Creating lifelong information seekers

On a library instruction email list I read, there was a recent discussion that included an interesting point: when we teach the use of databases to college students, it’s both worthwhile and in line with our mission of producing lifelong information seekers and users to note that once students graduate, they can often access databases through their public libraries.

The thread stayed with me. First of all I like the idea of fostering a continuum of library use. There’s a natural progression from toddler story times to college library users (although we often lose them in their teens), and if we can pay it forward in academia by encouraging our students to return to their local libraries when they need information in the future, we should.

Second, I think it’s useful to think of what we’re doing in larger terms than just helping students learn what they need for the current assignment. Informed citizens are good for our country and our local communities. If we can play a part in preparing students to find, evaluate, and use information well, and also influence those students to become lifelong library users,  it will hopefully be helpful to them, good for society, and good for our profession.

As I prepare for my first full semester of library instruction, I’m going to keep these things in mind and be sure to remind students that the skills they are applying to their papers can be just as helpful later when they want to learn a new skill, research places to live or work, find out about health concerns for their parents and schools for their kids, and much more, and that their local library will be a resource for them as they go into the world. Do you talk about these kinds of things in your information literacy program? Leave a comment and share your ideas.

 

Recreational reading in college

I am taking on something several people have told me is hopeless at my new library: celebrating, supporting, and encouraging recreational reading at a university. I’ve had numerous people tell me students don’t read anything they don’t have to, and very little of what they do have to. Professors, I’ve been told, like to read in the summer but won’t read a thing for fun during the academic year.

Maybe I’ll find this all out the hard way, but I’m convinced that this isn’t exactly true. Maybe most students aren’t reading War and Peace for fun, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t consume any written words, in print, online, or in audio. Yes, I’m expanding my view of what reading is. I know a lot of voracious readers who also listen to audiobooks and no one questions whether that’s really reading. So aren’t podcasts like audiobooks? I think so. I know several (and am married to one) people who read magazine and newspaper articles, essays and short stories more frequently than books.So then, aren’t blogs like other short form writing? I think so.

Yes, I’m hoping people will read books, too, and I’m working on ways to promote our book collection, too. But even more importantly, I’m hoping to affirm this: whatever you have time for, whether it’s your favorite fashion blog or a true crime podcast or last night’s Red Sox scores, you are reading, and if you don’t have time for a book right now, the library will be here for you later when you do.

Stay tuned. And if you have ideas that have worked at your academic library to promote reading, leave a comment and tell me what worked.

 

Responding to violence

Last year when I worked at a public library, I suggested we do more displays on current topics in society — racism, refugees, gender issues, etc. This was met with resistance as the city I worked in didn’t want the library to appear to be taking stands on issues (more on that later) but I was permitted to do a display on drug addiction. New Hampshire is one of the states dealing with rampant opioid addiction, and has one of the highest rates of prescription painkiller use in the nation. It was very popular, by which I mean people took books from the display and we had to restock it. That to me was a strong indicator that people want to learn more about what’s happening in the world.

Friday (when the news of the Dallas shootings was fresh) at the academic library where I now work, I discussed with a co-worker how shell shocked I felt from the week’s news — it was awful to wake up to news of one violent act after another. I told her it seemed like a good time to make a display about nonviolence and racism, something for people who also felt overwhelmed by the news. She agreed that would be a good service to the community and that she’d like to work on it.

I went back to my office. A short time later one of our coworkers called me from the front desk to say the two of them had imagined a problem: wouldn’t people come in and ask why now that it was police who were victims were we putting up a display, and where were we when innocent black men were killed earlier in the week and when mostly hispanic and gay victims died in Orlando? I said that wasn’t the intent at all, it was the groundswell of violence that had caused me to feel we needed to offer a display. Heck the bad news wasn’t even limited to America. There were innocent victims of violence and racial, religious,or cultural intolerance in Dhaka, Baghdad, Syria, Istanbul, Europe, Britain.

