Yes, We Should Talk About the MLS

It looks like Library Journal’s Editor-in-Chief Michael Kelley spun The Wheel of Perpetual Library Topics and it came up on that pesky graduate school requirement, the Masters in Library Science and its related brethren. “Can We Talk About the MLS?” is an editorial that takes on the notion that all roads to librarianship run through an MLS program, arguing that while it is good venue for learning the underlying theories of librarianship it is a terrible platform for practical and extraordinarily varied skills that span the spectrum of library types and jobs. Furthermore, the degree itself is required hurdle for getting a job in the field. Michael concludes by wondering if this “expensive and unnecessarily exclusionary credential” is stopping the kind of talent we need right now from getting into the field and if other routes (such as apprenticeship) are equally viable options.

My gut reaction is that the MLS is here to stay not because of anything to do with the profession but the way that current higher education is structured. Graduate programs are student loan cash cows allowing these institutions to charge hefty tuitions for a degree that is essential to employment. Our license to practice is their license to print money. Factor in the emerging online programs with their larger class sizes (read: more money), larger class sizes (read: more money), and an overall shift towards adjunct faculty (read: less overhead), it would be a hit to the bottom line to eliminate or weaken these programs. Academic inflation becomes the cherry on top of this expensive educational sundae, one that all of us with MLS degrees have been compelled to eat so that we can practice within the field.

If I asked for comments about less-than-vigorous classes that can be found in MLS programs, I could fill this entry with stories as far as the scroll bar would take me. Personally, I’ve heard about an MLS program teaching an entire semester graduate credit class on (wait for it) Microsoft Office. That’s the punchline to a joke I can’t even conceive since my mind can’t wrap itself the process that would make that possible. I’ve heard similar stories about classes of a dubious nature, but that’s the one I always come back to.

I’ll admit that I look at the MLS program through a very skewed lens. I went from a year in law school to a library science graduate program and they simply don’t compare when it comes to rigor. Law school was running a marathon while the MLS program was a nice scenic 5k run. They have radically different undercurrents; where law school is trying to cull the weak, library science programs are a bit more, uh, inclusive. Perhaps if I hadn’t had that experience I would feel differently about it, but it is what it is.

Now, if you were to hold a gun to my head and ask me to recall the names of the classes I took or you’d shoot, I’d have to say, “Tell my family I love them”. There isn’t much I can connect from the classroom to my work, mainly smatterings of community outreach and reference practices. I wouldn’t categorize them as useless but as not being useful for how I ended up in the library field. Perhaps I am more to blame for my class choices, but I can’t say that all the classes I took were exactly memorable either. However, I know my experience is limited to the program that I attended. I’m sure there are many who would come out to defend their programs.

Back to the editorial, I wonder if there is another viable path to librarianship. Rather than apprenticeship, my thoughts went over to the alternate route certification for teachers. While I don’t pretend to know the nuances on how a program like that would work for librarians, I do feel that if one can be developed it would be a way of attracting the needed talent from other fields into the greater librarian fold. A Master’s requirement can effectively slam the door on someone whereas an alternate route method could keep them moving in our direction. If we want evolution in the field, we can start by not inbreeding when it comes to qualifications.

It seems silly and a bit boorish to demand an MLS out of everyone who deigns to work in the field, especially if they are accomplished outside of it. I know there are prominent people working in libraries right now who do not have an MLS. It even feels a bit ironic to promote inclusiveness of a wide variety of viewpoints as well as services but professionally hold ourselves to a cattle-chute credential requirement.  I understand that there are common standards, practices, and principles that all librarians should be drawing from, but I cannot think that there is only one way to achieve that. In a time of varied learning models and platforms, shouldn’t our professional accreditations expand beyond the MLS?

Forget the Horse, Let Me Tell You About My Awesome Cart

Over the duration of this week, there have been about five different conferences going on in which librarians that I follow on Twitter have been attending. I can’t recall all of the conferences nor all of the hashtags; I can only say that each one of them looks like part of a CAPTCHA. As diligently as the people I follow having been tweeting the choice lines from the presentations they are attending, the tweets that bear phrases like “libraries must” or “librarians must” have set off a slow fuse in me.

On the one hand, I get the points people are making. “Here’s how you can build a makerspace” or a digital media lab or Facebook presence or whatever they have successfully constructed and found community acceptance. It’s nice to see the process, the pitfalls, and the benefits and drawbacks. (Unless they skip over the drawbacks to focus on how awesome their project is.) They are there to show off the final product, not necessarily the journey to that point.

