Sunday, March 8, 2015

New York State Library Advocacy Day

On February 25, representatives of the Southern Tier Library System traveled to Albany for Library Advocacy Day, an annual opportunity for library staff, board members, friends and constituents to meet with legislators and make the case for state support to libraries.  The main legislative goal of the event is to achieve full state aid funding, which is currently languishing at 1997 levels.  Other specific issues raised this year by the group, led by STLS Executive Director Brian Hildreth, included increased aid for library building projects, extending broadband service to communities in the STLS service area, and augmenting the 2% cap on tax funding increases that we’re currently limited to.  I accompanied the group to represent Penn Yan in the halls of the capitol, along with Library Friend Susan McGill.

Each of the lawmakers that the group met seemed sympathetic to our cause and listened with interest to our points.  Some pointed to immediate action that they could take on behalf of libraries, such as raising our concerns with the relevant committee chairs and working across the aisle to make change happen.  Others pointed to the recent circumstances holding up the state budget process, such as the passing of former governor Mario Cuomo; while that important legislation remains in limbo, elected officials can offer few specifics about the ultimate shape of library aid funding.

The legislators shared our reason to be guardedly optimistic, however: the process last year saw the governor’s proposed cut to library aid raised to parity with the previous year’s budget.  Judging by that precedent, there is hope that this year could see a slight increase in aid.

One sentiment was shared by all the lawmakers we met: they were impressed by the size of our group and the way it represented a wide swath of central New York.  At about fifteen members strong, we did seem to be one of the larger groups present, at least as far as I could see.  Sue and I joked that next year we should get more Penn Yan-area folks to swell the group’s numbers even more.  I think she helped make an extra impression, providing each legislator with a copy of a recent Finger Lakes Times article that makes a nice mention of our library, underscoring what a busy and vital part of the community we are.  You can’t ask for a better tool to demonstrate the value of libraries!

It was a great experience for me, as a young librarian, to observe some of the ‘higher-level’ concerns of the profession; it’s all too easy, if natural, to get mired down in the day-to-day affairs of your own library and lose sight of what’s going on with the broader scene.  It’s important to remember that the issues we raised will have a direct impact on our operations in Penn Yan and everywhere else in the system--in the funding to support materials and programming budgets, in the ease and speed with which patrons can access the Internet, and in the money needed to repair and add to our physical stock of library buildings.  I came away from the day with a greater understanding of how we get the funding to address all of that, and how perilously close we are to losing it every year.  But I also came away with an understanding of how the dedication and passion of library advocates can turn the tide, year by year.

I’d like to express my appreciation to Senators Catharine Young and Thomas O’Mara and Assemblymen Christopher Friend, Joseph Giglio and Phil Palmesano for meeting with us.  Big thanks as well to the tireless Brian Hildreth for leading the charge (and most of the discussions!).  It was a great first time for me and I look forward to attending Library Advocacy Day for years to come.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Programming Round Up: Analyzing Some Success and Some Failure

Well, I’m three months into my first professional librarian job, and I’ve had plenty of opportunity to practice my favorite part of the job: programming.  I promised way back at the start of this blog that I would occasionally share my thoughts on that topic, and I have now and then, but never before as a matter of practicality.  Now I’m starting to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t in the context of my particular library community.  Let’s take a quick peek at some successes and failures, shall we?

Old Timey Music--SUCCESS
One thing you need to realize is that success isn’t always a matter of numbers.  I know that’s hard to conceive in our stats-obsessed profession, but it’s true.  I think that a much better, if much more imprecise, measure of success is enjoyment.  It doesn’t say much about a program if you have thirty people stone-facedly enduring what you’re throwing at them.

It says a lot more to have ten or so people smiling, tapping their toes, and singing along, and that’s just what happened at the concert of Stephen Foster music I organized, aided by the extremely talented performer Dave Berger.  I wasn’t sure what kind of reception we’d get, but figured people are always willing to give free live music a chance.  I didn’t realize that Foster, a pioneer of American folk music, was a big part of the upbringing for folks of a certain generation.  It was wonderful to see the attendees kind of going back in time to their school days before my eyes, and during our intermission more than one remarked about the memories that Dave was bringing back.

One thing I’ll say I learned: do your homework on even the most benign-seeming personalities you choose to highlight at an event like this.  I didn’t really know who Foster was; I just saw that the date of his death was celebrated as “Stephen Foster Day,” and I thought it would be a good excuse for music.  Briefly reading his Wikipedia bio, I saw that he was an abolitionist, so all the better.  But I didn’t really take in the fact that even so, some of his music indulged in the “minstrelsy” sub-genre and contributed to the currency of some unfortunate stereotypes.  Fortunately for me, Dave was much smarter and had prepared a few remarks about Foster’s place in history, tweaked a few of the most troublesome lyrics, and had a few very insightful things to say about the importance of recognizing the uncomfortable bits embedded in art from ages past.  Way to go, Dave!

