Who Owns the Librarians

I’m thinking about people who call themselves librarians, who are not working librarians.

On one hand, it bothers me that there are all these past, future, aspiring, and not-quite librarians who have such strong opinions about what librarians should be and do. I want to shout, “You don’t get it!” or whine “you just don’t understaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnnd.”  Particularly at people relying on out-of-date information from 15 or 20 year old experiences.  I’m increasingly bothered by the influence of consultants and library professors who are shaping policy and our theoretical foundations without a foothold in reality.

On the other hand, libraries belong to everybody, so maybe librarians do too.  Maybe everybody should get a say about librarianism.

On the third hand, I want people to get mad (madDER, maybe) that they aren’t librarians.  I think the idea that “we are all librarians” is to cover up the fact that there aren’t enough librarian jobs to go around.  I want past, present, future, aspiring, and not-quite librarians to demand more library jobs.  I want us to stop trying to make-do with being short staffed, and to start to create a workforce that can really meet community needs.

So that’s one thing you need to be a librarian, three hands. At least.

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Are You a Librarian for Life?

When I graduated, our commencement speaker told us that the MLIS meant that we could always consider ourselves librarians, no matter what job we ended up doing.  “Fantastic!”  I thought to myself.  “I’m in!”  Even though all I had was a part time LA job, I was now part of this club I’d been working so hard to join.

It’s a comforting thought, that we are all librarians, particularly for the under-employed, or for those facing a not-so-anticipated move to a non-library “information” job.  There’s a lot of librarians being minted, and we all suspect (know) that the murky pool of librarian jobs is shrinking.  There’s this corresponding push to get library students interested in “non-traditional” information careers .  Some people are fully interested in those careers, and fair play to those “information professionals.” But to me this kinda feels like a bait-and-switch. I’ve had second thoughts about posting this, because I don’t want to be a jerk to the under-, un- or other-employed librarians.

BUT,

My degree didn’t make me a librarian.   Working as a librarian made me a librarian.

Helping patrons makes me a librarian.  Trying to meet the multiple and often conflicting needs of both awesome and horrible people, fairly and with enthusiasm, makes me a librarian.  Assisting people who are shockingly digitally illiterate makes me a librarian.  Making and advocating for practices that balance ease of access with the need to safeguard library resources makes me a librarian.  Running programs by and for my community makes me a librarian. Making booklists that I’m not sure anyone will ever read makes me a librarian. Endless discussions and instructions about exactly where to place stickers, labels and stamps makes me a librarian.  Throwing away moldy books makes me a librarian.  Designing flyers despite being graphically challenged makes me a librarian.

Being a librarian is awesome.  I wasn’t one until I was one. I just didn’t understand.

I think this may be a general truism, at least for public librarians.

Public librarians don’t have a strong tradition of scholarly discourse.  Public librarians in general don’t publish as much as academic librarians, and those who do have often moved out of actual libraries and into teaching.  Additionally, the pace of scholarship means that by the time of publication, the practices being written about aren’t necessarily current.  There is no shortage of public library “experts,” but you have to look carefully to see where that expertise came from. Often their practical understanding is non-existent or decades old.  Even working public library administrators can be dreadfully out of touch with what actually happens on the library floor. The closest representation of public library work is found in more informal mediums – blogs, trade publications and listservs.  But those are hampered by concerns about professionalism and reputation.  It’s hard to write straight talk when it could cause your career to blow up in your face.. The picture of what it’s like to be a public librarian – what we need, what we do, and where we should go – is muddy. Our body of literature and our experts on public libraries do not always stand on a foundation formed by reality.

Reading books doesn’t make you a librarian.

Bedbril Glasses for reading in bed

The Deep Mission of Public Libraries

Why do we have public libraries?

Many of today’s librarians like to talk about themselves as “information brokers” or “knowledge facilitators.”  We talk about our skill in finding and organizing information.  And sure, we’ve got those skills.

But what we really do is support literacy.  This is our deeper mission.

In the minds of our patrons, the most prevalent definition of a public library is “that place that has all the books.”

But why bother having all those books?  Those books allow our community to be more literate.  They provide a way for us to share and promote reading, at all levels, for all kinds of people.  The library provides a way for people who would not otherwise have access to books, to have access to books, and to connect people who have books, with different kinds of books. The library provides a wide range of books for a wide diversity of people.  It allows the community to practice and perfect our skill in understanding and appreciating the printed word.

miller avenue branch library

Books are becoming less central to our perception of literacy.  It’s not that physical books are dying, but they are no longer the only occupiers of their ecological niche.  Digital media, whether it be eBooks, or web pages, or apps, or texting, or whatever else you want to add to the list, is encroaching.  It is ubiquitous and consuming.

Libraries are not dying, but as books become less central, libraries too need to evolve, or we will be edged out.

What should public library evolution look like?

800px-Evolution-des-wissens

Talking about libraries as places for information, rather than books, is one way to think about it.  This model puts the librarian at the center of the library.  She is collecting, curating, and disseminating information.  She is a better-than-Google search ninja.

Another way to think about our future libraries is to expand our understanding of literacy.  Literacy has been a fluid concept, looking back through time.  We have defined literacy variously, as being able to recite, as being able to write one’s name, as reading, as reading and understanding.  As opportunities to read became more common, due in part to improved printing and communication technology, our definition of literacy became more sophisticated.

Our definition of literacy needs now to expand again in response to our culture of rapid technological innovation.

Public libraries need to embrace digital and technological skills as part of our deep mission to support literacy.