On the other hand, I think more often it is like starting to read a story a few chapters in. I can’t seem to recall many details about how they decided to build whatever it is they are talking about. What was their community research? Did they do any marketing to identify groups within their service community that made their project more likely to succeed? How was the need for a particular service identified? I’ll admit that I’ve heard presentations in which they addresses this as an opener for their talk, but it doesn’t get much stage time.

I’m saying this because it feels like most library innovation oriented talks take the tact of describing their project in detail and then spending time trying to convince the audience that it is a necessary addition to their library. Sure, it sounds great, but I really want to know how the idea got rolling. Personally, I think that’s one of the weakest areas in librarianship right now: approaching and measuring our communities for their needs.

So, when and where are those talks happening? That’s when librarians will be able to build better community relationships so they can host the materials and services that are in demand. Whether it is a makerspace, computer lab, digital media center, or lending out gardening equipment, examination of the genesis of these ideas as it relates to dialogues between librarians and their communities is the bigger issue here. I can read someone’s conference handouts on how to do it, but if I can’t figure out how to reach out and get the feedback that I need to start me down the path, then I’m stuck.

You can build it, but you should damn well make sure that they do come.

Send Me the Check That You Would Have Sent to Consultants This Year

(Note: This is a column that I wrote for American Libraries that they passed on using. After reading today’s Gavia Libraria (aka the Library Loon) post, I thought it would be a good time to share it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I made one edit so that it works for the blog. –A)

Brace yourself for I am about to perform an amazing trick: I will divine your library’s future.

Please place your hand on the [screen] and relax. Breathe in through your nose, breathe out with your mouth, and open up your mind.

Aha! Already I can feel the psychic vibrations as they find their way to my mind and open up the portal to your future. For reassurance, believe me when I tell you that I now have placed two fingers to my temple while squinting or closing my eyes, whichever is more impressive. A vision is now forming!

I’m sensing something about money, either not having enough of it or not certain how to spend it.

What, too easy? Let’s delve further.

You have a good rapport with the people who come to your library, but something is missing. There is a need, a want, a desire that your members have expressed but you’re worried. You’re not completely certain how to do it. The picture is now becoming clearer!

I’m sensing that it has to do with something mobile. They want to access the library from wherever they are. You must fashion a website that works on mobile devices and an app to allow them to access their account wherever and whenever they want. The tools are there, just build it!

No, wait! They want a place to build things that uses fancy futuristic machinery. Either lend them the tools while hiring the experts to teach them or perhaps get one of those 3D printers that will make their dreams become a reality! The desire to design is only matched by the longing to hold their creations in their hands!

Hold on, that’s not a toy I see them holding, but what looks like a tablet or eReader. Yes! They want to be able to download books, music, and other stuff from the library. You must work to get the rights to these materials as well as create a platform that will make it easy for them to use. Right now they are trapped in a murky place where the instructions aren’t so straightforward.

The vision is getting cloudy! Ah, now that makes sense! They really want to learn about the cloud. Their confusion arises from hearing about how they can do all kinds of things online. Computer classes for your members and technology training for staff should do the trick. Reach out to them on the social media platforms that they frequent and astound them with details of what they could learn!

But, one moment, there is something blocking this outcome. I see it now! They can’t even get to the cloud because they don’t have a computer at home or there are no acceptable ISPs in the area. They have come to you at the library to find the access that they seek! They want to walk through your doors and be assured that the internet world has not left them behind!

Wait, perhaps not. They have come to the library not for the computers, but for the people and programs. Yes! Your staff, your programs, and the chance to see their neighbors face-to-face have proven to be an irresistible lure in this digital age. They seek stimulation of the mind, the human contact, and a need for “third place” in their lives. Alas, the vision is fading…

And there you have it. I have divined your library’s future.

Admit it. You are impressed. Sure, I was a bit all over the place for a while there, but I still nailed it. Given how many people were trying to simultaneously reach me psychically, I might have gotten some of the signals crossed. But I saw your future in there.

You are most welcome just so as long as your check is in the mail.

Something about Anxiety and Depression

I’ve been wanting to write something on anxiety and depression but I couldn’t think of a good opening. Having a good hook at the start of the post is important to me since it was important to all my English teachers over the years who taught me how to write. Sometimes I’ll find myself stymied because I know what I want to say as the major point I want to make, but I’m not always certain how to get to that point in order to say it. It’s frustrating to have a middle and an end but no opening.

