equal employment: having my say

One of the many unpaid jobs I have had over the years was that of staff writer for an alternative monthly paper in Chicago called Third Coast Press. The first big story I did for them [available as a giant PDF, if you are really interested] was about a couple of studies done by a couple of professors from the University of Chicago and MIT and by the Chicago Urban League concerning race and hiring. The first study [PDF] used just resumes — some sent out with “white” names with addresses in predominantly white neighborhoods, some with “black” names and addresses in predominantly black neighborhoods. You can guess which set of resumes got better responses. The other study [PDF] involved sending white and black candidates, where the blacks were actually better qualified than the whites, to in-person interviews and, once again, the white candidates fared much better. What interested me the most, though, was that it was the largest corporations — the Targets and Wal-Marts and Gaps of the world — that showed the least discrimination in hiring. What all those places had in common was that they had very strict standard hiring procedures, and there were thus fewer opportunities for the interviewer to say, “Oh, you went to Valparaiso? So did my best friend!”

I was thinking about these findings again in the light of the much-discussed Clay Shirky rant wherein Shirky says that women should act more like men — or at any rate adopt more of what he sees as male traits: assertiveness and risk-taking, if you like what Shirky says, or arrogance and outright lying if you don’t.

I live in a state that has the highest disparity in wages between men and women. Wyoming calls itself the Equality State on the strength of having been the first territory to give women the vote, not on anything it has done since. Most initiatives in the state that seek to address that problem are focusing on getting more women into traditionally male professions, most notably the energy industry. While I believe strongly that women should be encouraged to pursue those jobs, I don’t think that getting women into the energy is the solution to wage disparities in the state. Women already hold important jobs as nurses, childcare providers, and teachers. These are all jobs at least as crucial to the functioning of the world as energy industry jobs, but we do not pay them accordingly. Until we do, until we recognize and support the vital work that women do, we will never have any kind of equality.

Shirky is probably right in individual cases: if a candidate in the resume study had lied and given herself a “better” address, she might well have stood a better chance of getting a job. If a woman acts more “male,” that may well help her break into a profession. The tide of assertiveness — or arrogance — will lift those two ships. But when it comes to improving conditions for everybody, which is what I am really interested in, I think Shirky is dead wrong. As long as we treat “lifting people out of poverty” as “getting them better jobs” and “getting more pay for women” as “getting them into traditionally male occupations,” we will never solve the problem of poverty or inequality. There will always be scut jobs that need to be done no matter what kind of economy you live in. I have a good job, and my interests lie not in getting everyone a good job but rather in making everyone’s job good.

on ways of paying for content

A long time ago, in 1999 or 2000, I wrote a story for a local alternative weekly paper about online literary magazines. I’d link to it, but the paper folded some years back, and its website folded even before the print version did.

It’s hard to remember now, but back then, there was not much stuff on the web. I had a list of links on my website, and it was a short list. You’d click and click, and sometimes you wouldn’t really get anywhere. I was always looking for new things to read online, because I was working as an office temp, and I was a very bad office temp, and one thing I found were a lot of literary magazines, or bits of magazines, and I got to wondering about them.

Literary magazines sell for maybe $8-$12 (or so I recollect — it’s been awhile since I bought one). They are not and never have been money-making ventures. Few pay their writers in anything more than copies, and most are supported by academic institutions. But they are places that you read and submit to if you aspire to be a writer of a certain sort. (I am going to go out on a limb here and guess that Dan Brown did not get his start by submitting stories to The Georgia Review.) Anyway. I was interested in how these online ventures operated, and so I interviewed some of them, wondering if any had found a better way to make money online.

The answer, briefly, was no.

A few places were trying to charge a small amount of money for stories. A few others gave everything away. Most were somewhere in between, and the same is true of most of those that survive today.

I was reminded of all this while reading in the New York Times about media outlets considering (yet again) charging for content online. Aside from wondering how Rupert Murdoch gets anyone to take the words “quality journalism” seriously when they come from his mouth, I found myself wondering again what kind of effect such paywalls would have. And I also found myself thinking, you know, having a paywall on a given site actually doesn’t always mean that you can’t get the content for free. Actually, if you have a library card (as we are always telling people), you can get all this and more via databases for free! The difference, of course, is that you have to do a lot more clicking. And you can’t make a direct link to an article, or if you can, you can’t be sure that someone else will be able to get to that article, because their library may have a different deal with EBSCO, or they may get that source through ProQuest, or whatever.

