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.

‘Information Overload’ Exaggerated (Just Like the Study That Says That)

Via Stephen’s Lighthouse:

“Information overload” may be an exaggerated way to describe today’s always-on media environment. Actually, very few Americans seem to feel bogged down or overwhelmed by the volume of news and information at their fingertips and on their screens, according to a new Northwestern University study.

Interesting, I thought. Could the Clay Shirky ‘filter failure’ of 2008 be a relic of the past? Have people gotten a hang of drinking from the information fire hose?

Well, not quite.

“There’s definitely some frustration with the quality of some of the information available,” said Hargittai. “But these frustrations were accompanied by enthusiasm and excitement on a more general level about overall media choices.”

The few participants who did feel overwhelmed were often those with low Internet skills, who haven’t yet mastered social media filters and navigating search engine results, Hargittai noted.

That last part sounds right up my alley: teaching people computer skills as well as showing them the tools to help them find what they seek. It’s a simply premise of the library being able to provide the latest to the people who are computer savvy while teaching those who seek to learn how. Plus, it totally fits into the extended mission of the library.

Although, to be honest, I’m not completely sold on the study and I don’t even need to read the actual paper to come to that conclusion.

“[R]esearchers recruited vacationers in Las Vegas to participate in focus groups. Seven focus groups were conducted with 77 total participants from around the country.” (Emphasis mine)

So, out of seventy seven people who went to Las Vegas (a sensory overload of another type but I digress), most people liked all the information in their lives and a couple of people didn’t. I’m not certain what this paper really proves except that it needs bigger and deeper studies.

This really makes me wonder what people consider to be ‘tons of options’. Would it be the first page of results on Google? All one thousand results from the search query? The reported billions and billions of results that it says are out there? And more media choices, what exactly does that mean? Netflix and iTunes?

In the giant pie chart of knowledge, this one seems like it falls squarely into the category, “Shit you don’t know that you don’t know”. What do you think?

Welcoming Words to the Latest Class of Library Science Students (Now Get Crackin’)

Right now across the country, there are new graduate student arriving in the classroom (both real and virtual) to start their academic journey towards a Master’s degree in Library Science. It’s hard for me to believe that I only graduated six years ago and have only been on the job in a librarian capacity for five years (this September will be my fifth year anniversary). It certainly has been a roller coaster ride for me in those five years and has taken me in directions that I didn’t think I would be ending up. After struggling with a previous career in commercial horticulture and a misfire by way of a year in law school, it is been a relief to finally find my niche in the world.

As such, I’d to offer advice to the incoming MLS class in the form that most commonly unsolicited counsel takes these days: a blog post from a peer in the profession. So, without further ado, here’s what I advise the newest and latest class of librarians.

“You Are Not Prepared”

It has become a common refrain online that the MLS program does not prepare its graduates for the larger and exponentially more complex library world. It raises the expectation that graduates should be trained to handle any possible situation that could ever arise in any type of library. I guess it makes sense when people expect doctors and lawyers to finish their advanced degrees being able to treat any illness or disease known to humankind or file any legal document and be able to present flawlessly in any level of court.

Oh wait.

It is my fervent hope that the degree will prepare graduate students in the principles of library science, knowledge of the canon elements of the degree (*coughCatalogingcough*), and some strategies for dealing with issues at the library, be it personnel, building, or community related. More importantly, I would hope it would nurture critical thinking skills that act within the framework of philosophies of library science so that projects, services, and solutions can be built and/or adapted to your current working environment. Maintaining the mission of the library within a shifting environment (be it funding, oversight, community, or technology) requires assessment and critical thinking skills that incorporate the beliefs of the profession.

Because, in all seriousness, nothing in grad school can prepare you for dealing with obstructive administration, cut throat vendors, staff ennui, and/or people who insist on shitting on the bathroom floor. There is no preparation for these aspects except the real deal.

Learn Paper, Breathe Digital

I take this lesson from my first semester at law school. We were not given Westlaw and LexisNexis accounts because, well, those things are expensive. My class learned how to research a brief based only what was available to us through the case books. It gave me a new appreciation for the texts and how they would lead me down other trails where the arguments and law were in contention.

