Beyond the Book Brand

As books evolve, so must libraries.  As information needs change, so must we.  Thus begins another chapter in As the Library Turns.

Books are intrinsically linked with libraries, in the minds of our patrons.  As much as I hate the whole concept of branding, I have to admit it perfectly describes our situation.  Books are our brand.

We must expand the brand.  You probably know that.   For a recent reason, check out the article published a few days ago in Forbes that was written by a man who thinks the Amazon unlimited subscription is a good replacement for libraries.

Librarians-The-Ultimate-Search-HSL_i_H11109

Some librarians are pushing to substitute the concept of “Information” in to replace books.  This is the kind of thinking that gives us “Librarians: The Ultimate Search Engine” and “Librarians: Better than Bing, but not Quite as Good as Google,” etc., etc.

Information sucks as a brand.

Maybe one reason why librarians like “Information” as a brand so much is because librarians really like information.  It fills us with secret glee.  But folks, friends, comrades, this is not normal. Loving information is a trait that is much more common amongst librarians than it is in the general population.

In Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World, Gary Vaynerchuck writes,

Information is cheap and plentiful; information wrapped in a story, however, is special.  Brands need to storytell around their content to make it enticing, not just put it out for passive consumption like a boring platter of cubed cheese. (p.86)

Books don’t just tell a story, they have a story.  They are a story.  Books inspire deep emotional connections.  They are tangible things, things we can touch, smell and taste (maybe not that that last one with the library books though ok?).  Books inspire deep love and nostalgia; in the eBook versus print discussion, the print side inevitably ends the discussion by sighing and saying, “there’s just no substitute for a real book.”

But even eBooks are more compelling than “Information”.  “Information” is vague.  It is not something you can viscerally enjoy.  Possible connotations include the informational talk your doctor gives you when your cholesterol is too high, Excel spreadsheets filled with meaningless data, and those annoying passive-aggressive emails your co-worker sends that end “Just FYI.”

I don’t know what the new library brand is.  I don’t think we will know until something has stuck, decades in the future.

Another new brand option is the place for the community to meet, the library as “third place.”  I don’t think that’s quite right either.

I think the new library brand will look something more like literacy.  And not just “I can read” literacy, but life literacy – digital skills, financial skills, engaged-with-the-world skills.

Literacy is engaging.  It is action oriented.  It is attainable by everyone.  It is improving skills and changing in a changing world.  That’s the library I’m interested in.

It’s the library where people’s stories become our story.

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The Semiotics of Organizing

Librarian confessions time: we like to organize things.

When you’re in the biz, occasionally a colleague will sidle up to you and whisper, “This weekend I alphabetized my spice cabinet.”  Then you’ll both sort of sigh contentedly at the idea of such domestic order.  It’s not just spices either. You might hear, “Last night I organized my spoons by degree of roundness” or  “My towels are now in thread count order.” It seems to run in the family too.  The proudest moment in the life of a librarian parent might be the day they walk in on their child pulling books off the shelf…and then putting them back, in subject groupings.

Although I was a messy child, I grew to love a well-ordered house.  I think it’s because my husband and I have spent most of our life together in tiny spaces, from our first two years sharing a single room, followed by five years in a studio apartment, then six in a one bedroom.  When you have very little space, order is a necessity.  This is where my love of organization was born, from the need to fit in comfortably.

Somewhere in the last six months though, I stopped feeling the need to have my spray cleaners lined up by height.  My books aren’t even in any particular order (other than the basic non-fiction/fiction separation of course).  Nowadays, I only organize things for money.

In my mind I draw parallel between the work my sister does, as a professional actor, and the work I do. When you start out in acting, you work for free all the time.  You’re building your skills and your reputation, your “chops.”  Then you start to get recognition, and courtesy money.  You get paid for acting – not enough to live on surely, but enough to call yourself a professional.  You get paid a little more, and then a little more, and maybe you find a side job teaching acting, and then finally it’s your living, and you only do it for free if it’s a really good cause.

It’s such silly conversation to have with yourself, but it’s a common one:  Am I a librarian now?  Does reluctance toward amateur organizing mean I am finally a professional?  Or is it merely the fact that we moved, and have a bit more space, and oh yeah, I’m working a lot and busy. Maybe that’s the true sign of a professional librarian.

organized neatly

PS Librarians, have you seen Things Organized Neatly?  I know many who find it very soothing.

Programifesto

I kind of hate that whole “program in a box” thing.

