Bookmobiles have come up in a number of conversations I’ve had recently, so I thought I’d share some thoughts and links.
Jane Hu wrote a piece earlier this summer for the Awl called “Booktorrent! The Bookmobile as Rural Filesharing Network”. There weren’t quite as many parallels to today’s models of sharing information as you’d expect from the title, but it’s still a good, short introduction to bookmobile service in England and America. She touches on the way public library service first began in cities, leaving those who lived in more rural areas without the free access to information libraries were beginning to provide. Bookmobiles were a way to bring that information and those resources to a wider audience.
One emerging trend in librarianship now is to position the library as a “third place,” a location that is neither work nor home but which allows for social interaction and the establishment of a sense of community. (The more common way to refer to this is as the library as a community center.) But Hu points out that this is something early bookmobiles were already offering:
The bookmobile also provided often-detached rural populations opportunities to socialize. In attempts to appeal to adults, bookmobiles often added late night stops. (I’m a little disappointed these don’t happen anymore.) The goal of the bookmobile to educate and thus “make better Americans” opened up a cultural conversation that spreads each day with the traveling word.
For a more extensive chronicling of the history of bookmobile service in a particular place, check out the articles and photos (such great photos!) that Western Maryland’s Historical Library has collected and made available. In fact, it was in Washington County that Mary Titcomb started the first bookmobile service in America in 1905 as a way of reaching potential patrons who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) visit the deposit stations in general stores and post offices that she’d established throughout Washington County, Maryland. What I found especially interesting was her evolving thoughts on what the bookcart should look like and what connotations it should evoke. She wrote in The Story of the Washington County Free Library:
The first wagon, when finished with shelves on the outside and a place for storage of cases in the center resembled somewhat a cross between a grocer’s delivery wagon and the tin peddlers cart of by gone New England days. Filled with an attractive collection of books and drawn by two horses, with Mr. Thomas the janitor both holding the reins and dispensing the books, it started on its travels in April 1905.
When directions were given as to painting, we had the fear of looking too much like the laundry wagon before our eyes, and the man was strictly enjoined, not to put any gilt or scroll work on it but to make even the lettering, “Washington County Free Library,” plain and dignified, directions carried out only too well, for in the early days of our wagoning, as our man approached one farm house, he heard a voice charged with nervous trepidation, call out “Yer needn’t stop here. We ain’t got no use for the dead wagon here.” Suffice it to say, that we promptly painted the wheels red, and picked off the panels of the doors with the same cheerful color.
In 1912, the library began using a motorized bookmobile.
However, this bookmobile suffered frequent accidents and breakdowns, prompting the librarian at the time, Miss Nellie Chrissinger, to write in the annual report, “The wagon is a victim of circumstances over which we have no control. Even at best, but eight or nine months can be counted on and wet days, wet roads, and repairs shorten the time of operation still more.”
The Washington County Free Library most recently upgraded its bookmobile in 2004. It can carry up to 4000 books, has four computer workstation outlets, is air conditioned or heated depending on the season, and comes equipped with a wheelchair lift.
It’s interesting to see how much bookmobile service has evolved in the last hundred years!
Hu mentions that bookmobile service was the only way libraries were able to reach many people living in rural areas. I’m not completely sure I’m remembering this correctly, but during one of my courses with Dr Preer during my MLS, she told us that when public library service was expanding across the country, the government provided funds for libraries to develop bookmobile service in their area to reach rural residents. Even then, though, Indiana had something of a libertarian bent, and most libraries declined this funding, not wanting to take federal money to provide a local service. So while other states were sending out bookmobiles and demonstrating the relevance, importance, and general awesomeness of library service to as many people as possible in their towns or counties or service areas, Indiana was focusing on physical buildings and not doing as much outreach. As a result, even to this day, support for libraries isn’t as strong as it could be in Indiana, and library service often lags behind other states in the Midwest. There are still plenty of people who don’t have library service without having to pay for library cards (the white areas on this map show unserved areas), and because library service is still a patchwork of town and county libraries, it’s harder to have state-wide standards for staff qualifications and services provided and operating hours. If only we’d said yes to bookmobiles!