There is a truth to the common refrain, “Not everything is online.” Hell, in my library, there is an entire vertical file full of things that are most certainly not online, a few maps from the 1800’s that are not online, and a bevy of local resources that will never ever show up in a Google search. Anyone who has done any genealogy work knows that the digital trail goes cold quickly and that the path to the past is in musty burial records, old church notes, and trapped in a paper medium somewhere waiting to be discovered. The information in the offline world still dwarfs that the seemingly limitless online one.

This is not simply to sing the praises of physical resources, but to know the when an online search will suffice versus when to hit the physical materials. A lot of the ‘reference’ work that happens these days can be handled by a simply online search, but the more in-depth questions can and will take you offline. It’s about knowing both worlds and being able to flow between them; it’s about being able to straddle the old world of print and dust with the new world of digital and platforms. The analog world has not been abandoned in the slightest, but drawn into greater contrast with the digital one.

Join A Library Organization (But Only If You Plan On Showing Up)

Library organizations are like gyms: anyone can join them. You can join one to have another line on your resume which only tells your perspective employer that you have the ability to fill out a registration form and sign a check that won’t bounce. Congratulations, you’ve shown an superficial interest in your chosen field!

You have to treat it like a gym: great that you’ve joined, even better that you’ll show up and put in the time to build a better you. Why? First, it’ll never be cheaper to join. Whether you are joining the ALA or your state organization, the student rate is cheap compared to the regular membership rate. Second, you can get more than just one resume line out your membership by showing that you can work on projects and committees that relate back to your field of interest. It’s showing a commitment to what interests you in the field and how you are playing a part in changing or furthering it. Third, there are excellent networking opportunities that allow you to make contacts that will help you finding a job. The last research statistic I saw on this topic is that the leading factor in finding a job was getting a lead from someone you know; library organizations are excellent at this kind of relationship building.

Use these aspects to your advantage to get a foot in the door, a better idea of the field, and start off your career with a slight advantage over others. It’s this kind of small boost that will make a difference when an employer is sifting through dozens of applications looking for the right person.

Whether you maintain your memberships after you get in the field is up to you. Personally, I’ve dropped mine for various reasons. There are advantages and disadvantages to keeping or discarding them so your mileage may vary. While I work well with others, I did not work with other’s bureaucracy or social dramas. So I’ve stayed outside for the time being, but that’s a whole other post.

Be Flexible

When I started my graduate program, I thought I’d end up in a law library. I was just coming off of law school, so why not? Then I thought I’d work in an academic library just as I had as a graduate assistant and an intern. But I ended up in a public library and never felt more at home.

My point is not a new one; the path we take in life doesn’t always the straight kind. But recognizing the existence of different paths and opportunities is something to be mindful of as the graduate program will expose you to other types of libraries and other kinds of librarians. Take the time to examine other paths and field before you really settle down on one or two. I entered graduate school with one idea in mind, left with another, and ended up in a completely different spot. It worked out well for me and it can for you.

You Don’t Need Permission

For a multitude of reasons, there are still those within the profession beholden to the idea that one has to wait their turn, make their bones, or otherwise have to ‘earn’ the right of recognition in order to start or carry out professional projects. This is fantasy bullshit, an enduring relic of a belief that awards subject to whose turn it is rather than who merits it, that those new to the profession must bolster the old guard before striking their own paths, and that seniority within the field is the measure of a person’s worth and the lens in which their contribution must be measured.

Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.

In the five years I’ve been working in the field, I’ve organized conferences, spoken at events, carried out local and national advocacy efforts, written for a professional journal, and probably a bunch of other things I’m forgetting. Some of those things, others have failed, and more are somewhere between the two points. Certainly for some of these things I had to seek permission for one thing or another at some point, but it wasn’t at the moment I decided to do it. This isn’t a license to run on a whim, but to take an idea, do some homework, and get it off the ground. The world will not wait.

**

I’d be curious to see what other advice my peers would offer to new Library Science graduate students. I hope they’ll leave a comment or link to this post on their blog. I’ll have to revisit this in a year and see if it holds true. In the meantime, welcome new graduate students and best of luck in your endeavors.

