out of habit

When I lived in the Chicago area, I had a friend who was always trying to get me to listen to Democracy Now!. I wanted to listen to it. I really did. It’s a great show, covering things that no one else is, in ways that no one else is covering them. I wanted to listen to it, but I couldn’t, because it wasn’t on any radio station I could get.

“But you can listen to it on the computer!” he said.

I tried. But I couldn’t.

I get my news from the radio. I listen to the news while I make and eat my breakfast and dinner, and while I’m doing the dishes. I tried listening to Democracy Now! on the computer, but it didn’t work, because when I am on the computer, I am doing computer things — responding to email, reading blogs, IMing, poking around, your basic web surfing type stuff. I can’t do those things and absorb a newscast at the same time. It just doesn’t work.

I try to remember this when I think about libraries. It’s all very well for your library to have a blog, but if none of your patrons are in the habit of reading blogs, it is probably not going to be very helpful to them or successful for you as a form of outreach. And for that matter, even if your patrons do read blogs, how many of them do you think will be interested in reading your blog? I can’t imagine, for instance, that I will ever want to follow ProQuest on Twitter, even if they do start updating their account.

The same principle applies inside your library. It may seem obvious to you that things should be done differently — that you should stop doing work on paper and do it on the computer, that an internal wiki will solve all your communication problems, etc. — but if the workflow that you want to employ is not one that your coworkers are used to, it won’t work very well.

I’ve spoken (softly) to other newer librarians on the subject of “what on the earth did librarians do on the reference desk before the internet?” We say this softly, of course, because we worry that our predecessors obviously did have things they did on the reference desk, and because we suspect that they think all we do on the internet is waste time. Clearly, there has been a shift of habit. I can’t imagine being a librarian without a computer: I sit at one all day long. One of my fellow branch managers, however, has a computer on a separate desk from the one where she normally sits. That seems impractical to me at best, and most days more like impossible. But it works for her. Listening to the news on the radio works for me. I try to keep those things in mind.

technology advisory

I have a long post about library instruction and teaching fifth graders to use Wikipedia, and I have an extremely long post about ALA, OCLC, and some other library initialisms I can’t recall at the moment, but for now I’d just like to make a quick post to complement Karin Dalziel’s opening salvo and Dorothea’s and Meredith’s subsequent blog posts.

I’ve always thought that if I ever got to write a job ad for a library, or at least for my public library, it would simply say, “Must like books and computers.”

One of the skills I don’t have that I wish I did is that I am not a very fast reader, and I’m kind of a picky reader. That gives me a certain set back in a primary part of my job. The question I get asked more than any other is, “Hey, what’s a good book to read?” I haven’t usually read most of the books on our new books shelf. I’ve read only a sliver of the other 20,000 odd books we have in our collection. I can’t always answer that question with a personal recommendation, but luckily, I have some skills that help me out. I know how to say, “well, what are some other books you’ve liked?” I know how to figure out what kinds of things a particular reader is looking for in a book: fast pacing, say, or serial killers, or books about middle-aged women breaking out of their shells, or books set in historical China, or stories where nobody dies. And I know enough about the books in the library that I can usually match people up with something.

That’s the beauty of knowing a little bit about readers advisory: while nothing is a substitute for actually reading the books, you can get pretty far if you know that that book with the cadeuceus on the cover is probably a medical thriller, and the one with the black and red cover and the bold print is probably more violent than the one with the ball of yarn by the fire, even if they are both shelved in the mystery section.

I’ve always taken a similar approach to technology. It isn’t necessary for me, or for any given librarian, to know how to do a customized installation of MediaWiki or Drupal, or write a program, or provide IM reference service. What we do need to know is that there is technology out there and enough about said technology that we can identify what sort of technology might best fit our needs.

