Category Archives: library workers

ego, thy name is librarianship

cc license photo by flickr use r zoonabar
cc license photo by flickr use r zoonabar

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have a bit of an attention problem. No, not attention deficit– I have a need to be, if not the center of attention, at least left of center. Even though I am an introvert at heart who needs significant alone time to recharge and prepare, I am actually happiest when I am in front of a crowd. I meet this need for attention in many ways–by working in an area of librarianship that demands that I present storytimes and other programs, by being a performing songwriter on my personal time, by writing this blog. Often these endeavors are satisfying enough in themselves, but sometimes–during dark, lonely afternoons as I type up program plans, or ponder what to write about next on the blog–I crave even more attention, but I don’t know how to get it.

Doesn’t this all sound awfully conceited? I know. It does. But I’m nothing if not honest, so yes, I’ll admit to thinking I am awesome. I think I do excellent work, and have unique contributions to make, even though I don’t have a slogan or a hashtag or a large, slavish following. Sometimes I wonder if I were a man, writing about ebooks, if I’d get more attention. But since I am a lady writing mostly about playdough and early literacy, decidedly unsexy topics in librarianship (and when did “sexy” begin to equal “intriguing” or “worthwhile” or “interesting”?) I have a decidedly smaller circle of admirers and colleagues, most of whom are my fellow unsung heroes of the library world. As a children’s librarian, if you write more about how you use books with children than you do about the books and authors themselves, you don’t get as much notice.

Perhaps it is just my sensitive ego at work, but I feel like the librarian bloggers who work with children and teens and who write primarily about programs don’t get the recognition they deserve. Storytime blogs such as So Tomorrow, Awesome Storytime, Mel’s Desk, Playing by the Book, Tiny Tips for Library Fun, Bryce Don’t Play, and Storytiming provide real, concrete advice for creating worthwhile programming, which should be the bread and butter of libraries. If all of us wrote more book reviews and less about the programs we created using those books, or why we create the programs we do, perhaps we’d get more notice. If we blogged about hot button topics like e-books for babies or stripping our children’s departments down to look like futuristic lunchrooms filled with ipads, perhaps we’d get a ton of traffic. But we don’t. We write about our quiet successes and failures, about the simple craft of creating a flannel story, about what rhymes will fit with certain themes, and when we do review books, it’s always with an eye to How will I use this with a group of children? When we get dressed for work, it’s always with a thought about how easily we’ll be able to get up and down from the floor during storytime, and whether or not sweat will show if we’re doing a lot of jumping songs that day.

In a profession that’s supposedly dominated by women, I find it sad that the librarians who get the most attention are mostly men (and, admittedly, some women), men who very rarely write about honest, simple, day to day issues in librarianship (Swiss Army Librarian being a rare exception, with his marvelous ref questions of the week). These men spin elaborate fantasies about librarians being information rockstars who dress to impress (either flashily or with an eye to ironic hipsterism), dismiss librarians who still use books to connect with patrons as hopelessly backwards, and come up with gimmick after gimmick to get libraries “noticed” without ever once writing about a concrete, applicable thing that they have actually done. Show me how libraries and librarians are amazing, don’t just tell me and expect me to be convinced.

I’m on very precarious ground as I write this, because honestly, my main motivation is that I am sad that I am not more recognized. [I really regret this sentence right now! While I, personally, do want to be recognized, more than that I want my tribe--kid and teen librarians who work so damn hard with little to no recognition in the wider library world--to be noticed and appreciated. Which they might be. I'll admit to not being able to read everything ever printed about libraries. JJ 01/16] I want to be noticed. I want people to listen to what I have to say. I want to be offered speaking engagements, to have a larger platform to  discuss my ideas of how to better librarianship, to be valued. I want to win awards. I crave approval and recognition, and yet, to paraphrase Lillian Hellman, I cannot and will not cut my librarianship to fit this year’s fashion. I don’t particularly care about e-books, only that I wish we could give our patrons what they want. I don’t particularly want to shove ipads into the faces of babies and toddlers because I still believe screen time is ultimately damaging. I don’t really care to have the perception of librarians go from shushing bun heads to strutting pimps. (I think Frank Zappa* is a better rock star librarian model than any rapper, but that’s just me. Like Frank, I believe in free speech, showmanship, and being a decent human being. Like Frank, I think you can push the envelope of expression without being hateful to women.) I like books, and I believe librarianship is about books, if you stop and think about how books equal stories, and it doesn’t matter what goddamn container they come in, be it paper, digital, audio, or a film or a video game. Stories are what people crave, and stories (like the storycorp partnership with libraries, or the not so new resurgence of reading aloud to adults–and adult librarians, if you need help on reading aloud, you know who to ask) are what libraries have and always will do best.

