Say Yes to the Sweater Vest

If you haven’t seen it yet, Sarah Houghton recently wrote a blog post entitled, “Wear What You Want: Dressing to Lead in Libraries”. It’s a great piece about dressing for the library workplace in which she advocates for personal style but acknowledges the existence of dress codes as well as peer and public expectations. It’s also receiving inevitable pushback from the people of the “you can’t just wear anything” camp despite Sarah’s acknowledgements of the limitations of her “wear anything” position. People seem to forget that just because her position doesn’t apply to everyone doesn’t make it a bad one; it just means it is not universal. (Your mileage may vary and all the assorted caveats one can muster.)

When I started out after college, I worked in commercial nurseries. From there, I worked at DuPont assembling plant experiments. My attire during those days was old jeans, crappy t-shirts, and other things that I did not mind getting dirty, wet, or worse. At the time I left college, I had hoped to work in a non-office environment and horticulture answered that prayer very nicely.

In going through the library science graduate program at Clarion, this all changed with my internship. Nancy Clemente, my internship mentor, brought me into her office and told me that my current attire was unacceptable. (I don’t remember what it was, but I’m guessing it was something in line with “high school presentation”.) I was to wear dress pants, dress shirt, and either a tie or a sweater from then on. From that point till the end of the internship, I was always dressed up for working at the library.

For me, it did two things. First, it made me feel the part. I didn’t feel like a student anymore; I felt like someone who was in charge, knowledgeable, and belonged there at the reference desk. Second, it made me look the part. I didn’t look like a graduate student; I looked like a librarian in an academic setting. It wasn’t simply a boost to my own self-esteem and confidence but also instilled professionalism that carried me forward into my career.

While I slacked off in my appearance for a period of time after getting hired at the public library (sorry Nancy!), I have found that as time goes by that I try to dress up more for the job. I’ve added more dress shoes, slacks, and (my beloved) sweater vests to my wardrobe. Once I get some dress shirts that actually fit my neck size, I’ll be looking add ties back in. It might be a bit of overkill for my library, but it feels rights for me.

For myself, it comes back to that “looking the part” in conjunction with who I am. The outfits are my uniform; they put me into “time to be a librarian” mode. It’s not that I can’t do my job otherwise, but how the public perceives me in that ultimate of first impressions (how I am dressed) is important to me. I want it to give them confidence that they can put their trust in me for whatever it is that they need. What I wear makes that difference.

In getting back to Sarah’s post, I can’t help but amuse myself thinking about how the topic of “what leaders should wear” meshes with “where are the librarian leaders?” line of thought. Apparently, people know what they should look like even as they claim that they don’t see any around. Given Sarah’s leadership on topics such as copyright, eBooks, and library filtering (to name a few subjects off the top of my head), it makes the comments saying that she is not dressed for leadership even more amusing. But I’ll admit in my own way that they are right.

No, Sarah is not dressed to be a leader. She is a leader. Those just happen to be the clothing that she wears. She could be in a burqa or dressed like a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and she’d still be the person to talk about those aforementioned subjects and more when it comes to library issues.

Nor is Sarah a unique case; this applies to any of the librarian leaders I see out there right now. There is no prevailing clothing style or dress that links all of these people together; it is their ability to step up, speak up, and act up that makes them the individuals that librarians (including myself) look up to for guidance.

I don’t know about anyone else, but if people can’t get past how someone is dressed so that they can listen to the message they are sending out, then librarianship is going to spend a long time in the wilderness looking for leaders that “fit” the look they imagine them having. To focus on the end of that famous Dr. King quote, it’s the content of their character that matters when it comes to rendering judgment.

I wouldn’t say that appearance is inconsequential, but the reason why libraries are struggling in some areas is not because the staff doesn’t dress nicely enough. It’s a perception of the library as a modern institution in form and function that needs an image makeover. If we are going to concern ourselves with any kind of appearance, that’s the most pressing one right now.

Save the [Insert Noun Here]

David Lankes wrote a blog post at the beginning of August in which he urges librarians to drop the “save the library” mentality and embrace an aspirational public relations model that advocates how libraries help their communities thrive. I’m inclined to agree with David; the ‘library in crisis OMG OMG OMG’ card has been played so many times that it runs the risk of support fatigue. Given that the actual closing of libraries has been disproven, it becomes disingenuous to proclaim that the end is nigh when reality points the other way.

