More hand wringing and some hope

This was going to be a post about how good it was to meet colleagues at ALA Midwinter Meeting in Boston Monday, hearing what’s going on in their libraries and what they are doing to serve their communities. I didn’t spend as much time there as I did at PLA a couple of year’s ago, but I did meet some people and exchanged ideas and had a LOT of fun giving my Ignite talk. I also had the chance to hear a presentation fromLee Rainie, director of Internet, Science, and Technology at Pew Research Center, on their public library research (if you read Nocturnal Librarian regularly you know I’m a fangirl), which made me grateful to my fellow Americans who are life-long learners and library lovers in large majorities.

But then someone posted a strangely out of touch article from the Wall Street Journal on our state-wide librarians’ email list, “In the Age of Google, Librarians Get Shelved.” The author’s point is mainly that professional librarians are obsolete (because of Google? I can’t imagine this was really written by a librarian) and are being replaced with younger, techier, less skilled and less formally educated “assistants.” First of all, the issue of paraprofessional staffing in libraries where once there were many more people with masters degrees is as much about the general outcry against taxation that has gripped America in the past decades, the bursting of pubic pension funds and rising costs of health care, the slashing of municipal budgets, and the trend in both public and private sector to hire more part-time and lower wage hourly workers and fewer salaried full timers who cost their employers extra in benefits as well as pay. It’s also, dare I say, reflective of a lack of understanding of what we do on the part of people who read an article like this one and think they have an accurate picture of libraries today.

Second of all, I don’t know where or when the author got his own degree, or if he even has one, but clearly he missed any courses or training in research. As I’ve frequently written here, libraries may be evolving in terms of offering more technology and picking up the slack in providing jobs related assistance (resume writing, online training, search assistance, etc.), social service referrals and assistance (including a good bit of unofficial homeless shelter-ing and services for immigrants), and as I’ve heard more and more lately, offering meeting space for small groups when those spaces are disappearing.

But what we do — connecting people with information and resources and even more essentially, helping them navigate the tsunami of information that the author notes many find via Google. — is the same core mission libraries have always had, our materials just come in more formats. And yes we also provide important resources, increasingly, for entrepreneurs, freelancers, consultants, and telecommuters who prefer to work where the WiFi is free, they don’t feel compelled to buy coffees or meals, and they can spread out at a desk or table without being asked not to linger. Oh, and they can get expert research assistance, access to databases, newspapers, magazines, books, etc., anytime, for free.

Professional librarians and paraprofessionals alike are trained to provide information literacy (determining the reliability and/or bias of information, safely and securely navigating the Internet, etc.), a key component of being a self-sufficient adult in our society. We also provide early literacy for free to families — at a time when politicians can mostly only bicker about it. And programs for all ages (also free), and some of the only quiet spaces left in America that are open to all, as a benefit of citizenship. No, we don’t shush people anymore, but most libraries, save maybe the tiniest, offer some haven for those who need to study, read, or think in peace.

At any rate, librarians are not going away, and libraries offer so much more at our reference desks than looking up facts and figures (there isn’t much demand for those anymore anyway, just listen to what passes for public discourse). Yes we also make change, point out where the bathrooms are, and help people find their print jobs, and most of us have fewer physical reference books to refer to. But you know what? We can still find a lot more than the average person and so much more than Google to work with. I wonder if that writer has even heard of the deep web? No, it’s not some kind of spy game, it’s all the stuff that lurks below the www surface, that your local skilled librarian can help you find. Just ask. We’re still here for you, and we’re not going anywhere. Thankfully, since most people are interested in learning and admire libraries, I am hopeful that more people know that than don’t.

 

Send ’em home happy

Tomorrow at the ALA Midwinter Meeting, I’m presenting an ignite talk. As part of my final preparations I am sharing a transcript of what I plan to say here:

Hi, I’m Deb Baker, Adult Services Manager at Concord Public Library in Concord, NH. I’m going to share my library’s customer service initiative, Send ‘Em Home Happy — intentional, affirmative customer service.