When I was planning our website, I knew that I wanted something a little content-managey to run it, but that it didn’t have to be very complicated. I knew I wanted to be able to teach other people to use the system easily, and I knew I wanted to pick something that was likely to be around and supported in a year or two or five. I knew there were websites that ran on content management systems like Drupal or Joomla, and I knew of at least one site that used a wiki, and I knew there were sites that ran on blogging software like Moveable Type or WordPress. In otherwords, I knew a few of the genres of content management systems, I knew of a few examples of people using them, and I had some dim grasp of what kinds of things they could do. I knew about technology in the same way I know about books: I haven’t read all the books, but I know a little bit about them. I don’t like all the books, but I like books enough to be interested even in those I don’t want to read. I don’t know

My mother, who specializes in geriatric psychiatry, says that when medical students come through their psychiatry rotation, there are two things she wants them to know: 1) Geriatric psychiatry exists. 2) There are people who know more about it than I do.

Knowing stuff exists and knowing how to find out more — and enjoying doing so — are, I would argue, the main things you need. Must like books. And computers.

i’ll see you on the internet: IL2008

Update: All the stuff from the presentation is really, truly online now. Slides, handouts, links, and more information than you could possibly ever want.

I’m writing this from some vast elevation on the first leg of my flight home from Internet Librarian, where I gave a little talk called How I Made a Website for $16 in Chocolate [not all the stuff is there yet; I’ll update it when next in the land of ftp]. It was a great honor to present in the same session as Sarah Houghton-Jan and to be a part of the fabulous group of speakers Aaron Schmidt put together for a track called Solving Problems. The conference as a whole was good. I particularly enjoyed hearing danah boyd, who synthesized so well so many of the things that we know, or half-know, about community and the internet but haven’t quite been able to articulate ourselves. I learned some great new tricks from Jeff Wisniewski’s Fast & Easy Site Tune-Ups, drooled over SOPAC and VuFind, and, after years of reading about them, finally got to see the Dutch boys.

As with most conferences, however, the best parts of IL this year were the unofficial ones, and about those I have much to say.

I arrived Sunday evening and headed over to the conference center to meet up with Iris, and, while sitting and waiting for her, I looked up to see a tall redhead, and I think “the shock of recognition” would be the best way to explain the look on both our faces. “I think I know you from the internet!” I said to Kate Sheehan. I used that line a lot over the next few days, because I got to meet a whole lot of people that I know from the internet. I’ll forget someone if I try to list them all, but let us just say that the LSW was well-represented (and add a shout-out to my awesome roommate and queen of Capslock Day, Meg). As I think I posted somewhere at some point, I wish the rest of you could all have joined us, although as it was we were having some difficulty getting groups of ten or twelve or fourteen people seated, and any more might have been impossible.

There were all the usual shenanigans you might expect if you are a follower of ITI conferences — beer, karaoke, rickrolling, photographing, name-calling (I’m sorry, Greg, really I am), sea lion watching, and general hanging out. I have been privileged for most of my life to be around smart, talented, creative people, and this group is one of the best. The very last session I attended at LCOW was called Impractical, Unreasonable, Unfeasable, Unfundable Ideas for Your Library, and, as I’ve noted before, despite the utter whackiness of some of the suggestions, some were things that, as Jamie Markus pointed out, we could do or even were already doing. The best parts of IL felt like that: one big, ongoing session, punctuated by sessions and meals and drinks, where it seemed as though the sky was the limit. And the best part of all is that it didn’t end there. We all took our leave of one another with the same parting phrase: “I’ll see you on the internet!” I’m glad there are so many of you out there that I see there every day, too.

serving the margins: a social exclusion linkdump

I have been very tired and hence am very behind and thus am going to give you this fabulous link roundup instead of an actual post.

Radical Reference did a Library of Congress Subject Heading Suggestion Blog-a-thon last week that I managed to miss. If you did, too, you can read a write-up of the event — and I’m sure late entries are allowed.

The NYC Radical Reference Collective held a salon about library services to incarcerated people. That prompted me to go poking around our state library website, where I found a whole page about library services in Wyoming’s state institutions.

I don’t work in a large urban library (or even a medium-sized one), and I therefore cannot speak with much authority about the issue of homeless people in libraries. If you do work in such a place or if you are at all interest in library services to the disenfranchised, I urge you to check out the Working Together Project, which I found via LibrarianActivist.org. It has already gotten me started thinking about who in my community is socially excluded and what role the library might have in their lives.

