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.

Thoughts on Schools and Libraries

Picture by Atelier Teee/Flickr Since I thought about this observation while getting into my car to go to dinner the other evening, I haven’t been able to shake it out of my system. I’m hoping that this blog entry will be read by individuals who can shed some light on the subject and perhaps nudge me as to whether I am actually onto something. And so, without further ado, here is the observation that came to me.

While both schools and libraries are seen as institutions of education, there is a radical difference between the two. Specifically, schools represent a structured form of academic learning and inquiry based around lesson plans, schedules, and specific practices and theories of education, whereas the library is an unstructured marketplace of intellectual exploration for the self motivated curious individual. It is the institutionalization of the learning process through the public school that makes the unfettered academic freedom of the library so foreign to most people that they become non-users. In other words, I believe the structured learning process of schools tends usurps the ability of people to engage in the independent pursuit of their own erudite curiosity. 

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to make sense. As a graduate of the public education system, as far as I can recall in my schooling years, I can remember the existence of structure in my studies. From Pre-K to 12, my academic thoughts and curiosities were managed by a series of very well meaning teachers and instructors who told me the subjects I was going to learn, explore, and consider at different parts of the day. It may not have mattered that I wasn’t much for considering Shakespeare at 8:30 in the morning or math functions right after lunch at 1:45 or tackling a foreign language at the end of the day when I was tired of being at school; there was a schedule and I was beholden to it.

During those years (especially high school), I did as I was expected by my parents and teachers in order to do well on my report cards. But it was not a labor of love; it was a means to an end to get to the looser structure of college with its liberal schedule and hours that better matched my learning habits. Even when I went to the library, it was because I had an assignment or report that needed research and support. (i.e. I was indirectly told to go the library because the requirements of research for the report were necessary to gain a passing grade.)  Throughout the length of my academic career, I never went to the library on my own whims.

To this end, I think this is where the lacuna between schools and libraries exist; people either do not or cannot make the step from a structured learning environment of school to the free form inquiry of the library. When you have spent the new sum total of your formative years being told what you are going to think about and learn, how foreign would it be to given a learning environment that comes without such directions or constructs? Obviously some people can make the transition while others use us for the services that we offer (e.g. free internet, free newspapers), lest we would have been gone many years ago. Nor would I say that everyone is completely brainwashed into thinking only through direct prompting. But, I suggest that for greater numbers the library has less appeal without the instilled structure or guidance that has been carried hand in hand with their prior learning experiences.

One might look at this notion and ask, “Well, where does the Internet fall into this? It’s unstructured and people use it everyday.” I’m really not completely sure at the time of writing this post. I would surmise that the internet is more convenient for (what I would call) “surface curiosities”; that is, basic inquiries such as what today’s weather will be, the local or national news, what the family is up to, and so forth. I think the point of inflexion on the internet exists when there is a deeper understanding sought. Here, you can easily get into the invisible web, a point where the library can step in through databases and subject specific materials on a topic. The gap that exists here is one of perception. It is very easy to think that the web has everything with the ease of search engines; however, it is another thing when it comes to the merit of the results. The “all knowing” reputation of the internet supersedes the possiblity of asking for aid from the library. And as a result, people to not pass through our doors, call us on the phone, or even email us with their inquiry.

I’m not indifferent to the fact that there has to be some organization and structure when you are dealing with that many students at those ages with the variety of learning styles. Public education is a ‘one size fits most’ solution to providing knowledge to the greatest number of students with the least amount of variation in practice. But, if we are as serious as we proclaim to be about the education of our children, there certainly has to be a better way of doing it that balances maintaining an orderly school and allows exploration and inquiry that better matches a child’s natural inclinations.  A fostering of natural curiosity blurs the line between schools and libraries and makes the interchange between them more natural. (The left and right hands of education, if you will.)