It’s the death of creativity, right?  It’s an industrialized, one-size-fits-all librarianship. It’s that standardized bureaucracy that is killing our ability to be supple and responsive.  It’s programming fast food.  Here is your Big Mac storytime ma’am, made just like every other storytime in the system.

Here’s another niggling peeve: the library is not a theater, even though some librarians seem to think that their programming should consist of paying performers to come give a show.

Programming is the opportunity for the librarian to creatively engage patrons.  Programming allows us to create a stronger bond between our community and the library, both by providing an interactive library experience for patrons and by bringing community members in to share their passions.  We program for our communities, in response to our communities, and in partnership with our communities.

Originality is required.

Library programming helps us to create new stakeholders.  Inviting the community in to work with us creates a sense of ownership in the library.  Once someone, or some group, has attended or presented a library program (as long as it has been a positive experience) they will more actively and vocally support libraries. Programs can identify new user groups, as innovative programs may attract people who do not otherwise use library resources.

Care, attention, and weight should be given to program presenters and attendees.

Library programming gives us the opportunity to share the kind of information that is not well-recorded.  Take for example, gardening. While broader guidelines for when to plant and how to cultivate have been published, gardeners adapt to local soil conditions and microclimates.  They learn through experience what works.  This information is best shared person-to-person.

Programs allow libraries to share more kinds of information.

box

 

Sorting Patrons

The public library tries to be all things to all people (every reader his book; every book it’s reader)

Bobbi Newman wrote this interesting piece in which she talks about how certain people may support libraries, but they will never use them, no matter how many tempting programs or resources we dangle.

I agree with her, based on my personal experience. I know lots of people who *loooooove libraries* but have’t set foot in one since childhood. Do we really need to expend precious resources to try to get them in the door?

Newman suggests that we focus more on community support for the library, rather percentage of community with library cards. She says that we would be better off accepting that “some people don’t use the library for one reason or another.” 

Here’s the conundrum though, how do we sort the people who don’t use libraries because they just don’t want to, from the people who don’t use libraries because they’ve been turned off somehow (or because they don’t know we have what they want)?

It *is* impossible to be all things to all people. Trying is an exercise in futility and failure.

But then, at what point do we find someone unserveable?  What criteria do we use?

Accepting that we can’t serve everyone threatens the fundamentally democratic nature of libraries. When people become unserveable, we exclude them from what should be the most inclusive of communities.  Libraries are for everyone, even if everyone is not for libraries.

But this is an ideal, and given our limited resources, we need to exercise pragmatism.  Right?

sorting mail

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Shush

At my library, the patrons are often more protective of quiet than we librarians are.  There is one woman who seems particularly bothered by even the quietest of conversations.  She will frequently come up to me to ask, “Is talking allowed in this library?”  or “Are cell phones allowed in this library?”  Each time I tell her, “Yes, quiet conversations are allowed in the library” and point out our two silent rooms, where talking is not allowed.

Modern librarians are often reluctant shushers.  We want people to think we’re fun.  We want libraries to be vibrant, energy-filled buildings.  We hope to shake off the dusty book mausoleum image and usher ourselves into the 21st century as more of a party institution.  And most importantly maybe, we want the people who have not felt welcomed by the sternly guarded quiet of yesteryear to COME TO THE LIBRARY.

But many of our hardcore patrons want hallowed silence.  They want to consume their dusty books in uninterrupted peace.  They are studying, or concentrating, or contemplative, or sometimes just generally mysanthropic.

This conflict reminds me of what I’ve read about the silent cars on the New York/New Jersey train.  The piece I’m thinking of was in the New Yorker a few years ago, but that’s behind a paywall. Here’s some discussion of them in the New York Times. 

My library is lucky enough to have not one but two quiet rooms (one with screens, one without).  We have an accommodation we can point out to these folks. Sometimes though, this still is not enough.  They want to use a library computer, for example, or the quiet room is full, or they are just offended by the notion that there is a sound or a cell phone in the library.

So what do you do to resolve these conflicts? An invitation to the world?  Ask them to suck it up?  Silence the offenders?

This is kind of a key image issue.  There has recently been a lot of talk about What Librarians Look Like, but maybe a more important question for our users is “What do libraries sound like?”  How do we create a new image, and a new reality, which is friendly and inviting, which welcomes noise and participation, but which respects the needs of our silence-loving power users?

The Quiet Place

Master Classes in Customer Service

I just finished a gig working for the illustrious Gay Ducey, who, in addition to being a highly acclaimed storyteller, manages a small branch library.  Ducey has what I consider to be the perfect background for a public librarian; she is from the South, she has a background in theater and storytelling, and she was a social worker for a little while, before moving to libraries.