A Fuse #8 Production points to a story about a women’s strike at Macmillan in the 1970s. It will both raise your feminist ire and bring joy to your activist heart. It did to mine, anyway.

And last but not least, speaking of activism and social exclusion: My mother is in the process of becoming a deacon in the Episcopal Church, something she got into in part because of helping out with the overflow housing that some of the local churches do in the winter when there isn’t enough room in the homeless shelter in Iowa City. Right now she’s spending a month in Boston helping out with Common Cathedral, which is a ministry that brings church services outside of the church in an effort to provide for those (including the homeless) who would like to come to a service but feel unwelcome or unable to come into the church. She’ll be talking more about what she does there on her blog, Called Judithio. Please stop by and check it out.

she started to sing as she tackled the thing

Meredith Farkas says such nice things about me that I’ve had to spend the better part of the last few days keeping myself from repeating them, ad nauseum, to everyone I know. (I feel rather like the other lion at the end of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe: “‘Us lions,’ he said, ‘us lions.’ That means him and MEEEEEE!”).

Dorothea Salo says things that are so true they hurt — though I mean that as a compliment. You get more points in this world for being pretty than for being truthful, and we ought to acknowledge that, unpleasant as it is. But it is true that if not for Dorothea and the goth cats, my knowledge of open access would be close to nonexistent. It’s also true that if Meredith (among other people) hadn’t responded so kindly to my first half a dozen or so idiotic questions about editing wikis, I might well be one of the people who goes around saying they can’t do wikis (or blogs, or cataloging, or whatever.

I do not generally get questions about how to become a rock star (in fact, I’m fairly sure I’ve never gotten one). Since I’m not particularly a rock star, this doesn’t bother me, although I will add, for the benefit of anyone hoping to glean such information from this little ditty, that moving to a town of 351 people is not really the best way to go about rockstardom. (Had I only thought to move to a town of 300 people, and acquire a coyote, and live in a cabin, and take beautiful photographs! Ah well.)

In the course of thinking about all these things, though, it has occurred to me that perhaps the way I go about things is a little peculiar. I am the branch manager of a tiny public/school library. Most of my day at work is spent reading book reviews, ordering books, helping patrons find stuff (mostly books), doing various interlibrary loan tasks, walking down to the post office to get the mail, organizing programs, submitting people’s timesheets, and trying to remember to schedule people to work on Wednesday nights. Now that I’m also (by self-declaration) the virtual branch manager, I do a little website maintenance and a little statistics gathering from databases and such, too. But there’s really very little call for me to know much about open access, or link resolvers, or college-level bibliographic instruction, or any of the other things that I spend time reading about almost every day.

There’s no call for me to know all of that as the Meeteetse librarian, it’s true, but I feel there’s plenty of call for me to know it simply as a librarian. I can’t advocate for net neutrality or open access as a member of my profession if I don’t know what they are or how they affect it. And, quite frankly, like Dorothea, I can’t imagine going through day by day without at least trying to learn something.

I’ve been lucky to have found myself a place where I can do some of that learning and a community of people who provide friendly encouragement and answer even the stupidest questions. This morning I started my new project, which is learning PHP. PHP is actually directly related to my job, in that I’m learning it in part in order to build a little application for the library. All I’ve managed to do so far is build a little form that captures a word you type in and redeploys it as part of a sentence. Not much, but it’s a start. And, thanks to the many people I know out there doing cool things, I felt that it was a start that I could make. My mantra in such projects is always, “Hey, if John Blyberg / Jessamyn West / other librarian rock star can do it well, then surely it’s worth it for me to do it poorly.” Or, as the godawful poem I learned in third grade put it,

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done
But he with a chuckle replied
That maybe it couldn’t, but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.

doing what we can do

Although the world of libraries and the world of technology often overlap, it’s important to remember that they are not contiguous.

