SunSpec: Serious Conversations Are Serious Business

Where do all the serious conversations and discussions happen in librarianship? Because from what I have heard or read, I have been told where they are NOT happening.

They are not happening on Facebook or Twitter because not every librarian is on Facebook or Twitter. They are not happening at conferences because the state ones are generally once a year (with perhaps a small conference or two between) and the ALA ones are twice a year; the lack of frequency disqualifies them from being venues for serious discourse. They are not happening on the library blogosphere because of smaller readership (a nod to the ‘not everyone is online’ business) and furthermore run the risk of building an echo chamber for online librarians. And the list goes on for trade publications (not everyone reads them), professional organizations (not everyone belongs), and your own library (a microcosm).

So, where is the magical platform, venue, location, or event that grants enough quorum so that any discourse arising from it can be deemed meaningful?

I’m a bit tired of hearing or reading utterances as to why certain types of conversations or discussions are not “serious” ones because of some factual yet irrelevant observation as to the participants present or missing. This marginalization of any kind of dialogue because it’s not in the perfect setting is simply counterproductive and (for lack of a better term) pathetic. I don’t know what to say beyond that I’m exasperated by the mythical barriers that seem to magically appear wherever something serious and/or important is broached as a topic.

So, where do all the serious conversations and discussions happen in librarianship?

Sunday Speculation: Protest Edition

So, there I was driving home from work on Saturday and thinking about what to write for this post when the question streaked across my mind:

If young librarians are in protest, what are our demands?

I blanked for a moment. What are the demands?

Jobs? That’s a tricky demand. Websites like ALA Joblist, LISjobs, and others are full of job listings. There are jobs out there. Whether the job is near where people want to be is another factor. For all the emo consternation that is posted like a teenage poetry contest, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone write, “And I’m willing to move!” Perhaps it is something that people are leaving out, somehow implied in their pleas for any kind of work; perhaps it is not written because some graduates want the job where their families, friends, and familiar surroundings are. For the former, I wish you good luck; for the latter, well, I’m not sure what to say. It’s somewhere between “stick it out and hope for the best” and “if you want to get going on your career now, you may have to make some short term compromises”.

If there was a good demand relating to jobs to pose to the older generation of librarians, it would be in the form of a question: where have all the lost jobs gone? Budget cuts? Attrition? Smaller staffing requirements? Follow-up: what is the job outlook for the field in five years? Because I don’t have the longevity or experience in the field to get a feeling for that and I’m curious as to what the speculation might be. This is not a direct attempt to refute the ‘graying profession’ business or a new yoke to hang on the necks of library leadership. (We’d have to find a neck first, but more on that later.) I’d just like an objective re-evaluation.

Better library graduate programs? I have yet to see any specifics other than “more harder”. There is no shortage of what people dislike about the programs, what classes and topics they think are a waste of time, and there is certainly no lack of contempt for some library programs out there. “I thought it should be more challenging” goes the refrain. How exactly? What was the expectation? We aren’t assembling nuclear reactors here, people. It’s a library.

If there was a good argument for making the program more challenging, I’d say that it should have aspects of a Masters in Public Administration (because it is) and a Masters in Business Administration (because it is that too). As a public librarian, one of my most common questions is how to cut and paste on the computer. I didn’t need an MLS to show someone how to do that. What I could have used is a degree that had distinctive coursework in personnel management, funding and budgeting, public policy, and operations management (like the MPA and MBA programs have, not a unit within a management course). I liked the graduate program at Clarion; I felt it was interesting and challenging in terms of library science theory and history. But in hindsight, rather than taking a Literature of the World course (or whatever it was called), I could have used one of those aforementioned courses. I can get a passing familiarity with literature (world or otherwise) on my own; I could have really used some personnel management courses rather than learning it on the job.

In presenting a demand to the older generations of librarians, I would ask that they look to reformulate the programs to represent the current and emerging needs of librarianship. This goes directly back to the importance of a job outlook; what are the skills that those future jobs will require? And really take a hard look at the current class offerings at ALA accredited schools. (I don’t know much of anything when it comes to ALA accreditation but you may want to revisit it as something that gives a mark of excellence. It’s getting disparaged right now.)

Better leadership? I think it’s a legitimate albeit nebulous demand. The current bevy of leaders don’t stand out in the same way business leaders stand out. I can name a dozen or so business leaders off the top of my head; I’d have to think carefully as I listed an equal amount of people I considered to be leaders within the librarian profession. With the breadth of the field, even the term ‘leader’ would be a bit subjective. Are they are a leader because they have created successful libraries? Successful programs? Successful technological integration or implementation? Successful advocates for literacy and reading? Successful thinkers and library science philosophers? Even in having a number of people who display strengths in important aspects of the field, I can’t think of anyone who transcends that to the whole profession. (I have a couple of people in mind, but I’d rather not make replies about my personal choices.)

