This Is What A Blog Post about What Librarians Look Like… Looks Like

This week, two things happened on one day: librarians participated in The Day We Fight Back, a nationwide call to action to protest NSA practices of privacy intrusion and metadata collection. People were encouraged to reach out to their elected officials to express their discontent with current practices and to push for the USA FREEDOM Act, a bill that would curb or eliminate certain governmental data collection practices. It had the grassroots groundswell that I hope will lead to real change, even as my cynical side starts to snicker while settling in with a bucket of popcorn to watch my optimism writhe. 

The other thing that happened is the article “This Is What A Librarian Looks Like“, a photo essay featuring librarians whose portraits were taken at the most recent ALA Midwinter Meeting. The genesis of this opportunity comes from this post on the Librarian Wardrobe tumblr which calls for twenty librarian volunteers. The photographer Kyle Cassidy had done a similar portrait project with Occupy Wall Street participants (see those pictures here) which was subsequently covered by the Huffington Post. The resulting article features ten librarians along with personal testimonies on the profession. Personally, I thought it was a good article outside of the usual librarian media that paired excellent portraits with personal statements.

So, which do you think got the larger emotional social media reaction? If you guessed the fight for privacy and data protection against the NSA (both of which are highly valued librarian professional ideals), then you would be wrong.

As the article moved through social media, it didn’t take long before the nitpicking began. Not a diverse enough group, nobody from technical services or other specializations, claims of idea theft, and sighs about articles taking on stereotypes made its way across my Twitter feed. I could offer a rebuttal to each of these points, but I think it’s missing the greater problem here: the issue of the librarian public image is a quagmire within the profession. 

When it comes to the librarian’s image, I believe there is an internal struggle between giving an accurate portrayal of the profession versus showcasing the diversity. On the one hand, statistically, the profession is mostly white (87%), female (80%), and most likely heterosexual (I have no data to back this up other than inferences based on overall population demographics which places it at about 4%; if someone has a study on this, please share it in the comments). Like it or not, if the question was what does a typical librarian look like, that would be the most accurate answer; and giving the most accurate answer is an occupational pride point.

On the other hand, librarians are champions of minority causes, whether it is opinion, sexuality, race, creed, or otherwise. Our ideals are caught up in bringing these voices to the forefront, to give them a home within our institutional walls, and to curate and nurture them into the public eye. Shouldn’t portrayals of librarians reflect this aspect by presenting professionals from these minority populations? It follows the notion that those individuals from these demographics aren’t simply part of our collections, but they are part of our rank and file as well. 

To my way of thinking, that’s where the tension resides. It is what turns articles like the Slate one into argument flashpoints in which good and decent public image pieces are dismissed in favor of an unobtainable “perfect” article. It’s the drive to present a richly diverse profession when the reality simply doesn’t support that. You would need the next two years worth of library science graduates to be exclusively African American in order to reach percentage parity (12.6%) with the United States population; you’d need the next two and a half years graduates to be exclusively Latino to achieve the same (16.4%). Offhand, it would take nine years of graduates to be exclusively male to meet US gender ratios (48.8%). (For my math, I’m using the ALA Diversity Counts statistics and the Library Journal Placements & Salaries for the number of graduates.) It’s not a situation that will resolve itself in the near term, but will require multiple generations of librarians with focused recruitment to achieve demographics that fall in line with society at large. We are kidding ourselves if we reject positive articles out of hand when it’s going to take decades to reach the population diversity that we aspire to achieve. Everything is a step and there is no jumping to the end.  

Furthermore, I believe that the people who are least properly equipped to rehabilitate the image of librarians are librarians. I really don’t have faith when one of the most oft quoted lines in rejuvenate the image of the library is “we are more than just books”. Seriously? If we consistently bungle the public image of the library within popular culture, we are certainly not qualified to helm our own professional image campaigns. We need people who are creative, smart, media savvy, and not librarians to do the talking for us. What this really means is giving up control and putting ourselves into the hands of others. Just as people ask us for help, we shouldn’t be shy about asking it for ourselves. We can’t research ourselves out of this mess; we need professional help.

