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.

 

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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.

A fringe benefit of the Trump era for librarians?

I read a fascinating and also somewhat irritating piece today by David Beard at Poynter, contrasting two polls about public mistrust of the media in the Trump age with one establishing how high public trust of librarians, which has been a mainstay of our profession for a long time, is right now. Beard points out all the usual stuff about why people think highly of their libraries and librarians, and why they don’t think as highly of the media.

I found it interesting that he refers to librarians as journalists’ “information-gathering cousins,” especially since he writes for a “thought leader” (Poynter Institute) that lists fact-checking among its special concerns. So journalists are supposed to be, ideally, information gatherers. But don’t news organizations, large ones at least, have librarians on staff? In places where that isn’t the case, are journalists using library resources as they do background research?

Beard goes on to speak with Mike Sullivan, librarian Weare, New Hampshire, a town not far from mine, who started a library/town newspaper. It’s an interesting idea, for a library to step into what people see as a void of “fake news” and fill it with relevant information. Beard goes on to say that Sullivan is working to counter the common view that libraries are “free” and so not valuable, but then he veers into a new direction.

“Libraries cannot bring down a president, or regularly push accountability of government officials who may help fund the institution,” Beard says. I think librarians do just that in various ways and to varying degrees — ask Scott Bonner, of Ferguson, Missouri. By his actions in making the library a safe space when the police couldn’t or wouldn’t make the rest of the town one, he absolutely held officials accountable. Are we any more or less likely to bring a president down? If not down, at least rendered less effective. The American Library Association has worked for over a year to rally its members to oppose the administration’s immigration bans, budget priorities, and executive orders that “contradict core values” of our profession. Many librarians also stood firm against the privacy overreaches of The Patriot Act, refusing to turn over patron records. And we value radical hospitality in a society that is often segregated along social, racial, and economic lines.

Beard then goes on to suggest library/journalist partnerships, and speaks with Tom Huang of the Dallas Morning News:

“In areas not served by traditional news outlets, libraries, already trusted by the community, could become a hub for news collection, Huang says. There would have to be training on one-on-one interviewing techniques or how to be an assigner or “editor” for events or stories done by community members — as well as the understanding that these are beginning steps to journalism, not involved investigative pieces. ‘Ultimately, we could train librarians to do some of this stuff,’ Huang says. ‘It’s not like it’s rocket science.'”

So let’s get this straight. Librarians and libraries are seen as sources of reliable information for citizens, and in some cases they are taking that information to the public in creative ways, as with the Weare paper. But what libraries really need is for journalists — who Beard has just said are nearly reviled at this point — to teach them what to do because gee, even librarians could learn this stuff.

What do you think of all this? My view is that public libraries already know how to partner with community members and organizations including journalists, and that school, public, and academic librarians have been showing people how to find and use information effectively for as long as libraries have existed, which as far as I know is longer than the media has. We don’t need to be “trained . . . to do some of this stuff” to be effective partners. And we certainly don’t need to be told how to oppose repression or intolerance or expose lack in our communities. If anything, journalists might benefit, based on the public perception of our respective professions, from mentioning their own library use in their work. Maybe if journalists admitted looking things up at their local library, the public would trust them more.

Geeking out on assessment

It’s “intersession” — that golden time between semesters when we can catch our breath, catch up on projects like weeding and shifting in the stacks, and assess how the previous semester’s library instruction went. I love geeking out on assessment, and this semester is fun because last summer we redesigned our information literacy rubric and our assessment plan.

I’d been to some assessment programs and conferences, and had been thinking a lot about frustrations we’d had. I asked my boss, library colleagues, and faculty, “What are we trying to find out?” To me it seemed what we really want to know is whether our vision — that students can seek and use information effectively and responsibly — is being fulfilled. In assessing student work from first semester freshmen through seniors in their capstone research classes, we want to see if they can define their information need; find sources that meet the requirements of the assignment, evaluate the credibility of their sources; use those sources to provide background and examples, support or refute an argument, or illustrate a method of researching or interpreting information; and cite their sources both in text and in a bibliography.

