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.

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books

This morning I read about how the Main branch of the San Francisco Public Library is increasing the numbers of both security and custodial staff, in an effort to make the library safer and cleaner (and ultimately more usable?  The article doesn’t seem to worry about that piece of the puzzle).

SF Main Library implementing new strategies to curb unsavory behavior

First, wowza, one million dollars!  That’s  a lot of money!  But, only a little over 3% of the total budget.  So not that much maybe, relatively.  I’m still learning how library budgets flesh out.

Second, this is kind of a sensational sentence:

“The institution has been marred by violence, drug use, sleeping patrons and deplorable bathrooms. ”


This was one of my main library haunts for about ten years, until quite recently in fact. SFPL Main is a nice library.  It was built in the mid-90s.  It’s a great building, with the side that faces the civic center plaza done in a beaux-arts style, to match City Hall and the Asian Art Museum (former library), and the other side of the building done in a more current style.  It’s a harmonious blend of traditional and modern aesthetics. There is plenty of light, and computers.  The children’s area is big and welcoming.  The San Francisco History Center is housed on one of the upper floors, and it is beautifully appointed with comfortable wooden tables and interesting ephemera.  But don’t take my word for it.  If you read the Yelp reviews, you’ll find enthusiastic library-lovers.

SF Main rotunda

The bathrooms can get smelly.  I can’t give you any personal commentary on the elevators, because I don’t use them, but I believe they can get funky as well.  And, as with any library, there are a good number of heavy duty users who are freaks, weirdos, unclean, or otherwise unsavory. In September, I did read a news article where one patron hit another patron in the face with a chair.  And if you read the Yelp reviews, there are a lot of people who say “the only thing wrong with this library is…” and then mention something to do with cleanliness, or unsavory types, or use a phrase like “crawling with homeless people.”  As if homeless people, like roaches, are  an infestation.

SF main modern side

The Main library is downtown, in a large city, and it is the closest library for two of the city’s major dumping grounds for the poor: the Tenderloin, and 6th Street (click that second link, if you click on any link today). I want to quote Melinda B. from Yelp to you, because I think she’s put it very well:

 The bathrooms are not awesome due to the high preponderance of street vagrants.  The bathrooms smell.  There’s no way around it.  You can’t leave your stuff lying around.  But this is a big city so I have no expectation for doing that anyway.

When I walked in at opening time I was astounded at the crowds, and I do mean crowds of homeless people headed inside.  But honestly, I’ve never been bothered by anyone here, so the people who say it’s a cesspool strike me as people who have not much experience with city life.   I take pity on the homeless, so as long as they’re respectful to the facility and other patrons, not horribly stinky, not making noise or disturbing anyone, they don’t bother me in the least. Let them read the papers and use the internet–isn’t that what public libraries are for?

So, is the library “marred by violence, drug use, sleeping patrons and deplorable bathrooms”?  I wouldn’t put it that way.  (Aside: Can a sleeping person really marr anything?  Doesn’t that require a little more action?)  It’s a city library, yo.  Negotiating the way that different populations use the facilities, materials, and services is a tough and ever-present challenge for public libraries.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a good idea to spend more on custodial and security staff (and I think I’m going to save that for another post).  But the Main Library is not a blighted cesspool.  It’s just got city problems.

Photo: San_Francisco_Public_Library_Main_Branch_Facade By Alexander Marks (aomarks) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: San Francisco Public Library by Flickr User Sameer Vasta, via Creative Commons License

Photo: San Francisco Main Library by Flickr User George Kelly, via Creative Commons License


Students and Revolutionaries, Demand Libraries Now

public university of the people



There was something very empowering about walking into the building, past all the adults, and realizing that I could pull down any book I wanted to and just start reading…

no one goes into any library seeking to lose knowledge or leave knowing less than they did before they went in

– Henry Rollins





dutch people