coming together and falling apart

Things have been a bit slow at the library lately, as often happens in the summer when the weather is good, and so I’ve been getting to some of the far back burner items on my list. Today I decided I should check out my toread list in del.icio.us. (You may already be thinking that this was a bad idea, and possibly it was, although it is not nearly as bad an idea (so far) as the time a couple of summers ago when I decided I wanted to reorganize all my tags. Don’t do that. Trust me.)

My del.icio.us account started in July 2005, just a few months after I started blogging. Today I’ve looked at some of the very first things I tagged to read and some of the most recent ones, and I’m struck both by how charmingly archaic early articles on folksonomies have become and by how relevant some of the ideas still are. User tagging of the catalog is not something that has really taken off, but user generated content in other areas has become incredibly valuable. I can’t imagine how I ever figured out what sort of consumer electronics products to buy in the days before Amazon reviews.

One of the newer things I’m reading, which I’ve really only started to peruse, is The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age. In the first essay of the collection, James G. Webster talks about how technology has brought about media fragmentation — we now have hundreds of cable channels and millions of websites where once we had only three networks. According to the fragmentation theorists, mass culture is now over, and technology is taking us all to the skinny end of that long tail, where we’ll all get just exactly the things we’re looking for but won’t have anything in common with society as a whole.

That’s a seductive argument, to be sure, but what struck me as I read about that and thought back to when I first heard of folksonomies is that in some ways, the technology that has developed alongside the idea of a folksonomy has actually the effect of bringing us back together. Consider, for instance, hashtags in Twitter. The election in Iran became a mass culture event in large part because of new media. People around the world were able to follow minute by minute news direct from Iran thanks to #iranelection. They were able to turn their avatars green and look at all the other people with green avatars and feel like they were a part of something. (I’m not, for the moment, interested in debating whether that actually constitutes doing something or being a part of it — the point here is that for the people involved, it clearly did feel that way.)

It’s true that watching a trending topic on Twitter is not the same kind of mass culture experience that, say, listening to Walter Cronkite give the latest body count from Vietnam was, and I doubt the numbers are anywhere close to the kind of viewership the evening news once had. But it is, I think, evidence that technology can gather as well as it can fragment, and I find that fascinating.

the problem with solutions

There was an essay by Maurice Isserman in the New York Times Book Review a couple weeks ago about Michael Harrington and his 1962 book The Other America: Poverty in the United States. It’s a nice piece, but supposing you don’t want to go read it yourself, Isserman outlines how the book affected public policy in subsequent decades and how those policies did — and mostly did not — work to end poverty in America, which is still rampant.

Lyndon B. Johnson was one fan of the book, and his administration famously declared a War on Poverty but did not fund that war particularly well. “The resulting legislation,” Isserman notes, “passed in August 1964, provided funds for preschool education, community action agencies, legal services and the like, but did little directly to provide jobs and income for the poor.”

That line stopped me dead.

The legislation provided funds for preschool education, community action agencies, legal services and the like, but did little directly to provide jobs and income for the poor.

The legislation, in other words, funded services that were supposed to help the poor, but it did nothing to address what actually made them poor.

It stopped me dead because it reminded me so much of the kinds of services that have been established to help small rural libraries (and, for that matter, libraries of all sizes in poor areas) with technology. There are all kinds of services out there that will let you learn about technology — SirsiDynix Institute webinars and courses and discussions on WebJunction and downloadable Cookbooks from the Maintain IT Project — but there aren’t any that will provide what you probably most need — a dedicated library IT support person.

There probably is not any way to provide that solution. The people exist, but the money to pay them does not. Of course, we haven’t solved poverty yet, either. In the meantime, we stumble forward and backward, patching things together as best we can.

this is not a post about cats

“As librarians we have to remember to select books whose effects we will never know.” –Roger Sutton [link]

I was sitting at the front desk at the library and trying to catch up on some blog reading during a quiet spell when I ran across Elizabeth Bird’s post on Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag. Head on over to her place to read about the history of the book and to see some gorgeous illustrations from it. I don’t know if it is the best picture book of all time — it has never gone over particularly well when I’ve read it for story time here — but it will always be a book in my canon because of Hazel Westgate.