So, yes, in writing about how I couldn’t think of a good way to open, I have given myself one. I think the major issue was that this topic is so personal and so hard to talk about sometimes. Yes, I am someone who lives with anxiety and depression. I was going to say “suffers from”, but I don’t think that puts the right spin on it. It’s something that inhabits me, not the other way around. To be fair, it’s more like a main entrée of anxiety with a side order of depression. And, like many of my fellow Americans, I am having difficulty with portion control.

I’ve had bouts of anxiety for a long time over the course of my life. It’s only within the last few years that it has intensified to the point where it has become (for lack of a better phrase) life interfering. Specifically, it has made travelling anywhere very hard at times. At its worst, it could turn a short car trip (think 15-20 minutes) into a white knuckle experience. I won’t go into the details, but let’s just say that the kind of imagination and creativity that was used some of the projects I’ve done over the years doesn’t always work for the good side of my brain. No, it has staked its claim on darker territory.

I remember a previous counselor remarking that I live a lot in my own head. It’s not that I’m unaware of what is going on around me or unable to empathize with others, but that there are thought processes go on without an outside check. That, despite best evidence otherwise, I don’t always articulate the thoughts and feelings I’m having very well so that I get some sort of feedback from others. This has lead to many a conversation in which I feel very silly or stupid once I say what the issue is because (oddly enough) it’s not that big a deal otherwise. I will build things up in my head that aren’t always as big as they purport to be.

The other half of this equation are the physical symptoms I’ve experienced. Dizziness, shaking, chills, and the ever popular chest pains have made appearances over the years and especially recently. They are the perpetual motion machines of symptoms since they can expand and fuel an ever increasing anxiety reaction. What starts out as a “I’m feeling a bit off” can become a “DEAR GOD I WANT TO GO HOME AND CRAWL UNDER THE COVERS AND NOT COME OUT EVER AGAIN” with just enough lingering thoughts over the interpretation of symptoms. It’s been my experience that there is nothing too small that the mind can’t blow out of proportion.

Writing this blog post has not been the easiest. As I said before, it is something personal. But even if no one was to read this, just the act of typing the words has been liberating. It’s as if I was transferring it from my brain to the screen thus freeing the former from the latter. It’s certainly not a cure-all, but it takes away the power that comes from suffering in silence. As someone who lets those thoughts rattle around his head, this can be the change that is needed to come out ahead.

This latest bout of anxiety comes and goes. Last week I was feeling pretty great; this weekend and last night hit me sideways. Right now I’m on an ‘up’ so I’m taking advantage of it. I got some exercise this evening, ate a nutritious meal, had a non-nutritious snack, and have been on-and-off dancing around in my apartment. I just have to remember I’m not alone and that anxiety doesn’t define me even though it gets the controls every now and again. To everyone who has it or been touched by it in their lives, it’s a good reminder of all the benefits that come from facing something as part of a crowd.

(Everything But) National Library Week

If you asked me what library related activities went on this week, I’d be hard pressed to give an answer. The Digital Public Library of America launched on Thursday to much social media fanfare. The Circulating Idea podcast Kickstarter was also launched and within two days was fully funded. After those two events, I can’t really think of anything else significant this week. Something I read in one of the regular columns in Library Journal made me want to punch the screen but that’s nothing new either. No, it wasn’t the Annoyed Librarian because both of their columns were rather banal this week. No, it wasn’t John Berry’s piece either even if it lead to an epic ALA Think Tank thread.

No, what I can tell you about this week is that it was bookended by the bombing in Boston as well as the (currently unfolding) hunt for the bombers. It was a fertilizer factory in Texas blowing up, well, most of the town (This is a map of the blast area with landmarks via Reddit. Skip it if you don’t want to be additionally horrified.) Congress dropped the ball on passing a gun purchase background check amendment to a bill despite widespread support. Chicago got all manner of weather, suggesting that the Bermuda Triangle may now run through Hinsdale. The Gosnell “House of Horrors” trial continued to unfold in ways that would give Stephen King the willies. Iran experienced a scary giant earthquake. I’m stopping here because, unfortunately, I really could go on.