In the past we’ve rated these things on a scale. But I played devil’s advocate last summer and asked “Do we really care that freshmen aren’t as good at this as seniors? What does that tell us that’s useful? Don’t we actually just want to know whether they can do these things or not by the time they graduate?” Our formal assessment will now focus on the capstone research courses in each major, and we’re informally assessing lower level classes in order to give programmatic feedback to the faculty, such as “Hey, everyone in this class used Shmoop as a source, maybe you should add something to the syllabus next time, and we should add something to our library instruction session, about choosing more rigorous sources.”

My boss pointed out that in many cases the answer to whether students can do these things is going to be “sort of.” That was a fair point, so we rate each of the criteria we’re assessing as yes, somewhat, or no. If we choose somewhat, we write a few notes explaining why, like “Most of this presentation’s sources are credible, but the student cited abcnews.co.com which is a fake news site.” (That was a fake news site, which seems to have been taken down, thank goodness.)

I’m about halfway through my portion of the senior capstones for the fall semester, and worked on the freshmen and sophomore presentations last week. So far the feedback from the library team is that the rubric is much easier to use, and I think we’re able to see patterns even without using a rating scale. It’s definitely gratifying to see that the seniors, for the most part, can seek and use information effectively and responsibly.

When we lead library instruction sessions we often worry about whether we’ve “shown them everything” or if we’ve forgotten some key resource, tool, or strategy. I think as long as we keep our eye on the long game — that by the time they leave the university, they know how to determine what information they need, where to find it, whether it’s “good” in terms both of being both helpful to their need and reliable, and how to credit the information’s creator, then we’re doing fine. The details matter, but the big picture is even more important. Because once our students are information literate, they’ll be able to adapt those skills to the changing information landscape they’ll face in graduate school or at work.

That’s worth geeking out about, and it’s also immensely gratifying. And, it’s at the heart of everything we do as librarians, from ordering, processing, cataloging, and shelving materials, keeping our website up to date, creating user friendly signage and policies, and promoting our services and resources to the whole campus community. I’m looking forward to looking over the assessment results, meeting with faculty and the library instruction team, and “getting to yes” on every assessment criteria in the future.

 

Information literacy in real life

I’ve become a student again this fall, taking an online master’s degree program at University of Edinburgh. Approaching research and citations (in Harvard style, something I’d never seen before) from a student viewpoint has made feel for my information literacy students even more than I already did. It really helps to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

One thing I’m surprised about is that while some of my classmates cite academic sources, others — almost all scientists and all working in jobs that require them to seek and use information — choose what I would consider weak sources, such as websites that wouldn’t pass the CRAAP test.  On the plus side, I have some new examples to show colleagues in a couple of weeks when I present an introduction to information literacy to fellow administrative and academic support staff at work. But I’ve also gained a new appreciation for how people in their daily lives and work could benefit from thinking critically about how and where they find information and how reliable it is, which are the keys to information literacy.

Yes, I did pay attention during the last national election and realize that people relying on poor sources of information is nothing new. But I thought much of the “fake news” problem was related to the way news is shared and also the way it is marketed today. I’m aware of the importance of teaching undergraduates information literacy, as they are emerging adults who don’t have much experience thinking critically. I hadn’t considered that basic information literacy could be enormously beneficial to adults and to their workplaces and communities.

Public libraries are offering more “how to spot fake news” programming and resources, which is useful, but again this puts the emphasis on news as the sources that might be misleading or counterfactual. Perhaps this should go further. Not all adults go to college or use libraries, so who can or should teach people to find and choose better sources of information in real life — work, volunteer positions, or even just looking stuff up at home? I know that high schools are not all teaching this, since most of my students have never thought much about evaluating information. Should there be public service announcements? Training in workplaces? Pop-up workshops in public places, led by librarians? “How to find reliable information” handouts for every registered voter, or enclosed with every drivers’ license?

What do you think?