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

Getting Past the “Expert” Paradigm

I’m cleaning out the drafts folder for this blog, and I found this one:

There are a lot of topics about which YOU know more that ME (more than I?  Grammar may be one of them).

Two librarians in the dark.

there are two experts in the reference transaction

It’s like some sort of cryptic librarian riddle.  Maybe a joke:

Two librarians in the dark.  One turns to the other and says…

– “How’d we get inside this dog”?

-“I guess I should have said AND lightbulbs”

-“Isn’t the library supposed to be a *glowing* organism?”

Clifford Maust In Scottdale, Pennsylvania

I’m not exactly sure what I was going to try to get at with that draft, but I think it was probably something about how thinking of librarians as experts is not a good place to try to do reference from.

The truth of the matter is, it’s the ~terrifying unknown~ that librarians often confront in true reference transactions**, rather than a tapping of their professional expertise.  We may understand our collections, we may understand the organization of information and the orders of knowledge, but each patron throws a new curve ball.

Better to approach the reference transaction from a place of learning and collaboration.  The librarian is learning more about the patron’s information need, and collaborating on the construction of the answer.  A “collaborating” model lets the librarian approach the patron with humility, which is helpful both in dealing with patrons who are not very confident and in dealing with patrons who know everything – it removes the source of conflict.

Cornell Varsity, Pokpsie 61711

**other types of transactions at the reference desk include the less terrifying, “where is the bathroom?” and “can I use the computer?”

How to Help When You Don’t Want to Help

The other day I answered a reference question from an inmate on death row.  My sense is that it is not uncommon for prisoners to write to libraries  with requests for information. In thinking about writing this post I looked around a bit online and discovered that the NYPL even has a department dedicated to correctional services (although I believe they do outreach, in addition to answering letters).

 

In what was probably  a mistake, I Googled the prisoner’s name.  I found news articles which described his conviction in a pretty horrific crime of vengeance.  Now, everyone deserves library service; it doesn’t matter if you’re in prison or free, it doesn’t matter what crimes you may have committed, it doesn’t matter what your state of mind or your values are.  Creeps, crazies, and criminals are all entitled to use the library, just like the rest of us. And to get good service too.

 

As I talked about in my post on empowerment service, I come from a retail background.  Not only did I used to provide customer service, but I used to train people in service, and write policies which would promote the provision of good service. My skills are sharp, both in theory and practice.  But library customer service is different.  When I think about how I can be a better librarian, the bottom line is always the quality of my service to our patrons, and I think about how I need to adjust my theory and practice to the library environment.

 

I also think about self-preservation.

 

There are a lot of burned-out librarians in the world.  I’m sure a lot of the burn-out comes from being under-supported and overworked.  But I think a lot of it also comes from dealing with patrons.  Everybody deserves library service, including the unstable, the dangerous, the needy, the clingy, the grumpy, and the difficult.  That means librarians have to provide it.

 

I’ve been trying to write this post for a while, and not succeeding.  The posts about librarian time management and empowerment service were failed attempts to write this post.  It’s tough for me to admit that there are patrons I just do not want to help.  Or patrons I’m frightened of, or repulsed by.

 

When I think about self-preservation, I think about how I can continue to provide good service to these types of people, on and on into the future.  I think about how I can help the people that I don’t like, and not let the experience sour me on patrons in general.

 

Ultimately it means adjusting the way I provide service.  For example, I normally provide at least my first name when I answer reference questions.  With the prisoner on death row, I did not sign the letter.  We were unable to provide what he had requested, and I, probably wrongly, imagined he might seek retaliation.

 

When I reflect, I am learning to factor self-preservation into my evaluation.  I want to continue to provide good service, and that means examining how my needs interfere with patron needs, and to determine if I am still…I don’t know the word…fair?  Professional?  Good at my job?

 

Prisoners by the National Library of Scotland

Passive Programs and Other Experiential Library Doings

In the books I loved to read as a kid, libraries are crazy old buildings full of secrets.  The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn sends Anthony Monday all over the library, following obscure clues to uncover something of great wealth.  I vividly remember the scene from Yobgorgle: Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario where Eugene Winkleman visits the Rochester Public Library and the children’s librarian tells him there is a secret room – which he must find for himself.

