Coming to you live from my lunch break, I am your COVID19 library correspondent. This is going to be short and quick because we are BUSY.
Public libraries want to stay available, but can’t stay open. Not only are libraries traditionally places where people gather to exchange germs, but the only reason to visit a library is to share technology and information, viz books, computers, cake pans. All of which will soon be/currently are covered in a thin, even film of germs. Think a creamy layer of delicious chocolate icing on one of those adorable library cakes.
Long story short: if your library is open right now, avoid using its physical resources please.
Libraries provide a suite of resources that can vastly improve your quarantine experience. I might try to write about this for Book Riot later, but frankly I’m still carving out time for writing these days and someone might beat me to it. So here’s what you can still get from your trusty library system:
- E-books. Look up Libby or Hoopla on your phone’s app store. You’ll need your library card number, but if you don’t have it just call a library in your network. Most of mine are still staffing, they’re just not open. A resource like Safari (soon to be called O’Reilly for Public Libraries) is often available in-browser.
- Movies. Consider Kanopy a good option, and Hoopla has a bunch of movies you should be able to borrow right from a smart TV.
- Internet. Charge up your laptop or phone and just park yourself in your local library’s parking lot. I’ve heard rumors that a few turn off their wifi when they’re closed, but most of them couldn’t do that even if they wanted to for various technological reasons. If you park close to the building, you should be able to get a nice strong signal without ever leaving your car. If your library is an asshole library (they exist!) that turns off its wifi, drive to another one.
- Language resources. Many libraries have language-learning stuff on their websites. Mango is popular.
Not enough? I get it, buddy. It’s not a lot compared to the usual suite of services. Check out your library’s website and see if they do video storytimes, YouTube videos, or other remote services.
That’s all, book buddies. I just finished The Goon: A Ragged Return To Lonely Street and it was stupid, dumb, and violent and I loved it. Also, it was fairly well drawn. Why was there just one woman who started sexy and then turned into a monster? Why did Goon reference sadomasochism when he was interacting with her? Might this say something about comics or people or monsters? I have no idea! On to the next volume.
I’m also playing Handsome Boy Modeling School (Affiliate link forthcoming, sorry, I’ve been crappy about that) and it has made my little butch face much prettier.
I have a loud voice. Part of this is because I listened to a lot of obnoxious music in my twenties and now strain to hear a whisper or mumble when I’m standing next to a fan. Another part is that I grew up in a loud Italian family where the volume was permanently at 11, and that still seems normal to me. The final part is that I just have some lung power, man.
And I like to use it! Even when my voice gets unpleasantly dry and creaky, which happens every stupid time the temperature to moisture ratio of the room falls below sauna levels, I love to croak me out some Rage Against The Machine. If I hydrate, my range becomes fierce. I can whistle, too. All of this happens at top volume.
There are many reasons why none of it can happen in the library.
- It’s loud. While the Nevins isn’t a silent library, patrons don’t want to hear me expound upon the lifespan of the lobster or serve some sick burns to the military-industrial complex. It’s not professional. Incidentally…
- Even humming a recognizable, expletive-laden song in front of a patron is inappropriate. On the plus side, Hookers by Irontom has been stuck in my noggin for about a year now and resisting it has allowed me to achieve zen-like levels of self-control.
- Misophonia. There are a lot of people with sensory issues, major and minor, who use the library. It is not fair to subject them to whistling, humming, or the scratchy crow voice I get when it’s both too cold and too dry for my diva of a larynx. In fact, generating pointless noise can make people ornery and hard to handle. Why would I want to rile a patron? (Don’t answer that.)
There’s another problem with using my voice at the desk: the patrons are right there. The patron computers are literally five feet away from my preferred computer station. That means that any conversation I have with a coworker (or another patron) is likely to be overheard, and with it, all of its sensitive personal information.