Save the [Insert Noun Here]

David Lankes wrote a blog post at the beginning of August in which he urges librarians to drop the “save the library” mentality and embrace an aspirational public relations model that advocates how libraries help their communities thrive. I’m inclined to agree with David; the ‘library in crisis OMG OMG OMG’ card has been played so many times that it runs the risk of support fatigue. Given that the actual closing of libraries has been disproven, it becomes disingenuous to proclaim that the end is nigh when reality points the other way.

Personally, I think there is trouble arising out of using the term “save”. First, it implies a conservation of the item or place or thing and a maintaining of the status quo. Not an expansion or an increase of support, but a maintaining of current levels. In other words, “we need your support to keep everything as is”. That doesn’t seem like an ideal position to pivot from to ask for additional funding, personnel, materials, or other public support. It’s playing defense without a plan to get out of our own half of the field.

Second, the term “save” has become ubiquitous to any cause around the world. In doing a simple Google search for “save the”, here are things that are looking to be saved in the first few pages:

children, frogs, manatees, internet, chimps, families, ta-tas, whales, tigers, the artic, Narragansett Bay, music, the Upper St. Lawrence River, plastic bags, rain, rainforests, mothers.

That’s a lot of stuff to be saved; it’s not even the exhaustive list. I’m wondering how far I would have to go and how many other causes I would pass before I found my first “save the library” website. It makes me ponder whether people actually hear the noun that at the end of a “save the” phrase; with the constant call to save something, what is yet another species/place/object in peril? I would guess people have learned to tune it out.

To continue down this path, my fear is the future of library advocacy will become a series of dewy eyed librarians looking into the camera while the saddest Sarah McLachlan song ever plays in the background. At 1am, you’ll find yourself  sitting on the couch bawling, between sobs saying the words into the phone, “Dear God YES I want my $30 monthly pledge to save a librarian from a life of literary neglect and absence of information access.” I don’t think is the progress we are looking for in terms of library issues.

To go a step further than David, I also think there is a victimhood mentality that gets a lot of play in the library world that needs to be dropped. We must to buy eBooks at their outrageous terms and prices or else our members will leave us. We must subscribe to these databases at their outrageous prices and conditions or else we are failing our students/faculty/administration. We must provide access in every way, shape, and form or else we are going to lose every successive generation from here to the end of time. We must give our members what they want no matter the circumstances or else the library will burst into flames and be swallowed up by the earth on its descent to Hell.

You get the idea.

It implies that we are hostage to our circumstances and are relegated to simply bemoan our predetermined fate. We couldn’t possibly seek to change the terms of a contract, agreement, or other arrangement if service or access hangs in the balance, no matter how shitty a deal is being dangled in front of us.

How can we empower our communities if we can’t even empower ourselves to walk away from the negotiation table over terms that are not in our best interest nor the people we serve? Why are we surrendering control in situations we really don’t have to?

Control. Exert some. And not just on subject headings, either.

Beyond Agreeing to Disagree

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been watching a couple of issues roll through the online librarian community: the Chick-fil-A gay marriage row, the Tosh ‘rape joke’ story, and the gun control commentary over the movie theater massacre in Aurora. I’m not here to rehash the multiple viewpoints on each of these subjects, but to hone in on something I observed with each one on both Facebook and Twitter: the loud and public announcements of unfriending or unfollowing on the basis of holding opposing positions by my fellow librarians.

On one hand, I understand it: a person can be so offended by someone else’s attitude that they wish to rid themselves of the malefactor. Social media is a platform of personal choices, ranging from whom to talk with to what to talk about. As such, it follows that it should not be an uncomfortable place.

Perhaps some of these actions are the product of the weak connections people have made on these services, choosing to associate with others for the most tenuous of reasons (“You like the color blue? Me too! Let’s connect!”). As easily as these bonds are formed, so too are they broken by the first brush with conflict; when relationships are built on such shaky connections, it does not take much to knock them down.

On the other hand, this open denouncement of another on the basis of holding a contradictory position has underlying implications that really bother me. Personally, I don’t see how ending an online friendship (acquaintanceship?) brings about any sort of understanding to any issue; in turning one’s back to another, it ends the dialogue right there. While I might not be able to convince someone to see things my way, at the very least I’d like them to know where I’m coming from (and vice versa). The movement towards a more inclusive and understanding greater society does not start by excluding people who don’t agree with you. In turning off people with dissimilar viewpoints, this action merely carves out a smaller and more efficient echo chamber and leads to gaps of comprehension and acknowledgement. When you stop questioning, examining, and evaluating the many facets of the world (including attitudes and beliefs), I think there is a lot to be lost in the greater whole.

