Being a librarian in a library building right now has certain challenges, viz people like to come into libraries and sit around, coughing onto the books and rubbing their mandibles all over the circulation desk. Not all of them, obviously, but the patrons who button up with a nice thick face mask aren’t the ones who remain in our minds. Those patrons leave us in every sense when they depart in an orderly fashion; the terrible ones remain with us in our awareness for lo these many long days. Unfortunately, there’s good reason for this at the best of times: a thousand wonderful patrons may arrive and depart without incident, but one terrible patron can ruin everything.
This is a problem because every public library has one to five dreadful patrons, and in our current case, they can cause an outsized amount of harm. Librarians tend to be older – I know a couple who are approaching their eighties with no intention of retiring. It’s a profession that’s easygoing and friendly to disability, too, with a culture that tends to err on the side of understanding that you’ve got a doctor’s appointment. This may be why so many of us seem to have minor chronic conditions or care for vulnerable people outside of work. One of the reasons that I myself entered and persisted in the library field was that the profession is notoriously nurturing, and I, as many already know, am a delicate and dainty blossom.
My point is that, in the context of the current unpleasantness, librarians are kind of a vulnerable group in general. I’m worried that the confluence of the occasional jerk of a patron and the relative age of the profession could cause disaster. That’s not even mentioning the danger of librarians spreading the disease – many of our patrons are older, too, or picking up books for elderly and at-risk family.
There are many ways to be a librarian aside from standing in buildings and handing out books. While the trend right now is, understandably, “get the staff back in before the town cuts our budget,” I hope that anyone who is not receiving pressure to open from their municipalities will consider the alternatives. Lots of libraries are exploring these already, but I thought it might be worthwhile to list them in case someone’s idly Googling “remote librarian” or “how to open library Covid” and needs a few ideas.
Remote reference only
Even if you’ve got to bring staff back, why open your reference floor to the public? Goodness knows you can’t clean the computers and by far most of the questions you’ll get can be answered online or with a quick reference check. Have patrons email you, Zoom you, call you, and contact you telepathically. Who to ask: university libraries
Set up a board game tourney or Minecraft night. Play any group-friendly, remote-friendly video game your administration will approve – just do it together with your patrons. In fact, if you stream it on Twitch, you may get a little famous. I guarantee I’ll watch a librarian play video games with their friends, patrons, families, etc. Who to ask: Cleveland Public Library
Contactless book delivery
Each patron in your town can order a limited number of books from your specific once a week – no transits, orders, ILLs, or nonsense. They can even ask the librarians to choose for them. Otherwise, this service functions just like a Grubhub. Labor-intensive, say you? Says I, if the patrons can’t come into the library, your staff will have time. Have them Insta their adventures to the local paper and nobody will question that the librarians are hard at work. Who to ask: Western Manitoba.
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Hey everyone! Some important information related to our new Contactless Delivery System (please read through before placing a request). We are thrilled by the response so far and look forward to getting library books into your hands in a safe and convenient way 🙌 #wmrl #brandonpubliclibrary #contactlessbookdeliveries
Stream a classic
If music be the soul of love, then people are bored and want to hear stories so make your own library Internet radio station. Stream Librivox chapters, old-time radio, reference question answers, storytimes, news, and whatever the heck else you want. (As long as it’s royalty-free.) You could also start a podcast, I guess, but everybody and their mother has a podcast these days and there’s something magical about knowing that other people are listening at the exact same time as you are. My recommendation: choose compilations of short stories so that people don’t jump into the middle of a long book. Who to ask: Memphis Public Libraries
If your consortium is anything like mine, then you have most of your patrons’ emails. If they haven’t explicitly opted out of getting spam from you, reach out to your heaviest users and ask if they’d like a weekly e-book recommendation. Be sure to send them titles that are available on OverDrive, Hoopla, or whatever other platform your library prefers. Bonus: offer to stock their account for them once every three weeks so that all they have to do is log in to get that good good literature. Or that rancid smut, whatever they prefer. As long as you don’t have to touch it with your bare hands, who says it has to be clean?
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.
Librarians are in an odd position, technologically. This is especially true of those lucky/unlucky folks who join me as the motley crew of the Good Ship Tech Librarian. We’re well informed enough to be afraid of the decline of net neutrality, “free” services, social engineering, and the weaponization of personal data. At the same time, being capable with Google Drive, WordPress, LinkedIn, and Instagram is allowing us to bring services to our patrons that we’d otherwise be unable to provide. Concurrent document sharing alone is a powerful tool that we’d have to pay hundreds, even thousands for if we weren’t paying with our data already.
