OIF & 538

Earlier this week, David Goldenberg of the FiveThirtyEight blog published a piece about trying to identify the most challenged book in America. After being denied access to the raw data kept by the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF), the story turned towards the integrity of the data, the methodology of collection, and even what it means to challenge a book (such as the conflation of age appropriate challenges with “no one should ever read this ever” types of challenges). I can’t deny the earnestness of such inquiries; I can see how an outsider might perceive the OIF’s response as off-putting. But it really only scrapes the surface of a problem of the librarian profession’s own digging.

It’s not simply one problem here, but a pile giant swirling hodge-podge of issues that are intertwined and complex through negligence or indifference. There is no simple answer to David’s inquiry because of the layers upon layers of complications that have grown over the years. And the fault for this mess rests at the feet of the librarian profession.

Let’s start at the beginning and work our way to the data.

At this level, it starts with the librarian who receives a material challenge. (Let’s set aside for the moment whether it is about changing its grade level or removing it from the county.) In their graduate school education or on-the-job training, librarians are not instilled with a professional obligation to report challenges to anyone, be it OIF or their state organization or any other professional organization. There is no duty to report, no raise a hand or a flag or simply say out loud that there has been a material challenge. None whatsoever.

While there is much talk given to the ethics of challenges, providing broad collections, or protecting the freedom to read and/or intellectual freedom, the actual practice can be quite lacking. Librarians can and have relocated challenged materials to staff areas, hidden them away in their personal office space, or even quietly remove challenged materials without a second thought. Materials disappear from the shelves like dissidents snatched off the streets, never to be heard from again. These aren’t the awful stereotypical shushing librarians of the 1950’s, prim and proper and easily offended. These are the librarians of today. It happens in 2015.

Even then, there can be external pressures that push librarians off the ideal path. Threats, implied or stated, about their future promotion, placement, or even keeping their position happen. The fear of retribution from supervisors, coworkers, local officials, principals, school boards, or local entities can keep a material challenge from becoming public. Discovery of a reported challenge can jeopardize a career. While it is easy to argue that one should stand up for the professional ideals, the reality can be crushing. (Trust me on this one. I know.)

Even once more, it may not occur to someone that it should be reported to the OIF or anyone. A librarian may not know about the resources available to them (it’s true) or it may not be a priority in their life to report the challenge. Back in 2011, Sarah Houghton and I did an internet survey for material challenges. The results closely aligned with OIF’s long time claims that it is an underreported phenomena; the number of removals or challenges rarely matched the number of times the librarian reported it to OIF or their state association1.

That’s only step one here. Let’s say that the librarian or library staff member goes ahead to report the challenge to OIF. Onwards to the next step.

Here is the OIF online challenge form. Despite its length, it only has three required fields: Title of the work challenged, the State where the challenge occurred, and Email Address of the person reporting the challenge. That’s it. In their desire to hear about a challenge, OIF leaves a lot of data on the table. It’s a gamble on their part, one that should be reconsidered in the future. Little information can be worse than no information because little information creates speculation with the shakiest of support. If And Tango Makes Three was challenged fifty times and the only data given is the title, state, and email, then is it because people hate gay books, wanted it moved within an acceptable age range, or there is some bozo out there who hates penguins? From that limited data, any of those conclusions are valid.

Even then, there is some dissonance behind the rationale about how the raw data is obtained. If the database is confidential and intended only for staff use, then why not make more fields required to get a better information about the challenge? One could say that it creates a risk as the database could be subject to court orders, but to my thinking the larger benefits outweigh the small unknown risks.

Step three is how this data is collected and used.

There is also a matter of staffing and budget in regards to OIF as ALA has experienced budget crises over the last couple of years. There simply isn’t the manpower or the finances available to chase down all challenges to determine their particulars or outcome. It’s why projects like the Missouri FOIA group are important to supplement their data. But, as an ALA office, it’s ultimately the responsibility of the membership to prioritize its mission and provide it the support that it needs. But ALA internal politics are an entirely different manner.

With all of this in mind, it’s hard not to see how the database is not social science statistically valid. But it doesn’t pretend to be either as expressed in their statement. There are so many failure points along the way from the moment a challenge is mounted to the collection of challenge information that there is no way that the data would match the reality. Like many other societal issues, it is simply underreported phenomena. It’s the best that can be done with the tools available, the funds allocated, and the profession is willing to support and utilize. You can deconstruct that sentence any which way you want for it tells the underlying story about how many different ways reporting challenges is royally screwed.