Around the time I became Adult Services Manager I got to attend PLA and also Supervisor’s Academy at Primex in Concord. I was FULL of ideas, and I wanted to write them ALL into my annual goals.

My biggest idea was this: what if we radically changed the way we interacted with the public at the service desks? Yes, we would still check items out and answer questions (mostly about where people’s print jobs have gone), but what if we looked at patron interactions as a way of connecting the library with the community?

What if we made our desk interactions relational, instead of just transactional? With our interim library directors’ blessing I invited Carl Weber, who teaches the customer service module at Supervisor’s Academy, to come in and work with the managers.

He asked us to notice our own interactions in stores and offices around town. Did we feel like we belonged or mattered? Like we never wanted to go there again? Or somewhere in between? And why?

He also suggested we sit down with our work groups and ask: what rules or procedures are getting in the way of providing good customer service in the library? This very interesting.

A couple of changes we made: teens no longer need an adult present to get a library card. And desk staff can override the system’s block when a patron whose card has expired calls to renew items or place holds.

Another thing Carl helped us see was that our desk staff didn’t always engage with people. Sometimes they (ok, to be honest — we) didn’t even look up from our monitors very much.

There was a reason — for years, staff were told not to be too chatty and to stay “busy” at the desks. They knew being friendly was important but there had been no formal training in how to promote the library through patron engagement. We had some staff trainings about the customer service interaction, and Carl spoke to the staff about the work the managers were doing.

One thing I learned at PLA is that librarians universally make the same marketing mistake: we know the library is awesome, what we have to offer is awesome, so we assume everyone else knows that too.

But I’ve had even longtime patrons thank me for showing them something as simple as how to login to their account online to renew items or where to find staff reviews. What’s obvious to us isn’t obvious to even our most regular patrons.

So every other month the CPL staff chooses a “Did You Know” feature to promote at our desks. We put up signs with a visual and a little info. on the patron side and talking points on the staff side to foster conversations.

During this whole process, our staff began to to think creatively about how to connect with patrons through displays, readers advisory and programming. What’s your staff into? Knitting? Zentangle? Cats?

Don’t be afraid to try something that might flop — staff passions have to match public interest to work. I tried another idea from PLA: Short & Sweet, a story or essay discussion and dessert. I had to let it go after 6 months of very low attendance.

But a staffer in her 20’s who really knows her geek stuff has very loyal followings for D&D Game Night and Teen Anime Club. She thrives and we thrive not just because we put these on the schedule, but because she’s connected to these communities and is bringing them into the library.

Someone on your staff who usually works behind the scenes may have something cool to share. In our case, a tech. services staffer set up a coloring station in the break room. Her art supplies are really cool and she got just about everyone to try it.

I asked her to consider offering adult coloring night. She was a little shy about it because she hadn’t done programming, but it’s our best attended offering — not just because coloring is hot, but also because she’s really good at sharing what she enjoys.

When our new director started we told him all we’d been doing and suggested library-wide customer service goals:

  • be relational instead of just transactional
  • get out of our own way – change the rules
  • connect people with resources & programs through desk interactions
  • use what staff is into to connect to the community
  • and, do the transactional stuff well, too — no one likes it if their items aren’t checked in on time or their holds aren’t placed

He listened to us and said, “Doesn’t this all come down to one big idea?”

Send everyone home happy.

So that’s what we’re aiming for with every interaction.

 

 

Would you like wi-fi with your books?

Last week NPR’s morning edition did a story on a Tennessee library that lends Wi-fi hotspots. Spring Hill, Tennessee is a smaller than where I live. Previously I’d only read about urban libraries in Chicago and New York lending wi-fi. And those programs, according to an article I found on Spring Hill’s unique initiative, are limited to patrons who meet certain criteria and the wi-fi is limited as well. Spring HIll’s, by comparison, is open to all patrons and the wi-fi is unlimited, even geographically. The library partnered with cellular company T-Mobile to achieve this. There’s no mention of the upfront costs for the hardware, but the NPR piece mentions that the data alone costs $10,000 a year.