At the same time, it is scary. Worst of all, we see patrons suffer when they don’t have access to these services. Kids without computers at home come to the library to log on to Google Drive to do their homework. Mom still working? Nobody to drive? That homework isn’t getting done. The looming threat of the digital divide isn’t going to hurt librarians. It’s going to hurt our most vulnerable patrons: the poorest, newest, most stressed Americans who are least capable of affording wifi or a new laptop.
Providing IT services to these populations has got to be a critical part of our mission now. Yes, we should keep the darn books – I hate it when people think of print and digital collections as some kind of zero-sum format war – but we need to recognize that it’s no longer possible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps by reading a lot. Even if it were, who has time for that nowadays? I’ve got a masters degree and I still work two jobs.
Warning vulnerable folks about how the Internet really works seems like part of our mission too, but what happens if those patrons’ outcomes are harmed thanks to our love/hate relationship with technology? Scaring a new tech user isn’t going to help them – they still need to know how to use the Internet, scary or not. At the same time, if your trustworthy local librarian doesn’t explain about how viruses work, you’re likely to be misinformed by the news anyway, while at the same time getting beguiled by safe-looking situations like the Facebook dumpster fire. Which, by the way, I check every morning and evening.
Education is the key. Not only do we need to start teaching our patrons about how to use tech and most importantly how to get it for free, but we need to do so in a coordinated and organized way. The profession also needs to agree on some guidelines and (brace yourselves) standards. We need to show people the back doors into the world of technology and how to avoid some of the pitfalls.
To that end, I have made a conceptual toolkit for vulnerable new tech users. These are skills and resources that I think we need to teach in public libraries, which means that librarians need to get good at them first.
Open Source Software
Oh my God the tyranny of Microsoft. Not only is their software expensive and vulnerable to exploitation, but it stops working at the weirdest moments. Recently, Microsoft has also started pushing people into 365 subscriptions, but my experience with that (expensive!) service has been poor. Why pay real money for a scheme that doesn’t even share well? Nevermind the concurrency problems.
There are open source alternatives to browsers, word processors, and even operating systems. Some are easy entry – LibreOffice, for example – and others require more technical fluency. Consider Ubuntu Linux the apex of a program series about open source. Not that your patrons can’t learn how to use it, but you’ll need to bone up on command line yourself and be prepared to help patrons with their first baby steps into managing an OS.
That said, if your patron is just using Ubuntu to do some word processing and use the Internet, they might never have to get into the thorniness that is installing new programs. Even that is easier than it used to be when Ubuntu was a twinkle in the eye of Debian Linux, from which it sprang like Athena from the head of Zeus. There’s now a handy dandy software install tool that makes a lot of getting new software – most of it free and open – fairly easy. I’m writing this on a refurbished Ubuntu laptop right now. It may be a particularly ideal solution for young students who are flexible enough to absorb new skills. The real problem is finding librarians who are comfortable teaching it.
I’ve also had a great deal of luck introducing OpenOffice and LibreOffice to older computer users. If you’re patient, you can teach anyone how to use these. The controls are analogous to their brand counterparts, but they cost 100% less. The same goes for Gimp, Firefox, VLC Player, and other alternatives. When it comes to our patrons, being able to access technology in the first place is often a more urgent issue than protecting their privacy. Using open source alternatives can let them accomplish both of these goals in one swell foop. The only needful thing is a librarian who can introduce it all in a comprehensible way.
Free/open source alternative
Internet Explorer, Chrome, Safari
|Microsoft Office||LibreOffice, OpenOffice, Mozilla Thunderbird|
|iMovie, Windows Movie Maker||HitFilm Express|
|Windows Media Player, iTunes||VLC Player|
|Kindle services, Google Books||Calibre|
|Windows, iOS||Ubuntu Linux|
|Norton Antivirus, Trend Micro||ClamAV|
Distributed Freemium Services
Google tracks you. I tell this to everyone I meet. Literally. I just told it to a barista. At the same time, that tracking is payment for a valuable service. You’re never going to find a versatile cloud that doesn’t track you, paid or not, I don’t care what they say. Knowledge is power, data is valuable, and storing stuff in Google’s cloud is safer than keeping it on a home computer. This is especially true in the cases of patrons who don’t own computers or have wifi at home. They can’t keep information on library computers, but they should know that they can work on the same project over multiple library sessions, or even across multiple libraries. That’s why I generally recommend Google Drive to patrons, even as I explain – twice, when necessary – that their data will be aggregated, packaged, and made available to advertisers.
