When Patrons Die

When I got to work this morning, a coworker pointed out a local story about a couple who died over the weekend due to an apartment fire. In reading the story in the paper, it was someone who was a library regular that I had helped on a number of occasions.

I had known Joe for a couple of years. He was a student in my computer class as well as some one-on-one help sessions. Together we had created a resume, got it up on one of the New Jersey employment sites, and done some job searching. Over the summer he had come by to tell me that he had found a job; a few weeks ago, he came by to tell me how he was unjustly let go from that job. We had talked about finding another job; he mentioned that he was taking care of his wife afflicted with a short life expectancy prognosis from cancer. Joe was a handyman but without a Facebook account, so I posted it his details on one of the local business groups. He always asked if I was in when he came to check out his movies and I’d nearly always pop out of the back to say hi and see what was going on.

This is my first experience with a library regular passing away. I’ve had a coworker pass away from cancer and encountered death through relatives coming to the library to settle affairs and return items. But, as you can surmise from the previous paragraph, this was someone I got to know on a personal level. It just really hit me.

Rita Meade posted something today that really captures some of what I’m feeling at the moment. The public librarian life is not always glamorous, but I made a difference in Joe’s life. It counts. It matters. And in making a difference in Joe’s life, I made one in my own by remembering that what I do is important. Even if it has some wonky, weird, boring, and/or awful moments between the important times.

If I might ask a favor from my readers, I’d appreciate it if you would so kind as to share your own stories about library regulars passing away.

One Two Three, One Two Three, One Two Three…

I am not a natural dancer. My girlfriend reminds me of this fact, accompanying it with one of those pats on the arm meant to cushion the blow of receiving unwelcome news. It’s not a surprise anymore after a year of learning country line dancing, both single and couples dances. I still have some trouble finding the beat and, even if I do find it, staying on it is another matter. I’ve gotten a better sense of the beat over the year and can correct myself to match up, but it’s an ongoing process.

Over the weekend while we were visiting her parents for the Thanksgiving holiday, I was invited to come to her parent’s dance club. The club has an hour lesson followed by about two hours of open dancing. Ballroom dancing, I should add, as it is another kind of dancing that I am not wholly unfamiliar with. I’ve had a single lesson for West Coast Swing, but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten outside the rigid formulas of country dancing. While you can add your own variations (“styling”, as I’m told it’s called) to country dancing, there is always a known basic formula for moving around the dance floor. With ballroom dancing, you get to decide what happens next.

This is a relatively new and somewhat foreign concept for me.

On Saturday night, we learned the basic steps of the waltz. It was during the lesson that I experienced an incredible amount of frustration. While I understood and was able to replicate the steps in practice when they were broken down into one or two sets of movements, connecting these different steps together in a continuous flow was proving to be difficult. I felt incredible frustration at an inability to connect my thoughts on what my body should be doing to my actual body movements. I knew that I had to step and move a certain way and my body didn’t seem to be receiving that same message. The steps started to jumble up together like a giant knot and I was trying to pull it apart on the fly paired with a partner.

To put it in perspective, it was the type of frustration that makes you want to run away crying and screaming in rage; sticking it through feels like every part of your brain is calling out for you to quit now. I’m proud that I stuck it through the rest of the night, but it was emotionally and psychologically draining. It left me feeling very vulnerable and in the clutches of a black mood as we drove away back to our hotel room at the end of the evening.

In thinking about this experience on the long drive back to New Jersey, I started to wonder if I had seen that kind of frustration that I experienced in some of the people who have come to my classes over the years at the library. My thoughts lead me to consider the basic computing class that I teach. It’s an excellent example as to how some concepts that are so basic to some can be so distant to others. I thought about the number of times someone expressed being nervous about typing on the keyboard, clicking on things on the screen, or even moving a program window. Had these people felt their own version of the knot, where the concepts suddenly turned into a jumble? How many people stuck it out in the classroom when all they wanted to do was leave and never turn on a computer again? How were they able to deal with their frustration?

Was I able to get them through those moments?

After the lesson and stumbling through a waltz during the open dance, I was relating this knot allegory to my girlfriend’s mother. It felt good to be able express this frustration, but the advice she gave me in return helped immensely. I’m paraphrasing since I don’t remember her exact wording and I felt like it really hit the heart of the matter.

