Tag: librarianship

Are librarians still specialists? Then let’s be so publicly.

by flickr user Mai Le

All of this is written from a public library (and youth services) perspective. Academic librarians, special librarians, archivists, and other library folk may see things differently.

A couple weeks ago Ashley Barrineau posted on yalsa-bk about a new website called Story Snoops, which “offers children’s book reviews from a parent’s perspective” (although in their FAQ, they clarify that they do not advocate censorship: “Our website is a resource for parents to seek out or avoid specific content in a book, and to facilitate valuable discussions with their children.”). They also offer book lists and readalikes.

I’m happy to have a new tool to use in helping young readers and their parents find books (and another tool to teach them how to find books), but I have to admit that I’m really bummed that Story Snoops wasn’t created by librarians. This is what we do–so why aren’t we doing it? (I suppose the KDL What’s Next Database comes close, but it isn’t as user-friendly as Story Snoops is.)


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9 Comments September 7, 2011

Over thirty years of librarianship: an interview with Phebe Kirkham

About a month ago the head of reference at my library announced that she’d be retiring at the end of the year. We have a very low turnover rate and Phebe had been with us for thirty years (!) and just did everything, so the idea that we would be losing her was shocking. Over the last few weeks, she’s imparted to our administration and reference staff everything she can about how she does her job and how the library works and today will be her last day with us.

Yesterday Phebe agreed to let me interview her about her time at the New Canaan Library and about the changes she’s seen in librarianship over her career. Here are the highlights.

Phebe first started working in libraries in 1972 when she got her first professional position as the Chatham County Librarian in North Carolina. Although she’d never worked in a library before that, she said that she always knew she wanted to be a librarian–although she originally envisioned herself working in rare books where she’d be able to combine her love of history (she has a bachelor’s degree in history, after all) with how much she enjoyed exploring and researching. In 1981 she began her tenure at the New Canaan Library, and today she’s the Head of Reference.

When I asked her what in her thirty years with us she was most proud of, she thought for a while and then responded, “The way we serve the population in this town. The way we answer their needs, challenge them, and brought new technology in.” And can I tell you how much I loved that answer? It’s not just one project, one accomplishment that stands out in her mind–it’s the service the library provides to the community.

One of the reasons I wanted to interview Phebe before she left is that I am so new to this field that I have no lived sense of what librarianship was like before the Internet changed things so much. I mean, I know about looking things up in card catalogs and how much original cataloging used to be done and that reference used to be incredibly different, but because I’ve grown up with computers so integrated into my life, I can’t really emotionally understand what librarianship used to be like. Phebe’s not just lived through a lot of changes–she’s been the one leading the library through those changes (she not only maintains the library’s Twitter feed but actually tweets on her own time!), and I wanted to be able to understand the perspective she’s been able to develop over all of those experiences and years.

So when I asked Phebe what the biggest change was she’d seen over the last thirty years, I wasn’t surprised that she responded, “Computers.” She said that they’ve not only completely changed the way we look for information: they’ve also completely changed the way we access the collection. Far from seeing technology as something that ruined libraries and their glory, she pointed out how much more convenient keyword searching is than using subject headings that might use vocabulary that’s completely different from what people are thinking about as they try to find a book. She also pointed to the OPAC as a great help since now we can look up a record and know that it is, in fact, checked out and not missing, and we can even tell patrons exactly when that book is due back. However, Phebe did say that she misses the interaction she used to have when they were doing homework, and she worries that they may not be getting the best information, adding, “We still know where there’s secret stuff they should have used!” (I love love love this sentence.)

In talking about technology and the Internet, there was one thing in particular that Phebe said that sort of surprised me–except that in thinking about it more, I suppose it shouldn’t. She mentioned that while Alice, our director, credits her with leading the charge to bring the Internet to the library, it was actually a much more gradual process that started with indexes being made available on CD-ROM and then those indexes later being available through the fledgling Internet. She also mentioned that as those technological advancements came to the library, the reference staff was always teaching classes about the new tools–and that kept the staff at the forefront of what was available.

When I asked about how librarianship generally had changed, Phebe continued to pull through the thread of technology, saying that librarians today need to be much more technologically savvy than their predecessors were. But she worries that some of us who are new to the field and who are so steeped in technology might be losing contact with old reference materials and techniques and things like just knowing in detail what’s going on in the local community and being able to connect patrons with those events and resources. She also pointed to the difference in how we seek information now: rather than a student sitting on the floor and paging through twenty books about the Civil War to find what he or she wants and occasionally running across interesting things he or she wasn’t expecting to find, students now do a Google search and if what he or she wanted doesn’t come up in the first two pages, the student just quits. She lamented that loss of browsing and serendipity–but did concede with a laugh that being able to just do a Google search was much faster!

I was also hoping that Phebe could identify some of the overarching values and practices in librarianship that hadn’t changed over her career. Phebe pointed out that patrons still want information–and they still need help finding it. She also said, “People still want a good book to read. Whether they read it on a Kindle or they listen to it through their headphones, they always want a good story.”

And just because you can’t do a retrospective without also looking to the future, I asked Phebe where she thought librarianship was going. She said that the library has much more become a community center–and stepped up to do things like be an emergency shelter during storms–and that programming has exploded. In light of that, Phebe predicted that the brick and mortar structure of libraries will remain, but what we do within those walls will continue to evolve. In fact, she thinks that “astonishing things will be going on inside.” (Another sentence that I love! I think I might turn that into a slogan. “Your library: astonishing things are going on inside!”) And at the end of this bit of our conversation, Phebe laughed and said that one innovation she hopes we’ll get soon are better laptop batteries or some sort of wireless electricity so that patrons won’t have to constantly be asking where they can plug in their laptops.

During our holiday party this year, our director said some lovely things about Phebe and where the library has gone under her direction, and when Phebe got up to accept her gifts, she talked about how hard our staff works and what an impact we have on the community. As she stepped down, she closed with the following: “We help people–and that’s all I ever wanted to do is help people.” We’re absolutely going to miss Phebe steering the library through all of the changes in society and in information in the years to come, but I think what we’ll miss most is her passionate dedication to helping everyone in the community.

