In which the answer cannot be “everything”

I’m a lucky girl. In addition to going to library school, I get to work with the iSchool Public Libraries Initiative (IPLI), which was launched last fall at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies. IPLI is described very well in this article as “a discovery zone for public library innovation, a hub for student inquiry on librarianship topics, and a means to circulate new ideas and research findings to public library professionals.”

So what does this mean for me? Well, it means that I get to participate in research surrounding public libraries. What’s even better is that I get to choose the sorts of projects I work on. Pretty sweet, right?

But therein lies the problem.

When asked by my faculty mentor what I’m interested in working on, the answer is very often, “I don’t know.” Not because I don’t have any ideas but because I have too many.

ideas

“What are you interested in?” she asks me, “What do you want to learn?”

“Everything!” is my frequent response during these conversations, and then my faculty mentor exhibits great restraint by not rolling her eyes at me.

Unfortunately, “everything” is not really a reasonable topic when doing public library research. Of course, librarians of all types are doing research about all sorts of things, so almost anything you can think of is probably being researched by one person or another. But for the individual graduate student hoping to make a contribution in the field of public librarianship, “everything” is not an achievable goal.

So I have to narrow things down, and I’ve gotten better at it. Instead of focusing on “everything,” I have instead:

  • worked with IPLI colleagues to learn more about public library funding models across the U.S.
  • investigated innovative public library programs that happen outside the library building and don’t have to do with books (see previous blog posts here and here)
  • explored how public libraries are promoting health and wellness in their communities (see here, here, and here)
  • written an article about the aforementioned topic and submitted it to an academic journal (fingers crossed that it will be accepted)
  • begun the process of getting permission from my university’s Office of Research Integrity and Protections to conduct interviews about one of my topics of interest
  • started learning more about emotional labor, burnout, and self-care in the library profession

There are still other things I am interested in when it comes to public librarianship — I have a whole nerdy spreadsheet full of possibilities to delve into when the time is right — but it seems wiser to concentrate on just a few at a time instead of fruitlessly trying to tackle all of them at once.

I’m really grateful to be working as part of the IPLI team. Having the opportunity to research public libraries is fascinating and incredibly rewarding. Now, if only I can remember that important life lesson “You can do anything but not everything.”

You can do anything but not everything.

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In which I reveal what you think about “librarian”.

Way back in November 2015, I wrote a post asking people what came to mind when they thought about the word “librarian.” I got lots of wonderful answers and have finally gotten my act together and created a word cloud with the results. Behold!

Librarian

In my word cloud, as you might expect, the size of each word corresponds to the frequency of the replies I received. So, as we can see, the word that most people who responded to my (informal and highly unscientific) survey thought of was “helpful”. The second most common answer was “knowledgeable” followed in popularity by “dedicated,” “intelligent,” and “well-read.”

I was pleasantly surprised by so many positive attributes being associated with librarianship. Of course, I think most librarians are the greatest thing since sliced bread. And chances are that someone who’s reading my blog probably thinks the same way. However, I’m always prepared for the possibility that people have had negative experiences with librarians and don’t automatically think of positive words. This was reflected in my survey with one response each of “cranky” and “intellectually superior” (although with that last comment I can’t tell if it means “think they’re smarter than everyone else” in a bad way, or actually means “are smarter than others” in a good way.)

So, what do you think? Are you surprised at any the words or phrases that appeared in this little experiment. If you were to play this word-association game today, what adjectives would leap most readily to mind?

In which I am aghast at the very idea!

Whilst looking at various library-related stories on Twitter, I happened upon this article which I thought, at first, must be a joke. You see, the piece details the decision, by a public library in Alabama, to begin enforcing an ordinance that could result in jail time for certain patrons with overdue library books.

Jail time?
For overdue library books?
What is this world coming to?
What kind of library director would countenance such a thing?
Is she insane?

To be fair, the full story is a bit more nuanced than its somewhat sensational title of:

Borrowed time: US library to enforce jail sentences for overdue books

After reading the article by The Guardian (my favorite news source from the UK), this story from the News Courier in Athens, Alabama, and this report from WAAY TV in Huntsville, Alabama, it seems that the facts are these:

  • Roughly $200,000 worth of books have not been returned to the Athens-Limestone Public Library.
  • Tossing patrons in jail is not the library’s initial response to overdue books. An email or text, followed by a certified letter giving the patron 10 days to settle the matter, are the library’s first attempts at a resolution.
  • Should those steps prove ineffective, a court summons comes next. An additional fine, and up to 30 days in jail, could be the result of ignoring the court summons.
  • The ordinance that allows for all this has been on the books for some time, but is only now being strictly enforced.
  • The measures above will not apply to children.