I’ll leave you with this thought that Peter Hepburn tweeted to me: “[L]ibrarians, to our users, look like anyone who helps them at a service desk, simple as that.” Now that’s a self portrait of the profession that everyone can fit into. 

The Illusion of Unity

Over the weekend, I was hanging out with Pete Bromberg who was gracious enough to help me fine tune (read: completely untangle) my forthcoming presentation for CIL 2012. In chitchatting on various things, one of the topics that came up was the lack of unity in libraries and librarians in dealing with some of the challenges of the profession (with eBooks being the latest of these issues). Pete asked a very cogent question that has stuck with me: how much unity can there be in the librarian profession when the issues, communities, politics, and challenges are generally hyperlocal?

As much as I’d like to imagine that there are universal challenges to libraries, this conversation has got me rethinking the prevalence of such a position. The funding matters around my library system are not the same as the local colleges nor the school libraries or even some of the libraries within the county who are not part of the system. The same could be argued for the communities served by each of these respective entities and the governmental and social politics surrounding them. While the terms “budgets” and “funding” played out on the headlines within New Jersey during the state cuts of 2010, I would say that you could plot out a map where fiscally devastated libraries bordered counties or municipalities with ones that were not touched. It’s easy to rally around stopping state budget cuts as a common platform, but an unequal impact is going to skew participation when some people are fighting for their livelihoods and others are not.

Pulling back to the state level, the vicious budget fights in states like Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, Michigan, and now California are simply not universal in their aspects. Yes, it is about state funding to libraries, but it is also what that state funding actually does. The absolute dependence of rural libraries in Ohio for funding is not the same fight as saving literacy programs in California. I’m sure that given enough time (and alcohol) that certain similarities could be determined, but even then the political reality and demographics of Ohio do not match that of California.

So when it comes to a national level, how much of a unified voice can a national organization like the ALA be? This is not to say that it is completely ineffective; the Washington office provides the lobbying support that is necessary to get legislation tweaked in order to serve broad library interests. However, when it comes to dealing with the Big Six or Elsevier, the effectiveness levels becomes extraordinarily wonky. While the reaction to the HarperCollins eBook limit was overwhelming, it was also extremely nuanced across thousands of public. Some libraries boycotted, some restricted their purchasing, others stayed the course with the idea of monitoring usage, and still others didn’t care because they weren’t buying eBooks anyway. While I was in a chorus of people calling for decisive action against this abomination, the boots-on-the-ground reality is that it was still a individual institutional decision happening at the local level in direct relation to the community, politics, and finances. I know that there were people who agreed with such action philosophically; however, their responsibility was still to their constituency. I would say that the same sort of calculation comes into play whether you are talking about academic access to serials (and possibly why the ‘serials crisis’ lumbers on like a drunk on a pub crawl), funding for school libraries, or any number of issues that entail a widespread librarian consensus. The hyperlocal nature of decision making will always trump the national level, try as we may. It’s just the way it is.

To be clear, I’m not walking back what I said in my Big Tent Librarianship piece. I can still see the similarities in principles and values that I feel are a common thread in the profession. I have experienced it through my participation in groups like the Library Society of the World, the ALA Think Tank, and other cross type groups. There is certainly a sense of community that exists, but I believe it rapidly loses cohesion as it scales up. All politics is local, as the saying goes, and so are the decisions and stances of the library.

If anything, this re-thinking would bring me some sort of peace to where I felt frustration at the apparent inability to effectively organize and take action on anything but the most dire of threats to the profession. There’s just too many variables in play for each library location, too many cogs in the machine to create a consistent front against the less-than-lethal challenges. In coming to a conclusion as such, I find peace in trying not to constantly move the mountains. Perhaps this just means that my writing as well as others who are of a similar mindset is more urgent and important in terms of our tone and content. In reaching out to you the reader, we seek to make the changes on the local level that we cannot on the grand scale.