Mary Titcomb wrote, “No better method has ever been devised for reaching the dweller in the country. The book goes to the man, not waiting for the man to come to the book.” But it’s not just country dwellers whose lives are enriched by bookmobile service; bookmobiles across the country now bring the library’s resources to nursing homes or the homebound.
It seems like a lot of people have fond memories of bookmobile service. When my parents first moved us to Indiana, we lived in an area just outside of Fort Wayne that was only just beginning to be developed. The nearest library branch was about 20 minutes away, so we made use of the bookmobile service the library provided while they planned and built a branch in our area. While my memories of the bookmobile are pretty hazy–mostly I remember enjoying the coolness after being out in the hot summer sun and the delight I felt in being in a room full of books–my mom still reminisces about how much she enjoyed being able to request specific titles and have them brought to her the next week.
W. Ralph Eubanks mused on his own memories of bookmobile visits during his childhood in Mississippi for All Things Considered earlier this summer. What I found especially interesting was this passage that reflects on both the inequality of life for a black family in the South, but also on the way library service can change our lives:
Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Mississippi resisted enforcing it. But when my mother, a school teacher, asked for the bookmobile to stop at our house in the summer of 1965, the librarian did not hesitate even though schools were still segregated. By simply following the law rather than ignoring it, the bookmobile transformed me into a lifelong reader and eventually a writer.
The thing I came across most recently that got me thinking about bookmobiles was Audrey Niffenegger’s The Night Bookmobile, a graphic novel about a woman who discovers a bookmobile one night that contains every book she’s ever read. The bookmobile disappears, though, and the woman spends years trying to find it again, becoming a librarian in the mean time.
Being able to bring library service to as many people as possible is part of the mission of any good library. We help those who are able to make it through our doors, but we also need to consider the needs of those for whom visiting the library isn’t possible or practical. We send books to nursing homes, we visit juvenile detention facilities, and we provide ebooks and downloadable audio books, but for many, the bookmobile has a special place in their heart as the way they access their libraries.
This month the writers of the YALSA blog are doing 30 Days of Back to School with a post each day that considers some aspect of going back to school or gearing up again for fall library work with teens. This is going to be the first fall in 20 years that I don’t go back to school and I’m still looking for my first professional position after getting my MLS, so I reflected on my job search so far.
Click through for disappointment! excitement! frustration! renewed hope! and more! It’s like a crazy soap opera, but with fewer secret twins returned from the dead to surprise you with the news that they’re actually your dad.
Once I started library school, my mom started noticing libraries in the news. Every month or so she’ll send me a clipping or a link to a story about a library in our area, a report on a new trend in librarianship, or a write-up on some controversy at a library. Today she showed me “Libraries branching out to malls”, an AP article that describes how some libraries are opening branches–some that look like your normal neighborhood library branch and some that are more like bookstores–in shopping malls. The article points out that library usage has been increasing steadily (citing the IMLS report that I recently mentioned) and notes that one library mentioned in the article had to increase their storytimes from 2-3 a week to 12 a week at their mall location. Overall the article paints libraries in malls as positive and notes that they’re part of a trend toward convenience and customer satisfaction.
And in general, I think that this form of mild library outreach is a good way to get the library to where the patrons are. Our private spaces are increasingly becoming commercialized and clearly there are a lot of people in shopping malls. Having a mall outlet is a good way for the library to be a part of patrons’ routines in a way they might not be able to as stand-alone buildings.
But I wonder what it means that libraries are stepping up and standing alongside commercial spaces. Will this commercialize the library? Part of the library’s greatness is that everyone is welcome and everyone has (or we strive for them to have) equal access to what we provide. That’s not what commercial enterprise does, and I wonder if people start associating the library with the mall if they’ll start to think of the library differently.
Don’t get me wrong: I think any chance to bring more people into the library or to bring library service to people is great, and having libraries in malls is a great way to capture a different segment of the library’s service population. As long as libraries don’t wind up exclusively in malls, I think it’s a great idea.
