Libraries, books & hope

While Americans squabble about whether drag queen story time promotes self-love and affirmation or is evidence of our country’s depravity and legislatures propose various laws meant to discourage or ban such events, people around the world just want to read. A story in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago that highlighted efforts by young people in Somalia to make civil society work in their country led me to read about several book fairs, notably in Mogadishu, Hargeisa, and Kismayo.

In  Afghanistan, another country wracked by decades of war and civil strife, university students founded a nonprofit, Read Books, that takes books into rural areas and distributes them to children. I’ve written before about library services for refugees in Greece. Another story caught my eye this weekend about an Afghan man who is opening a library at the Moria refugee camp, also in Greece, originally built for 3,000 people and now housing 20,000.  In Syria, a group of friends saved books and kept a volunteer library running through years of that country’s devastating civil war; one volunteer went on to run a bookmobile.

The most important thing to note about this last story, by Guardian reporter Sam Wollaston, is that “Moria is hell, a stain on 21st-century Europe, where bureaucracy, politics and simply not caring enough have left tens of thousands in limbo – people fleeing war and danger, looking for a future for themselves and their children and not finding it. Moria’s existence is a disgrace, a failure of morality.”

And yet, people make sure that “humanity survives in hell” as Wollaston writes. And wherever hell on earth exists, in war zones, in terrorized places, in corners of the world that many of us manage not to think about on a daily basis, people keep reading, and sharing books, and helping children learn, and promoting the values that libraries stand for: education and literacy for all.

These stories for me put into perspective how incredibly privileged it is for people in America to argue over what’s on our libraries’ shelves and who reads stories to our kids. I just finished reading The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, and this sentence, published in 1951, seems incredibly prescient as I consider the world today: ” Yet to have more does not mean to be more.”

We have so much. We could be more.  The incredibly brave and selfless people who make these libraries and schools and book fairs happen in Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, and overcrowded refugee camps in Greece are.

Another reason libraries are vital

I finished reading one of my Christmas gifts, Educated, on Friday evening. You can read my thoughts on this memoir by Tara Westover over at bookconscious. This morning I read Michiko Kakutani’s essay “The 2010s Were the End of Normal” and it got me thinking about why Educated has resonated so strongly with readers of all kinds (I’ve had more people recommend this book to me than any other I can think of). And why Educated illustrates the importance of libraries, even though Westover doesn’t necessarily say so (although she mentions several libraries in the book).

I watched a brief interview Westover did with Bill Gates, where she talks a little bit about divisions in our world and describes the potential of education as “this great mechanism of connecting and equalizing.” She also describes the way some schools become “an instrument of that division” because of the way “we self-segregate, and schools become reflections of people’s homogeneity.” In other words, depending on where a child grows up, they may or may not learn the same history as a child who grows up somewhere else, even in the same city or town.

Now, I’m not saying everyone should learn one official version of history. We need what Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “narrative plenitude” — where the many threads of being human in America and the world are included in the overall fabric of the history we learn, instead of the majority controlling the narrative. And education, ideally, should present that plenitude, instead of whatever the dominant narrative is. And what Westover was discussing with Gates is that if we really meant what we say about providing a good education for all, we might actually have less division. Because if you know someone’s stories, they become familiar, and you begin to see how they are also like your stories, and how they are different, and since we are born curious, you also start to wonder why.

This morning, I read Michiko Kakutani’s essay “The 2010s Were the End Of Normal” and I think one reason Educated is so powerful is that Westover’s experience, while extreme, explains the divisions we currently face. Knowing only one version of the story of humanity, particularly one that justifies fears in the face of a changing world, leads to what Kakutani quotes Richard Hofstadter as calling “the paranoid style” that Westover’s father embodies. If people then reinforce their views by limiting the scope of information they take in to what they agree with, as Kakutani notes that many people whose world views rely on “alternative facts” do, you can end up with extremes.

