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?


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:





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


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


Isn’t that a beautiful tree?


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 community, neapolitan just 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.


Non-Library Librarian Jobs, and Dividing LIS Work

As the number of people enrolled in library school continues to increase, and as the amount of funding for libraries stagnates or shrinks, and as our culture of information and technology changes and evolves, more and more “library school” students are turning to non-library jobs.

Are these non-library librarian jobs inferior? Are they second class jobs?

Yes and no.

People go to library school because they want to work in libraries. When these people arrive at library school and begin to hear a push for non-traditional career paths, they are being given a bait and switch. It is tough to get a library job. If you’re a library school administrator, and you want people to persist at your library school, when they realize that the money they are shelling out is really very possibly not going to result in a full-time-with-benefits-and-decent-pay librarian job, you’ve get to sell them on some palatable alternative. If you want to keep your full-time-with-benefits-and-decent-pay library school administrator job, you’ve got to help your school keep the hope of employment alive. Because as much as learning theory is fun, library school is about getting a job. The ubiquitous “MLIS from an ALA accredited school required” ensures that people who want to work in libraries, as librarians, will continue to go to ALA accredited library schools. To get work. In libraries.

That being said, people who want to work outside of libraries also go to library school. Library school attendees include people who want to do data management or knowledge management or information architecture, etc. They want to build databases or write indexes or massage information tidbits with their bare hands. They think they’d enjoy working for library vendors or software developers or even making whole new careers and spaces for themselves, in some weird industry that doesn’t even know it needs library skills. And sometimes people who go to library school* intending to work in a library find a non-library librarian job that they fall in LOVE with, or just end up liking ok.

This is a manifestation of our current information shift. To use a phrase that’s trite at this point, “information doesn’t all live in libraries anymore”, if it ever did, and some people are more interested in information than in libraries. For those people, non-library jobs are not second class jobs, they are the whole point of the thing in and of themselves. When these people get a non-library librarian job, that’s an opportunity to rejoice.

But this focus on non-library librarian jobs is also a manifestation of our lack of library jobs. There are fewer opportunities to work in libraries while non-library opportunities are still growing**. It’s as though it’s easier to build a single new position, or to shift the path of an opportunity, than it is to rebuild depleted library staffing.

This second reason, is why I continue to make the distinction between non-library librarian jobs, and library librarian jobs.

Because we don’t want to obscure the loss of opportunities in libraries, pretending it’s ok.  It isn’t.

Abandoned Basement area

*It’s not really library school anymore either. A recent respondent to a Hiring Librarians survey took me to task for saying using this term – calling it old fashioned. And it is, I guess. Most of us more recent grads have an I for information secreted somewhere in there amongst our letters.

**At this point, you may be saying to yourself, “But what about that seven percent growth rate that we’re going to experience over the next ten years?  Slower than average, but still growing!”

Well, I’m skeptical.  Read the BLS’ page on job outlook for librarians, and you’ll find the sentences: “later in the decade, prospects should be better as older library workers retire and population growth generates openings” and “the increased availability of electronic information is also expected to increase the demand for librarians in research and special libraries, where they will be needed to help sort through the large amount of available information”, both sentiments which have moved into the “hollow promise” category.  You’ll also find:

Budget limitations, especially in local government and educational services, may slow demand for librarians. Some libraries may close, reduce the size of their staff, or focus on hiring library technicians and assistants, who can fulfill some librarian duties at a lower cost.

Call me a pessimist, but that last one rings true.

Photo: Abandoned Basement Area by Jessamyn West via Flickr and Creative Commons License

Year in Review, courtesy of the FB

I FaceBook about my library experiences a lot, which means most of my bon mots are lost to the ether, except for once a year when the FB Bots troll my posts for my “Best of 2013.”

Here is the copy pasta of my 2013, with the more personal bits removed.

Jan 9:
Librarianing: in a teen program, trying to keep them from calling each other the n word and the f word while respecting their youthful exuberance.  

Jan 23:
Some poor saps drive to work in the morning…
Photo: Some poor saps drive to work in the morning...

