On Friday I attended the Programming Unconference Northeast at Darien Library and had a fantastic time: I reunited with Connecticut YA folks I hadn’t seen in a while, made some new YA friends (including a bunch from NYPL whom I hadn’t met yet!), got a couple good programming ideas, and was energized by conversations with other people who want to do good work.
But that day also provided me the opportunity to talk to a couple of Darien librarians to find out what their secret is.
I’d known about Darien Library even as a library student in Indiana. I assumed at the time that their greatness was a product of the wealth in the community, but after moving to Fairfield County and seeing other libraries with just as much money who weren’t nationally known, I realized that money isn’t enough to make a library successful. (It may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient.) So what’s Darien Library’s secret?
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.)
A few months ago, the Library History Buff Blog did a piece on early children’s rooms in public libraries. While the piece was short, I thought it was especially interesting to see the motivations behind offering library services and facilities for young people:
Although various libraries including the Boston Public Library lay claim to having the first public library children’s room, the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts seems to have the strongest claim. Their children’s room was established in June of 1890 primarily to get noisy children out of the adult reading room. It was initially supervised by the library’s janitor.
John Cotton Dana of the Denver Public Library–the first to offer dedicated children’s services in 1894–did say, “If public libraries are of value, this form of a children’s department must be, if not the ideal thing, certainly an ideal thing.” But in 1896, Mary Wright Plummer found only 15 public libraries nationwide that provided services from a children’s room.
We’ve certainly come a long way in providing library services to young people since then, but how many libraries don’t have a dedicated teen space or even a dedicated YA librarian? (This seems like a good point to plug YALSA’s Teen Services Evaluation Tool, a rubric based on YALSA’s Core Competencies that you can use to assess your library’s success in having the resources and desire to provide great service to teens.) There’s always progress to be made!
Sarah of Glass Cases recently wrote an essay called “YA: Then vs. Now” with an interesting mix of history of YA lit as well as personal reflections on growing up with the YA lit of the ’90s and musings on some historically significant titles. In the essay, she’s trying to pinpoint when YA lit turned the corner from “writing about teens” to “writing for teens.” Especially since I’m about the same age, it was a pretty interesting read.
And man, if you want some vintage YA lit, check out the Mod-Mod Read-In Paperback Book List featured on Sara Ryan’s blog. It’s pretty groovy (click through for more scans and some analysis of the chosen titles):
You know what we need? More recognition of awesome women who rock out in their fields. While librarianship has historically been a women’s profession, anything to do with computers or programming has generally been branded as being for men (although one of the first computer programmers was a women!). But what about the people who exist at the intersection of libraries and computers? The Geek Feminism Blog recently featured Henriette Avram, who was a programmer who worked for the Library of Congress and who is responsible for the creation of MARC in the 1960s. Awesome.
Women ruining everything (again)
Of course, not everyone wants to recognize women’s accomplishments. Some would rather distance themselves from women in the workplace because apparently women defile everything they touch and even just being associated with women or what they do will ruin you and your career. At least, that seems to be the gist of Penelope Trunk’s blog post “What To Get Ahead? Stay Away From Women.” (It is possible that she doesn’t mean what she says, that she is writing these things ironically or sarcastically or in some other way where I can believe she’s not for real, but I don’t think that’s the case.)
Trunk’s starts with the idea of a “competition gap” wherein women self-select themselves into lower-paying, less prestigious fields, and that even within their chosen field, they go for “support roles” rather than competitive management positions, or–in her case–even if they are in a “man’s field,” they choose to focus on womanly things, like writing about women and their lives. This is true! We do value competition and men over nurturing and women. (And I’ve written about this before in the context of libraries.)
But rather than having a problem with privileging things that are labeled male over things that are labeled female, rather than trying to elevate the prestige of “women’s work,” she wants women to just stop complaining about this gap:
The thing is that Kimberly concludes in her post that women are getting ripped off. It kills me. I don’t want to be writing next to women who believe that women are getting a raw deal and then complain about it. I don’t buy it.
Women are getting a raw deal if they’re constantly being told that choosing things that interest them and that they value, that being a woman are bad things and that if they were just more manly, they’d succeed. So what’s Trunk’s advice?