But it’s also not without its dangers. One library mentioned in the article rents their space for $1 a year and their programs are sponsored by a local energy company. But to offer another data point, the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library system is facing budget cuts, and one of the two branches that’s on the chopping block in all three plans that involve closing branches is the Glendale branch, which is located in a shopping mall. Even though the Glendale branch has some of the highest circulation and gate-count data, the powers that be are concerned that they’re renting the space rather than purchasing it and having that equity. The library board should be making a decision about how to cope with budget reductions this month.
If libraries can find a good deal in renting a space in a mall, it sounds like that’s a great way to make the library more available to certain people and to raise the library’s visibility in the community. I’m a little concerned about whether or not that might commercialize the library–an organization whose greatest strength lies in its public nature–but so long as libraries aren’t located solely in shopping malls, it sounds like a good opportunity.
One of the characteristics of my MLS program that I enjoyed the most was the diversity in age and experience among my classmates. There were people like me who were (mostly) fresh out of college and whose library experience was fairly limited, but because of the recent changes in Indiana library certification (summary here), some of my classmates were department heads or branch managers or even library directors who had been in their positions for decades without an MLS and who were now in school to get their degrees so they could keep their jobs. This led to a wide range in opinions and experiences in the classroom, which made for great class discussions. It also meant that I got to hear a lot of stories about how things were done in different libraries, many of which had very different policies and procedures.
One of the most disturbing stories I heard during my degree was about a challenge to a book in the teen collection at a particular library. Just for storytelling purposes, I’ll call it the Anonymous Public Library (APL). Because of the worldview of a few board members, APL takes a very active role in deciding what’s appropriate for the library collection. They do not purchase or accept donations of R-rated movies, even if the movie has won awards or broken box office records. The board members who designed and uphold this policy think that APL shouldn’t carry “inappropriate” material like this because children might check it out. Staff members have tried to suggest having adult library cards and children’s cards and not allowing children to check out videos, freeing adults to watch movies for grownups, but the board members remain resolute.
Because of the generally conservative culture at APL, the teen section also comes under a lot of scrutiny. It does serve 6th-12th graders which is admittedly a very wide range, but I’m firmly of the opinion that if a parent is concerned about what his or her child is reading, that parent should be involved in the child’s selection of reading materials–in other words, it’s not the library’s job to be the parent. But APL’s policies differ from my personal philosophy, so no books in the teen collection may contain the F-word, and the board expects the teen librarian to read every book before she purchases it to make sure the forbidden word doesn’t appear and to screen for other “inappropriate” material and themes. If APL were a tiny public library with a tiny budget and few purchases, this might be feasible, but because of APL’s size and budget, there’s no way the teen librarian can possibly read everything before she orders it.
So one of the stories about APL that was told in class was this: a seventh grader checked out Julie Halpern’s GET WELL SOON, thinking from the cover that it would be like a Jerry Spinelli book. In fact, the story is about a girl named Anna Bloom whose parents send her to a residential mental health facility (a “loony bin,” as Anna puts it) to treat her depression. The young APL patron was surprised to find a number of swear words on the first page and showed the book to her mom. Her mom was very angry and brought the book back to the library to request its removal.
In most public libraries, a librarian would listen to the parent, try to assess and reflect back why the parent was upset, and to show the parent that her concerns were important to the library. Librarians usually also try to explain the value of diversity in the collection and the importance of helping kids select their reading material if subject matter is a concern. Then if the parent still wants to challenge the book, the librarian would have the parent fill out a request for reconsideration form. Depending on library policy, a group of librarians, managers, and maybe board members or members of the public would meet, review the book, and make a decision.
At APL, the book was immediately taken to the director, who looked at the first page, decided the book was inappropriate, and had it removed it from the collection. The book itself didn’t even go to the pile of general library discards that’s sold by the Friends of the Library as a fundraiser: it went into the dumpster. This all happened within an hour of the mom’s initial challenge to the book.
And the craziest part of this story is that while this was happening, the teen librarian was on vacation, and when she returned, no one from management told her it’d happened. In her absence, the book just disappeared. She only found out later when the checkout clerk who was the mom’s first point of contact told the teen librarian, which she wasn’t supposed to have done.
