The flip side to serving the homeless in libraries

Over the holidays my son and I had lunch with friends and the subject of what I do at the library came up. I explained that librarians these days do a lot more than recommend books, help people with research, select materials, and organize information. I started with tales of printers gone wrong and other tech help stress. Then I pointed out that a large part of our job these days is helping the under-served access computers and welcoming those who are just trying to get out of the weather, without alienating the patrons who don’t really appreciate that.

One of our friends asked, “How do you convince people that it’s ok?” Without hesitation I said, “We don’t.”  I explained that we can’t change people’s minds, all we can do is treat everyone fairly and decently, welcome everyone. Usually it doesn’t feel like that’s going to change anyone’s mind, though, especially if some of our patrons make other patrons uncomfortable. Which is entirely possible — a couple of loud verbal confrontations happened between patrons during my last evening shift, and even though I’m used to this kind of thing, I admit those incidents made me uncomfortable.

There is a lot of talk about the role of libraries in serving the homeless. A colleague of mine, referencing the recent American Libraries piece on that topic, asked a good question last week: why don’t the professional journals ever address how to shift public perception of that work? Not the perception of homelessness and poverty in general — that is a societal issue. But the view that libraries shouldn’t really be quite so open to the unwashed, to people who talk to themselves, to people who are carrying everything they own, to people who seem to have nowhere else to spend the day, to people who just want to rest. I hear all the time that some members of our community don’t come into the library because it bothers them to see some of our other patrons. I have no way of measuring this, but there’s anecdotal evidence.

I’m hoping some of you will write and tell me how you handle this in your libraries and communities. If pressed to answer right now, I would have to say the role of the public library in serving those who don’t want to see “those people” —  the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, the unemployed, the eccentric, the lonely — in libraries is the same as it is in serving anyone else. We can simply make it clear that public libraries practice a radical kind of welcome in America, in which every person can belong. We can champion our passion for making library resources freely available to the entire community as one of the privileges of citizenship and our dedication to making libraries peaceful spaces for reading, accessing information of all kinds, learning new things, and being a community. And we can enforce some basic rules of civility to make our libraries islands of egalitarianism, safe and welcoming to all.

I know that in my head. But yesterday my heart led me slightly astray of the rules. It was below zero overnight. In the morning I saw one of our regular patrons arrive, ashen-faced, a blanket wrapped around himself in addition to his usual coat, hat, and boots. I don’t know his circumstances, but he often stays all day and carries a very large bag with him. I was doing a walk-around on the main floor and saw him sleeping with an open book in his lap. It wasn’t even a case where I could claim maybe he was just reading — he was clearly asleep. I went to wake him, but as I approached, I saw that he looked much better after spending some time in the warm library. His color had returned. His sleeping face looked less worried. And I could not bring myself to disturb him, even though I was breaking a rule by walking away. Did someone else come along and decide the library wasn’t a comfortable place because that man was sleeping? Or see me leave him alone and feel compassion too? Either is possible.

I look forward to a day when this kind of conundrum — follow the library’s no-sleeping policy as I ask the rest of the desk staff to do or follow my conscience and give a clearly exhausted man a break, a man who may, for all I know, have spent all night awake trying to stay warm, or keeping watch over his stuff in a shelter, or in any case not in a comfortable home like my own — will no longer be the reality in my community. There is hope, as my friends who hosted us for lunch pointed out, in that there is some momentum in the struggle to end homelessness here, as you can read in this Concord Monitor series  by Megan Doyle and Jeremy Blackman.

And if there is one thing public librarians are very good at, it’s being hopeful, because we know how powerfully our work can transform people’s lives — think of how often you’ve heard someone refer to the library as the place that meant the world to them, that made a difference, that was a haven during some difficulty, or helped them realize they were smart and capable and able to think. So when I’m not flouting rules, I plan to keep on trying to be welcoming to every patron, to help the library be the place they want to be, no matter who they are.

