This Is What A Blog Post about What Librarians Look Like… Looks Like

This week, two things happened on one day: librarians participated in The Day We Fight Back, a nationwide call to action to protest NSA practices of privacy intrusion and metadata collection. People were encouraged to reach out to their elected officials to express their discontent with current practices and to push for the USA FREEDOM Act, a bill that would curb or eliminate certain governmental data collection practices. It had the grassroots groundswell that I hope will lead to real change, even as my cynical side starts to snicker while settling in with a bucket of popcorn to watch my optimism writhe. 

The other thing that happened is the article “This Is What A Librarian Looks Like“, a photo essay featuring librarians whose portraits were taken at the most recent ALA Midwinter Meeting. The genesis of this opportunity comes from this post on the Librarian Wardrobe tumblr which calls for twenty librarian volunteers. The photographer Kyle Cassidy had done a similar portrait project with Occupy Wall Street participants (see those pictures here) which was subsequently covered by the Huffington Post. The resulting article features ten librarians along with personal testimonies on the profession. Personally, I thought it was a good article outside of the usual librarian media that paired excellent portraits with personal statements.

So, which do you think got the larger emotional social media reaction? If you guessed the fight for privacy and data protection against the NSA (both of which are highly valued librarian professional ideals), then you would be wrong.

As the article moved through social media, it didn’t take long before the nitpicking began. Not a diverse enough group, nobody from technical services or other specializations, claims of idea theft, and sighs about articles taking on stereotypes made its way across my Twitter feed. I could offer a rebuttal to each of these points, but I think it’s missing the greater problem here: the issue of the librarian public image is a quagmire within the profession. 

When it comes to the librarian’s image, I believe there is an internal struggle between giving an accurate portrayal of the profession versus showcasing the diversity. On the one hand, statistically, the profession is mostly white (87%), female (80%), and most likely heterosexual (I have no data to back this up other than inferences based on overall population demographics which places it at about 4%; if someone has a study on this, please share it in the comments). Like it or not, if the question was what does a typical librarian look like, that would be the most accurate answer; and giving the most accurate answer is an occupational pride point.

On the other hand, librarians are champions of minority causes, whether it is opinion, sexuality, race, creed, or otherwise. Our ideals are caught up in bringing these voices to the forefront, to give them a home within our institutional walls, and to curate and nurture them into the public eye. Shouldn’t portrayals of librarians reflect this aspect by presenting professionals from these minority populations? It follows the notion that those individuals from these demographics aren’t simply part of our collections, but they are part of our rank and file as well. 

To my way of thinking, that’s where the tension resides. It is what turns articles like the Slate one into argument flashpoints in which good and decent public image pieces are dismissed in favor of an unobtainable “perfect” article. It’s the drive to present a richly diverse profession when the reality simply doesn’t support that. You would need the next two years worth of library science graduates to be exclusively African American in order to reach percentage parity (12.6%) with the United States population; you’d need the next two and a half years graduates to be exclusively Latino to achieve the same (16.4%). Offhand, it would take nine years of graduates to be exclusively male to meet US gender ratios (48.8%). (For my math, I’m using the ALA Diversity Counts statistics and the Library Journal Placements & Salaries for the number of graduates.) It’s not a situation that will resolve itself in the near term, but will require multiple generations of librarians with focused recruitment to achieve demographics that fall in line with society at large. We are kidding ourselves if we reject positive articles out of hand when it’s going to take decades to reach the population diversity that we aspire to achieve. Everything is a step and there is no jumping to the end.  

Furthermore, I believe that the people who are least properly equipped to rehabilitate the image of librarians are librarians. I really don’t have faith when one of the most oft quoted lines in rejuvenate the image of the library is “we are more than just books”. Seriously? If we consistently bungle the public image of the library within popular culture, we are certainly not qualified to helm our own professional image campaigns. We need people who are creative, smart, media savvy, and not librarians to do the talking for us. What this really means is giving up control and putting ourselves into the hands of others. Just as people ask us for help, we shouldn’t be shy about asking it for ourselves. We can’t research ourselves out of this mess; we need professional help.