Old Timey Writing--FAILURE
Kind of.  I mean, it’s all well and good not to be too beholden of numbers, but when, after a bit of a blitz to board members and library Friends and setting up a bulletin board right in front of the main entrance, you still only get two participants--yeah, all the enjoyment the event generates can’t really overcome those optics.

I should back up.  I billed this event as a “letter writing salon” to celebrate Universal Letter Writing Week.  The whole thing was very conscious of the declining role of letter-writing in our society, but I hoped to tap into the nostalgia factor.  I read a great book on the subject--To the Letter by Simon Garfield--and was prepared to expound on the history of the letter through the ages, and I had all kinds of cute stationery and stickers and pens.  And tea.  Free tea!  It seemed like just the thing to appeal to the key demographic at my library, which tends to skew super-baby boomer.

Maybe it was the weather, or maybe it was confusion about the word “salon,” or maybe it was the time of day (late afternoon).  The interest just wasn’t there.  Still, this is an easy-enough event to repeat, so I could adjust some of those variables and see what effect it has.  If there’s still no big bite, I’ll know that my library is definitely not going to single-handedly restore the USPS to its former glory.  Still, I guess my poster caught the eye of a local reporter, so there was a nice writeup in the paper about it.  Maybe there’s hope after all.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Discussion--SUCCESS
This next pair is a little confusing, but I think I’ve figured out what the deal is.

Our observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was a resounding smash.  We had more than thirty people in our presentation room--my director couldn’t believe it.  We watched some commemorative YouTube collages, there was music, and everyone participated in a respectful conversation about Dr. King’s legacy (with only occasional odd digressions about, er, veganism, and a sort of tone-deaf way of linking animals’ plight to African-Americans’.  Whatever, moving on.)

Why did this work out so well?  I think that most Americans identify with and revere Dr. King, to an extent.  It’s a mainstream thing--he’s in our Pantheon with Washington, Lincoln, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and so on.  So people will come out on his day and feel pretty good about being white, upper middle class retirees doing their part for racial tolerance.  I don’t mean to knock them; demonstrations of identification can be powerful and important forces, especially in a public forum like the library.  I guess it’s just sort of the “pop” version of activism and cross-cultural expression.

As opposed, perhaps, to--

Black History Month--FAILURE
So far, anyway.  We’ve still got a couple weeks left.  But I can tell which way the wind is blowing.  I’ve had two events scheduled so far, and I scrubbed both of them due to an overwhelming lack of interest.

Why did everyone turn out for Dr. King and nobody has so far for Black History Month?  I marketed them both similarly.  They cover a similar topic.  As near as I can figure, as opposed to Martin Luther King Day, there’s a sense that Black History Month is “for” a certain group of people and not others.  This is a totally non-scientific claim I’m making, but I’m guessing it’s the case here as it is in many other small towns without a lot of diversity.  Which is really unfortunate--I don’t see the various “History Months” scattered across the year as opportunities for insularity, but rather as the perfect chance for some education and dialogue to start.

I’m going to keep working on changing the frame of mind on this and other cultural observances in my current community.

Book Matching--SUCCESS (with prodding)
For Valentine’s Day I did a Blind Date with a Book thing, but which I called Literary Speed Dating, since I had patrons choose between a few options.  This one was a little labor-intensive, but totally worth it.  First I searched around the library for a variety of fiction and nonfiction books, old and new, representing what I perceived to be a wide range of tastes.  (I made sure there was a good handful of graphic novels in there too.)  Then I wrote coy clues as to each book’s identity, in character as if that book were a person describing him- or herself to a prospective date.  I made sure to keep a list of all my books with the various clues attributed to them, then began the loooong process of wrapping them in brown paper bags, leaving their barcodes exposed.  (If you know anything about my history with crafts, you’ll know that  the fact I did a more than halfway decent job of this, all by myself, is a pretty big deal.)  Then I started transferring the clues to printable tags, choosing designs to sort of complement the character of each book and lending some visual appeal to what might otherwise be a big mess of brown with some well-meaning but bland magic marker scrawls on them.  Even the way I taped the clues to the anonymous books contributed to their prettiness and, more importantly, to conveying their personalities during dates: a hectic, jagged purple mass resembling a raging fire for an adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, a series of blocks arranged like steps in a pathway or a map for a work of nonfiction evoking wanderlust, and so on.  Each book was numbered, so I found a simple template of numbers for classroom use and cut them out so patrons could draw their fates at random.  

I had envisioned this as a pre-registered event, thinking patrons would be intrigued by my marketing and sign up for my time slots throughout the big day.  I was disappointed when not a single person actually registered.  I’m learning that my library population, at least, is pretty averse to signing up in advance for my fun stuff, which just goes to show that it’s good to know your public and avoid such disappointments.  I was able to remain flexible and shift to simply accosting people in the stacks, at the catalog computers, and at the circ desk--”Excuse me, sir/madam, but could I interest you in a blind date--with a book?”  Most people giggled at that point and asked for more info, then happily submitted to my will.  (Still, not every event will be so easy to shift over to this kind of recruitment.  Why won’t you just sign up for my fun stuff, library patron people?!)