Personally, I think there is trouble arising out of using the term “save”. First, it implies a conservation of the item or place or thing and a maintaining of the status quo. Not an expansion or an increase of support, but a maintaining of current levels. In other words, “we need your support to keep everything as is”. That doesn’t seem like an ideal position to pivot from to ask for additional funding, personnel, materials, or other public support. It’s playing defense without a plan to get out of our own half of the field.

Second, the term “save” has become ubiquitous to any cause around the world. In doing a simple Google search for “save the”, here are things that are looking to be saved in the first few pages:

children, frogs, manatees, internet, chimps, families, ta-tas, whales, tigers, the artic, Narragansett Bay, music, the Upper St. Lawrence River, plastic bags, rain, rainforests, mothers.

That’s a lot of stuff to be saved; it’s not even the exhaustive list. I’m wondering how far I would have to go and how many other causes I would pass before I found my first “save the library” website. It makes me ponder whether people actually hear the noun that at the end of a “save the” phrase; with the constant call to save something, what is yet another species/place/object in peril? I would guess people have learned to tune it out.

To continue down this path, my fear is the future of library advocacy will become a series of dewy eyed librarians looking into the camera while the saddest Sarah McLachlan song ever plays in the background. At 1am, you’ll find yourself  sitting on the couch bawling, between sobs saying the words into the phone, “Dear God YES I want my $30 monthly pledge to save a librarian from a life of literary neglect and absence of information access.” I don’t think is the progress we are looking for in terms of library issues.

To go a step further than David, I also think there is a victimhood mentality that gets a lot of play in the library world that needs to be dropped. We must to buy eBooks at their outrageous terms and prices or else our members will leave us. We must subscribe to these databases at their outrageous prices and conditions or else we are failing our students/faculty/administration. We must provide access in every way, shape, and form or else we are going to lose every successive generation from here to the end of time. We must give our members what they want no matter the circumstances or else the library will burst into flames and be swallowed up by the earth on its descent to Hell.

You get the idea.

It implies that we are hostage to our circumstances and are relegated to simply bemoan our predetermined fate. We couldn’t possibly seek to change the terms of a contract, agreement, or other arrangement if service or access hangs in the balance, no matter how shitty a deal is being dangled in front of us.

How can we empower our communities if we can’t even empower ourselves to walk away from the negotiation table over terms that are not in our best interest nor the people we serve? Why are we surrendering control in situations we really don’t have to?

Control. Exert some. And not just on subject headings, either.

Reconsidering the Public Library Closures Narrative

From the Cites & Insights April 2012 entitled “Public Library Closures:
On Not Dropping Like Flies”:

“For those who don’t have the patience for a long, rambling essay with lots of background and detail, here’s the tip of the pyramid:

As far as I can tell, at most seventeen public libraries within the United States closed in 2008 or 2009 and have apparently not reopened as of March 2012. That’s 17 out of 9,299 (in 2009) or 9,284 (in 2008) or 0.2%. […]

Why does this matter? I’ll get to that—and to why these figures may be different than some you’ve heard, read or assumed. The answer is not that I’m trying to make everything in public libraryland seem rosy. It is that I believe it behooves librarians to know what they’re talking about—that even more than in most fields, they have a responsibility to know the facts behind their assertions.” [emphasis mine]

It’s a long but well researched piece by Walt Crawford illustrating how the illusion of public libraries closing does not match with reality. Yes, budgets are down, branches are being closed, services and hours and staff are being cut, but the number of libraries actually being closed is extremely small. Some of the rhetoric (and I’m quite sure I’m guilty of it myself) around library closings works to invoke people’s emotional response and play on the public’s fear and apprehensions. That isn’t a card that can be constantly played without being called out on it.

Also, I think blaring a constant state of distress can lead to advocacy issue fatigue; it makes libraries sounds like the constant victim of a political Snidely Whiplash, perpetually finding ourselves tied down to the budget train tracks. “Save Our Library” cannot be the constant and knee jerk battle cry to all budget announcements; a little more assessment and impact needs to be determined before warming up those war drums.

I’m not without sympathy for that 0.2% of communities that no longer have libraries, but building a overarching and rampant narrative out of that seems a bit intellectually dishonest.