So next time you need a keynote speaker, perhaps consider one of us librarians who spend most of our time on the floor–often literally. Our subject matter might not be “sexy”, but we know how to tell a damn good story.

*”If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.” – Frank Zappa

The Cockroach Approach: Doughnuts, an interlude

I posted this quote by John Green on my facebook timeline the other day:

“Adult librarians are like lazy bakers: their patrons want a jelly doughnut, so they give them a jelly doughnut. Children’s librarians are ambitious bakers: ‘You like the jelly doughnut? I’ll get you a jelly doughnut. But you should try my cruller, too. My cruller is gonna blow your mind, kid.”
― John Green

And seeing as I am friends with many a type of librarian, several adult services librarians I know became really defensive. I can see why. I’m sure there are many adult librarians who offer up crullers, long johns, muffins, and perhaps even hash brownies– but here’s the thing: you’re not seen that way, adult librarians. Your message isn’t being heard. Which is what I’m trying to get at with these posts.

If authors who are library advocates don’t comprehend your value, and other librarians such as myself aren’t sure of what you’re doing, then what are the chances that the public knows?

I’m not trying to anger people, but I am trying to provoke and inspire.

So adult librarians: tell me about your crullers. I dare you.

The Cockroach Approach: Outreach

Part One of a four part series. Read the introduction here.

Children’s librarians have cornered the market on outreach. We go out to schools, preschools, daycares and present book talks, storytimes and other programs that promote our services, materials and meet a developmental need for our users. Some librarians go even further and perform at summer festivals, block parties, coffee shops and doctor’s waiting rooms. We also do some passive outreach– I know many libraries will partner with hospitals and send a bag home with new parents that contains information about, early literacy, the library, and what it offers to new parents. And it’s not just the places we go or what we do, it’s how often we go there and how awesome we are.

I think if you are truly a great outreach librarian, you’re going to be treated like a rock star. Kids will begin to anticipate your visits, and–and this is truly important–they will love and want to see you so much that they will follow you to the library. Having a rock star librarian elevates the entire experience, and will spur your entire staff to higher levels of performance in turn (and if they act resentful instead, well, that’s why we fire people. Or hope they weed themselves).

I believe that this is why my preschool programs are so successful at my current place of work–because my outreach counterpart goes above and beyond in her visits, entrancing children and getting them excited about literature and the library, and she makes sure that promotional materials for our in house programs get sent home with each and every kid. She’s genuinely enthusiastic about every single kid she meets, and that kind of interaction is enthralling to kids. With that kind of direct marketing and heartfelt, genuine connection, it’s no wonder our program statistics continue to climb.

I don’t see this happening in public library adult services departments. Some libraries are getting on it and offering programming outside of the library— Oak Park Public Library is on the forefront with its many-pronged Genre X programming, and Skokie has joined forces with Morton Grove to present Lit Lounge, a book club in a bar, and Forest Park Public Library offers pub trivia. I’ve seen other libraries staff tables at Farmer’s Markets. But I think there’s still room for more outreach, more often–and with a better attitude.

More and more libraries are offering a summer reading component for adults, but where is the promotion? When your youth and teen services librarians are promoting summer reading in the schools, why doesn’t adult services go to the same thing, promoting the adult summer reading program to teachers and staff? What better way to motivate kids to read over the summer than to show them their teachers and principal are doing it too?

And speaking of teachers, why not make sure they know that the library offers classes on facebook, youtube, linkedin, twitter, and other technology classes? Is your library set up to offer CPDUs and CEUs through the state board of education? It’s incredibly easy to do in Illinois, and with some slight tweaking to your classes, you can offer an incredible amount of value to these adults in your community. In fact, why not co-present with a member of your youth services team, so teachers and adults can learn how kids are using these same technologies, often in very different ways.

In addition to teachers, what about college professors and academic librarians?  I know most academic libraries purchase some leisure reading materials–why not have public reader’s advisory services librarian come booktalk hot new titles? I think that would be a much more entertaining way of developing that collection than reading a journal. And colleges have a wealth of talent that could come present workshops or classes at the public library, if only those connections were made. Outreach begets collaboration–what a benefit to both parties involved!