Defrag was, I am sure, a fascinating conference (if I had had a spare $1300 lying around somewhere, I would have gone–there was even a $140 roundtrip ticket from Billings). But I would guess that the people there were not trying to decide what books to read for story time, or how to do better outreach to the Spanish-speaking population, or how to teach people to use e-mail, or how to fit a thorough bibliographic instruction into one hour slot. That’s in no way meant as a criticism of defrag. It is meant to remind us (myself most emphatically included) that not every problem we have in libraries is a technology problem, that not everything we do can be done with technology, and that sometimes paper and markers work just fine.

Technology bests us quite a lot. There are far more alternative news sources available on the web than there are print copies of such publications in libraries (thank goodness we at least have the internet in libraries–though, as the folks at the sadly now defunct NewStandard noted a few years ago, Google’s algorithms are made to discount alternative news sources). Technology is flashier and often more fun, and I defend the value of social networking and gaming and other online pursuits on a near daily basis.

But I think that before we start beating our chests about how we don’t have the newest and the best, we might think a little more about what we offer that technology does not. You could think of this as a business strategy, or as strategic planning, or as whatever other management system you want.

I think libraries still offer many, many things that aren’t readily available to many people. I grew up in a college town with multiple independent new and used bookstores, with avant garde theatre and a Jackson Pollack mural, with a whole series of local alternative publications, with lectures and concerts all around me. I used to get depressed at my old library when I put “bookstore near ____” into Google, because the top few results were all adult bookstores. Kids who came to my library then never saw books outside the library except at KMart or Wal-Mart. That’s largely true of my current library, too (although we are mercifully free of neighborhood adult bookstores).*

As I see it, a library in such a situation has a responsibility not only to provide books (and movies and CDs and magazines and newspapers), but to provide as a broad an array as possible, and to introduce things that people otherwise simply won’t run into. That’s something any library can do, and it doesn’t require much. If you’re a small and poor library, just consider making one book in your monthly book order something off the beaten track, or one book every other month, if it’s a month when James Patterson has two new ones out that you have to buy. When you think about “going where your users are,” also try to think about going where they aren’t, and then figuring out a way to lead them there.

We don’t beat Google by trying to best Google. We beat Google by being the thing–the things, really–that Google can never be.

*Please note, I am not against adult bookstores per se. If they were all like Early to Bed or Good Vibrations, I’d say bring ’em on. Unfortunately, I think most of them are more about plastic wrapped magazines, scary guys who man the door, and browsing fees.

leaving the league of awesomeness

I just got home from a hugely successful program at the library. Tom Rea, a writer from Casper, came to talk about Ella Watson, also known as “Cattle Kate.” Thirty people packed the library — we ran out of regular chairs and had people sitting on the little kids’ chairs, but no one seemed to mind. I rigged up a screen (there was a miscommunication about what equipment was needed) by securing our aged tiny screen to the ceiling with the aid of a spare computer cord and a double half hitch. I’d show you pictures, but the batteries in my camera were dead. Again. (NB: If anyone ever tries to convince you that a digital camera that takes AA batteries is a good idea because you’ll always be able to buy batteries for it if yours run out, do not take their advice. You will either buy many, many batteries or you will be like me and have many, many pictures that you never take.)

The lack of pictures leads into the title for this post, and its real subject, which is not success but failure. When Michael Porter (also known as Libraryman) sent out an invitation to join the 365 Library Days project, I jumped all over it, because, as they say, it was new and shiny, and because I sure do love Flickr, and because, as Steve Lawson put it, I wanted to be a part of the League of Awesomeness. A few weeks in, though, and I’m realizing that not only am I not going to be able to take all the pictures because of my damn camera batteries, but also that I am not going to be able to take them all simply because I have too much else to do, and while Flickring 365 days in the library will make me look awesome in the world of librarians who Flickr, it won’t mean much of anything to the population I serve.

It’s often quite amazing to me that we have a library at all in a town as small as this one. That we do have such a library, and that it is able to hold 25,000 volumes and be open 44 hours a week and have a monthly book discussion group and a weekly story time and an occasional program like tonight’s is a testament to a lot of things: to the cooperation between the Park County Library System and the Meeteetse School District, to the awesomeness of the Wyoming State Library and the WYLD network, to the Friends of the Library and the Park County Library Foundation, to the Wyoming Humanities Council and other groups, and to my coworkers.