This interview was mostly to satisfy my own curiosity about the changes to librarianship over the years; NCAdvertiser.com has a much better portrait of Phebe (including an actual photograph!). We–both the staff and the patrons at the library–really are going to miss her.

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4 Comments December 30, 2010

Miscellany: keeping books in libraries, celebrities tweet about THE HUNGER GAMES, the Phoenix Award, and more

Today I had a hair cut with a new stylist, Tom, and in the usual first appointment smalltalk, my profession came up. Tom confessed that he hasn’t been to a library since he was in college (and even then it was only because he was forced to use the microfilm reader, which was kept in a moldy basement), so I spent some time explaining to him what libraries are really like, the idea of the library as a community center, how libraries provide free computer and Internet access and why that’s more important every day, and generally what libraries have to offer beyond books.

But then tonight while I was working my way through my Instapaper queue (I am never going to see the bottom of that), I came across “Why have libraries?” (and “Why have libraries? part 2”) at Something Different Every Day. Long-time children’s librarian SD Lempke argues that while many libraries are sniffing at being “warehouses for books” and embracing leaner, hypercurrent collections, being a warehouse for books is part of what libraries are meant to do–and that we can and should still be cultural storehouses while also being community gathering centers. Rather than fearing for our survival and chasing after what bookstores are doing, we need to stay true to our missions and “cultivat[e] library collections with care and discernment.” What do you think? Can we keep our “old” values as we embrace new ones? Are libraries abandoning their missions in the name of reflecting current trends?

Speaking of current trends, EW’s Shelf Life collected a bunch of tweets by celebrities who love the Hunger Games trilogy. And while one of the Hunger Games fans is fifteen-year-old Jodelle Ferland (who played Bree in Eclipse), the other featured celebrities–Elizabeth Banks, John Gallagher Jr., and Melinda Doolittle–are all older than I am, providing more examples of adults reading YA.

The logo for the Phoenix Award, given annually by the Children's Literature Association

Elizabeth Bird of A Fuse #8 Production recently highlighted an award I’d never heard of (and you probably haven’t either, which is sort of the point of her post), the Phoenix Award. It’s given annually by the Children’s Literature Association to a book published in English twenty years ago that didn’t win a major award at the time of its publication–books like The Devil’s Arithmetic (which I was sort of weirdly obsessed with as a middle schooler), Weetzie Bat (ditto, but in high school), and Howl’s Moving Castle (which you absolutely must read). For as prestigious as the Newbery is, let’s be honest: there are plenty of past winners we’ve all kind of forgotten about. The age of some of the Phoenix Award winners is probably part of what contributes to the award not being well-known, but it’s such a great way to recognize great literature that slipped through the cracks–and also stood the test of time.

Two more awesome things: first, Portland’s Heathman Hotel has a library of about 4000 titles. This by itself isn’t particularly noteworthy, but the selection criteria for inclusion in this library is: the author must have stayed in the hotel. Many of the books are first editions and all are signed by the author. They have books by Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, John Updike, Stephen King, Art Spiegelman, Annie Dillard, James Patterson and Ian Rankin. But just having the books isn’t really enough–they need to be listed and to be accessible to readers, right? So even cooler, while the library’s existed since 1992, it’s finally getting some publicity and use:

Sophie Soprani, an English major and aspiring writer who attends Portland State University, was hired last month [in August] to pull books out of the locked cabinets for guests and to build a database so the hotel knows exactly what’s in the collection.


Soprani runs the library a few hours Monday through Thursday, starting about 5 p.m. She talks with guests about books and writing, and makes recommendations. Until about 18 months ago, hotel guests had to ask for a book at the front desk. Then the hotel rotated staffing among four people before hiring Soprani.

Sophie may be an aspiring writer for now, but I think we may make a librarian of her yet!

The cover of GUYS READ: FUNNY BUSINESS, edited by Jon Scieszka

And finally, Guys Read: Funny Business came out two weeks ago and if you don’t have a copy for your library yet, you gotta get one. Edited by Jon Scieszka, it contains contributions by Mac Barnett, Eoin Colfer, Christopher Paul Curtis, Kate DiCamillo and Jon Scieszka, Paul Feig, Jack Gantos, Jeff Kinney, David Lubar, Adam Rex, and David Yoo and is illustrated by Adam Rex. Adam also did the illustration for the cover. In another blog post, he shows off some of the ultimately rejected covers and talks about what went into the decision. And don’t forget this video wherein the contributors of Funny Business tell “The Joke”:

One more tiny piece of news: today I finalized the planning for the very first teen program I’ll do all by myself! I’ll write more about it after it actually happens, but man, I’m so thrilled to be doing exactly the work I want to be doing and taking the first steps in building an awesome YA program at my library.

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1 Comment October 5, 2010

Public libraries, not publicly-funded-but-run-by-private-companies libraries

The New York Times recently ran an article about a private company being contracted to run public libraries. The company is LSSI (Library Systems and Services), and they’re now running 14 library systems with 63 different locations in California, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas–which, if you measure library system size by branches, now makes them the fifth-largest library system in the country. The idea is that a private company is better suited to cutting costs and increasing efficiency, but I think ceding control of our public libraries to private companies will destroy exactly what is good about public libraries.

Alicia of The LibrariYAn does a great job of identifying a lot of the problems with the rationale behind letting a private company take control of a public library and the effects of doing so (especially her arguments about how “cutting costs” often means cutting salaries and benefits and excluding union workers or turning to volunteers instead of trained professionals), but I wanted to contribute some more thoughts.

I think what makes me angriest is what Frank A. Pezzanite, the CEO of LSSI, thinks about libraries and librarians:

“There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries,” said Frank A. Pezzanite, the outsourcing company’s chief executive. He has pledged to save $1 million a year in Santa Clarita, mainly by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees. “Somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization.”


“A lot of libraries are atrocious,” Mr. Pezzanite said. “Their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.”

