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.

 

 

 

 

 

More hand wringing and some hope

This was going to be a post about how good it was to meet colleagues at ALA Midwinter Meeting in Boston Monday, hearing what’s going on in their libraries and what they are doing to serve their communities. I didn’t spend as much time there as I did at PLA a couple of year’s ago, but I did meet some people and exchanged ideas and had a LOT of fun giving my Ignite talk. I also had the chance to hear a presentation fromLee Rainie, director of Internet, Science, and Technology at Pew Research Center, on their public library research (if you read Nocturnal Librarian regularly you know I’m a fangirl), which made me grateful to my fellow Americans who are life-long learners and library lovers in large majorities.

But then someone posted a strangely out of touch article from the Wall Street Journal on our state-wide librarians’ email list, “In the Age of Google, Librarians Get Shelved.” The author’s point is mainly that professional librarians are obsolete (because of Google? I can’t imagine this was really written by a librarian) and are being replaced with younger, techier, less skilled and less formally educated “assistants.” First of all, the issue of paraprofessional staffing in libraries where once there were many more people with masters degrees is as much about the general outcry against taxation that has gripped America in the past decades, the bursting of pubic pension funds and rising costs of health care, the slashing of municipal budgets, and the trend in both public and private sector to hire more part-time and lower wage hourly workers and fewer salaried full timers who cost their employers extra in benefits as well as pay. It’s also, dare I say, reflective of a lack of understanding of what we do on the part of people who read an article like this one and think they have an accurate picture of libraries today.

Second of all, I don’t know where or when the author got his own degree, or if he even has one, but clearly he missed any courses or training in research. As I’ve frequently written here, libraries may be evolving in terms of offering more technology and picking up the slack in providing jobs related assistance (resume writing, online training, search assistance, etc.), social service referrals and assistance (including a good bit of unofficial homeless shelter-ing and services for immigrants), and as I’ve heard more and more lately, offering meeting space for small groups when those spaces are disappearing.

But what we do — connecting people with information and resources and even more essentially, helping them navigate the tsunami of information that the author notes many find via Google. — is the same core mission libraries have always had, our materials just come in more formats. And yes we also provide important resources, increasingly, for entrepreneurs, freelancers, consultants, and telecommuters who prefer to work where the WiFi is free, they don’t feel compelled to buy coffees or meals, and they can spread out at a desk or table without being asked not to linger. Oh, and they can get expert research assistance, access to databases, newspapers, magazines, books, etc., anytime, for free.

Professional librarians and paraprofessionals alike are trained to provide information literacy (determining the reliability and/or bias of information, safely and securely navigating the Internet, etc.), a key component of being a self-sufficient adult in our society. We also provide early literacy for free to families — at a time when politicians can mostly only bicker about it. And programs for all ages (also free), and some of the only quiet spaces left in America that are open to all, as a benefit of citizenship. No, we don’t shush people anymore, but most libraries, save maybe the tiniest, offer some haven for those who need to study, read, or think in peace.

At any rate, librarians are not going away, and libraries offer so much more at our reference desks than looking up facts and figures (there isn’t much demand for those anymore anyway, just listen to what passes for public discourse). Yes we also make change, point out where the bathrooms are, and help people find their print jobs, and most of us have fewer physical reference books to refer to. But you know what? We can still find a lot more than the average person and so much more than Google to work with. I wonder if that writer has even heard of the deep web? No, it’s not some kind of spy game, it’s all the stuff that lurks below the www surface, that your local skilled librarian can help you find. Just ask. We’re still here for you, and we’re not going anywhere. Thankfully, since most people are interested in learning and admire libraries, I am hopeful that more people know that than don’t.

 

Send ’em home happy

Tomorrow at the ALA Midwinter Meeting, I’m presenting an ignite talk. As part of my final preparations I am sharing a transcript of what I plan to say here:

Hi, I’m Deb Baker, Adult Services Manager at Concord Public Library in Concord, NH. I’m going to share my library’s customer service initiative, Send ‘Em Home Happy — intentional, affirmative customer service.

Around the time I became Adult Services Manager I got to attend PLA and also Supervisor’s Academy at Primex in Concord. I was FULL of ideas, and I wanted to write them ALL into my annual goals.