There’s a tightrope we need to walk when it comes to patrons whose lives are being harmed by lack of access to technology and technology education. Whatever their goals are, they often need an online foot locker, at least, to store resumes and letters. They need to practice word processing and data management skills in a place that’s “theirs,” if only in an abstract sense. Using Google for this isn’t awesome, but the next best option is Office 365, which costs money for equivalent service.
It’s bad that this is the choice we need to make, and I will always push for privacy whenever I can. But the bare fact is that most of our patrons couldn’t afford Google-level services if Google charged money for them.
There are alternatives. One is to walk around with a USB drive all the time. I have patrons who do this, and it’s a great solution until the drive fritzes. Portable hard drives are a more durable solution, but they’re bulky and expensive. Plus, if you need to collaborate, your drive will be unwieldy. Then there are the email services that patrons will need to use anyway, services that are “free” in the same way that Google and Facebook services are “free.” Your patrons’ data is already being harvested, whether or not they use an external storage unit. It’s inevitable. Our only power comes from making sure that they at least get some good service for what it’s costing them.
I feel like a Google shill when I say this, but ultimately, they have to pick *something.* It may as well be a robust suite of services that all work well, even if Alphabet’s days of non-evilness are long over the horizon.
|Gmail||Works well, best complimentary services|
|Cloud storage||Google Drive||Most space, best apps|
|Online search||Duck Duck Go||Anonymizing|
|Housing, goods, and services||Craigslist||Easy to navigate, no fees, local|
Here’s where the librarian has to step up. It’s on us to be aware of the tech situation, up on the latest apps, and – yes – to be ready to do some basic repair. I’d die for some association-wide advanced IT training for librarians. I have lost count of the virus-riddled laptops I’ve had to deal with in the last four years. My best advice in cases where you’re in over your head is to locate the best small computer repair shop in your area (NOT BEST BUY) and develop a relationship. I’ve found one that’s run by a competent woman and her family, charges reasonable rates, doesn’t upsell, and isn’t mean to my elderly patrons. They get a lot of business from me. That said, as soon as I get far enough in my IT classes to be confident about fixing a sick laptop, I’m doing that service for free.
We tech librarians need to be proactive about learning command line, beta-testing new software, and providing the education that our patrons need. Sometimes, that will mean asking what patrons need. Sometimes, your programs will fail because nobody will show up. Sometimes, you’ll need to take a MOOC or ten before you feel like you can really help. It’s exhausting, but talk to your boss about setting aside work time for continuing ed and staff trainings. You don’t have to go at this problem alone or in a state of panic.
Likewise, you’re going to need to find a way to bring technology to your patrons. Circulating mobile hot spots can be a great way to do this, but it works best when you conduct a coordinated PR campaign to make sure that the neediest sections of your community are aware that this is an option. Circulating laptops and devices can be powerful, too, but it’s is expensive. You might have to content yourself with setting up shop at a farmer’s market, YMCA, or school for a certain amount of time every day, every few days, every week, etc. At first, anyway. Bring computers, a hot spot, and your bad self. We’ll bridge this digital divide, so help us. If we don’t, nobody else will.
Teach other librarians. Teach your patrons. Make yourself a constant resource. Hold IT repair days. Look around your community for the cracked screens that aren’t getting fixed, the resumes that aren’t getting formatted right, and the passwords that are ever getting lost. These are places where a librarian can provide services. Provide.
I spent the first part of last week at the Massachusetts Library Association’s 2019 conference. (Theme: Big Top? Circus sideshow? The Best Job On Earth! Could have used more jugglers, but nobody asked me, so.) I know a lot of people who skipped this one, citing an anemic program lineup. Granted, there were no jugglers, but otherwise, I actually found this to be far from the truth.
This is the first con where I actually attended the MLA catch-up session, where you get to meet your association governance. That meant that I finally had a chance to start divvying names between MLA, MLS, and MBLC. Not to mention NELA. I’ll be honest: I have always had trouble figuring out which of these guys does the big budget. (MBLC, I think.) I know MBLC provides a lot of statewide databases, like Gale, that most libraries couldn’t dream of having otherwise. MLS provides a lot of ebooks. However, the fact remains that if you’re going to be a good librarian in Massachusetts, you’ve got to know…
And if you want to get into library politics (GOD BLESS YOU) you’ll need to associate with and/or work for…
I briefly worked with the Air Force as a contractor librarian and during that moment I got fairly comfortable with alphabet soup. However, libraryland puts the military to shame. It doesn’t help that everybody hops around jobs, shares tasks, and generally herd-of-cats it up with the best of them.