A few years back there was a lot of discussion about roving reference, and getting out from behind the desk. While admirable, that’s not enough. Librarians need to get out of the library and make sure people realize the value of what we have and what we can do. Even with virtual outreach–twitter and facebook, and to a lesser extent the library’s website–we are falling behind. I see so many libraries with a twitter feed full of other libraries, authors, and publishers. Sorry– you’re doing it wrong. Why aren’t you following people in your community? And if there aren’t any people in your community on twitter, why are you wasting time on twitter anyway? You need to find out where the people in your community are, and meet them there. 

In the vein of virtual outreach, I’d love to see more libraries post staff pages with pictures. Yes. Sort of scary. But really– people don’t connect with a huge building called LIBRARY. They connect with PEOPLE. To a lot of the kids I work with, I AM the library, or Miss Stephanie is the library. I know some people are squicky about having their pictures and information out on the internet but…well. That’s your problem. The more times people see your face, and learn things about you–the more of a real person you are–the more likely it is that a connection will be made, and real, good library work can be done. Will you occasionally get a crazy stalker? Sure. But is that very likely? No. So why would you avoid a huge, real benefit because you’re afraid of a highly unlikely negative scenario? Librarianship isn’t for wimps. Get over it.

Further, it’s not enough to just do these things–you need to be awesome. Amazing. Charismatic. Like a children’s librarian. We squeal at adorable babies, we clap when a kid shows us the books they’re checking out, we can’t wait to get the new Pete the Cat or Elephant in Piggy into a kid’s hands, we flail like Muppets–and that’s what you, adult services librarian, need to do, too. Authenticity matters is all realms of librarianship. When people can tell you care, can tell you’re excited, can tell that they matter to you, they are more likely to return to you and request your help–and then, in your time of need, they are more likely to be your advocate. Because unless people like you, and care about you, and think you matter–then no one is going to miss you when you’re gone. Which is why children’s librarians–the good ones–will survive. If Miss Stephanie disappeared from the library–if someone threatened her job–there would be an outcry. There would be protests. There would be hand-drawn signs and tears and wailing and gnashing of teeth. Would that happen for you, if you were threatened? Would any of your patrons notice or care if you were suddenly gone? If not, you need to start making some friends.

(Does every patron need a Muppet flail, however? No. This is why librarians who are skilled in reading people and tailoring their approach are so crucial. Some patrons need a different kind of enthusiasm, otherwise they will think you are crazy. Children’s librarians are–whether by instinct, design, or learned behavior–are skilled actors. Perhaps its all the dramatic reading we do, but we know how to use our bodies and our voices effectively to provoke a response. We can soothe or excite depending on what the situation requires, which, in the realm of public service, is crucial.)

I certainly must have a few adult services librarians who read this blog. So tell me–where are you going? What are you doing? And is it making a difference?

Be The Change

What we need is toolkit for dealing with these roadblocks. Some ideas to get us safely started. I want to make change but am so overwhelmed by all that needs to be done in my system, I’ve no clue where or how to start. Maybe for your next post?
Thanks for helping keep me inspired and energized about my career!

Even though I’m thirty-two years old, I’m way behind in terms of emotional development. My childhood and young adulthood were beyond dysfunctional, putting me at a severe disadvantage when it comes to interpersonal relationships. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to feel that I’m somewhat equipped to handle the world in an emotionally appropriate way. This isn’t to say that I have all the answers, but I have learned many lessons, the most important being: you can’t control anyone but yourself. This is true for any relationship you’ll ever have, personal, professional, and everything in between.

So when it comes to putting together a toolkit for being awesome, that’s where you need to start–with yourself.

Take care of yourself.
Make sure you get enough sleep, exercise, water, and things to eat that are whole and fresh. Get massages when and if you can afford them, or take a yoga class. If you work at a desk, get up every twenty or thirty minutes and walk around a bit.

Speak up for yourself
If someone’s making you feel uncomfortable, threatened, afraid, or just plain icky, speak out. Be polite, be courteous, but be firm. If you need something to accomplish your job–and make sure it is a genuine need, not just a want–ask for it. Any time you speak up, make sure it is from a place of calm. Don’t be afraid to be passionate, but you don’t want to come across as an emotionally unstable harpy, either. Make sure to document any problematic interactions you have. If things have to progress to official channels, you’re going to want things written down and dated.