Westover provides some hope that anyone who can read and think (potentially, most people) can discover for themselves what has happened in human history and is happening in the world now. So people who are insulated from reality can potentially learn that their “truth” has been mediated and their accepted narrative controlled – but the scary flip side is that if enough people don’t ever learn that we end up where we are now with nationalism on the rise all over.  You probably know where I’m going with this if you’ve read Nocturnal Librarian before: libraries and librarians can help counter division because we help make it possible for people to expand their views and embrace narrative plenitude.

Information literacy, the skills and habits that allow people to find, evaluate, and use information to answer a question or solve a problem, is at the core of what academic libraries do. We teach students to consider the ways information is mediated, what mechanisms are in place to safeguard facts while still presenting persuasive arguments in journalism and academic writing, and how to recognize and critically assess those. Public libraries also foster information literacy, and they act (when they are at their best) as some of the last egalitarian public spaces, where all citizens regardless of where they live or go to school have access to the same resources. Libraries of all kinds support lifelong learning, and collect and preserve all kinds of narratives that are part of our shared human story. They can also promote civil discourse either explicitly through programming or implicitly through their collections.

So, if you want to live in a less divided, more civil world where people know how to recognize and counter “alternative facts,” support your library!

We’re fine without fines

I had an interesting conversation today with a student worker who wanted to know if we charge for replacement ID cards. I said no, and that even if there was a policy in the past, I was not in favor of charging students extra for things, especially since most students have little money. I pointed out that it’s possible a lost ID is at campus safety, so it might be good to ask the student to check there before having a new one made, but otherwise, just make the replacement. The student worker said they hadn’t heard a librarian say anything like that before.

We also don’t charge fines at my library, although if a book is never returned we do bill for replacement. one of our staff has been calling patrons with bills, and she said today that they don’t always believe there will be no charge if they return a long overdue item and some have even said they don’t return it out of fear of a big fine.

When I worked at a public library, “fine free” was becoming popular. In 2017, NY Public Library System president Anthony Marx wrote about some forays into fine amnesty and fine free borrowing for kids and noted that in response to those who worried about what fine free tells people about responsibility, “what is truly the greater moral hazard? Having fines or not having fines? In my view, teaching kids that the library is not an option for the poorest among them is absolutely unacceptable.” Indeed. It has always really frosted me when kids can’t use the library because of fines.

Because it turns out, library fees and fines are regressive. And now the Chicago Public Library has become the largest American library system to go fine free. Library Commissioner Andrea Telli had a similar response to the question of whether eliminating fines erodes accountability: “Libraries don’t necessarily want to be in the morality business, and we don’t want to make the assumption that if a book is late or someone can’t pay for a fine, that they’re delinquent or bad in some way; they may just be in a place in their life where they can’t pay the fine.”

Exactly. It turns out the value of returned items is often higher than that of fines collected, and that fines don’t deter people from returning items late — they just prevent people from feeling the library is for them. Which is not in line with the values of librarianship, or of human decency generally.

If the administrations that provide our funding want fines to be part of our budgets (which is not even necessarily the case — in Chicago, fines never went to the library), we need to help them learn about equity and inclusion, and stand with our colleagues who point out that we’re fine without fines, but excluding our patrons because they can’t pay is not fine.

 

Information pollution

I’ve been trying to be more active on Twitter, in part because a lot of open education people and librarians share experiences and thoughts there. This morning I saw a thread that a librarian I follow had retweeted, originally posted by @Viveka, that got me thinking about something that came across my desk from the ALA’s Center for the Future of Libraries in their newsletter Read for Later a couple of weeks ago. The Twitter thread was about a bot tweet that was making its way around Twitter, trying to drum up outrage about the way Disney has cast the forthcoming live action Little Mermaid movie. I won’t go into detail because I don’t want to grant this message any more attention but the gist is that it’s written to divide people and drum up racial strife while saying on the surface that it’s not about race. Which sounds like something a human might actually do — claim not to be racist but then make a point that attempts to divide people over race. But Viveka notes in the thread, “we know it’s a bot because it behaves unlike any human” and then goes on to explain the tells that make this so.