February – Left Substitute Librarian Job (1 of 3)

Feb 20:
This is what I did at work last week.
Photo: This is what I did at work last week.

Feb 23:
Here is what I did at work today. The fine print says “if you would like to make your own paper pope hat, please visit the reference desk”
Photo: Here is what I did at work today.  The fine print says "if you would like to make your own paper pope hat, please visit the reference desk"

Mar 17:
One favorite at the reference desk today: the late 20s guy who came up asking if we had a Christian fiction section (we don’t). When we told him it was mixed in with regular fiction, and could we help him find something more specific, he said he was looking for Amish fiction. Now, Amish fiction generally means very sweet romance books, which seemed a little unusual for this dude but ok, I don’t judge. I showed him how to use the catalog to find some of it and he went away very happy. I then heard him say “Grandma, I figured out how it works!” and he came back and spent 20 minutes helping Grandma find her Amish romances. Be still my heart. What a lovely library moment.

April 2:
Hello, New Friend.
Photo: Hello, New Friend.

 June 17:
A guy at my library is using his computer time to watch Mork and Mindy. He is laughing out loud. For real. 

June 29:
Last night as I walked past San Francisco City hall, two men exited, holding hands and grinning, to the cheers and applause of a small crowd gathered outside. One of the most beautiful things about getting married is the joy that others, even strangers, express when they see you on your day. How wonderful to get married at a time when people all across the nation are rejoicing for you. How happy I am that every couple in my state can have this beauty in their lives. 

July 23: 
Yesterday I helped a woman get into her yahoo email. She said, “how did you do that?!” I wiggled my fingers and said, “Magic!” I also helped a woman find a Sylvia Brown book, by standing on a stool and looking on the shelf behind the books. She said, “Oh how wonderful, thank you!” I smiled and said, “Ancient librarian secret.” I’m a library wizard, folks, a library wizard.

July 28:
Oh yeah, the guy that’s been sitting in the library very very diligently working on job applications for a couple months told me on Friday that he got hired! Man, so pumped to hear it!

Aug 16:
Oh yeah, I starts my new job on Monday! Same place, new status: 30 hours a week, permanent. Get to stay on one day at the other lirbary, get benefits, get paid time off…life is good!

Aug 19:
My new cubicle came with a free poster!
Photo: My new cubicle came with a free poster!

Oct 7:
Offer on house has been accepted. We’re fixin to move, folks.

Nov 3:
Hello, new friend.
Photo: Hello, new friend.

Nov 16:
Today the intern said, “Can I ask you a quick question?” “Sure!” I replied. Then, a few seconds after he began speaking, I yelled “Not quick enough!” It’s important to teach interns about the proper way to conduct business transactions.

Dec. 14:
A few days ago, the intern asked me “when you guys bring carts of books back to the office, what are you doing with them?” Knowing the importance of being honest with people who are learning, I replied “Mostly rubbing them all over our faces.”

A Winter Tree Walk

japanese mapleOur city has a non-profit organization that is dedicated to supporting, contributing to, and enhancing the city’s urban forest. They plant trees, give tree care advice, and lead educational tree walks. And, their board meets in the library.

My boss, who is excellent at both lurking and networking, was hanging around the library one day and got them interested in partnering with us to do a tree walk. The library is right next door to a small park, where the city has planted all sorts of interesting trees over the years. Why not have people meet at the library before heading out to see some nature?

What’s a tree walk? Arborists lead a walking tour of trees, identifying the different species, describing their characteristics, and talking about how they should be cared for. They may also discuss broader or non-botanical aspects, such as when and why the tree was planted, or if it’s considered an invasive species.

The non-profit was very excited to partner with us, particularly because they knew we have a wide range of folks that see our event promotions (we flyer all over the library) and because we’ve got a giant copier to run off materials (the non-profit otherwise works mostly off home printers).

We were excited to partner with them because of their expertise and enthusiasm. Their collective knowledge of trees is pretty deep, and although the library has excellent gardening and botanical resources, people are really key in disseminating this kind of knowledge. Tree care is really a localized knowledge (that is, the climate and location of the tree dictates what it needs to flourish), and one that is built over years or decades of experience. Person to person sharing is a vital way to keep this information circulating in the community. Partnering with the non-profit also fed a new group of enthusiastic library-supporters. It gave their organization a deeper stake in the library’s success.