To be fair, I only have my own educational experience to draw upon for these observations and I am certainly no expert in the fields of public education. However, I simply cannot shake this notion that my presumptions hold some greater validity. I would be delighted with either a correction or validation, for both would provide me with a more definitive answer.

Such is the price of my curiosity. :D

A Mighty Wind

This is an amazing interview clip. Take the eight minutes to watch it. My comments on it are afterward (and might make more sense after viewing the clip than without).

more about “ AMighty Wind“, posted with vodpod

It’s a great story about a young man who found something at the library that set off a chain of events that changed his village. It’s also a great story for librarians as an example of the importance of information access. Without access, our collections mean virtually little or nothing. Even with William’s limited access to library materials, he was able to find a piece of information that was of interest to him.

But, let’s be realistic about this: access to library materials in the United States is not a big issue. I concede there are some communities (both regional and demographic) that are underserved in this country; I concede that there are people who wish to remove materials from the library (as written about in a previous post); and I will concede that there are (especially this year) many libraries that suffer from funding gaps. But this doesn’t hold a candle to some of the information access obstacles that people face around the world (with an emphasis on developing nations and those with oppressive regimes). While we are quibbling here about what books can be read and how much funding equates to how many hours of operation, there are people out there who simply go without basic library-type services.

While it is not an equivalent evil of the denial of water or nourishment, it is a consumption tragedy of a different sort: food for thought. Yes, you can live without the library, but we cannot truly advance as a planetary population under unequal information footing. Library access falls under the much broader umbrella of world-wide education, a proven tonic for the ailments of poverty, intolerance, and oppression. And, more importantly, I believe it is something that within our collective grasp with the funding and the desire to work for it.

And that, as Shakespeare would say, is the rub; I haven’t a clue as to where the former aspect would come from nor the level of work that the latter would include. I’ve written this entry without much due diligence of checking to see if there are organizations or NGOs that work towards this issue. However, I do have a direction and that’s a start. I will try not to think about it the next time a customer argues about a $2 fine on an overdue book, resisting the urge to tell them that they are lucky to have this sort of access to materials in the first place (I never liked it when my parents told me to finish my plate because there are people starving in the world), but it will remind me to keep working towards it. And with movement in the right direction, hopefully, comes motion towards greater change.

Edit: William’s TedTalk. Pretty awesome as well.

To Boldly Go…

Image by darkmatter/Flickr Last month, there was the widely reported story about a private school in Massachusetts that removed all of its books from its library. (I’ve written about it before here.) Later, it became clear that other departments had the chance to take books from the collection before the rest were removed. There was a lot of discussion in the online library community about the move and brought up the integral question: can a library exist without books?

For those who can’t imagine a library without books, that kind of future has already been visualized. This was my recent epiphany watching reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation on Sci-Fi (I refuse to call it SyFy). As I watched the crew of the Enterprise deal with the episode’s problem, I could not help but notice the use of handheld devices, people reading nearly exclusively from monitors during their down time, and a computer system of near infinite cultural material storage and retrieval. And so here it was on the screen in front of me: a popular, highly regarded vision of a future space based society and nary a book to be found. The few books that do appear are highly prized personal possessions described by their owner as having been passed down from other family members or some other sentimental reason. No one ever appears to use their fabulous replicator technology to have a book created. They are content to use their view screens or handheld devices to do any reading. There is no ship library nor librarian nor even a information officer on a space ship that was reported to carry over 1,000 people. It simply did not exist within the confines of the Star Trek universe. And yet, it is an advanced and complex thriving intellectual and curious society that continues to push the boundaries of knowledge.

Of course, it’s a science fiction series, not an actual depiction of the future. But what may seem depressing to some who read this, I see the ultimate in information interfaces. Upon second glance, this future meets some of the very needs that we want for our customers now. Information is instant, free, and on demand. The computer acts as a reference librarian with a vast database of all forms of knowledge; a person can make factual inquiries as well as user defined analytical requests as well. The holodecks take visual learning and content immersion to a whole new level of information presentation. The closest we get to this future vision is the handheld reading devices of the 1987 series that have an eerie resemblance to the modern handheld e-reader devices. And I would guess that someone has to program the computer and instruct it how to store and organize information lest the whole system become too unwieldy.