Because I’m a fairly self-conscious person, my initial worry goes along the lines of oh god, what if something I say offends people? This falls into the category of useful paranoias that I like to think has kept me out of a fair amount of trouble. I avoid all political and controversial subjects. When patrons want to talk, I try to steer the dialogue to library services or technology; when colleagues want to talk, we talk about pets, books, and kids. Intellectually, I know that I probably shouldn’t be saying anything to my colleagues when we’re on the desk together, but I feel the need to balance camaraderie and friendliness with circumspection. We only work well together if we’re on good terms, and that means being social, to an extent.
But privacy is still the best reason to watch your mouth in the reference room, and sometimes, the combination of the patrons themselves and the setup of a reference floor makes this difficult. Case in point: I once helped a patron who was looking for housing. They had multiple considerations and I struggled to find a solution that was right for them. We were working at a computer and there were other people around us. When the first patron became upset, another patron volunteered a personal recommendation for a housing counselor in the next town over. While this was very helpful, it also represented a potentially bad situation. Patron 1, who was in housing distress, did not want to talk to Patron 2, but not because they wanted to maintain privacy. Patron 1 had previously told me that they did not consider people of Patron 2’s ethnic group to be true Americans.
Luckily, the situation resolved without incident and everybody learned an important lesson about tolerance, prejudice, and how far off the rails things can go when patrons overhear your reference questions. I’d initially assumed that we needed to preserve Patron 1’s privacy over their housing needs, but when that privacy was breached, bigger problems became evident. I now think of privacy as a container that keeps all of a patron’s issues localized for a moment while we figure out how to handle their immediate issue. It’s wonderful that Patron 1 came away from that interaction with a broader mind, and I am still very grateful that Patron 2 was so patient and slow to take offense, but that conversation was a job for a consciousness-raising program, not a reference desk.
The real question is how we can mitigate eavesdropping in an environment where problems must usually be solved with computers and computers are necessarily clumped together. The kind of information that this puts at risk makes that anecdote above sound just delightful. People regularly describe their tax problems to me at the reference desk, and I have had patrons try to tell me their social security numbers. Many people come into the library for personal assistance with online job applications and end up discussing their home addresses, work histories, disabilities, and even conviction histories aloud. I try to seat patrons dealing with sensitive stuff away from others on the reference floor, but there’s no getting around it: when we’re full up, even a whisper is audible by whoever’s at the next computer over.
If I had my druthers, we would have a sensitive services area. It would contain two or three booths that close tight to mitigate or eliminate noise. There would be a computer in each one. You’d sign each booth out for an hour at a time, and once you were in, you could go to town. Scream at your insurance agent on your cell phone. Relay your social security number to whosoever you please. Call in a librarian and talk about researching your extremely personal illness or finding a lawyer to help you with your divorce or immigration.
“Telephone” booths are expensive nowadays, but there are DIY options for sound-dampening areas. (Personally, though, I’d spring for something with see-through windows, regardless of price. Safety first!) There could even be a specific laptop that patrons sign out when they want to use the phone booth so that regulars aren’t tempted to co-opt it for their Facebook-surfing needs.
Would people misuse a telephone booth? Obviously. Even if it’s in plain sight, couples will go in there, gamers will camp out to play Warcraft, and people suffering from paranoia will insist that it’s the only place they can safely check their email. But every privilege a library provides gets abused eventually. The point isn’t to keep services away from the 2% who will take advantage, but to make them available to the 98% who need them.
After all, as experience proves, I’m not the only one with a voice that carries.
Featured image from Room.com!
I’ve never worked in a library where food was not readily available. Cookies, cake for someone’s birthday, fruit, leftover breakfast stuff from a program. At Nevins, we have a fruit share, a candy basket, a snacks counter, and a fridge that is usually full of leftovers.
Forgetting your lunch is not a huge catastrophe here.