(h/t: LISNews)

Support An Uprising


I’ll let the Uprise Books Project describe itself as taken from their Kickstarter page:

“The Uprise Books Project is dedicated to ending the cycle of poverty through literacy, providing new banned and challenged books to underprivileged teens free of charge. In a nutshell, lower-income middle school and high school students can select banned and challenged books on our site, and we take care of finding contributors willing to pick up the tab.”

On their blog, they make an economic based argument that by sending these books to lower income teens they hope to encourage them to finish high school and go on to college. The higher the education, the larger the lifetime earning, the less likely to continue the cycle of poverty and essentially moving onto a higher economic status. (They didn’t make those last two points, but I figured they were the next logical steps.) On its face, that position makes sense to me; even in my skepticism, they note that making a change in the life of one teen pays for the other books sent out over the course of a lifetime. Perhaps that notion holds a shotgun mentality to it (the more area covered in pellets, the better), but I can appreciate the idea of doing something rather than nothing.

So, why focus on sending banned or challenged books rather than any kind of literature? I asked myself the same thing and they had what I felt was a clever answer to that.

More importantly, we think that the idea that these texts have been banned and challenged will motivate kids to actually read the things.

Ah, the lure of forbidden fruit. The best kind, some would say.

In reading through their Kickstarter page, listening to their pitch, and reading their website, I have some reservations. I’m curious as to how the inevitable question regarding the role of parents (or lack of role, in some cases) will come into play. Will parents be a part of this process as a way to get their kids to read books that they feel they should be allowed to read but otherwise couldn’t afford? Will kids or teens be allowed to select or receive books without parental consent? For kids that don’t want to get books at their homes (or have temporary living arrangements), how will the books get to them?

There is a certain amount of dangerousness to this project, but I don’t think that it is a disqualification for support. In fact, I’d say that the project should be expanded to children and teens in crisis looking for books that reflect their situation, whether it is coming out as gay, dealing with domestic violence or sexual abuse, or coping with self destructive behaviors. I’d argue that those groups run the same risk as the children and teens in poverty since they are less likely to achieve higher education degrees without some form of intervention. (The teens killing themselves over their sexuality, their psychological problems, and their inability to cope do not even make it to the lifetime earning list.) I hope that this project may pivot to provide for those teens in the future, but in the meantime it does look to make inroads on behalf of literacy and the elimination of poverty.

Even with some concerns, I have pledged to support this Kickstarter campaign and I would hope you would consider doing so as well. I am doing so for a couple of reasons. First, I feel that good ideas need to be supported. I’m not simply investing in this idea, I’m investing in the ideas to follow that look to put books into the hands of people who need them for any number of reasons (including how I’d like to see the program expand). As I said, it’s not perfect but it is good enough for me to warrant a financial pledge. Second, I’m curious to see how this project shapes up. I’d like to eventually become a donor who sends books to kids and teens who asking for my help. I’m really wondering if the ‘forbidden fruit’ angle will yield results as they hope; in putting on my scientist hat, I’d like to see how this experiment proceeds. To do so, I need to invest in it.

Finally, when I was in high school, I read the book The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It was not a source of controversy in my high school, my community, or my home even though unbeknownst to me it was being challenged at the time. It was, for me, an eye opener. It began my own personal journey to try to understand people from their perspectives and viewpoints, to put myself in their shoes, and to gain a better understanding of the world we live and the beliefs held within. It really changed my life. If a challenged book like that could do the same for another teen out there, I’d love to be the one to put that book into their hands.

I hope you’ll join me in supporting this project. I believe they certainly are worth it.

The Uprise Books Project: Fighting Poverty with Banned Books

(h/t: Library Society of the World FriendFeed Group)

Everything I Wanted To Know About Library Marketing I Learned From A Shampoo Bottle

The always brilliant Ned Potter wrote up a wonderful little primer on library marketing entitled “Three simple marketing rules all libraries should live by…” In his post, he emphasizes marketing the service, dropping the ‘how this works’ explanation, and promote the intersection of what the patron values with what the library values. Or, in other words, to use Pepsi as an example: Pepsi tells you that it refreshes, not that it is made with high fructose corn syrup and other ingredients; there is no Pepsi ad that walks you through how it is made; and Pepsi and its customers are both enjoy sugary caffeinated drinks and work to promote that relationship.

