I haven’t written about specific reference interactions I have with library members as much as I used to in this job. A big part of that is a privacy concern because the library I work at now is the only library in a small town and I’m more conscious here that a lot of locals wouldn’t need names to identify people I mention. It’s kind of sad, because people tend to ask about interesting things, and telling stories about cool funny things that happen at the refdesk is a lot of fun.
So I totally wish I’d written this post Andy from Agnostic Maybe did about helping a library member use the internet. The gentleman who asks a lot of questions while he’s learning about word processing on the computer says “You are the first person who doesn’t laugh at me when I ask these kinds of questions.” It is enough to melt a librarian’s heart. Here’s some of Andy’s reaction:
It’s impossible to be actually nice all the time, so we do have to fake it to make it through sometimes. But his generous statement was a reminder of the importance of what I do in the lives of the people I serve. So much so that I’m starting to wonder if knowledge and information is just a secondary role in the lives of librarians. Yes, answers are important, but as I travel along my career path, I’m not always sure that’s what people are looking for when they come to the library. Empathy, kindness, and acceptance may be the larger underlying factors here.
In asking a question, it can present a vulnerability in which a person acknowledges a intellectual lacuna. In this fleeting moment, they don’t want to be judged, ridiculed, or otherwise embarrassed by a reaction to the content of their inquiry. They want to know they are safe with a person they can trust. The reference transaction isn’t simply about connecting someone to their answer, but how they feel about it along the way and after they leave.
One of the phrases that Andy uses in response to the person he’s helping is “that’s what I’m here for,” which is something I totally say every day. It’s funny how people apologize for asking me questions when I’m on desk, when that is totally why I’m there. “I don’t want to interrupt,” they say even though anything I’m doing out there is just filling the time between questions.
Yesterday I got to do one of those really fun reference interviews, where the library member and I were bouncing between the shelves and the computer looking for everything we could find about salamanders and how they regrow bits of themselves and if that has anything to do with the symbolism of mythological salamanders. We didn’t need to find anything super in-depth, just enough to satisfy his curiosity. In terms of pure informational transfer, I’m not sure how much real use he got out of it (I learned a bunch of good bits for possible trivia nights). But in terms of how he felt about the interaction, I know he was excited that I was excited to help him look this stuff up.
Anyway, I just thought that Agnostic, Maybe post was a good important one about how empathy matters.
The best collaboration tool I’ve used so far in library school is hands down Google Docs. I use wikis at work and we used BaseCamp for planning the NetworkEd UBC project, but nothing beats the big G on this.
The best part about it is when you’ve got five people collaborating on a document and everyone has it open on their respective laptop and everyone is editing the text at once. There’s a bit of give and take on that, since it is annoying to be working on the exact same sentence as someone else, but when something like deleting typos becomes a race that’s a fun tool.
When Google Wave came out I got in on the open beta, but there wasn’t a lot to do with it. My friends and I created a Wave to plan a road trip to Chicago, and while it worked, there wasn’t anything about it that was fun or useful. Integrating the best bits of Wave into Google Docs was a great step forward.
I think part of the appeal of Google Docs is that you are producing something, not just talking about producing something. I mean, it’s fine to use tools to chat and plan and such, but if it’s not integrated into the actual production, it’s just another step being pushed into your workflow. If you can collaborate directly on the work that’s a huge deal. You don’t have to reproduce your notes or people’s good ideas into the thing you’re producing, because it’s all right there.
Now, so far I’ve only handed in assignments straight from Google Docs for in-class types of things. Getting them out into LibreOffice is important to get the layout as right as I get fussy about. But separating out the layout/final touches kind of work seems far less onerous than separating the collaboration itself.
That’s what I want out of collaboration: actual work being done rather than having a separate step to talk about the work we want to do. I hate meetings that are just about assigning tasks when you could just be getting to it, right there. The rapid-prototyping model is built into this kind of collaboration. A person writes a sentence. It doesn’t work and gets rewritten right there. There’s chatting in the sidebar about why it doesn’t work and what would be better. “How about this?” someone can ask and you can see if it works or not. There’s no separate step of coming together to pull words apart and then going back to work on it again. Everyone sees the sausage being made, and that’s a good thing.
In my mind this also deals with a bit of the design by committee problem. You aren’t coming up with innoffensive ideas that’ll make it through, you’re putting stuff down with the knowledge it could get zapped straight off but if you delete something you’ve actually made a hole in the project that you need to fill. Maybe that’s not how it works for other people, but that’s the kind of collaboration model I see as a worthy goal, suggested by Google Docs. Collaboration can’t be a separate step, because that makes it easier to ignore.