I’m not sure how this would work, but it seems to me a pity that libraries can’t redirect the thousands and thousands of dollars they pay database vendors to the journals and newspapers and magazines that supply those vendors in the first place, and then offer a sort of universal subscription to anyone with a library card. I don’t have any figures on this, of course, so I have no way of knowing if it would even help shore up magazines and newspapers — but anything, I figure, has got to be better than what we have now.

it’s always a little more complicated than you think

Yesterday I was scrolling through some shared items in Google Reader when I stumbled on a post from BoingBoing about the Salvation Army requiring proof of US citizenship before they gave children gifts. I tend to get a little irate about anti-immigrant policies, and so, casting aside all my good librarian skills, I immediately forwarded the piece — without even reading it fully — on to my mother and my friend.

Now as it so happens, yesterday my mother and my friend both beat me at the information literacy game. My mother clicked through to the actual post and saw the update from Cory Doctorow, wherein a Salvation Army PR person explains that they don’t require proof of immigration status; they just ask for things like birth certificates and Social Security numbers to make sure that people aren’t double-dipping. My friend, who is a Lutheran pastor, clicked through and saw the update and wrote to me a little more about her own experiences with the practice:

when I provide Salvation Army services I’m required to take their social security number. It’s one of the hardest parts of my job with them. People, as you might understand, get really upset saying that just because they are poor etc, they shouldn’t have to give their ss number to me. However, as it is is a unique number to each individual it’s a very convenient number for the Army to use.

As a national charity that is more reputable than the Red Cross they need to be able to track the needs of the people. One such example might be an influx of foot traffic from the South to the North as people seek jobs, or an increase in women and children seeking emergency housing due to abuse as unemployment rises. That said, there are ways around all of these stipulations and the article doesn’t do the Army justice about this. I have a woman right now who isn’t able to provide a social security number for her son because the card is with his father, but I’m still going to fill out a voucher for him to get a new winter coat, and some clothes due to their emergency relocation.

If you read through the comment thread on the original post, you see a little of the same thing happening. There are a lot of knee-jerk reactions like mine to start out with. Then there are some people who come in with defenses and explanations. Then there are counter examples, some with citations. And of course there are some more snarky comments (I mean, it is BoingBoing, after all). But the end result of reading through all of these things is, I think, that one feels more confused than convinced — and I think that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That confusion forces you to think about things like poverty and homelessness and charity in a practical way. It’s easy enough to say, “no one should be homeless.” It’s much harder when you have to run an actual shelter, and then suddenly you have a fire marshal to deal with, and zoning regulations, and the needs of a variety of people to keep in mind, and suddenly you do have to institute rules and turn some people away, and that’s terrible, but it’s also reality. If you have too many people in your shelter, the fire marshal will shut you down and you won’t be able to provide shelter to anyone. Librarians reading this blog are, I suspect, all too aware of the difficulties.

But I’m getting away from my topic. This morning I was reminded of this whole little saga by a couple of threads in the LSW Room on FriendFeed which further the eternal question of how we teach people to interrogate information, to ask whether it is credible or useful or even accurate. And the answer, it seems to me, is always that it is much more complicated than you think.

The ability to judge information depends on a lot of things. It depends on avoiding knee-jerk responses, and it depends on having a set of criteria you can use, and it even depends on having some previous knowledge.  I can’t teach all of that to a class of fifth graders in a one-shot session. I doubt you can teach all that to a class of college students over the course of a semester. Oh, you can help them find criteria, and you can help them gain a bit more of a knowledge base, and you can probably help them get better at this whole information literacy game. But as with many things, the only way you actually get better at this game is by playing it and playing a lot of it. I, for one, have a good deal left to learn.

visiting libraries

Back in October, I went on vacation, and, somewhat unusually for me, I took a bit of a busman’s holiday while I was there and visited a number of libraries. I saw the zine library at ABC No Rio. I got a tour of the SUNY Maritime library (which is in a fort!), courtesy of a friend who works there. I strolled through the library at Vassar, where I went to college. One of my hosts, Jenna Freedman, showed me around the Barnard library, including its zine collection, and John Blyberg very kindly gave me a grand tour of the Darien library, where I also got to meet a number of other staff members (hi, all!), who are all just as great as Kate says they are.