We agreed tentatively that they would also put out books on homophobia, extremism, Islamophobia, etc. But the conversation unsettled me — was I unconsciously reacting because cops were killed, even though I don’t like or agree with media coverage that seems to favor the lives of cops or members of the military over civilians?  (I say that as the wife of a former Marine who hates that implication.) Trying to take a detached look at it I decided my initial sense was that we needed to offer resources on nonviolence and a historical perspective on how America has reached this point. I was inspired by something the Bishop of New Hampshire shared on Facebook: an article I read just before work, on how to be a peacemaker.  I wanted to make a display that would help people understand each other and the world.

No, I didn’t value police lives over other lives. Why now? Because news of gun violence, as well as racism, was incessant this week. Should we try to retroactively respond to all the other violence that has been in the news this summer? I guessed that was an OK compromise, but it made me feel as if my instinct was selfish, and also made me wish I hadn’t suggested the damn display in the first place. Still, my feelings weren’t what mattered, being inclusive seemed like a good thing, so I just hung up and got on with my work.

But later the first colleague came back to me and said we needed to stick to the initial scope of the display: nonviolence and racial injustice in America. She felt it would just look like we were covering all the bases to include other issues, and that she’d rather have a substantive conversation with anyone who asked “Why this display, now?” She got why someone might ask us about it, but was comfortable articulating that whether we should have a display every time something bad happens or on every issue isn’t the point, the point is that yesterday, we just wanted to help people who feel pained by the events of the past week. Like we did. She thought we should honor that, rather than cheapen it by trying to be all inclusive.

Her sensible offer to have conversations about the display is just what should happen when people have questions about tough issues or positions. That’s the only way forward — to calmly discuss things. I’m grateful for her perspective and a little ashamed that my own reaction (“fine, include everything and everyone”) was to cheapen the horror, even if I was diluting it with other, equally horrific things. I came by that in part because of my experience in the public sector, where taking a stand was considered taking a side, which was discouraged or even forbidden.

Should libraries, public or academic, create displays that present information about controversial or divisive issues? I think they should. People are hungry for something more than news bites, and books can provide more in-depth analysis. Libraries also, as part of our mission, collect resources that present varying viewpoints as long as they meet the standards set for our collections (well written, well researched, well reviewed, for example), and therefore we’re in a position to challenge people to read points of view that differ from their own. If we’re taking a side it’s the side of creating an informed citizenry. Will anyone question our motives? Possibly. But I have a good answer — I’m trying to learn how best to respond to this, and thought others might want to learn too.

 

 

Digital attention spans

Like many academic libraries, mine holds a vast number of full text journals online, via our databases as well as some electronic serials subscriptions. So I was interested to see a recent article arguing that perhaps the internet hasn’t killed attention spans, and readers are capable of taking in longer articles online.

Except when I read it, I learned that the Pew study the article references didn’t paint nearly as rosy a picture when you dig into it. First of all the study was examining internet news consumption, which is arguably easier to read than academic journal articles. Pew found that “the total engaged time with articles 1,000 words or longer averages about twice that of the engaged time with short-form stories: 123 seconds compared with 57.”

123 seconds per long article. I was curious about the average words read in a minute, so I looked that up. According to both The Guardian and The Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science the average adult reads about 300 words per minute. So, if people are spending 123 seconds, or just over two minutes, on articles over 1000 words, they are probably reading just over half or less, depending on the article’s length.

That may very well be the reality of the digital journal reading. Who among us hasn’t skimmed to get to the part of an article we wanted to read, skipping stuff that doesn’t seem as relevant or important? I’ve done it, especially at work. I think this kind of reading can be important when time is short and the material I’m trying to tackle is voluminous. I’d also argue that our educational system promotes this kind of skimming for comprehension because it’s an essential skill for standardized test taking.

But when I do have time, say on a relaxing Sunday afternoon, to read every word of a long article in the newspaper or from a pile of magazines that stacks up all week, or to dive deeply into a good book, I savor that kind of reading. So for me, print triggers a desire to “slow read,” and electronic content seems to motivate me to skim. But that could be a factor of where and when I am doing each kind of reading. Work isn’t conducive to “slow reading.” Home is.

