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.

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Presence: breathing, sitting, getting out of the building

My life has been a little chaotic lately due in part to a family health issue. I’m fortunate that I work close to home, and close to the various appointments my family member has to attend. And I am able to be a little bit flexible by coming in early, taking shorter lunches, etc. But as you all know, library work, or any public service job, is not all that flexible because we have to be present to do our jobs. I’m a supervisor, so I have to be not just physically present but mentally present to the people who work for me. And to my peers and boss, especially as it’s budget and planning season for FY 2016. And to the public, who are the reason public libraries exist; as I’ve written here before, many of our patrons are seeking human contact as much as they are seeking books and information.

So, presence is key in all the parts of my life. I’ve been a somewhat haphazard student of mindfulness for many years, and I try to be a regular practitioner especially in times of high stress like I’m experiencing now. If you don’t know what it’s about, basically, being mindful is all about being in the present moment. I’m a better person when I’m practicing regularly. But I hadn’t considered that I might also be a better librarian when I’m being mindful.

I recently learned that the Law Librarians of New England spring conference is devoted to mindfulness. I was curious to see if this is a trend in our profession and discovered a number of interesting resources for mindful librarianship, including a webinar offered by University of Minnesota, a resource guide from the New England Library Association conference in 2011, and a Library Journal article from last spring about Sparq Meditation Labyrinth, which uses simple technology to project a light labyrinth and is in use in a number of college libraries.

My library isn’t formally integrating mindfulness into the workplace, but our city wellness program did offer an intro. class which I attended, I admit, in order to meet the requirements for reducing my insurance costs. Even though I’ve read a number of good books on mindfulness over the years (and am reading one to my teen daughter right now, called Sit Like A Buddha), the class was really interesting. I think this is a subject one can learn about forever and still not know everything about. And I know it helps me at work, at home, and anytime I remind myself, gently, to be mindful.

Another cool thing I did this week was attend a roundtable discussion sponsored by the Reference and Adult Services division of my state library association. Getting out of the building can be stressful — it means changing the desk schedule, arranging for coverage of necessary tasks, etc. But meeting with fellow librarians, especially in a format designed to share as much experience with each other as possible, is wonderful. The topic of our roundtable was The Community Driven Library. Among the many things I learned: Mahjong is big in several small town libraries nearby, all those extra mass market paperbacks from the book sale are perfect for stocking a town beach or pool, and there are several cake pan collections on loan in my small state. Besides getting good ideas, I connected or re-connected with colleagues and generally felt refreshed and reminded that I’m part of an awesome profession.

So, breathe, sit, be present, and get out of the building. You’ll be a better librarian for doing these simple things.

 

Oh how we fret about tech

Three articles related to libraries, technology and e-books caught my eye this week. Taken together, they paint a picture of how much the library and book world collectively fret about whether we’re offering enough technology services to the public.

First there is the Nielsen report about teens’ preference for print versus e-books. I’m not sure how surprising this is, but I know it’s something many librarians and booksellers worry about — will anyone be reading print in the future? I check books out to teens all the time at my library and I am the parents of a teen who has never read an e-book for pleasure and regularly shops for regular books, so my view of this might be skewed by daily experience, but I was happy to read a report that backs up my optimism about print. If young people are not developing an affinity for e-books growing up, it seems unlikely that will be their preference as adults. I was also heartened to read that a solid number — about 45% — of teens are influenced by social media in making reading choicesm which is good news for libraries like mine trying to ramp up our social media presence. I’m hopeful that as The Teen Zone, Concord Public Library’s teen tumblr, and its sibling the CPL Reading-Rumblr, gain more followers, we’ll be helping people find good reads.

Next came a report from Britain on the state of public libraries. I was appalled to read a) only 35% of people in England use the library regularly (the closest stat I could find for the US is 54% who went to a library sometime in the previous 12 months, from a 2013 Pew report), b) one of the major recommendations, according to the Independent‘s story, is to offer Wi-Fi and “a comfortable, retail-standard environment, with the usual amenities of coffee, sofas and toilets,” and c) “The Government should secure changes in European and UK copyright law to enable library users to borrow e-books remotely in the next legislative term, the report recommended.” Whoa. I had no idea that only about a third of British citizens use libraries, that 1/3 of British libraries lack Wi-Fi, nor that in the UK readers can’t check out e-books outside of libraries. Two things really disturbed me:  the suggestion regarding making libraries more like cafes, and this bit about recruiting and training staff: “21st century librarian(s) will need… digital and commercial expertise.” Sounds like the British government believes that if they turn libraries into Starbucks and librarians into cafe managers they’ll have solved their problems! Wi-Fi is important, but focusing on hot drinks rather than recognizing — and educating the public –that librarians’ information skills trump random internet searching seems incredibly short-sighted and, frankly, daft! If the British government doesn’t appreciate librarians’ primary role in supporting the development of a literate and well-read citizenry, I don’t see how any of the other recommendations will do much good.

And about that digital expertise — I hosted the NH State Library’s Technology Resources Librarian Bobbi Slossar recently to talk to our staff about “customer service in the digital age.” I’d heard her speak at the NHLA Reference and Adult Services fall conference, and what really resonated with me about her approach is this point: Bobbi noted that libraries have always had car repair manuals but no one ever expected librarians to go out and do an oil change for a patron, so why should we approach tech. customer service any differently? Her solution is that staff need to focus on being librarians — teaching people how to find the information they need to solve their own tech problems — rather than trying to be help desk staff. And she notes that to teach others, we have to be comfortable with and knowledgeable about tech but even more importantly, we have to use our reference interview skills to get to the heart of what a patron needs. I couldn’t agree more (maybe British librarians should fly Bobbi over to address Parliament?), so I appreciated “The Art of Sweet Talking Or How to Talk Tech to Patrons.” Jason Pinshower, like Bobbi, notes that how we talk to patrons is just as important as what we say. His advice? “Our patrons need to be able to confide in us and feel comfortable being embarrassed about their technology need. Nobody enjoys asking for help.”  I love that. I tell patrons all the time that I personally find printers really frustrating, and it truly does make someone feel better if you admit you struggle with technology.

Thanks for reading Nocturnal Librarian and best wishes for a happy and healthful holiday season. See you in 2015!