Three ways libraries are serving the world

I read three stories this week that caught my eye — at the same time that I was asked to answer some questions about why I work in my library for a display going up later this month to help students at my university get to know library staff. In doing this I noticed that the university’s mission, “Transforming hearts and minds to serve the world,” is actually similar to core values of librarianship, a profession also dedicated to transforming and serving the world.

In Kokomo, Indiana, the public library is serving the world by displaying a rescued piece of street art by Banksy. The unusual exhibit is bringing people together to talk about street art and its place in culture. Fostering this kind of public conversation is definitely a transforming act.  Getting people to talk — especially about something controversial like Banksy’s art — is valuable public service.

In Germany, several libraries are welcoming “provenance research,” which is the ongoing work of locating art and other cultural and personal property looted by the Nazis, determining who it belonged to and returning it to victims and their family members.  The Lost Art Foundation is conducting the work, which is publicly funded. Imagine the U.S. government funding a massive effort to return items seized from other cultures. Yeah, I can’t imagine that either. Anyway, the German efforts are another example of libraries at the forefront of cultural and social transformation — serving as a conduit of reconciliation for their communities and the family members of those whose property was stolen.

Finally, two young women have managed to start a bookmobile style library in Greece to serve refugee communities. They kitted out the mobile library and stocked it entirely with donations, and run it for free. I was shocked to read that there are communities where their efforts are not welcome — I assume because some people must resent the presence of refugees, but who shuts down a library? Not only do these lovely human beings continue their work, but they also dream of this idea taking off throughout the world wherever displaced people are living. Two quotes in this story caught my eye: “Naude and Zijthoff were determined to provide a quiet space, amid the upheaval and uncertainty, where people could use their time rather than just fill it. ” And, “But those who come to the library love it: children say it feels like home . . . .”

Julian Sheather, the Guardian reporter who wrote those words, is spot on — the article really sums up the essence of what a library is for me. In fact, in my response to “Why I work in the library” for the display I mentioned, I used those exact words: Libraries feel like home to me. And libraries of all kinds, public, academic, private, mobile, current and past, intact or lost to conflict or other disasters, represent the transformation of lives — the lives of people who come together in libraries to learn, find quiet, pursue their hopes, strengthen their communities. Whenever I feel bogged down by everyday librarianship (hey, it happens, it’s not all glamorous, you know), I recall this sense I have that what we do is powerful, transformative, and in many ways radical service.

 

Civil rights in libraries

This Fourth of July holiday weekend I’ve been thinking about our country. Specifically I have been examining how little I really know about racism and other types of bias (directed at women, transgender people, native American people, muslims, immigrants) in America. Not that I don’t know it exists, but I’m a glass half-full kind of person and until the most recent national elections, I bought into the “it gets better” narrative. Look at the progress we’ve made, I thought. A black president! Better protections for women, transgender kids in school. Support for refugees. It was easy for me, a privileged white professional, to assume that the rash of police shootings of unarmed black people was a blight on progress, not a sign that the progress I felt proud to support was really like a shiny coat of paint on a rotting porch — it covered up what had never been fixed underneath.

For me, that’s been the most eye-opening realization these past several months — not that our government has changed direction, but that institutions and systems of all kinds — political, commercial, social — and also communities of all kinds are hobbled by implicit bias. And that seems overwhelming, especially when I’ve seen myself as part of the solution, not just because I tried to raise my kids to do better, because I vote, pay attention, write letters, and sometimes protest, but also because I am a librarian.

What does that have to do with anything? If you’ve read Nocturnal Librarian over the years you know that I was a public librarian before I moved back into academia, and I have frequently championed the role of libraries as places of radical hospitality, the last public institutions truly open to all. Our professional organization, the American Library Association, actively works for the freedom to use libraries without fear of government intrusion — ALA and its members has for over a decade spoken up about immigrant and refugee rights, resisted the Patriot Act, spoke up about hate crimes, and more recently, opposed both the rolling back of protections for transgender students, and the Dakota Access Pipeline. Librarians are the good guys! Right?