Most folks went away happy; even if their choices ended up a little off kilter from their usual taste, I think they were tickled at the whole concept and were in a good frame of mind to try something new.  Only one book did I find sheepishly slipped into the return only a short time after its selection.  Several people ended up with graphic novels who said they would be happy to give this strange new medium a try.  Most participants kind of breezed through my clues, truly browsing--I had pictured a more intense scrutiny, some serious hefting of the tomes and careful selection, but this worked just as well; it was all the more gratifying, then, to watch the few people who really did sit down and take it all very seriously, poring over each clue and weighing their options as though a wrong choice really would land them on a dud date.  And I suppose it’s nice that some people think of their reading like a relationship that way!

When I do this in the future, I’ll know that streamlining is better.  I initially thought I’d give everyone a choice between five books, but three work much better.  I also went to the trouble of printing up sheets patrons could take notes on, but not even the super serious ones ended up using them.  I may also make two parallel sets of books next time, one regular and one large print; it’ll take a lot more work, but there was one person who was slightly deflated at the text size she received, and I’d rather avoid that happening again.

Speaking of “she,” every single person who participated was a woman.  The men I approached all demurred.  Perhaps there’s some inherent female gendering in the “speed dating” terminology I’m unaware of; maybe men are uncomfortable equating anything date-like with the library, even in jest; maybe straight guys know that all books are dudes and I somehow missed that memo.  I dunno.  That’s the one puzzle I’d really like to figure out for the next time.

The takeaway is this: speed dating a book leads to all kinds of laughter and chatting, and people go away happy with an extra book, and that’s a great mood to have in your library.
Book Discussion--FAILURE (so far)
On the other hand, nobody wants to come talk about the books they’ve read.  I’ve tried two book club sessions so far--both of the ‘thematic’ variety, allowing patrons great latitude in the books they choose--and both have been greeted with a big whomp-whomp.  Maybe it’s the themes I’ve selected.  Maybe it’s the weather.  Maybe it’s the time of day I’ve scheduled them.  Or maybe people are shy about expressing themselves.  If anyone has any hints for enticing patrons in this direction, I’m all ears.  I’m certainly going to keep trying.

So there’s a selection of my programming efforts so far and my thoughts on their impact.  I’d love to hear what else is going on in other libraries and your analyses of your own successes and failures.  What have you learned from the process?  Are there any sure-fire winners out there, or ideas that are to be avoided at all costs?  As libraries shift more and more from “research center” to “community center,” it’ll be vital that we share this information and support each other in providing the best programming possible.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: A Blog in Review

Blog Year 2 complete!  And as of this (somewhat cheaty) post, I'll have met my goal--matching the number of posts I wrote in 2013 and thus doubling the overall amount.  I didn't think I'd make it, but a couple of bursts of productivity made it happen.

For the edification of all, here are my top 5 most-viewed posts this year...

From that, it looks like my most popular posts have been on media, the ways we consume it, and the way it's beginning to affect us socially and culturally.  Not surprising, I suppose!  Also, people love board games?

Now for the lowest-ranked posts...

I broadened this field slightly since it contains two posts from the past week and another from the previous month.  What we learn here is that my least popular posts have been on media--wait a minute!  Those were the most popular, like, a second ago.  The predecessor to one of these posts is even my most-accessed post of the year--not into sequels, are we?  I guess my review posts are less interesting to you than my media commentary posts.  Too bad, they're easy to write and help me digest all the TV and movies I watch in a year, so Imma keep doin' 'em.  I'm also surprised at the low interest in my post on poverty, given that it's an important topic, I connected it directly to libraries, and it reflects an actual experience I went out and had in the world (instead of watching it on TV...).  Maybe share moar plz.?  

Also, I'll never force a long-form review of a Doris Kearns Goodwin book on you again, I guess.

My favorite posts of the year:

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

An Unwritten Rule of Library Service: Too Much of a Good Thing?