I think that it’s important that libraries find lots of different ways to interact with patrons.  Not only because our new post 2.0 world is participatory, but because it is important that libraries nurture discovery.  As I talked about here, the library allows us to conduct intellectual experiments.  The value of libraries is firmly rooted in self-directed learning and enjoyment.  To underscore that value, we need to keep patrons engaged, puzzled, and on their toes.**

Below is a round-up of a few of the passive programs and experiential stations I’ve set up in the past few months:

The Ball of String

 Started this size:
ball of string
And has grown to this size:

The Ball of String idea is lifted from AnyThink libraries.  AnyThink is doing some really innovative stuff!  They were a community where only 10% of people had library cards, and 63% were under 45 years old.  Part of their recipe for rejuvenating their relationship with the community was shifting to a more experiential model of library service.  There’s a good article about AnyThink here. I learned about their “experience zones” via Stacie Ledden in the ALATT FB group – one was simply a ball of string.

The Mystery Mystery

This was inspired by the “Blind Date with a Book” displays that were happening in libraries on Valentine’s day.  So far we’ve had five.  There is not currently a kid one, and the adult one has sat around for a while since we moved it off the main circ desk.  Our library uses Encore, and I tag the books in the catalog. 

Lucky Pick

After seeing the Mystery, Mystery, one of our 12 year old regular patrons had the idea to “take two books and package them together, and patrons don’t know which one they are getting.”  We have done 23 Lucky Picks.  Most of them were chosen by me, with the exception of the current ones, which were chosen by the patron and include picture books as well as chapter books (he chose one of the picture books because it was the first book he ever read at our library).  Circulation has also slowed down after moving them to the shelves from the circ desk.  At another branch in the system, the branch manager had the idea to wrap the lucky picks in some gift wrap she had.  Those seem to be moving quicker – everyone loves presents.

The Craft Station

One comment we recently received was the suggestion to “make an area for 8-12 year olds.”  The craft station provides more for this age to do in the library. We’ve gone through three crafts – a paper plate clover was up for a week, a paper plate Easter basket was up for two weeks, and a (non-paper plate) Garden craft just went up for April.  We now also have crayons and coloring sheets out on this station.  The coloring has been used, I’m not sure if the crafts have been done other than when the facilitator of one of our crafts programs didn’t show up.  The April craft may be more countable, as there is a place for the finished craft to be displayed in the library.

The Viewfinder Station

This is also less quantifiable.  I watched kids be amazed and delighted by the viewfinder, and some of them did write down what they saw on the sheet – “rockets” and “izrael.”

Type-spiration Station for Poetry Month

This will be up for April, so we’ll see how it went at the end of the month.  So far we’ve had one kid type away and then ask “hey, how do you print this out?”

Your Library Fortune

IMG_20130328_131358

Reader’s advisory, 3rd grade style.  Fortunes are:

  • You will read a mystery
  • You will read a book with a red cover
  • There will be a talking animal in the book
  • Call number 821
  • Librarian’s choice
  • Author’s first name will be Jane
  • The title of your book will start with S
  • Something historical or hysterical

Pope Shelf

IMG_20130223_171540

Books about the conclave, biographies of former popes, and the opportunity to make your own origami pope hat.

Book Crush
Book Crush
More 3rd grade style interaction. Are you a secret admirer of a book? Send it a valentine. Your crush responds on Facebook.

For example:

A sweet tale of requited love: Our director writes, “Dear Gone With the Wind, I’ve loved you since high school and will love you forever.” Our hearts are aflutter because Gone With the Wind has “always felt the same way!”

IMG_20130214_174009

Someone wrote “Dear Raskolnikov we are so alike ♥ Let’s go on a date?” Unfortunately, Crime and Punishment was on the holdshelf, so Raskolnikov is waiting for some one else.
IMG_20130214_171654

**Librarians might wish to think of patrons as cats, as depicted in this Monty Python Sketch.

What Time Management Means to Librarians

I’m a librarian because I wanted to do social work, but I didn’t want to be a social worker. Being a librarian gives you the ability to really help people, in all sorts of interesting ways.