Unity in principles? We have. Unity in practice? Well, that’s another story.

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

The Reports of Our Professional Deaths Have Been Greatly Exaggerated, Part 2

From an opinion piece titled "Enough Already: Information Overload" in Business Day in New Zealand:

We can’t blame the internet for it all. Whilst it’s undoubtedly exacerbating the issue, information overload has been around for decades. It’s just that today it’s instantaneous. With transmission of data from one person to another so effortless, we’re oblivious to the potential anxiety of the person who may not need (or care about) the information we’re conveying.

The opinion piece refers to a survey done by LexisNexis in which white collar workers detailed their frustration in dealing with the massive volume of information (such as papers, emails [especially cc’d emails], faxes, social media, and other sources) coming their way. In reading the summary of the survey, it hits on three issues that the workers identified:

  1. “a surfeit of information” (people passing on too much information due to fear of passing too little);
  2. “a lack of relevance” (employees left to sort all the information that they get);
  3. inadequate systems for storing and retrieving information easily

Compare the results of that survey to this article from The Economist from earlier this year in describing the new superabundant information world that the advances in computing and communication have afforded us. (I wrote about it when it came out.) Now, if the survey results are to be trusted and combined with the increased data outlook in the Economist article, I daresay the librarian profession could capitalize on these trends to assert their value in the private sector (either as an ‘embedded’ librarian, consultant, or information service provider). I’m sure some savvy librarian entrepreneurs out there could make the case to companies that, as the oft quoted motto is “time is money”, the loss of productively could be offset with training in information vetting, effective and efficient searching, or even someone on staff who is trained in information management.

I can see such a niche industry popping up within the next five years, if not sooner. What do you think? Is this something that the profession would rise with the moment? Or has that train left the station?

Library Day in the Life

Since it sounded like a lot of fun, I took up the Library Day in the Life Project started by Librarian by Day. Here is what my Day in the Life looked like; I took notes throughout the day.

8:33AM
The alarm goes off. And the cold war via snooze button proxy begins.
8:50ishAM
I finally arose after a good long wakeup time period. My morning routine is rather simple: shower, dress, grab breakfast and my bag, and head out to work. Except, of course, that I’m out of my breakfast bars so I have to grab one of my wife’s. And, based on how I am feeling, I grab a yogurt as well for snacking at the office. This day has the hallmarks of being “exceptional”; when I turned on the radio, I heard a lovely British voice on the BBC World Service slowly say the phrase, "actual rapes in prison". I quickly swap to the Preston & Steve Morning Show where they are discussing Penn State being named the #1 party school in the United States.
9:35-10AM
For the record, I am cursed never to arrive on work on time. Whether it is five seconds or five minutes, The Fates conspire to put time wasting obstacles in my path. Unless I leave at the crack of dawn, I will never be on time. Ever. This started long ago when I was flew past my birth due date by almost a month. My mother has not allowed me to forget this since then.

At any rate, I enter and bid everyone a good morning (including Socrates, pictured right). I check in with my boss Suzi and help pull patron holds. One of the books on hold eludes me till I call over others to double check me and realize I’ve read the number completely wrong. Exceptional day, indeed.
10AM-1PM
I’m on the reference desk this morning, so I log into my email and Twitter there. Mercifully, the inbox has not full of dire emergencies that need my attention RIGHT THIS MINUTE. Quickly I catch a few easy reference requests and questions and then things settle down. I put a reserve on the Job computer and the one next to it for my Job 1 on 1 later today.
No lie, it takes ten minutes to catch up on Twitter. Apparently, there are people who start working before 10AM and have access to the internet. I have to keep clicking till I reach my own last post. I click on links in order to open them in other tabs so as to read through them as the morning goes on.

