Diary of a Librarian: The Skills We REALLY Need

Hello, friends! It’s nearly Thanksgiving, so I’ll keep this short, sweet, and to the point. We librarians need to edumacate ourselves.

I’m not talking about increasing our focus on reference or becoming better at beeping the books. That’s the old way of thinking about specialties. These days we need to develop new skills, and that means continuing ed. Let’s pay librarians’ tuition and send them to school to develop some useful new skills! These skills don’t have to be specific to each staff member. Someone could develop two specialties or even triple up – this, after all, is libraries.

Here’s what I think we need the most right now.

Education Librarian

We’re as much teachers these days as anything else. Patrons want to learn how to download apps and use Excel. The problem is that, aside from school librarians, we generally don’t know how to teach.

The education librarian would coordinate learning events in the library and, when necessary, instruct other librarians on how to be good teachers. When someone declares that there should be a Coursera run in the library, it’ll be the education librarian who figures that out.

Internal Communication Librarian

Librarians tend to be free spirits. Individualists. A herd of cats, you could say. And that’s great! Except it also isn’t. It also means that we trip all over each other in a group. Enter the internal communication librarian!

This person takes business classes and then manages meetings, makes sure that everybody knows what’s going on, and generally makes sure Person X talks to Person Y about Person Z’s project. Maybe they’d run an internal staff blog detailing the library’s news.

Outreach Librarian

A lot of places already have this person – my place does. But too many do not! Some librarians need to take marketing classes and become library bloggers, social media experts, and advertising mavens.

IT Librarian

That’s me, guys! The IT librarian might come in with some IT background, but they could also get training as they work for the library. They don’t have to be hackers or whatever, they just need to know something about a motherboard and be ready to talk the lingo to tech support.

The IT librarian could double as the cybersecurity librarian. They’d track the institutional passwords and explain to everyone why they really do need to change every 60 days.

Elder Librarian

Seniors have particular needs. Sometimes, these involve mobility and vision accommodations that most of us don’t think of before they happen to us. At the same time, they’re big-time library patrons. Why not specialize a librarian to them the way we do with teens?

Graphic Designer Librarian

Libraries aren’t not going to need to do outreach in the future. That outreach isn’t not going to need to look good. Why not train someone to be the library’s professional artist?

This shouldn’t require an art degree, just a willingness to learn. The graphic designer would make clipart, zshuzsh up promotional materials, and keep library materials on-brand and looking neat.

Betabrarian

We need librarians whose job priority is to watch for trends in the profession and in the wider world, and then test them out to see if they could be useful in a library context.

They should go to every conference, collect every business card, and build a weekly situational report for their institution that includes new social factors (“OK Boomer,”) new tech developments (foldable smartphone,) and the results of their own R&D. For example, maybe this is the person to test NFC stickers in the library.

Special Needs Librarian

There are a lot of possible applications for this kind of expertise. Are libraries overwhelming environments for autistic people? I have no idea! I’m not autistic and have no training in that area. Are children’s books available enough to adults who read at a low Lexile? Once again, it’s a need that exists and we might be able to meet it if we train someone to be an expert on the topic.

Linguist Librarian

This intrepid person’s job will be to learn languages. They should come into the library with at least two, but over the years, they will learn more. The library will send them to school to learn Spanish, French, Arabic, Mandarin, and anything else that could possibly come in useful. It won’t be their entire job, per se, but it’ll be a big chunk.

 

Now I want to hear your ideas. Comment with the librarian specialization you think we need right now! If you think librarians already have enough going on in their lives without more stupid school, comment about that too.

Happy travel day, library friends!

Special thanks to this awesome dude for our featured image!——-> Dollar Gill


Diary of a Librarian: On Printers and Signage

About 90% of my job is walking people through the printer instructions. We do have signage up and yes, people do read it. Or, at least, they claim that they do. In reality, many of them either miss the existence of the instructions or barely glance over Step One and then proceed to get themselves kerfuffled. At this point, I swoop in.

This situation with our printer illustrates the weaknesses of signage. There are a few major reasons that patrons don’t pay attention to our lovely written instructions, and they are as follows:

  • The patron can’t read
  • The patron can’t read English
  • The patron is very tired
  • The patron is young
  • The patron is in a rush
  • The patron has an intellectual disability
  • The patron does not have reading glasses with them
  • The patron is taking a medication that inhibits their cognitive or visual abilities
  • The patron is sick
  • The patron has a mental health problem
  • The patron is in the early stages of dementia
  • The patron is used to using a different kind of printing system
  • The patron is lazy
  • The patron is high

It’s important to note that patrons are rarely at fault. Most of the time, when patrons can’t understand the instructions, there’s either a language barrier or an intellectual problem like ADHD. Not that I’m qualified to diagnose, but there are a few clear ringers among my patronage.