Walt Crawford has talked about not being a fan of the “one big library” concept. I must admit I’ve always had a fondness for it, probably at least in part because of its echoes of the IWW and their “one big union,” but Walt’s point is worth taking: libraries are — and should be — as different as the communities they serve. There are a lot of neat things that I could point out about all these libraries, from the kinds of periodicals they have at SUNY Maritime to the automated book return system at Darien, but what I’ve been thinking about most in the weeks since I returned is how radically different these communities are and how the library not only reflects the community but also shapes it.

As I have noted before, I never once spoke to a librarian when I was in college, and though I spent over an hour wandering around there, I did not talk to any librarians at Vassar on this visit. In part, that’s because I didn’t set anything up ahead of time and didn’t want to bother anyone, but largely it’s because I still have no idea where the librarians in that building are.

I love the Vassar library. It is everything people say libraries shouldn’t be these days. It does not have much in the way of comfortable furniture (though there is more than there was when I was there, but there are still plenty of long wooden tables with hard wooden chairs). There isn’t much in the way of group study space (or if there are such spaces, they are well hidden). It is one of the most confusingly laid-out places I have ever been. It’s made up of a few large rooms and then a series of interconnected small rooms. You’ll be following along with a call number just fine, until suddenly you’ll get to the end of one of these small rooms, and then you have to figure out where the rest of your call number continues. I think the continuity is somewhat better than it was when I was there, but it looked to me as though there were still some big jumps. And, as I’ve mentioned, the librarians are conspicuously hard to find.

But you know what? I love that place. When you walk in the door, you go up a few steps, and you’re standing in a sort of central courtyard. In front of you is one alcove with a gigantic stained glass window depicting the first woman to get a bachelor’s degree. To either side are longer alcoves with long tables running down the middle (long tables with rows of green-shaded lamps that look just the way you think an old, woody library should look) and rows of stacks on either side. There are mysterious staircases and all sorts of nooks and crannies. I have a recurring dream — one of my very favorites — wherein I discover a set of stairs I’ve never seen before, and it turns out to lead to a whole other section of the library that I’ve never been to, and it is even more gorgeous than the rest of the building.

Now, I’ve been to a lot of college libraries, and in many of them, the whole reference and instruction and group study stuff is much more apparent. But I didn’t choose to go to those colleges. I chose this one with the gothic architecture and the weird nooks and crannies and the leaded windows, and I learned to find my way around it, and though I never spoke to a librarian, I ended up being one. There’s a place in this world for the library as beautiful place filled with interesting books. It’s not the hippest, to be sure. But it’s still legitimate.

The Darien library has some architectural similarities (I have a semi-annotated photoset on Flickr). It’s been made to look like a sort of old-fashioned library with new-fashioned accoutrement (the Thomas Ford Memorial Library in Western Springs, IL has the same kind of feel). But it is also very consciously designed to be a community space, and a particular kind of community. Thus you’ll find many of the things you’d expect in a great new library — new books front and center, lots of information about programming for all ages, a teen room with comfy furniture and Rock Band, and kick-ass technology everywhere. But also caters to — or shapes — the community. There’s a room called SoHo, which, if you are into office equipment and supplies, will just make you drool. Computers, fax machines, scanners, paper cutters, staplers — they’re all there for the use of patrons with small offices or home offices (hence the SoHo name). All that equipment, out there and available, made me think that the library really is a place to make things, and it made me think — how ever incongruously — of the zine library and activist space I visited on the Lower East Side, ABC No Rio.

When we talk about libraries as community centers, it is places like ABC No Rio and various infoshops around the country that immediately come to my mind. Why? Because these are places that are about making things: making zines, making music, making art, even making food for Food Not Bombs. No, I’m not advocating that all libraries immediately open up their kitchens (though that would be cool — but it would also quite probably be a disaster). I would kind of like it if every public library had a sign that said PROPERTY OF THE PEOPLE OF ____, because our libraries are the property of our communities, and communities should be given pride of place.