In the most recent ALA magazine, American Libraries, there is an article about the Tougaloo Nine, and several other protests during the civil rights era where black people, often students, tried to use white only public and academic libraries. I knew in a I-learned-it-in-school kind of way that libraries were segregated like everywhere else, but these articles really grabbed me. These were librarians who told black students they had to go and couldn’t use the library or read library books. I cannot imagine ever denying anyone a book. Through this little thought experiment, picturing myself in that situation, I realized I have never really truly learned about the civil rights era struggles. I’ve read about that time, sure, I have shaken my head and wondered how on earth the South (because I always think of it as the South where institutionalized racism was born and where the vestiges of that infect society, another false perceptions I am trying to correct) could have been like that. I’ve felt ashamed that people were so terribly mistreated in my country.

But I’ve never placed myself in the stories. I’ve never tried to imagine wanting a book and ending up being beaten my police. I’ve never tried imagining denying someone that book. Not that imagining is experiencing, I don’t mean that at all, but imagining is stronger than just learning. I hope that making the mental leap to put myself right into someone else’s perspective will help me break down the implicit bias I, like all Americans, carry. I hope it makes me a better librarian, better able to truly serve every person who comes through our doors. I’m grateful that my professional association walks that walk, provides members with information about challenges to freedom, and expects that standing for “liberty and justice for all” is a part of what we do.

Millennials rock

As longtime readers know, I used to work in a public library and transitioned back to academia a little over a year ago. In both cases I’ve been in management roles, and have been bothered by the negative stereotypes attributed to millennials. So I was pleased to see a new report by Pew Research Center that notes “Millennials in America are more likely to have visited a public library in the past year than any other adult generation.”

Wait, didn’t I just say I’m a university librarian? Yes, but I have always been and will always be a public library advocate — if you’ve read Nocturnal Librarian before, or scroll through my older posts, you’ll see I believe strongly that public libraries are the most important public institution in America. Plus, the report said some things that academic librarians should note:

Pew defines millennials as 18-35, which is also the age of many (although certainly not all) college and university students. The survey asked about public library use, and Pew makes sure to explain: “It is worth noting that the question wording specifically focused on use of public libraries, not on-campus academic libraries.” So, even if they are visiting campus libraries, they may also be visiting public libraries. Or — and this is growing more likely all the time — they may be taking courses remotely and visiting their local public library. They may be using the college or university library’s website; in fact, a link to those resources is very probably embedded in their course management systems and in syllabi. I’d be very interested to know if students consider a visit to their college library’s website, full of eBooks, eJournals, and databases, a visit to the library?

I saw my public library’s website as a virtual branch and that view was becoming more widespread among my colleagues, and I am beginning to hear about this idea in academic library circles as well. I think it’s important to let students know that they can “enter” the library online and in most universities, access whatever they need to be successful. Accrediting bodies are looking at whether the same academic resources are available to online students. it just makes sense to design and promote the website, then, as an extension of the library.

Which bring me to the other point I found heartening in the Pew report: “College graduates are more likely than those whose education ended with a high school diploma to use libraries or bookmobiles in the past 12 months (56% vs. 40%). And a similar gap applies to use of library websites.” So those of us who work in academic libraries may be contributing to lifetime library use. And that is good for all of us, and our communities.

Millennials rock for many reasons — and I’m not just saying that because I am the parent of one (or two, according to Pew. My younger offspring is either a millennial or a Gen Z, depending on whose demographic definition you believe). But their use of libraries is one of my favorite reasons.

 

The garbage man librarian

It’s been some time since my last post — I’ve completed my first year as assistant library director at a small university, and I admit that budget season, the end of the spring semester, performance management plans (I had to write 14) and writing the annual report have made me busier than I expected. It’s also the season for trying to go to annual meetings of regional library organizations, and my home life has also been occupying a fair bit of my time. I will try to blog more regularly

Today I saw this article about a Columbian man, Jose Alberto Gutierrez, who was not afforded a formal education and worked as a garbage collector. He began gathering books that other people threw out and over the years filled his house. He has thousands and thousands of books and shares them with his neighbors, especially kids.

He saves books and he helps people, and that’s what librarianship is about, in many ways. He’s even helping FARC fighters who now have to find a new way to live. HIs comment on that: ““Books transformed me, so I think books are a symbol of hope for those places,” Gutierrez said. “They are a symbol of peace.””

I leave you with that for now. Books as a symbol of hope and peace. A man with hardly any education who has become a librarian for children around his country.

Mindset, QFT, active learning

One of the cool things about being a university librarian is that I get to hear what faculty are learning. Today I attended a presentation about a math professor’s sabbatical project, which included working on an OER textbook for a freshman geometry course. Dr. Teresa Magnus talked about her work incorporating active learning, where students solve problems together rather than just listening to her lecture, and mindset.