Woman's Hands Fettered With Handcuffs

On one hand, I sympathize with the library. $200,000 worth of non-returned books is serious business, and public libraries are not so well funded to be able to ignore the matter.

The library director herself is perhaps not such the hard-ass I first thought her. (And no, that’s not a very charitable thing for me to think about a fellow member of my profession. But I’m being honest… that was my initial assumption. This blog post is, in part, an attempt to see things from her point of view.) She’s quoted in the WAAY TV story as saying, “Our first step is to have a good relationship with our patrons and remind them to bring everything back.” And in the News Courier story, she makes it clear that she’s thinking of the taxpayers and about all of the patrons to whom library resources belong and the library’s responsibility to them.

However, after my first week of classes, in which my classmates and I discussed the Core Values of Librarianship, the idea of jail time for overdue books doesn’t sit comfortably in my mind with the American Library Association’s core value of Social Responsibility and the “contribution that librarianship can make in ameliorating or solving the critical problems of society.”

I know that I’m not a proper, credentialed librarian yet. I’m just a student and willing to admit that I’m inexperienced, and maybe even naive, not yet having worked in the library trenches in a full-time, professional capacity. But surely the threat of jail time (even for a tiny segment of public library patrons) is going to cause more problems in the community than it solves. Will patrons still feel as free to borrow from the library knowing what could happen if they cannot pay their overdue fines?

I confess I have more questions than answers, so I’d like to know… what do you think? I’m interested to hear from everyone: library directors, my librarian friends, fellow students, library staff, or anyone who’s ever forgotten to return an overdue library book. Do you believe that jail time should be the final sanction for extreme cases of non-returned library items? If not, how would you address the problem of $200,000 in missing materials?

In which I receive the gift of an entire library.

My youngest brother Jared has many talents, which include rocking his graduate coursework in applied linguistics, coaching runners, making tasty curry dishes from scratch, and living life as a hard-working, motivated, responsible member of the Millennial generation.* But perhaps my favorite of his qualities is his skill at, and penchant for, drawing imaginary cityscapes in his limited spare time.

He began a new creative project over the holidays and asked me if I’d like my own house in his latest utopia. “Yes, please,” I replied, “And may I have some trees in my yard? And could it be not too close to other houses, but still within easy walking distance of the library and other community spaces?” He promised me it would be, and when he finished, this was the result:

cityscape with arrows
Artwork by my brother Jared. (Arrows added by me.) Shared without asking permission first, because I’m the eldest sibling so I can do things like that. Bossy Big Sister Privilege is a little-known provision of copyright law, as long as you’re sure no one will mind.

The downward arrow points to my cozy house among a delightful copse of deciduous trees.
The rightward arrow points to the library of which I am now mistress. I adore it’s resemblance to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre while being thankful that it’s better protected from the elements. I’m delighted to see a free, public library in the midst of a city that looks so Renaissance-era European (where libraries were generally found at universities or abbeys, but not widely accessible to the general public… and almost never to women who weren’t among the clergy or nobility.)

I firmly believe that a library should be more than just an edifice full of books, and that a librarian’s mission reaches far beyond mere caretaking of printed artifacts. That being said, I’m inordinately charmed by the library building my brother drew for me. I confess that I do imagine it full of rare volumes and new publications, as well as spaces for learning, collaboration, and creativity.

As mistress of this city library, I don’t see myself remaining always within it’s physical confines, but happily venturing out into the community and becoming a person who improves society by facilitating knowledge creation with individuals, groups, and organizations. In the interest of accessibility, I may also advocate for more localized library services and spaces – perhaps a new branch? – for the citizens who live and work across the river. Mobilizing a corps of roving librarians to serve the homebound and residents of outlying areas is also part of my daydream.

What does this flight of fancy have to do with modern-day librarianship in the real world? Only that it’s important (as librarians, librarians-in-training, library staff, and/or library members) as often as we can, and by whatever means necessary, to widen our view beyond a specific library building, to see our larger community with fresh eyes, and to consider how we can serve it better. An imaginary library in an imaginary city can also be a visual reminder to share our mission with others and to discover the interests and talents that community members may wish to share enthusiastically with us.

* I often read and hear criticism of Millennials for being lazy and entitled. While I don’t doubt that this has been some people’s experience with the younger generation, I’m very fortunate that the Millennials I know are focused, productive, thoughtful, and generally society-improving people.

In which I ask what you think about “librarian”.