Cost aside, I wondered about whether this fits a library’s mission. Yes, libraries connect people with resources and information. But in nearly all cases, our resources are available to everyone, whether they check things out or not. I sat next to the director of a small town library in New Hampshire at a conference a couple of years ago and she had recently put tables outside, after noticing people hanging out near the building after the library closed. They were using the wi-fi.

I’m not sure what the answer is — whether libraries should be investing in technology to lend it out or if towns and municipalities should fund wi-fi in a greater variety of places — not only libraries, but other public spaces — instead. Or whether libraries should extend their wi-fi beyond their walls for patrons to use anytime. Lending hotspots, even in such a generous program as Spring Hill’s, means that a limited number of patrons can borrow it, for a limited time.  Which doesn’t seem to me like the best use of resources.

I get that the internet is necessary, and I can attest that we have patrons who need to get online to access legal documents, apply for jobs, complete assignments, even fill out and file time sheets. But Spring Hill’s story strikes me as yet another way libraries are being redefined according to needs that have been created by the cutting back of other public services, and by the economy — the NPR article points out that  there are housing developments that don’t have internet connection available yet. Unspoken was the reason: generally a service or product isn’t available because a company has decided it’s not profitable.

And libraries pick up the slack. We offer daytime shelter to the homeless because social services have been cut. We offer computers for filing job applications because the unemployment office doesn’t have enough. Or provide homework help and after school programs because of cuts to schools, and because families can’t afford private programs. I’m not saying we shouldn’t step up, but it seems to me that we risk diluting ourselves, and that if these are services the public wants, they should look hard at elected representatives who cut them elsewhere and expect libraries to provide them instead. Often with no additional funding. I’m again struck that in the name of making ourselves “relevant” we grow further away from what makes us libraries.

What is your library doing that was once the purvey of another federal, state, or local agency? Do you lend wi-fi? Or make it more convenient for patrons to access it after hours? How can libraries best serve the public — by sticking to what we do best, or by continuing to stop up gaps left in the public service sector?

 

Libraries: Clinics of the Soul?

First a shout out to Diane Mayr who posted the article I am about to swoon over on the NH Library Association Facebook page. If you’re a repeat visitor to Nocturnal Librarian you know one of the things I write about frequently here is my strong belief that libraries do not need to rebrand, reinvent, or repurpose. We don’t need to be called something else (I’m talking to you, “teaching and learning commons”) or asked to transform ourselves (sorry, ALA) because what we are is already awesome, and has been, and will be. If are just left alone to actually be libraries.

So when I read Alberto Manguel’s article “Reinventing the Library” in the New York Times, via the aforementioned NHLA post, I found myself nodding and saying, “yes, exactly.” Repeatedly. This should be required reading for people who make decisions about libraries’ continued existence and purpose the world over.

To give you a sense of why I loved every word, I will quote Manguel, although I also encourage you to read the whole beautiful article.

“It is in the nature of libraries to adapt to changing circumstances and threats, and all libraries exist in constant danger of being destroyed by war, vermin, fire, water or the idiocies of bureaucracy. But today, the principal danger facing libraries comes not from threats like these but from ill-considered changes that may cause libraries to lose their defining triple role: as preservers of the memory of our society, as providers of the accounts of our experience and the tools to navigate them — and as symbols of our identity.”

I’m with him, especially about ill-considered changes, but I’d urge Manguel and you, dear reader, to listen to this poignant piece on NPR about Benghazi (the place, not the political brouhaha) and hear a Libyan journalist remember how much he loves the library, now nearly inaccessible because of conflict. Anyway, back to Manguel’s point. We have a pretty bad-ass role already. Preserve, provide accounts of, and teach people to navigate our common human experience. He goes on:

“Most libraries today are used less to borrow books than to seek protection from harsh weather and to find jobs online, and it is admirable that librarians have lent themselves to these very necessary services that don’t traditionally belong to their job description. A new definition of the role of librarians could be drafted by diversifying their mandate, but such restructuring must also ensure that the librarians’ primary purpose is not forgotten: to guide readers to their books.”