As the morning turns into afternoon, I get a call from my coworker Joan about the text message pilot program. We are working on putting the final touches on publicity so we can start advertising as soon as possible. This is the final week of preparation before we start churning out publicity for the text message pilot program. A quick call up to Nancy Dowd at the State Library and we’re back on track. Also, I remembered to share all my Google Documents with the rest of the team for this program while I was thinking of it. And finally, I got to polish off the wording on the staff instruction; now, it awaits some graphics (more on the later.)

During this time, I was have a steady stream of patron interruptions in the form of fielding questions, calls, program registrations, and meeting room signups. I did have a nice conversation with one of my previous Job 1 on 1 participants who has found a job. It’s not in his field, but he’s happy to be employed and the hours give him time to find something better. I felt pretty relieved since, out of all the participants I’ve had so far, he’s been the most desperate to find work.

I was able to chat on IM with The Strange Librarian. We were able to arrange for our library based double date (my wife is a librarian, her boyfriend is an archivist), chat about customer service (summary: fines bad, but people gaming the fine system worse), and the lively chat on Twitter regarding librarians and the Martyr complex. And, oh yes, the lusty libido that the library lodges.

But the real question is figuring out what to get for lunch…

1-2PM
…which ended up being a tuna salad on sesame bagel from one of the local  places. (They make a pretty stellar bagel.) “You Got Another Thing Coming” by Judas Priest was on the radio; it certainly felt like the theme for the morning.

I ate lunch with Suzi and Jackie (our circulation staff pit boss) and talked about library technology and swapping library system gossip (an always educational time). After lunch, I got to my desk and organized myself for my Job 1 on 1 and everything else that needed to happen later that day.

2-3PM

This was my Job 1 on 1 appointment. These can vary from people who need help with their resume and cover letters to people who are looking for search term help. At the very least, I introduce them to our Jobs & Career LibGuide, talk about social networks and its value in the job hunt, and try to coach where needed. For the patron this afternoon, it was some resume updating and helping with places to look online. We ran a couple of searches and got her some leads, so it was fruitful for her. Hopefully, I’ll be seeing her at the library on a regular basis so I can check up.

3-4PM
Finally, I get a chance to sit at my own desk and sort through the heaving living mass that is my workspace. I’m a note person so there are scraps of paper all over my desk full of reminders, ideas, plans, messages, and stuff I don’t remember writing. I get to check my emails, Twitter, and Google Reader as I relax into some serious desk time. (I can’t help but smile as a couple of items relating to the Ben & Jerry’s group come through the Reader and Twitter.)

I spent a good deal of time trying to take a photograph of my own phone for the staff instruction sheets for the text message program. Between the auto focus, the phone lights turning off, and trying to get the right angle, it was good lesson in micro-irritation. I got a couple of shots to come out which I will use on staff sheet.

 

I hope this little visual aid will help my colleagues with the rest of the instructions.

4PM

Most days, when the time chimes to 4pm, I am overwhelmed with the desire to nap. It doesn’t matter whether I’m on a desk, a program, a meeting, wherever; I want to just curl up in a corner and take a rest. Today was no exception.

4:01-5PM

One of the Rivershark people I know sent me a request to post a flyer for Epilepsy Awareness night at Campbell’s Park on the Camden Waterfront on August 21st. So I printed out enough copies for all our branches, wrote a note on each envelope, and sent it off to all of our branch managers and the coworker who handles publicity at our headquarters location. Hopefully, this will make it more likely for them to post it and get more people interested in the event.

From there, it was play time on Twitter and Google Reader as I checked out all of the links, posts, and whatnot that I had saved up through the day. The one that leaps to mind is TwitPaint which seems like a fun tool. From there, it was a matter of catching up with everything else and putting things into place for tomorrow’s work day. But, soon enough, the clock hit five and I hit the bricks. It was a day that got better as it went along and I’m looking forward to tomorrow.