Today I dined upon mustard broccoli with raisins and garbanzo beans. In fact, I took two helpings. I think they were left by a program presenter, to whom I tip my hat. Man oh man, did I eat a lot of broccoli. I don’t know who made two giant vats of this stuff, but they did an amazing job. I’ve been eating too much over the past couple days in an attempt to manifest pregnancy. If I’m successful, I’ll write a book. Meanwhile, please pass more of that broccoli. I might be the only person eating it.
I’ve had a lot of burners on the stove lately. In addition to the biggies, which I won’t discuss because they will bore you, I must keep my Libby-based digital audiobook stash fresh. This means zooming through The Cuckoo’s Calling at 2.5x normal speed so I can read whatever’s just downloaded from my holds list.
The things that stress out librarians.
Also stressing me out is the cost of replacing our charging cords. At my library, we hand out charging cords in exchange for a collateral ID card. Usually, the people who need charging cords are kids, and usually, they don’t have any ID on them.
What am I going to say? No, foolish child! Go file for a state ID and then come see me about this $30 cord after a seven-to-ten day wait for shipping! Ugh. Obviously I let the kids take the cord, and they’re generally pretty honest. I have them write down their name and phone number just in case they forget to bring the cord back, but that would be tough these days. I’ve figured out a way to wire a laminated tag to the plug housing in such a way that it can’t be gotten off without breaking one of the wires.
From now on, any disappearances are definitely theft. Conceptually, disappearances might have been happening before now, but one cord looks very much like another and we’d incorporate enough found cords into our little collection that our supply remained fairly stable. Not that it’s not theft to swap out your busted cord for our nice one. I wouldn’t be 100% surprised if this is why our cords have been aging so fast, because they have been aging fast. One day, the cord is brand-new; the next, it will not charge for god or country.
On the other hand, we also get cord donations occasionally. I’m fairly sure that these are well-meaning, but it results in a couple negative eventualities:
- The used cords become busted cords more quickly anyway, and since we don’t know the cord’s age we can’t really guess when that will happen
- We end up with irregular and off-brand cords that don’t work as well as quality ones
- As bad as lookism is, it’s nice to have a consistent brand, and a random hot green cord disrupts our branding game
- We always have a ton of Android cords and never have enough iPhone cords.
We’ve flirted with the idea of getting dedicated charging stations for the library before, and although they are fairly expensive, I think they’d solve some of the squirrelly minor issues with lending charging cords. Now that we’ve got to revamp our entire reference floor anyway, it seems like it might finally happen. That said, I sincerely hope that we get one for each floor so that people don’t have to glom onto just one unit.
We’re going to have to be conscious of replaceability if we go with a standalone charging unit a la conference or mall charging kiosk. The other reason that our cords might be aging out so fast might have to do with how patrons are using them. As usual, the root problem is data collection. We don’t really know what the patrons are doing to our equipment, though the imagination paints some interesting pictures, and if we don’t know that, we don’t know nothin’.
On the other hand, we could just gin up some shoeboxes with power strips inside. Added bonus: we could decorate those any way we wanted. Housing options are essentially unlimited. We could use a bread box, a basket – god, one trip to A.C. Moore multiplies the possibilities. There are myriad ways to hide a bus. Maybe we could borrow a few extra dollars from the replace-iPhone-cords discretionary fund for security measures. I figure a few wall anchors, some tastefully disguised chicken wire, and a padlock ought to do the trick.
So I just sent a spec in to a librarian magazine in the hopes that I might become a regular review columnist for them. Yay! I’m incredibly happy to have gotten the opportunity, and even if they decide to go with someone else, it was nice to be asked. It was also nice to know that I haven’t been reading professional literature for all this time to no purpose.