Recently, I started following a blog called Ditch the Bun, which is written by a public Reference & Information Services librarian from Sydney, Australia. I appreciate Ditch the Bun’s strong, humorous voice and creative ideas. One idea I liked so much that I asked permission to borrow it for my own blog. libraries

Back in October, Ditch the Bun wrote a post called What do Libraries mean to you? in which she asked her readers to share a word or words about “what libraries mean to you or words that remind you of libraries and what you can do there.” She used the submitted terms to create a beautiful word cloud. Check it out here.

My idea is similar, but I’d like to explore a different facet of the question. I think most people conjure up positive words when they ponder “libraries”. However, associations around the word “librarian” are often mixed. These associations include many favorable adjectives but some negative, old-school stereotypes as well. I’m interested in how the thoughts we connect to libraries will compare to those we attach to librarians.

So, reader, please tell me what comes to mind when you think “librarian”? What words remind you of librarians, the ways you interact with them, and the role they play in your life? Like Ditch the Bun, I’ll use your input to make a word cloud and share it in a future post… although I can’t promise mine will be as good-looking as hers.

librarian

To get us started, I’ll list the three words that pop into my mind when I think “librarian”, though it’s OK if yours are different:

  • helpful
  • enthusiastic
  • superhero

You may submit as many words as you like, within reason. Please be honest, there’s no judgement here, only curiosity. I can’t wait to find out what your words are!

In which I ponder librarianship in the wizarding world – Part 1.

On Saturday night, when I wasn’t feeling well, I spent far too much time lying under a quilt, moaning piteously, and watching a Harry Potter movie marathon on ABC Family. However, this did not stop me from thinking profound librarian-ish thoughts that surely no one’s ever thought before.

These questions may have little practical value in the Muggle real world. But they did lend a bit of context to what I’m learning in my classes, and they certainly helped me feel better.

Duke Humfrey’s Library at the Bodleian in Oxford was used as the Hogwarts Library in several of the films. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

In which I do not over-share.

I’ve been trying to post regularly (usually Wednesdays and Fridays or Saturdays), but I’ve not been feeling well this week, so I have nothing interesting to blog about at present.

How I feel: indisposed and boring.
Feeling indisposed and boring.

In my everyday life, with family and friends, I’m usually quite willing to share (and hear) details of illness, injury, or medical mystery. I suspect it’s because of the pre-med biology background of my early undergrad years. Or maybe it’s just my lifelong fascination with the human body, everything wonderful it can do, and all the things that can go wrong with it.  There is very little I personally consider to be Too Much Information, medically speaking.

However, the first rule of Library Blog is: you do not talk about Library Blog you do not share TMI with unsuspecting readers. Suffice it to say that I saw the doctor yesterday and expect to soon be on the mend. In my next post I’ll (hopefully) be ready to reveal details on a fun new librarian-related project I’ll be presenting as part of my Adventures.

In the meantime, to help me deal with the misery of [Redacted to avoid TMI], please tell me whether you’re more of a “Tell me everything!” or an “I didn’t need to know that!’ person.

In which I present a Top 5 list.

Top 5 Reasons Why I Love My Classmates at the Syracuse iSchool:

Rooners Toy Photography https://www.flickr.com/photos/rooners
TARDIS

1. More Whovians than you can point a sonic screwdriver at.
Seriously, I have never met so many other fans of Doctor Who in one place. I can mention the TARDIS or say “Spoilers, sweetie.” and people know what I mean.

2. “Works well with others.”
In school, I hated group projects. Getting stuck with apathetic classmates meant I always did all the work. Fortunately, my library school teammates are enthusiastic and conscientious about what we’re learning and producing together.

3. Creativity abounds.
My peers include a published fiction author, numerous musicians, accomplished (and beginning) knitters, a professional photographer, some graphic designers, and other artists of all types. I’m a little envious sometimes, but mostly inspired by the presence of so many creative people.

4. It’s better to be kind than clever. (But why not be both?)
LIS students at the iSchool are bright and insanely talented. They’re also friendly, generous with their knowledge, and genuinely helpful.

5. Like Super-Grover, only better!

We may not be “faster than lightning.” We may not be able to fly (or crash-land as spectacularly as my favorite blue superhero), but iSchool library students are just as passionate about serving our communities. We’re learning the skills to make us capable facilitators of knowledge creation. And we are cute, too.

In which I shadow a (really cool) reference librarian.

Her official job title is Director of Innovative Family Services and it may well be the best job ever. Margaret Portier is the name of this fortunate librarian. I’m the lucky library student who got to shadow her at the Fayetteville Free Library (FFL) for three hours on Saturday as part of my IST 605: Reference and Information Literacy Services class.