Regardless of how I or anyone else feels about digital or print reading, I think what really caught my eye is that Pew merely found in its study that people are engaging with long form online content, but the article I found (linked in an OCLC newsletter, as I recall) seems to think the study proves the Internet hasn’t diminished attention spans. That seems like a logical fallacy to me. I’ll be interested to speak with students in the fall to see how they feel about reading digital content and how engaged they are with what they read online. It’s an important, and very basic, question for academic librarians to ask as more and more of our materials are available digitally. Are our users engaged with the resources we’re providing?

 

 

 

Won’t you be my patron?

This is for my librarian friends who wondered (some out loud, some with raised eyebrow or the digital equivalent of same) why I’d leave the turbulent but every-interesting world of public libraries, where I was seemingly thriving, for the calm, quiet halls of academe. Turns out, different library, same issues.

One of the interesting things I learned today as a number of our staff met to go over our database stats and discuss renewing or replacing various subscriptions is that academic libraries must market their services and resources just like public libraries. I think there is a misconception that we have a captive audience. Which is partially true. But unless our audience, no matter how loyal, knows what we have, they will be shelf sitters, or whatever the equivalent term is for digital subscriptions.

Strangely, I find this exciting, because this is something I’ve worked on a fair bit and feel like I can help with immediately. My LC classification may be more than rusty (I haven’t thought about cataloging since library school, if I’m honest), but I know about outreach and marketing. Some ideas we tossed around today included personal outreach to faculty, giveaways for students, and speaking with our sales reps about other academic libraries’ success stories.

If you’re an academic librarian, how do you market your materials to students and faculty? What has worked or not worked for you?

Back to the beginning

Today I went to my local public library. As a patron, not a staff member. It was, admittedly, a strange sensation, not least because I couldn’t find my hold, which turned out to have been cancelled (yikes! I’ll have to read those emails more closely) but one I will have to get used to. I’ve left the public library world to return to the place where Nocturnal Librarian began — a small private liberal arts university where I’ll be the assistant director of the library. It’s a good move for me, career wise, and I will enjoy serving the academic community again. But of course, I will remain a champion of public libraries, and I’ll be in good company.  I know of at least two colleagues at the university who serve as trustees at their own local libraries.

Educators are big library fans, and at my interview I actually got into a great discussion with some professors about the future of public libraries and their role in society. I love that kind of discourse, which is one reason I feel good about making this change. I also love helping people find the information they need, and am looking forward to those “ah ha” moments with students that I remember well from when I was a night reference librarian at this same college a few years ago. Universities are pretty much entirely staffed by members of the book tribe, which I love. So I’m pretty excited to start!

Stay tuned to hear about my adventures in academia. And see what I’ve been reading between jobs over at bookconscious.

 

 

 

Being countercultural

A few weeks ago I had a conversation that’s stayed with me. I was speaking with a group of people when someone pointed out that libraries are countercultural. I think what he was saying is that the existence of a place where everyone, for free, can enter and read and learn whatever he or she desires is really pretty mind-blowing if you think about it.

But is what we’re doing really counter to the prevailing culture? I guess libraries are sort of a part of the “slow” movement. Like cooking from scratch or making things by hand, reading and learning are time consuming, in a culture where many people prefer to do things as quickly as possible – although James Patterson is trying to make reading speedier by publishing books that can be read in one sitting. Regardless of the cultural preference for speed, the Pew Research Center reports that Americans have a very strong affinity for lifelong learning. And there wouldn’t be slow or maker movements if people weren’t willing to invest time in these pursuits, so maybe slowness isn’t all that at odds with the culture. Nor is learning.

What about reading? The media likes to report that no one reads, but again, looking to Pew, that just isn’t true. In their report on reading in America in 2013, the center notes that a large majority of adults read at least one book in the previous year, and not just rich well educated adults. Across their demographic measures, readers were in the majority.

So if taking one’s time to do something worthwhile, learning, and reading are more common than not, what is it that seems countercultural about libraries? Perhaps it’s that we’re open to absolutely everyone, and funded by all for the common good? That we seek to provide diverse materials to every community we serve? That we not only offer public space, but also quiet — there are very few places in the world where people can enjoy relative silence. That libraries do not just offer books and other materials but cherish their existence? That free access to information is libraries’ birthright and highest ideal?