In writing up his three marketing tips, I took it as inspiration to write up my own three things to share. As the title of this blog post suggests, the instructions from a shampoo bottle are the perfect way to explain my meaning.

  • Lather

When you think of lather, I’m talking about marketing coverage. You are trying to get the shampoo in contact with your entire head of hair, not just parts of it. Publicity is not just limited to locations within the library; think about the entire community that the library serves. Local businesses to hang flyers, radio stations to record public service announcements, bulletin boards around the school and in housing or student centers, student or local newspapers to run your press releases or advertising, or the work lunch room if your library is at a hospital or law firm. All of these places are in the community that you serve, accessible by your patrons, and all possible spots for your publicity materials.

  • Rinse

When you think of rinse, I mean it as looking to clean up your marketing messages. Your initial marketing material and pitches can be made more precise, more contextual, and more compact. For myself, I find that the little sales pitch I give for a program or service grows shorter over time as I eliminate extraneous words and phrases and get it down to a just-the-facts speech that can be said in under a minute. I edit and re-edit press releases every other month to change up the appeal and to sharpen the prose. It’s a matter of constant re-evaluation of what the library is saying, how it is saying it, and how the message can be refined.

  • Repeat

When you think of repeat, I’m speaking of marketing as a repetition game. It’s about telling the same pitch to different people throughout the day, posting your posters or flyers everywhere you can think about it, and driving home the message you want to send whether it is “Sign up for our crafting class!”, “Did you know we offer one-on-one research consultations?”, or “We have a library club!”. If you’ve said it one hundred times, then say it a thousand more times. If you’ve thought you slathered the community with flyers already, check again for more spots to post. For every time you repeat something, it creates a new opportunity to inform someone of whatever it is what you want to educate them. You can’t simply hope that by telling one person that they will tell ten others; tell those ten other people yourself to ensure that they got the message.

Marketing tends to reward the amount of work you put into it. If you just fire off a press release and post a flyer in one spot at the library, then you are probably going to get the attendance or service use that reflects your effort. You have to invest time in reaching people; it will pay out in dividends of program attendance, service use, and an overall higher door count. It’s up to you to make the effort, no matter what kind of library you are in, what size it happens to be, or where it is situated in the community. It takes effort, but it is well worth it.

Just like good hair.

Marketing & The Donated Book

Fellow New Jersey librarian and all around stellar librarian Valerie Forrestal posted a brilliant idea on her blog Ridiculously Digitally Ubiquious. Her idea is to take donated popular books, pop in a little note about the library along with contact information including website and social media handles, and drop them off in public places. The idea that people can find them, post their location or a review of them on a blog or the website, and pass them along.

In thinking her idea through, it’s an extremely inexpensive way to market the library with a very catchy local appeal. I can imagine some of the objections that might be raised since material budgets are generally down, but I think it could be done with discarded popular books as well. There are some good viable variations to this idea that I think people might consider as well. The book could be returned to the library for some sort of reward or incentive. It could be part of a library sponsored scavenger hunt. The placement of books in public could be done in conjunction with a library promotion. That’s just a few offshoots and I’m certain there are more out there!

Well done Val!

The Enchantment of Libraries


I know what some of you are probably thinking right now.

“Ebooks? If only he knew what kind of Byzantine arrangement eBooks are for libraries! Between the publishers and the content providers and the restrictions and whatnot, it’s just a giant tangled mess.”

But, even perhaps without that knowledge, Guy’s point still has some legs. Reinvention is not necessarily a clean process and it is something that libraries are undergoing right now at an imperfect, inconsistent pace. The advent of eBooks is undeniable; it will change how people perceive and access books when they have the option of getting one from wherever they are.

In looking towards that evolution of libraries, the demise of Borders should be a powerful lesson for libraries. Take a look at their business plan in the last ten years. They widened their movie and music selection, added a café, and then struggled onto the eBook market and eBook reader platforms. I’m not saying that this is something that will happen to libraries, but that kind of change should sound a bit familiar.

(Yes, I concede that they had a profit motive that libraries don’t, but their course of action to change their strategy does have parallels.)

If anything, at least someone outside of libraryland is pulling for us. We could use all the library champions we can get.