Margaret Portier from the Fayetteville Free Library. Photo shared with permission.

During my observation, Margaret was nominally stationed at the library’s main Information desk, but assisting library members took us to several other areas of the library building, including a small, staff-only back office to reboot a server. The question-askers represented a range of ages and Margaret assisted them with everything from basic information (“Do you have this book?”) to more complicated technology issues (“Minecraft is lagging. Can you fix it?”) I could likely write a 10-page essay relating what I saw to the concepts I’m learning in class, but for this post I’ll limit myself to three areas:

Reference skills are customer service skills.
Although my textbook refers to them as reference skills, Margaret used what I – because of my retail background – call good customer service skills. She demonstrated approachability by making eye contact and smiling, greeting the library members (very often by name), and displaying relaxed but attentive body language. I witnessed examples of verbal acknowledgement (rephrasing what a person said to ensure understanding) as well as open questions meant to clarify the information being sought.

For example, a man wanted to find a book for his wife similar to one she had just read. Margaret began, before consulting a reference resource or dashing away to the shelves, by asking, “What about this [first] book did your wife like best?” Instead of making an assumption, she took pains to understand the user’s need more fully, and this was a perfect way to handle an imposed query. This may seem like a very basic skill in a simple transaction. You might take it for granted because it’s the sort of proficiency that’s not always noticeable until it’s absent. However, if you’ve ever felt frustrated by getting a not-quite-right answer, or suspected the person who’s “helping” you wasn’t paying attention to the specifics of your need, you quickly begin to value the good follow-up question.

Non-traditional reference: the coolest part.
Although Margaret does plenty of traditional reference, answering questions in-person at the Information Desk and over the phone, by far the most unusual (and fascinating) aspect of her job is her role as the library’s Minecraft specialist. In response to the needs of their tween/teen patrons, the FFL has installed MinecraftEdu (the classroom version of the popular game) on their server. Margaret has assumed responsibility for learning the ins and outs of the game from scratch (i.e. she didn’t come to the library an expert but learned it on the job) and serves as the players’ source of assistance in the library. She provides this help not only in person but also from within the game through the player chat feature.

MindcraftEdu image used with permission. TeacherGaming LLC 2015
MindcraftEdu image used with permission. TeacherGaming LLC 2015

Let me repeat: she is providing virtual reference services for library members through Minecraft as part of her job! [I don’t play Minecraft myself, but my nephews do, so I fully comprehend the marvelousness of this service.] I asked what reference resources she found most helpful for her non-traditional reference work and she pointed me towards the Minecraft Wiki and the MinecraftEdu Resources. However, she sometimes facilitates learning by connecting newer players who have questions with more experienced players who know how to get things done in the game. Minecraft wikis and local teens as reference resources? This is innovative librarianship!

They keep coming back.
We didn’t specifically discuss, at this shadowing session, how Margaret evaluates the reference services she provides. However, I took note of evidence that suggests library members value her assistance highly:

  1. At least 4 adult patrons made a beeline for her desk as soon as they walked into the library, and knew her by name. Previous good service clearly made them feel comfortable returning to her for future assistance.
  2. A woman looking for an audiobook recommendation went out of her way to tell me that “Margaret is great. She has never steered me wrong.”
  3. Margaret was the most popular person in the library with the Minecraft gamers. Granted, maybe it’s because they have no other choice of librarian with that specific knowledge, but I doubt it. It was obvious to me that the younger patrons had no hesitation about approaching her for help. She is clearly valuable to their library experience.

As you can tell, I enjoyed my Saturday morning at the main Information desk with Margaret. I’ll have the chance to shadow her for another three hours next month (at the desk in the teen space) and observe a one-on-one instruction session. In the meantime, I’ve signed up for a library card so I can use the computer lab, develop some Minecraft skills, and seriously impress my nephews. I also know which FFL librarian I’ll ask if I need help.

In which I learn a new skill.

Today at work, I did something very exciting. Although I’ve been a Wikipedia user for many years, today I became a… *insert trumpet fanfare*… Wikipedia editor. I even got a whole page of shiny badges to show for it. Granted, I did so by completing a fairly simple, step-by-step tutorial. But a new skill is a new skill, and I’d argue that learning how to write and edit Wikipedia articles is a somewhat valuable skill. I really love learning how to do new stuff. I must not let this new-found power go to my head.

Badges? We don't need no stinking badges! (But it's nice to have them anyhow.)
Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges! (But it’s nice to have them anyhow.)