It has been touched upon in comments in other places (the kind that I can’t remember exactly where thus thwarting specific linking), but there have been comments about a lack of library leadership being cultivated within the program. And before Pete Bromberg drives over and throws a brick through my window, I’m not forgetting about the ALA Emerging Leaders program. That’s a specific action being taken by the national organization; I know New Jersey has its own variation of the program. Perhaps my question might seem indelicate, but what else is there? Is that the only option? Could there be other ways to mentor and mold the next generation of leaders within the profession? Leadership is a tricky quality; some come by it naturally and other can be trained into it. It’s a hard question, most certainly.

ALA reformation? It is a common theme that gets played out: bloated, slow, impractical, imprecise. Since I’m not an ALA member, I have to go on what I’ve been told by ALA members. But on this point, I have questions for my fellow young librarians. How is it slow? How is it bloated? How is it not meeting your expectations or needs? What should it be doing? What is getting lost in the frustrations and anger at the organization are the details, the specifics as to how they feel it is not working. What is also getting missed is that this is a chance to assert your beliefs and to work to make the changes you want to see happen. ALA is not a country club where you can hold your nose up at joining until they move the tees on the third hole for a better drive. If you want to move the damn tees, you are going to have to join and do it from the inside.

In addressing the older librarians, what should the organization you want to leave for us look like? How is it positioned to take on the challenges of the next five, ten, or twenty years? How will it reflect your influence but be a natural segue for the next generation coming through? What is the appeal, the purpose, the ongoing underlying reason for young librarians like myself to join up? On another note, relating to Council business: how do resolutions on Wikileaks, the two ongoing wars, torture, marriage equality, or the genocide in Sudan help the profession? How do these resolutions create jobs, secure funding, improve library appearance or awareness in society, or otherwise advocate for the library? Simply speaking, how does it put food on the table for both employed and unemployed librarians around the country? I realize that the argument for these resolutions are based in principles, but in this financial and employment climate (and to steal a line from the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign), it’s the economy, stupid.

I’m sure there are things that I’m missing in terms of demands and questions, whether it from my fellow young librarians or for the older generation. I realize that my post is full of questions, but I comfortable with that since I feel that I’m asking the right questions. Rather than giving in to spouting out complaints, I’d like to get to the heart of the matter. I’m looking forward to reading some answers.

Don’t disappoint me.

(I didn’t cite them specifically in the text, but I had been influenced by Patrick Sweeney’s post and Roy Tennant’s reply while I was writing this winding post. Also Jim Rettig’s “Is the Association Ripe for Rebellion?” article. And Jenica Roger’s post about optimism. And Will Manley’s “The War Between the Library Generations Has Started”. I just wanted to acknowledge those influences.)

Mea Culpa

Click if you don't get the reference

I successfully managed to step in a quagmire today with my Sunday Speculation post regarding a hypothetical case for librarian retirement. My post was the equivalent of fishing with dynamite: it was bound to catch a lot more than what I was looking for and managed to get me all wet in the process. I know all too well about ageism and the discrimination that can be accompanied by it; I’ve had a family member be the target of such actions, long before the laws and lawsuits that would come into play to reverse such practices. So, for the people who took offense at that particular aspect of my post, I offer my apologies.

Out of the ashes of that inflamed discussion, I would like to pull out the notion of competency in the profession. As it has been astutely pointed out, whether a person can fulfill the new demands of the profession is not limited by age but by ability. This poses a series of questions: what would be the criteria to measure a librarian as competent? What can be done to bring people up to those measurements? And, however unpleasant as it might be, what would be done about those who fail to measure up? (As to this last question, I do not believe in passing the buck.)

This reminds me of the current political debate going on in my state of New Jersey regarding the evaluation and tenure of teachers. Everyone agrees that good teachers should stay and be rewarded and that bad teachers should be given a chance to improve or be removed from teaching. But how that is accomplished is where the friction begins. But it doesn’t mean that the debate shouldn’t take place; it means that well intentioned people are going to disagree.

In going back to the questions posed, the basic competency criteria that I would propose revolves around good customer service practices, basic technology knowledge, automation program proficiency (in all aspects, including cataloging), and current library issue awareness (both local and national). This is not an exhaustive list, but one to give you an idea of my line of thought. Those who need help should be able to get it either from their place of work or their state library association. Support networks can be formed for this very purpose. As to those who don’t measure up, they should be let go. It’s sad, but there is just so much riding on the line these days that I’m not comfortable with simply letting people slide through.