If you are not as observant as Viveka or just accept the content at face value without interrogating this tweet too carefully — and let’s face it, that’s mostly how the majority of tweets are read, quickly and without much thought — you might miss it. Viveka points out, “It has the right hashtags, the petition link works, call to action is clear.” Which might make it seem real enough that in the seconds it takes to skim it, most people would either ignore it, engage with it, or feel moved enough to click the petition.  But it’s been posted “about every ten minutes, as a reply to other tweets mentioning the movie or the actess” (@Viveka).

A bot can do that, a human can’t. Which is why I went back and re-read the New York Times article by Cade Metz & Scott Blumenthal that appeared in Read for Later, “How AI Could Be Weaponized to Spread Disinformation.” Metz and Blumenthal write about two AI companies that are making fake news generators that are getting better and better at mimicking human writing openly available — so that researchers know what we’re up against, as more and more content like the thread above proliferates. Why does it matter what people think about the casting of a Disney film? It doesn’t, but the humans behind this bot creation probably have an interest in dividing Americans over cultural issues. Perhaps so we will vote emotionally, or so we’ll be busy arguing while our government cages children, or tries to start a war somewhere, or . . . you get the idea. And AI makes it more likely that we’ll have trouble identifying what’s bot generated and what’s not.

So why is this a library issue? Libraries of all sorts encourage information literacy, or in the case of school and academic libraries, teach it. Information literacy is a set of skills and habits of mind that allow people to seek, evaluate, and use information effectively and responsibly. Will we be able to keep doing this work if, as Metz and Blumenthal quote OpenAI researcher Alec Radford, “The level of information pollution that could happen with systems like this a few years from now could just get bizarre.”

I’m not sure. Yes, we can keep teaching people to examine and consider information carefully but we have to be careful not to go so far as to convince them to trust nothing, as dana boyd cautions in her article “Did Media Literacy Backfire?” which I re-read every few months to remind myself how hard this work is. Will the media be susceptible to information pollution in the same way social media is? Is it already, in the “balance bias” of its coverage of major issues like climate change?

There are no easy answers. I believe information literacy is a help, but knowing how to do something doesn’t mean someone will do it. Ultimately the fight against information pollution is a matter of will — we have to spend more than a few seconds scanning something online before deciding whether it’s valid or not. I’d like to think libraries have a role in encouraging that, but in the end, it’s probably up to each of us to be smart information consumers.

Open beyond the campus

I just got back from the Northeast OER summit (conference #3 in 2 months — my brain is stuffed with ideas). It you’re unfamiliar with it, the William and Flora Hewitt Foundation describes Open Education as “the simple and powerful idea that the world’s knowledge is a public good and that technology in general and the Web in particular provide an extraordinary opportunity for everyone to share, use, and reuse knowledge.” Anyone who knows my past as an unschooling parent knows this makes my heart sing. OERs are open educational resources, which means all the stuff we create and share to make open education happen — in the higher ed world, OER often refers to textbooks and other course materials. It also refers to Open Pedagogy — the idea that students can be co-creators of knowledge.

I introduced myself at the first Community College System of New Hampshire OER Taskforce meeting as a librarian and OER nut. I embrace this work because it speaks to my values. I make no apologies for seeing a social justice role in librarianship and education . . . let me digress on this for a second.

I know that this makes me susceptible to what Fobazi Ettarh calls “vocational awe” but I don’t think libraries, and even more so, formal education, are beyond critique, as those of you who’ve been with Nocturnal Librarian know — I think that like democracy, the idea of libraries as egalitarian places where all are radically welcomed is something we strive for, but I am well aware that as a profession we often do not uphold this, we have definitely got problems with regards to asking librarians to do more work without more compensation, etc. I embrace the values associated with radical welcome and access for all, and the potential of libraries to embody them, while acknowledging we have work to do. I’m at a community college because I value access to education and I believe public education should serve all publics (it doesn’t, especially when it’s under-resourced but that’s another post).

Digressions over. All this is to say, I love OER because it is in line with other things I love — learner directed learning, collaboration, community, equity, justice. So it was an awesome conference, and I was excited to be with other librarians, faculty, instructional designers, learning technology directors, etc. And I got some ideas I think I can transform into action pretty easily, which is always motivating.