Without a doubt, it has been a rough week. In an age of instant information transmission, it’s hard not to avoid breaking stories which bring all of the incomplete uncertainty with it. Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook can send rumors, speculation, and inaccuracies around the globe in moments. To be fair, it can also send corrections, confirmations, and official accounts in the same time frame as well. But doesn’t lessen the resulting moments of confusion.

The human brain doesn’t like information gaps so it tries to fill those with anything it has on hand, be it real or imagined. Rationalizations play Monday Morning Quarterback to our thoughts as a way of finding reconciliation and closure using causation and correlation that doesn’t necessarily follow through. Elsewhere in the brain, our primitive risk calculating system (best thought of as “the gut”) makes risk calculations that are based on emotional factors, not logic. This can push aside our better judgments in favor of immediate action, whatever that may be.

It’s hard to sit tight and wait for events to unfold so that a bigger clearer picture emerges. Like many people, I want to know what is going on and a lack of larger perspective stymies that. I’m going to try to step away from the computer for a bit to allow things to develop, but I know I’ll have one eye on the screen as I pass it. I try to keep in mind that, as rough as this week has been, this too shall pass. We’ll come out on the other side of all these things a bit older, a bit wiser, and hopefully a bit stronger. It’s just a matter of getting there.

In the meantime, be kind and try to take care of one another.

Support the Circulating Ideas Kickstarter

Yesterday, fellow librarian Steve Thomas launched a Kickstarter campaign to help enhance and expand his librarian podcast, Circulating Ideas. He wants to get some new equipment, better audio software, and compensate the lovely musician who composed the podcast theme music. As Steve does this on his own time, his love for the profession, and his desire to do Fresh Air-like interviews, it’s a pretty damn worthy cause in my opinion. As of the moment of posting, he is about $1,500 towards his $2,000 goal with twenty nine days to go. The first day went really, really well, but it’s still not across the goal line. So, please take a moment to read about the Kickstarter campaign, check out the podcast site (maybe listen to a few either through the site or iTunes), and consider adding your donation. It’s a pleasure to support this kind of work on behalf of the librarian profession and I’ve gladly given to the cause.

Full disclosure: I have appeared as a guest on the podcast in the past. I was also one of the many interviews that Steve did at PLA 2012.

Simon & Schuster Joins the Library eBook Lending Ranks

With an announcement today, Simon & Schuster became the last remaining major publisher to allow for library eBook lending. S&S has started a pilot program with the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library, and the Queens Public Library. There isn’t much that hasn’t been done before as far as the terms go: one copy, one person; titles have to be repurchased after a year; the full catalog is available including new titles which are available for purchase at the time of publication. Although, there is actually one very different detail:

As part of this pilot, The New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, and Queens Library are offering patrons the option to purchase a copy of Simon & Schuster eBooks from within the libraries’ online portals. Since the libraries will receive a share of the proceeds from each sale, this new service offers patrons the opportunity to support their local library, particularly for popular new titles with long waiting lists.

While I’m curious to see how this little twist plays out, I’m still have a mixed reaction to this whole deal. First, it’s an interesting swipe at Amazon in denying them a sale, but it also takes a swing at Barnes & Noble. It may be a well calculated gamble as libraries do not need to make the sale to survive or deal with razor thin margins. Barnes & Noble could belly up in the near future and the placement of books in a library portal gives some maneuvering room for getting books to market. I’d be curious to see how the public prices are set as well as how competitive they would be in the eBook market.

Second, perpetual stewardship of eBook titles is still a long ways off. In bringing the last library eBook lending holdouts to the table, one or two years have been the negotiated terms for service. There doesn’t seem to be any movement towards any deal that includes longer or perpetual terms. (Nevermind anything that resembles the term “ownership”.) This shifts literature archiving or preservation away from libraries and back to the publishing groups. As these titles only require server space, they can be kept as a backlist indefinitely. (Or, as I figure, as indefinitely as someone as a publishing executive allows it.) Not exactly a comforting thought, but neither is it upsetting. The books that stand the test of time will be saved for their profit while others will just fade away like wiped hard drives. Those decisions will be made in the years to come.

