Back to the beginning

Today I went to my local public library. As a patron, not a staff member. It was, admittedly, a strange sensation, not least because I couldn’t find my hold, which turned out to have been cancelled (yikes! I’ll have to read those emails more closely) but one I will have to get used to. I’ve left the public library world to return to the place where Nocturnal Librarian began — a small private liberal arts university where I’ll be the assistant director of the library. It’s a good move for me, career wise, and I will enjoy serving the academic community again. But of course, I will remain a champion of public libraries, and I’ll be in good company.  I know of at least two colleagues at the university who serve as trustees at their own local libraries.

Educators are big library fans, and at my interview I actually got into a great discussion with some professors about the future of public libraries and their role in society. I love that kind of discourse, which is one reason I feel good about making this change. I also love helping people find the information they need, and am looking forward to those “ah ha” moments with students that I remember well from when I was a night reference librarian at this same college a few years ago. Universities are pretty much entirely staffed by members of the book tribe, which I love. So I’m pretty excited to start!

Stay tuned to hear about my adventures in academia. And see what I’ve been reading between jobs over at bookconscious.

 

 

 

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.

 

Public Libraries in the US

The Institute of Museum & Library Services published its latest report on public libraries in the U.S recently. I went straight to the state stats. Looks like New Hampshire is in pretty good shape. More evidence that the demise of libraries is not imminent.

Meanwhile, we’re ready to start new projects for the new fiscal year at my library. One thing I got started on today is radically reconsidering the reference section — I’d like to circulate some books, move others to storage, and weed the ones that sit gathering dust, their spines indicating they’ve rarely been cracked open. It’s painful, because many of them are wonderful resources. But I’d like to make space for materials our patrons do want to use and check out.

A colleague of mine pointed out that this brings up a philosophical dilemma: should expand our offerings of popular materials like movies, even if it means decreasing our purchase of something else, like reference books? Some folks I’ve known in the library world lament that for some patrons, we’re just another video outlet. It can feel like what we are as libraries is in danger if we know some people only come in for movies. Or if we jettison reference materials.

If we want to continue to encourage literacy and a love of knowledge and learning, maybe the answer isn’t to buy interesting but rarely used multi-volume reference sets but to choose appealing books and circulate them. And maybe even pair them with movies to encourage cross-circulation? Say someone takes out the Harrison Ford film Witness. Why not offer some Amish fiction (very popular at my library) or a memoir about growing up Amish or a coffee table book about rural America? It’s hard to quickly pull together related materials on the spot, but a display area is a good place to do this. And catalog tools may be going that way. We use Novelist, which recommends related titles when a patron looks at a book  our catalog. It would be cool if it pointed people to books when they looked at movies or music as well.

Whether our reference section shrinks or our dvd section grows, I’m happy to live in a region and a state where libraries are valued and well-used.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, its another post about e-books

I’ve started working as a bookseller at my local independent bookstore part time as well as working at my town’s public library. I’ve sometimes griped here at Nocturnal Librarian that librarianship has become another form of IT help, with so much professional time spent troubleshooting. Well this week someone at the indie actually asked me how to troubleshoot her Kindle, and when I applied my reference skills by asking more about her problem she revealed that she was having trouble downloading books she bought at Amazon.

If you know anything about independent bookstores (and she may not have — we opened a new store this week, and along with our regular customers from the old store two blocks away, we welcomed a large number of new people who’d never heard of us before, even though at 113+ it’s the oldest independent store in New Hampshire and possibly in New England), you know that it’s unlikely a bookseller found teaching a customer how to download her Amazon purchases would have a job at the end of her shift. I clamped my mouth shut so as not to say anything rude, repeated in my head, “she doesn’t know what she’s saying,” and smiled.

I explained that I could not help her with her Kindle but asked if she knew she could get other e-books at our store and that hardcover fiction, which she was looking at, is always on sale at Gibson’s. Later as she was leaving I pointed out she may very well be able to get e-books, including Kindle e-books, at her library. She had no idea about that either.

Part of me wished I’d explained to her why I couldn’t help her, part of me felt like there were lots of people in the store and I needed to move on to another customer. But I attended training today at my library with our statewide library e-book consortium director, and she made some good points about why educating our customers is important. She said we need to be telling patrons and ourselves why and how publishers are making it hard for libraries to buy and lend e-books with higher prices and restrictive lending rules.

