Sunday, July 28, 2013

Opening Up a Can of Libraries on All the World's Problems

I’ve been thinking a lot about the world’s big problems lately.  Fracking poisoning our water supply, pesticide cocktails killing off the bees, climate change, privacy and the government’s reach (and the public’s inability to adequately gauge appropriate levels of either)--it’s all so overwhelming.  I believe that staying informed and voicing our opinions on these issues can help, but it’s a minor kind of help at best, a lot of the time.

So I like to go looking for domains in which the efforts of the little people can have outsized positive consequences. Luckily, my own lovely librarianship is one where small-scale and grassroots efforts are doing incredible things for communities, the country and the world by bridging access gaps, addressing special needs, promoting literacy and so much more.  Here are just a few of my favorite examples of such efforts--I hope they brighten your occasional gloomy outlook!

  • The Volunteer Librarian Brigade: This radical, grassroots effort based in New York City brings the ‘roving librarian’ concept to a whole new, and necessary, level.  It doesn’t occur to many people out on the street to go to a library to get help, so these folks bring the library to the streets.  Professional librarians train volunteers in the basics of reference and research work, then they all head out to make a difference.  If you’re in the New York area, consider joining up!
  • Librarians Build Communities: In the same wheelhouse, this is a web-based service pairing librarians (and their skills) with communities and organizations in need.  It’s another kind of roving, this time focused on the things librarians do that are not necessarily book-oriented.  Why haven’t we been doing this for decades?
  • The Internet Public Library: Another go-where-they-are entry, this website brings reference services to the masses over the non-threatening medium of the Internet--and as a bonus, it provides real-world experience for LIS students, which is always great (and somewhat rare!).  Search their site or submit a query, and dedicated (or dictated) volunteers will soon have a detailed answer for you.  It’s hosted by Drexel University’s College of Information Science and Technology, so you can trust their quality-control to have some cred.
  • Little Free Library: As far as i’m concerned, this one is almost venerable at this point--not because of age, but because of the impact it’s made during its existence.  So simple, so good.  The mini libraries built with the support of the folks running this show are cute, artsy, and/or surreal in form, and they’re popping up all over--taking ‘take a book, leave a book’ up a level or twelve.
  • ALA Think Tank: Social media drives this community that underscores the quirky, funny, and unabashedly rough-hewn side of librarianship.  This group is an incubator for great ideas and great librarians.
  • LibraryReads: This is a brand-new book recommendation initiative.  It’s extremely open--any employed public librarian will be able to contribute recommendations and reviews once the service launches in the fall.  Sure, it’s a major undertaking with a snazzy website and everything, but by its nature this kind of reader’s advisory has a very personal touch.  And of course, pulling book recommendation out of the hands of the publishers’ echo chamber and the rarefied ivory tower of the critics can only be a good thing for readers!
  • Libraries Changed My Life tumblr: A great public outreach tool.  What better way to pump up the public than by asking them to share their own beautiful bibliotecky memories?  The posts so far are funny, sweet and throat-lump inducing.  And it’s a tumblr blog, which is just so full of win right now, to use the argot of the day.
  • Queer For Books: An individual effort that fills a serious gap, this evolved from an LIS student project into what is, in my ever so highly qualified opinion, the go-to resource for LGBTQ resources and knowledge for the information professional.  LGBTQ patrons tend to languish on the underserved side of public institutions, due to the population’s innate tendency toward invisibility and a lack of awareness of those knowledge gaps on the part of non-LGBTQ professionals.  This fills those gaps most admirably for librarians.  Big kudos to my web-friend Sami Gardner for building this.  If my readers do nothing else with my blog, please put this site in your toolbox!
  • The librarian who banned a book: I love this guy and what he did and why he did it.  He made a stir over what is often an ossified  issue that is often condemned by rote, or worse, ignored entirely.  Of course we all mostly oppose book banning, but until it happens in our community, we are rarely moved to agitate for the right of freedom of expression and inquiry.  If that sounds gloomy for this hope-oriented post, take a page from DiMarco and...ban a book at your library?  Never thought I’d be saying that...
  • Librarians LOUD: Okay, so this might be a little bit of tooting my own horn. I was part of a group of library students at the University at Buffalo who staged this three-day event last year, which included a game-filled festival, lively panels, an information booth, visible read-outs around campus, and a rally outside the university president’s office building.  The goal?  To raise awareness that we exist, that we have voices, that yes, you need a  master’s degree to be a librarian.  We hoped to get students and faculty talking about those noisy, kooky kids with the silly signs out on the pavement--and we succeeded.  Now we’re planning Librarians LOUD 2--Louder and Librarian-er! (That’s not what we’re calling it.)  This year, we’re hoping to get other schools and libraries involved, too.  Wanna be loud with us?  Email me at!