Obviously this is a really extreme version of how a challenge process can work in a public library, and it is, of course, up to the community to decide how their library is run. It just makes me sad that the board members who support these policies have such a limited view of intellectual freedom in general and, more specifically, of kids’ ability to choose their own reading material and to stop when they find something they don’t think is right for them, and it makes me sad that the librarians at APL can’t do more to call this out for the censorship that it is.
So it was with great joy that I read the news that the Fon Du Lac School District in Wisconsin had chosen to keep GET WELL SOON on the shelf at Theisen Middle School. Challenges in a school library are particularly tricky because unlike public libraries, the school is acting in loco parentis, so challenges are more likely to be successful. Another school district in the area had opted to put a sticker on another book (not GET WELL SOON) deemed inappropriate for middle schoolers and to require parental permission for students to check it out, so FDLSD’s decision is especially heartening. During the hearings, the media specialist defended the library’s diverse collection and said that if a student checked out GET WELL SOON and was uncomfortable reading it that she would help that student find something more appropriate. This is exactly the right way to handle challenges like this and I’m so pleased with how things turned out.
If a challenge doesn’t get much media attention, the author often never hears about the challenge or the outcome. But in this case, Julie Halpern saw an article about the decision (and noted that no one’d called her) and wrote a blog post about how the challenge affected her writing of the sequel and the role respect plays in reading, writing, and allowing kids to pick their own reading material.
Some people are speaking up for their libraries by making videos. The Monroe County Community School Corporation’s school libraries were recently saved and I’d like to think that the video students, teachers, and the librarian at Templeton Elementary School made of the play they wrote and performed during National Library Week, “The Case of the Missing Librarian,” had something to do with it.
And Laura Graff of Sun Valley High School in California created “Bleeding Libraries,” a vision of what will happen when libraries close due to budget cuts.
I tend to assume that everyone within libraryland is an unconditional library lover and supporter, but another recent YALSA blog post challenged that assumption. Linda Braun, the president of YALSA–the president of YALSA–asked if every library was worth saving.
LWB: Yeah, I get that. We do need to get the word out about the importance of libraries. But here’s the thing I’ve been thinking about. As someone who consults and teaches librarians to be – Should all libraries be saved? I hear horror stories about libraries that provide really bad service and have really bad collections.
Do we want to save those libraries too?
mk: Well, is that the fault of the library itself, or is it symptomatic of leadership within the library or the community?
LWB: Either I suppose, but if we have the rallying cry of save all libraries will that change? Isn’t it a band-aid to save all libraries and then have the same service and same problems keep happening?
Why not save some libraries and be honest about the bad stuff that’s going on in some places?
She does say she’s playing the devil’s advocate and if you keep reading, I think what Linda is saying isn’t so much that some libraries shouldn’t be saved, but that some libraries need a lot of work. And in a small way, I agree that we don’t always turn a critical enough eye to our profession, to what our libraries are doing, and to what they could or should be doing. But especially now when libraries are being threatened, it’s frightening to think that admitting our imperfections–even if we’ve also got a plan to remedy those–might mean the end of our library entirely.
But it’s adults who have power and voice in our society, so we need to be able to talk about why libraries matter and what they do and then take action. Zen College Life gives us 85 reasons to be thankful for libraries and while some are jokey (“Colleges need something to remodel every so often” and “A library is a great excuse to get out of the house (seriously, why would anyone argue with you about it?)”), some really get to the heart of what it is libraries do: we offer free Internet access to people who would otherwise be shut out of the online world, not everything can be found online and librarians can help you find very specific information, we teach children literacy and problem-solving skills. In making lists like these, I think instead of thinking about what libraries do, it’s more helpful to think about what would be missing from the community if the library was gone.
Karl Siewert advocates for the library by infiltrating Instructables, explaining in just a few easy steps how you can get any information you could possibly need (hint: the required materials are a library card and the ability to ask questions).
Jessamyn West also compiled a list of single link advocacy sites supporting libraries in need. If a library in your area is on the list, check out the site and see what you can do.