I’d heard about Carol Dweck‘s theory of  mindset before — the gist of the idea is that we either believe our abilities are fixed, and that there is little we can do to overcome the deficits or augment the talents and abilities we were born with, or we believe we can succeed by working, growing or developing.  Fixed mindset people sometimes give up if they make mistakes, and as Dr Magnus noted, come to believe they aren’t good at something, like math, because they just aren’t able to. Growth mindset people are ok with mistakes, seeing them as a path to progress, and are able to tolerate productive struggle.

My guess is that very few people are strictly fixed or growth oriented all the time for all the things they learn in a lifetime. Lots of people believe they aren’t good at math, for example, and think no amount of practice will help them, but some of those same people are willing to practice shooting baskets or learn to make cookies from scratch without a recipe or some other skill.

I also read about the Right Question Institute today, because an interview with Dan Rothstein, one of the directors, popped up on one of my email lists. This organization is dedicated to helping people teach and learn how to ask questions. It sounds simple, but really, if you look around you can find dozens of examples of misinformation or misunderstandings or miscommunications caused by inadequate questioning.

What does all this have to do with librarianship, you might ask? For me it’s important to learn more about teaching in order to be a better instructional librarian, but even at the service desk, I think librarians could really benefit from mindset theory and “beautiful” question techniques. We are so often helping people who know they need or want some information but can’t quite explain it — and may feel they are too dumb to ask properly, or that they just don’t know how the library works, or how research work, not because they haven’t been taught but because they “just can’t.”

I’ve heard librarians and teachers over the years become frustrated by this or make assumptions about patrons’  or students’ laziness or neediness. What if we approached these situations with open hearts, minds, and ears, and compassion for the little voice inside all of us that says “you’re no good at that, you can’t do it?” What if fostering growth mindset was an intentional part of our work? What if we used a version of Question Formulation Technique to gently guide patrons towards their own best questions?  What if instead of looking things up for people, we made active learning a part of reference interactions? I think these are really important ideas, not necessarily foreign to librarians but perhaps tucked away in grad school or conference notes and not part of our conscious daily efforts. I’m looking forward to thinking about how best to approach more deliberately incorporating them into my life and work.

The importance of information literacy, continued

I knew it had been a little while since I posted here but didn’t realize until just now that it’s been since just before the Presidential election here in the U.S. A combination of being understaffed at work and having a lot of other things going on in my life have prevented me from taking time to blog. I’ll try to post more regularly!

In my last post, I talked about librarians’ role in educating people about filter bubbles, distorted perceptions and other information issues ahead of the election. Last week I launched a new semester of library instruction, and I’m using a new tab I created in our Evaluating Online Information LibGuide. I created this tab about evaluating news as a resource for students in the wake of a mass outcry about “fake” news. But I agree with Snopes.com, which ran a piece called “We Have A Bad News Problem, Not a Fake News Problem.” Misleading people with information is not a new problem, and the distortion of real news is as important as the fakery out there.

The message I gave my students this week — and that they responded to with enthusiasm — is that they already have the tools to spot misleading, poorly reported, distorted, or fake information because they know how to use the C.R.A.A.P. test (see the left hand tab in the LibGuide). What it boils down to is who created this website/post/article/tweet and why? What is the point — to persuade? Obscure? Confuse? Provoke? Inform? Who authored the information, on what authority, and with what kind of information to back them up?

The Computer Scientist pointed me to two episodes of a podcast we both listen to this week. These two episodes of On Being speak to the way people are feeling about online information these days. The first was with Maria Popova of Brain Pickings. Popova once said literature is the original Internet, because the way literature speaks to what came before it is a kind of hyperlink. Her thoughtful approach — bringing the best of a thinking life to the medium where many people are thoughtless — is an antidote to clickbait. The other episode, from last week, is with Anil Dash. He speaks to the lack of ethics education in computer science, and the ways that the tech industry acts to create and deploy cool technological innovations without thinking through the human impact.

I think these are both things I can help my student see — the Internet, I tell them, is wonderful in many ways, but we have to be deliberate in our interaction with it, we have to be intentional and critical (in the thinking sense of that word) about what we find there, and we have to use it for good, which requires the hard work of determining what that means.