My biggest idea was this: what if we radically changed the way we interacted with the public at the service desks? Yes, we would still check items out and answer questions (mostly about where people’s print jobs have gone), but what if we looked at patron interactions as a way of connecting the library with the community?

What if we made our desk interactions relational, instead of just transactional? With our interim library directors’ blessing I invited Carl Weber, who teaches the customer service module at Supervisor’s Academy, to come in and work with the managers.

He asked us to notice our own interactions in stores and offices around town. Did we feel like we belonged or mattered? Like we never wanted to go there again? Or somewhere in between? And why?

He also suggested we sit down with our work groups and ask: what rules or procedures are getting in the way of providing good customer service in the library? This very interesting.

A couple of changes we made: teens no longer need an adult present to get a library card. And desk staff can override the system’s block when a patron whose card has expired calls to renew items or place holds.

Another thing Carl helped us see was that our desk staff didn’t always engage with people. Sometimes they (ok, to be honest — we) didn’t even look up from our monitors very much.

There was a reason — for years, staff were told not to be too chatty and to stay “busy” at the desks. They knew being friendly was important but there had been no formal training in how to promote the library through patron engagement. We had some staff trainings about the customer service interaction, and Carl spoke to the staff about the work the managers were doing.

One thing I learned at PLA is that librarians universally make the same marketing mistake: we know the library is awesome, what we have to offer is awesome, so we assume everyone else knows that too.

But I’ve had even longtime patrons thank me for showing them something as simple as how to login to their account online to renew items or where to find staff reviews. What’s obvious to us isn’t obvious to even our most regular patrons.

So every other month the CPL staff chooses a “Did You Know” feature to promote at our desks. We put up signs with a visual and a little info. on the patron side and talking points on the staff side to foster conversations.

During this whole process, our staff began to to think creatively about how to connect with patrons through displays, readers advisory and programming. What’s your staff into? Knitting? Zentangle? Cats?

Don’t be afraid to try something that might flop — staff passions have to match public interest to work. I tried another idea from PLA: Short & Sweet, a story or essay discussion and dessert. I had to let it go after 6 months of very low attendance.

But a staffer in her 20’s who really knows her geek stuff has very loyal followings for D&D Game Night and Teen Anime Club. She thrives and we thrive not just because we put these on the schedule, but because she’s connected to these communities and is bringing them into the library.

Someone on your staff who usually works behind the scenes may have something cool to share. In our case, a tech. services staffer set up a coloring station in the break room. Her art supplies are really cool and she got just about everyone to try it.

I asked her to consider offering adult coloring night. She was a little shy about it because she hadn’t done programming, but it’s our best attended offering — not just because coloring is hot, but also because she’s really good at sharing what she enjoys.

When our new director started we told him all we’d been doing and suggested library-wide customer service goals:

  • be relational instead of just transactional
  • get out of our own way – change the rules
  • connect people with resources & programs through desk interactions
  • use what staff is into to connect to the community
  • and, do the transactional stuff well, too — no one likes it if their items aren’t checked in on time or their holds aren’t placed

He listened to us and said, “Doesn’t this all come down to one big idea?”

Send everyone home happy.

So that’s what we’re aiming for with every interaction.

 

 

Libraries: Clinics of the Soul?

First a shout out to Diane Mayr who posted the article I am about to swoon over on the NH Library Association Facebook page. If you’re a repeat visitor to Nocturnal Librarian you know one of the things I write about frequently here is my strong belief that libraries do not need to rebrand, reinvent, or repurpose. We don’t need to be called something else (I’m talking to you, “teaching and learning commons”) or asked to transform ourselves (sorry, ALA) because what we are is already awesome, and has been, and will be. If are just left alone to actually be libraries.

So when I read Alberto Manguel’s article “Reinventing the Library” in the New York Times, via the aforementioned NHLA post, I found myself nodding and saying, “yes, exactly.” Repeatedly. This should be required reading for people who make decisions about libraries’ continued existence and purpose the world over.

To give you a sense of why I loved every word, I will quote Manguel, although I also encourage you to read the whole beautiful article.