I created the flyer and we printed it out on the library copier. We posted it in the library, and I publicized the event virtually to our usual places (our local Patch, Neighborhood associations, ZEvents, and our FaceBook page). I also emailed an announcement to the list of people who’ve used our seed library and asked to be kept informed of seed library-related events. The non-profit took a stack of about 50 flyers and posted them around town.

We held the event at 1 PM on a Saturday. We attracted about 40 attendees, and three dogs. About two thirds of those came specifically for the tree walk, and another third wandered over when they saw what was going on. I met people in the lobby and directed them outside, where the non-profit had set up a table with nut bread, fruit, hot cider, and assorted pamphlets and tree-related literature. The non-profit had created a brochure which included a map of the park’s trees, and a little blurb about each one. Each participant got one of these brochures.

Then they set off, making a slow circle around the park (about an hour). The walk was conducted by three arborists, with most of the talking done by two of them, and the third mostly scooping up quiet questions from the back. It was a little hampered by a festival that was taking place in an adjacent courtyard. It was a little hard to hear, and a portable PA system may have really improved the experience. The festival included a children’s train ride, which circled the park along the route of the tree walk. So the arborists would have to pause every ten minutes or so to wave to the children. But, this also contributed to a generally festive atmosphere.

All in all, I heard a lot of wonderful comments from participants. One patron, who is a library regular but never attends programs, was really very enthusiastic. She enjoyed the walk, and then was delighted to also be able to get advice about some rose bushes she had recently rescued from a construction project. We are all excited for spring, when we will recreate the event, this time as the trees are waking up from their winter’s slumber. The library also hopes to be able to provide the tree walk brochures to patrons, so that they may do self-guided tours.

Photo: Coral Bark Maple by Flickr User TexasEagle via Creative Commons License

ESL Cookie Party!

One of the libraries I work at serves a very international community. People come from all over the world to work in the area, and often bring along their significant others, or mothers, or children, etc. In some cases, the person working is still learning English, and is looking for an opportunity to practice speaking and learning, especially non-work related conversation and American culture. In some cases, the person working has a firm grasp of English, and opportunity to practice at work every day, but their family members do not.

So having an ESL Conversation Club at our library was kind of a no-brainer. Patrons even asked for it! If multiple patrons are making a point of getting ahold of staff members in order to ask for a program, well, the library should probably deliver.

I started ours by finding a local TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) student to help us. As his practicum project, our TESOL student put together “lesson plans” for the first few meetings, and drafted the flyer for us. He helped us publicize by dropping off flyers at the adult school, and by posting them around town. We also publicized with flyers in the library (including the ESL section), a notice on our website, an event on our FaceBook page, and by posting to the local online paper (the Patch), the Chamber of Commerce, Neighborhood Associations, and a site called ZEvents, which populates the calendars of several local papers.

We’ve now had about three months of ESL Conversation Club.

We meet for one hour, from 5 to 6 PM, with about 15 minutes of spill over either side. We set up the room with six tables, each with six chairs. Generally, attendees choose a table at the beginning, and stay there throughout the meeting. The tables and chairs are not in neat rows – they are higgeldy-piggeldy around the room, to encourage a more casual, conversational atmosphere. We have water available, and treats for some of the meetings (the first few especially). We’ve consistently had between 30 and 40 people attend each meeting. We try to have a native English speaker at each table. Our native speakers attend on a drop-in basis, just like non-native speakers. This way, the library provides a no-commitment option for people that are interested in volunteering. We’ve had four native speakers attend very consistently and three or four more infrequently. When needed, library staff, or, for the first couple months, our TESOL volunteer, sit in to provide native speaker help.  And in a pinch, a table of ESL speakers can do without a native speaker.  The point of the club is more to practice and gain confidence, than it is to learn and perfect language skills.

