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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

You can hear me on Wisconsin Public Radio on Monday!

Thanks to former NHPR host Brady Carlson, who is now at WPR, I’ll be on The Morning Show this coming Monday 7/30 at 8am central/9am eastern talking about my most recent post, “Really, libraries don’t need reinventing, thanks” and the incredible response from all of you out there who love and rely on libraries! I’m wicked excited to talk about how libraries serve our communities and why they rock.

Since so many of you use your libraries regularly, I’d love to hear about cool things happening at your local library. What’s the best program, service, or interesting thing you can check out?

 

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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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.

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?

 

 

 

More on ECHO Refugee library and “supply chain” library management

I read this week about Simon Cloudesley, who “strode 114 miles from the Bodleian in Oxford, England, to the British Library in central London to raise thousands of pounds” for ECHO, the library for refugees in Greece that I wrote about in my last post.  I thought that was really wonderful and wanted to pass the story along to all of you.

The other thing I want to share is an article in American Libraries about how Georgia Tech’s dean of libraries has reorganized the technical services department using “supply chain” theory. Dean Murray-Rust explains, “Staff members will be able to switch from managing interlibrary loans to creating basic archival records, from processing reserves to ordering online, as demand necessitates. Employees are learning how to manage more than 10 library systems, rather than one or two.” Quick aside for you non tech services types: that’s the department in a library that manages the acquisition, cataloging, and processing (labeling, covering, barcoding, security taping, etc.) of print and digital materials, including purchases, patron-driven acquisitions (which are sort of temporary loans that trigger a purchase if patrons use the item 3 times), and subscriptions, including newspapers, magazines, and databases.

Obviously Georgia Tech is much larger than my university and has more libraries, but I was intrigued by this. We have a pretty small staff, and we often face having to come up with backup plan for tasks that only one or two people know how to do when someone is out on vacation. We’ve improved on this with a lot of cross training, but people mostly still work on just one aspect of technical services on a day to day basis. I’m thinking this supply chain style would mean total cross training. Anyone could do anything. It sort of sounds like what people do on a given day would depend on the greatest need that day.

On the user services side, they’re going with “portfolio management,” and transitioning their entire organizational structure, “The biggest challenge to our transformation was organizational. We soon saw that we had to change the culture of the library from passive to active, and we had to retire models that focused narrowly on the library rather than those that supported the larger institution. We had to commit to organizing in a way that envisions a future that is digital.”

She goes on to say, “Our goal is to make the transactional parts of the library’s work as efficient as possible in order to free up resources to sustain new services such as intelligent agents, visualization, and data science.” And “Most of our work is managed in a portfolio framework of 10 programs and more than 60 projects. More than half of our librarians are subject specialists who report to senior librarians who act as coaches, mentors, and performance evaluators.”

No more generalist reference librarians, and it sounds like librarians are not as involved in the traditional “transactions” that take place at service desks in many libraries. Instead, they are outside the library working with faculty and students and specializing in data management, intellectual property, and the digital preservation of research. It all sounds very interesting, and relevant to Georgia Tech.

That part of the restructuring doesn’t sound nearly as applicable to my university which is more of a teaching/learning institution than a research hub. But there may be ideas from this transformation that we could adapt to our use. It’s all very intriguing and worth thinking about as it becomes common even in academia for people to question why libraries are necessary. Just this week I ran circulation numbers to show faculty at one of our largest departments that their students are in fact using books.

If you work in a library, what are you doing to transform?

 

 

Three ways libraries are serving the world

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

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

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

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

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

 

Civil rights in libraries

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

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

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

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

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

Millennials rock

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

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

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

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

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

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