Educate yourself
If there’s no professional development money, do the next best thing–converse on twitter, read blogs, or ask your boss if you can go visit other nearby libraries to network and gather ideas.

Make an example of yourself
Be awesome in public. Go above and beyond, even if your coworkers snipe at you and no one in administration seems to care. You’re going to know you’re doing a good job, and when it comes time to make a move somewhere better, you’ll be able to speak passionately and truthfully about how you’ve helped your patrons. If you have tons of ideas you’re unable to implement, blog about them–perhaps someone else will be able to make it happen. While that is really not as satisfying as doing it yourself, at least someone will benefit from your wonderful idea.

Easier said than done, sometimes, but these are some guidelines I try to follow in my own life. What about you? How do you handle soul-sucking workplaces, tiresome red tape, and general unawesomeness?

You must be the change you want to see in the world.
Mahatma Gandhi
Indian political and spiritual leader (1869 – 1948)

The Whole Library Approach

When I was still a preschool teacher, we talked a lot about the whole child approach, which, essentially, meant you took a whole child into consideration when you are teaching him or her. When we deal with children we teach, we can’t just have Susie the student. We also have Susie the daughter, the artist, the kid who doesn’t get enough to eat at home, whose parents can’t pay the utility bills so she cries before going to sleep because she’s afraid of the dark. We consider her immediate family, the community she’s in, and the experiences and exposures that impact her life and her development. We teach and take interest in the whole child, and take steps to help her thrive.

In so many public libraries, we’re so concerned with our own private domains. Children’s services, Adult Reference, Circulation, Technical Services, Administration– each little island has its own procedures, processes, vision, and expectations. The best libraries do what they can to unify these disparate departments, and have a library wide vision and mission, but so many don’t. So many libraries have departments that are so disparate in their approaches that it’s amazing they manage to (dys)function at all.

I am a children’s librarian as well as a staunch advocate of teens and those with special needs. (If anyone wants give me a job where my title is Toddler Tween Librarian and Purveyor of Programming, I would gladly accept.) I’ll help anyone who is within my reach, even if they’re not asking for something that a children’s librarian would typically help with.  Because that’s just what you should do.

Even though I work at the children’s desk, we get a lot of adult traffic as well. Some of these adults are parents, others are adults who don’t realize they are at the children’s desk, and others who wander over to us because of our proximity to the photocopier. I never turn adults away when they ask me a question. I will find books or resources for them, help them make photocopies, answer questions about computer classes, and walk them to the appropriate collection area if needed, the same as I would do for any child. My title is Children’s Librarian. Anything a librarian can do, I can do. Answering a reference question, regardless of the age of the asker, is something I should be able to do. I might not be as passionate about some of the reader’s advisory questions I get from adults, but I should know enough to do a RA interview, and I should have a working knowledge of major trends in adult literature.

I believe that in a public library, this should be standard. You should be prepared and equipped to serve the public at any and all times, regardless of age, ethnicity, or ability. If someone’s needs absolutely require someone else in another department, please walk the person over, make contact with your colleague, explain the situation, and make sure everything is ready to go before you leave. There’s nothing worse than being passed from person to person and department to department without any continuity or follow through.

Think about it: when you’re on the phone with customer service, don’t you hate having to give the same damn information over and over again, every time you are transferred? If you don’t like it, then don’t do it to your patrons. It’s not necessary, and it’s bad service.

Which brings me to another point: if you don’t like people, don’t work in a public library, period. Become an archivist, a collection development librarian, or, you know, go live in a cave and don’t bother any one anymore. If you like books–great! I like books too. But in the public library, books are just a means to connect with people.

Further, you need to like all people, and have a strong desire to help them. I don’t necessarily like everyone I help, but I enjoy helping them, even when it’s difficult. Sometimes the most ornery patron is the one who needs you the most.

Of course I have my preferences, like anyone does. I love working with children, which is why I specialized in children’s services, but I like helping everyone. I love talking about Doctor Who with the middle schoolers, and singing “I love my white shoes” from Pete the Cat with the special ed class, and helping an elderly patron make copies of photos at the copier. I don’t ignore or short-shrift any patron because I’m not the adult or teen librarian. If they’re in my library, they are my people, and I need to do what I can for them.