One of the things I’ll work on right away is getting other OER interested folks on my campus together informally in a “community of practice” —  we don’t take enough time to do the kind of sharing that happens at a conference. Yesterday I was in a workshop on Creative Commons licenses and copyright and after hearing Meredith Jacob‘s presentation we broke into tables by interest and talked. It was really fruitful, and although we ended up ranging beyond open licensing, copyright and fair use, we learned from each other and built community. I want to recreate this if I can on my campus.

Another really cool thing I heard was a presentation by Grif Peterson of P2PU, which connects people who want to learn something together in learning circles which meet in public places — often, libraries. They describe themselves as “a grassroots network of individuals who seek to create an equitable, empowering, and liberating alternative to mainstream higher education.” Again, those of you who know me can imagine how this delights me! Grif presented on learning circles with Kelly Woodside, a consultant and trainer at the Massachusetts Library System. Kelly’s awesome job involves collaborations between different kinds of libraries and non-library allies like P2PU. I loved hearing what they had to say, and I’m hoping to find intersections among our work — Kelly and I already talked about One Book projects that bring college and public libraries together, like the one I am co-chairing in Manchester with the director of the city library. I see potential intersections between P2PU, higher ed, and public libraries, too — if a small library in NH wants to host a learning circle but is understaffed, facilitating is the kind of real world experience faculty might like to incorporate into courses and students might like to try, so I’m hoping to connect people around this idea.

What interesting connections have you made at a conference that got you motivated? What possibilities do you see for Open Education in your community?

The undead and the unfree

Grad school started back up so I’ve been busy. But two stories caught my eye this Halloween. One was about a library in the Atlanta area offering a pandemic program with a zombie theme. The library had “a bit of pushback from staff about the zombie-themed marketing.” But the programming coordinator went for it anyway. The program sounded great — a public health information session on preparing for emergencies, learning about vaccines, and understanding pandemics. Perhaps some staff thought it was too frivolous a marketing theme for a serious subject. But since it is a really important topic, shouldn’t the marketing be designed to attract the most people possible?

Meanwhile, I also read yet another story about prisons banning books, and requiring prisoners to use their eReaders instead (at a high cost). Right now my library had an inter-library loan that is overdue at the federal prison in our state. They aren’t easy to lend to — my access services coordinator says this is not the first time they’ve held onto an item long past its due date. But this article gave me pause and made me realize what a valuable service it is to lend to prisons. Reading in jail has been linked to lower rates of recidivism. Books can help inmates learn about the laws that have impacted their lives. And I certainly couldn’t live without books. It seems to me that if people have lost their freedom we don’t need to also refuse them access to information and reading. It also seems silly to ban books rather than just inspect them with greater scrutiny.

Happy Halloween.

More knowledge for good: research as resistance

I heard about a project recently that I somehow missed — Emily Dreyfuss wrote in Wired about it in June, when the family separation crisis was still in the public eye. A band of what Columbia University librarian Alex Gil is quoted as calling “digital ninjas” from all over came together online, gathered data from public records, and created Torn Apart/Separados, “an interactive web site that visualizes the vast apparatus of immigration enforcement in the US, and broadly maps the shelters where children can be housed.” This must have taken forever, right? It took a week.

That, my friends, is some serious bad-ass librarianship. Torn Apart/Separados Volume 2, which is live now, shows “the territory and infrastructure of ICE’s financial regime in the USA. This data & visualization intervention peels back layers of culpability behind the humanitarian crisis of 2018.”

Did I mention how badass these people are? This is all just volunteers using their research skills to shine a light on some serious darkness. Alex Gil also created what he calls a Nimble Tents Toolkit, so that other researches can put together their own “relief mapathon” (Gil was also involved in mapping Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria to help aid workers) or “rapid response research.”

I told a class today that I freakin’ love Wikipedia — they stared at me, the crazy librarian with the rainbow chickens and colorful cat on my door raving about the beauty of making all human knowledge available to all humans — but they listened when I said that crowd-sourced knowledge is what will keep the world moving forward. I asked them what was more important, that a source accurately express a well reasoned, well supported opinion, even an unpopular one, or that it be strictly factual and “unbiased.”