You know what, Mr. Pezzanite, screw you. I’m sure that there are librarians who have been coasting throughout their careers, but especially now in a time of budget cuts and there being more MLS grads than there are new positions, the librarians I know are not doing nothing. It’s true that because of the high cost of firing someone and replacing them, it can be difficult to get rid of less productive employees at a non-profit organization, but that’s still no reason to insult an entire profession. And New York Times, you’re really not helping dispel the notion that libraries are full of old people who are resistant to change by showing a picture of an elderly librarian who “is opposed to the outsourcing plan.”

Furthermore, Mr. Pezzanite’s snide dismissal of public libraries as “this American flag, apple pie thing” makes me very angry. The library isn’t a sacred organization, but in many communities, it’s the only place the least fortunate have to go to be put in touch with resources they desperately need. As more and more government services are moved exclusively online (especially things like filing for unemployment) and employers begin accepting applications online only, it’s even more important that public libraries are able to offer free computer and Internet access to those who can’t get online anywhere else. (Remember that 67% of public libraries are the only place in the community that offer free computer and Internet access and that 90% of public libraries offer technology training.)

Libraries are also where parents can take their children for storytimes that improve their literacy skills, where families can borrow DVDs for free, where people can attend classes that teach them new skills or help them develop their hobbies, where anyone can get book recommendations or have their questions answered, where works of fiction and non-fiction representing what humanity has created and discovered are kept, and where resources are shared. None of this is done because it turns a profit, and in fact, the people who most need libraries are the ones who are least able to afford those services elsewhere. A for-profit company is going to be much less concerned with meeting the needs of the community that supports it and much more concerned with operating as cheaply as possible, regardless of what services they have to cut or the quality of those services and materials. In some ways, this echoes the preference for “male” values (competition, success, profit) over “female” values (helping others, sharing, building community) that I’ve talked about before.

I also think that one of the greatest strengths of the public library is that it is local. The management tree never goes past the city or county or maybe state that funds the library, so libraries are able to reflect their communities. They develop digital collections of photographs reflecting their communities over the years, they connect people to local agencies, they plan programs that make use of local people’s expertise, and the really good ones buy locally (even when it’s more expensive than getting materials from huge corporate vendors) and invest the tax dollars they receive back into their communities. I have a hard time believing that a for-profit company based in a state all the way across the country would be as interested in knowing, serving, and supporting the local community.

We need to consider who wins and who loses when we turn control of our public libraries over to private, for-profit companies. Staff members suffer in reduced wages and a limit on their ability to form unions. Patrons suffer because cutting costs means cutting services or materials or requiring payment for things that were formerly free. The entire local community suffers because the library is less likely to serve local interests or invest money back in the community. The only party who wins is the for-profit company. Rather than turning public libraries over to for-profit companies, libraries should find ways to cut costs and increase efficiency themselves or, if they need outside help, hire consultants while still maintaining their autonomy. And in fact, that’d be an even better outcome in terms of costs vs. expenditures because however much the local government spends on the contract with LSSI, LSSI is going to be spending less than that to run the library so they can turn a profit. Keeping the library public means keeping that would-be profit to a private company invested in the community.

This isn’t some sort of American flag apple pie garbage–it’s preserving our local culture, our identity as citizens instead of consumers, and our cultural repositories from the dehumanizing crush of a capitalism that favors profits over people and efficiency over assistance. Public libraries need to remain publicly funded and publicly managed if they’re going to continue to do the good they do in our communities.

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5 Comments September 29, 2010

Miscellany: library news and trends, crafts, book art, and librarians playing croquet

This collection of links is going to be a real mix of things, but there’s so much interesting stuff I’ve seen lately!

YA lit and library news and trends
One of the things I’d like to see more of in librarianship in general and youth services especially is more rigor and research. YALSA is launching the Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults, an online, open-access, peer-reviewed journal, in November. They’ve put out a call for papers for the Winter 2011 and Spring 2011 issues.

Through 20 September you can also nominate librarians for the I Love My Librarian Award. The winners get a $5000 cash award, a plaque, and a $500 travel stipend to attend an awards reception in New York hosted by The New York Times, so this is a great opportunity for all of you library users to nominate a librarian who’s made a difference in your life or your community.

The Horn Book has available a poster called “A is for XBox: 26 Ways to Prevent Summer Reading.” While I think there’s some unnecessary hostility toward technology (you can read books and play video games), it’s still pretty cute.

Speaking of summer reading, one Bronx teen read 325 books during the New York Public Library’s summer reading program. That’s astounding, but I think my favorite part of the article was the bit about the boy designated “most improved” who began having to have his parents read to him but finished reading over 60 books on his own. Yeah summer reading!

In sadder/madder news, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was recently removed from a school library in Missouri. On Wednesday the school board voted unanimously to ban the book from the school curriculum and voted 7-2 to keep it out of the library.

Alexie’s book has won a number of awards, but that did not sway the board.

“We can take the book and wrap it in those 20 awards everyone else said it won and it still is wrong,” said board member Ken Spurgeon.

Supporters of the book said it was chosen to get high school boys, particularly, interested in reading. Spurgeon said that was a mistake because the book’s reading level is low for high school readers.

Over at Closed Stacks, The Librarienne rails against the ALA for continuing to promote the idea that librarianship is a greying profession and that there will soon be a mass exodus of retirees leaving positions for new librarians to fill, citing the unemployment and underemployment she and her fellow graduates are suffering.

But in non-sucky news, Bitch Magazine recently interviewed Lia Friedman, he head of public services at the UCSD Arts Library, the staff librarian for make/shift magazine, and an active member of Radical Reference. Lia talks about the values of librarianship, stereotypes of librarians, and what Radical Reference does.

Earlier this spring I reviewed Joanna Philbin’s debut YA novel The Daughters. For readers who want more, Philbin did interviews with School Library Journal and the Poppy website.

I finally finished catching up on all of the Mockingjay-related posts on blogs I follow! I think Leila’s overall analysis at Bookshelves of Doom and Jia’s take on its portrayal of the horrors of war at Dear Author are spot on.