I do agree with the sentiment expressed by Jessamyn in regards to how challenges are handled; the lumping of “I think this should be in Grade 5 rather than Grade 3” with “This book is the work of Satan and needs to be destroyed” is an awful simplification in an age where we have the tools to make the distinction. They really aren’t the same and this is a problem that needs to be addressed more aggressively.

I’ve written about Banned Books Weeks many times and it’s starting to feel like other librarian tropes. We can’t change it because (ahem) it’s tradition and it is the way we’ve always done it. Just gather the usual suspects, make a display, wrap it in POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS tape, and take it down in a week. There feels like very little effort to educate the public other than “someone didn’t like this book because a character uses bad language in it”. And, honestly, if you think that peddling James Joyce’s Ulysses is going to move the needle on public perception of the importance of the freedom to read, you need to go lie down right now.

By my own admission, this whole OIF/538 mess really pissed me off last night. It’s such a giant quagmire with plenty of blame to go around. I blame the profession for not instilling a duty to report material challenges. I blame OIF for how they continue to go about acquiring and presenting the data that they collect. I blame ALA for lacking the funding priority to make the OIF have greater reach and depth for intellectual freedom issues. I blame librarians in general for putting up with any of these things as an acceptable status quo for an ideal that rests within our core principles.

It’s really a goddamn shame. We can and should do better. The cynical part of me doesn’t think we will because it sounds too much like cleaning up a gigantic mess. “And I didn’t go to graduate school to clean up these kinds of things.”

But I’m sure you wish you did when a material challenge lands on your desk.


1Since we are talking numbers here, I will concede that the respondents were self selected and it was not weighted, designed, or otherwise implemented to get a scientifically valid sample size. -AW

Community, Inclusiveness, and Offensive Materials

When you look at this image, what do you see?

readstricted

This is the (current) official graphic for 2015 Banned Books Week. If the ALA Think Tank thread is any indication, there are many ways to interpret this image. The image is the unlikely love child between a book and Do Not Enter sign, punctuated with an unwieldy portmanteau that took me a couple attempts for my eyes to read through (or understandification). Some see a reference to a niqab, some find it personally offensive, some find it offensive on the behalf of others, and still others, well, don’t come to any of these conclusions. And I’m not going to share what I think about it and/or what should be done (or not done) about it because I feel there is something more fundamental being expressed here.

What I find most interesting and compelling about this image and the discussion around it is that it represents an example of one of the central paradoxes of the profession: offensive material and the community.

On the one hand, taking the position that this image is offensive and it would deter people from using the library, then it should not be used. Libraries strive to represent the entire community and anything that harms that mission should be avoided. This includes minority populations (eg. Muslims, Hispanics, gays) that otherwise may not have a voice or resource for their needs. What matters here is the outside perception of the image; since it is offensive (or the potential to offend), then it is not to the benefit of the library to use it. (Whether you purchase it is another question, but from my understanding the almighty dollar works wonders for modifying organizational behavior.)

On the other hand, the library is a refuge for materials that some people find offensive. It is a well storied and proclaimed history of how the library is a place for the inclusion of all ideas, including the vulgar, profane, and downright despicable. (Although, to be fair, this is a relatively new development in the history of the library of the last half century or so.) It is reinforced by the Library Bill of Rights, outlined in the first four statements. The Jo Godwin quote (“A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone”) gets trotted out as a affirmation of the professional commitment to intellectual freedom and diversity of ideas. Under that reasoning, then the poster should stay.

Author’s note: On a third hand, if an individual doesn’t find the image to be offensive, then the question shifts to ‘what is it trying to convey?’ As noted elsewhere, the model is on the side with the words, even if a giant hole has been cut out of the middle. Saying that banning books is bad is a very uncontroversial statement because you’d be hard pressed to find someone to agree with; even the people presenting material challenges are doing it for what they see are noble reasons. Even as a librarian, I’m left thinking, “…so?” Also, based on some other products in the ALA store, this appears to be an image in which librarians are encouraged to put themselves behind the book so this model is just an stand-in.