In many places, Manguel may be right. I got so excited last week because TWICE at the service desk I actually got to recommend books to people. But libraries exist everywhere, and outside of cities, all over New Hampshire and wherever you live as well, libraries and their patrons are pretty much the same as they’ve ever been — people coming to check out books and to share what they’re reading, learning, and doing. When I talk with my colleagues around the state, it’s clear that the public hand wringing about the future of libraries is done by people who don’t go to small town libraries and are unaware that they are still serving a very important, highly valued, and dare I say, traditional role in their communities.

Back to Manguel:

“Librarians are not trained to act as social workers, caregivers, babysitters or medical advisers. All these extra tasks make it difficult, if not impossible, for librarians to work as librarians: to see that the collections remain coherent, to sift through catalogues, to help readers read, to read themselves. The new duties imposed on them are the obligations of civilized societies toward their citizens, and should not be dumped pell-mell onto the shoulders of librarians. If we change the role of libraries and librarians without preserving the centrality of the book, we risk losing something irretrievable.”

That phrase, “preserving the centrality of the book” is what really got me — no matter what else we’re called upon to provide, what makes a library a library? Books. You can’t have a library without books; if we were just computers  and wifi we’d be an internet cafe. Just a place to get warm, a shelter. Just a building for classes and mah jong and lectures and movies, a community center. But none of those other places have what we have. And most don’t even try to; yet paradoxically, we’re often expected by decision makers to offer a good bit of what those other places provide, as well as job searching, computer skills training, and sometimes even social services.

Manguel concludes, “If libraries are to be not only repositories of society’s memory and symbols of its identity but the heart of larger social centers, then these changes must be made consciously from an intellectually strong institution that recognizes its exemplary role, and teaches us what books can do: show us our responsibilities toward one another, help us question our values and undermine our prejudices, lend us courage and ingenuity to continue to live together, and give us illuminating words that might allow us to imagine better times. According to the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, one of the ancient libraries he saw in Egypt carried above its entrance the words: ‘Clinic of the Soul.'”

I love Manguel’s view of what books can do, for the mind and for the soul, and I stand by libraries’ central role as places where there is unfettered access to books. Long live the centrality of the book.

Adult Summer Reading

I’ve had yet another article on the future of libraries on my desk for weeks; yesterday as I was dusting around it for the zillionth time I glanced through it and saw a few phrases that sapped my will to re-hash this topic (“management practices of the creative economy,” “the scale of disruption,” using the right metrics”). In the “five ‘right’ approaches for libraries” section of the article the author, Steve Denning, suggests librarians must consider “What needs could libraries meet that users haven’t yet even thought of?” On my desk at work I have another article of about the same age (published a couple of months ago) noting that the reason so many new library services and programs flop is that librarians need to think more like start-up entrepreneurs by ensuring what we offer actually fills an existing need, otherwise our patrons won’t know they need it and won’t come or use the nifty new thing. Yep, they directly contradict each other. Lovely.

I admit being a little fatigued by the “do this and you’ll succeed in taking your library into the future” arguments. So instead, let’s talk about something I’ve noticed that might be a profession-wide response to all this business philosophy gobbeldygook: Adult Summer Reading programs. For some time, the Collaborative Summer Library Program has included an adult program, tied to the themes for the children’s and teen’s programs. Maybe people have been embracing it for years, but this is the first summer I seem to see it everywhere.

Libraries large and small are handing out prizes to adults for reading books during the summer. Yes, there is much more to these programs. South Brunswick Public Library in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey is creating a community mural and includes a service project in its program, inviting people to send care packages to military members. Chapel Hill Public Library in North Carolina includes adults in its teen program, a simple way to be inclusive — but the feedback from our teens has been that they don’t want adults at their programs and in the teen area.

Dozens more libraries seem to just be handing out prizes. In East Baton Rouge, Louisiana, adults who read three books this summer get a “prize pack” and qualify for weekly drawings. Seattle Public Library is one of many incorporating a bingo card into the fun, challenging readers to read outside their usual tastes — here in New Hampshire, Hooksett Public Library created one that includes some library services, which is a clever marketing idea. A few of us at my library are considering these ideas for next summer, mainly because one of our regular patrons suggested it was unfair not to have prizes for adults.