 

2014 in review

Thanks to everyone who read, shared, commented, re-blogged, etc. in 2014. I appreciate your reading Nocturnal Librarian and I hope you’ll stick around for more musings in 2015!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,400 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 57 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Oh how we fret about tech

Three articles related to libraries, technology and e-books caught my eye this week. Taken together, they paint a picture of how much the library and book world collectively fret about whether we’re offering enough technology services to the public.

First there is the Nielsen report about teens’ preference for print versus e-books. I’m not sure how surprising this is, but I know it’s something many librarians and booksellers worry about — will anyone be reading print in the future? I check books out to teens all the time at my library and I am the parents of a teen who has never read an e-book for pleasure and regularly shops for regular books, so my view of this might be skewed by daily experience, but I was happy to read a report that backs up my optimism about print. If young people are not developing an affinity for e-books growing up, it seems unlikely that will be their preference as adults. I was also heartened to read that a solid number — about 45% — of teens are influenced by social media in making reading choicesm which is good news for libraries like mine trying to ramp up our social media presence. I’m hopeful that as The Teen Zone, Concord Public Library’s teen tumblr, and its sibling the CPL Reading-Rumblr, gain more followers, we’ll be helping people find good reads.

Next came a report from Britain on the state of public libraries. I was appalled to read a) only 35% of people in England use the library regularly (the closest stat I could find for the US is 54% who went to a library sometime in the previous 12 months, from a 2013 Pew report), b) one of the major recommendations, according to the Independent‘s story, is to offer Wi-Fi and “a comfortable, retail-standard environment, with the usual amenities of coffee, sofas and toilets,” and c) “The Government should secure changes in European and UK copyright law to enable library users to borrow e-books remotely in the next legislative term, the report recommended.” Whoa. I had no idea that only about a third of British citizens use libraries, that 1/3 of British libraries lack Wi-Fi, nor that in the UK readers can’t check out e-books outside of libraries. Two things really disturbed me:  the suggestion regarding making libraries more like cafes, and this bit about recruiting and training staff: “21st century librarian(s) will need… digital and commercial expertise.” Sounds like the British government believes that if they turn libraries into Starbucks and librarians into cafe managers they’ll have solved their problems! Wi-Fi is important, but focusing on hot drinks rather than recognizing — and educating the public –that librarians’ information skills trump random internet searching seems incredibly short-sighted and, frankly, daft! If the British government doesn’t appreciate librarians’ primary role in supporting the development of a literate and well-read citizenry, I don’t see how any of the other recommendations will do much good.

And about that digital expertise — I hosted the NH State Library’s Technology Resources Librarian Bobbi Slossar recently to talk to our staff about “customer service in the digital age.” I’d heard her speak at the NHLA Reference and Adult Services fall conference, and what really resonated with me about her approach is this point: Bobbi noted that libraries have always had car repair manuals but no one ever expected librarians to go out and do an oil change for a patron, so why should we approach tech. customer service any differently? Her solution is that staff need to focus on being librarians — teaching people how to find the information they need to solve their own tech problems — rather than trying to be help desk staff. And she notes that to teach others, we have to be comfortable with and knowledgeable about tech but even more importantly, we have to use our reference interview skills to get to the heart of what a patron needs. I couldn’t agree more (maybe British librarians should fly Bobbi over to address Parliament?), so I appreciated “The Art of Sweet Talking Or How to Talk Tech to Patrons.” Jason Pinshower, like Bobbi, notes that how we talk to patrons is just as important as what we say. His advice? “Our patrons need to be able to confide in us and feel comfortable being embarrassed about their technology need. Nobody enjoys asking for help.”  I love that. I tell patrons all the time that I personally find printers really frustrating, and it truly does make someone feel better if you admit you struggle with technology.

Thanks for reading Nocturnal Librarian and best wishes for a happy and healthful holiday season. See you in 2015!

