Stifled: or, the exact wrong way to think about storytime

Oh, dear sweet baby Picard Jebus, there’s a rage making thread on pub-yac about a children’s department being forced to do all of their storytimes the same. Here’s a quote:

[…A]ll the storytimes for one age group should be the same because:
Patrons get disappointed when they can’t get into a certain storytime because its registration gets filled.
Using personal props, puppets or flannels is shunned because you may leave the library one day and the library patrons will be familiar with those items that were personally yours.
If you are out sick, another librarian will need to cover the storytime and the patrons will be disappointed if “Miss Tina” isn’t there and the librarian covering the storytime will feel bad, because the group is disappointed.
That the staff of librarians have different levels of performance ability and because of  that they should all work together to be about the same or at least contain the same materials.

My first flippant thought was, “Welcome to Camazotz storytime. All storytimes are equal. Now for 1.5 minutes of literacy time.” My second, equally flippant thought was, “Sounds like Amendments 211, 212, and 213 got passed at this library. Soon we’ll be seeing library job postings for a staff Handicapper General.”

When I was still working as a preschool teacher, there was a big movement away from genuine praise–instead, we were supposed to say things like “You did it!” No qualifiers, the only thing we talked about was done and not done. Which also ties in with our current climate of “Everyone’s a winner!” “A+ for trying!” And I can understand the impulse. You don’t want kids or people to feel bad. But by making everyone equal, we’ve done the exact opposite– when we don’t allow children, or staff members, to find out what they excel at, then we have a society full of people who aren’t really good at anything. Not allowing people to fail has caused so many people to never find out what they are truly good at, and by making everyone equal, we’ve inflicted a great injustice on many.

Equality isn’t about what we are–it is about how we are treated, and how we are utilized in society. Those who have talent and work hard at developing and applying it should be lauded, of course, but not at the detriment of others.

Forcing more talented staff to perform at the level of your least talented staff is demoralizing for all involved. Why would anyone do this? I think a smarter approach would be for your staff to try out presenting different programs to different groups and seeing what works. Not every group wants or needs a high energy, jazz hands style presenter. I actually think baby time/lapsit benefits from a calmer, more methodical approach, perfect for shyer or perhaps older librarians.

If you end up with a staff member who is incapable of successfully presenting to any group, in any style, well, then, that’s another discussion. But stifling the creativity and joy of your other staff to meet imagined needs of a public is simply poor management. If I were working with whomever created those guidelines above, I’d be on the lookout for a better situation.

This situation also reminded me of Mel’s recent, excellent series on the elements of storytime, which is as elegant and perfect and precise as Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. I highly recommend anyone who currently performs storytimes or wants to in the future read the entire series. And library school educators, you might just want to incorporate it into your curriculum–with proper credit, of course.

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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?

top 11 posts of 2011

When I first started this blog, I had no grand aspirations. I am passionate about the library field, child development, and children’s literature, and I wanted to have a place to express my thoughts, and I hoped that I would garner at least a dedicated, engaged readership. Fairly early on, I experienced the Elizabeth Bird bump, and for that I’ve always been grateful. I appreciate my twitter friends for all their conversation and ideas, and frankly, without them I probably wouldn’t be writing much at all.

Looking at my top posts, I realize that people love it when I write about things that a lot of librarians are probably thinking but are too scared to talk about, and my programs for children. I’m going to make an effort to write more about these topics in 2012, and also write more from the gut and the heart, no matter what the topic (my angsty review of Ingenue being an example of this new goal).

Thank you to all my readers for commenting, emailing my posts to your colleagues, and generally being awesome. Let’s do more of this in 2012.

top posts (excluding static pages):

11. Meow Mix. I think this is solely because of the cat picture, although I think my cat who doesn’t know how to meow storytime through line is pretty awesome.

10. Make it Happen: Teen Space. Pretty much an airing of grievances post that also allowed me to congratulate and laud a fellow librarian. Now complete with a comment I didn’t initially approve because it’s super negative, but hey, whatevs. Different strokes for different folks.

9. New Storytime Favorites. Why is this so popular? I dunno. Probably because I mention cats and I’m a librarian. The cat/librarian diagram is so venn it’s almost just a circle.