We manage to do a lot of things, but we can’t do everything. It behooves me to remember the things that I am good at but also the things that I’m not. I’m good at giving teenagers the space to do their own thing in peace. I’m not so good at engaging them and getting them to come to organized events. I’m pretty good at ordering a selection of books that is — I hope — both broad and deep in all the right places for this community. I suck at getting those books read. I’m good at taking pictures of silly inanimate things that amuse me. I’m not so good at getting people to participate in pictures meant to go online.

I am — or rather the Meeteetse library is — probably going to be leaving the League of Awesomeness, or at least the 365 Library Days part of it. If I have a moment sometime, I’ll drop by and see how the rest of you are doing. I think it’s a cool project, and it could potentially be a great way to get some news coverage for your library — both for your library’s use of technology but also, and more importantly, for the things you do at your library that you are documenting (hint: start writing press releases)! For now, though, I’m going to go back to ordering books and trying to read more of them, thinking about summer reading, and wondering if it’s really essential for me to convince people that Firefox is so much better than Internet Explorer — another thing I turn out not to be good at.

january and february reading

I’ve been thinking lately about how I might become a better librarian in the next year. The first thing that popped into my mind–read more books. I know, I know, we’re about more than books. We have CDs! and movies (VHS and DVD!) and databases! and downloadable audiobooks! But seriously, the most frequent question I get at the library, even more frequent than “Where’s the bathroom?” is, “What’s a good book to read?”

So, in the interests of reading more books and, perhaps even more importantly, retaining something about them, I’ve decided to do updates about what I’ve read a little more frequently. It’s halfway through March and I’m just now getting to my January and February reading, but so it goes. Someday maybe I’ll write proper reviews of books like Rick and Maggie and Nonanon and Jessamyn, but for now I’m just trying to get them down with a few notes. Again, an L in front of a book means it’s one I’ve listened to; an R indicates a book I reread. A couple of the pithier notes and reviews below (at least I hope they’re pithy) come from the New Books Newsletter that I recently started for the library, which I am distributing by (gasp!) e-mail and which is also included as (are you sitting down?) part of the Friends of the Library’s new newsletter, which we pring on paper and send through the mail.

January

Archangel by Sharon Shinn–I used to love fantasy when I was young, but grown up fantasy books very rarely live up to my expectations. My mother told me to read this a long time ago, and a friend said I ought to read it recently, and on the plane home after Christmas I finally did. It’s still not the fantasy experience of my youth, but the notion of a society in which people sing (well), all the time, is a pleasant one, and if you like the kind of romance in which people who hate each other finally fall in love, you should give this a try, even if the fantasy/science fiction angle isn’t something you’d go for normally.

Sick Puppy by Carl Hiassen–I read Team Rodent right after I graduated from college (a great short nonfiction book about how Disney has destroyed central Florida), but I’d never read any of his fiction. I picked this one up based on a review in Jenna’s zine. Her review noted that the main character was “like Eric but with a trust fund and less anger management,” which sounded up the alley of some people I know, too. Good fun.

The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin–I picked this up because Dirty Librarian (who writes the best short reviews I’ve ever read) liked it and it was on the shelf at the library. It’s kind of your basic YA disaster novel in which there are kids living with an abusive mother, but it’s somewhat novel in that it’s written as a letter by the oldest kid to the youngest. It’s a fast read, and I think I saw it listed somewhere as a good one for reluctant readers, which it might well be.

The Ghost at the Table by Suzanne Berne–Even if you love your family, a holiday spent in close proximity to them can be intense. In this novel, two sisters, their families, and their father, from whom they have long been estranged, reunite for Thanksgiving and all kinds of old secrets come out.

L Empire Falls by Ricahrd Russo–I keep hoping for another one of Richard Russo’s books to be as funny as Straight Man. None of them quite are, but they’re all still good. This one starts slowly, but by the end I had to bring the tapes in from the car (where I do most of my audiobook listening) so I could go on with the story. If you’ve read Nobody’s Fool, this is like that (small dying upstate New York/New England town, motley cast of characters, funny but not always laugh-out-loud funny) but richer.