Another couple was having trouble with a lesson that had both basic and advanced steps and it was really putting a crimp on their evening. The instructor told them that when the dance came up again to go out and just do the basic steps over and over again. Don’t worry or think about the advanced stuff, just focus on the basics. In working on holding their frame and technique, it would help them get create muscle memory and become comfortable with a series of moves they could build on and always return to.

On the basis of this advice, I have to commend my girlfriend for being very patient with me for an evening full of basic step waltzes. (I had enough technique to be able to rotate a little, so it wasn’t that routine.) But this kind of experience is a nice reminder about the difference between people who come to things naturally and those who have to work on it to excel at it. And, more importantly for me, that I need to be more alert and sensitive to those people who might be frustrated in that same way to provide them with the help and encouragement they need to unravel their own knots. Any knowledge can be broken down into “one, two, three”, but translating it into skill is a wholly different matter. The next best thing to being a natural is being someone dedicated to mastering it.

In the meantime, I had better start practicing or else we’ll be doing basic steps forever. I don’t know if she has the patience for that.

Banned Books Have Now Jumped the Shark

Get those strongly worded emails and letters at the ready, fellow intellectual freedom warriors. It’s time once again to clamor into the pulp trenches and do battle with the forces of “this book makes me uncomfortable so no one should read it” evil. Why is this book being banned by these booksellers? Well, it’s not because it has gay penguins, naughty words, bashes Christianity, or is (my favorite descriptor) “pervasively vulgar”. I’ll let the BitTorrent blog brief us as to this new and urgent freedom of expression crisis. 

On November 20th, Tim will release The 4-Hour Chef. It’s choose-your-own-adventure guide to rapid learning. It’s a cookbook for people who don’t read cookbooks (which means: we’d read it). And, it’s poised to be the most banned book in US history. The 4-Hour Chef is one of the first titles underneath Amazon’s new publishing imprint; boycotted by U.S. booksellers, including Barnes & Noble.

[Bold emphasis mine.]

That’s right. Our new Earth Overlord Amazon is the publisher, so bookstores (including the last of the mighty bookstore chains, Barnes & Noble) aren’t going to carry it in their real life stores. It’s not that you can’t still buy it through these retailers. You can still order the book through the Barnes & Noble store and website as well as possibly through other booksellers, according to Laura Owen. But because it’s not on the physical shelf, that’s what makes this a ‘book banning’.

In one broad stroke, the concept of ‘banned books’ is now applied to any situation where a bookseller won’t carry a title not because it is rude, crude, and/or socially unacceptable in the eyes of some (otherwise considered a matter of content), but because it is made by a competitor. It’s under this kind of topsy-turvy logic that would also conclude that Burger King’s Whopper is banned from McDonald’s even though both businesses make hamburgers. In turn, one could make the argument that a library is ‘banning’ a book because it declines to purchase it or weeds it from the collection. So, anytime a book could be available but it’s not, that’s a book banning.

When called out on it in Laura Owen’s PaidContent article “Hey Tim Ferriss: Book Banning isn’t a Marketing Gimmick”, Ferriss wrote an email response: 

I view things through a different lens. I think the implications of this boycott or ban — choose the word you prefer — are larger then people realize. If this book fails due to a retail stonewall, I can tell you for a fact that more than a dozen A-list authors I know will hit pause on plans for publishing innovation for the next few years. Is The 4-Hour Chef the same as Huckleberry Finn?  Of course not, and I never implied that it was. But do I view stifling innovation and free speech (through distribution of otherwise) as a malevolent thing? Yes. Regardless of the motive (moral, economic, etc.), the outcome is the same: regress instead of progress. And regress snowballs quickly. At the end of the day, I want people to think about boycotting and banning, both historically and moving forward. The fact that you wrote a piece about precisely that — raising awareness and stimulating conversation — is a great thing. That public discourse is one of my goals. Last, I’d be remiss not to point out: booksellers use banned books as a marketing gimmick every year as a matter of course. Yes, I’m using the media to highlight what I view as a serious fork in the road for content creators. But if anyone is guilty of using “banned books” as a gimmick, it’s booksellers themselves.

I can’t imagine how innovative or disruptive this book claims to be if it can be brought down simply by not stocking it on a physical shelf. If these other A-list authors are going to “hit pause” on publishing innovation because they can’t get into brick-and-mortar stores, I’m guessing their innovation isn’t that great after all. If it was anything groundbreaking these days, it shouldn’t be brought down by one of the oldest fundamentals of the book market: shelf space.