The truth of this future vision is that the entity of the library has wholly integrated itself into the daily lives of society. (Or, to take the line from that awesome library video, “everywhere is here”.) There is no need for a library as its own space when access is universal at the personal level. Effectively, in this future vision, librarians have been put out of business by a society that has realized the goals that we strive for now. Can this presentation of the 23rd century be any more of a positive reinforcement of the principles and goals of librarianship?

While I was writing this, I couldn’t help but think about Steven Bell’s article on the Library Journal website, “We need a new Sputnik”. While he was addressing the future research function in academic libraries, it really got me thinking about the types of changes that should be considered for the future public library. I’m going to think about it for now since it deserves its own post. But it has certainly lit my imagination afire with the promise and potential. How can we go from where we are now to make this aspect of a future vision a reality?

Banned Book Bullshit

Photo by DML East's Branch/Flickr This past week was Banned Book Week, a time for the library community to celebrate intellectual freedom and the right to read and explore topics. In terms of library traditions, it has the same feel as Black History Month; once a year, there is an extra emphasis placed on those who would seek to move or remove materials from the library and the people who defend against such challenges. Librarians hang “Police Line – Do Not Cross” tape like Christmas garland on displays of books that have been seen, at various periods of time, as immoral, despicable, corrupting, blasphemous, and/or indecent. The stories are retold of the books of the past that were challenged, on what grounds they were objected to, and what books are the current target of challenges. Librarians as a whole take stock as to how to meet these challenges and identify where the points of controversy lay. Overall, it is the essence of a very noble cause to defend the views of others for the sake of freedom of expression.

Right at the start of Banned Books week, this opinion article from the Wall Street Journal came across my Google Reader. It begs the question that I have had for awhile: is a book truly banned when it available by other means? While it may be removed from a school or public library, the advent of online book sellers have made all titles widely accessible. What the author fails to consider is that this whole event would not exist without people taking their self censorship and applying it others. Librarians only really care when someone or something gets between a person and their ability to select materials. But the author is correct in pointing out that books are rarely completely removed from the shelves of libraries. Even the collected statistics by the ALA have shown that most book challenges fail to remove a book from the shelves in the documented challenges. (By their own research, the ALA thinks that for every challenge reported, there are four to five that go unreported. So, for last year (2008), there were 517 challenges (1.4 per day), meaning they estimate 2,068 to 2,585 challenges (5.6 to 7 per day) went unreported. To me, that seems a bit high or making the definition of ‘challenge’ too encompassing, but I’m not privy to the research they are citing yet do not provide.)

But that’s not the point,” one might retort. “This is about the principles of intellectual freedom.” Then, my question would be this: why vilify the challengers? Not every challenge is a motion to remove; some are for reconsideration of location. And even for the challenge to remove, it presents an excellent opportunity to educate the meaning of banning and censorship, the First Amendment, and how the mission of the library to provide all with equal access (even for those ideas that we do not agree with). We should not only be grateful for book challenges, we should welcome them.

Challenges to library materials should be seen for what they are: a win-win scenario. First, they bring publicity and attention to the library in question. Nothing like a good controversy to bring people into the library to see what all the trouble is about. While they are in the library, we can show them all of the “good and decent” materials we have for those who support the challenge and all the “naughty and awful” stuff we have for those who oppose the challenge. There is no such thing as bad publicity! In fact, I would go a step further and demand that a universal symbol of a book challenge being developed that we can post in the window, hang on the flagpole, or otherwise display in a prominent location. Something that just screams (possibly literally) that “Hey, there is a book challenge here and you should come and see what all the fuss is about!”. It’s the ultimate in book discussion groups; not only can you talk about the context, the themes, and the characters presented, the outcome of the group can potentially change things in the library. And I bet dollars to donuts you can fill up your program room with people who will want to say something on the matter.