She compared what e-book lending is doing to libraries to what Google did to reference: reference book use has plummeted (and reference librarians are becoming adult service or public service librarians who do more troubleshooting and less reference work) so we buy fewer and have smaller reference collections. We’re putting ourselves out of the reference business unless we stand up and say, “Google’s secret algorithm shows you what IT, a giant corporation, says is relevant, including paid ads. A human reference librarian can give you information that YOU can decide is relevant.”

Unless we explain why e-books are less available in libraries and also negotiate for better terms, libraries will seem to have fewer choices for readers, who will decide they can find what they want, along with what they want to know, online. Libraries have put ourselves in this position by accepting what publishers have demanded: an unsustainable model that could cause us to lack content down the road — and without content, we aren’t libraries.

Itchy Itchy Scratchy Scratchy

I have a raging poison ivy/oak/sumac rash at the moment, I’m not sure which & I’m not going back out there to inspect the woods behind our rock wall to find out. In the process of finding information about how to treat my affliction, I found out that people really don’t trust the internet as a reliable source of information. I was surprised, because when I worked as a college reference librarian I heard colleagues and professors lament that “kids today” believe everything they read online. (A related problem: teachers who assign kids’ homework with the rule, “no online sources.” Many libraries are adding more and more e-books to their collections, which leaves librarians explaining to parents, “It’s a book, it’s just online.”)

I’m thinking it’s a little more complicated than that because I had a series of conversations with friends, relatives, and total strangers from different generations in the last few days about poison ivy; specifically about whether it spreads and how to alleviate the discomfort. (FYI, it spreads systemically in your body once you’re exposed to the chemical in the leaves that causes the rash, but you can’t spread it yourself by scratching or contact with the rash; I’m still working on alleviating the discomfort). What I learned is that people are very mistrustful of any information online that doesn’t come from someone they know. 

As reference librarians we spend time teaching people how to look for accurate information online and how to tell if a website is trustworthy. I have come across plenty of patrons (usually not young people) who are a little too trusting of something they found online. But I never realized how many people don’t trust the web at all, even if the information is from a good source (Mayo Clinic’s website, for example) or if the information is essentially the same offline. But if people see something a friend posted, they seem to find it more reliable.

Have you come across this? How do you convince patrons they can trust an online source? And how about the touchy subject of social media not necessarily being reliable — at least no more reliable than cocktail party or break room chatting? Which is to say, sometimes it’s brilliant, accurate, and spot on advice and sometimes it’s, well, not. In fact, it’s like any information: you have to consider the source.

Irregular librarians?

I’ve recently changed jobs. I’m working at a busy public library in the small city where I live, hence I’m familiar to the staff and many patrons already. So far I really enjoy it; public library work is so varied and diverse, and you never know what might come up.

For example, at the end of my first week of training a patron who knows me came to the reference desk, said hello, and told me she had a request but she’d wait for the “regular librarians.” I was at the desk with another member of the staff who as been at the library less than a year. We both assured her we could help, but she just smiled and said she’d wait.

This person didn’t associate us with her previous library questions; we broke her expected pattern of experience, so I guess we seemed “irregular.” Which reminded me that in some ways, libraries are like doctors’ offices. Some patients are satisfied seeing a nurse for a cold, or a physician’s assistant, others insist on the doctor, and not that new young one, but the person they’ve seen for years.

Rest assured, at my library anyway, everyone at the reference desk has been trained to answer questions, to access information on a moment’s notice, to utilize the library’s collection and the dozens of tools at our fingertips in databases and other online tools. We might not always find an answer immediately but we are all capable and ready to give it our best. Experience is wonderful, but good training means even someone new is ready to help, and I imagine it’s that way at your library too. So step right up, and don’t be afraid to ask!

Library instruction, or teaching college students to fish

You’ve probably heard the proverb, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him today; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Two of my favorite nonprofits are modeled on this idea: Heifer International founder Dan West was delivering milk to Spanish Civil War victims and realized “These children don’t need a cup, they need a cow.” Habitat for Humanity‘s mission is to eradicate poverty housing with “a hand up, not a handout,” so they partner with families to build a simple decent home purchased with a no-interest loan.

Reference is another form of service; we’re teaching library patrons how to fish for information.  Students who ask me for assistance often want to fish for themselves; they just need a little guidance. But some have always had someone else fish for them and would prefer I catch, clean, prepare, and serve up the information they need, as quickly as possible.

How to handle this kind of interaction? Gently, but firmly. The patron may be somewhat impatient in the short term if I encourage him or her to search a database (with suggestions and pointers), learn to locate a book on the shelf (sadly, some college students claim they’ve never done this, particularly in a library with LC classification), or to find citation information.