8. Tales of the Madman Underground: A Love Letter. This was a very personal post and book review, and I almost didn’t publish it. But this book is amazing and I think that librarians—much like teachers—need to fight for the right to be real, flawed, human people with pasts and problems like any other people. Just because we work with children doesn’t mean we’re all Mary Poppins, and we shouldn’t be punished for being real people. But seriously, read that book.

7. The Ethical Librarian. This one is me totally ranting and raving on my high horse while my horse is standing on a soapbox. You might as well call me the Bughouse Square librarian. I took an information ethics class in library school, one of the few actually challenging courses I took, and it ruined me forever. You’re welcome.

6. #makeitbetter. I just hate bad librarians. Sorry if you’re one of them.

5. You might not being doing it wrong, but you could certainly do it better. Ah, my screed against library schools. I might not get so worked up if I weren’t $50,000 in debt, but that ship’s sailed, huh? Good times. And by good times I mean kill me.

4. Librarian, Weed Thyself! Wherein I apply the CREW and MUSTIE methods to people. I am a monster. A pudgy, cuddly, hyberpolic monster.

3. Beginning Reader Storytime. A warm and fuzzy post about how I revamped my library’s preschool storytime. How…charming.

2. How to Become the Best, Most Versatile Baby & Toddler Programmer Ever. Babies and toddlers are tricky audiences.

And, unsurprisingly, the number one post of 2011 is…

1.  Summer Reading, Pain in my a**. So many people enjoyed my rants about the sacred cow of summer reading, which really pleased me. I love when people reassess long running programs with a fresh eye. Can’t wait to see what people do with their 2012 summer reading programs.

Happy new year, everyone!

Love,

Miss Julie

story hacker

So this week on of the books I was using for my outreach storytimes wasn’t quite working for my groups for some reason. It seemed to be missing a crucial action in the text, which made it not quite pop for the children. It was as though there was a three step action sequence missing step two. So the second time I went out with it, I added the text I thought it needed (“and they pulled, and they pulled, and they pulled, but!”), replete with action, and read the rest of the text verbatim, and the kids seemed much more engaged with the story and seemed to understand it more.

I’m always a little conflicted when I do this. Part of me is a text purist, and I try to not abridge or omit if I can help it, because it seems a little bit like censoring to me. But when I’m performing a storytime–and I am performing in the belt it out, jazz hands, shuffle ball step sense of the word–I sometimes feel that to deliver the material well, a bit of improvisation is in order.

So, storytimers, do you do this? How often? And how do you feel about it?

the ethical librarian

I started writing this post in October of 2010, and it’s an issue that still bothers me today. On a listserve recently there was a pretty brutal backlash against a teen librarian who essentially said he was burning out and that (I paraphrase) “So many teens suck these days and I don’t want to serve them.” Several librarians called him out and mocked him mercilessly on twitter and in other venues, and while it got very heated, I think that ultimately this sort of calling out is justified and, in the long run, can weed out the bad librarians.

And we’ve seen the bad librarians. Hell, sometimes we end up being the bad librarian, if we’re feeling tired or burnt out (I’m looking at you, end of summer reading program) or beaten down by circumstances beyond our control. But there is a big difference between having a bad day or week and being so fundamentally ill-matched to your position that you’ll never have a good day, because you either hate the work itself or you hate the people you’re supposed to be serving.

The institutions are at fault here. Coworkers who don’t call out their peers who are doing a bad job are at fault, and managers who don’t take the time to adequately hire, review, and fire employees if it’s warranted are at fault as well.

(Here is where the original post began.)

A [couple of years] ago I was thinking about ethical courage, conformity, and what it all means for me, my profession, and everyone else–you know, your usual fluffy [end of summer] thoughts.

[After I] listened to This American Life’s The Right to Remain Silent episode, it pissed me off. The first story pissed me off because the guy in it is an obvious moron and jackass, and the second story because the blatant quota pushing by the NYPD went on for so long and so few people spoke out.

Here’s TAL’s synopsis of the cop story:

For 17 months, New York police officer Adrian Schoolcraft recorded himself and his fellow officers on the job, including their supervisors ordering them to do all sorts of things that police aren’t supposed to do. For example, downgrading real crimes into lesser ones, so they wouldn’t show up in the crime statistics and make their precinct look bad. Adrian’s story first appeared as a five part series in the Village Voice, written by Graham Rayman. Schoolcraft’s website looking for other cops to come forward is here.