I’ll concede that this poster is publicity material, not something that people would find in their collections. A library can have a perfectly successful Banned Books Week without it, so this isn’t a “do or die” situation for any institution.

But I have questions, ones to which I feel that astute people can give thoughtful answers to:

  • If you find this poster to be offensive, then should this preclude any Islamophobic materials from a library’s collection? What about other material that has offensive content about minority groups? What is collectable and what is contemptible?
  • If you find this poster not to be offensive, what is your plan for explaining it to a community member with a complaint? How will you  keep the poster and the patron, especially if they threaten take it to the library board/town council/local newspaper?
  • What is the tipping point between inclusiveness of community and inclusiveness of ideas? Which is more important: making sure that every person is represented (no matter who they are) or every idea is represented (no matter what it is)?
  • If ALA OIF were to take down the image from the ALA store, how would it damage their credibility when addressing censorship situations and issues? (That is, in acknowledging it as offensive and removing it, what maneuvering room would they (and by extension, ALA) be left with in telling communities not to filter computers or remove library materials because of offensive content?)

The closest thing I have to a conclusion is that I feel this is an effective illustration about the complexity of the issue of community, inclusiveness, and offensive material. As much as the profession tries to deny it, there is a choice that happens: people or ideas. Or, more precisely:

  • the larger the community, the greater pool of cultural and spiritual beliefs with notions of what is offensive; or
  • the widest ranging spectrum of ideas, the more likely to personally offend members of a community.

I don’t know if I can muster a answer other than “it depends”. The individual context of the library has a strong position in this dilemma, the deciding vote in coming to any decision. I’ll be pondering this for awhile.

Fatherhood, Libraryland, and Other Incomplete Thoughts

I managed to make it through the whole month of March without noting that it was the six year anniversary of this blog. Well, without publically noting, like I am doing right now. It’s a bit of a wild ride down memory lane to look at those blog posts in hindsight; the different styles of blogging that I was trying, the speed and sheer volume of blog posts I posted at the time, and the development of many professional and personal issues in those short years.

When I started writing here, I had only been a employed librarian for eighteen months, married to my first wife, and living in my grandmother’s house after she had passed. Now, I am the head of reference in my hometown (where I am also a resident), married to my second wife, and awaiting the arrival of our first child. The intervening years have seen awards, accolades, missteps, and recoveries, personally accepted as natural ups and downs within the rhythm of life.

In taking personal inventory, it’s undeniable that library, librarians, and library issues have been downgraded as a priority in my life. It’s not that they aren’t important, but they no longer take precedence over other aspects of my life. I can’t tell if this is simply a product of different life priorities, the change in the online librarian world, the history and experience of the past few years, or a combination of everything. I’m blinded by the bias of being in the center of my own personal world, making all measurements as they relate to myself. So I can just try to speak as plainly as possible and muddle through all of the things going through my head.

Fatherhood, so far, has been exciting. Yes, an astute observer may note that I am not the one carrying the child, a biology impossibility that was determined a long time ago by evolution. But, for me, the sentimental emotions I have been experiencing towards this tiny unborn person are ones that I haven’t had in a very long time. I feel hopeful without the looming specter of depression, excited without antagonizing my anxiety, and just (for lack of a better expression) a more complete person. I don’t lay awake at night anymore, pondering my mortality in the company of philosophical demons prodding me with insecurity. It’s a peace of mind that I have not had in a very long time.

I wouldn’t say that I don’t have concerns and fears, but I feel like I have some perspective on them. It’s hard to torment oneself with questions like “what kind of man will he become?” when the most immediate developmental benchmark will be when he is able to hold up his own head. I can worry about the former, but the latter is the more pressing concern. I can’t let myself get drawn into questions that are much further down the path when (a) the present requires more of my immediate attention and (b) there is an entire lifelong journey towards that overarching question, one that will not be answered within my lifetime.

Right now, I can say that my fatherhood is limited to hunter/gatherer mode with a side of personal maid. I get things, whether it is the phone charger from upstairs or a bag of a particular kind of chips from the local convenience store no matter what time of day. As The Wife heads into the last eight weeks, I’ve taken over most of the chores that require physical activity: vacuuming, shopping, washing dishes, etc. Since I can’t physically contribute to the growth process of our child, this is how I help out. I’ve been told this is an exception to other people’s experiences with their partner, which makes me both confused and sad to this kind of antiquated behavior. I’m sharing this not so much as a pat on my own back, but as a statement to be shown by others to get their partners more active via example and/or shaming.