Way earlier this summer, Shannon Hale asked other YA authors about books with morals and got a lot of interesting responses.

The team at Orbit had their summer intern do “a survey of cover art elements for the top fantasy novels published in the previous year,” and a few weeks ago they published their results. The summary in chart form:

ohdeedoh has a tutorial on creating custom hardbacks with cardboard, fabric, a gluestick, and an inkjet printer.

Check out these simple cut-paper bookmarks from We Wilsons and Wild Olive.

And celebrate back to school with Sew, Mama, Sew!‘s binder pouch tutorial.

Book art, storage, and design
There’s more amazing book art at style/SWOON.

design*sponge‘s collection of photographs of different book storage techniques is pretty cool.

And João Machado‘s video “The Effect of a Book, Extending Beyond The Form” examines how we handle books:

And finally…
Via YABOOKNERD, the Masters of Library Science Croquet Tournament:

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2 Comments September 10, 2010

Librarians talking about what librarians do

Over the last few years as I’ve gone through library school and started thinking and writing about the field, it’s become clear to me that most people who aren’t affiliated with libraries or librarians in some way (through employment or marriage or frequent library use) have no idea what librarians do–or even who exactly in a library is a librarian. People who use their libraries at least tend to know some of what their libraries have to offer, but non-users are in the dark about both librarians and the libraries where they work. I mentioned in the post I wrote about the Diane Rehm Show about public libraries that I don’t think librarians are always great at explaining to outsiders exactly why the library is awesome and exactly what it is we do, and I’ve been thinking about some of the ways we can get that message out.

In some ways it’s easy to talk about why libraries are great. We can point to all of the resources and services that we offer and make a case using outcomes-based measures for how we have a positive impact in the community. And we can (and should!) tailor our message to the listener: parents want to know about storytimes and how early literacy skills give kids a developmental leg up. People seeking entertainment will love hearing that the library lends DVDs for free (and that libraries lend more DVDs than Netflix!). Entrepreneurs in the community can make good use of our tax help sessions or business databases. Families on vacation can come to us for audiobooks–and for recommendations on what stories they might like. Politicians need to hear that we help people navigate government websites and access government information and forms online. I really do believe that everyone in the community can find something useful or enjoyable to them at the library, and it’s just a matter of us letting them know that and helping them find that useful or enjoyable thing. (Getting them into the library in the first place is another post altogether, I suppose.)

But it’s trickier telling people what librarians do, especially when we’re trying to fight the impression that all we do is check books out to people and read all day. It doesn’t directly benefit people to talk about ourselves the way it does to talk about our libraries, so finding an audience for this information is hard. It can also be difficult not to sound defensive when we’re trying to explain how librarians are different than the front-line staff at the checkout desk, since they’re often the first point of contact for many people at the library. And as Lino pointed out in a comment on a post I wrote about a corporate librarian’s talk to our student group in library school, people’s perceptions of librarians change as they encounter different libraries and different types of libraries.

If people ask directly what we do, we can point them to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’s librarian profile, but that’s pretty dry. It helps when the New York Times does pieces on how librarianship has changed in the digital age since it directly explains some of the things librarians are doing, especially in the age of computers. But librarians need to do their own explaining and tell their own stories, too.

In a response to Lino’s comment, I mentioned two of the things that we can do to educate people about what librarians are and what we do. The first is to mentor people–particularly young people–through things like Teen Advisory Boards and library volunteer programs. Having repeated personal contact with a librarian or being involved in the library yourself shows you first-hand what librarians and libraries are like, and for young people, it can even awaken in them a passion for library work. (And since we can’t get everyone to marry a librarian, more structured programs seem to be the way to go to give people that personal connection.)

But as powerful as that one-on-one contact is, we need other ways to reach people, and I think blogging is one good way to do that. A number of librarians have written blog posts and articles specifically about what librarians do. For example:

Twice a year, the Library Day in the Life project asks librarians to document what they do on a particular day every year. Round 5 happened yesterday and there are already posts available. This project is especially interesting because librarians from lots of different kinds of libraries talk about their days, not just public librarians, who seem to be the most vocal in explaining who they are and what they do, most likely since they’re most often asked to justify their existence.

And while library blogs tend to be written by librarians, for librarians, there are a few that I think would appeal to non-librarians, too. The most illuminating and accessible librarian-blogger I’ve found so far is Brian Herzog, the Swiss Army Librarian. His posts never seem too long and each week he features a reference question (they’re usually the particularly funny or interesting or challenging ones) he was asked that week and the strategies he used for answering it. He also includes posts that are useful to practicing librarians (super-especially his recent “Checklist Manifesto for the Reference Desk”) or musings on current events and controversies in librarianship, but overall I think his blog is a great example of how we can document what we do and what we’re about.

Librarians aren’t always great about explaining to non-librarians why libraries and librarians are important, but there are some good examples of how we can do so. Positive media coverage helps librarians show off our skills and our libraries. Personal contact and repeated positive library experiences are the most powerful way to show people what libraries and librarians are all about. Talking and writing about what we do (and why we do it!) lets us reach a broader audience and tell our own stories. We need to be able to see our institutions and ourselves from an outsider’s perspective and then find ways to reach people with our message of the awesomeness of libraries and librarians.

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4 Comments July 27, 2010

Libraries as seen by non-librarians

I’ve been thinking recently about how libraries (and librarians) are seen by people outside of Libraryland. The old stereotypes (glasses-wearing, hair-in-a-bun old lady shushing people, primarily) persist even as libraries become more active in their communities and younger people join the ranks. Every time some reading-related technological innovation is announced, people predict the death of libraries, which are apparently just big rooms full of outdated books. But libraries have their supporters, too–bibliophiles who love their libraries and wear “librarian” glasses, frequent library users, even just those feeling nostalgia for the good experiences they had in libraries growing up. And all of these people see different things in their libraries and expect different behavior from their librarians, so it’s interesting to see what non-librarians think about libraries and librarians.