Women: It is very bad to write stuff about dinner with family if you are trying to get ahead. Do not do this. People assume that if you have kids you will do less work. This may or may not be true – I mean, doing less work. But what is true is that you should not talk about family at work if you want to be in the all-boys departments.
But here’s the thing: I don’t want to be in the all-boys departments. I want to do work that is meaningful to me, and I want society to value that work. Every day, I work in a public library with teens–I think the only way it could be more women’s work is if I were working with children–and that work has an impact on those teens and on my community. I am proud of what I do. I’d like for other people to value that as much as they value technology, competition, and dudeliness.
Some encouraging successes
Wow, after that downer, let’s talk about some good things that have happened recently!
Michelle Luhtala, the librarian at the high school in the town that my library serves, is hands-down totally awesome. She’s really plugged into technology and the importance of tech in libraries and schools, she’s a webinar facilitator for edWeb.net, she’s been named Librarian of the Year by CLA, she was recently elected Director of Region 1 of AASL, she churns out instructional tools like crazy, and she has a great relationship with her students. Last year her library was one of two to be named AASL’s National School Library Program of the Year, and earlier this month Nancy Everhart, the president of AASL, made New Canaan High School her Connecticut stop on her nationwide tour.
More good news: at the beginning of this year, a controversy erupted when the director of the Enfield (CT) Public Library was told the library couldn’t show Michael Moore’s “Sicko” as part of their ongoing film program. The library was eventually allowed to show the movie, which was a victory in itself, but the director was also recently recognized by the Connecticut Library Association with an Intellectual Freedom Award.
There are lots of successes we have each day that are never officially recognized with awards but are just as meaningful. David Lubar recently wrote a LiveJournal post about an email he received from a parent about how his books had so captured her son’s imagination that he had gone from below grade-level reading to above grade-level–and that he’d begun writing his own stories. That’s really powerful stuff.
I’ve recently had a couple of those moments–maybe smaller, but no less encouraging–myself. I’m organizing a Minecraft competition at my library (I’m planning to talk about it in detail once it’s happened) and one of my TAB kids is helping spread the word to her friends on Facebook. Her post was attracting a few comments, and then one of her non-library-going friends wrote, “That’s actually like way too cool for a library to be doing,” and seeing that totally made my day. I am changing non-library users’ perceptions of what a library is and does!
And then last week, a former borderline troublemaker came over to me and out of nowhere said that I was doing a good job of standing up for teens and that I was making the library a better place for teens. He couldn’t have made me happier if I’d been feeding him lines to parrot back at me! And then he asked if he could join our Teen Advisory Board!
So you know, haters gonna hate–but I’m doing my job and it’s having an impact on my community and I feel good about that. And you should feel good about your work, too! What encouragement have you received recently?
This from Lynn in Grand Rapids, Michigan: Do you foresee a time when I can get an e-book from my local library? What will the move to electronic books do to our libraries?
And Lynn, we’ve had a lot of inquires about those who, well, can’t afford a Kindle or a Nook or an iPad.
NEARY: Well, that’s an interesting question, and to be honest, I don’t know the answer – that libraries would start lending them out. I think you can download books from libraries but – not on a Kindle, but on some of the other devices, you can. But as far as lending out an e-reader, that I don’t know about.
Mr. OSNOS: Well, I can answer the question as far as my local library in Connecticut. You can easily access e-books. Now, you won’t get them for the Kindle because that’s a proprietary system. But now that there’s a…
CONAN: That’s if you have your own reader, though.
NEARY: Yeah, he…
Mr. OSNOS: Yeah, you can read it as a PDF on a reader, or you can put it – actually convert it into – and use it on your iPad or on your Sony Reader. There are – the range of choices is expanding enormously.
I was glad that one of the guests at least knew that his library (a Connecticut library, woo!) had ebooks–and that they weren’t compatible with the Kindle, since Amazon doesn’t seem to want to play nice with libraries–but I was so disappointed that the other guests weren’t aware of what their libraries had to offer them. And I feel like that’s one of the biggest challenges we face on a day-to-day basis; getting the word out about all of the genuinely awesome things that we do at the library seems like such an uphill battle.
