The once and future library

I was fascinated by the various news stories about a Roman era library unearthed in Cologne, Germany recently.  It housed around 20,000 scrolls and was state run – although researchers aren’t sure whether access was restricted to more influential Roman citizens. The archeologist in Germany quoted in Alison Flood’s Guardian story, Dr. Dirk Schmitz, thinks it was public: “The building would have been used as a public library, Schmitz said. ‘It is in the middle of Cologne, in the marketplace, or forum: the public space in the city centre. It is built of very strong materials, and such buildings, because they are so huge, were public,’ he said.” It’s really remarkable to think that in only the second century, well before books as we think of them existed, there were libraries.

I have a soft spot for ancient libraries, because scholars believe they were, like today’s public libraries, much more than just repositories for important works. The Library of Hadrian in Athens (where my Twitter profile photo was taken) is about the same age as the newly discovered Cologne library, and is thought to have been an archive as well as a place for lectures and discussions. As Lonely Planet explains, “It essentially functioned as Athens’ civic centre in Roman times . . . .” Sounds a lot like public libraries today!

Last week after I heard about the Roman library in Cologne, a coworker called to let me know that while looking at colleges with her daughter, she heard about Temple University’s planned “robotic library,” which will open next spring. It turns out they are installing BookBot, a system is use at several other universities, including NC State. The idea is to use dense, space saving compact shelving with a robotic retrieval system, so more of the library’s public floorspace can be available for other uses, like meeting and collaborative spaces or performances. You can see how BookBot works in this video. I was glad to see that despite the robotic retrieval system, human library staff have an important role in using BookBot. I also wondered, as someone who seems to put in a LOT of IT tickets at my job, how often they have software or hardware issues!

Speaking of technology and the need for human librarians, today I came across a wonderful article at Atlas Obscura that speaks to the once and future power of good old fashioned librarianship. It’s about the NYPL librarians who help find books people only partially remember. This was one of my favorite activities at the public library: a patron calls or emails or comes in and says “I read this book x years ago, and it was about y and I know there was a z in it.” And you’re off.

As Jessica Leigh Hester explains in her story about NYPL’s “‘Title Quest’ hackathon,” despite the internet, librarians’ knowledge work is in demand: “they’re still experts at finding the answers to tricky questions.” And that is what stays the same, no matter how much technology evolves, or society changes. I’m guessing that in the second century, people in the Roman empire relied on librarians to find answers, and at libraries large (like NYPL, or the Temple and NC State libraries) or small (like my community college library, and the thousands of libraries in communities around the world), librarians are sleuthing their way to answers for people every day.

 

 

 

 

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The lasting impact of librarians

First, thank you to all the recent followers of Nocturnal Librarian. My response to the infamous Forbes piece about closing libraries because we have Amazon and Starbucks is up over 1300 views, and many of you have also left me comments about what libraries mean to you. On Monday, it was my very great pleasure to spend an hour discussing why libraries matter on the Morning Show at Wisconsin Public Radio. One of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve heard from many of you, this past week and over the years, is that it’s not only the idea or physical presence of libraries that make such a difference in people’s lives. Nor is it solely the economic or social value libraries have in their communities. It’s the librarians.

Librarians like my friend Barbara White, who helps ensure kids who visit the Akron-Summit County Library can get a snack. She let me know that “Our terrific staff, in partnership with the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, served 27,976 after-school snacks in the 2017-2018 school year.”  And librarians who mail books to the homebound or in some cases, to anyone who doesn’t live near a library. And librarians who bring books wherever people are, by bike or traditional bookmobile or by visiting nursing homes or retirement centers, schools, and parks. Librarians who are there for every member of their community, helping people who are often identified as “other” — recent immigrants, the homeless, and job seekers, for example — to feel included.  And at academic libraries, librarians who contribute to student success.

But the stories I like best aren’t even about librarians going the extra mile to make an impact. Last week a young man in his 20s stopped by my office. He had a question, and he came to me because there’s a sign on my door that says “Keep Calm and Ask a Librarian.” The question was not related to anything we have on offer in the library — but he knew I’d help, because his mother had taught him that when he needed to know something, he should ask a librarian.