There have been three things in particular recently that have gotten me thinking about our image in pop culture and the media. The library-oriented corners of the Internet imploded with glee yesterday when the Old Spice guy (you know, the sexy shirtless one) posted a video response to a tweet asking him to say a few words about libraries. (See the original requester’s blog post response, too.)

While the Huffington Post called this a “defense” of libraries, I’m not sure it goes quite that far in just 34 slightly silly seconds, but it’s still exciting to have that contact with pop culture. And, you know, to have a sexy shirtless guy talk about books.

While it was first posted in January, someone recently pointed me to Flavorwire’s mixtape “10 Best Songs About Libraries and Librarians”. Lots of the songs feature the librarian (a woman, of course) as an object of desire, often unaware of her own sexiness. The library itself is a place to tell your parents you’re going when you’re really headed somewhere else as well as a place to study.

And over the Fourth of July weekend, Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion included a new “Ruth Harrison, Reference Librarian” sketch. Ruth, keeper of the books and answerer of questions, harbors a secret interior life of passions and crushes. The stereotypes are amped up to ridiculous levels: most recently Ruth was planning a vacation to “The Readers Resort […] for two delicious weeks by Lake Bellelettre in Reading, Pennsylvania.” But the sketches occasionally have little details that seem surprisingly spot-on and make me wonder if one of the staff writers was (or still is) a librarian. In 2008, Ruth met Brad Carruthers, the author of a romance novel involving a librarian that she rather enjoyed, and she desperately wants to become his personal librarian and live aboard his ship with him. In that episode, though, the initial reference interview is just perfect with the patron’s initial vague request and Ruth’s probing questions and reflective listening to discover just what it is Brad wants.

I’m not really sure that there’s some sort of overarching conclusion I’m trying to draw here, but it’s interesting to see what people who aren’t librarians think of us and our institutions and how we appear in culture and the media.

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3 Comments July 15, 2010

Public libraries on the Diane Rehm Show

The theme for the second hour of today’s Diane Rehm Show was “the changing role of public libraries.” Diane’s guests included John Hill, the president of the DC Public Libraries Board of Trustees and the CEO of the Federal City Council; Sari Feldman, the executive director of the Cuyahoga (OH) County Public Library and the president of PLA; and Camila Alire, the president of ALA. I was so glad that public libraries were getting some national PR and was really looking forward to hearing about what the leaders of our associations think about where public libraries should be going–but I was a little bit disappointed.

The discussion centered a lot around the financial troubles public libraries are facing and the employment-related services public libraries are providing like resume reviews, career counseling, and online application assistance. There were also questions from listeners about using more volunteers, what the Kindle is doing to libraries, and why the library provides DVDs, but most of the callers were vocally pro-library and it was only at the end that we heard from a few more people who had challenges they wanted the panel to answer (like the guy asking about the library providing DVDs as entertainment).

While I’m happy that listeners of the show are now thinking about public libraries, I don’t think the panelists did a very good job of describing what libraries are like now and how that’s changed recently, why libraries should continue to exist, and what library lovers can do to support their libraries.

From what Diane said, it seemed like she supported public libraries in principle but hadn’t actually been to one in ages. And I’m guessing plenty of listeners are unfamiliar with how libraries have changed since they used their school or university libraries, though they may have residual positive feelings from those times. But things have changed substantially in the last ten to twenty years with the advent of computers and the Internet. Gone are the days when you called the reference desk of your local public library when you couldn’t remember who played the supporting role in a movie and needed to settle an argument with your friend–now we have Wikipedia and IMDb. Gone are the days when the librarian was the only one who could really use the card catalog to find the specific book you wanted–now we have keyword searching and the ability to order books from other branches through the online catalog. Gone are the days when if you were moving to a new city you went to the library to research school districts–now we have Google and school corporation websites.

But so many people who used the library for those things and now see the Internet as filling those information needs instead think that means that libraries are now completely irrelevant. They don’t see that libraries have changed with the times and are meeting new information needs (like teaching tech literacy) and meeting the same information needs for different people (like those who don’t have Internet connections or computers at home and are now shut out of things like job applications, unemployment benefit applications, even gun permit renewals).

One of the major evolutions in how libraries see themselves is the movement toward being community centers, as a “third place.” Libraries are also places where teens receive support in developing their 40 Developmental Assets, where very young children gain pre-literacy skills, where young people and older people can work together in intergenerational activities and learn from each other. And as computers become more pervasive and more necessary in day-to-day life, it falls to libraries to help people learn to use emerging technology, especially among older people or underprivileged people. The library is so much more than books and services that have been supplanted by the Internet, but not everyone knows that–especially the people who no longer use their libraries or who receive crummy library service from individual libraries that aren’t changing with the times.

The panelists on the show mentioned some of these things briefly, but there was no time at which they addressed the big changes that libraries have gone through in how they see themselves and what they provide. There was no unified message, no vision of the past and the present and a hope for the future. I don’t think they made a good case (outside of their listing of job search assistance libraries provide) for why the library is relevant today.

And really, I think that’s a problem that a lot of librarians have. I think we get really wrapped up in our own vision of the library, our own values, our own knowledge of our changing circ stats and gate counts that we don’t do a good job of seeing what it is that other people want or value and using that framework to explain why the library matters.

This was most evident when the caller asked why the government-funded library was providing DVDs and entertainment and not just informational books. The panelists talked about how their circulation statistics include lots of print materials still and how it’s so great that you don’t have to pay to rend DVDs when you can just get them for free at your library! That’s not what that guy wanted to hear. He wanted to know why entertainment needs are important enough for the government to support them, why the library is about more than just books. And no one answered that, and there’s no way he became a convert and a library supporter from that conversation.

That’s not to say that it’s not awesome that you can borrow movies for free–it is–it’s just that it’s not what that guy needed to hear right then for him to understand libraries as relevant or worth his tax dollars. Business men want to hear about the research services libraries can provide that are relevant to them. Parents want to hear about what the library can offer them and their children. People who aren’t big on reading but are huge knitters want to hear that the library offers knitting classes or at the very least meeting rooms where knitting clubs can meet. When we’re trying to make a case for the library, we need to understand the values of the person or people we’re trying to convince and show them why the library’s mission and work in the community fits within those values.