The good news? The young people I work with seem to really get this and care about it. They were really amazed by some of the things I showed them this week, including a white supremacy group’s website about MLK Jr.which appears at first glance to be a site dedicated to his memory (I refuse to link to it here) and a NYT article about a person their age who created fake news stories about Hillary Clinton and profited wildly. But their amazement was tinged with indignation of the best kind, and I feel good about this part of my work. I am hopeful that one person at a time, I can arm at least some of my students to take back their own futures from those who want to distract, numb, or fool them.

 

Information literacy, millenials, and the presidential election

I recently posted on my Facebook page that the current election campaign is a helpful example in my library instruction classes, because when I tell my university students that they need to think critically about what’s true when they search online, and really examine the source of the information, the motive and intent behind a post or website, etc., they really get it. An article in the Columbia Journalism Review , “What the News Media Can Learn from Librarians,” seems to validate my point.

Journalist Louise Lief refers to “the framework of information literacy” in her article, by which I believe she means the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education which replaced a previous set of standards and thresholds for information literacy. Academic librarians have critiqued The Framework for being a bit vague, unwieldy to apply, and hard to measure and assess. Lief made it seem quite practical and smart, and suggests that journalists could learn from it.

First she notes that according to The Pew Research Center, 18-29 year olds are fairly skeptical of the media. Contrary to the over-reported notion that young people believe everything they see online, Lief notes that “Although they prefer to get their news online and are more likely to see it on social  networking sites, many don’t trust information they get there. They are more likely than other age groups to sense media bias.”

She goes on to say that in her view,

“The information literacy framework offers them a more meaningful way to engage with and manage information. The librarians encourage users to focus on inquiry rather than opinion, to evaluate a range of sources, take into account diverse viewpoints and perspectives, and to develop the ability to pursue new avenues as they gain new understanding. They also urge users to assess the value of information in its various forms. Is it being used as a commodity, a way to understand the world, a means to influence, a path to educate, or some combination of these? They regard users not only as knowledge consumers, but also as knowledge creators.”

At my university we teach students the C.R.A.A.P. test for evaluating information on the web. We ask them to consider the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy and purpose of a site. Most of my students haven’t thought much about why online ads exist, or why a site with ads* may be selecting what and how to post in order to attract the highest number of clicks (and thus ad revenue). Another thing I don’t think students have generally thought of, and I admit I myself have given scant attention to, is that the very act of finding information online is rigged by corporations, as Angela Merkel pointed out this week. In case you missed it, the German chancellor said at a media conference that popular (and profitable) search engines like Google, and social media outlets like Facebook, are “distorting perception.”

What Google returns when you enter a search string is based on their proprietary algorithms. In other words, a huge corporation decides what you find out when you search for something online. And don’t forget, they are also harvesting information about your searches and profiting by providing that information to advertisers and companies eager to sell you things.

On Facebook, where many people get their news, according to the same Guardian article linked above, you are even more limited:

“This month, President Barack Obama’s former social media adviser Caleb Gardner highlighted the danger of filter bubbles – a phrase invented by the internet activist Eli Pariser. ‘More likely than not, you get your news from Facebook,” Gardner told students at Northwestern University in Illinois. “Forty-four per cent of US adults get news on the site, and 61% of millennials … if that doesn’t frighten you, you don’t know enough about Facebook’s algorithm. If you have a parent who’s a Trump supporter, they are seeing a completely different set of news items than you are.'”

Why does any of this matter? Most of us are not going to get partisan in our library instruction. But we can point out, as this Vox article does, that the real scandal this election season is how the repeated use of the word scandal, and others like it, has dominated media coverage, obscuring information about actual policy issues. Authority is constructed and contextual, the Framework begins. In the case of commercial media, publishing, and internet corporations, it’s constructed and contextualized in order to profit, first and foremost.

Should you stop searching the internet? No. But you should take the time to search beyond your own “filter bubble,” and to be a critical consumer of information. Think like an 18-29 year old, in other words.

*If you can see ads when reading my blogs, know that I didn’t have anything to do with them, but they are the cost of having a free space for The Nocturnal Librarian and bookconscious at WordPress.com.

The Well-fed Librarian

In the past two weeks I was fortunate to have two one-day opportunities to meet and learn from academic library colleagues. First, I got to attend the Vermont Library Association College & Special Library section‘s annual conference, “Reaching Across the Aisle, Reaching Across the Desk: Engagement, Inclusion, & Outreach in Academic Libraries.” Then I went to WALDO’s Open Access Forum at Simmons College. Afterwards, I visited Harvard’s Countway Library of Medicine, where a colleague generously spent about forty-five minutes telling me about her job and discussing some of our common challenges. 

