Thursday, May 30, 2013

Breathless at the (Wide) Edge of Innovation

I’m noticing something odd as I dive into a new project assigned to me at the public library where I volunteer.  The director is having me digitize the library board’s meeting minutes with an eye toward composing a scintillating history of the institution to post on the website.  I dove in with some of the earliest type-written minutes available, which reach back to an admittedly only modestly-ancient 1979. (I kid, of course.)  

What I’m finding is that, in my education as a librarian, I’ve had things presented to me as if they’re bold new ideas--but many of the shiniest library school tropes seem to be, actually, time-tested common sense.

Just in the brief chrono-window I peered into, I find a board and staff preoccupied with “library as community center,” with attendant interest in multicultural and bilingual programming.  There was outreach to the Latino community, a program of ‘embedded librarianship’ at local rest homes, and a series of events focused on folklore, of all things.  (Interest in the folkloric underpinnings of our culture seems very un-80s to me, what with Thundercats and all.)

In the arena of “library as tech early-adopter,” I’m finding meticulously-kept tallies of videocassette circulation, and a board eager to procure a slide projector to loan to the public, since the local public school refuses.

There’s also a fair amount of excitement about the ‘minicomputer’ made available for public use through a loan from the library system headquarters, as well as certain forward-thinkers on the board demonstrating great zeal about purchasing a Commodore 64.  (In an early, if slightly misguided, iteration of crowdfunding, one board member put up $50 of his own money if the librarian could find others willing to match him.  He was matched by other board members in the course of that very meeting, and the Commodore 64 was on its way--I’ll have to see if it ever materialized.)

I even found evidence of a preoccupation with “library renovation” and “library greening.”  The board and staff made use of the professional community to acquire used shelving from a nearby library that had been upgraded; we can only hope the items acquired suited a need other than economy.  Meanwhile, the community in general came through to improve the children’s room, with the local Kiwanis club donating its money and manpower to re-carpet that section.  (The minutes note, dryly, that staff “put every book back on the shelf” to ensure proper order was maintained.  Some things are, of course, timeless.)

And environmental concerns didn’t stop with the Boy Scout who volunteered to accomplish the building’s landscaping one spring; there are actually several indications of staff attending professional development sessions on greening the library.  And this at the dawn of the Reagan Era!

Speaking of Reagan-era surprises, I found a page in the minutes called “Economic Impact Report 1980.” I was sure no one had bothered calculating this type of thing until the 2000s, at least!  The quaint sheaf (which offers no evidence that it was ever shared beyond the membership of the library board, for shame) states that “If the materials and services used by the public last year were ‘purchased’ by them, this is what the approximate cost would have been.” Rather more bluntly put than our PR gurus would advise today, but imagine the jarring impact of finding that sentiment inscribed in blocky Courier font on wafer-thin mimeograph paper! (For the record, this library saved its patrons an estimated $960,953.  Pretty hefty in a nation still getting over Jimmy Carter’s ‘malaise’ speech.)

Perhaps I shouldn’t be as surprised as I am to find these indications of contemporary-feeling thought on the part of librarian-types a generation or two removed, but my recent stint in library school had me primed to view all of these progressive movements as brand new.  Or maybe it’s a symptom of my own “Millennial” status--maybe we’re as self-centered as everyone wants to believe we are, thinking that nothing positive could ever have come from any other time and place.  But I could swear I’m not fabricating my memories of breathlessness in speech and print when I’ve brushed up on these types of subjects in sources dating back no earlier than 2010 or so.

Of course, there is a downside to realizing that these efforts have been in progress for decades.

Yes, most every library you walk into has transitioned to successful public computer technology lab--a testament to the field’s overriding character, I think, as the outriders of information access and provision.  Put another way, I don’t think we’ve progressed so much as we’ve continued to be comfortable in our role, and have adapted and expanded as technology has done the same.  Laudable, but not really earth-shaking news.