The other thing about the program that I found most disappointing was that while there were many times the panelists asked listeners who loved their libraries to be library advocates, there was very little concrete instruction on how to do that. It’s true that people need to do more than just love the library if the library is facing budget cuts or branch closings, and I’m glad the panelists were encouraging action–they just didn’t actually provide any examples of action.

If you love libraries, you can write letters to your legislators to let them know what the library has done for you to improve your life. If you love libraries, you can attend rallies to show your support for them. If you love libraries, you can make a donation of your time, your books, or your money to your library. If you love libraries and you have some social standing in your community, you can talk to people in power or raise money for the library. And within specific communities, there are more specialized needs that libraries have that they should publicize to their supporters. People within the library world need to be specific in telling supporters within the community what they can do to help, because those supporters don’t know the system the way we do and don’t necessarily see where they can help.

I was really happy that public libraries got national attention on this show and that the panelists did such a good job of talking about how the job search services that libraries provide make libraries relevant. But I really would have liked to see a more comprehensive message about how libraries have changed in the last few decades, why libraries are still relevant today, and what library lovers can do for their libraries. I suppose it’s up to individual librarians and libraries to become better advocates for themselves and to spread the word and cultivate support.

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3 Comments June 28, 2010

Women in American librarianship and valuing women’s work

I recently finished reading the updated edition of THE STORY OF LIBRARIES: FROM THE INVENTION OF WRITING TO THE COMPUTER AGE (Continuum, 2009) by Fred Lerner. It exists in this weird intersection between scholarly and recreational reading (the text is more dense than I was expecting and that I think a casual reader would want, but Lerner isn’t as rigorous in citing his sources as I’d expect for an academic work), but as I read, I was enjoying little historical tidbits. For example:

  • Ashurbanipal (668-627 BCE) had a library of 1500 tablets organized by subject and edited and revised them himself. Libraries go way back!
  • Libraries in Asia that existed before the Middle Ages or so were light years ahead of Western civilization at the time.
  • Prior to World War II, scientists worked hard to share widely their research and publications, but the war created a division in which both sides were trying to share widely within their own boundaries to encourage innovation that might win the war but were increasingly cautious about letting that scientific progress be known to the other side. So in 1944 these two German agents get off a submarine on the coast of Maine. They have a microfilm camera with them and they’re planning to head to the New York Public Library and photograph scientific journals–but they’re apprehended by the FBI before they can do so. Libraries in the middle of a Nazi plot to steal American science!

But as Lerner’s narrative moved into more modern times and he started reflecting on the mission of libraries and their place in society, I started feeling angrier and angrier. Little things seemed to indicate that he was valuing academic libraries over public libraries, that he thought women had warped the purpose of libraries, and that certain kinds of library use were more important or worthy than others. And then near the end there was one particular chapter–one particular page, even–that just drove me nuts. I’d like to share that page and why I felt so angry and why I think he’s wrong.

Lerner writes:

Libraries and librarians have always existed at the margins of the society they served. (p. 181)

The ‘feminization of librarianship’ is often adduced as the essential reason for the marginalization of the field in America. In 1852, the Boston Public Library hired its first female clerk; by 1878 two-thirds of American library workers were women; and by the 1920s that figure had reached nearly 90 percent. During those years the leaders of the most important libraries–like the top people in every field–were men; but most of the staff that a library user would encounter were female.


In one sense, the lack of respect that libraries and librarians have endured can rightly be traced to the feminization of librarianship. The first women to become librarians in England and America were imbued with the middle-class notion that women were a civilizing force in society with special feminine abilities to work with the young, the sick, and the poor. Under their leadership, libraries became identified with underprivileged and marginal elements of society. (p. 182)

First of all, it’s contradictory that librarians have always been marginalized, but it’s somehow still women’s faults, even though they apparently weren’t part of the profession until the 1800s.

Now, the leaders of libraries were men (of course!) but somehow “under [women’s] leadership, libraries became identified with underprivileged and marginal elements of society.” But if women were always subservient to men, how could they have been at the helm changing the library’s mission and image?

The answer is that there were women leaders and that their values (not some sort of womanly deficiency they all had) shaped American librarianship. I also just finished WOMEN AND THE VALUES OF AMERICAN LIBRARIANSHIP (Ide House, 1994) by Sydney Chambers and Carolynne Myall and they provide tons of examples. Here are just a very few:

  • Public libraries were formed out of community libraries that were originally started by women in most cases. In 1933 the ALA “credited women’s clubs with the repsonsibility for initiating 75 percent of the public libraries in existence at that time” (p. 17).
  • Isadore Gilbert Mudge built Columbia University’s reference collection and taught library school students her methods of conducting a reference interview. (p. 29)
  • Adelaide Hasse was a founder of special librarianship, developed a classification scheme, and helped form the US Government Documents service. (p. 31)
  • “[O]f the four insitutions established before 1900 which later became charter members of the Association of American Library Schools, the founding directors of three were women,” Katherine Sharp, Mary Wright Plummer, and Alice Kroeger. (p. 36)
  • Mary Wright Plummer was the head of the library school at the Pratt Institute Free Library from 1895 to 1911, the Principal of the library school at NYPL from 1911 to 1916, and was President of ALA from 1915 to 1916–years before women were even allowed to vote! (p. 35)
  • The director of the LA Public Library from 1889 to 1895 was Tessa Kelso–and this was decades before women got the vote. (p. 43)

While women who held leadership positions often did so at local or state or regional levels, women were also library founders, innovators in their fields, library directors, library school founders, and even served as the president of ALA before their country trusted them to vote.

