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’.