When people come into the branch, Ducey will often lean her elbows on the counter and say, “How you doin’?” in that particular way Southern women have of opening a conversation.  And here’s the thing, she’s interested in the response.  She’s attentive to stories of ailments, triumphs, grandbabies, and heartfelt philosophical treatises.  And she’ll remember this person, and their conversation, the next time they come in.  Ducey knows the names of all the regulars.  Not because she’s got a particular knack for names, but because she makes it a point to learn them.

To grow a library community, you must cultivate people.  You must get to know your patrons.  In library school, we learned about environmental scans, and patron surveys.  These tools are useful.  If you want to get to know your community, the numbers help.

But when Gay Ducey wants to know what books to purchase for her patrons, she asks them.

That personal touch is worth any number of reports.  This interaction is what’s really driving the library

Welcome HOme

Librarian is never an entry level position

Sometimes I hear people getting annoyed about “entry-level” librarian job postings that ask for experience.

And I get it. Entry-level jobs are by definition jobs that don’t require experience.   

But here’s the thing, librarian positions just aren’t entry-level.  The niche of the librarian in the library shouldn’t be filled by a greenie who’s done nothing but go to school.  School can teach some of the skills you need to be a librarian, but not all of them.

I am a non-supervising librarian in a public library.  Nevertheless, I get asked for direction all the time.  When other staff have questions, they often ask me.  Sometimes these are fairly simple librarian problems, for example a spine label that is a little strange.  But frequently they bring me customer service judgement calls, such as “I think I saw a patron with a big bag of weed, what should we do?” or “Can I make an exception and let this guy into the library with his bike?”  These kinds of questions require not just library schooling, but experience.  

Experience builds common sense, street smarts, and the confidence that’s required to authoritatively answer these kinds of things.  Library school provides a theoretical foundation, an underlying direction behind decisions.  But it doesn’t help you look a patron in the eye and say, “You do know we don’t allow snacking in the library, right?”   

The traditional structure of libraries, rightly or wrongly, gives rank and authority to librarians.  It has put me in a position where I have more authority than a library assistant who’s got over a decade of experience.  It means that if there’s an incident when I close, I stay behind to talk to the police.  It means when the men’s toilet overflows on a Sunday, I get to decide if we lock up the whole bathroom.  

You need to have experience to make these decisions.  Without it, you can’t properly assess the potential fallout, or the far ranging effects. Without experience, you won’t know when to say “I’m right about this” and when to ask for advice from that library assistant who’s been here for over a decade, or the page, or the security guard.  Librarians must have both a solid foundation in customer service, and working knowledge of library dynamics.

This particular combination of self-confidence and on-the-ground understanding is only built through hands-on practice.

It’s not a bad thing that there are no entry-level librarian positions.  It’s good.  It means that we’re getting librarians with the skills needed to do their jobs properly.  It means we’re getting librarians who can make better libraries, for customers and for staff.

Librarians must have both a solid foundation in customer service, and working knowledge of library dynamics.

*This is all from my public librarian perspective of course.  For all I know, there are tons of entry-level academic jobs. All academic librarians do is put their feet up and read journal articles, right?

The Authority of Experts

I’m building a staff photo board at work. In addition to a photo, I asked people to tell me their name, title, and what they were an “expert” in. I specified that they could be expert at anything, work-related or not work-related, giving the examples “cheese” and “being able to find ‘missing’ books.” Many people have been reticent to name their “expertise.” People seem worried that doing so might be conceited, or that others will try to test them. And interestingly, two staff members, both higher level managers, said that they felt that they were more a “jack of all trades, master of none.”

At my old job, I asked this question to two other groups – museum educators, and museum docents. Neither of these groups expressed the same reluctance to name their areas of expertise. Of course, medium may have something to do with it, at the museum, they answered verbally, whereas at my library, we are writing down their answers. Spoken claims don’t carry as much weight as written ones. But I also think that it may have something to do with the library environment.

Expertise and authority are key concepts in libraries. Librarians’ responsibilities often include helping patrons learn to evaluate someone’s credentials, to find the difference between well-supported arguments and wild claims. In school and college libraries, this might manifest as information literacy instruction, while in public libraries this is more likely to take the form of telling patrons, “no, don’t give that website your bank details so you can get free money, it’s a scam.” These are both excellent services that really help patrons. Encouraging independent thought and healthy skepticism is the positive manifestation of the weight we place on expertise and authority.