And while talking on the Internet about how great libraries are has its place, the best way to stand up for your library is through concrete, real-world action. Use your library and give them the circ stats and program attendance numbers they need to make their case. Vote for ballot measures that support library funding. Talk to your legislators and tell them libraries are important to you. The best people to advocate for libraries aren’t librarians–they’re people who aren’t formally associated with the library. We need non-librarians to champion us.
“Ask me about the pest that’s infecting your crop, common skin diseases, how to seek help if your husband beats you or even how to stop having children, and I may have a solution,” says a confident Akhter.
This kind of transformative access to information is awesome on its own, but it’s especially great in a country like Bangladesh where 36% of people live on less than $1 a day and 90% of women give birth at home with no medical assistance. Read more at the original Guardian article.
The Westbury Book Exchange in Somerset, England is billed as the “smallest library in the world” at Offbeat Earth. An old red telephone booth was purchased for £1 and stocked with books, CDs, and DVDs. People bring books they’ve read to swap with what’s in the booth. I love this community-driven love for literacy, but it’s not really a library, is it? The books aren’t in any particular order, much less being cataloged or classified, and there’s no professional staff available to help you find what you want. But it’s gotten me thinking about what makes a library a library–and it’s cute!
There’s still time to apply for YALSA’s mentoring program if you haven’t yet. Experienced public and school librarians working with teens will be paired up with newcomers to the field for mutual learning, encouragement, and awesomeness. Applications are due by the end of this month, so if you’re interested but haven’t finished your application, be sure to do so soon.
And finally, a couple videos. As part of the promotion for GUYS READ: FUNNY BUSINESS, which comes out this September, HarperCollins put together “The Joke,” in which Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett, Adam Rex, David Yoo, Paul Feig, Kate DiCamillo, Christopher Paul Curtis, Eoin Colfer, Jack Gantos, David Lubar, and Jeff Kinney–all contributors to the collection–tell a joke about a new kid in school.
I like that the Internet makes authors so much more accessible than they ever have been. There’s exciting stuff like being able to read their blogs, follow them on Twitter, or watch their video blogs, but even just things like this where you get to see what they look like personalizes them in a way that I didn’t really have growing up.
Some students and faculty members at the University of Washington’s Information School show off the braininess and sexiness of library and information science work in “Librarians do Gaga.”
Graduation photos are starting to show up on Facebook; one of my classmates’ cake included a bookcart, and fellow SLIS-Indy alumna and Oath-swearer Shellie had a cake at her graduation party that was just books books books:
Shellie's graduation cake
(I love her selection–she had me with MOCKINGJAY, but to have the whole pile topped off with the Intellectual Freedom Manual is the best!)
Cake Wrecks normally features reader-submitted photographs of cakes that have gone terribly wrong, but on Sundays, Jen features Sunday Sweets” cakes that are beautiful, clever, or well-constructed. This week she must have been getting our librarian graduation vibe: she showcased “Reading Sweets,” books modeled after or inspired by books. The featured books include the Harry Potter series, the Lord of the Rings books, and WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. About a year ago, Jen had a similar post, “Reading Rocks” with lots of Seuss and other children’s books.
My husband and my mom both have iPads and it’s been fun to play with them and see the way the user interface and user experience have changed from the iPhone. While I think we’re still figuring out how libraries can use things like the Kindle and the iPad, it’s interesting to see what experiences people are coming up with for books on the iPad. Penguin shows off their vision of interactive books, but even more awesome is Alice for the iPad.
Former supermodel and talkshow host Tyra Banks will be writing a fantasy series about an academy of super-elite models known as Intoxibellas. The first book, MODELLAND, will be out in summer 2011. While the reaction at Bookshelves of Doom is disappointment? horror? exasperation? I don’t think it’s surprising. America’s Next Top Model is still going strong (it’s in cycle 14 now and has been renewed through the 16th and it’s the CW’s top show) and Tyra has been moving through different media (reality television, music, her talkshow, and now books) trying to capitalize on her fame. With such a Tyra following among teens, tweens, and young twenty-somethings, of course a publisher is going to agree to release her books. The only question is, will you buy them for your library? (Related: did you know that former supermodel and ANTM judge Paulina Porizkova wrote a book about a young girl in the modeling world, A MODEL SUMMER? It is for grownups, though.)