Seriously, get your shit together.

In my librarylife, I’m just trying to get things completed, parked, or set on auto-pilot in preparation for Baby Woodworth. I have a couple of projects going on with NJLA that I’d like to get squared away before May; I’d like to get at least one author working on an article for the Journal of Creative Library Practice; and I have some projects at the library that will need to hit their benchmarks before the first of May. It’s fair to say that there is a lot of my plate as it is, which leaves blogging on the furthest back burner. (For the mildly curious, I’m only able to write this because I am off today and I got the time between chores.)

From my perspective, there doesn’t really seem to be same level of interest in any form of public intellectual kinds of blogs, articles, or columns anymore. It has become very niche, addressing one area of librarianship very well (such as the Storytime Underground and various book blogs). This is not a bad thing but represents the beauty of internet diversity which connects people to their specific needs. It’s only a bad thing for me, a person who likes to address broader issues that span across the professional realm. Based on my changing priorities, even that bad part happens to be convenient.

Perhaps, as my cynical heart tells me, there is a boredom factor to what appears to be the inherent cycle of libraryland topics. The value of the degree, the condition of the job market, the apparent inability to act on basic principles and fundamental values, and other issues operate on a biblio-celestial calendar. They zoom into sight, remarked upon at length, then slingshot their way back into the depths of rhetoric space, doomed to their eventual return trajectory. Even antagonists like Kleinman follow a Mobius strip of stale accusations, attempting to build mountains out of molehills anthills in a vain attempt for an iota of legitimacy. I just can’t keeping repeating the same discussions, arguments, and interactions without feeling like I’m in a constant state of moving old bones to new graves even before the grass has grown on the current one. It’s worse than insanity, it’s a Sisyphean hell of our own making and choosing. I’d like to think I’m making a difference in moving those conversations along, but it feels more like a reinforcement of the status quo.

But, then again, maybe I’m wrong.

In closing, I can say that after six years, I may have the least amount of certainty where this blog is going. I do want to write about fatherhood as it develops for me. I’m coming up on one year in my position and I have many reflections about becoming a supervisor. So there is content ahead, but who knows when it will appear. In the meantime, I thank everyone for their support, comments, and their readership.

I’ll see you around.

Reconsidering the Think Tank

(Note: This post was originally written when the group had been changed to Closed, meaning it could be not viewed except by members. That has been reversed as of the moment of publication, but I still wanted to post this as is. –A)

With a click of a button, the ALA Think Tank is gone. Well, gone is a relative term here since it still exists but as a closed Facebook group. The days of drama voyeurism are not necessarily gone, but now you have to join the group in order to see what the fuss is about. I’m sure it won’t be a loss to the lives of many librarians (provided they have even heard about the group, whether through direct contact or rumor), but this sudden move and the online reaction to it has made me waxing philosophical about the group and what it means.

I remember being asked if I wanted to be part of the first group that would become the Think Tank, a collection of individuals looking to find a better, cheaper way to attend an ALA conference. It was the summer of 2010 and the annual professional get-together was being held in alarmingly steamy Washington DC. I was attending because it was the year of my Mover & Shaker award as well as being a conference within easy travel distance. I declined the offer for mostly personal reasons that I won’t go into here, but I do recall a number of stories told afterward. To vastly oversimplify it, I missed a hell of a party.

When the Facebook incarnation came along, I was eager to be a part of it. These were my creative peers, people who look at the librarian world with just enough tilt to skew the perspective. Being slightly less cynical and more idealistic, this brand of professional iconoclasm drew me right in. I was less drawn to the “party hard” side and more to the “make it happen”, an unflappable belief that the system cannot keep good ideas and concepts down forever. I don’t have any specific memories from that time, only good feelings about the group and the topics.

Skipping to the present, I can say I’ve left the group twice now. Both times were out of a sense of frustration from message threads with individuals that I will very generously refer to as “intractable”. I don’t think I’ll be looking to join again unless it’s an important enough cause or purpose that I feel should get the attention of the group. But as I sit here and think about the group, there are some observations I want to make.