But is it? Somehow this all seems silly to me. Do we really have to bribe grownups to read? I like the idea of bringing the community together to create a mural or to get behind a service project (something we are in essence doing, since our children’s summer reading program this summer includes donating items the local S.P.C.A. needs, and the adults in the the family are the ones buying and bringing donations). But I feel a little grumpy about the notion that the only way to get people excited about summer reading is to make sure there’s something in it for them.

Maybe a bingo card or a challenge to read a certain number of books or attend a certain number of programs  or try the library’s services is just fun and gets people in the doors. Certainly anything that increases circulation or cardholders is good. But what’s the world coming to that we can’t get people to come in unless we give something away, when the whole idea of a library is that it’s free and open to all in the first place?

Which brings me back to the same problem all these articles that pile up on my desks address: are libraries so preoccupied with offering new services and being maker spaces and tech hubs and “relevant” cultural institutions because people don’t get what our core mission is (connecting people with books and other reading material and information)? Or do people get our core mission until we start complicating it with all that other stuff?  I’m not sure anyone knows.

My grandmother became a librarian thanks to the New Deal. I can hear her saying, “It sounds like nothing but bread and circuses.” She wasn’t a luddite — she admired technology and all it could do. But she believed fervently in the power of books to educate and entertain, and she also believed that a thing done well was its own reward. I think librarianship could use a little less bread and circuses and a lot more doing “our” thing well. It’s harder to evangelize about reading than it is to invest in tablets or 3D printers or streaming media services. But it might be the thing that sustains libaries into the future.

A Maker Space Making a School Library

Much has been made of library maker spaces, which are part of the drive to be “relevant” by focusing on STEM. I’ve seen papers and essays galore on why STEM is Very Important for Public Libraries to Offer but I haven’t ever read about public library patrons asking for STEM. So is that relevance, if we tell the people what they want, instead of the other way around? As my last post indicated I’m not a fan of telling people, especially young people, what to focus on in their free time, hence my “” around relevant. On the other hand there’s a chicken and egg factor – if we offer it, will people discover they want it? That’s probably another blog post altogether.

You can take webinars and attend conference sessions on how to make maker spaces. I’ve always looked at them as sort of amped up crafts zones, places for creating techy projects mostly for fun, albeit educational fun. But an article in a library e-newsletter caught my eye this week because it featured a space where people were making what they really needed and wanted — a user-friendly library for their school.

At PS 721K, the Brooklyn Occupational Training Center for 14-19 year old special education students, shop teacher Charles Brown, who trained at Adaptive Design Association, helped students build furniture and accessories for their newly redesigned library. Previously, it wasn’t a space students with special needs could use. With the kind of heavy cardboard shipping boxes are made from, the students and their teacher created stools and book bins.

Photo: School Library Journal

If you look around ADA’s website you can see many more examples of adaptive furniture and kids engaging in “cardboard carpentry.” I think this is “maker” activity at its best. Seeing a problem or a lack and actually making something to fill that need seems like a much better use of time and talent than just making stuff so you can check the box on having a maker space.

That’s not to say maker spaces simply meeting the need for creative, fun activities for young people are a bad thing – if the community wants that. I just love the idea of “making” for good.

 

Free kids from reading lists and they thrive

A few summers ago here at Nocturnal Librarian I wrote about the tyranny of summer reading lists. I argued then that kids should be free to read whatever they want in the summer instead of being made to choose from a list, because reading is more appealing when we have the freedom to decide what we want to read. Turns out I was on to something. The Washington Post reports that a series of studies have shown that when it comes to countering “summer slide” — the loss of skills and knowledge during school vacation — the freedom to read anything they like is a tremendous boost for kids. Those granted this freedom performed better than kids who had to read what their teachers chose.