My library has an unwritten policy.  I’m sure a lot of libraries have this policy.  It is, put bluntly, that we don’t like to leave patrons waiting.  If there is one staff member at the desk, and there are suddenly two or more patrons waiting to be served, additional staff must leap into action.  If no rescuers appear, the staff on-deck may send out an SOS to try to get someone’s attention.
“Help!  The public is waiting!”
This is a nice policy.  It’s a noble policy.  But is it a necessary policy?  Is it even a good policy?
We are accustomed to waiting in most other areas of our life, in most other service situations we enter.  We wait at the post office.  We wait at the grocery store.  We wait at the doctor’s office.  We wait at the movie theater.  We wait at sporting events.  We wait at the DMV.
In most of those situations, we bear our waiting with good grace.  We are aware that there are only so many slots of attention that those who serve us can have engaged at one time.  Usually we are okay with it, with the notable exception of the DMV—and, it seems likely, at the library.
It feels like people would go nuts if ever the line at the circulation desk got more than two deep.  I can’t bear this out with any evidence, of course, because we almost never let it get to that point.  We send out our SOS.  We leap into action.
And now people expect to be served promptly at the library, with even less than the reasonable minimal expectation of a delay.  I think we’ve conditioned people in this direction with our damn attention to customer service and overall respect for our patrons.  And I feel that, brooding just beneath the surface of the happy, polite patrons’ faces, is a lava flow of rage and impatience barely held in check by our persistently high-quality responsiveness.
I catch hints of it on the rare occasions when the line of patrons stretches slightly back toward the first shelf of the stacks.  I can see it in the way there is, actually,  no cohesive line, just a sort of general milling about, waiting for a staff member to signal for the next person.   When our timing gets off, when responses slow down, when the line gets long at the library—it’s like civilization is straining at its seams.
People are okay with waiting for their Bieber concert or their Bills game.  They’re less okay with waiting for the things the library offers.  And they know that, by and large, they don’t have to.  Librarians and library staff make sure of it.
On second thought, let’s not re-think the goodness or the necessity of this unwritten policy.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Orphan Posts

Another year is nearly done.  I hope to find time before the clock tolls midnight on the thirty-first to log my quarterly media review for the fall (it's been a doozy) and maybe scratch out a year-in-review type post.

While thinking about material for such an entry, I came across a fluttering, tattered host of forlorn Google docs--some crying out for attention, others shuddering in the death throes of their neglect.  These ghouls are the various ideas for posts that came to mind over the past year and which I abandoned, permanently or otherwise--either because I lost interest in them, or they had too brief a shelf life to remain relevant by the time I could get to them, or because they were just really bad.

Still, some of them show promise, and I'd hate for them to wallow in obscurity forever.  At the same time, I don't want to enter the new year with too many "assignments" hanging over my head.  So I thought I'd open it up to my readers--which of the following topics would you be interested in seeing fully fleshed out in a post in 2015?

  • "The Final Word on Library Usefulness": Conceived as a response to a Forbes piece suggesting that libraries could be shut down in favor of unlimited Amazon accounts, the time frame has shifted a bit on this one--but the question of facing down libraries' detractors never really goes away.  Should I attempt to put the nail in the coffin of all the naysayers and budget slashers?  (Because I totally have that power.)
  • "On the Misanthropy of Librarians": In which I would grapple with the shifting public perception of librarians and the ways in which I think we hold ourselves back--and maybe call out a few bad apples along the way.
  • "All the Ways Our Field is Failing Us" and/or "Alex's LIS Curriculum": I have a lot of Feelings about LIS programs as degree mills, about various weaknesses in the curricula I have known or heard of, about the shift in our professional identity from "librarian" to "information professional," about the tense balance in hiring professionals versus paraprofessionals in trying economic times...all of which I've been unable to articulate without it devolving into an unhinged rant.  I'll probably give it another try, because it's Important.  Why don't you think about those things, dear reader, in the meantime, so we can discuss it?
  • "The Flap Over Seed Libraries": On the more fun end of the spectrum, you could read me working myself into conniptions over temporarily agreeing with nutty right-wing survivalist groups in opposing various state-based ordinances shutting down the seed library movement.  And doesn't everyone love that?
  • "Libraries and the Collaborative Economy": This one I thought I had just missed the boat on.  There was a brief window when "sharing" startups like AirBnB were lighting up the cultural and corporate landscape; web think-pieces and NPR segments were all over it, so I thought I had time to add my two cents, at my leisure, on how libraries have been in on this secret for years--and could continue to push and evolve the concept.  Then, screech, the conversation sort of ended.  Well, now it's back, in a way-- particularly in the various controversies emanating from Uber and its unregulated carsharing activities.  Is it time to look back at libraries to show the way?
Which of these fine topics would you be most interested in seeing me tackle?  Bonus points if you feel like you would comment on, discuss and share the resultant posts!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Bridges Out of Poverty: Understanding, Acceptance, and Libraries

A version of this post first appeared on the website of the Penn Yan Public Library. Why not check out our Facebook page?