One of the more infuriating parts was the serial rapist who kept ending up back on the streets because his assaults kept getting downgraded and not reported. Eight or nine–the actual number isn’t known–women were assaulted because of the negligence of the police. No one said anything. Willful ignorance and blatant lying became the norm because people were afraid and, I think, lazy. (As an aside, it is incredibly hard to write this post without using a ton of profanity). Fear is sometimes understandable and sometimes forgivable. Laziness, however? Fuck that shit. (Sorry. You have to give me that one.)

It seems to me that ethical apathy is the new default mode for society. Isn’t that part of how our economy tanked, because no one balked and extending large amounts of credit to people without savings, jobs, or collateral? Didn’t the Gulf Oil spill become so terrible because people cut corners without considering the possible outcomes? And what about those miners in Virginia? Not to mention that poor guy in France getting hit so hard, while the big corporation that encouraged his bad behavior is getting off without any kind of punishment.

How does this relate to libraries and librarians? Well, seeing as all librarians are humans (so far, just wait until that arrow robot starts doing reference), we, just like all other people, have an obligation to each other to speak up when we see injustice, and take action when it is needed. Compared to an oil spill or a mine collapse, speaking out against tiny workplace injustices might not seem worth the effort, but every large catastrophe began as a small problem that, if nipped in the bud, could have stayed a small problem. When we allow small injuries to be left untreated, they will fester and spread until the entire organism is infected.

Once I was waiting for a bus. Near the bus stop, a couple was having a fight. The man kept moving close to the woman, and the woman kept saying things like “Get off of me.” She would walk away, and he would follow. It was around nine at night, dark, and a light rain was starting to fall. I stood under the bus stop shelter, listening to their argument, fretting about whether or not I should call 911. Chances were high that by the time the cops arrived, the couple would be gone, or that they were merely playing. My gut, however, told me that this was serious.

I called 911. I told the dispatcher the location, what was happening, and described the couple. My bus arrived. The couple began moving off. I watched them walking off as I rode away on the bus. Their body language was awful. He kept encroaching on her space and she kept edging away.

I don’t regret making that call. I only regret other calls I didn’t make. I regret all the times when I was growing up that no one noticed what was happening with me and my family. Or, rather, I regret that no one did anything about what they did see, because in retrospect, it’s all terribly obvious that things were not quite right. I lived so many years regretting the help I never got that I became a person who vowed to never let anything else like that happen again if I had any possible way of changing it.

Working with the public, we have many unique and terrifying opportunities to be confronted with problems and injustices that we don’t really want to deal with. We might be committing these injustices ourselves with discriminatory policies and practices. Children’s librarians might become the confidants of young patrons and hear stories about their home lives that they’d rather not hear, and really have very little power to do anything about. We might have to stand idly by while services and materials are denied based on a coworker’s prejudices, because we have no power to do anything else.

In my working life, as a teacher and a librarian, I’ve always made it a point to speak out about things that find wrong, unjust, and unethical. And sometimes–often times–this gets me in trouble. I’ve been escorted out of buildings after exit interviews for accurately using the words “censorship” and “emotional abuse.” I’ve felt sick to my stomach having to accuse parents of abuse. I’ve had to speak sharply to good friends who have told me, “Why do you even bother? There’s no point and no chance for you to change anything.” But I’ve done all these things, because it’s the right thing to do. And loyalty to my ethical standards come before any loyalty to an institution or a profession, even one I love as much as I love librarianship.

Even though I love librarianship, I’m mad at libraries. And librarians. I see so many libraries (libraries here meaning specific library cultures) letting shitty librarians continue being shitty. I see teen librarians who hate teens getting to keep their jobs, or even get promoted. I hear from patrons about home libraries who refuse to offer storytimes in the evenings or on the weekends for working families. I see librarians who are too lazy and self important to help someone use the photocopier, or speak up for the user’s experience, who do the same damn thing day after day and year after year because they are too lazy to think of a new program or class or event. I want to be somewhere where it matters if I try; where excellence is expected & rewarded; where the dead weight is cut loose instead of shuffled around.