The Boston Public Library closed its Chinatown branch in 1956. Tired of waiting for the library system to respond to community demand for a library, Leslie and Sam Davol (of Boston Street Lab) and Amy Cheung created the Chinatown Storefront Library, a collection of donated books, computers, programming, and space that was open for three months at the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010. While it was always intended to be temporary, a second iteration will be open this fall for a projected two years. As Rebecca Miller wrote, “Perhaps most significant, the project offered real alternative insight into how to give the community a place to land and learn when full library service is out of reach.”
Way back when I was first starting this blog, I wrote about library service areas in Indiana. The State Library recently updated that data and provided a new map of those service areas. A few of the contract areas were dropped, but other previously unserved areas are now covered under contracts. While I’ll be leaving the state soon, I hope everyone at the State Library will continue to work hard to get every Hoosier access to a library.
We had our final meeting for my Youth Services class tonight; it’s definitely bittersweet (more bitter than sweet, if I’m going to be honest) to be finishing the program. So since it was our last class, the material we covered was a grab bag of library fun: we started with the recent challenge of Toni Morrison’s SONG OF SOLOMON in one of my classmate’s school districts (the unusual twist here is that rather than the objection coming from a parent, it’s coming instead from a school board member–and the kids were halfway through the book when the challenge arose! The book had been taught for years before anyone challenged it! This has even caught the attention of Anna North at Jezebel.) and then talked about knowing your community and what kinds of programs will and won’t fly (like tarot cart readings, anti-Valentine’s Day programs, or even Banned Book Week events), interviewing and salary negotiation, being advocates for young people, and professional tools and resources.
We also had a discussion about the value of the MLS. Since I started the program almost two years ago I’ve repeatedly found myself called to defend the need for the degree, usually to people incredulously asking, “You need a master’s degree for that?” Initially I didn’t really know what to say because I’d just started the program myself and was a newcomer to the field and didn’t really know what I’d be learning in classes or on the job. But after working in three different kinds of libraries, taking classes, doing projects and internships, discussing this with other librarians and library students, and getting within six days of graduation (!), I feel better equipped to answer that incredulity.
In my earlier post on the need for more rigor in the profession, I mentioned the exclusive body of knowledge that we lay claim to as part of being professionals. While I think we need to work harder to expand and deepen and refine what appears in the library science literature, it’s through a professional degree that we confer that knowledge to the next generation of librarians. You can be taught how to catalog a book on the job, but you’re very unlikely to receive along with that training a lecture on controlled vocabularies or bibliographic access. You may be really good at finding things online or at doing research with print materials, but it’s through a professional degree that you will learn about information-seeking behavior. Librarianship requires specialized skills and knowledge and while some of that can be learned on the job, the theoretical background comes from the studies you do for a degree.
Instilling professional ethics
While you may have considered the ethical implications of library work on your own or be put through ethics training on the job, it is through a master’s degree that you examine library ethics in detail and develop a comprehensive view of what libraries are all about. A day-long ethics seminar at work doesn’t give you the depth of understanding that you get in a semester-long course on intellectual freedom. You not only need to balance access and privacy, intellectual freedom and community responsiveness–you also need to be able to understand and defend why you do what you do.
Connection to our history
Sure, you know who Melvil Dewey was and have probably heard of Nancy Pearl. But do you know Justin Winsor, Charles Cutter, Samuel Swett Green, Jesse Shera, S. R. Ranganathan, Margaret A. Edwards, Augusta Baker, Anne Carroll Moore, Pura Belpré, Helen Thornton Geer, Kathleen de la Peña McCook, Michael Gorman, or Judith Krug? Do you know their contributions to librarianship and how they changed the profession? Do you know how librarianship and libraries have evolved? Do you know how young adult literature emerged from children’s literature and how children’s literature developed in the first place? Do you know how technology has changed the profession? Do you know what the philosophy of libraries used to be and what it is now? Do you know how the field became a “woman’s profession”? You could read books about the history of librarianship, but you’re not going to learn about these things in the day-to-day work you do in a library. And this isn’t just trivia you want to know to impress your friends and neighbors: it is by knowing where we’ve come from and what it is that makes a library a library that we can chart where we are going to go.