Hazel Westgate was the children’s librarian at the Iowa City Public Library throughout my youth, and for many years before that. She is the reason the library has a collection of children’s book art (mouse over number 10 on the map to see it), and every year she ran two contests — a Halloween story contest and a cat-drawing contest inspired by her favorite picture book, Millions of Cats.

I was never even an honorable mention in the drawing contest, but being a winner of the story contest two years in a row is still one of my proudest accomplishments. Hazel Westgate spent the summer dreaming up the opening lines for stories. When school started, those lines would be passed out, and you picked one and wrote a story that began with it. Winners got to do a reading and signing of their stories, just like grown up authors, and the event was broadcast on the library’s public access channel, and, in the two years I won, we also got an illustration for our stories, done on gel like a cartoon frame and matted.

But here’s the thing: I never spoke to Hazel Westgate. I knew she was the lady with the frizzy hair who read stories to us at story time, and later I knew she was the person who wrote those opening lines. And she knew who I was — my father took me and my friend to story hour every Saturday for years, and when he died, my mother later told me, Hazel Westgate sent us a condolence note. But I don’t ever remember talking to her.

When classes come in to the library here to choose books, I leave my office and hang out, and sometimes a kid comes up to me with a question, and once in awhile I sense they are looking for some help, and I go offer it. But most of the time I just stand there and watch — watch them picking up books and looking at them and sometimes taking them and sometimes putting them back, and sometimes talking to each other and sometimes off by themselves.

I know that nowadays we are supposed to be all about reaching out to patrons and meeting where they are and building radical trust and all that, and to some degree those are all good things. But my connection to libraries (and Steve Lawson has written before about this same thing) was not about the librarians: it was about the books. I never talked to Hazel Westgate directly, but I communed with her many times. I wandered the stacks, I picked up the books she chose, and I took them home and read them, and many of them I still remember to this day.

On the days when I feel I’m not doing anything interesting or innovative at my dinky little library, the days when I berate myself for not doing more programs or putting out more exhibits or running contests, I try to remember that it wasn’t just the story times and the contests that made Hazel Westgate great. It was also the books. And I am indebted to Hazel Westgate, to Barb Stein and Victoria Walton, the librarians at my grade school, and to many librarians since then whose names I don’t know and whose faces I may never have seen.

As librarians we have to remember to select books whose effects we will never know. That is part of our purpose, too.

on first looking into the Darien Statements

One evening in junior high I was sitting at our kitchen table (which was my great grandparents’ kitchen table and is now my kitchen table) studying for a test on the explorers, and at some point I asked my mother if she’d quiz me. Magellan, Vasco de Gama, Ponce de Leon, all that was fine. But then we got to Cortez. “Oh,” said my mother, and went off to fetch a book. “Listen to this,” she said, and then she read me

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
. . .
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific

Now of course Cortez did not discover the Pacific. (Neither, technically, did Balboa, who usually gets the credit — the Pacific did not require discovering — it was there already, it’s just that Europeans hadn’t run across it quite yet.) In any case, I pointed out that this poem, however lovely, was unlikely to be of much help to me, since it was inaccurate, and my mother said that it did not matter that it was inaccurate because it was so good. Such was the danger of asking my mother for help with school work. In high school, our geometry textbook asked us at one point why the Greeks considered the 30-60-90 triangle to be the most beautiful triangle. I thought my mother might have something pithy to say on the subject, so I went to ask her. Several hours and multiple volumes of C.S. Lewis and Plato and probably something else I’m forgetting later, I still didn’t have a pithy answer, but I had learned quite a bit.

“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” is one of the first poems I ever deliberately memorized, and so it floats through my head fairly often. I’ve said to myself while waiting in lines or trying to fall asleep. I said it the first time I ever gazed on the Pacific, standing on Ocean Beach in San Francisco the summer I was twenty.

The poem ends not simply with Cortez staring at the Pacific, for there are others with him:

— and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

As I’ve read The Darien Statements, and the various reactions to them over the past week or so, Keats’s lines have been floating through my head a bit more often, and so has that evening when I was trying to remember the date Magellan circumnavigated the globe and my mother first read those lines to me.