Lerner goes on to describe how libraries being shaped by women’s values ruined the reputation of librarianship:

To many of those who controlled the country’s purse strings and set its priorities, that made the library into a societal luxury–inexpensive enough to maintain at a limited level, but irrelevant to the real needs of those who mattered. The low repute that has been the constant companion of the pedagogue has also had its impact. Despite librarians’ attempts to be viewed as educators, it is the prestige of the schoolteacher rather than that of the professor that has become attached to them. (p. 182)

I hope he’s being hyperbolic here and that he doesn’t actually mean this because it privileges helping academics meet their information needs over helping working-class people meet their information needs. I reject that ranking of human beings as more important or less important just because of their socioeconomic class. Taking care of the neediest in a community shouldn’t be a “societal luxury.” It should be our top priority.

The “problem” with librarianship isn’t that women were allowed in the field and that somehow ruined it. It’s that women themselves aren’t valued, that women’s work isn’t valued, and that women’s values aren’t respected as valid.

Chambers and Myall write about how early research in ethics was done by men on male subjects. Rather than interview both men and women and develop a view of human ethics that way, their theories of ethical development were entirely based on what boys and men valued and how their values changed as they grew; women who held different values were seen as ethically immature or deviant. That’s subsequently changed: research has broadened to include women, and we now have more research and a better understanding of women’s ethics and values. (As a note, it’s not that all women hold these values or that no men do; rather, the majority of women studied have ethical systems that are more like this model than the traditional model, and the majority of men have another set of values. There’s blending, of course, and women who hold “male” values and men who hold “female” values, but in general we can model women’s vales differently than men’s.)

Chambers and Myall paraphrase the list of women’s values that Sally Helgesen outlines in THE FEMALE ADVANTAGE thusly:

  • responsibility to community and sense of responsibility for maintaining community;
  • cooperation rather than competition;
  • concern for children and weaker members of the community;
  • objectivity, a nonjudgmental appreciation for multiple points of view, which we regard as an important aspect of what some would call ‘selflessness’;
  • concern for consequences of actions;
  • holistic view of human beings;
  • local scope of action (sometimes expressed as ‘think globally, act locally’);
  • connectedness as both fact of life and value to encourage.

(p. 6)

They then link library services (like reference, collection development, bibliographic instruction, and interlibrary loan) to these values.

Anyway, Lerner goes on:

Especially in the United States, the social-work impulse has continued to be pervasive among librarians. Most are imbued with a missionary confidence in the importance of reading, but have little interest in assessing or dealing with the economic importance of information. (p. 182)

It’s not “missionary confidence.” That makes it sound like librarians have some sort of blind faith in why reading is important, but there is a lot of research that backs up the good reading to kids does for their futures, and illiteracy among adults is an incredible barrier to their being able to participate in life at a very basic level. And again here Lerner prioritizes male values (economics, competition, ability to exploit something to make money) over feminine values (community, helping others, improving the world). Healso talks a lot in the chapter after this one about “information science” and being able to come up with new ways to access and shape information and how this new research should be used to make money and deliver information differently to people with money than to people without. He gets all excited about technology and I think Thomas Mann would have a bone to pick with him about Lerner’s dismissal of traditional library ideas and practices. Lerner also seems to have no concept of the digital divide within our own country (although he does talk a little about the problems libraries in developing countries face).

Anyway, in this passage about women and American librarianship, Lerner continues:

Much of the leadership in developing new ways of access to information has come from chemists, computer scientists, economists, linguists, philosophers–from people whose professional interest in information science has not been shaped by the library schools and library literature.

But this is nothing new. The librarians at Alexandria never went to library school, and nobody at Urbino ever read a library journal. The craft of librarianship is not so narrowly defined. For many centuries a love of literature and a respect for learning have been the essential qualifications of the effective librarian. (p. 182-183)

So basically it seems like Lerner’s understanding of American librarianship goes something like this:

1. Librarianship was great until women showed up.

2. Men managed to maintain leadership positions after the ladies arrived, but since women had the majority of positions under them, they somehow took control of the library and changed its values and ruined everything.

3. The change women brought about was caring about stupid poor people and children instead of taking care of Very Serious Research Business for important rich people.

4. Now that no one respects librarians anymore and librarianship is full of stupid ladies, no one in the field is doing Important Information Science Research and all of the innovations are coming from people outside of the field.

5. All of those outsiders are making truckloads of money on their information science innovations and lady librarians are so dumb that they’re content to continue helping those stupid poor people and children instead of exploiting technology to exclude some people and make money off of everyone else.

6. It doesn’t matter anyway, though, you stupid lady librarians, because library science isn’t a real thing and hasn’t been a real thing since the beginning, so you can keep your stupid books and your stupid poor people and your stupid children and your stupid lady-filled profession.

Librarianship is a fantastic example of one of the very first fields in which women could exercise their intellects and their leadership skills outside of the home. Because women participated in the field in such huge numbers–and did hold leadership roles both as practitioners and as educators–it was shaped according to women’s values. Librarianship’s emphasis of those values persists today and despite the good public libraries and public librarians do in the world, the profession is still undervalued because of its association with women and their values. Librarians are told that if they’d only be more like men, more competitive, more interested in making money and less interested in helping people, that they’d be more respected.

And that’s bogus.

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9 Comments June 26, 2010

Thoughts on Thomas Mann’s LIBRARY RESEARCH MODELS

I mentioned in my recent post for the YALSA blog that since I’m between jobs, I’m reading (among other things) more academic or intellectual library science textbook sorts of books to get some more of the theory in the field. I recently finished Thomas Mann’s LIBRARY RESEARCH MODELS: A GUIDE TO CLASSIFICATION, CATALOGING, AND COMPUTERS.

In it, Mann (a reference librarian at the Library of Congress) explains some of the mental models people use when approaching research in a library. He writes, “a large number of people tend to ask not for what they want, but for what they think they can get” (p6). So what people think the library is and has will shape what kinds of research questions they can ask. Knowing the different mental models people use lets us know what the blind spots in their research methods are and can help us point them toward sources that will make up for those resources they’ve missed.