I’m mad at libraries, because I know they can be better than they are.

When you see bad things go down, document it. Get a witness if you can. To thine own self be true, because you’re all you have. Your identity as a librarian, as a teen librarian, as a professional, all of that can disappear in an instant– and if all that gets taken away, don’t you want to be left with the identity of someone who stood her ground?

you might not be doing it wrong, but you could certainly do it better.

Part One: Education

I’ve been reading Steve’s posts over at Go Librarians about the changing role of reference librarians and degree relevance and I actually started leaving a comment on one of them when I realized it was going to be a huge chunk of text, and decided it deserved to be it’s own blog post instead.

It was this line that sent me off the deep end: “The MLIS is the minimal requirement and should be regarded as such. Its sustained relevance and its value to developing librarian positions is the onus of library school administrators. They’re smart people. I trust them.” (Emphasis mine).

Oh, lucky people who had a rigorous, edifying library school experience. I was not so lucky. Sure, some of my classes and professors were great; but when you’re paying as much as I did for my degree, I think every single class should be above and beyond excellent. My intro class in library school was taught by a last minute hire who’d never taught a class before. We spent the entire time looking at awkward power point presentations and joke websites– I remember there was one about the danger of water or oxygen or something, and it was supposed to be an example of how we need to tell valid information from invalid. Which is fine, I guess, except in every subsequent class, when a professor said “As you learned in your intro course….” I often had no idea what s/he was referring to.

I just went through the course catalogs of four of the top library schools (according to US News) and the school where I got my degree, and I was unimpressed. One school offered a class on making mobile apps. I think that, and a class about access and advocacy in youth services, were the most interesting classes that I saw. The top curricula still rely heavily on the old standbys of cataloging, reference, reader’s advisory, and materials for children and young adults. Which–don’t get me wrong–is fine. Like the title of the post indicates, you might not be doing it wrong–but you certainly could be doing it better.

Children and teen librarians need to take courses in Child Development. The one class period spent during a materials class is not sufficient. In addition to Child Development courses, we need courses on using music with children, using art with children, and working with special needs kids. Children’s librarians need to know that forty-five minutes is generally too long for a preschool story time, that 100 kids in any storytime is too many (yeah, way to be popular, but that’s not developmentally appropriate), that four year olds should be able to cut with scissors and that three year olds should be able to follow two step directions (pick up your bean bag and put it on your foot). We need to know how children learn to read, how they learn to write, and how to disperse this information to parents and caregivers. When a parent has a concern or question about their child’s development, we would be much better equipped to help them find resources and refer them to social agencies if we knew about child development ourselves.

All librarians should have the option to take theater courses so we’ll have the ability to improvise, think on our feet, and shed our inhibitions. The library world needs performers and teachers, and not just in the children’s department. Wouldn’t booktalks be all the more exciting if you could really act the parts?

And maybe, just maybe, we should suck it up and instead of hiring social workers, librarians should be able to have a specialization in social work. It’s happening anyway– we’re helping people look for jobs, apply for jobs, search for government assistance and apply for that assistance, why not take the next step and be experts in finding what they need and how to get it?

While I’m at it, I’d like to see more library school professors who are actually still working in a library, so that they’re better able to have their curriculum address the realities of working in a library.

If I had my way, people would get a master’s degree with the option of adding a certificate of library and information sciences. So, you’d have someone with a Master’s Degree in Child Development, or Film Studies, or Social Work, with an LIS certificate; perhaps the LIS certificate would be broken out into Public, Children’s/Teens, Academic, and Special. But the MLIS as it stands today? Boring, borderline irrelevant, and doing a pretty mediocre job at preparing people for actual library work.

But that’s just my opinion….what do you think?

Tales of the Madman Underground: a love letter

I fall in love with books the same way I fall in love with people– deeply, unabashedly and without any pretense of dignity. This post is a love letter, and like the gushing of any girl newly in love, it may ramble here and there, but I hope you’ll indulge me.

One book that I fell for, hard, during my youth, is John Barnes’ One For the Morning Glory, an utterly unique fantasy novel that will nevertheless remind readers of The Princess Bride and the Prydain Chronicles. Tales of the Madman Underground is nothing like that book, but I’ve still fallen head over heels for it, which is a testament to Barnes’ versatility and skill as an author.