By the time we were done, we’d had a very heartening conversation about how their generations (mostly 20s and 30s — yes, those very same Gen Y and Millenials that so many people malign, who in my view are our future and are doing the best they can with what they have to work with) are tearing apart old definitions and building a more equitable, inclusive world. And that taking a stand — being “biased” by naming your values, gathering data, and making a rock solid argument in favor of a better world, a better future — is why they are in college.

I am glad to be part of the same profession as Gil and other badass librarians. And I am glad I could strike a chord today with a few students who are going to feel a little bit better about crowd-sourced knowledge and about taking a stand (properly cited, APA or MLA, your choice).

Community college librarians and student success

A study came out this week looking at community college libraries and student success.  This isn’t a new topic, but a new approach —  the authors asked college students to define success, and only touched a bit on libraries. They plan to use this information to design and test library services around these findings. Interestingly, while students cited things like passing required courses, improving grades, getting a degree, and increasing job prospects, they also mentioned more “intrinsic” goals – “those focused on advancing personal development” like gaining knowledge, finding community, and even things like “feeling a sense of accomplishment, bettering themselves, and being happy.”

How can libraries help with happiness, other than by bringing in therapy dogs, which I am psyched about, myself? Other studies have looked at traditional library work like collaborating with faculty, helping students learn to use resources, and teaching information literacy (the skills needed to seek, evaluate, and use information effectively and responsibly) — and have unsurprisingly found that both faculty and students perceive those as helpful. In a North Carolina community college study authors found student success improves with “embedded” librarianship, defined as “Librarians moving out of their libraries to create innovate ways of informing their clients” which in turn “makes the expertise of librarians more immediately available to those who need it by integrating librarians into instructional and administrative teams.” The authors further note that the benefits of this model are mutual — librarians become better acquainted with the needs of their clients and faculty and students receive more customized support. Makes sense.

One interesting point in this new study is that community college students often face a number of challenges in their lives and seek out the library for a very basic reason — they need a distraction free space to study. The authors caution against overly crowded or noisy libraries: “When these libraries are used for purposes beyond their remit, community colleges are at risk of not meeting student needs by failing to provide the quiet, distraction-free space that is so critical to students being able to complete their work.” It’s so true —  libraries are one of the few places you can count on to find at least some area that is silent. We need to preserve that.

Sadly, the new study also found that students did not seek out librarians and often relied on search engines rather than library resources to complete their assignments. They did, however, turn to faculty for help, which to me means that the model in the North Carolina study, where librarians are proactive partners collaborating with faculty to support students in their classes, is even more vital. If librarians can engage with students through their courses, rather than waiting for students to approach them for help, we’re much better positioned to help them succeed.

Fortunately at my community college, we have some strong faculty partnerships and are involved in instructional design in both the required college English course most students take and the “essentials” class — a one credit course designed to orient students to college and help them define their paths. We’ve written a LibGuide for the English course and a Canvas module for the essentials class. Last week I emailed all the faculty teaching this semester to make sure they know about library resources and services, are aware of us as potential partners, and know how to connect us with students. As we gear up for the new academic year, I’ll be thinking about how our students might define their own success and thinking about  what libraries should — and shouldn’t — do to support them. At our community college system’s annual symposium today I heard Dr. Kim Hunter Reed speak and she talked about her work in Colorado, where students cited knowing “somebody cares about me” as the key to success.

That, we can do.

The once and future library

I was fascinated by the various news stories about a Roman era library unearthed in Cologne, Germany recently.  It housed around 20,000 scrolls and was state run – although researchers aren’t sure whether access was restricted to more influential Roman citizens. The archeologist in Germany quoted in Alison Flood’s Guardian story, Dr. Dirk Schmitz, thinks it was public: “The building would have been used as a public library, Schmitz said. ‘It is in the middle of Cologne, in the marketplace, or forum: the public space in the city centre. It is built of very strong materials, and such buildings, because they are so huge, were public,’ he said.” It’s really remarkable to think that in only the second century, well before books as we think of them existed, there were libraries.