Really though, I just like racing cursors.
I wrote a post about collaboration and cursing racers in google docs on Librarianautica.
I see training in Koha as one of my most marketable things I do at Prosentient. It also feels weird to be thinking about how things will look on a resume, but whatever, the job market I’m going into is competitive. If I want a job some day thinking about this stuff is probably going to be a good idea. I’ve been terrible at selling myself in the past, and while there’s a kind of bravado in saying “they didn’t hire me because I was honest” it’s probably good to be honest in positive-about-my-abilities ways along with my standard self-deprecation.
So last week I went out to the Gippsland region in Victoria to train a couple of librarians in using Koha. This is another one of those instances where working for a small company is fun. I was given a lot of trust, some accommodations and a breakdown of how long to spend on each section of the software.
The librarians I was training are attached to hospitals, and very much in the special libraries are a one-person show kind of mould. They knew each other and were very good at asking detailed questions, which was great for me, since I’m more of a responsive teacher than a dictator of holy writ. We pushed the edges of what Koha is capable so they knew what was possible and what wasn’t. I hit the limits of my knowledge several times and brought back questions to answer later.
After our two days, which felt pretty intense on my end, they’ll be going live with their new systems this month. They seemed happy with what I could teach them. It was really fun to be a field agent for a few days. I find that hanging around the office doing so much on the computer is a touch painful. I feel nerves pinching from all the sitting, so it was good to get out into the world and crouch next to some folks who don’t like MARC records but have to use them, and show them how we can make their lives easier.
I do like how directly a couple of my SLAIS courses I took impact my work here (those courses would be Cataloguing and my Instructional Role of the Information Professional). The Instructional one is kind of obvious when I’m talking about going out and running a two day workshop, but even though I’m not hardcore cataloguing, knowing that lingo and how the rules work is really goddamn useful when you’re trying to teach someone how to use the software to do it. I do find that my knowledge of the Acquisitions module of Koha is less extensive since I haven’t had the experience with acquisitions (beyond troubleshooting Koha) that I have with Circulation and Cataloguing.
So yes, I join the chorus of people who say library school students both need to get experience and need to take a fucking cataloguing course. Use. Ful.
Some days you have very pleasant people come into the library. Like today, when a young woman wanted to catch up on some classics. We had a good chat and I got to recommend Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which I never get to do. She was interested in the idea of paradox being at the centre of a novel, and I had difficulties deciphering what she meant by that. So it was intellectually stimulating and fun all around. The fact that I completely took over the referencing from my coworker who was slower on the draw only dampened my enjoyment a little bit.
And some days you have very unpleasant people come into the library. Like today, when a man was using the computers with grunts and groans of distress before finally coming to the Info Desk to ask my coworker what was wrong with his computer. Now, I was working with a couple of people tonight. One of them is new(ish) and we’re trying to force him into handling more things on his own. I could tell from the patron’s tone of voice that expecting the patron to be patient was not feasible, so I leapt into the breach.
“I’m trying to open an Excel file. The simplest kind of file in the world and this stupid computer won’t let me. This always happens! These computers are horrible! I’ve been on the phone with the guys down town and got them to change things five times, but whenever I come here or to [a nearby branch] they’re all pieces of crap!”
While the patron is loudly complaining about his lot in life being solely to have his will to live tested by the computers of our branch, I test the file. There is an error message coming up when we try to open the file, so I save it to a temporary directory and attempt to open it a different way, explaining as I go. He’s not really listening but it works and I have his file up on the screen. “Is this the right file?” I ask.
“Yes it is, but why couldn’t it open up like that the first time?”
“I’m not sure, sometimes we have prob-”
“It’s all fine for you to come in and do your secret little ways, but I have a bad back and don’t have time for this! When I click on it it should just open up, shouldn’t it?”
“Well, in a perfect wor-”
“Yes or no?” He’s kind of getting in my face at this point.
“That’s what I keep on telling them downtown! Why haven’t they upgraded these computers?!”
“I really don’t know. I’m sorry. But your file is there now.”
“But it’s too big! I need to zoom out or something.”
“There are options to change the view if you’d like…” and he’s muscled me away.
I head back to the desk and he gives me a sullen “Thanks.” When he was done with the computer he left and did apologize for getting so angry, so that was all right.