A colleague and I recently attended a seminar at the Pioneer Library System facilitated by the stupendous Prudence Pease, an aha! Process Bridges Out of Poverty educator and the self-proclaimed “most controversial judge in Vermont.”  Her topic?  Poverty—its causes, its costs, and the insidious way it can thread through a life, influencing everything from your decision-making to your storytelling.  And it’s a two-edged blade, because for all that poverty puts people at a disadvantage in so many ways, she says that it also prepares them to be more self-reliant, pragmatic, community-minded, and creative in their problem solving.
It was a fascinating take on the subject, and one that I never considered, looking at it from my privileged position.  People who have experienced poverty have a set of skills that I, with my middle-class background, will probably never be an expert at.
But we can’t underestimate the negative impact that poverty has on those who are living it, and even on those who lived it in the past and found their way out.  One of the most striking examples that Ms. Pease gave of the way life just doesn’t flow the same way for these folks is the simple chore of laundry.  For many of us, it’s as simple as throwing in a load and going about our day.
But imagine you’re a single parent of two kids, with no at-home washer-dryer, no car, and a Laundromat at least ten minutes away.  Now the process becomes a near-Herculean task—and you can’t just do the dishes, neaten the living room or (heaven forbid) relax with a book while you’re wrangling all those moving parts.
People in these circumstances experience the tasks that I take for granted in a very different way, and according to Ms. Pease, ordinary chores like this can take up to five times longer for people living in poverty.  Where is someone to find the time to attend classes, give their job search the attention it needs, or take a moment to read to their kids?
These luxuries are still possible—no one suggests otherwise—but they are undeniably more difficult to attain.
That’s why we should look on all our fellow community members not with tolerance—a well-meaning word that often disguises disdain or annoyance—but with acceptance.  Ms. Pease advised the librarians in attendance at her program that she doesn’t expect anyone to like every action someone takes, but we have to at least try to understand why they took that action.  That’s the doorway to acceptance, and through it, maybe some mutually beneficial dialogue.

What’s more, Ms. Pease spoke about the life of those in poverty as being like a fragile web--one that will fall to pieces if one thread gets tugged.  Transportation, employment, housing...any of these facets of life could bring the whole thing down.

Well, the library is another one of those threads.  We provide access to information for all, helping those in poverty apply for jobs, improve their skills, seek out services, and relax with a book, movie, or some music.  When library funding measures come up for a vote, it’s all too easy to dismiss it as a tax hike supporting a community luxury.  But we’re a very real, and very necessary thread in the lives of struggling community members.  And for pennies a year, we give every patron an excellent return on their investment.

Whether you think of us as a thread or a bridge, public libraries are helping people out of poverty every day, all around the country.
To learn more about aha! Process and Bridges out of Poverty, click here.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Blowing Off Some STEM

Am I the only one feeling a little tired of the obsessive focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) not just in our educational circles, but in American culture overall?
I know these things go in cycles, but I feel like this trend has been dominating the discourse since the Cold War, with only occasional, brief time-outs to swing the other way (or, more often, to provide political cover that essentially changes nothing).  And now the movement has this shiny “STEM” branding that makes us think it’s an original development, when really it’s just the same old.
Yes, of course science and math and engineering and all that are important.  No one would suggest otherwise.  Kids need instruction in and exposure to all appropriate subject areas.
But no one ever suggests that every kid needs to come out of high school a poet.  Why does it feel that, on the contrary, we’re being told that every kid has to come out of high school an engineer?
Newsflash: some—lots of—kids’ brains don’t work well in the STEM area.  Just as we’ve always acknowledged that they don’t all work well in the lit-n-arts area.
You may say it’s not an issue—that I’m bemoaning a conflict without belligerents.
But when, exactly, in the past hundred years, have the STEM subjects  been at risk of disappearing in favor of literature, grammar, foreign languages, and the arts?
It is these latter subjects that are under constant threat of being cut, defunded, excised, and generally overwhelmed by the “hard stuff.”  Sounds like a conflict to me.

And while I appreciate the burgeoning “STEAM” variant that shoe-horns an “A” for “arts” in there, it doesn’t quite cut it for me.  For those who are sincerely trying to push this alternative, it seems like their efforts are still somewhat ghettoized, while when more “venerable” and entrenched education organizations adopt it, it feels like lip service.  It’s hard to take STEAM seriously as a force when STEM is still entrenched in the way the government discusses education and even immigration policy.
It’s explicitly science and technology, after all, that are enjoying a surge in high-visibility promotional campaigns.  I can’t turn on the TV without being reminded that “we’re not popular...but we know how computers work,” meaning that all those brainless bullies “will work for us someday.”  Revenge of the nerds via STEM!  How charming.

Then there are the big gas companies partnering with media conglomerates to turn sports into an opportunity for on-the-fly scientific analysis that would make NASA blush.  (Just once I’d like to see a commercial featuring a high school football player reflecting on the ways his chosen sport reveal the hidden nature of the human condition in the clash of antagonistic forces... )   I guess there’s always a chance that some of the kids Chevron is trying to inculcate here might end up pioneering ways to fight climate change, but that’s probably not high on any curricula they’re interested in designing.

The Connect-a-Million-Minds project is based entirely on this premise that sports and STEM go together.  Maybe I spoke too soon about  that nerd revenge.  Now I’m starting to feel like efforts are underway to cleanse all geeks from America’s shores--replace the STEMmy ones with jocks, reducing every engineering problem to “how to get the ball through the goal,”  and just ignore and defund the artsy ones out of existence.

And thus a great American dream for which the red-blooded nation has been striving since the 1950s will finally be accomplished.

I’m exaggerating, of course.  A little.  The point is, STEM is deeply entrenched in the planning process of American education policy, with curricula shaped to its needs, big-time corporate conglomerates for sponsors, and a propaganda arm as wide and bristly as Stalin’s accursed mustache.  STEM will be here to stay, while the vestigial appendage of the arts continues to wither, one French program and lit magazine and photography club at a time.