As always.

I thought this would be more of a rigid timeline of my day, but adding context felt like the right move to do. It’s been fun to write, fun to dig up all the links, and fun to do overall. I’ve been enjoying the Library Day in the Life posts I’ve seen so far and look forward to seeing more!

To the Moon & Beyond

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

The first two sentences of this quotation by President Kennedy have been playing as a clip for some advertisement on television lately. I couldn’t care less as to what they were selling but it did compel me to go look up the full speech. In examining the full passage in which this snippet was taken, the broader motif of a rise to the challenges of the day emerges. It feels strange that the President’s words have come back to relevancy as plans are being made to go back to the Moon again.

I considered how this passage might equate to some of the challenges that are currently facing libraries, but it didn’t feel like it fit quite right within the broader sweeping vision. While the grassroots struggle to preserve public library funding is a true noble cause as it upholds the underlying principles of service and information access to all, there are questions that I still harbor about the evolution of the library. I feel the emotional currents that push the “library as a destination” community center concept. This notion is based around libraries being the last of the dwindling traditional town gathering places, a place with the familial feel of a Norman Rockwell painting. Perhaps not the temple of knowledge it was once perceived, but one where print and digital information and answers researched by a knowledgeable staff can be found. It is a teacher, it is an advisor, it is an entertainer, it is a friend; it is what the patron needs it to be. Yet we still find ourselves being defined by out of date perceptions and stereotypes as to what a library offers and stands for. We let these flourish as we choose to combat them when they arise rather than confronting them and redefining the conversation about the image of the library.

On the other hand, I can’t help but be influenced by the professional articles and conversations I’ve had about (literally) expanding the boundaries of the library into the surrounding community. The rise of Web 2.0 and mobile technology have pushed interpersonal connections and on demand information to unprecedented levels. Online resources in the form of databases and downloads have put previously inaccessible knowledge at the fingertips of the end user. Library automation, while imperfect, has released us from the most mundane aspects of collection management so as to concentrate on the customer experience. We are capable of breaking the tether of the library desk and extending our service reach into our immediate sphere of influence. Technology has freed the profession to take our services anywhere in the world, yet most still subscribe to the antiquated notion of being a passive presence, sitting and waiting to be chosen to answer like the shy smart kid in the classroom. 

So where does that leave us? How do we develop ourselves into a community destination? How do we extend beyond the confines of our buildings? How do we harness the innovations of Web 2.0 and beyond to guide and follow our patrons into the bold web future? How do we move to remain contemporary and relevant within these technology innovation cycles?

The questions presented are nothing truly new or revelatory, but are ones that we as librarians continue to struggle to address the issues they raise. Even as I write this, I wish I could offer any answers but I feel none quite suit. All I feel at this moment is a change in the direction of the wind indicating a new course to undertake. Like the space pioneers before us, it will take the combined effort of the library community to rise to the pressing challenge, to inaugurate a new phase of library evolution, and to work towards our shared information future. I will be bold and say that these concepts presented are the type that progressive librarians are working towards (and some libraries have reached in certain ways), but their much lauded success is tempered by the struggles of others. Only by lifting every library and every librarian to these lofty goals can we reach our own symbolic Moon and the universe that waits beyond. We hold within our grasp the methods and the means to make this so, to organize, to plan, and to proceed. I know there are others who hold similar thoughts in their hearts, who harbor the same desire in direction, and I urge you, “Now is the time to muster and act!” And think to yourself:

“When I look to the sky and see the future of the library in the stars, what do I see?”

I choose to work towards making the library a community destination. I choose to integrate Web 2.0 & social media and to embrace the revolution of user generated content. I choose to work towards erasing the lines of policy and perception that divide us from the people we seek to serve. That I choose these goals not because they are hard, but because they are necessary to continue mankind’s inquiry into themselves and the world around them.

I choose to go to the Moon.