Professionally, it feels like a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. To flat out reject and condemn someone’s personal ideas and feelings while defending the right to collect and provide access to unpopular, unsavory, and/or otherwise indicted works of literature seems hypocritical when placed next to each other. At first glance it puts a premium on published works over the spoken word or online social communication; a bound book is placed on an intellectual freedom pedestal while a tweet, Facebook update, or blog post is not afforded the same considerations. In my current comprehension of the concepts of intellectual freedom and the freedom of expression, I find no caveats or clauses allowing for its abridgement because it is not “correct” either socially, politically, or morally nor the format or medium where it appears.

Furthermore, such public acts perpetuate confirmation bias in our critics who believe that the library does not collect certain types of materials because it content is too conservative/liberal/etc. for the liberal/conservative/etc. librarians. While some might argue that there is a compartmentalization that happens when it comes to collecting material for the library that sets aside personal judgments, librarians are still imperfect human beings who opinions, beliefs, and biases. This kinds of behaviors erode our credibility to make that claim that we act in an unbiased and fair way in approaching our collections. Ultimately, it betrays some of the tenets of the profession that attracted us to it in the first place.

It is a fair counterargument to say that breaking ties with someone does not equate to telling them to be quiet or placing other restrictions upon them. Freedom of speech and expression are protected from government consequence, not social or societal. As well it should be since there should be a means in which to demonstrate or affirm one’s own belief system. For those people who simply broke ties without overtly condemning the opposing viewpoint, I concede the point. I can only rebut by saying that my observations have shown me that this is not always the case.

In writing this, I’m hoping that people step back and give a little more thought as to how they act when confronted with different opinions on their various social media platforms. It’s not that librarians shouldn’t wear their beliefs or politics on their sleeve, but they should be aware of how that looks and appears to others. At a time when the field is struggling with defining (and redefining) what the library is in this digital age, the perception of the library is a critical component. If we can’t make our credentials as neutral institutions unimpeachable, how are we different from the search biases displayed in search engines like Google and Bing, the slant of news companies like the New York Time or the Wall Street Journal, or any number of online entities that show you the world through their kaleidoscope?

I know I can’t possibly address all the extenuating and exacerbating circumstances that led people to unfollow or unfriend others, so some of what I wrote may not apply. As such, your mileage on this post may vary but I hope it offers food for thought.

In reflecting on what I have written before I press the Publish button, perhaps I am trapped in some form of naïve idealism which compels me to find a middle ground, one that wants me to engage and try to get a better understanding so that the world doesn’t look so vastly and wildly discombobulated. It’s not an easy undertaking in the slightest when faced with onerous and odious beliefs, but I still make the attempt. It’s part of an eternal struggle to reconcile intellectual freedom and freedom of expressions as ideals versus the reality of my own beliefs, opinions, and thoughts within the world around me. In working towards these ideals in their more pure form, I feel it strikes at the heart of the notion that the library is a place that offers something for everyone, regardless of who they are and what they believe. Libraries offer their collections and services to all who seek it, not all who are worthy it.

Why Are Librarians Picking So Many Fights?

At the end of last week, I asked on Twitter if people thought Amazon was a threat. This was on the heels of their announcement that the company was getting the Harry Potter books for the Kindle Lending Library. There was a ripple through the librarian social media and I wanted to get a barometer reading from my Twitter followers which seemed split between saying yes and no.

Over the weekend, I’ve started to think that it’s the wrong question. Hell, it’s the wrong line of thought. This feels like the picking of a fight; worse, it is the instigation of an unnecessary conflict. Why? Because some company deigned to add a service that mimics a function that the library serves. To add insult to injury, they made a reference to the long waits for library eBooks in their announcement. If my peers are going to get up in arms about one line in a product announcement, this just demonstrates how thin our skin is at the moment.