I’ll leave you with this thought that Peter Hepburn tweeted to me: “[L]ibrarians, to our users, look like anyone who helps them at a service desk, simple as that.” Now that’s a self portrait of the profession that everyone can fit into. 

Anxietyversary

I meant to write this post a couple of days back, but my body had some other ideas (sneezy, wheezy feverish ones) as to how I should spend my weekend. Resting, Kleenex, and Netflix pretty much sums up the experience as my sinuses tried to bridge the ocular socket gap to achieve a unified homeland on my face. I’m still recovering today, but I finally feel well enough to sit at the computer to type this out.

It was a year ago yesterday that I had the largest continuous anxiety attack of my life. The proximate cause of the attack was the idea of flying to meet The Girlfriend in Aruba for a couple of rest and relaxation days. I had been looking forward to it for weeks since it was also where I wanted to propose to her. Tropical sunsets, sandy beaches, and the two of us together for a couple of days of doing not much of anything. That’s not the part that scared me.

I was nervous about the flight leading up to it, but my thoughts were decidedly mixed. While I was not the best flyer over the years, I did manage to Australia and back which entails fourteen hour flight times. The statistics are on the side of safety, despite what popular culture and media outlets like to tell us about flying. Surely, I could have a four and a half hour one.

I was decidedly wrong.

My previous experience with anxiety had been handled well by Xanax. Not so this time as each dose I took was steadily consumed by the terror that now wracked my thoughts and body. Literally, I could not stop shaking from the fear. Rational thoughts bounced off the irrational feelings like paper balls thrown at a fire door. Even with the intervention of The Girlfriend and my parents, I could not stop it. I got a few hours of sleep before waking up for my airport departure time. I couldn’t stop shaking or heart racing or the impending terror that was building from all the “what ifs” parading through my head, intensified by what limited options I would have once I was up in the air.

I simply couldn’t do it. And it killed me to finally admit.

It killed me because that day and the few days afterward I could not imagine my future at all. I felt detached from my life entirely, that it was over in the sense of I didn’t know what would happen next or what I should do. (I would note that feeling my life was over did not cross paths with suicidal thoughts. I just couldn’t imagine what I was supposed to do.) I felt like I was standing before a great blank wall, unyielding and impassable. So deep, so primal, so complete was this failure that I just completely shut down. I felt like I had disappointed everyone around me, that I was no longer reliable, and that I had nothing left to offer the world. It reminds me of an expression that Hell is not a place where we do when we die, but a place in our minds that amplifies all of our negative emotions. In that sense, I was in Hell.

Life goes on, as they say, and this simply notion is the first step towards emerging back into the light. As the cataclysm of that wicked day started to recede, I felt my feet return back to ground. That awful fog lifted and I started to see what I needed to do to recapture my life. I made the call to an employee mental health line and found a really awesome therapist. I found a good anxiety medication that works without side effects that I had experience before on other medications. I am very lucky in that I had a very good support system with The Girlfriend, my parents, my brother and SIL, friends, and coworkers. I’ve gotten back to almost normal not simply because I got treatment, but also had the support network to help me get there.

The importance thing to share is that my story doesn’t end there. While I didn’t get to propose in Aruba, but I did propose on Valentine’s Day in our hotel room in Lambertville, NJ. As she is now The Wife, you can tell what the answer was. I still do feel the anxiety especially when I’m traveling, but the more I go places the easier it has gotten for me. I feel that I am still moving forward, even though I have no plans for stepping on an airplane in the near future.

I do have somewhat selfish reasons for writing this since making it back this far over the course of a year is something to crow about; I’m proud of having brought my anxiety under control and resumed my life. But I also know that these kinds of posts can help others by encouraging them to seek out treatment and help, to step out and say that they have anxiety, and to bring visibility to the issue. My career has not yet peaked and my life is not yet done for all the things I want to do. Anxiety is my personal struggle, but not something that I will suffer in silence or let contain me.

Happy anxietyversary to me.