Sometimes this is brief. You might spend ten seconds letting someone know the cost for printing, or where the bathroom is. Sometimes your interaction can take much longer, stretching over days as you contact other organizations to, for example, find out which Pasadena high school was the one attended by a tap dancer on the Lawrence Welk Show (more specifically tap dancer Arthur Duncan, the first African American to appear regularly on a tv variety program).

The length of time spent with someone doesn’t have a direct relationship with the importance of your answer. If a patron needs to know where the bathroom is, that is an immediate need with potentially dire and smelly repercussions. The answer to “Where is the bathroom?” is very important information, and it must be provided in a timely fashion.

The attrition of staff over decades of tight budgets (in California much of this can be traced back to the passage of Prop 13 in 1978) means that libraries are short staffed, and increasingly so. Librarian time must be rationed, in order to ensure that all patrons get at least some sort of assistance. One of the libraries I work at has a loose rule for reference staff: no more than ten minutes with each patron. But many times even ten minutes is too much, when there is a line of people clamoring for attention. One of the value judgments that I am learning to make, as a new professional, is how to best spend my time. When I decide how much time to spend with patrons, how to triage, when to give up, and when to really go the extra mile, I’m making a decision about the importance of my help.

I find the importance of answering idle curiosity very hard to quantify. Many people will say “oh it’s not important, I’m just curious.” But really these questions are very central to the library vision. Libraries exist to nurture the curious. It is this sort of engagement with our world that helps create literate, dynamic, healthy communities. Sharing someone’s intellectual interest is a very good way of building a relationship. The time spent helping someone who is “just curious” is also valued differently by patrons. It is often seen as excellent customer service, or kindness, or going the extra mile. It is a way of showing a patron she is important, and it can be very validating for her.

Another difficult decision is how much help to provide to individuals with very limited skills, particularly those who are not computer-literate. I’ll admit I was shocked, when I started working in libraries, by the level of illiteracy I saw (and continue to see). These are not just patrons who are not very fast typers, or don’t know how to sort a spreadsheet. These patrons don’t know how to use a mouse. You have to say things like, “press the button on the left side of the mouse twice, this rhythm: dah-dah.” “Double-click” is too much jargon. And often these patrons come in because they need to do something to fulfill a basic need; They need to print out a lease, or a medical bill. They might need to apply for something online, e.g. unemployment or a job. Even positions that don’t require computer skills, custodian jobs, for example, now have online applications. These patrons often need someone to sit with them for the duration of what they are trying to do, and it is very time consuming.  And where else can they go?  What other organization offers free computer time, and the possibility of free help?

Kids also present a special challenge. Many kids are actually better library users than adults, at least as far as the Dewey Decimal System is concerned.  It is more common for me to be able to hand a call number to a child, say “do you know how to find this?” and have them nod and scamper off.  Adults will often sheepishly grimace, and say they have no idea.  So, its not so much that kids need more library help.  The kids I’m considering here are the free-range kids, the ones who don’t get a lot of positive attention from adults.  Some of these kids lurk in packs with no desire for contact.  But some kids will sidle up next to the ref desk and latch on, asking question after question, and often increasingly bizarre ones as they search for ways to keep your attention.  Clingy adults are one thing, and difficult enough to disengage from.  Clingy children break my heart.

So where is my time best spent?  I make that decision hundreds of times a day.  I weigh the needs of patrons against each other, not to mention against the other tasks I do that benefit them – ordering new books, weeding, making displays and book lists, planning programs, trying to stay on top of my own professional development…

I’d have to make these decisions even if libraries had better funding.  But we are so short-staffed.  Some days it feels like I’m holding both hands over a leaking dam.

Dam

The Library is for Trying New Things.

Last week I wrote about Asanti’s Pick, a display gimmick where kid patrons can check out a wrapped book. They know from a sign that it is one of two titles, but not which of the two it is. These books circ! People take a chance on an unknown read. In the debate about whether or not to take the book, a lot of kids say something like “but what if I don’t like it?”

We then point to the fine print on the sign which says, “If you don’t like the book, you don’t have to finish it.”