So, as in so much else, it should be the librarian’s task to pick up the slack.  Let us not give in to the drumbeat of all-consuming STEM.  Let’s fill our libraries with books, materials, and marketing for all things literary and artistic.  And not just for the kids—for the adults, too…you know, those larger, slightly lumbering things we insist we want to aid with “lifelong learning”?  For that matter, lifelong learning need not be limited to computer training.  That is, obviously, just as important for adults as for kids, if not more so.  But what about creative writing?  What about pottery?  What about poetry?  What about dance?
All kidding aside, the kids—and adults—whose brains work in the STEM mode will be very important to the future of our society.  They will be the computer engineers, the architects, the urban planners, the doctors, and the mathematicians and scientists charting unheard-of new discoveries.
But where will we be if we neglect the kids (and adults!) whose talents and temperaments lie in the arts?  These are the people who will be making the world a beautiful place.  They will be the people helping us laugh in troubled times.  They will be, like Dickens and Steinbeck and Morrison before them, the cartographers charting the moral landscape of our society.
It may be hard to pin a future value to that.  But look around the stacks of your library and tell me you can’t estimate the value they’ve had every day up to now.  Tell me you don’t think we should be fostering those skills and talents and temperaments just as ferociously as the STEMmy kids’.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Because I'm Appy: The Four C's

This post first appeared in slightly altered form at

This week let's talk about the humble app, that newest, potentially most overwhelming of computer thingamajig.  My apologies to anyone who now has that Pharrell Williams song stuck in their heads!   What is an app, exactly?  Well, it’s short for “application”—as in “computer application.”  That just means it’s a computer program, like Microsoft Word.  The trendy, shortened version has come to apply mainly to programs you use on your mobile devices—phones, tablets, brain chip, etc.  (Just kidding about that last one. Or am I?)  Apps tend to be small in computer-space and extremely focused in use—they have very particular applications, you might even say.  (See what I did there?)

I recently attended a great webinar hosted by Nicole Hennig, a real expert in this emerging area of study, called “Apps for Librarians: Digital Literacy with Mobile Apps,” that described a lot of what she calls “core apps” and the ways librarians can use them to enhance services to their patrons.  She’s really knowledgeable and clear, and while I had long intended to discuss apps in this space, her presentation inspired me to organize it slightly differently.  I was going to just jump into some reviews of apps and why you should use them, but Ms. Hennig’s method of categorizing apps into four major types struck me as a better means of approaching this whole, vast topic.   So, how does she split up the world of apps?  She talks about apps for consuming, for curating, for creation and for collaboration.

Consuming apps are pretty straightforward.  They know that there is stuff out there to be read, watched, heard, and so on, and give you ways to do so.  They tend to gather that kind of material up and present it to you in easy-to-digest formats.  E-reading apps like the Kindle app would fall under this category, as would ‘magazine’ and ‘feed’ types like Feedly and Flipboard.

Apps for curation start to give the user a little more power.  In these apps, the content is still out there waiting to be consumed, but they allow you to collect, organize, and present it in your own way.  This can include big names like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, though there are a lot more out there.  You can also curate your own content with apps like Buffer, which allow you to schedule your social media posts throughout the day.  (Because you wouldn’t want your kids and grandkids to go a half an hour without an update from you, right?)

Creation apps—this is where things start to get really interesting.  These guys know that the Force is in you, Luke.  Whatever you want to create—prose, poetry, drawings, photography, even music and 3D models—there’s an app for that.  And it doesn’t matter if you’re a maestro or a rookie, because there are creative apps for every skill level.  Heck, some of the apps used by digital virtuosos are equally accessible to novices.  Some big names here are Adobe Ideas, Diptic, and the very cool music-making app, Thumb Jam.

Finally, we have collaboration apps, which bring it all together.  Whatever you may do on your own in the other three categories, there’s most likely an app that allows you to do it in a group.  Often they’re the very same apps.  (You’ll find that there’s a lot of overlap between these categories.)   Scribble on whiteboards with SyncSpace, share files with Dropbox, and play a game of multidimensional tag over Skype.  (No, I’m not sure exactly how that would work, but it would be fun to figure out.  Laser pointers?)

Ms. Hennig covered a lot of other interesting elements of the app revolution, but the other important one for all of you out there is the concept of content ecosystems—in other words, the idea that the things you create on apps can be synced up across all your devices, allowing you to travel freely between your phone, tablet, and computer(s) without losing anything.

It’s also worth mentioning that apps have incredibly positive implications for accessibility—a lot of them have features built-in to assist people in using them, and there are many that are designed precisely to help people better navigate the world.  There are apps that identify currency for the blind and that help disabled teens learn.  That sounds like a revolution worth supporting, right?