Gender, Librarian Commentary, and Organic Chemistry II

When I was an undergraduate, I majored in biology. I wrote a ton of lab reports in my time that all followed a basic outline: abstract (sometimes), introduction, hypothesis, method/procedure, results (a.k.a. raw data), discussion, and conclusion. The first sections are rather rote in their formulation as it is merely a restatement of the experiment’s grounding. The last section (conclusion) was just a summary of the previous sections, carefully remixed so as to avoid looking like a complete copy/paste job. The critical thinking skills, the actual learning process, came into play when you were writing the discussion section. This was where you talked about what went right and wrong with the experiment and offered suggestions on what could be changed the next time around.

For my stint in Organic Chemistry II, my lab reports were spent more on what went wrong than what went right, perhaps a foreshadowing to the existence of this blog. Very few of my lab sessions ended with the experiment landing in the correct range, color, or whatever proper measurement I was (in theory) supposed to attain. So, invariably, I would be sitting at a computer and faced with a data section that had to make sense of. I had results, but I wasn’t sure what to make of them.

I felt that way today when I did my own little observational inquiry. On the heels of the flurry of activity around #LibTechGender panel and discussions (oversimplified and probably unfair short version: discussions of gender, race, sexual orientation, and other attributes within the library world) at the ALA Midwinter Meeting, I did a simple census of the bloggers and columnists at the leading professional trade magazines, Library Journal and American Libraries. Here are my results:

  • American Libraries: 7 columnists. 2 women, 5 men.
  • Library Journal: 13 columnists. 3 women, 10 men.
  • Overall: 30 columnists. 5 women (25%), 15 men (75%).

I would have also stated that all of them were white, but that’s an inference based solely from their profile pictures. As a friend pointed out on Friendfeed, it’s not strictly proven but I’m comfortable making an educated guess. If I’m proven wrong later, so be it.

Based on what I have gathered, I’m not exactly sure what to make of the data. There are loads of other pertinent information (e.g. sexual orientation) that would slide people into categories that have been discriminated against (or more discriminated against, if you prefer). It’s a vastly incomplete picture as it relates to having a meaningful discussion on the broader LibTechGender kinds of issues.

However, based on prima facie (thank you, one year of law school), the basic gender math doesn’t jibe. Using the ALA self reporting demographic survey (yes, I concede there are data collection issues with this), it turns the 80% female-20% male statistic on its head. It’s a female dominant profession in which the paid professional commentary is based mainly out of male viewpoints.  While I can’t conclude a lot of other things from my tiny data set, I can make that statement comfortably. These are the two main sources of professional information with in the librarian world. This reminds me of a very old discussion thread I remember in the Library Society of the World forums in which the question was raised about why so many men are given keynote or other prominent speaking slots. I wouldn’t imagine that the columnists and bloggers for those two publications would strictly follow the gender breakdown percentages, but to be completely inverted? Why is that?

That last question is mostly rhetorical; I am aware of the prevailing obstacles that keep women from participating in professional forums and activities. In limiting it to the data and discussion that I have here, I’m left with a few non-rhetorical questions: where does this data lead us? What else needs to discovered, considered, or otherwise measured? What’s the next level of inquiry that needs to take place? Personally, I don’t know. I really just don’t. I need to think on it for a long while.

I’ll close with this quote from a blog post by Chris Bourg that I made me think when I first read it:

We are a painfully homogenous profession – librarianship is overwhelmingly white and female, and library technology is overwhelmingly white and male. Gender bias and imbalance is a problem; but so too is racial underrepresentation. Librarianship didn’t just end up so white by accident, and it won’t change without radical and active interventions.  And I think we need to stop throwing our hands up and declaring it a “pipe-line” problem, and we need to throw our collective professional weight and expertise behind addressing those structural pipe-line problems.

And no, I don’t have specifics right now; but I know that there are people who have been working on this and who have experience and expertise to share, but whose voices we have not prioritized or amplified.  We need to do our research and we need to listen and learn.  And I trust that if we made social justice a true priority of librarianship – and not just one of our core values that we trot out from time to time – we could make some headway on creating & sustaining a more diverse workforce across libraries and library technology. But honestly, at some point we probably need to stop talking about it, and start listening and then start doing.

ALA Midwinter 2014 After Action Report

I should start off with a confession: I have been bored with library issues for awhile.