The point of all of these examples is that everything librarians touch turns to gold.  Okay, maybe not gold, but we do a lot of things to make a lot of things better--our patrons’ lives, their communities, and our own profession.  Radical, individual, and/or grassroots expressions of the knowledge, power and importance of librarianship help move society forward.

That makes me feel better.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Foster the Best Impulses

I visited friends over the weekend in Ithaca; one of them is staying there to work for the summer, and it was the first geographic opportunity for four of us, friends since high school, to all get together in the same place at the same time in many years.  It was a wonderful reunion, but I won’t get into all the boy-watching debauchery here.

The three of us who were left on Saturday found ourselves armed with a set of ridiculous photo-booth pictures and decided we had to arts-and-crafts them into commemorative picture frames.  Cue the trip to the pharmacy to make copies and to Bed, Bath & Beyond to tiredly heckle a sweet assistant manager named Isaac (we love you, Isaac) and buy matching frames, followed by a frantic slice and dice until we had three charming keepsakes for our walls.

One of my friends mentioned that if we hadn’t all been together to put this together, it would likely have stayed on her to-do pile for months, if not forever.  The rest of us agreed.  It didn’t matter whether we had all the supplies and the best will in the world; it would get pushed off, superseded, a folder in the good intentions file.

But together, we had the positive pressure of community, the immediacy provided by shared experience, to spur us to complete our task.  I use the word ‘task,’ but it’s a pleasure--the first thing many of us decide is not important enough to take up space in our busy lives--and a pleasure heightened by working on it together.

Libraries can provide that community and that immediacy, spurring patrons to get down to brass tacks on those feel-good projects right away.  Whether the library budget can sustain the collection of art supplies or participants have to bring their own, there is no price for those primary, invaluable  commodities.  

Market your library as the place for get-togethers of all types to end up.  It could be a small reunion like the one I had this weekend, or it could be the bachelorette party, the retirement gala, the high school reunion.  Instead of leaving the commemoration or memorializing to one person or a committee, let it be the capstone of the group fun.  Leverage the sense of community and immediacy into a way to keep your community’s to do lists uncluttered and happy!

And provide that feeling for those who aren’t part of some big group or formal event.  Set a table aside for patrons to gather and foster a feeling of community even among strangers.  These resources, these ineffable feelings that occasionally drive us, need not be rigidly situational.  Libraries are the perfect place to set up the conditions for the community to thrive creatively, so foster those impulses while they’re hot and stoke them when they’re cool!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

There's too much sad and discouraging news today to do a blog post--including people's reactions to some of that sad and discouraging news.

I'm off on a little trip this week, but I'll try to find time to post something more substantial at some point.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

It's a Point of Contact: The Importance of ALA Annual

Looking forward to ALA, I thought I would have a ton to say about it on my blog.  And I do--I just don’t want to provide a pointless rehash of the sessions I attended and vague descriptions of the people I met.  I have to keep my audience in mind--a habit I am striving for--and that means providing entertaining relevance.  And maybe a little ranting.  


I suppose that general impressions of such a major event  are not to be despised, since I’m a first time attendee and a major conference is always quite the bouleversement.  But I don’t want eyes to glaze at this, of all times.  Because if there was ever a time for you to be excited about the fact that I’m a librarian, it’s now.

ALA taught me that I’m going to take my MLS and smash everything.  Based solely on the sessions that I attended, I am going to integrate immigrants into my community, rescue homeless LGBTQ teens, turn 20-somethings’ library ‘mehs’ into ‘MMMMs!’, and transmit the love of truth and justice down through the generations in delicious four-color funnybook format.  I’m going to schmooze charmingly, make great professional friends, speak French as if I’ve been doing it every day, and stare Cory Doctorow right in the mean mean FACE every freaking day!

I sound like I’m joking.  I’m not.  As far as ALA would have me believe, I am capable of all these things.  ALA took one set of PLA jumper cables, set me in a puddle of LGBT Roundtable, and turned on the overly-loud-and-earnest Brandon Sanderson juice.  And I met Gene Luen Yang!  ALA completed my life.

I know this euphoria will wear off, but I think that periodic jolts of this energy will keep me flying through my career.  I want to live up to the expectation those librarians, newbie and veteran, up on the stages and panels lit in me.  It doesn’t even look that hard to BE them!  I can do that!  I can talk for 15 minutes about Librarians LOUD!  I can!