If that wasn’t already pretty cool, the next part is even better. He said he grew up in New York his neighborhood library was the place he could go after school. A safe place. A place he told me “opened up the world” to him. A place where he was known, and where people were happy to see him. Librarians welcomed him and answered his questions and he grew up knowing he could always count on that.

Far beyond the wonderful places they work, the terrific collections and resources they manage, the community-oriented services they offer, and the inspiring and helpful programs they offer, librarians are doing the simplest and most impactful thing of all: being there for the people they serve. Remembering and getting to know their patrons, greeting them, recalling what they like to read or what they are curious about, reminding them there is a place in the world where they are known. Being open to every new person they meet in their work. Being present. Librarians, like the places they work in, are for everyone.

 

You can hear me on Wisconsin Public Radio on Monday!

Thanks to former NHPR host Brady Carlson, who is now at WPR, I’ll be on The Morning Show this coming Monday 7/30 at 8am central/9am eastern talking about my most recent post, “Really, libraries don’t need reinventing, thanks” and the incredible response from all of you out there who love and rely on libraries! I’m wicked excited to talk about how libraries serve our communities and why they rock.

Since so many of you use your libraries regularly, I’d love to hear about cool things happening at your local library. What’s the best program, service, or interesting thing you can check out?

 

Really, libraries don’t need reinventing, thanks

Two stories have made their way to me from around the internet lately. A few weeks ago it seemed everywhere I looked people were sharing the story of a small, “DIY” library in Brooklyn at a work sharing space. LitHub’s Phillip Pantuso speaks with a number of people, including Heather Topcik, director of the library at Bard, who gush that this is a revolution in serendipity where people can actually browse bookshelves. She actually says, “I think there’s some nostalgia there, because people don’t use libraries, unless you’re a student.” Maybe she should drive a couple of hours south and visit some of the NYPL branches Jim Dwyer visited for his piece in the New York Times a few years ago.

Pantuso goes on to say, “Digital classification has abetted the evolution of the library. In the past, a librarian would be tasked with deciding whether to shelve a book about art nouveau metalwork in the art nouveau section or the metalwork section. Now, given that most people will first encounter the book via an online search, it can functionally exist in both places. But the act of browsing and its concomitant serendipitousness are less available.”

I can’t decide which I find more ridiculously elitist — that “people don’t use libraries” or that “the act of browsing and its concomitant serendipitousness are less available” because of digital cataloging. So, no, actually, the shelves are still there, and so are the people. Browsing is not less available than it ever was, just because you can also see a digital catalog. But I tried to ignore this article, because it’s really not reality for most people — a hipster invitation-only set of books in Brooklyn is not a threat to libraries as most of us know them, and if people want to experiment and play librarian in their private, privileged spaces, they can go for it. Have fun.

Then this weekend, my friend Paul and many other outraged people were sharing Panos Mourdoukoutas’ article for Forbes. His main point seems to be: we’ve all got Amazon and Netflix, and Starbucks to hang out in, we don’t need libraries, let’s close them and save taxpayers a bundle. He also makes several unsupported comments like “There’s no shortage of places to hold community events,” and “Technology has turned physical books into collector’s items, effectively eliminating the need for library borrowing services.” Both of which are mindbogglingly inaccurate. Libraries in my area are actually regularly turning people away who are looking for space because it’s hard to find places for community groups to meet. And as the American Booksellers Association regularly reports, independent bookstores are thriving — because people are buying what he flippantly calls “collector’s items” but the rest of us still call books.

Also, I was left wondering as I usually am when I read articles like this, have any of these tone deaf, privileged writers set foot in a public library lately? Try it and see your fellow citizens wandering in the stacks, looking at what’s new, what’s shelved beside their favorite authors, or just what’s on the shelf in the aisle they’ve wandered down or the display they’ve come across. Yes, there are patrons who look up what they want to read online, and come to the library for that very thing, or even download a copy on their tablet or phone, but that is not evidence that serendipity or browsing are dead. In fact, given the rate at which I used to have to replace display books when I worked in a public library, I’d say browsing is popular. Don’t take my word for it, look at Pew, which has been reporting for years that Americans value public libraries.  And also, something I’ve discussed here at Nocturnal Librarian before, people prefer print books over eReading.