It’s not that there isn’t anything interesting going on in the library world, just it’s not interesting to me. Or it involves the act of dragging old bones in new graves on topics that I feel have been talked to death (eBooks and libraries, for example). Or, most recently, if I can succinctly add my input to a conversation on something like Twitter or Tumblr, I do it there. When others have better insight or commentary on topics, it’s much more satisfying to share their posts or articles.

And, let’s face it: there are far fewer librarians writing these days online, most conspicuously in blogs. I remember the leading advice of 2006 being to start a blog to get noticed online; now, if I heard a professor say that to their students, I would tell the students to flee. Even the Annoyed Librarian has been relegated to writing about last week’s news that was sent (I guess they can’t be bothered to find it) to them or “interesting” comments in previous entries. For myself, it’s slim picking for content or commentary without sounding like I’m recycling previous entries.

In attending ALA Midwinter in Philadelphia, I was hoping for rebirth, rejuvenation, and other “re” words that signify the rekindling of interest.

I was not disappointed.

Granted, since I’m not a member of ALA and therefore not on any committees, roundtables, or interest groups, that makes my schedule completely free for lunches and dinner with drinks anytime. My only “official” obligation was attending the EveryLibrary board meeting which was in full compliance of the “drinks anytime” portion. (More on that later.) In spending time with friends, both old and new, and sharing a meal or a drink, I found (for lack of a better phrase) my mojo again.

You see, the aspect that brought me back from my ennui to put fingers to my keyboard was the people. The best conversations I had during my time came from conversations either one-on-one or in small groups that lasted longer than a half hour. These were the times when people (myself included) let loose, spoke frankly, shared ourselves, and had meaningful and thoughtful discussions. The online librarian world is rich in many ways, but it is but a simple façade for the living, breathing people behind the internet avatars and nom de plumes. 

My takeaway from ALA Midwinter was not a million ideas, but a handful of good ones. Really good ones. The reasonable, totally possible worthy of attention kind. (I can’t help it, I’m a bit of an idea snob.) Also, as an ongoing advisor to EveryLibrary on their social media strategy, it renewed my commitment to the organization in attending the annual board meeting. It gave me the insight into what I see as their big picture: that they are an organization that nimble enough to work at the local level for library ballot matters as well as on issues of national library importance. I won’t mince my words that as a political action committee (a dread PAC) they need our financial help to accomplish that. (You can donate here.) I hope I can count on your support for this worthy cause.

For the naysayers, the few words I have for you right now is that denying the reality of the impact of the ballot box on public and school library funding is ‘the earth is flat’ madness. The political reality demands a breed of librarians who are willing to step into the issue based forums and persuade others to vote in favor of library issues. To act otherwise is just plain folly.

But, as I fondly reflect on the events of the last few days, it came down to a matter time. There was never enough time. I didn’t even catch a glimpse of people I’ve grown to know over the years. Even at some of the social events I attended, for the most part I didn’t spend more than five minutes with anyone. It was “hello, how are you, what are you up to” before the flow of socializing carried us away from each other. Perhaps this is a sign of my shifting social priorities as I grow older, but what I really wanted was the chance to sit, visit, and have those longer and more in depth conversations.

Over the course of three days, I drove into Philadelphia in the hopes of finding my passion for the profession again. I am happily renewed in my faith, in the direction and the people who make up libraryland. I don’t know if this will translate into more posts on here, but there are certainly things afoot behind the scenes here.

It’s good to be back.

That ALA Code of Conduct

While ALA has many strengths as an institution, rolling out new organizational policy changes is not one of them. Since the announcement of the Statement of Appropriate Conduct at Conferences (hereafter Code of Conduct), there has been much in the way of hand wringing. How does this reflect on the organization’s commitment to freedom of ideas and expression? What kinds of speech are expressly allowed, contextually allowed, and outright prohibited? What is the procedural structure for people accused of violating the code? In the current framing of the debate, it’s as if people are seeing institutional regulation of speech and behavior for the first time when they are not.