Look, I had an amazing time.  I need to thank my three great library-buddies, Esther Jackson, Natalie Bennett and Bryan Sajecki.  I wouldn’t have even been able to go if they hadn’t invited me to tag along with them.  The car ride was hilarious.  Our shared hostel room was chill.  Wandering around Lincoln Park was lovely.  And knowing, even when we split up to go to the various sessions that interested each of us, that we’d be reuniting in a few hours to chatter about what we learned and who we saw and how dumb some things were and what we wanted for dinner...well, that took the whole thing beyond level of ‘professional development.’  Thank you for sharing it all with me.

I also really have to say that it’s not as overwhelming as everyone makes it out to be, this big conference.  Maybe it’s just me and my experience with comic-cons and weekends at Times Square, but the people-crush stress actually struck me as rather mild--moderate at most.  If I can offer any tips to feel merely whelmed: familiarize yourself with the layout of the venue; be aware of where you’re going and when you have to be there; and remain flexible to avoid stress if things don’t work out as you planned.  Sometimes it’s good to deviate from the schedule if opportunities to network or schmooze come up.

In fact, I only got stressed out on the occasions when I was forced to deviate from my schedule against my will due to transit issues, and this brings me to my major gripe with ALA as an organization: they seem not to have given any serious consideration to the needs of lower-income attendees such as little old moi.  My main evidence is the utter lack of transit support for anyone who might have chosen to stay outside of the handful of high-priced hotels ALA recommended for our use.  My friends and I chose to trade off proximity for the economic benefit of staying in an affordable hostel in the Lincoln Park area, only to find it very difficult to navigate to the conference on the first morning we tried; even after we had it all figured out, the trip took about an hour, and we were spending significant amounts of mental energy trying to piece together alternate routes that might cut the commute down.  

Look, I know you can’t provide every attendee with curbside limo service at a thing like this.  But some nod in our general direction would have been appreciated--like a warning among the first-timer material that the commute from outside the immediate city core will take an inordinate amount of time, or an insert among the other transportation materials about the closure of a key metro station along the way.  (That would have saved us one mega venue-overshoot, but to be fair, I guess, the city of Chicago didn’t do a great job making that clear either.)  And would it be that onerous an undertaking to poll prospective attendees on their intended accommodations and say, “Gee, if these guys are choosing to stay somewhere that cheap, maybe we should spare them a little time and money by providing a shuttle to that area”?  Perhaps more attendees would then choose to stay in the littler, cooler neighborhoods of a given city, better spreading the librarian love around our conference site.  (Every bartender and drunk bystander we informed of our profession was endlessly fascinated.  I quite enjoy the “You need a master’s degree for that?!” conversation.)

It wasn’t so bad, in the end, and I love public transit, but I’m just kind of offended that our economic bracket was so low on the list of concerns.

If at all possible, go with friends.  Look up buddies from your LIS program if you’re not particularly close to current co-workers.  Yeah, it helps keep costs down, but that’s the smallest part of it.  My friends and I had such a wonderful time; we built in-jokes, proudly represented our field, fed off each other’s excitement from good sessions and relieved each other’s boredom from bad ones...I’ve already covered this territory, but it bore repeating.  Don’t go alone!

Now, besides recounting my trials and triumphs at this year’s conference, I would like to talk about the importance of ALA.  I’m very aware that what I’m about to write is pretty touchy-feely, maybe naive, and definitely pro-status quo.  There are lots of things wrong with ALA, and groups like ALA Think Tank on Facebook do a good job of articulating them and providing alternate voices, a chorus of which I hope to be a part; but I also happen to think that the annual conference is where the best of ALA comes out.

So...what is the best of ALA, its importance?  What does it reach beyond its bureaucracy and occasionally out-of-touch policies?  The excitement, the ideas, the sharing, the opportunities for expression. It’s a point of contact, where librarians of all shapes and sizes bump up against each other and where intellectual osmosis works its wonders.  It’s the availability of easily copycatted ideas, because when it comes to making our libraries work, there’s no such thing as plagiarism--or at least we’re all more willing to cite our sources than the average high school paper-writer.

It’s a point of contact, again.  The engaging that members of our profession do with another city each year, making a positive impression on a population--the engaging of the profession as a body with a city as a being.  Actually I would like to see this done more self-consciously in future.  Let’s paint Las Vegas librarian.  I don’t want a single gambler to be unaware of what’s going on around their slot machines next June.

Jiff--the world's most photogenic dog!

It’s a point of contact, for small photogenic dogs and brash cynical hipster chicks and a forlorn representative of the National Library of Qatar and a transitioning MTF teen and blue-collar Muzzy executives and a self-published Beowulf comic creator and OA aficionados and Snowden apologists and an interactive robot and and and and and...

ALA, I hope to join you in painting Las Vegas librarian next year.

Lincoln Park, you've been painted librarian.