What is professional competency to you? What are the skills and knowledge that should be emphasized? And how would you approach the question?

Sunday Speculation: The Case for Retirement

While one cannot make the case for librarians to retire simply because they have reached the age of retirement (as would almost be implied solution in various previous positions towards the libraryland unemployment problem), I think there is a better argument for the retirement of older librarians.

The basis? Negligence.

My reasoning is as follows: the librarians who have reached the age of retirement (for the purposes of this argument I will say that this age is 65) are well established in the field. They have accumulated institutional knowledge, the benefit of experience, and a vision that only comes to those who have stayed with a profession for a long period of time. And yet, they have not positioned the profession or the institution to handle the societal, technological, or community trends and changes that currently face libraries. In other cases, they have not built the necessary relationships with those who support the library whether it is the taxpayer or town council. But here we are, deep into a rapidly changing communication and computer age that has revolutionized information sharing around the globe, and rather than be positioned to capitalize on it, libraries around the country are simply fighting to retain funding or even stay open. It represents a failure to lead, a failure to recognize emerging trends, and a failure to act accordingly. That is negligence.

And for those who may balk at this argument, why? Corporations change their executive staff when those people fail to respond to the challenges and problems of the company. Governments changes administrative staff either through elections or appointments. When the senior staff fails, should they not be held accountable for their actions (or in this case, inaction)? This might not be the golden parachute of the former or the nature of politics of the latter, but retirement is certainly not the worst option in the world.

Shouldn’t there be some accountability from library leadership in general on this neglect? Why would the profession continue under people who have failed in such a spectacular manner? During an era of the largest information paradigm shift in the recorded history of mankind, libraries are not at the forefront of these issues. It’s a shame, really.

Before anyone sharpens their pitchfork or wraps another kerosene soaked rag around their torch (for me or the premise of this post), I am just putting forth an argument for the sake of a lively discussion and not suggesting a course of action. It is not meant as a litmus test for anyone to retire. This is also not meant as a blanket indictment of older librarians despite its tone. I just thought it was a better argument for librarians to retire than making it age based. I’m curious for people’s reactions, especially any counterarguments.

So, do you think there is negligence? Why or why not?

Update: Before you hit the reply button, please re-read that last full paragraph. I’d also like to highlight part of my reply to Stephen Abram:

The purpose of the Sunday Speculation posts are to throw out topics for people to toss around and debate. Perhaps it is a vestige of my brief time at law school, but I enjoy the arguments. I’ll argue a counter or unpopular viewpoint for the sake of furthering a conversation (as I am doing in this case). It’s a lab, an experiment, something to ruminate over, and tickle the mind. Edison said, “To have a great idea, have a lot of them.”

Is this my best piece of work? Certainly not. Do I believe in the point of view I’m touting in the post? No. But I do believe that the argument expressed was compelling enough to share and if I’m going to suggest it, I’m not going to toss it casually out there. I might as well make it a good show. This is not disingenuous, this is good debate. Perhaps it is not the best phrasing, but I think I would have gotten hit with ageism no matter how I framed it since I was asking about library leadership from pre-internet days to now.

I don’t have a problem admitting that it is a clumsy, ham-fisted premise that I have put forth. Is it ageism? Sure. Is it illegal? Yes, both here and in Canada. Does it still happen despite being illegal? Yes. Should those people be prosecuted and/or sued? Yes.

Would it have been better to ask, “Should librarians who have held leadership or administrative decisions since pre-internet days be asked to leave the profession?” Or “Was the action or inaction of library leadership of the last twenty years negligent?” Or even “Are the lack of community and political relationships the result of negligent action by library leadership?”

If you want to judge me for making a hypothetical argument even with the caveats I have attached in the post and afterwards, then I find that a bit unsettling. I find that to be a chilling effect on someone posing a question, albeit a distasteful one, and something that is at odds with the principles of intellectual freedom that are so highly regarded within the profession.

Update 2: Mea Culpa. But I will still continue the discussion below. I’m just opening up a new one from the replies that I have received.

Sunday Speculation: Uncomfortable Literature

In writing the recap on the Bitch Magazine YA feminist literature list situation, I couldn’t help but think about how librarians are by default put into defensive positions about materials in their collections. Each added item has a potential for igniting some sort of objection; even if that chance is miniscule, someone can find something objectionable in it (and if they go hunting for it and have some creativity, they will find it). Often times, this sheds the light on the profession that librarians are smut peddlers, pornographers, politically and/or emotionally insensitive, and otherwise defenders of society’s deviance.