Less encouraging is progress on the green front.  We’re a long, long way from every library ballyhooing its carbon neutrality, from every librarian as paper-free as reasonable, from rooftop gardens on every building and rainwater cisterns in every nearby alleyway.  Perhaps the “let’s get green!” sentiment seems so new because it stalled out at some point and is only recently seeing a revival.  I hope that’s the case, anyway, or I’ll feel even more dismal about our prospects than I do. I’m hoping this catches the librarian community’s attention span, this time, as readily and permanently as e-readers have.

On a more local level--what happened to all that delightful multiculturalism at this particular library?  Well, I know what happened--it’s a struggle to keep up with the needs of a single constituency, much less the great variety that can be found in my community.  I regret that very much, and I suspect that multicultural community-building has fallen by the wayside at many more small libraries beyond my own.  There are segments of the population that are going terribly underserved, and I’m not sure how to address the problem.

But this glimpse into yesteryear gives me helpful insight; apparently a Polish-themed heritage film festival drew great crowds--now to figure out how to repeat that success with other populations.  And immensely popular (in 1980) American Sign Language “mini-courses” could certainly merit a cross-cultural revival.  There’s potential here.

Progress and inertia--an eternal dance.  Perhaps I should welcome the breathlessness that comes about when all things old become new again.  But I can’t help feeling like we should just let it be “normal.”  Nod and smile and carry on.  Celebrate progress when it takes hold.  But the act of setting it all up as arch-nouveau makes this progress seem somehow broadly unattainable.  It’s not--we’ve been cultural centers and tech labs and environmental boosters for decades now; let’s own that.  Save the cover of the next American Libraries for something truly new, and let us get back to work cementing these types of very worthy--and apparently venerable--initiatives.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Cutbacks on prime temporal real estate

I've been living it up in Miami and Miami Beach the past little whiles, having journeyed down here to visit my lovely and ever-patient boyfriend via Amtrak, stopping in NYC and DC along the way to see friends.  (10-ish days in south Florida adds up to a large chunk of the month with long train rides at either end.)  So, while there have been no posts here for a while, I wanted to send out a brief one lest my millions of loyal fans think this blog has gone the way of every other public writing outlet I have tried to establish over the years.

So, what I had initially wanted to write about was something positive--the first of my library critique photo essays, for which I have been gathering copious material over the past few months.  My aim is to demonstrate that every library, no matter how tiny or how specialized, has amazing things to offer the public. Sadly, I'm going to have to proactively harsh that mellow with this post, as I came upon a library situation the other day that rather frustrated me.

The public library branch in Coconut Grove--an affluent, tourist-drenched suburb of Miami along opulent coastline--was closed on Friday afternoon.  And the sign said it would be closed Sunday as well.

It upsets me that libraries find themselves having to close twice a week due to economic conditions.  I can understand one day a week, but two is an awful lot and I hope it's only because of the economy that this, and other libraries in other communities, are closed that often.  (Given my druthers, funding and staffing would be at adequate levels to open every library seven days a week without overworking anybody, but that's just me.)

What really bothers me, though, is the choice this library has made, or has had thrust upon it, of which days to be closed.  The weekend is prime time for library visits, circulation, and programming, yet here two thirds of the weekend are out of commission.  I can't help thinking that this isn't too much of a bother for the wealthy Floridians spending the summer in nearby gated communities such as the Cloisters (and how many of them do you think even use the library except for occasional ivory tower descents to check out genealogical info or have their new tablets explained to them?).  However, not much farther up the road is a much more economically distressed part of the area that would probably benefit from having a library open when they're not at work and when their kids are not in school--and Saturday alone just doesn't cut it for me.

So, failburgers all around, I say.  Not to pass too harsh judgment on this branch and its system, since I don't know what led to their decision to close those days--maybe they even determined that those days work for some reason--but it brings to mind the many hundreds of libraries making tough cutbacks in hours.