One paragraph from the story really caught my attention: “For one class, researchers ran a book fair, where each student picked 13 books to take home at the end of the school year. The fair featured a broad range of selections — fiction and nonfiction, classics and newer works — and students eagerly passed the books back and forth, reveling in the opportunity to pick those matching their personal interests while chattering with one another about familiar stories. (An adaptation of Disney’s “Frozen” was especially popular.) Many also chose works considerably above or below their reading levels so they could share with siblings.” The kids in this class were in second grade in Rochester, New York, and an eye-popping 96% of children from their school qualify for free or reduced lunch.

What struck me, besides the tragically high level of poverty? First, the scene: I can recall many a book fair when I was in elementary school, and how exciting it was to pick books knowing I could take them home and keep them. Second, the image of kids “chattering” and “reveling” not over tablets or computers or video games, but books. And third, that strong desire kids showed to “share with siblings.”

This affirmed for me everything I already know to be true about reading: it’s a joy, when it’s allowed to be. There was no book report or test looming after the fair, the kids just knew they could pick a whole armful of books to read. And they couldn’t wait to share their choices, with each other and with their families. Books are meant to be loved not just by one person, but many. The communal experience of hearing a story together, or reading aloud to other people, is a pleasure just about everyone in America experiences either in school or at their local library, if not in their homes. These kids were not only going to read to themselves over the summer, but to others.

I also wondered whether the researchers considered taking kids to get library cards? Or directing families to the summer reading program at their local public library?  Don’t get me wrong — I love that these kids got to own books, and I wish every kid could. But it seemed very obvious to me that libraries are schools’ best partner in helping low income families keep their kids reading during summer break.

Books on the Nightstand, one of my favorite podcasts, has a Summer Reading Bingo card on their site. I might try it. Or I might throw all suggestions to the wind and just read whatever strikes me this summer. What are your summer reading plans?

Supporting libraries

My husband sent me this great article from the New York Times, Denying New York Libraries the Fuel They Need.” Jim Dwyer provides some startling facts, like this: “The city’s libraries — the fusty old buildings, and a few spiffier modern ones, planted in all five boroughs — had 37 million visitors in the last fiscal year. . . . So the city’s libraries have more users than major professional sports, performing arts, museums, gardens and zoos — combined.”

Dwyer notes “No one who has set foot in the libraries — crowded at all hours with adults learning languages, using computers, borrowing books, hunting for jobs, and schoolchildren researching projects or discovering stories — can mistake them for anything other than power plants of intellect and opportunity. They are distributed without regard to wealth.” And yet, he goes on to explain, the city’s professional sports teams have enjoyed hundreds of millions of dollars in capital funding and tax incentives while the public library system faces a fight each year for adequate funding.

Here’s where I’d better remind you, dear readers, that my opinions are mine and not that of my employer, a public library.

That fight goes on in your town too — it’s known, in public sector parlance, as the budget process. In New York, it seems, libraries have to fight for their hours every year, as part of a carefully choreographed dance between elected officials who are haggling with each other for their preferred projects. I am guessing that process isn’t so different in your town, or mine, just on a smaller scale than New York’s.

Meanwhile it seems every year there’s some non-librarian academic expert who comes along and fuels the idea that libraries are obsolete. Public officials love this, and it does libraries a disservice during the budget process. The latest is John Palfrey. Palfrey’s book is called Bibliotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google and the Washington Post review is provocatively titled, “Do We Still Need Libraries?” Palfrey’s main point seems to be that libraries as we remember them from  our childhoods — and as I’ve noted in this blog before, in most towns across the country, they are still very much the same — must transform themselves into highly connected digital hubs, or die.

Palfrey should ask Dwyer to show him around the libraries of New York (or any neighborhood in America, I’d wager) and talk to the patrons who are using what he rightly notes are the backbone of egalitarian society. In our public libraries, where information is free and available to all citizens, people are reading or making readers of their kids. Mostly in print, which is still a better deal for libraries and the taxpayers who support them, because physical books don’t expire after a certain number of checkouts or a certain amount of time, as many library e-books do. When they open these books, people are discovering all the things that make us human, and what that means to them. They’re getting to know their neighbors. They’re becoming informed citizens.