And the rest of the evening was dominated by the third kind of people: the silent ones, who are very easy to deal with.
Last night after my shift was done excitement occurred at the branch. Two boys, who’d been on the computers suddenly got into a fight. Not a fight, a beating. My coworkers tried to hold the beating one back but a rage filled 12 year old can often shake off us bookish folk. So they were kicked out. Evidently they’re cousins and the beatee had “stolen” the beater’s PIN for the computers. So there was that.
And then one of the 11 year olds who’s banned from the branch till October came in and wouldn’t leave when my coworkers told her to. And then she was running and yelling and throwing books on the floor and hanging up the phone as our branch head phoned the cops.
As us staff understand it, we can’t physically remove a person from the premises. We can’t even touch a kid. I’m not sure if that’s actual policy or just our individual fears of assault charges. I know there’s no policy saying I should leave the door open for Teen Book Club; it’s my awareness of the power of allegations that make me leave that door open, and the rest of the patrons can fuck off if we’re too loud. It seems like the employees could use some sort of guidance instead of ad-hoc word of mouth ideas. But that’s not how our library system works. Selah.
The security guard we got today (and who’ll be with us being bored out of his skull for a couple of weeks) has been given express permission to keep the banned girl out “using any means necessary.” It’s true. That’s what the head of security told him, right in front of me. It was kind of action-movie awesome. The guard was kind of “I’ve never really had to do any physical restraining” and his boss was all “She’s 12. You can take her.” I didn’t butt in and tell them she’s actually 11.
A woman at the library needed some help printing a table of data. It was in the body of her email and when she’d tried printing it all she got were the first couple of columns and all the sidebar crap inherent in using webmail. Because it is the Sunday of the May Long weekend, it was pretty dead in the branch, so I had the time to go and help her. Eventually it resulted in me switching her to a different computer and copy-pasting the whole thing into Excel where I could set it all up. Basically it was me reformatting her table, sending her to stand aside while I took over. I always hate doing that, but I’ve dealt with this patron before and getting her to do it would have been very difficult.
When I’m done, she starts going on about me being a genius. She’s done this kind of thing before and I have problems with it. I mean, I’m telling her that it’s nothing special I’m doing, just figuring it out as I go. I told her she just needs practice, or to take a course, or maybe borrow a book. But she’s content to have a “genius” at the library to help her. And I’m sure she thinks her gushing is gratifying, but I have to tell her I like it a lot better when she comes in, uses the computer without any help, and lets me know she didn’t need any help as she leaves. Not because I didn’t have to do anything, but because it means the help I’ve given before has sunk in.
Jaron Lanier is a nerd. A computer nerd and a music nerd. He was one of the people who were working on the internet back in the early days (not the real early military days, but the beginning of the Silicon Valley uprising and the dawn of personal computing). So when he writes a book complaining about the way technology and the internet has developed it has a bit more credibility than someone who has trouble with sending an email. That’s what You Are Not A Gadget is about.
There are a couple of things he takes aim at. One is the idea of lock-in. The way programming works is that small programs are easy and can work in ideal ways. As you start making a program do more complicated stuff, you have more complicated code. To make anything work you have to build on top of what has gone before, which is why software is buggy. It’s all the complicated interactions with the way things are already done.
The problem is when we don’t see this lock-in as the result of choices made by people and don’t recognize that things could be done differently. But doing things differently requires tearing everything down again and remaking it. If you want electronic music that is less about discrete notes like a piano and more like a violin, you can’t do that using the programming we have today, because the choice was made that MIDI would act like a keyboard. (I don’t know enough about digital music to know how using recording samples works in this context.) If you want your digital sound to sound like a violin you have to make the file go against how it was designed. You are adapting to the technology rather than having the technology work for you.
He also talks about the file metaphor, which is so ingrained into how we think of information because of our computers. We don’t think of clusters or smears of information; we think of discrete chunks that can be manipulated. When we summarize ourselves down into these clumps of interests and employers for the vast database that is Facebook, he argues that we are diminishing ourselves as humans, making ourselves more like the computers so that we can pretend they’re getting smarter.