“It is in the nature of libraries to adapt to changing circumstances and threats, and all libraries exist in constant danger of being destroyed by war, vermin, fire, water or the idiocies of bureaucracy. But today, the principal danger facing libraries comes not from threats like these but from ill-considered changes that may cause libraries to lose their defining triple role: as preservers of the memory of our society, as providers of the accounts of our experience and the tools to navigate them — and as symbols of our identity.”

I’m with him, especially about ill-considered changes, but I’d urge Manguel and you, dear reader, to listen to this poignant piece on NPR about Benghazi (the place, not the political brouhaha) and hear a Libyan journalist remember how much he loves the library, now nearly inaccessible because of conflict. Anyway, back to Manguel’s point. We have a pretty bad-ass role already. Preserve, provide accounts of, and teach people to navigate our common human experience. He goes on:

“Most libraries today are used less to borrow books than to seek protection from harsh weather and to find jobs online, and it is admirable that librarians have lent themselves to these very necessary services that don’t traditionally belong to their job description. A new definition of the role of librarians could be drafted by diversifying their mandate, but such restructuring must also ensure that the librarians’ primary purpose is not forgotten: to guide readers to their books.”

In many places, Manguel may be right. I got so excited last week because TWICE at the service desk I actually got to recommend books to people. But libraries exist everywhere, and outside of cities, all over New Hampshire and wherever you live as well, libraries and their patrons are pretty much the same as they’ve ever been — people coming to check out books and to share what they’re reading, learning, and doing. When I talk with my colleagues around the state, it’s clear that the public hand wringing about the future of libraries is done by people who don’t go to small town libraries and are unaware that they are still serving a very important, highly valued, and dare I say, traditional role in their communities.

Back to Manguel:

“Librarians are not trained to act as social workers, caregivers, babysitters or medical advisers. All these extra tasks make it difficult, if not impossible, for librarians to work as librarians: to see that the collections remain coherent, to sift through catalogues, to help readers read, to read themselves. The new duties imposed on them are the obligations of civilized societies toward their citizens, and should not be dumped pell-mell onto the shoulders of librarians. If we change the role of libraries and librarians without preserving the centrality of the book, we risk losing something irretrievable.”

That phrase, “preserving the centrality of the book” is what really got me — no matter what else we’re called upon to provide, what makes a library a library? Books. You can’t have a library without books; if we were just computers  and wifi we’d be an internet cafe. Just a place to get warm, a shelter. Just a building for classes and mah jong and lectures and movies, a community center. But none of those other places have what we have. And most don’t even try to; yet paradoxically, we’re often expected by decision makers to offer a good bit of what those other places provide, as well as job searching, computer skills training, and sometimes even social services.

Manguel concludes, “If libraries are to be not only repositories of society’s memory and symbols of its identity but the heart of larger social centers, then these changes must be made consciously from an intellectually strong institution that recognizes its exemplary role, and teaches us what books can do: show us our responsibilities toward one another, help us question our values and undermine our prejudices, lend us courage and ingenuity to continue to live together, and give us illuminating words that might allow us to imagine better times. According to the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, one of the ancient libraries he saw in Egypt carried above its entrance the words: ‘Clinic of the Soul.'”

I love Manguel’s view of what books can do, for the mind and for the soul, and I stand by libraries’ central role as places where there is unfettered access to books. Long live the centrality of the book.

Helping the homeless in libraries

The New Hampshire Library Association posted this story about San Francisco Public Library’s homeless outreach team on their Facebook page today. I find it intriguing that libraries are hiring outreach staff, some of them formerly homeless themselves, who are working with homeless patrons to help them meet their physical and even psychiatric needs. I immediately recalled an article in Harper’s last fall about Seattle Public Library and its much more punitive approach. Instead of social workers they hire guards.

Our library has rules that impact the homeless particularly (like no sleeping), but no guards.  We have a good relationship both with our homeless patrons and with area outreach organizations. We have a handout at the reference desk about local social services, food pantries, shelters, and other resources. I think most of the staff are very respectful and kind to all the patrons, regardless of whether they’re homeless.