Sure, the whole ‘banned ‘books’ angle may be used as a marketing gimmick for bookstores and libraries. But within this usage is a kernel of truth; the books being displayed have been challenged, banned, and in some cases, outlawed. This doesn’t apply here. It’s simply insulting to the memory and legacy of authors and writers in the past who faced persecution and ostracism for their work, the people who are currently sitting in prisons and detention centers around the world for their writing, and those struggling to have their voices heard in their oppressive native country, culture, or society. If a company doesn’t want to sell your book, then cry me a river. The sympathy train doesn’t stop at this station when there are other more pressing intellectual freedom matters in the world.

“Well,” you might think, “don’t librarians do the same thing when it comes to book bans at libraries? Don’t they discount the counterargument that the book is available through other means? How is this different than if An Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian is removed from school shelves but still available in local stores?” To that point, I draw this distinction. The Huckleberry Finns, the Harry Potters, and To Kill a Mockingbirds of the world are being challenged on their content. They have words, themes, and ideas that make people uncomfortable to the point that they want to take action and prevent other people from reading the book.

That is a far cry from the situation with The 4-Hour Chef. No one is raising this book at a press conference or school board meeting and declaring it as smut, obscenity, or pornography. There is no one challenging the content of this book. The refusal to carry the book is a business decision based on the book’s publisher. These two concepts are not interchangeable.

This is where the term ‘banned books’ jumps the shark. When an author feels like he has been victimized by industry forces and proclaims that his book has been ‘banned’, then that makes it just a tiny bit harder for people fighting real intellectual freedom battles to bring light and attention to this important issue. We all become book banners and content no longer matters. When the definition expands to every situation, then no circumstance is stands out from the other.

(h/t: LISNews)

Gender, Librarians, & Librarianship (A Somewhat Open Thread)

At the end of last month, Roy Tennant wrote on his Digital Shift blog a post entitled “Fostering Female Technology Leadership in Libraries”. It’s worth a read; if you want bonus points, make your way through the comments as well. In the time since (minus the two consecutive weeks of storms), I’ve been thinking about writing a blog post about gender in the library profession. But in trying to step back and get a look at the big picture as I like to do, the possible and potential topics (and pitfalls) have loomed larger than something I could tap out in one or two nights. So I’d like to try an open thread, albeit seeded with a topic area in mind.

In taking the message from the blog post “No One Knows What They Are Doing” to heart, I realized that this topic would quickly break down into roughly three areas for me: what I knew from first hand experience (aka the shit I know, to use the blog’s phrasing), what I heard from friends and peers over the years (aka the shit I know from primary or secondary resources), and (for lack of a better phrase) the shit I don’t know that I don’t know. I felt good about the first two areas since I was confident in my experiences and the shared stories of others but I have to admit that I am quietly terrified about the third.

I’m not afraid to write and be wrong; I’ve certainly offered a mea culpa more than once for what I’ve written on this blog and updated posts with corrected information where it was necessary. Failure is its own lesson and all the sayings and clichés that go along with that sentiment.  But in trying to foster an open and honest discussion about gender in librarianship, it feels like I’m taking a real risk of stepping on dangerous discussion landmines that I don’t know about either because I’m male, I’ve only joined the library scene in the last five years, and/or the experiences that have been shared with me are potentially a microcosm of the larger profession in whole. But, I find my curiosity and desire to learn more are shouting down my fears.

So, here I am: a male in a female dominated profession within a changing-but-generally male dominated society. To be honest, sometimes when I see the 80/20 female to male ratio statistic tossed out I think to myself, “What can be done to attract more men to the profession?” I don’t think it’s an unusual thought since any profession that is dominated by one gender tends to have conversations around attracting the other gender to the field. Ultimately it’s a passing one simply because it really doesn’t matter to me what the gender ratio is; you can thank my parents and progressive education curriculums for instilling that gender equality notion. It’s not that I don’t see gender or that I am incapable of acting in an insensitive manner when it comes to gender or gender topics (I can hear the rustle of affidavit papers being filled out to attest to that fact), it’s that I’ve been taught that there are times when gender matters and when it doesn’t.  In the latter category, being a librarian or working on a library staff is one of those things. However, I’ll still wonder why efforts are not being made to tip the gender ratio a little less skewed.