What I am advocating is that people think about their libraries not only in terms of how they reflect their communities but also in terms of how they shape them. I was shaped by that Vassar library. I was shaped by the group study rooms at the Iowa City Public Library and by their public LP and CD players (you could even combine the two — if you took a stack of CDs to the circulation desk, they’d put them on and pipe them into your group study room for you) and by their wall of flyers and pamphlets from all the sorts political and social community groups that now show up now in their local associations database. And I hope that the people who come to the library here are shaped by it — shaped to consider the world as wide and vast and varied, even in this tiny little town.

open argument 101

I’ll admit it: there’s almost nothing I like more than drama and action on the internet, and the past 24 hours or so have provided plenty.

Yesterday afternoon saw the release of the much-hyped Library 101 video and its attendant website, which was largely, but not exclusively, lauded. Yesterday evening my FriendFeed brought me the white paper on open source ILS systems [pdf] by SirsiDynix VP of Innovation Stephen Abram, which has been largely, but not exclusively, criticized and ridiculed. (ILS, for my non-librarian readers, stands for Integrated Library System — basically the software that runs your public catalog and your backend record-keeping — cataloging, aquisitions, circulation, statistics, the whole works.)

Along with 64 or so other people, I tuned in to the UStream broadcast of the Library 101 presentation yesterday, or at least the video part of it. My connection was a bit shaky, and while the video itself seemed to work fine, I couldn’t hear much of what the presenters were saying. I’ve watched a few things from Internet Librarian this year on UStream, and in general it is pretty great, so my thanks to the folks who set it up. Since then, a couple of people have said to me that they didn’t think it was really that great, or that they didn’t really understand it, or that they had some other reaction that was not entirely positive — and they felt that because their reaction wasn’t entirely positive, they couldn’t say anything. And that made me really, really sad.

I read the white paper last night and participated in some of the early online commentary, and I’ve had several discussions about that with people, too, and today I read Stephen Abram’s blog post on the subject, where he seems to be quite hurt by the pileup of criticism. Reaction has so far not been terribly sympathetic.

Two events, two commentary pileups, two very different tones. Why? We’ve talked in the biblioblogosphere in years past about uncritical me-tooism and how it stifles conversation and shuts down thoughtful, critical voices. We have also seen plenty of trainwrecks: comment threads rife with personal attacks and you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists mentality. (In this particular instance, Abram’s paper has a bit of that quality to me — you use a standard ILS (preferably SirsiDynix’s) or you’re stupid (“Proprietary software has more features. Period. Proprietary software is much more user-friendly.”) — but then it is a piece of marketing material from a for-profit corporation, so to some extent, that’s to be expected.)

But I digress.

I was underwhelmed by the Library 101 video. It was neat to see so many faces in it (although, like Jessamyn, I would have liked to see them in the credits), and it’s clear from the video that Michael Porter and David Lee King care about it deeply and are enthusiastic about libraries and the future to a degree that few of us can manage. The site, although somewhat annoyingly slow to load, has a lot of good resources, and I look forward to reading the essays that people have submitted. I don’t really get pouring that much of one’s time and money and effort into an online video project, but if it gets some librarians to think about their skills and what they need to move into the future, and if its creators had fun doing it and there are people who enjoy watching it, that’s all to the good. Despite what readers of this blog may think, I actually think there’s a great deal more to being a librarian than being tech-savvy, and I’d like to focus more on some of those things, but I know there are a lot of people who still need to hear the tech message, and perhaps this video and its attendent resources will reach some of them.

So maybe you can’t in fact really criticize Library 101. It’s a labor of love and a labor with a message. The message is hard to criticize, and while you can critique the artistry, you have to remember that it’s a couple of guys doing this in their spare time. They’re not out to make money — in fact, from what they’ve said, they have lost money on this thing. I don’t want anyone to feel that they can’t criticize the video, but at the same time, I don’t think there’s much damage done by the pile-up of compliments.