Third, I’m always leery about the concept of a public library acting as a retailer. While I think it would be a wonderful boon to offer our library members the ability to purchase material, I have concerns that fall into two groups. The first is the public library as a government entity acting in the retail market as a competitor. I feel that it’s an unfair advantage on private business since we are funded by tax money, not investors or profits. To me it feels like as an intrusion on a market that is better handled by the private sector. The second is that use of tax money to seed the purchase of eBooks that could be sold. My concern is that this sale benefit becoming an undue influence on the purchase of eBooks that can turn a sale versus offering a wide variety of material. Granted, the percentage of the sale that the library gets remains to be seen, but it’s still money that we didn’t have a moment ago. Also, how would this change expectations about the library and the materials that we offer?

Even with these reservations, I still want to see the pilot go forward. I want to follow how this experiment turns out as well as the options and lessons that come out of it. There is still much unsettled, so much to see, and who knows what the technology or market will take us in the next year. It’s hard to wait and see, but there are no better options right now.


I really wanted to give a library member a hug last week. It wasn’t because they had done something awesome for the library, but they were in pain. It was a deep personal pain, far detached from anything at the library. I wanted to put my arm around them, tell them that things were going to be alright, and give offer them comfort in their time of sadness.

I wouldn’t have simply walked over and hugged them (I know how people can be about being touched), but I really wished I had offered them a hug. Even if they had turned it down, at least I could say that I offered it and it was declined. I wouldn’t take it personally but it’s better than feeling regret at not offering them a hug. The impulse comes out of the larger sense of empathy that I feel when it comes to helping people who come to the library. Sometimes a helping hand is the most literal one that offers comfort in a time of emotional stress in a way that no book, database, or service can offer.

I think librarians have a common connection with law enforcement at times; we do not see people at their best. Librarians can see people at their most stressed, most frazzled, and most in need of help. I’ve seen it people typing up resumes desperately looking for work, frustrated by online job applications, and looking for solutions that will get them to the next payday, the next grocery trip, and the next heating bill. I’ve seen people toiling with taxes, fighting with banks and insurance companies, and trying to fit five hours of errands into a three hour window. (I would imagine my academic and school peers see their share as students of all ages struggle with their grades and assignments.) I empathize with each and every one of them and try my best to ease their day. But, that day last week, there was nothing I could do to help someone who is going through such a rough personal issue. A hug was all I could think of, but I couldn’t even bring myself to articulate the simple question (“Would you like a hug?”).

The thoughts of policy went through my head with a customer conduct manual that repeats the line, “Do not touch the patron” through the different scenarios. This line is found in the negative interactions outlined in which the patrons are drunk, being unruly, or otherwise abusive. It’s a pretty good guideline for those kinds of incidents, but it infects other thoughts as well. Would this be crossing a line even if the other person was consenting? Is there some county attorney who would give me trouble for this, even with permission?

To me, this should be easy issue: offer, then act accordingly. Hug or no hug, either way works, and life moves on. But as a white male, over six feet in height and the weight to match, and has been called “intimidating” in the past, it presents its own quagmires. These factors do not work in my favor. The horror stories of sexual harassment accusations have been played time over time through friends and the news. A long time ago, I adopted a “no touching anybody ever” professional policy to safeguard against even the most remote chance of an accusation. I wasn’t exactly a touchy feely person before (save for loved ones and close friends), but this made the personal space barrier even more rigid and inflexible. Even then, it sometimes makes me feel lonely and aloof.

As I was putting this post together in my head, I thought about my friends and librarian friends online who deal with the other end of this question: the unwanted contact. Creeps, jerks, and other obnoxious asshats who find an excuse to initiate touching, whether it is a seemingly casual brush-by or full-on grope. It saddens me that some of my amazing colleagues have to be cautious and aware of their surroundings anytime they are in the public. (I know this goes into deeper societal and cultural issues, but I’m not heading into that territory for this post. I just want to take a moment to acknowledge that they exist and I’m aware of them.) This bothers me to the point where I lose the words to describe my burning, blinding rage. It invokes dark fantasies of vigilante justice involving hammering fingers and crushing larynxes. It angers me that anyone (librarian or not) has to put up this kind of bullshit behavior. If there was an occasion for God to use lightning bolts to smite people right where they stand, this would be one of my top choices.

Over the weekend, I’ve thought about that encounter. I believe it is one in which that I’m not a librarian and they aren’t a library member, but two human beings in the same place where one is going through a tough, emotional crisis. The empathetic side of me told me that the ‘right’ thing to do was to offer comfort by way of a hug. The logic and reasoning side only saw the potential dangers in that situation. In this round, fear won over compassion. And I wish it hadn’t. I really wanted to reach out because I know how even the gesture can make the difference in someone’s life. We are in a business of small acts that lead to bigger and life-changing results. I felt that this was one of those moments and I let it slip away. I just hope I don’t fail to act upon what I think is right the next time.