There are many ways libraries are countercultural, and every person will probably have a slightly different take on how this is so. But it’s helpful and to me, comforting, to note that in important ways we are more in step with the culture around us than not.

Diversity in libraries

I subscribed to the recent ALA Reference and User Services CODES (collection development and evaluation section) conversation on diversity. I think of myself as someone who is concerned about all kinds of equality, and is aware of my privilege as a white middle class professional. Certainly I’ve championed libraries as egalitarian outposts in an increasingly divided society. I get that “we need diverse books.” And that even my very white state has become much more diverse in the last ten years.

What I hadn’t thought about is the bias in the way I’m marketed to, as a collection development librarian. Yes, I primarily make my purchasing decisions based on reviews in professional journals, but those journals are written and edited by, and feature books published by, people who are mostly very much like me, demographically. Some of the participants in the conversation online noted that it’s hard to even find reviews of books by diverse authors in genre fiction, like sci-fi or mysteries.

Andrea Gough of Seattle Public Library wondered if librarians are even biased in the way we think about diversity. She noted, “perhaps because we’re a largely white field, or because our culture normalizes a white viewpoint as a ‘neutral’ viewpoint, when we talk about diversity it’s often presumed the direction is from white to POC.” In other words, the entire conversation about diversity starts with making libraries and their collections less white. But that oversimplifies diversity and overlooks the complexity of contemporary American society.

As I read I made a mental list of some of the non-racial diversity in the community I serve: homeless people, former inmates, addicts, people with less than the average amount of education for our area, immigrants, transgender people, gay or lesbian or bisexual people, various religious minorities, and a wide range of people who are differently abled, physically or mentally, just to name a few. Yes, it’s important to consider the whiteness of publishing, and of the library profession, but that doesn’t mean we should overlook the other types of diversity in our communities.

Another fascinating point in the conversation was that it’s too over-simplified, and frankly, biased, for collection developers to simply purchase more “diverse” materials. One person told a story of a new library branch in an African American neighborhood where the music buyer had purchased a wide selection of rap and hip-hop. One of the first questions at the desk was whether there were any opera CD’s. Someone else pointed out the reverse is true as well — people in more homogeneous communities assume library patrons won’t want to read books with protagonists of a different race, religion, ethnicity, or cultural background and yet that there is no evidence of that, and it’s often just plain untrue. Think of novels like Things Fall Apart or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime or The Kite Runner and of nonfiction such as Between the World and Me or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. All enjoyed a wide audience.

One of the best things about books, of course, is that they take us into lives we’ll never live. And with that in mind, one of the contributors pointed out that the goal of a good library collection is not only to meet the existing needs of the library’s patrons but also to present materials that will affirm our common humanity and expand patrons’ experience beyond the walls of the library or the boundaries of a town.

This issue is obviously too vast to be covered in a blog post, but I intend to keep considering diversity and the ways my own “frames” need to be expanded or even better, abandoned, in order to best serve every person who comes through the library’s doors.

 

 

 

 

 

Why be a librarian?

The Guardian recently published two letters from librarians in the “Public Leaders Network” — a brilliant feature which the paper describes, “This series aims to give a voice to the staff behind the public services that are hit by mounting cuts and rising demand, and so often denigrated by the press, politicians and public.” I’ve written before about efforts to reduce funding, cut services, or close libraries in the UK. This map shows mixed results of campaigns to keep libraries open there.

The letters are interesting — the first, published on National Libraries Day, is by an anonymous librarian in the Northeast of England. After explaining the assistance staff provides to job seekers, parents & carers, and young people, the author sums up:

“I know many people think we don’t need libraries when there’s Amazon, kids can use Google for their homework, and supermarkets sell paperpacks for £3 and are open 24 hours. But libraries are so much more than books. They have ebooks, audio books, academic journals, online resources, online driving tests, genealogy research. They play host to art classes, carpet bowls, tea dances, cafes, dementia support sessions. They provide a space for carers to meet, and people to be part of a community when they may otherwise be socially isolated. I’ve lost count of the number of customers who have told me, “You are the only person I have spoken to all day.”” In the face of having to offer so much and on top of that, deal with budget cuts and politicians who believe all this could be done by volunteers instead of professional librarians, the writer goes on, “Who will want to become a librarian now?”