 

 

Librarians and freelancers, undervalued

Some of you read my other blog, bookconscious.  If not, I’d encourage you to check out my post, “On Being Discontinued,” in which I address the view that some people have that librarians “just check out books” and therefore aren’t really professionals. My book review column was recently cancelled at the paper I wrote for, and my subsequent conversation with the editor revealed that he felt he could just get readers to write reviews for free. There are definite parallels to the public library world — some of you have probably dealt with public officials who felt they could run the library with fewer and lower paid staff. Check it out and let me know how you like bookconscious!

I promise to be back soon with a new post here at The Nocturnal Librarian. Meanwhile, enjoy Olaf, via iworkatapubliclibrary  and reading-rumblr. Happy Holidays to you all.

 

iworkatapubliclibrary:</p>
<p>Happy Holidays from Olaf!</p>
<p>OLAF!!!!!!

 

Everyone’s a little bit weird

It’s been a very busy month — almost two — since I last posted here (if you are ever wondering what else I’m up to, visit my review blog, bookconscious, which I tend to post to more frequently). One of the challenges we’ve been facing at my library is that although it hasn’t been truly “wicked cold” yet, as they say here in northern New England, it’s cool and wet enough that people are looking for a place to be warm and dry. And as I’ve written here before, that’s an important part of a public library’s mission. Personally, I feel good knowing we help people stay safe and comfortable.*

But what about those regular patrons, regardless of their reasons for coming to the library, who are “difficult” in some way. That’s a catchphrase that can mean everything from “hard to please” to mentally ill. Public libraries serve a broad cross section of citizens, and we experience every kind of “difficult” you can imagine. We train regularly to deal with everything from complaints to outright paranoia. Lately we’ve been talking a great deal at my library about mental illness, because some of the behaviors we see every day seem to go beyond eccentricity (much as I’d like to explain, for privacy reasons I am not going to go into detail).

And some of our staff feel like they’ve had enough — they want someone else to take this on. Unfortunately, that’s usually not possible. We’re very fortunate to have a couple of caseworkers we can call and talk to and last week I did that twice. The advice they gave on engaging with people who seem so “out there” as to be a little scary to other patrons and staff was very helpful.**  But what they can’t help me with is reassuring the staff of something I heard Steve Inskeep say on Morning Edition today: “everyone is a little bit weird.”

This is something I’ve been telling my kids for years. They laugh, but I’m serious. In some way, every one of us does things that to another person seem strange, different, hard to understand, maybe even off-putting or alarming.  Most of us are only just a little bit weird — we have a quirk or habit, a mannerism, or a personality trait that is close enough to the mainstream as to be mostly noticeable. But all of us are somebody’s weirdo. It helps to remember that.

It also helps to combat compassion fatigue to remember that every person I engage with at the library, from those who are pleasant or “normal” to those who seem painfully strange or even a little threatening, is someone. Each of them is someone’s relative. Each of them is a person, not a problem. Each of them is looking for what we’re all looking for on any given day: a connection with another person. I’ve noted before that working in a library for me means being fueled by both “the conviction in my heart and the ideas in my head” (Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative). If I can do anything at all to reassure and equip staff to deal with difficulty and difference, and also be present to patrons and coach staff to do the same, both my heart and my head tell me that’s my job, even if I didn’t learn it in library school.

 

* To those who say libraries aren’t the place for sheltering people from life’s troubles, I generally point out that we have services many underprivileged people need: computers and internet access, job hunting resources, public restrooms. Even more importantly, we have newspapers, so people can stay informed, and books, so people can learn and even just escape.  Neil Gaiman notes that reading is escapist in the best sense: “If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.”

** The most effective advice seems to be to to listen, smile, thank the person for sharing their thoughts/concerns/suggestions, assure them (and actually do) pass those on to your boss, and then politely get back to work. This gentle approach offers presence and validation to the person for a moment, but allows the staff member to extricate him or herself from what can often be a lengthy ramble or tirade. It lets the person be heard, but doesn’t promise particular outcomes, which is key if the requests are beyond the library’s means or mission.