And I’m sure that someone who thinks stockholder profit is more important than access to public libraries would not stop to consider this, but only 2/3 of American adults have broadband internet access at home. That means that 1 in 3 people do not — and guess what? Many of the have-nots are poor, older, rural, or minorities. Maybe Mourdoukoutas thinks poor people, the elderly, and anyone not living on a coast doesn’t deserve to read? Because you cant download an Amazon eBook without broadband. Nor can everyone afford Amazon Prime, which is the only way to access what Mourdoukoutas  calls Amazon’s “online library.” Which is not actually a library. It’s a marketing tool.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, people who think they don’t need libraries really have no business deciding for the rest of society that they aren’t important. Amazon doesn’t need libraries to die in order to thrive (in fact, they don’t need bookstores to die either, as bookstores are doing just fine and Amazon continues to grow). Americans don’t need a giant corporation deciding what we read. But above all, libraries are often the only egalitarian spaces in American communities, radically welcoming of everyone who comes through their doors, providing vital space, quiet, internet access, resources, community, and yes, print books, magazines and newspapers to people of all walks of life, who rely on their libraries and use them.

 

Full catastrophe living for libraries

Many years ago when I was first learning about mindfulness, I read John Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living. He writes about how mindfulness — in brief, being in the moment, observing and nonjudgementally letting go of thoughts not related to being present in the moment — can help us deal with the “full catastrophe” of contemporary life, from actual physical pain or illness to the anxiety, panic, fear, and other uncomfortable emotional states we might be in as a reaction to things beyond our control. As I read American Libraries Direct the past two weeks I realized libraries are kind of in a full catastrophe moment along with the rest of the world.

In those two issues alone, there are articles about about the American Library Association’s and children’s literature authors’ stands on family separation at the border, about library equity issues such as the threat to LGBTQ books in Hong Kong, freedom of access to information issues, the long history of pubic libraries advocating for the poor or marginalized, librarian’s in the Iowa trying to help those in Puerto Rico still reeling from last year’s the hurricanes, and a man from Alabama leading a drive for books for his school district’s library (which it can’t afford) by climbing Mt Kilimanjaro. Meanwhile in the everyday trenches libraries of all kinds are facing flat or reduced budgets, position cuts or reductions (even directors in my state are part time in smaller libraries), and loss of school or even public libraries, depending on the state or country. Many of these issues result in contentious disagreements among people — sadly, almost everything in our culture now seems to be fraught with that possibility.

The good news is we as a profession can get through all of it — the full catastrophe — the same way individuals can get through their own. We can be professionally mindful, present for and with the people in our libraries. We can be mindful of what libraries bring to people, and how we approach our work. We can let our anxieties and fears about the future of our workplaces and our profession go, and focus on what’s right here now, which in my experience makes us even more open to trying new things, rather than being afraid of change.  In doing that, I predict, we’ll be ready to meet any catastrophe, we’ll thrive where we are, and our libraries will benefit and be welcoming places that meet our patrons’ needs.

In 2014 in this space I wrote, “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.”  I was writing about public libraries but this describes academic libraries just as well. It’s full catastrophe some days, but we can handle it

Woes and whys of weeding

I started at my new library as director this week, and one of the first things my small staff wanted to discuss is weeding. A recent assessment of our print collection revealed it’s not very up to date, and since we’re serving a community college, we want to be sure our students have access to relevant, which often means newer, material. But, print books don’t check out very much. But, maybe they don’t check out very much because they’re not as recent as digital library materials. And so it goes. The perpetual woes and whys of weeding, which every library faces.

We made a decision in our first staff meeting at the end of the week to pull books that are in bad condition, use terminology that is either dated or no longer appropriate, or is older than ten years old in STEM and health fields. Then we’ll review everything, and ask faculty for input. Of course the biggest fear is that our materials budget won’t allow us to update everything we need to pull, and that our shelves will look too empty. So, we’ll take it slowly and see what we find, before actually withdrawing titles.