It is the price that is paid for a near absolutist stance. Only the most morally deplorable items (such as child pornography) gain no refuge. But when literature covers incest, suicide, bullying, homosexuality, cutting, eating disorders, racism, blasphemy, and rape, the profession defends the choices of inclusion of unpopular, controversial, and/or otherwise socially abhorrent topics. It is never a matter as to judging whether the topic is acceptable or not; it is a matter of allowing individuals to make their own decisions whether to read it or not. Generally, like the comments to the original YA list post revealed to me, there is a divided opinion. A divided opinion is not a rationale for exclusion, but an impetus for insuring that it remains. As Ricky Gervais said recently after the row over his jokes at the Golden Globes,

“I’m not sorry for anything I said… Nobody has the right not to be offended. And don’t forget: Just because you’re offended, doesn’t mean you’re in the right.”

Such is the model and cornerstone for free speech guarantees in countries like the United States.

In noting that the three books that were removed from the Bitch list all involved the topic of rape, I remembered the George Carlin bit, “Rape can be Funny” (very NSFW, as if you needed a warning). Some will find it funny, some will find it offensive, but it has a kernel of truth to it: just because the topic is uncomfortable to others should not preclude any discussion of it. One cannot have ask rape victims to speak out against their abusers and about their ordeals as a means of educating people on the topic while simultaneously demanding that any other discussion outside of this scope cease. It is when we as a society stop talking about a subject for fear of offense that the issue will continue to linger on in the shadowlands of conversation, present yet unresolved.

Sunday Recollection: Snow Days

This particular winter has been consistent in offering snow to the southern New Jersey area where I live. While this is not an unusual winter occurance, it does not match my recollection of the area when I was a kid, staring out the window and hoping for a snow day. In fact, I can remember only a few years where snow days were declared including one particularly heinous ice storm that froze the entire area. Otherwise, it was rare to have a white Christmas and even rarer to have a day off from school due to the snow.

My new great memories from some of those snow days was when my dad took my brother and I over to the next town to sled down a huge hill. You have to take into consideration how flat southern New Jersey is; it’s the kind of flatness you see when you are west of the Appalachians. Any sudden change in elevation to make a sledding hill is quite remarkable and therefore highly desirable. I can only describe the length of the hill in kid terms which would make it ‘oh my god it goes on forever!’ with a wide toothy grin and mad gleam in the eyes. (I won’t sully it with actual measurements either.) As it was one of the few sledding hills in the area, it would be jammed with people as well. The part of the ride down I remember is that it had some (for lack of a better term) moguls where the hill slope met the flat runoff area. After accelerating down the hill, the resultant bouncing could be called ‘tailbone crushing’ or ‘fun’ depending on which mental age bracket you were in. After the runoff, you’d trudge off to the side and march back up the hill. Repeat until you had to use the bathroom or couldn’t move your legs anymore.

I realize that this is less speculation (as my previous posts) and more of a recollection, so I have changed the title of this entry to reflect that. I’m wondering what your favorite snow day memories are as a kid. I have a feeling I would have seen you out on that hill with me, hanging on for dear life as the sled hit maximum acceleration right before the bumps that could sending you flying.

Sunday Speculation: For the Love of the Game

Photo by Erik Mallinson/Flickr

There is no denying it: I am a gamer.

I adventure in World of Warcraft. I take capture points and blow up people in Team Fortress 2. My iPad is full of games from World of Goo (SO. GOOD.) to Scrabble to Warpgate to- well, you get the point. Lots of games.

I was introduced to Dungeons and Dragons at a pretty young age. My mother’s family was big into card games and my friends would play lots of a board games. With the advent of Atari and then later Nintendo, the console game system started to feature into my play activities. A family Commodore 64 was where my brother and I would play even more games. College had a combination of console (Playstation), computer (the first Command & Conquer blew my mind and lots of Quake), and some other games (Hearts and a violent card game known simply as “Egyptian Ratscrew”. Don’t ask.) Post college saw involvement in live action roleplaying games (also known as LARPs) in addition to the other platforms (console, computer, board, card) listed above.

Gaming has been a part of my professional life as well. I worked to co-create a video game collection in my library system. The circulation for the games has been tremendously successful. I’ve been pretty proud of that and work towards giving people a new way to look at the library as well as a chance to see what else we have to offer.

Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of articles that talk about the importance of play in development (both human and other animals) and the benefits it has on mental acuity. Personally, I’ve never understood while people give up on play so easily. Or maybe it’s just that the concept of play changes over time for some people.

So, I have a simple question: how do you play? What do you consider to be play? And how has play changed for you?