First, for all the fuss, the group is rather tame, even dull at times. Between the giant threads that fuel the librarian drama engine, there is a lot of pretty normal posts. People asking about summer reading, applying for MLS programs, talking about news articles, library memes, and other mundane material are the general daily output for the group. It reads like any message board online: people post something, some comment, others like, and eventually it slides down the page into Facebook oblivion. Not exactly a den of scum and villainy that should be burned to the ground.

Second, when there is controversy, it reads nearly exactly like the comments for your average internet story. The original issue (whatever it may be) eventually turns into a full spectrum analysis of all potential tangential issue. In its most infamous example, the question of “Should I hook up with other librarian at a conference?” became a commentary on society, gender, professionalism, sexuality, and power structures. It escalated well beyond the original question itself and became a bloody arena for clashing personal beliefs. While there are excellent arguments for the inclusion of such topics in the thread as it does flesh out related elements in coming to an answer, it took the thread into enough tangential areas to make nearly any answer completely moot. It was less of a struggle between “consensual adults doing what they want to do versus professionalism within a relatively small community” (a personal puzzle requiring extensive context) and more of a personal conflict of “I’m right, you’re wrong” (or, worse, “you shouldn’t be allowed to say or think those things”). Thus, the Think Tank’s reputation was made not for the debate of ideas, but the conflict of individuals. Taken in the larger context, it is simply not so.

Third, for a profession that is a proclaimed defender of free speech, it certainly doesn’t seem to recognize it when it sees it in the wild. One of the main “faults” that is commonly cited is that use of real names in discussions, generally summed up as “how can that person put their name those words?” Literally, this is the principle of free speech being exercised and it is seen as a complete detriment. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be social consequences to such expression (there should be, naturally), but to leery when someone actually acts on it is rather troublesome. We fight for people to speak their minds openly but balk at the actual practice. Given our aversion to anonymous speech through the general contempt for bloggers like The Annoyed Librarian, there seems to be no acceptable answer.

Personally, I see it as a symptom of how the profession can’t handle the many conflicts that freedom of speech raises. To me, free of speech is not beautiful like a butterfly or a sunset, but tied tightly to the fringes of popular ideas, thoughts, and concepts. It is hate and fear, offensive and awful, troublesome and anxious, an act that arises from speaking out against governments and societal institutions to the offensive, vulgar, and profane writings and utterances of individuals. In reality, it’s a daily fight and, unlike the simplistic affection associated with Banned Books Week, there is no romance to it.

In the past, I was someone who said that they would never hire someone who posted in the ALA Think Tank. That’s only a partial truth; it would really depend on what they had to say. It would have to be something so detrimental, so completely outrageous that I would have to question the inherent character of the poster. Otherwise, I don’t really care. 

Finally, while ALA Think Tank welcomes everyone, it is not a community for everyone. Like listservs, committees, and bad dates, it will not fit everyone’s interests, time, and/or purpose. This is neither a good or bad, it just is. Imagining that it would be better with you (or conversely without someone else) is a fruitless exercise. If it’s not your cup of tea, then it’s best to simply move on.

One aspect that can’t be denied is the potential influence that the group can exert in the coming years. In taking their membership numbers at face value against the total number of library jobs in the US (148,000 jobs and 11,400 ALATT members), it’s roughly 7% of the  total librarian population. Granted, the use of those numbers is based on pretty speculative presumptions but I don’t think that that reality is more than 2% lower. For comparison, ALA membership is around 55,000 members (37%) and it is one of the largest (if not THE largest) librarian organizations in the world.

We can fiddle around with the numbers all we want, but it can’t be ignored that it has broad representation (including leadership positions) within the ALA organization as well as the clout to bring ALA presidential candidates to the forum to court votes. It has influential members who can act on both a national and state level in terms of actions and initiatives, nevermind the countless state association positions that ALATT members hold. It has all the mechanisms to influence the current and next generation of librarians, regardless as to how people feel about it.

This tail can wag the dog.

I hope this post gives people an objective look at the Think Tank as a whole. I’m not here to simply praise it nor bury it in its problems, but to give it a frank look once more. From that rental house in hot Washington DC summer, they have built something… sprawling. It’s easy to dismiss, but it would be foolish to ignore. There is much potential, a commodity that should not be squandered these days. I’m still curious to see how it unfolds. 