Signaling your valuing of your work
Librarians are undervalued. Public librarians are especially undervalued. Youth Services librarians are criminally undervalued. Having a professional degree and defending it to skeptics signals that you value your work, your knowledge, and your profession–and that the profession is a profession and not just a job that anyone off the street can do. An MLS is an investment of your time and your money and you’d better be able to explain why you had to get that piece of paper to be a librarian and how what you learned during the course of your degree makes you a better librarian than someone who just has work experience.
There are undoubtably genius autodidacts who rock the library world without an MLS and who are curious and driven enough to acquire some of this specialized knowledge on their own–after all, a library is a place where you can research and learn and improve yourself and your skills. I’m not trying to claim that one must have an MLS to be a good librarian or that what you learn during the course of your MLS studies will be useful to you every minute of every day you spend at work. But I do think that MLS programs that give us a theoretical foundation, an understanding of ethical issues in the field, and a sense of the profession’s history and future make us much, much better equipped to be excellent librarians than those who rely on work experience alone. And being able to understand the value of that degree and defend it to those who think librarianship is just sitting around reading all day is essential.
On Friday we had our third and final ALISS Luncheon Lecture of the semester. Patsy Allen, an IU SLIS grad and the research librarian at Roche Diagnostics, talked to us about her career as a corporate librarian.
She actually began as a part-time contractor before her position was developed into a full-time one four years later. When Roche was creating the position, there was a lot of debate about what to call the position before they finally settled on “Research Librarian.” Many people in the company handle information of some sort, so they wanted what she is available for to be very clear. She said that some of the older employees didn’t like the name because they still regard librarians as the shushing guardians of the stacks, but that the younger employees who were being hired straight out of school were excited to know that Roche had a librarian for them to come to with their information needs.
Patsy described her position as being “a solo librarian in a global environment” since she’s the only librarian in a company that employs thousands of people. Employees of Roche ask her to find articles and papers, patent data, and lots of other highly specialized information to assist them with their research in biology, chemistry, and engineering, mostly via email (which can be tricky when she’s trying to tease out exactly what a client needs!).
Her manager isn’t a librarian (he works with patent information), so she has a lot of autonomy in her work, which she said she really enjoys. Like Ellen Summers of the NCAA Library, Patsy emphasized the importance of the Special Libraries Association in feeling connected to the profession and having other librarians to help her, although she did point out that corporate librarian positions can be radically different from one company to another. She also talked about how important continuing education is for her, whether it’s through courses at a university or seminars through SLA.
She talked a little bit about how she can’t talk about a lot of her work. Since she works for a corporation that does scientific research, she’s privy to a lot of information that she can’t disclose. The work Roche does is also highly regulated, which introduces further restrictions on what she can talk about. Patsy also talked about the importance of professional integrity: while she may know that two people are working on the same sort of project based on the questions they’re asking her, she can’t tell them about each other.
Patsy spends a lot of energy monitoring copyright issues and explaining them to her clients. Many of them come from an academic environment and are used to being able to pass information to other colleagues fairly freely under the Fair Use guidelines, but copyright rules in a corporate environment are much more restrictive. The general guideline she gives clients is “assume the answer is ‘no’ unless I tell you otherwise.” She also showed us some of the different levels of permission different publishers grant for copying and distributing articles–some allow only paper copies to be made while others allow for electronic copies to be distributed. Roche can be sued by a publisher if an article is posted to the company intranet without permission, so complying with copyright restrictions is really important, and she’s the primary person to educate employees on what they may and may not do. The library also won’t order reports for employees since it requires the recipient to sign off on how they’ll be using the document. She’ll get a client a complete citation, but their department must be the one to order it. She also has to be careful about exactly what she advises people to do, since in Indiana offering legal advice counts as practicing law, which you can’t do unless you’re a lawyer.