Second, it brings attention to the material in question. You know what happens to books that are challenged? Their sales and checkouts go through the roof as people, being the curious creatures that they are, want to find out what the big deal is about (or show their support for the book by buying it). I cackle with glee over this simple irony: book challenges push greater awareness for a library title and create a result that is opposite what the book challenger generally intends. I would even lower the bar for how a book can be challenged just to invite more attention to books that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Third, as the expression goes, sunshine is the best disinfectant. What we can bring out into the open allows for more transparency in the discussion and the process. This is about respecting viewpoints that are contrary to our own and extending the same courtesy to those who feel strongly enough about a piece of library material to ask that it be re-evaluated. We cannot hope to have someone recognize the right of others to intellectual freedom while engaging in basic name calling by referring to the challengers as bigots, zealots, or otherwise ignorant. While the calmness of the rational mind is not always forthcoming from a book challenge, it is here where we can make our case for materials easily over loud and ill conceived challenges made with little or no objective merit or support. For those with well reasoned grievances, we can provide an equally well reasoned rebuttal where we consider the scope and magnitude of all potential outcomes.

Fourth, there is nothing to fear from a challenge. We may not win them all, but on a long enough timeline, the books that have been banned or challenged in the past have endured. Whether they are classics or contemporary, their presence in collections have outlived those who would see them censored. They have never been truly gone, only temporarily removed. Librarians need to look at this on a longer timeline than their tenure. History has proven that it is a matter of time, so like in other aspects of our lives, patience will see us through.

For whatever reason, this reminds me of the Edward R. Murrow quotation talking about Senator McCarthy and his hearings on communism.

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.
This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”

Good night and good luck.

Hide & Seek

One of my coworkers and I have been working on a fun project for our library over the last couple of weeks. We are creating a geocache to house within the library. (Short explanation: geocaching is a sport in which participants use handheld GPS to locate hidden bins or boxes in any setting. The cache has (at the very least) a ledger to sign; it might have items to exchange, things to do to get credit for finding it, or have clues to other geocaches. For more explanation, here’s the website.) I got the idea for this from one of the “books” my grandmother had on her bookshelf. It’s one of those hollowed out books that you can put small items and valuables into. While I won’t reveal the phony title and name (so that people who might stumble upon this can enjoy the search), here are some pictures to give you a better idea of what it looks like.



The books as it looks while closed. Note the tape on  the lower left spine. We put a shelf tag on it to make it look like everything else!





And here’s the inside, complete with ledger and pen. We have more things to add to the inside, but the basics are there for the moment.




Over the next couple of days, we’ll get the finishing touches on it and shelve it. I’m curious to see who comes to visit it! It’s a unique fun feature for the library, that’s for certain. =D

File Under Miscellaneous, Part 1

About two years ago, I was hired as a part time librarian for the library where I now work full time. Recently I’ve been thinking about how some new librarians have taken stock of their experience of the first couple of years in their blogs. They talk about how they have changed professionally, where they think the library field is going, and what their current goals are. These are true exercises in introspection and a meditation on what it is like to be a modern librarian in this age of internet and mobile technology. The challenges, both old and new, renew our commitment to the profession that we love as well as demand new ideas and innovations.

So, as I’m signing a work order for a plumber who came to the building to fix a toilet, I’m thinking about how there are things in public librarianship that are never addressed in Master’s of Library Science program. There was nothing in the management class that has addressed some of the things I have encountered in my two years of public librarianship.

So, in a different sort of listing, here are a few things that were never mentioned in my graduate program about public librarianship but everyone should know about.