Stupid, Stupid, Stupid

Every now and again, a library member will approach me at the reference desk and preface their inquiry with the phrase, “I have a stupid question”. My standard response comes from Lewis Black (“I will be the judge of that”) which I sometimes manage not to say out loud. Despite their declaration to the contrary, I’ve never heard a stupid question. I’ve heard ones of genuine curiosity, easily rectified inattentive reasoning, and momentary mind farts, but nothing that arises to the level of thinking, “I question the integrity of the oxygen supply to your brain”.

A few months ago, I remember teaching one of my computer classes . As I was greeting people and checking off registered name, a person entering the computer center leaned in and said in a low voice, “I’m the stupid one.” I made a joke to pass it off, but they were insistent. “No, really, I’m not smart.” Oh man. I haven’t uttered one word of instruction and this person has already charted a course that leads towards a failing outcome. How do you overcome that?

I made a point in telling them that, in seeking help to learn more about computers, they’ve already made one smart move. That there were people who had already given up on themselves without even trying to find someone to teach them. Also that I was also there to help them along, to guide them through, and to answer the questions along the way. They changed their tune, a mixture of being taken aback by my bluntness and embarrassment that I would not let go of the point, and by the time they left the class they thanked me for giving them the confidence to use a computer.

It’s this last key point (confidence) that I work to instill when I’m teaching my computer classes. Although it is not an original discovery in any way, shape, or form, but I find that attitude can be equally if not more important than knowledge in the classroom. I could ramble on about how a computer works, the features of Microsoft Word, or the privacy settings of Facebook for hours on end, but if my students don’t have the courage and confidence to use the mouse or type on the keyboard, it’s wasted breath. So many of my students (nearly all older people) come in frightened that they could press the wrong key or click on the wrong icon and the whole computer will crash, blow up, run off with their spouse, and spend their retirement money in Bora Bora. The main lesson I try to impart is approach this as an adventure, that there aren’t any bad screens only unfamiliar ones, and that everything can be fixed (even if requires a family member or friend to help them out). 

I know I’m going to get pushback on this, but there really isn’t anything that is a stupid question in our business. We are there to provide answers to questions, even if they seem rote, basic, or just plain lazy. There is a keen difference between these behaviors and being completely mentally dull. Given the expansive definition of the term itself, some nuance and context are required to figure out what the real issue is (which, I should note, doesn’t rule out the librarian as being out of line in this equation either).

In that interaction, whether it is in the computer lab or the reference desk or out on the floor, the most important thing that we can give our library members is the confidence to ask the next question. While our answer to their inquiry can be overturned by later data, the attitude of the interaction outcome will leave a longer lasting impression. Overall, when we judge an inquiry as stupid (read: beneath us), it can be a dangerous term in which to frame the people who walk through the door seeking our help.



This weekend, I was left to my own devices as The Fiancée was in the midst of accounting hell that is (what I’m told) “quarter closing”. Apparently, on a regular basis there is a need to have some sort of numerical conclave in which people from all over the company gather their charts and figures, cast their dark magic balance sheet spells, and make the numbers dance and tell stories. No one can leave until the corporate overlords are placated and shift their Eye of Sauron-like focus on another fearful portion of the company. From what I understand the reality is something about looking at spreadsheets, sending emails, and sitting in on conference calls, but I like my version much better.

While I had to work on Saturday as well, I had the benefit of having enough energy to go country line dancing both Friday and Saturday evening. This is something that The Fiancée introduced me to about eighteen months ago when we first started dating and I’ve taken a liking to it. It’s social, it’s active, and it’s in sharp relief to my work day (in front of the computer) and my play time (in front of the computer). I had wanted to learn to dance (East Coast swing, in particular) as it was the rage at the time in the late 1990’s but the fates conspired against me. So, I’m a late starter but I finally got there.

I was sitting at one of the high top tables, carefully chosen for easy access to the dance floor as well as a view of the establishment, when it occurred to me that I am now a regular at the main place we go dancing. I haven’t been a regular at any place or event in a long while, perhaps over ten years ago during my LARPing years. I’ve gotten to know the people and the staff as well as the dances and the social conventions that is the dance floor. (Line dancers in the main area on the inside, couples dancing counter-clockwise around the outside, and wait for the count to start.) Right now I still draw relationship context to them from The Fiancée (formerly “Oh, you’re her boyfriend!”, now they say “Oh, you’re her fiancé!”) but I hope in another two years people will start their name guesses with a vowel.