Patsy also talked about some of the tools she uses in her work including Medline, Embase, Biosis, SciSearch, Current Contents, ScienceDirect, Wiley InterScience, Google and Google Scholar, PubMed, OCLC FirstSearch, FDA, EBSCOhost Databases, and other STM, business, and legal resources. She said that she works to be really proactive in constantly scanning the media and news alerts and blogs for items of interest and then forwarding them on to clients who might find the information useful before they even ask for it or need it. She said that this not only reminds them of the library’s usefulness but also gives her a chance to show potential new clients what the library can do for them.
Despite Roche being on the cutting edge in their industry, they are by necessity technologically cautious in some ways. Since Roche is a gigantic company, they need to be reserved in how quickly they adopt new technology and new versions of software, so she’s trying to make do with Internet Explorer 6 and old versions of other software packages. She’s also lost her physical library: she used to work in a room full of books but was moved to a cubicle with a computer and a book cart. While lots of information–especially the most recent of research–is available online and she does conduct most of her correspondence via email, she said that she missed being in a proper library.
Although the slow adoption of new technology and constant assessment of copyright compliance seemed at times exasperating, Patsy said that she loves her job. Since she’s helping clients with their scientific research, she learns new things every day just by seeing that information go by. She did emphasize knowing one’s limits in a special library and being able to tell clients that what they wanted was too advanced for her to do, but that she could put them in touch with another person or resource that could help them. Her job is fast-paced and she never knows on a given day what she’ll see thrown at her and she loves being kept on her toes. She also mentioned the social aspect of her job, pointing out that her life isn’t just research and information all day long, but that there’s a human element, an opportunity to help people and to teach them. The analogy she provided was that of being an information bartender–I think that’d be a great thing to put on a business card!
Patsy closed with a quotation from Neil de Grasse Tyson that’s appropriately scientific but also blends with the librarian’s life:
In life and in the universe,
may your signal be high
and your noise be low.
There’s a lot that libraries can do for you including providing fun programs, a quiet place to read or study, homework help, tax forms, technology training, free Internet access, and volunteer opportunities. But there’s something you can do for libraries–and they need your help.
The cuts, which add up to $10.4 million, could also cost New Jersey access to $4.5 million in federal matching funds which, among other things, currently provides internet access for roughly two-thirds of the state’s 306 public libraries.
That’s right: No Internet at the library. Never mind that the public library is the only free internet access in 78 percent of communities, according to the New Jersey Library Association; or that many state agencies have moved their forms on-line.
It’s especially disheartening that this news comes at the beginning of National Library Week. Especially through Internet access, technology training, and database access, libraries are becoming more important, not less. And while everyone needs to make cuts when state budgets get trimmed, libraries are being disproportionately targeted.
Yet another irony is that, of all the villains that have pushed New Jersey to the brink of financial oblivion, libraries simply aren’t one of them. Librarians aren’t represented by powerful unions. Their pay hasn’t escalated at 4 percent to 6 percent a year. Library funding at the state level has been flat for twenty years.
“We have never fed at the trough like public safety and education,” said Robert White, executive director of Bergen County Cooperative Library System, which represents 75 libraries across four counties. “And now we’re being punished for it.”
If you’re in the area, there will be a rally in Trenton on 6 May to demonstrate support for New Jersey libraries. You can also contact legislators, send a letter to the paper, or join supporters on Facebook at Save My NJ Library.
And since it is National Library Week, be sure to tell your own legislators that you support your library. If you’re in Indiana, you can do that online via the Indiana Library Federation. You can also take national action via the ALA website, where they’re asking you to talk to your senator by 14 April (that’s this Wednesday) to express your support for libraries before the Senate Appropriations Committee meets to determine funding for the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) and the Improving Literacy Through School Libraries (ILTSL) program in its FY2011 budget.
You can also use the ALA’s Library Value Calculator to see how valuable your local library is to you as a patron–or to your community if you’re a librarian trying to defend your institution.
And finally, if you haven’t yet sent in your Census form, please do so. The number of people in your community determines how federal funds will be allocated, and your library is one of the organizations that will be affected by that funding. While it may not seem like one person really matters, when it comes to the Census, you do.