But it is entirely legitimate to criticize Abram’s paper. ILSs are big money, and they are sold largely by for-profit companies and paid for — in the public and state university library worlds — with public money. I am not an expert on open source ILSs, but I think they are an important and worthy development. It’s possible that the flaws Abram cites exist. I could point out a number of flaws that are present in SirsiDynix systems, too. But the existence of flaws is not an argument against development — if anything, it is an argument for it. I value open source projects because they are, to my mind, ideologically aligned with libraries in a way that corporate enterprises never will be. That doesn’t make them perfect; that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think long and hard before adopting any given ILS. But it makes them worthwhile — and worth defending.


I stopped reviewing books regularly on this blog around the same time I got an iPod Touch, and there is a connection, though perhaps not the one you’re thinking. I love the Touch — it is slim! it is stylish! it was free after rebate! — but there are some things it does not do well, or, to be more precise, there are some things that I do not do well with it, and one of those things is keeping track of the books I’ve read. I used to use a dear little notebook for that. When I got the Touch, I thought I would use its dear little notebook application, but I don’t, and hence my reading list for the past year or so is mostly nonexistent. I do, however, still read books, and from time to time I do still want to comment on them.

Roger Sutton asks if readers imagine books taking place in their childhood homes, or in other places familiar to them. I’m intrigued, because I can almost always envision a rich setting for a book, even if the book itself is short on the details, but these places that I see aren’t real places, nor do they bear any resemblance to places I have known in my life. (My dreams are like this too — sometimes they start with a place I know, but they never end up there.)

Some books, though, are set in places I know, or know somewhat. I apologize for this kludgey segue from the world of imagination into the world of Methland, but it’s how my brain is working today.

Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town takes place mostly in Oelwein, Iowa. I am from Iowa City, in the People’s Republic of Johnson County, and thus I’m not really qualified to speak about small town Iowa, but I’ve driven through enough of it to recognize the place in Reding’s book, even though I haven’t been there.

It’s a peculiar book which attempts to blend investigative reporting with personal narrative. It succeeds wildly on the investigative reporting front — who knew that Tom Arnold’s sister ran an international meth empire? or that there were so many fascinating parallels between the meth economy and the commodities economy? — but, to my mind, kind of fails on the latter. Reding is from the small-town Midwest, and it’s clear that he was able to use his familiarity and belonging to that world to great advantage when he was interviewing people for the book. He can fit in well whether he’s hunting with town leaders or drinking bad beer with locals at the bar. He gets to know all kinds of players in the town — not just the meth addicts and manufacturers, but also the cops and the district attorney and the mayor, and you get the feeling, when you read the book, that a lot of these guys could easily have ended up in each other’s places, but for a few accidents of fate. One would think that, as a Midwesterner, he’d be a little more on target with his facts, but I’m usually willing to forgive some lapses if there’s an otherwise good story.

What got to me about this book wasn’t that he blended the investigative and the personal — it’s that the personal bits had such a tacked on feel. If you are writing a book about addiction and part of your inspiration came from having a recovering addict in your family, wouldn’t you think you would mention that somewhere before the acknowledgments at the end of the book? If you are someone coming back to small towns after having escaped them, wouldn’t there be tensions related to that crossing back that you would want to explore?

Of course, that may just be what I wanted out of the book, not what the book was meant to be, or what you would want from it. If you happen to read it, let me know what you think.

help make thelsw.org!

According to my Gmail archive, on July 2 of last year, Sheriff Joshua M. Neff emailed a bunch of Library Society of the World folks to let us know that the awesome Blake Carver (host of this site and many others) had set up an embryonic LSW site running on Drupal at thelsw.org. We were all really excited about it, and then we hit a wall, or rather two walls: one was that none of us felt very comfortable with Drupal, and the other is, as you all know, that trying to design a website with a bunch of people — even a bunch of like-minded people — is an exercise in frustration.

Since then the site has languished, though on occasion someone adds something to it. People also still add things to the orginial LSW wiki on occasion, and drop in the LSW Meebo Room, although most of the action of late seems to be taking place in the FriendFeed room — and last I looked, the LSW group on LinkedIn was thriving, too.

The LSW is anarchic by both design and nature, and that’s as it should be, but when Josh brought up the Drupal site again yesterday on FriendFeed, I got an itch to do something about, and I’d like to invite you to help.