This is often a revelation to an eight year old. “You mean I don’t have to read the whole thing?!” Nope. My boss says to kids, while recommending all kinds of books (not just wrapped up ones) “Take it home. Read the first chapter and the back cover, and if you’re not interested, bring it back. I don’t mind.” A long term co-worker of hers, another excellent children’s librarian, once finished a discussion with a child patron on the relative merits of two audiobooks by saying, “Take both. Test them out and just bring back the one you don’t like.”

Children’s librarians often talk about how libraries are often one of the first places that young people begin to practice autonomy. When they get their first card, they begin a process where they learn to choose, for themselves, what to read. They start to direct their own intellectual development. They can create an internal life that belongs solely to them. Due to privacy laws, here in California at least, their library records are their own – parents have no right to look at what their children are checking out, or when it is due. Their relationship with the library, and with reading, is their own private affair.

Trinidad and Tobago. 'A science master demonstartes primary distillation in the laboratory of the co-educational school for senior staff children at Pointe-a-Pierre'

In companionship to this self-direction, is the fact that the library makes it possible to conduct low-risk, low-commitment experiments in reading. If you don’t like a book, you’ve made no financial sacrifice (or no parent has made a financial sacrifice on your behalf), and you can just bring it back and try again.

You’ve got the freedom to experiment.

This is such an important library function, both to the development of children, and to the development of the kind of world I want to live in. In that world, people are open-minded. They are free to explore new interests, and to easily set them aside if they are not captivating. They are able to listen to different kinds of thinkers, without needing to invest in one particular school. They have choice.

They have intellectual options.

So there’s another reason why libraries are awesome; Libraries give you the freedom to try new things.

Mr Tulk and dog "Sausage" going fishing using flying fox he built onto other island - Solitary Island, c. 1935 / by Winifred Tulk

I Used To Be a Teen Library Patron, Too

A week or so ago, one of my Facebook friends posted a link to this:

Lines from Shakespeare Mistaken for 1990s Hip Hop Lyrics

(It’s pretty funny, you should take a look).

Here’s what it made me think of:

I, myself, lived through the 1990s.  I was a teenager then, in fact.

In the suburbs in the early 90s, rap was still considered kind of a teen fad.  A lot of adults thought it wouldn’t last. Many adults also thought that it was “noisy” and “offensive.”

At that time, some librarian at my local public library put up a poster of Shakespeare, wearing those old school sunglasses (you know, the squarish Blues Brothers kind), with the caption “Shakespeare was the original rapper.”

As a young person, I was actually pretty into Shakespeare.  I did theater and had taken a few intensive summer classes at a local Shakespeare festival.  I knew and appreciated that he was brilliant, and his use of rhythm to signal meaning kinda blew my mind.

I thought that poster was the lamest thing I’d ever seen.

Today, as a librarian myself, I can appreciate where that poster-hanging librarian was coming from.  Teens can be inscrutable patrons, and the urge to find some way, any way, of relating to them is very strong.  Shakespeare may not have been the original rapper, but there are definitely some awesome connections between rap and his writing.

I always think of that poster when I work with, or for, teens at the library.

I think maybe the thing to remember, is to meet teens where they are, instead of where you want them to be. As patrons, teens deserve the library service they want, not the service we think they should have.  That means we should ask what they are interested in first, and let that drive purchasing and programming, rather than trying to pull them somewhere.

We don’t need to try to make Shakespeare cool.  Shakespeare is already cool.

We don’t need to try to be cool.  We can just be ourselves.  We’re already cool too.

 

Want to be a public librarian? Ask yourself these questions first.

Today is “go through the mess personal filing system and dump out old paper work day!”

I found a notebook from my first few weeks working as a real librarian, which included this list of questions:

Librarian Questions

Do you like to read and make lists?
When people ask you questions that don’t make sense, do you smile and say, “tell me more”?
Do you have an eye for color and a flair for display?
How are you with bureaucracy?
Do you like children?
Do you know where the bathroom is?
Do you mind telling that to people over and over?
Do you like thinking about which books are like other books?
Did you read Encyclopedia Brown or other detective novels as a child?
Do you find the same joy in online detective work?
Even though you prefer things organized neatly, do you gracefully accept the presence of relentless, ever-encroaching chaos in your life?