So that’s that for our first foray into the realm of apps.  Check back in the future when I dig into some specific reviews and recommendations. Thanks again to Nicole Hennig for her awesome presentation (you can check out more about her here).  There's a lot more to explore in our appy little realm!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Being a brief reflection on my first days as grown-up librarian

I’m about to start my third week as a professional public librarian.  It’s gone quickly and mostly well.  In the real world, it turns out, colleagues and patrons are as patient and good-natured as you might like them to be, but were secretly afraid they wouldn’t be.  People are basically decent--go figure!

Which isn’t to say things have gone completely smoothly.  People and institutions have their entrenched ways of doing things, and entering into these systems can feel bewildering and isolating.  I’ve found success by trying to adapt to the blanket methods that are in place at my new library--which mostly entails knowing what role each staff member fills, and dealing with them directly in those roles--while carving out my own methods in those areas that affect only me, or which I now find myself (unbelievably) in charge of.

That means I’ve set up my own little processes when it comes to my itty-bitty corners of the collection development budget and to planning my adult programming.  It’s really helpful that the library’s director (among others, but mainly her) is very open to change and has given me carte blanche to do what I want in a few areas.  That’s sort of intimidating!  But after ten days at work, it’s starting to feel like, yes, I actually can exert a little authority here and there.  It’s been really important to feel like I’m doing at least a couple of things “my way,” because otherwise I might find myself going a little nuts in a few months.

It’ll still take some getting used to.  There are three librarians here, of which I’m one, and we’re technically the heads of our departments and everyone else’s “superiors.”  In practice it won’t really work that way, which is more than fine--I’m happy to defer to anyone’s wisdom and experience, whether they have an “MLS” after their name or not.  (That’s a lesson a few young hotshots really should take to heart or risk an unhappy professional life.)  But I do have to remind myself to inhabit my “director” role as much as possible.

One evening I was going over some circ desk procedures with one of the clerks, who was actually the most recent hire before I got there.  She was telling me the policy for patron phone use.  “We’re usually not allowed to let anyone use the desk phone, but the librarians can make exceptions, so just ask one of them--oh!”  It wasn’t until she said it that she realized that I was one of those librarians who’s allowed to make exceptions.  No hard feelings, though--I didn’t realize it at first either!

I’ve had some great opportunities to meet a lot of active patrons and community members.  There seems to be a great crew that’s in the library all the time--the kind of funny, sweet, sometimes odd folks that make me wonder why there hasn’t been a successful library-based sitcom yet.  But I’m also fortunate to be coming to work at the start of the strategic planning process, and was drafted by the library director to take part in a series of community conversations intended to glean ideas and aspirations.  This has been a great way to meet a lot of active, opinionated  people who feel a stake in the library, but who might not be in the building every day.

If you don’t happen to be starting your job in time for an opportunity like that, I’d urge you to make other efforts to meet similar people in your community.  Find all the civic meetings in town and attend as many as you can--and speak up to introduce yourself.  People will be delighted to meet the new librarian.  Everyone here has been.

So I guess if I had to sum up the lessons of my first weeks on the job…

Defer to local practices, but carve out spaces for you to make your institutional mark.

Seek and use your colleagues’ experience, but don’t fail to inhabit your professional authority.

Get out there and introduce yourself to the community!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Solved: The Difference Between Liberals and Conservatives (Happy Midterms)

On this Election Tuesday, I think I’ve cracked the difference between Liberals and Conservatives.  Bear with me a minute here.  I'll get to the library connection at the end.

Conservatives are more comfortable—and more capable—of thinking in terms of the individual, and less capable of thinking in terms of aggregates of people, things, or phenomena, and liberals would be the opposite or inverse or whatever of that trend.  These traist can have positive and negative consequences, but generally I think the conservative bent toward almost militant individualism is harmful to society.  By this I don’t simply mean that conservatives are more selfish than liberals, but that is part of it.  Let’s look at how this works on a few policy issues.

On voting rights, both liberals and conservatives likely subscribe to the notion that “every vote counts.”  But, whether they realize it or not, they mean two very different things.  When a liberal says it, he knows that it is not strictly, literally true; we get that it takes lots and lots of individual votes, working together, to make a difference, but you still need to count each and every one of them to have any effect.  Conservatives, on the other hand, seem to believe, on some level, that it is literally true that every single vote counts.  That somehow one or two votes can decide national elections.  Thus their ravening for voter ID laws, the disenfranchisement of wide swathes of people in hopes of stopping a statistically negligible cadre of election fraudsters.  The cannier, wonkier conservatives know all about the numbers and statistics and the effects of disenfranchising minority voters and such, but for the average conservative, that’s all just kind of sound and fury; what matters is that one malefactor has been thwarted in his attempt to cheat the system, and thus, on the grounds of that “success” alone, democracy is saved.  And if it happens to ensure that more conservatives win elections, that just confirms that their way of thinking is right.  (Actual politicians exist in a grey area between the wonks and the voters, I think.  Intellectually, most of them understand, probably, the wonky reality; but in their actors’ hearts they have convinced themselves of the voter-in-a-tizzy sentiment, and sell it accordingly.)