So it was good to have a chance to kind of sort that out a bit. I can’t say I’m now an expert per se in MBLC vs. MLS. What I mainly took away from that session was that there used to be way more of these groups. MA used to have something north of a dozen library organizations in the state. Apparently, 2008 leveled them like wheat before the scythe, and every org that survived had to consolidate and downsize dramatically to survive. They’re only now recovering.
I was just going into library school in 2008. In fact, I graduated from SUNY Binghamton in December of 2007 and merrily took out a shipload of high-interest PLUS loans in preparation for the lucrative library career upon which I was about to embark. Of course, as soon as I’d signed the final paper, the economy crashed. No joke, everything went to hell literally the week after I’d finalized the loans. At the time this seemed very lame to me, but of course it was nothing compared to what happened to people who lost their retirements, houses, jobs, and livelihoods. Learning about how the Great Recession impacted libraries and their representatives is also quite sobering.
We live in a boom-bust economy. I’m too young and uneducated to know if Naomi Klein is right about this aggressive, low-oversight, take-no-prisoners version of T-Rex capitalism is a recent Regan-era phenomenon. However, there does seem to be a constant cycle of economic destruction and rebirth going on, and while it might be spectacular to watch from a penthouse (maybe? Someone must want this, right?), us little people are getting burned again and again.
What I hear now is that the same exact thing won’t happen again. Not sure whether this is accurate, but how would I know either way? I’m no economist. My point is that busts seem pretty inevitable in our model. Several have happened in my lifetime. Some were big, some were small, some were probably avoidable or predictable, but not by me. or anyone I know. They’re essentially like earthquakes. We seem to live on an economic fault line.
Libraries are one of the last social institutions that give people stuff for free, and when the power/Internet goes out at home, we’re where people come to look for jobs, freelance, and do whatever they have to do to get their lives together. Because we have Internet, and without Internet, you don’t have nothin’. So when the earthquake strikes again, it makes sense that we’d be good first responders. It’s time for us to stop being surprised when the economy goes to hell, because it seems to do that. Barring some major change in our economic model – and who are we kidding, even in the face of looming ecological disaster our model stubbornly refuses to give an inch – another crash seems like more a matter of time than anything else.
Whether bracing for it means somehow putting money aside, having a contingency plan for staffing, or just networking enough to know how we might be able to share material resources in a crunch will have to be situationally determined by each library and each org. Lord knows I’m not in administration, but I’m aware that each situation in libraries and in associations is essentially unique. This is bad because we can’t formulate a single cohesive plan and great because heterogeneous systems tend to be more resilient. I am of two minds about the library herd-of-cats effect, but that’s a topic for another post.
Second, we need to focus on mobile, material tech outreach. That could benefit our current low-income and struggling patrons now, but during the next downturn it could also benefit people who currently don’t consider the library at all. Promo seems like low-hanging fruit, but of course the traditional billboard costs money. I advocate showing up at farmer’s markets with free wifi and a couple of computers, stationing a librarian at the mall for on-the-spot Libby demos, and going into the schools with flyers listing the free stuff you can get at the library. If I had my druthers, I’d see every library with ten circulating hotspots. Would that the budget gods made that possible for all of us.
Library associations also need to start pushing tech outreach as a major duty of public libraries. Grants can help publics get into the information literacy groove. Talent clearinghouses can dig up librarians who know everything from web design to auto repair, so it might be a good idea to start building those. Your website and bookmobile are guaranteed to break down at the worst moment.
Most of all, more librarians need to get involved in and aware of the alphabet soup. It’s not about career advancement and it’s not about politics. It’s about maintaining the budget if the economy crashes, about keeping MLS in the black by any means necessary, and generally maintaining the integrity of the profession if something bad happens. Just being aware of the associations and systems and boards brings more talent to bear on a potential problem. More talent is more joy and a more resilient professional ecosystem.
No matter how we do it, we need to get ready for another economic dip. We need to be ready to catch our patrons when they start to slip out of the middle class. We also need to make sure that our orgs, who do amazing things for our radical little socialist outposts, don’t go under if 2008 ever happens again.