Not only did I come home with notes and photos (of signage and of a well dressed skeleton) and email addresses and a renewed feeling of community with my fellow librarians, I came home well-fed. By which I mean, I felt nourished, both informationally and professionally. Taking time to meet and talk with other librarians about our work, I was able to reflect on my place in this profession, and in a long tradition of librarians serving students and faculty. Taking time to type up my notes, I was able to spend time thinking about what ideas might work at some point in my own library (a mindfulness space in the library,  participating in Fair Use Week, blogging about special collections, participating in online faculty orientation, using some new hashtags to spice up our social media channels), and what might be required to implement these ideas. And to think appreciatively about those ideas which might not work at my institution (a 24 hour library, embedded librarians, tiered student workers), but which I’m glad someone is carrying out in theirs.

Are you well-fed in your work? There are many other ways to nourish yourself besides getting to a conference or meeting like these, such as participating in online discussion groups, reading professional journals and blogs, or just picking up the phone or sending an email to a counterpart at another library and asking for a few minutes to chat. What do you do to feed your professional self?
Countway Skeleton.jpg

Feedback wall

One of the ideas my library’s new Marketing & Outreach Committee came up with this summer is a feedback wall. It’s very simple: we just installed a white board in a hallway, and placed colorful post-its and a few pens in a holder attached to the board.

So far we’ve posted two prompts, with a third planned for next week. As you can see the response has grown. Our first prompt was “Describe your summer in one word.” Next we tried “What was your favorite book as a kid?”

What’s the point, you may ask, of such folly in an academic library where the staff is mostly engaged in answering questions about how to get articles from databases for assignments and how to extract print jobs from cranky printers? We decided that we wanted to build community with our outreach efforts, to try to grow a group of library enthusiasts.

We’ve increased our social media posting, started sending out a newsletter in campus email once a month, postered the campus with lovely Canva creations to advertise programs, and started a monthly “Did You Know” campaign at the desk to promote services. We’ve also tried a crowd-sourced recommendation cart and staff pick bookmarks in books and videos. But of all the new efforts we’ve undertaken, the feedback wall seems to be eliciting the most response.

It’s also really satisfying — whenever I walk past and see a student reading the responses or writing one, or even when I just whiz by on my way to a meeting or a shift at the desk, I feel a little boost in my mood looking at all those little colorful slips of paper. Each represents someone joining in the conversation, pausing for a moment to contribute. I love that.

The feedback wall may not seem like traditional library marketing, but it’s my hope that we’re creating a sense that the library is a place to be heard.

 

Ties in the library

I’ve written here at Nocturnal Librarian about libraries that lend more than books, including one NYPL branch that lets kids borrow dolls, and other libraries that lend cake pans, telescopes, tools, art, and park passes. Yesterday I read about an unusual collection that might make sense for academic libraries to consider: interview wear, in this case, ties.

A public library in Philadelphia and another in Queens do this — turns out the librarian who started the collection in Philadelphia had visited the library in Queens. I read it and wondered “what about women’s interview wear?” but realized it’s different, a woman seeking a job can wear a broader range of clothes and still looked dressed up. We recently interviewed several candidates and only one of the men wore a tie. I wouldn’t choose someone because they dressed up but it does signal that the person felt this meeting was worth making an extra effort.

Some people in academia will say that teaching students to “dress for success” is really the responsibility of the career advising office. True, but libraries are uniquely positioned to lend things and manage lending collections, so we’d be a natural partner.  I haven’t found any academic libraries lending ties, but I did discover that Columbia University’s career center lends entire suits, for both men and women. Corporate partners donated the suits and a dry cleaner donates cleaning.

Lending interview clothes might help give students an edge when job hunting. It also might be a nice symbol of a university’s empathy and good faith toward students as they try to translate their educations into paying jobs. Whether libraries or career offices take the lead, this seems like a student-friendly initiative. I like the idea of ties, because they are smaller and simpler to store than suits and probably don’t need to be cleaned after each wearing. But I wonder what women students would think of that.

What do you think? Do you work in an academic library that lends anything unusual, or anything that you acquired to help another department on campus, like career services?  Is there an equivalent item to ties that women could borrow for interviews?