Right now, I am just working on wireframes — the information architecture and the general layout of the site. I figure we’ll worry about how to get Drupal to do all of this after we figure out what we want the site to do in the first place. Right now, the general idea seems to be that the site should both pull in LSW activity from other places (e.g., pull in an RSS feed of the FriendFeed room, etc.) and point out to those other places.

Inviting people to collaborate on a website design is asking for trouble, I know, but I’m going to do so anyway. I hope we can all agree that none of us will be completely happy with the site we come up with. We all have ideas about what good web design is, and while we probably agree on a lot of things, we all still have our own aesthetics, and we will all need to accept that there may be colors, fonts, and graphics that are Not Our Thing.

The discussion is mostly taking place on FriendFeed, but if you haven’t been by there, here are all the threads I can find on the subject:

Recent Discussions

Older Stuff

If you’re at all interested in helping out, please dive in! I suspect we’ll keep discussing things mostly in the FriendFeed room, but feel free to drop me a line at newrambler at gmail or catch me on IM (newrambler on gtalk; theblackmolly on AIM). Just be sure to bring patience, tolerance, and your sense of humor.

i sent my raise to the louisville library

Today happens to be payday for me, and it also happens to be the first paycheck we got that reflects our annual cost-of-living raise (thank you, Wyoming energy industry, for continuing to flourish in these scant times).

Today is also the day after a flash flood hit the Louisville Free Public Library, where my friend Greg Schwartz works. He posted some pictures yesterday (and here’s one from the newspaper), but perhaps what got me the most (oddly, because despite my frequent postings about technology, I really think of myself as a book person) was his tweet from this morning: “Watching the h2o being poured out of our servers. Depressing.”

Libraries aren’t just stacks of books: among other things, they are stacks of findable books, organized books, books that can be checked out and checked in again, books that can be loaned to other libraries. Servers are part of what make that work possible, and one of the things that Greg does is look after them.

A lot of people want to send books to libraries who have been hit by disasters. This is a noble thing to want to do, but it is a very bad idea, because, as Catherine notes as Rachel notes and Catherine echos, your idea of what they need and what they actually need may not always match up. If you would like to help, though, you can send money. Checks can be mailed to The Library Foundation, 301 York Street, Louisville, KY 40203.

Steve Lawson has also started a Library Society of the World fund drive for the library. If that link isn’t working, the details are also available at Iris’s place. The gist of it is that Steve is collecting money (send donations to lsw.lfpl@gmail.com via PayPal or checks made out to Steve to the Library Society of the World Clubhouse, PO Box 7893, Colorado Springs CO 80933.

I just sent in the amount that my paycheck increased by because of my raise, but any amount at all will help get books back on the shelves — and, just as crucially, get the servers that help keep the library running dry, safe, and back to doing their work. And while you’re at it, why not run through Dorothea’s little checklist and see how secure your data is in the event of a catastrophe. I know our data curation could use some work.

alternative chicago, four years later

Update: here’s the Google maps version of the guide.

Four years ago, the last time that ALA Annual was in Chicago, I was a baby librarian and blogger living in the ‘burbs and thrilled to be going to my very first library conference. Four years later, I can’t quite believe all the things that have happened to me, and how many of them have their roots in that first conference, where I went to the first ever blog salon, met Jenna and Jessamyn for the first time at a Radical Reference meeting, shared a cab with Walt Crawford . . . the list goes on. I missed my four-year blog anniversary back in May, but it’s really hitting me now that I’m reading tweets about #ala2009 how much has happened since then, both in the world of technology and in my life.

I’m sad that I can’t be at the conference this year, as I have many dear friends and colleagues attending, but I’m so, so grateful to the internet, which is what introduced me to most of those friends and colleagues in the first place.

I was the only local in Radical Reference in Chicago in 2005, and one of the projects I took on, with a lot of help from my good friends at Third Coast Press, was to make a guide to alternative Chicago. I’m not sure how many of these places are still around, but I thought I’d share them again. I might even make you all a Google map of them tomorrow!

[NB I’ve spent a lot of time wondering if I should move the apostrophe, since the guides were really only the work of one librarian, namely me — but they’re intended for many librarians, and so I’m going to go with my original, if grammatically quirky, punctuation.]

In any case, those of you who are there, enjoy the conference and the city — and those who are not, I’ll see you online.