Two Thumbs Down

Over the weekend, this image found its way into my social media streams:

that other ugly ass sign

Because no minor librarian outrage can go unchecked, this image appeared on the ALA Think Tank:

that ugly ass sign

My gut reaction has been mostly focused on the word “stupid” with a variety of adjectives dancing around, but after a few hours of consideration I think it’s worse than that. Just as two wrongs do not make a right, two stupids do not make a smart.

From what I know, the top image is hanging in a high school library, which we all know is a natural destination for adult erotic books. The perceived slam against public libraries in the bottom paragraph raises two questions for me:

First, does the library only collect well written versions of mentally and physically abusive sexual relationships? I suppose it would so that students who are or have experienced either form of abuse would find refuge in literature, so if you could just point me to the eloquent abusive relationship collection, I would love to see what makes the cut.

Second, does the library own the Twilight series? That series gets some of the same charges as Fifty Shades but without the BDSM component (unless you factor in the reader’s experience).

I say it’s a perceived slam because I know how much educators in my area rely on the public library to supplement their class materials, meet with students for tutoring, and otherwise avail themselves of the public library facility since the public education funding has become a political point to make for a contingency that breathes exclusively through their mouths.

Not to put too fine a point on it, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that school libraries need their local public libraries more than the other way around. In my estimation, this is an unfortunate consequence when the majority of library advocacy resources are aimed at supporting public libraries rather than school librarians. Public libraries have more or less held their ground overall while the very presence of school librarians has been curtailed or eliminated in places like Chicago and Philadelphia. A sign like this isn’t so much bridge burning as cutting off one’s nose to spite the face. It’s a cheap shot over a crappy book; how smart is that?

As for the bottom image, it’s a feel good intellectual freedom rah-rah bullshit sentiment. It sets the basic measuring stick of a good collection as the inclusion of Fifty Shades, hardly a standard by any means. It also wholly feeds into the “we-need-to-give-them-what-they-want-or-else-they-will-leave-us” mentality that turns rational people into fearful ones, chasing every trend, fad, and dream in the hopes of satisfying the multitudes of whims and lusts of the service community. At my former place of work, there were signs begging people to donate their copies of Fifty Shades so as to put a dent into the extensive hold lists for both the physical and the hyper expensive $50 a copy eBook. Writing quality or content be damned, the library NEEDED the book to survive.

It’s also a crap sentiment because it conflates judging a person on the basis of their reading material (which ideally we don’t do) with the notion that we don’t judge the materials themselves (which we do every damn day). Everything that graces our shelves and websites has been judged to be worthy of selection on a variety of criteria. Hell, we even have committees who give awards to the “best” books, graphic novels, and other library material. Fifty Shades is not magically above that decision making process and there are good, honest reasons for not buying the book for one’s library and community. We are non-judgmental in many ways, but buying library materials is not remotely one of them. (And from some of the behavior I’ve seen on social media, neither is our interactions with each other on all sorts of sensitive topics.)

This sentiment belies to the basic tensions that exist within collection development: is our role to be tastemakers, the cultural connoisseurs, using our expertise in literature and reading to pick the best and exclude the rest? Is our role that of a public service, providing people with the materials that they want when they want no matter what that is? What of our ideals of intellectual freedom and the freedom to read when it comes up against the limitations of budget, space, and our own human biases? It’s the theories of the profession against the realities of the practice, something that can’t be reduced to a simple sign.

Ultimately, each of these images leaves me with a sense of profound disappointment. It’s thoughtlessness on a very public scale, visceral reactions to a book and movie that will be pop culture trivia game questions in the future before fading into footnotes on collegiate papers for our grandchildren. It’s a distraction as well as a waste of time and energy for a profession that certainly has other more pressing fundamental issues.

Fatherhood (So Far, So Good)

Last week, we had the anatomy scan for The Wife’s pregnancy. For those unfamiliar with what this entails, it is an assessment that is done about halfway through a pregnancy in which they take a look at the development of the internal organs, measure the limbs, and examine the baby from top to bottom. It’s a milestone in the pregnancy, one that is both exciting and stressful since you see how things are progressing while on edge that a problem (however remote a chance) might appear.