Two more things we are

Two reflections on librarianship caught my eye this week. The first is an article in the online journal Ethos called “Librarianship: A Philosophical Investigation,” by Kevin Michael Klipfel. Klipfel compares librarians to educators, using a paper by “humanistic psychologist and student-centered educator Carl Rogers” as his jumping off point. Rogers wrote that a teacher’s work boils down to discovery (learning what a student’s interests are), permission (enabling the student to pursue those interests), and creative connection (thinking of resources and getting them into the hands of the students).

After covering the ways people commonly misunderstand library work, Klipfel explains how librarianship fits Rogers’ model, and I think he’s spot on. My own library’s mission is to “connect individuals with resources in order to enhance lives and build community.” Our daily work, at its best, goes beyond troubleshooting to helping the patron see what went wrong with the print job so next time, troubleshooting won’t be necessary. Beyond looking up a book to showing someone how to use the catalog and other discovery tools to find a good read. Beyond simply handing over requested items to talking with patrons about their reading interests. Beyond creating displays and shelving books to asking patrons (or noticing) where they look for things and whether we’re featuring what’s interesting to ourselves or to our patrons.

And, most importantly, we have to be comfortable with the fact that when we teach people to access library resources themselves, they may not need us as much the next time they visit. And confident that by nurturing an engaged, educated patron base and making ourselves available to them as fellow members of the book tribe, we’re building a community invested in what we do. It’s a lot like the goals I set for myself as a manager — I want the folks on my team to talk over our vision (and our patrons’) for Adult Services, and to figure out together what they need from me to make those goals reality. And then, I hope, I’ll be able to get out of the way and watch cool things come to life. With patrons I want to engage them, enable them to have the library experience they hope for, and watch the library thrive.

I had all this on my mind when I read Ingrid Henny Abrams, aka The Magpie Librarian,’s interview with Scott Bonner, the director of the Ferguson, Missouri library. Scott explained that with schools closed in Ferguson, “. . . we made an ad-hoc school!  I offered the library’s space, and put out metaphorical fires, and played taskmaster to the press, and the teachers and volunteers made an actual, working school.” The library went from a “quiet and businesslike” place to “Lots of kids, lots of people who’ve never been to the library before, lots of noise, lots of camera crews blocking doorways and aisles.  I think we did the best job we could of partitioning school from library, but it was not anything like a normal day.  It was a good deal better than a normal day.”

Scott did something else I really admire. He made this sign, which Ingrid posted on her blog:

He made sure the Ferguson community knew the library is a safe space, and would remain so. “Much of what we did was just continue to operate normally, staying open and offering services while letting the community know we were there for them.”  

When I came back from the Public Library Association conference last spring, I summed up what I was feeling about my profession:

“What we do is awesome. What we do is community-building. What we do is hope-fueled and potentially narrative-changing. What we do can fill in the broken spaces in our communities, in our lives and the lives of those we serve. What we do is empowering — people can learn and grow and be their best selves because of the books and services and programs and presence we offer.What we do is shepherd the most egalitarian places in America. Our libraries when they are at their best are the very best of what our society can be.”

Scott and Kevin and all of you out there being what librarians are — including educators in the best sense of that word and keepers of safe places — make me so proud and happy to be a part of this incredible work.

 

 

The Age Old Institution Trumps All

American Libraries e-newsletter pointed me to this piece by Geoffrey A. Fowler at the Wall Street Journal website.

From the headline to the following quotes, there was so much to love:

“As E-Book Subscription Services Grow Their Catalogs, the Age-Old Institution Trumps All.”

“A growing stack of companies would like you to pay a monthly fee to read e-books . . . . Don’t bother. Go sign up for a public library card instead.”

“It isn’t very often that a musty old institution can hold its own against tech disrupters. But it turns out librarians haven’t just been sitting around shushing people while the Internet drove them into irrelevance. More than 90% of American public libraries have amassed e-book collections you can read on your iPad, and often even on a Kindle. You don’t have to walk into a branch or risk an overdue fine. And they’re totally free.”