I think it’s great that libraries are stepping in to offer information — a core part of our mission after all — but I wondered about going so far as having “a full-time psychiatric social worker” as San Francisco has. Then I read that the ALA’s “Library Services to the Poor” policy, implemented in the 1980’s. As a part of promoting “equal access to information for all persons” the policy notes “it is crucial that libraries recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society.” A social worker who can refer someone to the help he or she needs is doing just that. And quite possibly making library guards a little less busy.

I felt pretty proud to be a librarian when I read the ALA policy, and I’ll be keeping it in mind when I’m working tonight. What’s your library doing to help the poor, and particularly the homeless?

Libraries in mixed use buildings?

Last Sunday, deep in an article about possible market-rate apartments in a redevelopment project here, the Concord Monitor broke the news that city leaders have expressed interest in renting space in the new building if the winning proposal includes a 40,000 square foot library. A library in a mixed use building with apartments and possibly retail, restaurants, etc.? My first thought was “I want to live there!”

But it does pose a quandary: what would people think of our main library being in another building, rather than in its own stand-alone building? Either way it would be a purpose-built main library for the city. Not that an existing building — like this former Walmart — can’t be converted into a gorgeous and very usable library.

Supporters have been lobbying for a new library for years, and if this is the best opportunity, I personally* think it sounds pretty forward thinking and appealing. The location of the site on South Main St. is not far from our indie theater, Red River Theatres, very near the Capitol Center for the Arts, the “Smile!” building, which houses the League of NH Craftsmen headquarters & gallery, and another new building opening this spring, anchored by New Hampshire’s oldest indie bookstore, Gibson’s. This would mean a library located right in the heart of a “creative corridor” in Concord’s South End, well within walking distance of the State House, the rest of Main Street, and residential neighborhoods.

As I said, when can I rent an apartment?

ALA’s professional wiki only lists four U.S. libraries in apartment buildings, two of which are in Seattle and all branches of systems with standalone central libraries. Does anyone know of a main library that’s in another building? How have people reacted to it? Do the other tenants of the building contribute in any way to the library’s mission — for example a cafe that hosts readings or book groups in partnership with the library? Have numbers of people visiting the library changed? I’d love to hear what your experience has been as a patron or staff member of a library in a mixed use building.

 

*My blog represents my own opinions and not that of my employer.

Do Libraries Sap Attention Spans?

My son’s freshman class at college read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr this summer. My husband is reading it now. Last night he read aloud: “until recently the library was an oasis of bookish tranquility” but now, Carr dramatizes, “The predominant sound in the modern library is the tapping of keys, not the turning of pages.” The implication that by offering internet access, libraries are contributing to the “shallowing” of our minds struck me as fairly improbable.

At the public library where I work, I recently chatted with an English teacher looking for a good book to take her mind off work. She’s the second teacher to tell me this summer that her students can’t read as much as when she began teaching. She assigns shorter classics so they won’t get frustrated, and because she’s learned that they won’t finish longer works. But she says they are reading, and she noted that how and what is probably less important than she once thought. As she put it, she sees teaching English as helping  kids become competent, not cramming them full of particular titles.

The teacher and I agreed someone reading an entire New York Times article on a smart phone (like my son) is getting the same depth as someone reading the print edition (more if like me, that person is skimming over morning coffee before rushing off to start the day).  So aren’t libraries broadening access to reading by catering to both print and online readers?

As Carr notes, library internet service is very popular. But many of the same people using the computers at my library are checking out books. And those who don’t use the computers are probably not Luddites, who are really fairly rare, but rather people who can afford computers and internet service at home. According to the ALA’s 2012 State of America’s Libraries report, libraries across the country have seen circulation increase, as my library has. From what I can see, people who have nowhere else to use the internet are finding their way into the stacks while they’re at the library, and not the other way around.

As for that bookish tranquility? The “shushing” era of librarianship was over long before I was in library school, twenty years ago. Libraries are community centers, and we’ve always been places where information is freely available to all. If the internet and its keyboard clicks are a part of that open access, so be it. Reading, whether on a screen or a page, is still very much alive in our hopped-up, attention-challenged, 24 hour news cycle world. It has faced other challenges in its history, as have libraries, and I think both will adapt and survive.