I will admit that I actually haven’t finished the entire book; it’s a long one, and I’m taking my time with it. You might say that I’m enjoying the early stages of being smitten to the fullest. The novel is very episodic but cohesive, thanks to the strength of the main character’s voice. It’s the story of Karl Shoemaker, a teen with an extremely fucked up home life, and the interconnected tales of other members of the Madman Underground, which is the nickname for a group of teens who attend therapy together during the school day. Karl is a brutally honest narrator who tells his story with black humor and a lot of profanity.

Madman reminded me strongly of The Catcher in the Rye, but while I can’t STAND Holden Caulfield, I would love to have Karl as my secret mentally disturbed high school boyfriend. For teachers who want to explore those classic themes of alienation and teen angst, but can’t stand Holden either, I think Madman would be an excellent substitution or alternative for any curriculum or reading list. The book’s profanity might make it a hard sell in schools, though, which is as shame.

There’s a great scene with a teacher explaining about how to read Huckleberry Finn that I think should become a mandatory introduction during any study of that novel. The teacher, Gratz, says that there are wrong ways to read Huckleberry Finn, one of which is the Hollywood way, which portrays the story as being about “[…] all=American boys on a road trip on a raft (211).” The second wrong way to read it, Gratz says, is as a racist novel:

‘[…T]here is a very important character in the book called Nigger Jim. And because of that fact we will say the word ‘nigger’ pretty often in this class. And when you talk about Jim and the way he is treated, sometimes you’re going to have to say the word ‘nigger.”

‘So understand me. First of all and mot important, we don’t ever call anyone a ‘nigger.’ Not in this class. Not anywhere. When we have to discuss the idea, we always quote the word ‘nigger.’ […] It is okay to say that thus and so is what those very prejudiced white people meant when they said the word ‘nigger,’ and that they meant it about Jim. […]’

‘[…T]o show the evil of racism to anyone, you have to use the words that the racists use. And some groups out there insist that Huckleberry Finn is a racist book, and that a teacher who teaches it must be racist, and even that the students who read it will automatically become racists, all because’–he whispered dramatically–‘it…has…that…word!” (213-14).

I read that passage (which I’ve vastly abbreviated) shortly after the “search and replace” Huckleberry Finn debacle, and I put the book down so I could clap. This is an extremely brave statement to make, and I applaud both the author and the fictional teacher for taking that risk.

We talk a lot about keeping kids safe. We put them in booster seats, we keep them away from plastic bags, we rate our movies, and we bowlderize great fiction for their benefit, because apparently exposure to ideas is equivalent to being thrown through a windshield or choking on a hot dog. But you know what? We can’t keep kids safe. We can try, yes, and we should, but sometimes they need to be exposed to danger. Until I read Don’t Hurt Laurie!, I didn’t know that anyone else knew the pain of being physically abused by someone they loved and who loved them. I didn’t know that help was available. I didn’t know that I was alone, until I found that book, and took solace in it. I read that thing to tatters, and it helped me survive. Some people want to label literature that explores difficult topics as triggering and not think any more about it. In my case, triggering literature may very well have kept me from pulling a trigger.

Not every book is suitable for every reader. While I eagerly seek out and devour tales of the broken, beaten, ravaged and raped, and find solace in accompanying them on their difficult journeys, others may not find comfort in those journeys, and might wish to avoid them. That’s why we have book reviews and blurbs on the back covers, so that readers may make informed choices. That’s why people curate lists on a given topic, to point people in a direction. That’s why most lists have a focus and a theme and criteria to be followed. That’s the sort of list that is useful to readers, and the sort of list that librarians excel at making.

Love is rare enough in this world. We should do all that we can to give the right book to the right reader at the right time, and avoid, at all costs, keeping books from readers, even in the most passive of ways. Without lists, blog posts, and professional reviews, I wouldn’t have found my new favorite book, and my life would be poorer for that.

I’ll end with a short list of  books that have broken my heart, in the best way possible:

  1. Tender Morsels
  2. Deerskin
  3. Blue Plate Special
  4. Jacob Have I Loved

ain’t no cure for the summertime blues.