Fortunately, we’re part of a system of community colleges across our state, and we can also get books from other academic and public libraries easily. But even with resource sharing and a good collection of e-resources, print weeding still seems to be painful for many libraries and librarians, and can sometimes be a public relations nightmare. I think the key is to know our goals and communicate them, which means we need to understand what our priorities are, and what our vision is. We’ll be drafting a collection development and management policy and thinking carefully about the college’s programs and the needs of our students and faculty.

Should be fun!

Failing forward

Failing Forward was the theme of the ACRL New England conference held last Friday. It’s an interesting idea for a conference, to celebrate failure as a catalyst for creativity and improvement. It’s tempting when people don’t use our resources or services to let them be quietly ignored or forgotten, not gone, quite, but left to wither. Or, to fall prey to the misconception that there must be a better way to market this really cool thing, because we know it’s cool and amazing and so library patrons just need to know this too and they’ll flock to it.

Neither approach necessarily works. Ignoring what isn’t going over well won’t help anyone — not the staff who tried it nor the patrons it was meant for. Believing that there is a magical marketing solution for something that’s not working sets staff up to be demoralized if in fact the real problem is that what you’re marketing isn’t what patrons need or want. So hearing from colleagues who made lemonade from their lemons was refreshing. There was definitely a strong sense of camaraderie at this conference — who doesn’t appreciate feeling they are not alone in making mistakes?

I learned about interesting ideas and met interesting people and reconnected with others. I even presented a lightning talk, “No Attendees, No Problem” about rethinking programming in college libraries. But mostly I just enjoyed being among my colleagues in an atmosphere where we could kick back and enjoy a laugh (almost all of us joked about our unfortunate failures) and then hear about turnarounds. Not miracles, just regular instances of people rolling up their sleeves and saying, “Ok, then. What can we do about this mess? Let’s see, shall we?”

By the way, if you have no attendees at your programs I have a suggestion: therapy dogs. This was the best slide in my presentation.

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Critical Information Literacy

I’ve been taking an online course from the ALA called Introduction to Critical Information Literacy: Promoting Social Justice Through Librarianship. It has been really interesting, and even though I had a basic understanding of critical information literacy, and have been interested in social justice all my life, the class discussions and assignments have opened my eyes to new ideas and possibilities.

The idea of critical info lit is to work with students to put research in context in terms of whose voices are included or excluded, what power structures prevent participation in or access to research, what inherent biases exist in publishing,  and in librarianship’s frameworks, like cataloging and classification, and so forth. Even though I do some cataloging, it’s mostly from existing records, not from scratch (also known as original), so I haven’t noticed that there are a lot of words missing from the Library of Congress Subject Headings — mass incarceration, for example, as I used The New Jim Crow in one of my assignments.

There’s been a lot of conversation online about whether libraries are neutral — they aren’t, of course. Nothing humans do is neutral, when you get down to it, which is ok, as long as we think about how we’re biased and who it’s impacting. For example, some core principles of librarianship are to make information and services available and accessible to all, and to welcome everyone — which are biases, even if they are well intended, and as public librarians know they sometimes upset patrons who wish “everyone” wasn’t quite so inclusive.

Since this was a class aimed at college and university librarians, we also looked at peer review, which as you know I have been looking at critically anyway (see my last post about Retraction Watch) at work and in my courses for the MSc in Science Communication & Public Engagement at University of Edinburgh. The more I learn about it, the more I wonder if it can be fixed, especially since people deeply involved in trying to make it better agree that it might not ever be.

We talked in this course about fake news as well, and interestingly, how our desire to teach students to question everything has led to more and more people questioning legitimate sources. I maintain that if the questioning is systematic and is meant as a way to test whether a source or an article has been produced in a way that strives to be factual, accurate, and clear, and isn’t a kind of ‘trust no one’ questioning, this won’t happen. I prefer to tell students to think carefully about everything — they’ll be able to tell whether something is unfair, misleading, inaccurate, or biased if they think.