Nostalgic and old fashioned? Ok, if you say so, digital experts. But in a society where there is almost nowhere to be quiet, study, or think, libraries offer that space. In a society where it’s hard, on a limited income, for retired people to meet friends and chat over the day’s newspaper, libraries offer that community. In a society where after school enrichment for kids almost always costs more than the working poor or even the middle class can afford, libraries offer that opportunity. In a society where the under and unemployed have almost nowhere else to access the internet, learn computer skills, apply for jobs, or print important documents, libraries offer those resources. In a society where the mentally ill, the disabled, the homeless, and the recently imprisoned are often unwelcome, libraries offer radical hospitality — we are open to all.

From information and books to early literacy, education and support for marginalized adults and new Americans, community and small town (or big city) culture, public libraries’ work is not diminished by people claiming that Google can replace your local librarian, or that libraries should “hack” themselves into “‘nodes in a larger network’ of organizations and must move toward ‘the digital, networked, mobile, and cloud-based library'” Palfrey envisions. And imagines private philanthropy will fund.

Space. Community. Opportunity. Resources. Books. These are real life, everyday services of public libraries. That we fund vast caverns where millionaires play sports and then leave libraries to fend for themselves every budget cycle sounds crazy because it is. That we think placing our hopes in some hypothetical network of charitably funded digital collections will improve upon what’s already going on in library branches all over America is silly. Build your fancy networks, go ahead, but in the mean time, don’t patronize the vital role of public libraries as “nostalgic” when for many ordinary citizens, that so-called nostalgia is actually a vital service they rely on.

 

Presence: breathing, sitting, getting out of the building

My life has been a little chaotic lately due in part to a family health issue. I’m fortunate that I work close to home, and close to the various appointments my family member has to attend. And I am able to be a little bit flexible by coming in early, taking shorter lunches, etc. But as you all know, library work, or any public service job, is not all that flexible because we have to be present to do our jobs. I’m a supervisor, so I have to be not just physically present but mentally present to the people who work for me. And to my peers and boss, especially as it’s budget and planning season for FY 2016. And to the public, who are the reason public libraries exist; as I’ve written here before, many of our patrons are seeking human contact as much as they are seeking books and information.

So, presence is key in all the parts of my life. I’ve been a somewhat haphazard student of mindfulness for many years, and I try to be a regular practitioner especially in times of high stress like I’m experiencing now. If you don’t know what it’s about, basically, being mindful is all about being in the present moment. I’m a better person when I’m practicing regularly. But I hadn’t considered that I might also be a better librarian when I’m being mindful.

I recently learned that the Law Librarians of New England spring conference is devoted to mindfulness. I was curious to see if this is a trend in our profession and discovered a number of interesting resources for mindful librarianship, including a webinar offered by University of Minnesota, a resource guide from the New England Library Association conference in 2011, and a Library Journal article from last spring about Sparq Meditation Labyrinth, which uses simple technology to project a light labyrinth and is in use in a number of college libraries.

My library isn’t formally integrating mindfulness into the workplace, but our city wellness program did offer an intro. class which I attended, I admit, in order to meet the requirements for reducing my insurance costs. Even though I’ve read a number of good books on mindfulness over the years (and am reading one to my teen daughter right now, called Sit Like A Buddha), the class was really interesting. I think this is a subject one can learn about forever and still not know everything about. And I know it helps me at work, at home, and anytime I remind myself, gently, to be mindful.

Another cool thing I did this week was attend a roundtable discussion sponsored by the Reference and Adult Services division of my state library association. Getting out of the building can be stressful — it means changing the desk schedule, arranging for coverage of necessary tasks, etc. But meeting with fellow librarians, especially in a format designed to share as much experience with each other as possible, is wonderful. The topic of our roundtable was The Community Driven Library. Among the many things I learned: Mahjong is big in several small town libraries nearby, all those extra mass market paperbacks from the book sale are perfect for stocking a town beach or pool, and there are several cake pan collections on loan in my small state. Besides getting good ideas, I connected or re-connected with colleagues and generally felt refreshed and reminded that I’m part of an awesome profession.

So, breathe, sit, be present, and get out of the building. You’ll be a better librarian for doing these simple things.