Unlike previous ultrasounds where the sonogram images of The Baby were pretty obvious within moments, this one took some time to figure out what gray blob was what. The previously laid out figure was now scrunched up, legs and arms drawn up into the perfectly literal example of the fetal position. Add in the jerky movement of these body parts and the picture took awhile for a layman like myself to discern what exactly is on the screen.

Eventually, all of the requisite baby parts were observed, recorded, and examined, despite the best effort of our unborn son who can magically sense the position of the ultrasound apparatus in order to avoid it. Seriously, this unborn child has made ultrasound technicians chase him around The WIfe’s belly despite his limited movements options. Even when “cornered”, to use the term loosely, he has drawn up his hands over his face like a boxer covering up. He is just like his mother already: stubborn and not interested in getting his picture taken.

But in that brief moment when the technician got his facial profile on the screen, I could feel my heart leap in my throat. For all the things I couldn’t make out on the computer screen, this was one I recognized immediately. My mind soared at the sight of this little grainy face on the screen. It was an emotional moment, the impossible one to describe, but brought clarity to some of the experiences I have been told by other fathers. I now knew what they meant.

I’m certainly not the first to say or think this, but fatherhood in utero still remains a state of mind. Aside from these sonogram images, it can feel like a pretty remote experience at times. I can observe The Wife and how things change for her as the baby develops. I can talk to her about how she is feeling and what sensations she can feel going on now that we are solidly into the second trimester. But it’s still a very much mental, a contrast of knowing what is going on but not being able to see it which traditionally doesn’t always jibe well for my brain.

To the outside world, the only thing I can do when it comes to the baby is talk about him. As an expectant father, it’s hard not to sound like a North Korean press release when talking about the baby. (“Baby Woodworth, under the superior guidance of The Wife supported by The Father, continues along the fabled path of his remarkable genetic destiny!”) Furthermore, there really isn’t much to go on either. I found myself proudly relating how much fetal weight estimate to coworkers (in addition to the aforementioned ultrasound story). There is going to be a healthy dose of irony for being excited that my kid has a bladder which I will shortly become very familiar with in the next three years (give or take). I’m excited for everything going on at the moment, but it’s hard to make anything resembling a conversation for a stage of human development that is basically eating, sleeping, and kicking the crap out of The Wife’s immediate internal organs. And yet, I look at the sonogram prints and smile like a goofy idiot. I just can’t help it.

For my part, I’ve done my best to support The Wife through a very tiring first trimester and a getting better second. Perhaps I am going back to my days of living with my grandmother when I went into caretaker mode. Even before the pregnancy, we both did the housework; I’d like to think we are a modern couple that way. With her energy levels low, for now whatever housework that needs to be done, I do it. I love her and I want to do these things for her so that she has time to rest and relax.

I’m writing that last part here not because I want to toot my own horn (ok, maybe a little ego in there), but that I’m was shocked to find that I was in a minority of husbands who do this for their wives. I felt naive when this was related to me; I would have thought that because you love your partner that you would want to do these kinds of things for them. But the old gender roles still hang on, perhaps diminished in the last fifty years but nowhere near destroyed. I feel stupid writing out a truth that one gender knows pretty damn well, but if this post can be shown to the husbands to the world to shame motivate them into action, then I hope it helps.

It’s hard to think that we have arrived at the halfway mark for the pregnancy, but the time continues shrink towards the due date. We are now faced with, well, everything left to do. Pediatricians to interview, nursery to ready, birthing classes to take, and what can only feel like a million little details to handle between now and mid-May. I really don’t know what to expect; it is both exciting and terrifying all at once. Furthermore, the idea that Baby Woodworth may read this as a remembrance of his dear old dad pushes the surreal factor through the roof. I don’t have much to say to that except a few heartfelt things:

I hope I did well. I love you. And fatherhood is the best thing in my life right now, even though it remains abstract waiting on reality. So far, so good.

In Transition

In going through various boxes to find things to hang in my office walls, I found the picture of myself that hung at the Mover & Shaker luncheon reception back in 2010. My friend Mo had saved it and mailed it to me since I had split before the end of that social event for some reason or another. Looking at it on the eve of the New Year, I had to take time to pause and reflect on that moment and everything afterward.