I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that every nearly library has a policy in place about patron/customer conduct that outlines what is acceptable and unacceptable. They set the boundaries for behavior and conduct within the library. Like the Code of Conduct, these policies contain instances and situations in which there will be several possible staff action outcomes: no action, intervention, ejection. We don’t always act on patron activities nor do we accept when people are being disruptive or harassing to other patrons or staff in our libraries, so why should our professional conferences any different? The presence of a policy and procedure provides a structure to address those issues, regardless of the outcome.

The discussion of the sticky wicket of freedom of expression and speech hinges on a few ideas. First, that this policy will act as a chilling effect on it. To me, there is always a chill on freedom of expression no matter whether a policy exists or not. People will be intimidated to speak up under either model for a number of reasons. It’s the lesser of two evils to accept some form of regulation in order to get more speech out of a greater number of people. Also, it’s not unheard of that a library would have a customer conduct policy in a library that aims to be inclusive by regulating behavior. We are a community resource, not the executive clubhouse for assholes.

Second, that presenters and speakers must adhere to (for lack of a better term) political correctness. Beyond the fact that the policy asks (not demands, not requires) presenters to be inclusive, speakers are given an additional degree of latitude since they act to provoke critical thinking and discussion. This section is more of a reflection of our professional collection development policies. The library may have something that will offend patron; we advise them to don’t read, listen, or watch it and move along.  Standards in modern construction are required to make exits highly visible and since no sessions prevent people from leaving, egress from a talk that offends someone is encouraged by the Code of Conduct (the law of two feet). You might not like what the speaker is saying, but you don’t have to subject yourself to it either.

My only remaining concern is how the definition of “conference social events” will be interpreted. Does this include unofficial events like tweetups? Parties at the ALA Think Tank house? How far does the Code of Conduct reach into the unofficial outlying social events around the conference? And before anyone jumps on it, I’m not talking about harassment behaviors which can arise to criminal offenses but to civil (and possibly uncivil) discourse. There are some grey areas here that need to be explored.

Overall, I think the Code of Conduct is a good policy, one that will be altered over time as issues and situations arise. Unfortunately, it needs some test cases in order to see how it would work in the field. I hope people can be patient while the policy matures. In the long run, it will change to reflect the needs of the attendees and the organization. It’s just a matter of getting there.

Year End, 2013

I don’t know what quite to make of it when the first thing that comes to mind about 2013 is that Facebook started allowing photo replies. For most, this is the little photo icon they ignore on the comment box but for me it’s a whole new world. Pictures (in particular ones with captions or memes) are my best reaction to what other people post. I don’t know if it’s the visual aspect or if just speaks better for me than words can, but it’s been the something I’ve enjoyed since they started allowing it. It’s one highlight of the year for me.

Some might think that my engagement and marriage would be the first thing to come to mind, but it’s only the best thing that happened in 2013. Besides, after you spend months prepping for the wedding, the experience of the wedding day, and the aftermath (married people, you know what I mean) that you live with it so much that the topic becomes background noise. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed wedding planning and preparation and I’m quite happy with The Wife. It’s just the way my brain works: “Ooo, Facebook photo replies! Yay wedding!” It doesn’t always order things in terms of level of importance as my school teachers would attest.

Professionally, it was on the quiet side this year. I wrote a column piece for American Libraries, co-unorganized for the Programming Unconference Northeast with the wonderful and talented Erin Shea, and did advisory work for EveryLibrary. Glancing over my writing output, I had some good blog posts over the course of the year. Next year, I’m excited for a keynote opportunity with the details to be announced once things are settled. That will be a great thing for me to focus on and I’ve been jotting down notes and ideas as they come to me. It’s going to be fun!

Part of me wants to make a few comments about some subjects (I’m sure regular readers can probably guess) before the year draws to a close, but for once I’m just going to not poke those sleeping bears. Not that I couldn’t or shouldn’t, but my own internal calculations tell me that the effort is not worth the result. Even as someone with the inclination to name names, I’m just going to simply leave this vague lest the partisans appear once more in the comments and social media doorstep.

I’ve offered predictions in the past, but not this time around; it’s not that I don’t have any, but I just am not inclined to share any. Perhaps if someone plied me with liquor at ALA Midwinter I might divulge, but nothing is otherwise compelling me to share at this time.