OR: Love is the higher law.

I’m in a summer funk, y’all.

The heat, humidity, and summer reading program account for a lot of this funk. Now that the program is winding down, there is much fretting about the NUMBERS! I am paranoid that my new program for pre-readers has negatively impacted the number of people finishing the program. I stand by my early literacy skills promoting book log, however, and think that there must be another reason for low finishing numbers.

This summer I’ve also been plagued by the New Jersey/Gail Sweet/Revolutionary Voices debacle.

SIGH.

How do I even begin? Since I am lazy, if you’re unaware of what this issue is, please see the links below.

In a nutshell: Gail Sweet, worst library director ever, removed an anthology of queer writings from the library based on the complaint of a grandmother who was systematically seeking to remove books with gay themes from every library in her immediate area of influence. Gail removed the title Revolutionary Voices without following proper procedure, and without making the grandmother fill out the standard reconsideration form.

Oh, and this grandmother? Beverly Marinelli is her name. She belongs to a group that wants to “to bring us all back to the place we were on September 12, 2001[.]” Let me think….as far as I recall, everybody was SCARED on 9/12. Crying, trembling, awfully scared. You know what, Beverly? I don’t want to feel like that, and I think you’re a pretty terrible person for wanting to take us all back there. We remember 9/11 plenty well, thank you very much. Even the gays! David Levithan, editor and YA author who is also one of those homosexuals that are ruining the world (according to you), was so moved by 9/11 that he WROTE A BOOK ABOUT IT.

Did you write a book, Beverly? Did you create something in the aftermath of all that evil and terror? Did you GIVE something in an attempt to make the world better? NO? You only took something away? You X’d it? You uncreated? Wow, well, good for you. It’s easy to take something away, to remove a book just like the twin towers were removed. Oh, yeah, I went there– I am comparing the removal and destruction of a book to 9/11, y’all! Look at me go! Straight to hell! Or maybe I should say queer to hell. Book banning and terrorism have the same root: the impulse to destroy that which you do not like and do not understand.

Yet, this book banning spree really has nothing to do with the mission of 9/12: “But she said the common association between the complainants is a coincidence and the protests against the book are not part of that project.”

Uh. Okay. If it has nothing to do with 9.12, then why are you wasting your time with it? Why not focus on your task at hand?

Here’s the whole quote:

Ms. Marinelli, the woman who originally contacted Ms. Sweet about the book, was one of a group of people who first brought it to the attention of the RVRHS Board of Education. She acknowledged she and the others are all members of The 912 Project, a group started by conservative pundit Glenn Beck whose purpose is “to bring us all back to the place we were on September 12, 2001,” according to its website. But she said the common association between the complainants is a coincidence and the protests against the book are not part of that project.

So, not only is grandma a hateful bigot, she can’t even stay on task. You’re never gonna get us back to 9.12 that way, Beverly, at this rate. I’m not sure what offends me more, your obvious hatred of queer people or your utter LAZINESS.

Okay. So Beverly got a bee in her bonnet, wrote to Gail Sweet, Gail Sweet was all, “SURE!” Bang, there goes the book. When she was asked why the book was being removed, Gail Sweet replied simply, “Child pornography.” Yeah, she’s lazy, too. At least when I am lazy, I don’t try and pretend I was “being funny.” I’m just lazy.

“‘I was really being funny, even if it doesn’t sound it,’ she said. ‘Maybe they were ill-advised words, but I’ve learned something: Be careful what you put in e-mail. They were not meant in any way other than being facetious.'” – Gail Sweet

Do you really want a library director who thinks following policies and procedures is funny ha ha laugh time? Oh, yeah, wait, she didn’t follow the procedures fully. She just made an irrational, emotional judgment and got rid of the book.

The worst part was that not only did she remove all copies from the library, she didn’t even want to allow them to be sent to the book sale:

“How can we grab the books so that they never, ever get back into ccirculation (sic). Copies need to totally disappear (as in not a good idea to send copies to the book sale)[.]”

I’m surprised she didn’t have a bonfire and just burn them, and maybe, while she’s at it, the effigy of a gay teenager. Heck, why not just burn a real teenager? I hear they cast a lovely light.