I'm curious--if your library (either where you work or where you visit) had to be closed two days a week, which do you feel would be optimum to avoid impacting access as much as possible?  Or would you get creative? Me, I'd opt to close down altogether on Wednesdays, then shave hours from the early mornings and/or late evenings to make up the second day, which is what I think the library I volunteer at did.  (The hour-shaving, not the Wednesday closing.)  

However you shave it, losing out on prime temporal real estate does not seem like the best answer.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Why 'Librarianism'?

Well, you all made it through my first couple of blog posts, so your reward is a much shorter one!  I’d like to cover something that should have been the subject of my first post, but it kind of took second place to addressing the situation in Boston that week.  Nevertheless, I will tackle it now--why did I name my blog ‘Librarianism’?

There are a couple other blogs with the name out there, thus my inclusion of the word ‘viva’ in the url.  My apologies to those who have gone before, but I figured my way was clear, as those blogs seemed inactive, and their use of the word ‘librarianism’ didn’t seem to have any especial political bearing on their content in the way it does on mine.

I have an idealistic notion of the place of ‘-ism’ in our world.  It gets a lot of guff, mainly from its association with a certain Red Menace of yesteryear, whose influence I theorize has colored certain folks’ perception of anything ending in those three letters ever since, no matter how benign.  Or, if not exactly benign, then no matter how positively if uncomfortably transformative.

To me, the main purpose of the ‘-ism’ appendage is to transform an identity into a movement.  The ‘-ism’ makes a statement that there is a body of goals and characteristics--not necessarily shared by every member of the group, but which every member can point to and agree makes up the tapestry of a collective identity they all share, an identity that is bigger than stereotype and misconception, an identity that is worth making known.

And so it is with librarians.  We are legion, and we are varied, but we almost invariably share certain common goals and values.  Those are well known to most of my audience, and for others, I’ll be getting into some of them in the future.  For now, suffice it to say that to turn ‘librarian’ into ‘librarianism’ is to turn those values, all too often idle in the midst of day-to-day library management and customer service, into action.

(I should mention that I don’t presume to be one of a few librarians leading active, value-driven careers.  There are many who live according to their versions of my idealized actionable librarian values, and have done so since long before I was born.  My only presumption is to throw my hat in the ring with them, and offer my particular views on the action in that ring.)

I would consider myself on the radical edge of the librarianist tapestry.  I’m still figuring out what that means.  There’s the intellectual freedom angle, there’s the LGBTQ service and access angle, there’s the inclusion of non-traditional materials angle, and so on--but those are hardly unique to me, or even at all remarkable among librarians.  Even my desire to confront the conventional wisdom of the profession, to shake up the foundations of our training--these are not really radical among my peers, in that they seem to be widely accepted concerns in the community, if to different degrees from librarian to librarian.

I can sum up my radicalism, I think--such as it is--in my assertion of what ‘service’ really means.  Service to our patrons and our communities, I believe, entails more than simply serving what they like and what they ‘need’ in a sort of subsistence fashion, but to look deeper, to push their boundaries, to see what is coming next; and then presenting it, advocating for it, and making our communities uncomfortable until they adapt.  I think you can see the trouble with that philosophy, compared to the library’s ‘traditional role,’ dictated as it is in part by the community’s approbation (and funding).  I stand by it, though.  We’ll talk.

But that is something I intend to get into in much greater depth down the line.  Sooner, I will treat you all to the instance of librarian-on-librarian intellectual aggression that actually compelled me to start this blog.  And after that, we can get into that time (yesterday) when I got into a fight with a more senior librarian about her deceased cat.  Not really.  But kind of.  And there’s a lesson in every tale!

But first, a library photo essay.  Look for that next week, if I find time during my trip to Miami Beach.  Have a good time in the meanwhile!  Mix it up and make it squirrely!

(Feel free to help me out with my sign-off.)