In becoming a regular, I can now claim the power of judgment over non-regulars. While I am still low on the regular seniority scale (a constant reminder by the people who just glide across the floor with ease), it still outranks the tourists who come out for the night of cultural gaping and inexpensive mass manufactured American beer. Over the course of the last eighteen months, all those valuable pattern recognition skills that help me as a librarian have been utilized to develop a sense as what is the norm and what is not. Given my highly tuned powers of arbitrary observation, it has been refined to the point where I can tell who fits in and who doesn’t.

When it comes to outsiders, then tend to fall into a couple of groups. Bachelorette parties and girls night outs are my favorites but for much more sadistic reasons. Any combination of booze, tall stiletto heels, and tiny dresses is a recipe for embarrassment waiting to happen. As soon as they take to the fringes of the dance floor to try to follow along, the wait for disaster begins. It’s only a matter a time before the balance games is lost or a “wardrobe malfunction” occurs. Without a doubt it’s schadenfreude, but it does provide a nice diversion to the evening.

The ‘trying too hard’ group is next in which people put on everything they think is western. Hats, anything with fringe hanging off of it, all manner of boots, leather everything, you name it. I’ve even seen people wearing spurs. Spurs. Why in God’s name you would put on spurs and then drive to a bar in New Jersey to go dancing is beyond me. The gentleman from last Saturday who inspired the graphic above did not have spurs (I guess they don’t make them for Timberland knockoffs), but he was dressed in all the shades of mottled brown that exist and topped off with a dinky brown beat-up cowboy hat with the stampede strap cinched underneath his chin. He looked like the guy in charge of pony rides at a little kid’s birthday party.

Mercifully enough, I never went through the awkward garb phase since (1) I had enough sense to not try for every country western cliché garb I could think of and (2) I had The Fiancée to glare guide me along with my wardrobe choices. I started out in shorts, Chucks, and t-shirts and graduated to jeans, boots, and button-down shirts. I don’t wear a cowboy hat since any arms moves over the head are that much tougher and it can get pretty hot under there. Eventually, I’m sure my wardrobe will slowly convert to serve this dancing lifestyle.

From my own experience, I can tell what these groups are expecting: twangy songs about girlfriends leaving, dogs dying, and pick-up trucks; people stiffly moving in square dance-like moves; and perhaps a glimpse of someone whittling in the corner or playing a jug. I know what they are expecting because it was what I was thinking when I first went (well, basically that line about twangy songs). I can remember sitting there watching The Fiancée dancing to some contemporary country songs. Then, suddenly, there was a Backstreet Boys song. And there was a specific dance choreographed to that song. As the nights have gone on, they play songs by artists like V.I.C, Cee Lo Green, LMFAO, and Maroon 5. There is still a good amount of country music, but it’s the insertion of other genres that makes it fascinating to me as a cultural mashup. It’s fun to watch their faces when those tunes come on for it gives me an idea about what my face looked like when I first experienced it.

Invariably, the unspoken peace between the tourists and the regulars will be usurped by the entry of the former onto the dance floor. I’d liken it to cubs crossing over into the territory of an established lion pride. They were safe at the bar, the booths, the high-top tables, and even the edges of the dance area. But by entering the dance floor area, the aforementioned rules come into play and are enforced both nicely and, for lack of a better phrase, not-so-nicely. It’s not guys like myself that they should be worried about (even though I’ve come pretty close to running people over and deservedly so) but the ladies who are the true enforcers on the field. While tolerance is given for those trying and not disrupting the floor, patience is measured and finite. One time I saw a woman deliver a hip check to a drunken stumbling bride that would make the Broad Street Bullies look at each other and say, “Damn.” You can try to keep up (indeed, people will help out), but if you keep getting in the way, you’re toast.

As they say, the beat goes on, last week’s tourists are out the door, and next week will be the same regular faces with the possibility of new outsiders to entertain us. It feels good to be a regular at something again, even as I wonder how long I can keep it up once family life makes an appearance. For now, I’ll enjoy the time I have been afforded and try to soak it up as much as possible. But I’ll admit it’s hard to wait for the next dance night.