Each meeting begins with me welcoming everyone and introducing myself. For the first few meetings, our TESOL volunteer put together formal lesson plans, although the activities were not particularly formal. Our TESOL volunteer would describe what the theme or activity was. Each attendee would receive a handout. The themes included countries, food, transportation, and parts of the body. The handouts would have an activity (usually matching or defining), a list of conversation starter questions, and generally some idioms. People would discuss and complete the activities as a table group. Now that we are running the Conversation Club ourselves, I generally put together a packet of a few short news articles, some conversation starter questions, and a description of anything special that we did. For example, for Thanksgiving, I showed a few clips, so I included the link to the YouTube playlist.

It’s been fairly easy for me to pick a focus for each conversation club, because we’ve been right in the center of the holiday season. Explaining and exploring American holidays provides a wealth of things to do. My two favorite meetings have been the one before Thanksgiving, and the one right before Christmas.

For the meeting before Thanksgiving, I put together a packet of articles that included discussion of: the best way to cook a Turkey, Black Friday (versus Cyber Monday), the origin of Thanksgiving, a sunrise ceremony put on by Native Americans on Alcatraz, and travelling on holidays. I also gathered clips on YouTube, including ones from a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, that Friends episode where Joey puts the Turkey on his head, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (I really wanted to show this scene, but decided it would be a bad idea). While we talked to each other, using the conversation starter questions or whatever we were interested in, we made hand turkeys. Then, in the last 20 minutes, we had pumpkin pie and whipped cream. For many attendees, it was the first time they’d tried it. Although I started handing out the pie, the task was quickly appropriated by two of our regular attendees, who had fun learning how to work the whipped cream in a can. It was a nice way to go on break.

ESL Turkey

My other favorite meeting was our ESL Holiday Cookie Party, which again occurred right before a break. After having the pumpkin pie, participants had talked about bringing their own favorite holiday foods to share. So it seemed natural to throw some sort of potluck (a good vocab word). To simplify things, finger foods (another good bit of vocab) seemed like a good focus. So two weeks before the event I broached the idea at Conversation Club. People seemed interested, so I made flyers to hand out the next week. I didn’t advertise to patrons about the party (other than to people attending the conversation club), but I did invite our library staff.

Holiday Cookie Party

After so many weeks of sitting at tables together, it was nice to break things up with a mixer-style event, where people walked around and mingled. As attendees came in, I handed out Human Bingo cards, having in many cases to not only explain the human aspect, but to explain what BINGO is. The game provided an excuse for people to interact with each other. They enjoyed it so much, that they neglected to start in on the refreshment table until the last 15 minutes or so of the program. I was blown away by the refreshments, by the way. People brought all kinds of cookies, of course, but we also had rice balls, sushi, and a warm Mexican punch (“No Tequila!” the man assured me as he brought it in). People also brought family members – husbands, mothers, children, etc. For a few attendees, it was their first time. “You picked the best time to show up,” I said, “We’re having a party!”

Although the ESL Conversation Club is a program for adults, we put on the flyer that all ages were welcome. We want to allow people to practice their English with all kinds of people – of all ages as well as all nationalities. We also want to make sure that people who are new to the country, who might have small children and no established network for their care, can still attend the program. We have coloring sheets and crayons ready, and they’ve been used and enjoyed by the couple of kids who usually show up each session. The mixed ages seems to work just fine. Because the nature of the club is a bit chaotic anyway, a child scooting around the corners of the room making airplane noises isn’t particularly disruptive. In fact, children and their antics help people find things to talk about.

For me personally, the Conversation Club has been a great opportunity to have a different kind of conversation with patrons – one that is positive, slow, and encouraging. I have found it incredibly valuable to talk to people without the pressure of the reference desk. I am not helping them find anything, I am not hurrying them along so that I can get to the people waiting behind them, and I’m not addressing any concern. I’m just chatting. Speaking to people who are in the process of learning English – being understood and getting clarification in a way that is welcoming and friendly – is in itself a skill. I am grateful for the opportunity that ESL Conversation Club gives me to practice this.

Our patrons enjoy and value the club. I have seen new friendships develop. We have issued new library cards and been able to highlight some of our ESL materials. Each week, between 30 and 40 people get to come to the library and find positive encouragement. We are helping people to understand American culture, and to make themselves heard clearly.