Some days it’s important to remember the dates and places and times. Some preliminary knowledge about the world and its shape and its features and its history is useful — even necessary — for getting by in it. But some days — not all days, perhaps, but some — it’s also important to stare at the Pacific, to glance around at your compatriots with a wild surmise, to stand silently and contemplate the awesome mysterious wonderfulness of it all.

Similarly, it’s important to run your library. It’s important to get the books on the shelves correctly, to have a diverse and up to date collection, to provide timely reference services to your patrons, to keep your public computers running. That’s all important. But sometimes it is important to stand back from that for a few moments and think about what it is you’re doing and why you’re doing it. If the Darien Statements do anything, I hope they help us all feel for a moment like the men on that other Darien, as though we’ve discovered a new old world, or an old new world, all over again and ought to contemplate just what it is and what we are and what we should be doing and why.

So go read the Darien Statements, if you haven’t. And if you’d like, you can read the rest of Keats’s sonnet, courtesy of the Poetry Foundation. The Wikipedia page on it is not half bad, either.

ms. crossett goes to washington

Tomorrow morning, at an hour far earlier than I even want to contemplate right now, I’ll be getting on the first of three airplanes on my way to Computers in Libraries (which is actually in Arlington/Crystal City, VA, not DC, but close enough), where I’ll once again be talking about how I built a library website for $16 in chocolate.

This will likely be the last big conference I go to for some time — while Wyoming is doing quite well compared to the rest of the country, these times are still tough, and I’ve gotten to do a lot of traveling in the past year. I’d like to thank, once again, Information Today, Inc., the Salt Lake City Public Library, my own library system, and my good friends for making that possible.

If your library is, like most other libraries in the country, facing severe budget shortfalls, you may well be in despair that you will never get to go to a conference and hang out with all the cool kids. While I don’t want to diminish the fun that is and the contacts it gives you, I’d like to point out as well that while I now go to library conference to talk about our website, I built it almost entirely based on virtual contacts. The Park County Library website wouldn’t exist in its current form without Twitter and the LSW Meebo Room (and, nowadays, the LSW FriendFeed Room. I’m grateful to all the support I’ve gotten from those people, many of whom are now friends, and quite a few of whom I have still never met.

I guess what I want to say is this: if you’re reading this and thinking, “I’ll never get to go to a conference. I’ll never get to know any of those people,” don’t despair. We librarians are lucky to belong to a profession that employs the most pathologically helpful people on earth. That doesn’t mean that emailing me or posting something to the WordPress for Libraries group will automatically solve all your problems. We all have to spend a certain amount of time beating things with rocks. But if you’re willing to pick up a rock, you’ll be amazed at how many other people you can find out there banging away with you.

If I don’t know you and you’re reading this and you’ll be at Computers in Libraries, please come say hi. I’m presenting on Monday afternoon and can easily be found lobbyconning with many of my fellow Library Society of the World members for much of the rest of the time.

at your fingertips

If you’re reading this, you are sitting in front of a computer screen (or, perhaps, some kind of mobile screen — or, I suppose, you are reading a printout, but at some point you, or someone, got it from online). I’d like you to think for a moment about that time you spend sitting in front of a computer. I myself spend most of my day that way.

If I’m listening to a story on the radio, and I hear them say, “to see an interactive map of thus and such and hear more of whatever, go to npr.org,” I can quite easily stroll over to my laptop (if I don’t have it open already) and check it out. If I want to try again to order some black boots for my extremely long narrow feet (this is, I think, a fruitless quest, but I keep trying), I can spend all the time I want clicking around on Zappos and reading customer reviews. I can work on my taxes online and call my mom to ask a question about them at the same time. If you are reading this, chances are that you are able to do these sorts of things too, and that you do them without much thought.

Now I’d like you to imagine that you don’t have a computer with internet access.

I’d like you to imagine, in other words, that you are like a lot of the people who walk in to the average public library.

How much time does the average public library patron usually get to spend on a computer? 30 minutes to an hour is fairly typical, and that’s 30 minutes to an hour only once a day in a lot of places.

Think about all the things you did on a computer yesterday. Imagine that you had to do them all in one hour, on a computer that does not have all your favorite Firefox extensions, that quite possibly is missing the latest update of Flash, that probably won’t let you burn a CD.