I have a soft spot for ancient libraries, because scholars believe they were, like today’s public libraries, much more than just repositories for important works. The Library of Hadrian in Athens (where my Twitter profile photo was taken) is about the same age as the newly discovered Cologne library, and is thought to have been an archive as well as a place for lectures and discussions. As Lonely Planet explains, “It essentially functioned as Athens’ civic centre in Roman times . . . .” Sounds a lot like public libraries today!

Last week after I heard about the Roman library in Cologne, a coworker called to let me know that while looking at colleges with her daughter, she heard about Temple University’s planned “robotic library,” which will open next spring. It turns out they are installing BookBot, a system is use at several other universities, including NC State. The idea is to use dense, space saving compact shelving with a robotic retrieval system, so more of the library’s public floorspace can be available for other uses, like meeting and collaborative spaces or performances. You can see how BookBot works in this video. I was glad to see that despite the robotic retrieval system, human library staff have an important role in using BookBot. I also wondered, as someone who seems to put in a LOT of IT tickets at my job, how often they have software or hardware issues!

Speaking of technology and the need for human librarians, today I came across a wonderful article at Atlas Obscura that speaks to the once and future power of good old fashioned librarianship. It’s about the NYPL librarians who help find books people only partially remember. This was one of my favorite activities at the public library: a patron calls or emails or comes in and says “I read this book x years ago, and it was about y and I know there was a z in it.” And you’re off.

As Jessica Leigh Hester explains in her story about NYPL’s “‘Title Quest’ hackathon,” despite the internet, librarians’ knowledge work is in demand: “they’re still experts at finding the answers to tricky questions.” And that is what stays the same, no matter how much technology evolves, or society changes. I’m guessing that in the second century, people in the Roman empire relied on librarians to find answers, and at libraries large (like NYPL, or the Temple and NC State libraries) or small (like my community college library, and the thousands of libraries in communities around the world), librarians are sleuthing their way to answers for people every day.

 

 

 

 

The lasting impact of librarians

First, thank you to all the recent followers of Nocturnal Librarian. My response to the infamous Forbes piece about closing libraries because we have Amazon and Starbucks is up over 1300 views, and many of you have also left me comments about what libraries mean to you. On Monday, it was my very great pleasure to spend an hour discussing why libraries matter on the Morning Show at Wisconsin Public Radio. One of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve heard from many of you, this past week and over the years, is that it’s not only the idea or physical presence of libraries that make such a difference in people’s lives. Nor is it solely the economic or social value libraries have in their communities. It’s the librarians.

Librarians like my friend Barbara White, who helps ensure kids who visit the Akron-Summit County Library can get a snack. She let me know that “Our terrific staff, in partnership with the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, served 27,976 after-school snacks in the 2017-2018 school year.”  And librarians who mail books to the homebound or in some cases, to anyone who doesn’t live near a library. And librarians who bring books wherever people are, by bike or traditional bookmobile or by visiting nursing homes or retirement centers, schools, and parks. Librarians who are there for every member of their community, helping people who are often identified as “other” — recent immigrants, the homeless, and job seekers, for example — to feel included.  And at academic libraries, librarians who contribute to student success.

But the stories I like best aren’t even about librarians going the extra mile to make an impact. Last week a young man in his 20s stopped by my office. He had a question, and he came to me because there’s a sign on my door that says “Keep Calm and Ask a Librarian.” The question was not related to anything we have on offer in the library — but he knew I’d help, because his mother had taught him that when he needed to know something, he should ask a librarian.

If that wasn’t already pretty cool, the next part is even better. He said he grew up in New York his neighborhood library was the place he could go after school. A safe place. A place he told me “opened up the world” to him. A place where he was known, and where people were happy to see him. Librarians welcomed him and answered his questions and he grew up knowing he could always count on that.

Far beyond the wonderful places they work, the terrific collections and resources they manage, the community-oriented services they offer, and the inspiring and helpful programs they offer, librarians are doing the simplest and most impactful thing of all: being there for the people they serve. Remembering and getting to know their patrons, greeting them, recalling what they like to read or what they are curious about, reminding them there is a place in the world where they are known. Being open to every new person they meet in their work. Being present. Librarians, like the places they work in, are for everyone.