But these concepts also work to stifle staff and inhibit positive change in our service models. This idea of the sacred coupling of expertise and authority results in policies that seem only to guard the gravitas of the reference librarian – policies that state circulation staff can’t place holds, for example, or that pages can’t direct a patron in the stacks to the book that they are looking for. While it is true that reference librarians are trained to look for and address unstated information needs, there is no reason that they must personally examine every query for them. There is no reason that pages and circ staff can’t be trained to perform these tasks, and to know when to say to a patron “I need help helping you.”

Reference librarians are experts at deciphering and meeting information needs. But being an “expert” doesn’t preclude asking for help in this task, in fact, it absolutely requires the patron’s assistance. I was once asked by a patron, “Where are the Atlas Maps?” I replied, “Are you just looking for atlases, or is there a specific publisher, ‘Atlas Maps’”? “Oh, you don’t know!” She replied disgustedly, and stomped off. And working with other librarians can mean the difference between a swift and accurate answer, and a long bout of research. I have a coworker who is excellent at Reader’s Advisory, another who is an ace technology troubleshooter, another who knows exactly what is in our local history center, etc. etc. You better believe I consult with them as needed.

Being an expert doesn’t always mean being an authority. The reason I asked the question “What are you expert in?” for our staff photo board is because I hoped it would provide new topics for person-to-person information sharing. Unfortunately I mostly succeeded in turning people off. We’re stuck in the idea that an expert has to objectively be an authority. The truth of the matter is, expertise is often relative, and one can be an expert and still be humble.

Poultry Club Boys Listen to the Expert

Talking to the Library Board

For some reason, I have a real thing for, well, this kind of thing:

The library asks a question, and tries to get people to write and post their answers.

Here are some of the ones I’ve done:

Books and Robots

books v tech

We’re currently asking a question based on the theme of Silicon Valley Reads (a one city, one book program, only with multiple cities. More like a one region, one book really.) The question is “Books and technlogy, friends or foes?’ Patrons can choose to write on a book or robot, which were cut out of colored paper using the children’s department’s die cutter. While the robots are disappearing frequently, they’re not reappearing on the discussion board. I think people just like robots. It is Silicon Valley, after all.

What Would You Grow?

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Shortly after I started our seed library, I cut out some leaves with the question, “If you could grow anything, what would you grow?” I put some by the gardening books and some by the reference desk, with instructions to drop in a box near the seed library (my secret trick to get people to figure out we had a seed library). This one actually got a decent number of responses. This year I finally got around to putting them up. My favorites:

"myself"

“myself”

"justice"

“justice”

Patron Driven Collection Development (aka What’s Your Favorite Book?)

what is your favorite book

At my other library, we prompted patrons for purchasing suggestions using post-it notes and an easel. We had a series of questions over a few months, and didn’t just look for collection suggestions, we also wanted their input on the use of some discretionary funding earmarked for furniture, etc. We got a lot of responses! This library has a single point service desk, and the question was displayed there, so there was a lot of foot traffic, by people who were thinking about the library’s collection (because they had just picked out books or movies), and it was something to do while waiting.  Transcription here: Whats your favorite book answers August 2013.

Here are some other people’s takes on this kind of thing:

Gratitude Trees

Cafe Catz Gratitude Tree by Flickr User eekim

People add tags describing or drawing something they’re grateful for.  A bit saccharine maybe, but I think they look really awesome.

Draw the Bay

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The Exploratorium, a crazy-cool very hands-on museum in San Francisco, had this prompt to draw the bay.  They scan the results and rotate them through a digital display.

Crowd-Sourced Christmas Tree

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Isn’t that a beautiful tree?

Cover_Crane

It’s actually decorated with paper cranes, folded from wishes for peace from people all around the world. The project is called the World Tree of Hope, and it’s a gift from the Rainbow World Fund.

Voting with Your Dollars

more tips in the jar

Tip jars in cafes prompt customers to vote with their money.  This one is a trivia question, but opinion questions (e.g. Android or iPhone, Tupac or Biggie) also work.

Photos in order of appearance

SVR Board Photo by Me

Seed Library/Leaves Photos by Me

What’s Your Favorite Book by Me

Photo: Cafe Catz Gratitude Tree by Flickr User eekim

Draw the Bay Card Photo by Me

Photos: World Tree of Hope by World Rainbow Fund

Photo: Birch Cafe, via What’s Your System on Tumblr

Getting Hired is Your Choice

One of the more awful things about job hunting is the lack of control we feel in the process. We send out application packets, then we wait, then maybe we interview, and we wait again, our references are contacted, and then we wait some more.