And we talked about zines, something I hadn’t really thought about much. I know of them, but hadn’t thought of zines being in libraries, or turning up on works cited lists. But zines are, like letters, diaries, blogs, and other first person accounts, primary sources. They often tell stories that have been left out or haven’t yet been discovered by mainstream researchers. One of my classmates offers the option for students in a composition class to create a persuasive zine rather than an essay, using many of the same rhetorical techniques. That seems like a pretty creative idea to me. I like the fact that zines could be an entry point into scholarly conversation for people who don’t feel like they belong in that conversation.

For our final project, we had to create a zine about the class. Below is one of my pages.

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My heroes: Retraction Watch and the librarians who love them

I had the good fortune to hear Ivan Oransky, cofounder of Retraction Watch, at the Massachusetts Health Sciences Library Network (MAHSLIN) annual meeting on Friday. He talked about the groundbreaking and impactful work Retraction Watch is doing, and he praised librarians who helped create the Retraction Watch database.  He also pointed out they have a whopping 17,000 or so retractions listed, thousands more than any other such source, and they are the only ones (so far) tracking retractions from open access publications.

If you aren’t familiar with their work, check out what others have said — they’ve been featured in Le Monde, Wired, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and more. In a nutshell, they write about retractions of scientific papers — where they were published, who wrote them, if possible why they were retracted. They also keep a tally of the scientists and publications with the most retractions. All of this has contributed to improved public understanding of science publishing, scrutiny and reform of publishing practices such as allowing authors to recommend their own peer reviewers, and much needed discussion of retractions and how they are handled.

If you’re wondering why a person who examines publishers and researchers was speaking to librarians, Oransky noted we’re natural partners. Librarians are interested in helping people find accurate information, and it definitely alarms us that retracted articles still show up in discovery services (those all-in one search boxes on library websites meant to mimic a certain search box you probably use every day) because retractions are not removed or marked in different library resources the same way. As a profession, we have a tradition of exposing publishers who are unreliable — see Beall’s List, (created by academic librarian Jeffrey Beall) or those that profit from science research that is often publicly funded, or funded by the very institutions who then have to pay very high prices to subscribe to the journals that publish that research. Robert Darnton, former University Librarian at Harvard, helped bring that issue to light a few years ago.

People who are working on this are information heroes — shining light on misconduct, mistakes, and misleading research. Here’s to Retraction Watch and the librarians who love them.

College in the public library

An article caught my eye this week about a “microcollege” run by Bard College in the Brooklyn Public Library. it sounded intriguing, bringing college to people who otherwise might not have access to it, via a pubic service they already use. When I read the article, I learned that only 17 students are enrolled this year, although Bard plans to expand on that number. And one of the classes is an ethnomusicology course, which although it sounds interesting, didn’t strike me as necessarily something everyone would want to take.

Bard, of course, is a private liberal arts college where classes like that are probably commonplace. But the whole notion made me curious, and I wondered whether community or other public colleges and public libraries are pairing up anywhere? That led me to the utilitarian sounding Joint Use Library, which “is a unique collaboration between Tidewater Community College and the City of Virginia Beach to combine in a single, dynamic destination the collections, services, programs, and resources of an academic library and a public library to create a new model for lifelong learning and provide synergistic opportunities to enhance personal growth, academic achievement, and quality of life for the College community and for the residents of the City of Virginia Beach. ”

After a quick search, I couldn’t find any other public libraries offering actual credit-bearing college classes, although plenty offer information about MOOCs, continuing education in their community or through vendors they’ve contracted with (like Atomic, Lynda, or Recorded Books), etc. I did come across Life Skills Academy at San José Public Library, which is aimed at helping young adults with everything from “Your First College Class,” to how to find an apartment and how to “not get fired from your first job.” Huh. It seems packed with practical tips and refers readers to books and websites for more information.

I do recall that there is an MLS program that partners with libraries in New Hampshire (and probably elsewhere) offering future librarians a hybrid master’s degree program that takes place both online and in libraries. But I wasn’t able to find any other programs like Bard’s. Do you know of any college credit courses available to public library patrons? Leave a comment below.