Perhaps it is more of a reaction to the unfairness felt by public librarians at the hands of publishers over the issue of eBooks, but Amazon isn’t the culprit for the eBook lending woes. Whether Amazon will allow library lending from their own publishing arm is something yet to be seen; I would not rule it out nor would I hold my breath waiting for it. But that move will not make or break public libraries either.

Another company that raises some librarian blood pressures is Google. Aside from killing ready reference (in the nicest possible way), there are intermittent rows over privacy policies, that book scanning project that been stalled, the scholar search they created, and possibly that library partnership they abandoned a few year ago. While these differences are bound to occur between a global company and a vast and varied network of library entities, it does not rise to the declaration of war or threat level that some of my peers have proclaimed. Yes, there is overlap in some of the services that Google and the library provide, but there are still a vast number of differences in goals, direction, principles, and execution that do not put the two on a collision course.

As of this moment, I have yet to see Amazon or Google (or any other company for that matter) as being the reason cited that any library has been cut or closed. It’s always been a matter of political will, whether it is local, state, or national. The threat is not from these companies or ones like them; it is from our own communities. In fact, our communities are a bigger actual threat than the imagined threats from these outside entities. Our communities are the investors, the stakeholders, and the immediate purse string holders. It doesn’t get any more “power over life” than that.

I should say for the record that there are some fights that are worth picking. (*cough*the academic publishing model*cough*inadequate public funding models*cough*recognition of the school librarian as a fellow teacher and educator*cough*) But looking for a fight with anyone who glances over at our setups is a bit, well, psychotic. There are real threats out there that need to be confronted, but this inclination to fight any threat (real or perceived) sounds very Dick Cheney-ish. Such continued behavior is a waste of valuable resources (most notably time and energy), it leads to issue and threat fatigue, and distracts from the attitudes, perceptions, and people who can ultimately shut a library down.

So, before you go and shout to the world about something that is a ‘library killer’, please take some time to get some perspective on how and why it would. The world is full of enough fears, it doesn’t need someone to conjure up new ones.

Labor Day Jottings

bulletin-board

In New Jersey,  Labor Day is the other bookend to the prime time summer season that starts with Memorial Day. As people wind down and prepare their beach houses for the winter to come, I started this day by cleaning the apartment, shopping for odds and ends, and organizing for the week ahead. I’ve been stealing glances at my project bulletin board (pictured above; left side is NOW, right side is FUTURE, and yes, it is deliberately out of focus) and wondering which ideas or projects should get attention in the near future. Not everything that goes up there will come to fruition, but some ideas stick around to the point where I feel I have to jot them down or lose them forever. Hence, it goes on an index card and makes its way to the board.

In looking back on the past two to three weeks, I didn’t realize that in saying “I feel tired” I really meant to say “I’m going on a bit of a hiatus”. As much as I should have declared a blog vacation, history has proven that I tend to immediately break that fiat by finding something to write about and getting right back on the blog horse. Even so, despite stating that I felt a bit worn down by a year’s worth of various activities, I am a bit of a fibber since I’m working on a project* right now that has been going on for the last few months as well as organizing the Librarians Online poll which has over 1,100 replies as of the date of this blog entry. (Many thanks to the people who promoted, shared, and otherwise helped in getting the word out.)

I’d like to chalk up my lack of blogging to a slow news month, but that’s not entirely true. I’ve been following the ongoing story about how Amazon is cutting school libraries out of their Kindle world (most notably written about by Buffy Hamilton; follow her blog if you are interested in hearing how her eReader program progresses using Nooks). There’s the terrifying implications of a Second Circuit decision regarding First Sale and country of origin for books. (“In last week’s ruling they decided that first sale did not apply even when the work manufactured abroad was sold in the U.S. with the authorization of the copyright holder.”) Last week I noted that Wikileaks opened its entire archive to the world, thus continuing the debate as to the value and merit of organizations like Wikileaks and the true historical and archival value of these diplomatic cables. In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, I’ve been waiting to get more news about some libraries in New Jersey that got walloped with flooding and wind/water damage. (At the time of writing, there appears to be another weather system coming through that will bring more rain to the area.) Perhaps slow news month is a fib as well, but it’s better than the word volcano of “yes there is news but the majority of it did not rise to the level of actual commenting” statement.