We’ve got a tricky job as librarians. We need to be steady ships on rough seas, people who know stuff in a world where stuff is always changing. Our job has recently become far more challenging because of this, but I suspect that’s just a matter of degree. Public libraries really became a thing in the teeth of the Industrial Revolution, when a new invention was popping up to supplant a human worker every other year. Melvil Dewey, an utter bastard who you can read about in my Book Riot piece, noticed that people were unhappy with that and invented the library to pacify them with Christian values. No joke, dude was a tool. Dewey’s attempt to reify class structure through Bible stories lasted about as long as a snowball in Tahiti, but it still indicates a basic awareness that the needs of the public were changing and growing. Librarians after him did somewhat of a better job interpreting this omen. Hence, literacy programs and children’s story times.
The wheel of so-called progress has only revolved faster since then. I left library school ten years ago and I’m amazed at how out-of-date my education is already. For example, patrons are now interested in searching Instagram. That is something I most definitely did not learn about in school. When I graduated, we all thought that we were going to be uploaded into Second Life any day.
My point is this: it is incumbent upon us librarians to keep educating ourselves. If we fall behind, our patrons lose a critical resource. Whether about searching social media or pronoun use, we absolutely have to crack those ALA editions texts. We have to collection-develop them and assign ourselves reading.
And, when possible, we really ought to take classes. It almost doesn’t matter in what, although in my perfect world, all librarians could get complementary continuing-ed badges to that no library is without someone who’s familiar with the most common topics. I’ve found MOOCs to be difficult to follow through upon, but that’s me. Maybe if I were doing it in a group – and if it were my job – I’d be better able to stick to it. Meanwhile, a better strategy for me has been traditional school. I’m currently taking tech classes at a community college, ideally for an IT certificate but absolutely to improve my ability to work with computers, since that’s the role I seem to be falling into.
The idea that all librarians can just pick up and take a class is, of course, unfair. My library has a fund that’s paying for my classes, and Lord knows what’s going to happen to these lofty ideals when I pop out a kid. Even one class is a big ask. But burning through a Libraries Unlimited text twice a year? Reading American Libraries at the desk? Taking a MOOC as a group? Maybe doable.
So in summary, I have run out of things to say. I now have to go do my CPS 130 homework. It is due on Monday and at this rate I’ll still be hashing out the differences between a serial and a parallel port by then.
A while back, my library experienced a disaster of sorts. Specifically, we experienced the kind of disaster that’s at once human-made and essentially inevitable: equipment failure. An AC unit dumped a ton of water all over a bunch of upper story stacks. The upshot is that half of our reference floor is currently plasticked up like that Dr. Who episode where the Cybermen take over. Including the computers and books.
We have six computers available, which is half of our usual number, and word has gotten around. People have, for the most part stopped visiting the reference floor. Some diehards still drift in, but they know the score already and don’t need a ton of help from us. If we’re full up here, they cheerfully mosey on down the the unaffected children’s room, which is now abandoned because school has begun.
See? The cosmic spaghetti monster opens a window!
Seriously, this isn’t the worst thing in the world. We’re finding out just how valuable having a copier is. If I had to start a library in 21st century America, I’d rent a storefront and stock it with some computers, two printer/copiers, and a holds shelf. In fact, I’d probably rent five or six and put them in disparate corners of my city. Distributed library, baby!
For now, snug in my centralized library, there are still a few things I can do.
- Cancel catalog subscriptions. My god this is a plague. Last month, I cancelled 5 Demco catalog subscriptions for various staff members who do not order library supplies. I was warned that it might take a while to remove these mailing, but much to my surprise, we received over double that number from Demco in August! Playing whack-a-mole with unwanted catalogs is filling my time nicely and, hopefully, will help save the Earth someday when the library supplies monopoly of the U.S. stops passive aggressively upping our free mailing memberships.
- Handle tech problems. We’ve still got ’em! The latest Windows 10 update might have conked out our staff computer/printer relationship and there’s not much I can do except observe. But boy howdy can I observe!
- Give tech lessons. I love it when people come in and ask about Libby. That is seriously a red-letter day for me. There is no better way to give a free gift than to introduce someone to a library lending app and explain how it works. This is particularly true in the case of an elderly person who is looking at near-term mobility limits and potentially physical frailty. Say what you will about our excessively connected world, but e-books and e-audiobooks are freedom for many of my patrons.