But when the library is closed or the student has graduated and needs to assess the reliability of a website, find a key piece of information for a work assignment, or even just look for a good book, I know I’ll have laid the groundwork for independent information literacy.

Class of 2012, may your fishing feed you well for the rest of your lives.

Please note, the semester is wrapping up at the Nocturnal Librarian blog. I will post less frequently during the summer months.

History or propaganda?

The O.E.D. defines propaganda as  “The systematic dissemination of information, esp. in a biased or misleading way, in order to promote a political cause or point of view,” and history as “That branch of knowledge which deals with past events, as recorded in writings or otherwise ascertained; the formal record of the past, esp. of human affairs or actions; the study of the formation and growth of communities and nations.” Inevitably, the two overlap.

A reference session with a student researching WWII propaganda reminded me of the challenge of evaluating historical materials. I happened to be reading a terrific historical novel, Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum.  Blum’s compelling book thoughtfully examines how complicated it is to create an orderly human narrative out of the millions of individual stories that make up our history.

Over the weekend, I visited Boston with my family, including my husband’s British aunt and uncle. Seeing familiar sights in the birthplace of the American Revolution with relatives who learned a different version of America’s foundational story was interesting. The thin line between history and propaganda was much clearer to me when considering things from such a different point of view.

A book that really turns the accepted truths of American history upside down is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which is hosted online here.  I looked at Zinn’s writing on the Boston Massacre after visiting the site on the Freedom Trail.  Visit those links as well as a third view on the British Library’s website, and you’ll see that while all three say a Colonist mob confronted British soldiers, each story has a slightly different spin.

 

Shining a light on civil rights

This week the New York Times reported that American students don’t learn much about the Civil Rights Movement. That was on my mind as a co-worker shared his memories of learning first hand about segregation while stationed at an Air Force base in Mississippi in the1950’s. Then I heard Rev. Dwight Haynes, a retired minister who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Montgomery, speak at the Love Your Neighbor rally in response to the recent hate crime in Concord. When he invoked King’s speech, the grayer members of the crowd responded in unison.

Listening to these lessons from the struggle to realize the American ideal of equality made me wonder what resources I could share with young people who may not know that the response to Dr. King’s “How long?” is “Not long.”  When my own teen said she hated hearing about people being hurt and mistreated, I empathized, but told her that examining history is a first step towards not repeating it.

From the reference desk I’ve observed that busy students don’t read much beyond assigned texts, so I’ll stick to online resources. Ed Tech Teacher’s Best of History Websites includes a rich selection of Civil Rights Movement sites. C-SPAN features videos on a variety of civil rights related topics, from Mt. Vernon’s slave quarters to gay rights.  CivilRightsTeaching.org recommends websites.  Visit the Infoplease Civil Rights Timeline for a historical overview and links to people and events from 1948 to 2009.

My favorite resource?  The Library of Congress (which is really everyone’s library), whose Virtual Services Digital Reference Section has compiled an excellent Civil Rights Resource Guide, filled with primary source materials such as oral histories, letters, and photos, as well as links to other sources and a bibliography.

If a young adult in your life has time to watchYou Tube videos and sports highlights, he or she can visit a couple these sites, too. Share a link and see what happens.

Evil printers?

According to OED, evil (adj.) is defined as ” The antithesis of good (adj., adv., and n.) in all its principal senses” and good, when used in reference to things, means “Having in adequate degree those properties which a thing of the kind ought to have.”

So far The Nocturnal Librarian has answered zero actual reference questions in the new semester, and at least a couple dozen questions regarding printers that don’t seem to have “in adequate degree” the properties of a fuctioning printer. Hence, I am prepared to declare printers evil, at least in that sense of the word.  Along with Blackboard links that won’t open, PDF’s that freeze, and online tutorials that won’t run.

This is my second late shift at the reference desk.  I am enjoying the nocturnal life, so far.  The difference in traffic between my commute here at 7:45 pm and home again at midnight is discernable: no one veers into my lane while texting after midnight, at least not so far. And NHPR broadcasts The World Today from the BBC World Service at midnight, so I can hear what my son might sound like when he comes home from his gap year in England. 

It’s also interesting to see how many lights are on in my neighborhood at 12:40 am when I pull in (more than you’d think). And it feels a little decadent to read in the late afternoon, when I used to be working, but I think I could get used to that. I don’t fall asleep in my book at that hour, which I always did at bedtime.

I do hope students will begin to ask reference questions soon, because technical troubleshooting isn’t nearly as gratifying. Maybe I should just consider it stamping out evil instead. In which case, my colleagues in the IT department should perhaps wear superhero capes.