In a tight market, which will continue to be the state of the library job market for the foreseeable future, our choices seem even more limited. We seem to be competing against an endless sea of librarians for a few choice positions. In this atmosphere, people start saying things like, “in a tight market, you need to do this” or “you can’t afford to do that.”

Don’t ever let someone tell you what you “must” do to find a job.

Because whatever that person is saying simply isn’t true. Or rather, it will never always be true. There are enough different kinds of jobs, and different kinds of people hiring, that one person’s “must” is another’s “never should you ever.”

Even if there are fewer positions, there is still diversity in what libraries are looking for. What one hiring manager wants may be diametrically opposed to what another wants. And there are ways to create your own opportunities and positions, especially if you’re interested in LIS work outside of libraries.

Using someone else’s formula to grasp desperately at every possibility you see, no matter how ill-fitting, is not necessary. And it can’t be particularly nice for you either.

Applying to every job, regardless of how well it fits you, isn’t worth your time.

Stifling bits of yourself in order to squeeze into a position that doesn’t fit isn’t a positive job search strategy.

Being comfortable with yourself will go much further than wearing a beautiful suit that turns you into a squirmy robot. Finding a position that you could be passionate about, and describing clearly and positively to the committee what you would contribute there, will go much further than sending out 50 generic cover letters.

Getting hired is not a numbers game. It’s not a series of hoops you must jump through. It’s not a column of boxes to check off. There’s no formula. There’s no secret manual.

Don’t ever let someone tell you what you “must” do to find a job. Getting hired is your choice, as much as it’s anyone else’s. Job hunting is soul-suckingly difficult enough on its own, so don’t ever let someone take away the autonomy you have within the process.

By photo self-taken by Rainer Theuer (de:Benutzer:Calzinide) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been trying to write this post for a little while now. After nearly two years of collecting perspectives of both people who hire librarians, and librarians who want to be hired, I’m convinced that the above is true. That part was no problem.

It’s this next part that I don’t know how to talk about.

The truth of the matter is, even though there is diversity in our profession, and there are a range of acceptable ways to be “professional,” (get ready for the shocker) discrimination exists. And because it’s now, and not the 50s, it exists within ourselves, in ways that are sometimes hard to recognize.

I had a discussion with Cecily Walker on Twitter about three questions on the Hiring Librarians “What Should Candidates Wear” survey, questions that asked about bare arms, make-up and skirts. Her Tweet that resonated most for me was:

I asked those questions expecting that some hiring managers would say yes, and some would say no, and then we could all go away feeling better about our choice to wear or not wear make-up. I didn’t even think about the fact that the question itself does assume that female librarians are at least considering make-up and/or a skirt.

But of course there are those for whom make-up and a skirt would be totally wrong, instead of merely uncomfortable.

Getting hired is your choice though, right?

It’s easy for me to say that because I am the very model of a modern librarian. But what if you’re not a white, cis-, straight female?

Cecily Walker also wrote, in On Privilege, Intersectionality, and the Librarian Image:

Regardless of what I wear or how I act around some members of the community I serve, my race will always place me outside of the norm. When we place the burden of of being the exception on those who fall outside of the norm, we are furthering an agenda that supports the idea that whiteness is the highest standard, indeed, the only standard that should be used to measure suitability.

We can have conversations about purple hair and tattoos and whether they don’t represent a professional image, but we shouldn’t have them without drawing parallels between these superficial differences and the (in some cases) immutable differences that we are born with, or that are central to our identity.

My takeaway from nearly two years of writing this blog has been that there are all kinds of libraries out there, and that job hunters who are comfortable with who they are and “true” to themselves are much more likely to find work. This is my takeaway as a white, cis-gender woman. If you are going to be “true” to yourself within the same demographic parameters, this is the only job hunting advice you will ever need.

I’m not sure that this is always the case for non-white, non-cis, non-women librarians. I want it to be equally true. I want non-white, non-cis, non-women librarians to be able to always find that when they are comfortable with who they are and “true” to themselves that they are more likely to find work. But when I read through the Hiring Librarians surveys, I can’t stop seeing how they are peppered with phrases like “if you live in a vanilla world, neapolitan won’t fit.

That’s a fucked up attitude.

It’s fucked up because not only does that apply to more superficial differences, like purple hair and tattoos, it applies to gender expression, and race, and sexuality, and all that other stuff that is intrinsic to our beings.

I guess it’s not that hard to write that bit. It’s just, I don’t know how to fix it. That’s the bit I can’t write. Cause I don’t know. Duh.

mlk