Which brings me back to the way we set up our public libraries. Most people don’t care about our stupid little divisions. This is why I love tiny branch libraries, where the reference desk and check out are usually in the same damn place. I helped you find all this stuff, and  now I am going to check it out to you. From beginning to end, I was with you, and we’ve made a connection. There was no reason for me to shuttle you off to another desk or another person to make things happen for you.

I’ve written about these kinds of issues before, but my ire was raised once again after reading Anthony Molaro’s excellent post The Apple Way for Libraries: A Manifesto? (I’d remove the question mark, though; when your points are as good as these, don’t soften or second guess your message):

In the library environment, the departments feud with each other.  This creates a hostile work environment in which collaboration simply cannot thrive.  In all honesty, when was the last time your technical services and your reference staff actually collaborated?  I’m not talking about a joint project, that a leader approved, but an actually collaboration.

Apple also cuts the fat, or drops dead weight.  Apple is known for only having A players.  Sometimes B players were pushed hard to make them A players, but more often than not, they were fired.  In lots of libraries, we have lousy staff.  We know it.  We joke about it.  We even lament it.  But the truth is if you fail in another profession you end up here.  Even worse, good C players end up with promotions and then you have an entire C rated organization.  Any A players there are pushed downward until they only strive for C results.

Yes, perhaps I’m hard on library staff today.  I have worked with some great people.  But even that statement says a lot.  They are great people not great librarians or library staff.  Most of our staff strives for the status quo, or mediocrity. They plan for tomorrow based on what happened yesterday.

So what are we going to do, guys? Are we going to let these problems destroy our libraries? Or are we going to get serious about solving these problems?

librarian, weed thyself.

So the most recent Andy Poll was about weeding the library profession:

http://twitter.com/#!/wawoodworth/status/129942473882611713

Most people are replying with attributes (View the story “Weed the librarian” on Storify) rather than a set of criteria, which I don’t think is really answering the question. How do you weed librarians out of the profession? Don’t reinvent the wheel–just use the same process most libraries use for materials: CREW and its charming companion MUSTIE. CREW, as everyone should know, stands for “Continuous Review, Evaluation, and Weeding.”

As a professional, you should be continuously reviewing and evaluating your own performance, and weeding the skills and projects that are no longer beneficial to you or your organization. If you realize at any time that you’ve become MUSTIE*, then you should quit your job immediately and allow a newer, better librarian to have your job. If it’s good enough for our materials, it’s good enough for us.

*M is for : Misleading–factually inaccurate. I think we’ve all been there–we’re sitting on the desk with someone else, listening to them give out blatantly WRONG information. Even with gentle correction, our coworker refuses to change his or her way. Or, at best, they decide that they’ll just make you answer all of the hard questions because they’re too lazy to actually do their job.

U is for: Ugly–worn beyond mending or rebinding. Let’s not get into this one too much, except to say that ugly, when it comes to people, applies more to their attitude than their appearance.

S is for: Superceded–by a new edition of by a much better book on the subject. When you use the computer mouse by banging it against the desk, or answer a ready reference question with the phone book, you’ve been superceded.

T is for: Trivial–of no discernible literary or scientific merit. Have you been running the same programs for youth year in and year out with no changes? Do your booklists not have any titles published in the last twenty years on them? Are you chained to your reference desk?

I is for: Irrelevant to the needs and interests of the library’s community. Closely tied with trivial, many of the same questions can be asked. If you’re sitting at your desk waiting for people to come to you with their questions and their needs, you are irrelevant.

E is for: Elsewhere–the material is easily obtainable from another library [or librarian]. There are thousands of people with library degrees frothing at the mouth to work, and at least some of them have to be more outgoing, engaging, exciting, and innovative than your MUSTIE a**. How about you do one brave thing in your professional life and QUIT, so they can have a chance?

staff in-services

The beginning of any good staff in-service should include a way of breaking up departmental cliques, much like the way the “Dance at the Gym” from West Side Story begins with the MC trying to integrate the Sharks and the Jets, with about just as much success. These vain attempts at integration also remind me of another classic musical number, The Farmer and the Cowman Should be Friends. You could insert any two library departments and have a pretty apt parallel.

Are there any managers out there reading this who can explain to me the once a year integration phenomenon? Why isn’t interdepartmental cooperation and communication a constant goal? Or is it?