OK, I take umbrage at “musty old institution.” But Fowler goes on to explain how he compared e-book bestseller and other book lists (including Stephen King’s favorites) on three subscription services, including Amazon, to the e-book holdings of the San Francisco public library and his own childhood system, Richland County, South Carolina. The verdict? “Libraries, at least for now, have one killer feature that the others don’t: e-books you actually want to read.”

He explains the business reasons for this (and Fowler knows his stuff — he also explains why the terms publishers give libraries for e-books aren’t great), and then he says this:

“Like many, I hadn’t used my library card much since I started reading books on screens. But in the past few weeks, discovering my library’s e-book collection helped me reconnect with the power of the library card I felt when I was young.”

Yes!

He goes on to explain why there are long hold lists for popular library e-book titles (again, he’s done his homework), and his closing argument is dynamite:

“But libraries serve nobler purposes than just amassing vampire romances. They provide equal access to knowledge, from employment services to computer training. And in an age where getting things “free” usually means surrendering some privacy, libraries have long been careful about protecting patron records.The rise of paid subscription services is proof that there’s demand for what libraries can offer in our Internet era.” Except we’re not going to sell you stuff based on what you check out. And that’s a very good argument against libraries allowing “buy it now” buttons in their catalog, which violate two core values of our profession — free access for all, and protection of privacy.

This is one of the best outside-the-profession articles I’ve read about why libraries are not only relevant, but as important as ever today. And why even for those who like their books virtual, we can be a vital resource. I had the opportunity to share my thoughts on the future of librarianship with a diverse group of community leaders yesterday, and one message I tried to impart is that we can serve everyone with prudent management of our resources — we can be a home for people who want stacks of picture books for their kids, senior citizens who want large print and a chance to login to Facebook and see what the grands are up to, and everyone in between.

For the generations who often seem to be absent from libraries — who have left school but don’t have their own kids yet — e-book service is convenient, free, and available wherever they have wifi.  Whether they come in to the building or not.  Our website can be their branch, 24/7.

Geoffrey Fowler, thank you. Your mother (who retired from the Richland Country Library system) must be very proud of you. You’re a smart cookie. Probably from spending time at the library when you grew up. We’re good for growing — and grown up — minds.

Public Libraries in the US

The Institute of Museum & Library Services published its latest report on public libraries in the U.S recently. I went straight to the state stats. Looks like New Hampshire is in pretty good shape. More evidence that the demise of libraries is not imminent.

Meanwhile, we’re ready to start new projects for the new fiscal year at my library. One thing I got started on today is radically reconsidering the reference section — I’d like to circulate some books, move others to storage, and weed the ones that sit gathering dust, their spines indicating they’ve rarely been cracked open. It’s painful, because many of them are wonderful resources. But I’d like to make space for materials our patrons do want to use and check out.

A colleague of mine pointed out that this brings up a philosophical dilemma: should expand our offerings of popular materials like movies, even if it means decreasing our purchase of something else, like reference books? Some folks I’ve known in the library world lament that for some patrons, we’re just another video outlet. It can feel like what we are as libraries is in danger if we know some people only come in for movies. Or if we jettison reference materials.

If we want to continue to encourage literacy and a love of knowledge and learning, maybe the answer isn’t to buy interesting but rarely used multi-volume reference sets but to choose appealing books and circulate them. And maybe even pair them with movies to encourage cross-circulation? Say someone takes out the Harrison Ford film Witness. Why not offer some Amish fiction (very popular at my library) or a memoir about growing up Amish or a coffee table book about rural America? It’s hard to quickly pull together related materials on the spot, but a display area is a good place to do this. And catalog tools may be going that way. We use Novelist, which recommends related titles when a patron looks at a book  our catalog. It would be cool if it pointed people to books when they looked at movies or music as well.