This story has actually been reported on by a variety of publications. I, myself, actually emailed Dan Savage to see if I could get him to rant about it, seeing as his decrying of the Constance McMillan prom issue actually provoked some real change to her school’s attitudes and policies.

(It’s pretty hard to write this, as blinded as I am by rage. It’s also hard to keep out all of the profanity I would like to use.)

Some argue that libraries have this kind of “child pornography” on their shelves, but not the converse–books about reforming gays, or the like. And you know, I don’t agree with that, either. If there’s a reviewed item that speaks to that ideology, add it to your collection for balance. If there is a patron request, and you have the budget, add something even if it is a poorly written, blearily printed chap book. I don’t care if you agree with their views or not, if they pay taxes, it is their library, too, and you’re obligated to provide materials they want to read, however distasteful you find them personally.

So, Gail, what you should have done was keep that well-reviewed, important book on the shelves, and added materials that provided a counterpoint. But that might have involved, oh, I don’t know, SOME WORK. You might have had to look at some REVIEWS. Or asked Beverly for SUGGESTIONS. Instead, like Banning Beverly, you took the easy, lazy way out, and got rid of something.

Doing the hard work of researching in order to add more materials would have made you a good librarian. Instead, you’re a slothful censor who makes terrible jokes, and I hope that someday soon a young person in your family, a nephew or niece or grandchild, comes out to you, and changes your mind about what materials like Revolutionary Voices mean to people like him or her.

Beverly, Gail, I leave you with the eloquent words of Frank Zappa: “May your sh*t come to life and kiss you on the mouth.”

Actual emails exchanged between Gail Sweet and various parties

Safe Libraries

School Library Journal

Fire Gail Sweet!

Tea Cozy‘s Account

Central Jersey.com

The Frisky

Bitch Magazine

TPM Muckraker

Jezebel

Guardian UK

Banned Librarian

The Advocate

American Libraries

Shakesville

Box Turtle Bulletin

Philly.com

privilege.

Before I begin, a caveat: I’ll be the first to admit that I am not the most logical thinker in the world. I go with my gut on most issues. So if any of my arguments seem incredibly simple or even stupid, they just might be. And I am okay with that. Mostly.

After reading a couple of posts by the Annoyed Librarian (Libraries the Meritocracy, Give Them What They Need) I began thinking about privilege, libraries, and how the two intersect and affect the larger world.

From “Give Them What They Want”, which was written in May, so the Annoyed Librarian is well aware of the financial crisis we’re all in right now:

So the question is, do public libraries provide something that’s necessary, but not generally available? Not just nice, but absolutely necessary for the quality of life of people in the community?

Here’s where librarians start talking about Internet access, but I suspect that response doesn’t resonate well with the Americans who both have money and vote, those middle and upper middle who participate most in the political process with their money and their votes.

Why wouldn’t they care? Because, like the majority of Americans, they have Internet access either at home or work or both, and if they didn’t have it, they could afford it if it was a priority. Even a lot of poorer Americans could. How many people without Internet connections have cable television and/or cell phones? Most of them, I bet. And don’t say that even if you can afford an Internet service you still have to buy a computer. To use cable, you still have to buy a television.

Here’s where privilege popped into my head. The tone of this excerpt, and the entire post, implies that the writer has never been poor. I think people hear the word “poor” and they imagine food stamps, welfare, pan handling, bare-foot children in the dirt kind of poor. But there are many kinds of poor. There is a poverty spectrum, if you will. There are the poor who subsist on aid or charity, and there are the working poor, and there are those who have been plunged into unemployment by layoffs or firings or who are no longer solvent because their investments were corrupted.

The working poor can own a television, yes, and they can even subscribe to cable. Do they have the means to pay their bill every month, on time? And how old might their television be? If it is newer, is it being paid for in installments? They probably have cell phones, too, but are they on plans, or do they have pay as you go phones, which sometimes aren’t paid and don’t go? How many of these people juggle their bills each month, deciding which ones to pay now and which ones to put off? How many of these people have their phones, television, and computer because of credit cards that they have run to the limit and can no longer afford to pay? Maybe they do have internet access, but it is only dial-up, and they prefer the faster speeds at the library.

