself. During this period in time, I watched someone try to make their way through a side street, their tires spinning in the sleet and snow mixture that had formed on the road. I don’t know what would possess anyone to leave their home, but it must have been enough to brave the storm.

Afterwards, I came back into the house, changed into pajamas, and took the couch that I would be sleeping in that night (pictured below). There, laying on the couch, listening once again to the fire next to me and the storm above me, my situation dawned upon me.

My bed for our night without powerI had not been so utterly disconnected in a long while. No computer, no text (saving phone charge, just in case), no games, no television, no technology whatsoever. I had no idea what time it was; I couldn’t even remember the date. As I lay there, my mind was still churning but without the usual external stimuli. It was like a party where the noise level suddenly dies down and all but one person shuts up so their voice carries throughout the room. In this case, my mind was the only voice left.

And so, as I lay under many layers of blankets, I just let my mind roam.

I can’t really say that I thought of anything deep and profound, but that I didn’t realize how much of my day had some form of technological input. Even when I’m out and about away from the computer screen, I text on a fairly regular basis with a number of different people. It didn’t matter where I was, there was always a level of connectedness that was present. With the power loss and a driveway full of snow, it was gone. It was a disconnect that I hadn’t experienced in years. (As I write about it now, I think it might have been when I was riding around Australia on my own back in college.)

And so it was, staring at the ceiling and watching the flickering of the fireplace light on the ceiling, almost a passenger in my own brain. With the outside idea support structures away, it was left to its own devices. Scenes from my life, work at the library, friends new and old, just wandered in and out as the night stretched on. I have no idea how long this went on; I know Kathy told me I dozed off several times.

As much as I would think to avoid putting a moral or conclusion on this experience, it feels right to say that I need more kind of this time. While it could be at home, the temptations of the household technology make it a harder sell. I should think that, in conjunction with my new year’s resolution to get out of the house and be more social, I should be looking for more opportunities to find places that make such temptations hard if not impossible. I’ve heard of monasteries that rent rooms to people to allow them to come and stay (with devices forbidden), but I’m thinking of some more local nature destinations. Banish the cell phone to the car, go camping or hiking, maybe visit the beach. I’m not completely firm on ideas, but this feels like the right direction.

It’s always interesting to me how the perception of things can change with just a little shift. I guess this was one of those times. And from the looks of it, it was a tiny bit overdue. This past year has put me on the move and perhaps it is time to take another. ;)

(For those interested, here’s the link to all of the snow pictures from the past week.)

Deep Thought Thursday Night

In libraryland, there are a lot of statistics that are measured: door counts, circulation of items, computer uses, reference questions, and so forth and so on. As I was getting ready for the end of the year marketing committee for my library system, I couldn’t help but think about some of the things that cannot be tracked. Specially, I wondered about the number of conversation opportunities that are missed by staff members.

I’ll give an example: I’ve watched people come in for a library card, fill out the paperwork, get the card, and thank the staff member and walk away. The staff member was courteous and pleasant; the patron was not problematic; and the overall process went smoothly. But at no time did the staff member offer the customer a library calendar, inquire about interests so as to link them with current programming, ascertain whether they have children within the age ranges of our programs, or otherwise engage in small talk that makes the library sound more welcoming and familial.

I know that all staff can’t be mind readers nor salesmen nor social butterflies, but within the broad range of personalities, they could do something. As we are a service economy with people holding high customer service expectations, is it wrong to think that we have to step up our game as well? I don’t have a ready made solution for this, but it has been rattling around my brain since it occurred to me this morning.

In any event, it’s something the Marketing Committee will be working on next year. Any thoughts or comments would be helpful.

The Law of Stackable Hamsters

Picture by jpockele/Flickr

On Thanksgiving, my brother was talking about one of his creative writing classes. He’s on the English faculty at a local college and, as a published author, he is tasked with teaching writing to incoming freshman and sophomores. I’ve certainly heard a lot about his students, both the good ones and the not-so-good ones, and some of his classroom experiences. But when he was telling a story and tossed out the term, “The Law of Stackable Hamsters”, I made him stop and explain that one.

When my brother is teaching creative writing, one of the aspects that he covers is the construction of a scene. Within a scene in a story, a reader will suspend disbelief to a certain degree in order for the author to tell their tale; however, there is a limit to the number of coincidences you can create within a scene in the book. Or, as my brother explained in an alternate way of considering the number of coincidences to include, there is a limit to the number of hamsters you can stack. You can stack two hamsters and they will generally stay in place; three hamsters and the underlying structure is very wobbly and possibly won’t hold; and you can’t try four or more hamsters because there is no way to stack that many without it falling over right away. Thus, my brother created the Law of Stackable Hamsters in the field of creative writing.

This explanation (and the accompanying mental images) had me giggling for hours afterward. When he was finished, I told him straight out, “I’m totally going to steal this.” With a giving shrug, he replied, “Go for it.”

So, without further ado, I’d like to propose the Law of Stackable Hamsters for libraries.

The premise is very simple: limit the number of steps that your customer has to take to get from a starting point (such as your homepage, information desk, circulation desk, or reference desk) to get to the information or service they are trying to reach. Consider the number of clicks that it take to get through your website to the content beneath, the number of referrals to other desks for service, and some of the forms and hoops that we make our customers go through for program registration and service requests. Beyond two or three steps, I believe customer’s experience suffers at an exponential rate. They aren’t going to think about whether they got their answer or not (although it will factor in); they are going to be thinking about how much effort it took to get to the conclusion.

For example, I inwardly groan when I hear a patron being told by staff that they have to go to another desk when I know that the person will just be sent right back because they need to do something here first before they can do over there. In one sentence from a staff member, they have just sent a customer on a journey that will end with visits to four desks. I grimace at the thought that customer may up feeling like they are getting the run around for no reason or that we don’t know what we are doing here. Another example: I don’t like the fact that it can take up to SIX clicks to get from my library’s main page to a program registration (it takes three if you know what you are looking for and use the search function). For myself, I can’t remember many websites where I had to click that many times to find what I was looking for without feeling like I was on a web archeological expedition. If I’m feeling a bit put out, what will the patron feel like as they navigate through the pages? For these two examples, it presents a column of stacked hamsters that will simply topple over.

(Yes, I know this isn’t a very new concept here. But I think it is a much more fun way to imagine it.)

For me, it embraces what I feel is a core value of the library: ease of access. As I work towards a more Star Trek information utopia, it is the barriers of access that concern me the most. Whatever we can do to make it easier, we should consider doing and/or working towards. From larger concepts (net neutrality and freedom of inquiry) to smaller ones (better web interfaces and universal staff training), ease of information access should be a priority that we strive for from our vendors, our professional policies and peers, and ourselves.

Please. Think of the hamsters.