The one personal anecdote I’ll relate on this subject comes from the first time I went to the New Jersey Library Association Annual Conference. One of the rooms is turned into a organization store to sell items to raise money. After a few minutes of browsing, I realized that the majority of items were not for me. They were designed to appeal to women. The jewelry, socks, throws, dolls, scarves, and whatnot were designed with a female consumer in mind. The only thing in there that was unquestionably male was the tie selection. Table upon table laden with library themed items of all manner and sort… and all I got was a handful of ties. It did cut my browsing time to nothing and switched me over to gift mode for the women in my life. (Please note that this is not a call for more male oriented items in the store, but just an observation that I made. Just load the store with whatever sells since it’s there to raise money (which is probably why items were chosen in the first place.)) It was a subtle reminder that the profession I had just joined was very much female dominated. I have other stories (and not as light as this one), so I may add them as comments as discussion merits. Otherwise, I want to push ahead with starting a (somewhat) open thread.

In opening this up for further discussion, I’d like ask you to share any stories or experience and encourage you to share your thoughts and/or ideas on what the current gender issues and topics that face the profession. As always, you can post anonymously (and if you fear that I’ll trace your IP [which I won’t], then use a proxy server). The only rule I will enforce is civility. I’d like to hear and learn more in this area so please share courageously. There could be people out there reading this who won’t share who could benefit from your comment.

And so, let us start putting things on the table and get a better look at this broad and wide ranging topic.

Jersey Strong

Last Friday, it was only when I was driving down the highway to my girlfriend’s house that I realized that I had hurricane news fatigue. That day I had gone into work and lost power shortly before the library was to be opened. Apparently, the electric company was trying to get a substation online that was underwater from the hurricane and it failed. After a day of no power, the night was coming on, my apartment was getting colder, and I was tired of waiting for the power to come back on.

In driving down the interstate, I saw a line of power trucks heading north and my eyes immediately misted up. I bit my lip to stop the tears as I looked at the long train heading in the other direction. The realization in the moments afterward was plain: I really needed a break from the hurricane and all its related news.

To be plain, I count myself very fortunate that was spared the worst of the storm. I lost power for about two hours on Monday night and that was the extent of it. Some parts of my town had no power for days. My friends and family were healthy and safe, albeit they had stories of flooding and power loss in and around them that they shared on Facebook and Twitter. If anything, I was experiencing the storm by immediate proxy.

The other half to the social media contingent was the news media aspect as they raced to add photos and updates about the tri-state (NJ-NY-CT) area. The pictures of cars floating in Manhattan dovetailed into the tremendous storm surge that devastated the Jersey shore region. It was to the latter that I found myself searching for images of, well, any of the beach areas that I had fond memories regarding. Anything to do with the Long Beach Island, the place where I spent many summer days from my birth to my late teens, to Atlantic City, the place just over the horizon from Stockton State College, to Seaside Heights, a place I discovered as a young adult.

What I found was just devastating: beaches gone, houses wrecked, boardwalks crumpled. The wrath of a storm had exacted its price from the land. An intense curiosity to find more along side a set of honed search skills, traits that are seen as highly desirable in librarian profession, soon became a liability. When I found more stories and images, it saddened me; when I couldn’t find something on a particular area, it provoked an anxious response and pushed me further to look harder.

Between the social media and my own searching, I was simply saturated in the hurricane news. When I wasn’t reading a friend’s update, I was scouring the New Jersey news outlets for pictures and particulars. Unthinking, I was diving too deep into the whole situation. Ultimately, it provoked a late night anxiety attack that had me reaching for the Xanax to quell.

In talking with my girlfriend about this whole series of events and coming to the eventual realization contained within this post, I had to wonder. I’ve seen some pretty nasty things online that remind me that humans are capable of real depravity. It bothered me, but not to the level that it has with the hurricane. The difference I feel is that this is personal. The other things, the wicked things people do to other living beings on this planet, is still abstract. It’s horrid, but it’s not anyplace I’ve ever been or seen. The storm damage is so very tangible as I look on at images at places I’ve been to and know. That is the difference, I think, and where my feelings have come on stronger and more intense. And so, I’m taking a bit of break and limiting how much I can search. So far, it’s been working.

I’ve been looking to pivot these feelings into action and see what I can do to help out. I may be tired of the scenes of devastation but I know that the people in those scenes are not afforded the same luxury of distance. NJLA has put together a donation fund to help out libraries and library systems that were hit by the storm. I emphatically encourage people to donate. I’m waiting to see what else I can do to help out when it comes to those libraries. In the meantime, I’m hopeful. It’s the one thing I can be.

(Note: Nancy Dowd wrote a lovely piece about her Jersey roots and the storm. It’s a good read as well as containing links to other ways to help out.)