(1) Diplomacy

You will need it. You need to be able to effectively communicate to noisy kids, disruptive teens, oblivious parents, passive aggressive seniors, coworkers of various temperaments & theory of librarianship approaches, political officials of all stripes, and the myriad of pleasant to impatient patrons you will meet. This is not to say that every day is filled with social conflict, but that you need to be prepared for it when it happens. It is a fine balance of customer service, library policy, and your own discretion as to what is just and fair that can make or break the encounter. The one truth is that has to be accepted is, no matter how diplomatic you are, there will be people who will not be satisfied no matter what you do. Expend your energy as best you can to get the best result, but do not dwell on what cannot be done.

On the flip side of the coin, diplomacy can be used to negotiate a better deal or experience for a patron. In gauging the patron’s needs, you can raise their expectations by providing services and/or materials above and beyond their original request. This is a “trade up” in which both sides win; you can market other aspects of the library (such as programs and collections) while the patron learns something that they never knew about from the library. By applying your diplomatic skills, you can make a trip to the library a memorable experience. This also allows you to talk a presenter into accepting a few more people into their program, to solicit different types of donations from the community, and to get better deals with vendors. When it comes to getting goods and services for the library, everything is truly negotiable.

(2) Basic mechanical skills

While I’m in a county library and there are people who handle maintenance exclusively, I am still a "first responder" to most building situations. Burned out or flashing lights, wobbly tables, broken chairs, loose shelving, cracked windows, busted doors, stained carpets, broken toilets, various alarm malfunctions (security, generator, sump pump, and/or fire), electrical failures, computer network crashes, ill tempered vending machines, rebellious printers, jammed copiers, the whole HVAC system, leaks of all types, and invasion attempts by birds, rodents, insects, and the whole Fungi kingdom. This does not include things that go wrong outside the building, such as tangled flagpole lines, slippery sidewalks, parking lot accidents, leaky roofs, clogged gutters, laborious snow & ice removal, regular lawn care, and the occasional book drop vandalism. (You get the idea.) Even if I’m not the one who has to fix them, I still have to know who to contact and be able to describe the problem to them. You can go from helping a patron put a hold on a book to reaching into a fish tank up to your shoulder attempting to scoop out a dead fish (true story).

If it has moving or electronic parts, you will soon become an passing expert in it.

(3) Patience

The most obvious application of this virtue is in service of patrons in general, for the life of a public librarian has a lot of explaining in it. Whether it is policy, procedure, materials, or how to retrieve an email or get a library card, you will have to be able to tell someone how to do it or find it. Over time, I have whittled down the script for the most commonly asked things into a concise series of points. And since you will end up repeating the more popular ones several thousand (or million, in a larger library) times, you might as well get used to it.

When it comes to assisting patrons, unless there is a giant pressing line of overtly unhappy people, take the time to fully cover something with a patron. First, it signals to the rest of the line (if any) that, when it is their turn, you will give them your full attention and not rush them out. This can soothe anxious feelings and make them feel that the wait is worthwhile. Second, it is better to have only one 10 minute thorough session with a patron than five 2 minutes sessions during which they struggle. Those multiple trips to the reference desk can lead to frustration and create an overall bad impression. Third, it’s how you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed. No one likes feeling at the short end of the stick in a business interaction and the reference desk is no exception. (Mileage of this point at your library will vary.)

The slightly less well known employment of this virtue is shaping policy and implementing changes at the library or system level. The practices and policies of the public library tend to move at a glacial pace, depending on the subject. For any changes that you hope to see through, it will take time and effort to get them to where you want them. Patience and persistence pay off at the end when you affect a major change. And surely as I write these words, you can get it done.

 Photo by the lovely & talented, mlibrarianus/Flickr

When I first started writing this, I had a list of a couple more aspects that I had thought about. They aren’t on the list because they were folded under the aforementioned aspects or I simply couldn’t articulate them in a manner that was satisfactory to me. So, in lieu of being complete, I slapped a “Part 1” in the title and left myself open for future posts. If you can think of things that I perhaps should include in the future (or make your own posts), share your thoughts and links below.