Even though the passage of time has been only half a decade, it felt like a lifetime ago. I’ve been divorced, moved, remarried, moved again, found a new job, bought a house (and, of course, moved again), and am now an expectant father. It’s not that the Andy of 2010 wouldn’t have predicted some of those events, but back then I was very much focused on my librarian career. I wanted to speak at conferences, meet my peers across the country, and put my mark on the profession. I can readily admit that I was naïve; I hadn’t really done much at that point so I really didn’t have much to say. But if it worked as a ticket to travel and meet people, then I was going to use it.

At the time, it was also an escape. Back then, the library administration wasn’t interested in professional development, staff morale, or properly managing any of the talent individuals (and there were many) who worked at the library system. Promotions were put on hold for years and there were little to no advancement opportunities. Moving for a position isn’t just for the new graduates; it’s very true when it comes to career options down the line. At least I loved the people I worked with at my branch, even if the work lacked challenge I really wanted. Later that same year, my involvement in the public embarrassment of the Revolutionary Voices book removals netted me the somewhat deserved blame for the embarrassment to the administration and the library system, which turned me into persona non grata. I wouldn’t get out of that dog house until they retired two years later; needless to say, it was a very long time to be in exile.

I feel very different about the librarian part of the social media world these days. It feels more contentious, jaded, and trivial. In the last few years, I was more reluctant to interact for fear of being labeled the ‘worst person in the world’ on the basis of a single tweet that might offend someone. It directly conflicted with my passionate beliefs in the freedom of speech and expression, even in the ugly, awful, and distasteful. I got a few slaps on the wrist in that time period, a strange and sick paradox of a profession that professes to defend the vulgar and profane.

I have no interest in re-fighting those battles for even the thought of them makes me emotionally exhausted. I am just left with a heavy heart, sad and disappointed. It would be easy to be mean, to deliver a comeuppance to those I find intolerable. I have the energy for it, but I lack the will and interest to do so. Maybe this is what maturity looks like, but I try to remember that there are human beings on the other end of the screen. Move on, I think, just move on.

But for all these negatives, I can still find energy in those principles and issues that I hold close to my heart. I’ve taken steps into shifting that energy towards other, less conspicuous projects. As the Reference and Adult Services Supervisor at my new place of work, I’ve got ideas and plans that I will finally be able to try out. I am happy to have joined the editorial board of the Journal of Creative Library Practice, working with people I admire as well as important principles such as the use of Creative Commons and open access journal publications. I’m very happy to have been selected for the Intellectual Freedom Subcommittee for NJLA; we have some projects underway that will resonate further than our state boundaries. These are the kinds of things that put a smile on my face.

While a good number of New Year’s posts offer a vision of the future, my sight is cloudy these days. My brain just sees too many variables in play; as I acquire more experience, the filtering for these factors seems to go a bit wonky. I just wish that for all the talk about understaffing and underfunding we wouldn’t take those limited budgets and spend them on materials, products, and services that further undermine our principles. A lack of financial security should not translate into throwing money at vendors who collect and sell patron information, or crush us under intrusive licensing agreements, or impose digital scarcity as a business plan.

All the worry about the destruction and deprofessonalization of librarianship revolves around the size of the staff and the paycheck, but we do it to ourselves when we turn away on our principles and beliefs. Any knucklehead can sign a contract, but librarians should be the ones saying no to those that have privacy intrusion, burdensome restrictions on information access, and other onerous gatekeeping clauses. Our budgets are our power; if enough of the library world demands certain changes, we can change the market to fit our needs. But unity within the field is our Achilles heel; the belief that we need to give patrons everything or else they will bail is the hole in our armor. Libraries enjoy unprecedented public support and we squander it every damn day with the fear that the moment we stop hugging our patrons tightly is the moment they slip away and never return.

That is the anxiety that will wear us down to dust with nothing to show for it. (I happen to know a few things about anxiety, so you can take my word on that.) I can’t tell you what the next big trend in libraries will be, but I feel confident enough to say that what will matter just as much is how we do those things as it reflects our principles and beliefs. We are fiercely admired when we take a stand on those principles whether it is a material challenge or a National Security Letter or using Tor browsers to protect patron privacy. Librarians will remain not because we have advanced into the future, but because we retreated back to who we are and what we represent in the world of knowledge and information.

Happy New Year. Let’s go do this.