When you lose your job, or you have a job that doesn’t pay enough to cover all of your debts and expenses, life is hard. No, you’re not starving, you’re not homeless–yet–but the stress wears on you. The phone is constantly ringing until finally the phone is shut off. The mailbox is a land mine that you don’t want to go near. As soon as one bill is paid another arrives, or your car breaks down, or your kid gets sick, or you cut your finger open making dinner and you have to decide whether or not the trip to the emergency room is worth it. Even working people with health care, if they are over extended, have to decide whether or not the twenty dollar co-pay is worth it, or if they can even afford that at the moment.

You can’t tell the working poor by looking at them. They can be any age, any race, any gender. You can tell, after a while, who is struggling. The man whose entire family comes with him to the library every day, and every question he has has to do with submitting a resume electronically, or using google maps to map out how far away a job is. The woman whose kids love the library, but can only come sporadically, depending on whether or not their truck is running at any given time. The mother who asks, quietly, after you tell her all about your amazing programming for children, “And how much does it cost?” The relief in her eyes when you say that all library programming  is absolutely free tells you the entire story.

Oh, and another thing about the poor I just remembered. Not only do they not have any money, they usually don’t vote.

That’s from the Annoyed Librarian again, who, per usual, doesn’t bother to provide any sources. Even I, as lazy as I am, will quote a bit from wikipedia:

The most important socioeconomic factor in voter turnout is education. The more educated a person is, the more likely he or she is to vote, even when controlled for other factors such as income and class that are closely associated with education level. Income has some effect independently: wealthier people are more likely to vote, regardless of their educational background. (Voter Turn-out)

Since we can’t reasonably make poor people richer, we have to educate them. Since college is expensive (and not worth the money these days, in my opinion), the library will have to fill in. This was the mission of the first intentionally public library (the Boston Public Library, in 1854, included in its statement of purpose “The future of democracy is contingent on an educated citizenry“), and everyone from Glenn Beck to Frank Zappa has touted the educational value and necessity of libraries.

So the assumption that poor people can have internet access if they want it is a faulty one. The assumption that they don’t vote is less faulty, but is probably less of a factor than education. If we can provide free education to the working poor or those living in poverty, they will be more likely to vote in ways that might improve their situations. Or they will become more employable, etc.

The Annoyed Librarian’s penultimate paragraph states:

And what is the necessary? This is where choices become very hard. What’s more important for the community? Library staff or library databases? Romance novels or reference books? Librarians have to emphasize what libraries have that most people really need, even if only occasionally, rather than what they want only in good times. [emphasis mine]

Which I take to mean that providing internet access to the working poor isn’t important, or necessary. The job board by the adult reference desk isn’t important. The storytimes that provide important literacy skills and social interaction for children who can’t attend preschool are not important. If upper middle class and rich people don’t need it, it isn’t important. You people, with your debts and your unemployment and your struggles, you’re not important, and you don’t matter, because you don’t vote and since you don’t vote, when the library is on the chopping block those rich people won’t vote for it and you’ll be up shit creek without a paddle.

That is privilege–being able to write off an entire swath of humanity because you’ve deemed them unimportant. It is easy to do with the poor, with immigrants, with children and teens, the elderly, the disabled–if you’re privileged enough, it is easy ignore them, and make them the other, and decide that what they need and what they want isn’t important because it isn’t important to you.

I’m sure any librarian reading this could look through their institution’s policies and find something that discriminates against someone, and asserts some sort of privilege. Most common targets in libraries are teens, and the homeless (lots of libraries adding “hygiene” clauses to their policies). Think about it, and see how it makes you feel. Try to find something about yourself that makes you vulnerable, and think about how you’d feel if there were a policy attacking you for it. Like fat people on Southwest airlines. Or gays in the military. Or gay marriage. Or adopting as a single parent. See how this privilege issue can spiral out of control?

I feel a little ill.

Notes:

I am certainly not attacking the Annoyed Librarian. I’m sure we agree more than we disagree, but I can’t really tell for some reason. There’s something about the tone of the writing that keeps me at a distance so I can never really tell where the writer is coming from, or what it really intends to say.

Some excellent books on the working poor are The Working Poor: Invisible in America and Nickel and Dimed: on (not) Getting by In America.

More librarians need to idolize Frank Zappa.