Whether our reference section shrinks or our dvd section grows, I’m happy to live in a region and a state where libraries are valued and well-used.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

World Cup of books

These are my new earrings, courtesy of scbeachbling on Etsy:

USA bling

I’m a fan. And I’m finding some patrons are too, but many, like the majority of their fellow Americans, are not too sure what all the fuss is about.

I made a display of the few books we have about the beautiful game and Brazil, and some books have checked out. I also posted this guide for keeping up with the World Cup on social media to the library’s Facebook page. But I saw this cool Booklover’s Guide to the World Cup from the Scottish Book Trust and realized my teeny display is child’s play. I would love to do something like this for our patrons for an Olympics or World Cup in the future.

What do you think of Friday Night Lights as the choice for the USA? I think it would be hard to pick one book as quintessentially American. Maybe something by Twain? Or Hawthorne? Or Toni Morrison? What about The Great Gatsby? Or Fahrenheit 451?  Or Emily Dickinson’s poetry? Or to highlight what’s hot now, the Game of Thrones series? What would you pick?

I’m sure readers from other countries have looked at the list and wondered about the selections too. To be fair it does say this is a “country-by-country guide to great books in translation from each of the countries competing at Brazil 2014,” and maybe Friday Night Lights is great (I haven’t read it). And the World Cup 2014 Literary Sweepstake is fun. I don’t think office sweepstakes for the World Cup have caught on in the USA, but I like that there’s both a booklist and an activity, with a way to tweet along. So many library activities are for kids, but the kid in all of us likes to play.

Have you tried a World Cup of books at your library, or a book Olympics? How did it work? Leave a comment to join the conversation.

Personal librarians

One of the things we’re working on at my public library is increasing our personalized readers advisory services. We’re planning to use a form, and I hope we can also do some staff training to increase readers advisory at the information desk as well. Multnomah County Public Library is taking personalized service in a slightly different direction with My Librarian, an online service that allows patrons to get to know the readers advisory staff. I have noticed that our patrons love it when we sign reviews, make a display of a particular staff member’s favorites, or otherwise connect in a personal way. For National Library Week, I invited staff members to join me on booksecret.org, and one of them also made an eye-catching display of our booksecret submissions:

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Just about every day I hear a patron comment on how much they enjoyed seeing what we like to read.

But I recently heard about a library where the staff didn’t want to include their names on recommendations or reviews. I have mixed feelings about that. I get that some people are private or shy or have concerns I perhaps haven’t even thought of regarding using even just their first names in a public space.

On the other hand, I think humanizing what we do, and making sure people feel personally connected to their library and librarians, is beneficial. It can only be good if people see us as familiar members of their communities, not just as anonymous public servants. I’d like patrons to leave the library feeling we are part of the same happy book tribe (which is why I think it is important to encourage staff to chat a bit with patrons, so that they feel welcomed and cared about, but that’s another post).

In an interview, the Multnomah County library director Vailey Oehlke explained that people could get book recommendations on Amazon.com (or I would add, the library catalog online, if like ours, it includes Novelist Select or another discovery tool), but that’s ” a pretty transactional experience . . . . It’s not a conversation, it’s not a relationship that develops with a back-and-forth personal connection.” Reporter Kelly House notes that when people go to their local library, “familiar faces greet patrons daily.” My Librarian is an effort to replicate that experience for online library users.

Which brings me to a common theme here at Nocturnal Librarian: libraries, like other service organizations, may change their delivery methods or search tools, but the basics of what we do — like make reading recommendations to patrons who we get to know — are what we’ve always done well. I’m all for reaching people in new ways, but instead of touting how much we’ve changed, I think there is real value in reminding people that what they’ve always counted on libraries for, like help finding a good book, is still what they can count on us for.

And I believe that Vailey Oehlke is correct, our patrons trust us because we are familiar to them, and that’s something else unique to libraries. People could get books anywhere; they come to us in part because libraries are a community service, and both parts of that term should be at the heart of what we are and do. I plan to keep putting my name on whatever I recommend, and to encourage my staff to do the same, so we remain, for our patrons,”their” librarians.