The environment is another obvious realm where this dichotomy holds sway.  The liberal-minded has absolutely no problem reconciling everyday weather phenomena with the overwhelming evidence of a dangerously shifting climate.  But the conservative is incapable of making, or unwilling to make, that distinction.  Snow, to them, at any time and in any part of the world, is irrefutable evidence that climate change is a “hoax” or, at best, that “the science is not yet settled.”  They remain secure in their self-constructed womb that everything is as it should be, that no levees are bursting and that God put oil there for us to burn.  Again, there are layers to this.  Those at the top, working with a high level of information, can be perfectly intellectually aware of the real dangers posed by climate change, yet it is in their interest to serve the interests, in turn, of the corporations and systems that benefit from climate business-as-usual.  It then becomes their job to convince the public of the lack of danger and the need for the status quo.  And those down the food chain, to varying degrees, swallow the image of reality put forth by the worldview of the individual phenomena as trump card in the game of Truth or Fiction.

Then there are various –isms and –phobias, which, for this purpose, can be reduced to a single social phenomenon: name-calling.  (Obviously there’s a lot more to this issue than that, but the way we treat each other on the most basic level is pretty much where the rubber meets the road.)  To the conservative mind, a few catcalls, the occasional “sissy,” “queer” or “fag,” and even a sprinkling of well-intentioned “boy” or “macaca” never hurt anyone.  The people who take offense are no-fun wusses with paper-thin skin, and don’t blame me if they can’t take a little locker-room name-calling or an honest-to-goodness compliment!  That’s lizard brain thinking, though, folks.  Decades of (liberal-inspired) sociological research has shown the harmful impact of slurs and unwanted advances.  The conservative sees the individual with, as he would have it, unjustified bruised feelings that, unseemly as they are, at least have no apparent impact beyond the aggrieved party.  The liberal, on the other hand, sees thousands of youth suicides, radicalized minorities, rape and the fear of rape, and generally negatively-impacted psyches that lead to all kinds of suboptimum life results.

It seems that this trait makes it difficult for conservative folks to comprehend how an event that impacts one person can also deeply affect the rest of his or her community.  For example, some conservatives have blasted activism in Georgia around the Michael Ferguson killing as “playing the race card” and “importing a problem from another state.”  They don’t seem to get how communities can be rocked by what happens to just one member.  That’s the privilege of being upper-echelon, where no matter what happens to someone similar to you, your own position is secure; they don’t see that other groups are not so lucky—that things that happen to one member could easily ripple through to them, or be repeated on others if the conditions that caused the initial incident are not addressed.  (It should be noted that this doesn’t break down on strictly racial lines.  The Republican to whom the above negative sentiments toward the Georgia activism can be attributed is a black man—but a more insulated, more secure, and more conservative black man.)

It’s funny how far this extends.  As a liberal, I can recognize that my characterization here is very generalized and that there will be liberals whose attitudes resemble the way I characterize conservatives, and vice versa—but the aggregate effect is, I think, accurate.  Meanwhile, it's more likely that a conservative is incapable of seeing that nuance, and, if confronted with this argument (or others, like discussion of sexism and misogyny, homophobia, racism, etc.) would grow resentful and defensive—unable to separate the arguer’s statements on a system in aggregate with the way it reflects on the arguee individually.

We see it happen every day in political debates (“my opponent just had to play the race card,” “why do they flaunt their sexual lifestyle choice?”, “I’m not a misogynist—I love my wife and mother!”).  Maybe this understanding should lead liberals to approach some of their arguing in a different way—and I am certainly in favor of trying that in the social sphere, where strident pop sociology holds sway, where individuals’ personal outrage has been calcified into academically-anointed aphorisms and paeans that serve no purpose but to turn one’s interlocutor away in disgust—but I am loathe to give ground on this in the political and policy arenas, where there are so many objective truths that have an impact on our everyday lives today and into the future, and where change may be incremental, but nonetheless needs to happen in order to ensure our progress and survival as a society.

This is, to me, yet another reason why librarianship is essentially liberal and we must accept ourselves as such.  We are all about accuracy, and the concept of the individual-as-everything-you-need is just so false.  In order to be accurate, you must look at trends, statistics, repeated results.  And I feel like we do all that in libraryland—very liberally.   Similar to the example of “every vote counts,” we have a sense of “every reader counts,” “every book read counts”—but we look for the results of that reading in the aggregate: a more literate and informed society.  We’re a liberal profession, people, in underlying philosophy if not in everyday belief.   It is, however, my humble opinion that we should all be voting liberally.  Because conservatism is the philosophy that tends to think, “That one guy looked at anthrax on the computer; he’s a threat to all society!” and “This handful of books is amoral and should be banned, because if they reach just one person that’s too many!” and "Information is a commodity and should be priced as such!" and so on.

But guess what?  Even if a few librarians still vote Republican, I feel like it’ll all be okay—in the aggregate, we're fighting the good fights.

In any event, I hope you all voted today, and I hope you voted for Democrats.