(Tangentially related: my husband and I just finished watching the most recent season of The Amazing Race and I was flipping out when, in the final episode, the contestants were trying to figure out some clues to decipher where to go next and one team called Information and another one desperately looked for a way to do a Google search when all they needed to do was call a library!)
Anyway, as I was listening to this segment, I really wanted to call in and explain that yes! many libraries already have ebooks available for patrons to download either through their own collection development efforts or because they’re part of a consortium or because they have access to ebooks through their state library. But more than that, I wanted to tell America that yes! some libraries even have ebook readers available for patrons to check out! My library in particular has three Kindles, three Nooks, and three Sony Readers that patrons can check out with preloaded titles as well as one title of their choice for three weeks. But alas, before I could call in, they were moving on to the next segment.
And double alas, it seems that patrons are always asking in surprise, “Oh, we can borrow ereaders?” Advertising that the library does have this technology–and that patrons can use it to see if they like it–has been tricky. The problem often isn’t what the library does or doesn’t have; it’s whether or not anyone knows we have it.
But one library in our area that’s doing a great job demonstrating that it’s at the forefront of new book formats and changes in the way people read books is the Fairfield (CT) Public Library. They have this awesome technology petting zoo that’s highly visible where patrons can handle a Kindle, a Nook, a Sony Reader, and an iPad. Everything’s locked down and staff members are on hand to answer questions patrons have about the devices. Our director was so impressed with Fairfield’s tech petting zoo that we’re hoping–no promises, though, as this is still in the figure-it-out-first stage–we can develop one of our own.
Our patrons not only expect us to be tech-savvy; they also want (and sometimes need!) our guidance in figuring out how to use new technology and new devices, and just as we offer classes on different kinds of software or databases, we should also be demonstrating these devices. Having ereaders available in the library gives us the opportunity to do hands-on instructions with curious patrons, and letting patrons check them out gives them the opportunity to take them home and use them in a comfortable environment.
But we need to not just have ereaders available in the library or for checkout; we’ve also got to let people know that we have them, that we’re still relevant, that ebooks aren’t killing the library. And Fairfield’s tech petting zoo is such a great way to do that!
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?
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!
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.
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.
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:
Susan Kusel writes for the PBS Parents blog Booklights (hooray for librarians in non-library contexts!); one of her posts from this spring answers the question “what do librarians do all day?”
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.
Rob Beschizza toured the the Preservation Research and Testing Division and the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center of the Library of Congress recently and posted gorgeous high-res photos (and a couple videos) and descriptions of a lot of the preservation technology on BoingBoing. He talks about both the preservation of old print materials and digital items–everything from the Gettysburg Address and the 500-year-old Waldseemüller world map to nitrate film and RCA Selectavision and DVDs–touching on some of the issues involved (damaging an item to learn about it, DRM, digitizing vs maintaining old technology) and explaining some of the different tools and the science of preservation. Preservation nerds will love this, but everyone should click through just to check out the photos.
A piece of strange, sad news: a public library in Dover, New Hampshire recently discovered 5,000 anti-public school bookmarks tucked into books in their collection; staff spent 30 hours removing all of them. The bookmarks espoused the ideals of the School Sucks Project and Freedomain Radio and were strategically placed in books in certain sections of the library. Other nearby libraries have also found the bookmarks in their own collections. And lest anyone think the library was trying to censor the School Sucks Project’s message,
Although Beaudoin said she didn’t want library patrons to think the library supported the messages on the bookmarks, she wouldn’t have denied a request to post a poster or literature on a public board or display.
But library policy prohibits the dissemination of information through bookmarks in books, she said.
“If I had found 5,000 bookmarks staying ‘Stop the oil spill in the Gulf,’ a message I think everyone can get behind, I still would have pulled them,” she said. “It’s not what it was about, but that the act was done.”
Brigham Young University recently took a page from Old Spice’s book and put together this fantastic video, “New Spice: Study Like a Scholar, Scholar,” in which BYU student and comedian Stephen Jones extolls the virtues of studying at BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library. So many elements of the Old Spice commercials are nailed so perfectly and it’s a great mix of silly and accurate and man I love this video.
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 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.