I love the internet. I love that libraries are one of the few places in the world that provide free internet access. But when we talk about electronic resources and the wonders of the web and putting the world at people’s fingertips, I think it’s good to remember that for a significant number of people, we’re giving them an hour of that world at a time, quite probably on Internet Explorer 6.

as promised, shovers and makers — and more

Shovers and Makers 2009: I’m a winner! (So are you.) shoversandmakers.net

I’m there, and so are a lot of other people you probably know — and, perhaps more importantly, people you probably don’t know but might like to meet.

I’ve said before that the Library Society of the World was a happy accident born of frustration and social software, and I stick by that. The LSW has been taking trivial things seriously and serious things trivially since its inception. As the Nerdboys put it, Shovers & Makers is a joke, but it’s a serious joke. Look at the site. Look at some of the things these people have done, and the things they plan to do, and the things they hope to do.

Have you ever had a reference question you couldn’t stop answering? One where you kept finding more and better resources, more things you felt you had to take to the patron? That’s how the LSW in general and the S&M in particular make me feel about libraryland. There are more great things out there. There are more great people out there. There are more great ideas out there. Won’t you share them with us?

moving, shaking, shoving, making

It is customary at this time each year to write a blog post congratulating the people who have been named as this year’s Library Journal Movers & Shakers. And if you move in the circles I do, it’s also customary to note and link to all the M&S you are friends with or whose blogs you read or who you saw give a presentation once.

I’d like to do all of those things, and so I congratulate the winners, with shouts out to Jenica Rogers-Urbanek, whose writing and thinking I’ve admired for years; Jason Griffey; Karen Coombs, who once reassured me that yes, the OPAC did indeed suck; my gracious session presenting partner from Internet Librarian 2008, Sarah Houghton-Jan; Michael Porter; fellow Rad Refista and excellent silkscreener (and apparently pie baker) Lia Friedman; LSW Meebo Room denizen and whacky perl script generator Dave Pattern; Lauren Pressley; Lori Reed; Jamie Markus, who is here at our very own Wyoming State Library and who ran the Get on the Bus program; and Dorothea Salo.

Some of these people I’ve met; others I just know from online, and I’m kind of bowled over that I know so many in this great group of people — and I’m particularly pleased that my nomination (with able seconding from Steve Lawson) of Dorothea Salo got her on this year’s list. (I hadn’t quite thought through the implications of the my mythological allusion when I wrote up the nomination, and I fervently hope that neither Dorothea nor open access meet such an end.)

Librarianship is a small world, and some days I feel it’s all just a circle of people all boosting each others’ PageRanks and otherwise virtually scratching each others’ backs. That is not necessarily a bad thing — I’ve certainly benefited from it. But I’m also happy to read about the work of Movers & Shakers I don’t know. Lisa Harris runs literacy programs for people in prison and for their children. I remember emailing my mom about Women’s Health News when I ran across a link to it some years ago. I didn’t realize until now that its author, Rachel Walden , was the whistleblower on “abortion” being made a stop-word in the POPLINE health database. Ingrid Kalchthaler started libraries in homeless shelters. It sounds like J. Drusilla Carter turned a whole library system around by working with the community to develop teen activities, literacy programs, prison libraries, and a Spanish language collection. And the list goes on. . . .

Last Monday, word of the Library Society of the World Shovers and Makers started to trickle into the feed of the LSW Friendfeed Room. As my good friend Iris has noted, there’s already quite a bit of overlap between the current crop of M&S and the LSW membership (insofar as the LSW has a membership). I know there are all kinds of awesome librarians out there whom we haven’t heard about. I hope we’ll learn more about some of them soon.

another job (sort of) near me

If you live in Wyoming, you’ll soon come to think of 60 miles as nearby. Anyway, the Powell Branch Library in lovely Powell, Wyoming, is looking for a new branch manager. The Powell Branch is part of the same county library as my branch, and Powell is a great little town (it’s even mentioned in Bill McKibben’s book Deep Economy).

If you think you’d like doing my job in a somewhat larger town an hour northeast of where I am, you might just want to apply.