Librarians and freelancers, undervalued

Some of you read my other blog, bookconscious.  If not, I’d encourage you to check out my post, “On Being Discontinued,” in which I address the view that some people have that librarians “just check out books” and therefore aren’t really professionals. My book review column was recently cancelled at the paper I wrote for, and my subsequent conversation with the editor revealed that he felt he could just get readers to write reviews for free. There are definite parallels to the public library world — some of you have probably dealt with public officials who felt they could run the library with fewer and lower paid staff. Check it out and let me know how you like bookconscious!

I promise to be back soon with a new post here at The Nocturnal Librarian. Meanwhile, enjoy Olaf, via iworkatapubliclibrary  and reading-rumblr. Happy Holidays to you all.

 

iworkatapubliclibrary:

Happy Holidays from Olaf!

OLAF!!!!!!

 

Everyone’s a little bit weird

It’s been a very busy month — almost two — since I last posted here (if you are ever wondering what else I’m up to, visit my review blog, bookconscious, which I tend to post to more frequently). One of the challenges we’ve been facing at my library is that although it hasn’t been truly “wicked cold” yet, as they say here in northern New England, it’s cool and wet enough that people are looking for a place to be warm and dry. And as I’ve written here before, that’s an important part of a public library’s mission. Personally, I feel good knowing we help people stay safe and comfortable.*

But what about those regular patrons, regardless of their reasons for coming to the library, who are “difficult” in some way. That’s a catchphrase that can mean everything from “hard to please” to mentally ill. Public libraries serve a broad cross section of citizens, and we experience every kind of “difficult” you can imagine. We train regularly to deal with everything from complaints to outright paranoia. Lately we’ve been talking a great deal at my library about mental illness, because some of the behaviors we see every day seem to go beyond eccentricity (much as I’d like to explain, for privacy reasons I am not going to go into detail).

And some of our staff feel like they’ve had enough — they want someone else to take this on. Unfortunately, that’s usually not possible. We’re very fortunate to have a couple of caseworkers we can call and talk to and last week I did that twice. The advice they gave on engaging with people who seem so “out there” as to be a little scary to other patrons and staff was very helpful.**  But what they can’t help me with is reassuring the staff of something I heard Steve Inskeep say on Morning Edition today: “everyone is a little bit weird.”

This is something I’ve been telling my kids for years. They laugh, but I’m serious. In some way, every one of us does things that to another person seem strange, different, hard to understand, maybe even off-putting or alarming.  Most of us are only just a little bit weird — we have a quirk or habit, a mannerism, or a personality trait that is close enough to the mainstream as to be mostly noticeable. But all of us are somebody’s weirdo. It helps to remember that.

It also helps to combat compassion fatigue to remember that every person I engage with at the library, from those who are pleasant or “normal” to those who seem painfully strange or even a little threatening, is someone. Each of them is someone’s relative. Each of them is a person, not a problem. Each of them is looking for what we’re all looking for on any given day: a connection with another person. I’ve noted before that working in a library for me means being fueled by both “the conviction in my heart and the ideas in my head” (Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative). If I can do anything at all to reassure and equip staff to deal with difficulty and difference, and also be present to patrons and coach staff to do the same, both my heart and my head tell me that’s my job, even if I didn’t learn it in library school.

 

* To those who say libraries aren’t the place for sheltering people from life’s troubles, I generally point out that we have services many underprivileged people need: computers and internet access, job hunting resources, public restrooms. Even more importantly, we have newspapers, so people can stay informed, and books, so people can learn and even just escape.  Neil Gaiman notes that reading is escapist in the best sense: “If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.”

** The most effective advice seems to be to to listen, smile, thank the person for sharing their thoughts/concerns/suggestions, assure them (and actually do) pass those on to your boss, and then politely get back to work. This gentle approach offers presence and validation to the person for a moment, but allows the staff member to extricate him or herself from what can often be a lengthy ramble or tirade. It lets the person be heard, but doesn’t promise particular outcomes, which is key if the requests are beyond the library’s means or mission.

Future libraries

Last week the Slate article “What Will Become of the Library” by Michael Agresta burned up bookish social media circles. Much of what Agresta discusses I’ve written about on Nocturnal Librarian as well; he even mentions “book mountain” in the Netherlands.

He posits that bookless libraries are “almost inevitable” and goes over all the ways libraries are “reinventing” themselves. He covers maker spaces and innovation stations, and the “interventionist” role public libraries have in serving the “dispossessed of the digital age” – namely the homeless. And like so many others he asks whether “patching the gaps of the fraying social safety net” is or should be libraries’ role. (Agresta wasn’t alone on that topic last week — several newspapers covered recent ordinances prohibiting bathing, anti-social behavior, and sleeping in libraries across the country. I can report that in my library’s case, very few homeless patrons actually engage in those activities. A few hard cases make bad law, and always have, but I digress).

Stop yawning.