Don’t misinterpret me here: signage is still extremely useful when it comes to our printer. During the start of my time at this library, patrons routinely tried to print $25 jobs at a go. Since our bill acceptor can only handle $5 at a time, this meant that the enormous $25 job in question was lost and there were tears and misery all around. Then we changed the default desktop background on all computers to a custom wallpaper. This was simply a banner that read The printer cannot accept jobs of more than $5. Please print in batches of 33 pages at most or see a librarian. Or something like that. We slapped our logo on there, made it a jpeg, and hid the file so that nobody could mess with it once we made it the default background. And it worked! Once in a blue moon someone won’t read the sign, but that’s usually younger patrons and people in a rush.

This particular situation is aided by the fact that most people who come into the library to print just want a couple sheets. If everyone needed to print dissertations, maybe we’d have a bigger problem. Even so, that sign was effective at reducing incidents. Posting the printer instructions next to the release station really has helped too. It just also happens to have highlighted the cases where the patron is having a bad time because their entire day is actually going badly. We have become printer paramedics: we only ever see the emergencies.

There’s an unintended consequence here that professionals need to be aware of. Signage is most useful for patrons who happen to have their shit together on the particular day that they’re using the printer, so you’re never going to interact with that set. Instead, as I mentioned before, you’ll primarily see people who are busy, frustrated, and are generally having a bad day. Over time, this will skew your perception of your patrons. I have days when I need to work hard to remember that I’m here to help people who need help. Of course I’m going to get difficult questions, cranky patrons, and people who just can’t do it. That’s why libraries still need that human touch! As a certain wise professor of mine once said, librarians, man.

It can be tiring to show people how to use the printer again and again. However, I believe that it’s made me a better librarian and a more empathic person. The only thing I’d change is my training. In all my years of grad school, where I built databases, crunched large sets, studied arcane cataloging techniques, and learned how to preserve vellum, I never received the training that would have come in most useful at this gig. Namely, social work training. How to recognize and manage a patron with such severe OCD that a crooked photocopy is cause for a meltdown. How to deal with a teen who’s mad about a printer because he’s just been passed over for adoption…again. The telltale signs of a patron who can’t read and doesn’t want you to know it – and how to help them without humiliating them.

God help me, but I think librarians need yet another degree.


Diary of a Librarian: When It’s Dead

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.

Image result for Rise of the Cybermen

There’s creepy plastic construction sheeting in this episode, swear to God.

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.


Diary of a Librarian: The Gmail Password Crucible

Today was a heavy one for tech reference questions. There are stretches of days when I don’t field a single request for some kind of computer help beyond printer tutorials, but most of the time there’s someone out there who’s lost their Gmail password.

As long as the person in question has their phone with them, this isn’t much of an issue. Gmail just pings their app or texts them and they get to think up a whole new password for them to forget afresh the next time they come in. However, if the phone in question is not apparent, we have problems.

There’s a related issue that I came across recently that involved someone with a Droid phone. This person had no idea that they were in possession of an email account. As some of you may know, Droids require users to have Google identities and iPhones require iCloud accounts. If you don’t have one of these before you buy a smartphone, you’ll have one afterward. The only way to escape is to cling to certain kinds of prepaid and flip models.

flip phone with spectators and fire eater

A simpler way.

Anyway, this person was utterly bemused to find out that they had a Gmail address. We looked it up on their phone and wondered at its complexity: it was the name of the store where they’d purchased the phone followed by an apparently random number. The sales staff had set them up with a Gmail that they’d never wanted, had failed to explain that it existed or how it worked, and sent this individual on their way with a high five and a clear conscience.

What did we learn?

The lesson here is that we are lint in the howling gale of corporate whim and its banality will be our ruin. I can’t very well steer people away from Gmail or smartphones – Gmail is consistently the best free email you can get, and it’s damn hard to get by without a smartphone under the best of circumstances. But I can be ready to mitigate, train, and explain, and if that password proves particularly recalcitrant, track down the number for Google’s corporate headquarters. I have a Master’s and the patience of a chunk of granite. You are a taxpaying citizen whom the capitalist overlords have crassly used and abandoned. If you have a problem with your account, you’d better believe I’ll get someone on the phone.

Bonus: What Am I Reading Right Now?

Inland by Téa Obrecht

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg

Bibliotech by John Palfrey

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller


On Disasters

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.


Why Cons Are Still Important

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…

  • MLA
  • NELA
  • PLA
  • ALA

And if you want to get into library politics (GOD BLESS YOU) you’ll need to associate with and/or work for…

  • MLS
  • MBLC

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.