Although, I had to look up carpet bowls, this otherwise sounds pretty similar to pieces on blogs and in journals here in America. The second letter, a response to the first, is by someone who answered the first writer’s question. This writer sees becoming a librarian as a calling:

“For me, it boils down to one important point: the internet is a shallow (but extremely wide) surface-level summary of secondary, often opinionated information that sits on a bedrock of substantive knowledge that either isn’t on the internet, or lives behind a paywall, or is too expensive to purchase. Public libraries broker equal access to all that stuff. Get rid of them, and your information becomes drip-fed through Google filters (if you have a computer to access it). As a librarian, it will be my job to make sure those bridges are not burned, and that they’re well maintained and clearly marked, with delightfully efficient help points dotted along the way.”

The profession is in good hands with both writers — the first, a veteran of the culture war that argues libraries are somehow both unnecessary luxuries and basic community services that could be provided by volunteers, who still manage to end the letter, “even in difficult times, when I don’t know if I’ll have a job from one round of cuts to the next, I love it.” And the second, an idealistic newcomer to the profession. Both argue more or less this: libraries continue to be an essential public service.

The second writer’s perspective on this is eyebrow raising:

“A successful day in the library is one where people complain, like they would with any other local authority service. The Wi-Fi isn’t good enough; there aren’t enough academic texts; it’s too cold; it’s too loud; I don’t know my email password; why don’t you have this book? I love it. Complain and moan all you like – it’s your library service. It’s for you: take it, have it, use it. I’m your public librarian and this is your public library, and these are the hallmarks of public service.”

I am going to keep that in mind. It’s interesting to think that people only complain because they take for granted that libraries should be replete with well heated, quiet rooms bursting with every possible book and completely reliable Wi-Fi, regardless of having smaller staffs and budgets. But it seems a fine line between “Libraries should be doing all this much better, after all, they’re libraries!” to “Why do we even need libraries anyway, if they don’t even have/do ___?” I find that somewhat alarming. But I guess it’s cheerier to assume that people are only complaining because we’re essential. And it’s certainly heartening to know that people are choosing, even in quite uncertain times for libraries in the UK, to become librarians.

 

 

 

 

Book tribe community

This week I’ll be doing one of the things I love most about my job — helping to facilitate Books & Brew, our book club with no assigned books. We meet at True Brew Barista, a coffee shop and bar near the library, people enjoy the brew of their choice and we talk about what we’ve been reading. I borrowed the idea from a readers’ advisory blog post I saw that talked about a similar library group meeting in a wine bar.

And this weekend, we’re wrapping up my library’s first Winter Reading program for teens and adults, Book Bingo. The idea is to try any of the reading tasks (several of which are designed to get people to venture into different parts of the library, like reading a magazine, a graphic novel, or a book from the teen area) on the twenty-five squares, and if you get a “bingo” of five in a row, you get a raffle ticket. As you can see, I’ve whited out spaces as I rearranged titles to maximize my squares. I have books picked out for the rest of the card; I’m just playing for fun, not prizes, so I’m going to keep reading all the tasks even though it officially ends tomorrow.

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Books & Brew and Book Bingo both appeal to me as a member of the book tribe – I love it when people want to talk about what they are reading. Just yesterday I had a woman stop by the information desk to say she usually just reads mysteries and she has had so much fun trying all the other things on the card. And the response to Books & Brew has been great for the same reason — it’s easy to join in, fosters a shared love of reading, and expands our reading horizons as we hear about and think of titles to recommend.

At their best, that’s what all kinds of libraries do — engage people of many different backgrounds and life experiences and bring them together, joined by a love of stories, true or fictional. Community happens when people recognize in each other a common humanity and a shared purpose, whether it’s seeking information or a quiet place to work or study, or finding a good book to read. And that’s why I love the parts of my work that remind me I’m a part of the book tribe.