Having recently read Alfie Kohn’s excellent book The Myth of the Spoiled ChildI’ve become hyper-aware of how some media outlets are a sort of echo chamber of unsupported theories. I don’t know about your public library, but mine is nowhere near, now or in the foreseeable future, becoming a bookless downloadable maker space. There are a few exceptions, but I would guess, having chatted with a broad cross-section of my fellow public librarians at PLA 2014 last month, that most American libraries are much as they were a generation or two ago, albeit with more technology for both staff and patrons and new material on their shelves.

While journalists crow about our impending demise, we are frequently welcoming more people than ever, and not just the homeless; we serve, as we always have, every demographic, rich and poor, old and young, recent immigrant and Mayflower descendant. Are some libraries experiencing lack of growth? Yes. Is that caused by the coming digital smiting of traditional library services? A classic error of assuming causation. Sure, some libraries are losing patrons, for any of the reasons any service oriented business loses “market share,” like poor management or inadequate marketing.

People do visit their libraries for social interaction, as Agresta notes, but they aren’t all printing 3D gadgets or collaborating in a computer lab. Lots of people are attending lectures and classes, story times and book discussions just as they always have, and checking out physical books. Very few library patrons (or any other readers) choose ebooks exculsively — just 4%, according to the Pew Research Center. Many folks still want a quiet space to read or study, and we have that too, just as we always have.

Why the endless chatter about how different we are and how much we’ll have to keep changing when we are in fact, in cities and towns across America, essentially the same? I will allow that I am speculating as well, but I do have the benefit of a network of professionals whose anecdotal evidence indicates that issuing library cards, lending materials, providing information, recommending good books, and putting on programs are still the bulk of their daily work. Just as they were when my grandmother was a librarian. Pew notes that the presence of a library (in the traditional sense I’ve described) is highly valued across generations all over America. Will some communities choose new and different library services? Sure, but I’d bet even those still check out books, every day.

As for Agresta’s “book-oriented library, where it survives in defiance of the digital shift, tends to take on the aspect of a temple for this sort of focused, old-fashioned study and contemplation?” My reaction ranges from “get over yourself ” to “temple, schmemple.” Come browse our romance novels, our large print westerns, our People Magazine and Mother Earth News, our dystopian YA, zombie and horror paperbacks, our Value Line and Cat Fancy and cozy mysteries and chicklit and Amish fiction and inspirational memoirs, our self-help and car repair guides, our cookbooks and comics, and DIY, and then we’ll talk.

Now hear this: Real people, of all kinds, read all kinds of stuff they checked out at their local public libraries. It’s not a catchy lede, but it’s reality.

 

2013 Reading Resolutions

As both a librarian who loves readers’ advisory and a book review columnist (The Mindful Reader), I read a fair number of books. At our neighbors’ post holiday bonfire last weekend I was a little embarrassed when someone pointed out that I read around 2-3 books a week most of the time (which I blog about at bookconscious) and other guests seemed to find that pretty odd. I’m often reading one book for the column and 1-2 others at the same time. Someone asked me whether I really retain what I’m reading at that pace.

I muttered something brilliant like “I think so” but a better response is “it depends.” If I’m skimming something so I know whether or not I want to recommend it to library patrons, say a craft book or a genre I don’t usually read, maybe I don’t remember everything, but in that situation, I’m not trying to retain it. If it’s a book for the column that deserves a review but I don’t love (I try to cover books that appeal to a wide range of tastes, not just my own) I do read mindfully, but I also tend to let the book go as soon as I’ve written about it.

If on the other hand, I’m reading either for research or for pleasure, I take my time, unless of course the book is page turner. And I think I do retain what I’m reading, even if the details (like all details in my mid-40’s mind) are sometimes hard to recall perfectly. Retention aside, I’ve heard Paul Harding speak a few times and he advocates slow reading because the experience is better, you notice more, you can enjoy the beauty of a good book if you’re not rushing it.

To read (and live) well, I think the key is to be fully engaged,to allow what you’re experiencing to become a part of your not to have perfect recall. When I reviewed The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak on bookconscious I wrote, “In my view, the best books stay with you, working on your own stored memory, fusing themselves with all you’ve read and all you’ve been, incorporating themselves into what you’ll be. Books that last are books that make meaning, that consciously or unconsciously change the way you view the next thing you read, the next idea you consider, the next response you have to the world. ” You could say the best way to read is to make yourself available to that.

So while I’m not making fancy reading resolutions and or joining formal challenges (after falling short of my Europa Challenge goal last year), I do plan to practice mindfully savoring whatever I’m reading for reading’s sake. Work reading is work reading, and I’ll continue to do that as efficiently as is necessary. Although occasionally something counts as both work and pleasure.

I will participate in two community reads in 2013: I’m on the Concord Reads committee and will read whatever we choose for that. And Books on the Nightstand’s Project Short Story sounds both fun and doable. What are your 2013 reading resolutions?