- Catch up on technical reading. My excellent boss encourages me to read Computers in Libraries at the desk when nothing else is going on. I also relish the chance to pop around the web and see what LJ and PL and AL and XY and ZZ all think about the latest library trends.
- Run support for adjacent programs. A few years ago, my aforementioned boss and I put together a just-add-water program that took people on a self-guided tour of the city. That kind of got rolled into a larger celebration of the city’s history, and now I just make sure the signs are right and everyone has brochures.
- Retrain. I’m about to head back into the fray with my first computer hardware course. I might test for my A+ cert when it’s done, just to do it. I’m also going to learn how to operate a camera so that we can firm up an alliance with the local cable access station – a move I’m positively thrilled about.
There’s a lot we can accomplish, even without the books and even without many computers. Not that we should dump either of those important services, but it does give one pause. It’s refreshing to know that our profession is so much more resilient than the specs of its various parts.
This past week has been an alarming one for my library. In the dead of the night, in the midst of one of the worse heat waves we’ve recently seen, an AC unit experienced a catastrophic failure and dumped a ton of water all over the nonfiction. Which is situated above the fiction. This represents half the library, which is now piled on tables and shelved on mobile plywood emergency stacks.
Now we do the delicate librarian dance of unshelving and reshelving, determining where all the little lost souls of nonfiction have ended up and putting them back in order. Right now, St. Augustine sits uncomfortably next to Neil deGrasse Tyson. Wayne Dyer and Snookie are snuggly.
The rest of the building exists in the throes of disaster remediation. Half of the place is currently wrapped in plastic while fans blow full bore. The noise is driving people crazy. (Not me. I can’t hear over the damn AC at the best of times, so as far as I’m concerned we’re all on the same page now.)
But at least we can remediate paper books. I worry more about our ability to maintain, curate, and manage digital content, which is subject to disasters of the corporate type. For my part, I can’t believe that publishers are still so dense as to think this won’t hurt them. If nothing else, embargoing and hiking the price on Overdrive titles is both an opportunity missed and myopia typical of the publishing dinosaurs. There are tons of opportunities for monetization of a low-cost or free ebook borrowing or sale model. It just takes some creativity and (gasp) risk. In case Macmillan leadership happens to be reading my blog, hello Macmillan. Here are some ideas for you, and you can have them for free.
- Library book borrowers get a coupon for 50% off the author’s next event.
- Embrace transmedia storytelling. You can put banner ads on websites, you know. That’s what made Google so rich.
- Run events. Live readings could be hugely popular with established fans and represent an opportunity for direct revenue, merchandising, and advertising.
- Merch merch merch. Team up with popular recording artists to sell your swag.
- Use big names to record audiobooks. People might shell out for the deluxe edition of Walden as narrated by Lady Gaga, even though you can get a generic version for free on Librivox.
E-book lending is one of the only niches in library service that’s growing right now. Hamstringing it is not just an attack on libraries, but a hostile act against patrons who are not in a position to pony up $25 for a license for a digital book that they’ll read once and not end up owning anyway. I could easily frame this as an attack on libraries – because it is – but it’s also another poverty tax. If you’re poor, you don’t get new e-books, or all e-books, or e-books forever, or e-books when you want them.
That’s why the paper books remain very important. I don’t know how libraries are going to win the e-book war. Boycotts could prove counterproductive because after all our whole thing is books, and anyway all libraries would have to be on board at once and good luck getting that herd of cats headed in the right direction. Going to the press seems like a good move, one that might have more impact with the aforementioned possibly ill-advised boycotts and/or picketing.
But first and foremost, we need to save the books. Even when they’re a hassle and even when people don’t borrow them as frequently as we’d like, they’re the analog hole in an increasingly digital world. If I have to spend my career arguing that libraries are important for that reason alone, it’ll be a good use of my time.