The other big thing he gets mad at is the idea of crowdsourcing. Wikipedia and Linux are fine for what they do, but he argues that the whole design by hivemind will never create anything really wonderful. It’s good at refining, but not at helping us live up to our potential as innovators. Back in the day the pioneers of the internet wanted to see what awesome new art could be created with all these connections. A dodgy encyclopedia and a refined version of UNIX were not the pinnacles of their dreams. The things that change our lives aren’t designed by the hivemind. He laments the passing of the old idiosyncratic days of the web, where things were ugly, but you had the chance of finding something new. Nowadays when you’re doing casual research how often do you just grab whatever that first wikipedia result is? The future looks more and more like a “one book library” and it doesn’t need to be.
There are also bits about cephalopods, our nostalgic music culture and the economic crisis (the book was released in 2010, so it’s timely enough). It was a great read, and will be good contrarian fuel for discussions about the future of technology.
At the desk yesterday there were two separate interesting questions. One was a woman who corralled a coworker into helping her at the computers. She’d already helped her find a computer that could do what she wanted, but the woman seemed needy of more help and dragged her away to the far computer bank. I could see them standing and talking and saw the occasional look back at the desk. When a phone call came for her it was perfectly timed so I could go rescue my coworker. I let the woman know I could help her if that wasn’t a problem.
The woman wanted to save a document to her new flash drive. Cool beans. She also wanted to talk about her theories of how the government didn’t like her and was trying to delete her work on applying for EI. I let her talk as she rooted through her belongings. I got scissors to open the flash drive packaging. We navigated to the government of Canada site and found the document she needed to fill out. Then the computer popped up a screen saying you couldn’t fill in the form and save it. You could fill it in and print it though. And thus began the explanation of how she’d filled the form out once and then it had all been wiped out so she came to the library. She was concerned that would happen again, peppering her speaking with “Woe is me” and “Isn’t that just the way it always is” kinds of statements.
So I explained how it would work on the computer she was at. She printed off a blank version of the form. She saved a blank version of the form. Then she started filling it in. I warned her that if she wasn’t done by the time the computer kicked her off to print it, otherwise all her work would disappear again.
I was on break when she came to the desk to get help printing it (which I’d hoped she wouldn’t need, as I’d showed her how to print the document when it was blank and said it would work exactly the same way). But she’d come with only 2 minutes left on her time and by the time they got back to the computer she’d been logged off and lost her data. But she would persevere. She had 30 minutes left of internet use on her card so she’d try again. This time it would be better! It wasn’t. She lost all her data again. But we’d tried our best to help her, and listened to her talk (about how her doctor was trying to kill her), so she thought us library folk were all right.
Later on in the evening a young woman came to the desk looking for videos about WalMart. One of my coworkers was helping her find the videos and said “Why are these in such different places? One’s in the 658s and the other in 382 (or whatever the specific numbers were)!” So I piped in, “The one in the 658s is about the business of WalMart, and the one in the 300s is about the social environmental whatever issues created by WalMart.” And the young woman said, “Wow, you are passionate about your job!”
“Nah, I just know a couple of things about WalMart. It comes from spending my opinion-formative years reading Adbusters.”
And it was really nice, while my coworker went off to find the actual videos this woman and I chatted about WalMart and how this business prof she has talks about the badness, and she’d never heard any of that before and was now up to researching it. Very pleasant interaction and it made me glad I work in a library, not a cheese factory.
It makes me sad how the administration’s bullshit (about what I can and can’t write on my blog on my own time, and whether I’m actually cut out to be a librarian) affects me. It shouldn’t. They’re just suits who want everyone to behave like them. But it gets to me. I hate thinking about them but I do. It saps my writing and my life in general. I wish I didn’t have to feel like shit all the time. I like being passionate about my job. I want to be, but people who’ve never worked with me think I’m a liar who shouldn’t continue in the job I’m pretty fucking good at. It sucks.
I’m poking around looking for good library blogs, as I’ve applied to library school for September, and it seems like a good idea to get in the heads of people in the profession. This looks like the group I was born to be a part of: The Society for Librarians* Who Say Motherfucker. Someday. For now I’ll content myself with being a regular dude who says motherfucker. To my mom’s chagrin.
Unrelated to motherfuckers, I got Excel to do something fun today. A person had a list of 12,000 numbers and was looking for the ones that only occurred on the list once. He was going through the list by hand deselecting everything that recurred, and it made me sad. So I said, “I will help you. Let me muck about in Excel and figure out a way to get that shit sorted, yo.” And I completely did. It wasn’t perfect (I had to check the first and last entry on the list by hand) and it wasn’t elegant (it took like four separate columns in the spreadsheet) but I made Excel do the shit I wanted and it saved a person from (and was faster than) deselecting 10,000 things from a list. Go me.