He outlines five common models and proposes a sixth that he thinks libraries can implement to improve researchers abilities to find the information they need:

  1. With the Subject-Discipline Model, researchers have a list of resources specific to their subject. This allows deep research into a narrow field and promotes browsing but neglects interdisciplinary work and resources and precludes researchers from finding items that are classified and shelved somewhere else even though they’re about a related topic.
  2. The Library Science Model has three components: the classification scheme, a vocabulary-controlled catalog, and published bibliographies and indexes. It’s essential to use all three of these components; many people only know about the classification scheme (that is, they know about call numbers and physical arrangement of the library), but not using the other three components cripples this model.
  3. The Type-of-Literature Model is often taught in library school programs. The idea is that all fields have things like dictionaries and indexes and chronologies, so you need to determine the type of question that’s being asked, and that’ll tell you what kind of resource you need to consult. You don’t need subject experience; you just need to know what kind of resource you’re looking for. (The free-floating subdivisions in the Library of Congress Subject Headings system include things like –Dictionaries, so you can just browse by subject and then look for those subdivisions and you’ve found the resource you need.)
  4. The Actual-Practice Model is how most researchers actually approach their research: through a combination of browsing the shelves, talking to colleagues, following footnotes, and doing keyword searches on a computer. This isn’t systematic and researchers are often told that if they’re real scholars, they shouldn’t need a librarian’s help, so they don’t discover a lot of things the library has to offer.
  5. The Computer Workstation Model centers around what computers provide, including a digitized catalog, full-text searching, and being able to catalog journal articles with the depth that we do monographs (which was previously infeasible since you’d have to have multiple cards in a physical card catalog for every single journal article you held). But this model runs into problems with cost, predictability, feasibility, and preservation. (He goes into a lot of detail on this.)
  6. Since all of these models have benefits and drawbacks, Mann proposes the Method-of-Searching Model in which reference materials are arranged by how you search them:
    • Controlled-vocabulary searches
    • Keyword searches
    • Citation searches
    • Searches through published bibliographies
    • Searches through “people sources”
    • Computer searches
    • Related-records searches
    • Systematic browsing

    This model shows users that they have lots of search options, allows for point-of-use instruction, and is cross-disciplinary and cross-format.

But beyond just talking about these research models, Mann talks about other important issues in library work, like the Principle of Least Effort, which states that people do what’s easy even if it produces low-quality results, so we need to make the best way of accessing information the easiest.

He also points out that the presence of information does not guarantee access to that information. Imagine if libraries still arranged their books by the order in which they were purchased–it’d be impossible to find information on a specific subject without already knowing the contents of every single book the library owned. While that’s an extreme example, there are other cases in which we sometimes confuse information being available in the library with information being accessible to users.

Mann also argues that system design shouldn’t just be a technical problem: we also need to consider the behavior of the people using the system. And studying information-seeking behavior and implementing things based on those findings is a part of library science–one that’s often neglected.

But one of the most compelling parts of the book is when he talks about research in the age of computers when people think “everything” is available online, even though it really isn’t, and how the online research experience is different from the physical.

One of the simpler examples that he provides is that of doing keyword searches instead of using vocabulary-controlled subject headings. If you’re looking for information on the death penalty, you can search the library’s catalog for “death penalty” and turn up a lot of items. But what if the title (or table of contents or even full-text) of the item uses the term “capital punishment” instead? You’ll miss that book and it might have had what you needed. With a vocabulary-controlled list of subject headings and books that are cataloged with that system, you can find the subject heading you need (“Capital punishment”) and then get a list of every single book in the library on that subject, even if those books use different terms or are in another language altogether. You just cannot do that with keyword searching, and that’s why keyword searching is an avenue of access and not a system of access. It’s why we still need cataloging and classification. It’s why researchers using the library need to know how and why library systems work the way they do–and in a lot of cases need an expert in using those systems to help them find what they need.

Mann talks a lot more about what computers can provide that greatly expand research possibilities, but he reminds the reader that computers will never completely replace libraries, at least when it comes to doing deep research. (He also provides interesting parallels between what people predict will happen to libraries because of the rise of computers and what people thought would happen to libraries because of the advent of microfilm technology that I found very interesting.)

So while this book is most useful to academic or special librarians rather than public librarians, I still found it thought-provoking, and I found it especially useful because we didn’t really talk a lot about using LCSH to do research in my reference class and we didn’t talk a lot about why vocabulary control is important in my cataloging class (which apparently isn’t as uncommon as you’d hope–Mann bemoans the lack of familiarity with the Library Science Model even among graduates from library school programs).

So in Thomas Mann’s view, the responsibilities of librarians are these:

  1. Acquiring knowledge records
  2. Cataloging knowledge records
  3. Making resources available in a systematic manner
  4. Preserving knowledge records

We can use technology to help us achieve these aims, but we cannot abandon these as our responsibilities as information professionals because no one else is attending to them.

The only disappointment I had with this book was that it was published in 1993 and there haven’t been more recent editions. I think that Mann’s principles are solid and that his discussion of them is clear and helpful (I really like his writing style), but a lot has changed in the last seventeen years like Google’s ability to massage keyword searches (if you search for the singular, you get results with the plural; if you search for the infinitive form of a verb, you get conjugated forms back) and the lowered cost of online access (databases used to be accessible via telephone for a certain price per minute).

Even if the book hasn’t been updated, though, Mann is still advocating for sanity in technology use and a strong model of library research and I’d encourage you to read his stuff.

So although this book is most useful for people doing or assisting with more in-depth research, I think there are principles we can all take away and use. Namely,

  • There is a set of principles behind the way the library works. Knowing these principles and the rationale behind the systems we have make us better researchers and better librarians.
  • Information can and must be systematically classified, and having using systems of access to those classifications and catalogs is essential for research.
  • People’s expectations of the library shape what they’ll ask of it. We need to be attuned to how people perceive the library so we can help them fill in gaps in their expectations.
  • When we design library systems, we need to consider the expectations and behaviors of the people who will use them.
  • Online research has benefits over using physical resources (like the ability to do keyword searches on full-text documents), but it also has drawbacks. “Everything” is not available online and “everything” never will be available online.
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    4 Comments June 21, 2010

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