I realize that this is a recap post that has been played close to the vest. The year end has caught me at an introspective and peaceful moment which drags blog production to a low. I’ve started a personal blog on Tumblr which will get less professional stuff and more personal (read: stream of thought) stuff so you can read me there as well.

I hope you find your peace this year ends and carry it with you to the next one.

A Libraryland Festivus: Miracle Edition

There was a lot of interest in my Festivus post, mainly because no librarian can resist a good complaint. Or that I said things that struck home with the greater library community. As a result, I am pleased to say that there are some Festivus miracles to report.

First, there is overwhelming agreement that people need to not overreact to online “journalism” that says things like libraries/librarians/things librarians care about are dead/in trouble/otherwise not important. There were some subsequent vows not to speak or share such things in the future because it’s a waste of our time. It’s a Festivus miracle!

Second, my talk about professionalism has led to better and deeper conversations about identity within the profession. (Read Cecily Walker first, then Andromeda Yelton.) By my own admission, I was talking about the superficial kinds of appearance issues that Cecily has summed up as “the purple hair and tattooed” category. These are the kinds of things that annoy me and as such fall under the definition of grievance. It’s important to note that there are librarians who are confronting with deeper and more profound professional identity issues because they are non-white and non-cisgendered. I consider this to be a two-for-one miracle: I learned something important from my grievance and people who are better equipped and more knowledgeable about this issue are talking about it. Another miracle, I say!

Third, the reference to the graduate school enrollment chart has gotten the notice of people who can do stuff about it. Elizabeth Lieutenant, who wrote the research paper that included the graph, has gotten inquiries from ALA folks wanting to know more about the data. (Yes!) Granted, thus begins a new cycle of what-do-we-do-about-library-science-graduate-programs kinds of conversations but this time we have the cousin of anecdotal data, actual data. So, I hope this means it will result in actual progress. Yep, another Festivus miracle!

Fourth, well, there is no corresponding miracle that goes with the Declaration of the Right to Libraries. However, there is a great and thought provoking post by Sarah Houghton about the wrong kind of love between libraries and their communities. Money quote:

I don’t think we focus on “library/librarian love” for the sake of our communities, to remind them of what we do so they’ll use us more, as an outreach or advocacy tool, or as a political move to solidify our value in the minds of stakeholders.

We do it to make ourselves feel better.

Take the time to read it. I think it sets advocacy thinking in a new direction and gets to what marketing people have known for years: being able to connect the product (libraries) to what it means to the individual (our communities). This, if it came to pass, would be yet another Festivus miracle.

Last, but certainly not least, I experienced a very divided reaction to the inclusion of the ALA Think Tank on the list. The public comments on the blog were in defense of the group while the private messages I received were all in agreement with me. This is troubling in a couple of different ways. Why don’t the people who have issues with the group feel comfortable commenting publicly? Why are the group supporters dismissive of past problematic topics and social interactions within the Think Tank? Neither question sits with me very well.

Some people on Twitter seemed incredulous that an association with the group could be a detriment. As a Mover & Shaker, I’ve heard tales from other award winners about how this award has been used against them. This comment from a Will Manley column has always stuck with me.

If I see the Mover and Shaker Award on a résumé, that application ends up in the circular file. I want workhorses, not show horses.

As much as we try to be enlightened logical creatures, “guilt by association” is alive and well in the librarian profession. I’m not going to rehash the arguments concerning the award itself (God knows they are numerous), but I hope this serves as one illustration that the connection to the library group or award has the ability to limit the candidate. It’s not reasonable or fair, but we don’t live in such an objective world yet.

I wouldn’t think I would need to remind my peers that what you say online can be found and used when making decisions regarding them. The Think Tank is such a public forum; your words matter so choose them wisely. If you have an issue with that, then there are closed, secret, and otherwise private librarian groups out there. Find those forums and join them.

And, really, you shouldn’t surprised when the antics and words of others within the group put you in the same light. For if you stand by while someone is spewing venom and do not speak up to admonish them, how much culpability do you share in letting them act that way?

 

These are the Festivus miracles that I have experienced. Feel free to share yours in comments or blog posts.