In cleaning out a pile of papers and junk mail, I happened upon a piece of paper with a quote on it. It was in my handwriting though I could not remember when I had made note of it. It’s from Jack Kerouac’s book On The Road and I thought it appropriate for a question that’s been on my mind.

But then they danced down the street like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"

I’ve been thinking about the voices I read or listen to in the profession lately. In looking at my Google Reader at my “must read” list, I compare them to the voices of our trade publications. While I am happy to find some crossover (Jason, Roy, Meredith, Will, Joyce, and Liz), it’s the dissonance between my list and the trade publications that makes me wonder. Perhaps I am not the intended audience for some of these columns and articles; I can see that as not everything revolves around the public library world. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter since the people I can listen to is not limited to the trade publications anymore with the rise of the personal soapbox known as the Internet. It’s just been an interesting thought experiment to look at the differences between what our professional magazines think is important versus where I think the future trends and actions of libraries exists.

Who are your ‘mad ones’ to follow? If you have other thoughts on that question, please share them. I look forward to any comments. Otherwise, for my American peers, I wish you a restful Labor Day holiday; for all others, enjoy your Monday.

 

*Since I can’t really talk about the particulars of this project at the moment, I will give you the “STAY TUNED” teaser because I think people will enjoy it. Yes, I probably should not have mentioned it in the first place but I wanted to confess that even when I’m saying I’m tired I’m still working on something. I don’t know if this is more of an indication of dedication or madness, but it certainly keeps me out of other kinds of trouble.

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?)

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

IT (and not that Stephen King creepy clown, either)

Eli Neiburger, known for the “Libraries are Screwed” presentation at the Library Journal eBook Summit, is stirring the pot once more by calling for the replacement of reference with IT people. From Library Journal:

"We need big servers and the geeks to take care of them," Neiburger said. "What are we going to cut to be able to hire a geek? We are going to cut reference staff. Reference is dead," he said.

Despite the fact that a trained librarian can bring value to a reference interaction, the patron today, acclimated to Google searches, does not feel that way, and librarians cannot change their mind, Neiburger said.

For what it’s worth, I totally get where Eli is coming from. He’s touted a move towards libraries owning their digital content rather than licensing it. For eBooks, it means going to the authors themselves and making a deal with them to get their works for the library to distribute. To this end, you need the data infrastructure (various hardware purchases and a patron-friendly interface) to make it work; for that, you need to have a robust IT squad. And if library budgets are presently zero sum, that money will need to come from somewhere. In eliminating the reference library staff (and replacing them with paraprofessionals), the savings generated can fund the digital infrastructure.

If I’m understanding Eli correctly, this future vision of the library would be one that has a paraprofessional front (circulation and reference) with any remaining librarians in the back (administration, cataloging, and IT). 

Interesting.

To be honest, my biggest concern is taking librarians and removing them from contact with the public. This whole “let’s move librarians off public desks” seems like a step backwards for user experience by overly focusing on digital content to the detriment of face-to-face service. Personally, I think librarians struggle with assessing what their patrons want as it is and this would create an unnecessary aloofness to overcome. I believe there is value to having a librarian in the public spaces, even if they are relegated to handling actual reference/research questions. While discovery online is not at the library website (perhaps something having library geeks could work on), discovery in-person is still a viable service and one that I believe librarians should still have a hand in.

Also, I don’t think this kind of arrangement scales very well. I can see how it would work for larger libraries, but I’m having a hard time imagining it for smaller staffed public libraries (and, as an aside, nigh impossible for school libraries). I think with some help from commenters that we might be able to guess at the minimum level of staffing and funding where Eli’s IT move would be viable. My hunch is that it could create it’s own “digital content divide” where some libraries can afford to staff and fund a robust digital infrastructure while others would simply be relegated to current vendor offerings. (Now, if you introduce consortium arrangements to fund regional IT staff and hardware, we’re talking a whole new ballgame.)

I’d like to highlight some of the comments made on Friendfeed that the article presents a false dichotomy; that you can have reference or IT but you can’t both. Why not? Perhaps it is a better question about MLS graduate programs; could they create a program where a person can speak geek and reference? Or geek and cataloging? Or geek and administration? Should these programs be focused on making hybrids?

I think there is geek in the future, but I’m not completely sold on it being the only way to go.