This model, where libraries support an expanded idea of literacy, puts the patron at the center of the library.  The library is about supporting and improving the patron’s life.  It is about allowing the patron to move from consumer to maker, breaker, creator and repairer.  I prefer this model, to the information broker model.  It’s messier.  It’s sexier.  It’s more interesting.  And it’s more necessary.

obsolete_technology_by_paperbeatsscissors-d4oydf3

Our patrons need help with every level of technology literacy.  From those who come in who don’t know how to use a mouse, to those who’re interested in building a computer from scratch, the library could provide a wide range of resources for a wide diversity of people.  We can help our community to practice and perfect our skill in understanding, using, and appreciating technology and digital content.

We’re kind-of getting there.  We’ve got computers and the free internet for our patrons.  We’re doing some classes and programs to help people develop their skills.  And then of course we’ve got the maker movement.

It is in this context, of expanded literacy, that the maker fad starts to become something more important.  Maker Spaces are totally hot right now.  Everybody wants a 3D printer.

We’re in a bubble of bandwagonism.  But after this settles down, I think we’ll be in a better place.  It will be more accepted to support digital literacy, from helping patrons understand where the url bar is to helping patrons understand how to build an app, wire a circuit, or repair their PC.  We won’t be so rabid about it, but we’ll have the foundations in place to really get down to work.

Photo: Miller Avenue Abandoned Library by Flickr User aaron.michaels, Creative Commons License

Photo: Evolution Des Wissens By Johanna Pun for Wikimedia Deutschland (Wikimedia Deutschland) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Floppy knows that feel, Cassette. From Obsolete Technology by paperbeatsscissors. Creative Commons License.

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

Why Don’t We Cut Services?

Here’s something I don’t get about administrator-think.  When budgets are tight, they often look for ways to shrink budgets without  cutting services.

But really, we should cut services.

If the taxpayers are paying less, they should get less.

New York Public Library Central InformationLibraries need funding in order to provide all the wonderful things we do.  If we try to make the loss of funding painless for patrons, then it looks like the lower amount is all that we need. It puts us in a downward spiral of trying to do more with less, and ultimately providing poor service, and looking like we don’t know what we’re doing.

In order to advocate for libraries, we need to do our jobs well.  We need to create satisfied patrons.  There’s more to advocacy than just that of course, but the foundation of an argument for libraries is a valuable, valued service.  We need enough money and enough staff to make that happen.

It seems likely to me that the slow attrition of library jobs is a result of this desire to not cut services.

Please note that if there are efficiencies that can be found that would save the system money,we shouldn’t need to wait for a budget crisis to find them.  We should enact them.  We should respect taxpayers enough to give them full value for the dollar.

We should respect taxpayers enough to be transparent about what they get for their money.

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.

 

The Digital Divide, Part 2 of 3: The Haves

Herein are some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately in regards to libraries and computers and digital literacy.  Some of this series will probably be “late pass” territory, but I’m trying to sort out what’s on my mind, and what I’ve been reading and experiencing.

This is part two of three. You should read part one first.  You know, if you want to.

I read this opinion piece about The Philly Free Library not serving 21st century patrons.  The author has a lot of complaints which contain a kernel of truth, and a lot of misunderstanding.  For example:

In 2012, citizens want answers to their basic technology questions, not to be walked over to a book shelf to thumb through a 400-page book that is not even relevant because it was published in 2002; meanwhile, the patron’s 40 minutes of computer time ticks away at the library computer terminal.

A 400 page manual from 2002, no.  But a lot of people looking to improve their basic computer skills are more comfortable learning things via print, after all this is what they have done for the majority of their lives. This quote also illustrates an essential disconnect between providing reference (in which librarians are told to focus on instruction) and patron questions (in which a patron just wants an answer already). The author also says:

Instead of the library system hauling the majority of its materials across town from one branch to another, as is currently done (with gas at $4 per gallon), digitizing the library collection is eco-friendly, the wave of the future.

There are at least two problems with this, the first of course being a complete misunderstanding of the library’s ability to digitize it’s collection (in case you don’t know – 1. it would be illegal, due to that pesky little thing called copyright, to scan and make freely available most of a library’s collection.  Particularly a public library’s collection, which would not have a lot of older works that have passed into public domain. If you’re interested, look up the Google Book Search lawsuit to see what a morass this kind of thing is. And – 2. It takes a lot of time, money, fancy equipment, and staff time.  A LOT.  Really, really, a lot. Many libraries, being government funded, are running way under-staffed.  And of course have very tight budgets.  Even if we could legally do it, we couldn’t do it practically).

The second problem is these citizens who have the “basic technology questions” referred to in the first quote.  If a person doesn’t have the skills to use a mouse, how will they be able to use this digital collection?  Reducing access to a library’s physical books removes another basic life activity from people on the other side of the divide.

I think this article, with all it’s misunderstandings, does bring up some good points that many libraries struggle with:

  1. Outdated collections not only give patrons bad information, they really make libraries look like backwards institutions
  2. Libraries could do more to serve digital “haves,” they’d love access to a wider variety of software programs, better user interfaces (including mobile apps, etc.), and more digital content.
  3. Patrons really don’t understand what reference is.  We need to be better about providing service that satisfies both the patron’s question and the library’s mission to promote literacy skills.
  4. Patrons don’t understand what libraries and librarians do in general.  (At my last job, at a very special library, an employee from another department asked me “So what do you guys do here in the library?  Just kind of tidy up?”)
  5. Patrons view many of the restrictions placed on us (e.g. copyright, or limitations on ebooks) as our fault. These are seen as LIBRARY FAIL.

But the biggest misunderstanding in this article is misunderstanding what it means to be on the other side of the digital divide.  It’s not just “oh these people need someone to tell them once how to attach something to an email,” it’s that these people need comprehensive, intensive, and extensive HELP.  Maybe more than a library’s current staffing, materials, and infrastructure can provide.