R Coyotes and Towndogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement by Susan Zakin–Some people read thrillers. I read books about activists. This is one of them. And now I live in Wyoming, where some of this takes place.

Alabama Moon by Watt Key–Give this to the kids who like My Side of the Mountain and Hatchet. It’s a darker story, dealing with a father who’s a survivalist-type and what happens to his son after he dies, but it’s full of details on living in the wilderness and making your own food and shelter and so on. And the Alabama setting is fascinating–I think we tend to forget that there are areas of wilderness east of the 100th meridian.

The Ninemile Wolves by Rick Bass–Have I mentioned that I love Rick Bass? Hint: if you come to Wyoming, do not mention wolves–although you can get this book at our library. It was written in 1991, before the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, when that was still jsut a pipedream, but the fights are still being fought, and several people whose names I read in the paper every week or so are characters in this book.

I also reread much of A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, which was our book discussion book for January. So far as I could tell, everyone loved it. The problem with reading funny books for book discussions is that the discussion tends to go like this: “Oh, remember the part where ___ happened?” “Oh, that was so funny!” “Oh, and the part where ___!” “Oh, that just made me laugh and laugh!”

February
Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood–Ten semi-autobiographical stories that read like a slightly disjointed novel. Here’s Atwood’s official and rather peculiar website, and an older but still interesting interview from January magazine.

Him Her Him Again the End of Him by Patricia Marx–You can now read an excerpt online at WorldCat.org! I myself was drawn in by the opening:

I was in high school when I read The Bell Jar and thought it was about a lucky girl who wins a contest and gets to go to Europe. But what about Sylvia Plath’s trying to drown herself? After she strings herself up and before she swallows pills? To tell you the truth, I don’t think I looked at that part.

The narrator of this book by former Saturday Night Live/current New Yorker writer Marx, is answering questions at the marginally bloggish site himherhimagain.com.

Miniatures by Norah Labiner–If you do not care for passages like this

Lord grant me the cloak of disguise that Athena loaned to Odysseus so that I may meander through the ruins taking stock of chattel and charnel before the spell breaks and my all-encompassing swath of darkness is transformed into black wool. Lord grant me but a secure hour, a sand-bagged story, a nimble pen, a wandering eye, a leper’s lassitude, a loner’s intemperence, a fetishist’s foot, a poet’s prudence, a pen pal’s prurience, a playmate’s provocation, a pornographer’s persistance. Grant me a sensitive syntax, weak-roped gallows, safe Southern passage, and a face impossible to remember.

–you will probably not like this book, which involves a young American who goes to Europe to avert various catastrophes at home and ends up working for a couple of expatriate American writers and discovering letters and long-lost secrets and so on. The male half of the couple was once married to a woman whose life bears a remarkable similarity to that of Sylvia Plath, but the story goes all over the place from there.

R Road Song by Natalie Kusz–our February book discussion book. Kusz’s mother and father and their children, who were all quite small, left California in 1969 to move to Alaska, where they made a life for themselves despite varied and numerous hardships. Most people liked this book, and we had an interesting discussion about why people feel sympathy toward Kusz’s family, which went unprepared into the wilderness, and rather less sympathetic toward Chris McCandless, from Into the Wild, who did likewise.

L The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton–I saw the TV movie of this several years ago and have been meaning to read the book ever since. Angela Jayne Rogers does a fine job with the narration. If you like the young women from poor backgrounds overcome obstacles but not in a Horatio Algerish way, you’ll probably like this book too.

free as in . . .?

Via PublishersLunch from Publishers Marketplace, news that Jonathan Lethem is proposing to subvert the dominant book/movie copyright paradigm, at least somewhat.

Also, I trust others have reported this, but according to US News and World Report, we’re among “25 professions that will growing in demand as baby boomers age, the Internet becomes ubiquitous, and Americans seek richer, simpler lives.”  While I’m happy to get positive press for librarians, I can only assume that the reporters for this story did not spend much, if any, time perusing the many listserv and blog threads on the myth of the librarian shortage.